Science Fiction Though the Decades

Monday, September 23, 2013

1991: The Silent Stars Go By (White, James)

Lengthy evidence of White’s passion and skill (4/5)

Though it may surprise many SF enthusiasts, James White had no actual training in the medical field; rather, James White lived vicariously as a doctor and a healer through his stories. His ambition to become a doctor was stilted by financial limitations, but this didn’t smother his sense of imagination. A series of Sector General novels marked the end of this writing in the 1990s, all around the 300 page mark, a word-count of which most of novels hover around. There is only one exception to the length of his novels—The Silent Stars Go By, a densely packed 441-page novel which probably trumps the word-count of any other of his novels by a factor of two. It seems that James White really put his heart into this one at the ripe age of 63—and it shows.

Having read fourteen other pieces of his work, this is by far the most mature, the most detailed, and likely the most loved by James White himself. And thanks to the legendary Vincent Di Fate for the terrible cover of the only publication of this novel—it’s a terrible clichéd sketch, nothing from the book has been manifested onto the cover.

Rear cover synopsis:
“The Kingdom of Hibernia had risen from its sleepy emerald isle to befriend the native Redman of the West, and, with the technology brought out of the ancient Egyptian lands, had forged a mighty industrial empire. And after generations of development under the Pax Hibernia, the Empire was poised for humankind’s greatest adventure—settling a new world under a distant star.

Healer Nolan was a lone male in the traditionally female healing profession and an unbeliever in the religion of the priest-kings of Hibernia. He had to be careful to avoid any trouble that could jeopardize his place among the crew of the starship Aisling Gheal. But the lowly Healer was unaware of his part in a struggle for control of the future colony… until he discovered evidence of a plot against the project: a secret plan for the new world that did not include heretics like Nolan.

And as betrayal and deceit followed Nolan into the silent depths of space and on to the surface of a raw, untamed planet, he was challenged to become the one thing he had never dreamed of—a hero.”


Healer Nolan is a doctor, psychologist, botanist, and therapist—the title of “Healer” is as much of a burden as it is a necessity, where the doctor must treat the mind of the body, they must also be abstinent. The career of Healer is traditionally and historically female because, “in body and mind they are born to the work … sensitivity, sympathy, and empathy” (231). Healer Nolan is a surgeon by trade and, in the words of his soon-to-be superior Dervla, “seem[s] to always consider the feelings and needs of others to the exclusion” of his own, yet he is a “great, fat jelly of a man with no backbone, no mind of his own, and a man who can refuse nothing to anybody” (209). These biting words don’t deter him from accepting a crewmember position in one of humanity’s greatest endeavors.

The Kingdom of Hibernia (modern-day Ireland) is funding a vast project to send Earth’s first starship, the Aisling Gheal (Bright Vision), to the distant world of the New World. However, due to the physical immensity, staggering logistics, and exuberant cost of the project, nations from around the world are pitching in to help yet also demand their cultural representation among the cryogenically stored colonists: Nippon (Japan), Aztec (Central America), Skandia (Scandinavia), West Land (North America), Cathay (China), Teuton (Germany), and India. The crew, however, are mainly clerics, priests, and cardinals of the Hibernian religion; this management by the church has its expected results of heretical suppression and plans to proselytize to non-believers.

Ireland’s rise to global power and industrial expertise came after

sketches  of the aeolipile of Hero of Alexandria found their way to Ireland, to the court of the High-King, and brought about a many-centuries-premature industrial revolution that made the country militarily unassailable and the most technologically advanced of its time.(440)

This very early advancement in steam power and, thus, more modern technology allowed Ireland to bypass the Dark Ages’ religious persecution of knowledge and forge ahead to conceptualizing colonizing the stars. The year A.D. 1491 looked to be the greatest year of mankind.

Generations in the making, the Aisling Gheal is set for a 500-year journey to the New World yet regardless of language, each country and its people called the New World with some similar resonance of hope and prosperity—“the New World, the New Home, or the New Future” (74). This world amid the stars has “no axial tilt and, therefore, no seasonal changes for the farmers to worry about. The world rotates approximately once every twenty-nine and one-half hours, its year is two hundred and ninety-six planetary days” (75) with an atmospheric composition and pressure close to Earth’s own. They longer they obverse their intended home, “the more perfect it becomes” (75). The singular continent of Dragonia is their colonial target—“close to twelve thousand miles long and more than two thousand at its widest point. It lay diagonally across two hemispheres with its [the dragon’s] head and tail touching the north and south polar icefields” (256). Lushly green and inviting, covered in water with tolerable weather, animal life flourishing yet without major predators—New World is as good as it gets…

…yet, an arduous journey awaits the crew of the Aisling Gheal. Unbeknownst the ecclesiastical crew, the cardinal-captain devices even more rigid terms of wakefulness during their period of watch, an occasional two-year term aside from being frozen. Only one crew member will be on watch at any one time for a span of “two long and lonely years” (152) when the individual would sleep in stasis for centuries and resume their watch… accumulating to a subjective four years of solitude manning a vessel in which very little could go wrong. They are forbidden to speak, walk on the hull, play games or read books; they are expected to depend on their own “mental resources for recreation, amusement and … constructive thought” (153). The cardinal-captain’s recurring words of persuasion are “We are no longer of Earth” (157), a salvo of reason which, at the very sound, the crew cower in future fear.

The first crewmember on watch is Healer Nolan. Being the only heretic among the crew, this appointment is seen as a punishment for his unreserved questioning of the feasibility and ethics of the new watch terms. Once on the planet and in the colony, his “job will be to bring healing, enlightenment, and knowledge to the colonists and their offspring” (26), but for his remaining time being “warm” prior to his cryogenic sleep, Healer Nolan must solve a riddle. The doctor-patient privilege is extended to verbal agreements, of which Nolan has several; he must watch the sleeper caskets of two females who have been matched to other colonists. Though these arranged marriage is forbidden, the influence of the powerful have entrusted Nolan with the care of their brides-to-be. However, many caskets were moved during his period of confinement, a questionable act of motive and ethics by the captain-cardinal which Nolan feels indebted to solve; however, entrance is to the sleeper sections is forbidden as they kept dangerously cold. Undoubtedly, the crafty Nolan knows the way.

Nolan’s intuition proves fruitful in his capacity as a reluctant leader. Once on the surface of New Home, the malevolent intentions of the clerics becomes clear when he and a number of other atheists find themselves thousands of miles from the colony. With huge tracts of unexplored territory ahead of them, Nolan makes the difficult choice of forging ahead, under the canopy of bizarre flora of New World, through the spans of time where boredom and strife persist, and among the bitter opinions of his fellow outcasts. Nolan’s knowledge of sampling flora for medicine and food greatly extends their appreciation for his efforts, but opinions are divided between pressing forward toward a colony resentful of their sacrilege or settling their own colony on a planet which seems uncaring for the humans scurrying through her underbrush. By land or by sea, Nolan knows the way.


This is James White’s epic novel, a combination of passions: Ireland and the medical profession; it’s also an alternative history novel, a planet colonization novel, and backwoods adventure novel. White had plenty of ideas to play with when writing this book, the details and length are obvious indicators of the amount of effort and passion he put into this book—like no other book he’s ever written.  Where some of the Sector General series books feel generic, forced or turned out, The Silent Stars Go By is an intricate work of love: embroidered rather than stitched, inscribed rather than chiseled, gilt rather than simply adorned.

Yet, the novel isn’t without one touch which touches base on White’s own Sector General series. Nolan makes a which in which he orates,

They [many wise men and women] believe that there is a very strong probability … that the microscopic form of life which inhabit all living creatures, and dwell in the soil, sea, and air of the New World, will have no effect on us whatsoever. They believe that the germs which may have caused pestilence among the creatures of the New World since the dawn of its history would find our bodies, and those of our breeding animals, so strange and unworldly that they would simply ignore us. Similarly, any germs which we chanced to bring with is, in spite of the many precautions we are taking to ensure that the colonists and crew are disease-free, would have no effect on the creatures that live there. (79-80)

The Silent Stars Go By is largely a linear novel about Nolan’s experience prior to his ascent to Aisling Gheal, his limited time on the Aisling Gheal, and his time on the planet of New Home. However, being an alternative history novel, White dedicates a few chapters to the most important historical periods which forged the future for Ireland, the Healers, and for relations during colonization; notably, chapters 10-12 and chapters 43-44. These intermittent pauses in the narrative are enlightening into the world which White has created, but the transitions are abrupt and disruptive. There’s an additional gap in the narrative between chapters 25 and 26; this transition is so abrupt that the reader needs time to pause, reflect, and predict the intended course of action; this is a very skilled transition between the expected and unexpected.

White’s characterization of Nolan is quite decent. He’s a man who must maintain solid morals but his intelligence and quick wit tend to outpace his sense of reservation. Some of his remarks are acerbic but poignant, where the truth is a bitter pill to swallow; trained as a doctor, truth is his prescription. His remarks scathe his superiors in the church and even prominent people in other countries and universities. This flaw of Nolan’s is exacerbated by the slowly sinking reality of captain-cardinal’s words, “We are no longer of Earth”. To this, Nolan molds his own vision of a colony outside the influence of centuries past, the onus of ecclesiastical dogma, and the dragging deadweight of the ruling elite. If there was ever a point in Earth’s history where tradition could be shrugged off for personal and/or mankind’s benefit, now would be the time.

I’m not too enlightened by White’s alternative history where Ireland and its religion have basically ruled the world on an industrial scale. The early start to the Industrial Revolution is interesting and the resulting rise of technology in an era devoid of the Dark Ages, thus mankind’s ability to rocket to the stars and able to colonize a planet in the year 1491. How the church played a pivotal role in Ireland rise to power, I don’t know, but it’s quite obvious that in White’s vision, the church’s influence spans beyond the common parish and district into the heavy-handed formal power of domestic affairs and even the further flung international affairs. Interesting, but a bit lost on me.


This, again, is the finest White novel in his bibliography… it’s also the longest and most essentially comprised of White’s pet projects. This doesn’t make it necessarily readable at times, but the skill and passion for the project is obvious. There’s not much left in White’s bibliography that I haven’t read yet, but the only other two books on my shelves are of his Sector General series, a foray back to his mediocrity which I’m unwilling and unprepared to undertake after reading his finest piece—The Silent Stars Go By.

1 comment:

  1. Nice review. I'll probably snag this if I see it at a used bookstore; I enjoyed All Judgement Fled and the stories by White I read in Deadly Litter and Monsters and Medics.