Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, January 23, 2015

1963: The Sentinel Stars (Charbonneau, Louis)

Standard dystopian novel with predictable path of contrast (3/5)

Oddly, I was inspired to read Louis Charbonneau by Joachim’s damning review of the novel Down to Earth (1967)—he had me at “nefarious schemes”. Charbonneau has a handful of SF novels spanning twenty years, from 1958 (No Place on Earth) to 1976 (Embryo, a novelization). Against Joachim’s warning, I picked up Down to Earth as well as the highlighted novel here—The Sentinel Stars.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Rigid! Locked! Enslaved! that was our Earth in 2200. East the West had merged at last, so there were no more wars, no more political differences.

Citizens everywhere could concentrate on working off their TAX DEBTS! If you were capable and industrious, you might be able to make freeman status for the last few years of your life.

No one questioned. No one spoke out. No one rebelled until one bright morning Citizen TRH-247 decided not to go to work—and worse than that, became desirous of a girl below his own classification!

Thus he made himself an outcast with the whole world against him and mere survival dependent on his wits, his daring, his strength.”


Dystopian fiction may be popular nowadays, but there are classics in this sub-genre that have stood the test of time. Prior to the much-heralded Brave New World (1932), 1984 (1949), and Fahrenheit 451 (1953), there was the Russian novel by Yevgeny Zamyatin named We (1921/1924). Huxley has said that wrote his novel long before Zamyatin, but his honestly isn’t as ironclad as his novel’s popularity. Similarly, Charbonneau’s novel The Sentinel Stars draws very heavily from Zamyatin’s novel. Consider:

  • The protagonist is named by a series of letters and numbers

We: D-503
The Sentinel Stars: THR-247
  • The only form a government is from a large, singular, and impersonal entity

We: the One State
The Sentinel Stars: the Organization
  • The home is essentially a large prison, surrounded by walls and protected from nature

We: the Green Wall
The Sentinel Stars: City No. 9
  • Man ignores his chosen mate, falls for another woman

We: D-503 was meant for O-90 but falls for I-330
The Sentinel Stars: THR-247 was meant for RED-498 but falls for ABC-331

The Organization is a nebulous entity which governs all the lives within the city, yet only governs that which is in the city; its power is absolute yet unseen and its boundary is the city’s walls. It chooses your vocation, assigns you a number to your name, selects your mate, and, most importantly, it calculates the number of years you gave left to pay off your born debt. It glorifies the importance of work.

Work was the foundation of the Organization—the work day, the work hour, the work minute. This was the basic commodity, the medium of exchange, the measure of social status. Work to pay off your tax debt. Work to climb the rungs on the ladder that led to freedom. (6)

Those of us who work are shackled to the clock … The day, the hour, the minute measure our distance from freedom. To be free is to be liberated from the need to recognize time (44).

Whether through wanderlust, longing or ennui, THR-247 was knowingly breaking the law of the Organization by choosing to not go to work one day. Without reason other than instant attraction, he latches on to the idea of love with the passing beauty of ABC-331, whom he invites to the museum for something special. Being an architect by trade, he knows the foundation of the museum and it tunnels which lead to a forbidden pleasure—the outside. Together, they break in law in experiencing a sense of freedom—the sun, the horizon, open space. With this willful trespass on the Organization’s laws, they endanger the long-term goal or “pure recreation” (16) when all their debts are paid off.

Though freedom looms on the distant horizon of autumn years, THR-247 feels compelled to stir the inner workings of the Organization with his stubbornness or rebellion. Without the nagging beckon of his work, he experiences a sense of freedom he hasn’t experience in a long time; he would call it “childhood” but he refers to it as the “pre-work” period of his adolescence: “If it had seemed then a time of freedom, that illusion prevailed only because the concept of freedom was not understood” (26).

The first third is an unexceptional start which mirrors previous dystopian novels to a predictable degree. If the reader is looking for a generic, middle-of-the-road, no -frills dystopian novel, then look no further than the first third of The Sentinel Stars. Eventually, he loses track of his newly found love ABC-331 and gets interrogated by an Organization investigator… but to his surprise, he’s allowed one 24-hour period to experience a camp where those who have paid off their debts go to retire—a Freeman camp.

Though THR-247 has the expectation of a utopia in the Freeman camps far from the walls of his city, the reader knows better than the naïve character (unless you too are as naïve and sheltered as he). Of course, the Freeman camp won’t all be about free love and mind, won’t be inhabited by sybaritic lotus eaters, nor be open to an outsider unfamiliar with their ways. Coming from total organization and total bondage, THR-247 expects the Freeman camp to be its opposite—total autonomy and total willful right to do as he pleases. Instead, he found anarchy, a social return to inhibition, soulless heathens, and exploitation. He’s not even sure he’ll survive the twenty-hour period he has been allowed to stay because something, other than his quashed expectations, seems to be afoot.

There are a few good twists on THR-247 experience at the Freeman camp. His sheltered sense of freedom isn’t the same freedom by which the Freemen live; but with the great gift of freedom comes great responsibility and accountability. THR-247’s prison of a home in the city leaves him unprepared for the savagery of the Freeman, the savagery of lawlessness, the savagery of freedom. He’s eager to return home, but some of those with the so-called precious “freedom” at the Freeman camp would also love to return to the structured way of life within the city.

It’s a middling book which starts with a generic dystopian atmosphere and follows a predictable path of contrast and quashed expectations.

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