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Slow Train to Arcturus by Eric Flint and Dave Freer

Cover art by David Mattingly

Published by Baen Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

An ancient and wise philosopher-king once wrote "there is nothing new under the sun." Surprisingly enough, this maxim proves true even in such a forward-looking and idea-based field as science fiction. Aspiring writers often expend considerable emotional energy concerning themselves with the possibility of having their ideas stolen, while experienced writers seek to reassure them that there are no new ideas, only new and innovative executions of them.

Eric Flint and Dave Freer's latest collaboration proves this idea in a most interesting fashion. It contains a number of ideas that have long been staples of science fiction, yet the authors have managed to reinterpret and combine them in a way that is astonishingly innovative. Take for instance the slowship or generation ship, creeping its way to the stars -- it began to appear almost as soon as the implications of Einstein's Theory of Relativity began to sink in and writers realized that going to the stars was not going to be like traveling the oceans in the Age of Sail. One of the earliest to realize the social implications of such a long journey was Robert A. Heinlein, whose Universe featured a slowship in which the travelers had forgotten that they were in fact aboard a ship on its way to a destination and come to believe that its interior was the entire world. More recently, Gene Wolfe has done a more philosophical and baroque reinterpretation of the slowship in his Book of the Long Sun.

But Flint and Freer put an innovative twist on the slowship when they realized one of the central weaknesses of the traditional one-shot approach -- you invest an enormous amount of energy into accelerating the ship at the beginning of the journey, only to then turn around and throw it all away braking for your destination. And what happens if you get there only to discover that there is no planet, or the planet has some nasty surprise in store for you? True, a number of writers have gotten some very good stories out of the premise of a group of colonists who arrive by slowship on a world that turns out to not be quite as advertised (Anne McCaffrey's Pern being the most commercially successful, and Eric Flint's own debut novel Mother of Demons arguably fitting into this category). But wouldn't it make more sense to just keep building one's acceleration indefinitely, never slowing or stopping?

Of course that raises the question of how one gets the colonists to their destination if the slowship is never going to brake or stop. Flint and Freer's answer was to separate the colonists' habitation areas from the propulsive unit. The result was a chain of habitats like beads on a string -- or like the cars of a train. Not to mention the "wagon train to the stars" trope that has shown up repeatedly as a development of the idea of space as the Final Frontier. As it approached each target star, a habitat would detach and brake to enter the system. And that idea immediately raised another possibility -- each of the habitats could belong to a completely distinct group of colonists, to the point that they could become a string of tiny worlds, each full of surprises for someone discovering them and traveling through them.

Which of course brings us to the second long-running trope of science fiction with which Flint and Freer play, namely the discovery of new societies and civilizations. In this manner science fiction draws upon earlier forms of the adventure tale, including the lost civilization story in the tradition of H. Rider Haggard. Many of the earliest pulp science fiction adventures, including those of Edgar Rice Burroughs, were planetary romances that involved the intrepid hero landing on a world that proved to be full of strange and wonderful civilizations, often each quite dissimilar from one another in spite of being in close proximity to one another. Part of the allure of such stories was seeing what kind of exotic civilization the author would come up with next.

Flint and Freer's slowtrain concept has the additional strength of being able to have widely divergent cultures in close proximity but without any contact, and thus without any interchange, or even awareness of one another's existence. But to have a good adventure tale, we need one more major ingredient, namely the protagonist to whom all this is strange, to be discovered often through trial and painful error. And to provide us with that, our authors turn to yet another long-standing trope of science fiction -- aliens.

The Miran are a technological civilization, and like us they are bipedal with two arms to manipulate things and with the same basic sensory organs -- eyes, ears, nose, mouth -- located on the head for quick communication with the brain. But they also have significant biological differences from humanity, most importantly that they all start out as males, and at full maturity change over into females. Males are small and mobile, while females are larger and more sedentary, and stake out a sizable nesting territory. And by the time a male has reached the age that he is adept in a technical field, he is generally quite close to maturity and sexual changeover, which makes for a very interesting complication for the team that is investigating the mysterious artifact which is approaching their home system -- an artifact which is of course the Slowtrain, launched centuries earlier from Earth.

Just to make things interesting, the Miran exploratory team have the misfortune of choosing as their first habitat to investigate one inhabited by violent xenophobes. Although first contact seems to be going smoothly, it suddenly turns into an attack. Kretz the engineer sees his companions cut down before his eyes, and in terror he flees through the mazelike corridors of the habitat to an airlock, where he finds his way to another habitat without even realizing he has crossed a boundary. Or that the residents of this habitat are different from those of the one he just fled.

The Brethren of New Eden are religious pacifists with deliberately restricted technology. On first glance they may seem like the Amish, but in fact their theology is closer to that of the Church of Humanity Unchained in David Weber's Honorverse. They believe that excessive reliance upon technology became a form of slavery that cut people off from the value of work, and that by working with one's hands one submits to God';s will. Which makes life hard for Howard Danson.

Howard is a natural-born geek inventor, and as such is a complete misfit among the Brethren. It seems like he's constantly in trouble with the Elders, simply because everything he sees and does gives him ideas. Troubling ones, such as the wheelbarrow he built to lighten the burden of moving soil and other heavy things in his tiny farm. Or the four-bucket yoke to carry water from the well to irrigate where the drip-irrigation system left by the habitat-builders doesn't reach or can't be made to work. He's a character fairly guaranteed to be sympathetic to plenty of readers of science fiction who have more than once found ourselves on the outs for being too bright, thinking too much, and asking too darn many questions.

Thus his first response upon discovering Kretz lying wounded among his tomatoes is fear that he will be int rouble yet another time. But when Kretz calls out for help, what can he do but help this strange being? And although the Elders are at first reluctant, they too soon become convinced that Kretz is neither angel nor demon, but a mortal, albeit of another species, as he ha been trying to tell them. And with that conviction comes the knowledge that he must be returned to his own kind, or at least as many of them as survived the terrible attack in the other habitat. Given his weak condition, there can be no question of sending him off on his own, so Howard is designated to accompany him.

So off they set on a voyage that quickly goes awry when the subsequent habitat proves to be the home of a nudist matriarchy. But while the people of the Matriarchial Republic of Diana have a technological civilization, they are having trouble maintaining it. Which allows Flint and Freer to delve into yet another theme that often goes with stories of slowship colonization, namely how big of a society do you need in order to maintain a technological civilization? High technology is dependent not only upon material and energy resources, but on human ones as well -- you need to have enough specialists to master all the necessary skills to build and maintain the various devices upon which it depends. No matter how much redundancy you built into the systems with which you start out, eventually they will need to be repaired or replaced altogether, and if you no longer have the wherewithal to do so, the regression begins. This theme continues through the other three habitats that Kretz and Howard visit, along with a growing retinue of misfits from each of the cultures with whom they interact.

I was happily surprised to see the way the authors were able to bring a happy resolution out of the situation at the end, including the redemption of that first habitat, if not its residents. And while I'd love to find out what happens to these characters and their cultures in the long term, I would also be completely satisfied if they decided that this should remain a one-shot.

Review posted February 1, 2009.

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