Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Stars Must Wait, by Keith Laumer

Yes, yes, I know that I am not exactly in the holiday mood by talking about tanks and death and so on, but I quite like the Bolo series so you can take it up with me and my tank. Damn straight. Hennyway, so The Stars Must Wait is actually a continuation of an earlier story written by Laumer called Night of the Trolls, which was included in Bolo: Annals of the Dinochrome Brigade and The Compleat Bolo. I'm not sure why Laumer decided to revisit this particular story and expand it into its own novel, but that's his prerogative as a writer. Regardless of my other issues with this novel, which I intend to discuss later, this story is not going to be my favorite in the series by a long shot. The Bolo tanks have a very, very small role in the story so while it's a pretty good sci-fi story it just doesn't have the tank goodness I've come to expect from this series.

The Stars Must Wait follows the adventures of Lieutenant Command Torrence Jackson, an astronaut who was supposed to be in suspended animation for a day, or nine years and on one of Saturn's moons at the most. Instead, Jackson discovers he's been asleep for eighty years and the world he knew has disintegrated in the intervening years. The United States has devolved into a state of techno-barbarism where a number of people can use pieces of technology from before the fall, but for the most part a majority of the body of knowledge has been lost. If that wasn't bad enough, it turns out Jackson's old shipmate Tobey Mallon got out of suspended animation twenty years earlier and has set himself up as Baron. Jackson must not only figure out how to survive in a world where most technology has been lost, but outsmart his powerful and very dangerous former friend.

Now, to address my issues with this particular novel I shall have to delve into the differences of the plotlines of The Stars Must Wait and the original source material, Night of the Trolls. So, for my readers who are concerned with this sort of thing: SPOILERS AHOY! ALLONS-Y!

The main problem I had with this novel was a lot of the extended plot which involved Jackson discovering just how far civilization had collapsed in the eighty-odd years that he had been asleep. While this was fairly entertaining and could have made for a very good sci-fi story this happened after a very important plot event in the story. Let me explain. Previously, Mallon and other members of the crew of the Prometheus (That's the ship that was supposed to go to Saturn) were brought out of suspended animation by a fail-safe and discovered that civilization had collapsed. They also had two Bolos at their disposal and Mallon used the larger Bolo to establish himself as Baron. However Mallon and his crewmates came to a disagreement over what to do with the Prometheus. Mallon wanted to strip the Prometheus for technological resources and rebuild society with himself as an absolute ruler, but Mallon's crewmates wanted to send Prometheus on its mission to Saturn. Ultimately Mallon's crewmates locked down the Bolos to keep Mallon away from the ship. Mallon then uses Jackson to unlock one of the Bolos which will allow Mallon to finally break into the Prometheus.

After Jackson unlocks the Bolo he escapes from Mallon's palace, he learns more about society in the eighty years since he left, how it fell, and even meets some of his descendants. The problem with having Jackson go through these crazy adventures is that Mallon is off getting ready to break into the Prometheus and if Jackson doesn't get there before him, then Mallon will be establishing himself as the High King of the entire eastern seaboard. The plot worked a lot better as a short story because Jackson immediately went to the launch pad where Prometheus to head Mallon off right away. By having Jackson spend some time faffing about instead of actually addressing the issue at hand all sense of urgency is lost from the narrative. I think if Laumer had had Jackson have his adventures before unlocking the Bolo for Mallon this story would have worked better.

I also find myself disagreeing with the new ending for this story which actually is the exact opposite of the original short story. In Night of the Trolls, Jackson decides to launch Prometheus on its mission and begin working on rebuilding society without its treasure trove of lost technology. In The Stars Must Wait, though, Jackson decides to scavenge the crew and the Prometheus to help rebuild society, much as Mallon would have done. What really bothers me is as far as I can tell it really doesn't make Jackson any better than Mallon, even if he has better intentions. I know that he's working with his crewmates to make a better society rather than setting himself up as king, but he still uses his technology, especially the Bolo, to accomplish his goals. Whenever progress comes at gunpoint you have to wonder if it's really progress.

If I could, I would really fix the pacing issues which is my major problem with this book. I still debate over whether I like the new ending or the old ending better, but I am at least right now still leaning toward the old ending. As a science-fiction after-the-end book it's pretty good and worth a read, but if you're in it for just the Bolos then I advise you just pass this one by.

- Kalpar

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