Monday, February 23, 2015

Book Review: Battle for the Stars

Battle for the Stars
Edmond Hamilton
Science fiction

It came from the Shlock Pile, also known as the to-be-read shelves.

I picked Battle for the Stars up because I didn't have another book handy. I didn't entirely expect to finish it, much less review it. Come on, it's a derivative title on a cheap paperback from a not-much-remembered author published in 1961.

But then I got to pondering about it. (If that surprises you, or sounds like massive overthinking, reread the blog description.)

Battle for the Stars wasn't state-of-the-art even for 1961. (For context, that same year saw the publication of Stranger in a Strange Land.) It takes for granted that:

  • Strong-jawed men are starship commanders, secret agents, and world leaders.
  • Women do things like stamp their feet and look decorative.
  • The galaxy is full of "aliens" who look like mildly exotic humans (and interbreed freely).
  • Small-town folk in upstate New York in the future are exactly like small-town folk in upstate New York c. 1961, with robotic tractors.
Which is to say, its "future" is the then-present, gussied up with rocket ships and ray guns. That describes a great deal of science fiction, including a good chunk that's now considered classic.

Exercise for the reader: Star Trek made its debut in 1964. In what ways is it beholden to this "consensus future," and in what ways does it deliberately react against it? Discuss.

The thing is, though, the story's not bad. Not great, not groundbreaking, not deeply moving, but also not repellent, not incoherent, not without plot. The writing is somewhat cliched in the space scenes, but in the planetary scenes it achieves an unexpected level of near-poetry (in a fashion strongly reminiscent of Clifford Simak's wonderful Way Station--published in 1963, by the way). There's a reasonably satisfying resolution which depends, not on what the protagonist can do, but on what he will do.

Battle for the Stars wouldn't be publishable today; it's naive, and science fiction has gone along way from that naivete. Unfortunately, that often means jettisoning those old hoary standbys such as "plot" and "conflict" and "protagonist". I'm not going to uphold Battle for the Stars as a neglected classic, but I will say that I've read a good deal of recent stuff that was slickly put-together, sophisticated, and basically crap.


  1. Star Trek deliberately reacted against your "consensus future" in a couple of ways. The lack of cigar-shaped rocket ships are one, the utopian culture is another.

    It is beholden to that future in that brow ridges (in the next gen) and pointy ears (in the original) are used to show "aliens" as humans with exaggerated human characteristics. Inter-species miscegenation with green Denebian slave girls is more interesting than watching the Horta hatch eggs - one important exception, of course.

    What I find interesting, however, is that in many ways _Stranger_ still holds up fifty years later.

  2. Re: Trek, the visibility of non-decorative women and actual non-Anglo-Saxons is another deliberate difference. (Not that Lt. Uhura wasn't decorative.) More subtly, Battle for the Stars is set in what we might term the Galactic Empire Consensus Future. The setting assumes that we will sweep out from Earth, conquering the galaxy, and in consequence that all the interesting stories involve exploding spaceships. Star Trek said: no, we will not come as conquerers, but to seek out new life and new civilizations.

    I should reread Stranger. It's been a while, and I remember not being very impressed.

  3. Agree on the non-decorative characters. That was certainly the nature of the characters, but there was certainly an eye candy aspect of the casting. Also agree that the only empires were alien. Humans were benevolent, if occasionally misunderstood.

    The problem with Stranger is how it was built up. I read it without knowing it was a "classic" so my expectations were pretty neutral. Lately, after a long hiatus of not really reading much at all, I choose my fiction based on friend's recommendations and awards. Friend recommendations are the best (thank you, btw). But I find that the award winners are disappointing. I expect a lot more.

  4. Yeah, award-winning fiction is generally less and less to my taste. Non-fiction is better--any Pulitzer-winning non-fiction book is likely to be good, in my experience. I feel like genre fiction has kind of walked away from me. I like mysteries, for example, but virtually nobody is writing what I'd consider real mysteries. It's all (a) violent, derivative thrillers, (b) violent, derivative noir knockoffs, or (c) cutesy, smirking "themed" mysteries written--and here I am stereotyping recklessly, but wtf--by and for women. And science fiction is so focused on the current Consensus Future (genetic engineering + computers + depressing) that it's like one book published in 8,000 titles.

  5. I can't find it in my heart to criticize a guy who published a book called "Captain Future and the Space Emperor".

    I read all of Heinlein in the space of about three months in high school, thanks to Annie's Book Swap. I still think his "juvenile" novels are far better than his "adult" books -- Starship Troopers, Double Star, and Starman Jones (my personal favorite) are far superior to his more ambitious books like The Number of the Beast and I Will Fear No Evil. That's even leaving aside the weird pro-incest stuff -- just as novels I consider them total failures: uninteresting, trivial, poorly plotted. I couldn't even finish Stranger in a Strange land when I was sixteen, and I don't feel any need to try again.

    1. Heinlein was a brilliant short-story writer and an outstanding young-adult novelist. In my opinion the only quote-adult-quote RAH novel that's still readable is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. Even that isn't as good as the Heinlein cultists think it is.

      The Number of the Beast was so awful that I almost never read another Heinlein book. It took me about two years to recover.