(Dean Ellis’ cover for the 1972 edition)
I’ve found that the science fiction trope reconstructing a fallen empire/meandering in the wreckage of an empire one of the most seductive of the genre. The idea of a disconnected landscape filled with the ruins of empire — giant edifice ever more consumed by vegetation, technology unable to be used, spaceships empty in space — is so transfixing that I pick up every example published before 1980 that I find. Unfortunately, works like David Gerrold’s Space Skimmer (1972) and John Brunner’s collection Interstellar Empire (1976) are evidence that seductive trope or not, the delivery is often less than delectable.
I must confess that I picked up the novel because of the cover blurb: “The ultimate spaceship in the hands of a barbarian…” And the intriguing Dean Ellis cover… Little did I know the blurb should read “the ultimate spaceship in the hands of a barbarian who spouts endless streams of bad poetry, an annoying little prince, random androids who want to be human, and a puff-puppy.” Unfortunately, many of the most interesting aspects of the work are “borrowed” (to quote author’s thank you blurb) from Larry Niven.
Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
Space Skimmer takes place in a once vast empire comprising of 11,000 worlds. Extremely complicated communication systems were developed (Oracle devices) to facilitate communications across the vast expanse. In the waning days of the empire, advanced spaceships were invented which could travel across the empire at shocking speeds. Gerrold’s description of the skimmer is fascinating (a spherical field surrounds a constantly modulating — on command of the pilot — interior):
“A core of silvery shimmering vanes, flashing all colors, diamond-bright; they reached outward in all directions, some father than others, but almost all ended in planes set at odd angled, no two the same. There were suggestions of platforms and hints of terraces, stanchionlike shapes arced smoothly across from one vane to another. On one of them, he thought he recognized curving steps, but they were upside-down.”
The ship is recharged by flaying into suns or soaking up water. One would suspect that the empire would become more closely controlled, communication would be facilitated, and the empire expanded. But suddenly, the empire collapses — the reasons are not altogether apparent.
The narrative follows our Klingon-esque/space viking hero Mass is from the planet Streinvelt — more than twice the gravity of Earth with harsh conditions. It was settled by genetically modified humans. Mass is shorter, broader, and stronger than most humans. He sets off to discover one of the famed skimmer spaceships with the goal of searching for what remains of the empire. After searching 30+ planets he finds a skimmer!
After he learns to control the vessel, he picks of a variety of characters including a biological robot constructed to be the skimmer’s pilot (each cell is designed and grown when needed) connected to a hive mind. A large portion of the interactions between Mass and Ike concern the nature of being an individual, long epic songs, etc. Mass also meets an annoying prince with hemophilia and a silly puff-puppy. The prince is a good luck symbol for his society (people bred for luck is one borrowings from Niven) — unfortunately, he has proved to be the most unlucky prince from his planet.
Along with various other characters who join Mass’ crew, they sets off to discover the nature of the empire’s collapse and cure the prince of his affliction. Also, along the way our heroes overcome their differences and become friends.
Space Skimmer is really a lighthearted/comedic romp across the wreckage of empire for younger readers. David Gerrold is famous for his story which was turned into the Star Trek: Original Series episode, Trouble with Tribbles. I can definitely discern his obsession with small, annoying, fluffy animals, and Klingon-esque barbarians. Interspersed amongst the are cringe-worthy attempts at New Wave prose replete with italics, UPPERCASE, !!!, !!, !, — which all comes off as a poor imitation of more successful experimental works. For example:
“Another rustle –
–light!! Blazing light!! Glaring and white!!
DAZZLING BRIGHT BRIGHT LIGHT!!!
ALL WAS WASHED IN SHADES OF WHITE!! (14)
And, of course, on the nature of becoming an individual:
“—point of view—
—the new concepts: I! You! Me!—
—SEPARATE AND AWARE!–
—I—I am—I think—I exist—I think I exist; therefore, I exist! I!!
Gerrold’s work is a fun example of young adult fiction. However, many younger readers might not appreciate/tolerate the numerous indulgent digressions into pseudo-New Wave prose are tend to be awkward at best although it does give the story a certain zany quality. The main failing of the novel is present in the second half. The focus shifts from Mass and his quest (which should have been the focus of the novel) to finding a cure for the prince. Explanations for the collapse are present but sadly, secondary to painful moments of mind-melding along with yappy puppy-thoughts.
(Eddie Jones’ cover for the 1987 edition)
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