Book Review: Yesterday’s Children (variant title: Starhunt*), David Gerrold (1972)
January 5, 2014 § 18 Comments
(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1972 edition)
*The 1980 edition, still under the title Yesterday’s Children, was substantially rewritten. In 1985 David Gerrold released it under a new title, Starhunt. This is a review for the original 1972 edition. I have not read the later rewrite so I am unsure how much was modified.
David Gerrold, best known for writing the famous Star Trek: The Original Series episode “The Trouble With Tribbles” (1967), has continuously produced SF novels since the early 70s. I had previously read the disappointing Space Skimmer (1972) which combined a fascinating premise with puff-puppies, annoying princes, and bad poetry. Yesterday’s Children (1972) (variant title: Starhunt) likewise combines a fascinating premise with a less than satisfactory delivery, numerous narrative hiccups, and uneven tone and characterization. I am not surprised that the novel was rewritten due to the slightly rough nature of the original version.
Brief Plot Summary/Analysis
“This kind of fighting isn’t right, Jon—there’s nobody to hate. If we’re going to be at war, we should be able to come face to face with the enemy; we should be able to experience the actual act of killing, of taking a stun pistol and pointing it at a man and pulling the trigger—feeling the savage hum of it, watching him as his eyes roll back in his head, all of his blood vessels rupture, and his limbs star quivering in paralysis” (212).
First Officer Korie is an ambitious man desperate for his first kill in a war with an unknown enemy. His captain, Brandt, wants a desk job and sends in transfer requests at every possible opportunity. Fragments of letters sent by the military brass and quotations from theorists spell out the traits of the characters and technological underpinnings of the premise. Brandt allows Korie to make the majority of the decisions but when he makes his own they are generally not egregious ones. The vessel is the Roger Burlingame, a rickety, jury-rigged tub long overdue for the scrap yard. The poor state of the war, the causes and effects of which are never discussed, means that the Roger Burlingame is sent on patrol runs in the place of a more powerful and newer ship. The region of the patrols is supposedly empty….
….but then there is a blip on the radar. The crew feels the strain. And the captain wants his desk job and to avoid battle at all cost. Korie runs drills and drills and drills and drills. And an inept boy named Rogers is picked on. And Korie takes him under his wing and transforms him overnight into the best radar man on the ship! But then there is a plot twist.
The premise is pure hard SF with a military premise: a futuristic war is waged via computers. Men on small rickety spaceships examine the data, develop algorithms with the computer’s assistance, a button is pressed, a missile is launched, the enemies dies (or kills the attackers with a similar set of actions). The nature of the particular enemy (are they aliens or other humans?) is never mentioned nor are the causes of the war or the state of human society waging the war.
I would suggest that Gerrold wants the context of the war and how it started to be completely secondary to the human drama between the cast and the technological details of spaceship operation. However, he only explores the ramifications of a drastically different form of war near the end of the work. Thus the human drama derived from the changed nature of war lacks the necessary pieces to be convincing. And in case we were unable to fully understand the most basic trope of all, Korie’s obsession is spelled out when a crew man proclaims, he’s “become the Ahab of the great wide nothingness” (221). Yes, got that from the back cover…
Gerrold originally developed the basic premise (rejected) for a Star Trek episode—and at his better moments it feels like he is explaining the functioning of the Enterprise bridge, “A man sits at a console and sees that (a) this piece of information is (b) moved to (c) this place at (d) this particular time. The more important a man is, the more information he has to move; he moves it from one bank of computers to another, or from the sensors into the computers; always there is a computer either receiving or sending the information. The man in the Command and Control Seat is the most important man of all; he has to review all his information” (199). But, again, the uneven narrative frustrates—these types of details are important to establish earlier in the story so the tension is more palatable for the characters engaged in the activities of the bridge. If we do not know how the bridge works until the last fifth of the novel then how are we expected to feel tension related to the bridge in the first third?
All the pieces are present but delivery is suspect. I am not intrigued enough to seek out the rewrite.
Vaguely recommended for fans of 70s military SF.
(Attila Hejja’s cover for the 1980 edition)
(Karel Thole’s cover for the 1981 edition)
(Eddie Jones’ cover for the 1985 edition)
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