Book Review: Yesterday’s Children (variant title: Starhunt*), David Gerrold (1972)

(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1972 edition)

3/5 (Average)

*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.

Final Thoughts

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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18 thoughts on “Book Review: Yesterday’s Children (variant title: Starhunt*), David Gerrold (1972)”

  1. I read the 1980 edition of Yesterday’s Children with the Hejja cover and I liked it. I am susceptible to space navy stuff; as a kid I loved “Starblazers,” the English version of “Space Battleship Yamato,” to death. I got a Voyage of the Space Beagle vibe from Yesterday’s Children; the smartest guy on the ship is resented by the rest of the crew.

    I had no idea Yesterday’s Children had been rewritten; I am curious to read the rewrite now.

    I haven’t read Man who Folded Himself or When Harlie Was One, but I liked the silly fun of Deathbeast and the first two or three Chtorr books, which I perceived as influenced by the Heinlein juveniles and Starship Troopers.

    I love that Eddie Jones painting; it also appears in Eisler’s Space Wars, Worlds and Weapons.

    1. He might be the smartest guy but he is UTTERLY wrong in the end. Barak, the black Astrogator, is the smartest character in my opinion — he discovers what really is happening.

      I’m pretty sure you did read the rewrite… I’m sort of confused. If you look at the isfdb.com listing under the 1980 edition it says “revised.” But then in the blurb above it says the 1985 edition is the revised one.

      http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?770

      EDIT: Wikipedia lists the 1980 edition as the revised one. So you did read the revised version.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Gerrold

  2. **SPOILERS**
    Maybe I’m confused, or maybe it is different in my edition, if it is the revised, but I recall that many crew members thought the radar image was a reflection or ghost, but the fanatic proved to be right and in the end they go home after having shot down an enemy ship.

    1. Haha, yeah, you read the revised version ;)

      *SPOILERS*

      Korie is completely wrong about the radar blip being a ship. Other people, namely Barak the astrogator, discover what is happening and Korie looks like a complete and utter imbecile. And, he was the one who put the jury-rigged tech that caused the echo in the ship in the first place. So Korie’s entire obsession is shattered, and all his “good decisions” are for naught.

      1. How does your edition end? I’m looking at mine now, and it ends with the Burlingame and the enemy blasting missiles at each other, Barak saying, “He really was there!! How did you know?” and then the enemy disappears from the scope. The crew thinks they have knocked out the enemy, but it has not been confirmed yet, and the book ends just as they are about to search for debris, leaving open the possibility that the enemy escaped. Either way they are going back to home base after the search.

      2. Well, firstly, there is no enemy bogie. And it never existed at all. “The ship is all right. There’s no bogie and we’re going home” (250).

        “But Barak’s attention is not on Rogers [who gets injured at the end randomly] but on Korie — the first officer is sitting before the console, a strange look on his face; his eyes are intense. His hands move trancelike across the board, clearing it and setting up programs, clearing it and setting up programs, over and over and over again…” (250-251) (i.e. because there is no ship and he can’t admit that he was so wrong).

      3. My understanding is the rewrite, at least the 1980 rewrite, was most importantly an extension of the book. The original ends, yes, with the radar blip being just an echo and Korie breaking down. In the revised version, he gets up again and figures out how to find the blip really is an enemy ship and they go on to destroy it.

        I seem to remember first reading the revised version, but knowing there was an expansion from the original (somehow), that where the book originally ended was obvious, and I’ve never been a very careful reader. It was just a moment that screamed “this is the ending of a book about the fundamental wastefulness of war”, after which, the book went on to be about the triumphant victory of the space navy.

        My vague impression is that Gerrold’s gone on to write other books that are either continuing the story of the revised ending or are recognizable rewrites of the original setting.

      4. He also rewrote When Harlie Was One. It became When Harlie Was One 2.0! Haha.

        I think I’m glad that I read the version I did i.e. “this is the ending of a book about the fundamental wastefulness of war.” Unfortunately, regardless of the message, the work was incredibly uneven in delivery.

  3. I have to say, I would have been disappointed in your version – all that build up and no fight, no destruction? If there really is no enemy, Gerrold should have ended it Moby Dick style, with the ship getting blown up by an errant missile because of Korie’s obsession.

    1. I wanted the ship to blow up — and I thought that it would. The entire thing is somewhat off… Things are explained, like the functioning of the bridge, WAY too late in the narrative to add to the tension. And this bit about the inept kid Rodger suddenly getting the most important position on the ship, radar operator, with what seems like the most pathetically basic training = lame. He constantly tells us there is tension but the reader never feels tension. All in all rather dull…

      1. Well, I obviously liked it more than you did. Maybe I forgave the faults you point out because I liked the topic, or maybe some of those rough edges were smoothed away in the revision. The revised ending certainly seems better!

      2. I think the fact that there is NO ship does work in favor of his theme of a deracinated war where you no longer “see” your enemy… Who knows. I would have to read the later one to compare and I don’t feel up to it.

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