Friday, April 6, 2018

Search the Sky by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth

Wild goose chase in space
Search the Sky, a science fiction novel by Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth, was originally published in 1954. The story takes place in a distant future when mankind has colonized planets in other star systems. Because of the distance between these worlds, the transportation of people and goods takes centuries, during which time the interstellar voyagers, confined to their ship, reproduce for several generations. When one of these “longliners” arrives on Halsey’s Planet, it brings with it news that several human colonies in the galaxy may be in a state of decline, decay, or even extinction. Ross, a trader born on Halsey’s Planet, is offered the opportunity to undertake a mission to investigate this disturbing phenomenon. It is revealed to him that faster-than-light (FTL) travel is possible in a few small ships, but it has been kept a secret for fear the technology would be used for interplanetary warfare. One of these FTL ships is provided to Ross so that he may journey to distant stars and investigate the nature of this mysterious threat to humanity.

Pohl and Kornbluth take a humorous approach to the story, and Ross’s journey has the feeling of a Gulliver’s Travels in space. Each planet he lands on exhibits strange customs and an exaggeratedly goofy system of government. The first world he visits has a culture based on ageism, in which the elderly are hailed as demigods while the younger citizens are treated as ignorant juveniles well into their adulthood. The second world is a sexist planet, ruled by women. The third and fourth are even more absurd than the first two. These different worlds are only loosely connected by the overarching mystery story, which often gets lost in the shuffle. It seems the main purpose of the book was simply to allow Pohl and Kornbluth to indulge in these weird alternate worlds. When Ross arrives on each new planet, however, he is usually greeted with imprisonment, which severely limits what the reader actually gets to see of these worlds. Each journey ends up being more of an escape narrative than an investigation into the scientific mystery at hand.

The main problem with this humorous novel is that it’s just not very funny. There’s a lot of goofy slapstick humor, but as far as the satire goes, it is often difficult to discern what exactly the authors are satirizing. If the ageist world is intended to be a commentary on our society, it’s not a very pointed one. Likewise with Ross’s trip to the sexist planet, which despite being entirely ruled by women makes no feminist statement whatsoever. Ross suffers some of the sexual harassment that 1950s women would have endured on a daily basis, but still the premise is just used as an excuse for male chauvinistic humor, like women can’t drive and so forth. The humor improves slightly towards the end as the story veers into a touch of Idiocracy. Meanwhile, however, an attempt is made to tie this patchwork mess of a story together with a unifying theory that is actually pretty interesting but only developed and presented in the most half-baked way. The great threat to humanity is defined ever so simplistically, and a simplistic solution is contrived to combat it. The science not only seems faulty but also feels like an afterthought in a book full of bad jokes.

I usually enjoy science fiction of this era, when writers like Mack Reynolds, Clifford D. Simak, and H. Beam Piper effectively combined visionary scientific theory with political and social satire that was actually funny. I had heard good things about this novel, and thought I’d give Pohl a try, but Search the Sky proved to be a big disappointment.
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