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Book cover art by Michael Whelan (left).
Review © 2002 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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Brian Stableford's series concerning the missions of the starship Daedelus spanned a half dozen books in the late '70s. The concept is that of a spacecraft venturing forth from a future Earth that is recovering from a dark age of scientific and cultural malaise, in an effort to re-establish contact with long-lost human colonies on distant worlds. Many of the colonies, it turns out, have had desperate problems of their own, and the generations of having no contact with Earth have, in most cases, only bred resentment and further conflict. The series is episodic, each novel a stand-alone story following a straightforward, Analog-magazine style "solve the problem" riff. You get the impression Stableford was trying to do his own thinking-person's version of Star Trek.

On the planet Floria, the astronauts of the Daedelus find a surprising situation. Everything seems fine, almost (pause for effect) too fine. True, no one can figure out exactly why it is that the colonists are all in the neighborhood of seven feet tall, but on the whole, the colony seems extraordinarily peaceful and successful, and very much in harmony with the alien landscape they've made their home.

So it comes as no surprise when the Daedelus crew, partly led by stalwart biologist Alexis Alexander, discovers that there are problems behind the scenes. Alexander and our heroes find themselves caught in a power play between the Planners, who maintain a strict status quo by controlling information, and a rebellious police force who seek, so they say, to liberate the colonies from the Planners' oppressive rule. But is there more than meets the eye to each of these groups, and are any of them to be fully trusted? And can they be convinced that the Daedelus crew means no harm, and the ship's arrival is not the vanguard of a massive invasion from the homeworld of new colonists bent on upsetting the Florians' precious balance?

Stableford divides his time in this novel equally between good old fashioned hard SF, in scenes where Alexander is puzzling out the strange evolutionary path Floria's flora and fauna have taken, and social themes like justice and pacifism vs. brute force. To today's readers, it could all seem too talky; there are pages upon pages of exposition. Characters don't have conversations so much as they lecture one another on their positions. But it's written with much intelligence and, thanks to the book's brevity (typical of SF publishing in the 70's, when the average SF novel was 150-200 pages and not 500), it never gets boring. In fact, I found the biology bits more compelling than the main story at times.

Stableford also doesn't cover much new ground in his themes, and you would be fully justified in snickering at the book's celebration of non-violent resistance (particularly in light of the fact that sheer dumb luck comes to Alexander's rescue at one crucial point). But Stableford acknowledges that there are never easy answers to any crisis, and the story is not nearly so simplistic as it could have become. And the exotic setting, combined with some well-placed scenes of peril and nighttime skulking, imparts a good atmosphere. In all, a pretty good little tale.

Followed by Critical Threshold.