Michael Trehearne had always been an outcast among his people on Earth. He knew he was different…but he did not know how or why.
Then one day, on the wind-swept coast of Brittany, a bewitchingly beautiful girl appeared and told him he had the look of the Vardda—those elite star travelers who alone could withstand the rigors of intergalactic flight.
Michael had to join them…had to find his place in the universe at last. But it would not be easy. For even when they allowed him to risk his life aboard their ship, to seal his fate upon their planet…even then, they viewed him as an outcast, a dangerous changeling who suddenly threatened them.
He was a man who sooner or later would have to be destroyed!
This is the first book I’ve done that follows the “The Blank of Blank” title scheme that is so prevalent and wonderful in cheap science fiction novels. The bonus with The Starmen of Llyrdis is, of course, the nearly unpronounceable Llyrdis. I had a lot of fun coming up with ways to get that word out of my mouth. I suppose I’ll always stick with “Lurr-diss” but I have a certain fondness for treating that double-ell as pseudo-Spanish and calling it “Yeer-diss” or something like that.
Despite the sort of goofy title and the four bits this book ran me, it was astonishingly good. A Wikipedia search on Leigh Brackett reveals her to be a really prolific author and screenwriter, writing, among other things, the script for The Big Sleep and Rio Bravo, as well as an unused script of The Empire Strikes Back. I would give all the loose change in my apartment (about $25, which, when you think about it, is twenty-five blog posts) to read her script of Empire, but apparently there are only two extant copies under lock-and-key and you’ve got to be King Hollywood to get access.
But this isn’t about my Star Wars fanboyism, it’s about Brackett’s 1952 novel.
The Starmen of Llyrdis begins by introducing the protagonist, Michael Trehearne. Michael has a bit of a problem. He feels like he’s different from everybody else. Better, in some ways, but mostly just different. This makes him more angry than anything else, and seeing Michael angry is something that the reader will eventually get used to. He’s kind of a jerk, really. I’ll be honest, for most of the first half of the book I didn’t like him at all. Still, he’s different, and he’s gone off to the coast of Brittany, where his ancestors are from, to try to figure himself out.
While watching a Midsummer Eve festival, Michael becomes aware of two people who strike him as different in much the same way he is. He has a short and unsatisfying conversation with the first, a guy named Kerrel, but soon after he meets a gorgeous woman, Shairn, who teases him with hints of who and what he actually is. Where in most books the protagonist would likely get confused or maybe a little irritated, Michael gets mad and comes just short of walloping the knowledge out of her. He even, at one point, grabs her arm hard enough to leave a bruise. She seems to take it in stride, though, and tells him to meet her the next morning on the beach.
Right off, we’ve got a book that touches on a theme I think a lot of people have experienced and maybe even take for granted. How many of us can really say we’ve never looked around and thought we’re different from other people in some unknowable way? I think we’ve all got a real need to be unique and different, despite the other primal urge to fit in. Sometimes, I suppose, we just want to fit in to someplace that isn’t where we actually are, with people who are different in the way that we’re different. We want Hagrid to tell us we’re a wizard, or Professor Xavier to whisk us away to his School for Gifted Children. It’s one of the weirder parts of being human, and Brackett captures it pretty well here in the opening chapters of Llyrdis.
Or is all that just me? (Or is it a defining characteristic of my people?)
It is eventually revealed that Kerrel and Shairn are actually from outer space, in particular they are from a planet that orbits Aldeberan. Kerrel is infuriated that Shairn has brought this Earthman to their ship and revealed their true nature, but Michael eventually becomes fast friends with another member of the crew, a man named Edri, who fills Michael in on his people, the Vardda, their history, spaceflight, and fun things like that. Michael starts to become a little more likable at this point in his childlike wonder at the universe around him, but he’s still prone to fits of near rage.
Shairn is no help. She apparently just brought Michael aboard to annoy Kerrel and because she’s a flighty woman who does things to buck authority and all that sort of thing. That’s pretty much all we get out of her character, and as the only woman in this book, it makes me wonder exactly what’s going on here. I’m not going to go into a whole gender relations thing here, but Shairn is mostly in this book to serve as an instigator, but she only instigates out of a desire to annoy Kerrel and other authority figures. Other times she’s a walking doormat. She even gets slapped on more than one occasion for her insolence.
It seems that Michael’s in for a hard trip. The Vardda, we discover, have been genetically engineered to withstand the rigors of faster-than-light travel. The acceleration seems to be the biggest issue. It’s not known at this point whether this gene has actually expressed itself in Michael, who doesn’t appear to be a full-blooded Vardda. If the gene didn’t quite take, Michael will die before the ship leaves the Solar System. He survives, of course, but it’s tense there for a moment.
During the trip to Llyrdis, Michael continues to learn about who his people are and how space travel works. We get some great technobabble here, that I am happy to share:
And so, right now, the big atomic-powered generators in the stern are producing fifth-order rays which react against the fabric of space itself. And space, not wishing to be torn apart, obligingly thrusts us onward.
That’s how the ships move. Atomic power and “fifth-order rays.” I absolutely love it.
Once on Llyrdis, Michael has other problems to face. Political problems. You see, the Vardda have a monopoly on space travel because of their genetically engineered cells or something. No other race (other races in this book are consistently referred to as “human races,” incidentally, something this book shares with Danger Planet) is capable of FTL travel. The genetic gift was given to the Vardda a thousand years ago by a guy named Orthis. In his final days, Orthis decided that keeping the secret of interstellar flight a secret was wrong, and set out to give the gift to other human races in the galaxy. The other Vardda, disagreed with him, however, and tried to stop him, so he fled to the galactic rim. There are still people, however, called the Orthists, who believe that Orthis was right and that the Vardda monopoly on spaceflight should be done away with. These heretics are often caught and exiled, but the government of Llyrdis is concerned that Michael’s existence, a half-Vardda who can withstand the rigors of starflight, will give them a rallying call.
The Vardda monopoly on FTL flight is an interesting one. They use it to conduct trade throughout the galaxy, both for themselves and on behalf of other worlds. Their reasoning for keeping the monopoly going is mostly selfish, of course, but they manage to sugarcoat it a bit by saying that they are the peacekeepers of the galaxy by keeping the knowledge to themselves. If every race were out flying through the galaxy, they would begin to have resource wars and colonial disputes and all that fun. The Vardda tell themselves that they are protecting the “lesser” races. At first Michael goes along with that explanation, and condemns the Orthists for their heresy and self-righteousness.
He then signs up for a trading vessel and sets out to earn his fortune. He’s a basic cargo-handler on a ship bound for the Hercules Cluster, which is apparently one of the more difficult trade runs available. He’ll be well-compensated, though, so that’s nice. He has some interesting interstellar adventures, meeting aliens and picking some weird mushrooms, when it becomes apparent that somebody on the ship is trying to kill him. The first time it happens, his oxygen tube is disconnected “by accident” on an airless world that has important fungi growing on it. He dismisses this at first, until a visit to a planet of psychics is cut short because the psychic people “read murder” on the mind of one of the crew. Later, Michael’s suspicions are confirmed when the murderous crew member invites him into the wilderness of some planet and sets some giant weasel-dogs on him, almost succeeding in the murder. Michael survives, turns the tables, and learns that this would-be murderer was being paid by Kerrel back on Llyrdis.
A trip back to Llyrdis reveals that Michael’s friend Edri was captured as an Orthist and banished. Michael finally starts making some decisions for himself and sets out to rescue him. Along the way, he reveals that he himself has come to sympathize with the Orthists due to what he’s learned on his single travel throughout the galaxy. Michael has begun to learn that the other races of the galaxy are really not keen on him or his people. It’s initially dismissed as petty jealousy but later it’s shown to be a very real hatred of the people who keep the knowledge of interstellar flight for themselves and leave the other races to live or die at their leisure, trapped on their homeworlds. Pretty dark stuff, and one can appreciate Michael finally thinking for himself and deciding that maybe there’s something to this whole “sympathy” thing.
Edri is rescued and it’s revealed that he knows the final resting place of Orthis thanks to his network of colleagues and sympathizers. He and Michael set off for the galactic rim with Kerrel hot in pursuit. They kidnap Shairn at some point in this little scheme but I’m not entirely sure why because all she does is whine and argue. For a woman who spent the first half of the book bucking authority, she’s really ready to champion it now. If a man had written this book, I would expect a character to shake his head and say something like “Space-Dames! Can’t they ever make up their minds?” Fortunately, Brackett has more pride than that, even if she can’t write a convincing woman.
The book reaches a pretty satisfying climax with a massive space-chase, a daring landing, and an exciting discovery. Orthis’s body is found in his ship on the first planet of a dark star, frozen in time due to the fact that he died in a freezing vacuum. He clutches in his frozen hands the secret of interstellar flight, ready to be transmitted to all the worlds than can receive it. Edri and Michael manage to pull off this message mere moments before Kerrel shows up and tries to kill them. He fails when the cop he brought along is shocked at the idea that our heroes won’t go to trial for their crimes, as they should under civilized law. As a representative of that law, Kerrel is acting like a complete lunatic. He rants and raves for a while and then falls down and cracks his faceplate open. It’s a pointless end for a character that was really unlikable.
The cop takes our heroes back home to Llyrdis, where they wonder if the message was actually received by anyone. It was, and there’s a long argument among the congressmen of Llyrdis about what to do about it. One argues that Edri and Michael be executed, but he is shouted down, considering that it won’t actually help anything. Finally, one member of the council points out that maybe it’ll be a good idea for all these new spacefaring races to not hate the Vardda when they finally break out into the galaxy, so how about spinning this whole thing as a gift from the people of Llyrdis to the other races. It’s brilliantly self-centered in a way that really fits with these people up to this point. Michael leaves, meets Shairn again, who tells him that she both hates him and loves him (Space-dames again!), and the book ends.
All-told, I really enjoyed this book. The characters weren’t the best, but the universe was engaging and interesting. The Vardda and their history really had me hooked and kept me reading. I particularly liked the Vardda belief in “rational self-interest,” which is really the basis for their whole society. Essentially, their whole idea is to make themselves rich by keeping the rest of the galaxy happy. Treat your employees and customers well, pay them fairly, and don’t try to scam them, and they’ll make you some money. It’s not exactly something I’ve ever seen in my own employment history, but I suppose that’s why they call it science fiction.