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The Hawks of Arcturus

The Hawks of Arcturus by Cecil Snyder IIIThe Hawks of Arcturus front
DAW Books, 1974
Price I paid: 90¢

Somewhere out there among the stars there had to be a greater intelligence than man’s. Though mankind had spread out, none had yet contacted such an intelligence. The first of the now fiercely competitive planetary empires to do so might gain power over all the others—if it survived at all.

Arcturus was ambitious. Its emblem was the hawk and its leaders thought of themselves as birds of prey. When they were the first to reach an alien powerhouse, the hawks of Arcturus prepared to pounce.

And only Chen the Earthman stood in their way.

Arcturus may have considered itself to be an irresistible force—but this despised, imprisoned, and insignificant Earthling turned out to be the immovable object.

First off, let’s talk about this guy’s name. Seriously, Cecil Snyder III is the whitest name I have ever seen outside of politics. Even without the “III” at the end, this name is just too upper-crust to bear.  I half expected this book to be about the fine art of leasing a yacht. Or hiring a coachman.

Apart from that, we’ve got that cover. I seriously wonder what that woman is doing in this picture. I’m not sure if people can bend that way.

And then we get to the book itself. I tell you, folks, this one was the most difficult one to read yet. Not because it was terrible, either. At least with terrible trainwrecks of books I can eagerly look for the next ridiculous thing to report. No, this book was just incredibly mediocre—so mediocre, in fact, that I had trouble staying awake or diverting myself away from more exciting things to do in my apartment like doing the dishes or having staredowns with the cat.

The book kicks off with a meeting between the Arcturus Ambassador to Earth and some guy named En’varid. Apostrophes in names are, of course, an early warning sign for a complete hack of a novel. En’varid and the Arcturus Ambassador to Earth (he is always called that) talk for a bit about Darlan, the current Herald of Arcturus. Darlan has, apparently, great plans to split Arcturus from the rest of the Dominion, cut ties with Earth, and rule the galaxy. The Ambassador doesn’t want anything to do with it, and sends En’varid home, but before En’varid leaves he shows the Ambassador some kind of dinglydang that makes memories come alive, or something, which presents proof of an alien race, elsewhere in the galaxy.

Now we meet Chen, the unlikely hero of the novel. Chen is a prospector. He flies around the galaxy looking for things like comets and dust clouds, puts a claim on them, and then sells the rights to exploit their resources. I can think of worse jobs, to be honest. Chen has taken passage on the Astrion, an Arcturian starliner, while he settles his accounts and finalizes the purchase of his new ship, a small, sleek thing that is the newest model.

While on the Astrion, Chen meets Alsar, an enchantingly beautiful (aren’t they always?) woman who, it turns out, works for this total bastard of a guy named En’varid. A bit of conversation with Alsar leads Chen to be half in love with her when En’varid shows up and just totally is-a-dick on everything. Chen goes back to his room, cockblocked, and decides to go to bed. No cold shower or anything. Dude is rad.

He wakes up when a cop pokes him. It turns out that En’varid is dead. Murdered to death. Not only that, but the body was found on Chen’s new ship, making Chen a suspect.

It’s at this point that we enter the murder mystery portion of our program.

Chen is taken away and thrown into ship-jail. He argues with everybody saying he couldn’t possibly have murdered En’varid and they don’t believe him, because after all he’s just a piece of prospector space-trash and En’varid is a nobleman (read: dick). He’s eventually released by Alsar, who takes him down to the planet and tries to lock him up in En’varid’s mountain escape. She tells him to wait here until she comes back for him, casually admits to the murder, and leaves. Chen does exactly the opposite of that and escapes as soon as possible, working on a boat for some reason I couldn’t fathom (pun caught a day after publication). The cops find him again and tell him to leave, so he does.

All that took the first half of the book.

The middle portion of the book had some of the most ridiculous and awful science I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. For starters, Chen finds one of those memory dinglydangs stashed away on his ship. He fiddles with it for a while, learning that it’s made out of, get this, crystallized helium. Such a thing has only been seen in this weird flower-looking thing that he looked at earlier on the Astrion, which happens to be one of the great mysteries of the galaxy, and in a little sliver of material that was given to him by the man who raised him, a guy named Inman.

Chen reads a book about how such crystalline helium is formed when a star goes nova, which the book then explains as happening when the space-time continuum, strained to the breaking point inside of a star, finally snaps and unleashes a fury of force.

Meanwhile, in the interior of the sun, matter is being driven inward in time and space. In this implosion, matter reaches its crystalline essence, even crystals of helium, hydrogen achieving a peculiar stability…It is, for lack of a suitably scientific word, a phantom, an avatar of matter.

There was a lot more but that’s the basics of it. Trust me, the rest of the quote doesn’t help.

Later, Chen learns how to use the memory dinglydang and it shows him much the same alien scene as the Ambassador saw. In Chen’s rendition, he sees a star go nova, and using his developed star-sense from years of space prospecting, he commits the stars in this memory event to his own memory so he can look it up. He does, and finds out what star went nova at the time of the memory, although at first he despairs of being able to do so since it’s possible, for no explained reason, that the event happened in the future. He finds the stars, though, and looks at them through the ship’s telescope.

At this point in the story, Chen isn’t far out of Arcturus. It’s explained that the nova he witnessed was somewhere around 12 light-years from the center of the galaxy. Wolfram Alpha tells me that Arcturus is about 25,000 light years from the center of the galaxy, and Chen’s computer tells him that the nova he witnessed was about a hundred years ago. I know this is getting really science nitpicky, but bear with me: Chen sees the nova remnants, in violation of all the laws of nature. Light takes time to get from point A to point B, people, and what Chen saw with his telescope ought to have been about 25,000 years in the past, well before the nova went off.

The science gets better, though, when the book explains how Chen’s faster-than-light drive works. I’ll let the book speak for itself:

The speed of light had once been believed to be the highest velocity attainable in ordinary space. The “Einstein heresy” had been refuted early in the days of interplanetary exploration. However, the speed of light had proved to be the “inertial ultimate.” Any speed beyond that of light must be maintained by constant acceleration, and if the thrust is cut, the ship quickly drops back to the velocity of light.

The answer to FTL travel is, apparently, just keep going faster.

NO. JUST NO.

And let’s not ignore the fact that Cecil Snyder III apparently didn’t realize that velocity and speed are not the same thing, and that he should not use them interchangeably in his wacky-science explanations. Speed is a scalar measurement, denoting only magnitude. Velocity is a vector, which means magnitude and direction. Seriously, people, I learned this in high school, and my high school physics teacher was called Coach.

Chen follows the clues and discovers a rogue planet just flying through the cosmos. After some scanning, he figures that staking a claim on it would be good business, whereupon he eventually lands. He wanders around for a while, doing some tests, when suddenly he discovers some footprints.

My next nitpick is in the realm of literature, and its a real nitpick. The book describes Chen’s shock at discovering the footprints as akin to the shock Robinson Crusoe must have felt when he found footprints on the beach of his desert island. Not a bad reference, but also not quite accurate. Robinson Crusoe first discovered a single footprint on the beach, which is what scared the holy living Jesus out of him. It was much more creepy and frightening that way, but then again, Robinson Crusoe was a far, far better book than this one.

While investigating the footprints, Chen is rudely interrupted by the guy who made them. Taken by surprise and, once again, taken prisoner, Chen is picked up by what he describes at the weirdest-looking spaceship he’s ever seen. He’s taken aboard and half-expects it to be full of aliens, when it turns out the captain of the thing is Darlan, the Herald of Arcturus and character I’d totally forgotten all about by this point. Alsar is there too.

On the way back to Arcturus, we get a little backstory about this weird spaceship. It turns out that there are aliens in the galaxy, and Darlan met them at some point in the past, alongside Inman, whom you’ll remember is the guy who raised Chen and gave him the shard of crystallized helium. These aliens, the Lelos, were peaceful and beautiful and loved everybody except for their mortal enemies, the Andere. The Andere were another race of aliens, cruel and vicious and mean. The Lelos built the ship that Darlan is currently using, which, it turns out, has the ability to explode suns. Darlan explodes a sun just to prove his point.

Darlan came into possession of the ship when he betrayed Inman and the Lelos to the Andere, just because he’s that kind of guy.

Darlan flies the ship back to Arcturus and lands it on a golf course. He lets it sit for a while, building up everybody’s curiousity, and finally he comes out and tells the assembled masses that he, Darlan, has found aliens in the galaxy, and they’re nice and want to give us stuff, and now’s the time for Arcturus to use the alien technology to slip the surly bonds of Earth, so to speak, and reign supreme over the galaxy. He announces that tomorrow, around lunchtime, the alien will hold a press conference and tell everybody that for itself.

This is where the book gets really hilarious.

The alien comes out the next day. It’s very definitely an alien. It’s got six fingers with no thumb, and an elephant snout, and a big bulbous head. It explains that it belongs to a very old race, and its race is dying, and as a sort of last will and testament for its species it wants to bequeath its wealth and technology to the people of Arcturus to do with as they please.

As it finishes this bit, Chen runs on stage and tackles the alien. Guards and audience members pounce to keep him from causing an interplanetary incident, but as they pull him off, he grabs hold of the alien’s elephant snout, which comes right off. It was a trick all along! There was no alien! And who else could it be but Old Man Darlan himself!

I kid you not! It really happened that way!

And then the book ends.

The biggest flaw of this book, before it got all wacky, was the fact that it was incredibly boring. The first half of the book, like I said, was a real trial to get through. It was crazy hard to keep going.

It gave me time to think about what, exactly, makes a book interesting to me. I’ve decided that science fiction and fantasy can keep me interested in one of two ways: good settings or good ideas. Let me explain.

There are books where the setting draws me in and makes me want to explore it. I can see the world it creates, hear it, almost smell it. Middle-Earth is an example I imagine a lot of people can think of there, but other settings, like Hogwarts or the Discworld (my personal favorite), stand out there too. In science fiction, there’s Dune and A Canticle for Liebowitz. Stephen King does an exemplary job of this when he’s at his best, as well. I’d say a lot of my favorite works fall into this category, to be honest. It’s the settings that set the tone for the stories, and the stories drag me along because, in a way, they’re a way of exploring the setting, where it’s been, and how it’s changing.

And then there are idea books, where the what-ifs are explored. While a lot of the books I like fall into the previous category, the books I love fall into this category. These are the masters at work: Heinlein, Farmer, Clarke, Asimov, Sturgeon. These stories pull me along because I want to know what this author thinks would happen in their what-if scenario. Whether I agree with their assessment or not, the book has succeeded, because it’s gotten me thinking.

The Hawks of Arcturus, as you might imagine, fits into neither of those categories. The setting was dull and lifeless and inconsistent. The book itself reflects that. At once a mystery, then a book of political intrigues, then a weird kind of pre-Star Wars planet blowup saga, then a Scooby Doo resolution, the book never really finds itself. A failed setting-book that has the occasional delusion of being an idea-book, it’s never cohesive. None of the characters are interesting because they never get a chance to come into their own in the story before it changes abruptly. The technology doesn’t make any sense, and is usually just brought into the story to solve (or cause) the problem of the moment, whereupon it is just as abruptly forgotten.

The worst thing is, the book had some interesting potential. Political intrigue can make for a good story, and the idea of a system trying to secede from the Earth is interesting. Likewise the idea of using an alien ship that is barely understood to carry out this political ambition. A murder mystery in space could be interesting. Taken in isolation, almost any of the elements of this book, taken to completion, could make for an interesting novel. As it is, however, it’s just a jumbled mess.

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5 Comments

  1. Joseph Nebus says:

    Wow. That sounds like a really overly complicated story; just the synopsis was dizzying.

    I wonder what are the things which make some overly complicated stories sustainable for the reader and what turns them into flops. Yes, yes, “being good” is part of it, but it seems like there should be something more quantifiable than “good”.

    Like

    • That’s a good point I hadn’t really considered. There are definitely some really complicated books that I’ve stuck with and liked. I’d say, if anything, a key is consistency in the text. Following a convoluted plot is a lot easier if the world, the characters, and the events work within a set of rules that don’t get broken unless there’s a very good reason.

      Like

  2. Steven Perry says:

    I’m half done reading a free copy of this book now. I like it. It’s not predictable and the story moves along at a fast pace. It’s interest me enough to set aside the book and Google the author, whom I’ve never heard of. I stopped reading your synopses after the first couple of paragraphs, finding it inane. Let’s see what Wikipedia has to say about Cecil Snyder III, shall we?

    Like

  3. Steven Perry says:

    I can find no information on Cecil Snyder III. Did he write any other books? Is he alive? If so where?

    Like

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