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The Sentinel Stars

The Sentinel Stars by Louis CharbonneauThe Sentinel Stars
Bantam Books, 1963
Price I paid: none

RIGID!
LOCKED!
ENSLAVED!

that was our Earth in 2200. East and West had merged at last so there were no more wars, no more political differences.

Citizens everywhere could concentrate on working off their TAX DEBTS! If you were capable and industrious you might be able to make freeman status for the last few years of your life.

No one questioned. No one spoke out. No one rebelled until one bright morning Citizen TRH-247 decided not to go to work—and worse than that, became desirous of a girl below his own classification!

Thus he made himself an outcast with the whole world against him and mere survival dependent on his wits, his daring, and his strength.

THE SENTINEL STARS—a novel of our world run as the Bureau of Internal Revenue would run it!

Well, this is interesting. I’m not sure if the quality of a book has ever taken the particular curve this one did. I realize that this statement makes little sense. I’ll try to explain.

I started thinking about this while I was reading this book, so it may not be a fully formed idea yet, but here it goes. You can judge the quality of a book as a whole, which is what I normally do, but a reader can also look at a book’s quality over the course of the narrative. You might say a book started weak but ramped up, for example. I find that most of the books I’ve read follow the following curves:

  1. The book maintains its quality throughout, starting bad, middling bad, and ending bad, for example. These types of books can also be good. This is probably the most common curve, which is not a curve at all.
  2. The book starts off strong and stays strong through the middle, but the ending is just so awful it drops off like a politician’s approval rating after the media leaks details of his dungeon.
  3. The book starts off weak but picks up steam as it goes along, perhaps after the expositionary phase is over and the plot really gets rolling.

I bring all this up because The Sentinel Stars is a new one to me. It started off strong. I was hooked at first. But as time and pages went on, there was a slow but steady loss of interest. No sharp dropoffs, no rallies, no WTF moments, just an irrevocable decline like the approval rating of a politician whose dungeon still remains a secret.

And that’s interesting.

The cover is interesting, too. First off, the art seems to have been made for this book, as it’s an accurate representation of, well, the woman’s uniform. It’s got her “name” on it, at least. Now that I think about it, I bet somebody dug out this piece of art and just added that little detail. Still, she did actually wear red in the book. This is important. The dude, however, did not wear…what is that color? Lavender? With pinstripes?

He looks kind of like an Original Series Klingon.

And what’s with the shoulders? Man, am I glad shoulders like that never caught on. It would make the bus even less of a fun place to be.

The jacket copy also got it almost right. Whoever wrote it was given some pretty barebones plot details, and they seem to have focused on the first half or so of the book. This is funny, because while the back cover seems like a stupid book (which is what made me read it), it was that part of the novel that was interesting.

On the other hand, our hero does not make himself an “outcast with the whole world against him” and his wits, daring, and strength are all lacking. This protagonist is another one of those protagonists. You know the ones. Useless observers.

Okay, so TRH-247 is really named Thomas Hendley. He goes by Hendley most of the time. He lives in a typical dystopian future, but this one has a TWIST

So, like the synopsis tells us, East and West have set aside their differences and joined together into what I guess is supposed to be a world government. I never felt like I had a good idea of when this happened. The back of the book says that this all takes place in 2200, but nothing inside ever says so. What we do know is that there was a nuclear war about two centuries back, which would put it right around our own time.

I love how many science fiction books from fifty or so years ago either take place in our present or have plots that were put into action by events in our present. It makes me think of my favorite John Prine lyrics:

We are living in the future
I’ll tell you how I know
I read it in the paper
Fifteen years ago

So now that there’s no more Cold War or any other kind of international animosity—I wonder how they fixed the Middle East—the world government, which is a computer so take your first drink, came up with a sort of hybrid communism/capitalism scheme that is interesting even while it’s dumb.

So everybody’s indebted to the government. This is okay, because the government provides everybody with everything they need. It may not be all that glamorous, but nobody’s going to starve. You work to pay off your debt, and time is now literally money. If you want to buy something beyond what the government gives you, you pay in time that you’ll have to work off. Society is stratified into different levels of indebtedness. The color jumpsuit (DRINK) you’re issued indicates what level you belong to. I think it went, from worst to best

  • Red
  • Blue
  • Green
  • Yellow
  • Beige

I may have some of those reversed. Hendley, by the way, is a green.

You can graduate from beige to white, which means you’re now free. There’s a special place put aside for all the free people where they can run and play and have fun all day long just like that farm my dog got sent to when I was ten.

Everything about this society is based around getting people to work hard so that they become free. People are given hints about how awesome it is to be free, but otherwise everything about the concept is kept secret to make it all the more enticing. This was the part of the book that was well done. I was intrigued at this idea and started likening it to concepts like Purgatory or Buddhism, wondering if this book was some kind of science fiction parable about working one’s way out of suffering.

But no. It wasn’t.

Life for regular folks is regimented. Your job is chosen for you, as is how you spend your non-working hours. Even your spouse is chosen by the computer government (DRINK). It’s supposed to be the very opposite of freedom, you see.

So Hendley decides one day, just on a whim, not to go to work. He hangs around his apartment for a while and then goes out into the world, just livin’ it up. He meets a woman, ABC-331, or Ann, and they have a quick fling. They fall in love as a result of this quick fling, and she becomes his driving force through the rest of the book. Kind of.

The decline starts here. Hendley gets caught and has to talk to a counselor about why he has decided he’s too good for this particular dystopia. He doesn’t mention his affair with Ann because he fell in love with her already and he wants to keep her safe. Instead he claims to be against the Merger in some indefinable way. The counselor decides that the best thing for Hendley is to become free for just one day. He’ll get a taste of what freedom really is and then come back and work all the harder so that he can have it again.

So that’s what happens. Hendley goes to a Freedman’s Camp for twenty-four hours and gets to see what these people get up to. He finds that it’s NOT ALL THAT IT SEEMS

Ugh

So being free means living in an anarchical society where everybody acts like children. With no pressure to be decent human beings, people degenerate into a different kind of robot. They end up addicted to gambling or some other kind of game, perhaps alcohol or drugs as well, and they can just run around murdering and stealing and raping and all kinds of stuff like that. Hendley becomes disgusted with this pretty quickly.

He meets some dude, NIK-700, who seems decent at first. He shows Hendley around and takes him to the big theatre in the middle of the camp. There they see some kind of burlesque show, and Hendley is disgusted to see that one of the dancers is, in fact, Ann.

He goes from bleh to unlikable at this point. He slut-shames the woman he loves because she dances nekkid for other people to see. It’s not even like it’s her choice in the matter, he’s just a dick about it. Part of him is upset that she lied about it earlier, which is understandable, but really he’s just mad because he’s got this huge Madonna/Whore complex. Through some contrived means he’s able to confront her about it. Just as they start to come to some understanding, NIK-700 knocks him out and swaps identities with him.

And this is where I lost interest. Where this book was at first an interesting look at this dumb society and its ways, it then became a stupid quest to get back at this guy for identity theft. NIK-700, just before he leaves, states that he’s tired of perfect freedom and wants to see how the other half lives (he was born free, as free as the wind blows). I guess this is supposed to be ironic, sort of a “Even in future dystopias, the grass is still greener on the other side of the robot-manned laser wall,” but it left me cold.

Nik goes back to society in place of Hendley, and Hendley has to figure out what he’s going to do with himself. Over the course of a page or so he degenerates into anarchical assholism like everybody else, starting to gamble and steal so that he can gamble some more. He meets another visitor like himself and figures he can steal his identity and get back just like happened to him. Unfortunately this visitor turns out to be capable of taking care of himself so it doesn’t happen.

At one point early in Hendley’s adventure we learned about “the hunt.” It’s an activity that seems to happen at random and everybody gets all evasive about what they’re hunting. Hendley doesn’t participate at first, figuring he’s got other things to see and do, but as soon as people got all “errr, umm” about it I was going THEY HUNT PEOPLE DUH

I bring this up because it’s now that we actually learn that they hunt people.

See, in the main gambling hall there’s a table that no one uses most of the time. It’s a special table. Hendley, desperate to gamble, decides to take up the game. It’s a simple game where he and a robot guess what number the other is thinking. The prize for winning is an enormous number of chips (so the person can keep gambling) but no one tells him what the stakes are.

THEY HUNT PEOPLE

For a bit it looks like he’s going to win, but then it turns out he loses and losing means you get hunted. I think we were supposed to be surprised at that point.

The hunt starts immediately. Hendley flees. He’s doing well. He’s okay if he can make it ’til dawn. He almost does. Then that visitor guy I mentioned earlier catches him and WE GET ANOTHER IDENTITY SWAP

See, this guy is some kind of revolutionary and he’s on the run. He figures if he can steal Hendley’s identity, which isn’t actually his but that doesn’t matter, he can stay in Freetown (not it’s actual name) and Hendley will take the rap for his crimes. And that’s what happens. The problem for the revolutionary is that he’s now the guy they’re hunting and he gets caught and killed almost immediately. I chuckled.

So Hendley goes back to civilization and meets Ann again. There’s this big trial. They pull his testimony out of his brain so they get the truth of the matter quickly. Ann’s his co-defendant for some reason. There’s a lot of “for some reason” at the end of this book. He’s judged guilty for whatever crimes he’s committed (really? I thought the only things he actually did was refuse to go to work and mack on this girl) and so he and Ann are BANISHED FOREVER

They’re just thrown out into the nuclear wilderness where they almost die, but then at the very end of the book some tribal-type people find them and it’s hinted that they’ll live happily ever after UGH

What was the point of all this? I wish I knew. I wish that the book had held up to its early promise. I wish that maybe the author had been a little more heavy-handed in having some kind of lesson or allegory instead of just fizzling out like that. The exposition and setting were the best part of the book, and after the midpoint we don’t even have that anymore. We just get this story of a dude with bad luck.

Unless the moral is DON’T SKIP WORK

In which case I have to say THANKS AUTHOR BUT I ALREADY KNEW THAT

There was nothing satisfying about the narrative. There wasn’t any kind of rebellion, more of a whim that was acted upon and had consequences. At one point there was a doctor guy who told Hendley that people in this society are supposed to be genetically treated to respond well to the society at large, and maybe Hendley’s treatment didn’t take right or something, but that wasn’t any kind of answer.

It’s just the story of a doofus who can’t be satisfied wherever he is.

I guess it’s kind of sad.

Sure, neither of the places we see him interact with are described in glowing terms. This is a dystopia that promises a reward for putting up with a lot of crap, and the reward is just a different kind of crap. Still, it’s good enough for most people, I guess, which just means that our author is standing on some kind of pedestal going “Haha, look at all you normies with your base needs.”

It also just occurred to me that the title of this book has nothing to do with the rest of it.

This book began with a little prologue of a few paragraphs, talking about The Merger and whatnot, but after that we got into the story proper. I bring this up because the first sentences of this book held so much damn promise. These are good opening lines:

Rebellion can be a bomb or a cry of pain, a shout of defiance or a mute, sullen face.

Or a man lying in bed, motionless.

I wish the rest of this book were as good as that opening. It could have been great.

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