Star Well by Alexei Panshin
Ace Books, 1968
Price I paid: 75¢
A small, airless planetoid set deep in the heart of the Flammarion Rift. Due to its location it is a minor hub of commerce within the Nashuite Empire, and though it is equipped with elegant dining rooms and casinos, luxury suites and expensive shops, Wu and Fabricant’s GUIDEBOOK claims that Star Well is a dull place to visit, and that travellers should avoid layovers if they can. But Wu and Fabricant had not been shown the secret basements, nor told the nature of the things stored there—if they had been they might still have advised against layovers, but not because Star Well was dull.
When our hero Anthony Villiers and his Troggish friend Torve arrive on the scene, it soon becomes evident that the truth must out; that Star Well has reached the end of an era…(thurb).
Ladies and gentlemen, Torve the Trog! He finally gets co-star billing!
Actually, it’s weird, because with a statement like that you’d expect this book to be a part of an established series, but nope. This is the first in a trilogy (almost a quartet, but book four remains unpublished, apparently because of an author/publisher dispute). Because I had that vague feeling that this was, say, book two, I held off on reading it. I also held off because it seems that Alexei Panshin won a Nebula at some point. Says so right on the cover. I thought it might turn out that this guy is another Grand Master that I’d never heard of and would feel embarrassed.
Turns out Panshin’s not a Grand Master, but he’s got some history. He’s another author who broke through after being active in the fandom first, which is just great. The science fiction fan culture of the fifties and sixties is endlessly fascinating to me. Time machine in hand, there’s no question of whether I’d drop in on one of the old conventions, rub shoulders with the likes of A.E. van Vogt or Robert Silverberg and listen to Isaac Asimov tell awful jokes and regale us with tales of just how damn smart he is. That’s my Happy Place.
Panshin’s big breakthrough came when he wrote an analysis of Robert A. Heinlein called Heinlein in Dimension. The Admiral was unhappy with it and tried to prevent its publication, even threatening to sue. It worked its way into the fanzines and became a runaway hit, nabbing Panshin a Hugo for Best Fan Writer in 1967 and laying the groundwork for a lot of future Heinlein studies.
And so here we are now with Star Well. Note that it’s two words, despite what the cover seems to say. Inside the book it is clearly two words, and other covers show it that way too, including the excellent Kelly Freas cover from the 1968 edition. (My copy is the 1978 edition.)
Our hero is Anthony Villiers. He’s a rad dude. He’s roguish, handsome, polite, and stylish. He travels around the galaxy, rocking a cape, getting into adventures, and having a good time. At the beginning of this story, he’s just arrived at the Star Well, a trading hub and starport and the only thing noteworthy in the Flammarion Rift.
He’s also broke, so he can’t leave until he pays off his bill. He doesn’t seem especially concerned about it. He’s got some money coming his way, but it’s being delivered to some other planet, so I’m not entirely sure what his deal is.
After wandering around and gambling a bit, Villiers discovers that something is up. He wanders down to the basement level of Star Well and gets told off and sent back upstairs. This inflames his curiosity and he decides to figure out what he’s going to do about it.
Thing is, he doesn’t do an awful lot. He bounces around from plot point to plot point like so many protagonists, although once he homes in on things he does take a more active role.
Somewhere in there we also meet his pal and co-star, Torve the Trog.
Here’s the thing about Torve: he’s in about twenty pages of this book. And he doesn’t do much except talk with a weird manner of speaking and espouse some of his arcane philosophy that nobody else understands.
We do learn, in an aside, that humanity once fought a war with the Trogs, who are six-feet-tall furry toad people, and as a result it’s hard for Trogs to travel around without lots of paperwork. Torve is an exception, presumably because of Villiers’s influence.
Torve arrives about a quarter of the way through the book, on a ship that also contains a bunch of school girls from Miss McBurney’s Justly Famous Seminary and Finishing School on Nashua. Torve spends the trip talking theology to a Mithraist preacher named Srb, who later turns out to be a government agent.
The other thing Torve does is walk around going Thurb…thurb a lot. He says that this is part of his “great work.” That explains the weird (thurb) thing in the back cover copy, I guess.
Among the schoolgirls are Louisa and Alice. They are roommates and friends and both have decided that they really don’t like the finishing school they’re sort of trapped in. Louisa craves adventure, Alice craves romance. Louisa takes point for a lot of the book, joining up with Anthony and hoping that he’ll whisk her away for a lifetime of adventure. Alice sits in the background most of the time, occasionally cooing about how romantic it is that Louisa is going to be whisked away for a lifetime of adventure. It also turns out that Villiers knows Louisa’s dad.
All this sort of bubbles around in the narrative while not much plot happens. On the other hand, the narration is fantastic.
Panshin does that thing I like so much—he gives his third person narrator some personality. There are a lot of amusing asides, sometimes philosophical, sometimes expository, usually pretty funny, and they’re the main reason I liked the book at all. I’d give examples, but there are so many options that it’s hard to pick one that really stands out, especially since they permeate the narrative so thoroughly. All I can say is that to get that experience, you should pick up the book yourself. You won’t regret it. It’s not quite up to, say, Douglas Adams, but it’s getting there.
Villiers spends most of the book getting into adorable misadventures. Since he suspects the management of Star Well are up to no good, he attracts their attention, since they are up to no good. Along the way he meets a bumbling Navy man named Adams and the sinister manager of Star Well, Shirabi. Adams spends most of the book trying to sleep with a married woman. Shirabi spends most of the book trying to figure out how he’s going to finish up his devious plan.
Anthony gets into a duel set up by Shirabi in an attempt to get him out of the way. Dueling is a major spectator sport on Star Well and everybody has a good time. By this point Villiers has joined up with Louisa, who freaks out when it seems that Anthony might die. Louisa and Alice escape from their cruel headmistress and go exploring the station. They go down to the basement levels as the duel has everybody else’s attention. It’s there that they discover Shirabi and his evil plan.
All it is is organ-legging. Whenever somebody on the station dies, they get put into a cold-storage container and sold off for parts. One bit of narration I really liked had to do with the cold-storage containers. At one point Shirabi has to reach down into one to hide a thing. The sensation is described as “feeling the way mint tastes.” Nice.
Villiers wins his duel and that’s how he learns about the organ-legging scheme. His opponent gets sent down in a cold box and Anthony follows. By the time he shows up, the girls have been frozen to keep them quiet and a ship has shown up to pick up the cargo.
Villiers enlists that navy guy, Adams, to help. They arrive as the ship shows up and they manage to capture it. The day is saved. Shirabi is missing, though. At the end of the book we get a hint that he’s hiding out in Star Well, digging more secret tunnels to hide in.
Srb is an Imperial government agent so he’s on hand to take it from there.
Villiers uses the ship they captured to go to that planet where his money is. He goes to the post office and the guy there says “Oh, yeah, here’s your package. Just arrived from Star Well. Looks like it got held up there for a few days.”
Really, that’s about all that happens in this book.
The whole thing was light on plot but heavy on whimsy. It was a pretty good setting, brilliantly described in some of the narrator’s asides, but a lot of the characters seemed flat and nothing seemed to have much in the way of consequences. Sometimes it came off as a bit goofy and fun, and I enjoyed it for that. I loved it when the narration would break away to describe something like how the Empire works (not very well) or why it’s so important for a gentleman’s cape to hang just right.
John Clute over at the SFE talks about how the books are a gentle spoof of pulp magazine science fiction, and I see what he’s getting at, but at times it felt so gentle that there was little substance. I’m not asking for a Lin Carter-esque satire of sf conventions (although I would probably prefer it), but give me something. Star Well had a roguish adventurer hero and played with some of the tropes, but on the whole Anthony Villiers felt like little more than that. He was obsessed with form and fashion and secondarily got into some adventures. He had generically good morals but not much in the way of introspection. He even had an alien buddy.
Samuel Delany wrote an introduction to the book that sings its praises, talking about how it “examines the proposition that the world is composed of small communities of mutual interest.” I admit that I don’t get what he’s talking about. He later goes on to describe the book as a comedy of errors with swashbuckling, and that makes more sense.
I guess the strongest element of the story is how it feels like an older genre, something to do with manners and social faux pas, something like Horatio Hornblower but without any of the action, except that Horatio isn’t anything like Anthony Villiers. While the former is deeply introspective and insecure, Villiers is living life to the fullest on a wing and a prayer, always confident in his own abilities. Part of my problem is that he didn’t seem to have all that many abilities. He was dashing and handsome, but that’s just about it.
Looking at it that way, it’s easy to see how the book might be satirizing that kind of character, which is fine, although not all that fun to recount. It was fun to read, though, and I want to make that clear. I did actually enjoy this book very much. It’s just hard to say that it had any substance, anything worth taking away beyond that familiar glow of having enjoyed reading something and looking forward to the next in the series.
3 thoughts on “Star Well”
This is one of those books I know I’ve read but just haven’t retained anything from. I suppose it’s got a bit too slight a plot for my tastes. But Panshin is certainly a skillful writer and I appreciate that. Heinlein In Dimension particularly calls a lot of things right, including some of the ways Heinlein’s 70s and 80s writing would go off the rails. That takes a really perceptive critic. The World Beyond The Hill, about the formation of science fiction as a genre, is similarly spectacularly right quite often.
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I’m a huge fan of the Villiers trilogy, though I have heard many folks raise the considerations you do. I think if you like Jane Austen, Dorothy Sayers, Georgette Heyerdahl and Lois McMaster Bujold, you will probably like this series. I also think it is the spiritual predecessor of Walter Jon Williams’ Drake Majestral trilogy, which I also love.
For the record, I think Torve can travel freely because he has special abilities that permit him to pass unnoticed. It is made clear that he is not from a normal Troglodyte caste and I think his unusual talents are part and parcel with that.
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Now that you mention it I dimly remember something about Torve’s special abilities. Something about checking in at the customs desk when he arrives at Star Well? I’m curious about how much the other books will develop on that. I hope Torve gets more page time.