Those Gentle Voices: A Promethean Romance of the Spaceways by George Alec Effinger
Warner Books, 1976
Price I paid: 90¢
From Wolf 359 the signals came—proof that man wasn’t the only intelligent life form in the universe. And when Earth’s first interstellar expedition located the radio beacon, they also found a human race—so primitive they hadn’t even discovered the spear, or fire.
If Commander Leigh hadn’t had such fun becoming the Great God Leigh, he might have wondered more about the builders of the radio beacon. And things might have turned out very differently for Earth itself…
I’m not even sure where to begin.
I felt like this book had a lot of promise. The back cover made it seem like there was something interesting to be said. A good setup, you know? We get an alien signal from a planet that turns out not even to be out of the stone age. A mystery to be solved, one that might interest me.
Also I’m pretty sure Lando Calrissian is on the cover, and that’s awesome.
The book also had a quote at the beginning that grabbed me. It’s from Raymond Chandler, in a letter to Hamish Hamilton, that very well encapsulates what I think makes good science fiction. The quote made me think that Effinger and I would be on the same page about things and that he would write a novel that appealed to me. I’ll just copy the (pretty long, sorry) quote here:
…I am not so much interested in stories about Martians or 3000 A.D. I have the sort of feeling about fantastic stories that H.G. Wells had: you inject a miracle into a perfectly ordinary setting and then watch the consequences, which are usually bad. The trouble with fantastic fiction as a general rule is the same trouble that afflicts Hungarian playwrights—no third act. The idea and the situation resulting from the idea are fine; but what happens then? How to you turn the corner?…If a man should wake up in the morning and find out that he was nine inches high, I wouldn’t be interested in how he got that way but in what he was going to do about it…
That really does nail some ideas that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. A good story doesn’t just present a weird situation, it delves into the “what happened next?” of it. The ramifications of a single change.
Based on that, I got excited when I opened this book to the first page and saw that it started with “Part Two.” I thought, “Okay, this guy is skipping a lot of the preliminaries and taking us right into the story. Something happened and now we’re going to dive right into the consequences.”
Sounds like great fun, right?
But no, this story didn’t do anything like that. There was so much promise and it was all thrown away.
“Part Two” starts in 1988. It’s the second International Astrophysical Year. Astronomers and cosmologists all over the world have been granted the funds to carry out pure theoretical research. One of these astronomers is a guy named Jennings, who runs a research lab out of New Orleans.
The first bit of this book tells us about the research team and the thing they find. The thing turns out to be a radio signal, one that turns out to be undoubtedly from an intelligent species. It comes from Wolf 359, a star about eight light years from Earth and future site of Starfleet’s first major confrontation with the Borg, not that we know that at this point.
A lot goes on in this section that doesn’t have any real impact on the story, such as Jennings’s attempts to date another member of the research team, but the real meat of it all lies in the fact that Jennings is afraid that if he releases the information to the government, before he knows it there will be fleets full of army men heading in the direction of the constellation Leo. Instead, he sets up this elaborate scheme that makes it look like he’s withholding the information altogether. His girlfriend from the rest of the section “leaks” the knowledge to the press. Jennings sacrifices his professional standing in the process, and the whole world hates him for a while. Then we cut to part 3.
It’s now the year 2021. A ship that can reach speeds approximating that of light has been built and a crew is on the way to Wolf 359 to check out the signal.
And it’s about here that the book really lost me. For one, the ship is supposed to take about four years to get to Wolf 359, so I’m not sure what’s up with the speed here. I suppose we could assume that that’s four years subjective for the crew, but nothing ever says that.
And for two, the crew of this ship is the most unimaginably incompetent group of people I’ve ever had the joy of reading about.
As much as I complain about books with characters that are there solely to provide a viewpoint, this one avoids that trap. We’ve got an ensemble cast and it’s almost like we’re watching all of them at once. That doesn’t mean it’s a limited narrator, though. We get to learn about all of their thoughts and feelings all the time, usually one after the other in long stretches of paragraphs that go something like
The giant ship appeared on the screen.
Steve was afraid that it was going to fire on them.
Dave thought that they might be friendly.
Alice wanted to head down to the galley for a snack.
Barbara missed her children.
This would happen every single time something happened, and it would be much longer than the example I just made up. A paragraph each for all six people on the crew. It’s also worth noting that not a single one of these people was remotely likable.
I understand that having flawed characters makes a story more interesting. We’ve seen several books where the characters were just too perfect to be relatable. In this case, though, the characters weren’t so much flawed as completely balls-to-the-wall useless.
There’s Commander Leigh, the guy heading up the mission. He’s a hero, apparently, having walked on both the moon and Mars. In fact, while on Mars he saved a fellow crewmember, carrying her a long way across the Martian surface to safety after some mysterious accident. Also mysterious is the fact that this crewmember came to hate him after the incident. It’s never revealed why, but given that the crewmember was a woman and that Commander Leigh’s libido takes up a great deal of the book, I think we get a pretty nasty idea of what happened.
Commander Leigh is also black, and there’s this whole race thing throughout the book that is just abhorrent. He and another crewmember are often defined solely by their blackness. We get sentences in narration like “The black commander gave his orders.” Given his other flaws, a complete lack of imagination and an awe-inspiring sexual drive, I started to think that maybe our author had just a little bit of racism floating around in his head.
The science in this book was also just awful. The crew arrives at Wolf 359 (they were frozen on the way there) and the first thing they have to do is look around to see if there are any planets there.
What? You mean you sent a whole mission to a star system, intending to land on a planet, and didn’t even know if there would be planets there when you arrived? What kind of preparation is that? Seeing as how this section takes place in the 2020s, it’s just ridonkulous to me that somebody didn’t stop to think they should point a telescope at the star and see if maybe there were signs of planets. We have that technology now and we’ve been seeing planets all over the place. And you know what? We’re good enough at it now that we can look at extrasolar planets and tell what kinds of atmospheres they have.
This is important because when the crew finally does find a likely planet to land on, they just land on it and then go “Okay, somebody open the door and see if the atmosphere is breathable.”
YOU COULD HAVE DONE THAT FROM ORBIT.
IT’S CALLED SPECTROGRAPHY AND IT’S BEEN AROUND SINCE EIGHTEEN FREAKIN SEVENTY-SIX.
In case anybody’s wondering, in real life there’s no indication that Wolf 359 has any planets. It’s also teensy, something like 8% of the Sun’s mass. It barely qualifies as a star.
They step out onto this planet and discover that the air is breathable, there’s a lot of tall grass, and that there are humanoid creatures.
The first thing Commander Leigh does is start futzing around with them. Everybody gets mad at him. They also get mad at each other. It’s apparent that nobody on this mission likes any of the other people on the mission. There’s actually a reason for that. Apparently some computer back on Earth decided that a little conflict would be good for them. Like, everybody would do the very best job possible because they were competing with the other members of the mission.
That’s actually kind of interesting in a really dumb way.
The anthropologist of the group, Nkeida, really hates Commander Leigh for everything he does. See, they all manage to find a village of the native humanoids who haven’t even discovered fire yet, so the first thing Leigh does is teach it to them. And then he teaches them to make spears. And the natives start to learn language. And Leigh sleeps with all the tribeswomen. And declares himself God.
Nobody ever actually tries to stop him.
What was I guess supposed to be the meat of the story arises when it becomes clear just how quickly these natives are learning the new skills. They shoot up through the stone age and into the iron age over the course of a few days. And the skills start to spread across the planet at a rapid pace.
One crewmember, a woman named Giacomo, wants to set the tribes to war against each other. Why does she want to do that? She’s the security officer. She likes war. She just wants to see war happen. That, and she’s in no way a convincing character because she’s just so awfully stupid. Like most of the rest of them. Anyway, she succeeds in getting two groups to fight. She dies in the process. She’s never mentioned again.
We cut to eight more years in the future. The natives’ progress has proceeded apace. By this point, they have all but caught up to the Earth that our explorers left behind.
Bear in mind that no one has done anything to figure out where this alien signal has come from. No one even comments on it. It’s completely disappeared. I don’t even bring it up to say it was a Chekhov or anything. Seriously. Nobody remembers it. The aliens, now that they have televisions and radar and cars, don’t even detect it on their own damn planet.
Commander Leigh is still the Great God Leigh and he commands the planet from on high and sleeps with all the women he wants. The rest of the crew have all fallen into the background for the most part. Sometimes we cut to one of them to see his or her reaction, which is usually dismay.
The natives decide that they need to visit Earth. I don’t know how they found out about Earth. Probably Leigh told them. So they build a spaceship fleet. It’ll take something like sixteen years to get to Earth. Leigh goes back home on this one. A few weeks later the aliens have a breakthrough that will let them get to Earth in half that time. So they send another fleet. Then it happens again. So they send another fleet. Then they find a means of getting to Earth almost instantly. So they do. And then they take over. And the book ends.
EXCEPT IT DOESN’T
REMEMBER HOW THE BOOK STARTED WITH PART 2
WELL WE GET PART 1 AT THE END
Part 1 starts in the 1950s or so, but not on Earth. It’s on the planet around Wolf 359, and basically what happens is some aliens land, force the native population to build a radio tower so that the aliens can find the planet again and come back to get more slaves, and then take some of the natives with them for slavery purposes. One of the slaves learns quickly and then finally escapes, flying around the galaxy until he finds a reasonably comfortable-looking planet. He lands there and takes up the identity of one Professor Jennings.
NO NO NO
DON’T YOU DARE
I HATE YOU
Oh, did I mention that throughout the book, they refer to the planet as Jennings’s world, so it’s, like, ironic or something?
Oh and the other thing I want to mention is that while the alien that turns out to be Jennings is flying around in space, he is in microgravity and then manages to lie down on a mattress, all within two sentences. I DON’T EVEN CARE ANYMORE.
And at one point the alien ship sets itself up in a stationary orbit above the planet’s north pole. I’m about 99% certain that orbits don’t work that way. I think stationary orbits need to be equatorial. I’m no scientist. I could be wrong. I only have one thing to support my opinion:
Actually I have another thing to support my opinion. It’s the fact that the rest of this book was so hacky, so uninformed, and so crappy that I have to be right.
5 thoughts on “Those Gentle Voices”
Wow, what a bummer. Effinger wrote really good cyberpunk later in life (When Gravity Fails and its sequels) so maybe he was still figuring out how to write good.
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Well, that was dreadful. I hope this doesn’t put you off Effinger, since he wrote so many great books later on: What Entropy Means To Me, the Audran sequence (When Gravity Fails, etc.), The Wolves of Memory…
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Yeah, this is generally considered Effinger’s worst work…
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Wonder if there’s any connection in the planet choice to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wolf_359_(The_Outer_Limits).
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Thanks for the review. I needed some confirmation of how ridiculous this book was. The cover tempted me from the library bargain bin with some big statement about the human desire to explore and expand–and ultumately I stuck with it only because I foresaw either the best or worst twist coming in the end.
You covered just about everything wrong with it. Why, though, does Jennings not just leak all the documents himself? How does tricking his girlfriend change the result in any way? As to the journey, you’re right that the relativity math does not add up in any way, and I was hoping maybe that was setting up some kind of reveal. He even mentions a “Lorenz-corrected calendar.” But no, just sloppy writing or research I guess. And why are there humans on this planet? Why does the whole ecosystem mirror Earth down to large cats and every other thing in the food chain? What happened to the slave traders that built the radio transmitter? What happened to all the other characters that just get written off into oblivion?
So much about this novel seems as strangely incurious and distant from actual human motives as the pre-contact savages of Wolf 359. I understant Effinger went on to write many good sci-novels, so maybe this was just an early, failed attempt. Maybe it was a resurrected college project pushed into publication.
Sadly, Effinger died pretty young in 2002, in New Orleans, which I couldnt help but notice would have been the year Jennings died in this book’s convoluted timeline. Maybe… nah, RIP
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