To Escape the Stars by Robert Hoskins
Del Rey, 1978
Price I paid: 75¢
…when freesailer, plunderer Jamas Oregas and his beautiful business partner set out to bilk the unsuspecting denizens of the backwater planet Llango.
IT GOT COMPLICATED…
…when Jamas, who knew the ins and outs of stargates, was doublecrossed and had to disappear―and fast.
IT MOVED INTO HIGH GEAR…
…when Jamas landed on Prime―a repository planet of galactic history―and learned of a mysterious lost race that held the master key to all the stargates for all the worlds.
AND IT FINALLY EXPLODED…
…when Jamas himself decided to scour the galaxy, looking for that long-lost race, following a trail that would lead him to power beyond his wildest dreams―if he somehow managed to stay alive!
Did I choose to read and review this book based solely on the fact that the author is named Bob Hoskins?
You know me well enough to know that it’s not even a question.
Of course, this author is not the same person as the star of such films as Super Mario Bros. and Who Framed Roger Rabbit (side note: have you ever read Gary K. Wolf’s Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, upon which the film is loosely based? I really liked it). This Robert Hoskins was the senior editor for Lancer books from 1969 to 1972 and a fairly prolific author in his own right. There’s nothing in his bibliography that makes me go oh man, yes!, but based on the one novel I’ve read so far, he’s competent at telling a story.
To Escape the Stars is the third book in the Stars sequence, which also includes Master of the Stars (1976) and To Control the Stars (1977). As usual, the cover of this book does nothing to indicate that it’s part of a larger series, so there was a lot of back-and-forth choosing between this book and another one for this week’s review. I settled on this book because it turned out that the other book I was thinking about, which I’ll probably review next week, was also part of a series and, as usual, not the first part.
This is getting ridiculous.
Fortunately, To Escape the Stars seems to be one of those books that don’t lose much for not having read the preliminaries. Maybe things would have been a bit clearer if I’d read the other parts of the series, but all told, things were pretty clear anyway, so it’s not a big deal. This book was extremely…competent.
What it wasn’t was exciting. In any direction. I didn’t have anything to get mad about. I didn’t have anything to get super-praiseworthy about. It was mostly just there, easy enough to read, and pretty solid.
What this means, then, is that I end up not having an awful lot to say. I can already tell this is going to be a boring review. I’ll try to punch it up as best I can.
We start the book by meeting our hero, Jamas Oregas. All the people in this book have names that are almost, but not quite, normal names. I suppose this has something to do with the story taking place far, far into the future. Lots of years. I didn’t get an exact number, but it’s a big one. We never get an explicit reference to modern times and how long it’s been, but the time spans in this backstory are measured on the order of tens of thousands of years. Sometimes hundreds of thousands.
A lot about this book reminded me of Asimov, and more specifically of Foundation. It’s a long time in the future. People have weird names. In the case of this book and unlike Foundation, Earth is still around, but there’s some debate over whether it’s the home planet of humanity. The alternative is that humanity developed simultaneously over many worlds before those worlds met each other.
The key element of this story is the stargates. Unlike the titular devices in the media franchise of the same name, stargates in this novel are widespread and fairly well understood. Their origin is a mystery, but people use them all the time and the technology has been replicated to create even more of them. Every habitable world in the Milky Way has at least one. Most planets have several. They allow for instantaneous travel regardless of distance, and their existence means that humanity has colonized every world in the galaxy that it can survive on.
It’s a pretty neat premise.
The book makes use of the premise pretty well. Jamas gets offered a job to visit a planet named Llango, the inhabitants of which actually turned off their stargate some time ago. They’re isolationists, and moreover their planet is pretty inhospitable. It’s not unlivable, but the high gravity makes life hard for anybody who wasn’t born there. Technology on the planet isn’t far above, say, the twentieth century. Good people, just a little backward compared to Jamas Oregas and his crew, who are from a highly-advanced Earth.
Jamas and his business-pals are “freesailers,” a term that is never explicitly defined but is more or less a nice way of saying interstellar con-artists. His job at the beginning of the book―for the first half, actually―is to convince the people of Llango to give him and his associates exclusive control over the natural resources of the planet. Llango isn’t heavily populated, so the idea is that the exploitation of the planet won’t interfere with the population anyway. Llango has a lot of resources to be exploited, and whoever gets that contract will make a great, great deal of money.
Jamas pretends to be some kind of high official from Earth and makes all sorts of promises, all of which are scams. He offers to repair the planet’s satellite power system, saying that it’ll fail in less than a century. In return his company gets to mine the planet’s natural resources, most of which are fossil fuels.
It seems like the big conflict is going to happen when the Llangoans realize they’re being scammed. Sure enough, some of them do. One person does some research and finds out that there’s no danger in the near future for the power satellites, for example.
That conflict never happens, though. Near the middle of the book, it turns out that Jamas’s associates turn on him and try to claim more shares of the planet for themselves. He’s nearly killed and jumps through a stargate, figuring anywhere is better than where he is.
The narrative makes a sharp turn here. Instead of being a book about an interstellar con-man bilking some natives out of their oil, it turns into a grand galactic adventure that, perhaps unsurprisingly, also has some callbacks to Foundation. Jamas finds himself on Encyclopedia Planet, or the Planet of Scholars, or however you want to refer to this trope. In the book, the planet is called Prime.
There’s a lot of exposition here and I won’t bore you with it, but the main details are that tens of thousands of years ago there was a galactic federation of 77 planets. Earth was one. This was so far back in the past that Jamas is unaware of it. This federation set up Prime as the repository of galactic knowledge. The planet sends out census takers ever few thousand years to learn what needs to be known and write it down.
We get a lot more backstory, and it’s stuff that makes the universe pretty interesting. Galactic history goes back a long, long way. There was once a galactic empire, then an interregnum, and now there’s whatever setup is going on right now. There’s risk of a second interregnum. Knowledge of the stargates was lost until somebody found one under one of Earth’s polar ice caps, whereupon people spread throughout the galaxy again. Some planets were inhabited, but all by humans. There don’t seem to be any aliens in this book, or if there are, this is one of those universes where even the aliens are human. It works well enough in this book because galactic history seems to stretch back so far and there are so many unknown details about what happened. Are those details fleshed out in the first two books? I’m curious.
Jamas digs around in the archives, makes a few enemies (he’s not a guy who makes friends easily, it seems), and discovers the current purpose of Planet College. There’s a mysterious planet out there, possibly the progenitor of humanity in space, called Alnia. The Alnians never went through the interregnum that dropped so many planets back into the dark times. They are likely the most advanced civilization in the galaxy…assuming they’re even still in the galaxy. Rumors of what happened to them are rife, but the most notable one is that they up and decided to leave the galaxy to itself, never to return.
Jamas figures that he can do what tens of thousands of years of Scholars from the Planet of Scholars can’t do and find the place. This is a bit annoying because it works. Jamas isn’t a particularly likable character, and he’s also not all that special. He’s a con-man, he can think quickly on his feet and all that, but to put him in a position where he rediscovers a long-searched-for race of people is a bit excessive. To be fair, the people of Library Planet have all gone backward a bit, placing Alnia into the realm of dogma with details never to be questioned, while Jamas, the outsider, can get a fresh look on things, but I’m still not thrilled at this development.
And it turns out that the quest isn’t all that impressive. The book is mostly done at this point, with maybe a quarter left. Jamas and some scholars go to a planet that he learned about, get into a bit of adventure, bypass a futuristic electric fence by shorting it out, and then go into an old castle. They meet some holograms and then find a stargate. The stargate takes them to a place where they’re addressed by another hologram that states it represents the Alnians, who have all died out. Their last gift to the human races of the Milky Way is that they have created some more stargates in another galaxy, one of the Magellanic Clouds. All the planets there are empty and waiting for humanity to come settle them. Jamas, who has now decided that this is more important than money, thinks that’s great, and the book ends here.
So there you have it. For one, I’m pretty sure this is three books in one, and normally that would bother me, but since the rest of the book was so inoffensive I can’t get mad about it.
Have you ever wondered how much your current mood has an effect on what you’re reading? Like maybe the whole business of reviewing books is moot because even something so simple as being annoyed at the line at the grocery store this morning means that those feelings seep into the book you’re reading?
I’ve been in a pretty meh mood all weekend, so I’m wondering about this as I think about the book. This is just a weird thing I’ve been thinking about lately, and I’m not sure what to make of it.
Like I say, this book had a few good things going for it, and I respect that. Nonetheless, there just wasn’t much personality to it. None of the characters really stuck out beyond some base description, and even that was scant. Most of what we know about Jamas is that he’s relatively tall and maybe a bit handsome and he wears a breastplate for some reason.
There is exactly one woman in this book. I’m thinking hard about this. Maybe there were a few more, wives of innkeepers and such, but none come to mind. The single woman, Eveya, has black hair and is beautiful. She’s also one of the people who turn on Jamas about halfway through the book, setting the whole second plot into action. So that’s all we know about her: hair color, pretty, and devious.
Oh, and Jamas consistently refers to her as “m’lady,” which means I pictured him wearing a fedora throughout the book.
The mayor of the town on Llango was named Parschlee, which I thought was funny even though there weren’t other people named Shayje, Rossmurry, and Tiem.
That’s about all I’ve got. I might be interested in reading the earlier books in the series if they expand upon the pretty neat concepts that make up the background of the book, but I really hope they’re more exciting than this one.