Singularity Station by Brian N. Ball
DAW Books, 1973
Price I paid: 90¢ Paperback
Robotic minds made interstellar travel possible, but human minds still controlled the destination and purpose of such flight. Conflict develops only when a programmed brain cannot evaluate beyond what is visible and substantial, whereas the human mind is capable of infinite imagination—including that which is unreal.
Such was the problem at the singularity in space in which the ALTAIR STAR and a hundred other vessels had come to grief. At that spot, natural laws seem subverted—and some other universe’s rules impinged.
For Buchanan, the station meant a chance to observe and maybe rescue his lost vessel. For the robotic navigators of oncoming spaceships, the meaning was different. And at Singularity Station the only inevitable was conflict.
I made it about three pages into this paperback before I gave up.
Ha, that got your attention, didn’t it!
For the record, I gave up on the paperback, not the book. I ended up buying another copy, a digital edition. I have a few reasons.
The chief reason is that I bought myself a new e-reader this week and I wanted to use it. That’s also the roll-your-eyes, “Thomas is such a child” reason. I was able to come up with a few other, more noble, reasons later.
The primary secondary reason is that the DAW paperback has a font size of negative a million. I’m quite capable of struggling my way through that, but this time I decided that there’s no reason to.
The secondary secondary reason is the noblest. See, the ebook version of this novel was released by the folks at SF Gateway, a division of Gollancz, and I’ve been wondering about them for a while. They’ve been nabbing the rights to a lot of out-of-print sci-fi classics and re-releasing them in ebook format for a while now, with a huge catalog, but I was a little bit wary of them. I know it’s silly, but I get skeptical of such efforts because they tend to be so sloppily done. Hell, this very blog has several examples of finding that out. It’s too easy to slap together a bad OCR scan of a book and then sell it for a couple bucks. It’s especially shameful if the title is in the public domain. It’s the scourge of the ebook marketplaces.
I’m very glad to say that my wariness was unfounded. This ebook was an excellent re-creation of the paperback edition. While I won’t claim to be exhaustive here, I can say that I found a total of four typographical or scanning errors in this ebook, two of which were also in the paperback. This was a faithful endeavor, and I’m so respectful of SF Gateway’s hard work.
Probably none of this is news to any of you, but I’m so glad that this resource exists, and I intend to use it a lot more in the future.
(Gosh, it sure does turn out that not a lot of their catalog is available in the US, though.)
Anyway, let’s talk about Singularity Station, whatever format I read it in.
- The cover has nothing to do with the plot
- The back cover synopsis has very little to do with the plot
- This book was so much more than either of those things would suggest
- In the good way
For starters, that synopsis neglects to even hint at more than half the book. Probably closer to three quarters of it. To put it mildly, it neglects the entire point of the book. This is nothing new, but egregious.
We start it all off by meeting a fellow named Al Buchanan. We’re thrown into a common but effective trope for filling in the readers on a lot of backstory: The Trial. It’s not really a trial. I’m not sure what you’d call it. Buchanan just calls it The Board. It’s somewhat trial-like, though.
Buchanan is, or was, a space captain. He lost a ship, the Altair Star, to a region of space called the Jansky Singularity. All hands, nearly 700 people, crew and passengers, were killed. He was the only survivor, and he watched them all fall into the abyss, helpless to do anything about it.
Now he wants to go back. FOR REVENGE.
Not really. I was expecting this book to be some kind of Space Moby Dick by this point, but I was pleasantly wrong.
This book is driven by the emotions of the characters. Infrequently does anyone say “this is the rational thing to do” before doing anything. Rarely do people think things over before they do stuff. A lot of the time they don’t really know why they do the things they do.
This would often be the kind of thing that annoys me, but our author handled it so well that I never had any trouble figuring out why anybody was doing anything. I didn’t even stop to wonder. The characters’ feelings and motivations were laid out clearly, but in a way that I felt them with my gut rather than registered them with my brain.
Buchanan’s Board is deciding whether he should be in command of Singularity Station, a top-of-the-line spacecraft that will be able to explore the Jansky Singularity like never before. His chief motivation for wanting the post is that he wants to know why everything went wrong when it did.
See, here’s a main thing about this universe: Everything is controlled by robots. This is a safety measure more than anything. Humans are fallible; robots are not. This is a given. It’s axiomatic. It is extremely difficult for a human to wrest control of a vessel from the robots.
The back of the book goes on about how it’s a partnership, like the humans use their imaginations and set the robots to work, but the text itself does not give that impression. It’s almost like humans are kept around to have something to do.
Buchanan wants to know why the robots caused the Altair Star to come too close to the Jansky Singularity, causing it to fall in. For the three years since the incident, he has wrestled with feelings of guilt and anger and helplessness.
He gets the job. He is approached by a guy named Kochan, who was a member of The Board. Kochan says he needs this to happen because his granddaughter was on board the Altair Star when it went down.
Does he, too, want answers? Does he think there’s a chance that she can be saved? Is this going to turn into a rescue narrative?
Nope. Kochan needs to know that his granddaughter is dead. Namely, that she’s “at rest.” The problem is that there are some theories that time breaks down the closer one gets to a singularity. His nightmare is that his beloved granddaughter is not dead, but trapped in perpetuity moments away from it.
Aw, dang! This got dark!
Buchanan’s depression, guilt, and anger had been alleviated by meeting and falling in love with a woman named Liz Deffant. For a while they’ve been happy together, and she’s been able to help him heal. This was until the Singularity Station announcement went out. They were a few days from marriage when Buchanan told her about his decision to sign up. In anger, she issued an ultimatum. He picked the Station.
After getting situated on the Station, Buchanan’s story drops from view for a solid portion of the book. It hops back every once in a while, mainly because I think the author was afraid we’d forget about it. Until the two storylines converge again—and it was never obvious how or even that they would—this is largely Liz’s book.
After the breakup, Liz wants to go back to her homeworld. She’s resigned to wait around for a while until the next ship out, but finds out that because of her job she’s entitled to be a passenger on an government ship that will head out soon. It’s a prison ship, but she can tag along if she wants. She says yes.
She discovers that the prison ship is quite nice. The crew are friendly, although it’s at this point in the book where Liz is sexualized a bit too much in a few icky ways. There are mentions of “well-formed breasts” and “the promise of the firm long legs.” Frown emoji.
The prisoners are in some kind of hibernation. They’re being hauled out to the galactic rim to be set free to fend for themselves. These prisoners are the worst humanity has to offer. The punishment is exile. It’s not a death sentence. They will be provided with enough materials to establish themselves on a planet, one chosen to be survivable but not comfortable.
One of these prisoners is named Maran. I’m not sure if he has a first name. Maybe that is his first name. Whatever the case may be, he’s a charismatic genius with an obsession. He is a cyberneticist, but he’s also concerned with one of the remaining Big Questions: What makes humanity special? What separates it from the other animals? What, perhaps, is the soul? Consciousness? All that kind of thing?
All of these questions would be fine to try and answer if only Maran had things like, you know, ethical standards. It’s never specified what he’s done in the name of Science, but it’s gotta be pretty bad.
But it’s okay, because he’s been caught and put into hibernation and there’s no way that he could ever escape until, obviously, he does. He kills everybody else on the ship except Liz and an officer named Rosario. He takes over the robots and is able to get them to do things counter to their programming.
Liz is able to get Rosario, who has been injured, onto a sort of lifeboat and set it out. This sends out a red alert signal. Help is dispatched. She tries to kill Maran, but fails. With government ships on their tail, Maran takes the ship in the direction of the Jansky Singularity.
Buchanan doesn’t know any of this is going on. He hears the red alert signal, but doesn’t know that Liz is on the ship, and even if he did he wouldn’t be able to do anything about it. His ship isn’t designed for long-distance travel. Or, as this book calls it, “infragalactic.”
It uses that word a lot. I don’t know what it means. In fact, I don’t know a lot about how the space travel in this book works. There’s hyperspace, there’s warp, there are engines, there are force fields. There are a lot of things and nowhere are they expounded upon. This is fine. After all, the characters take all this for granted. It’s home to them. No reason for expository “as you know” sequences.
If it annoyed me, it’s because sometimes the characters would be able to do things I didn’t know where possible, and it just kind of came out of left field. Perhaps a little deus ex machina. Maran was especially good/bad about this.
Maran was a good evil genius-type villain. For one, he genuinely thought he was doing the best thing for humanity. Perhaps a bit cliché, but you gotta drill a few skulls to make an Übermensh. But the main thing is that we’re never given any kind of breakdown of his abilities and skills. Moreover, we’re often not told how he does some of the things he does. He just does them. He doesn’t tell the other people, the other people aren’t able to guess, and the narrator is silent on the matter.
This is a fine line to walk, because in less skillful hands it can turn into a sort of “He can do whatever he needs to do when the story calls for it” thing that isn’t fun. You can argue with me, but I didn’t get that feeling here. Maran had limits, it just wasn’t for our other characters to know what they were.
Our plots intersect when the prison ship plunges toward the singularity. It’s not until the last moment when Buchanan finds out that, of all people, Liz is on board. (She saved Rosario, who told the captain of one of the government cruisers, who told Buchanan, not knowing that there was a connection there. It’s all very tidy.)
Fighting back his own terror and flashbacks to the Altair Star disaster, he takes his Station to help.
It’s called a Station but it’s not stationary. He can move it around. It’s got some kind of amazing shields that prevent the gravitational and magnetic effects of the singularity from doing anything to it. The result is more than once described as akin to a python trying to squeeze a greased-up walnut. Perhaps not the greatest simile in a lot of ways, but I got the point.
Buchanan is only able to save the day by giving complete control of the Singularity Station to Maran. This works, but Maran doesn’t give control back. On the plus side, Buchanan and Liz get back together.
At one point earlier in the book, Buchanan found a part of the singularity he called a “time tunnel” or something like that. In it, he found the remnants of hundreds of ships, including the Altair Star. He hadn’t had time to investigate further before all this happened, but what was most notable is that the robots on his ship refused to acknowledge that the thing exists. Buchanan would say “scan that thing” and the robot would say “what thing” and he’d say “those ships” and they’d go “what ships” and he’d explain very calmly what he sees and would the robot please tell him what was going on and the robot would say “you’ve described an impossible thing and I am not able to act on impossible things.”
This whole “impossible things” motif keeps coming up, and it got wildly garbled in the back cover synopsis.
It’s Maran’s cybernetic genius that forces the robots to confront this impossible thing. He does this so that he can take one of the ships in the time tunnel, specifically the Altair Star, and fly away so that he can continue his schemes…or so we’re supposed to think.
Buchanan and Maran do go over to the ship using some kind of mumbo jumbo “Quasi-warp” that didn’t make any sense but didn’t need to. The upshot of that, and the only reason I mention it, is that it does seem to prove that the people on board the ship have been trapped in time since the accident, but the quasi-warp sets them free and time catches up and they evaporate. So that’s a happy ending.
Maran takes the ship—or maybe a shuttle from it?—and instead of fleeing the scene, gives a final speech and plunges directly into the singularity, vanishing. His speech says something about how there’s a whole ‘nother universe in there, and perhaps that’s where his answers lie.
Buchanan and Liz use the Singularity Station to head back out, but on the way there Buchanan has a realization about why the Altair Star robots crashed and why the Station’s robots refused to acknowledge the “impossible” things. It had something to do with realizing that the Jansky Singularity was not a natural object, but that it was beyond the understanding of humans. To keep the humans safe, the robots simply refused to acknowledge it. Or pretended to. See, the robots knew that it wasn’t beyond their understanding, but if they let on that this was the case, the humans would want to fiddle with the thing, and it would probably be disastrous.
Such a complicated philosophical ending that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.
So while this book wasn’t exactly Top Tier, I liked it a lot. It flowed well and had characters I could understand. It verged on the melodramatic at times, but I’m a sucker for melodrama, so there you go.
One of the things that really stood out was that the language was so old-fashioned. Maybe that isn’t the right word, but it’s somewhere along those lines. Brian N. Ball is the kind of writer who is very precise about the distinctions between will, shall, would, and should. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it was noticeable.
There were a lot of details in this book that I loved. This was a well-fleshed-out and original space universe, but the book wasn’t enamored with telling us all about it. It mentioned things when they were necessary and got along with the story. Sometimes I wanted more detail, but I think that’s a victory for the story. Leave ’em wanting more, right?
On the flip side, there were sometimes things that happened that didn’t make a lot of sense. I didn’t know if I missed some one-word explanation, or if I was just supposed to take it for granted that this kind of thing could happen, or what, but it yanked me right out of the story. At one point a dude completely explodes but I don’t remember why. I think he hit a force field? But why was the force field there? Why did it make a person explode? I don’t know and I’m not sure if I ever will.
The book also felt like it was perhaps trying to say some Big Things, but if so, I never figured out what they were. Instead of one important Big Thing, I think the book was coming across as a lot of Medium Things, but they started to get garbled. The storytelling was good, the philosophizing less so.
This book didn’t have a sequel and didn’t need one. I do have another Brian N. Ball book somewhere around here, but it is a sequel, so I need to find the first one before I tackle it. I probably will. Singularity Station might not be a masterwork, but it was certainly more than competent.