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The Enemy Stars by Poul Anderson

Described by Anderson himself as "pretty bleak," The Enemy Stars is indeed a serious, occasionally grave, but ultimately enriching philosophical story about what it really means to be human. The tale —  first serialized in Astounding under the title "We Have Fled Our Sea" —  is set in a far future in which the multitudinous colonized worlds of Earth are rather shabbily governed by a body known as the Protectorate, against which more than a few colonial worlds are a hair's breadth from open revolt. Four men, two from Earth and two colonials, are sent aboard the deep space exploration vessel Southern Cross farther out than any human ship has previously ventured, to investigate a burned out "black sun" in the Alpha Crucis sector. An error in calculation puts the ship in too close to the dead star's magnetic field. The resulting chaos demolishes most of the ship's drive as well as the materials necessary to build the "mattercaster," a machine much like Star Trek's transporters which make the journey home far less arduous.

The four men begin a desperate operation, racing against time and their own dwindling provisions, to get everything fixed that's fixable. At this point, Anderson deftly matches white-knuckle suspense with introspective moments in which each of the crewmen begins confronting (in addition to each other) self-doubts, feelings of failure and questions of purpose. Why are they out there? What's it all about? Is space really ours to conquer? That sort of thing. Despite some occasional preachifying, as well as some seriously dated dialogue resulting from editorial restrictions of the time (particularly concerning profanity — at one point one character angrily exclaims "Holy fecal matter!"), these segments are never maudlin nor cheesy, and quite often poignant. The ship's captain is a particularly moving character. A colonial of Asian lineage and heavily Zen leanings, he harshly berates himself for failing to live up to his own core beliefs and ultimately loses his ability to command effectively, only finally redeeming himself at the end in a courageous act that could seem clichéd and hokey were anyone of lesser caliber than Anderson telling the tale.

Still, melodrama does not entirely escape from the proceedings. A scene where the wife of one of the crewmen gives her husband's crusty, intolerant, tradition-bound father a piece of her mind is a tad overdone for today's readers. I found myself smiling and giving her the old "Go girl!" Still, I'm sure in the late 50's this bit of prefeminism was something daring.

Often exhilarating, The Enemy Stars is a fine example of early hard SF that manages to incorporate humanist themes with equal success. The climactic surprise is dang swell, too.

[Stop reading here if you wish to avoid spoilers.] The Baen Books edition I read for this review — the first cover image in line above — includes as a bonus item The Enemy Stars' sequel, THE WAYS OF LOVE (), a novellette published in Jim Baen's late-70's "paperback magazine," Destinies. (This edition is long out of print now, but likely to be obtainable in used bookstores.) "The Ways of Love" is essentially an epilogue detailing the arrival upon Earth of the aliens encountered in The Enemy Stars. It's mostly talky, and does tend to rob the climax of the earlier novel of some of its magic, but it's still engrossing and readable in Anderson's best tradition.