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THE LONG WAY HOME
1958

Book cover art by Michael Whelan.
Review © 2001 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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Some older SF dates really well. The Long Way Home, not so much. But the novel, hackneyed as it is by modern standards, is still entertaining if you catch it in the right frame of mind — just as an old black-and-white SF film from the same period can be to watch, papier-maché backdrops and all. The story relates the startling plight of three astronauts, returning to Earth from the very first deep space voyage, and bringing home an alien. Only in 50's SF would you get a bunch of guys to zip off into the unknown aboard a spacecraft whose hyperspace drive is not fully understood. But Anderson, a chappie as brilliant as he was talented, knew what was wrong with the SF tropes of the day even while he was obliged to employ them, and could be relied upon to get his science right. Imagine our heroes' horror when they discover that a whopping five millennia have passed since they left home!

Edward Langley and his two crewmates end up back on a far future Earth governed by the Technon, a benevolent computer. There is, of course, a rigidly classist society with the haves living way up high and the have-nots struggling deep in the lower levels of sprawling cities. Upon their unexpected arrival, their alien companion, Saris from the planet Holat, flees in fear, prompting a massive alien-hunt. It appears that Holatans possess a unique sorta-psychic talent to interfere with laser-weapons and other electronics, and this is regarded by numerous factions as having a potentially excellent military application. For though the human race hasn't known war for many many years (uh-huh), it looks as if one is brewing between the Earth and the fiercely independent colonies on Centaurus over mineral rich worlds orbiting Sirius. Everyone wants to know where Saris is, and the pressure is on Langley and crew.

Langley finds himself, of course, a pawn in a political chess match between the Technon, the Centaurans, and an enormously powerful guild of interstellar traders called the Company. Everyone is playing everyone else, and the story compensates for its familiary by offering the sheer fun of reading dialogue like "There are, of course, ways to make a man talk," and, "You realize, of course, that this means war." (Neat how simply inserting "of course" into whatever you say can automatically make anyone sound dastardly.) Silliness abounds, like a slave girl whom Langley manumits to show what a great guy he is, who then naturally falls in love with him anyway. That sort of thing. It's all in keeping with the black-and-white charm of this anachronistic yarn. You enjoy it for all its hoary clichés, and because Anderson brings to it all his storytelling flair. Nowadays we're far too sophisticated for the premise of a society run by a computer because computers can allegedly be perfectly objective and fair — but then, in one of the clever twists towards this story's end, Anderson demonstrates exactly why that idea is preposterous in the first place.

So have a good romp with The Long Way Home. Half a century ago that was its intent, and that, at least, is one thing that hasn't dated about it.