Monday, July 29, 2013

Book Review: The Castaways of Tanagar

Book Review: 'The Castaways of Tanagar' by Brian Stableford

2 / 5 Stars
‘The Castaways of Tanagar’ (319 pp) was published by DAW Books in April, 1981. The cover artwork is by H. R. Van Dongen.

Thousands of years after its founding, the colony world of Tanagar sends forth an expedition to the motherworld, Earth, to see if the planet has survived the Atomic Wars. The Tanagarians discover that the Earth has survived not just the wars, but also the geological upheavals that reshaped the landscape. Civilization has re-started itself, in the form of the Eurasian republic of Macaria, where technology has reached a level equivalent to that of the 1930s.

The intellectual elite that governs the Tanagaran expedition prefers to avoid an overt re-introduction to Terran society. Instead, an Away Team is to be secretly inserted into the countries making up what used to be North Africa. The goal of the Away Team: seek ways to covertly influence Terran society, in order to set it on an accelerated path towards technological progress.

The members of the Away Team are in no sense ‘ordinary’ Tanagarans. In fact, they are criminals, who had been sentenced to indefinite periods of suspended animation as punishment for felonies, such as murder and rebellion, committed on Tanagar. In exchange for agreeing to serve on the Away Team, these ‘castaways’ of the book’s title must resign themselves to spending the rest of their lives on the fractious motherworld.

Early on in the narrative, members of the Away Team find themselves split up, and forced to rely on their wits and stratagems in order to survive. One sub-plot revolves around the adventures of Cheron Felix, who has spent 8,000 years in suspended animation; Sarid Jerome, a revolutionary; and Vito Talvar, a young man of fatalistic bent.

The other sub-plot deals with the tribulations of two officers who inadvertently find themselves stranded on Terra: Cyriac Salvador, a Tanagarian equivalent of Mr Spock; and Teresa Janeat, a young woman unused to the rigors of life outside a spacecraft.

Will the Castaways be able to integrate themselves into their host societies and begin their work of genial subversion ? Will Salvador and Janeat find their way to the secret Tanagaran redoubt in the northern wilderness of Macaria ? Or will the best-laid plans of the Tanagarians come for naught when the inheritors of the Earth realize that there are people from the stars walking among them ?

At its heart, ‘Castaways’ could have been a routine, but engaging, sf adventure. Unfortunately, author Stableford decides to turn lengthy sections of his novel into forums in which he can declaim – in the form of conversations or monologues – on ‘deep thoughts’ concerning the rise and fall of civilizations and political systems. As well, Stableford frequently expounds on the ever-present contradictions between the base nature of Man, and the promise of enlightened Humanism. These tedious discourses sap momentum from the narrative, and make reading ‘Castaways’ a less than rewarding experience. 

Things do improve a bit in the last 40 pages, when a number of surprise revelations make an appearance, but these seem more than a little contrived. Throw in a utterly out-of-place episode of drug-induced, psychedelic ‘discovery’, and the inconclusive nature of the final chapters, and it’s hard to give ‘The Castaways of Tanagar’ a ‘must-have’ recommendation.