New SF author Karl Gallagher dropped me a note last week that offered me copies of his first work, a novel sequence: Torchship, Torchship Pilot, and Torchship Captain. He explained that the ideas I expressed in The Deep Norms of SF helped form his ideas about writing.
Since that is part of the effect I was hoping for when I wrote the essay, I told him so and remarked on my first reaction when I stumbled over these books while browsing Amazon. My thought was “Hmmm…looks like someone tried to write a high-quality Heinlein pastiche. And maybe succeeded…”
Karl replied “I certainly aimed at a ‘Heinlein tribute.’ Whether it’s ‘high quality’ I’ll leave to others.” The following review is a considerably expanded version of my reply to him.
Mission accomplished, Mr. Gallagher. These books are indeed quite a high-quality Heinlein tribute. Not without flaws, but quite excusable ones in a new writer.
In this future, humans live in the shattered aftermath of what they call the Golden Age. They are spread out over dozens of terraformed worlds connected by stargates, but Earth and the worlds nearest it are long lost. They were lost in the Betrayal, infested now by hostile artificial intelligences that threaten to overrun what remains of humanity. One of the big questions most people try not to think about is…why haven’t they?
Gallagher’s world-building is impressive even at first glance, and gets more so as the sequence develops. He gets good mileage out of the realization that there wouldn’t be one human response to the AI threat but several, corresponding to and generating different political choices. I don’t think the major premise – future human societies restricting technology out of a justified fear of hostile AIs – has been done quite so thoughtfully before.
The Heinlein callbacks are well done. Disconnected Worlds ships use specialized analog computers – glorified slide rules – for navigation so nothing Turing-complete will be available for the AIs to subvert. The bridge scenes echo those in Heinlein’s Starman Jones (1953) without being imitations. I’m probably not the first reader to suspect that the whole trilogy might have originated with the author remembering them and wondering “Hmmm…given what we know now, how could this actually happen?”
The protagonist, Michigan Long, could be Friday’s kid sister – a spy under cover as starship crew. When she signs on to the torchship Fives Full, Captain Schwartzenberger is quite recognizably one of the Old Man’s gruff, competent old men.
They manage to not be cardboard cutouts, though. The characterization in general is good enough for SF. Heinlein himself probably wouldn’t have done much better, but standards have risen since his time and I told Gallagher he’d need to up his game a bit to compete with today’s A-list.
I also told him not to worry too much about this or sacrifice what he’s good at – just learn by practice. SF that gets too deep into character study almost always fails at the things SF uniquely needs to be good at. I suggested he study Lois Bujold as an example of the right level of investment.
The plotting is quite good and gets better as the sequence continues. We get a wider and wider view of the setting and its problems, and start to sneak up on the central mystery around the Betrayal. The reveals are well handled and make sense as they arrive.
One thread that I particularly liked is around the Terraformers, a spacegoing caste that has retained Golden Age technology and bioengineered themselves for increased intelligence. Their giant ships edit worlds, they still work with AIs…and they hold some vital clues without quite knowing it.
The ride is a lot of fun. The biggest flaw, I think, is that there is a bit more sex slathered on than the armature of the plot can support without creaking. Later Heinlein did this too and it’s not something to emulate. These books would have been better if that aspect were dialed down just a little.
That said, one of the sexual/romantic subplots gets into some surprisingly bittersweet subtleties. There’s a seductress who is as much a victim as the diplomat she is set to trap – her masters know their target and have selected her so that she is quite likely to fall in love with him. Which she does, even as he deliberately springs her trap knowing that if he refuses her the next snare is likely to be nastier and more difficult to free himself from. The intertwined elements of helpless mutual love, guilty knowledge, and the doom both know is hanging over the relationship are well realized and quite poignant.
Everything builds up smoothly to the biggest reveal, the return to lost Earth to confront the true nature and origins of AI hostility. Gallagher plays the game fairly and well; if you’ve been paying attention and thinking you may anticipate one of the central resolutions (I did), but there are enough surprises that the others are rewarding.
Overall this is a fine evocation of Golden Age story values and well worth your time. I look forward to more from this promising author.