Story: Engineer Tenth Class Alan Corday has a dream of settling down with the woman he loves, but knows he’ll have to put in at least a trip to Mars to save up for the big day. When he goes looking for a ship that needs an engineer, he is seized by Captain Jocelyn of the Hound Of Heaven, a ship making the Long Passage – near-light-speed journeys to nearby stars to bring back riches and other valuable resources. But the Long Passage exacts a heavy price on its crew: due to the effects of time dilation, the Earth to which they return will never be anything like the Earth they last saw. Corday rails against his captive tour of duty and even becomes briefly involved in a mutiny attempt, but when the Hound Of Heaven returns to Earth, Corday seeks out his lost love – and what he finds drives him back to the stars again.
Review: This has to be one of the more interesting books that has been sent to me out of the blue by a publisher. Originally published in serialized form in 1950, “To The Stars” is an interesting take on the theory of time dilation; essentially, the theory is that travelers leaving Earth and going to the stars at velocities near light speed would age normally, but upon their return would find that many more years had passed on Earth. Still in his pulp SF heyday (and many years prior to the non-fiction and self-help books that earned him a somewhat more controversial reputation), L. Ron Hubbard tried to use “To The Stars” to use that already disquieting theory – actually, Hubbard was among the very first SF authors to address time dilation as a story element – as a backdrop for a more human story without jettisoning the science that drove it.
The plot of “To The Stars” is engrossing, even though there’s a certain degree of inevitability to it which the author sets up early on. The dialogue, however, takes a little bit of getting used to – sometimes resembling nothing so much as theatrical pirate-of-the-high-seas jargon, it’s actually a device Hubbard uses to show how out-of-step the crew of the star-hopping Hound Of Heaven already is with Earth society by the time Corday encounters them. Early in the book, I thought some of the dialogue was howlingly bad, but in the second half of the book it normalizes somewhat, the contrast now being that Corday belongs more to the isolated culture of his ship than he does to any port of call where it may land. It’s a clever little stylistic trick that took me some time to latch onto.
If I have a problem with “To The Stars”, it has to be with the increasingly cold tone of the book. Corday’s inevitably tragic reunion with the woman he had planned to marry – now near the end of her life – seems to happen almost too quickly, and where it should’ve been a little more heart-wrenching from Corday’s perspective, it’s curiously cold. Then again, spending a lot of time on resolving that relationship would have distracted from the main thrust of that part of the story, which was to distance Corday enough from Earth that he’d rejoin the Hound Of Heaven and her crew for another tour. Then again, that’s classic pulp SF – a romance novel about engineering and theoretical physics, not relationships.
The point where Hubbard almost loses me is in the end, where circumstances force Corday to step into Captain Jocelyn’s shoes. The author has spent so much time trying to point up how Corday is different from Jocelyn – thinking about peaceful colonization where Jocelyn continues to pursue the perilous profits of the Long Passage, for example – that it’s ultimately a bit unsatisfying to see Corday step a little too far into Jocelyn’s shoes at the end. Here’s someone who has spent the whole book railing against the crew’s living and working conditions, someone whose life has been tragically changed from the moment he was kidnapped and brought aboard the ship – and in a moment, Corday seems to jettison his more idealistic concerns in a scene that seems, more than anything, designed to bring the story full circle. If anything, one could argue that at the book’s end, Corday has become every bit the monster that Jocelyn appeared to be in the opening chapters, if not worse; what bugs me is that, while Corday suffers some tremendous emotional shocks in the course of the story, he at least maintains an idealistic core. The transition from the idealistic Corday to the hardened one capable of flattening large populated areas and of kidnapping his own future replacement is jarringly sudden…but, again, the star of quite a bit of pulp SF in the 1950s was seldom character development, but a central science fiction concept or concepts upon which the plot hinges.
Where Hubbard’s character development is a little eyebrow-raising, his forward-looking ideas are fascinating – many things are addressed, including the possibility that whatever loot the Hound Of Heaven brings back – especially if it’s some new metal or source of energy – may already be outmoded on Earth by the time the ship returns, rendering their find worthless. And I liked that the time dilation dilemma was addressed both coming and going, as a promising planet previously visited by Jocelyn’s crew turns out to be teeming with hostile, intelligent, and fairly advanced life when they make a return stop. The book is great as long as Hubbard is exploring some new conceptual facet of its basic premise, and he explores many – it just seems to peter out once he’s fully mined those ideas.
It’s always good to see some classic golden-age SF back in print, and this book certainly meets that description. “To The Stars” is a bit kinder to its conceptual base than to its characters, but the ideas explored make it a worthwhile read.
Year: 2004 (originally published in 1950)
Author: L. Ron Hubbard
Publisher: Galaxy Press