The Star Dwellers — James Blish (1961)

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Publisher: Avon

If you believe the inside cover, this is the First Avon Printing, 1982. The ISFDB page more accurately places this at the fifth Avon printing (accounting for all international Avon editions).

Cover Art: Rowena Morrill

Plot Synopsis (of cover): “Your time is at an end, Super-Braino!” the young hero bellowed, brandishing his pistol with unfettered confidence. “I’ve got you precisely where I want you! Your tyrannical reign of forcing people to do calculus and read weird books by Russians is done!” Super-Braino floated menacingly as he projected his thoughts into the mind of his adversary. “Please, young man,” the giant brain pulsed, “I cannot willingly give up derivatives and Dostoevsky any more than I could my appreciation for alliteration. It is in my nature to educate lesser minds on these and all subjects. If you persist in your violence, I will be forced to enter a zero-sum chain of logic in which we will both be stripped of all agency to act.” The young man’s bravado, however, proved greater than his instincts regarding his self-preservation, as he responded, “Oh, yeah? Well, say what you want! After that, I’ll shoot you in all your lobes!” Super-Braino did whatever it is that brains do when they sigh in resignation. “Very well,” he said. “Observe your clothing. You are clearly wearing something unsuitable for combat and mountain climbing, two things which you allegedly should have been planning to do today.” The young man scoffed, “I don’t need fashion advice from a giant brain.” Super-Braino continued, “And your hair. Please do not take this as a compliment, but your hair is perfect. You have scaled a mountain in short sleeves and sneakers whilst engaging, one assumes, in some form of rigorous subterfuge, and your hair has maintained perfect form.” The young hero’s hand brushed through his perfect hair. “What are you getting at?” The brain continued, “Observe our surroundings. Below is clearly an atmosphere, but we sit high above it. The stars shine through, unblinking, as though we were in the void of space. Even so, your hair is perfect, your skin warm, and your ‘voice’ as clear as a bell.” The youth’s confidence was beginning to falter. “What… what is this?” he croaked. The brain replied, “This? You? Me? Is it not evidenced by the impossibility of your surroundings and nature? We are illustrations on the cover of a book. A cheap book. We were drawn, painted, copied, published, and sold for less money than one might pay for a bucket of popcorn. The book, in fact, features no gunfights or giant brains, so we are also poor representations of our content.” The youth, agog, said nothing, as the brain went on. “Decades later, we were abandoned, scooped up by a used bookstore, and sold without any profit going to our publisher. We were bought by someone who chose us solely on the basis of being able to make fun of the way we look. Our purchaser then snapped digital photos of us, and has shared our image on a sadistic blog in order to cater to a group of crass trolls. Our conversation exists only in the distributed consciousness of those unlucky few who have read this far.” The youth, now relegated to a collection of ones and zeroes on the WordPress servers, said nothing. “Oh,” the brain added as its final thought, “and he read us in the bathroom. It was gross.”

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: I’m gonna shoot straight with you. I purchased this book as a means to an end. I don’t mean to be cryptic, but you’ll find out later. In any case, I was pleasantly surprised to find pure, pulpy joy within. It’s certainly a product of its time (I love retrofuturism where the Soviet Union still exists), and, for those of us who like that sort of thing, it’s a delight. What this book does in its hundred pages to develop characters, weave narrative, enrich setting, and wrap up, shames books of twice its length. It’s elegant in its brevity, and, though it ends on a sappy note, I’m inclined to take it as its intended, rather than leveling my (considerable) cynicism at it. Sure, it’s not an attitude I commonly adopt, but this story put me in a good mood (unlike some, which did not merit the benefit of my benevolence—quite the contrary). I’m looking forward to more Blish in the future, and am a little disappointed in myself for not reviewing one sooner. Full marks, as well, for attempting to reconcile 1960s physics with future tech without resorting to endless technobabble. I mean, there’s bound to be some, but it’s restrained here. After all, we’re not on the bridge of the Enterprise (though we may be in the holodeck).

Rating: 9.7 Grams of Salt Peter In The Tang

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:

  • In the future, will we all have hair like that by constitutional fiat, or did this fellow just rob Donald Trump’s tomb?
  • Is “The-Color-Of-Whatever-Terrain-You’re-Standing-On-Splashed-With-Some-Pink” Chic in this year?
  • Is… is that thing in my skull right now? GET IT OUT! GET IT OUT!
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