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Gift from the Stars
James Gunn
BenBella Books, 154 pages

Gift from the Stars
James Gunn
Born in 1923 in Kansas City, MO, James Gunn received a degree in journalism and an M.A. in English following three years in the U.S. Navy during World War II. He is now professor emeritus of English at the University of Kansas, specializing in the teaching of fiction writing and SF and director of the Center for the Study of Science Fiction. In 1971-72, James Gunn was president of the Science Fiction Writers of America. He won a Hugo Award in 1983 for Isaac Asimov: The Foundations of Science Fiction. He is the author of at least 19 books and the editor of seven more.

James Gunn Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Immortals
SF Site Review: Gift from the Stars
SF Site Interview: James Gunn
SF Site Review: The Road To SF 5: The British Way

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Hebblethwaite

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Stories of alien contact are part of the bedrock of science fiction, but how realistic are most of them? Gift from the Stars is an essay at examining what might actually happen if aliens contacted us, and why they might do so in the first place. It is structured as a series of linked novelettes that originally appeared in Analog (the first four between 1999 and 2001, the final two in 2005); "a novel in six parts instead of a dozen or so chapters", as James Gunn puts it in his preface. This structure proves to be integral to the overall success (or otherwise) of the book; but more on that as we work our way through.

The story begins in "The Giftie," when aerospace engineer Adrian Mast finds designs for a spaceship in the back of a remaindered book on UFOs -- designs that, to Adrian's trained eye, appear workable. Could the plans be of extra-terrestrial origin? Adrian is determined to find out and persuades the sprightly bookseller Frances Farmstead to help him track down the author of the mysterious book. Naturally enough, they manage to do so, and the plans are genuine. And there's the inevitable confrontation with the authorities, who don't think the world is ready for the cheap and abundant energy (harvested in orbit from the Sun) that the ship's propulsion system would provide. However, Adrian and Frances beg to differ, and take matters into their own hands...

Sadly, "The Giftie" is not the best of starts: as an individual story, it's unsatisfactory because there's no real sense of drama in the final confrontation (things are resolved by the good guys out-talking the baddies, which feels too easy) and that key piece of action happens off-stage, unannounced until Gunn pulls it out of the hat at the end. The tale doesn't quite work as the start of a novel, either, as it's rather too slow. Still, the investigation is interesting enough to keep one reading; and Frances's quick thinking to fox the UFO book's publisher is a delight.

Ten yeas later, in "Pow'r," the alien technology has been harnessed to give everyone cheap energy; but there's little interest in building the craft itself. Adrian has gone missing, but Frances (now rejuvenated) and Jessica Buhler (Adrian's girlfriend -- or so she claims) track him down to the Kennedy Space Center, where Adrian has assembled a small group of like-minded space enthusiasts who want to build that spaceship and to find out what the aliens want.

I found Gunn's vision of a Kennedy Space Center returned to nature wonderfully evocative; but there are some serious problems with his depiction of the fictional world. The new energy supply is in the hands of a mysterious body called the Energy Board, and there's no explanation of how this came about. Gunn says that "[n]obody paid attention to the administration of utilities as long as whatever they supplied was cheap and uninterrupted" and (alas) he's probably right; but whoever controls the energy supply runs that world, and I wanted to know how they got there. I couldn't even tell if the Energy Board was a public or private organisation; so I suspect it is there simply as a shorthand for Big Bureaucracy.

I think Gunn is correct that, in a situation like this, only a few people would be interested in building and flying the ship; but I don't get a sense of reality from his world. I found myself thinking: if the propulsion technology were proven, and the designs in the public domain (as they are at the start of "Pow'r"), wouldn't some entrepreneur with money want to test out the plans? I don't know if there is any such enterprise in Gunn's future world, nor do I have a true sense of the discontent that (we are told) some people feel because life is just too easy. It's as though Gunn has sketched in the background enough to make his main point (that Big Bureaucracy would impede the development of alien technology), but is more interested in the spaceflight and the discoveries to be made. Which, I suppose, is fair enough; because that's what I, as a reader, was more interested in.

We leap forward another five years, to "The Abyss," where the ship is now being built in orbit, with materials cannibalized from an old space station. But there's a problem: it seems that someone could have sabotaged the ship. Some crew members report seeing an unknown bearded man; and Jessica finds that part of the space station is a disguised escape pod. Can she, Adrian and Frances figure out what's going on, or will they just have to abandon the mission? I have rather less to say about this part of Gift from the Stars than the previous two, because it feels somewhat utilitarian; that is, it pushes the main story on a bit, but there's not enough to make it a satisfying tale in its own right. That's the main problem with the linked-novelettes structure: each segment of the book carries equal weight, in a way that the individual chapters of a standard novel do not. And, if some novelettes aren't as strong as others, it's fine if you're reading them several months apart, but not if you read them straight after one another. As it is, the voyage -- which seems to be the main focus of the story -- only gets going halfway through the book.

"The Rabbit Hole" sees the ship trapped in a wormhole, where things get more interesting as the crew's sense of time breaks down; they start to remember things that haven't happened yet, and people turn up who just shouldn't (and couldn't) be there. Gunn tells this section of the tale in an appropriately disjointed, disorientating style; and he comes up with some fascinating notions that I wish could have been explored in more detail. For example, some of the crew's as-yet-unborn children appear at one point, fully grown, demanding that the ship remain in the wormhole, because they will cease to exist if it leaves. This is the best novelette in the book so far, perhaps the best out of all six; but, taken in the context of the whole novel, it unfortunately still feels like a bit of a prelude to the main event.

And the main event duly arrives with "Uncreated Night," when the ship reaches its destination, a small planet the crew has dubbed Enigma -- where many other spacecraft are already in orbit. Adrian, Frances and Jessica set out to explore; but it's not until "Strange Shadows" that they find out why the alien "Enigmatics" summoned everyone -- and the crew have to decide what to do next.

Gunn's explanation of why the Enigmatics sent out those plans takes in a clutch of ideas from contemporary cosmology; I had heard of most of them, which may account for my disappointment in the ending, but I think that has more do with the way it's presented. Everything is explained in a lecture, and not even by the aliens themselves, but by a computer construct of a character left on Earth. Whatever, I didn't close the book with the soaring sense of possibility that I should have felt.

Overall, then, Gift from the Stars leaves quite a lot to be desired. I wish the background had been fleshed out more, and the characterization were less sketchy (for example, Frances's reference points are literary, which provides an effective foil for Adrian's and Jessica's more scientific personalities; but, at the end of the book, it's Adrian who is waxing lyrical about how fundamental stories are to human existence, while Frances dismisses them, and I just can't accept she would do that). There are problems of structure and pacing, both in individual novelettes and the book as a whole. Perhaps most importantly, though, the conclusion doesn't have that vital spark. Gift from the Stars has its good moments, nevertheless, but it could be so much better.

Copyright © 2006 David Hebblethwaite

David lives out in the wilds of Yorkshire, where he attempts to make a dent in his collection of unread books. You can read more of David's reviews at his review blog.


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