by Frederik Pohl

Del Rey


219pp/$5.99/June 1982

Cover by David B. Mattingly

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Starburst, by Frederik Pohl, tells the story of Dr. Dieter von Knefhausen and the starship he built to take eight Americans to the planet Alpha-Aleph, in orbit around Alpha Centauri.  The story is told from the points of view of Knefhausen, a product of the Hitler Youth movement during World War II, and the passengers of the Constitution, the ship which was designed to make the voyage.

Early in the novel, Pohl reveals that Alpha-Aleph doesn't really exist and Knefhausen's real goal is to advance humanity's knowledge of the universe by placing eight highly intelligent humans in a situation in which they have no distractions.  Although Knefhausen continues to see his actions as admirable, his upbringing suddenly takes on a new light as it is apparent that while Knefhausen seems to care for the astronauts he calls his "children," that he sees them as inconsequential to the human race, fit only for experimentation, just as the Nazis viewed the captive Jews, Gypsies, etc. in the concentration camps of World War II.

Of course, the secret of Alpha-Aleph's existance, or lack thereof, can't be kept from the passengers of the Constitution, who are rapidly becoming the intellectual superiors to humans on Earth, able to redesign the starship in which they are riding and genetically enhance their vegetables to grow as French fries or poached eggs.  Once they realize they won't be able to land on a planet or return to Earth, they convert the Constitution into a generation ship, ignoring the birth-control devices Knefhausen had originally put into place.

As with many of Pohl's more recent works, Starburst takes an excessively bleak view of the future.  The country is in constant upheaval, with the President a practical captive in the White House.  Helicopters dare to fly low only to disembark or embark their passengers for fear of being knocked out of the sky by angry mobs.  Even places like the Kennedy Center are the focus of anti-government activism.  It makes the reader wonder how the United States could even begin to finance a project such as the Constitution.  Despite this, Pohl's future does have some bright points, most notably the advancement of knowledge which is occuring on board the starship.

Starburst is well-written, easily up to the standards Pohl has adhered to over the years, although bleaker than many of his novels. While Pohl could have done more with an examination of how growing up in Nazi Germany effected Knefausen, he does do an excellent job of looking at how his astronauts cope with betrayal, intellectual evolution and the close confinement of a generation ship.

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