Literature: Captain French, or the Quest for Paradise
Captain French, or the Quest for Paradise
("Капитан Френч, или Поиски рая") is a science fiction novel written by the Russian author Mikhail Akhmanov
and British author Christopher Nicholas Gilmore. While the novel is frequently advertised as a Space Opera
, but it lacks many of the elements typically associated with the genre. There's no Galactic Empire
. No space battles (or battles of any kind). Instead, it's a story of a man who has had an insanely long life and spends it traveling from world to world, experiencing the local culture and bathing in luxury before moving on. It's also a story of humanity who has spread out to the stars but has taken all of its faults to the new worlds. Most information is revealed either in conversations between the titular protagonist with a priest and then his new wife or through internal monologues and flashbacks.
The novel takes place about 20,000 years in the future. While humans have made it to the stars, settling thousands of worlds, Casual Interstellar Travel
is averted. Faster-Than-Light Travel
is impossible. The only means of going to other stars involves using a relativistic drive system that appears to be instantaneous to anyone aboard but takes decades or even centuries for the outside universe. As such, very few ships go between worlds, being limited to occasional colony ships heading for newly-discovered habitable worlds, occasional religious fanatics seeking to spread their faith, or space traders (of which there are only a few hundred). Building a starship is also extremely expensive, meaning only the richest colonies can afford to do that in order to relieve population pressure. Aging has been eliminated on most worlds thanks to a miracle procedure known as Cellular Regeneration (or CR) that stops the aging process in its tracks. Most choose to undergo the procedure in their early 20s, although some have known to wait until 30 to look "more mature". We Will Have Perfect Health in the Future
is also largely true, as advanced medical technology (frequently employing Autodocs
) can cure any known disease. All this has resulted in Population Control
being imposed on most worlds, with child licenses being given out as people die from unnatural causes. Birth control is not a problem, as sterilization is easy and reversible.
Captain Graham French is the first human to ever reach another star, being a NASA test pilot back in the 21st century. He was sent to fly the first starship to Alpha Centauri equipped with the Ramsden relativistic drive, where he discovers a habitable planet. Instead of going back, he chose to to continue to other stars and explore them. By the time he got back, nearly 100 years have passed on Earth. His wife and daughter have long been dead. Celebrated as a hero, he retired and lived the life of luxury, watching as government space programs were shut down as private enterprises began building ships to settle other worlds. When he found out that his ship would be handed over to a museum (or a bank, or a spice company), he stole it (giving up his Earthly, literally, possessions in favor of the museum/bank/spice company) and took off for one of the already-established extrasolar colonies. Instead of arresting French, as the lightspeed message from Earth demanded, the colonists chose to sign a deal with French, which is how he got his start as the first space trader. Thousands of years later, French visits the planet Murphy only to find out that it has suffered a comet strike since the last time he was there. After a period of anarchy and cannibalism, a religious order called the Holy Archonate has taken over, claiming that the "Lord's Hammer" has cleansed the world of sinners. While on Murphy, he spends time with Archon Joffrey, telling the priest about his adventures, before the Archon offers French a wife from among those the Archonate considers "undesirable" (i.e. those who refuse their rules and don't wish to be re-educated). From among them, French chooses a redhead named Killashandra
who is one of the most stubborn of the "undesirables". Killashandra agrees to join French, and they depart Murphy. They spend the next several (subjective) years traveling the stars, stopping at various worlds to trade. Eventually, though, Killashandra tells French that she wants a baby. While French initially explains to her the various problems of giving birth and raising a baby aboard a ship. Eventually, Killashandra comes up with a solution. She wants French to leave her on a good colony for 70 years, during which she will raise their child. Then the child will marry and start a family, while she returns to the ship. In the end, French agrees and leaves her on Corinth, where local customs mean that a woman from another world can't find a husband there.
The novel is full of Shout Outs
to famous sci-fi works, and a number are even referenced in-universe.
The novel contains examples of the following tropes:
- Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder: French is afraid of this when Killashandra insists on him leaving her on a world for 70 years to raise their child before rejoining him on the ship. Luckily, the solution presents itself on the planet Corinth, whose women have a strange psychic ability to always choose their soulmate, supposedly thanks to a flower that has since gone extinct. Since Killashandra is not from Corinth, no man would have her because he could never be sure if she was truly his soulmate (Serious Business on this world). Their son, though, would find happiness there.
- Absent Aliens: Intentionally invoked by the authors, as the presence of aliens would naturally shift the focus away from the main theme of the novel. Humans have settled thousands of worlds and discovered tens of thousands more in three spiral arms of the galaxy and have yet to find another sentient race.
- The Ageless: Humanity has become this thanks to CR, which has a big impact on human interactions. Family dynamics change, as parents no longer become old and decrepit. The concept of "inheritance" holds little meaning, as a parent is no longer likely to die before his or her children. Population Control (in the form of child licenses) is a must on most worlds to avoid overpopulation. One some worlds, though, capital crime is punished by aging by reversing the procedure.
- Apocalypse How: A number of worlds have suffered various catastrophes, usually at human hands:
- Shangri-La - a massive civil war resulting in a death toll in many millions and collapse of the society.
- Priceless Pearl - a group of hedonists used genetic engineering to make everyone on the planet into creatures of pleasure by turning the entire body into an erogenous zone. Once again, total social collapse.
- Brunnershabn - a Nuclear War resulting in the death of all living things. Later re-colonized and renamed Transformed.
- Cadat - a genetically-engineered Servant Race revolted, and the brutal war resulted in the Pyrrhic Victory for the masters at the cost of over 70% of the population dead.
- Bone-in-the-Throat - eugenic experiments result in overpopulation and cannibalism.
- Murphy - a comet strike results in widespread destruction and massive death toll, followed by anarchy and cannibalism.
- Eldorado - powerful ultrasonic generators were used to try to improve the planetary climate. Their simultaneous activation resulted in massive volcanic activity and the destruction of the colony.
- Yamaha - attempts to improve the climate by changing the axial tilt results in the melting of polar ice caps and global flooding.
- Autodoc: The Circe is equipped with one of the best medical robots in all the human worlds. Presumably, so do the ships of other space traders.
- Babies Make Everything Better: Killashandra feels very strongly about this and wants to give French what only one other woman has given him (his first wife whom he left on Earth 20,000 years ago) - a child. French reveals that he has hundreds of thousands of children on many worlds, although he fathered none of them. He simply donated his sperm, and many women wanted to have a child of a celebrity.
- Strict Population Control policies on many worlds result in groups of women whom French jokingly calls "frantic mothers" seeking to leave their worlds for newly-settled ones in order to make as many babies as possible. They don't care who the fathers are and are perfectly willing to pay for passage with sex. French admits to having transported a group of these women to a new colony, indulging in their "services", although they were disappointed that he had sterilized himself to avoid unwanted pregnancies.
- Brainwashing for the Greater Good: See Memory Wiping Crew.
- Captain Geographic: There doesn't appear to be a reason why the main character's last name is French. He is actually American, although he once shows Killashandra the view of France from space and explains what his last name refers to.
- Cassandra Truth: Many of the man-made catastrophes that hit several well-known planets could have been prevented if someone had listened to warnings. Instead, the doubters were ridiculed and accused of slowing progress.
- Casual Interstellar Travel: Averted thanks to the absence of FTL Travel and the exorbitant costs of building a ship equipped with the Ramsden relativistic drive. Planets are isolated except for the occasional visit by a space trader who brings news and goods from other worlds.
- Centrifugal Gravity: The only way to achieve Artificial Gravity in this 'verse. French's ship, the Circe, slowly spins around its axis, providing 0.02g. In order to avoid muscle atrophy, French forces himself exercise daily and has a whole ship section set up as a gym with a pool.
- Colony Drop: Surprisingly, only happens once in the entire recorded history of humanity. Murphy suffers a comet strike that results in millions dead and a period of chaos and cannibalism. It is currently under the control of the Holy Archonate.
- Cool Star Ship: French's ship, the Circe, renamed from Star Conqueror. While it's definitely not a warship, they're not necessary in this 'verse. Besides, if necessary, the database of the Circe's computer has all plans necessary to build highly-destructive weapons. The ship is also unique because it's the first starship ever built, although French has made many modifications since then. Subjectively, it's over 2000 years old and still kicking.
- French mentions another star trader who did turn his second ship into a warship after the first one was taken by an opportunist. The "taking" was actually legal under interstellar law (if a space trader spends more than a standard year on any single world without jumping, his ship automatically unlocks for anyone to take), but the space trader is still determined to find the thief and make him pay. The irony is that he himself stole his second ship from a group of missionaries.
- Covers Always Lie: A popular cover◊ of the book depicts, presumably, Killashandra holding on to French who is strapped in and holding an old-style plane flight control stick while flying into what appears to be a black hole. A monkey is also holding onto him. Let's see, French is shown to be red-haired and fairly young; however, the book makes it explicit that he's in his late fifties with grey hair (having undergone CR late in his life and choosing to keep his appearance). Killashandra is a stunning redhead with green eyes. In the picture, she is white-haired with black eyes. There are no monkeys in the novel and no black holes either. All piloting is done by the computer and is hardly exciting.
- Another cover◊ shows him wearing a combat suit and Dual Wielding blasters, having just burst into the room and shot up the place. In the novel, French never even picks up a weapon, and no fights take place.
- Critical Existence Failure: A possibility exists for any ship traveling using the Ramsden drive to end up inside a stellar body, with the chance increasing if the jump is made near a strong gravity well. As such, ships normally move out of the system (or, at least, far enough from the star) before initiating the drive). The possibility is never zero, but since space is big, the chance is remote.
- Death of Personality: See Memory Wiping Crew.
- Dumb Blonde: Daphne, one of French's wives, was this.
- Earth That Was: While Earth is by no means gone, the lack of any interstellar governmental body means that it's just another settled world. It's invariably referred to as Old Earth.
- Ego Polis: The planet Murphy is named after the first leader of the colony Simon Murphy. This implies that no one thought to give a name to a newly-discovered habitable world until the colony ship had actually landed. Or Simon Murphy had the name changed.
- Either/Or Title
- Fermat's Last Theorem: French mentions that one of the 20 or so interstellar transmissions he intercepted in his millennia of flying the galaxy was the proof for this. He admits that it's probably a big accomplishment for a mathematician but is utterly useless to someone in French's line of work.
- Flying the Universe: French explains to Archon Joffrey that he quickly realized that a space trader could never be truly wealthy nor could he put down roots. He must always keep all his belongings on the ship. Eventually, this becomes a law that is hard-wired into the computer of every space trader ship. If a space trader spends more than a year on any planet at a time, the ship becomes "unlocked" to anyone willing to steal it, thus necessitating that space traders continue traveling.
- Future Slang: The curse word "massaraksh" gets thrown around a lot, claiming to come from Barsoom. In fact, the word is a Shout-Out to the Strugatsky Brothers novel Prisoners of Power.
- Genetic Engineering is the New Nuke: Rampant genetic engineering results in catastrophes on several worlds.
- Heavy Worlder: The people of San Brendan are unattractive by most standards thanks to living on a world with a higher gravity than Earth norm. They are short, stocky, and grey-skinned. However, after thousands of years, the San Brendan colonists who have re-settled the planet Transformed (renamed from Brunnershabn) have changed to normal-sized (and attractive) humans. Bioscrupture may have been involved. French even mentions recognizing facial features common to Slavic and Scandinavian people.
- Inverted on several other worlds with low gravity such as Barsoom, resulting in tall, lanky humans.
- Immortality Inducer: Cellular Regeneration, frequently called simply CR, is a one-time procedure that freezes the aging process at the current age. It's never specified how it works (probably to avoid Artistic License - Biology). Judging by the fact that it's extremely rare on most worlds to have individuals die from old age, the procedure is ridiculously cheap and may even be provided by the government free of charge (why have a pension fund or worry about the elderly when you can have able-bodied workers instead?). CR is reversible, although this is only done in extreme cases, usually as punishment for capital crimes in lieu of execution.
- On Murphy, the Holy Archonate considers CR to be God's gift to humanity and, thus, sacred. No one has a right to deny the procedure to any person on the planet. In fact, it's likely that the Archonate provides it for free. When speaking with Archon Joffrey, French learns that punishing someone by reversing the procedure (i.e. restoring the normal aging process) is considered a grave sin on the planet.
- The Kingdom: According to French, enlightened monarchy is the only truly stable government in the long term. Democracies tend to eventually turn into dictatorships due to corruption, which will eventually be violently overthrown, resulting in a period of anarchy, followed by a theocratic rule by some religious group, after which they will also be overthrown to be replaced by another democracy, repeating the cycle.
- Longevity Treatment: Prior to the invention of CR, there were other methods of extending the human lifespan, including organ cloning and blood vessel cleansing.
- Love Potion: The people of Solaris have developed an aphrodisiac that can be applied like perfume. At a social event in his honor, French is approached by an attractive woman in revealing clothing who starts an argument with him about feminism. Meanwhile, French finds himself more and more thinking about what it would be like to remove her clothing, despite the fact that his wife is in the next room. He finally realizes that she is trying to seduce him using the aphrodisiac and manages to keep her away with his cigar after her breasts quite literally pop out of her clothes. However, her attempts affected him in a certain way, so he takes Killashandra back to their room and has mad sex with her to relieve the "pressure". In the morning, she half-jokingly calls him an animal. He's later told that, for a woman of her status, it's shameful for the "feminist" to use an aphrodisiac to seduce a man, as it signals to others that she can't do it normally.
- His local guides also tell him that some of the lower classes regularly engage in crazy orgies that involve them going into a room that is then pumped with the aphrodisiac. In a frenzy, they rip off each other's clothes and become a mass of writhing bodies. This presents a business opportunity to French who opens a new line of easily-rippable clothes designed for just such an event. He notes that he is the first space trader to sell any clothing on Solaris, as Solarians don't really care for off-world fashion. As a Take That, he sends a few samples of the new product to the "feminist".
- Magic Plastic Surgery: Biosculpture is the logical extreme of plastic surgery. Anyone with sufficient funds (although, it's implied not to be very expensive) can have their appearance altered to a desired one. Of course, this results in an effect of the You All Look Familiar variety, especially with women, since there aren't that many standards of beauty.
- One of the reasons why French is immediately attracted to Killashandra is because she stands out from the rest of the women on Archon Joffrey's list by her natural, unaltered beauty. Then he reads about her and gets even more interested.
- Matter Replicator: Matter duplicators were invented on Alastor and then exported to other worlds by space traders.
- Memory Wiping Crew: Tranai is a world with a government system called "humane communism". One of the ways the ones in power keep the people in line is by a device called the mental annihilator, capable of erasing an offender's personality and replacing it with a new, loyal one. They also invented the happiness meter that allowed them empirically detect how happy a person was with the government. If the measurement of too low, the mental annihilator was employed to "improve the person".
- Mohs Scale of Science Fiction Hardness: The authors try to stay on the hard side of the scale with relativistic travel and CR being the only real departures.
- Naming Your Colony World: A good number of planets settled by humans have names that come from pop-culture. This is sometimes mentioned in-universe.
- Murphy - borrowed from Earthman Come Home by James Blish. In-universe, named after Simon Murphy, the first leader of the colony.
- Pern - obviously taken from Dragonriders of Pern by Anne McCaffrey, who is mentioned by name by another character (in reference to the name Killashandra), except over 20,000 years her name has been mangled into Annette McClosky. It's implied that the planet was named so because of certain flying reptiles native to it.
- Barsoom - the native name for Mars in John Carter of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. It's a low-gravity world whose colonists have evolved into lanky humanoids.
- Eden and Solaris - taken from the eponymous novels by Stanislaw Lem. And yes, the second one is a water world with colonists living on islands making up about 3% of the surface.
- Trantor and Aurora - planets in Isaac Asimov's Foundation series.
- Tranai - a "utopia" invented by Robert Sheckley in A Ticket to Tranai.
- Viola Siderea - taken from "Mother Hitton's Littul Kittons" by Cordwainer Smith.
- Camelot and Logres - places in the King Arthur myths.
- Malacandra - planet in Out of the Silent Planet by C. S. Lewis.
- The planet Penelope in the Alpha Centauri system is named after French's daughter.
- No Immortal Inertia: Averted. Anyone who undergoes the procedure to reverse CR simply continues aging from the same point at which the process was "frozen". This is extremely rare, though, and only done on some planets as capital punishment. Interestingly, on the planet Murphy, the Holy Archonate the controls the colony considers CR to be God's gift to humanity. This means that they make sure that everyone receives the procedure at the proper age and make such punishment illegal, declaring it a sin.
- No Warping Zone: While the Ramsden drive can be, technically, activated anywhere, doing it near a strong gravity well (e.g. a star or a planet) drastically increases the chances of calculationg being thrown off, resulting in the ship ending up somewhere other than empty space. This is why ships normally spend months traveling on ion drives to the outer parts of the star system before activating the Ramsden drive.
- Nuclear War: Brunnershabn has suffered one that resulted in the death of all living things and contamination of the soil. It was re-colonized by settlers from San Brendan, who have labored for many years trying to detoxify the soil and make the planet habitable again (with French's help). After their work was done, they renamed the planet Transformed, signifying a new beginning.
- One World Order: Most worlds are ruled by a single government. It's implied that Brunnershabn had more than one. Otherwise, the Nuclear War on it wouldn't make sense (or the presence of nuclear weapons at all).
- Population Control: Child licenses are handed out on most settled worlds to avoid overpopulation. Since humanity has become The Ageless, natural causes are no longer the primary means of human death. A group of women appears on each world where this policy is in effect whom French calls "frantic mothers". They believe that it is their duty to have as many children as possible. It doesn't matter with who, and they are more than willing to pay for passage to developing colonies (i.e. without Population Control) with their bodies. French admits that he has transported them once, agreeing to their "payment", although they were disappointed that he has temporarily sterilized himself.
- Really 700 Years Old: Since most of humanity is The Ageless, this can apply to everyone. However, not many people are shown to live for hundreds of years, as a number of people die due to unnatural causes such as violence, accidents, or deadly plagues. French himself is likely the oldest human in existence, his subjective age (thanks to Time Dilation) being about 2000.
- Roaring Rampage of Revenge: French recounts the story of a fellow space trader named Phil Regos who visited a planet called Summerland ruled by Clerac Belug styling himself a God Emperor. After 200 years of rule, Belug bought into his own propaganda and belived that his will is sacred. So when he saw Regos's stunning wife Sdina Betin, he invited the couple to spend the night at his palace. His guards then tied Regos up and sent him up in his shuttle back to the ship, while Belus raped Sdina, who refused to submit to his will. On the next day, Sdina was accused of displeasing the God-Emperor, a capital crime on this world, and publicly incinerated with Frickin' Laser Beams. Regos spends the next 35 years in the system's asteroid belt, mining resources and building himself a giant laser Kill Sat capable of incinerating mountains and vaporizing seas. He then uses the laser to blackmail the people of Summerland and demand that they hand Clerac Belug over to him. After a brief civil war, the dictator is captured and delivered to Regos. Regos then tortures the God-Emperor for a long time using electric shock and his Autodoc, making video recordings of the act, which he then distributed on any world he visited to show people what happens to those who wrong space traders. Naturally, Belug didn't survive the "procedure".
- French tells this story to Killashandra as they're going to the ballet based on the event called The Revenge of Captain Rego (the name being slightly mangled).
- School of Seduction: French occasionally mentions the Order of Carnal Pleasures on the planet Dolores Rose that trains the equivalent of hetaeras, courtesans, and High Class Call Girls. The planet has no taboos regarding their profession, and the word "prostitute" is frowned upon. A lady of the Order is schooled in dancing, singing, grace, the art of lovemaking, and table setting. The Order is unionized, so fair wages are guaranteed. While on Dolores Rose, French sold the Order a device invented on the communist world of Tranai that measures a person's happiness. They have since installed it in every bed of their Happy Houses to charge clients based on the level of pleasure received (above the minimum rate, of course).
- Significant Green-Eyed Redhead: Killashandra, which is what first attracts French.
- Single-Biome Planet: Solaris is a planet where the world ocean covers 97% of the surface. The other 3% is made up of various islands scattered through the planet. The islands were settled by arrivals from Aurora, who enjoy nice weather (apparently, superstorms are not a thing on this world). Since the flora and fauna of this world are stuck in the Sillurian Period, there are no harmful plants and animals for the colonists to worry about. They end up transplanting Terrestrial flora and fauna to Solaris, including dolphins and whales. A number of Solarians undergo voluntary genetic modifications and grow gills and webbed hands and feet in order to work in underwater farms and mines with the procedure being completely reversible.
- Society of Immortals: See The Ageless above.
- Space People: When asked, French explains to Killashandra about people called Sacabons who live in space habitats in zero-g. As such, many of their muscles have atrophied, and they are no longer capable of going down to planetary surface, lest their spines snap like a twig. Their descendants have adapted to live in space. French shows her a picture of a Sacabon woman, a three-meter tall thin being with big eyes and bones that threaten to comes out of the skin and long, flexible fingers (that last part is a deliberate genetic modification).
- Stranger in a Familiar Land: When French returned to Earth after his first trip, at least a century has passed. His wife and daughter died long ago, as well as his daughter's children. His great-grandchildren looked at him like a relic of the past. The world was a different place from when he left. National space programs were shutting down, being replaced by private agencies. This is the primary reason why he chose to abscond with his ship and start the life of a space trader.
- The Theocracy: The Holy Archonate on planet Murphy, having taken over during the chaos and anarchy of the society in the wake of the comet strike. French mentions that most planets that favor democratic forms of government go through a period of theocratic rule every once in a while (this is French's cycle for democracies: democracy->dictatorship->theocracy->democracy).
- This Is Reality: Frequently invoked by the titular character, who is well-read. He will constantly reference what sci-fi writers thought the future would be like and then point out how it turned out.
- Three-Laws Compliant: Averted. French mentions Asimov and the idea of robots following these rules before throwing it out the window. Robots follow programming that is put in them and nothing more and will follow the orders of a person designated as "master". If one is told to kill, it will kill. Simple as that.
- Time Abyss: Anyone dealing with French for a long time will get this feeling after hearing a few of his stories. Both Archon Joffrey and Killashandra are shocked when they hear him casually mention dealing with their ancestors 10,000 years ago. French himself frequently mentions Methuselah when describing this reaction.
- Time Dilation: The Ramsden drive instantly accelerates the ship to an extremely-high percentage of the speed of light, meaning a journey of a dozen parsecs lasts for a split second for the traveler, while decades pass for the rest of the universe.
- Ungovernable Galaxy: Due to the nature of interstellar travel and lack of a Subspace Ansible, no unified government is possible. Even sending radio messages to other stars involves setting up and maintaining costly orbital facilities with, ultimately, zero return on the investment. In all his thousands of years of traveling the stars, Captain French has intercepted about 20 radio transmissions aimed at other colonies.
- We Will Have Perfect Health in the Future: Played straight for the most part. When French first returns to Earth after his historic flight, many procedures lengthening the lifespan are widely available, including gene therapy and organ cloning. In the 24th century, Cellular Regeneration was invented, which is a one-time procedure that halts the aging process in its tracks. Bioscrulpture also means that anyone can have one's features altered to look anyway he or she wants (which, naturally, leads to most women having a strangely similar appearance).
- We Will Not Have Appendixes in the Future: One of the first things French does after Killashandra comes aboard is to have her examined by the Autodoc. The autodoc revealed something horrible to French - she still has an appendix. Angry at the carelessness of her home planet's religious fanatics, he has the autodoc remove the "offending organ" despite the fact that there was nothing wrong with it.