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Literature / The Starchild Trilogy

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The Starchild Trilogy is the omnibus name for a series of three wildly imaginative science fiction novels by Frederik Pohl and Jack Williamson, written in the 1960s, and generally considered the best of several collaborations between the two. They were originally published separately, but most reprints have bundled the three into a single volume.

The three novels are set in the same universe, but are completely standalone and have no characters in common. They can be read in any order, but are best read in publication order, to avoid minor spoilers.

The Reefs of Space (1963)

An overcrowded Earth is under control of The Plan of Man, an absolute government run by a powerful Master Computer. Steve Ryeland is a scientist, loyal to the Plan, who has been arrested for reasons he doesn't understand, and fitted with an explosive collar. Now he's been shipped to a remote facility and ordered to study a mysterious alien creature with seemingly miraculous powers of flight, which could open up the stars! Donna Creery, the beautiful daughter of the Planner of Earth, is there, furious at the way the previous researchers had been treating the beast, which she considers a pet. Steve begins his research, but a coup by an ambitious general forces Donna and Steve to flee on the creature's back to the mysterious reefs of space—a strange wonderland hidden between the stars, where an entire bizarre alien ecosystem has formed.

Starchild (1965)

The Plan of Man receives a demand to leave the reefs of space alone, and free any "followers of the star" it has imprisoned. The message comes from a mysterious entity called the "Starchild", which demonstrates that it has the power to make the sun and several nearby stars turn off and back on! Meanwhile, Machine Major Boysie Gann, a loyal spy and informer for the Plan, is mysteriously transported to the reefs of space, where he encounters some of the settlers living beyond the Plan of Man, and then just as mysteriously transported back to a secure facility on Earth, where he is promptly arrested. Now he is caught between his own government, which is viewing him with deep suspicion, and powers from beyond the stars that seem to want to treat him as a plaything.

Rogue Star (1969)

The discovery of living, intelligent stars has changed everything. Mankind is now part of a vast, multi-galaxy civilization, under the sponsorship of the living star Almalik. Andy Quamodian is a earnest follower of Almalik, who still dreams of Molly Zaldiver, the girl that got away. When he recieves an urgent message from Molly begging for help, he drops everything to try to get back to Earth, where she's living with her boyfriend, Cliff Hawk, who is performing dangerous research into the mythical creatures known as "Rogue Stars".

Tropes in this trilogy:

  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: In Rogue Star, Molly Zaldiver falls for the rogueish, brooding loner and rebel, Cliff Hawk, rather than the earnest, well-intentioned, and well-behaved Andy Quamodian who is hopelessly in love with her.
  • Artistic License – Physics: The authors decided to throw out the widely accepted Big Bang Theory, not because they didn't think it was true, but because the alternative "Continuous Creation" theory espoused by astronomer Fred Hoyle (and, basically, no one else) let them imagine new life spontaneously appearing in the void between the stars, to take advantage of the energy available from the new hydrogen appearing there in Hoyle's theory.
  • The Assimilator: Downplayed version in Rogue Star. The newly born rogue is merely curious about the dying Cliff Hawk, so it absorbs and assimilates him—and ends up with romantic feelings for Molly Zaldiver as a result. (A result she considers terrifying.)
  • Bizarre Alien Biology: At the reefs of space, between the stars, life has evolved from primitive cells called fusorians, which actually fuse hydrogen and other elements to produce energy. They have evolved into a wide variety of odd creatures—most notably, the friendly spacelings and the terrifying living rockets known as pyropods (flame-foot).
  • Bizarre Alien Locomotion:
    • The "Spacelings" are friendly, tameable animals which live among the reefs of space, between the stars. They appear to move via a reactionless drive of some sort—figuring out how they fly is one of Steve Ryland's goals in The Reefs of Space.
    • Pyropods (Latin for "flamefoot") are living rockets, which also live in the reefs. Their need for reaction mass means they have evolved to be vicious and deadly hunters. Even a baby is enough to take on several humans, and a small pack of adults can destroy and devour a ship!
  • Brain/Computer Interface: A very early example (from two decades before Cyberpunk became a thing). Unusually located directly on the forehead, "communion plates" are how the most advanced technicians work with the Planning Computer.
  • Censor Suds: In The Reefs of Space, when Steve Ryeland accidentally bursts in on the beautiful daughter of Earth's leader while she's in her bath, the authors quickly mention that the only things poking out of the bubbles are one knee, two arms, and a head.
  • Damsel in Distress: In Rogue Star, Molly Zaldiver ends up captured by the newly-born rogue star which has absorbed her lover, Cliff Hawk, and somehow ended up with feelings for her it doesn't quite understand. Andy Quamodian, who is also in love with her, spends a large part of the book trying find a way to rescue her from a creature of such unimaginable power.
  • Dead All Along: In Starchild, Boysie Gann is mysteriously transported to a remote part of the reefs of space, where he meets a settler named Harry Hickson, who gives him food and water and sends a message to a nearby town. When Gann arrives at the town, though, people are extremely skeptical of his story, and to explain why, take him to see Hickson's grave. Hickson had died three years previously.
  • Death from Above: In Rogue Star, the sun reaches out a tendril of plasma for a precision strike on Cliff Hawk's underground laboratory, where he's researching rogue stars. The results are unfortunate for the lab and the people inside it, but no more than annoying for the newly born baby star.
  • Did Not Get the Girl: In Rogue Star, Andy Quamodian spends most of the book trying to rescue Molly Zaldiver who he's always been in love with, but in the end, the only way she can survive is to merge with the living star Almalik.
  • Dogged Nice Guy: In Rogue Star, Andy Quamodian has always been in love with Molly Zaldiver, but she fell for the roguish Cliff Hawk instead. When she sends him a message asking for help, though, he's still willing to drop everything and rush to her aid, dreaming the whole time that maybe this time she'll reciprocate his feelings.
  • Electric Instant Gratification: The Brain/Computer Interface used by the senior technicians who work with the Planning Computer also stimulates the pleasure centers, helping to ensure the loyalty of the technicians to the computer and the Plan of Man.
  • Energy Beings: The sentient, living stars in Rogue Star fall somewhere between this and Cosmic Entity. They are, literally, stars. Fusing hydrogen. And they have powers near those of a Reality Warper.
  • Explosive Leash: Political dissidents are fitted with explosive collars with undefined timers that need to be periodically "wound up" by the guard's key to renew the timer. Within the series, legend has it that the only way around the tamper mechanism is to detach the head, remove the collar, and sew the head back on.
  • Flesh Golem: The medics liberating Ron Donderevo from explosive collar construct one from spare body parts as a decoy. Angela Zwick claims that Ryeland is actually that artificial man. She lies.
  • Happy Ending Override: The Reefs of Space ends with the Planning Machine anouncing that thanks to the jetless drives the strict measures are no longer needed and as a first step frees Ryeland. However in Starchild the Plan confines itself in the Solar system and remains to be a totalitarian regime while Ryeland dies in the failed mission meant to expand it to the Reefs.
  • Hive Mind: In Rogue Star, the people who choose to become part of the mind of Almalik, the living star, may join in "communion" and become part of a great shared consciousness, if they wish.
  • Hobbes Was Right: Invoked by Machine General Wheeler, when he explains (or diatribes) why men cannot be allowed to live in freedom in the reefs of space. Mankind is inherently evil, and only the great Planning Machine can be trusted to make them do the right thing.
  • Human Resources: Under the Plan of Man, all must contribute. Those who cannot or will not contribute willingly are sent to the inescapable prison called "Heaven", where they can peacefully wait until their body parts are required.
  • Insignificant Little Blue Planet: In Rogue Star, Earth is Andy Quamodian's home, but as far as most of the people he knows and works with are concerned, it's "Planet 3, Star 7718, Sector Z-989-Q, Galaxy 5."
  • Just the First Citizen: In the first two books, the Planner is officially just the man in charge of making sure that the dictates of the great Planning Machine, which is in charge of protecting and preserving mankind, are carried out properly. In practice, of course, he has great latitude in interpreting the machine's instructions, and is a dictator in all but name.
  • Killer Rabbit: In The Reefs of Space, the Planner's daughter, Donna Creery, is attended by a set of "peace doves"—beautiful birds which have been enhanced and trained to serve as deadly bodyguards.
  • Laser-Guided Amnesia: Ryeland can't remember several crucial days immediately preceding his arrest. Most importantly everyone thinks that in those very days he discovered the secret of the jetless drive. This is the result of the brainwashing torture by conspirators against jetless drive.
  • Machine Worship: Subverted. No one actually worships the Planning Machine, but the technicians who work most closely with it are expected to give up their former lives and devote themselves to the machine. When they enter training, they are called "acolytes", and once they graduate, they are given the title "Brother" or "Sister" (like monks or nuns), they receive a neural implant called a "communion plate" in their foreheads, and they are given a set of sonic beads which they "tell" (like rosary beads) to communicate with the machine at a distance.
  • Mad Scientist: In Rogue Star, Cliff Hawk wants to know more about rogue stars—living stars which for whatever reason have not joined the intergalactic community of stars—and decides to build one from scratch in his own laboratory. It does not go well.
  • Mad Scientist's Beautiful Daughter: In The Reefs of Space, Donna Creery is the daughter of the Planner of Earth, chief executive of the computer-controlled dictatorship which rules Earth, but she's sympathetic to Steve Ryeland, the scientist who's been arrested for reasons he doesn't understand. She eventually helps him escape when he ends up facing a death sentence.
  • Master Computer: The Plan of Man is a great computer which is responsible for managing the limited resource of Earth in the face of massive overpopulation. Even its enemies, who believe in old-fashioned concepts of freedom, are reluctant to attack it directly, since many of its functions are critical, and prefer to flee into space. Amusingly, by modern standards, it communicates by printing its commands on paper.
  • More Teeth than the Osmond Family: The pyropods (lit. "flame foot") are terrifying living rockets with a mouthful of teeth at the other end, which fly around devouring everything.
  • Naked First Impression: In The Reefs of Space, Steve Ryeland is on a train, looking for someone who can help him find a doctor, when he hears a woman's voice behind a door. So he bursts in, only to find a woman he immediately recognizes—the beautiful daughter of the Planner of Earth (the most important man on the planet) sitting in her bath. She instantly calls for her guards, but fortunately, he's able to offer a hurried explanation before she has him dragged out and...dealt with.
  • Sentient Phlebotinum: the baby rogue star created by Cliff Hawk in Rogue Star. It is a living creature of unimaginable power, and quickly grows beyond his abilities to contain or constrain it.
  • Sentient Stars: The intelligent stars in Rogue Star.
  • Settling the Frontier: The people fleeing the tyranny of the Plan of Man on Earth have formed settlements in the mysterious reefs of space, between the stars, where exotic fusion-based life forms have created great, hidden, habitable masses far from any star.
  • Space Cossacks: In the mysterious, Magical Land known as the reefs of space live the Reefers, aliens who loath The Plan Of Man, an absolutist human government.
  • Space Sector: The series includes such locations as "Planet 5, Star 4894, Sector B-311-C, Galaxy 1" or "Planet 3, Star 7718, Sector Z-989-Q, Galaxy 5" (the latter also known as "Earth").
  • The Stars Are Going Out: In Starchild. Only a few, and only temporarily. But it includes the Sun. The Starchild uses this to warn Earth that it means business.
  • The Starscream:
    • In The Reefs of Space, Machine General Fleemer is personally ambitious, and desperately wants the job of Planner—the leader of Earth, responsible for carring out the instructions of the great Planning Machine, and has been secretly undermining the Planner and lying to the machine.
    • In Starchild, Machine General Wheeler is fiercely loyal to the Plan of Man, but thinks the current Planner is weak and insufficiently ruthless, and believes he would be much better at the job.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: In Starchild, Machine General Wheeler wants to bring all the men living in freedom in the reefs of space back under the absolute control of the Planning Machine and the Plan of Man because man is inherently evil and cannot be trusted with freedom.
    • In The Reefs of Space the Planner justifies the totalitarian nature of the Plan of Man as being necessary for the overblown population to survive using limited resources of the Solar system. With widespread use of the reactionless drive in Starchild the lack of expansion becomes artificial and the tyranny persists for tyranny's sake.
      Planner: Do you know what your blessed ancestors did, boy? They mined ‘fairness’ and ‘democracy’ from the untapped resources of the world. They didn’t invent them, they mined them — just as the old farmers mined minerals from their cornfields, twenty crops of corn and a foot of soil! Well, the topsoil’s gone now. And so is fairness and freedom. The world is a closed system now boy, and there isn’t enough to go around!

Alternative Title(s): The Reefs Of Space, Starchild