In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
Bob Shaw was not one of the most widely known science fiction authors of the 20th Century, but he was one of the most entertaining. He had a clever imagination, a good sense of humor, and an accessible style. One of his best works, The Ragged Astronauts, was written late in his career when he was at the peak of his powers. It follows the adventures of Toller Maraquine, an inhabitant of a unique double planet existing within a shared atmosphere, as he and his fellows from a primitive society attempt to travel by balloon from one world to the other. It is also a tale with a message, a story of human stubbornness and prejudice in the face of imminent ecological collapse—a message that is as timely today as it was when it was written.
In the mid- to late 1980s, my father convinced me to start attending science fiction conventions. And, after a lifetime of collecting paperback books, I had enough disposable income to start splurging on hardcovers. One of the best sources for new books at nearly every convention I attended was a bookseller named Larry Smith. He was one of those folks you could always count on seeing, had a good stock of the newest books, and frequently had signed copies available. Larry died in 2017, but in his time, his tables and shelves were one of my first destinations in every huckster room. I’m pretty sure it was at my first Boskone, and from Larry Smith, that I purchased my hardcover copy of The Ragged Astronauts. In those days, Boskone was a big, sprawling convention that rivaled WorldCon in size. The cover (center in the image above) caught my eyes first: a vivid painting by Alan Gutierrez that captured the retro feel of intrepid balloonists exploring new worlds. And Shaw’s premise was certainly intriguing…
About the Author
Bob Shaw (1931-1996), born Robert Shaw in Belfast, Northern Ireland, was a lifelong science fiction fan and writer. He also lived in Canada, England, and the United States. Before becoming a full-time science fiction writer in 1975, he worked as an engineer, a public relations specialist, and journalist. He is most widely known as the author of the moving story “Light of Other Days,” published in Analog in 1966, the Orbitsville trilogy (Orbitsville, published in 1975, Orbitsville Departure, published in 1983, and Orbitsville Judgement, published in 1990), and the Land and Overland trilogy (The Ragged Astronauts, published in 1986, The Wooden Spaceships, published in 1988, and The Fugitive Worlds, published in 1989).
He was active in fandom, and noted for his wit and humor, receiving the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer in both 1979 and 1980. He was nominated for other Nebula and Hugo Awards, and in 1976, his book Orbitsville won the British Science Fiction Award for best novel.
Even when Shaw dealt with exotic concepts and settings, his fiction was generally quite straightforward and easy to follow, and he was quoted as saying, “I write science fiction for people who don’t read a great deal of science fiction.”
The Exotic Worlds of Science Fiction
From the earliest days, science fiction authors have imagined strange worlds, inhabited by strange creatures. They started by guessing about what conditions might be like on the planets of our own solar system, but soon began to branch out, playing with stranger and stranger environments. The Ragged Astronauts takes place in one of the most unique of those imagined environments, with the two tidally locked worlds of Land and Overland forming what astronomers call a double planet, and which are improbably close enough to share an atmosphere.
As I recollect, the first truly strange environment I encountered in fiction was the world of Pellucidar from the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, where our own planet was a hollow sphere, with another world existing inside of it (I’ve written about it here). The pages of Analog could always be counted on to present strange new worlds, and one of the strangest was the planet Mesklin from Hal Clement’s Mission of Gravity, a world of gravitational extremes that is flattened into a discus shape (reviewed here). Author Larry Niven also has a knack for creating exotic science fictional environments, with his Ringworld (discussed here) being the archetype for what have become known as Big Dumb Objects, or macrostructures. Bob Shaw himself examined a macrostructure in Orbitsville, which looked at life inside of a gigantic sphere that encased a star (a type of object sometimes referred to as a Dyson Sphere). Another author who excels in this area is Stephen Baxter (I’ve covered Vacuum Diagrams here). There are many other authors who have let their imaginations run wild—too many to mention here. One who I haven’t yet looked at in this column is Robert Forward, whose Dragon’s Egg imagined life on the surface of a neutron star, while his Rocheworld imagined a kind of double world formed in the shape of a dumbbell.
The Ragged Astronauts
Toller Maraquine is a member of the philosophical orders of the Kingdom of Kolcorron, which dominates the world of Land. Just overhead, tantalizingly close, is their sister world of Overland, thought by the religious to be a place where the dead are reincarnated. Toller is an unusual member of that hereditary order, being tall, muscular and hot-headed, not to mention afflicted by a reading disorder that makes learning difficult. In a scene that presents a lot of information about this world, an arriving airship has encountered a ptertha, a flying gas-filled creature that can burst, spreading deadly spoors. Two exposed crew members are executed to save them from a slow and painful death. We can see that this is a brutal, male-dominated and hierarchical society, and an example of colonialism at its worst.
Prince Leddravohr Neldeever is leading Kolcorron forces into the bordering lands of the Gethan. They are seeking more resources, specifically the brakka trees that provide the extremely hard wood this society uses in the place of metals. The trees also provide the green pikon crystals and purple halvell gas, which when mixed, are a primary source of energy for the society. The current situation is clearly unsustainable, as even conquest cannot provide brakka supplies in excess of demand.
Toller’s brother, Lain, is the chief assistant to Lord Philosopher Glo, and a force in society. His wife, Gesalla, is a big part of his success. Toller is visiting, awakens with a beautiful peasant woman he had met the night before, and wanting to irritate Gesella, decides to marry her on a whim. Lord Glo, Lain, and Toller are summoned by King Prad, Prince Leddravohr, and Prince Chakkell, the nation’s industrial manager, to an emergency high council meeting to discuss the brakka crisis. The meeting couldn’t be more disastrous. Lord Glo succumbs to his alcoholism, and at the moment wise counsel is most needed, his attempt to advocate conservation fails miserably. Instead, he rants about an expedition by balloon to the Overland world. Toller irritates the impetuous Prince Leddravohr, making an enemy for life.
The nation does nothing to change their ways, brakka grows even more scarce, and even more virulent ptertha become a threat. Society retreats indoors, fields grow untended, and between the ptertha spoor and starvation, the population plummets. After years of ignoring the philosophers, the King again summons them to a meeting. He and the princes have developed a plan of desperation. They will go on a war of conquest across the world of Land, stripping every resource they can, and use it to build a fleet of balloons that can carry the royalty and elites to the world of Overland, where they can build a new society.
Toller is swept into the army, becomes a decorated soldier, and begins to mature. He also learns that he is the bastard son of one of the nation’s highest generals, which explains why he never fit in as a philosopher. He is selected for the air service and becomes one of the most effective of a new corps of aeronauts. He is chosen to lead the first exploratory flight to Land, surprised that Prince Leddravohr would allow this honor, only to find that the prince had hoped for his death. Toller foils this hope by returning from the exploratory trip unharmed. That trip, carefully described, is a joy to read, as it examines all the implications of traveling between worlds in a primitive balloon. The excitement of exploration and discovery that draws readers to science fiction is on full display. Toller’s brother Lain discovers a secret symbiosis between brakka and ptertha which explains their dire situation, but is abandoned to ptertha by Prince Leddravohr while on an expedition. He leaves notes before he dies, which are discovered by Toller, but before Toller can act on those notes, riots break out, and the exodus begins more quickly than planned. Toller is able to rescue Lain’s widow, Gesella, and is soon caught in a desperate struggle to reach the new world, warn the survivors of the dangers of upsetting the balance of nature, and to survive the hatred of Prince Leddravohr, who no longer has any need for him.
The story is a grim one, grimmer than I had remembered, and while we sympathize with Toller, there are few characters to root for. People continually allow their hatred to blind their logic and follow their prejudices rather than data. Along with the adventure, there is a powerful cautionary tale here about learning to live in harmony with others and with the natural world. The “head in the sand” reaction of the leaders to their crisis unfortunately reminds me of current political situations.
While the characters at first appear human, Shaw makes a point of mentioning they have six fingers on each hand, so we cannot assume they are as human as we might have originally assumed. Shaw also incorporates another rather stunning point that drives home the fact this is not our universe. At one point, Lain explains a mathematical paper he is writing to Toller. He talks about how convenient it is that the relationship between the diameter and circumference of a circle is exactly three. Lain says, “Now you’re approaching the theme of the essay. There may be some other … place … where the ratio is three-and-a-quarter, or perhaps only two-and-a-half. In fact, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t be some completely irrational number which would give mathematicians headaches.” This strikes me as a quite excellent counterpoint to anyone who might question the viability of the double world Shaw has presented, as science fiction fans are often inclined to do, or question why his society is so deprived of metals when iron is one of the most common elements in the universe. All he has to do is point out that their arguments might work in a universe where Pi is 3.14159, but do not apply to his world, and he knocks the wind out of their sails.
The Ragged Astronauts is a dark book, but a very powerful one. It is packed with adventure and exploration, interesting and compelling characters, tragedy and triumph. It has held up well over the past three decades and has an ecological message at its heart that is still relevant today. If you have never encountered it, I would highly recommend seeking it out.
And now the floor is yours: If you’ve read The Ragged Astronauts, what are your thoughts? Are there other books by Bob Shaw you would recommend to other readers? And like the twin worlds of Land and Overland, are there other exotic science fictional worlds that have captured your imagination over the years?
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.