Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Under a Calculating Star by John Morressy

The little monster on the cover= half a paragraph
in the novel. 

“They had landed on the forbidden planet of Boroq-Thaddoi. They had made their way across the snow-covered desert and the vast graveyard of mangled spaceships. Now they stood gazing with awe at their destination, the Citadel.

The Citadel was unique in the galaxy. Some mad, brilliant architect might have dreamed this blending of the arts and materials of a hundred civilizations into a single monstrous edifice, but no known race could have erected such a thing. It dwarfed the nine walls of Skix, the great corridor on Clotho, the ageless pyramids of Xhanchos, even the legendary cities of Old Earth in the proud and violent centuries before the exodus. It was the monument of giants.

Somewhere in the perilous labyrinth behind these towering walls lay the secret that had eluded and destroyed all searchers for thousands of years... The secret that had to be found before the Great rebellion could begin...”

–The back cover

First published in the USA in 1975, this is a 1979 British edition by New English Library. Cover price 95p. 157 pages.

Under a Calculating Star is definitely not a book that can be judged by its cover, since the spiny bat monster depicted on the front (although cool) only appears in a page or two of the entire story. This is a really fun space actioneer that somehow, in less than 160 pages, crams three robust plots involving the two main characters. Part of the five-book Del Whitby series, Under a Calculating Star can be read on its own, as each book in the series runs concurrently and has a different main character, all weaving into the overall plot.

In Morressy's future, mankind has already spread throughout the galaxy, finding many humanoid aliens, and sometimes interbreeding with them, before moving on like interstellar gypsies. Having space travel thrust upon them by the “Old Earthers,” these diverse alien cultures—who were mostly at the technological equivalent of the iron age when the colonists arrived—still have not made many developmental strides in the following few centuries,  so many of their ships are aging relics left behind. Yes, this is a sci-fi story with sword fights and pistol duels rather than laser battles, a very golden era for a book published in 1975. 

The first third of this book, which involves the Citadel of Boroq-Thaddoi,  reminded me of the movie Krull quite a bit, mainly because the characters are killed in quick succession during their journey. Eight spacefarers, all with different skills and of different alien races, are systematically crushed, melted, or vaporized by the malevolent traps of the Citadel, until only a few survivors remain. In one scene, they shoot and chop a few dozen eyeless monsters, which also reminded me of the Mines of Moria in LOTR—certainly a good thing.

After escaping the grasp of the Citadel, the survivors divide up the spoils of their deadly journey (settling for a few jewels rather than the large sum they had hoped for) and take off for Xanchos, a trader world with an economy based upon gems and slaves. The word Xanchos made me go get some nachos and cheese that day, in case you were wondering. 

A true 'pocket book'
The second and third parts of the story rely on the dynamic differences between the races of two of the crew members. Kian Jorry, captain of the driveship Seraph, is a k'Tural'Pa (yep), a race nearly identical to humans and known for being manipulative, cunning, and mostly lacking in conscience. Axxal, Jorry's manservant, is a Quespodon with intelligence much higher than most of his race, who are often used as pack animals and slaves throughout the galaxy due to their musculature and subservient nature. Xanchos’ recent slave uprising led to a new ruling class in the months before the Seraph's arrival, and after touching down on the planet, each of the two shipmates react very differently to the power vacuum this has created. 

Jorry spends his days in the courts of the palace, weaving political intrigues and looking to dupe the newly anointed and power hungry nobility, who are all ex-slaves and of the near-human Skorat race. Axxal meets another Quespodon of similar intelligence to himself and they determine that their race's mental woes are an after-affect of their home world's atmosphere, since each of them are dozens of generations removed from their home world.

Predictably (but satisfying nonetheless), the captain spends the rest of the book chasing after avarice and power to his undoing, but the manservant looks to enlighten his people, which leads to a utopia.

This blog also has a very thorough breakdown of the Del Whitby series, which I used as a reference for the plethora of alien names in the book, and hopefully didn’t plagiarize.

Under a Calculating Star was a great find, and I plan to tear through the series (in order) as soon as I can find some more second-hand paperbacks by Morressy on some dusty shelves in some bookstore's basement.  Once again- Thanks to Kris Adamo for the edits, as I love the run on sentence. 

1 comment:

  1. Great review!

    This is by far the least interesting of the series - all the other books are way better...