BOOK REVIEW: "I Want the Stars" by Tom Purdom (1964)

Robert Bee
Robert Bee's picture

I want the Stars is a 42,000 word Ace Double published in 1964. The story begins in medias res with an attack on an alien ship. The Horta, a group of telepathic aliens, are persecuting the Sordini, likeable amphibians that communicate via a color-based language. Intelligent races do not normally fight wars against one another in this future, but the humans intervene because the Horta are enslaving the Sordini. The attack on the Horta fails partly because humans have evolved into a peaceful race that does not often commit violence, and thus find the fighting psychologically difficult.

The Horta’s telepathy makes them paranoid because it repulses them to have other people’s emotions constantly flooding their minds. They need to dominate other minds so they can control the thoughts and feelings they encounter.

The novel is set in a far future galaxy populated with thousands of intelligent races and millions of worlds. People live in a Utopian environment with an average lifespan of 400 years. In this Utopian far future, humans have overcome the problem of repressed desire, the cause of much mental illness. They enjoy free love without jealousy. People never have to do things they don’t want to, and can even have a ship to wander the stars just by asking.

“They [the novel’s protagonists] lived in the dawn of human freedom. Masters of the star drive, citizens of a world community so wealthy it could satisfy every material desire without human labor, men went where they wanted and did what they pleased. They followed their hearts and nothing else” (14).

Jenorden A’Ley is hungry for experience, and wants more than life can give even in a time of unlimited plenty; it troubles him that the universe is so vast that, despite his three centuries of life, he cannot experience everything.

Jenorden agrees to attempt the raid on the Horta, despite the fact that their ship only has limited, defensive weapons because war is an experience that humans have taken part in for centuries, and until now Jenorden’s society has made that experience impossible for him.

During the battle with the Horta, the aliens briefly take control of Jenordan’s mind, and this increases his dissatisfaction: he realizes how much he fears death, how futile and unimportant his life is compared to the larger universe.
The people of the future are heavily into psychoanalysis. They avoid repressing their feelings, instead forcing themselves to face them and make the unconscious conscious. Apparently in the far future people have the same obsession with psychoanalyisis and existentialism that intellectuals had in the early 60s when Purdom wrote the novel.
Many different aliens appear in the novel, including believe it or not, the Borg (32-33). Two of the alien names in this book, the Horta and the Borg, are later used in Star Trek. You can only wonder if a Star Trek scriptwriter didn’t read the novel and decide to adopt the names. If Ellison had written this novel, such a person would have sued.

The Borg will answer any question and serve as teachers to many less advanced races. The humans are horrified that the Borg impart superior knowledge to primitive races because humans have recently survived a period of rapidly accelerating technology, and they fear the Borg will give immature races knowledge and power that they may not be ready for. The Borg are the all-knowing enigmatic aliens, the classical oracles, the google of the galaxy, and the novel’s central mystery becomes: what are the goals and intentions of the Borg? Events make it ambiguous whether the Borg are malevolent, well-meaning, or indifferent.

I have mixed feelings about Purdom’s aliens; they aren’t strange or alien enough. Take, for example, the Ersar-Aswero, who are roughly humanoid, five feet tall with a brain in their torso. They move in long hops (like Kangaroos presumably). They have a group mind, a strong herd instinct, and reach decisions through consensus. Their technology is primitive, and they are a warrior culture with a strong sense of honor that rely on crossbows and swords. All this is interesting, but their behavior is not that different from a tribe of humans. Purdom’s novel presents a half a dozen or so aliens; if they had been stranger and more powerfully drawn, he could really have brought the novel to life and made it far more imaginative.

Like a lot of the Ace Doubles, too much of the novel focuses on action adventure rather the development of Purdom’s interesting, ambitious ideas. I would prefer to have seen more focus placed on world building, the character development of the aliens, and the intellectual content.

I was first drawn to this novel after reading Purdom’s memoirs, “When I was writing” in the New York Review of Science Fiction. I recommend going to Purdom’s website and reading his literary memoirs ( http://www.philart.net/tompurdom/wiwone.htm ), which describe his development as a writer, when he spent a great deal of time hanging out in Philadelphia coffeehouses where the intellectual current of the day was psychoanalysis (which influences the novel). He was also fascinated by the possibility of the future offering people a great deal of leisure time, which also crops up in the novel. Any aspiring writer or fan of SF will find the memoirs interesting. You can also buy them and read them on your Kindle.

The novel’s conclusion and the revelation of the Borg’s intentions – one of the novel’s central mysteries – is not dramatized but expounded in three pages of exposition, which is a remarkably weak ending. Instead of the novel’s mysteries being revealed dramatically, the ending is largely exposition and infodump. According to Purdom’s memoirs, when he submitted his novel to Ace, they forced him to cut the text by 15%. Although Purdom states that he cut the novel page-by-page and word-by-word, it’s possible the abrupt and undramatized ending was partly a consequence of space constraints.

Will conservatives like it?

Sure, if you like obscure SF novels or Ace Doubles. This novel is not a masterpiece, but it’s an interesting and quick read that’s ambitious in theme and idea, but disappointing in execution.

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