Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Review - Revolt on Alpha C by Robert Silverberg

Short review: Young cadet joins a revolution for poorly explained reasons.

Stark joins the patrol
Harl says the patrol is bad
Stark drops the patrol

Full review: I have always liked Silverberg, so I was happy to come across a book of his aimed at younger readers I thought I could recommend to my son. Unfortunately, Revolt on Alpha C isn't all that good.

Larry Stark and Harl Ellison are space cadets of the patrol fresh from the Academy on their first space cruise. As luck would have it, they are on their way to the colony orbiting Alpha Centauri. On the way, Larry, the protagonist of the story, strikes up a friendship with a "lower class" space hand from the engineering section and learns that Harl was born on a colony that had been wiped out when it revolted against Earth. Larry also has a fairly exciting scene outside the ship.

Once they arrive at Alpha C, they find that the colony is a powder keg set to explode into open revolt - with the planetary government forced into exile and the spaceport closed. After landing at the (somewhat) loyal Chicago Colony, the captain takes some fairly limited actions that are portrayed as being excessively heavy handed. Harl attempts to convince Larry that the colonists are the good guys - mostly by just saying that over and over again. Eventually, Harl goes over to the rebellious colonists. After much hemming and hawing, Larry does too.

The problem with the book is that the plot is so poorly developed. Yes, it is a short book. Yes, it is aimed at younger readers. But for that, I would have expected to see a more well thought out argument in favor of the colonists than "they are right, Earth and the patrol are wrong" repeated over and over again with a couple of token "no taxation without representation" comments scattered about. Maybe some sort of example of the injustices that Earth has worked on the colonies, especially since we are expected to believe (and presumably support) Larry's rejection of his position as a member of the patrol to throw in his lot with the rag tag colonists.

Questions also spring to mind as to whether Alpha C could actually revolt - there are supposedly only about five thousand colonists on the planet, and given that they are stated to import almost everything except meat and ivory, one wonders if they could sustain a society without facing possible off-world hostility, let alone deal with the patrol. There's also the slightly disturbing aspect that there seem to be no female characters anywhere in the book, not even as background scenery as part of a crowd scene or something. As far as I can tell, the colonies are single sex male fraternities. I suppose this is supposed to be hand waved away on the grounds that it is a book aimed at young boys, but these sorts of plot weaknesses are so glaring that they would probably be obvious even to a ten year old.

In the end, this is a very weak effort from a usually good writer. One thing that I noticed was that any time a character was angry with another character they said things "coldly" or looked at them "coldly", which was noticeable for the number of times it happened, and the number of times the exact same description was used. I suppose a very young reader who didn't think about the plot holes too much might enjoy it. But any kid who spends any time thinking about what he has read will probably find Larry's conversion unconvincing, and the colonists' cause unappealing.

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  1. Oh my gosh. I barely remember this. Didn't much like it. Huh.

  2. @Julia Rachel Barrett: Not really. Even as a piece of work presumably simplified for tween sensibilities, this is a pretty weak story.

  3. Silverberg wrote some masterpieces, but he also wrote plenty of stinkers. If you're looking for some older stuff that's kid friendly (and also good), i'd recommend anything by Andre Norton, or some of the YA stuff that Heinlein wrote.

  4. @redhead: I have a lot of Silverberg, although a lot of his work that I have is still unread. For me to be able to read more Heinlein or Norton they'd have to rise from the grave and begin writing again.

  5. this brings back some good memories i read this book back in elementary school it was basically The American Revolution in space. i liked it but some better illustrations would have served the story well.

    1. @Shlomo: It is a decent enough children's book, but it is incredibly simplistic even when judged on a generous curve.