Talking with an artist friend recently, we agreed that what we’re in it for is those peak creative times when everything flows and the ideas rush faster than we can capture them. The horrible problem, of course, is the brevity of those periods compared with the amount of time spent keeping body and soul together until the next one comes around.
So it is with the Void Pilot, a junkie with the strangest jones of all. Qualifications for the position: must be female, with an addictive personality profile, and willing to become a cyborg. Without her total cooperation the Dragon Zephyr doesn’t go anywhere. What the Pilot lives for is the moment that propels the starship through hyperspace. What’s in it for her is an incomparable transcendent brief union with the Great and Only, when “the universe of space and time is reduced to an unseemly intrusion.” All the rest of life is a mere shadow realm.
As for the Captain, his duties on this vessel, where the great majority of passengers sleep in electrocoma, are few. The worst thing that could go wrong is, the Pilot could die in mid-Jump, in which case the ship gets lost in the time-space discontinuity, never to reach its destination. The Captain’s job consists mainly of social and symbolic obligations to the small number who stay awake, the Honored Passengers for whom the journey is the equivalent of a Caribbean cruise.
The coldness of a high-tech environment, not to mention the sight of the naked stars, can lead through madness to death. For the sanity and entertainment of the passengers, the starship is a “floating cultura,” a mobile hybrid of Versailles-in-the-sky and Plato’s Retreat. In charge of their social, artistic, and libininal well-being is the Domo. This exceptionally beautiful woman completes the trio of major characters who fill archetypal roles. Captain and Domo and high priest and priestess of the cultura, as well as the parent figures for the passengers; that they should be partners in the tantric arts for the duration of the trip is not a written rule but an unexceptioned precedent.
The serpent in this Eden is the very atypical Pilot, Dominique Alia Wu, who violates protocol and decency to seduce the Captain in every possible sense, infecting him with a terrible malaise. As Dominque puts it, “Adam has indigestion cosmique,” which grows into an obsessive drive to experience not only the ultimate peak experience but the pain for which there is no balm. He can have what he wants from the Pilot, in return for what she wants: to get so far out she will never come back. The price is great: for technical reasons it will be necessary to take along more than 10,000 people into the Great and Lonely.
Aside from the writing, which very effectively creates a world, this story seizes my imagination because of the theme of forbidden love. Ever since I was a kid warned not to play with the boy next door, the idea that anyone should presume to tell me who I’m allowed to befriend or love ignites something like rage. It’s an imposition that simply won’t be borne. Furthermore, sexual obsession isn’t about pretty or nice, but involves much darker and more elemental forces. The other compelling thing is that the stakes are so high. It’s not only a spouse or two, and a few kids, or even the fatally attracted lovers, who will suffer if the pair succumb to their respective manias. 10,000 lives will be destroyed along with them. That is, as we used to say in the Sixties, heavy.
Norman Spinrad is definitely a poet whose opulent imagination adorns a strong foundation of knowledge in psychology, aesthetics, sociology, linguistics, and Eastern mysticism. We have become familiar with the generation of writers concerned with the transportation of humanistic values into space. The Void Captain’s Tale represents what might be called second generation new wave science fiction, in which the existence of sex is not only acknowledged, but the nuances of the phenomenon explored more comprehensively than in most mainstream fiction. The style of the work is unique, intense and mythic. The more the reader brings to it, the more s/he will find.