Fiction Reviews

The City Among the Stars

(1962 / 2020) Francis Carsac, Flame Tree Press, £9.99 / US$14.99, pbk, 240pp, ISBN 978-1-787-58423-5


This is the first translation into English of Pour Patrie, L’Espace, originally published in 1962. It is the third book in the 'Ligue des Terres' sequence; it appears that these are books which share the same general setting rather than being a series. The novel was translated by Judith Sullivan and Margaret Schiff. I tell you this because the book fails to mention them. Francis Carsac is the pseudonym of scientist, geologist, and archaeologist Francoise Bordes. The book was written in what many regard as the Golden Age of Science Fiction.

Tankar Holroy is a Lieutenant in the Stellar Guard of Emperor Ktius. He did not have much choice; he was taken from his parents at the age of three and since then has been brought up and trained by the Guard. He is a high-grade soldier, well skilled in the arts of fighting and killing, of planning and winning battles. His background has ensured he has little thought for the rights and wrongs of the Empire, though he is aware that the current run of Emperors have not lived up to their forbears and he is contemptuous of the current one. There is rebellion afoot; it is doing well and the continuation of the Emperor is threatened. Holroy is dispatched on a mission to summon reinforcements, unaware that his spaceship has been sabotaged. It is only by luck that he was not killed but he has been left floating in space with only a few hours of air in his space suit.

Incredibly, his SOS had been received and he wakes up on board the Tilsin, a five kilometre-long spaceship/city. The Teknor explains that he is welcome to remain on the ship or he can be dropped off if they pass a suitable planet. Holroy discovers that the Tilsin is one of many such city-ships, which were built hundreds of years ago when the then current emperor threatened the freedom of technicians, artists, writers, monks, and other free thinkers, and they responded by a mass escape. Since then the city-ships have had nothing to do with Earth.

Holroy soon finds that, whilst he is allowed to remain on the Tilsin, the city-ship folks hold planetaries, as they call people who live on planets rather in space, in low regard and he is regarded by some as no more than a pariah, especially as he comes from the hated Empire. He also comes to find the real reason why he was rescued; the Teknor is hoping that he will reveal to them the tracker technology which helps the Emperor’s forces track other vessels in hyperspace. The city-ships are threatened by an alien race, the Mpfifis, who are bent on their destruction, and tracker technology will enable them to evade attacks. Deeply upset by the scorn with which the citizenry hold him, Holroy rapidly develops an attitude of non-co-operation and denies the existence of such technology. He does, in fact, not only know of trackers but also how to build them. Sadly the poor relations between Holroy and the citizens will have dire consequences for so many. Eventually he may become a wiser man, but his training in the Guards did not set him up for such broadminded understanding.

This has just set the scene, the story is about Holroy’s time on board the Tilsin and what he learns of that world and its people and, more importantly in the end, how he eventually matures and reaches deeper understanding.

So how did such an ‘old’ book stand up against more modern science fiction? Pretty well I thought. I found that the story ticked along nicely, with a number of plot lines that illustrated life on city-ships as well as explaining the back history of both them and the Empire. Whereas many, more modern, books feature lots of page-filling detail without moving the story on, this nicely combined details with story without either getting in the way of the other. Whilst the story avoided the excessive navel-gazing of some more modern novels, Holroy still got to do a lot of soul searching. The style was a little more factual than some of today’s chatty delivery so some might find it a touch flat, though it was far from a problem and I found it perfectly readable.

Predicting future technology is always difficult and, whilst the ships used hyperdrives and utilised anti-gravity shafts rather than lifts (elevators), music was still on magnetic media and moving pictures were on film. The author had not predicted the huge advance of chip technology and memories, small solid state devices, flat screens, etc... But then, how much of today’s predictive fiction will get it all right?

Carsac is popular in eastern Europe and has been translated into Russian, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Lithuanian, Latvian, and Estonian, and I am glad he has now been translated into English. All told, I thought it a good read.

Peter Tyers


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