There you are, a maverick captain in a humans-only Galactic Federation. You're chafing at the bit, because the Federation keeps lonely humanity fenced within the Perimeter, past which ships are not allowed. Weapons are illegal, exploration is illegal, and you feel spiritually choked by the GF. Suddenly, a signal is received from a planet far outside the Perimeter where a ship was lost decades earlier. What do you do?
If you said, "Put together an illegal armed exploratory mission with a crew that doesn't know what the hell's going on," you're going to love The Star Sailors, a heartily retro novel from Gary Bennett, retired physicist and Emmett resident. Written in a style that all but screams John W. Campbell, Bennett's updated novel, originally published in 1980, is a paean to science fiction's Golden Age, when paperback shelves and magazine racks were ruled by giants like Asimov, Heinlein and Clarke.
However, most of what was produced then, revered authors or not, was poorly written by modern standards. Flat characterization, stories that were written around solving a problem instead of relating a narrative, stereotypes galore and execrable dialogue: these were the norm of Golden Age science fiction (that may still be the case, but it was worse then; go read some and see). Unfortunately, by adamantly sticking to Golden Age tropes, Bennett falls into the same traps.
For example, much of the dialogue--particularly that of Coni Sanderson, the only female character of any substance--rings like tin, partly because Bennett repeatedly uses 10 words where five would do. About every two pages or so, I found myself thinking, "Show me, don't tell me," and after 50 pages, I started saying it out loud. Oddly, as the overall effect accumulates to a sense of condescension, Bennett seems to think that readers share his erudition, throwing in a slew of classical allusions. The back cover blurb alone refers to Homer, Greek mythology and Zoroastrianism; when combined with the chapter-heading quotes (ranging from Edgar Rice Burroughs to Ezra Pound), even the most agile reader may be overwhelmed.
Then there's the political slant. Most "hard" science fiction has a libertarian bent, because most of the authors who write in that genre lean that way. Their heroes tend to be individualistic, competent men and women who trust in themselves and their friends, have little use for bureaucratic bullshit, and see exploration and understanding the universe as humanity's highest calling. Anybody who's ever read in the genre will recognize this; it's been a constant, from Robert Heinlein to Larry Niven to Allen Steele and the hundreds in-between. Bennett isn't satisfied with leaning this way; he stands in the road and jumps up and down. One of the "subtexts" is the importance of weapons to maintaining civilization, but it's not that submerged; on page 3, he comes right out and says, "Like it or not, civilization existed because of weapons." For those who missed it, it gets said a couple more times.
The slant isn't the problem; it comes with the territory, and even if you don't agree, it's pretty mild compared to some views (Heinlein was accused of flirting with fascism at times, and that was before he started to get strange). What becomes an issue is the insistence with which Bennett hammers the theme home. Anybody can write a position statement, but why put it in a novel? The story should come first, and the book reads like Bennett forgot this.
Despite the heavy-handedness of the politics and the bewildering array of allusions, there are interesting things going on. Much of the science, while realistic in most cases and plausible in the rest, is nothing Star Trek fans haven't seen thousands of times, but Bennett describes it in great detail, deriving most of his terms for GF technology from Greek, and as a result achieves an almost-hallucinatory beauty in some of his technojargon stretches (my personal favorite is the organic-sounding "ergon impeller"). Once the Odyssey reaches its destination, the physical descriptions of what they find and the subsequent action unfolds fairly well, although this section is a bit rushed and depends on a deus ex machina at the end (saying more would give away plot points). And, even though there was a level of insecurity in the constant, the wealth of allusions showed Bennett had some faith in his readers, which is more than a lot of authors can say.
Overall, the novel is an ambitious one and Bennett gets points for that ambition. Here's hoping he tries again.