Brian M. Stableford’s Journey to the Center (1982) is a poor man’s Ringworld (1970) mixed with a light dose of Pohl’s Gateway (1977). The combination is pleasantly surprising in parts but also downright dull. Stableford’s alien species are interchangeable and uninteresting and his descriptions of the world — although a fantastic idea — fail to encapsulate the awe Asgard should inspire.
The tone, verging on light-hearted, does not suit the subject matter and despite Asgard’s supposedly omnipresent dangers the fear the characters are experiencing (in theory) does not permeate the pages. In short, Journey to the Center is a quick read that does not live up to its potential in any shape or form. However, the work shows promise and certainly won’t be the last Stableford I’ll purchase.
Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
Mike Rousseau lives among hundreds of other humanoid species on the larger than Earth-sized “planet” Asgard controlled by the Tetrons (a superior race). Asgard (layered like an onion), is more like a Dyson sphere than a planet. Asgard’s original occupants are all long dead, supposedly.
The various humanoid species live on Asgard for sole purpose of scavenging its endless hallways, levels, cities, with the overwhelming goal to discover a way to “the center.” The center is theorized to contain a small sun which powered all the systems of the planet or planet moving engines. With an inactive power source the layers below the surface are progressively colder and the scavengers wear insulated cold suits.
Our hero Mike is framed for a murder by various other alien species. Under Tetron law, criminals can be purchased for a certain period of time as a slave — those who framed Mike desire to use his prodigious scavenging skills for their own expedition. However, before he signs the slavery contract a female Star Force captain “rescues him” — again, in order to utilize his skills for her own expedition — tracking down an “android” (think PKD’s non-mechanical androids) who has fled into cold interior of Asgard. Mike is conscripted into the Star Force under the command of Captain Susarma Lear and sets off on an expedition…
Final Thoughts (some spoilers)
Journey to the Center‘s ending is downright anti-climactic — few of Asgard’s secrets are revealed — the work is plagued by a virulent strain of Ringworld syndrome. Did Stableford plan on writing a sequel (he did more than a decade later)? Or, did Stableford run out of ideas? Novels hinging on huge scientific concepts often fail at the final delivery to wow the reader… That’s definitely the downfall of this work.
Stableford’s prose is mostly competent, his protagonist is a light-hearted Indiana Jones-esque non-entity, and the world is intriguing but hollow (no pun intended). Recommended (mostly) on rather dubious grounds…