(Michael Whelan’s cover for the 1976 edition)
Even after the underwhelming Journey to the Center (1982) I decided to give Brian M. Stableford a second chance. Unfortunately, The Florians (1976), the first in a six novel series about the adventures of the starship Daedalus, is even less impressive. Both works contain a potentially fascinating premise around which the barest framework of a story is cobbled. At least Journey the Center maintained some sense of wonder and excitement despite its incredible brevity, poor prose, disappointing ending, and dull characters. The Florians, on the other hand, fails to conjure any excitement.
The concept, expounded in an endless lecture at the beginning of the novel, covers the history of Earth’s attempts at space travel. At one point, around one hundred and eighty years before the narrative begins, colonies were established on nearby planets at great expense. When interest in colonization dwindled and Earth’s political situation deteriorated, the colonies were completely abandoned. In the narrative’s era, the One-worlders (some are Neo-Christians) believe in fixing Earth’s problems. Others, such as our hero, Alexis Alexander, believe in re-establishing contact with the abandoned colonies. The Florians is the story of the second voyage of recontact.
Brief Plot Summary
Alexis Alexander, a biologist, is assigned to the Daedelus’ crew. The purpose of the mission is to assist the old colonies in anyway possible — hence, the spaceship is fitted out as a massive laboratory. The details of which are never mentioned. Also, the skills of the crew members (whom Stableford fails to flesh out their characters or even describe their duties in more than the most cursory manner) are carefully selected in anticipation of a wide range of biological, social, or political problems.
Unfortunately, the narrative jumps from the lengthy lecture to their arrival on the planet itself. The time in between could have been used to establish the characters, establish some chemistry or lack of chemistry between characters, establish their roles and reasons for selection, or to describe the potentially fascinating spaceship which Earth put so much effort in fitting out for the expedition. Instead, the entire focus of the novel is on Alexis and most of the rest of the cast gets a sentence or two.
When the crew arrives on the planet of the Florians they have no readily apparent problems. The people appear happy, their crop yields are substantial, the planet itself is not dangerous (the plants crow in geometric patterns, there are only slug-like animals and worms, etc), and most importantly, the residents are happy to see them. However, Alexis is immediately suspicious that over the course of the one hundred and eighty years, the colonists’ bodies have grown in size (most are more than seven feet tall and some are massively obese). The rest of the crew disagree. Eventually, Alexis gets involved in a power struggle between the mysterious Planners (who regulate what the colonists can know), the police forces (who claim to desire freedom), and the town officials (who, in theory, report to the Planners).
Along with the prerequisite action sequences and tromping through swamps while lecturing on animal life, Alexis sets out to solve the mystery.
Many reviews I’ve found online describe The Florians as an intelligent man’s Star Trek episode: a cast of intergalactic explorers solve a mystery and look for another. I disagree vehemently — the Original series of Star Trek was so memorable because of the dynamic between the characters (Spock and Kirk, Kirk and Mccoy, etc). Stableford makes no attempt to construct a convincing cast. As a result, the laborious attempts at science lectures are shoddy attempts to flesh out the narrative which is sorely lacking in mystery, intrigue, and authorial ingenuity.
The theme of reestablishing contact between man and its lost colonies rightly deserves a multiple book series. However, the narrative leaps from lecture to adventure with no setting of the stage by establishing interactions and roles. The work is a mere 158 pages — the majority comprising of characters giving each other lectures in biology.
There are so many arresting themes that Stableford only briefly mentions in passing: the social ramifications of a colony detached from Earth for one hundred and eighty years, the interaction between colonists who try to maintain a link (through literature, social structure) with Earth and those who want to create a unique society more in tune with the alien world, the biological interaction between humans and an alien environment with no predators, and colonists who don’t want to recontact Earth and resist Earth’s help. Instead of moments of poignant thought-provoking sociological ruminations, the reader is subjected to the most ridiculously fortuitous ending possible after a predictable (again, action-packed) power struggle between the camps.
(Terry Oakes’ cover for 1978 edition)
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7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Florians, Brian M. Stableford (1976)”
I’ve read this entire series, but oddly enough read The Florians last. It’s not the best of them I admit. The first I read was the second, Critical Threshold, which I hugely enjoyed with its bleak portrayal of a colony that had fundamentally failed.
If you’re minded to give Stableford another try I’d give that one a go. If you don’t like that then I wouldn’t push on though, as for me Critical Threshold is among his best.
If I find a copy of Critical Threshold I’ll pick it up. I was gravely disappointed with this one…
If you can find the British edition (published by Hamlyn, I think), it’s got a stunning cover picture of a dense, green forest with beams of sunlight shining through with a wonderful iridescence. It quite matches the atmosphere of the forest that completely covers the planet the novel is set on.
Ah yes, here it is.
The first edition seems like a poor pastiche of it!
I read both these books many years ago (“The Florians” and “Critical Threshold”), and feel ambiguous about them. I find this review rather harsh, and don’t think the book is as bad as this, although it is somewhat heavy reading in some ways, although quite interesting if you can keep your focus on it. I think Stableford is probably more interested in the biology of all the situations he describes than in the development of character, and that obviously shows in the books. They are effectively biological mysteries, and quite interesting on that level. But yes, rather dry from a human standpoint.
The lack of interaction between the characters doesn’t seem quite as bad as cited: I do seem to remember an ongoing theme which explores the conflict between Alexis Alexander, interested in the scientific aspects of things, and Nathan Parrick, oriented towards the sociological and political aspects, which Alexander tends to despise rather – and this does create conflict between these two – in various novels of the series. (I haven’t read all six, despite meaning to – I read the first two, and I think I started one or two of the others but didn’t finish – as I said, they can be rather heavy at times, and I may not always be in the mood for that. I may have finished “Wildeblood’s Empire” and “City of the Sun”, but don’t seem to recall – it was a long time ago. Maybe it’s time I gave this series another try.)
I would agree with the suggestion to read “Critical Threshold”, if you feel inclined to give Stableford another try at all. Yes, it was heavy – but wanting to find out the cause of the very strange events in the story kept me going – and the answer does come eventually, towards the end. But yes, be prepared for the biology lectures – that is apparently just part of Stableford’s style. I am not trained in biology, but I could more or less follow what he was on about – albeit it with a slight effort. There are some pretty atmospheric descriptions too of the dense forest that covers this planet. The whole novel has a rather dark, sinister feel to it, too.
Or go back to an early novel such as “Cradle of the Sun”, which may be slightly lighter, and maybe a bit easier to read (although I couldn’t quite figure out what the last couple of chapters were about, although presumably they were meant to resolve the mystery behind the quest and long journey the characters were engaged on).
I’m glad that you’ve taken the time to read my review and write such a detailed response!
I found the character interaction downright abysmal. There’s the brief intro chapter which is a lengthy dialogue about whether to explore space or not and then suddenly, a disperate group of characters with different skills (of which most are never explained) are thrust into the middle of a situation and immediately separated. There were no chapters on the voyage which would have consolidated our conception of their roles and interactions. I found that a great missed opportunity. Most of the novel is not interaction between Alexander and Nathan but Alexander and the female characters whose name I’ve forgotten.
In the two books of his I’ve read (Journey to the Center being the other one) Stableford has a great idea and then completely muddles the delivery. His books are incredibly short even for 1970s standards because he ignores to a great extent all but the vaguest framework of the narrative — which he much rather laborious lecture at you then show. Yes, the book is a biology lecture. A dull one at that. Yes, he’s not interested in characters but at least he should make the movements — a few words perhaps from all of them instead of nebulous figures in the background who are supposedly brilliant individuals selected for the voyager with unique skills!
The series has the inklings of great potential — but I’ve been so unimpressed with Stableford’s work so far that it’s going to take me a while to pick up another one of his works.
I have the Critical Threshold edition Michael refers to, and it is a great cover for it.