(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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