Book Review: Singularity Station, Brian N. Ball (1973)

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(Chris Foss’ cover for the 1973 edition)

4/5 (Good)

If one were to distill 70s space opera in a decanter filled with SF pulp the result would be Singularity Station (1973).  Combined with the dynamic Chris Foss cover — I’ve never enjoyed his work but it does embody the vigor and explosiveness of the novel — Brian N. Ball’s vision is an veritable adolescent SF wet dream filled with robots, cutting edge science (in this case, 60s speculation on the nature of black holes), a love interest (not the 30s/40s pulp versions) in distress, a mad scientist, and inventive spaceships and space stations.

70s pulp at its best.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

Al Buchanan is a man wrecked by depression.  His command, the massive spaceship the Altair Star, was sucked into the the Jansky Singularity (which contains a black hole and a vast sargasso see of trapped spaceships).  The robots who controlled most of the functions of the vessel ejected the control module saving Buchanan but condemning the rest to death — or rather, whatever state exists inside of the singularity.

Buchanan is judged innocent of losing his command due to the failure of the robots to relinquish their control of the vessel in the last moments. In this post-calamity state, he meets Liz Deffant, an intelligent and resourceful biologist, who becomes his fiancé.  However, their relationship does not last due to his instability and she decides to head back to her home planet.

Buchanan has a single vague hope — that he will be selected to captain a research station near the Jansky singularity that will study the phenomenon and prevent other ships from entering it.  Perhaps with further study the Altair Star can be extricated from the phenomenon.  Another spaceship command is impossible due to the trend towards complete automatization via robotic minds of spaceflight.  Buchanan is whiskers away from receiving his wish when Mrs. Blankfort, a psychologist on his job examination panel,  narrows in on what makes him unsuitable for the command, his continuing guilt and desperation over the loss of the Altair Star.  But there are shady motives at play — namely Kochan, the head of the panel, who secretly wants him to gain the position at Jansky Singularity Station.

The second plot line follows Liz Deffant, on her way to her home planet, due to her position as a biologists gains unorthodox transit (in order to cut the time of her journey) on a prison ship.  These massive vessels have a small security detail and crew and are mostly, as is increasingly common, run by robotic minds.  Ball is quite adept (in a pulpy way) at portraying the way in which the prisoners are encapsulated, with strange expressions, in their stasis tubes: “A green iridescence picked out the features of the expellees.  Young, old, some women but mostly men.  Near-naked bodies bobbed in a pulsating ooze. All the minds blotted out, monitored by machines below the tanks” (44).

These prisoners are scheduled to be jettisoned on habitable planets with the bare minimum needed for survival.  One of the prisoners is Maran, and he has figured out a way to escape!  And, his genius lies not only with robotic programming, but all the secrets of the human mind!  Perhaps most dangerous of all, this radical seems strangely convincing…

Both Liz Deffant’s storyline on the prison vessel with Maran and Buchanan’s arrival on the Jansky Singularity Station collide in spectacular fashion.

Final Thoughts

Singularity Station is a revolt against all that the New Wave movement of the previous few years embodied.  The prose is utilitarian — there is a story and it must be told, no FRILLS! — the ultimate message simplistic, the characters although emotionally unsettled persevere through all adversity, and there is not an modicum of social commentary or philosophical rumination.  Although there are many similar works from the period (Poul Anderson’s 60s/70s Dominic Flandry novels come to mind), there is something refreshing/incredibly nostalgic and readable about Ball’s narrative.

For fans of space opera, pulp, and others wanting to dabble in what our younger selves probably considered to be SF elixir…

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18 Replies to “Book Review: Singularity Station, Brian N. Ball (1973)”

      1. “Horrid” seems a bit strong to me, but yeah, I too have never cared for an illustration style that leaves nothing to the imagination (and that’s the style that dominated from 1975 onward). When it comes to the depiction of hardware like spaceships, I much prefer John Berkey’s painterly approach. He always kept things somewhat mysterious – you were never 100% sure about the details of the objects he depicted.

      2. Yeah, I find Foss’ work plain, dull, and too “descriptive”…

        …it never feels “inspired by” the story it illustrates, rather, “describing” something about a scene. Also, he tends to repeat a series of spaceship forms interchangeably — which in itself isn’t an issue. But, he often feels uninspired by what he’s illustrating.

    1. But have you read any of the books I’ve reviewed/enjoyed? You might discover our tastes are not the same — hahaha 😉

      If you like pulp, this is good. I personally am not a fan of pulp in the slightest but still thought this was fun to read and very nostalgic.

          1. I don’t know if we “disagree” so much as I have less taste for the New Wave than you seem to. And likely, some of my guilty pleasures would meet with some disdain. :p
            To your credit, I think, I haven’t read most of the books reviewed on here. My own blog has a different axe to grind, so I’m less familiar with older things.

            1. Ah yes, people do seem to have a love hate relationship with the era. I’m generally more inclined to like well-written (and yes, what genre readers call “overwritten” is generally rather normal for literature — hehe) SF… And I like how authors of the movement tried to be inventive, literary, etc. In a genre plagued by a severe lack of invention — which is striking considering that it’s supposedly futuristic, open to imagination but makes sense considering original audiences — I applaud these attempts. And yes, they certainly don’t always come off brilliantly, that’s for sure.

  1. I’ve been interested in reading this one for a while. The set-up sounds a little like the end of Pohl’s “Gateway” — the guilt over someone abandoned beyond a black hole’s event horizon.

    Weird that you mention Anderson’s Flandry books — just before reading this I posted something about “Flandry of Terra.”

  2. That does sound like fun. I am not ashamed to admit that your description of this, and like novels, are part of what I look for when I read older science fiction. Those kind of works give me a great sense of nostalgia.

    I am not a fan of Foss’ work either, but this one is actually eye-catching to me in ways his art usually is not. The ship doesn’t make sense, but I like it nonetheless.

      1. I never visit your site without adding books to my long list of those to either track down in used bookstores or, when the mood strikes, to seek out online to add to my ever-growing pile. This and Rax, another one you recently reviewed, are two of the latest.

        1. From the ones I’ve reviewed recently I also recommend C. L. Moore’s Doomsday Morning (1957) — but, you need to be in the mood, it’s definitely is 50s in feel. And Bishops’ And Strange at Ecbatan the Trees (variant title: Beneath the Shattered Moons) (1976).

      2. You’re welcome. And I’m going to plug this one as long as I live — Katherine MacLean’s Missing Man (1975) — reviewed it quite a while back when my site had less readers…. So you might not have seen the review.

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