(Paul Alexander’s cover for the 1978 edition)
After finishing John Morressy’s Frostworld and Dreamfire (1977), I tracked down another volume of his Del Whitby sequence. Although far from as engaging and emotionally affective as the former, Under a Calculating Star (1975) provides the historical background to the Morressy’s weirdly primitive far future world: the origins of the Sternverein (the dominant business polity), the explanation of why swords and knives are the weapons of choice while high-tech spaceships roam the interstellar expanses, and the role of Old Earth in the colonization of the far flung reaches. Historical content aside, Under a Calculating Star‘s plot and characters fail to engage and the worlds and societies are one-dimensional in comparison to Frostworld and Dreamfire‘s metamorphic Onhla and the planet Hraggellon, locked in its unusual orbit.
Recommended only if you enjoyed Frostworld and Dreamfire (1977) and want to know more about Morressy’s universe.
Analysis/Brief Plot Summary
Under a Calculating Star‘s basic plot is divided into two distinct sections. Part I focuses on Kian Jorry’s attempt to acquire Leddendorf’s treasure (the founder of the Sternverein) in the ancient citadel on Broq-Thaddoi with a crew of humanoid aliens with unique talents. Part II takes the reader to the planet of Xanchos, where various groups of humanoid slaves have rebelled against their masters. While the power at the top has been rearranged, those at the bottom remain oppressed. The universally maligned Quespodons, led by one of Jorry’s crewmen Axxal, are liberated from their new masters and learn the secret as to why their race has “allowed” itself to be enslaved across the galaxy. While the main characters link the disparate sections, the general theme of the intricate schemes and mechanisms of liberation and oppression, tie both together.
The entirety of Part I feels like a poorly moderated D&D adventure where the DM tells you in a droning, sleep-inducing voice, the next bland challenge–dangerous plants, a steep cliff to climb, etc. You role some dice, a character dies, but as no one in the group has any emotional attachment to their character, their eyes glaze over waiting for the mission’s completion…. It reads like a halfhearted afterthought, a formulaic quest to introduce the main narrative. Interspersed are sections describing the history of the Morressy’s future (discussed below) that momentarily jolted me from the banality. In addition, the intense racism the Quespodons have experienced as the galaxy’s beasts of burden (4) indicates the narrative core of Part II. Eventually Jorry, a k’Turalp’Pa whose sole pleasure was “to plan” grand quests and conquests (27), and Axxal, a particularly intelligent Quespodon, escape from the citadel of Broq-Thaddoi with a few pieces of the Leddendorf treasure.
I found Part II far more engaging. Jorry and Axxall arrive on the planet Xanchos after a transfer of leadership. The new king, Gariv led a rebellion of slaves yet maintains control over his onetime allies. While Jorry schemes to acquire Gariv’s wife, Axxall, who for many generations has not returned to his home planet, learns how the atmosphere of his own planet stunted the intellectual growth of his people. He begins to plot his own liberation movement and rewrites his people’s past.
I finished Under a Calculating Star due to the historical context fragments that give heft to Morressy’s future universe.
Origin Stories: One of the main themes of the novel is the power of the origin story–the racial narrative that propels its adherents across the galaxy or justifies their enslavement. While Jorry, with his endless scheming, lives the established story of his own people, Axxal rewrites the narrative of his people’s past. The reflexive looking back to move forward, allows Morressy to interject origin accounts of his own imagined future. For example, we learn the backstory to the polity that holds the most power across the galaxy, the Sternverein: it was founded by a man named Leddendorf, who convinced his chief rivals to “join him in forming a trading league with their own private security force” (8). An East India Company of the future!
In addition, the pairing of primitive technology common on most planets (knives, beasts of burden, a lack of engines) with complex intergalactic ships is explained: the first pioneers fled Old Earth in “foolproof” spaceships with “no knowledge of their vessels’ operations” (81). When they landed on alien worlds they “rejected the history that had driven them to the stars” (82) leaving their children with spaceships but no knowledge of how to pilot them. While the Sterverein and others might still use them hundreds of years later, they do not know how they function and do not build new ones. [I find this entire concept illogical and hokey.]
On the various human colonies and among the humanoid aliens, despite the presence of spacecraft that occasionally land on their planets, the drive to create new technology of learn how old technology works does not exist. Morressy’s universe is one of decadent miasma, the cycles of power and defeat, liberation and oppression, repeat themselves in endless variation. Axxal, desperate to break free from strictures placed on his people and fascination with the workings of the spaceships he crews, possibly represents a pivot point in Morressy’s future.
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(John Cayea’s cover for the 1975 edition)
(Tim White’s cover for the 1978 edition)
10 thoughts on “Book Review: Under a Calculating Star, John Morressy (1975)”
I actually like the first part of the book, perhaps because I don’t see it as something derived from RPGs but something from which RPGs were derived. It’s also a bit Rogue Moon. Alastair Reynolds uses something similar in his novella, Diamond Dogs. And then there’s the New World Pictures movie Galaxy of Terror…
I’m not implying that it was derived from RPGs. Rather, it felt like an RPG gone awry…. I disliked the initial section intensely. It was the blandest of action stories.
I still haven’t read Rogue Moon.
It’s many years since I last read it so my memory may be playing me false but I remember enjoying it. But I take your point. I’d reread it but it’s one of the many books that went into storage when I moved to Sweden last month.
If you do a Morressy read through at some point, I’d recommend starting with Dreamfire!
I’m still going to track down a copy of Starbrat — the first in the sequence.
Morressy’s fascination with history — be that the Remembrancers in Dreamfire and the centrality of origin stories in Under a Calculating Star hint at a thematic core idea that 70s SF seldom touched. I found that far more engaging than the narrative itself in the latter novel.
I hope your Sweden adventure goes well!
You summed it up well. The first part was adventure just for having adventure, the meat of the story was Axaal helping his fellow Quespodons and finding out that he is as smart as anyone. It rated 3/5, the way I put it in my review was “It is not a disappointment because characters are true to themselves.” I went on to recommend different Morressy books, Ironbrand, Graymantle, Kingsbane trilogy. I could have added Frostworld and Dreamfire which I’m sure I liked more, but that was in 1982 and I can’t remember a thing about it.
Hello John, thanks for stopping by!
I read your review and agreed with your rather ambivalent stance.
That said, if you are to reread any parts of the series, definitely start with Frostworld (I have a link to my review above) — it’s a really good stand alone novel.
There are elements of Under a Calculating Star I actively disliked other than part I: In many ways I was disturbed by the idea of Axxal’s “racial purity” (living outside his homeplanet with no intermarriage with other people) “liberating” him… I found the implications sinister and terrifying.
The racial purity didn’t enter into my head, because I figured they were different species and it would be impossible to interbreed. Being a 12th generation emigrant, just meant to me space travel was difficult.
Ha. Ambivalent, yes. I think you read one of my Brunner reviews and had to ask me whether I liked it. I’ll see if I can make it more clear in the future and still allow people to form their own opinion. I post the same reviews on Goodreads, they have a separate field for rating that I always mark.
I’ll check when I get back home John, but I’m almost positive that they can intermarry as they are all humanoids…. When he discusses why him and Vaxxal are intelligent when his species seems not to be, if I remember correctly, there’s a moment where he mentions intermarriage.
Great review. I have the Tim White cover and absolutely love the art work. I haven’t read this yet. Loved Starbrat and I must confess this sounds like it might be in a similar vein. Honestly, the review makes me want to read it all the more! Perhaps I’m just a sucker for a space adventure story.
Thanks! It feels like two stories uncomfortably jammed together — cool ideas but poor delivery. I found Frostworld far superior — characters, world, oblique hints at Sterverein history, etc.