Book Review: Moonstar Odyssey, David Gerrold (1977)

(Gene Szafran’s cover for the 1st edition)

4.5/5 (Very Good)

David Gerrold’s Moonstar Odyssey (1977) is a careful and introspective reflection on identity and gender set in a fascinating world made habitable by terraforming.  While the back cover suggests the presence of a driving narrative–the fulfillment of a prophecy propelled by a catastrophic cataclysm–instead, Gerrold’s novel is a bildungsroman that follows the self-realization of a precocious child named Jobe.  The dominate struggle that forms the core of the novel is “The Choice”–the moment in a young person’s life when they chose to move from their androgynous state to either “Reethe [or] Dakka, between female and male” (11).

Considering how unknown the novel remains, I suspect the adult content of Moonstar Odyssey’s complex parable (adolescent sexuality and overt parallels and commentary on 70s societal views on homosexuality and transsexuality) frightened readers expecting a more traditional story. This is a radical vision for the 70s (and in many ways considering current debates of transsexuality, the present)–a clarion call for acceptance and love regardless of one’s sexuality.

Moonstar Odyssey deserves a reprint and serious academic study.

Brief Analysis/Plot Summary

The planet Satlin was a barren and cratered rock without life and “almost totally lacking atmosphere, and bathed by actinic radiation strong enough to kill” before a long-term terraforming project (31). The project, still continuing 500 years after human settlement, involved crashing icy asteroids into the surface, freeing groundwater, introducing plants and microbes, constructing 14 vast shields to protect the inhabitants from radiation, etc. The current map of the planet shows “more than half a million small islands dotting the seas like stepping stones; many of them are shaped like crescents—the map is a swirling pattern of loops and circles, the legacy of the planet’s cratered past. Larger craters have become long circular chains of mountainous islands sketched around peaceful seas” (34). The map (see below) included in the novel gives a good impression of the landscape (*).

On the island of Kossarlin, Jobe is born in the middle of a storm: “My birth was a day of storms and other ill omens, and I believe that my life has been darkly colored not just by my own pain, but also by my family’s knowledge of my uneven beginning” (15). Families on Satlin are polyamorous and can involve any number of bonded husbands and wives. New members can be regularly be introduced into the family. The most unique element of the evolution of humans on Satlin is their ability to choose one’s gender at puberty (described as  two stages, first and second blush). Satlin society encourages youth to experiment with various sexual pairings, possible after first blush, before settling on Reethe (the female god of the land) or Dakka (the tempestuous god of storms). All members are described by female pronouns despite choosing a gender. A few individuals are prevented by disease and other factors from choosing and remain in their androgynous state as outcasts.

The novel follows Jobe’s slow realization of the nature of her world and her struggle to identify her place within it.  While her friends and family members identify clear paths, Jobe reflects that “I moved tentatively, cautiously, unsure that I would ever be somebody” (16). Jobe unable to settle on her gender is sent to the island of Option to learn about the world and herself. Jobe retreats within herself, less and less sure of her identity. A ferocious cataclysm, a spaceship crashes through one of the shields allowing radiation and heat to pour into her home region, drives Jobe to desperate action.

Final Thoughts

My main critique is a structural one. Despite its short length, Moonstar Odyssey is far from cohesive. Gerrold deploys a whole range of storytelling strategies that seldom mesh. Jobe tells her story through autobiographical first person reflection in addition to third person chapters that propel the story quickly from one important moment her life to another. In a jarring manner, pages 31-37 interject an odd dose of dense hard science related to the history of terraforming on Satlik and current experimental projects on various islands. Is Jobe recounting this section for the reader? If so, why? How did she learn this information? Was it added later?

More successful to the thematic core of the novel are three short chapters on the youthful lovers Rurik and Lono—a Satlin myth from three hundred years earlier in an era where only a few individuals had Choice and society was far from accepting. In the myth, Rurik is forced by her father to choose Dakka over Reethe. Lono, who choose with her family’s support Dakka, continues to live with Rurik as societal outcasts. The myth muses on the importance of stories of past intolerance as lenses for the present, and the transcendent and liberating nature of love regardless of gender: “let them love now; it is all they have left” (96). Gerrold does not present contemporary Satlik society as free of prejudice–just as Rurik and Lono’s love was not accepted by all, individuals such as Sola, who were unable to make a choice and remain androgynous, are treated as outcasts. Gerrold uses Sola’s musing on the legend as a “truth” that applies to the present:

We sometimes forget that same-Choice affection was rarely expressed in those times, and, in fact, was something that an unchosen felt she dare not admit within herself for fear of being shown as a deviate or worse, wrong-chosen. Now that we know more of the wider spectrum of human Choice, we can only pity those who felt they had to live in fear (102).

The rationale Jobe recording her early life is far from clear. In addition, the rather nebulous (but positive) ending–possibly in parallel with the legend Rurik and Lono, suggests that Jobe’s life, and the hodgepodge structure novel with its layers of accumulation, is itself a myth. And, in the words of Sola, “A myth is the only way we can ever know the truth” (80).

Superior in every way to the other two Gerrold novels I’ve read: Space Skimmer(1972) and Yesterday’s Children(variant title: Starhunt) (1972). I look forward to reading his best known novel The Man Who Folded Himself (1973) and tracking down a copy of When Harlie Was One (1972).

As a sophisticated allegory with heady themes told in a passionate and well-crafted manner, I am unsuprised that it was nominated for the 1978 Nebula Award but shocked that it hasn’t seen a single reprint. Recommended for fans of introspective 70s SF in the vein of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969).

EDIT: A reader indicated that in 2014 an eBook edition was released.


*Many of the place name on the map are not included in the story — was Gerrold planning future stories in the world?

(Diane Duane’s map for the 1st edition)

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16 thoughts on “Book Review: Moonstar Odyssey, David Gerrold (1977)

    • Thanks for the info. That’s a long time — 1977-2014 without a reprint…. especially considering the complete crud that regularly got reprinted!

      Have you read it? If so, what did you think?

      • I haven’t yet read it, though it now squats on my Kindle awaiting my next whim for some Gerrold. I’ll post a review, though, on Goodreads if not my own blog.

          • I shall. My other Gerrolds have been THE TROUBLE WITH TRIBBLES, his screenplay/behind-the-scenes book, in my Trek-obsessed youth, and THE MAN WHO FOLDED HIMSELF. That was a formative read for me in 1973. I reviewed it on Goodreads here. Unsurprisingly, given my fond memories and my pleasant re-experience of the book, it was a five-star review.

  1. Just because someone isn’t interested in stories about transgenderism does mean their “frightened” of it. Maybe they’re just not interested in it.

    • Ehh, I’ll stand by my comment that this novel would be shocking to many readers of SF — especially in the 70s. Not sure where you are coming from in your comment as I’m unclear if you’ve read it. Have you?

  2. Not one of his books that I’ve read, I’m afraid. I read and enjoyed When Harlie Was One back around when it came out, and much later I also enjoyed The Man Who Folded Himself. Lesser, but still quite fun books of his I read is the later ‘space elevator’ trilogy (called Dingillia, apparently) which began with Jumping Off the Planet.
    I’ve dipped into other books by him but didn’t feel like persevering with any of them. His most famous series was probably the War Against the Chtorr sequence, which he never finished, but I think still claims to be working on, years after the last instalment… So non-existent sequels to other books doesn’t really surprise me.
    From reading his blog years ago, I believe he has a son who has/had ADHD or similar, and this affected his writing (and his writing career). A Martian Child is about his son and their difficult relationship, not sf at all. Not an easy read, from what I remember. From the heart, though.

    • If you enjoyed both When Harlie Was One and The Man Who Folded Himself then you should check out this one! Far better than the other two of his I’ve read….

      I heard about A Martian Child but haven’t read it — and the controversy over the movie adaptation (they changed the sexuality of one of the main characters).

  3. I;ve read several short stories of his, and greatly enjoyed his novel The Man Who Folded Himself, which was influenced by Robert Heinlein, and which included references to both Ellison and Gerrold’s first novel with such things as “Yes, there was even a time when Harlie was one”. smirk A quote I still remember from younger years.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if the rather ugly Gene Szafran cover didn’t have something to do with turning readers away from the book.

    • If you enjoyed those two, you should definitely read Moonstar Odyssey. Which, despite its horrid “New Age” name and cover, is a poignant coming of age story in a fascinating world.

  4. As I recall, back in the day, this book was viewed as being a Le Guin/Herbert ripoff. That was the big flaw. Though, absolutely, the subject matter was “out there” for the Jimmy Carter disco era. Gerrold was pretty acclaimed in SF fandom at the time, and had a high profile as a Starlog columnist —but this book, sadly, sunk like a stone. Personally, I think it was too short. Needed a bit more story, a bit less world building? B+/B. His story collection With a Finger in My I is worth seeking out for the acclaimed “In the Deadlands” novella. Easily and by far his best writing ever. A sexual allegory/post-apocalyptic/trippy horror tale. Completely different feel to most of his stuff. The Man Who Folded Himself is a classic as far as I’m concerned. It’s very simply written, and breezy, so people write it off. And it’s a little derivative. But he follows the time travel/parallel worlds concept to a rather amazing conclusion. The ending feels like a cheat to some—but I would argue this is one of the few books that demands exactly the finale it delivers. Recommended. Maybe an A- Never liked Harlie.

    • Thanks for commenting.

      Herbert ripoff? I don’t see that. As for Le Guin, I see the novel as heavily inspired by her work but treading new, and poignant, ground. As for plot, does Le Guin’s novel have more plot? There’s a voyage the two main characters make together, stories are told…

      In Moonstar Odyssey she reflects on her life, and goes on her own journey of realization. I admit, the journey seems rushed and elements could have been fleshed out. I suspect the cover also hurt the novel. It’s downright ugly–and, if it’s Szafran, some of his worst work.

      What do you mean The Man Who Folded Himself is “a little derivative”? Derivative of what? “Classics” aren’t generally described as derivative.

      • Perhaps fairer to say Man Who Folded Himself is in the By His Bootstraps tradition. It sort of expands on Heinlein’s ideas. It’s not the most original premise, but a thoroughly singular treatment of classic themes. It’s also somewhat like All the Myriad Ways, but not exactly. Anyway, it’s well worth the effort.

        • I find “originality” overrated — there are only so many basic plots, premises, etc. It’s what the author does with it — and it appears that Gerrold treats the classic themes in a solid way.

          Hopefully I’ll get to it soon. I’m a super flighty reader, I often put books down and move on to something else. As I have so many unread books, my whims can take me in a myriad of directions.

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