Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Book Review: Redshift Rendezvous by John Stith is Perfect Science Fiction Mystery Hybrid

I've published dozens of reviews of science fiction novels by well-known and little-known authors in the past few decades, in the New York Review of Science Fiction, Tangent, the Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, and other places.  I thought it was time to begin putting these reviews up on this blog, one or two a month, right alongside the more numerous reviews of television series.

To start, here's my 1992 review, published in the Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, of John Stith's  Redshift Rendezvous (Ace, 1990, 256 pp.), now available on Kindle.   People often ask me to name a science fiction/ mystery hybrid that really works.  Isaac Asimov's robot stories (in contrast to his faster-than-light ships in space) are a good example.   And then there's Redshift Rendezvous, in some ways even truer to the hybrid ideal ...

Faster than light travel has been one of the most intriguing and frustrating challenges of science fiction, which generally distinguishes itself from fantasy by writing about technologies and events that are at least scientifically plausible. But according to Einstein's theory of special relativity, movement at faster than light speeds is flatly impossible, and the slightly more lenient theory of general relativity insists that objects attain infinite mass at light speeds. So how, then, is science fiction to write about human relations across star systems and galaxies in human time frames?

One approach might be to contest Einstein's proscriptions on super-luminary travel on scientific or philosophic of science terms. If we agree with the philosopher Karl Popper that even the best corroborated scientific theories are nonetheless highly fallible and destined for falsification -- as Einstein himself did -- then fiction writers should have little trouble amending Einstein much the same as Einstein amended Newton. But not many science fiction writers seem aware of Popper, or indeed sophisticated discussions of philosophy of science, at least insofar as these might pertain to speed of light.

The result has been a science fiction that by and large has repealed Einstein without much of a hearing. Whether the hyperspace drive of Asimov in the 40s or the warp drive of Star Trek and most else in between, travel at faster than light speeds has been more of an assumption than a challenge in a genre which is supposed to engage rather than subsume technological puzzles. (Cryogenic solutions that posit transport of frozen humans to be wakened upon reaching their destination at least have the merit of not ignoring Einstein. Frank Herbert's approach of beings "folding" space in the Dune series has an Einsteinian plausibility, but relies a bit too much on the quantum mechanical idea of mind pushing matter to be satisfyingly scientific.)

Even more disappointing than the repeal by fiat of Einstein has been science fiction's treatment of human relations in the faster than light environments. That treatment has usually been a simple transplantation of human dynamics from Earth to far vaster realms, with the assumption that travel from here to Tau Ceti and beyond should in principle be no different in terms of human effects than our capacity to easily travel now from New York to Los Angeles. But history and philosophy of technology have shown over and over again that new modes of transportation profoundly transform their passengers -- the medium is the message, as McLuhan pointed out, whether communication or transportation -- and science fiction that treats a trip across the galaxy as no different in human principle than a trip across the country thus shortchanges its readers.

Which is why John Stith's Redshift Rendezvous is so refreshing. The book is in many respects a standard adventure of murder and hijacking in space. But in one crucial regard this book is extraordinary in science fiction: it deals with the human detail of faster than light travel. Indeed, speed of light and its consequences is the real hero of this book.

The "Redshift" is a ship that travels faster than light, and Stith posits that speed of light inside the ship is therefore reduced to some ten meters per second, or 30 million times slower than its usual speed. This is far from always pleasant, and passengers are advised to keep their lifebelts on at all times (in order for their neural chemistry to operate at normal speeds), and trust their kinesthetic rather than optical perceptions.

Simple dining can be very interesting in this environment -- a morsel of fish turns indigo as it enters its eater's mouth and life field -- but committing and solving murders are even more so (the latter can be done by removing the victim's lifebelt). The chief security officer single-handedly manages to nearly disable an entire terrorist crew by virtue of his superior understanding of human movement and vision aboard his ship, and in the end he calls upon the physics of the ship's corridors to quite literally hoist the villain on her own petard.

If you like your science fiction to treat faster than light travel with a bit more respect than Dorothy clicking her heels together three times to go from Oz to Kansas, you'll enjoy this book. I look forward to return voyages on the Redshift and other Stith vessels that speculate on the stretching of natural laws and its effect on humans.

"As a genre-bending blend of police procedural and science fiction,
The Silk Code delivers on its promises." - The New York Times Book Review

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