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Book News

A story of epic scope and stunning imagination

by Poul Anderson

St. Martin's Press, $25.95

Review by L.D. Meagher

(CNN) -- Not many authors would try to tell a tale that spans eleven thousand years. Then again, there aren't many authors like Poul Anderson.

The venerated science fiction veteran offers what may be his most ambitious novel to date in "Starfarers", a story of epic scope and stunning imagination. It allows him to visualize a journey of discovery that is both unimaginably vast and imponderably long.

The plot is actually quite straightforward. One day, astronomers detect what can only be the traces of alien spacecraft traveling at almost the speed of light. Detailed analysis unveils how to accomplish the near-light speed travel, and humans leap toward the stars. Thanks to the phenomenon of relativistic time dilation, time passes much more swiftly for that part of humanity that stays behind.

That's particularly true for the mission of the starship Envoy. It is off to find the race of voyagers whose traces pointed humans toward the stars in the first place. For the crew of Envoy, the voyage will last several years. On Earth, however, ten thousand years will pass before the ship returns.

The crew is a cross section of humanity: the South American captain, the Chinese engineer, the African doctor, the Israeli physicist, and so on. In all, 10 people will make the journey. Except for the odd verbal tic, it is often hard to tell them apart. That's not really a problem, since the humans-at least in relation to the story-are generally interchangeable.

The Envoy crew does accomplish its mission. But by the time it reaches the star system where the first near-light speed spacecraft were detected, the aliens have turned their backs on interstellar exploration. They give the human a cautious welcome, and offer them a stunning panorama of new sights and experiences.

Anderson is almost poetic in his descriptions of life among the stars. Even in such a prosaic setting as a planet undergoing the alien equivalent of terraforming, he weaves a verbal tapestry.

"A pillar, one of those that upheld the enclosing sky, was in many ways still more numinous. No plain shaft, it rose organismically intricate, responsive, well-nigh alive. Its interplay with strata and height, ground tremors and winds, not only kept it standing but acted on them, was a force in the development of the planet. The ascent and descent of it, in a bubble that climbed with stops to go inside for an uncomprehending look, became a voyage in itself."

The rhythm of the narrative can be a bit off-putting. So can the pace. After all, he has to cover several millennia. And he is in no hurry.

The scene shifts from the Envoy back to Earth, where the passage of time is obliterating all vestiges of the society that sent the ship to the stars. Anderson seizes the opportunity to speculate on the future of social evolution. He draws some fascinating, and frightening, conclusions.

"Starfarers" is objective proof that one cannot "tell a book by its cover." From the outside, it looks like any of a thousand other space opera shoot-'em-ups. Inside, Anderson-among the most literate and literary of science fiction's "old guard"-offers an elegant story that combines the adventure of exploration with the intelligence of extrapolation. The result is a rare and often satisfying excursion.

L.D. Meagher is a senior writer at CNN Headline News. He has worked in broadcasting for 30 years.

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