Space Ramblings

Charles Sheffield Between the Strokes of Night Review

The key problem of space travel is that mankind is bound by time while the universe may be infinite but the speed of light is finite. Bound by the limits of the speed of light, it takes years for any vessel to reach other stars making the kind of Star Trek / Star Wars universe in which ships zip around between the stars forming interstellar empires and moving between planets in a matter of hours or days entirely fictional. Most writers avoid the problem by finding a way around the speed of light, wormholes, hyperdrives and other tricks of fictional stellar mechanics guide the fictional heroes of a million Science Fiction romances at faster than light speeds around the stars.

However Charles Sheffield, a practicing scientist, was determined to write a story in which mankind has spread across the stars and remains in contact with each other but without resorting to faster than light travel. As Charles Sheffield writes in his introduction to Between The Strokes of Night, he wished to do it the “hard way” not because it is hard to read but because it is hard to write. Between The Strokes of Night was and is the outcome of Charles Sheffield’s labor. Rewritten with an additional 25,000 words to take advantage of the emerging scientific consensus on the expansion of the universe (a key plot point in Between The Strokes of Night ) the result is an intriguing novel.

While the cover compares Charles Sheffield to Robert Heinlein as a Hard SF writer, it is arguable of whether Robert Heinlein was really much of a Hard SF writer. For Robert Heinlein the ideology and philosophy came first and the science had to come third or last. In many ways Between The Strokes of Night most strongly resembles the work of Isaac Asimov working out a logical progression to a dilemma and then resolving it with a logical analysis. Charles Sheffield lacks either Heinlein’s or Asimov’s ability to create memorable characters. As a result Between the Strokes of Night is burdened by characters who feel like they came more from the pen of Greg Bear or Robert J. Sawyer.

Between the Stokes of Night begins in 2010 with a divided world under U.N. authority on the verge of nuclear war and facing climactic devastation on every continent. Between the Strokes of Night was originally published in the eighties but despite the updated edition, nevertheless mentions the Soviets. While the U.N. struggles under the onslaught of chaos and a climactic devastation that has made even wine and oysters an impossible luxury for most, Salter Station and the Arcologies, all created by Salter Wherry, a reclusive billionaire who singlehandedly created a future for humanity in space in the teeth of opposition from the U.N. utilizing independent spaceports in free trade zones.

Meanwhile a U.N. sponsored research lab run by Judith Niles is studying the question of sleep or rather how to eliminate sleep. Together with Charlene Bloom and a creepy German, Wolfgang Gibbs. Salter Wherry’s assistant and Gibbs’ cousin, Hans Gibbs, wants the lab to move up into Salter Station because their research has the hope of providing Salter Wherry with the key to suspended animation and travel between the stars.When nuclear war breaks out and Salter Wherry dies of a heart attack, Judith Niles is left in charge as the first experimental subject of the procedure due to her brain tumor, a side effect of which is to take the human body into S-Space, a form of living suspended animation at which point the human body continues to function almost as well as in regular life but which allows for a lifespan of thousands of years in objective time but a normal lifespan in relative time.

Humanity goes into space and colonizes the stars. Some as generation ships like the Eleanora formed from the arcologies which then goes on to settle Pentecost and some as immortals, journeying in cold sleep and in S-Space between the stars.

Tens of thousands of years later on the planet Pentecost; Peron, Lum, Roxanne, Elisa, Sy and Kallen are the finalists in the Planetways competition which determines positions in government and with the finalists proceeding to an offworld competition on the deadliest planets in the system supervised by the mysterious immortals. The competition contains tests of physical agility and endurance, intelligence and teamwork. Lum, outwardly piggish and heavy but inwardly cunning, Peron, slow but determined, Sy, bearer of a deformed left arm, loner and contemptuous of all as beneath him, Kallen scarred and born between the border of two years and Elisa, daring and energetic, go off planet to discover the secret of the immortals who control the world of Pentecost and all the worlds.

The immortals are led by Judith Niles, Charlene Bloom and Wolfgang Gibbs and are dealing with a much larger problem than Pentecost, namely the seeming takeover and destruction of the galactic arm’s stars into red dwarfs, making solar systems unlivable for humanity. Peron, Elisa, Lum, Kallen, Roxanne and Sy must make their choices in the universe traveling from the atomic war and climatic fallout scarred earth to the Ustar of the aliens behind the transformation of entire suns and across planets to choose their own fates, a life dedicated to service lived in the limited but far more enjoyable normal space or N-Space or the immortal lifespan of S-Space or T-Space dedicated to the challenges of the galaxy.

The resulting story is an interesting adventure and valuable more often for the mystery rather than the characterization. Between the Strokes of Night has some things in common with Fredrick Pohl’s Heechee saga with a mysterious alien race, the fate of the universe and the galaxy in the balance but Charles Sheffield simply isn’t half the writer that Pohl is at peering into the human soul. Nevertheless Between the Strokes of Night is a more than worthwhile read despite the off-putting garish cover that features what appears to be a surfer dude playing a bad electronic game from the 80’s, the sort of terrible cover only Baen Books seems to be able to properly pull off. Nevertheless beneath the cover of Between the Strokes of Night is a worthwhile read.

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