- An omnibus of Polymath, Avengers of Carrig, and Repairmen of Cyclops
- Number 22 in the Venture SF canon
- Published by Arrow in 1989
- Space Opera
- 473 pages
When the star Zarathustra turns supernova, the survivors are flung across the galaxy. Out of contact with Earth, these survivors must rebuild civilisation from nothing, and will inevitable repeat the mistakes of the past . . .
The Venture SF imprint holds no secrets about the sort of stories it wants to tell. Action and adventure are the name of the game, with none of that fantasy nonsense. Just pure space opera. A simple flick inside the front cover will show a small selection of names, some more famous than others. You’ll find heavyweights like David Drake and Timothy Zahn, alongside forgotten names like Edmond Hamilton. You’ll also find John Brunner who, as with others in the Venture SF rang, has more than one book collected here. Having enjoyed Interstellar Empire, I had no qualms about picking up Victims of the Nova. Same author, same imprint, and, it turns out, same sense of epic scale.
One of my favourite tropes in science fiction is the idea of a galactic empire in decline, leaving a dark age of sorts in its wake. Blame Asimov, blame Piper. Go back to the root, and you’ll end up blaming John Campbell. He’s the man who loved commissioning these stories, after all. And while he was doing so for an audience of some seventy-odd years ago, many of these stories still hold up today. But while Asimov’s Foundation is rightly regarded as an all-time classic of the genre, John Brunner’s contributions to the field have largely been overlooked, with critics instead praising his dystopian Stand on Zanzibar. Which is a shame, because if you enjoy an older style of storytelling, Victims of the Nova has a whole lot to offer.
Polymath is the strongest entry in the omnibus, chronicling the first arrival of survivors on a new world. It starts of as man against nature, but soon becomes man against man as all great survival stories do. Brunner’s direct and at times abrupt style works well here, as you’re never quite sure where the next threat is coming from. It’s a story laced with despair, as evidenced in the brutally delivered suicide of a major character. It’s a shame we don’t see more of these early days, as there is a lot more story to be told here.
The second and third stories are more closely linked to each other, taking part only twenty years apart, yet more than seven centuries distant from Polymath. Here we see a galactic Patrol enforcing peace across the survivors’ worlds. Their policy of non-interference is reminiscent of the Prime Directive, and similarly must be grappled with when it comes to one planet invading another. The focus is more on action than on ethics, but it’s a weighty topic for a pulp novel to be discussing all the same. I would happily have read an entire series of novels about the Patrol, but it seems these two books are all we got.
There are a few thigs that fall short of the mark for me. That abrupt style I mentioned earlier is great for immediate tension, but is less suited to building the intrigue and political strife of the second and third novels. The characters are fairly flat, and I did have to laugh at a woman being described as old and past her prime at the age of – gasp – forty five. The sense of adventure carries things along, but this is a book where you probably want to not look too deeply into some of the worldbuilding. It is a little weird that a ship full of intelligent individuals so quickly gives rise to a pseudo-medieval kingdom, but that’s what the plot requires, so just go with it.
All things considered, Victims of the Nova is n entertaining read of unlikely space heroics that pulls you back into a simpler time and leaves you satisfied when you turn the last page.
Deeper Dive: An Incidental Series?
The front cover may call this ‘the Zarathustra trilogy,’ but the first book is essentially a standalone. Even the latter two novels could easily be read independently of one another. Of course, these books were originally written as individual tomes, and were greatly revised before becoming the versions seen in this collected volume. Even the titles have changed. It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Brunner came up with the ideas for three standalone books, and only later decided to combine them to create a single future history.
This is something you see quite a bit with older works of science fiction. When a book performs well, it’s natural to connect others to it. Asimov’s extended Foundation saga is possibly the best-known example of this, but I’m sure there are others. Sometimes, this ad hoc approach to building a series leads to continuity errors, but rarely are they insurmountable. Particularly when skipping over great amounts of time, it’s easy to write off imperfections as the conflation of history and myth. And to be quite honest, oftentimes that only adds to the allure of these future histories.
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