Stopping at Slowyear by Pohl, Frederik, 1991

Stopping at Slowyear by Pohl, Frederik

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Stopping at Slowyear, by Frederick Pohl is not the usual sort of masterpiece that I like to review. But it does fit pretty squarely into one of the other literary fetishes I have; novellas. At 118 pages this novella goes pretty fast, even though it is rich and detailed and deserves to be digested slowly. Its also very hard to find these days, so if you see it, buy it. The publisher that put it out, Axolotl, went belly up in 1995 or so. I still see it for sale occasionally though, and can help anyone who wants a copy to find one. Just PM me. This book gets a strong 4 out of 5 stars.

Stopping at Slowyear is pretty much a merchant story. The title refers to a planet around an unnamed star that has a 19 year orbit. Over 100 - 70 day months make up the Slowyear calendar. Like the titular planet, the novella moves quite slowly too. Not ploddingly, just slowly and meticulously. Pohl puts the short time he has, however, to wonderful use describing character, settings, personal situations, etc. About one-half of the book describes the lives of the two main characters. One, Mercy is the purser on the approaching ancient ramship the Nordvik. She has been on the ship for many years, and longs to leave it before she becomes bored to death and loses her internal spark of life. As a matter of fact, everytime the ship stops anywhere its a struggle to keep necessary personel on board. She is constantly pursued by the married sub-captain who seems hell bent on doing anything, including rape, to bed her again. The captain of the Nordvik, a friend of Mercy's, can not help her as he is ancient himself, and really cannot resist the sub-captain any longer. As purser Mercy is charged with managing trade operations once in orbit, meaning that she pretty much has nothing to do during the years in interstellar space.

On Slowyear a famous playwrite and actor, Blundy, has recently completed his monthly labor tax (he was a shepherd tending a flock while it matured to slaughter/breeding age). He has returned to the capitol city only to learn that his young lover has been judged guilty of avoiding her labor tax (demanded physical labor everyone must complete as a civic duty), and sentenced to draw a pill from a jar which gives her a 1-in-1000 chance of death. All criminals are punished this way, only with different numbers of inert pills in the jar depending on the crime; murderers have a 1-in-5 chance of death. Blundy is also a grass-roots politician who is being groomed by his shrew of a wife for bigger and better things. His wife, Murra, is probably the best drafted character in the entire book. She is a walking internal contradiction whose outward appearance is of a plesant and approachable woman of privilege with a submissive streak, but who is really a driven, conniving, greedy harpy who denies herself extramarital sex just because engaging in it will diminish her ability to taunt her husband over his daliances. Her character alone gets this book a position on my keeper-shelf.

The history and problems of Slowyear are also discussed quite a bit. The planet has an eliptical orbit (rather than an axial tilt) that varies enough such that it has widely varying seasons. During the winter months life above ground is largely impossible, and advancing glaciers pretty much wipe out surface structures. For that reason all critical infrastructure is below ground, and while there are cities, the people live mostly pastoral lives. They also do have high technology, but most of it (with the exception of a few shuttles that have been in mothballs since the the last trading ship came through 100 years ago) seems easily transportable and hand-held.

The way that Slowyear deals with criminals is also vetted quite a bit, but the characters never really come to a mutual understanding. The crew of the Nordvik thinks that on a planet where survival is so tough, the citizens have a stilted view of death, and are more willing to put their people to death for relatively minor crimes. I suppose there is merit to that thought, but it seems more likely to me that the government is giving survival odds to everyone, and making death very unlikely for minor crimes. One can also argue that they are doing whatever they can to preserve life, as they view it presciously.

The other half of the book deals with the intercultural relations of the 54 or so crewmembers and the populace of Slowyear. The planet is pretty much in the south-40 of populated space, which is why the last interstellar visitor came 100 (Earth) years ago. That is also why it is being serviced by the Nordvik, which is a rattle-trap of a craft. Apparently its not fast or large enough to compete in the more heavily plyed spacing lanes, so it makes money by trading obsolete technology on back water worlds. Slowyear doesnt have a backwards technology base, but they do have an odd sponigiform encephalopathic virus which they cannot cure, and which strikes and kills up to 30% of the children born on the planet, and eliminates the possiblity of having any livestock save sheep, which have a natural immunity.

This is pretty much the entire book. There is a dramatic and breath-taking twist at the end which makes the book even more memorable, but is not the defining characteristic (although it really does change your view of the citizens of Slowyear). The defining characteristic undobutedly is the wonderful detain and rich backgrounds that Pohl drafted the characters with. Its not quite a character study either, as the book is wrapped up and closed with an unexpected plot twist. I suppose it defies categorization. Whatever it is, its shocking and wonderful all at the same time.

Copyright 2007, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 4 star(s)


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