Cascade Point by Zahn, Timothy, 1983

Cascade Point by Zahn, Timothy

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I have never been much of a fan of Star Wars, and I really do not enjoy Star Wars books much at all, so it was with a few jitters that I decided to read Cascade Point by Timothy Zahn, a noted author in the Star Wars franchise of books. The story did not turn out as badly as I feared, but it really was not very good either. It's a hard SF piece from the 80's, but there is a very pulpish twist or two, and it has such an over-engineered happy ending that it felt as if it should have been run for the first time in The Saturday Evening Post. I probably won't seek Zahn out again after this one.

Cascade Point is a story about an interstellar voyage gone awry. Mankind has figured out how to access wormhole entrances called "cascade points," which drastically reduces the amount of time needed to travel between stars. The process of navigating through these wormholes requires the presence in precise quantities of a substance called "ming metal." It also requires an excellent navigator as orientation and velocity upon entrance and exit of the wormholes determines not only where, but when you will arrive. Travelling in this way is very hard on navigators. Once the wormhole is entered a person's visual field is changed; you see mirror images of yourself stretching away to infinity in all directions. Most people cross from one cascade point to another unconscious because it is too unnerving to experience while awake.

I took a long, shuddering breath - peripherally aware that the images nearest me were doing the same - and wiped a shaking hand across my forehead. You don't have to look, I told myself, eyes rigidly fixed on the back of the image in front of me. You've seen it all before. What's the point? But I'd fought this fight before, and I knew in advance I would lose. There was indeed no more point to it than there was to pressing a bruise, but it held an equal degree of compulsion. Bracing myself, I turned my head and gazed down the line of images strung out to my left.

The armchair philosophers may still quibble over what the cascade point images "really" are, but those of us who fly the small ships figured it out long ago. The Colloton field puts us into a different type of space, possibly and entire universe worth of it - that much is established fact. Somehow this space links us into a set of alternate realities, universes that might have been if things had gone differently...and what I was therefore seeing around me were images of what I would be doing in each of those universes.

Captain Durriken of the Aura Dancer prefers to travel awake because he is a little nuts and a little masochistic. In fact, most of his crew have psychological issues, and because of those issues they all have gravitated towards this particular ship, hired onto the Dancer, which is owned by a low-rent transport company.

The crew welcomed Dr. Lanton, a psychiatrist, and his patient, Bradley. Bradley has come aboard with his doctor to work on some debilitating psychological issues. One theory about the cascade effect is that the copies one sees during jumps are alternate versions of one's self from other universes. Landon believes that Bradley will benefit from interacting with other versions of himself. Why he believes this is never really made clear, and in fact nobody really knows exactly what conditions Bradley has. But the Captain allows the two to cross awake and undrugged, and proceeds with the required ten jumps to the planet Taimyr. When the Dancer arrives though, they find that the 200 million citizens that they were expecting are gone, along with all the cities on Taimyr. They search the ship and find that Lanton has brought aboard a device that has ming metal in it. The metal's presence has caused the Dancer to emerge from one of its ten jumps into an alternate universe where humans never evolved on Earth. Now the crew had to figure out exactly where they made their error and reverse their course, hopefully to arrive in the universe that they started in.

This is basically a problem solving story, which I think all hard SF really is. Zahn paints a very accurate sounding picture of astrogation and celestial mechanics, and if you forgive the hyperspace and alternate universe elements, which again is required by hard SF, then you will find a fairly accurate and realistic feeling story. The problem here is that the central idea, that of alternate versions of an individual being accessible to someone in our reality, is not very well developed. Instead of actual interaction the characters use their mere presence, and the ways that they are dressed as a yardstick of success, and a measure of themselves. Itís a well meaning story too, and by that I mean that there is no grit or edge to it at all. Zahn writes exactly as I imagine a Star Wars author would write; in language suitable for a wide range of audience. Itís too nice and perfect in that sense. True, we do start off with some psychologically wounded characters: These include the captain, his first mate, Bradley, and even the doctor. By the end of the story, once the able and capable crew has saved the day, everyone is all better and the ghosts have gone away. Itís just too nice, and personally, I can't take TOO NICE at all. Bye-bye, Mr. Zahn.

Copyright © 2009, Gregory Tidwell

Reviewed by GTT · Rating Rating of 2 star(s)


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