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Letters From Orion
Kurt Lancaster, with Earl Kirkson and Kirk Sigurdson
Terminus two-CD audio book (92 minutes) USA $14 / Canada $21

review by Steve Sneyd

This is a very personalised, even emotionalised, future, its characters' soul-searchings and self-shaped quests dominant. It is also a sharecropped one. The whole of CD #1, To Touch The Infinite, and the first section of CD #2, Summer Twilight, (part two overall) are by Kurt Lancaster, perhaps best known for his book about Babylon 5, although his previous novel, Falling Towards Jupiter, also from Terminus, is relevant for mention here, as sharing characters and period with Letters From Orion. Section two of CD #2, Ship Of The Dead, (section three overall) is by Earl Cookson, while the final brief piece, a dramatic monologue, But I Digress, (section four overall) is by Kurt Sigurdson.

In terms of themes (here, as throughout this review, there is a need not to be a spoiler, i.e. - not to give away too much plot), section one gives us the exchange of messages between two members of a dysfunctional family, aunt and niece, both in search of the same vanished person, brother of the former, father of the latter. Section two is a Romeo and Juliet interaction, messages between lovers divided by class (and mother's boy syndrome, if the female's complaints are to be believed - in any story made up of inter-personal messages, the reader - or listener in this case - always needs to beware the unconsciously unreliable narrator!). Section three explores the theme of isolation, here of a military spaceship cut off for years from the rest of humanity - in this case made known to us by the messages its captain records and sends, with no idea whether they will ever be heard by any intelligent beings, in his present or in his future.

Finally, in Section four, the theme is again the destructive effects of isolation, albeit of a very different kind: someone trapped among those with whom he has nothing in common, and towards whom he feels only hostility, regarding them as savages. As we hear the rantings against the customers, and the world on which he is stranded, of this Earthborn waiter in a far planet restaurant, we realise he is addressing a visitor from outside, indeed a fellow Earthman, someone whose voice we never hear, although what the waiter says gives some idea of him. Nor (that unreliable narrator problem again) can we test the accuracy of the waiter's outpourings of furtive hostility towards those around him in his (perhaps self-imposed, perhaps down to circumstance, we do not discover) exile - after all, just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you, to quote an old saying!

How far into the future are we? One character, recalling her visit as a Space Academy student to Nantucket (one of only a handful of places on Earth mentioned, all in America), says she was told the town was eight centuries old. Out of curiosity, I looked the place up: although there had been an earlier settlement, the Encyclopedia Britannica says it got that name in 1695 - so, we're somewhere around 2500 CE, although as between them the sections span a number of years, that is a 'give or take...' figure. Section one, in which that clue is given, has in its background the Earth-Nabriz war, so sequels Section two, which occurs as the war begins. Section three sequels two, and overlaps one, since the cruiser Antioch carries delegates to a failed peace conference in two, and is mentioned as being missing in one. Section four, I would have guessed, precedes all three others, being in a time when there is still Earth-Nabriz interaction, although unfriendly, but a reference to a later relationship for the female protagonist of section two makes this impossible - assuming it is not a case of name coincidence, as with the fact that the story elsewhere has a Katie and a Katherine, two quite different people, which renders one piece of resolution confusing as to which one's child is in question. Perhaps it is simply that the planet the waiter is on has somehow remained neutral in the war, or there is an extended truce?

Thus discussing the time frame at length has a reason, namely my surprise at how little social, economic, or technical change during five centuries elapsed from our time is reflected in Letters From Orion.

This is not naively to expect characters; particularly ones as obsessed with their own problems as these generally are, to utter data dumps to each other about things both would know perfectly well, but I would have expected passing references to more differences than just hyperspace travel and a couple of mentions of non-human aliens, one perhaps jokey, as talking of the possibilities of sexual gratification offered by a being with tentacles. Earth has a single government, rather un-Americanly called the EU, although that stands for Earth United, which seems also to control some stellar colonies, including what appears to be a major hub, the Orion colony. (A name in itself a little puzzling, since, as one character - her surprise a little naive, as she'd been to Space Academy - points out, constellations no longer look the same from elsewhere in space - but referring to Orion when around one of the stars that make it up from Earth is a traditional SF trope - remember in Blade Runner the replicant leader speaking of spaceships "burning off the shoulder of Orion" - so querying the usage here is mere pedantry on my part, really). The eventual opponents in the interstellar war, the Nabriz, seem to be a detached human group - certainly their city still has alleys, they use such human-sounding tactics as sniper fire and terrorist bombs, and the waiter, clearly keen to maximise their flaws, never denigrates them as non-human.

As with the near-complete absence of even passing reference to techno-social change (what, no effects of nanotechnology, no quantum computing, no use of genetic engineering to fit humans better for extended periods of space travel? That people on Earth should still use sailing boats and sledges for recreation is fully plausible; less so that nothing new seems to have come along in that field or so many others), the absence of any signs of linguistic change are puzzling. Understandably, the authors have avoided a wholesale remake of language - Nadsat and the like are hard to follow on the page, in audio form would become difficult indeed to grasp. But surely a little future slang for flavour would have added to a sense of having gone five centuries forward, even if just the sort of nickname for the enemy that has arisen so swiftly in past human conflicts.

As a general point about the plot(s) - again being careful to avoid spoilers! - many loose ends are left, a murder unsolved, the actual role of an apparently villainous corporation left in the air, the reality or otherwise of a transcendental vision of reunion given by a mysterious ancient city deep in the deadly Rift (here I found what seemed a plot oddity - having already been disciplined once by her employers for taking a freighter into the Rift without permission, it seemed odd that they would allow her to take her ship out again alone and give her an opportunity to repeat the offence) and indeed the nature of the city's role as a kind of graveyard of lost ships, left up in the air (or up in space, at any rate!), etc. Partly, this is the inevitable result of the fact that the voices are those of participants whose knowledge is limited, and whose communications occur within time frames that do not, in some cases cannot, continue to where a situation would be resolved. I would guess, however, that many are to leave openings for a sequel or sequels. Whether you find such loose ends frustrating, or a leaving of space for your own speculations as to 'what happens next' enjoyable, is going to be very much a matter of personal preference.

Also a matter of taste will be the degree to which you can relate to the poeticality of language of many of the participants (there are an amazing number of moonlight and starlight related images, for one thing!). With some of the characters, this is believable, on two grounds - that they are gnawing at the problem of where life went wrong, and in the process search back into childhood, a time when the world is seen more vividly; also, that for at least some personalities, the utterly different environment of space will continue to arouse a sense of wonder even when a workaday role within it has been adopted. (And again, for Captain Basilio, recording and justifying his existence to a world that may never hear him, from a ship utterly cut off, would be a kind of extended last testament to himself and the universe, and heightened language is therefore believable. I found it far less so in an episode when a hard-bitten space captain is reporting the murder of a stowaway to her only relative - a sympathetic approach would have been believable, but a touch of 'the Leonard Cohens' less so!). The poeticality of tone shared by all characters except the waiter also had a distancing effect, making it harder, for me, to get a feel of the characters as individuals. Having tended to perhaps over-emphasise the negative, for me, aspects of Letters From Orion, it is time to mention some real strengths of this audio book. Some of the poetic language is very beautiful; the transcendental vision is a wonderful set piece; and there are, almost in passing, ideas and concepts that provoke much thought. A few examples: that a by-product of hyperspace travel is that you age far less slowly, causing some to try to spend almost all their time there, so that they can live to see a far future; as a by-product of this, that the aunt of part one, Jessica, has aged only a year while her niece has grown from childhood to mid-teens, so that their communication involves, in effect, relearning each other; that, again a hyperspace effect, mind processes are in effect frozen while in it, so that whatever thought or memory was in your mind as you enter that state, replays endlessly in your thoughts till you re-emerge, hence the desperate necessity of trying to be having a pleasant thought or enjoyable memory as the state-change begins. And, one final example, the waiter's theory that the bad manners of his customers are due to the planet's history having included a plague that wiped out all over the age of eight, so that the whole society grew out of a situation of feral children trying to maintain society - Lord Of The Flies on a world scale. Whether this is another of his paranoid fantasies doesn't matter - it's the speculation that "makes to furiously think."

Finally, it should be said that the actors who voice the characters all speak clearly, making listening generally easy, although in just a few places sound-effects or a character's need to whisper made for a little straining to hear.
Letters From Orion

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