No Niceties: A Review of The Man Who Wanted Stars by Dean McLaughlin

The Man Who Wanted Stars by Dean McLaughlin

Lancer 1968, 222 pages.

So I felt like reading a bit of old school Sci Fi, and saw this at a Trash and Treasure market for a dollar. I vaguely remembered the author’s name, so I bought it.

It is an odd book, though not on the surface.

It’s protagonist is a man prepared to sacrifice everything to get mankind into space. Joe Webber commanded a space mission during the ‘first age of space’, which got as far as Jupiter. When the crew of the Jupiter mission returns after seven years away, the infrastructure needed to get them down from orbit is long gone and they try a risky manoeuvre in which most of the astronauts die. Webber uses this, and any event, discovery, dollar or person he can find, to push people back into space.

Cover of <i>The Man Who Wanted Stars</i> by Dean McLaughlin.

Cover of The Man Who Wanted Stars by Dean McLaughlin.

McLaughlin sets himself a tough task — books with unlikeable protagonists are tricky. Webber’s bullying, cajoling and lying are not unreasonable character traits, given the strength of his convictions, they just make him an unpleasant person to spend time with. Less believable is the latitude given him by his backers and friends who share his vision. Less believable again are the women in the story, who are coquettish, cowed baby machines. They might express their opinions, but they know their place and they are bound to ultimately accept their husbands’ judgements, however brutal or two-faced. They are continually having their buttocks smacked. It just fails to ring sufficiently true.

The novel grows out of a couple of shorter pieces first published in the 1950s, one in Astounding and the other in Inifinity, so that is a long time ago now. Perhaps that’s why it assumes that women will only engage in important events as the supporters of the men, a common attitude in fiction of the time, and presumably rooted in the reality of the day (unfortunately, one still with us too often).

It is well sustained — Webber’s determination and cunning are limitless, right to the end — and should be commended for looking right into the face of the ruthlessness needed to do something big.

Cover of <i>The Man Who Wanted Stars</i> by Dean McLaughlin.

Cover of The Man Who Wanted Stars by Dean McLaughlin.

The central hole is that I remained unconvinced that the people around Webber would let him get away with it.

Can I recommend it? No. Dean McLaughlin has written some much better stuff than this. Hawk Amongst the Sparrows, his collection of three novellas, is a fun book, and his relatively recent appearance in Analog was very well received.

The book is interesting because of its game plan of having a personality, driven to the point of boorishness, at its centre. That alone does not kill it — indeed, seeing how Webber’s latest scheme is going to play out, and waiting for it all to backfire, are largely what kept me reading — but the lack of subtly in handling other aspects of the story combine to make it a less than sufficiently enjoyable read.

File under ‘nice try‘.

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About Darren

I'm a scientist by training, based in Australia.

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