Thursday, August 7, 2008

Norman Spinrad: The Void Captain's Tale

I found Norman Spinrad's The Void Captain's Tale in my TBR bookcase. It's been waiting patiently in there for some time, so I decided to dust it off and read it. I've read several novels by Spinrad, Bug Jack Barron and The Men in the Jungle, so I was somewhat familiar with his work, although it's been at least a decade or two, since I've read anything by him. As I expected, The Void Captain's Tale is a strange work.

The title and the space flight details have a Cordwainer Smith ring to it.
Where Smith tells us of Go-Pilots and Scanners, Spinrad gives us Void Captains and Void Pilots and Man Jacks. In both, FTL travel requires some sort of human interface in the propulsion system as the method requires a psychic component to function. In addition, Smith and Spinrad present the future in a rather quirky way that convinces me anyway that the future will be different in some very unexpected ways.

Spinrad has constructed a unique culture aboard his space liners. While there are three separate groups of people aboard, only two will play a role in this story. The crew, which usually totals seven, includes the Void Captain, two Man Jacks or junior officers, three medical personnel whose main function is to keep the Void Pilot alive, for it is the void pilot who interacts with the FTL drive in some mysterious fashion. Even though this interaction takes no time, as far as anyone else or any device can determine, the void pilot is so physically reduced that it is a day or two before she, all void pilots are female since males cannot interact with the FTL drive, can function again.

he Honored Passengers are the second group of interest aboard the space liner . There are fifty of them, and these people are not really going anywhere, or rather, they have no specific destination in mind. They are rich and can afford the cost of passage on a ship and are awake throughout the trip. Life for them on the ship is one grand party, and they insist on being entertained, as well as being part of the entertainment. It is this sense of being in one long fiesta that reminds me somewhat of works by Jack Vance, especially the brightly colored and elaborate costumes and makeup and masks.

In addition there is the sense of a psychological void, which must be covered up or disguised by the constant and frenetic activity that characterizes the Honored Passengers' behavior. This psychological void is matched by the void outside the ship that can't be directly experienced for it has a demoralizing effect on those who see it. The psychological void, or so it seems to me, derives from the Passengers' way of life that lacks goals, responsibilities, and obligations, much like the TB patients found in Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain.

The third group aboard ship consists of the passengers who are in deep sleep. They are treated as cargo and won't be awakened until the ship reaches its destination.

Aboard this ship, The Dragon Zephyr, the Domo, or social leader of the Honored Passengers, is Lorenza. However, to call her the social leader is misleading. She is much more than that. She is as much in control of the Passengers as the Captain is in control of the ship.
Her relationship with the Captain is an important part of her role, which is to keep the Passengers satisfied and diverted from both the inner and outer voids. Failing that, she will lose her authority.

In addition to the above, an important part of the work is Spinrad's language. It is a first person narrative by the Void Captain, who speaks a language unique in SF. Rather than attempt to describe it, I will provide quotes from the first page of the novel:

"I am Genro Kane Gupta, Void Captain of the Dragon Zephyr, and mayhap this is my todtentale. Of necessity, it is also the tale of the Void Pilot Dominique Alia Wu, but she is gone into the Great and Only, and I lack both the art to present her point of view in the late 20th Century novelistic mode and the insight to say in what sense her tale goes on.

So this tale must not be presumed to mirror any consciousness but my own. Indeed, so acutely aware am I of my own imperfections as a subjective instrument that, were I a Sea Captain of Old rather than a Void Captain of the Second Starfaring Age, I would be sorely tempted to adopt the literary mode known as Ship's Log, in which Captains even less versed in the tale-teller's art than I scribed terse laconic descriptions of daily events, reporting everything from the ship's position to occurrences of tragic enormity in the same even, stylized, objective prose.


On the day that Void Captain Genro Kane Gupta assumed command of the Dragon Zephyr in orbit around Earth, he engaged in an unwholesome exchange of name tales on the sky ferry to the ship with the Void Pilot Dominique Alia Wu."

And several pages later, Gupta briefly discusses his parents' relationship

"My parents met on Arcady, of course, on one of his open-ended planetary sojourns. Though she was ten years his senior and their consciousness interface was mutually recognizable as ultimately unstable from the start, their pheromone profiles matched chemical objects and desires so mutually that amour was inevitable.
Since each was a person of caritas and both understood the transience of their passage together, a mutual agreement was conceived to commemorate it with a child, namely myself."

The story is of what follows from that "
unwholesome exchange of name tales" between Gupta and Dominique.

A romance? An obsession? If an obsession--then what kind of obsession?

Question asked in novel: Does a person have the right to engage in an action that endangers others even if that person knows that the action is the one that will break through the wall of illusion that traps us all and allow a direct perception of the reality beyond what we are deluded into thinking is reality?


  1. Wow, I can't believe you've read Cordwainer Smith! One of my favorite short stories of all time is "The Game of Rat and Dragon". If this book is similar in style, I'll probably like it.

  2. Cheryl,

    Cordwainer Smith is a favorite of mine. As far as I can tell, I have all of his SF--his one novel and the complete collection of his short stories.

    He and Spinrad are two sadly neglected writers.