Friday, 21 May 2010

Captain's Log [Review: The Wooden Spaceships]

The Wooden Spaceships, Bob Shaw's sequel to The Ragged Astronauts, takes place on Land and Overland, two co-orbiting planets sharing a common, figure of eight atmosphere that can be traversed by air balloon. Overland has been colonised by refugees from Land fleeing an airborne disease, but a Land ship arrives to re-claim sovereignty, crewed by survivors subtly affected by the plague, and heralding the onset of a war of independence. Overland's defensive strategy - including the invention of military space stations and a number of zero gravity dogfighting techniques - is led by Toller, the hero of The Ragged Astronauts who is only too happy to abandon his unsatisfying marital life to save the world again.

The Overlanders' struggle to develop war technology in time to repel the feared attack is gripping, as is the technology itself - with only a few fictional elements (the unusually hard wood brakka and the two crystals that produce a reaction) this is a pre-steam medieval space opera and war novel. Part of the fascination is seeing these astronauts master space travel without knowing any Newtonian physics and the wrong-headed assumptions that they make as a result. Having said that, once the Land forces do appear on the scene the action is anticlimactic as the Overland forces are a little too well prepared and lucky, and always stay several steps ahead.

The book also feels as if two novels have been squeezed into one - the last third of the novel deals with a journey to the system's third planet, Farland, to resolve a paranormal mystery described in interludes throughout the earlier chapters. With a little more balance between sides in the war, and perhaps a longer, more in-depth exploration of Farland, both could easily have been fascinating stand-alone novels. The story of Overland continues in a third novel, The Fugitive Worlds.


Maurice Mitchell said...

I LOVE steampunk. This looks like an interesting take on it although it doesn't sound like real steampunk in that it changed not just physical laws but natural laws as well. Still, it sounds like fun.

Sci-Fi Gene said...

This isn't quite pure as you say, there are some fantasy elements. Also one of the nice things is it is pre-steam.