Superluminal by Vonda N McIntyre

New English Library, 1986

Superluminal cover

McIntyre was the author of the 1974 Nebula Award winning novelette Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand quickly novelised as Dreamsnake in which form it picked up the Nebula and Hugo Awards in 1979. She has also written other award nominated or winning SF and has Star Trek and Star Wars novelisations to her name but more recently has slipped off the SF radar. I missed this one at the time it was published.

Superluminal is another multi stranded narrative.

Laenea Trevelyan, a former ordinary crew member, has just become an interstellar pilot. Only major surgical alterations allow pilots to survive transit at above light speed without being in suspended animation like other crew members. Pilots are nicknamed Aztecs because their hearts have been removed. Instead machines pump blood and pilots have the ability to control what are in normal humans autonomic functions.

Radu Dracul (yes, McIntyre does make the obvious joke) is the sole member of his family to survive a plague on his planet Twilight and has travelled to Earth to earn money for his cash strapped home world.

Orca is, for no truly compelling reason, a member of a family of humans adapted to ocean swimming and has the ability to communicate with dolphins, whales etc.

Despite the usual lack of interaction between pilots and normal humans Laenea and Radu become lovers in the interval between Laenea’s operation and her first training trip as a pilot but there is something about their close contact that their bodies find too stressful.

All the above is merely scene setting, and takes up almost 100 pages before the real plot gets into gear.

Laenea sets off on her training flight while Radu and Orca form part of the crew on a routine trans-light speed trip elsewhere. On their return leg Radu falls out of hibernation several times (forcing the ship to jump out of transit automatically and threatening its loss.) Eventually the pilot flies it home with Radu still awake yet Radu suffers no ill effects.

Once home, the pilots’ “guild” threaten Radu as he represents a danger to their monopoly. But Orca comes to his aid. They then discover Laenea’s ship has not returned.

The remainder of the book is concerned with the search for Laenea and the ramifications of Radu’s unusual tolerance for unhibernated transit.

McIntyre finesses the problem of depicting the superluminal experience by saying early on that it “has never been described.” Neat, I suppose, but a bit of a cop out.

She also describes something that sounds remarkably like a spam (or, since it’s for adverts, pop-up) filter. This book was first published in 1983 – so not a bad piece of prescience.

Though not telegraphed by McIntyre, the way the hinge of the plot would reveal itself was, I’m afraid, relatively obvious long before the characters realised it.

Perhaps it’s just that I’m older – I remember Dreamsnake and The Exile Waiting with affection – but there did not seem to be the spark in this one with which McIntyre invested those books.

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