Firebird by Charles L Harness

Pocket, 1981, 207p


This book is nearly thirty years old; and it shows. The characters are never more than cut-outs, present merely to illustrate the plot which is, in itself, pretty implausible.

Two computers, Largo and Czandra, collectively known as Control, are able to enforce actions or inactions of this universe’s inhabitants by means of a silicon neural net which is encoded into developing foetuses. The people are referred to as human but are actually members of Phelex Sapiens, having cat like features such as whiskers and manes. However, they are to all intents and purposes bipedal hominids like ourselves with neither discernible feline drives nor habits, except in one (late) instance.

Control has completed the Cancelar project which seeks to prevent the re-collapse of the universe in a Big Crunch and so allow Largo and Czandra to “live” and rule forever. Two characters (I use the term loosely) called Demaq and Gerain have, with the aid of the Diavolo – who comprise a group which is somehow able to work against Control – evaded (ahem) control by drinking a strange liquid. They embark on a voyage on a star ship, Firebird, which can subvert the loss of Universal mass engendered during the Cancelar project by travelling the universe at close to light speed for millennia.

There are several flaws in the playing out of this scenario, not the least of which was that while being chased at relativistic speeds by ships belonging to Control, Firebird was nevertheless able to stop dead in space to evade the chasing ships.

There is also some byplay involving travelling in time via the Cancelar black hole. I know as readers we should be perhaps one step ahead of the characters but Dermaq’s failure to realise the implications of this makes him seem irredeemably thick.

The “Phelex” words Harness uses for time and distance are particularly annoying; tench and meda for example. Yes, he is describing a different culture, yet nearly everything else is rendered in standard English (or, rather, American.) Moreover, the characteristic Phelex musical instrument, named as the violetta, isn’t italicised.

Finally, the denouement has more than a hint of the hoariest cliché about it.

In sum, this is not one of Harness’s best. His The Rose, The Catalyst, The Ring Of Ritornel, Lurid Dreams, Redworld, Krono, Lunar Justice and The Venetian Court are all more rewarding. Try any of them before considering Firebird.

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