The Void Captain's Tale

by Norman Spinrad

Cover image

Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: 1983
Printing: August 1986
ISBN: 0-553-25995-4
Format: Mass market
Pages: 217

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Genro Kane Gupta is a Void Captain of the Second Starfaring Age, responsible for the governance of a starship that travels in multiple jumps between planets. Its prosaic duties are carrying cargo and passengers in hibernation. But Void Ships are also host to Honored Passengers and the Floating Cultura, the social playground of the super-rich who can afford to stay awake through the journey. They are entertained by the ship's Domo, plied with food and drink by renowned chefs, and tantalized and sated with all forms of pleasure, from drugs to sexuality. The Void Captain's crew responsibilities are minor; most of his job is to play a balancing role with the Domo, entertain the Honored Passengers, and model, in his relationship with the Domo, the sexual play and balance expected in the Floating Cultura.

Underlying this method of interstellar travel is the Jump Drive and the Void Pilot. Based on a discovered and reverse-engineered alien technology that no one understands, the Jump Drive moves a ship instantaneously through about a light-year of space, but for activation it requires a willing Void Pilot. The Void Pilot must be female, must generally have an addictive personality and be willing to give herself over entirely to the jump, and experiences each jump as an all-consuming orgasm. Void Pilots are extremely rare, usually found among drug addicts, and are heedless of physical appearance and physical health, caring only about the next jump. They are treated as a piece of machinery on the ship and congress with the crew apart from the med team is unheard of. That is, until Genro meets an oddly intense but apparently normal woman in the shuttle to his next command, the Dragon Zephyr, and exchanges name tales with her before discovering that she's his Void Pilot.

This is a very odd take on the old SF idea of interstellar cruises, opening with a blizzard of ideas and a wonderful bit of world background. It's written in a slightly twisted version of English that favors somewhat archaic word order and sprinkles in significant amounts of German, French, and Spanish, but not too much to be a challenge to understand (although I did draw on high-school Spanish; if you don't know any Romance language, it may pose more difficulty). Spinrad does a great job of holding my interest through the introduction of the Void Ships and their crew and, in the first thirty pages or so, makes me want to learn a lot more about the world.

One example of that creativity: name tales. Everyone in the story has three names. The last two names are the first names of their two parents, and their first name they chose after their wanderjahr. Exchanging name tales, which means describing one's parents and the reason for one's chosen name, is the method of formal introduction. This naming convention is a wonderful touch of world-building, implying in just a few lines of background a culture built around a year of wandering before picking an identity as well as a profession and a world without long-term family dynasties (since no name carries over beyond one generation).

The explicitly sexual nature of interstellar travel is the most obvious feature of Spinrad's universe. It sets up a clear conflict with the typical SF starship, which is based entirely on technology, usually developed by humans but sometimes acquired from elsewhere. Spinrad turns the engineering-dominated picture of star travel on its head, basing it on a technology that was never understood, automating much of the process of using it into rote that seems to involve little creativity or skill on the part of the crew, and throughout de-emphasizing any scientific or technical focus in favor of the luxuries of the Honored Passengers and the formula of the crew's interaction with them. This is not the typical SF adventuring starship. This is a cruise ship, an entertainment passenger liner, with the corresponding shift in focus and all technical details ruthlessly suppressed. And Spinrad bases the technology on what is essentially a mystical orgasm, in which the Void Pilot feels themselves in contact with the Great and Only.

So far, sounds like a great book. The problem is that this background is all established within the first few dozen pages, along with the entire plot of the book. The rest of the book is a cross between an extended slide into either madness or a bizarre love affair and repeated attempts to poetically describe an orgasm.

After the introductory scene-setting, I really wanted to like this book, but it goes nowhere. Spinrad describes the entire plot on the first two pages, which is a daring move that either tells the reader that the narrator is unreliable, or that the plot is completely unimportant to the enjoyment of the book and the author will carry it on scene and character alone. I wish Spinrad had meant the former; it would have been a better book. Unfortunately, The Void Captain's Tale puts the entire weight of the book on a detailed look at the impact on Genro of meeting a Void Pilot, and neither Genro nor his obsession is interesting enough to bear the burden.

In some ways, this feels very much like a 1960s book, a novel from an era focused on alternative views of sex. Sex, orgasm, and the mystical connection with the universe reached by a Void Pilot's orgasm is the be-all and end-all of this story. Genro becomes obsessed with it, the story is filled with other variations of sexuality to contrast with it, and the reader is clearly intended to be fascinated by it. The fundamental problem with this approach is that other people's orgasms are boring, and mystical descriptions of the mind-altering possibilities of other people's orgasms just sound silly. Since the only other happening of the book is the impact of this obsession on Genro's interactions with the crew and passengers, who do not strike one as a particularly intelligent or admirable bunch, there isn't much left to hold one's interest.

I loved the background and some of the touches of world-building here. It's almost worth reading just for that. And throughout, particularly when one gets away from the Floating Cultura and the highly mannered back-biting, there are some bits of description that work well. Spinrad is clearly a capable writer. The Void Pilot, Dominique, is an admirable and interesting character who, in a different book, I'd very much like to read about. But all of this is written only in support of the central obsession of the book, and in the complete absence of plot suspense followed by an entirely unsatisfactory ending, the book just doesn't work.

A fascinating failure with a great deal of potential, but still a failure.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2009-11-10

Last modified and spun 2022-08-14