This week, I’m finally publishing my review for Francis Carsac’s The City Among the Stars, available in English for the first time since its “Golden Age of Science Fiction” publication. How does it hold up all these years later though? Read on to find out! This fair and unbiased review was conducted with gratitude for the free electronic copy of the book which I received from the publisher, Flame Tree Press.
Tankar Holroy is an accidental refugee of the Empire, a brutal regime that controls the Earth and has established itself across many other planets. When rebellion rears its ugly head, Tankar is despatched with a message requesting reinforcements. He doesn’t get the chance to deliver his message, however, as his ship has been sabotaged. This leaves him drifting in space, on the verge of death, before being rescued by the Tilsin, a vast city spaceship inhabited by the Stellarans. And so our story begins.
There is nothing wrong with this setup, as openings go. But there are problems from the outset. Little niggles, like Tankar’s air supply seeming to run out very quickly over several pages, before it’s eventually explained that the valve on his oxygen tank is broken. Then there’s the confusing muddle of exactly what order events happened in, prior to Tankar ending up where he is when we join him. Despite the strong mental image conjured up of Tankar drifting in space, there’s a sense that Carsac is getting things wrapped around his neck in his opening, as little bits of backstory intrude on what could have been a tension-fuelled scene.
Sometimes when the prose itself isn’t the best, the imagination and worldbuilding can make up for it though, so Tankars’s rescue by the Telsin would seem like the ideal time to deploy these. Unfortunately, there’s not much imagination in Carsac’s arsenal. The rooms onboard are austere, and the dwellers of the city are all human themselves. Consequently, very little description is given to much of either Tankar’s surroundings or the people, unless they’re an attractive woman (we will definitely be returning to this point later), which just makes it feel like Carsac has cut corners. Advanced technology is referred to on occasion, but we’re rarely told what it looks like, let alone how it functions. The anti-grav shafts that Tankar uses so frequently are, for all we know, helter-skelters. No description whatsoever is given for them, other than their name. Not their size, the sensation of being in one, nothing. They amount to a fancy, sciencey sounding way to get between floors and little else.
The greatest obstacle to finishing this book, however, is Tankar Holroy himself. His obnoxious, unreasonable, and at times completely bizarre behaviour make him impossible to care about or like. He ricochets wildly between emotional states, helpful one minute and stubborn and rude the next. The other characters fare little better; if they’re female it’s only a matter of time before someone assures Tankar (possessed of something of a roving eye) that although they look too young for him, they’re actually not far off his own age, which just comes across as horribly creepy. Conversations between Tankar and the other characters abruptly change tack, so much so that you’ll find yourself flicking back and forth to make sure you haven’t missed a page. They say or do one thing, then say something else that immediately contradicts it. Many of the characters give page after page of dry exposition which has no bearing on the story whatsoever, all of which is in addition to Tankar’s uninteresting research on Stellaran history.
Carsac also mentions conversations that Tankar has had with people that have had a deep and profound effect on him, without showing us the conversation itself, in a very basic attempt at character development. Similarly, when Tankar – a soldier – is given the chance to discuss his strategic expertise in drawing up a battleplan, we’re just told that he suggested a different way of doing things, but not what it was. We aren’t even told what the old battleplan was, presumably because Carsac knew nothing about military strategy himself and didn’t feel like researching it, despite deciding to write a main character who was apparently an expert in it. An early action scene, which should be our first chance to really see what Tankar can do, is a confusing mess in terms of its setting, which is initially described as “a clear level field banked by bushes,” but then seems to consist of alleyways, a grove and a ravine, with the action itself poorly paced.
In fact, speaking of the pacing, that’s another area where things fall down. So much of the novel seems to go by at an absolute crawl, with very little happening aside from half-hearted attempts at philosophising and displays of Tankar’s objectionable and irrational behaviour. Then whole months elapse, with either Tankar or his situation itself apparently having changed radically in that time. It seems as if Carsac believed his strength lay in imaginative worldbuilding, eschewing character development in favour of either discussions about history or characters having the same conversations over and over again.
Tankar’s treatment of women and the way the female characters behave toward each other – as if they’re jealous wives in an intergalactic harem – might be “of their time,” but his schizophrenic behaviour, the patchy worldbuilding and the lurching pace are not. Whilst some issues could have arisen during translation (The CIty Among the Stars originally being published in French, and available now for the first time in English), the bulk of these criticisms must surely be laid at Carsac’s door. Collectors of classic or obscure science fiction might find this something of a quaint curio, but it’s practically impossible to recommend it to anyone else.