Science Fiction Book Review

Slow Train to Arcturus

by Eric Flint and Dave Freer
Reviewed date: 2023 Jan 1
Rating: 2
314 pages
cover art

The generation ship
Earth launches a generation ship to colonize other solar systems. (Actually, though, this generation ship is an excuse for Earth to expel her least desirable people by literally sending them into deep space.) The ship has six habitats to colonize six systems, and the first stop is Arcturus. The Mirans notice the inbound ship and send a mission out to investigate.

The Mirans inhabit a planet in the Arcturus system. They are humanoid with some minor differences and one major difference: young Mirans are male and become female later in life. Female Mirans have a strong nesting instinct and an irrational need to return home (read: to their home planet). Only young males are daring and foolhardy enough to go on a space mission, so it's only males sent to intercept the generation ship.

Habitat One: Aryan Freedom
The Mirans open an airlock and enter the first habitat. (They also send two Mirans in a lander to the sixth habitat, which will become important later.) The humans seem friendly, but it's a trap. (Later we find out these humans are the descendents of Neonazis.) They turn violent. One Miran, Kretz, is shot. He escapes with his life and finds his way through a maintenance shaft to the next habitat, New Eden.

Habitat Two: New Eden
Kretz is rescued by Howard Dansson and nursed back to health. He learns the language (with the aid of his Transcomp) and discovers he is in New Eden, which is populated by the Society of Brethren. Think Amish in space. The Brethren shun technology and farm the land by hand. They are pacifist, religious and patriarchal. Howard is already considered a troublemaker because he can't stop inventing new stuff (like a better plow) or fixing things, and can't keep his mouth shut when heretical ideas fill his brain. He's not bad, he's just a bit of an odd duck--a mechanically-inclined tinkerer and a thinker whose mouth has no filter. Now that Howard has rescued an alien--perhaps a demon?--it's not going to go well for him.

The ultimate punishment in New Eden is being sent outside--that is, through the airlock. Kretz wants to go outside. He can't go back to the first habitat--the violent people there will kill him--but he figures if he can get outside the ship he can crawl his way toward the lander at the sixth habitat. The elders in New Eden don't know what to make of Kretz and are just fine sending him outside, and for good measure they tell Howard to go with Kretz. It's not a punishment, they tell Howard. It's just that Kretz needs some help to complete his journey, and they figure Howard is the one to do it. If Howard ever returns--not that anybody has ever returned from going outside--he's welcome back.

Habitat Three: Diana
Kretz takes Howard through the airlock--there are plenty of spacesuits for Howard, and Kretz still has his Miran suit--and they make their way to the next habitat. They are in Diana, a matriarchal society of dominatrixes where the women are in charge, the men are slaves, and clothes are illegal for everyone. It's a shock for poor Howard who has never seen a naked woman.

The Diana society is bad. Just about pure evil. The social roles are as ossified and strict as they are in New Eden, and whereas the women in New Eden are slotted into traditional homemaker roles, the men in Diana are literal slaves, sexual and otherwise. Diana is the worst of Rome and Saudi Arabia rolled up in one.

Howard and Kretz are arrested and charged with public indecency for wearing clothes and for being in public without an escort. There's a lot of bother, but eventually they escape to the next habitat--taking with them two women (Lani, who has a major crush on Howard, and Amber, a scientist) and one man (Johnny Bhangella, a ringleader in the underground Men's Liberation Movement.)

Habitat Four: uThani jungle
The next habitat is a South American jungle populated by the primitive uThani tribe from Colombia. I enjoyed the fact that the uThani are not simple savages. They are intelligent and know their position exactly. They live as hunter-gatherers in this artificial jungle, but also make use of the ship's computer to learn English (in case outsiders arrive) and they quickly recognize that Howard and Kretz can teach them how to travel to other habitats. They want very much to do this, because their population growth is straining the limits of their current habitat.

It's here that Howard is forced to kill Johnny Bhangella. The Men's Liberation Movement leader wishes to return to Diana to bring his group of rebel men to the uThani jungle, where he expects to murder the uThani men, enslave their women, and set up a patriarchy as evil as the Matriarchy of Diana. Little Johnny deserves what he gets and I have no sympathy for him.

Habitat Five: Icarus
Next they find a society of flyers. Apparently back on Earth, the most undesirable of citizens included those engaged in extreme sports like flying with artificial wings. They shipped the whole lot of them off, and now there is an entire habitat filled with people who spend their lives flying and inventing better wings. It is absolutely nuts.

Howard is coming to realize that Lani--despite being a "painted Jezebel" and wearing no clothes--is just a nice woman. He's falling in love, and so is she. Also, Amber from Diana falls in love with Zoƫ from Icarus, so Howard also has to realize that homosexuality is fine too. Which he does, in pretty short order.

So the backward religious fundamentalist country boy has his eyes and his heart opened by a dominatrix with a heart of gold and a couple of lesbians. This is some propaganda, this is.

(Later, when Howard and Lani are trying to figure out where they can live together as a couple, Howard asks her to come with him to New Eden. She'll hate the gender roles there, he explains, but he'd like her to come with him and help change the culture for the better. Which makes me a little upset because Diana is far more in need of reform than New Eden. Which people need a revolution more: the women of New Eden who have to cook and keep house and can't be Elders but are otherwise respected and valued members of society, or the men of Diana who are sex slaves and can't step foot in public without a woman escort? OK sure, the in-universe explanation is that there are other reasons why Howard must go back to New Eden, but the out-of-universe explanation is--I think--that the Matriarchy of Diana is just a silly not-realistic curiosity but New Eden is a "realistic" sort of evil society that just deserves to be blown up. Or I could be projecting my own feelings into the text.)

Habitat Six: Workers' Paradise
The final habit is best described as North Korea in space. It's horrific. The Mirans who landed there (Derfel and Abret) sort-of accidentally killed the Great Leader, so the people acclaim Derfel as their new leader. Derfel likes being a semi-divine dictator, so he imprisons Abret and decides he'll stay and rule these folks. That doesn't work for Kretz, and with help from some locals (including Abret's jailer, Ji) they storm the palace and kill Derfel (who was raping teenage human girls, so, you know, it's hard to feel sorry for him.) Then they pick up the landing craft and fly back to the first habitat where Kretz hopes to get back on his Miran spaceship and head home to Miran.

Habitat One: Unity
It's too late. The Neonazis in the first habitat have packed the airlock with explosives and blown their habitat open. They're all dead, and Kretz has no way home. It's OK though! They have some time before the habitat is scheduled to be dropped off at Arcturus, so they fix it up and create a new society: Howard and his new bride Lani, Kretz, Ji and his family and a bunch of other refugees from the Workers' Paradise. They name the new habitat Unity. Kretz and Abret hitch a ride home on Unity, and it's a happy ending all around.

Anti-religious propaganda
Slow Train to Arcturus wasn't what I expected. The story felt like an exercise in coming up with the most ridiculous and over-the-top social groups. Plus, I got really tired of the preachiness, particularly how Howard, the only religious character--who came from a society that, as portrayed, has a lot of positive qualities and is only moderately repressive--was the viewpoint character that had to reject all his moral values. He ends up with an expanded view of God and rejecting all his sexual hangups. Don't get me wrong--I wouldn't like to live in New Eden (I'm doctrinally evangelical but really don't go for fundamentalism and patriarchy)--but of all the societies on that ship it seems like the best one by far. (Well, maybe Icarus was better.)

Rating the habitats
If I had to rate the different habitats by passing moral judgement on them, I'd rate them in this order:

  • Worst: Aryan Freedom - The Neonazis degenerated into literal cannibalism, they murdered the Miran visitors, and they blew a hole in their habitat that killed everyone in it. Simply the worst.
  • Diana - When Howard and Kretz arrive in Diana, the Matriarchy made Kretz a laboratory specimen and sold Howard into literal slavery. Men in the Matriarchy are all slaves, and the social roles for women are strict and unyielding. It's hell.
  • Workers' Paradise - Living in an authoritarian communist dictatorship is pretty rough, and they did try to kill the outsiders. I could be persuaded that this is worst than Diana, but I figure that the people at least aren't literal slaves like half the population of Diana, so that counts for something.
  • uThani - The jungle life of the uThani is pretty rough, and while they did try to murder Kretz and Howard out of hand when they arrived, the uThani natives quickly repented of that and found a better way to deal with outsiders. In the end the uThani were better than Diana or the Workers' Paradise. Certainly the uThani were happier in their society than the citizens of Diana or the Workers' Paradise.
  • New Eden - Agrarian pacifists with a strong sense of religion? These may be the nicest people on the ship. They may be patriarchal (but not ridiculously so) and a little rigid in their thinking, but they didn't try to murder anybody which is more than we can say for most of the habitats. OK, sure, they did send Kretz and Howard out of the airlock, but Kretz wanted to go and he'd explained that it wasn't a death sentence so that doesn't count. The people are mostly happy, value hospitality, and it sounds like a genuinely nice place to live if you don't mind a simple farming life. (In real life, insular communities like this tend to have some really horrific sexual abuse happening below the surface--seriously, check out what happens in Amish communities sometime--but that's not alluded to at all in the book, so we have to presume that's not happening in New Eden.)
  • Best: Icarus - friendly, not murderers, they have modern technology, equal opportunity for everyone, and all they ask is that you learn to fly.

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