Against Arcturus

by Susan K. Putney
Reviewed date: 2022 May 21
Rating: 3
144 pages
cover art

This is Putney's only science fiction credit according to ISFDB. That's too bad. It's a decent piece of writing and shows promise. Putney could have been another Poul Anderson or Andre Norton.

The forest planet Berbidron is a key location in the conflict between the New Eden Alliance and the Arcturian Empire. Explorers from the New Eden Alliance arrive first and make contact with the local intelligent life: the Sarbr. The forest-dwelling Sarbr take a keen interest in all things human, and within a scant few years they've built cities which, well, just read this:

At the end of five years, the Sarbr had built four cities and one small town. A city is a collection of buildings which are called, variously, office buildings, shopping centers, legislative houses, hotels, colleges, hospitals, mansions, and tenement slums. Each city also contains a park, which is a patch of ground with no buildings on it. The largest city, Benson, had a spaceport. All four cities soon boasted crime rates, unemployment rates, divorce rates, aircar accident rates, ulcer rates and birth rates unequaled by any but the most magnificent human cities. The population explosion in our cities far outstripped any human precedent, in spite of our late start. As for the small town, Center Junction, the function of its twenty inhabitants was to gape at visiting city slickers, or, on occasion, to go to a city and be gaped at. In short, although no Sarbr-il had ever traveled to a human planet--due to a quarantine law which required that we be isolated for ten Earth Standard, or more than seventeen Berbidronian, years--in order to see everything firsthand, we were already beating the humans at their own game.

Already beating the humans at their own game.

Parts of the story are told from the viewpoint of a Sarbr-il named Arlem, and from his account it's clear the Sarbr do indeed treat their interactions with humans as a game. After the Arcturians forcibly seize Berbidron from the New Eden Alliance, Arlem works with the Arcturians as a spy to infiltrate the Berbidronian Liberation Committee (BLC). Arlem seems unconcerned about betraying his people, but very much more concerned with whether his spycraft--and the actions of his Arcturian boss--is up to the standard of that depicted in human programs. It's all a game to him.

It's not a game to the Arcturians or the New Eden Alliance. The New Eden Alliance sends an agent, Beth Goodrich, to Berbidron to start a revolution. Most of the book is told from her account. Beth arrives on Berbidron and makes contact with the Berbidron Liberation Committee, headed by Reyla Ryl.

Beth finds the Sarbr inscrutable: the cities, despite officially having populations of millions, have a few hundred at most. The Sarbr swear that the cities are fully populated, however. Likewise, the BLC officially has thousands of members, but actually has only thirty. Beth says they need to recruit more members, so Reyla Ryl assigns Arlem (who is the traitor working with the Arcturians) to accompany Beth on a recruiting trip. When Beth suggests recruiting the revolutionaries from the forest-dwelling Sarbr, Arlem and Reyla are skeptical. Reyla says the forest people "don't count. They're not involved. For our purposes, city people are all the people."

Nevertheless, Beth insists, and grudgingly Reyla and Arlem agree. So Arlem takes Beth on a trip around the forest, meeting with various groups of Sarbr. They are polite and listen, but are mostly unwilling to get involved.

Later, Beth manages to get herself shot and killed. But she wakes up in a Sarbr hospital facility, having (it appears) been nursed back to health. However, the Sarbr--including Arlem--tell her she is dead. Beth insists on continuing with the revolution, and the Sarbr finally relent: however, she must go undercover and assume the identity of an Arcturian, infiltrate the local Arcturian society, and make contact with the BLC from her new identity. After all, Beth Goodrich is dead.

Beth acquiesces. The plan works. She infiltrates the Arcturian society and manages to get the local admiral to spill a secret: the Arcturians have not seized Berbidron for its natural resources. Instead, they intend to use the planet to manufacture huge amounts of poison gas. The manufacturing process will destroy the planet's atmosphere--which is why they need a whole new planet--and will produce enough poison to kill everything on all the Alliance planets.

Horrified, Beth hurries to contact the BLC. The BLC--with Arlem and Reyla Ryl still a part of it--thwart the Arcturian plot. The danger isn't over yet, though. The Arcturians figure out Beth is a spy, and are hot on her tail. The BLC takes her to a safehouse. It's there that Beth discovers Arlem is a traitor who is working with the Arcturians.

And that's where the big reveal happens. Finally Beth says something that makes the Sarbr pause and think, and they ask Beth to explain what she thinks death is. Beth explains. The Sarbr are horrified. They explain: the Sarbr are immortal. They live for eons and devise all manner of games and entertainments to amuse themselves. When they encountered humans, they thought all the intrigues of human civilization was a grand game, and presumed that humans were just being friendly and generous in allowing the Sarbr to participate. Real death? The Sarbr thought "death" and "life" was a game humanity was playing.

It's worse than that, though. The Sarbr further reveal that many thousands of years ago, a sickness began to affect their worlds. It started with the lower life forms and caused them to die. As it began spreading to higher forms of life, the Sarbr realized that to save themselves from death, they must take drastic measures. Rather than destroy the diseased life, they shipped it off to a faraway planet (Earth) and allowed it to live there. They expected the diseased organisms to die out and eventually go extinct, but it seems they did not: hence, humanity.

Beth--and every human being--is a product of that diseased life, and Beth carries in her the disease organism. Now all the Sarbr are at risk.

The rest of the story is wrapped up in a few pages. The Sarbr are an advanced super-powerful race, so they eliminate the Arcturian threat to Berbidron using the powers of their mind. Then one of the giant trees on Berbidron cures Beth of the disease, so she will live forever. The end.

Overall a good book. It needs some tightening up, and would probably work a lot better at half or a third of the length. But it's a pretty entertaining story. I think the triple shocking reveal at the end--the Sarbr are immortal AND humans are diseased mortal descendents of ancient Berbidronians apes AND it was the trees all along--is too much. Plus, I don't think the author laid the proper clues for the part about the trees, so it felt like cheating rather than like a surprising and fair payoff. But like I said, it is a pretty entertaining story. Thumbs up from me.

Archive | Search