Star Bridge, by Jack Williamson and James E. Gunn (1955), is a solid, entertaining and well written vintage space opera. Of course the book shows its age, but like old wine, not like an old gadget. Highly recommended.
More than twenty years after the book first appeared, The New York Times Book Review said that “the book works so well because the authors are not ashamed of what they are doing at any level.” And what should they be ashamed of? This book is a great classic of science fiction, with galactic empires, super science, future societies, intrigue and mystery, and cosmic vistas full of stars.
About 1500 years in the future, Earth is an impoverished planet, and the stars belong to the Eron Company. Eron, a planet covered by a metal surface, inhabited on the inside by a decadent, golden-skinned master race, is the center of a galactic empire held together by the Tubes, faster than light conduits between stars. The Tubes are made of an exotic material and enclose a space-time that doesn’t belong to our universe. It is not clear who developed the technology of the Tubes, or who controls their operations.
“Inside the mysterious, golden tubes of energy, space was somehow foreshortened. It was a different kind of energy, and it created a different kind of space. The Tubes, moreover, transmitted power and messages at the same speed. For the first time, interstellar civilization was possible. There is no doubt — the Company deserved a great reward. But every bridge led to Eron, and the toll was high….”
Alan Horn, a mercenary, is on Earth for the official opening of the Tube between Earth and Eron, on a mission to kill the CEO of the Eron Company. Before the hit, in a desert mesa near the long disappeared city of Denver and the ruins of the once mighty spaceport Sunport, Horn meets the enigmatic old Chinese Wu, a wandering beggar, thief, and philosopher, and his alien companion Lil. Lil can assume any shape, but most often she appears as a bird. Lil is the last of a very advanced race, and her super science kept Wu alive for more than 1,500 years.
After the hit, Horn escapes to Eron via the Tube, wearing only a spacesuit and fully conscious, in one of the greatest scenes of science fiction of all times.
On Eron, Horn decides to topple the galactic empire. He was born in the Pleiades Cluster, where for a few decades free men, under the leadership of charismatic Peter Sair, resisted Eron before being crushed by the military force of the empire. Horn is a typical vintage science fiction hero. From a relatively recent review:
“At first impression, this is a straightforward adventure story, guilty of some of the pulp sensibilities of the age in which it was written. The hero is a Manly Man of uncommon strength and intelligence, who wondrously manages to get out of every jam he gets into, and over whom the women swoon, of course… His attitude is sometimes forthrightly optimistic, as he declares his belief in the power of a single man to shape his own destiny.”
On Eron, Horn meets Wu and Lil again and falls in love with Wendre Kohlnar, the daughter of the deceased Eron Company CEO. Captured and sent to the prison planet Vantee, he finds Peter Sair and leads a successful revolt of the prisoners. With their army of revolutionary renegades, Sair and Horn go back to conquer Eron.
But the Tubes remain a mystery. At the end, we learn that Lil created the Tubes, with the super science of her disappeared race, and she is the only one who can operate them. With her help, Wu has woven the threads of human history for more than a thousand years.
“It was irony that the man who had preached the social theory of history to him had been the greatest proof of the personal theory. Wu had been the somebody who pushed. He had stood outside the river and guided its course. He had guided Horn, too. He, more than Horn, had pulled the trigger that fired the bullet that killed Kohlnar. He had wielded the forces that shape empires and men’s destinies.”
I read Star Bridge first as a child, I must have been 8 or 9, and I remember that this was the first science fiction book that I decided to buy. I asked money to the family and bought the book mail order, of all things. I remember unwrapping the book with great expectations, and reading it with pleasure and unbelievable sense of wonder. Reading it again after decades, I still find much of the old magic.