Riding the Torch - Norman Spinrad 3.5 stars

“The void neither knew nor cared. The void did not exist. It was the eternal and infinite nonexistence that dwarfed and encompassed that which did.”

I was a little surprised by this book. It’s the kind of sci-fi I generally love, and the ideas seemed very current to me, but the vintage of the book is 1974! In the first twenty pages alone we’ve got classic stuff like generational starships, a fleet of torchships streaking through the void, and a dead earth in a distant past, add to that such “new” ideas as artificially created elements (shades of nanotech), shared realities and sensations (virtual reality), substances doctored to alter perceptions and induce tailored results in the imbiber, and at least one set of humans apparently modified to suit their environment/purpose in deep space and you’ve got a heck of a lot going on!

The basic premise is that the earth has been destroyed by the selfish mismanagement of humanity and the remnants of the species are now housed in a fleet of torchships, known as the Trek, that are streaking through the cosmos searching for a viable new home. We are immediately introduced to Jofe D’mahl, a crafter of ‘sensos’ (fully interactive and immersive movies) as he hosts a party in his grand salon for the cream of the Trek’s society. He is premiering his newest creation, The Wandering Dutchman, a commentary on the society and plight of humanity since embarking on the Trek, mankind’s last, best hope for survival. Unfortunately he is upstaged by the presence of Haris Bandoora, a ‘voidsucker’, one of the group of humans who undertake the task of piloting scout-ships into the void in the hopes of finding a new planetary home for humanity and the terse announcement from the Council of Pilots that this voidsucker’s crew may have found the Eden that humanity has been waiting for. Tempers flare and a challenge is issued: does D’mahl dare to leave the comfortable confines of the Trek where every pleasure can be gratified, every sense stimulated to excess, and every thought and feeling shared in the communal altered reality of each human’s cranial ‘tap’ in order to undergo the hardships and isolation of travel into the void with Bandoora and his crew? We get our answer soon enough, and it is no surprise given our early discovery that D’mahl is a creature of almost pure ego, though it appears that this is both his greatest flaw and ultimately his saving grace. On his journey D’mahl is fated to learn the secret of the voidsuckers and bear the burden of making a decision that will change the fate of humanity forever.

There are definitely some shared themes between this book and Spinrad's perhaps more well-known [b:The Void Captain's Tale|633181|The Void Captain's Tale|Norman Spinrad|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1312039669s/633181.jpg|1978769], primarily the strange, quasi-mystical communion that seems to occur between the human mind and the endless void and which appears to be an integral aspect of space travel. While the normal pilots of the torchships being used by the Trek do not seem to take part in this, the voidsuckers are obsessed by it, indeed they consider the ‘truth’ of spaceflight to be a burden that they bear for the rest of humanity…not altogether unlike the situation posited by Cordwainer Smith in his famous short story “Scanners Die in Vain”. There is also the hedonistic, baroque, and highly stylized society that Spinrad has created, again much like the ‘Second Starfaring Age’ he later created in [b:The Void Captain's Tale|633181|The Void Captain's Tale|Norman Spinrad|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1312039669s/633181.jpg|1978769] and [b:Child of Fortune|633175|Child of Fortune|Norman Spinrad|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1312064258s/633175.jpg|2253009]. The questions the novel raises about the nature of life and sentience and its true place in the cosmos also reminded me of Peter Watts’ [b:Blindsight|48484|Blindsight|Peter Watts|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1312040759s/48484.jpg|47428], though Spinrad manages to spin things in a much more optimistic way than does Watts. I also found it intriguing how Spinrad handled the concepts of virtual realities and the internal world which are given precedence in this novel. In many other sci-fi works this is often viewed as a crutch, an escape from the ‘real’ world that is detrimental to human evolution and growth. Spinrad seems to posit in this story that it is in fact the opposite: the human ability to cultivate and then realize an unending series of inner worlds that can only be explored virtually is our race’s saving grace. Without it we are nothing more than a blip. Unless we make our own truths and embrace them we are simply sentient flotsam in the vast immensity of an empty reality.