Monday, November 5, 2012

Stardance by Spider Robinson

While re-reading Stardance, which I'd call one of the true classics of modern SF, I thought about a couple of other great books in that category: Ender's Game by Card and The Forever War by Haldeman. It came to me that all three of these books have something in common - they're about humanity's first encounter with aliens. In Stardance, we appear to achieve peaceful relations, but in the other two, it ends in war. Could it be because Robinson's aliens are great glowing firefly-like balls, while Card's and Haldeman's are just icky bugs?

Charlie Armstead is a former dancer, turned video man after a burglar's bullet messed up his hip. He is introduced to Shara Drummond, possibly the most talented dancer of her time, by her sister, Norrey, who hopes that Charlie can break the news to her gently that she can never make it as a professional dancer; not because she doesn't have talent, but because she is simply the wrong body type, statuesque and womanly rather than small and cadaverous. Together they embark upon a hopeless quest, to make marketable videos of her innovative dance ideas. Unfortunately, it is not to be, and they give it up as hopeless at last, much as Charlie gives up on his hopeless unrequited passion for Shara, herself.

Some time later, Shara contacts him again, and asks him to come to SpaceFac, an orbital station, to film her as she develops the first zero gee dances. She has become the kept woman of the owner of the facility, Bryce Carrington, the stereotypical heartless businessman every good story needs. When Shara's physiology becomes almost irrevocably adapted to space, Carrington exiles her back to Earth, as he doesn't want the bad publicity that would come from allowing her to die. On the way home, however, Charlie and Shara's ship is drawn into the first encounter with an alien race, luminous balls of plasma. Shara observes that they seem to be dancing, and insists that she alone can learn to communicate with them. She figuratively dances her heart out, and drives the aliens away from Earth, which they intend to invade, evidently, then jets into a decaying orbit and burns up in the atmosphere, like a shooting star.

End part one. I think this was the original novella that Robinson published.

The story, which to my knowledge is the first ever published that seriously considered that dance might be the way to "talk" to our first alien race encountered,  is helped immensely by the collaboration of Spider's wife, Jeanne, who was a professional dancer. Passages like,

"Dancers speak of their 'center,' the place their motion centers around often quite near the physical center of gravity. You strive to 'dance from your center,' and the 'contraction-and-release' idea which underlies so much of Modern dance depends upon the center for its focus of energy. Shara's center seemed to move about the room under its own power, trailing limbs that attached to it by choice rather than necessity."

"And the new dance said, 'This is what it is to be human: to see the essential existential futility of all action, all striving - and to act, to strive. This is what it is to be human: to reach forever beyond your grasp...It said all this with a soaring series of cyclical movements that held all the rolling majesty of grand symphony, as uniquely different from each other as snowflakes, and as similar. And the new dance laughed, as much at tomorrow as at yesterday, and most of all at today."

In the next part of the story, Charlie has inherited the rights to the videotapes of the Stardance, Shara's legacy, and has been written a blank check, basically, to form a zero gee dance company. He approaches Norrey and the two of them finally admit that they love each other, marry, and head for the space station to build a dream together.

One anachronism I noticed in the story, which was written in 1979, was that he mentions that a Beatles reunion took place. John Lennon was murdered after the book was published, so the reunion only takes place in Robinson's alternate future.

There's a metaphor about life from Zelazny's Isle of the Dead that I've used quite often, how life is like Tokyo Bay. Robinson comes up with an interesting metaphor in Stardance:

"Picture us all as being in free fall, all of us that are alive. LIterally falling freely, at one gee, down a tube so unimaginably long that its ultimate bottom cannot be seen. The vast tube is studded with occasional obstacles - and the law of averages says that at some finite future time you will smash into one: you will die. There are literally billions of us in this tube, all falling, all sure to hit some day; we caro off each other all the time, whirling more or less at random in and out of lives and groups of lives. MOst of us construct belief structures which deny either the falling or the obstacles, and place them underneath our feet like skateboards. A good rider can stay on for a lifetime.

Occasionally you reach out and take a stranger's hand, and fall together for a while. It's not so bad, then. Sometimes if you're really desperate with fear, you clutch someone like a drowning man clinging to an anchor, or you strive hopelessly to reach someone in a different trajectory, someone you can't possibly reach, just to be doing something to forget that your death is rushing up toward you."


When the aliens reappear out near Saturn, Charlie's dancers are recruited to go find out what they want this time. Robinson sort of cheats on the long journey to Saturn (which takes a year in story time) by describing one typical day, then skipping over all the other days, saying they were much the same.

A good description of the "there are two kinds of people" meme that Spider uses goes like this:

"That had been the real root of our struggle with the diplomats over the last year. They were committed to the belief that what would be understood best by the aliens was precise adherence to a series of computer-generated movements. We Stardancers unanimously believed that what the aliens had responded to in Shara had been not a series of movements but art."

Yeah, there are those people who get dance - as art, and those who merely see the movements.

Spider was one of the SF authors whom I encountered early in my reading who first introduced me to the concept of the singularity - the concept that at some point mankind would reach a point in their evolution where the entire paradigm would shift, and all of our earlier history would become irrelevant. He once again visits this theme in Stardance, not merely with a telepathic group hug, but with the idea that mankind will be fundamentally changed and inherit the universe. A classic definitely worth keeping on your shelf, folks.

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