The Castaways of Tanagar; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

Since I read a novel translated by Brian Stableford, I had to get a Stableford novel off the shelf.

Review: The Castaways of Tanagar, Brian Stableford, 1981. 

Cover by H. R. Van Dongen

The review of this book on the Brian Stableford website suggests that it is a science fictional working out of ideas from Plato’s The Republic. Tanagar society has three classes, and Stableford combines Plato’s ideas with William Sheldon’s theory of personality determined by body type. Intellectuals are passionless, thin, ascetic, and supposedly not given to emotion. Pragmatists, also not given to much emotion except at chosen times when they “jeckle”, are strivers, rightfully regarding themselves as the only ones who can get things done between the other two classes’ indecision and indiscipline. They are medium-framed, Sheldon’s mesomorphic body type. Hedonists are fat and emotional. 

The novel also partakes of some common themes of science fiction from the 1970s and 1980s: biofeedback, skills obtained through memory implants, nuclear holocaust, and resource depletion on Earth.

Our castaways are those who just couldn’t fit in to Tanagar society. That was the planet settled by a generation starship fled Earth before a nuclear war broke out. The Tanagarians put them in cold sleep.

But, now that Tanagar has found out that people are still alive back on Earth, maybe those convicts can be of use to spy out what’s happening on Earth which seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance based on digging up buried books, manuscripts and machines. But Earth isn’t going to be able to recreate our world. Energy and mineral resources are too depleted to effectively extract them.

Our Tanagarian malcontents include Charon Felix. He is the oldest inmate in cold sleep. He’s been on ice 8,000 years, not for a murder per se but a murder of passion. (Tanagarian society, emphasizing the taming of the emotions, sanctions pre-meditated murder less harshly.) Another fellow Hedonist is Talavar.

Sarid Jerome is on the trip because even the Intellectuals view him as a resourceful and intelligent Pragmatic. He did, after all, lead a revolt against the Intellectuals. 

Running this mission of covert reconnaissance of Earth from orbit is Intellectual Cyriac Salvador and his aide, the Pragmatic Teresa Janeat. Cyriac, being an Intellectual, doesn’t really have a plan about what to do with old stock humans on Earth. Observe them or help them? He thinks Sarid being on Earth will be a “catalyst” for something.

But, of course, things don’t go according to this tenuous plan.

The other 20 convicts don’t last long on Earth, and an accident forces Cyriac and Teresa to the surface too in North Africa.

Most of the book, 192 pages out of 319, is an ok adventure story. It doesn’t plod. But it’s not memorable either.

Sarid, Cheron, and Talaver all get drafted into the Macarian army going into the African jungle reason to set up camp and exploit a forest there. The group is separated before that happens.

Sarid’s cover is blown when a Macarian member of its Church, the institution in charge of mining the resources of the past, gets suspicious when the gold coin he tries to pass is too pure.

It’s then the story gets a lot more interesting as Sarid reveals the back story of Tanager and its origins in a generation starship, the Marco Polo.

The future Tanagarians were concerned with two things: maintaining social stability in the limited environment of a starship and determining what technologies should be adopted and how they should be used. They were interested in knowledge, but not necessarily using it. They eventually come to regard this as a duty, and the Pragmatists and Hedonists are happy to do that.

They try to construct a society, unlike capitalism on Earth, that aligns innate desires with a person’s place in society. This is contrasted to capitalism, a regime where people were more maladjusted in their place yet forced to participate in ways that made them unhappy. 

Intellectuals devoted themselves to the pursuit of pursue knowledge. Pragmatists got to create projects and plans and see them through. Hedonists devoted themselves to pleasure.  Biofeedback, drugs, psychological training, and social pressure mold people when young for their place though the Intellectuals do recruit some trainees which doesn’t always work out. The difference in lifespan between the classes is the result. 

The Intellectuals are suspicious of utopian planning, and they desire to have a society not dependent on forced social cooperation or forcing people to love one another. But this society was not well suited when the Marco Polo disgorged its contents on Tanagar, a not entirely suitable world where people had to live in metal enclosures.

Still, the limitations of life, compared to onboard the Marco Polo, lessened. At first, the Intellectuals regarded life on Tanagar as a chance to prove their engineered society even works in a new environment. On Tanagar, says Sarid, the social system that worked “extremely well” on the Marco Polo only worked well on Tanagar. Sarid suspects that was because there were now metaphorical and actual horizons. There had always been dissidents, but now the Intellectuals begin to undertake a sort of eugenic program of removing, via suspended animation, those dissidents.

Sarid emphasizes he is not, despite what the Intellectuals claim, an agent of chaos. In a certain sense, he admires what the Intellectuals were able to accomplish on the Marco Polo. The changes the Intellectuals have introduced to society — drugs, psychological conditioning, and social pressure — they view as constancy. Sarid argued, in his revolution, that even more changes were needed. 

But, as Cheron and Talaver find out in the jungle, the Tanagarians aren’t the only ones interested in Earth’s social evolution.

This seem to be an early Stableford work using a theme that would dominate his later science fiction: genetic engineering.

It also shows his thoughts on the problems of Utopia and building societies where people can find meaning and happiness without being perfect, thoughts covered in some of the essays on Marxism and science fiction in Opening Minds.

Stableford seems to have sympathy for the Intellectuals and Hedonists but not so much for the Pragmatists. Both Teresa and Sarid come to bad ends, but so does Cyriac but more because of Sarid’s actions than his own. Personality-wise, I suspect Stableford’s scholarly pursuits make him more sympathetic to the duty of the Intellectuals, but the Hedonist Cheron is portrayed sympathetically, and the Pragmatists are right about Intellectuals’ chronic indecision.

The novel also deals with Stableford’s interest in evolutionary processes, both in the adaptation of an individual to society and Darwinian evolution.

Stableford’s ultimate theme, the difficulty of life in a society unchosen by one, is interestingly worked out. That makes the novel interesting and not its opening two-thirds.

3 thoughts on “The Castaways of Tanagar; or, Adventures in Reviewer Parallax

  1. Joachim Boaz February 8, 2021 / 6:18 pm

    “Most of the book, 192 pages out of 319, is an ok adventure story. It doesn’t plod. But it’s not memorable either.” — unfortunately, this is the general sense I get from his SF so far. Combined with some cool ideas that never seem to gel together with the story….

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