My life in outer space

Summertide – Charles Sheffield (1990)

Summertide (Heritage Universe, #1)

It can be argued – at least by me – that SF is the reflection of the collective unconscious in that it tends to pick up on society’s fears and obsessions, such as the rash of ‘aliens among us’ stories in US Nineteen Fifties novels which paralleled a social paranoia – fostered by the Establishment – of Communism spreading like a disease.
CG Jung, who popularised the concept of the collective unconscious (although in his case he was talking of inherited concepts of archetypes) would no doubt be fascinated by SF’s dalliance with The Elder Race, usually a highly intelligent alien species who have disappeared from our universe, leaving enigmatic samples of their civilisation behind, often in the form of what has come to be known in SF circles as ‘Big Dumb Objects’.
‘Summertide’ is packed with Big Dumb Objects, left by a vanished race termed ‘The Builders’. Their vast and often impenetrable artefacts have been found across the galaxy, still in working order after millions of years although humanity has been able to discover only a few of the Builders’ secrets in the five thousand years since the first ones were discovered.
Hans Rebka, an agent of The Phemus Circle (a connected ‘clade’ of systems and planets) is suddenly removed from his mission to explore the Builder artefact Paradox, and sent to the Dobelle system to retrieve one Max Perry, an agent who seems reluctant to leave his post on the waterworld of Opal.
Dobelle is a binary system within which two planets, Opal and Quake, revolve about each other, although the worlds are connected by a Builder artefact called The Umbilical, a kind of extended space elevator. It has working carriages which can ferry passengers between the worlds.
Others are also heading to Opal. Darya Lang, an expert in Builder artefacts; Julius Graves, an Ethical Councillor of The Fourth Alliance; Atvar H’sial, an arthropod Cecropian and her interpreter slave, J’merlia; and Louis Nenda, an augmented human from the Zardalu Communion, with his slave hymenopt, Kalik.
All of them have put in requests to visit Quake; requests which have proved problematic.
Every 350,000 years the system experiences a Grand Conjunction in which the gas giants and suns move closer to Opal and Quake. The normal conjunctions are called ‘Summertide’ and cause tidal waves on the waterworld of Opal, and earthquakes and extreme vulcanism on Quake. Lang has discovered that artefacts around the galaxy have shown changes at various times and, factoring in the various distances, has concluded that the signals from all the artefacts will reach the Dobelle system simultaneously during Summertide.
When Rebka and Perry find that some of the visitors have forged Perry’s signature in order to commission an umbilical journey to Quake, they are forced to travel there and attempt to get the visitors back before the full force of Summertide kills them all.
There is a motif of duality running through this novel. Dobelle is a binary star system and the two planets which orbit each other are connected via the Umbilical artefact. Apart from Darya Lang, the vistors to Opal arrive in pairs. Atvar H’sial and her slave. j’merlia; Nenda and Kalik, and Julius Graves. Graves’ duality is due to the fact that he has an extra brain inserted into his body which has, quite against expectations, developed into a separate personality.
There is also a set of twins, and at the finale there are two alien objects, the details of which I won’t go into.
Sheffield deserves wider recognition. He writes exciting readable, popular space opera in which the science can not be faulted.
Having said that, there are flaws in ‘Summertide’. Set at least five thousand years in the future there is very little sign that human society has evolved any. That’s somewhat inconceivable. It’s also a tad unlikely that Hans Rebka would be diverted from a crucial mission just to analyse Max Perry and somehow cure him of a malady of the mind. Small quibbles, but quibbles nonetheless.

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