Bantam, 1979, 227 pages, C$1.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-12806-X
It might be an artifact of growing up, becoming more cynical or watching too much of the evening news, but as I grow older, it seems to me as if Science-Fiction is all too often becoming a nostalgic refuge for the simplistic techno-fantasies of a more naive time.
Not all science-fiction, mind you, and almost none of the stuff I really want to read. Such luminaries as Bruce Sterling or Greg Egan have proven themselves to be aware of the complexities of our world, and the effects of changing society on our dreams for a better tomorrow.
In fact, because we’re so close to “our” contemporary SF, it’s often difficult to say what’s being naive for lack of perspective. But take a look a SF twenty years after publication and, oh boy, do you get perspective vertigo. While Mack Reynolds’ Lagrange Five isn’t offensive in its retrograde social values as, say, Martin Caidin’s 1984 novel Killer Station (which comes to mind only because I recently read it and it’s truly atrociously falsely feminist), it’s a novel that is showing some substantial cracks.
The most visible of those comes from the setting. As you may infer, Reynold’s novel takes place on an O’Neill-type space habitat located in Lagrange Five. That notion was most popular around 1980, but has now proved -with a few year’s worth of hindsight- to be highly problematical. The building costs are unimaginable, the ecosystematic challenges complex (thanks to a few year’s worth of experience in trying to build artificial environments since then)… and perhaps most unsettling, the human aspects are more worrisome than ever. Will humans accept being stuck in an artificial habitat? How do you protect such a fragile habitat against attack or accidents? How do you finance it?
In Reynolds’ view, few of those are problems, and those that are (claustrophobia) are more like plot devices than real issues. At the heart of Lagrange Five is a thriller, but it’s a thriller of such simplicity that it almost seems a distraction from the habitat so lovingly described.
As usual with potboiler SF, there is an assumption that smart people never do wrong. Lagrange Five is an idyllic place to live, where several communities provide cultural diversity and people can choose which type of urban setting attracts them the most. Oh, and everyone on Lagrange Five is hyper-intelligent, because they won’t allow anyone with a lower IQ to immigrate. (Even thinking of myself as an intellectual elitist, this notion disturbs me somewhat. At least Reynolds handwaves something about Emotional Quotients.)
There is also a black superiority subplot, handled with maybe a touch more class than we’d expect from a hard-SF story. Lagrange Five‘s resolution is as unashamedly didactic as the rest of the novel, which spends as much time demonstrating how much of a cool idea it is than to advance the mechanics of the plot.
And yet, I enjoyed it. The plot advances by fits and spurts, but the details are always interesting. Our averagely-intelligent protagonist easily gets the smart girl, and it’s all really sweet. Reading about a well-adjusted artificial community might be so déclassé, but it’s unarguably more fun than having to suffer through another angst-ridden post-cyberpunk novel.
So should we conclude that nostalgia has its place? Maybe. After all, if SF can all things to all people, it probably allows some room for everything, including uncompromising optimism in the best retro fashion.