In this series, I review an older science fiction or fantasy novel from a small yet-to-be-read collection (thanks, late-night eBay purchases!), summarising its plot, its cover, and a little about the author’s canon. For the first entry in this series I’ve read: Starbrat (1972) by John Morressy.
Though the novel is only 190 pages long, it is a sweeping space opera which moves at light-speed (please forgive that pun) between different short interlocking arcs. The novel, written as if an autobiography and in the first-person, moves between different stories which use familiar science fiction tropes. Through this meandering form, Starbrat is a strange intergalactic quest – the first of a series which ran until the 1980s.
Starbrat, John Morressy (190pgs); Walker Publishing Company Inc., USA, 1972; NEL Books (New English Library), UK, 1979.
A Full and True Account
Of The Life And Travels,
Fortunes And Misfortunes,
Of Del Whitby Of Gilead, Tarquin VII, Mazat, And Other Worlds,
As Set Down In His Own Hand;
With Explanatory Notes And An Afterword
By The Chronicler Royal Of Mazat.”
Deliverance-From-The-Void Whitby (or ‘Del’ to use his nickname) is a young farmer raised on the religiously-charged pastoral planet of Gilead. In love with a young woman named Castle-Of-Perseverance (‘Cassie’ for short), Del is about to come of age and propose to his sweetheart when the village elder and his father reveal to him that he descended to Gilead as a baby in a small silver rocket. Inside this artefact, still kept in secrecy after all these years, are clues which point to distant locations elsewhere in the galaxy which may hold the truth to Del’s parentage. In a surprising twist of fate, Del is captured by Daltrescan space slavers and is taken deep into the chaotic galaxy above. During his capture, Del proves his mysterious non-Gilead heritage by showing himself to be naturally adept at combat. The slavers, suitably impressed, sell him to Tarquin VII, a planet known for its love of arenas. Del soon becomes the planet’s best gladiator and wins his freedom.
Over numerous chapters, Del comes to meet various characters about the galaxy, some of whom assisting him in finding a path home to Gilead or revealing small details about his strange past. Del undergoes numerous challenges and quests in his attempts to find answers and a safe passage home. In one chapter, he and his new-found friend, Grax, help a supposed long-lost warlord back to his medieval home-planet to stop his wife, the queen, from remarrying, which swiftly ends in tragedy; another story sees Del forced to assist the inhabitants of Watson’s Planet, a strangely futuristic and impersonal place, to find a lost crew on an abandoned ancient planet, using a secondary remote-controlled body to do so; whilst the final arc sees Del and his crew called upon by a desperate farmer from a small pacifistic rural planet, not unlike Gilead, to fend off a band of roving pirates, which results in many losses, a surprising twist, and sees Del being made the king we know he later becomes.
As far as space operas go, Starbrat is certainly an enjoyable one. Though its quick pacing and meandering form is likely to put off some readers (and, truth be told, took me a little while to get into), this is a genuinely entertaining book. There’s a little bit of everything in this novel; from gladiatorial battles (bringing to mind John Carter-like epics), to high fantasy in space (castles and royalty abound in some parts of this galaxy), and even playing with some horror elements (the whole sequence on the abandoned planet). For some, it may seem that Morressy is dabbling a little too far and wide, and, sure, it does it feel that way, particularly at the start. Ultimately, however, this novel is entertaining due to it. It delves into the typical head-scratching we all know and love that the genre provides, but it is foremost an enjoyable quest narrative, revealing with each quick arc how disjointed and chaotic the galaxy is. Morressy’s worlds are unique but also familiar, bearing varying cultures, peoples, and landscapes – making it far from homogeneous (though interestingly, alien life in the universe is and also happens to be disappointingly human in appearance too: “Whoever put the universe together […] seems to have decided that where intelligent beings are concerned, it’s best to work out one basic model and stick to it…” ).
Morressy’s strengths in this novel lie in world-building. In particular, the backdrop to Starbrat features Del recounting the strange history of mankind leaving Old Earth in a planet-wide exodus centuries before due to war, pestilence, and all manner of apocalyptic events. Here, we are introduced to the Wroblewski Drive, a scientific breakthrough conducted by a Polish inventor of the same name, which allowed humanity to flee Old Earth (and ties nicely to the coveted driveships mentioned during the main storyline). In these segments, the underlying themes which concern the novel (violence, bloodshed, and repeating mistakes – something which really hits home in the final few chapters for Del) really shine through, as well as Morressy’s own narrative mastery: he really does hook you in. For me, the segment where Del recounts what happened to the inhabitants of Old Earth, and how the Wroblewski Drive came to be, is one of the more memorable parts of the book, despite it being background information to the fictional present. To summarise, the inventor, Wroblewski, tired of warring governments and being silenced by his own country’s leaders, leaked the formula to his creation worldwide, hijacked a driveship for himself, and escaped Old Earth, leaving behind these final words: “I have given you the key. Use it, or to hell with you all. […] To hell with you all anyway.”  During this too, we learn that humanity largely “wanted to go and risks be damned,”  (something which may well sum up Del and most of those he comes across), whilst Old Earth being “nothing but a run-down slum of a planet,” was “left to the too-old, too-tired, too-scared, and too-suspicious whose eternal destiny is to cling to rotting worlds like a fungus.”  In all honesty, that final line is probably one of my favourites from the entirety of the novel. It would be amiss too to not mention the use of imaginative place- and character-names throughout the book, giving the novel a little phonetic delight in reading aloud, but also adding to the alien-but-oddly-familiar tone throughout (Tarquin VII: unsurprisingly inspired by Ancient Rome; Watson’s Planet: uncomfortably formal and to-the-point, etc.).
Being a product of the 70s, we do have anti-war messages peppering the novel too, as Del often wonders why mankind fights and devolves into chaos so quickly – yet it never becomes preachy, instead it fits quite nicely into the fictional universe overall and adds a little deeper thought to the intergalactic capers. A number of mysterious plot-lines are introduced (the elusive Rinn and the men dedicated to fighting them; mind-controlling screens from another dimension; alien technology; who Del’s family is, etc.,) but are often never fully explained or explored – not so much a flaw as something which ties to a recurring theme about uncertainty. When Del is king, he isn’t certain he can be a good king; he is never certain about his parentage or why he descended to Gilead; in one arc, we aren’t even certain if a character was telling the truth at any point during his run; and uncertainty abounds in the sections devoted to the more mysterious goings-on of the universe (again, that memorable section on the abandoned planet springs to mind). Morressy’s worlds are strange and isolated, and uncertainty and violence rule supreme.
And finally, this novel has plenty of homages throughout (many from film) – though I can’t say how intentional they all are. For instance, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1965) is echoed in the deserted planet sequence, as Del realises mysterious screens (later revealed to be “dimension gate[s]” ) appeared about the planet centuries ago, influencing the populace’s minds, making some of them hear “a cacophonous uproar that rose and fell erratically in volume”  – which is not too dissimilar from the monoliths developed by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke for 2001 (the cacophony description brings to mind the haunting soundtrack that accompanies the monoliths in the film). Meanwhile, that final segment where Del and his crew help a farmer and his village defeat a cruel band of pirates is very reminiscent of Seven Samurai (1954) and its famous adaptation, The Magnificent Seven (1960) (did I mention Del and his crew collect a few more members to bolster their number, bringing their total crew up to, yeah, you guessed it: seven?). So, is this bad? No. I have no idea if the homages are intentional or coincidental but I would say there’s enough of a nod to the reader that you’d imagine they’re more intentional. It is difficult to say if Del’s origin story (baby descended in a rocket to a foreign planet) is a nod to something like Superman (or even the ancient myths which introduced that particular origin story), but those previous examples are appropriate enough in time for me to think Morressy was probably aware of what he was doing, and it works here somehow.
Overall Starbrat is a highly entertaining novel, sweeping its way across a chaotic galaxy, with plenty of sections of adventure, action, and even a little comedy, to keep most readers entertained; yet below the surface there are some light moralistic themes which should keep the more analytical of you sated…
In the world of science fiction and fantasy, a good cover can sometimes be the best draw for an ageing paperback. Starbrat is no different! The art was done by Joe Petagno, who was the famed artist behind numerous rock band album covers, producing artwork for Motorhead, Led Zeppelin, and Pink Floyd. This particular artwork features an armoured individual, masked, clutching a laser sword, and is back-lit with a mysterious green glow. This hearkens to the opening arc of the arena, with the figure likely being Del in battle armour (and there are moments when Del notes how scary he must look to the more timid people he comes across; hence this intimidating masked figure?). I could not determine if the art was commissioned exclusively for the novel or just paired with it– but either way, as covers go, this one works, and I wish my copy was a little less worn so the colour could pop more! (Check out Petagno’s works whilst you’re at it too!)
John Morressy was born in 1930 and passed away in 2006. He specialised in science fiction and fantasy and wrote both novels and short stories. He was a Professor of English at Franklin Pierce College in the state of New Hampshire, USA. Details about his life are fairly scant online, but Morressy’s canon is easily found and largely spanned from the 70s up until the 90s. Some of you may be happy to hear that the Starbrat universe wasn’t abandoned upon completion: he followed up with Nail Down The Stars (AKA Stardrift for some editions) in 1973, and after that came four more titles: Under a Calculating Star (1975), A Law for the Stars (1976), Frostworld and Dreamfire (1977), and The Mansions of Space (1983). Apparently, the other works in this series focus on the same period as Starbrat but from different perspectives, particularly the first few. Morressy wrote many short stories and stand-alone novels too but he did dabble in a number of other series, such as Iron Angel which he wrote during the 1980s.
Unfortunately, most of Morressy’s works are out of print at the moment, with many of them still in their original editions from the 70s and 80s, including my copy of Starbrat. However, they can be bought second-hand for quite cheap, both online and from your local second-hand bookshop. However, I believe some of his short stories may have found a new lease of life in some SF anthologies produced for Kindle. I greatly enjoyed Starbrat so I will definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for the sequels and other works by Morressy over the course of this project; and if you like the sound of this book, go and find a copy for yourself and see what you think!
Next up: Overlay (1972) by Barry Malzberg! See you in a few weeks!