cnvarbiter (cnvarbiter) wrote,

Pallas and Ceres - The Ngu Family Saga by L. Neil Smith

Neil Smith is one of those authors. By that I mean he’s an author who sold quite a few books and amassed quite a resume in the 1980s, when Science Fiction publishing seemed to be a really going concern, kept writing to this very day, and discovered that Science Fiction publishing was no longer a going concern, even though he, himself, was still both going and concerned.

Star Wars fans and collectors should know Neil’s name. He authored, back while the original trilogy of films was still in production, three novels starring Lando Calrissian: Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu, Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon, and Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of ThonBoka. These constituted, at the time of their publication, nearly half of the existing library of original Star Wars fiction in professional publication, the other four entries being Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (which, if memory serves, puts the lie to George Lucas’s claim that he always intended Luke and Leia to be siblings… or maybe proves George had no issue with incestuous yearnings) and three Han Solo novels by Brian Daley. It wasn’t until 1991 and Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire that Star Wars became a book franchise which even stood a hope of gaining on Star Trek’s sheer numbers.

But Neil had already published four original novels by the time the Lando Calrissian series was released, and his total published output includes over two dozen novels.

Neil is an unabashed Libertarian and gun advocate, as a visit to his website will quickly demonstrate. Probably fifty per cent of SF fandom and ninety per cent of the traditional publishing industry don’t agree with his politics. Still, it’s a bit surprising, even given the cool reception his political ideas likely receive in a New York editor’s office, that a storyteller powerful enough to sell 26 books couldn’t find a publisher when he went to sell a sequel to one of his most creatively satisfying works.

Here I’m talking about Pallas, a book Neil intended as the first entry in a family saga.  Published in 1986, it tells the story of Emerson Ngu, a young man born on the asteroid Pallas, as he grows up in virtual slavery in the clutches of the Greeley Utopian Memorial Project. Emerson develops a secret radio, with which he learns that there are other ways of living beyond the fence which encircles his colony. Like all authoritarian regimes, this one depends upon secrecy and a lack of open communications to keep its people in check. As he works to build a life and free his loved ones from oppression, Emerson develops his own firearms. And, along the way, he falls in love and starts a family. I’m a sucker for young romance, I admit.

Tied into this is a fascinating idea – agree or disagree as you like, it’s still interesting to talk about! – perpetuated in a Discover magazine a half dozen years before this book was published. In “The Worst Mistake in the History of the Human Race,” Jared Diamond argued that, well, as the title says, we’ve wasted a lot of our time, limited our potential and sidetracked our evolution by adopting farming as a lifestyle. Pallas delves into this idea and plays with it to the delight of any reader who believes that SF is the literature of ideas, and not just a hideaway for arrested development cases.

All of Neil’s personal favorite themes are clearly in play here: freedom, censorship, guns, hunting… You can’t read this book and convince yourself that maybe this author is really a liberal Democrat just giving his characters an alternate voice. And yet I must disagree with the Publisher’s Weekly review when it says,

Not so much a novel as a stultifying political treatise… The book's meager plot concerns the collective's occasional attempts to recapture Ngu. [Smith]… fails to create a convincing fictional environment…and the characters are mere puppets mouthing his political views. His "utopian collective" is a simplistic straw man, and the individualistic society he clearly intends to glorify is unconvincing and blatantly based on the works of Ayn Rand... Rand's fans might find the book appealing, but there is little here to entice other readers.

Here, in my most respectful, scholarly and professional voice, I must call bullshit! I read. I read a lot. I know what makes a properly plotted novel (though I’m sure some reviewers who’ve only read the first five pages of one of my own novels probably disagree), and Pallas is probably the best piece of fiction Neil has ever turned out, in a field of two dozen successful, enjoyable books. He succeeds in creating sympathetic characters, in telling a solid story with a classic “rags to riches” feel, and in capturing the sweep and texture of a historical family saga… in the future, in space.

Pallas is available at your favorite used book store, on Amazon in paperback and Kindle, and from Smashwords. Its sequel, Ceres, which chronicles the adventures of Emerson’s descendants and takes them on a tour of the solar system, is the work which did not find a publisher. Bless Neil for his pioneer spirit, he offered it to his fans as a weekly blog novel, and it is available on his blog

Give them a try!

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