Who Goes There?
It feels weird to introduce Timothy Zahn, because he’s a somewhat famous author who’s famous for reasons that have nothing to do with this site. Zahn debuted at the tail end of the ’70s and quickly became a regular contributor to Analog Science Fiction under Stanley Schmidt’s editorship, and not surprisingly he also became a regular at Baen Books. Zahn’s fiction, from what I can tell, skews toward good old-fashioned space opera, but with more attention paid to character work than some of his fellows. What really gained Zahn recognition, though, was his attachment to the old Star Wars expanded universe, being perhaps the most prominent and most acclaimed author to write for that (now defunct) continuity. Thrawn, Zahn’s single most famous creation, is so beloved that he’s actually crawled his way into post-Disney buyout Star Wars properties. Zahn’s Star Wars cred is so prominent, in fact, that a lot of people seem unaware that he’s written things that have nothing to do with that franchise.
Not that I’m one to talk.
“Cascade Point” was the first story of Zahn’s that I’ve read, and so far it’s the only thing by Zahn that I’ve read. Don’t worry, I’ll fix that eventually. It was written during an especially prolific period for Zahn, and even nabbed him a Hugo (despite not getting a Nebula nomination) for Best Novella. Technically a reread, because I know for a fact I read it as part of The New Hugo Winners (see below), but I basically remember nothing about it from that first reading. In hindsight I think I just didn’t give it a lot of attention, which is a shame because I can see why readers at the time would’ve liked it a lot.
The December 1983 issue of Analog is not on the Internet Archive. Not on Luminist, either. Same goes for any Analog issues after 1979. That’s right, if you want it you’ll have to buy a hard copy with dollars, pounds, shekels, and so on, which is what I did. Like I said, I try to read these stories as they had originally appeared unless it’s a reprint. What’s weird is that despite the Hugo, and despite Zahn’s status, “Cascade Point” has not been reprinted often. The New Hugo Winners, edited by Isaac Asimov and an uncredited (for some reason) Martin H. Greenberg, is easy enough to find used. That Doug Beekman cover is so good that they reused it for the first edition of Cascade Point and Other Stories, and I don’t blame them. Most interestingly (to me) it was bundled with Greg Bear’s “Hardfought” as a Tor Double, that series packaging Hugo- and Nebula-winning novellas together. Finally, if you want a reprint published in the 21st century we have The Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF, edited by Mike Ashley.
Pall (seems like a bastardization of “Paul,” but would be funnier and indeed is porbably pronounced like “pal”) Durriken has a fine enough job as the captain of the Aura Dancer, a space liner that’s not what you would call first-class. Durriken is not the most sociable of men, reliying most on Alana Keal, his right-hand (wo)man and the person onboard he gets along with the most. The plot involves a trip to the colony planet of Taimyr with a small number of passengers in tow, but we really get a quality-over-quantity deal here as two of the passengers, Rik Bradley and his psychiatrist Dr. Hammerfield Lanton, are a bit of an odd pair. These two, as it turns out, will cause some issues.
As you know if you’ve read enough science fiction, space travel is highly impractical at best; without faster-than-light travel or some way to cheat around spacetime it would years at bare minimum just to leave one’s solar system. Of course FTL as we understand it is impossible, something I suspect was considered true even in 1983, which of course did not stop authors from going with the “ceating around spacetime” option. Here, we have a series of warp points called cascade points, in which not only can ships basically teleport but also seem to intersect with alternate universe. Yes, this is another multiverse narrative, sort of, but the multiverse is not made as big a deal of as you would think. As far as anyone can tell a ship going through a cascade point is not liable to enter an alternate universe by accident—which is not to say it can’t happen…
Passengers and crew are supposed to take drugs that knock them out cold during a ship’s maneuvering through a cascade point, minding that these points are days apart; in other words, everyone goes unconscious except for the person piloting the ship. First-class ships like luxury liners can afford to have an autopilot installed for cascade point maneuvers, but the Aura Dancer is decidedly not first-class and so Durriken has to stick it out alone, every time, without losing his sanity. Given that it’s set far in the future, robots and computers play a shockingly small role in the literal mechanics of the setting. I’ll elaborate on this a bit later, but I’ll say for now that, looking back on it, this lack of computerization is one of those signs that this novella was not of its time, but actually before its time. It feels like a Star Trek episode, like from the ’60s, the original show—not that that’s necessarily a bad thing.
So, about the cover. In case I didn’t make it clear before, I really like it. Some cover stories get covers that have little to do with the actual story, but this is not one of them. Sometimes with a cover story you can tell which scene exactly inspired the cover art, and in the case of “Cascade Point” it’s the first time we see the effects someone awake would experience when going through one of those cascade points.
I will never understand how the first person to test the Colloton Drive ever made it past this point. The images silently surrounding me a bare arm’s length away were life-size, lifelike, and—at first glance, anyway—as solid as the panels and chairs they seemed to have displaced. It took a careful look to realize they were actually slightly transparent, like some kind of colored glass, and a little experimentation at that point would show they had less substance than air. They were nothing but ghosts, specters straight out of childhood’s scariest stories. Which merely added to the discomfort… because all of them were me.
Durriken sees alternate versions of himself when going through a cascade point, or rather the ghosts of different versions of himself since he can’t interact with them and they, conversely, are unaware of his existence. It’s a bit of a psychedelic effect, and it makes for a good illustration, but it’s not the root of the conflict; nay, the root of the conflict is people. See, Dr. Lanton is treating Bradley for neurosis, and Lanton has this brilliant idea to use the cascade points as a possible way to treat Bradley, keeping him awake through the multiverse hijinks. As you can tell, this is a horrible idea. Lanton is the closest the story has to a conventional villain, although he’s less malicious and more laughably incompetent—so ethically dubious that I honestly have to wonder if he’s based on Eugene Landy. Hmm, Lanton, Landy…
Lanton’s ideas about treatment are so obviously bad that even Durriken feels the need to point it out; but then, Lanton is a paying customer and a passenger on Durriken’s ship. The human drama comes from Lanton’s treatment methods but also some equipment he brings aboard that a) he didn’t consult any of the crew about in advance, and b) might contain materials that could interfere with the ship’s delicate maneuvering balance. For instance, if some device Lanton brought aboard just so happened contained a specific and rather rare metal that would throw the ship’s cascade point maneuvering off—well, you can guess what might happen. For now, thought, the big problem is simply dealing with the asshole and also making sure Alana, who has a history of falling in love with her “patients” (it’s a good thing she’s not a nurse), doesn’t get too attached to Bradley.
You have the relationship square of Durriken, Alana, Lanton, and Bradley; there are other characters with names, but you’re not gonna remember them. Would pose a problem if this was a novel, but being a 20,000-word novella leaves only so much room for character, and the characters Zahn does focus on are pretty fun to read about, even if some of their antics can wander beyond the realm of plausibility. I seriously doubt, for one, that Lanton would be a licensed psychiatrist who’s allowed a seemingly endless supply of drugs and gadgets; maybe it would’ve been plausible in 1983, given changing medical practice standards, but certainly not now. Alana, while she’s charismatic, is also a bit of a satellite, with her relationship with Bradley dominating her character for most of the story.
Durriken is a fun protagonist, though, which is good considering he’s also the narrator. Writing a first-person narrator is always a dangerous game, because as a reader you’re basically sitting down and having a one-way conversation with this person for however many minutes or hours. Thign is, the person spewing words at you could be a real annoying prick, but thankfully Durriken has just enough of a sense of humor without detouring into asshole territory. His objections to Lanton’s methods are super-reasonable (a little too understated, if anything) and it’s clear that he cares about his crew and his ship while also wishing he could have a better life for himself. Seeing alternate versions of himself is disorienting just visually, but it’s also unnerving for him to think about all the ways his life could’ve gone better or worse. Not too philosophical, but it’s fine character work.
There Be Spoilers Here
Early in the story we hear, rather passively, that ships have occasionally gone missing mid-voyage; no wreckage or signs of piracy or system failure, but rather ships just straight-up vanishing into thin air. The Aura Dancer is a secured vessel, but the fact that these vanishings remain unexplained doesn’t help Durriken’s conscience. He’s right to be worried, too; turns out Lanton brought aboard a gadget with a certain rare metal inside it that would mess with the ship’s cascade point maneuvering, requiring compensation, but more importantly it sends the ship more off-course than anyone could’ve expected. When we finally get to Taimyr we find… nothing. Nobody waiting for the ship. No buildings. Not even the remains of buildings. It’s as if the world had never been colonized, which gets Durriken thinking…
Basically, the Aura Dancer hopped into an alternate universe where Taimyr remains uninhabited. Thanks a lot, Lanton! Keep in mind that the situation is more complicated than I’m letting on, but that’s the gist of it. “Cascade Point” is arguably hard SF, but it’s such a loaded term that it could apply to anything that has even the most tenuous connection to real science. I’m not a scientist or someone with a background in physics (I majored in film studies) so I’m just the kind of person Zahn would cater to when he goes on about Ming metal and cascade points and other invented nonsense. My general rule is that if a story’s science can’t be easily disproved by a middle schooler then it’s fine enough for me, I usually won’t get hung up on inaccuracies, in which case “Cascade Point” passes easily.
What’s important is that with the heightened stakes, the character drama intensifies. There’s a bit of romantic tension between Durriken and Alana, on top of Alana’s deal with Bradley, but luckily Zahn keeps their relationship platonic; they’re very good friends and it’s clear that they trust each other more than anyone else on the ship. So what’s the solution? To make a long story short, going backwards. There are extra steps, but again, that’s the gist of it. Crazy. How come nobody’s done this before? Well, as far as we know anyway. The potential for ships to hop across universes is pretty vast, a vastness that’s only hinted at here. The ending is rather happy-go-lucky with Durriken saving the day and Alana giving him a figurative pat on the back, albeit Lanton gets away with his idiocy. Disappointing.
The very last scene is pretty good, though. It brings closure to Durriken’s character arc while giving us something genuinely heartwarming. Not necessary from a plot angle, but I’m glad Zahn included it.
A Step Farther Out
I chose this for review partly because it’s one of those stories where I’m pretty sure I didn’t give it the attention it needed the first time around, and partly because I thought it’d be interesting to read/review it in close proximity with “Hardfought,” since the two were reprinted together at one point. It’s curious to read these two so close together, because aside from being spacefaring hard SF by “macho” ’80s authors, they have very little in common, and their goals are also quite different. “Hardfought” is honestly one of the most impressive pieces of science fiction at any length that I’ve read in a long time—a genuine effort on Bear’s part to write from the future as opposed to simply about the future. “Cascade Point” is considerably more straightforward and less ambitious, which means it goes down easier but there’s less to think about. The cliche about the Hugo winner being the crowd-pleaser and the Nebula winner the “literary” choice is more often untrue than not, but it’s pretty accurate here.
Which is not to say “Cascade Point” isn’t an effective crowd-pleaser. It’s old-fashioned, and it arguably would’ve read as that even at the time, but Zahn knows what he’s doing. I’m a sucker for narratives set on ships, bonus points if there’s good crew dynamics, and this is a good one. It’s a classic Analog narrative in that it’s ultimately a “problem” story: there’s a scientific problem, usually an anomaly, and Our Heroes™ have to solve it. The ingenuity of man triumphs. Like I said, this feels like it could’ve been a Star Trek (specifically TOS or TNG) episode, and not a bad one. Just set your expectations for something that’s pleasing but not mindblowing.
See you next time.