“The background was a familiar one to anybody who lived in those longitudes of Land – flawless indigo sea, a sky of pale blue feathered with white, and the misty vastness of the sister world, Overland, hanging motionless near the zenith,” (Loc 42)
Bob Shaw’s The Ragged Astronauts won the BSFA Best Novel Award in 1986. The Northern-Irish author also won the award in 1975 for his novel Orbitsville. Interestingly, he picked up the Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer in 1979 and 1980. The British author Christopher Priest described Shaw’s fan writing as being “fluent, amusing, intelligent, personal and pertinent.” Despite these accolades, I wasn’t aware of Bob Shaw’s work until I found his name on the BSFA winners’ list.
The Ragged Astronauts is the first book in the ‘Land & Overland’ trilogy, followed by The Wooden Spaceships (1988) and The Fugitive Worlds (1989). The story opens on a world called Land. A feudal system is in place, with the people being ruled by King Prad and his royal family. There is a second world, Overland, orbiting only a few thousand miles away. Both worlds share the same atmosphere. As the author builds his world, we learn that the inhabitants of Land are struggling with the planet’s dwindling resources.
What resources they have are limited. Land is a world without any kind of metal, which makes for some engaging ideas and descriptions of the technology, transport and weapons of the world. The people are also plagued by a strange enemy called “ptertha”. These are small, airborne spheres that release a toxic dust when they burst. Unable to communicate with the ptertha, it is assumed they are not sentient. But when the attacks appear to lose their randomness, the Landians must make some tough decisions regarding their future.
‘He looked in the direction of the scream and saw a single ptertha descend from the sun’s cone of brilliance. The blue-and-purple globe sank into a crowded area in the centre of the gardens, and now men were screaming too, counterpointing the continuing blare of the alarm horns.’ (Loc 1617)
I was impressed by Shaw’s world-building. He takes his time creating a memorable setting for the story without overburdening the reader with too much detail. Shaw saves the detail for his descriptions of the sky-ships and the titular ragged astronauts’ attempts at high altitude travel. As can be seen from the book-cover illustrations, the Landians’ sky-ships resemble hot-air balloons. This adds a flavor of steampunk to the story, as well as giving the reader a real feeling of vulnerability regarding the sky-ships. Wait, they’re just balloons?…
“By the third day of the ascent the sky, although retaining its normal coloration above and below, was shading on all sides of the ship into a deeper blue which glistened with ever-increasing numbers of stars.” (Loc 3124)
(*Possible spoilers regarding characters ahead…)
There isn’t much focus on characters beyond the main four: Toller Maraquine, his brother Lain, Lain’s wife Gesalla, and the villainous Prince Leddravohr. Toller is an intriguing lead. In the beginning, he is impulsive and reckless. He rubs people up the wrong way, is forthright in his opinions, and cannot seem to hold his tongue when common sense would suggest he should. He could easily become an unlikeable character, but as the story moves forward he appears to calm down and mature.
Prince Leddravohr is a deeply unpleasant character who nevertheless was always fascinating to read about. It is a shame that Shaw gives so little story time or character development to Gesalla and the other female character(s), (I only remember two). An engaging dynamic gradually evolves between Gesalla and Toller, but it feels underdeveloped. I would like to have seen more, but I got the feeling that the author was only really interested in focusing on the men. That’s a shame, in my opinion.
Overall, I would recommend this to readers looking for an sf adventure story that is a little bit different. It contains some imaginative and original ideas, a couple of solid characters, and the most memorable sky-ships I’ve encountered in a long time. It has left me curious to read more by Bob Shaw. His 1974 BSFA Award-winning novel Orbitsville is supposed to be good, so that could be the one to try next.