by Michael W. Bard
©2005 Michael W. Bard -- all rights reserved
There's an odd thing about writers. Their first novels are almost always interesting, different, brimming with ideas. Sure, there are hints of what they will become, but there is also so much more. Alan Dean Foster's novel The Tar-Aiym Krang is a case in point, just as are Piers Anthony's early works such as Macroscope and Cluster.
In Cluster, a lot of the archetypal Piers Anthony 'bits' are there: A highly intelligent main character, a step by step description of how he solves the problems he is confronted with, and of course a nice happy end-
Sorry, hang on a bit. No happy ending here!
Cluster is Piers Anthony's 8th or so published novel, from a time long before Xanth consumed his talent and forevermore typecast him as a producer of light fantasy.
In the Cluster universe, there are a number of intelligent species inhabiting the galaxy, humanity amongst others. FTL travel exists, but it's frightfully expensive, more so the larger the mass, and thus colonization is done by STL ships. Humanity has come late on the scene and has a sphere of control, similar to the other races, but on the small side.
Due to the cost of FTL communication and matter transmission, all spheres exhibit technological regression. The homeworld has the highest tech base, fading to a stone age level at the rim. Sure, those at the rim know there is technology, know that they came from the stars. They just don't have the population, the skill set, or the industrial base to maintain a high tech culture.
As the story opens, humanity can only travel through STL ships, or by extreme high cost FTL 'mattermission'. They know of better ways in the older, more advanced galactic core cultures; and nobody knows how the long dead Ancients race or races did it. Then a member of the Knyfh race beams his soul, his Kirilian Aura, into a human body, and possesses it. He comes with a warning, and a gift.
Sadly for the Milky Way Galaxy, the primary species of the Andromeda Galaxy have hatched a plan to gain control of the Milky Way and steal its energy, reducing the stars to dull embers, in order to boost their own galaxy-wide culture to a higher level. The advanced Milky Way core species are sharing their Kirilian Transfer technology in order to form a coalition with the less-advanced outer spheres to stop the Andromedan invasion.
Thus is humanity given the technology of transfer: A way to take the Kirilian Aura, the soul, of an individual, and (comparatively cheaply) transfer it FTL across the galaxy to possess a host body.
The story is about the highest Aura in the Milky Way Galaxy, a human named Flint from a Stone Age culture on the edge of the human sphere of control. He's transferred into one alien body, and then another, experiencing new cultures from inside new bodies, giving transfer tech to other races.
And all the while, the Andromedans are trying to stop him.
The novel is interesting. Not perfect, but interesting.
Sadly, at its core, it's naught but a standard morality play. The Milky Way is good; Andromeda is evil. Part of the novel is Flint's learning to deal with different cultures, and learning that though they do things different from what he's used to, it works for them. There is no evil system of government -- except, of course, for the Andromedans'. It would have been nice if the Andromedans were not irredeemably bad, but that's the way it's written. And, the Tarot deck has a noticeable influence within the story, and the sequels. Not something I like, but Piers Anthony obviously was deeply affected by it as it's mentioned, and dominant, in a number of his works. Fortunately, it's not overwhelming in this story.
The reason I like and recommend this novel is its aliens, ranging from the swimming tri-sexual entities of Sphere Spica, to the wheeled handless entities of Sphere Polaris. Lots of wonderful ideas, not yet drenched in bad puns, and some actual research. A lot of it is actually about what it is like to be an alien, to learn to move like one, to learn to understand their culture. Or, why I like transformation fiction in the first place!
Read it, enjoy, and imagine the writer Piers Anthony could have been.