The Shadow of the Ship by Robert Wilfred Franson is a science-fiction novel set in a universe with a unique premise for methods of interstellar travel. A novel with strong individualist and life-extensionist themes, this book has much to recommend itself to libertarians and transhumanists alike. The Second Edition of The Shadow of the Ship was released in Kindle format in December 2014, after Franson regained the rights to the work from the publisher of the 1983 First Edition. The Second Edition contains major enhancements, including more extensive character development, explanation of key aspects of the world within which the novel takes place, and an ending that clearly sets the stage for additional books in what is to be Franson’s Overflight series.
Space travel in The Shadow of the Ship is accessible to a society that is otherwise technologically far behind our own. The Trails Culture is dispersed among tens of worlds but lacks access even to most twentieth-century technology, such as powered flight or electricity. A series of trails across the “meadow” of subspace connects planets and can be traversed by caravans conveyed by waybeasts (squeakers) who are uniquely suited to crossing them. The book’s protagonist, Hendrikal Eiverdein Rheinallt, is originally from Earth and has been stranded within the region inhabited by the Trails Culture ever since his spaceship crashed on a nearby world. He and his friend Arahant, an intelligent aircat with the ability to speak and compose operas, are “bloodswayers” – practitioners of a rare and challenging discipline that allows the channeling of the body’s energies toward repair and rejuvenation. Rheinallt and Arahant are therefore indefinitely lived and more resilient than ordinary humans, though not indestructible. Rheinallt is approximately six centuries old and endeavors to use his vast scientific knowledge to eventually find his way back to Earth. In the meantime, he carefully advances the scientific and technical knowledge of the inhabitants of the Blue Free Nation, the most tolerant and least regimented of the societies within the Trails Culture.
The book’s events take place aboard a caravan headed by Rheinallt with the purpose of investigating rumors of a crashed starship along the Blue Trail. The starship would be a paradigm-changing find for the people of the Trails Culture, as it would permit space travel without the limitations that the Trails pose; it could also be Rheinallt’s means to return home. The caravan includes many travelers who join out of scientific curiosity or a desire for fame, while others have more personal motives. Accompanying Rheinallt is his wife and beast-master Whitnadys, as well as a small contingent of crew to defend the caravan and provide essential logistical support. Although Rheinallt is the captain of the caravan, interactions aboard are largely guided by a spontaneous order without explicit laws and with virtually no authority for the captain to impose preemptive restrictions or discipline. Rheinallt, apart from making sure that the caravan is properly organized and maintained, only has the same prerogatives as ordinary passengers – such as the right of self-defense and the ability to protect the caravan against threats that have already manifested themselves. He considers the circumstances carefully and is reluctant to resort to force unless the existence of a physical threat is incontrovertible, as he does not wish for the passengers to lose trust in his leadership or the legitimacy of his decisions.
Apart from the mostly anarchistic order aboard the caravan – a reflection of the broader lack of centralized authority within the Blue Free Nation – there are competing visions presented in the book, including an attempt by the Federated Trailmen, the area’s guild of caravaneers, to bring subspace travel within their sphere of control, as well as the efforts by the government of Fleurage – a world on the Yellow Trail – to clamp down on political dissent and quash “subversive” innovators who threaten an establishment rapidly spiraling toward totalitarianism. Various passengers on the caravan represent these conflicting visions, which come to challenge Rheinallt’s ability to peacefully coordinate the expedition.
As much of the novel centers around the mystery of the ship and the stories of the passengers aboard, I will not delve into too much detail regarding events that are crucial to the story’s suspense and surprise. I note, however, that the Second Edition contains significant additions, including thorough expositions of the main characters’ backgrounds and key aspects of Franson’s universe – such as subspace travel, the bloodswayer discipline, and the cultural and technological environment of the Trails Culture. The newly added content allows for foreshadowing of important discoveries and a more definitive elaboration on the threads of the story that would be continued in subsequent novels of the series. Furthermore, the revised ending is quite moving and immerses the reader more deeply into the novel’s characters.
Indeed, the characters of Rheinallt and Arahant should be of interest to all supporters of indefinite life extension, as here we have fine examples of literary protagonists who do not senesce and are not condemned to an inevitable demise – and who are also intelligent, rational, benevolent, witty, creative, and resourceful. Their range of abilities and vulnerabilities is much closer to what actual indefinitely lived organisms would experience: they can still suffer from accidents and external physical harm, but they lack a built-in expiration. Therefore, their interactions in the environment of subspace are still fraught with peril, but they have sufficient abilities and strengths to give them a fighting chance – much like the fighting chance we humans will need when faced with the many phenomena in the universe that are far bigger than ourselves. The more positive examples of protagonists with unlimited lifespans arise in fiction, the greater will be the cultural acceptance of the idea’s eventual application to our world. For this reason and many others, readers should eagerly anticipate the continuation of Franson’s Overflight series, which will finally bring the universe and ideas of The Shadow of the Ship into renewed prominence after more than three decades.