There’s a game, call it the pop-culture-mash-up-elevator-pitch game, that publicists are particularly good at. When trying to sell a new work, especially from a new or unknown writer, the goal is to sum it up, in a sentence or three, as an amalgam of other well-known (and likely well-received) works. This game does, of course, have a home version.
Question: When Robert J. Sawyer had yet to be dubbed “the dean of Canadian science fiction” (a great-white-northerly version of the appellation no less than Robert A. Heinlein had once received), when Canadian science fiction was, in fact, not yet really a thing, how would you describe this intriguing first effort from the fledgling novelist?
Answer: 2001 meets Dr. Strangelove? Planet of the Apes meets Foundation? Logan’s Run meets Silence of the Lambs? These suggestions are all highly imperfect, as such things must needs be. So allow me to set the stage: thousands of young professionals bottled up on humanity’s first and only starship; a mysterious death; a first-person narrative from the murderer’s POV. Did I mention the murderer/narrator is also the ship’s computer?
Golden Fleece is a first novel, but not a rough one. Sawyer’s prose style is simple and clear, as it has apparently been for over 20 years. As ever, he gives ideas pride of place. Characterization is secondary, but that’s not to say it isn’t competent. In fact, the artificial intelligence known as Jason (of the ship Argo, get it?) may be one of the more interesting characters in the history of science fiction, if not totally original.
In his latest novel, Red Planet Blues, Sawyer did a kind of space-Western version of a Dashiell Hammett pastiche. I judged it on its merits as a detective story and by that standard it didn’t really work for me. But it’s only fair to note that Sawyer is not a Johnny-come-lately to the mystery genre. He has a bit of the mystery gene deep in his writing DNA.
Golden Fleece isn’t a whodunit, of course, as the murder occurs in the prologue to the novel proper, and we already know the killer computer is to blame. What we don’t know is why. And Jason is contemplating an additional mystery of his own: Unknown to the human crew and passengers of the ship, an alien message, the first of its kind, arrived just before departure. And the greatest computer in human history is struggling to crack its secrets.
These various sub-plots — the alien code, the AI conspiracy, the interstellar mission, the frayed psyches of the bottled-up ship denizens, the apparent suicide that only one man insists on questioning — all dovetail nicely to a satisfying conclusion.
I was just starting on chapter books when this book was first published and still 10 years away from discovering Sawyer. Reading his first novel for the first time today, I find it’s neither clichéd nor dated. It’s interesting to see this early phase of his career, writing on very traditional science fiction topics like aliens and super-computers and spaceships at least a century in the future.
Golden Fleece also served as a good reminder of just why Robert J. Sawyer is one of my favourite authors.
J.J.S. Boyce is a writer, educator, and semi-pro omelette chef. He can frequently be found writing at the Green Man Review, Library Journal, and Care2. He also maintains a meta-narrative at his blog, The Back of the Envelope.