Encounter Program
by Robert Enstrom

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson
Doubleday: New York, 1977
202 pages

Incontri programmati
translated by Lidia Lax

Arnoldo Mondadori: Milano, 1979

April 2005

Science fiction in the grand tradition

Encounter Program by Robert Enstrom is a science-fiction novel in the grand tradition of interstellar adventure: fast action, memorable and sympathetic characters, and a thoughtful background.

Veteran starship pilot William Somack has retired, purchasing a small ship, the deceptively unpretentious Ambol, to pursue a real dream that has haunted him since age five. But at once things began to go awry. The dream passed on to him by a dying man is not so private as he supposed, and reaches deep into the fabric of space.

Alien encounters

The Encounter Clause of human interstellar law, and the mandatory shipboard programming which implement and enforce it, was developed to control future human contact with alien races. Most simply, the Encounter Program recognizes stardrive types with identification-friend-or-foe patterns; an unrecognized interstellar engine likely is alien. Even several centuries after the hard-fought Hursk War which humanity barely survived, an unrecognized engine pattern signifies unfathomable danger.

But does alienness still mean danger, or must it always? The military organization IXT thinks so, and their concept of justice is that humanity's very existence is best saved by interdiction of anything alien or anyone that hopes someday to deal with alien races. The Freedom League believes the opposite, that alien benevolence and technological gifts for the human race surely will flow from some future encounter beyond the frontier. The Quaker, that unique being, keeps his own aloof counsel. — Yet all these people believe that Somack cannot be allowed to pursue his dream unhindered; humanity's future may be at stake for good or ill or even its existence.

Plot and characters

Encounter Program's plotting is very fast-paced: new characters and their divergent problems are introduced thick and fast — in the best van-Vogtian manner — for the first third of the novel. These people are driven. Their concerns and problems collide unpredictably but with fatefulness once you see it, and the pressure mounts relentlessly.

So the confrontations often are stark, the power relationships tangled. While no one is in obvious disguise, neither are anyone's motivations clear at first sight according to their tasks or their statements or even their own aspirations.

In contrast with this fast action are the terrifying dream, and a delicate love story.

The dream-haunted starship pilot William Somack, the lovely young telepath Anna Bey, the very old and vastly implacable Quaker — these are characters that truly stick in your mind. The IXT officers are enwrapped in their harsh duties and the strains of a deadly bureaucracy. The Freedom League is represented by — no, you don't want to hear about that. The ship Ambol is a fascinating personality in its own right. Watch out for Anna Bey, she is a heart-breaker — and may know your mind better than her own. And I have a particular liking also for the portrayals of Captain Eyeada of the starship Matilda and his crewman Bling.

Enstrom's style is as clear as the plot is complex. There are leavenings of wit and humor from characters or directly from the author, and touches of poetic feeling when you may least expect it.

The people all are competent in their own ways, although mayhap plunging quickly in over their heads. A great strength of Encounter Program is that the personal goals of the characters do not line up neatly with their duties or ideological commitments, nor with their abilities. The good and bad are intertwined and even knotted. But they all are aware — or learning painfully fast — that space is deep, and devil take the hindmost.

A note on external presentation

Doubleday's dust-jacket painting is unusually awful even for Doubleday science-fictional dust jackets; I recommend trashing it if you own the hardcover, or ignoring it if a library copy still is warded by the jacket. Any random cover with a starship, asteroid, or planet copied from Astounding or another science-fiction magazine would have been better. Despite the jacket and the invisible publicity, Encounter Program managed a hardcover reprinting and an Italian translation, although unfortunately not yet an English-language paperback edition.

A comparison with Schmitz

In several ways, I am reminded of James H. Schmitz's style and concerns. You can read Encounter Program quickly, tugged along by rapid adventure among the stars; later you may want to reread it more slowly, for subtleties of character delineation and real issues of humanity and alienness, and of material, mental, and spiritual power. As with Schmitz, the women play roles that you cannot predict. This is a tightly and sparely written, thoughtful novel of considerable sensitivity.

Like Schmitz's The Witches of Karres, and his Agent of Vega series and Federation of the Hub series, much interesting background is hinted at — which Encounter Program alone has not room to develop, even with smaller print here than Doubleday usually employs. Enstrom has just one novel related to this one, Beta Colony. As Schmitz's three groups of fictions above might describe successive stages in galactic exploration and developing governance, so Enstrom's IXT and Quaker might belong to an earlier era, with starfaring humanity possessing as yet less strength, competence, and confidence in governing itself or dealing with alien races. The dangers are as frightening, the remedies less sure and less agreed-upon.

Encounter program? We may say that all encounters involve potential danger; but it is empathy which makes encounters subtle.

Summation: in the classical tradition

I could tell you more, but perhaps this encounter is sufficient for a review. Is this a happy book? Yes and no; good and bad things happen to people; love and fate come and go and twist around; our worldview may enlarge frighteningly. I am tempted to say that Encounter Program is a tragedy in the optimistic Greek tradition, of people facing the universe and learning their own nature, eyes opening wide to take in all in. And doing what they must.

Should you read it? Certainly.


© 2005 Robert Wilfred Franson

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