The Shadow of the Ship
by Robert Wilfred Franson

Review by
William H. Stoddard

Random House / Del Rey Books: New York, 1983
273 pages

June 1983

Der Schatten des Schiffs
Wilhelm Heyne Verlag: Munich, 1990; 366 pages
translated by Birgit Ress-Bohusch

Revised Edition: 98,000 words; 240 pages
The Shadow of the Ship
Kindle; KDP Print: 2014

Review below is of the 1983 edition.
In the 2014 edition, major additions & extensive revisions integrate the novel more closely within the Overflight series.
Many smaller improvements as well. — RWF


The Shadow of the Ship - Mattingly cover - Del Rey, 1983 Science fiction writers have often expressed many libertarian ideas in their writing, and science fiction has been a significant stimulus to the libertarian movement and to many individual libertarians. Over the past few years, such writers as L. Neil Smith, F. Paul Wilson, and Vernor Vinge have reversed the process, bringing an outlook shaped by the libertarian movement to the writing of science fiction. Robert Wilfred Franson's The Shadow of the Ship is another example of this movement, and one which will be of interest to any libertarian who appreciates science fiction.

The Shadow of the Ship is a quest story set in a very strange universe. Interstellar travel takes place, not by starship, but by caravan, through an alternate spacetime which appears as a vast dark plain crossed by glowing trails; an animal species, the waybeasts, has evolved the ability to cross into this space, and is used to pull long caravan trains. A physical science sophisticated enough to speculate about gravitational fields coexists with a pre-electrical technology. Then, far off along one of the trails, a large glowing object, apparently a crashed starship, is sighted; and a caravan, made up of unusual people with disparate motives, sets out to investigate.

The situation demands self-reliance and the ability to function without externally imposed law, authority, or morality. Most of Franson's characters come from a society which encourages these qualities. It is, in fact, a frontier society, reminiscent of the United States a century ago, as the technology also resembles that of the same period. In many ways, Franson has written a Western — in a science-fictional setting which supports and extends the form rather than being arbitrarily imposed. At the same time, The Shadow of the Ship conveys a point sometimes left out of libertarian panegyrics to individualism: cooperation is essential to survival under the conditions portrayed, and libertarian values are successful precisely because they offer a superior form of cooperation which can nurture a more effective self-reliance. Franson's privatistic, self-centered people are the authoritarians; his libertarians are cooperative and ready to accept responsibility.


Der Schatten des Schiffs - Payne cover - Heyne, 1990 Beyond this, Franson is much more of a poet in his writing than other libertarian science fiction writers. His landscape is a surreal one, where everyday details are placed within a bizarrely alien country. His setting is as much an interior landscape as an exterior one, and his characters' quest is as much for self-transcendance as for any practical aim. Many of the crucial events involve struggles for self-mastery and self-transformation. Echoes of Blake and Nietzsche support this inward turning of attention, this insistence on imaginative vision as the source of practical accomplishment. Indeed, in Franson's peculiar hyperspace, only contact with a self-aware being can permit material objects to exist, and even self-aware beings instantly perish if they lose their footing.

The vision Franson offers is not everywhere fully realized; there are occasional rough places, points where sharper definition would be wished for, elements he does not make quite enough his own. But the basic content is powerful enough to be worth exploring. The reader will bring back images and insights worthy of his contemplation. And, in addition, he will have participated in a world where freedom is generally taken for granted, and will have learned some valuable lessons on how such a world has to work.


© 1983 William H. Stoddard

First appeared in Sara Baase's
Libertarian Alternative Newsletter, June 1983

Cover paintings:
for Del Rey, by David B. Mattingly;
for Heyne, by Michael Payne

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