When I was in primary school, my favourite place was the library. Even in my first years of formal education, I always wanted to go to the main shelves, instead of being confined, as the lower grades were, to one part of the library where the picture books and early reader titles were. When I was finally allowed to go to the older shelves, it was like getting a first glimpse into a larger world. After several years, I remember finding the final book of Ben Bova’s Exiles trilogy, End of Exile, checking it out eagerly and reading the tale, and being caught up in an exciting story, even if I didn’t understand all of the nuances of the plot. Several years later, I tracked down the first and second volumes, and re-read the books as a set. I remember enjoying them at the time. Therefore, when I began on a recent nostalgia kick, I decided that it was time to find a copy and read the books again.
Overall, the three books, or novellas, Exiled from Earth, Flight of Exiles, and End of Exile tie together fairly cohesively. They just aren’t terribly rich in terms of storytelling. Exiled from Earth centres around Lou Christopher, a computer programmer working on a genetics project team, doing work much akin to the Human Genome Project. But in this dystopian version of the 21st or 22nd century, the 1970s themes of decaying and dangerous cities, fear of crime, and overpopulation weigh heavily on the plot. A tyrannical World Government decides that scientific inquiry into the promise of genetic engineering is too risky and too destabilising, and elects to exile some two thousand scientists and their families to an orbital station. Christopher’s misadventures, combined with an entirely unnecessary subplot, make up the bulk of the first book, at the end of which the scientists elect to convert their vast space station prison into a starship and attempt to reach the Alpha Centauri system, where they suspect there to be a habitable planet.
Flight of Exiles takes place one generation later, and this time focuses on Christopher’s son, Dan, and Larry Belsen, two friends who become enemies over the affections of Val, their mutual childhood sweetheart. The ship is well in flight, and near to reaching its destination, but it is becoming more evident that the planet in the Centauri system is completely inhospitable, and would require the human colonists to genetically engineer their children to survive there, at a huge cost. Combined with the fact that a madman is loose on the ship and bent on destroying them, the situation is dicey at best. Less cerebral than the first book, Flight doesn’t so much fly as shuffle along. At the end of it all, seemingly optimistically, the forced colonists elect to move on, this time further out, toward Epsilon Eridani, where a more likely candidate planet has been found.
End of Exile is somewhat disconnected from the first two books in terms of continuity. Now living in the remains of the outermost ring of the unnamed Ship are some fifty-odd teen-aged youths, genetically engineered by the last remaining survivors of the crew to be as near to perfection as humanly possible. Disasters have befallen the ship, including the breakdown of order and the emergence of gangs of raiders moving from wheel to wheel, plundering and killing as they go. A number of scientists retreated to the hub, where they could control the environment and power systems, in a desperate gambit to create a generation that will survive to finish the voyage. But Linc, the protagonist, knows nothing of this, as the last surviving elder, Jerlet, had to retreat to the lower gravity domain of the Wheel’s Hub, and was unable to educate the young supermen, who have descended into superstition and barbarism. When Linc is exiled and travels the dangerous, rat-infested route to the Hub, he learns the true nature of the ship, its mission, and how it is very nearly too late to save them.
So many things about this book have dated – computer technology, the search for extra-solar planets, and the notion that humans would build vast space stations. It’s also not particularly engaging on a descriptive level – obvious moments like the removal of the bodies of the bridge crew in End, which seem to cry out for a moment’s reflection are quickly glossed over. The development of a matter transporter, too, seems to fly in the face of current science. Bova’s not a bad writer, but there are some missed opportunities to tell compelling stories and long passages of quite dull narrative which leave this reader wondering “why?”
Enjoyable enough, if not particularly well crafted, The Exiles Trilogy, like so many things of childhood, doesn’t quite live up to the lauded place it held in memory. Perhaps that too is just a function of growing old.
Originally reviewed 5 November 2011.
Find your copy of The Exiles Trilogy available from booksellers around the world at AbeBooks.com (title links directly to search results).