Robert Wilfred Franson: The Shadow Of The Ship

Covers of "The Shadow Of The Ship", by Robert Wilfred Franson

For its entire breadth the Meadow supported only hard vacuum on its pseudosurface. Fixed ashiness that no breeze would ever stir, twisted by ancient gravitational gradients. Space below the space where things of nature or things of man could exist naturally, unattended. Subspace that could be moved across, but not resided in except as on the lip of a grave.

It’s a while since I’ve posted about stories that have been published in two (or more) different versions. I’ve written before about Martin Caidin’s two slightly different novels entitled Marooned, and James Blish’s multiple versions of his “Cities In Flight” stories. This time, I want to write about the original and revised versions of Robert Wilfred Franson’s novel, The Shadow Of The Ship.

When science-fiction authors write about fast interstellar travel, they generally invoke one of a fairly limited repertoire of tropes—there’s the “warp drive” (see Star Trek), which somehow propels a spacecraft through space at some multiple of the speed of light; there’s the “wormhole” (see Interstellar) which allows the spacecraft to take a shortcut between two widely separated locations; and there’s the “jump to hyperspace” (see Star Wars) which shifts the spacecraft in and out of some alternate geometry in which faster-than-light travel is possible, or interstellar distances are shortened. But then, in 1983, along came Franson’s debut novel.*

The Shadow Of The Ship, admittedly, does invoke a sort of jump-to-hyperspace scenario. Outside the narrative (off-screen, as it were), we’re told that there are spacecraft which can enter a realm called subspace, in which the distance between stars is very much shorter than it is in normal space. Such ships require pilots with special mental abilities and training, who interact with technology embedded in their ship in order to make the transitions in and out of subspace. But in all other aspects, Franson’s subspace stands outside the normal science-fiction conventions. It is a two-dimensional surface (colloquially called “the meadow”) over which spacecraft must slide, never losing contact. The meadow has topography, influenced by gravitational potentials in normal space (there are deep wells in the surface which indicate the location of massive bodies). But it also has some sort of pseudo-gravitational force of its own—it’s possible to stop on the meadow, get out, and walk around in a spacesuit.

Inanimate matter cannot exist on the meadow, unless “stabilized” by the presence of a human (or other) consciousness—any object that loses contact with an embodied consciousness simply vanishes, in a rather extreme version of the quantum observer effect. And it gets worse—anything, conscious or not, that loses contact with the meadow, however briefly, also vanishes. Anyone walking on the meadow is, literally, only a step away from death—a simple trip can cause a person to vanish instantly.

So far, so weird. But it gets weirder. There are also creatures on the meadow—gigantic, slow-moving, intelligent creatures called waybeasts (colloquially, “squeakers”), which resemble a green-eyed cross between a musk-ox and an elephant—massively tusked, and covered in golden fur. They are able to make the transition between normal space and subspace, and survive for long periods in the worse-than-vacuum conditions of the meadow. For reasons unknown, they walk from planet to planet through subspace, follow glowing trails across the meadow. At a waybeast’s steady ambling pace, it crosses the equivalent of a light-year every three days.

So that’s unusually weird. But it gets weirder. The waybeast trails form a network linking a variety of human-inhabited worlds, which have a technological level somewhere around that of the early Industrial Revolution. These humans have established a relationship with the waybeasts, and travel from planet to planet in long caravans of air-tight carriages which are pulled across the meadow by the waybeasts. This strange culture has developed in isolation from wider humanity, until it is stumbled upon by a subspace pilot, Hendrik Rheinallt, and his improbable friend, a flying cat called Arahant. (Who also composes operas.) Rheinallt and Arahant had been marooned on a remote planet until rescued by a passing waybeast caravan led by a woman named Whitnadys. And now Rheinallt and Arahant are trying to find a way home again.

And so the story begins. Rheinallt has put together a Special Caravan—an expedition that is pushing beyond the explored regions of the Blue Trail, in response to a rumour that, somewhere out in that direction, a wrecked or abandoned subspace ship is resting on the surface of the meadow. Whitnadys, now Rheinallt’s partner and the mother of his child, is the beastmaster for the expedition, handling the waybeasts that tow the caravan; Arahant is along for entertainment value.

(At this point, I should interject that I’m generally left cold by science-fiction writers [looking at you, Robert Heinlein] who put cats into their stories just because they think CATS ARE GREAT. Cats are fine, but their mere presence doesn’t help a narrative along, in my opinion, and I don’t generally find them interesting enough to justify their presence. That said, Arahant turns out to be an engaging character, but I think he manages that despite being a flying cat, rather than because of it.)

Franson deals with the complexities of his scenario well, introducing the background elements in carefully constructed early chapters. Along the way, we also learn that Rheinallt and Arihant are “bloodsweaters”—they have conscious control over many aspects of their physiology, which leads to potential immortality, among other advantages. It transpires that they have both lived a very long time already, before starting their current adventure.

There is conflict and skulduggery aboard the Special Caravan—it’s evident that some faction does not want Rheinallt’s expedition to succeed. And there’s a girl aboard whose face is strangely difficult to concentrate on, a man who appears to be stalking her, and a levitating, spherical, alien presence that calls itself the Detenebrator. And once the fabled Ship on the meadow is reached, things begin to get even more complicated.

Franson describes all this well. Here’s his description of the short length of the Blue Trail that crosses the surface of a remote, rocky world:

A god with two paintbrushes must have passed this way: the first stroke had made a bluish roadway twenty-some yards long, and wide enough that a couple of caravans could have passed abreast. A two-dimensional and softened sapphire, stretched into pavement. Then with the narrower brush in his other hand the god swiped the still-wet roadway again, and left an inner aura along those twenty-plus yards, an unworldly deeper-blue radiance within the sapphire mist. The trail glowed with its own light, and was beautiful.

And here’s a quick sketch of a man who has been listening to a deliberately opaque, teasing dissertation by Rheinallt:

The metallurgist still looked puzzled; in fact, he had the look of someone who manages the difficult feat of being puzzled on several discrete levels of consciousness simultaneously.

The story’s conclusion is open-ended—some conflicts and mysteries are resolved, but others remain, and within the last few chapters events unfold that open up whole new plot vistas.

So there was obviously a sequel coming, and I certainly wasn’t the only person who was intrigued to find out where Franson was going next with his strange narrative. But then decades went by, and no new work by Franson ever appeared. In 2014, I noticed that an e-book edition of The Shadow Of The Ship had been published under the auspices of Franson Publications, but I didn’t pay much attention at the time. (On his Lofting Agency website, Franson describes how hard it was to win back the rights to his own novel so that he could republish it.) But then, in 2018, Franson published a new novel, Sphinx Daybreak, set in the same imagined universe as The Shadow Of The Ship.

Cover of "Sphinx Daybreak" by Robert Wilfred Franson

Instead of being the sequel I’d anticipated, it’s a long (225,000-word) prequel, set on Earth in 1904, filling in the back story of Rheinallt and Arihant. They’re both already centuries old, as a result of the “bloodswayer” physiological discipline. That’s a change of name from the “bloodsweater” of the original novel—the “sway” is used in the sense of “influence”, and the whole blood-sweating aspect is depicted as an unfortunate side-effect of imperfect bloodsway technique. I won’t attempt to summarize the new novel’s baroque inventiveness here, beyond mentioning what’s relevant to Franson’s revision of The Shadow Of The Ship.

In Earth’s prehistory, at the end of the last Ice Age, a shadowy race called the Rodasi used exotic technology to build a largely invisible realm in the sky, and then disappeared. This extensive complex of floating buildings and gardens was colonized by Arihant’s species, the aircats, and later by humans fleeing from the fall of Troy. The aircats and humans who inhabit the Rodasi artefacts call themselves the Luftmenschen (“sky people”), and are gradually learning how to use the remnant Rodasi technology. Among the technologies they are beginning to master are portals to other exotic places, including the Meadow (now capitalized) of The Shadow Of The Ship.

I wasn’t a big fan of Sphinx Daybreak, I’m afraid. It’s certainly crammed with interesting and outré ideas, and Franson appears to be setting up all sorts of openings for future stories. But it’s long and slow, and the characters spend a lot of time congratulating and admiring each other. The Rheinallt character comes across as smugly complacent, and every woman he meets is besotted with him—it’s a huge contrast with the undoubtedly competent but thoughtfully reflective character he has in The Shadow Of The Ship, and his flirtatious superficiality is very much at variance with his relationship with Whitnadys in the original novel.

So I was a little trepidatious when I learned that Franson had revised The Shadow Of The Ship for the 2014 edition, to bring it into alignment with the world and characters of Sphinx Daybreak. I didn’t really want the Rheinallt of whom I was quite fond to turn into the annoying Rheinallt of the later novel.

There proved to be many revisions, from single words to entire paragraphs. But the story undoubtedly benefits from them, and the “original Rheinallt” benefits the most. At the single-word level, there’s an “I need to talk to you” which has become “Want to talk to you”—changing Rheinallt’s relationship both with the topic he raises, and with the person he’s speaking to. And while in the original novel Rheinallt thinks of crewmen who are slow to respond to instructions as “cretins”, they’re now merely “sluggards”. Each of these changes consolidates the original depiction of Rheinallt, rather than nudging him towards his Sphinx Daybreak persona.

At the level of plot revisions, the most important for Rheinallt’s character is the deletion of a cruel and pointless guessing game he inflicts on Whitnadys, from whom he withholds his true age. This was really a guessing game contrived for the reader, and it never sat easily in their otherwise frank and loving relationship. After revision, we find that the couple have long since discussed Rheinallt’s strange longevity. Elsewhere, there’s a lot of tightening of the plot—adding plausible detail here, clarifying character motivation there.

The Rodasi are written into the background, along with some aspects of their technology, and one of the worlds beyond the Rodasi portals in Sphinx Daybreak becomes significant to The Shadow Of The Ship. And that leads to a significant revision to the ending, which now has a solid sense of closure, rather than merely hinting at where the story might go in the future.

There are only two downsides for me. There’s a revised physical explanation of how Arahant manages to float effortlessly around the room, but it’s only slightly less implausible, and considerably more distracting, than the original. And Franson has used the editorial powers of self-publishing to impose a non-standard pattern of punctuation on his text, which was a constant source of distraction for the automatic proofreader in me. I suspect neither of the above will bother most other readers.

I confess I went into this project prepared to issue a snooty judgement that the revised edition was not a patch on the original, as is almost customary in this sort of situation. But no, this set of revisions is more like Ridley Scott’s tinkering with Blade Runner than George Lucas’s messing with Star Wars. Forget the original—get the revised version.

* The Shadow Of The Ship has a shadowy prehistory. The colophon to the novel states that it was previously published as a novella in 1976, but doesn’t say where.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.