BOOK REVIEW: Phoenix Without Ashes

Mama Fisi
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"Cordwainer Bird" is the pseudonym writer Harlan Ellison used whenever he wished to distance himself from something that he was no longer proud to call his own, which seemed to happen rather frequently.

It's the name of the man credited with writing the pilot episode of the 1970's TV series "The Starlost," which was based on the Ellison story "Phoenix Without Ashes." Ellison disowned "The Starlost," claiming that the show had destroyed the vision he'd had for the story.

Well, in 2011, illustrator Alan Robinson came out with a graphic novel based on Ellison's original story, and this was purported to be much closer to Ellison's vision and intent.

The Husband, who has fond memories of "The Starlost," picked up the book as a Christmas gift this past December. We read it, and then compared it to the pilot episode of "The Starlost."

I had trouble seeing any difference between the two.

Sure, "Starlost" has some pretty hokey special effects, but all television SF shows had hokey special effects back then. Think "Doctor Who" or "The Land of the Lost" and you'll know what I mean--that weird video matting stuff. For some reason, instead of building sets for "Starlost," they matted in a lot of the backgrounds, even when a set would have been easier to do, and yeah, they look cheap.

But as far as the actual storyline, the actual plot, goes--the book and the series are almost identical.

A young man in an old-fashioned, religious, agrarian community rebels against the authority figures who tell him he has been deemed unfit to marry the girl he loves. He's been banished once already for disobedience, and he's learned nothing from his experience, so they cast him out permanently. But he discovers that the elders are manipulating the Voice of The Creator, which is like their Bible, and when he tries to expose them as frauds, he is deemed a heretic and chased into the woods--where he finds a strange cave that sucks him into a long tunnel, which leads to the control room of a space ship!

It turns out that his hamlet, Cypress Corners, is actually a contained biosphere, part of an enormous space ship which was built and dispatched in the hopes of saving the human race when the Earth was nearing destruction from an unnamed threat. As Devon learns about the space ark from its library computer, everything starts to make sense to him--why the world is only fifty miles across, and why the sky is made of metal, for example.

Devon also learns that the Ark--which has been travelling with its multitude of biospheres "like a great cluster of grapes" for 500 years--is off course due to some unspecified accident that killed the crew. The peoples contained in the biospheres--kept apart to preserve cultural identity, apparently--have forgotten they're on a space ship and know nothing about the disaster of the crew.

So Devon has to return to Cypress Corners and try to convince his people that he's not a heretic, not insane, and they need to do something to fix the ship or everyone on board is going to die.


As you can guess, things do not go well for Devon, and he is beaten up, imprisoned, sentenced to die for heresy, and about to be executed when he's sprung from prison by Garth, the blacksmith, who is the man assigned to marry Devon's beloved Rachel. Garth and Rachel don't love each other, but Garth knows the importance of obeying the Elders.

Still, because they're sort of friends, he frees Devon, and Devon thanks him by kidnapping Rachel and fleeing back into the tunnel. Garth convinces the rest of the community not to go after Devon, that it's his honor at stake, and goes after the fugitives, only to find out that Devon was telling the truth about everything.

The TV series added the character of a crazy old man who hangs out by the entrance to the tunnel and knows a few things about it which he imparts to Devon. Otherwise the two stories are almost exactly the same. The realization of the library computer in the series is actually better than the way it was depicted in the graphic novel, simply because the actor playing the computer did a terrific job at being a glitchy, 500-year-old AI.

I, personally, had a number of huge problems with the premise of the story. First, why would there be Amish in the future, and why would it be seen as a good idea to collect all sorts of quaint cultures into a space-faring zoo? How could a ship run without a crew to service it for 500 years? How could a people forget they were on a space ship in 500 years? How could they maintain their population in a sphere 50 miles across for 500 years?

The spheres are joined by zero-gravity "bounce tubes." But the way the ship is drawn in the novel, and also depicted in the TV series, makes the idea of using centrifugal force to provide gravity in the spheres, yet with microgravity bounce tubes connecting them, impossible. But the presence of the gravity is never explained.

There's actually a lot that's never explained in either story, and it all added up to a great big "Oh, come ON-N-N!" from me. Now, I'm not a real skeptic; give me a good yarn and I can swallow just about any crazy concept. I really liked the "Men In Black" series, and "Star Wars," and the new "Trek" film, and "Hitchhiker's Guide" (not the new film, though) and a bunch of other things, with plot devices way more bizarre.

But these all had an element of fantasy to them that made their aliens and teleporters and neuralizers and hyperspace jumps OK. "Phoenix Without Ashes" and "The Starlost" starts with a ridiculous real-world concept and doesn't go anywhere with it.

All right, to be fair, the original idea of a community of religious, agrarian people from the 1800's who suddenly discover they're actually aboard a starship is clever, but in this story, they're depicted as a bunch of narrow-minded, authoritarian, superstitious rubes with a power-tripping fraud of a leader who wants to crush anything he can't control.

When it was written, it probably had more resonance with the youth who were rebelling against The Man and everything his society represented, but today it just makes it seem like Ellison had something against the Amish.

The part of Devon was played by Keir Dullea, who with a moustache looks nothing like he did in "2001: A Space Odyssey." And he actually does a pretty good job at looking innocent, astonished, and a bit scared and abashed when he's talking to the library computer and learning that everything he was ever taught was wrong. He's too old for the part of Devon, though.

Otherwise the TV episode looks like a stage play, with regional stock actors in the roles. The girl who plays Rachel, in particular, comes across as being rather vapid. I couldn't see why Devon was willing to risk his life for her.

The graphic novel is unremarkable--it looks like most graphic novels do. There are entire pages with no text at all, and the drawing style is the "we don't open our mouths to speak" style. Not that the art is bad, it's just...nothing to rave about.

I can kind of see why Ellison wanted to step away from this story. It feels like a good idea that just never really jelled properly.