The hallmark of good science fiction is that it draws the reader into an alien world where people very much like the reader face fantastic dilemmas in an alien setting that the reader can still empathize with. Readers of The Colors of Space by Marion Zimmer Bradley will find this to be true in spades and even more so. From the outset, the novel feels a great deal like a coming of age story for the main character, young Bart Steele, recent graduate from the Space Academy. He has his entire life ahead of him…
Of course, few coming of age stories go in the direction the protagonist thinks their life is going to go.
When Bart expects to meet his father at the spaceport, he is instead thrust into a complex conspiracy involving humanity’s place in the stars. Instead of his father, he meets one of his father’s friends (pretending to be his father) who changes its appearance, throws him onto a spaceship, and catapults young Bart into the adventure of his life.
In this future setting humanity has reached the stars with the help of the Lhari—a humanoid alien race who discovered the secret to faster-than-light travel. They also hold a monopoly on it. Instead of giving the secret of FTL to humanity, they keep it to themselves, telling humans that only Lhari can survive the jump to FTL, called “warp”, and they maintain the secret by putting humans on the ships into cold sleep before the event to keep them from dying.
Bart’s father is part of a collective human conspiracy to get the technology from the Lhari, prove that humans can survive warp, and that they deserve the technology that the Lhari have been monopolizing all the years they’ve known humanity.
As the cover might suggest color plays a very big part in the story. The Lhari, unlike humans, cannot see in color, only luminosity—in a way they only see black and white. As a result, much of the prose of the story is written with colors front-and-center with vivid descriptions of settings, sunsets, and especially stars. More than one case as a reader I was graced with a beautiful description of stars as jewels or colors such as “topaz” for the sun, the sapphire blue of Rigel.
Bradley’s prose is fluid and beautiful and fitting to the situations it’s described in—color takes a row front-and-center of much of the story, and it fits nicely into the plot.
In fact, the secret of FTL is apparently a yet-unseen color called the eighth color. Bart’s father’s shipping company is named “Eight Colors.”
Bart Steele comes across as a young kid thrust into an unexpected conspiracy when he’s swept up into the plot. He’s given very little information about his father (and why the Lhari are seeking him) but just that it may have something to do with FTL. During the story he’s thrust into a fish-out-of-water situation where he undergoes cosmetic surgery to look like one of the Lhari so that he can work aboard one of their ships as a spy. Through this we learn a great deal of Lhari culture and not just humans see them (as aliens) but how they see humans—and that human compassion does cross cultural and racial boundaries.
As a person, Bart must reconsider how he was raised and how he looked at the Lhari all his life—especially the xenophobic attitudes of his own culture and people about them. He makes friends on board the ship and becomes extremely introspective about the relationship between humanity and the Lhari. They’ve been shuttling humanity between the stars for years and keeping the FTL technology from them, this alone has raised a great deal of animosity between the races, and a certain amount of strange resentment. They even brainwash-via-hypnosis those humans who do work directly for them.
This book is accessible to both adults and juveniles, Bart himself feels like an older teenager just out of high-school (Space Academy) and the prose plays on personal biases, cultural awareness, friendship, honor, and introspection. The science fiction elements are strong in that space-travel and how humanity might interact with another race slot nicely into the contemplative roles of speculative fiction.
The colorful prose (and I mean that literally) brings Bart Steele and his world into a vivid focus with him as a believable central character growing up suddenly into a world he thought he knew. It’s a short read, potentially the type of book you’d carry onto an airplane or fall asleep with at night; but it has a lasting elemental plot-line that left a smile on my face as I watched Bart successfully navigate the perils that his life thrust at him and his place in changing the fate of humanity.