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The Avatar by Poul Anderson2.5 stars

Ignoring for a moment the unfortunately worded blurb “His Big One!” emblazoned across the top of the paperback’s cover, The Avatar is an ambitious, often poetic interstellar epic detailing humankind’s first contact with a mysterious, unseen (shades of 2001), mega-advanced race of aliens known only as the Others. Clearly intended as a major work, The Avatar misses the bullseye by being uneven, too long by half, and by simply taking forever to get where it’s going. At times, Anderson shows flashes of the brilliance that is the hallmark of his best work. But on the whole, this novel is a disappointment.

The story concerns the existence of T-machines, transportation portals scattered throughout space and time by the Others in an effort to help various interstellar species move amongst the stars and evolve. Daniel Broderson, a tycoon and provocateur living on the only off-world colony yet established as a result of humanity’s use of the T-machines, hopes these devices will indeed usher in a mass of human expansion throughout space. He is at loggerheads, though, with various stuffy, anti-expansionist politicos on Earth, who seek to keep humanity earthbound under the typically patronizing rubric that they’re really looking after our — and the Earth’s — welfare. 

So when an Earth craft, the Emissary, returns to the Solar System after having used the T-machine to contact the advanced race the Betans, and the craft is interdicted and news of its return suppressed, Broderson has himself — and his lover, who beomes a key character later on — smuggled back to the Solar System to free the crew and hopefully announce to all the world what their governments have been up to, bringing the whole house of cards tumbling down.

This part of the novel, despite occasional action, is talky and often tedious, though the story’s political milieu is certainly well thought out. But in its second half The Avatar switches gears, as Broderson and his team find themselves lost in space and forced to embark on a survival quest for the Others themselves. This part is consistently reminiscent of the superior Tau Zero, yet it does have some stirring moments, such as the discovery of a race of intelligent airborne aliens inhabiting a Jupiter-like gas giant. Yet whereas the first half of the novel suffers from plot tedium, the second seems to meander all over the place — just like the characters in their plight. (While the heroes of Tau Zero may have been adrift, the plot certainly wasn’t.) The climax is also curious. On the one hand, you feel a real stirring of emotion and wonder. On the other, you feel like you’re watching one of the goofier episodes of the original Star Trek, where all the alien worlds have breathable air and the natives speak perfect English.

The characters carry the novel. Of particular note are Joelle Ky, the “holothete” trained in a technology which allows her literally to become one with her computers and their vast store of data, and who finds reality wanting as a result of her skills; Fidelio, the gentle Betan who has returned with Emissary; the various members of Broderson’s crew; and particularly Caitlin Mulryan, who fortunately rises above one’s early impression of her (as Broderson’s babe) to become the most pivotal player in the narrative. She is truly one of the most memorable and likable characters in all of Anderson’s fiction, and I’m sure I’ll remember her for years to come. 

Not all the characterizations are as strong. In many scenes, Anderson has us endure some real soap opera. Broderson himself, for the longest time, seems little more than a drab, sci-fi (in the pejorative sense of the term) alpha-male stereotype, though he comes into his own in the second half. And Ira Quick, the main nemesis of Broderson’s on Earth, who seeks to keep news of Emissary's return — and of contact with the Betans — suppressed in order to hide the glory of the cosmos from humanity, comes off as a rote evil government lackey, barely enough of an antagonist to engender much conflict. Indeed, the fact that the novel’s conflict is so weak at the outset is the main reason its first half is such a chore.

The Avatar is obviously a book that has set its sights high. It isn’t merely about a grandiose space voyage, or humanity’s place in the universe, nor it is merely a big fat first contact novel. The Avatar is about our unquenchable thirst for knowledge, for breaking boundaries, for understanding and knowing, and it’s about the wonder that accompanies that process. It’s unfortunate that, in trying to cover all the bases, Anderson lost his focus and became — like Broderson, Mulryan, and their fellow adventurers — adrift in the wonders of the cosmos.