Revolt on Alpha C by Robert Silverberg
A quick glance at The Quasi-Official Robert Silverberg Web Site will reveal that the author, during the course of his 60-year career, managed to somehow come out with no fewer than 75 science fiction novels, 180 “adult” and crime novels, 450 (!) sci-fi short stories and novellas, 125 adult/crime short stories, and 70 books of nonfiction… not to mention the 130 or so anthologies for which he served as editor! But all great writing careers have to begin somewhere, and for Robert Silverberg, that beginning was his 1954 novel Revolt on Alpha C.
Actually, Silverberg had already seen one of his short stories, “Gorgon Planet,” released earlier that year, but Revolt on Alpha C was his first full-length work to see publication. Originally printed as a hardcover book by a company called Cromwell, it is perhaps best remembered today as a 1959 release of the juvenile-book publisher Scholastic Book Services, a softcover affair of 118 large-print pages with charming illustrations by William Meyerriecks.
Yes, Silverberg’s first novel was aimed at the young-adult audience, or perhaps even younger. I’d say the target age might be 12- to 14-year-olds; those who were then enjoying books featuring the exploits of the Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Danny Dunn and that ilk. Thus, the book is pitched at a slightly younger demographic than Robert A. Heinlein’s 12 classic “juveniles” released from 1947–’58, and can thus serve as a wonderful introduction, for the young reader, to the world of science fiction. (A quick aside regarding the series of books put out by Scholastic Book Services: These were the books that initially inspired my love of reading, way back in public school. How fondly I remember checking off the order forms, with the B&W photos of the books in question, and the thrill of seeing the books arrive in the classroom a few weeks later, with their covers in full-color glory. What a kick for me, then, to have recently laid my hands on a vintage 1959 edition of Revolt on Alpha C, the first Scholastic book that I’ve read in over “cough mumble cough” years!)
In the book, the year is 2363, and the reader makes the acquaintance of newly graduated Space Cadet Larry Stark, who, with several other alumni of the Space Patrol Academy, is about to take the 15-day voyage from Pluto to Earth’s nearest inhabited colony world, the fourth planet of Alpha Centauri. But trouble greets Larry and his two best friends, Heitor van Haaren and Harl Ellison (yes, a tip of the chapeau to sci-fi great Harlan Ellison, then a budding author himself and a neighbor of Silverberg’s, just as the name “Larry Stark” might be a tribute of sorts to Leigh Brackett’s great space explorer Eric John Stark), when they arrive on Alpha C IV. Three of the planet’s four colonies are in revolt against Earth, declaring their world to be independent, and Larry must ultimately choose to either stay loyal to Earth and his sworn duty as a Space Patrol officer, or follow the dictates of his conscience and join the revolutionaries. A tough choice for anyone, especially for a 20-year-old who is being pulled in both directions by the opposing forces…
Revolt on Alpha C is a likable book — a simply written one, naturally — that moves along at a rapid clip. Adults should be able to zip through it in one or two sittings with a happy, nostalgic grin on their faces. The book features several well-done action sequences, such as Larry’s rescue of another crew member while outside their starship Carden in deep space, and Larry and Heitor’s brush with dinosaurs in the untamed jungle of Alpha C IV. The book provides kids with an invaluable life lesson regarding the importance of following the dictates of one’s conscience in life, despite the sacrifices that such actions might entail, and sticking to those decisions.
On that Silverberg Web Site, host Jon Davis tells us that the novel “is not a major work by any standard,” and that it shows “more promise than accomplishment,” and it is hard to argue with him on these points. The future sci-fi Grand Master would of course go on to win loads of Hugos and Nebulas during the course of his legendary career, and write some of the finest adult science fiction ever created. Still, his first novel is surely not without interest, warts and all, if only for comparative purposes. Silverberg, only 19 when the book was published, can be accused of some inelegant word choices in this, his first outing (such as “making the necessary change-over to overdrive”), as well as some ungrammatical turns of phrase (“…the gleaming chrome which decorated Earth cities,” instead of “that decorated”). The book, short as it is, is naturally deficient as regards in-depth characterizations and detailed descriptions. But really, this is a book for kids, so why complain?
The thought just struck me that I would be more than happy if I could ever write a book as ingratiating as Alpha C today; had I done so at the age of 19, it would have been truly remarkable. Silverberg’s first novel could very easily have served as book No. 1 of an entire series revolving around Larry Stark’s deep-space adventures, and indeed, some may feel that the book cries out for at least a sequel. The novel ends with the lot of Alpha C IV very much up in the air, and ditto as to Larry’s future; it is as if the author’s main point here was to show how a responsible young adult deals with an early crisis in his life, makes a tough decision, and resigns himself to abide by the consequences. Still, what Silverberg has given us here is quite entertaining enough. From the novel’s first sentence — “The stopover at Pluto was brief, but for Larry Stark it seemed to be much too long” — the reader, young or old, is quite helplessly sucked in. Inaugurating the start of one of science fiction’s most beloved careers, Revolt on Alpha C surely holds a place in literary history, and is a lot of fun, besides…
I think there’s a distinct possibility that I read or skimmed this as a little kid. The cover art looks familiar and so does a bit of the plot. If it’s the same book, it was on a shelf in the back of my classroom, and I got seated back there and would sneakily read books from the shelf when I was bored in class. I have to check this out sometime to see if it rings any bells.
Good for you, Kelly! Today, kids sneakily text or play games on their smartphones instead of read when they are goofing off….
Sandy, that review was so much fun to read!
I remember those Scholastic order forms fondly, too. They still distribute these in schools (my kids get them) but now they are in color.
Kelly, that’s funny!
Hey, they should have known better than to seat the short, nearsighted, and precocious kid in the back. Way too easy to tune out when you can’t see and know the stuff already. LOL!
Glad you enjoyed it, Kat! When you say “my kids,” I am assuming you mean your own kids at home, and not your college students, right? Great to know that Scholastic is still doing its thing: getting kids into reading at an early age!
Book order forms were such a highlight of my school life.
Yes, my kids at home. :)
But in my office at school, I have many SF books on my shelves (because I ran out of space at home) and some of my students enjoy coming in to peruse them. Someone was commenting on a Silverberg book just last week. Occasionally I’ll lend the books to students.
Also on my office wall, besides some Escher prints, I have this framed poster which I learned about in one of our WWW columns: (It is the entire text of War of the Worlds.)
Wow, Kat, what a great piece of art to hang in the office!
Seriously, while the book itself doesn’t sound like it would interest me, I loved your nostalgia for those Scholastic books when you were a kid! You put such joy into the review, Sandy.
It’s a little reassuring to look back at the early work of someone who is a grand master, and find out that they just as clunky as everybody else.
Marion, I remember, back in 3rd grade, that I won a reward for the most number of book reports that year. My reward was a copy of the Scholastic book “Skeleton Cave.” I took it home and read it that very night. And now here it is, all these years later…and I’m still writing “book reports,” although at a considerably slower rate! BTW, my pal Clem gave me his copy of “Skeleton Cave” last year, and it proudly resides on my shelf now at home….
MY REWARD: http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/71hb3DO-m7L._SL500_SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg
Sandy, that cover! I would have loved that book!