2014 April 16 • Wednesday
Walter Tevis, best known as the author of The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth, is one of my favorite writers. Until recently I had read all of his novels except for one. Yesterday I finished that one and loved it.
Steps of the Sun is a science-fiction novel as well as one of the best male midlife crisis novels ever written. It also has echoes of works as far apart as Homer's Odyssey and Stanislaw Lem's Solaris (and perhaps Fredric Brown's Rogue in Space).
The main character, Ben Belson, is one of the richest and most powerful men in the world but the emotional baggage from his childhood is getting too heavy to carry. He buys a spaceship—the story takes place in the late twenty-first century—and takes off for another solar system hoping to find sources of uranium, desperately needed by an Earth that's ravaged by climate change and energy crises.
What he finds out there is one story and where this discovery leads him is another, maybe even more than one. Tevis's writing zips along smoothly with considerable wit and excitement. Belson could be a preposterous character but Tevis has made him so human and complex that he's utterly believable despite being something of a pulp-fiction hero in his abilities and intelligence.
The psychological elements, particularly Belson's unresolved conflicts with his parents, creep into everything. In the first paragraph Belson remembers the "faded blue flowers" on his father's wallpaper. About a page later we learn that his captain's cabin on the spaceship is "painted pale blue as I had instructed".
It's also significant that the woman Belson loves is an actress who progresses from playing the most famous mother in Shakespeare to playing the most famous wife in Shakespeare.
There are some other literary signposts. Belson reads Henry James in distress and Mark Twain when things are going better. (The mayor of New York City is named Wharton, perhaps because Edith Wharton, in addition to writing about New York City, was a close friend of James.
This is a Walter Tevis book so Belson plays both pool and chess. (Belson at one point mentions "getting weary with Henry James's games of ethical chess and of people who responded to moral crises by not finishing sentences.) The title of the book is from William Blake.
The first line is "When they knocked me out I regressed like a shot to my childhood on Earth and stayed there in a kind of wakeful dream for two months".