The Fugitive Worlds, by Bob Shaw
The Fugitive Worlds is the last novel in the Land/Overland trilogy. Since I’ve commented on the other two, here are my thoughts. And beware! here there (may) be Ropes! possbly even intersecting ones!
It's two generations or so after the Migration from Land. If you squint, society on Overland may have improved - apparently it has got a bit more meritocratic, there certainly has been some progress on gender issues, and this time the novel doesn't open with a random peasant being dragged off to be executed on some noble's arbitrary whim. Technology and infrastructure are changing - Cassyll Maraquine's industrial empire seems to be overseeing a pivot toward a metal-and-steam based economy, and in fact they seem to be in the early stages of an industrial revolution. On the plus side, this presumably means Overland isn't faced with another ptertha crisis in the near future, though a cynic may wonder if they've just swapped one environmental crisis for another one in a few centuries' time, when the seas start rising and the deserts begin to expand. But not to fear - there's every chance that the whole of society will be swept away by cataclysm long before that ominous possibility can occur!
You see, change is afoot in Overland's domain. Because, to the consternation of everyone except the government (who remain supremely complacent), a fourth planet has suddenly appeared in their star system. Attempts are made to bring this to the attention of the queen; unfortunately she's utterly fixated on a demented scheme to extend her reign back to Land itself.
At the opening of the novel, Toller Maraquine II, grandson of the star of the first two books, is discontent. As Cassyll's son, he could have had a life of wealth, privilege and social influence. Instead he spends his time mooning after his supposedly-heroic grandfather - yes, the same one who managed to simply forget that his first wife existed! Toller II, unfortunately, has inherited his grandfather's impetuousness and basic lack of any common sense. He's certainly not a monster, but he is an idiot. This is shown in the book's opening scenes, where he falls blindly in love with the Countess Vantara, despite the fact that she's an obvious schemer and bully.
Seeking to impress Vantara, Toller involves himself with the planned re-expansion onto Land. This swiftly gets disrupted, though, by the appearance of an expanding crystalline disk, growing across the zero-g datum plane that exists between the two twinned planets. The disk's rapid expansion cuts off travel between Land and Overland - it expands beyond the region of breathable air where the two planets' atmospheres meet - and to make matters worse, the Countess vanishes while trying to traverse said region! Oh no! Toller, of course, immediately resolves that he must go and rescue her. (She has treated him with nothing except derision and contempt by this point, and he of course fails to read the very obvious message in there.)
The predictable result of this is that Toller gets himself and his crew abducted by aliens, because of course the people of Land and Overland are actually currently bystanders in someone else's plans. Fortunately for Toller, the Dussarrans show no interest in probing him. Unfortunately for him, the expanding crystalline disk is actually a complex machine intended to relocate Dussarra itself away from the galaxy they all currently live in.
You see, the aliens believe that they are imminently threatened - their researchers have found evidence pointing to a collision between so-called "Ropes" somewhere astronomically nearby. (Ropes appear to be similar to the class of hypothetical topological defects that we call "cosmic strings" - fortunately for us, there's no evidence that cosmic strings actually exist in our universe.) This collision, they believe, will have produced an explosion somewhere between a gamma ray burst and a cosmological phase change. They fear that a wave of destruction is currently zooming toward them, at or close to the speed of light. If they are right, there is certainly no chance of Dussarra surviving it, hence their decision to begin relocating their planet.
Unfortunately there's a smaller problem. The Xa, the relocation engine they're constructing across the datum plane? When activated, it will destroy Land and Overland. The Dussarrans may be about to finish what the ptertha started around fifty years previously - the complete destruction of all civilisation on either Land or Overland!
A LEVER TO MOVE THE WORLD
Before we go any further, I'll give the Dussarrans credit for one thing: whatever their other faults, at least they're willing to think big. They are, after all, trying to address the Rope problem at source. If it were us in their situation ... well, half the newspapers would insist that Ropes don't exist, another third would claim they're leftist conspiracies to steal our precious body fluids, the remaining handful would write something mealy-mouthed about how Ropes might exist but maybe we shouldn't "overreact" for fear of a "pro-Rope" backlash. Centrists would call for a grand bargain with the Ropes - they can toast only HALF the planet in return for a top-up pupil premium on private school fees! Youtube user MagaCrypto2024 will tell you to invest your life savings in their newly-minted RopeCoin ("if it's golden enough for the quantum vacuum, it's gold enough for YOU!") and then a Tory would take 52% of the vote on a platform about how Ropes are great beacuse they'll eradicate the benefits claimants. 10 seconds after that, the shockwave demolishes the entire planet, and of course no-one ever admits that perhaps, just perhaps, they may have got it a bit wrong.
I'll say it again, whatever their other faults, at least Dussarra has managed to react to the crisis, and their behaviour isn't completely-insane.
That said, the Dussarrans' solution does suck.
Apparently the Xa requires weightlessness and a large supply of free oxygen to grow. It's not really clear why the Dussarrans couldn't have simply built a large bubble, say at one of their Lagrange points, pumped that full of air, and grew their Xa in there. There is a suggestion that the planetary alignment between Land and Overland is important too, the book does flip-flop this a bit too. Anyway we're left with the impression that the Dussarrans didn't have a lot of choice in where they built the Xa and they do genuinely believe that they are fleeing a cosmologically-apocalyptic event. Also, it's a plot point that Dussarra isn't an ideologically-coherent monolith; in fact the plan faces substantial internal dissent, and this actually boils over into something as close as the Dussarrans can have to a civil war. This is doubly-significant as the Dussarrans' telepathy also stops them from fighting each other in the usual manner - bluntly, when someone dies nearby, the telepathic backlash is utterly-paralysing to any exposed Dussarran. Killing someone yourself would thus be near-impossible for a Dussarran, though as is common in Shaw novels, the Dussarran elite has found a way to do an end-run around this problem. (Non-lethal weapons don't have the same paralysing impact!)
On a slight tangent, one interesting twist in "The Fugitive Worlds" is that Toller and co are basically NPCs in the Dussarrans' story, and they don't realise it.
The place, I think, where the Dussarrans' scheme becomes morally-unacceptable is their failure to evacuate Land and Overland. The population of Dussarra is at least thirty million - that's their capital city alone! - and in fact is implied to be in the billions. They're a modern industrial society with modern technology, after all. By contrast, even if the Landers have been breeding like bunnies for the last two generations, the population of Overland still can't be more than a few hundred thousand at absolute most. My guess is that a more plausible number would be more like 50-75,000. Perhaps 250,000 if you stretch it (a low death rate and every family putting out 4, 5 or 6+ kids could just about get you there in this timescale).
The Dussarrans have remote teleportation tech, and the denouement shows that said tech can reach anywhere on Overland, even at a distance of millions of miles. In principle, they could remove everyone from Overland, and given the vast difference in population, they could certainly accomodate a few thousand more people on Dussarra. The point I'm making here is that an evacuation was possible; there was no technological, infrastructural or economic barrier that would have precluded it. Granted the Overlanders probably would have reacted badly to being hoovered off their homeworld - who wouldn't? - but, they're not 100% immune to reason either. As Divvidiv's interations with Toller show, Overlanders are capable of understanding the Rope problem, especially when telepathy is used to help said understanding along.
(Also, for that matter, there was nothing to stop the Dussarran government from trying to open diplomatic relations with Queen Dasseene's regime, and maybe saying "Uh, guys, sorry to be a nuisance but we've got some news you might want to hear about...")
Under normal circumstances, of course, abducting everyone off of their own homeworld would be bad. It's still not great, even in context. But, the Dussarrans do have genuine reason to believe that The End Of All Things is barrelling toward them at nearly speed of light. When the Rope-intersection event lights up Land/Overland's skies, we can reasonably assume that it will destroy both of those planets too. In fact, Divvidiv confirms this possibility in as many words. Relocating everyone to Dussarra, then using the Xa and the Land/Overland binary to relocate the planet somewhere safe would, in context, strike me as a morally-defensible solution to the crisis. While it would be sad to lose Land and Overland, it would at least allow both societies to survive.
(The question of Farland is never addressed in this. As far as we can tell, the Farlanders are on their own during this particular cosmological emergency.)
Perhaps unfortunately for everyone, Dussarra's leadership have apparently decided to pull a Thanos instead. Why they skipped over the obvious non-genocidal solution is never directly addressed, though there are hints. The Dussarran leadership patronisingly describes Overlanders as "Primitives" - it's implied that their racism is a factor in their failure to do anything for their new neighbours. Also, thinking about it, the callousness is thematically-consistent with the rest of the series. Throughout this trilogy we see leaders making decisions that are at-best based on expediency alone - witness how quick King Prad was to abandon Ro-Atabri in the first book - or sometimes, decisions are based actively on malice and spite (see the Sgt Gnapperl subplot from the second book). From that point of view, the behaviour of Director Zunnunun and the Dussarran authorities is not particularly-unusual.
The scheme also ends up entirely-backfiring. You see, the wrong planet gets displaced. Ooops.
We never learn the fate of Land or Dussarra for an absolute fact; Toller's post-event speculations are bleak, but the narrative may imply that Dussarra at least could have survived. (The Dussarran rebels return there after the confrontation on Overland - I don't think they would have done that if they thought that their Xa-disrupting box was going to destroy their homeworld in the process!) I'm less optimistic for Land - the planet is probably toast - but that said, there is no "on-screen" death and what happened during the Xa's activation was definitely 100% Off The Rails, so who knows? I suppose it's at least possible that Land could have survived the Xa's activation.
One does wonder how it would cope with the abrupt removal of Overland's tides, though.
That said, Overland seems to experience weirdly few direct consequences for its displacement. The main effect is an abrupt change in the sky, followed later by the confusing discovery that Pi no longer exactly equals 3, but instead is somehow closer to 3.14. There are no storms or earthquakes - it's not clear how the tidal relaxation of Overland's crust had no geological consequences at all. The only thing I can think of is that perhaps the new solar tides are exactly equal to the ones Overland previously experienced?
Oh yes, I mentioned "solar" tides, didn't I? This is because the last few pages of "The Fugitive Worlds" are even more head-bending then they sound. While the galaxies and daylight stars and comets and meteors all vanish, and the number of stars in the sky decline sharply, the Overlanders are surprised to discover that they have a lot more planetary neighbours that they did even hours ago. In the course of one night of observations, Cassyll and Bartan find five distinct planets, and quickly postulate that more could exist. The cream coloured gas giant with the big ring catches their attention, and they're confused about how to count the binary between the blue planet and it's one-quarter-sized greyish companion? moon? neighbour?
Yes, a cream-coloured gas giant with a prominent ring system, Pi quite possibly equal to 3.141592654..., a blue planet with a greyish moon that's about one quarter its diameter ... hmmm, I wonder where Overland could have gone? Such a mystery, no possible clues, amirite? Oh yes, the blue one is described as being quite bright, so apparently Overland's new orbit is fairly near to it. Given how relatively-empty Overland is, you do does find yourself wondering just how long before their heavily-populated new neighbour decides that they're next on the menu for Manifest Destiny...
(Just in case anyone's confused about what the ending implies, the descriptions suggest that Overland has been displaced not only out of its own universe, but into our solar system. The cream-coloured ringed planet is clearly Saturn, and the blue/grey binary is the Earth-Moon system. The five planets Cassyll and Bartan find are presumably most of the ones from classical antiquity - Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, the Earth-Moon system. Presumably they missed out Mercury, but in fairness its closeness to the Sun makes it the hardest of the classical planets to observe, so this is reasonable. But needless to say, this ending does come firmly out of the left field.)
BUT WHAT OF THE PEOPLE?
In terms of characterisation this novel continues the threads of the previous two. Shaw does do a good job of painting believable people - their flaws, errors and misjudgements are all very human. No-one does anything that real people wouldn't, or haven't. Toller's hero-worshipping his wife-amnesiac grandfather (have I mentioned the airbrushing that Fera Rivoo got halfway through the first book?) is believable. People do behave like this, idolising idiots and putting others on pedestals. His infatuation with Vantara is depressingly-believable too. People fall for people they shouldn't all the time. This sort of meltdown is arguably one side of the romantic coin, after all.
Vantara - well, there are plenty of status-obsessed bullies out there who are also secretly cowards. She's the monarchical version of every bad middle manager you've ever met. One of the book's subplots is how she gradually falls from Toller's esteem, though it takes until the denouement before he finally sees her for what she is. Also, interestingly, the romance plot gets subverted at this point. Toller manages to find someone else, someone who is both a better person and who will hopefully balance his more self-destructive tendencies with basic common sense.
Also, Vantara's entire career basically hangs off of the fact that a close relative is also the Queen. With Queen Dasseene's health in sharp decline and a clear suggestion that her reign will soon end, one suspects that Vantara's star will go down with her. Also this won't be helped by the fact that Vantara was physically there, on the field with the Dussarran rebels' Xa-disrupting box and she did - not a lot? It was almost the end of Overland, and heroic deeds were notable largely by their absence on her part.
The Dussarrans feel less real. That said, Divvidiv's combination of complacency, careerism and partly-sublimated guilt at the necks he knows he's stepping on in his job - yes, it does feel consistent with your average out-of-their-depth middle manager. We see less of Director Zunnunun and we know of the Palace of Numbers only indirectly, but their general superiosity and smugness are consistent with what I know of senior-management-as-a-group. However, Dussarra does remain slightly out-of-focus even in the second half of the book, when Toller and co are literally stood on it.
Cassyll and Bartan pop up every now and then in the narrative, but they're not so directly-involved. They're mainly there to try to explain events to the Queen, who is clearly severely ill and also severely in denial about being ill.
Another niggle aboout this book is that it carries on dropping plot threads, much like the other two. What happened to the people the Queen sent to Land? Did Dussarra survive? What happened to the rebels? Was the Rope-intersection really real? We never get clear answers or, in some cases, any answers at all. It almost feels like this novel was intended as a sequel-hook for a fourth book, or perhaps some new trilogy, but said trilogy never arrived. Honestly, that might be for the best. (Do we really want to read a novel about Overland being plowed up for luxury executive mansions while the surviving population are herded off to reservations, or all die from the flu or other imported terrestrial diseases? Given the Kolcorronian monarchy's behaviour in the first book, being on the wrong end of a colonial expansion would have a certain bleak irony, but it wouldn't be fun to read.)
So again, like the previous two, this one is a page-turner. It's hard to put down. But like the previous two, it suffers from dropped plot-threads and perhaps also a few too many out-of-the-left-field WTF? moments. That said, I did enjoy re-reading it, and I can see why it made such an impression on younger!me all the way back in the 1990s, when I first read this trilogy.