‘The Land without Stars’ was the first Valerian and Laureline story I recognised from that brief, four album strong attempt to break into America in the Eighties. Though it wasn’t one of the better of those four to me back then, it’s grown in my imagination since those times and I enjoyed it immensely.
The initial set-up is deliberately misleading, and deliberately comic. In fact, it’s the beginning of the series’ shift to setting up Val as a bit of a fall guy to Laureline’s evidently sharper mind, his slow turn towards being the big dumb handsome hero. It’s introduced with an edge of mild mockery that also cleverly foreshadows the meat of the story.
We’re out in a remote area of the galaxy, on the edge of mapped space, beyond which is only darkness. Earth has colonised all four planets of the Ukbar system and the plug is about to be pulled. By mutual consent, of course: pioneers go out on their own, into the wild, to carve out an independent life that they can shape to their own ends. Val and Laureline are there for the farewell, Galaxity representatives wishing its distant sons and daughters a future in which it cannot play a part. Val’s there to wear the ceremonial robes and make the valedictory speech, and Laureline as his partner and second.
And on each of the first three planets, working outwards from the sun, once the ceremony’s over, the men take Val on one side to introduce him to their first and most important discovery: the local booze. By planet three he’s a mere 100,000 solar miles off course and by the last one, he’s stinking.
Except that no-one’s there. They’re all watching the thing that’s going to spell doom to the entire colony that’s racketing through space, lurching here there and everywhere (a bit like Val, really). It’s going to destroy the gravitational balance of the four existing planets, end the colony before it’s begun. Something needs to be done about it. After a bucket or two of coffee, for Val, the spatiotemporal agents set off to find out what’s going on.
And what they find is an inverted planet, a hollow earth, surrounded by a penetrable membrane that keeps its atmosphere from peeling off into space, with its sun inside, orbited by a shadow-casting moon.
It’s an old idea, dating back at least to Burroughs, but Christin and Meziere have better things to do than just come up with another barbarian wonderland. There are three peoples inside this unstable planet. The first are the Lemm. The Lemm are nomads, following the shadow of the moon, cultivating flogums, living crystalline forms that have to be quarried, jewel-like, out of the ground. The thing about flogums is that they explode, especially when thrown against things. Who wants such things? That’s the Valsennaris and the Malkans, respective occupiers of the only two cities on /in Zahir. Why should two rival peoples want exploding things? To make War, of course, an unending War. And it is the violent mass explosions of flogums that are sending Zahir careering all over the place. Why are they at War? The Lemm do not know and are not curious. They mine and sell flogums. It is their only industry, their entire economy. They could stop the War by stopping mining and selling flogums, but the Lemm are not curious about the use of flogums. They exist to mine and sell. And, like everybody else on Zahir, they do not understand the very idea of another world, because they are in the inside and cannot see out. A very intriguing situation.
So why are Valsennar and Malka at War so determinedly? A first clue might be that only men and allowed into Malka and only women are allowed into Valsennar, so Val and Laureline have to split up, not to mention dress up (Laureline loves missions where she gets to wear costumes). And indeed that clue is on the mark. Though I would have preferred something to establish why these two civilisations have become so much the diametric opposite of each other, though the people are of the same race, we very quickly get to see that the two cities exist on basically identical terms, except that in Malka the women are in charge and the men despised slaves and cattle, fit only to do all the work, get killed in battle and, only if they survive that, service the caste of women (a prospect they regard with horror and disgust) and in Valsennar it’s the men who are the privileged caste (with a decided undertone and overtone of blatant effeminacy to balance out the extreme virility of Malka’s women) and the women are despised, used and downtrodden.
One of those two states seems far less exaggerated than the other.
It’s interesting that only in Malka does Christin have the put upon men openly protesting that their ‘civilisation’ is wholesome, good and proper and the women are right to be on top, whereas the women of Valsennar merely live that way without comment, positive or negative.
So Val and Laureline each sneak into their respective targets and come to identical points, though by different courses. In keeping with the introduction of a comic mockery of his heroic posture, Val has to swim in through the sewers before getting caught up in some kind of military draft, whilst Laureline is taken for a candidate to become handmaiden to the Prince, is bathed, perfumed and dressed, fails comprehensively at all the domestic tasks but is chosen by the primped and pampered Prince for no better reason than the obvious one: she’s a shit-hot redhead.
Once they’re in, though, the route to the solution is almost too simple. Both go to the War, Val as a soldier, Laureline to look pretty. But Val makes a bid to be noticed by stealing a flier (with wings) and putting his pilot skills to use in single-handedly turning the battle until he reaches the Prince’s floater where Laureline, having gotten sick of the overall incompetence of everyone around her, has taken over the bow equivalent and shoots down the bird carrying the other side’s leading fighter before discovering it’s Val.
Once again, I have to compare their reactions – after all the whole story is built around the opposition of the genders – and note that whilst Laureline is horrified at the realisation she may have killed her partner, Val’s response is an untimely pride at the fact she must be learning from him!
Of course he gets out of it – the comic representation of the hero only goes so far – and our heroes get to communicate from private quarters that night, before late-night assignations with their respective leaders. At which they both avoid amorous encounters by knocking the poor, ugly, overweight pair out, spiriting them back to the ship and taking them up. And out.
Out into space. To show them what Zahir really is, what the Universe really is, and, most importantly, what peril they and everyone in the Ukbar system are in.
Needless to say, the whole population, Valsennari, Malkan and Lemm, work together at top speed to mine and prepare every bloody flogum they can lay their hands on before Val goes off to pull the same multi-jump flight as in the last story, albeit with fewer concerns about the effect on himself. With every flogum going off simultaneously at the properly calculated places, Zahir’s erratic progress is ended. The planet settles into a permanent place as Ukbar 5, the Zahirans work out deals with the colonists and all is well that ends well.
Except for Valerian’s hangover from sampling the home made Zahiran brew…
I enjoyed the story tremendously. It demonstrates just how well Christin and Mezieres had gotten a handle on their creation, and the richness of their imagination, especially visually. That doesn’t stop me being critical of the areas where, like writers have done since time immemorial, they try to rush us past weak spots in the story logic. Not only is Zahir saved but suddenly its citizens, men and women of centuries-old civilisations conditioned to see each gender as beneath contempt, are now marrying in droves. I know that sex and danger are powerful forces, but the advancement to equality is way too rapid.
And having the two leaders tying the knot on top of it really is a case of lobbing in a cheap and convenient wrap-up without the slightest consideration for plausibility. I mean, even I, on half a minute’s notice, could come up with a workable explanation as to why two dynastic leaders might do such a thing, and it has nothing to do with the appeal of fitting one thing inside another.
Still, such a quibble can be treated as minor in a series rapidly heading towards a sustained run of high quality. As the next story will evidence.