There and Back Again

Posted by : atcampbell | On : January 16, 2001

There and Back Again by Pat Murphy

Our discussion of There and Back Again drew twelve participants. The book is a light, humorous space opera by Pat Murphy. Since Murphy is best known for serious “slipstream fiction” such as The Falling Woman, this book represents a substantial change of pace for her work. The plot of There and Back Again follows a mild-mannered man named Bailey Beldon, who joins up with a group of adventurers on a quest for the center of the galaxy.

We all found this book to be a lot of fun to read. The unlikely hero Bailey is clever at avoiding capture by slavers and pirates, even on occasion resorting to yodeling. We liked reading about a hero who was not in great shape and who preferred staying at home to exploring the galaxy. The book has delightful, larger-than-life heroes and villains. We all particularly liked the intelligent spaceship named Fluffy.

For such a light adventure, there is a surprising amount of science. The adventurers travel about the galaxy through shortcuts provided by wormholes. The mechanics of this travel and its implications are presented with much more rigor than the story demanded. Several characters in the book are clones from the same individual, and Murphy does a good job exploring the range of differences and similarities that could be expected among them. It’s not surprising that the author works at a science museum.

This book contains several literary homages. Creatures called snarks and boojums are obvious references to Lewis Carroll. The book’s title is a quote from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Several narrative elements are reminiscent of the work of Cordwainer Smith.

One controversial aspect was the closer-than-coincidental similarity of this book’s plot to The Hobbit‘s. While the references were fun, we felt that that having so many actually weakened the book. Some people might dismissThere and Back Again as a satire like Bored of the Rings, but we think that would be unfair. The themes and messages of the two are substantially different, and this book was enjoyed by people in our group who hadn’t read The Hobbit or who had read it so long ago that they’d forgotten most of it. Tolkien’s work deals with deeper issues that are more appropriate in fantasy than in a space opera setting. The strengths of There and Back Again (the science, many of the characters) have no equivalent in The Hobbit and are entirely Murphy’s creations.

Overall, There and Back Again was a fun book that prompted a lively discussion. What more could we ask for?

— A. T. Campbell, III