"The Void Captain's Tale" is one of those alternately frustrating and rewarding books that leaves you intrigued by the imaginative ideas in the fiction but somewhat disappointed it did not amount to more.
Basically, this is an ingenious narrative with a simple plot twist about what happens when an individual's personal morality clashes with his professional duties and the ethics of society. As such, it works best when Spinrad stays focused on the internal conflict between (and within) Captain Genro Kane Gupta and Void Pilot Dominique Alia Wu, and the latter's attempt to seduce Gupta into betraying his own command for the sake of exploring what they both believe is the destiny of their souls.
The ultimate test comes when Gupta must decide whether to send the starship Dragon Zephyr on a Blind Jump through the universe to learn the secrets of what lies beyond the Great and Only Unknown (and thereby risk the lives of all on board), or to deny Wu and himself the fulfillment of their mutual heart's desire. Because Spinrad cleverly postulates the idea of a stardrive based on the power of female orgasm to complete a Jump Circuit, sex is necessarily an important factor in moving the ship (and the story) forward.
However, this is much more of an intellectual journey than an erotic passage, and the author tends to emphasize the philosophical quest of Gupta and Wu at the expense of examining their emotions or physical chemistry together. A hot and sweaty description of intimate encounters it is not.
Instead, on the one hand, Gupta is confronted with the chance to unravel the mystery of our species' existence in time and space. On the other, he faces the potentially terrifying consequences of placing his ego above his conscience. The conclusion he reaches, and the choice he makes, is the engine that advances the plot. And although Spinrad introduces some interesting secondary characters along the way (most notably Lorenza Kareen Patali, the ship's cultural hostess, and Maddhi Boddhi Clear, a dissolute seeker of truth), "The Void Captain's Tale" is essentially about the dramatic tension between following one's dreams versus mastering one's fate.
This is the sixth Norman Spinrad novel I've read, and if it isn't as creative and finely nuanced as "Little Heroes" or "Pictures At 11," it isn't as dense and dull as "Child of Fortune" or "The Mind Game" either. Spinrad's fondness for metaphysical transcendentalism and polyglot psychobabble is still here, but it isn't as annoying or pretentious, and his storytelling style is far more disciplined. Furthermore, in spite of his occasionally awkward dialogue and tedious exposition, he often manages to produce prose that borders on pure poetry. Take this line, for instance:
"... And so our spirits touch in exile in this shadow realm ... and comfort each other as best they can."
"From nothing are we born, to nothing do we go; the universe we know is but the void looped back upon itself, and form is but illusion's final veil."
No, it isn't brilliant, inspired writing, but it does work well enough most of the time to get its point across. Throughout the more prosaic parts of the book, Spinrad drops lots of such tiny literary gems and nuggets that will leave you re-reading them with a serendipitous sense of appreciation for his lovely, lyrical turns of phrase or sudden glimpses of insight. In other words, if you're looking for a suspenseful potboiler or page-turner, "The Void Captain's Tale" is probably not what you want. But if you are in the mood to stretch your concept of science fiction past the genre's typical fascination with technology over humanity, this is a novel that will offer you something different, unexpected, and worthwhile.