an early edition cover from the late 1960s
Unlike Spinrad's controversial later work, this novel is a mainstream space opera featuring space battles, faster-than-light spacedrives, and an alien enemy, the Duglaari. Some 1960s themes of sexual freedom, individual fulfillment and non-conformism appear.
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The novel takes places centuries in the future when humanity has colonized many star systems. Another race, the Duglaari or "Doogs" is slowly conquering human systems, herding the inhabitants into barren areas where they simply starve to death. The two races have approximately equal technologies, and space battles are decided by superior numbers, with the Doogs always having the advantage.
The colonists are awaiting the emergence of saviors from "Fortress Sol", the Solar System, which has been closed off to all ships since the early days of the war. Before sealing themselves off with billions of space mines and robot ships, the Solarians, as they are known to the colonists, promised to re-emerge with an answer to the numeric superiority of the Duglaari.
Returning from yet another lost system, a fleet commander called Palmer finds that a group of Solarians has contacted his superiors and wishes him to accompany them on a mission. The mission is to journey to the Duglaari home world and end the war.
Along the way, he discovers that they are different from any people he has ever known. He was raised in a hierarchical military society, where computers make all important decisions, including the conduct of battles. He is amazed that the Solarians use computers very little, relying on their innate skills to pilot spaceships, navigate, and decide on tactics. They rely on the "Organic Group", the idea that humans have individual talents allowing them naturally to adopt roles in small cohesive groups. One man, stereotypically handsome and charismatic, is Leader. Another takes the role of Gamesmaster, intuitively understanding probability and psychology. The group includes a pair of telepaths, and a mysterious woman who has no specific role, except that the Group is better with her than without. Her role is described as "Glue". Part of her job is to relax their guest and prepare him for his role, which involves offering sexual as well as spiritual comforts.
The Duglaari planets have to be approached with care, as the star-drive used to move faster than light has one deadly side effect. Used too close to a star, it will cause the star to explode. For this reason, star systems are defended by ships which tend to shoot first and ask questions later. In addition, star-ships have to be small as the FTL field cannot be more than a hundred meters in diameter, putting them at a disadvantage against defensive ships in a system.
Skilfully manipulating the Duglaari psychology, the Solarians gain access to the home world and are taken to see the ruler, who seems to be no more than the mouthpiece for a huge computer system. In appearance the Duglaari are roughly humanoid except for large eyes, fur, and bat-wing ears which move to express emotion. It seems that long ago a Duglaari leader imposed his vision of a uniform, computer-controlled society on the rest of his race, with the effect of breeding Duglaari who most resemble the long-dead dictator in their psychology. Palmer is struck by how much his people have come to resemble the Duglaari because of the war, and how different the Solarians are.
For the conference, the Solarians insisted that Palmer dress in a costume they supplied. This is a comic-opera military uniform festooned with gold braid, ribbons and medals. Palmer feels ridiculous, especially compared to the Solarians, who have dressed in costumes of uniform black with only a sunburst emblem on the left breast. He compares them to priests of some dark cult.
To Palmer's horror, at the conference the Solarians seem to betray the colonists, boasting that Sol can never be conquered, that weapons capable of destroying the Duglaari will soon be created, but that the Solarians wish to be left alone. They offer to sacrifice the colonies as tribute. The Duglaari ruler responds that they must surrender and cease developing weapons. The Solarians arrogantly refuse. Then the Duglaari ruler announces that by gathering most of Duglaar's fleet together they can overwhelm even Sol's defences, neutralizing the threat. It only remains to liquidate the humans who have brought the matter to the attention of the Duglaari empire.
The Solarians announce that unless they are allowed to leave, a nuclear device on their ship will destroy the city. The Duglaari do not believe them, since they had thoroughly scanned and searched the ship. However their instruments now show that the threat is real. In fact it is an illusion projected by the telepaths.
The ship is allowed to lift off with a Duglaari escort, positioned so that if the Solarians tried to activate their star drive, they would have a 50% chance of being destroyed, and likewise if the Duglaari chose to attack, they would have a 50% chance of failing to stop the Solarians causing the sun to explode. Thus neither side has an incentive to break the truce. However Palmer spots a weakness in the scheme: once their ship reaches the point where they can safely use the FTL drive, the Duglaari can also safely launch an attack on them, and if they fail they do not risk their homeworld. Despite his disgust with the Solarians he is able to use a trick employed to disengage from fleet actions to allow them to escape. He then retreats to his cabin, hating the Solarians and all they stand for.
The Solarians take Palmer to Fortress Sol, behind all its defenses, and tour the system so he can see Earth for the last time. The Duglaari fleet arrives and penetrates the defences, unleashing massive bombardments that destroy all the habitable planets. When all seems lost, a stardrive in a ship on Mercury is activated, and Sol explodes, annihilating the Doog fleet. Suddenly the Solarian scheme becomes clear to Palmer. By goading the Doogs into risking a large part of the fleet, they have destroyed so many ships that from now on, the colonists will always have the advantage. Palmer's humiliation was a necessary part of the deception. He believes that Earth sacrificed itself to save the colonies. He is wrong in one detail, however.
In the final chapter, it is revealed that humanity had evacuated the Solar System and is traveling between the stars in massive Space Arks. Faster than light ships cannot be larger than a certain size, but the Arks, proceeding slower than light, can be as big as necessary. In a matter of a few decades, they will reach Alpha Centauri and humanity will reunite to defeat the Duglaari. In addition, with Earth destroyed they will cease looking back to the home world and will conquer the galaxy.