The Watcher, Jane Palmer (1986)
Review by Ian Sales
The Ojalie are hermaphroditic winged aliens who subsist on the light of one of their planet’s two suns. They are an advanced race, and now pool the light of the sun to feed them when it’s not in the sky. Except an energy vampire, a Star Dancer, has recently appeared and begun draining the energy pools, threatening the Ojalie with extinction. Controller Opu investigates, and discovers that the Star Dancer originates on a planet on the other side of the galaxy. The Ojalie cannot travel through space, and galactic law prevents them from directly interfering in the affairs of another planet. So instead they send an android using an experimental technique, via the home world of an aquatic race, to the Star Dancer’s planet… which happens to be Earth.
The transference technique is not perfect, and the android arrives over a century before the appearance of the Star Dancer. This at least gives it time to figure out how things are on Earth… which it does by means of four human agents who, in the late nineteenth century were shipwrecked off the southern coast of England. Their lifeboat was dragged into a cave in some cliffs, where they were discovered by the alien android, the Kybion. Rather than kill them to keep its existence secret, it chose to co-opt them into its scheme. It made them very long-lived, fitted them internally with transponders which allowed it to track their movements, and fitted one, a young man called Toby, with a transmitter which would attract the Star Dancer.
Flash forward to 1986. Teenage orphan Gabrielle, who, despite her name, is of Indian parentage, has travelled to the south coast after completing her A-levels to house sit for her foster father’s sister. One morning, while exploring the surrounding countryside, she spots a young man staring out to sea. She asks around and discovers that he’s something of a mystery, and not quite as young as he appears. So she approaches him, learns his name is Alfred Tobias Wendle, and the two become friends of a sort.
Wendle, of course, is Victorian Toby, now over one hundred years old but still looking the same age as when he was shipwrecked. He has not left the area since that date – he is, after all, the bait in the trap for the Star Dancer. The other three, however, went off and made their fortunes, and they now think the Star Dancer could be used – by them, of course – as an excellent source of sellable energy. But first, all four have to discover what, or who, the Star Dancer is. Gabrielle finds herself involved with the group when Wendle is kidnapped by one of his fellow immortals, and tortured to to see if he has learned the secret of the Star Dancer…
The title of the book refers to a galactic, or perhaps universal, entity who enforces the Law, a series of symbols, to which all sentient races are beholden. The Watcher was once a Star Dancer itself, and the Star Dancer causing the Ojalie so much grief – unconsciously, it transpires – will on mastering its powers become a Watcher too. But this is sort of tacked on at the end of the novel and has no real bearing on the actual plot.
There are some sf novels which seem to deploy genre tropes with all the logic of a four-year-old. There’s nothing at all convincing about the Ojalie, their view of the galaxy, or indeed the secret of the Star Dancer. However, much of The Watcher is set on Earth and is about Gabrielle, and while it may read a little YA at times, those sections are quite fun in places. The back-cover blurb of The Watcher describes it as “another joyous send up of the sf genre”, though I found it hard to see precisely how it was doing so. A satire – another word used by the publishers – should satirise something. And treating sf tropes with a willful lack of rigour or sense does not in my mind constitute either a send up or satire.