Barry B. Longyear's "Circus World" (***, on an uncalibrated four-point scale) has the sort of premise that looks promising on paper, but rarely lives up to that promise. This is one of those rare times. The premise is that a circus starship -- City of Baraboo -- crashed on an isolated planet, marooning the survivors. In the centuries that followed, the passengers and their descendents maintained and improved their circus traditions and skills. By the time the planet Momus is rediscovered, it has fortune tellers who can really see the future (or at least the patterns which are forming the future), it has magicians who can really do magic (or, if it's not magic, it'll do until a closer approximation comes along), it has clowns who can leave an invading army rolling in the aisles with laughter (or, if not rolling in the aisles, at least seriously amused).
This is a good thing because, as the book opens, there's an army on the way. Two, in a sense, as the Tenth Quadrant means to occupy Momus and the Ninth Quadrant means to defend it. Ashly Allenby is sent as a special ambassador to persuade the government of Momus to accept NQ defenders before the TQ attackers show up. Unfortunately, Momus hasn't got a government, just a body of circus custom. And even if there were one, it wouldn't be likely to pay much attention to an ambassador who hasn't got a decent act.
The six stories that make up "Circus World" introduce us to this world and, at the same time, introduce the encroaching galaxy to Momus. This encroachment bring opportunity -- if nothing else, the inhabitants will finally have an audience aside from each other -- but only if Momus can survive the initial encounters. It's an enjoyable enough book, with a quirky premise that isn't allowed to degenerate into a running gag. "Circus World" was Longyear's first novel. It's a fixup, in that it consists of stories which previously appeared in magazines, but they were explicitly written to form a six-part novel.
There are two prequels, not quite as good as "Circus World". "City of Baraboo" (**) tells how the last circus on Earth, O'Hara's Greater Shows, is driven off Earth by bad times, and tours space until the enmity of a competitor leads to the crash on Momus. It's weaker than "Circus World", mostly because the story it has to tell has no center. We read about the trials and tribulations of an interstellar circus, and they're only moderately interesting.
"Elephant Song" (**+), which tells of the first years on Momus, has a very powerful center -- the struggle to keep the circus's small herd of elephants alive. This central metaphor is diluted somewhat by Longyear's efforts to explain how the more unlikely customs and talents in "Circus World" got their start.
I wouldn't read these books in chronological order: If you read and enjoy "Circus World", pick up "Elephant Song" and possibly "City of Baraboo".
Badnews frowned. "I've never seen one before, Great Warts, although I've read of them in the Books. Was that a rube?"
%A Longyear, Barry B.
%T Circus World
%O The stories appeared in Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine in 1978 and 1979
%T City of Baraboo
%D 1980%T Elephant Song
%I The publication dates given are for the Berkley paperbacks
Dani Zweig email@example.com