Ah, T-machines! A.k.a. portals, star-gates, wormholes, etc. If you enter them via the carefully-placed guidance beacons (placed there by the mysterious "Others"), you will come out at a pre-selected, terra-compatible planet many light years away.
But if you enter it haphazardly, as the spaceship Chinook and her crew did (the alternative was to be obliterated by rapidly-approaching missiles), you will come out at any one of thousands of other time-space points. And the odds of you ever finding your way back to present-day Earth are ...ahem... astronomical.
What's To Like...
The Avatar is a nice blend of space opera and "hard" science fiction. Poul Anderson held a degree in Physics, so it is not surprising that he works a lot of Quantum Mechanics into the story. Which is timely, given that I just got done watching a 4-part PBS/Nova special ("The Fabric of the Cosmos", hosted by Brian Greene) on that subject.
Being part Space Opera means that there are lots of worlds to visit, some of which have strangely different life-forms. It also means there is lots of sex. Too much sex. Free love with lots of partners. Poul either was writing out his own fantasies, or else those of the teenage boys that would presumably be his target audience.
The crew of the Chinook are interesting enough - there's the rugged captain, a "hippie" first mate (with emphasis on "mate"), a holothete (huh?), etc. Most interesting of all is the alien ("Betan") dubbed Fidelio, who is there as an emissary to try to understand human beings. The book cover captures his description nicely.
Finally, it's nice to have to deal with alien races that are actually more advanced than us.
Kewlest New Word...
Sophont : an alien being, with a base reasoning capacity roughly equivalent to or greater than that of humans.
"You're being a government, Aurie," he remarked. When she gave him an inquiring glance, he explained, "The single definition of government I've ever seen that makes sense is that it's the organization which claims the right to kill people who won't do what it wants."
He could have gone on to admit that he was oversimplifying, since she was obviously acting on behalf of a group whose own behavior might well be unlawful, but he didn't think it was worth his while. (pgs. 27-28)
"We could stay here, in spin mode and a wide orbit," Weisenberg suggested. "Apparently we've a reasonable chance that a ship will come in before we starve. I daresay her civilization can synthesize food for us and won't mind doing that. Her crew won't be able to guide us home, but doubtless we could live out quite interesting lives on her planet of origin."
"Are you serious, Phil?" Caitlin asked.
"No. I have a family. I did think one of us ought to state the case for remaining." (pg. 331)
"Ever heard of Occam's razor? I've shaved with it from time to time." (pg. 26)
All the trappings in The Avatar are well-done. Unfortunately, the crux of any science fiction novel is its storyline, and that's a major weakenss here.
First off, the pacing sucks. The book's more than half done before we enter the first T-machine. That's way too long of an introduction. Then we visit some really neat new worlds and times, but without any advancing of the plot until there's only 50 pages left, at which point we still have no idea why this is called The Avatar. We finish off with an ending that is unconvincing and feels rushed.
One gets the feeling Anderson was more interested in preaching his libertarian politicial views here than creating a compelling sci-fi story. I still enjoyed this book, mostly for the "hard science fiction" it presented. But if Quantum Physics isn't your shtick, you might give this a pass. 5½ Stars.