Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#30: Short Takes on Friedberg/Lang/Harness/Wilson

Some oddballs in this batch:

"The Revolving Boy" (***), by Gertrude Friedberg (1966) is one of the best proofs I know that there is no premise so unpromising that it can't be redeemed by good writing. Derv Nagy is a boy born with an absolute sense of orientation. If, by the end of a long day, his activities have caused him to make fifty left turns and forty-two right turns (to take an example), he'll be aware of the fact, and the deficit will nag at him until he compensates by making two full turns clockwise. It's an almost useless talent, and despite its one brush with destiny it *remains* an almost useless talent, but Friedberg somehow manages to make it the pivot of a charming, low-key science fiction novel. Which surely goes to show something.

"All the Gods of Eisernon" (***+), by Simon Lang (1973), is an object lesson in knowing when to stop writing. The planet Eisernon is an old space power which, half a century earlier, lost a war with Earth, and is now nominally an ally. When another power, Krail, invades, Earth's navy 'defends' Eisernon -- a cure at least as bad as the disease. Eisernon's most important remaining asset, did it know it, is Dao Marik, possibly the last of the race of telepaths who once ruled the planet. Political considerations, however, cause him to be assigned as an officer on the Earth spaceship Skipjack. None of which tells you whether the book is dull formula space opera or well enough written to leave you wishing formore. In fact, the latter is true. It's space opera, but it's very well written space opera that left me wishing for more.

The bad news is that I got my wish: There are sequels. The first sequel, "The Elluvon Gift" (***) is more than readable. I came away thinking of it as "Startrek done right" -- with Dao Marik a more interesting interpretation of a role functionally equivalent to that of Star Trek's Spock. Then came "The Trumpets of Tagan" (*+), which wasn't very good, and "Timeslide" (*), which is probably one of the worst novels I've read in the past couple of years. I understand that Ace is planning on more sequels. Given the consistent decline in an initially good space opera, this seems to constitute defoliating the lily.

Charles L. Harness was always fond of time loops and time paradoxes, and all his books that I've read feature them in one form or another. (I should clarify that his books are almost never *about* time loops. Those are plot elements that generally become visible late in the story.) The best known of these novels is probably "The Paradox Men" (***, aka "Flight IntoYesterday", 1953). The time is two centuries in the future, and the world is on the brink of nuclear self-destruction. Not that it couldn't use some housecleaning -- society has advanced technologically but regressed socially and politically. Government is in the hands of thugs, and the only real 'opposition' is an organization known as the Society of Thieves. One of theSociety's members, Alar, has vast mental powers -- and no memory of his past. The explanation turns out to involve a time paradox which *might* save the world from blowing itself away.

Is it worth reading? Well, the writing is dated. There's a cover blurb describing it as "[lively] fantasy melodrama", which is not unfair. Most of the story is only in place to make the central plot devices work out. They're interesting plot devices, though, and if you have a taste for the better sf period-pieces, this is a good place to indulge it. If you try the book and like it, you should enjoy "The Ring of Ritornel" (***+), which is less ...memorable... but better written.

"The Mind Parasites" (***+, 1967) represents one of Colin Wilson's relatively few forays into sf/f. Wilson set out to write a Lovecraft pastiche, and failed. While the debt to Lovecraft is obvious, the elements that are uniquely Wilson's are too prominent -- but though the book fails as a pastiche, it does nicely on its own merits. The title reveals the premise: The human race is host to malignant psychic parasites who labor to keep humanity at too squalid a level to realize that it is being parasitized. People who get too close to the truth are induced to commit suicide. If someone makes enough progress to resist, other people can be manipulated to do the job. "The Mind Parasites" tells what happens when a number of scientists learn the truth and set out to resist.

I enjoyed it -- a good mix of silliness, melodrama, and genuine if abstract horror. It has its weaknesses, including an occasional tendency towards parody and self-parody, but for once a cover blurb describing abook as a "novel in the great H.P. Lovecraft tradition" is telling the truth. Readers who enjoy this book might look for "The Space Vampires" (**+), which attacks the topic of vampirism with much the same sort of tongue-in-cheek erudition (by which I don't mean to imply that Wilson plays either novel for laughs).

As I wrote at the start, an oddball bunch -- good novels to pick up in a used book store.

Dani Zweig