Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#12: Misc.2: Gunn/Jameson/Rocklynne: Fixup Novels

I'm again taking the liberty of grouping a number of authors from whose work I only intend to review one or two books. This isn't to imply that these authors didn't write anything else, or even that they didn't write anything else worth reading. (Well, okay, it does imply that I wasn't sufficiently inspired to review any other novels these authors may have written...)

"The Immortals" (***), by James Gunn, is a fixup novel consisting of linked short stories written in the late fifties. It begins when a blood transfusion cures a man who is dying of old age -- cures him of his final illness and cures him of his age, as well. The cure lasts a month, after which he reverts to his original age. By this time, word has leaked out that, somewhere, there is a man whose blood can keep you immortal -- if you tap it often enough. A massive long-term manhunt ensues. (The manhunt, with the science-fictional elements washed out, became the focus of the uninspired television show.)

The succeeding stories are weaker than the first one. Paralleling the hunt for the immortals, and partially catalyzed by it, is the development over subsequent generations of a medical dystopia, in which health -- and even immortality, through monthly transfusions from a few immortals unlucky enough to have been caught -- are available only to the few, at tremendous cost. One of the quirks of this book is that the almost-obligatory scene in which the ethics of this high-tech vampirism are debated never appears.The 'debate' is carried out in successive stories, through the medium of personal action and choice. For all that the medical-dystopia/social-collapse elements of the book weaken its initial focus, it remains an enjoyable read. Of Gunn's other books, I liked "The Magicians" (**+) well enough, but thought the rest nothing special.

"Bullard of the Space Patrol" (***), a fixup novel by Malcolm Jameson, is a forerunner of what was to become a large number of Hornblowers in space. (It was also one of my favorite books in the junior high library, so there's a sentimental attachment.) The stories are very much early-golden-age gimmick-fiction. Each has John Bullard, an officer -- later captain -- of a space patrol rocket ship, coming up with some clever plan or device for getting his ship out of trouble. (If the trouble is almost always the result of incompetence or venality at higher levels, well, that's typical of the times.) The stories are also typical in their shallowness, in that there is no effort at the sort of worldbuilding we expect today even in sloppy stories: The plot elements required to set up the problem, be they a space war or space pirates or even a den of space iniquity, exist in a vacuum. (No pun intended. In part, that vacuum would have been filled by a context which the writer and readers shared and we do not, as it is not unreasonable to read some of the stories as wish-fulfillment fantasies for a country at war.) For all their weaknesses, I loved these stories back when, and can still appreciate their appeal.

My favorite of the Bullard stories -- also the last one, appearing in the April 1944 issue of Astounding -- is "The Bureaucrat", in which Bullard only has a small but important role. The son of an old shipmate approaches Bullard (now chief of the Patrol), asking to be assigned to any ship but the one on which he's stuck. (There's a war going on, and a number of shirkers with connections have arranged for that ship to be assigned to a useless but safe task. 1944, remember.) Bullard tells him, formally, that he is unable to intervene directly in such a matter. He does, however, issue an inoccuous-looking bureaucratic directive, and slowly a noose made of red tape begins to tighten around the shirkers. There were two hardcover editions of "Bullard of the Space Patrol", and one of them is missing "The Bureaucrat". I don't believe there was a paperback edition.

"The Sun Destroyers" (***), by Ross Rocklynne, consists of four stories written in the forties and early fifties, and subsequently massaged into a single volume. Its protagonists aren't human. In fact, they're energy creatures thirty million miles in diameter. As 'children', they disrupt stars and planetary systems in their play. After enough millions, or tens of millions, of years pass they get bored. Eventually they mate; eventually they die. It's a purposeless existence, for all it's enormous scale, and a very few of them worry about that.

Each of the four stories tells the tale of one of the unhappy few. The first is Darkness, who is obssessed by intergalactic space, and finds a way to cross it before he dies. The second is his mad daughter, Sun Destroyer, who makes the crossing in the opposite direction before *she* dies. The third is her son, Vanguard, who is warped because of his mother's premature death, and becomes the forerunner of a different kind of energy being. The last story is the story of Oldster, who avoids his death for billions of years, and who plays a part in the lives of Darkness, Sun Destroyer, and Vanguard. "The Sun Destroyers" is an oddly effective book, featuring beings who are related to humanity only in the absolute basics: They're born, they die, and they want it to mean something.

Rocklynne wrote a number of other stories, a couple of them excellent. He is also the author of the anthology "The Men and the Mirror" (***-), which is a collection of six of his 'problem' stories, mostly from the thirties. ('Problem' stories are sf short stories which exist solely as an excuse to introduce a scientific puzzle or concept.) Three of these feature Jack Colbie, of the Interplanetary Police, and Edward Deverel, interplanetary criminal. The pattern is for Colbie to be chasing Deverel, and for both of them to be caught in some trap which requires a dose of scientific reasoning to escape. (Rocklynne states in his introduction to the anthology that two of the other three stories were Colbie-and-Deverel stories for which he had to change the names before they could be published. The last story was written mainly to correct a major scientific blooper in the first story -- one which will be obvious to anyone who's had a freshman physics course.) The best of these stories is the title story, "The Men and the Mirror" (***), which also appears in Asimov's excellent anthology "Before the Golden Age": Colbie and Deverel land on a planet whose entire top has been scooped out and polished into a mirror, hundreds of miles across, and somehow fall into it. (You see what I mean about the story existing just to set up the problem?) The problem here is how to get out again, given that they are on an almost frictionless concave surface. (I won't give away the solution which Rocklynne actually uses, but I believe that it is actually impractical, by virtue of generating too much stress.)

(This is the paragraph where I sum up, or draw connections between, the books I've discussed, but in this case all they really have in common is that they're collected from a time when a sequence of short stories was more salable than a novel, so I sha'n't.)

Dani Zweig