Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#28: Short Takes: Gerrold/Kuttner/Brackett/Petaja

I've been using the term "one-book authors" to refer to authors who made one splash -- however many other mediocre books they may have written. These ain't them. There are various reasons I don't want to spend time on the other works of the authors in this review (eg, Gerrold's are too recent and too well known, and Petaja, by this taxonomy, is more of a no-book author), but the shortage of other works is not one of those reasons.

David Gerrold is my token modern author in this review. He currently owes most of his visibility to his ongoing "War Against the Chtorr" series. ('Ongoing' may not be the word I'm looking for, except in the Looking Glass sense that the more you go on, the further you are from the end.) "The Man Who Folded Himself" (****-), however, remains his most interesting book. Its main virtue is that of cleverness -- but it's *very* clever. The basic premises are those of Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps" and, more, his "All You Zombies", but Gerrold uses the novel length of his book to really put the premise through its paces.

The logical extension of using a time machine to go back and talk to your past self is "why stop there?" Why not go back every time you want to change your mind about a past decision, for instance? Why not go back to three evenings when you had nothing to do and ask your selves if they want to play bridge? Why not kill Alexander the Great as a child -- just to see what would happen -- and then, if you don't like the results, go back and tell your former self that it's not a good idea? Gerrold takes this about as far as it can go. One of the interesting things, by the end of the book, is to realize just how few characters the book really had. "The Man Who Folded Himself" is 'idea' fiction. (Readers who enjoy this book will probably enjoy "When Harlie Was One" (***+) -- an interesting look at the creation of a sentient computer -- as well.)

As I remarked in an earlier review, distinguishing between Henry Kuttner's work and that of C.L. Moore can be a somewhat arbitrary exercise. Still, if you're looking for a book with Kuttner's name on the cover, it helps to look under 'K', rather than 'M', so I might as well be arbitrary. As I've also remarked before, the sf/f of the forties and fifties was primarily one of short stories, rather than novels. (I'm worried that in slighting the former I may be giving the impression that the novels are the "good stuff" from that period. That's not an impression I wish to give.) With those disclaimers out of the way, I'll get to my favorite Kuttner novel, "The Dark World" (***).

I'm not sure why this should be my favorite. It's not very good, by today's standards. To a large extent, though, that's because what it does in a hundred-odd pages has, in the half-century since, been redone to death in so many three-hundred-page novels and eight-hundred-page trilogies that it's retroactively banal. Edward Bond is an American who is summoned to a parallel world -- one in which the supernatural dominates. The summoning has the effect of putting him in the place of Ganelon -- his evil Dark World doppleganger, a member of the Coven which rules that world. You can fill in most of the blanks because they've been reused so often since: Pick one from column A (Celtic names, and an Arthurian tie-in), one from column B (a thin scientific patina, with what appears to be magic being explained as an effect of arcane science), one from column C (vampires and werewolves), etc. Now *forget* all those columns, pretend that you haven't read all those followup pretenders, and imagine that the story is as fresh as it actually was when it was written. It's *still* not very good by today's standards, but it's one of the best instances of pulp-style fantasy, and fun to read as such. (A better Kuttner novel, though one I enjoyed less, is "Fury" (***), which has one of the great closing lines in science fiction.)

Leigh Brackett was also writing in the forties and fifties, and many of the same comments apply. Her writing tended to owe more than Kuttner's to the pulp tradition, though, with mighty-thewed (albeit relatively bright) heroes adventuring their way across Mars or Venus or (when that became too embarrassing) other solar systems. The best of these is "The Sword of Rhiannon" (***-) -- a novel which owes nothing to Welsh myth but the name -- the adventure of an Earthman fighting his way across the seas of Mars.

"The Long Tomorrow" (***) is her conspicuous break from adventure sf/f, and it's a pity there weren't more of them. It's a post-holocaust novel: Science is blamed for the Destruction, and steps have been taken to suppress it. Society has reverted to a pioneer-era level of technology, with law and religion joining to make sure it stays there. There's talk that a hidden city of scientists, called Bartorstown, still exists, but that's religious hysteria talking, not something to be taken literally. Until Len Coulter and his cousin Esau find a radio. It doesn't work, but it does get them thinking along inappropriate lines which eventually lead them to the real Bartorstown.

What makes this book work is its lack of easy answers, black-and-white dichotomies, and pat technophilic solutions to difficult questions. The future it paints is not one in which fanatical ignorance confronts science and progress, but one in which mostly-decent people live with a legacy of fear. (Granted, fear and the occasional less-than-decent rabble rouser can make an ugly combination.) And Bartorstown itself is not so much an answer as a question: *Can* the scientific genie be controlled? The novel is a product of the fifties, a time when public fears of nuclear warfare frequently found their expression in science fiction, but it's one of the better expressions and explorations of that fear.

No city, no town, no community of more than one thousand people or two hundred buildings to the square mile shall be built or permitted to exist anywhere in the United States of America.
    --Constitution of the United States, Thirtieth Amendment

Most of Emil Petaja's science fiction was written in the sixties, fairly late in his career. It tended to run the gamut from uninspired to adequate. Of particular interest, however, is a series of sf novels based upon the Kalevala -- a mythos which has inspired surprisingly little sf/f in the English language. Well, maybe not surprising: The Finnish epic is less dramatic and less melodramatic than the more popular Norse or Greek or Celtic sources, and plays itself out upon a much smaller stage.

Each of the novels in Petaja's series focuses upon a modern (future) avatar of one of the major characters of the Kalevala. The hero of "Saga of Lost Earths" (**-) corresponds to Lemminkainen (hero, lover, rogue, a bit of a buffoon). That of "The Star Mill" (**-) corresponds to Ilmarinen, the smith. The hero of "The Stolen Sun" (**-) corresponds to Vainomoinen, who might best be characterized as a sorcerer. Each book places a man from the dystopian Earth of the future in conflict with forces believed to belong to Finnish myth. The books are not very good: Elements of the Kalevala are reinterpreted in terms of science-fictional cliches. "Tramontane" (**+), the last in the series, is somewhat better, not least because its protagonist is Kullervo -- the ill-omened jinx who didn't have the grace to drown at birth -- a character who doesn't lend himself to cliche.

None of the books in this series particularly depends on any of the others, so there's no need to read them in order. Insofar as their overall quality is concerned, there's no real need to read them at all, I suppose, but they're interesting as a window on the Kalevala -- an epic unfamiliar to most readers. (Or you could simply go to the library and borrow a copy of the Kalevala. It repays reading.)

Dani Zweig