Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#27: Misc 6: SF by Knight/MacDonald/Leinster

As SF novelists, Knight, Leinster and MacDonald are all somewhere in the third tier. In a sense that's not fair: The novels in this review are mostly from the fifties, when the short story dominated. For most of Leinster's career, the short story was practically all there was. Knight's gifts showed to better effect in his work as an editor and a critic, and most of MacDonald's novels are mysteries, not sf. So why am I bothering? Because these authors weren't always in the third tier.

Damon Knight's best-known work is probably the short story, "To Serve Man" (***+), which appeared in 1950 and subsequently made the transition to tv.(It's a gimmick story, and too spoiler-prone to discuss, but if you haven't read it, you probably want to seek it out.) In terms of sf history, he is more significant as an editor and a critic -- an important force behind the transition to competent writing in the genre. He only wrote a few novels, two of which stand out. At least, they stood out in the forty years ago.

"Hell's Pavement" (***) is a half-satirical novel placed in a future in which almost everyone is mind-controlled. It starts with good intentions: You can condition killers not to kill, you can condition public servants not to accept bribes, you can condition brawlers not to brawl. By the twenty-second century everyone is conditioned to be a good citizen, though the definition of good citizenship may differ from one place to another. For example, some conglomerates, early on, legally paid consumers generously to accept conditioning not to buy from their competitors. The descendents of those consumers are still effectively 'owned' by those conglomerates. To top it off, a few people are secretly Immune to the conditioning, which gives them the tremendous advantage of being able to think and do the 'impossible'. By the time of this novel, the whole unstable system is on the brink of collapse.

"A For Anything" (***-) has a lot in common with "Hell's Pavement". It also starts with a gadget -- in this case a matter duplicator known, not inappropriately, as a Gismo. And it also starts with good intentions: Properly used (especially since we're not worrying about conservation of mass or energy here), the Gismo could end poverty. Incautiously introduced -- as it is -- it's more likely to bring the economy to a crashing halt. In the world Knight projects, that leaves only one kind of wealth that is meaningful -- servants ...or slaves. (I'm leaving out complications here. For instance, the Gismo will also duplicate people.)

"Hell's Pavement" (aka "The Analogue Men") and "A For Anything" are both science fiction of the same old school: Posit a gadget, work through the implications, and write a story set in the resulting society. (Note that this is a giant step up from the earlier paradigm of "posit a gadget and tell the reader how it works.") "A For Anything" is the weaker of the two, both because the society doesn't seem to follow reasonably from the premise and because most of the implications of the Gismo are ignored. Still, both these books are among the better novels from near the end of the period in which an sf novel could get by on a clever idea.

John D. MacDonald is the author of the better part of a hundred novels and Lord knows how many hundreds of short stories (okay, his bibliographers probably know as well), mostly in the mystery genre, and is best known for his "Travis McGee" novels. His forays into science fiction -- mostly in the nineteen-fifties -- are relatively few, but interesting.

"Ballroom of the Skies" (***) is also a mystery, in a sense, but on a larger scale than those of Travis McGee: The mystery is why the world is such a mess. As the novel progresses, we see parts of the answer. There is a secret organization dedicated to keeping the pot boiling. Using telepathic powers and impossibly high technology, it sabotages peace conferences, nurtures paranoia, and murders people who are in a position to do too much good. Strangely enough, this organization is in mortal conflict with another, similar organization, which is dedicated to the same goals. Dake Loring begins to discover this when the man for whom he works -- who was making genuine progress towards world peace -- suddenly sabotages his own negotiations. The novel follows Loring as he learns the secret, and then learns what lies behind it. "Ballroom of the Skies" has probably aged better than any of the other books in the current review: It creaks a bit, but it still holds up in its own right.

"Wine of the Dreamers" (***-, also published as "Planet of the Dreamers") addresses the same question as "Ballroom of the Skies" -- the question of why the world is such a mess -- and presents an even more paranoic answer. The world of the Dreamers is old and decadent, and its few inhabitants are able to mechanically project their perceptions to other worlds, and thought-control their inhabitants. Since they think the other worlds to be artifacts of their dreams, they are not inhibited about acting out their ugliest impulses through the people they control, and account for the worst of the world's senseless violence. This book wasn't as good asBallroom to start with, partly because in this case the violence and misery in this case *doesn't* have a compensating motivation, partly because the resolution is psychologically unconvincing.

MacDonald also wrote a good number of sf short stories, some of the best (i.e., good but not special) of which are collected in "Other Times, Other Worlds", and a novel titled "The Girl, the Gold Watch, and Everything", which is borderline classifiable as science fiction.

Murray Leinster (Will Jenkins) goes back a good deal further than Knight or MacDonald. He began writing sf in 1919, and established himself as apopular sf writer of that period. (His most influential story from that period may be "Sideways in Time" (***-), an early story of parallel worlds and alternate histories.) Leinster was one of the few to successfully make the leap into the Golden Age, continuing to publish well into the sixties. The timing is still such, though, that most of his work appeared in the form of short stories. The best of those are clever, but dated. Most of his novels, unfortunately, do not read well today, tending to come across as bad space adventure. The books which still read *relatively* well include:

"The Planet Explorer" (***). This is a fixup novel consisting of four 'problem' stories. In each story, Bordman, a senior Colonial Survey officer, has to come up with clever technical solution to a problem which threatens to make a colony uninhabitable. Actually, three of them are problem stories. The one which is not, "Combat Team" (I've also seen it titled "Exploration Team"), won the Hugo award for best novella of 1956. It's also the story I like least of the four. Oh well. The sf problem story is a relic of a phase which has largely passed -- but it can still be fun to read.

"Operation: Outer Space" (***-) mixes space adventure and satire. When a scientific breakthrough makes faster-than-light travel possible, it is a television team that is in a position to take advantage of it: Finding themselves on the first interstellar flight, on a ship with a working communications link to Earth, they proceed to make interstellar flight a PR success. Their adventures are relayed to Earth, where they appear on prime time and bring in tremendous advertising revenues. They sell interests in the planets they discover. They appeal to the cupidity of their audience, and in so doing make interstellar travel a real success. Satire, being necessarily topical, tends to age rapidly, and this book shows its age. Still, it was enjoyable fluff then, and it's not bad fluff now.

Most of Leinster's novels of this time seem to have been aimed at the traditional sf audience of teenaged boys. Some of these are actively painful to read today, including his "Space Platform" (*) trilogy (which is interesting for its vision of space travel as a massive government effort, rather than Kitty-Hawk-level private tinkering). Among his better lightspace adventures are "The Pirates of Zan" (**+) and "Space Captain" (**+).

The novels in this review were well received -- in some cases very well received -- forty-odd years ago. Today, in terms of contemporary science fictiondom, they are half-forgotten works of half-forgotten authors. They reflect concerns and stereotypes of half a lifetime ago, and they were written in a period when science fiction was just starting to mend its tradition of Bad Writing. But they *were* well received in their time. Today? I'd suggest reading "Ballroom of the Sky" if it seemed interesting, and other MacDonald books only if Ballroom particularly impresses you. The Knight novels fall more into the "historical interest" category, though some readers might find "Hell's Pavement" worth a look. The Leinster novels fare both better and worse: They've aged better than most of the others, largely by virtue of having been less ambitious to begin with. Bear in mind that most of the novels discussed here are in the150-odd page range, so if you spot them on the shelves, casual curiosity won't cost you much time.

Dani Zweig
"You have the reputation of being one of the nicest guys in the field. We both know you're a hyena on its hind legs. How have you fooled everyone?" "By keeping my mouth shut when I read garbage" -- Gene Wolfe