Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Damon Knight and The Tomorrow People by Judith Merrill

Yesterday I did a little research on famous SF writer and editor Damon Knight, after reading his feeble story, "World Without Children."  I learned at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction that Knight wrote many reviews of SF work, but ceased doing so after "The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction declined to print a negative response to Judith Merril – the review of The Tomorrow People (1960)."   This rang a bell with me, because I read The Tomorrow People in 2007 and thought it was terrible.  I tracked down the review at the Drake University Library (it appears in the 1967 edition of In Search of Wonder, pages 104-105) and sure enough, Knight shows no mercy.

It is nice to see that Damon and I are seeing eye to eye on something.
    
Below I have pasted my February 21, 2007 Amazon review of Judith Merril's The Tomorrow People.  While Knight comes right out and says the science in the book is "a shambles" and that it is too feminine, comparing it to a saccharine woman's magazine, I ignore any science mistakes (I don't know much science myself, and I'm sure the science in the books I love is horrible) and only hint that The Tomorrow People reads like a book written by a female for females. 

Don't be fooled by the positive blurb from Fred Pohl (Merril's husband) on the cover of the 1968 paperback edition of The Tomorrow People; this book is incredibly slow and painfully dull.

Written in 1960, it depicts 1977, a year after the Soviet Union and the United States have each sent a rocket to Mars. Only the American rocket came back and only one of its two crew members came back with it. What happened to the rest of the astronauts is a mystery, and truth drugs, hypnosis, and psychotherapy are unable to get the answer out of the one surviving astronaut, Johnny Wendt.

This is a good foundation for a story, but after setting the above scene in a few pages the reader wades through 150 pages of poorly-written soap opera stuff; can Wendt beat his alcoholism? Is his girlfriend cheating on him? Why does Wendt's girlfriend refuse to marry him? Can Wendt be convinced by the space agency to go on another space mission? Will that up and coming politician hurt the space agency's budget? Lots and lots of long boring conversations in which people look for subtle clues about each other's psychological states and try to manipulate each other; about as thrilling as a staff meeting at your office or Thanksgiving with your extended family.

In the last 40 pages or so of this 192 page novel the story slowly comes back to life, and evolves into a forgettable utopian tale about how the Martians can teach Earthmen to love each other, how to use telepathy, and how to access a non-polluting, infinitely renewable, energy source.

The 42 page hippy story was worth two stars, just barely, but the 150 pages of mind-numbing conversations make this one of the biggest duds of all time.

2 comments:

  1. I just discovered this gem (it came out "this month"), and I'm glad I'm not alone in my opinion. I'm sorry damonknight lost his gig for being honest.

    Here's my review: http://galacticjourney.org/?p=414

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    1. I liked your review. I can still remember how disappointed I was when the cool premises of The Tomorrow People went nowhere for page after page after page.

      I don't think I've made the connection before, but my feelings about The Tomorrow People are similar to my feelings about Rogue Moon by Algis Budrys, that the cool premise is obscured by lots of weak soap opera jazz.

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