Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Proscription List #1: Dickson, Lymington, Smith, Chase

As all you classical scholars know, during the crisis of the late Republic, the winners of a Roman civil war would publish a list, a proscription, of all the people they wanted killed, either because those people were seen as opponents of the new regime or because the winners of the civil war wanted their money.

As someone of limited means and with limited bookshelf space, I have decided to sell eight of my SF paperbacks to Half Price Books. These are books which I will never read again; none of them have covers I am in love with, either. Today I will archive here my Amazon reviews for three of them, Dickson’s Mission to Universe, Lymington’s Ten Million Years to Friday, and Smith’s The Galaxy Primes, and a review of Chase’s The Game of Fox and Lion I found on my hard drive but which I never posted anywhere.

In the near future I will post notes as to why the other four victims are getting the axe.

Mission to Universe by Gordon R. Dickson

Gordon R. Dickson's "Mission to Universe" has a good plot, and effectively conveys to the reader a tone of tension and tragedy. The crew of Earth's first interstellar ship consists not of disciplined military men or experienced astronauts, but a bunch of civilian scientists and technicians, and their commander, a scientist himself, not only has to whip them into shape but has to learn, on the job, how to lead. Dickson's focus is on the terrible danger of their mission, to find planets suitable for colonization by the people of an Earth on the brink of nuclear war, and the tragic costs, physical and psychological, paid by the members of the crew.

Unfortunately, the novel doesn't really come alive until the last third or so. Relationships which are so important to the end of the book are barely touched on in the first half, or so it seemed to me. I also didn't care for Dickson's writing style; it reminded me of Poul Anderson's, cold and totally lacking in any kind of distinctive flavor or character. A book with the tragic tone and exciting plot of "Mission to Universe," but written by someone with a good writing style, like a Jack Vance or a Gene Wolfe, could have been a masterpiece.

"Mission to Universe" has problems, but the emotionally grueling final third makes up for them, and I feel able to recommend it to classic SF fans. 

Ten Million Years to Friday by John Lymington

Ten Million Years to Friday has a plot with much in common with an H. P. Lovecraft type story: an eccentric scientist figures out a way to look into the distant past, and discovers an incredibly ancient, incredibly large and incredibly powerful alien being lies dormant deep underground, near an abandoned mine in Cornwall. The alien is waking up, and its psychic emanations can be felt by some human beings.

To this is added the anti-military-industrial complex sensibility we have seen so often, perhaps most famously in movies like "The Day The Earth Stood Still" and "E.T." The reader is expected to sympathize with the peaceful alien and deplore how warlike humanity is, and the last 75 pages or so of the book are centered on the efforts of an enlightened human to protect the alien from the police and military. There is also an evil businesswoman who tries to use her sexual wiles to keep the eccentric scientist from diminishing the value of her stock in computer companies with his inventions, a strong animal rights subtext, and dismissive criticisms of Christianity.

I like Lymington's writing style, and there are some quite effective scenes, for example, when the main character is all alone in an evacuated town, with only a dog. The Cornish setting is also sort of interesting, as are some of the characters. So, I am willing to give Ten Million Years To Friday an unenthusiastic recommendation, but I cannot deny that I was much more enthusiastic during its first 100 pages, when it still seemed possible that the alien (and not humanity) was the villain, and the story generated suspense.

It is unlikely that I will seek out any more of John Lymington's work.

The Galaxy Primes by E. E. Smith  

Edward E. Smith's Galaxy Primes is farcically bad, like a parody of later Heinlein. I recall enjoying elements of E.E. Smith's Lensman series, as well as his Skylark series, but this is a disaster that readers should avoid.

The two smartest and best-looking men, and the two smartest and best-looking women, all four of them super powerful psychics, go on a journey in the first star ship. Sounds like the set up for a great adventure tale, but it is not. For one thing, Smith spends a lot of time describing the boring relationships between crew members via stretches of dialogue that consist of boring arguments and bizarre compliments ("I think you are the greatest psychic in all the universe!") Even worse, every planet the ship goes to is an Earth-like planet inhabited by humans with a society almost identical to that of 20th century Earth, so Smith can engage in some very weak satire and boring utopianism. (For example, the protagonists disarm some totalitarian countries they encounter, using telekinesis to steal their missiles and warships so the democratic countries on the planet will be safe.) There are some hostile aliens and some fights, but the fights are absolutely lacking in tension because the protagonists' psychic powers make them invincible; with a glance they can generate explosions equivalent to nuclear bombs, but without the messy radiation.

Not recommended for anyone save Smith completists. I read the 1965 Ace paperback, number 27292, with the mediocre red painting on the cover. The cover is better than the book, however hard that may be to believe. 

The Game of Fox and Lion by Robert R. Chase

Published in paperback by Del Rey in 1986, The Game of Fox and Lion is one of those novels in which the clever open-minded people outsmart the stupid bigots, presumably in hopes of eliciting cheers from the clever open-minded readers that, the author expects, make up the majority of SF readers.

Chase depicts a universe in which the numerous human colonized star systems are riven by conflict, fierce competition between business firms, between political factions, and between religious factions. Underlying all of this conflict are issues raised by genetic engineering – do people with an altered genetic makeup have the same legal and social rights as unmodified humans, and do such people have souls? War has erupted between unmodified humans and the Bestial Clans, the descendents of humans bioengineered for super strength and endurance and who look like werewolves. Only a few years before a small group of humans bioengineered to be super smart, the Multi-Neural Capacitants, tried to launch a revolution that would have put them in charge of all humanity.

The plot of The Game of Fox and Lion concerns two men, Chiang, the head of a new business firm that is challenging the hegemony of the old firms, and Renard, the last of the Multi-Neural Capacitants, who since the abortive revolution has been living a peaceful life as the monk Brother Benedict, but now is enlisted by Chiang to help him defeat his business and political rivals and end the war between unmodified humans and the Bestials. There are some space battles, but mostly the book consists of chatty scenes in which Chiang, Renard, or their supporters outwit the heads of religious factions, legislatures, trade unions, robber baron families, etc., or discuss philosophical points. Lots of slippery business deals, legal maneuvers, peace negotiations, that sort of thing.

Chase’s writing style is bland, and there is little human interest in the book, the characters and their relationships striking no chords with the reader. And because we know the geniuses will win and because we already agree with the novel’s “message,” there is no suspense or tension in the plot. The Game of Fox and Lion is not painful, but it is not memorable either, and I cannot recommend it.

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