Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Yellow Fraction by Rex Gordon

Here we have the last science fiction novel written by British author Stanley Bennett Hough, under his manly pseudonym Rex Gordon.  I am sure there are ordinary people all over world with the name "Rex Gordon," but to my susceptible mind "Rex Gordon" sounds like the name of a guy who punches first and asks questions later, a guy who writes those mens' adventure books like The Destructinator: Peril in Patagonia or The Exculpationer: Massacre in Madrid.  On the other hand, the cover painting by Kelly Freas seems to be illustrating the story of a man who lives on the dole and sits in the park all day and at 5:00 sadly watches the business people file out of their office building.

After making a lot of crazy guesses about The Yellow Fraction based on the author's pen name and the cover illustration, I decided that the best way to find out what it was all about was to actually read the 160 page 1969 novel.  A decision I perhaps took too lightly.

Five hundred years ago an Earth colonization ship arrived at the planet Arcon, where plants grow blue instead of green.  Sick of space, most of the colonists wanted to put down roots on Arcon.  Some, dubbed the Greens, hoped to terraform the planet so that it resembled Earth.  Another faction, the Blues, thought humanity should learn to adapt to Arcon's environment.  A tiny minority, eventually labelled the Yellows, feared Arcon was too unhealthy to colonize.  The Yellows were not only outvoted, but became pariahs and scapegoats on whom all problems, for centuries, were blamed.

The Yellows were, of course, right; Arcon is poison, and after the starship is irretrievably dismantled it becomes clear that human life expectancy on Arcon is a mere 40 years!  Lacking any means to escape the planet, the government conspires to keep people in ignorance of the facts.

I took an almost immediate dislike to this book.  On the second page of text, page 6, Rex gives us this sentence: "He laughed in a voice that gave Len a considerable lack of pleasure."  To my mind this is poor writing.  You don't give somebody a lack.  The phrase should be something like "gave Len considerable displeasure" or "failed to give Len any pleasure."

On page 9 we get a typo, "staying" for "saying."  On page 32 we get this atrocious paragraph:
The man and the voice were known, but not the sense the things the voice said.  The cell was ten feet by six, with toilet and white tiles, which made it look quite clean.  The way it looked so uninviting could be the pain.
How do you know a sense?  Does the sentence mean the things the voice said made no sense?  Does it mean the words were unrecognizable?  Does it mean the tone was different than before?  And the last sentence... should "way" be replaced with "reason?"  There are distracting problems like this all through the novel.

Rex, I don't buy these books so I can relive my experiences copy editing students' papers!

So much for the style.  As for the plot, the first half of The Yellow Fraction is a weak political satire full of anemic jokes.  (The Army's administration building is called "The Hexagon," and the head of the military is J. Adolf Koln.)  The protagonist is Len (I guess short for Lenin) Thomas (perhaps his middle name is "Doubting.")  Len is a college student.  After being inspired by Yellow-sympathizing college professor Berkeley (a nod to Bishop Berkeley?) he gets thrown out of school for his Yellow beliefs, and so decides he wants to launch a revolution.  He is immediately hauled in by the government, and quickly discovers that Berkeley is a high-level member of the secret police!  (Doesn't this happen in 1984?)  The reader soon realizes that the Yellows are not only oppressed by the government - they have infiltrated the government!  (Doesn't this happen in Slan?)

Rex turns out to be an ambitious writer willing to experiment.  Besides the third person narration of Len's adventures, he provides us with J. Adolf Koln's and Berkeley's diaries, the minutes of political party conferences, memos, extracts from the history books of the future, and even a woman's shopping lists.  Rex inadvertently reminds us that not every experiments is a success.  Way way too much of this book consists of uninteresting people sitting around talking.  Are the competition between the Army and the secret police for public funds and Yellow debates about the possibility of constructing a starship without alerting the public supposed to thrill the reader?

The book shows some signs of life in its second half, when Len and 11 other 20-somethings with science or engineering training, an elite carefully chosen by the Yellows, are drafted into crewing a space ship that has been built secretly in the desert.  The Army and the intelligence services have conflicting views on what the ship's mission will be, which creates some suspense, and the dozen crew members, half male and half female, are expected to pair off sexually, generating a little human interest.  Unfortunately, Rex's main focus is on people on the Arcon surface: a philosophical discussion between two Yellows (Rex seems to think that the lies of religious and communist leaders are justified and can lead to improvements in society) and J. Adolf Koln's conspiracy to outwit the intelligence service and take over the government.  Boring.  The whole plot is resolved when Len in space and the Yellows in the intelligence service promulgate the spurious claim that Arcon is under attack from space aliens.  This lie galvanizes the populace and leads to a revolution that somehow solves all of Arcon's problems.

With its mediocre plot, irritatingly bad style, and elitist "vanguard of the revolution" politics, The Yellow Fraction is to be avoided even more assiduously than the poisonous blue planet of Arcon itself.

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