Thursday, May 29, 2014

The Nets of Space by Emil Petaja

The front of my shopworn copy
In the nigh-forgotten past, back in the period known to historians as "January 2014," I read Emil Petaja's The Stolen Sun.  Examination of the records covering this dimly recalled epoch will lead the careful scholar to admit that there is a possibility that this blog did not merely express dislike for The Stolen Sun, but denounced DAW Books for unleashing it upon an unsuspecting public.

As the politicians tell us, America is the land of second chances.  In that spirit, I read The Nets of Space, Mr. Petaja's 1969 paperback from Berkley Medallion (X1692), which is adorned with an irresistibly awesome cover painting.  The Stolen Sun, the cognoscenti will recall, was inspired by the Kalevala, the national saga of Finland; as I cracked open The Nets of Space I pondered the possibility that this time around Mr. Petaja was inspired by the menu at Red Lobster.

The first chapter of this 20 chapter (128 page) book is a dream sequence.  Our hero, Donald Quick (his father named him after The Knight of the Woeful Countenance), is naked, in a huge bowl along with dozens of other naked people.  Above the bowl are Brobdingnagian crab people who are reaching into the bowl to seize the squirming humans and then devour them like appetizers!  The crabs discuss this new delicacy, one of them assuring another that he should eat a black person--the blacks have the most meat, while the Asians are too small and the whites are too fat!  Somebody should tell these outer space crab people that race is just a social construct!

Don wakes up and we find ourselves in the middle of what threatens to become a mainstream novel.  Vietnam vet Don is a victim of mental illness who loves the booze, and is holed up in a mountain cabin all alone with a nice bottle of vodka.  He quotes Amy Lowell and thinks back to his psychiatrist's advice (this advice was to stay away from the booze.)  He looks around his cabin (it's full of dust).  A pretty nurse shows up at the cabin at four in the morning so the two can reminisce about Don's psychiatry treatment and his abortive astronaut career.  Don and the nurse, whose name is Donna, begin a beautiful romance.

And the back
Don received training to go on man's first trip to interstellar space, but failed a physical and so ended up on the ground crew.  In an accident he breathed some of the time-space ship's "time gas" fuel, which put him in the hospital for months.  Eventually scientists at the space agency realize that Don's vivid dreams about the giant alien crabs are not dreams at all--Don is tuning in telepathically on the Earth astronauts, witnessing their horrible fate at the hands (er, claws) of invincible extraterrestrials!

As the kids might say, I totally dig the gargantuan crab aliens.  Petaja has come up with a whole culture, history and religion for them, and the crab peoples' leaders are more interesting than Don's shrink and the head of the Earth space agency, a Scandinavian scientist who says "ja" all the time. So why does Petaja spend so many pages giving us descriptions of the California mountains and flora, snatches of Don Quixote, conversations about Don and Donna's families, and Psych 101 lectures from Don's headshrinker?  Maybe to pad out the page count?

Petaja's writing style isn't the best, either.  Here are three passages that had me laughing or scratching my head:

"To face the enemy of night alone with this on his mind was something that shriveled his viscera, no matter how hard he tried to laugh it off." (43)   

"Whatever was in the Doc's new drugs seemed to be pinpointing one small section of his mind, thesaurus-like." (60)

A later edition
"Panic was all-inclusive.  Yet Don thought he heard parts of names.  Names.  The crew members sought refuge in withness." (86)

Believe me, I spent a long time trying to figure out that thesaurus simile. 

The Nets of Space has lots of problems, including the science, which doesn't seem to make any sense and is not applied consistently.  But I still enjoyed the book.  The crabs are great, and the scenes in which Don negotiates with a different alien race, tiny insect people, are good.  The Lilliputian race has developed a gas that can save the Earth from the crabs (the hungry crabs are on their way to Earth with their nets, seeking to add all of mankind to their larder), but the insect people have to be persuaded to take sides in the crab vs human war.  Only one race can survive; if they don't conquer Earth, the crabs will starve.  Why should the insect people choose the humans over the crabs?  Showing a commendable respect for the arts, Petaja has Don trade the insect people, who are literary connoisseurs as well as great scientists, a copy of Don Quixote for the war gas the Earth needs.  Petaja seems to be saying that, despite the manifold sins of mankind, the human race deserves to survive because it has numbered amongst its members great artists like Cervantes.  This is a message I can endorse!

So, thumbs up for The Nets of Space.  The aliens are great, its heart is in the right place, and many of its numerous problems have their own weird charm.  (Shriveled his viscera?)


Gossipy side note:  The Nets of Space is dedicated to Harold Taves.  I had never heard of Taves before, and a google search revealed him to be a Seattle bookstore owner and one of Hannes Bok's boyfriends.  Anybody interested in early SF fandom, or gay figures in the SF community, should check out Jessica Amanda Salmonson's reminiscences of Taves; Taves sounds like an odd and interesting character.  [UPDATE NOVEMBER 21, 2018: It looks like that link to Ms. Salmonson's memoir of Taves is kaput, but I believe I have found a version of it via the waybackmachine at .] 


  1. Wow, that linked article... the "secret" early history of so much SF/weird fiction is downright fascinating, and certainly not in any official "history" of the genre. Thanks for the link...

    1. I'm glad you liked it; I definitely thought it was worth a link, stuff I had never heard before, but touching on people, like Clark Ashton Smith and Bok, who are famous and important among genre enthusiasts.

  2. In Memoriam - Harold Taves (or, it is impossible to steal books or records if you really need to read or hear them)

    Harold Taves - (who died during the 1990's) and who I still miss - was one of the truest friends I've had lifelong. For many reasons I miss Harold - not least for the "respect for the other" he bestowed on a friendship ... as though it were an unspoken but unassailable right due to everyone. One is lucky to meet one person such as Harold once in one's lifetime. For example, Harold was aware that I had little interest in science fiction - although we openly discussed his relation with Hannes Bok along with the time Harold spent in New York (OK - I'd spent some time in New York as well, so we had plenty to discuss). What we spent most of our time discussing, however, was classical music. Harold possessed the greatest collection of 78 rpm recordings I've ever encountered (which he had from his days as a record seller in LA during the 1930's). I still have a photocopy of his dealer's catalogue for the Victor label, as well as a number of 78's I was lucky enough to be able to buy from him ("seconds" from his primary collection which he never let anyone come near to). I can safely testify that Harold's love of music likely exceeded his love of SF (but what does it matter? Harold loved many things ...the bottom line is that a highly unique human being is gone and can no longer speak for himself). Of course, Harold was not a saint and possessed as many flaws as the next person. Many dismissed Harold as "strange and excentric" - or simply as that "crazy old guy" (why else would one sell one's personal book and record collection in an almost never cleaned shop for next to nothing when one could often not even afford the shop rent?). But those rare people who do exactly what they want and believe in - and who are totally honest in how they go about it usually end by being shunned and classified as "crazy" ... so Harold would be no exception to this rule.

    (I still intend to write a more detailed reminiscence of Harold ... and hopefully this will happen before I myself am no long able to speak for myself.)

    Perhaps the best way to summarize Harold Taves as a person would be to quote the following anecdote from someone else who remembered him because, to my mind, it succinctly captures much of Harold's essence:

    "I grew up on the Ave & Harold was wonderful to me as a young girl. I was just asking my mother about him yesterday & she reminded me about so many things I had forgotten. One of the nicest things he ever did was to follow me out of the store when I was about ten (Miss Cutt's bookstore) [where Harold worked before opening his own tiny shop which he called "The Alley Cat"] & give me the book I had been obsessively reading for days. I asked him if that was stealing, & he said something to the effect that it was impossible to steal a book if you really needed to read it."

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. If anyone is interested in viewing a scan of the artful, hand-printed business card for the Alley Cat Book Shop (which someone made for Harold - complete with small Seattle totem pole / cat motif) - plus hearing a transfer (which I hope Harold would have been a bit surprised over in terms of certain restoration "results" I've achieved) of one of the 78 sets I have from Harold, go to the below link:

    Harold's love of music encompassed a huge range - from Mexican folk and popular music to Martinu (the only music I remember Harold strongly disliking were the symphonies of Howard Hanson ... and I fully agreed with Harold that the latter are nothing if not derivative). In the end, however, there is almost far too much to relate on the theme of "Harold Taves and music."

    One of Harold's favorite piano recordings was the 1950's Concert Hall Society disc of Robert Goldsand performing Liszt's Paganini Etudes coupled with the Chopin Variations of Rachmaninov, who Harold heard in performance during the '30's when he lived in LA (it's the same LP now offered on ebay by an un-Harold-like seller for the modest price of $221). Harold loved the Goldsand performance of the Liszt Paganini Etudes to the extent that he insisted that I borrow it from him in order to make a tape copy (but it was a completely different story when it came to temporarily parting with any of his breakable 78's).

    Another recording Harold couldn't get enough of was the ballet music Jean Françaix arranged from various Boccherini pieces titled "Scuola di Ballo" (The Dancing School) and conducted by Antal Dorati in 1939 ... music which I had to admit was indeed pretty catchy ... enough so that I still listen to it (but, on Harold's advice, I found my own copy of this 78 set, sparing him the extreme anxiety of lending me his copy). So, I carry around inside me a lot of very good memories, musical and otherwise, of Harold ... while the more "serious" and partly tragic thoughts and recollections I also have remain the more difficult ones to think of ... let alone write about (...and having almost nothing to do with anything Ms. Salmonson has written).

    1. Thanks for sharing your fascinating reminiscences of Taves. I will promote this blog post and your comments on twitter in hopes more people have a chance to read them.

  5. Oddly enough I'm currently doing some research into Taves as he shows up as a character (under pseudonym) in an unpublished Hannes Bok novel. This is the most detail I've found and, sadly, Jessica's link no longer works. Would like to get more info if anyone can provide it. (Emphasis on pre 1940 as the novel is set in 38-39).

    1. Have you tried the waybackmachine for the Salmonson link?