|The front of my shopworn copy|
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|
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|
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.