Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Wolfbane by Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth

I’m a sucker for used book stores.  I just can’t walk into one without picking up a couple of things that I’ve been meaning to get around to or at least which look interesting.  And since I’ve been attacking over 5,000 pages of A Song of Ice and Fire my slush pile has been building up over a couple of months, and now I’m finally getting to make a dent in it.

I picked up Wolfbane because it’s co-written by C.M. Kornbluth.  Kornbluth was a prolific author, died untimely, and is situationally well-known.  By this I mean that people who don’t read a lot of SF have never heard of the guy the way they would have heard of, say, Robert Heinlein or Isaac Asimov, who are basically household names even to people who’ve never read any of their work.  Among genre fans, though, Kornbluth is frequently mentioned as someone who should be better known, and that’s because he was a hell of a writer.  His solo short story collection, His Share of Glory, easily stands up to the very best contemporaneous work and I’m pretty sure that he would have been one of the greats of the field had he lived.  He was also a frequent collaborator, often with Frederik Pohl (as here), and together they wrote some seminal works, like The Space Merchants, which won (and deserves) a lot of acclaim.

Anyway, this book is okay.  It’s pretty solidly Golden Age stuff, not necessarily chrome-plated spaceships and ray guns but fairly dated.  You wouldn’t be seeing  anything like this put out today, and it’s not as good as Kornbluth’s solo work or even some of his other collaborations with Pohl.  Nonetheless, if you’re a genre fanatic there are a couple of interesting touches here and there.

Also, it’s short at 140 pages.  Let me sing the praises of the Golden Age in this respect at least.  I don’t know what kind of unholy calculus goes on in the publishing industry these days, but I’m going to make an educated guess.  The cover price on new hardbacks is approaching $40 for some of the bigger works and hovering in the mid-$20s for average sized novels.  Now I know that very few people actually pay that much due to retail discounting and so forth, but that’s what it says on the cover.  And again, I know that some of the smaller publishers do paperback releases of new stuff, but even mass-market paperbacks start at $7.99.  Assuming very generously that it takes four hours or so to read a 140 page novel, they just can’t justify selling that much fiction at the price point they want to hit.  The only exception that I can think of recently is John Scalzi’s God Engines, but that was billed as a novella and was a little bit of an outlier anyway.  As much as I like many of today’s authors, they do seem to throw in a bit more material than is strictly necessary.  For instance, Neal Stephenson could probably write a 140 page section about some dude zipping his fly, and while it would include erudite discussion of the development of trouser fastenings and the iPod selections of the Vietnamese day laborer who stitched the pants, it would probably put the main narrative on hold for a while.  Perhaps that’s not the best example because I bet Stephenson really would want to put that pants section in if he’d been reading about the garment industry, but some other authors I think are getting leaned on by their editors to throw in a little extra business to pad the page counts.  I kind of got distracted there, my point is that many of the SF works in the 50s get in, tell the story, and move on to the next project, probably to pay the utility bill.  Still, I can respect terseness if it gets the job done.

The plot is pretty simple.  A rogue planet has come through the solar system and taken Earth with it, to points unknown.  A huge, invulnerable pyramid from the other planet has taken up residence on Mount Everest and appears to kidnap or kill people for unknown purposes.  The moon is now between the two planets and is periodically ignited, presumably by the pyramid aliens, but anyway though unknown means, to provide heat and light to the Earth.  It’s not sufficient, though, so there aren’t all that many people left.  It’s mentioned that the population of Earth was 10 billion before the disaster occurred – a point to Pohl and Kornbluth there, as many SF authors of the era seriously underestimated what population growth would be like.

The main character is Glenn Tropile, described as a “Jack-of-all-Trades”, who is a quintessentially omni-competent 50s SF protagonist, meaning he’s a virile American male (despite there being, apparently, no America any longer), a sharp trader, and a tinkerer.  He’s also a “Wolf”, one of two types of people who exist in this post-apocalyptic wasteland according to some pretty sketchy sociology elaborated by the narration and some of the characters.  Golden Age SF was pretty bad about talking about capital M “Man” and how Man does this, that, or the other thing, and there’s some of that here.

It turns out that the pyramids capture certain humans to use them as biological components in their computer network, to which end they stick them in nutrient tubes while they dream; furthermore an encounter with the deadly pyramids causes the ragtag bunch of humans to have an orgy.  So not only does Wolfbane anticipate The Matrix by 50 years, but the aliens’ scheme here actually makes more sense.  It also turns out that the pyramids aren’t exactly hostile to humanity, more like totally indifferent, if they can be said to have emotions at all.  This is all actually pretty good stuff, even if it is a bit formulaic, and the way the humans end up fighting back against the pyramids is fairly well realized.

Despite the occasional brilliant spot the book is still pretty average, though.  There’s a lot of plot to get through in those 140 pages, and while I’m happy to respect terseness there’s still a fair bit of telling, not showing.  The narrator will just say that a character feels a certain way rather than having the character develop; so all of these characters are pretty two-dimensional despite whatever characteristics they are said to have.  It also suffers from cultural dating, as well.  Many of the Golden Age writers seemed to believe that having conquered flight and the Nazis that we’d soon be stepping on the planets around Eta Carinae – and that the space ship would have a steno pool.  Some combination of over-optimism about engineering challenges and under-appreciation for cultural changes pervades most books of the era and this is no exception, it’s got some iffy gender roles and questionable cultural statements about Asians and Africans.  I’ve seen worse, but that is damning the authors with faint praise.  I’d really just say that they could have done better about this, even in 1959.

To sum up, you may want to check this out if you’re a completionist (like me) or if you like period genre pieces with some unique elements.  It’s by no means terrible and it certainly doesn’t take that long to read, but at the same time it isn’t likely to be rediscovered as a classic of the field.

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