Thursday, February 27, 2014

Eric Frank Russell. Men Martians and Machines (1958)

     Eric Frank Russell. Men Martians and Machines (1958) Russell was English, something I didn’t know until I looked him up on Wikipedia. And he served in the RAF, not the Navy, despite the naval tone and tropes in these stories, in which the spaceship crew is very much a naval one. In fact, the tales belong to the “strange worlds” genre, which was well-developed long before SF adopted it. The alien worlds could just as well be undiscovered islands in the unexplored reaches of the Earth, the aliens could be monsters such as were imagined by medieval cartographers and confabulated by explorers who came back with tall tales about their really quite mundane (but dangerous) voyages. Always give the public what it wants.
     The plots are of the “how humans (and Martians) manage to overcome alien dangers by means of ingenuity, courage, and luck” variety. Fantasies, IOW, but nicely done. The ship-board cameraderie is a shade too stereotypical even for its own time, but this is pulp fiction. Stereotypes enable the writer to telegraph whole settings and characters by means of slight variations on the expected imagery. “Jay Score” (ie, J20) is a robot who manages to pilot the ship past the Sun while the crew barely survives in the refrigerated hold. “Mechanistria” tells of a world whose intelligent life is machines, perhaps the remnants of a civilisation that destroyed itself by using robots for warfare. I didn’t finish it, it seemed too ponderous to me. “Symbiotica” describes a very tightly interconnected ecology: the intelligent life forms depend on trees, and vice versa. It’s hard to tell which is the dominant life form on this planet. “Mesmerica” gives us aliens that can make you see what they want you to see. But not all senses are equally affected, and of course Jay Score is immune. Between humans’ ability to recognise aliens by touch, the aliens’ inability to produce original speech (shades of the Turing Test!), and Jay Score’s objective vision, the crew manages to rescue their shipmates and lift off the planet safely.
       If there is an overriding theme, it’s that the universe is a hostile place: we go exploring it at our peril. Considering the times, with its fear of subversion by apparently nice, normal, neighbourly people who were really evil Commies, one might also notice the motif of an apparently pleasant place that turns out to be lethal, of seemingly innocuous aliens with a murderous bent. Imagined universes, it seems, always resemble what we fear and desire most. The characters are stereotypical and fixed, like those in a comic book. The dialogue is occasionally atrocious, the style is very American Pulp Fiction. A fun read, mostly, but not a keeper. **½ (2011)

No comments: