Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Three From the Legion

Over at SF Signal, the management threw down the challenge to name three books that you've read and liked and that others probably have missed. Given my collection, I had many choices. As with many of these "meme"-like challenges, the problem was not so much finding choices but restricting them. Here are my choices. I figured that if I took the time to construct the comment there, I ought to be able to use it as a posting here!

Choice One: The Planet Strappers, Raymond Z. Gallun. You would be hard pressed to find a fan of SF today who would know who Gallun was. And that's a crying shame, because he produced many short gems. And even if that fan knew who Gallun was, you'd be hard pressed to find somebody who read this rather obscure book.

Written in 1961, it depicts a grimmer solar system and grimmer space program than much of what was being written at the time. It also probably depicts a solar system that was closer to what we eventually found in reality once we started exploring ourselves than what most professional astronomers believed.

A group of space enthusiasts gets a chance to get into space. They build and/or restore equipment including space suits that produce their own food and oxygen and inflatable ships that are powered by ion drives. (Sounds incredible? Try "googling" "Bigelow Aerospace" and see what is happening in orbit now!). Once they make it into orbit, the group breaks up, some going to the Moon, some to Mars, some to the far reaches of the system. There are mysteries a plenty and even some tried and true plot devices (asteroid mining and space pirates) that are dusted off and seem fresh. Published only once that I know of, by Pyramid in 1961 I've managed to score a dozen copies. I pass them out to good friends.

Choice Two: The Enemy Stars, Poul Anderson. Once you get past the three giants that I read the most in my misbegotten youth (Clarke, Asimov, Heinlein), you move into folks like Andre Norton, Alan E. Nourse and Poul Anderson. Of the authors that I discovered after the Big Three, Anderson is probably the one that influenced me the most. And this book, in a list of rated books that sparkles with "10's", is the one that affected me the most.

They called her the Southern Cross and launched her. Ships need to travel slower than light to bring the matter transmitters to new planets. The Southern Cross wasn't destined to go to a planet, but for a scientific mission that lasted generations. Year after year she was crewed, as civilizations rose and fell and governments changed. Now she's nearing her destination. However, things go horribly wrong.

Expanded from a story called "We Have Fed Our Sea", you'll get a hint of what the story is about if you parse the meaning of that phrase. Science may have gone past what Anderson knew, but most practitioners of science fiction are not fit to carry Anderson's pencil case when it comes to plot, character, use of literary motifs and care in writing.

My two copies are a Berkley edition (paperback) from 1965 and a hardcover published by Lippincott in 1958. I don't think the book is currently in print; like much of Anderson's works, the publishing world has let it go out of print. What a shame!

Choice Three: The Legion of Space, Jack Williamson. I could be snarky and put down an omnibus of John W. Campbell, Jr. tales or the entire Lensman or Skylark series by E.E. "Doc" Smith. However, I chose this single slime book to represent the sub-genre of Hard SF that I have returned to again and again, especially whenever it is "revitalized" by subsequent generations of science fiction authors.

Thrills! Chills! Nasty aliens! Journeys across interstellar space! A journey on foot across an alien planet loaded with nasty creatures to make any "naturalist" from the Animal Planet or Discovery channels faint dead away. A female character that is no shrinking violet. Characters with hearts of gold. Amazing technology.

I've got a Fantasy Press edition from 1947, a Pocket edition of the original trilogy from 1980 and a SFBC omnibus from 1980 as well. I don't know if it is still in print, but it is worth seeking out either solo or with the other two novels. They are fun, but not as good. A fourth was later written, The Queen of the Legion, that I've yet to get to.

Only three choices. It was tough, but they are all solid, I think.

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