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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Reading List: All Judgment Fled

White, James. All Judgment Fled. New York: Ballantine, 1969. ISBN 978-0-345-02016-1. LCCN 70086388.
James White was a science fiction author, fan, and fanzine editor in Northern Ireland. Although he published 19 novels and numerous short stories, he never quit his day job to become a professional writer: apart from a few superstar authors, science fiction just didn't pay that much in the 1950s and '60s. White was originally attracted to science fiction by the work of “Doc” Smith and Robert Heinlein, and his fiction continues very much in the Golden Age tradition of hard science fiction they helped establish.

In the 1960s, one of the criticisms of science fiction by “new wave” authors was that it had become too obsessed with hardware and conflict, and did not explore the psyche of its characters or the cultures they inhabited. In this book, the author tells a story in the mainstream of the hard science fiction genre, but puts the psychology of the characters on centre stage. Starting with a little smudge of light on an astronomer's time exposure, follow-up observations determine the object was maneuvering and hence could not be an asteroid. It settles into an orbit 12 million miles outside that of Mars. Spectral analysis reveals it to be highly reflective, probably metal. A Jupiter probe is diverted to fly by the object, and returns grainy images of a torpedo-shaped structure about half a mile in length. Around the world, it is immediately dubbed the Ship.

After entering solar orbit, the Ship does nothing: it neither maneuvers nor emits signals detectable by sensors of any kind. It remains a complete enigma, but one of epochal importance to a humanity just taking its first steps into its own solar system: a civilisation capable of interstellar travel was obviously so far beyond the technological capability of mankind that contact with it could change everything in human history, and were that contact to end badly, ring down the curtain on its existence.

Two ships, built to establish a base and observatory on the Martian moon Deimos, are re-purposed to examine the Ship at close range and, should the opportunity present itself, make contact with its inhabitants. The crew of six, divided between the two ships, are a mix of square-jawed military astronaut types and woolier scientists, including a lone psychologist who finds himself having to master the complexity of dynamics among the crew, their relations with distant Prometheus Control on Earth which seems increasingly disconnected in its estimation of the situation they are experiencing first hand and delusional in their orders for dealing with it, and the ultimate challenge of comprehending the psychology of spacefaring extraterrestrials in order to communicate with them.

Upon arrival at the Ship, the mystery only deepens. Not only is there no reaction to their close range approach to the Ship, when an exploration party boards it, they find technology which looks comparable to that of humans, no evidence of an intelligent life form directing the ship, but multitudes of aliens as seemingly mindless as sharks bent on killing them. Puzzling out this enigma requires the crew to explore the Ship, deal with Prometheus Control as an adversary, manage the public relations impact of their actions on a global audience on Earth who are watching their every move, and deal with the hazards of a totally alien technology.

This is a throughly satisfying story of first contact (although as the pages count down toward the end, you'll find yourself wondering if, and when, that will actually happen). It is not great science fiction up to the standard of Doc Smith or Heinlein, but it is very good. The “Personnel Launcher” is one of the more remarkable concepts of transferring crew between ships en-route I've encountered. Readers at this remove may find the author's taking psychology and psychotherapy so seriously rather quaint. But recall that through much of the 1960s, even the theories of the charlatan Freud were widely accepted by people who should have known better, and the racket of psychoanalysis was prospering. Today we'd just give 'em a pill. Are we wiser, or were they?

This work is out of print, but used copies are generally available. The book was reprinted in 1979 by Del Rey and again in 1996 by Old Earth Books. If you're looking for a copy to read (as opposed to a collectible), it's best to search by author and title and choose the best deal based on price and condition. The novel was originally serialised in If Magazine in 1967.

Update: New reprint copies of the original UK hardcover edition remain available directly from Old Earth Books. (2013-01-25 20:16 UTC)

Posted at January 22, 2013 22:26