Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Lost in Space

George O. Smith Lost in Space (1960)
Sorry - Will Robinson isn't in any danger here. It's no relation, despite the title. This is another that found its way onto my shelves by virtue of being an Ace Double and therefore Siamese twin to something I wanted to read. Here's the lowdown from the inside front cover:

Commodore Ted Wilson's intuition told him right! He should never have let his fianceĆ©, Alice Hemingway, take off on Space Liner 79—the flight that fate had singled out to change the destiny of the galaxy!

Once out in deep space the ship's engines failed and Alice found herself stranded in a tiny lifeship with two amorous men. Besides this, there was no way for Wilson to find them except by combing the light-years of all space for tiny craft.

'I'm guessing that probably wasn't written by a woman,' my wife observed as I read it out loud to her, and of course she's right. I don't know much about George O. Smith beyond that he wasn't a woman, had quite a lot of stuff published in Astounding Science Fiction, and was a member of a men-only literary banqueting club alongside Isaac Asimov and Lester del Rey, according to Wikipedia. Additionally, I'm inclined to wonder whether he may have served in either the army, navy or air force. This I deduce from the slightly stilted social interaction of his jet-setting characters, even if a few of them may occasionally have the top button undone with the cap set at a jaunty angle.

Lost in Space reads like a poor cousin to Asimov, although Isaac could usually pull it off with a little more style than this - or at least leave readers feeling as though they've learnt something. Wooden characters go through the motions, and Alice Hemingway keeps her hand securely on her ha'penny whilst marooned in the void with her randy boss and a vaguely dashing spaceliner pilot. The creakier material of this sort alternates with unexpected flourishes of hard science, or possibly firm but slightly pliable science given that all the discussion of particles and infrawaves feel sciency rather than actually informative, and I wouldn't swear that any of it is genuinely based on anything. There's a fairly enjoyable paragraph about the infinite mass achieved at speeds faster than light warping space, but I've a feeling Smith was just making it up. He just isn't the communicator that Asimov was.

While Alice concentrates on not being entered by her fellow castaways, Commodore Ted Wilson discusses search vectors, and the whole thing is observed from afar by a warlike alien space fleet. This is the first time they've encountered humans, and debate rages as to whether they should kill, eat, enslave, or buddy up to their new cosmic neighbours. What's disconcerting is that the debate rages more or less like a bunch of pipe-smoking advertising executives hanging around in a bar, necessitating one of Smith's slightly peculiar asides to explain how he's translated the conversation into terms we readers will understand, because obviously they wouldn't be speaking English, and when using expressions such as top dog or cool cat, the animals to which they refer are simply the closest alien equivalents to those with which we are familiar. No less disconcerting are the fairly frequent references to ancient history. Those future people sure spend a lot of time thinking about how much everything has changed since the fifties.

She decided to drop the discussion as pointless, so headed for the bathroom. A hot shower and a quick tubbing of her underclothing were on her mind. Her garments, of course, would dry instantly. She had to smile a little. To think that a hundred years ago women thought something they called nylon was wonderful because it was fairly quick-drying! Not instantaneous, of course, as was the material of which her lingerie was made.

Yes. Just imagine.

Lost in Space is fairly readable, for all that it accidentally punches itself in the face about once every five pages, and Smith patently wasn't without talent so much as an inability to recognise his own strengths and write to them accordingly; but all the same, I'm glad it wasn't any longer.

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