|New York; Tor, 1998; $21.95 hc; 255pp|
Another Dave Langford review.
This one is a smooth and pleasant read. Possibly using cloning techniques on DNA extracted from mosquitoes, Frederik Pohl has lovingly reconstructed the midlist sf novel which we have been told so often was extinct. Without straining for effects which critics might call "high concept" or "cutting-edge", he quietly tells his story.
In Heinlein's terminology, the hero Evesham Giyt is a version of the Brave Little Tailor: a not particularly honest fellow (adept at computer net hacking, which will come in useful later) who grows in moral stature to fill the role in which he finds himself. Giyt marries his girl-friend in order to emigrate from overcrowded Earth to planet Tupelo, where he's rapidly elected to the figurehead position of mayor. Mayor, that is, of the late-arriving human colony: five other alien races are already treating this "Peace Planet" as neutral ground for their own purposes.
The aliens are a variously awkward lot, comically touchy rather than actively hostile. (Naturally Pohl provides the traditional mild come-uppance for Earth folk who automatically regard themselves as superior to the funny foreigners.) Weapons are strictly forbidden and tight multi-species customs searching is enforced, but still each colony has something roughly equivalent to weaponry. The Kalkaboo, for example, cannot live without supplies of gigantic firecrackers to be detonated in ritual expiation of sin, while the Earthlings' needless-seeming fire brigade is essentially a battery of water cannon.
Giyt, like a Sheckley hero gifted with a trifle more intelligence, stumbles through the diplomatic snarl and makes mistakes. Fairly evidently he is being set up by the local representative of the development corporation Ex-Earth: as the blurb helpfully tells us, the true villains are "reactionary self-serving humans". Here I liked the response of conspiracy theorist Richard E. Geis, who in his fanzine announced that this must mean "Pohl is still up to his Liberal-leftist plotting. I'll have to read this to find out for sure."
Yes indeed. Pohl emerges from this book as one of those deadly conspirators who go around endangering Earth's interests by being wantonly liberal, humane and sane. Sure enough, villainy is exposed. Sure enough, the funny-shaped aliens aren't to blame. There is a touch of idiot plotting here, with technologically superior races who (a) insist on probing every item of personal luggage that comes through the matter transmitter, in case serious weapons are being smuggled in; (b) remain weirdly incurious about a sealed autofactory which can be programmed to mass-produce anything you care to mention, including....
But O Pioneer! disarms such critical grumpiness by being determinedly lightweight and fun -- the sort of novel which, if Pohl followed the policy of Graham Greene, would be deprecatingly labelled as "An Entertainment". It entertains.
|First published in The New York Review of SF, October 1998.
Article Index Home