Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Tales From the Discount Bin: A Brand New World

I've been unable to find much information on Ray Cummings, the author of today's entry- A Brand New World. Wikipedia tells me that he's considered one of the father's of the pulp sci-fi genre, but I haven't found any extensive historical references to back that up. I'm tempted to believe that, though, if we're talking about the modern sense of pulp sci-fi, and disregarding the works of Jules Verne or HG Wells. Certainly he has an impressive background, working as a technical writer for Thomas Edison for a few years, ending in 1919. With that on his resume, it's not wonder he became an acclaimed(and prolific) sci-fi author, although based on this book I'm a little unconvinced as to how well earned his 'acclaimed' status is.

The plot, set in the distant future of the late 60s(the novel was written in 1928) concerns the arrival of a planet with a mind of it's own(possibly literally). A new planet that drifts into our solar system and begins to orbit around our sun, passing by earth every 17 months. There is absolutely no effort made to explain this odd phenomena, which implies the planet itself is a sentient being(other mentions are made of it's constant wandering from star to star). This throws earth's rotation off a bit, with the poles shifting to where our equator currently sits. On top of this the new planet(dubbed Xenephrene) is inhabited by a race that may or may not be in the conquering mood. Actually, a small minority feel like conquering Earth, but there's no real attempt on the part of the majority to hold them in check, so the invasion begins.

As a technical writer, you'd probably expect Ray Cummings' work to be full of lots of dry scientific jargon, but you'd be wrong. There seems to be a pointed attempt to not explain the science of this novel, which isn't in itself a bad thing. Star Wars is more personally and emotionally resonant than Star Trek because it never gets bogged down in specifics about the science. All we need to know in the world of Star Wars is that they have technology light years beyond what we have, and the rest of the film can be spent on story. Star Trek, however, devotes whole episodes centering around technology, and they can drag on with endless descriptions of how the warp core works. It's also easier to suspend disbelief when the story doesn't try too hard, and inevitably fail, to cast the proceedings in too realistic a light. A Brand New World, however, ignores science to the point of distraction, and the science that is mentioned has the 'deus ex machina' feel of being dropped in there as an excuse to get out of a tight spot. There's no real effort to explain how space travel works, instead we're told that an alien substance called 'reet' is the best substance with which to try and defy gravity. We also get little discussion of how a new heat based weapon works, and the author repeatedly relies on his protagonists fairly limited knowledge of science to explain these gaps.

Occasionally, however, Cummings decides to throw us a bone and explain the technicalities of some of the action. However, his decisions as to what to explain are frequently nonsensical. Such as a segment which takes several paragraphs to explain the process of opening a spacecraft door. It isn't too egregious, as these things go, but it's a bit out of place in a book that takes such pains to not explain anything. This general lack of explanation carries over to the rest of the plot, too, making for a book that is overall low on information.

It's a common enough literary device to center your book on a protagonist who is generally passive, allowing himself to be carried along through the story rather than instigating it. And by also writing only what the main character actually witnesses, it allows the reader to more easily imagine him or herself in the story. In the case of A Brand New World, however, our character is kept well away from much of the interesting stuff, and the events he is involved in he seems uninterested in explaining. Too often he uses phrases like 'history has already recorded' as an excuse to not describe what in other books would have been gripping alien invasion storytelling.

Perhaps Cummings' technical writing career was a stumbling block he just needed time to overcome, because his skills in narrative fiction, as evidenced in this book, are in desperate need of some help. This book also needed the help of a good editor. I'm used to typos and grammatical errors in books; everyone makes them, and it's impossible to catch every single one of them when your working with a novel length piece of work, but this is just ridiculous. Countless uses of incorrect punctuation, and misuse of quotation marks make it hard to understand whats going on at times. But above that, I think Cummings' needed a thesaurus. Take this passage, describing the strange alien atmosphere, full of creatures just out of the realm of human senses:

"And then I realized that this was no silence! Around me came thronging a million tiny noises. Jostling things of sound in the darkness-things all alive with sound! I could hear them murmuring, whispering like wraiths of jabbering things alive with sound. Or was it sound I was hearing? It was all so vague, so unreal, it might have been some other sense. But it was gathering strength: jostling sounds were whirling about my ears..."

And it goes on for a bit, with a few more uses of the words 'sound' and 'jostling'.

Eventually the book suffers most from a profound lack of inertia. There is no drive to it, and no intrigue or action. The fate of Earth often rests in vaguely described political machinations, which never makes for exciting sci-fi. UFO dogfights? Awesome! Parliamentary process? Kinda boring.

Interesting side note: I came to this book by accident, but I came to the author by design. I had come across this cover while searching for images and information about Samuel Delany(Ballad of Beta-2):

I couldn't find that one at any of the shops around town, but it appears to have almost the exact same plot as A Brand New World, with a planet entering our solar system and it's inhabitants invading earth. If I ever do find that book, and if that book does feature a character like that little red guy on the cover, I'm going to imagine him speaking in the voice of Don Rickles in those cancer screening polyp ads.

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