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Box Of Paperbacks: The X Factor

(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 37.)

"The golden age of comics is five," goes an old quote variously attributed to Roy Thomas and Comics Buyer's Guide editor (and friend of the column) Maggie Thompson. I'd argue that the golden age of science fiction is roughly around 12 or 13. Or at least that's when the stuff grabbed me hardest. Star Trek was a gateway drug that led to Stanley Kubrick's 2001 that led to Arthur C. Clarke that led to Isaac Asimov to the too-heady-for-me-at-the-time Stanislaw Lem and so on and so forth. That interest didn't blossom into a lifelong love, however. By the end of 8th grade I'd grown a little embarrassed by science fiction. Blame it on early-onset-pretentiousness. I distinctly remember a book review for some book or other in which the critic referred to it as even having an appeal for those who "wouldn't be caught dead in their bookstore's science fiction section." Was this interest something to be ashamed of? Maybe. Shame comes too easily for me anyway. A stupid kid wanting to grow up too soon, I moved on. I'm smarter now, or at least I hope I am. I'm certainly suspicious of those who want to make to strong a distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction since it's a distinction I stopped caring about a long time ago. Writing about films, where the lines are a lot blurrier, helped with this. Much of the appeal of this project–for me, at least–comes from the chance to catch up on a chunk of what I missed during those turned-up-nose years. It's mostly been a pleasure to return. This week's entry, on the other hand, makes me think I came to this particular book too late. It's not that it's a bad book. I'm just not sure it's a book that speaks to grown-ups. The background is as complicated as the story is simple. Protagonist Diskan Fentress is the son of a space explorer who's lived on a couple of worlds and never felt at home on any of them. Norton spends quite a bit of time establishing his background even if, in the end, it doesn't matter that much. He's an awkward borderline outcast and no doubt a mirror for some of the novel's readers. (He certainly would have been a mirror for me at 13.) After stealing a spaceship he escapes in search of a better life, but finds that struggle has to precede acceptance. Landing on an icy planet, he finds himself shadowed by intelligent, catlike creatures and dodging space pirates in the ruins of an ancient city that calls to him and sometimes seems alive again somehow. All this goes on for quite a while. Maybe longer than it should. I read The X Factor not long after reading Philip K. Dick's The Three Stigmata Of Palmer Eldritch for the first time and the bits in which reality starts to fade in and out for Diskan felt like swimming in the shallow end after coming back from the depths. It also felt like the novel could have gotten by without this element. In fact, much of the novel felt like a patchwork of pretty good ideas–psychic powers, space pirates, an ice planet, cat-men–that didn't really hang together all that well. It was pleasant enough and then it was over. Not a bad book, but more of a smart-enough escapist fantasy than anything transcendent. Above, I was tempted to call it a "boy's book," but that doesn't really fit given that the prolific Andre Norton was born Alice Mary Norton. She became the Science Fiction Writers Of America's first female grandmaster. Prolific to the end, she wrote until her death at 93. The pen name was introduced to make her writing more marketable, so maybe it shouldn't be a surprise that she was savvy enough to know how to write a tale seemingly designed to appeal to awkward adolescent boys who just wanted to get the hell off earth for a while, if only by way of a book.

Next: Space Lords by Cordwainer Smith

Then: The Alien Condition by various authors