Box Of Paperbacks: 3 To The Highest Power
(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 49.)
The cover of this compilation of three "novelets," to use the collection's own terminology, reminds me of an old concert bill with a superstar headliner, a cultish support act, and a forgotten opener. It's like the 1968 science fiction of a poster trumpeting "The Byrds! With special guests Moby Grape! Also appearing: The Paisley Unicycles!" Ray Bradbury needs no introduction. Theodore Sturgeon never became a household name but enjoyed a long, respected career (and a sideways immortality for the fictional character he inspired) and Chad Oliver yeah, I'd never heard of him either. So, let's work our way up starting with Oliver who, thanks to the colorful biographical sketch provided by 3 To The Highest Power editor William F. Nolan, emerges as a pretty interesting figure. (Nolan, incidentally, is interesting too, if only because he co-authored Logan's Run.) Specifically, he was, in Nolan's words, "a big wide-shouldered Texas-tall man who smiles often, is hard on himself and gentle with others." A lifelong science fiction fan, Oliver began as dedicated reader and letterhack. He entered the then-newish field of anthropology but never let go of his original love of science fiction, combining the two pursuits in his own writing. "The Marginal Man," the story included here, seems like a representative sample based on Nolan's notes and what I could find out about Oliver via the Internet. Set on a planet called Pollux V, it concerns a pair of scientists with contrasting temperaments studying the native population, a peculiar, and generally happy race who call themselves "The People." Though obviously intelligent, they generally seem more concerned with performing ancient rituals than reaching for the stars. As the scientists learn more about The People, including their odd absence of children, one of them is increasingly drawn to their way of life, finally agreeing to participate in a rite of passage involving a considerable leap of faith. I liked "The Marginal Man," which made me think Oliver's subsequent fall into semi-obscurity is undeserved. He shows a smart command of how to make a science fiction story compelling while incorporating some heady concepts. It read well both as a story and as an attempt to sort through some anthropology-informed ideas about humanity, however far-flung the plant of The People might have been. Act two: Theodore Sturgeon. We're due to hit Sturgeon's More Than Human, which I read and really liked a couple of years ago, at some point in the course of this project, so maybe I should wait to go into more detail then. Short sketch: He was a prolific short story writer and part of the murderer's row that wrote the original Star Trek series. He also inspired Kilgore Trout, Kurt Vonnegut's perpetually down-on-his luck science fiction writer. Sturgeon, who was friends with Vonnegut, wrestled with commercial indifference and writer's block, but the more I learn about him, the more it seems like Sturgeon's name provided more inspiration for Trout than his life (especially since Trout's biography kept changing over the years.) Here Sturgeon contributes "One Foot And The Grave," a story first published in 1949. Ostensibly about witchcraft, it features a hero who develops a cloven hoof. In this he's not alone since it turns out there's a lot of weird happenings in the story's Fulgey Wood, and the happenings get stranger and stranger as the story goes along. "One Foot And The Grave" read as a bit too cutesily whimsical to me until a final twist that pulled back the camera to reveal what was really going on, making me think I'd been underrating it all along. Of course, I'd hardly be the first to underrate Sturgeon. A side note: I know I'm in the minority on this staff, but I'm actually more interested in Sturgeon than Vonnegut these days. I read Vonnegut voraciously when I was in eighth grade, loved his books, internalized all that melancholy humanism, and have rarely returned to him since. Meanwhile, I've never read Sturgeon's story "Killdozer!" and would like to. I understand it's about a killer bulldozer. Maybe my taste is just getting simpler. Finally: Ray Bradbury. Where my unassigned reading in eight grade was heavy on the Vonnegut, seventh grade was all about Bradbury. I spent much of that year reading all the Bradbury I could get my hands on, starting with Fahrenheit 451, carrying on through The Martian Chronicles and Something Wicked This Way Comes and concluding, if I remember correctly, with the massive collection The Stories Of Ray Bradbury. As with Vonnegut, I've rarely read Bradbury since, yet I don't feel like his writing has ever left me. Unlike Vonnegut, I'm a bit more curious to revisit him, since I think some of the subtler touches might have eluded me. (I'm not sure, for all his strengths, Vonnegut has any subtle touches.) The only one of these authors still alive, and still quite active, Bradbury is, by his own admission, a storyteller first and a science fiction writer second. Unlike Oliver or, say, Larry Niven (whom I'm reading now for next week's entry), Bradbury's interest in scientific concepts remains limited to how they can serve his fantastic tales. The Martian Chronicles famously ends with a human father, a settler on Mars, promising to show his children Martians then simply taking them to a pool to look at their own reflection. That's Bradbury in miniature: Humans can explore the cosmos but what's fundamentally human remains unchanged. Outer space is inner space, and vice versa. Unfortunately, this is the sole Bradbury selection in the box, so I'll have to wait until later to see how his writing holds up to my jaded adult eyes. (Unless I'm misremembering; I'd check the master list but I'm writing this in a jury room at the Cook County Criminal Court building, waiting to perform my civic duty.) Still, 3 To The Highest Power's selection, "The Lost City Of Mars," didn't do that much for me. Conceived as a late entry in The Martian Chronicles, it reads more like a rehash of themes from that collection. Here the lost city attracts a group of not-particularly-well-fleshed-out character types who, shades of Sturgeon's Star Trek episode "Shore Leave," find that their deepest held fantasies dwell within its city walls. Sadly, they're not particularly interesting fantasies and the grim twists built into them feel a bit rote. It reads like one trip to Mars too many. But, hey, sometimes even headliners get upstaged.
Next: Neutron Star by Larry Niven
"The Skydiver dropped out of hyperspace an even million miles above the neutron star."
Then: Cleopatra by H. Rider Haggard
[Not a scan of my copy.] "By Osiris who sleeps at Abouthis, I write the truth."