Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Space Vulture

When I was around 11 years old, I started working on an outline for a novel that would parallel the writing of my favorite author at the time, Edgar Rice Burroughs. You can imagine how derivative it would have been: boiling down dozens of Burroughs novels to their most basic parts and then regurgitating them in a poorly imagined setting that reflected not so much on my originality but on how often I had read Burroughs's books. Unfortunately, Space Vulture feels much the same, lacking originality in its attempts to recreate the writing that amused the authors as kids. The authors of Space Vulture, Gary Wolf and Archbishop John J. Myers, write parallel prefaces in which they describe their long-term friendship and their adolescent love of pulp space operas and planetary romances. They also are unabashed in their attempt to recapture the storytelling style of those stories in their novel. I've read enough pulp writing recently to know that the school they follow is not some of the more original writing in the genre; it certainly is not on a par with C. L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, or Harry Kuttner. Instead it contains all the tropes and clichés that have given science fiction the reputation it has among those who don't read it.

The characters are more like caricatures. There's Space Vulture himself, who is the archetype of the super-villain: smarter than a thousand computers, the handsomest man alive in the universe, and evil beyond measure. Self-assured and cocky, he is the perfect foil for the Victor Corsaire, the self-made Space Marshall whose reputation is as great as Space Vulture's, which irks the criminal no end. Cali Russell is the fiercely independent widow, raising her two boys in all the best ways despite basically living on a giant frontier. And Gil Terry is the down-on-his-luck criminal who faces up to the events that led him to a life of crime and overcomes them as he grows to care for Cali's two boys. None of the characters grow at all, and Cali even loses some of her independent spirit—which generally shows up in the most infuriating and least productive ways—to the irrepressible do-goodery of Corsaire. The only character who has any growth is the slimy Terry, and even the path of his growth is pretty obvious and clichéd. I desperately hope his great background reveal towards the end of the novel is not meant to be too big a surprise, as its foreshadowing is less shadowy than starkly obvious.

Other aspects of the writing are just flat as well. There is far more telling than showing through the course of the novel; the writers use an omniscient third-person narrator who has to info-dump throughout in order to introduce the reader to each exotic and far-fetched idea. The reader is not gently immersed in this future galactic society, but neither is he tossed in to figure out what's going on through interpolation. Instead, when information has to be shared to get around a plot point, or to make a plot point, the story just stops and whatever is necessary is piled up in front of the reader in long paragraphs closer to technical writing than creative. And when there is action in the story, it is ham-fisted and abrupt.

Every now and again, I go back and read Burroughs or another of my favorite authors, E. E. Smith. I've grown enough as a reader and as a writer to recognize the flaws of that writing and try not to repeat them. At the same time, if I were to try to write an homage to either, I would like to think I would be able to build on the strengths of those novels and take the ideas to original places. Space Vulture does the opposite, making the same mistakes as their original matter and doing nothing new. I admit I expected some camp for Space Vulture but it goes beyond camp, earnestly removing tongue from cheek and moving tediously forward without any self-reflection. There is very little humor in Space Vulture, and what there is not referential, but just as clumsy as the serious portions.

I look at the covers of the Space Vulture and I see glowing recommendations from the likes of Paul diFilippo and Gene Wolfe. I recognize that nostalgia is based purely on our own experiences as children. Perhaps Space Vulture is a brilliant homage, but I can readily admit that I have no appreciation of the kind of writing that it imitates. Perhaps real fans of pulp science fiction, readers whose memories of such stories are wrapped up with the happy days of their childhood, will just fall in love with Space Vulture. Alas, this book was no trip to Pellucidar or adventure in one of the Skylarks.

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