Short Book Reviews: Lloyd Biggle, Jr.’s The World Menders (1971), Pamela Sargent’s The Sudden Star (variant title: The White Death) (1979), Josef Nesvadba’s In the Footsteps of the Abominable Snowman (variant title: The Lost Face)(1964, trans. 1970)

Note: My “to review” pile is growing. Short reviews are a way to get through the stack. Stay tuned for more detailed and analytical reviews.

But first…. three completely different volumes.

1.  The  World  Menders, Lloyd Biggle, Jr. (1971)

(David Bergen’s cover for the 1975 edition)

3.5/5 (Good)

Despite the idiotic moments in Star Trek: Insurrection (1998), as a kid I adored the first sequence–the undercover team observing the Ba’Ku community from a hidden observation station (before Data’s malfunction). Of course, Star Fleet assumed the Ba’Ku were pre-warp drive (and thus first contact shouldn’t be initiated). The mechanics of going undercover to initiate or prepare a society for contact is a fascinating and endlessly replayable SF premise. In Star Trek no one seems to take seriously the indoctrination and research  required to blend into a society without arousing suspicion. Riker also seemed to meet with Troi for three minutes before dashing down to sickbay to get a few physical modifications before heading to the surface… Considering the importance of First Contact and how an entire society’s culture, religion, and future is at stake, a specialized officer and branch of Star Fleet should exist to initiate contact!

Lloyd Biggle, Jr.’s The World Menders (1971) treats first contact with the seriousness its deserves (although, the aims are distinct). Ferrari, before his graduation from the Cultural Survey Academy, is sent off (without clear orders) to join the Interplanetary Relations Bureau (charged with First Contact with societies outside of the Federation of Independent Worlds). Initially Ferrari uses his training to apply a new eye towards the cultural artifacts of the inhabitants of the pre-modern society of Scorvif. The society is an unusual one–the emperor owns slaves who appear to have no culture and are treated with extreme violence and hatred. However, the non-slave population does not seem aware that the slaves exist although they survive off of their labor.

After a stunning breakthrough where he deduces from a tapestry that the emperor of Scorvif had died (IRB agents had figured it out but were testing Ferrari), Ferrari wants to join the field team. After extensive training, Ferrari–with numerous errors that should have had him removed permanently from the team–decides to take drastic measures….

Lloyd Biggle, Jr.’s SF feels radically different than his contemporaries. Drawing on his own experiences as an oral historian, Biggle incorporates both the particular details of research but also research methodologies a team might utilize to understand a culture. There is a richness in his worlds and how his characters view them absent from similar “explorers contact an alien species” novels.

Recommended

….as are Biggle’s The Light that Never Was (1972) and his short story collection The Metallic Muse (1972).

(Kelly Freas’ cover for the February 1971 issue of Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact)

(Pat Steir’s cover for the 1st edition)

(Jack Gaughan’s cover for the 1972 edition)

~

2. In the Footsteps of the Abominable Snowman (variant title: The Lost Face) (1964, trans. 1970)


(Uncredited cover for the 1971 edition)

3.5/5 (Good)

I had high expectations for Josef Nesvadba’s collection of 1950s and 60s science fiction and fantasy stories redolent with the Czech experience under Nazism and the post-war political shift towards the Soviets (who had helped liberate them). As a unit, the often allegorical stories occur within an emotional landscape of amorality and petty desires. They are action-packed and manic, ideas whirl and twist with flying bullets, as characters voyage through jungles and hideout in slums.

Nesvedba deploys the whole range of classic premises–Nazi experiments, renegade professors, the quest for immortality, etc. The most notable include  “Expedition in the Opposite Direction” (1962) with its heady post-war II setting where earlier Nazi scientific experiments remain hidden underground and roving emigres want to escape the world, tired of politics and chaos and despair and death and the new fears of nuclear war. The narrator, in his drive for fame and science, ignores morality: “Heinrich [Himmler], was a genius, you can believe me.”

In “The Trial Nobody Ever Heard Of” (1958), a vendetta inside a university presages the coming of WWII. But the warning signs go unheeded. In the visceral “The Lost Face” (1960), a talented plastic surgeon transforms into a Nazi. Face transplants and urban serial killers….

Taken individually, I struggle to remember details as they tend to be slight and lacking in emotional heft. I recommend the collection as a unit—a fascinating quilt of post-WWII devastation and desires.

For fans of post-War SF in translation.


(Rodney Mathews’ cover art for the 1970 edition)


(Rodney Mathews’ original canvas)

~

3. The Sudden Star (variant title: The White Death), Pamela Sargent (1979)

(Uncredited cover for the 1980 edition)

3/5 (Average)

Pamela Sargent’s The Sudden Star (1979) posits the arrival of a “white star” in 2000 AD—initially a source of fascination, later a force of destruction–that transforms society. How the appearance of the “star”–really the light of a dying sun shining through a black hole (6)–turns the world into a cesspool of vice and violence isn’t entirely clear. There are hints of later cataclysms, perhaps caused by its arrival and even a nefarious syndrome named after the star. Sargent seems to suggest that society could, at any time, regress and that the alien sun might trigger humanity’s baser instincts.

Structurally the novel is a tapestry–loosely following the travels of two main characters who are forced to flee their across the post-apocalyptic landscape together (Simon Negron, a doctor found guilty of selling medicine illegally and Aisha, a Muslim child prostitute). Chapter titles indicate the characters affiliated with them or individuals they meet them as they travel from New York City to Miami Beach, Florida. No characters are without faults–and for many readers this will be the most off-putting element of the novel. Despite some admirable qualities, Simon is a murderer as is Juan, a child prostitute friend of Aisha. Sargent refrains from overt explanation of their actions–are they the product of a broken society? insanity caused by the star? or deeper destructive instincts?

Despite the novel’s complete lack of narrative thrust and tendency to sink into dull machinations between crime organizations, The Sudden Star‘s focus on flawed characters and their desperate attempts to create normalcy makes this a worthwhile read for fans of late 70s post-apocalyptical fiction.

Far superior to Sargent’s first novel Cloned Lives (1976). Despite my frustration with The Sudden Star (especially the last third), I am willing to try her later novels—for example, The Alien Upstairs (1983) and The Shore of Women (1986).

(Uncredited cover for the 1979 edition)

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

13 thoughts on “Short Book Reviews: Lloyd Biggle, Jr.’s The World Menders (1971), Pamela Sargent’s The Sudden Star (variant title: The White Death) (1979), Josef Nesvadba’s In the Footsteps of the Abominable Snowman (variant title: The Lost Face)(1964, trans. 1970)”

    1. Have you read any of her other work? I can’t remember if I sent Cloned Lives to you — or if I sent it to MPorcius….

      Far superior to Cloned Lives. Despite moments of sheer wonder (a NASA facility inhabited by aged survivors who have long given up dreams to rebuild the world), Sargent has the tendency to retreat into dull intrigue… families and bodyguards and prostitutes jockeying for power in a corrupt Miami Beach.

      It’s an interesting experiment.

      1. I’m afraid I haven’t read any of her work, and I’m deeply unfamiliar. I thought I recognized the title of Cloned Lives, but now that I think more about it I realize it’s probably just from the cover of The Sudden Star.

  1. I like Biggle but it’s a long time since I read The World Menders, although I remember liking it. Maybe I should track down a copy for a re-read.
    My favourite of his overall is Monument, about an idylic lost colony but I’ve also kept several others aswell…
    I remember seeing the Josef Nesvadba title quite often and feeling I should read it as I was reading all the others in the Aldiss edited Masterworks series it was part of, but I never did, I’m afraid.

    1. I have Monument on the shelf — I’ve started it multiple times over the years but, for whatever reason, wasn’t in the mood. Is it generally considered his best?

      I recommend the Nesvadba reading — it’s a very distinct take on some standard themes but from a unique perspective.

  2. Monument is the one that appeals to me most (and I really liked the Tim White cover) but probably isn’t his objective ‘best’ as the overall plot is relatively straight forward.
    The 1st Jan Darzek book, All the Colours of Darkness is a close runner up with me. the first sequel was good fun as well.

      1. I read and enjoyed #2, Watchers of the Dark, without even realising that there was an earlier title! A bit later on I read the first one, which I think was better. Much later, in the 1990s I think, I discovered he had done more and I tracked one down but I’m fairly sure I failed to finish it, or I may have skimmed the 2nd half (or more!). Probably The Whirligig of Time.
        But I’ve just seen that Wildside have a Best Of collection available, so I’ve just ordered it! Actually, I see that what looks like his entire back catalogue is available as PoD editions… May have to re-aquaint myself with some of his works!

        1. On browsing the available titles, it wasn’t The Whirligig of Time but rather This Darkening Universe I didn’t finish. Among other things, it’s plot seemed too similar to that of Watchers of the Dark,.

  3. I read some of Sargent’s ’80s books, THE SHORE OF WOMEN, VENUS OF DREAMS and VENUS OF SHADOWS. In fact, I’m been meaning for years to reread the Venus books so I can finish the trilogy. I don’t think I’ve read any of her ’70s books.

    I enjoyed the three books I read, though if I remember, I found her dispassionate style and hard-eyed look at human nature a little difficult — it probably didn’t endear her to some readers. (Though Cherryh sort of has that, too, and she’s still successful as far as I can tell.)

    I remember reading your review of Cloned Lives; I’ll give that one a miss. It’s possible that she improved; it’s also possible that I had worse taste back then, or missed some crucial context.

    I started reading adult science fiction and fantasy in my mid-teens in the ’80s, and looking back, the popular novels I read had so many offensive tropes — troubling writing about women, minorities, political philosophy — that were incredibly pervasive throughout the genre at that time.

    1. Hello Hestia! Thanks for stopping by.

      The Sudden Star (The White Death) definitely uses a dispassionate way of telling and considering the serious and mature content this adds a level of difficulty to the novel (although I suspect her sympathies lie with Aisha and not with Simon). My biggest problem was Sargent’s choice of what moves the story forward–rather labyrinthine machinations between powerful families…. what is at stake or what motivates people is sort of dull ultimately. I guess in many ways that’s Sargent’s point — the grand goals of rebuilding society have long been cast aside. How to achieve power and stay in power in a restless landscape of greed and scarcity is the sole motivation.

      Far better than Cloned Lives!

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