Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCXCIII (Theodore Sturgeon, Kevin O’Donnell, Jr., R. M. Meluch, Ian Macpherson)

Which books/covers/authors intrigue you? Which have you read? Disliked? Enjoyed?

1. The Synthetic Man (variant title: The Dream Jewels), Theodore Sturgeon (1950)

From the back cover: “SUPERKIDDO! He ran away from home into the carny world. Noname “Kiddo,” disguised as a little girl in a freak show. What he didn’t know didn’t exist. What he couldn’t do was unimaginable. What he hadn’t asked was obvious: ‘Who am I and where did I come from?'”

Initial Thoughts: I know little about the quality of Sturgeon’s first SF novel. SF Encyclopedia describes it as follows: “[it] is an enjoyable and sophisticated Young Adult tale whose young protagonist, forced by his wicked step-parents to run away to a circus, gradually becomes aware of his Psi Powers, and defeats the evil adult forces about him.”

2. Bander Snatch, Kevin O’Donnell, Jr. (1979)

From the back cover: “IT IS THE TWENTY-SECOND CENTURY. A vast, complex bureaucracy rules. The rich live in comfortable enclaves or deep-space colonies. They barricade themselves in the burnt-out shells of the dead Earthly cities. Lord of one such Jungle is Bander Snatch. Street-wise leader of a gang that speaks its own defiant, futuristic slang, he is suddenly chosen for the greatest role of his life. Thrust into the harrowing depths of an alien planet and a terrifying confrontation on his own home turf, he must meet the ultimate test of manhood–or be mercilessly consumed.”

Initial Thoughts: I still haven’t read any of O’Donnell, Jr.’s SF! His generation ship Mayflies (1979–his second novel after Bander Snatch (1979)–is first on my list.

3. Sovereign, R. M. Meluch (1979)

From the back cover: “WAR BETWEEN THE WORLDS. In a universe where Earthmen and Uelsons battle over the domination of galaxies, what chance does one small, seemingly backward planet have for survival? But Arana is much more than just a desirable refueling point midway between Earth and the Uelsons. Arana is the homeworld of a new race of the family of man–the Royalists. It is also the home of one very special Bay Royalist–Teal Ray Stewert, a key figure to the future of his entire planet. And what neither Earthman nor Uelsons know is that Teal and his planet may be the catalyst for the ultimate struggle between mankind and its most hated enemy…!”

Initial Thoughts: R. M. Meluch’s first novel, published when she was 23, hasn’t been described to me as her best work… but it’s the only one published in the 1970s and apparently has a sympathetic bisexual protagonist (which wasn’t that common in SF at the time). We shall see!

4. Wild Harbour, Ian Macpherson (1936)

From the back cover: “This is the world of universal future war. Faced with the threat of bombs, bacteriological warfare and poison gas, a married couple whose pacifism compels them to opt out of ‘civilization’, take to the hills to live as fugitives in the wild.

Plainly and simply told, Wild Harbour charts the practical difficulties, the successes and failures of living rough in the beautiful hills of remote Speyside. In this respect the book belongs to a tradition of Scottish fiction reflected in novels such as Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Buchan’s John Macnab. But it takes a darker and more contemporary turn, for although Hugh and his wife Terry learn to fend for themselves, they cannot escape from what the world has become. Their brief summary idyll is brought to an end as the forces of random and meaningless violence close over them.

Written in 1936, Wild Harbour has lost none of its relevance in a post-nuclear age, nor its power to move and to shock.”

Initial Thoughts: A complete unknown novel (and author) someone mentioned in response to my weekly “what vintage SF are you reading?” posts on twitter.


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25 thoughts on “Updates: Recent Science Fiction Purchases No. CCXCIII (Theodore Sturgeon, Kevin O’Donnell, Jr., R. M. Meluch, Ian Macpherson)

  1. I admit I’ve never heard of MacPherson or that novel. But as I have just finished THE AFFAIRS OF JOHN BOLSOVER, by Una L. Silberrad (1960), I can claim knowledge of a similarly obscure early SF(ish) novel.

    I read THE DREAMING JEWELS (perhaps in the Fantastic Adventures version) but I don’t remember it well. I thought it OK, but not peak Sturgeon.

    I knew of Meluch but never read her. And I haven’t read that particularly Kevin O’Donnell novel, but I did like this MacGill Feighan novels.

    • I’ll add the esoteric 30s SF vision I reviewed for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction to the list if we’re collating one! — Josephine Young’s At Midnight on the 31st of March (1938)

      I have low hopes for The Dreaming Jewels… I’ve been struggling with novels as of late so I suspect I’ll get to more of his short stories first.

      SF Encyclopedia describes Kevin O’Donnell, Jr.’s MacGill Feighan novels as a mix between Jack Vance and Ron Goulart — which, I must admit, scares me a bit.

  2. I’ve read Sturgeon’s THE DREAMING JEWELS. Decades ago, so my critical faculties were not so easily aroused, but with that proviso I remember it as competent and interesting enough, and an above par product of its time — the writing was good, not overladen IIRC with the mawkish, sentimental excess that Sturgeon was sometimes guilty of then, and which makes his short stories such a very mixed bag.

    So maybe worth your time, actually.

    Macpherson’s WILD HARBOUR I know nothing of, but it might be interesting. The other SF here I wouldn’t touch unless you paid me — and well. The O’Donnell’s blurb invoking Jack Vance and Ron Goulart is especially offputting, as you say. The publicist only means by the Vance invocation that it’s a planetary romance, of course. Still, the planetary romances are best left to Vance.

    I’ve never talked about it here, but if I were asked to rate the American SF writers as fiction writers I might rate Vance highest in terms of his overall skill set (plotting, characterization, immense imagination and style) though he didn’t start out that way. Yet at the same time he thought of himself primarily as an entertainer like P.G. Wodehouse, who was one of his models, and as with Wodehouse the usual kind of earnest critical discussion of the writer’s themes and so forth won’t say much that’s useful about Vance.

    • Re. Grey Morrow’s cover art on the Sturgeon, in a field where there’s never been any shortage of garish ineptitude among the illustrators it nevertheless deserves a prize for being singularly cheap and godawful and inept. The responsible art director who hired Morrow deserved to be fired by the publisher.

      Conversely, the O’Donnell cover uses its color palette nicely, whoever the artist is.

      • I don’t know if it helps at all but the Gray Morrow cover is reused from the 1968 edition of E. Everett Evans’s Man of Many Minds (1953). Not only is it schlocky, but it’s reused art at that! I included a scan of that cover (which I also own) in my acquisitions post here: https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2020/06/12/updates-recent-science-fiction-acquisitions-no-ccxlix-chelsea-quinn-harbro-alan-dean-foster-e-everett-evans-ron-montana/

        There are some Morrow covers I enjoy…. I need to score his isfdb.org listing and get back to you.

      • I am in full agreement about the Gray Morrow cover! It’s appalling indeed. I don’t think that book has been all that well served by its artists, though the 1969 Pyramid edition and 1978 Dell edition are OK. And the original hardcover is meh but not terrible. The Fantastic Adventures cover is pretty unfortunate.

            • By sheerest coincidence, I just read a review in the Wall Street Journal of Modern Library reissues of three John Wyndham novels, which mentions that they will also soon reissues that John Beynon novel, Stowaway to Mars, which was originally published as two 10 part serials in the British magazine The Passing Show in 1936/1937! I had never heard of this book — I wonder if it holds up? “John Beynon” is of course another pseudonym for John Wyndham Lucas Parkes Beynon Harris — and Sam Sacks in the WSJ identified John Beynon as a pseudonym, but seemed not be be aware that so is “John Wyndham” as pseudonym. (To be fair, there’s a good chance that detail ended up cut by the editor for space.)

              Sam Sacks, by the way, has a weekly column usually devoted to contemporary “literary” fiction, so it was nice to see him treating SF.

            • I remember it only from looking through his bibliography when I reviewed The Chrysalids a while back. I have no idea! But… 30s SF and me… I suspect it’s mostly interesting to see where he started.

              Feel free to link the review. That’s a major oversight not knowing the famous author behind the book!

    • The Vance/Goulart comparison is a bit lazy on the publicist’s part, yes. The Vance comparison is mainly the planetary adventure bit, though there’s a bit of similarity of tone. The Goulart comparison is to imply that the books are funny — which they are, to some extent, but not in the Goulart fashion at all. (I’m not a fan of Goulart’s work, though people whom I respect rate him a bit higher than I would. He’s no Sheckley, however!)

      I don’t know how well the MacGill Feighan books will hold up now, but at the time I thought them fairly pleasant light adventure. There was an implied mystery that I thought would eventually be solved, but I think (or maybe misremember) that McDonnell never got a chance to finish the series — his career seemed largely done by that point. It’s interesting that Peter Nicholls in the SFE repeats the Vance/Goulart comparison — I suspect he nicked it from the blurb.

      As I recall, in later years O’Donnell labored fairly mightily behind the scenes for SFWA.

    • @Mark: As you probably know from my Vance reviews, I enjoy many elements but get frustrated when the intriguing ideas are entirely subsumed by the machinations of the plot. A great exception to his general patern is Emphyrio (1969) [which is his most successful in my view — of what I’ve read]…

      “Emphyrio‘s most compelling theme is the power of storytelling, which operates on two primary levels. On one level, within the narrative itself, the legend of the heroic Emphyrio propels Ghyl into action. Ghyl’s disillusionment starts with Framtree’s Peripatezic Entervationers’ puppet performance of the legend and ends with a sequence of events triggered by his visit to the burial place of historical figure. At various points in the novel, Ghyl takes on the name “Emphyrio” as an act of defiance against authority, and, unsurprisingly, elements of his own adventure after escaping his Halma relate back to the legend. This often complex interplay and pairing between Ghyl and Emphyrio is supposed to be overt and “staged.” Ghyl, watching the puppet show that sets everything in motion, observes that the setting of the play “was the puppet theater itself” (18) in which “one of the puppets, conceiving the outside world to be a place of eternal merriment, escaped the theater and went forth to mingle with a group of children” (18). Ghyl soon will play the part.” https://sciencefictionruminations.com/2018/12/16/book-review-emphyrio-jack-vance-1969/

  3. Here’s the link to Sam Sacks’ Wyndham review in the WSJ. It will be behind a paywall, though.

    https://www.wsj.com/articles/fiction-book-review-john-wyndham-living-with-triffids-cuckoos-and-other-catastrophes-11650634861

    As I’ve probably mentioned before, EMPHYRIO is my favorite Vance novel, for many of the reasons you mention, and also that it’s a standalone. I think this is becoming sort of a consensus evaluation, as witness its inclusion in one of the Library of America omnibuses of SF of the ’60s (edited by Gary Wolfe.)

    • Ah, I don’t think I knew that it was included in the Library of American 60s omnibus. Not sure I’d included it but if I HAD to pick a Vance novel I’d probably pick Emphyro (from what I’ve read so far).

  4. You know my thoughts on the Meluch. I’ve read the Sturgeon too – more than once, in fact, and most recently about 3 years ago. I remember it an odd book, and I was never entirely what it thought it was about.

  5. I highly recommend The Dreaming Jewels but i have a biased opinion since i am a big Sturgeon fan. i read it in late 2016 so i am trying to remember the details although I do remember enjoying it very much. For some reason the first thing that popped up in my mind was the HBO series Carnivàle although there is only a slight resemblance. This is dark SF and although it was written in 1950 it doesn’t seem dated to me. I think it’s a great example of Sturgeon’s use of language. I found this excerpt and it’s a good example of his writing and also why I may have connected it with Carnivàle.

    “And now, at dawn, the carnival itself. The wide, dim street, paved with wood shavings, seemed faintly luminous between the rows of stands and bally-platforms. Here a dark neon tube made ghosts of random light rays from the growing dawn; there one of the rides stretched hungry arms upward in bony silhouette. There were sounds, sleepy, restless, alien sounds; and the place smelled of damp earth, popcorn, perspiration, and sweet, exotic manures.”

    It also makes you think of Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes although Bradbury and Carnivàle are pure fantasy and The Dreaming Jewels, even without spaceships and future worlds, is pure SF.

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