The Sky is Falling
Let’em Breathe Space
Lester Del Rey
Some may remember the stash of sketchy audio books I mentioned in a recent post. Among them was a Lester Del Rey novel. I have read many “Del Rey Books” as it were, but never one of Del Rey’s books. Anymore, I think he and his wife are much better known for the SFF they put out for Ballantine than for any of the books he wrote. Thinking of this, I put on Victory out of curiosity. After finishing it, I realized that many more public domain audio books awaited me at LibriVox and went over for a look. Sure enough, there were several more Del Rey options, so I decided to try out a few. All three discussed here are short – between 90 and 125 pages – so it seems best to combine them into a single essay. We will start with the most preposterous and end with the most enjoyable.
Incidentally, these audio books have been a game changer for Two Dudes’ Vintage SF Month efforts. I’m totally underwater with reading and writing commitments right now, to say nothing of real life time constraints, so swapping my music listening time at work for audio books has made all the difference. I probably won’t keep this up, since my ability to focus while I work is limited, but for the pulpy stuff it’s about right.
The Sky is Falling
Del Rey plays this totally straight, so I can only assume that he was serious. There are no winks or sly remarks, just a seemingly honest story. And yet, is it really? Our hero, Dave, starts the story in trouble because he has knocked up his lovely fiance, Bertha. If I recall correctly, Bertha is of S. Asian extraction, but I may be conflating some work requests with the story. Anyway, while wondering how to handle the beautiful and dainty Bertha, Dave is run down by a renegade bulldozer. Whoops! Luckily for Dave, he soon finds himself brought back to life by a gaggle of magicians who have bound his soul to a bit of mandrake root and are commissioning him to solve the great engineering problem of their time. It seems that their sky is falling.
This is SF, so I am thinking, “I suppose Dave will head out, realize that it’s actually a comet, and do science-y stuff to save the day.” Boy was I wrong. The sky is, quite literally, falling. In this world, wherever and whenever it may be, the sky is an actual dome that encircles the world, with little pinpricks of stars in it and a giant, glowing ball that is the sun. Chunks of the sky are falling on cities, crushing people and leaving gaping holes in the sky. (The sun also crashes into the surface at one point, a drama of Monty Python-esque proportion.)
Things march on from here. There is a bit of magic, random hard science, a dollop of planetary romance, the requisite cringe-inducing love subplot, a wee bit of anti-communist propaganda, and American ingenuity saving the day. The world Del Rey creates is impressive for just over 100 pages, though in the end there is no explanation of why such a world should exist. It’s not bad or offensive, but it is definitely strange. I’m not sure exactly how to recommend this, except as a curiosity. I’ve read much better, but someone looking to read something completely different might be entertained.
Let’em Breathe Space
Continuing our series of unholy genre combinations, Let’em Breathe Space is a noir-ish murder mystery. It’s not really a noir atmosphere, taking place as it does on a cramped spaceship headed towards Saturn, but it is peopled with tough talking, resourceful types who can do science, perform feats of engineering, solve crimes, and woo the ladies. “This here is a fusion drive, see? And the first one of you who messes with it is getting cement shoes out the airlock.” It’s also another fine example of the reliable “holy crap we’re running out of air on this ship, so we’d better kill off some crew” trope. There’s a whiff of noble sacrifice, just to bring a tear to the eye.
This story is at its best when it deals with the practicalities of interplanetary travel on a junky ship. Weaker points include the dialogue, some visits from the Sexism Fairy, and a sense that the antics driving the plot are a somewhat overstated. By the end, I was thinking to myself, “Isn’t there a better way this could have been handled? Did (s)he really need to go that far?” Some credit to Del Rey though. Even if his portrayal of women lacks nuance, he does call out racism in the story.
Like the first book, I won’t call this bad, but I think it’s a weak effort. Some of the SF parts are entertaining, but the mystery is half-baked. I am more interested in the going to Saturn parts that the who killed who parts. It was only an hour or so out of my life though, so I can’t complain too much.
Our last book (novellete?) is likely what happens when a pulp author asks himself/herself the question, “What sort of book would most thrill the Two Dudes?” The answer, of course, is space adventure mixed with International Relations theory. I have no idea what Del Rey’s thoughts on global politics are, beyond the obligatory anti-Communism, or his impetus in writing Victory, but it is very much a product of its age.
At the center of story is Earth, in a position similar to the US in and around WWII. Earth has the strongest economy and the potential to be a military super power, but remains on the outskirts of galactic conflict. Most of the story follows a grumpy military vet, who has watched Earth stand by as other planets are ravaged by war. Del Rey shows the aftermath on one planet in particular, but then jumps around to show other systems failing to execute a good, clean victory. The grumpy vet is offered the chance to “make a difference” in a way that conflicts with his vague, but fervently held, beliefs.
Undergirding all of this, and coming to the fore in a couple of lengthy passages, is something called The Security Dilemma. This framework for understanding global politics and the seeming inevitability of war is the product of one John Herz, a political theorist who emigrated from Germany before WWII. Essentially, The Security Dilemma assumes that a nation will arm itself for defense. Defensive weapons being indistinguishable from offensive weapons, the nation’s neighbors will themselves arm to counter the first. This causes others to arm, to escalate, and eventually to fight, in a cycle that quickly spirals out of control. Herz, a melancholy and persuasive writer, was building this theory throughout the 1950s under the shadow of the rapidly escalating Cold War; it quickly became a foundation of the dominant Realist strain of International Relations. Del Rey wrote Victory in 1955; clearly, he was aware of the political zeitgeist.
Even as Del Rey’s characters are discussing this dilemma inside the story, Earth seems to have found a way to short circuit it and step outside the endless cycle. This is, I suppose, Del Rey’s earnest hope for the future, though even successful Earth doesn’t really escape until a deus ex machina comes to its aid. Oddly enough, some of the answers to this problem came hundreds of years earlier than he expected, and without certain technological marvels. In fact, those that have sidestepped out of The Security Dilemma in the real world, notably Europe, did so through ideas first popularized after WWI: something we now call globalization. (It’s a bit more complicated than this and also concerns nuclear weapons, but most informed observers agree that trade agreements and economic union defuse the root causes of war.)
That said, Victory is also not the most amazing story I have ever read. At written length, things jump about too much for real coherence to take hold. The world Del Rey creates has potential, but remains half baked. A longer story that takes more time to flesh out connections, characters, and history would have given Del Rey the chance to make a book that delivers the full impact of his premise. There is promise here, and an intellectual depth not seen in the other two books, but it is betrayed by some combination of publishing convention, talent, and imagination. Still, it is an interesting examination of the psychology of the 1950s.