[May 25, 1960] Getting there is half the problem (Judith Merril’s The Tomorrow People)

Every novel is a kind of contract with the reader, a promise that ideas, events, and characters will be presented in the beginning such that, by the end, they will have facilitated a satisfying story.  A corollary to this is that a writer must ensure that all of a story’s scenes are interesting to the reader.  Lesser authors pound their keys trying to get “to the good parts,” stringing together pearls of interest with thread of mediocre space-filler. 

Judith Merril has managed to break the above-described contract in spectacular fashion, by publishing a story solely of the thread between the pearls. 

Let me explain.  The Tomorrow People, released this month, promises to be quite a book.  Not only is it by Merril, who has proven that she can write on prior occasions, but within the first 30 pages, we get a set up that includes: humanity’s first Mars mission, on which one of the crew commits suicide for reasons unknown; the suggestion that life was found on Mars; the possibility of telepathy and/or clairvoyance; the suggestion of an active espionage ring on the American moonbase.  Merril also tempts us with the veneer of a mature piece with discussion of adult topics like closeted homosexuality, menstruation, polyamory. 

The problem is that Merril never delivers on any of these threads (except for a few perfunctory pages at the end).  Instead, we get hundreds of pages of the sort of stuff one hammers out for the sake of hammering out.  Most of the book is presented in quotation marks and italic print.  Pointless dialogues between men done in an overly breezy, almost caricature style.  Endless angsty conversations between characters punctuated by italicized internal monologues (that’s right!  You tell ’em!) Dysfunctional relationships between the one female character, the lovely dancer, Lisa, and… virtually every male character in the book (the astronaut who returns from Mars, his psychiatrist, the Moon’s chief psychiatrist, random lunar laborers).  Endless depictions of drinking, drunkenness, romantic quarrells.

I don’t know if Merril is trying to be avante garde, or if she simply doesn’t know how to make a book out of a trilogy’s worth of ideas but a novella’s worth of action.  The result is an uphill slog.  It’s too bad as there is stuff to like.  There is a thoroughly modern feeling about the portrayed universe, a feeling that Merril really does try to convey the world of the mid 1970s, technologically and socially.  I enjoyed the bits about the adaptation of classical dancing to the lunar setting.  And I appreciate a story that doesn’t just present the bones of a plot, with the characters playing second fiddle, as is often the case in science fiction. 

Merril’s The Tomorrow People, however, is an invertebrate.  Its characters meander about with no plot bracing them into an enthralling narrative.  Maybe that’s the point.  Maybe life is like that, and Merril is just trying to capture that feeling of naturalistic randomness.

Or maybe she had a deadline, a page quota, and insufficient inspiration.

Two stars.

8 thoughts on “[May 25, 1960] Getting there is half the problem (Judith Merril’s The Tomorrow People)”

  1. His review of this one, and F&SF editor Robert Mills’s refusal to print it, led to Knight’s semipermanent retirement as a critic. The review is collected in IN SEARCH OF WONDER (2nd and 3rd editions).

  2. I read this one, and it made little impression on me.  Not terrible, but not very good either.

    Merrill seems to write a lot of emotionally powerful stuff, which is trying to look at the human side of science fiction concepts.  This one just kind of fizzled out.

    She also puts together interesting anthologies, and may decide to be more of an editor than a writer someday.

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