[Oct. 17, 1960] Aiming Low (Robert Buckner’s Starfire)

Is dumbed-down science fiction a gateway or an embarrassment?

I commonly hear the complaint that our genre, namely science fiction and fantasy, is not taken seriously.  Despite the contributions of such luminaries as Ted Sturgeon, Zenna Henderson, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, etc., our field is generally considered to comprise purely low-brow fare.

Is it really a surprise?  When is the last time you watched an accurate science fiction movie?  How often do lurid pictures of steel-brassiere clad women grace the covers of our magazines, regardless of the content therein?  How distinguishable are these covers from those of the comic books?

Things are getting better, I think.  The number of science fiction magazines has dwindled to a manageable half-dozen or so, and in a sort of literary Darwinism, their stories are of superior caliber (generally).  Every month, several genre books are published; some of them really push the envelope both in writing and subject matter.

Which is why it’s disappointing when I come across a throwback like Robert Buckner’s Starfire, published this month by “Permabook.”

The cover should have been warning enough.  The blurb advertises, “The Hilarious Exploits of a Bashful Scientist and a Creature Gorgeous Enough to Send any Man into Orbit,” and the mostly naked redhead in the astronaut’s arms is classic pulp cheesecake.  Still, there isn’t much coming out this month, and I needed something to read on the flight to Seattle last week. 

At a bare 139 pages of big print, it didn’t last half the journey.  Apparently, the book originally appeared as a serial for the Saturday Evening Post, which explains its vapid, layman-friendly style.

Giving credit where credit is due, the first forty pages are actually pretty good.  We are acquainted with a spaceman, Charlie, his orbital mission in progress.  He’s in some kind of capsule, and this is a test flight for a trip around the moon.  There is a good deal of exposition explaining the basics of spacecraft mechanics and recovery, no doubt to catch up the uninitiated general reader.  Only after the mission is complete do we learn that Charlie is a chimpanzee, and that the ape was “man-rating” the spacecraft.  It was a nice touch, and had the story ended there, it would have made a fine novella for a science fiction digest… oh, about ten years ago.

But then the story continues.  The protagonist is Captain Richmond Talbot, the chimp’s handler.  A pleasant, unprepossesing type, he is shanghaied into piloting the next flight of the spaceship: a Moon mission scheduled just five days hence!  Talbot is to be given no training.  He has trouble with airsickness.  He doesn’t want to go.  Hilarious, right?

Talbot does manage to secure a few days leave to visit his family.  On the way there, he encounters Lyrae, a beautiful young redhead with truly alien manners: she doesn’t wear make-up, pluck her eyebrows, or wear a bra (steel or otherwise)!  Oh, and she does speak with a slight accent.  She attempts to warn Talbot that his flight will be fatal unless he wears a special helmet and coats the rocket with rubidium alloy.  This is corroborated externally; after returning from space, it turns out that Charlie’s exposure to “proton radiation” has driven him insane.  Hijinks ensue when Talbot assumes Lyrae is a Russian spy and the FBI gets involved.  For a while, Talbot becomes a virtual prisoner of the G-Men during their investigation.

Of course, it turns out Lyrae really is an alien (and all those flying saucers and cigars?  Those are real aliens, too).  The FBI agents are no match for the girl, who turns out to be telepathic and something of a teleport.  She frees Talbot, and they run away together in a race against time to fix the rocket before liftoff.  Along the way, Talbot falls in love with Lyrae, of course.  This turns out to be a bit of a foregone conclusion; prescience is also one of Lyrae’s many talents, and she’s known since the start that Talbot is her future husband.  Hence why she is so keen on seeing him make his Moon trip successfully.

Everything ends well.  Talbot gets his helmet and his fixed-up rocket.  On his way to the Moon, he is intercepted by Lyrae and whisked off to interstellar parts unknown.  Finis.

Now, I don’t want you to get the impression that the book is unmitigatedly awful.  It’s not.  It’s a bit brainless, and it aims quite a bit lower than those of us in the F&SF crowd (or even the Analog crowd) prefer.  But I like the satirical brush with which Buckner paints the book’s politicians and officers, and the beginning was solid.  All in all, Starfire is rather well-written and diverting, even if it doesn’t do our genre much credit.  Could it be a gateway book?  Perhaps.  I’d certainly classify it as a juvenile if it hadn’t been written for a general adult audience. 

What does that tell you about the general adult audience?

2.5 stars out of 5 (mediocre).

6 thoughts on “[Oct. 17, 1960] Aiming Low (Robert Buckner’s Starfire)”

  1. Sounds like science fiction for people who don’t read science fiction.  Which leads me to believe that it will wind up in Hollywood.  (I understand that Buckner is also a screenwriter, so I assume he’s got the right connections.) Maybe Jerry Lewis will star as the astronaut, just as he played the alien in “Visit to a Small Planet.”

  2. What happened to Charlie? And surely there was the obvious twist: how a people who apparently took it as a given humans should use their technologically backward first cousins as experimental animals would treat the technologically backward humans.

    I know it sounds patronising, because it *is*, but that sort of adventure romp does sound the sort of thing to hook the science fictionally disadvantaged. (*koff* EE Smith)

    Mind you, I do sympathise. I’ve just read – and by reading I mean hurling across the room – a book where the first long chapter was a good thriller short story. The write decided to make a book of it, and tacked on an increasingly embarrassing subMills&Boone romance.

  3. Victoria beat me to pointing out that Buckner is primarily a screenwriter (his most notable titles are probably Dodge City, Knut Rockne All American, and Elvis’s Love Me Tender). It really shows. I can certainly see this as a screwball comedy. Maybe he pitched the story around town and couldn’t get anyone to bite, so he fleshed it out and sold it to the Post.

    And this originally having run in the Post is no excuse for sloppy science fiction. They’ve run stories by Heinlein, Bradbury, even Murray Leinster. “The Green Hills of Earth” first ran in the Post! Their readers don’t need their hands held.

  4. That looks like publishing’s answer to movies like “The Crawling Eye.”

    “Hey, there’s some sales out in this fringe genre, let’s toss some minimal-expenditure effort out there and see if there’s a market.”

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