austin_dern (austin_dern) wrote,

Playing rock-and-roll music through the horn in his head

So to intermittent, as they happen, book reviews: Mark Clifton's 1961 When They Came From Space. Clifton is vaguely known as coauthor of They'd Rather Be Right, renowned as the worst novel ever to win the Best Hugo for novel except for whatever won in the year when the topic ``worst Hugo win ever'' is discussed. However. There are moments in They'd Rather Be Right where it seems there's some slyness, some intelligence sneaking in, even a spot of satiric intent. It's still a dumb book, but, it made me think Clifton (and Frank Riley) were trying for better than they let on.

When They Came From Space is trying, clearly and with partial success, at being a satiric, comedy-of-errors take on The First Contact With Extraterrestrials. It's not just the humans being ridiculous but the aliens are supposed to be too, with them faking an invasion so as to unify the Earthlings in a way that'll make them easier to really deal with. As the idea was being taken for giggles then I wonder if it's ever been taken seriously except by space fanboys who figure as soon as the right magic feather is found THEN we'll put a gajillion dollars per year into building space stuff for ... look, let's just go, okay?

The most important Earth character, and the one who understands the aliens' scheme on strikingly little evidence, is Ralph Kennedy, successful businessman who's accidentally drafted into the Extraterrestrial Life Department of the Space Navy. That part gets the book off to an amusing early start as he can't get anyone to believe he's not the Ralph Kennedy they wanted (there's a brief mention of the correct Ralph Kennedy who's actually qualified for this) and how the only way out of his assignment is to keep getting in deeper. That's got some of the we're-all-mad-here logic that tickles me, and pretty much, the more he gets to shake his head at what's going on the better.

But Clifton keeps shooting the satire in the foot with over-explaining moments like the third paragraph here:

``H-m-m,'' I said, ``Research into vocational guidance for extraterrestrials, huh? You must have held some powerful jobs in industry to qualify for that!''

``I am a Harvard man,'' he answered frigidly.

I realized I simply must overcome my provincial West Coast attitude of wanting to see what a man had done in life before I measured his worth.

``Well,'' I said judiciously. ``That's even better, isn't it?''

For other deeply witty insights into the madness of it all there's how Kennedy's division faces the perilous prospect of having to spend a whole TWO BILLION DOLLARS this fiscal year, and just when they're almost succeeding they get a whole TWO BILLION MORE DOLLARS. Ho ho.

There's probably a good, light take on making First Contact a ridiculous comedy-of-errors, but this isn't quite it. But I'm increasing the estimate I have that They'd Rather Be Right was supposed to be taken as satirical the whole way through.

Trivia: In 1896 Indian mills produced about 8 percent of Indian cloth consumption. By 1945 they supplied three-quarters of domestic consumption. Source: Empire: The Rise And Demise Of The British World Order And The Lessons For Global Power, Niall Ferguson.

Currently Reading: When They Came From Space, Mark Clifton.


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