Thursday, June 2, 2011

Yellowed Pages: The Flying Sorcerers by David Gerrold & Larry Niven

Buried under piles of pulpy, yellowed copies of sci-fi and fantasy lit. Giaco reads and waits. The first Thursday of every month he’ll attempt to review an ancient relic from an ancient time (aka crappy genre fiction from the 70’s and 80’s). Stay with him as you journey into space, caves, voids and dungeons. Unfortunate side effect: from this point on you’ll smell of old books.

Origin Story

If my first Yellowed Pages entry was about a story with a looping, nonsensical plot, and my second entry was about a story with a completely linear plot, then consider this entry into the world of old genre fiction about a story that can't, for the life of it, tell its story! The Flying Sorcerers is another book I picked up from the now-defunct sci-fi bookstore in Philadelphia Germ Books. You can sum this review up as "the one that almost broke Giaco." And you know me, I love junk! This book by sci-fi stalwart Larry Niven and Star Trek staff writer David Gerrold was too much for me! Just ask Craig, I've been moaning about it to him since page 14.

I should, of course, mention that this is all self-imposed. I choose a book based on its cover and I dig in and I review it. This is my fault and the fault of The Flying Sorcerers' cool cover. The fact that the cover looks great is the most upsetting aspect of the book. It promises something so simple: an awesome battle between an astronaut and a wizard. But good god we have to work for it in this book!

The Plot (As Best I Can Figure)

This week I'm going to give you a very succinct recap of the plot of this book. Spoilers ahead (is it still considered a spoiler if the book was written in 1971?).

The story takes place on a planet with a primitive humanoid species. They are covered in fur from head to toe, they live in nests in trees, and believe all things revolve around magic. Their world has a blue and red sun, and countless moons. Shoogar, the local magician, spends his time cursing people, praying to the gods (there are thousands), consecrating housetrees and reassuring the townsfolk that he's not to be trifled with.

Then an astronaut lands and all of his technology and apparatuses are considered magic. These primitive people don't understand things like lasers, so they think he's casting concentrated fire spells. Most of all, Shoogar is jealous of his spacecraft, an egg which can fly! Shoogar attempts to duel the new magician (named Purple) and in the process destroys the magician's ship. The explosion sends of radiation, and the people must flee to a new town.

Eventually Purple builds an air ship (from scratch) with helium balloons and flies it to the north where he can call on his mother ship to pick him up. In the process he introduces industrialization, assembly lines, money, and gender equality to the natives.

Overall Impressions

Oh boy. Why did I have such a problem with this book? Why should I hate so hard on a funny little satire about primitive thinking and a reluctance to change? Because I promise you that I just fairly summarised in 192 words a story it took two good writers 306 pages to write. The major problem with this book is that it over-explains everything. 

The first section of the book is slow moving but somewhat entertaining. We see Shoogar really try to think up ways to stop Purple. We get good character sketches of all major players in the story, and we see them live a different and interesting life. But they just keep harping on that life. I'm interested in reading about one ceremony Shoogar performs. But after that first ceremony I get it. You don't need to show us seven more ceremonies to different deities. 

The fact that they eventually stop this technological giant by cracking eggs in his spaceship's control panels is humorous (and a lot of this book is funny when its not insufferable), but the sequence of them trashing his ship goes on way too long. For the science fiction fanatic they have a lot of verbal Tuckerization (thanks, wikipedia!) with the names of gods and places used as puns. The two sun gods are named Oulles (H.G. Wells) and Virn (Jules Verne). Ha ha.

The second section of the book gets into how an advanced species (like Purple) could teach primitives in their own terms. Purple as a character is a mix of nonchalant superior and stubborn child. They tell him he can't do something because the gods would not allow it and he says, essentially, "well you say I'm a wizard so I say you're wrong." The process of building Purple's ship literally takes over 170 pages. We see every excruciating step played out realistically. How would they make an airship waterproof? How would they spin thread tight enough to hold helium in a pre-industrial society? We don't just get the answers to these questions, we get the step-by-step details and we get ten pages of society railing against change every step of the way. I'm sorry, Gerrold and Niven, but I just don't care about how much Lesta the master-weaver dislikes the thought of dipping his thread in housetree sap (Yeah, we really spend significant time on this).

It would be one thing if we got a taste of this now and then. But David Gerrold and Larry Niven went detail crazy. I hate to accuse an author of stretching a story unnecessarily, but this story was originally published as a shorter, serialized story that ran in If magazine. So not only was this idea milked for months as a serial, it was then collected and made longer. No thank you.

Wait, They Said That?

They say so much in this book. This was a hard choice, but let me leave you with some (very deep, satirical) commentary on women. Purple proposes that the town put women to work spinning thread, and after much disagreement one villager states:
"'...Women are more than beasts of burden or dumb animals - and they should not be treated as such. Women are domestic creatures capable of many simple tasks...'"