Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Skylark Duquesne by E.E. "Doc" Smith

Despite the controversy this year, I push on with my efforts to read all the Hugo nominees for best novel. It's coming along, I jump around in time a lot, and I enjoy doing it. It's great fun getting a larger sense over how science fiction has changed, and what sorts of books were being nominated at any given time.

It does, however, also mean that sometimes I read things that are old but not that good. Take this book, for example. It doesn't help that in reading this book, I am coming in at the end of a four book series, and Smith does very little to make the book accommodating to a new reader. At some point, some guy became, well, not ruler of earth, but ruler of...the galaxy? Sort of? Bureaucratic administrator? I'm not sure, but other races defer to him.

There are many problems here, but the biggest one is that the writing just isn't very good. The plot veers wildly from alien race to alien race, most of which want to kill all humans (excuse me: Jelmi. Jelmi is the catch-all term for humans wherever they may be found in the galaxy. Non-Jelmi seem to always want to kill or enslave them all.) It's dull, a lot of the time. The prose isn't purple, but it isn't engaging, either.

The plot is too complex. I lost track of whether or not there were three or four different races who wanted to kill all Jelmi, and were throwing all their power against the various defenses of various ships. Seriously. No clue. There were the...Chlorans, who they exterminated. The...Fer...these other dudes, who wanted to enslave Jelmi to capture their genius for invention, and then didn't realize why that didn't work. There was a rogue group of Jelmi that wanted to kill all other Jelmi. (Maybe that was the one that started with Fer, I don't remember.) There might have been another one? That might have gotten exterminated as well?

And then there's the titular character, who I guess has been the villain all the way along, and he has to work with the heroes to save mankind so he can try to take over the galaxy, and things written on the internet make this sound like it's the redemption of Mark Duquesne. Given that his final plan is for a mass eugenics program complete with death camps for the weak (although not dependent on race, and we'll talk about that in a minute), redemption...seems to me to be the wrong word. Unless we're supposed to cheer for death camps? And I really hope we never are?

The characters are pretty cardboard. Smith is, however, almost, almost, almost good with women characters. They're good shots, ninjas, scientists. One woman discovers that her true place has always been beside her husband on the battlefield instead of waiting at home. Then again, they're always the ones making the sandwiches while the men are talking, which seems depressingly accurate for the time at which this was written, if the memories of a friend about working in activist circles tell me anything. Mark Duquesne black? He's referred to as "Blackie" almost constantly. When, and incredibly lamentably, he isn't being called a "big black ape" by the leader of humanity. It seems pretty clear that he is, and the way people refer to him kept making my skin crawl. On the other hand, he is equally as intelligent, powerful, and good at planning as all the good guys, who are, naturally, white. Oh, and Asian. But "big black ape"? Did we really need to go there, Doc Smith?  So, the villain is black, but the mentions of the blackness are really all the consideration of race with humanity...I mean, Jelmi.

I have read this, getting me one step closer to reading all the Hugo nominees (I'm a long way from complete, having read 112 books out of over 300.) But if you're reading this review to find out if you want to tackle this one, my advice is that it's one you can safely skip, unless you are as stubborn and as much of a completist as I am.


I read this book as part of an attempt to read all the Hugo Nominees

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