Genre fiction doesn’t age well (unless it’s The Scarlet Letter). As our civilization progresses (improves?), so too do our expressions (and concepts) of popular culture. Take, for instance, Lady Gaga, “the most insistent in a wave of pop artists actively questioning the value of an old and often-debated artistic standard: authenticity” (Los Angeles Times, 12 July 2009). Only a few years ago, Gaga’s antics would have been quickly dismissed as fringe art, existing as they do at the crossroads of music, fashion, and celebrity. Synergy is apparently no longer a dirty word; indeed, it’s the lifeblood of emerging stars. “Selling out” has become an accepted, ubiquitous piece of the pop culture phenomenon.
What does this rant have to do with Plague From Space, a “high-tension science-fiction thriller” first published over forty years ago? Absolutely nothing. But I wanted to demonstrate that tastes change, sometimes dramatically.
So too do the narrative styles and methods by which authors convey tension. Like many of his literary contemporaries, Harry Harrison maintained a consistency with the vanguard of scientific development. Despite an excited interpretation of contemporary science, much of Harrison’s story rings true, believable, and accurate.
Plague From Space (alternatively titled Jupiter Plague) is the story of Dr. Sam Bertolli, an intern at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, among the first to discover the titular plague. It arrives, logically, carried aboard an interstellar vessel that crash lands after a mission to Jupiter. Its first victim, Commander Rand, scratches a cryptic message before succumbing: “sick … in … ship.”
What follows is an unevenly tense narrative, one that sometimes gets trapped explaining its character’s actions and feelings through lengthy monologue. Consider, for instance, Dr. Bertolli’s exchange with Nita Mendel (a forced love interest who disappears for nearly one hundred pages soon after this scene):
BERTOLLI — “If you only knew how I loathe starry-eyed and out of focus TV love scenes of young things wallowing in the treacly embrace of love at first sight. I think they have demeaned something uncountably precious by using it for common coinage. I want to be able to say that I love you, Nita, and have you understand it is something vitally different and important.”
NITA — “But I love you too, so I know exactly how you feel. I suppose it is terrible to say, but I’m almost grateful for Rand’s disease and what has happened. Women are selfish, darling. I have the feeling that without the pressure you would just have gone on being one of those silent, busy men, who use their lives up on important things and never have a moment to consider the frivolous unimportance of women.”
TRANSLATION — Rather than adhere to social conventions regarding relationships, Bertolli has acted upon his feelings (thus disregarding masculine impulses as well) and fallen in love; and, for her part, Nita understands the inherent difficulty in his doing so. Romantic, eh?
Plague From Space is littered with such passages meant to (re)establish patriarchy and, because the story is set in the future, misgivings about global governance. Written as it was during the 1960s, one cannot help but read into the narrative and conjure up Cold War America. When it seems a cure is untenable, the U. N. Emergency Council proposes atomizing the spaceship and its surrounding area (roughly 100 miles).
One of Bertolli’s contemporaries voices his (and possibly Harrison’s) frustration:
“I hadn’t realized that the old philosophy of a bomb-waving solution for international problems was still lurking in dark, spider-filled corners of the political mind. Cretins! … They’re operating out of fear–if you can’t run away from the unknown, why just blow it up!”
Harrison’s pacing is, as stated above, uneven. Much of the story is comprised of extended descriptive monologues in which Important People discuss Important Things. When Bertolli, along with a mixed militia of scientists and servicemen, boards Pericles searching for a cure, they make contact with an alien entity, and, despite previously stated misgivings with the efficacy of coerced cooperation, Bertolli strongarms the Jovian into producing a cure.
Harrison uses flashback to reveal the first contact between Earthling and Jovian. If written today, Plague From Space would have interspersed this relationship within the narrative, developing tension along parallel plots. Because Harrison does not employ this technique (and why would he, writing — as he did — over forty years ago), the story lumbers along, and I found myself desperately wishing to be finished with the book (a dreadful admission for an admitted bibliophile).
In the end, Plague From Space is resolved with mysterious circumstances and forces a reader’s continued consideration (think The Twilight Zone). I could have done without constant explanation (my willing suspension of disbelief has previously permitted my acceptance of The Force), and uneven pacing, but (as a fragment of a previous generation’s chosen method of entertainment) the book possesses value.