Saturday, 14 September 2013

The Wager by E C Tubb

First published in Science Fantasy, November 1955.

You can buy this one as an ebook from Wildeside Press here. That's where Igot this cover image.

This is another fun story that shows off SF’s ability to absorb other genres. This time, it’s a crime thriller. Crime and SF are a pretty good match. Both are what I think of as ‘exploratory’ genres. The setting part of SF and the mechanics of a mystery plot are both kind of artificial effects. The two activities of looking for clues and discovering a scientific idea fit together quite well – clues and plots can hooked on to science fictional elements and different steps in the clue trail.

As the reader gets deeper into the mystery plot, the science fictional elements can get similarly complicated. The mystery plot handily pulls the reader through the setting, through the SF concept that the writer’s got in mind.

In this story, the big idea is humanity’s place in a universe teeming with technologically advanced civilizations. It’s explored through a tale of bizarre murder, terrestrial and interplanetary police forces, predatory alien thrill-seekers and the most sci fi TV and movie cliches you’ve every seen in one place.

Gort Holden is a an alien vacationing clandestinely on contemporary Earth. He’s a ‘Guardian’ a kind of space cop who’s based on the Moon, one of team protecting the planet from space crooks. He gets caught up in the investigation of tough guy cop Captain Tom Mason after a bizarre murder downtown in the big city. When there are more murders Mason realises it can’t be Gort, while Gort realises that it must be another non-human the alien’s probably innocent.

At this point I began thinking of the enjoyable 1987 sci fi thriller, The Hidden, starring Michael Nouri as the streetwise city cop and Kyle Machlachlan as fish-out-water alien chasing a predatory alien thrill seeker. Unfortunately this never quite eventuates here, but the hidden world of secretive aliens and their an undercover war also rang bells from things like The Invaders, V, The X Files, The Terminator, They Live and maybe most obviously Men In Black.

Of course, a lot of Jack Vance’s 50s and sixties SF novels had a crime story at their core, The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester are both crime novels and a lot of Philip K Dick’s novels, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and A Scanner, Darkly are cop stories. It carries on today, from Neuromance to Peter F Hamilton’s The Greg Mandel series and its sequel , Jon Courtney Grimwood’s Ashraf Bey series, Richard Morgan’s Taheshi Kovac’s series and Hannu Rajaniemi’s Jean Le Flambeur series.

While the crime aspect in this story is pacey and enjoyably violent, it suffers from a terrible ending. Gort’s admonition against wanton killing is reminiscent of Kalen in Hands Off! but Tubb introduces some contrived rules right at the end that suddenly make it OK, seemingly as way of wrapping the story up quickly.

That’s the trick of this type of story, of course, the effective ending. But the criminal and scientific explorations both demand a climax that tops what’s gone before and ties up all the elements you’ve put in already. Philip K Dick usually manages it, but he pushes his ideas further and harder than anyone else could ever hope to do. Morgan delivers, too, but a more conventional crime drama revenge climax.

It’s something that’s consistently evaded Jack Vance, among others, and in many books – especially Vance’s – the journey is far more important than the climax. This means that it’s hard to get this one wrong, especially if you know what you’re doing around suspense and action writing. It’s a combination that’s got a way to go yet.

Themes: the hidden world, crime, genre mashup the federation of planets, alien thrill-seekers.

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