Thursday, December 4, 2014
A Forgotten SF Novel: Planet Patrol, by Sonya Dorman
a review by Rich Horton
Once again I haven't finished my latest true "Old Bestseller". Instead I'm covering a Young Adult science fiction novel from 1978, that is, I think it's fair to say, quite forgotten now, and was really never well known at all. But the writer was an interesting and (in a very modest way) somewhat notable writer in her day. Sonya Dorman. born 1924, died 2005 (married name Sonya Dorman Hess, and she sometimes signed herself a form of that name), published about 20 stories in the SF magazines and anthologies between 1963 and 1980, as well as one story (also apparently SF) in Cosmopolitan in 1961. At least two stories received particular notice. "When I Was Miss Dow" first appeared in 1966 in Galaxy, and has been widely anthologized, including in the second Nebula Award Stories volume, in Pamela Sargent's influential anthology Women of Wonder, and in the landmark Norton Book of Science Fiction (edited by Ursula Le Guin and Brian Attebery). And "Go, Go, Go, Said the Bird" appeared in Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions.
Dorman was also a poet, and arguably her reputation as a poet surpassed her reputation as an SF writer. I recall running across one of her poems in a school anthology back in high school -- the poem was "Piazza Piece", and I thought it (still think it) excellent, and I was shocked to realize I knew the author as an SF writer.
Between 1969 and 1973 she published three delightful (if slightly retro) novelets in F&SF about a young woman named Roxy Rimidon. Roxy is a young woman in the "Planet Patrol", sort of a special police group in a unified Earth sometime in the nearish future. The three stories are "Bye, Bye, Banana Bird" (December 1969), "Alpha Bets" (November 1970), and "The Bear Went Over the Mountain" (August 1973). A little while back I ran across Dorman's only novel, Planet Patrol. I quickly gathered that it was a Roxy Rimidon story, and so I snapped it up. It was published by Coward, McCann & Geoghegan (there's a classic old publishing house, long gone now I guess) in 1978.
I had hoped it might be a completely new story, but I wasn't surprised to find out that it's mostly a fixup of the three F&SF stories. Well, there's nothing wrong with that, and it had been some time since I had read the stories, so I read the novel, and I confess the first thing I thought was "This isn't as good as I remembered". That too is not a rare feeling, but it really did seem disappointing. So I went back to the original F&SF issues, and reread the stories, and found that, while they are substantially the same as the episodes in the novel, the original stories have a distinct energy that seemed lacking in the novel. Most of this, I believe, is due to the market for the novel: YA. Dorman rewrote the stories, presumably to fit the market, and the rewrite leached a lot of the charm from the stories, for me. Some of the changes are pretty minor: a couple of character names are altered. But there a further changes that are much more important, and not surprisingly, most of them involve sex. To begin with, in the stories Roxy's age is between 22 and 25, while in the novel she's between 17 and 19. Right at the beginning, when she's in training, she throws herself (more or less) at the Planet Patrol Academy's leader, a Colonel with an unsuitable wife -- that's entirely excised from the novel. And in the final episode, the F&SF version has Roxy jumping into bed with one of her colleagues -- again, gone from the novel. There a few other less prominent changes, but to me they all work to the detriment of the novel version. It should be said, the fundamental plots of the episodes remain unchanged (and there is one additional shortish episode in the novel). (there is also a subplot in the stories suggesting Roxy has mild telepathic abilities which is removed in the novel.)
Planet Patrol opens with Roxy in the Planet Patrol Academy, getting criticized for being a bit too full in the hips. (I said the stories are a bit "retro".) There is a little bit about the training exercises, mostly the same in the book and the first story ("Bye, Bye, Banana Bird"), though the original story has a more and more interesting stuff (including the bits about Roxy making a bit of a move (unsuccessfully, I should add) on the Colonel). The novel continues to her first assignment (not in any of the F&SF stories), a somewhat implausible and slight story of rescuing an Akita from a crevasse.
The next segment in the novel is the story "Alpha Bets", set at the biannual "Games" (sort of a future Olympics between the ten Dominions into which Earth is divided). Here we are introduced to the central conflict (such as it is) of the novel: the resentment felt by Earth's two interstellar colonies, Alpha and Vogl, over their restricted roles as basically "breadbaskets" or "mines" for Earth. They are not even allowed to compete in the Games, though that will change in the next year. Roxy's brother is one of the best Tumblers in the world, and when his partner is injured, Roxy improvises by recruiting a new partner for him from an Alphan family that she had met, whose son had made it clear he resented not being able to compete.
Then Roxy is assigned to investigate potential Vogl insurrectionists on a Caribbean island. (This segment was originally the second half of "Bye, Bye, Banana Bird", and thus originally Roxy's first assignment.) She discovers a murdered Planet Patrol Sergeant, and ferrets out the nasty Voglians who are responsible, but in the process comes to realize that while their methods are evil, the Vogl insurrectionists have a valid grievance.
This leads to the final episode, which was, in F&SF, "The Bear Went Over the Mountain". (Curiously, the title derives from a brief scene in "Bye, Bye, Banana Bird" (that does not appear at all in the novel).) Roxy visits her mother while planning to testify at the Inter Dominion meeting in favor of more autonomy, and especially an independent Planet Patrol branch, for Vogl and Alpha. But she is kidnapped and threatened by more Vogl insurrectionists, leading to a crisis of conscience: should she still testify as she had planned, or will that testimony seem to endorse their violent methods? She finds a way to testify honorably, and ends up assigned to be part of the Planet Patrol group that will help set up the first Vogl Planet Patrol academy. But on Vogl she learns that Vogl has its own internal problems, and also that they have secretly done some original research into cyborgization that surpasses anything Earth has done ... The resolution is a little bit odd, in that Roxy and company do fairly little to solve the problems ... but perhaps that makes some sense.
I still quite enjoyed the stories on rereading them -- as noted, the novel not quite so much. It's all very fast moving stuff, a bit retro in feel in a couple of ways, but very good fun. And, I should add, rather uncharacteristic of the rest of her work, which is by and large still quite worth looking up.