a review by Rich Horton
April 12th is Emil Petaja's birthday, so I figured this is a good day to repost this review, first written in 2008. And any day is a good day to post a review of a Samuel R. Delany novel!
|(Covers by Jack Gaughan and Ed Valigursky)|
Of course we know the real reason Wollheim paired these two novels: he thought it was cute to have one side with an "Alpha" title, and the other with a "Beta" title! (I have no doubt whatsoever that that's the case, too.)
Even saying that about Delany's latterday prominence (and noting that he is an SFWA Grand Master, and one of the field's very greatest writers), one comes away from The Ballad of Beta-2 understanding why he wasn't yet a superstar. Because this really isn't a very good book. It was with his next couple of books (Empire Star and Babel-17) that he truly hit his stride. You can certainly see in The Ballad of Beta-2 some of the stylistic quirks that mark his best work -- that is, it is undeniably a Delany story -- just a weakish one.
It fits into that fairly large subgenre of "generation ship gone wrong" tales, though that isn't clear from the start. It opens with a student, Joneny, ordered by his professor to study the "Star Folk", an obscure group of humans living around a planet called Leffer VI. Joneny reluctantly takes as his subject one of the Star Folk ballads, "The Ballad of Beta-2", and he heads to Leffer VI to try to meet the Star Folk.
He learns that the Star Folk are descendants of a group of people who left Earth in a number of generation ships -- but, as seems almost traditional by now, FTL travel was invented and the stars colonized before they ever got where they were going. A few of them limped into Leffer VI after some centuries, but they didn't want to leave their ships, so they are allowed to stay on board, maintaining their ship-based culture. A couple more ships reached Leffer VI as wrecks, and a couple more never made it.
Joneny, with the help of a mysterious young man he meets on one of the wrecked ships, finds a couple of ship's logs, and reads the tale of the passage between the stars. He quickly realizes that the mysterious lines of the "ballad of Beta-2" actually tell of real events: the "sand" mentioned in the ballad is space dust or something like that, the Beta-2 is one of the ships, the woman in the ballad is the captain of one of the ships, etc. etc. All this is a bit too programmatic perhaps but kind of interesting in its way. Where Delany lost me was his final revelation: the nature of the young he meets, and why the ships ran into such trouble.
In all fairness, it's not really a terrible story. It's just not nearly as good as Delany would be doing within months of this novel's appearance.
One cute note: the second sentence shows Delany making a remarkable prediction: he seems to refer to compact fluorescent light bulbs: "White light from the helical fixture struck the sharp bones of the professor's face."
Emil Petaja (pronounced Puh-TIE-uh, apparently -- I had always thought it Puh-TAH-huh) was a Montana-born writer of Finnish descent. He was born in 1915 and died in 2000. He became a friend of the near-legendary SF artist Hannes Bok at an early age, and lived with Bok for a time. Petaja wrote stories and poems, some Lovecraftian, and began to sell to the pulps in 1942. He wrote SF and also mysteries for about a decade, then stopped writing and worked as a photographer in San Francisco. He was lured back to the field in 1965 or so -- apparently (at least in part) by Fred Pohl, who bought stories by a number of old pulpsters (such as Robert Moore Williams, A. E. Van Vogt, Bryce Walton, and Jerome Bixby) for Galaxy, If, and Worlds of Tomorrow in the mid-60s. His first novel was published in 1965, his last in 1970. He may be best known for his cycle of four novels (a fifth remains unpublished) based on the Finnish legend cycle the Kalevala. He was the first SFWA Author Emeritus, in 1995.
Alpha Yes, Terra No! opens with a shapechanging alien from Alpha Centauri visiting Earth, in the early years of the 21st Century. (That is, about now -- it's kind of fun to read a story set in our "present" and see how different things are.) He is apparently here in defiance of his planet's rulers -- but quite why we don't know. It's clear he holds humans in something like contempt. But as he makes his way through San Francisco he does encounter some people he likes, particularly Kora, a young woman, a prostitute's daughter, who tries to help the poor and downtrodden; and Oren Starr, a folksinger of particular talent -- who himself falls for Kora immediately.
We soon learn that Kora and Oren are partially Alphan -- the result of a forbidden experiment generations before. And the alien invader is desperately trying to find "good" humans to stave off the dominant faction on Alpha Centauri who want humanity exterminated before they can get out of the Solar System. Oren and Kora are the key. So he manipulates them to go to Mars, where the evil "Big Man" who runs the Solar System behind the scenes is trying to build a starship. And from there, of course, the path leads to Alpha Centauri -- but there are pitfalls on the way, partly because of the bad guy from Alpha C trying to track them down.
The resolution, hinted at in the cover copy, is a trial of Terra, reminiscent perhaps of Have Spacesuit, Will Travel. I wasn't terribly impressed by Petaja's arguments in this section -- he allows the Alpha C bad guy to get away with too much, in particular. The resolution is not a big surprise of course, though in some ways it works better than most of the book.
On the whole, it's a bad book. The structure is silly, the characters don't make sense, there is little or no originality. And there are such howlers as one event on Mars. They are driving, when all of a sudden it gets completely dark, everything stops. Why? Phobos has just eclipsed the sun. It is explained that this happens many times a day. Well, it's true that Phobos does pass in front of the Sun many times a day -- but its disk is so small relative to the Sun's disk at Mars that it does not significantly affect the Sun's illumination.