Thursday, December 29, 2016

A Forgotten SF Novel: The Planet Strappers, by Raymond Z. Gallun

A Little Known SF Novel: The Planet Strappers, by Raymond Z. Gallun

a review by Rich Horton

Not long ago I read a Raymond Z. Gallun story from the early '50s, and found it better than I had expected. So when I saw this obscure 1961 paperback for cheap, I figured I might as well give it a try. Gallun (1911-1994) was one of the few Hugo Gernsback discoveries to continue to produce work after Campbell's revolution. That said, he was mostly silent after the early '40s. His most famous story is probably still "Old Faithful", from Astounding in 1934, which featured a sympathetically portrayed Martian. After 1954, only a few novels came out until the '80s, when a few short stories (possibly written much earlier) appeared. His last novel was Bioblast (1985). The Science Fiction Encyclopedia suggests The Eden Cycle (1974) may be his best -- The Planet Strappers is dismissed as "more routine". Ah well.

The book opens in purest YA hard SF mode, with a group of college-age kids trying to make their way into space. It seems that most of the trick is to acquire a space bubble, or "bubb", which is what it sounds like -- not much bigger than person-sized, a bubble based on a super-plastic, with plenty of air production capacity, in which someone can survive for a pretty significant time in empty space. The group includes a diverse(-ish) mix -- one woman, a rich kid, a handicapped kid, a couple of football star twins, a delinquent, a couple more, plus the eventual viewpoint character, Frank Nelsen, the straight-arrow honest type. This first part goes on for 50 pages or so, pretty effectively, as the "bunch" (their name) navigates such issues as making the "bubbs", learning how to use them, passing the required space fitness tests, raising the needed money, and so on. The girl member drops out, realizing the the regular Space organization is desperate for women, and another guy washes out for lack of psychological fitness, and one member has to deal with his mother who won't let him go.

Finally they head into space, and things get a bit stranger from that point. Frank ends up in a terrible situation on the Moon with a murderous fraud. One of the dropouts ends up a stowaway, causing even more trouble. Eileen, the girl member of the Bunch, becomes fairly successful, as what seems to be a Madam, though the book is too YA-oriented to go into detail about that.

The book continues, becoming something of a travelogue through the Solar System. Frank's goal ends up to be establishment of a free space-based set of habitats, based on the "bubbs", and in the end to make a home that the girl back home he's sweet on can come to. But he must deal with a lot of problems on the way there, most importantly the issue of space pirates ... a group which seems to include the one washout from the original "Bunch" who had stowed away. One of the other members becomes a legendary explorer, eventually heading to the Outer Planets solo in a bubble. There are deaths among the bunch, and failures, but by the end we see a portrait of the establishment of a new frontier.

This is a real mixed bag. To be honest, a lot of the scientific details are pretty ridiculous -- though perhaps not by the standards of 1961. The plot is kind of random, kind of disorganized, after a decent start. The characters are pure cliche. But for all that, I liked a lot of it, though parts of it were kind of boring, or too silly to follow. It's easy to see why this novel is essentially forgotten -- but it's also easy to see why Gallun, for all his shortcomings as a writer, remained able to sell his work for a pretty long time.

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