On Saturday on I purchased and by Sunday I had finished reading Gordon Dickson’s None But Man, a science fiction novel from 1969 – towards the tale end of the silver age of pulp sci fi.
I had wandered into Capitol Hill Books‘ basement specifically looking for a good novel from the genre – preferably one from the late golden or silver ages of the pulps (roughly 1940-1970). I was inspired to dive into this preferred genre of my misspent youth by The Onion’s running feature, Box of Paperbacks, wherein Keith Phipps reads through a collection of 75 odd old science fiction novels.
While browsing at the bookstore, I was lucky enough to find None But Man, which had been recently featured in that very series.
When you pick up a book like this, you generally know what you are getting. Yes, writers like Ursula Le Guin have risen above the supposed limitations of genre to write Literature with a capital “L,” but even widely read and admired writers like Isaac Asimov (a clear influence on None But Man) are not, we should admit, ever likely to be confused with Leo Tolstoy.
But that’s not the point.
Taken for what it is, slipping into the pages of None But Man was like sliding into a warm bath for someone raised on used paperbacks from the period (though Keith Phipps was somewhat harder on the novel – dragged down by the sheer weight of reading some many similar novels).
The book itself is heavily influenced (I felt) by Isaac Asmiov – particularly Foundation. There is something of Asimov’s “psychohistory” in the way that the main character manipulates and manages the actions of large populations.
I also liked the way the author was clearly aware of some of the ways that the tropes of science fiction do not always line up with science. For example, the main character (Cully When) points out how fortunate they are, when hijacking an alien ship, that the aliens’ sensory range is roughly the same as their own, i.e., that they see roughly the same spectrum of colors. This would have been a problem if an important flashing light were only visible to a creature who could see in the infrared spectrum.
Giving the aliens (called the Moldaug) the same vision as us was a necessary part of keeping the novel flowing so as not to get bogged down in details, but the fact that Dickson addressed it suggests that he is aware that it is, in truth, unlikely to that the sensory capabilities of an alien species would be identical or even similar to our own senses.
He even has the plot of the novel revolve around the fact that he moral code of the aliens is radically different from our own (though not so different as Dickson suggests – I actually think he fails here to create a truly alien moral code).
Anyway… I’m looking forward to going back to Capitol Hill Books and picking up another bit ‘o pulp read later this week.
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