Sunday, June 13, 2010

Short SF Review #14: "The Frontliners"

"The Frontliners," by Verge Foray
Appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction, July 1974

She risked a mini-warp - dangerous in the atmospheric fringe - and came out of it seventy miles higher, with body and ego-field still together. Her detector immediately revealed half a dozen guardsmen within range. She had warped into the middle of a platoon! She quickly warped again, and came out to see a spectacular display of flares blossom around the spot she had just vacated.

The 1970s were an incredible time. They gave us the summer blockbuster, the energy crisis, eye-blistering fashion, and an undercurrent of inevitable apocalypse that has only recently resurfaced in popular culture in the context of climate change, though back then it tended to focus around the far more simplistic "pollution," in addition to overpopulation and the threat of nuclear war. Personally, I'm glad to have not been around for the 1970s. When I say "incredible," I mean it in the sense that I have difficulty believing they were actually real.

The July 1974 issue of Galaxy, which I stumbled across in the bargain basement of a comic book store in Kitsilano, has done a lot to convince me that while the 1970s were real, it does not follow that they were necessarily believable. Exhibit A is that month's cover story, "The Frontliners" by Verge Foray, a pen name used by author Howard L. Myers - who, it seems, died in 1971.

In this case the cover worked exactly as it had been intended to. I bought it because I had to know just what the frak is going on, no matter how ridiculous it seemed to be. As it turns out, this cover is pretty much totally faithful to what you'll find in the story - the only reason I don't say one hundred percent faithful is because I'm not sure if the number of arrows in her quiver is accurate.

Yes, really.

"The Frontliners" is set in a sufficiently distant future that humanity's diaspora has led to the establishment of large interstellar states, two of which - the Lontastan Federation and the Primgranese Commonality - struggle and compete ruthlessly in the "econo-war," a situation that's not particularly well-explained in the story but may be the Cold War recast through a stellar lens. Our heroine is Gweanvin Oster, an ultra-deep-cover agent of the Commonality, said to come from "a long-established family, one which had devoted itself for generations to the job of resembling loyal citizens of the Lontastan Federation." She's a mutant - the story is nonspecific, to my recollection, as to whether or not she's the result of genetic engineering - and only knows one other member of her "species," a Federation frontliner named Marvis Jans - she's the woman in blue, firing the raygun on the cover. Gweanvin's mission has her infiltrating a top-secret Federation research project, a sort of psychic amplifier that would allow the minds of every Federation citizen to be subject to scrutiny.

You would think that the horrifically dystopian possibilities presented by this project would drive the conflict in the story, but you'd be wrong. In fact, the author seemingly goes out of his way to downplay the dangers of mental privacy being swept away. Gweanvin attempts to interface with the core of the device, but is discovered and is forced to flee to report back to her masters in the Commonality.

At this point, the story really begins running on Rule of Cool. The sufficiently distant future of the setting is enough to provide some seriously capable technology - the key being life-support implants that, in addition to protecting their users from hostile environments, also enable personal, shipless interstellar flight. For some reason. It's not explained anywhere in the story, just taken for a given, and I had to reread the part where Gweanvin escapes from the planet with security guardsmen in hot pursuit to figure out just what the hell was going on.

Honestly, I'd much rather have read a story that dealt with the implications of ubiquitous telepathic surveillance and the potential freedoms offered by personal interstellar flight capacity on these characters. It seems like they would go well together. Instead, we get a "desperate flight to return home with key information" plot that's not much different from a spy pursuit story through West Berlin and the East German countryside circa 1960.

No matter how far in the future it is, the technology isn't *entirely* unimpeachable. With power reserves limited, Gweanvin is forced to land on the first habitable planet she comes across - Arbora, a world where technological civilization didn't do so well after colonization. With the help of a local woodsman, Holm Ocanon, she struggles to recharge her implant and complete her flight home, all the while trying to slip away from Marvis Jans' pursuit. The ending of the story actually makes a lot more sense, ultimately, than when it first begins to unfold.

I'll admit right off that the story does work - it just doesn't work as well as it might, in my opinion, had it been built from different parts. Stylistically I found it reminiscent of Robert A. Heinlein in a way - possibly because the most recent novel of his I read, Friday, deals with a broadly similar protagonist. Some parts of the language were a bit bumpy as well, such as a male character referring to a female character as "a dish" - which is the real problem with slang. Using terms that are modern frequently causes that sort of disconnect for me. I had an easier time suspending my disbelief over the ability to fly through space independently - of course, though, I wanted to do that. Because it's totally awesome.


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1 comment:

  1. The setting for this story is explained in earlier stories, published in earlier issues of the magazine. Reading those earlier stories would address some of your complaints. Check out "The Creatures of Man" published by Baen.