Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, July 26, 2019


Pstalemate by Lester del Rey (1971)

Lester del Rey (1919-1993) was named a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America in 1990, an award that was as deserved as it was problematic.  Had it existed at the time, I suspect that del Rey would have named an Author Emeritus, an award established in 1995 to recognize authors whose best writing was behind them. (The Emeritus title was given to such authors as Judith Merril, William Tenn, and Robert Sheckley -- all of whom would have been deserving as Grand Master earlier in their careers.)  Del Rey's best writing, I submit was in his shorter works -- "The Faithful," "Helen O'Loy", "Nerves," and "For I Am a Jealous People" are excellent examples.  He also turned out some very impressive juvenile novels for the Winston "Adventures in Science Fiction" series and for later publishers.  It was with adult novels that he seems to have misstepped.  Preferred Risk (1955, written with Frederik Pohl under the joint pseudonym "Edson McCann") was slapped together when a novel contest sponsored by Galaxy magazine received not a single entry worthy of winning the contest.  Nerves (1956) did his famous story no favors by expanding it.  Police Your Planet (1956, as by "Erik van Lhin") was an interesting read but was really a disguised juvenile.  Day of the Giants (1959) reprinted a very pulpish fantasy first published in a 1950 issue of Fantastic AdventuresThe Eleventh Commandment (1962) was written as a controversial and somewhat strained mash-up about the population explosion and the Catholic Church.  Weeping May Tarry (1978, published as by del Rey and Raymond F. Jones) was actually written by Jones, expanding on the theme of del Rey's "For I Am A Jealous People;" was both minor and forgettable.  And then there's Pstalemate, del Rey's actual last novel, published eight years after his last juvenile and nine years after his last adult novel.

Much of del Rey's career was as an editor, beginning with three short-lived -- albeit impressive -- magazines in the early 1950s, then as the editor of Dutton's Best Science Fiction of the Year series (1972-1976) and as editor of "Best of" collections of well-known SF writers (C. L. Moore, Frederik Pohl, John W. Cambell, Robert Bloch, and Hal Clement) for Nelson Doubleday and Ballantine Books.  In the early 1970s del Rey married the very talented editor Judy-Lynn Benjamin, who had worked with Frederik Pohl on Galaxy and If magazines and became managing editor of Galaxy.  Judy-Lynn del Rey moved to Ballantine Books and revived its flagging science fiction line.  In 1975, she brought her husband aboard to edit the house's fantasy line.  The del Rey science fiction and fantasy lines were named to honor her, although many falsely assumed it was named for Lester; after her death, Lester del Rey continued the line.  As del Rey's fantasy editor, Lester del Rey inflicted Terry Brooks Shannara series upon the public.  Lester del Rey also selected the 45-volume Garland Library of Science Fiction reprints (all 1975).  He also had a busy career as a book reviewer.

As a person, del Rey was somewhat unusual.  He fabricated his life story, claiming that he was born Ramon Felipe San Juan Mario Silvio Enrico Smith Heathcourte-Brace Sierra y Alverez-del Rey y des los Verdes (phew!), but he sometimes shortened that to Ramon Feklipe Alverez-del Rey.  He also claimed his entire family was killed in a 1935 car accident.  After del Rey's death it was learned that he was born Leonard Knapp in Saratoga, Minnesota.  The 1935 car accident was real, but it killed his first wife, not his parents or siblings.  (He also boasted that, from the age of fifteen, he had never gone more than five days without having sex with a woman -- something I doubt anyone will bother trying to prove or disprove.)  There is no question however that del Rey was a very intelligent, widely-read, talented, opinionated,and feisty individual.  The character of Emmanuel Rubin in Isaac Asimov's puzzle series about the Black Widowers was based on del Rey.

In Pstalemate del Rey challeges himself to describe the indescribable...and comes up short.

Harry Bronson is a man without a past.  Literally.  All memories before he was ten have been wiped from his mind.  Told his parents were dead, Harry was raised by one of his father's  business partners.  He is now an engineer verging on great success.  Then, driving to D.C. in a snow storm, he began to hear voices calling his name.  Suddenly the flood gates began to slowly open and Harry found that he could read minds.  Not only was he a telepath, he was one of a number of telepaths who individually tried to keep their talents secret.  His powers soon expanded to precognition.  It is possible that Harry is one of the most powerful telepaths in the world.

This is something he seems to take in stride.  Then something loathsome invades his mind -- an Alien Intruder that shocks him to his core.  Harry manages to repel this thing from his mind, but it keeps returning, a fetid, foul creature whose only purpose appears to be to devour Harry psychically.  If that wasn't enough, Harry's precognitive ability tells him that in three months he will go completely insane.  It turns out that all those with extrasensory powers go mad.  No exception, it seems.

As Harry's power grows, he begins to regain memory of his lost years.  His psychic abilities had been with him from the start; Harry remembers connecting mentally with his father.  He also remembers the fire in which his mother -- mad as all telepaths will become -- tried to kill him.  There is Ellen, the daughter of another of his father's partners; her parents are also dead.  Ellen has also evinced powers since she was young.  Harry reconnects with Ellen.  They form a bond and marry, knowing that Harry has less than three months of sanity left to him and that Ellen will also sink into madness in the future.

Harry desperately wants to save Ellen but he's facing twin dooms -- the raging Alien entity that is determined to destroy him and his incipient madness.  Which will come first?

The main problem with this book is the author's approach.   At one point del Rey writes that he is trying to describe things and actions for which there are no nouns or verbs.  The book becomes plodding as del Rey tries to explain what is happening.  But, you see, nothing much happens in the book.  It is a book of ideas with a weak storyline trying to support it.  The protagonist's reactions do not appear rational.  The little bit of sex in the novel is not really needed.  There's also a bit of questionable psychology at play when del Rey tries to wrap things up.  And then there's the loose end of another interstellar benvolent race that may or may not exist

 But I have to give del Rey credit.  He tried to describe something that admittedly cannot be understood by mere homo sapiens.  And, despite my carping, a failed book may also be a worthy book and this one is worthy in its failures.  Just don't set your expectations too high.

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