VOR by James Blish (1958)
In the beginning there was Damon Knight, who found himself stuck on a story he was writing called "Mercy Death," so the story, half-written, went into a drawer. Then James Blish had an idea on how to complete the story and finished it. It was published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, February 1948, as "The Weakness of RVOG" (editor Sam Merwin thought this was a better way to arrange the capital letters) as by Damon Knight and James Blish.
Blish had a habit expanding stories that he had written into novel-length. And so it was with this onoe, published as a paperback origin as VOR. He retained much of the original tale and padded the book with extra characters and a side plot. The result was an amazingly good, amazingly flawed novel.
Marty Petrucelli is a member of a Michigan Civilian Air Patrol of the Air Force. (Blish himself was a member of the CAP for three years and he got the technical details right.) Marty was decorated war pilot but his experiences have left him with a deep phobia of flying; he was only member of his group that did not fly, restricting himself to training. Marty's fear of flying has strained relations with his wife, also a menber of the CAP, and has left the door open for young, brash pilot Al Strickland to pursue his wife. This two-fold soap opera of Marty's crumbling marriage and his phobia spurs much of the padding.
A vessel has crashed near the CAP headquarters and Marty is one of those to reach the scene first. It's a spaceship and it is occupied by a large indestructable robot. Why it is here?, why had it crashed?, where did it come from? are all unswered questions. Efforts are made to communicate with the robot filed because it used a color organ instead of a mouth -- it communicated only in colors. It is the task of government scientist to analyze its means of communication and to try to speak to it. The robot (or is there an extraterrestial under the robot's surface?) is dubbed VOR, for Violet-Orange-Red, three of the colors it communicates with.
Ever so slowly, the scientists work out a rough way of talking to VOR. Finally they determined why VOR had come to their planet: he/it wanted to die. Indestructable VOR gave Earth an ultimatum: Kill me or I will kill you. This scenario had played out on a number of planets before with VOR extinquishing all life when he could not be killed. How do you kill a creature that can ot be killed? VOR had been sent by an alien race to test the planet's defenses. (The aliens themselves, unlike VOR, can be destroyed.) If VOR is destroyed, the aliens won't come; if VOR wipes out a planet, the aliens come in to take possession.
It all makes for an interesting problem and an interesting book. Blish's detailed and well-researched backgound and technical expertise shine throughout the novel. Most of the padding, however, is not science-fictional, which has turned off some readers. In addition, one of the padded plot points is resolved in the hokiest way possible. As a blend of the science fiction and the mainstream novel, VOR is a well-paced, highly readable novel. As one reviewer put it, VOR is "surprisingly good."