Serial Review: All Judgment Fled by James White (Part 1/3)

(Cover by Douglas Chaffee. If, December 1967.)

Who Goes There?

James White was an Irish SF fan-turned-writer who was one of the many authors to have found his footing in the ’50s, and it was in that decade when he started his Sector General series—about a massive hospital in space that deals with many alien species. Rather than focus on hardboiled adventure narratives, White seemed to prefer to write about issues that naturally arise from psychology and biology; he wanted to practice medicine, but economic troubles apparently led him elsewhere. With this in mind I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read anything by White prior to today’s novel, All Judgment Fled, which is a one-off and which was serialized in If, as opposed to New Worlds, where the Sector General series was published. All Judgment Fled is a Big Dumb Object™ story, published in the midst of several famous BDO stories (notably Ringworld, and, more regrettably, The Wanderer), but White looks to add his own flavor to the basic premise.

Placing Coordinates

Part 1 was published in the December 1967 issue of If, which is on the Archive. (You may notice that this issue has been mislabeled on the Archive as the May 1967 issue. Somebody fucked up.) Also be aware that If and Galaxy under Fred Pohl’s editorship well actually Galaxy also had this issue when H. L. Gold was in charge have some pretty sloppy copy-editing, which may distract from the experience. Sadly there aren’t many paperback editions either; the most recent edition, from Old Earth Books, predates 9/11. The good news is that used copies still go for cheap.

Enhancing Image

In the near future (a future which rather closely resembles the space race in the years following the moon landing), a mysterious vessel is spotted orbiting our sun between Mars and Jupiter, “shaped like a blunt topedo with a pattern of bulges encircling its mid-section and just under half a mile long.” The Ship (with a capital S) is a massive cylindrical object that is no doubt artificial, and which has not responded to any attempts to contact it. Thus we have the Prometheus Project, a first contact mission wherein two small ships, P-One and P-Two, are sent out to rendezvous with the Ship. (If this sounds a bit like Rendezvous with Rama, keep in mind that All Judgment Fled came first.) Six of the sharpest minds in the space program, three to each ship, are set to spend more than five months locked up in tight quarters on their way to the Ship, with McCullough, the doctor on P-Two, as the closest we get to a protagonist. Perhaps not coincidentally, all six of the men chosen are unmarried; survival is not guaranteed.

Aside from McCullough on P-Two we have Berryman and Walters; and on P-One we have Drew, Morrison, and Hollis. McCullough is the only one of the six to have sufficient medical training, and while the ships are always in communication with each other, they’re still a good distance apart as they voyage out to the Ship. Berryman and Walters are trained astronauts while McCullough is the outlier; meanwhile on P-One Hollis is the noobie while Drew and Morrison are the veterans. While it must’ve been tempting for command to hire all veteran spacers for the voyage, a more diverse team (in profession, though it must be said not in skin color or nationality) was probably for the best. Certain skills might be needed…

Instead of six of the world’s acknowledged scientific geniuses there had been chosen four experienced astronauts and two under training who were not even known in scientific circles and were respected only by friends. All that could be said for them was that they had a fairly good chance of surviving the trip.

Something about this novel that struck me is that you can tell that it was written when the space race about the reach its climax. The moon landing was still more than a year off, but Yuri Gagarin had left Earth’s orbit several years prior and it’s quite possible White wrote the novel immediately following the Apollo 1 tragedy. It was widely known by this point that being an astronaut was dangerous—that blood had already been spilled in the name of the US and Soviet Union outdoing each other. As such, despite the peppering of light sarcastic humor throughout (more on this in a bit), there’s still this persistent sense that Our Heroes™ could meet an unfortunate end at pretty much any moment. Of course, space is scary enough; the astronauts also have to deal with each other.

The boys are stuck with each other, in living quarters “which compared unfavorably with the most unenlightened penal institutions,” having to eat paste through tubes, having to wipe themselves down with alcohol periodically since they can’t take water baths, having no idea at all what they’re gonna do exactly when they arrive at their destination. When Hollis comes down with a skin condition and McCullough has to venture out to P-One to take care of him, there’s some worry—not just for Hollis’s body, but his mentality, which doesn’t look good either. McCullough doesn’t have to prod Hollis for long before the latter starts ranting about his co-workers. “A person could say an awful lot about themselves by the way they talked about someone else.” It’s clear to McCullough that Hollis is threatening to have a mental breakdown—that he’s having paranoid delusions about Drew and Morrison, whom he claims have snuck a “Dirty Annie,” a small nuclear weapon, into P-One. Even after Hollis is calmed down, it’s clear that this man’s instability will probably contribute to later problems.

Both the characters and the third-person narrator engage in some banter, which makes sense given the situation; few things deflate tension like humor. Actually while I have my reservations about the characters themselves, I don’t fault White for bordering the narrative with jokes—helped by White’s sense of humor (in my opinion) being often effective and unintrusive. While the BDO story had certainly not been done to death at this point (give it another decade), White’s deconstructing of the premise almost feels like commentary on the basic premise and how in reality, if we were to make contact with some alien vessel in our solar system, things would be much less glamorous than what Hollywood gives us. The lack of imput from the outside world, despite us being told about millions of eyes and ears keeping track of the voyage, only adds to the isolation and claustrophobia.

There Be Spoilers Here

So we finally get to the Ship, and we even meet some aliens, although these are far from little green men. The aliens are obviously intelligent enough to have built the Ship, but whether they’re capable of understanding human speech or even gestures is another question. “We know,” says McCullough at one point, “that they do not have fingers, and may have a two-digit pincer arrangement.” Turns out they have even less than that (or more, depending on how you look at it), with one alien looking like an actual starfish while another resembles a dumbbell. Between Hollis’s paranoia, Walters nearly dying from getting a tear in his spacesuit, and the aliens being totally unintelligible, Our Heroes™ have some work to do.

Stay tuned.

A Step Farther Out

I’m cautiously optimistic about this one. I occasionally find White’s attempts at dry humor chuckle-worthy, but I’m not sure if this is the norm for him or something unique to this novel. We’re also about a third into All Judgment Fled and the action has barely started; this is not the fastest of reads, despite being short overall. At the same time White is focusing on things that are not normally dwelled on in Big Dumb Object™ stories, namely the logistical and psychological cost of coming into contact with a BDO in the first place. McCullough and crew are not the most vividly drawn of characters, but their uneasy dynamic should be fruitful for future conflicts. Given the nature of the aliens this may also prove to be an unorthodox first contact narrative, since we’re not dealing with humanoids or even seemingly aliens capable of verbal speech. I’m already prepping to start Part 2.

See you next time.


3 responses to “Serial Review: All Judgment Fled by James White (Part 1/3)”

  1. ” At the same time White is focusing on things that are not normally dwelled on in Big Dumb Object™ stories, namely the logistical and psychological cost of coming into contact with a BDO in the first place.” — you are narrowing in on why I thought the novel rises above others of its ilk! Clarke’s Rendezvous is psychologically empty.


      • Absolutely. I have fond memories of the Clarke from my late teens. Rama II on the other hand… but as I age, I find I require some psychological depth to latch onto an adventure-driven narrative.


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