Serial Review: All Judgment Fled by James White (Part 2/3)

(Cover by John Pederson. If, January 1968.)

Who Goes There?

James White was most popular in his time for the Sector General series, about a giant hospital station in space where conflicts comes not from epic space battles but doctors dealing with bizarre alien biology. White wanted to become a doctor but financial concerns at the time prevented this, although frankly I would’ve just assumed he was a doctor, going by what I’ve read of All Judgment Fled so far. I’m very curious about exploring White more, given his fascination with non-violent causes for conflict, and how violence isn’t treated as a solution but a catalyst for bigger problems.

Placing Coordinates

Part 2 was published in the January 1968 issue of If, which is on the Archive. Bad news is All Judgment Fled has not been given many paperback editions; good news is the few editions we have go for cheap used.

Enhancing Image

Now that we’re on the Ship, it’s time to do some exploring! The men of P-One (Drew, Morrison, and Hollis) and P-Two (McCullough, Walters, and Berryman) are officially stuck together, with the two small ships being now conjoined near the Ship to make moving between the two easy. Last time we hung out with the boys, Walters narrowly survived an encounter with one of the starfish aliens (now called a Type Two), and his suit is now basically unusable. This is a bit of a problem. For the men the suits are like a second layer of skin that, if removed, would greatly increase the risk of death, even though they don’t need the suits in the Prometheus ships; on the Ship it’s a different story. And apparently the aliens are hostile!

On top of all this, the men also have to deal with an increasingly cranky Prometheus Command, the top brass back home who are relaying the men’s actions back to Earth, with millions people (at least a billion, actually) tuning their radios to hear about what happens next. There’s a bit of meta hijinks going on here since McCullough is made all too vividly aware that the men’s sense of privacy has been eroded, that nearly their every move and word is being judged by a vast unseen audience—although unbeknownst to the characters that audience also encompasses readers. We’re given a better idea as to the relationship between the explorers and the rest of mankind, with this lop-sided arrangement that’s probably not good for the explorers’ mental health. Hollis was already on the verge of a breakdown in Part 1, but that turns out to be the least of the men’s problems.

Then there’s the question of the aliens’ intelligence. Frankly there’s no way to be sure. Somebody must’ve been intelligent enough to have built the ship, but the aliens that are actually onboard are unlikely to have been the culprits. The Type Two, for instance, is almost certainly non-sentient, but even then there’s no guarantee about that. Maybe up to now there’s just been failure to communicate. There are also at least two types of alien (as in, aliens that cannot be of the same species) that are on the Ship, and likely there’s a third species waiting for Our Heroes™ down the road. Still, despite the close encounters with aliens, the question as to who built the Ship remains perfectly unanswered—and yet conceivably it has to be something of at least the same intelligence as humans, and more likely of greater intelligence. White understands that in the highly unlikely event of first contact the aliens in question would be akin to angels—or an amoeba.

Their idea was simply that any piece of machinery beyond a certain degree of complexity—from a car or light airplane up to and including spaceships half a mile long—required an enormous amount of prior design work, planning and tooling long before the first simple parts and sub-assemblies became three-dimensional metal on someone’s workbench. The number of general assembly and detail drawings, material specification charts, wiring diagrams and so on for a vessel of this size must have been mind-staggering, and the purpose of all this paperwork was simply to instruct people of average intelligence in the manufacture and fitting together the parts of this gigantic three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

Speaking of first contact, Murray Leinster doesn’t quite get namedropped, but he gets the next best thing: a not very subtle hint directed his way. At one point McCullough, evidently a science fiction fan, thinks about “the old-time author responsible for a story called First Contact.” We also get a reference to another classic Leinster story, “The Ethical Equations,” and both these stories are indeed very much relevant to the current situation. White’s fannish side comes to the surface here, but at the same time it makes sense for the explorers to have been made at least somewhat familiar with classic science fiction, since SF would be the only even remotely useful reference point for their mission. I could fault White for a couple things, but over and over I find his logical outlook admirable; he takes something that with most writers would get pushed under the rug with some handwavium and he guides it along to a logical conclusion. There are no easy answers.

Part 2 does suffer a bit from what we might call Middle Installment Syndrome, in which the middle entry of a trilogy has to contend with not having a beginning or a conclusion, but making do as a big gelatinous second act. Why do people remember The Two Towers less than Fellowship of the Ring and Return of the King? Well, what happens in The Two Towers? We’re introduced to Gollum properly, that’s gotta be worth something; and we get the Battle of Helm’s Deep, often the most cited action set piece in the trilogy—yet going by IMDB and Letterboxd scores people aren’t quite as fond of The Two Towers as its siblings. Middle Installment Syndrome. I’ve come to realize that this also applies to novel serials, although I probably wouldn’t feel the “gelatinous second act” thing as much if I was reading All Judgment Fled as a single unit. Still, it’s short enough to not drag much.

There Be Spoilers Here

Things really go to shit in the second half of Part 2. The explorers kill a Type Two in another encounter, which is more or less accidental but which starts a snowball of paranoia and calls for violence among the men. As I supposed should be expected with White, violence is treated as something to be prevented as much as possible, since it will not solve issues but instead cause a snowball effect of greater violence. Command is not happy with how things are turning out, since at the outset this was supposed to be a mission that would unite mankind, rather than cause people to splinter on, for example, the treatment of alien lifeforms. “But now that the meeting had degenerated into violence, had become literally a blow-by-blow affair, the idea had backfired.” This culminates in the first fatality among the explorers, with Morrison, one of the most experienced men on the team, getting brutally killed by a Type Two. Even though we don’t get to know any of these men (except for McCullough) too much as individuals, Morrison’s death still works as a point of no return for the venture.

For better or worse, the men can only move forward.

After Morrison’s body is tucked away, the men keep searching through the big corridors of the Ship, coming upon rooms of different kinds, although McCullough seems to be the only one keeping his eye on the prize at this point. Most disconcerting is a room that almost resembles something humans would use—like a bedroom or a drawing-room. “A lab animal would not require a furnished room. Which meant that there were intelligent extraterrestrials on the Ship.” Maybe the Type Twos aren’t sentient, but somebody here sure is. And just as it looks like the men are about to hit a big clue as to the aliens’ nature, the Ship has started moving—away from the Prometheus ships. The Ship, which hitherto had been orbiting freely, is now moving on its own again. Well gosh darn it!

A Step Farther Out

It’s enjoyable, but there’s also something missing about it that I can’t put my finger on. It could be that there are too many characters that can be thought of as “nondescript white guy,” with only a couple standing out. That can’t be it, though. The characters in Rendezvous with Rama are made of cardboard, but that doesn’t bother me. I think it may be that White, unlike Clarke, is not concerned with evoking a Sense of Wonder™, which no doubt contributes to Rama remaining popular after half a century. White obviously has different goals from Clarke, which so far he’s been meeting admirably; it’s just that if you’re expecting a first contact narrative that’ll leave you breathless you’ll be disappointed. White does, however, have a special talent for making me think about the situation these characters are in—about logistical problems that would naturally arise from such a situation, but also the deep moral quandary that would come about in the event of first contact with a spacefaring alien race. Looking forward to how White’s gonna end this!

See you next time.


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