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

(Cover by Vaughn Bodé. If, February 1968.)

Who Goes There?

James White was one of the more successful British SF authors who did not (as far as I can tell) partake in New Wave antics in the ’60s. His loose Sector General series started in the ’50s and remained steadfast as a conventionally written setting for hospital dramas IN SPAAAAAAAACE, and his novel that I’ve reviewed, All Judgment Fled, is, excepting a couple passages (there’s a bit toward the end of Part 3 that references LSD), a pretty vanilla affair—which is not to say it’s boring. On the contrary, White is clearly a writer who considers the logical implications of his narratives, which naturally then snowball into ethical implications; he also has a sarcastic whit which at no point rang as irritating to mine ears. While my feelings on the novel are a bit mixed I do look forward to future adventures with White, especially since he’s one of those prolific magazine contributors and therefore someone (like Poul Anderson and Jack Vance) I fall back on for emergencies.

Placing Coordinates

Part 3 was published in the February 1968 issue of If, which is on the Archive. I’m not usually a fan of If‘s cover art, but the Bodé covers (we got too few of them, sadly) are very well done and eye-catching, including this one. As for book publication we only have a few editions to work with, for a novel that’s over half a century old, but you can find used copies cheap.

Enhancing Image

Before I get into the installment itself, I wanna talk a bit about what the past week has been like for me. If you’re reading this it means it’s May 22nd and by extention this post is two days late. I set deadlines for myself with these but I found out the hard way that there was just no doing this post on-time. I didn’t even finish reading Part 3 until the night of the 21st. Last week round this time I guested on a certain podcast, which went well and which you can expect to see at the beginning of June, probably back-to-back with my review forecast; that was not the hard part. No, the irony is that going on vacation can make it very hard to do things you normally do in your spare time. I had requested time off work and flew to Chicago (from Newark) on Friday, and only got back Monday. I was there to visit a couple friends I very rarely get the chance to hang out with in person; as such, combined with the brief time window I’d given myself, we crunched a week’s worth of fun times into three days. It was a good time, needless to say, but I also got precious little time to work on this site, hence the delay.

Now that I’ve said that, it’s time to finish this damn serial.

Last time we were with the boys, the mission had gone to hell. Morrison got killed by a Type Two, a tentacled creature with a giant horn and without any capacity to reason with the explorers. As violence has broken out on the Ship, a mysterious object orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, the higher-ups at Prometheus Control have been chastising McCullough (the audience surrogate) and company for their lack of professionalism. The Twos are hostile to the point of seeing the humans as food, which results in much of Part 3 being an all-out skirmish between the explorers and a horde of Twos, making for an extended action sequence that admittedly sort of struggled to hold my interest. A weakness of mine as a reader is that my eyes tend to glaze over when it comes to action, whith it being too easy for me to lose track of who’s dealing with what and who’s still alive and who has bitten the big bazooka. The action in Part 3 is especially confusing, partly (I suspect) deliberately and also because White refuses to give us a clear picture of the ship’s interior. The illustrations do a lot of leg work.

The most egregious example of White’s confusing laying out of action happens at the very beginning, wherein we’re told via narration that Drew has died—somehow. I wondered if I had missed something at the end of the previous installment, made worse because the recap section makes no mention of it—but no, Drew is not dead, he’s actually fine. The logic seems to be that in the heat of battle McCullough thinks Drew is dead, but this turns out to be a false alarm; the third-person narration sharing McCullough’s confusion is a hard pill to swallow, however. A similar case happens toward the end when (not getting into specifics here, because spoilers) a character has apparently died and the narration does not tell us this explicitly (unless I missed something, which is possible) until after the fact. Did he die offscreen? What happened? I’m getting ahead of myself.

We’ve discovered by now that the Ship is, or was, operated in all likelihood by a very small crew, and that the Twos wandering about looking for scraps are either non-sentient or driven (by something) to insanity. We never get a clear answer as to the nature of the Twos, but we do know that they’re an active threat to the explorers. Drew’s maddened call for extermination of the Twos (which is supposed to inform us that the explorers have basically reached rock bottom) does not come off as too unreasonable. Regardless, the mission has degenerated to such an extent that Prometheus Control and the explorers are all but no longer on speaking terms—a relationship that is about to get even rockier, if you can believe it.

McCullough sums it up nicely:

He realized suddenly that although he was terribly afraid for his own immediate safety he was furiously angry about the things they had done and were doing on the Ship. From the very beginning they had no control of the situation. It had been a stupid if well-intentioned muddle. And while they had changed their minds several times when new data became available they had not really used their brains. They had been panicked into things. They had not allowed themselves time to think. And when threatened with danger they thought only of survival.

The higher-ups at one point bring in a woman on the speaker to calm the men and reassure them with an incoming supply drop, but this doesn’t work too well. Keep in mind that said woman, whose name we never learn and who is called “Tokyo Rose” at one point (I get the reference, but it’s also a cute bit of symbolism with how the woman’s reassuring voice functions as and is acknowledged as basically propaganda), is the only female character in the novel; and she’s not really a character at that. From here on it’s all a war of nerves, of the explorers fighting off Twos while trying not to have total mental breakdowns. We do get some relief in the form of a new alien species with the Threes, which are like a cross between a snake and a teddy bear; I know that sounds like a weird combination. The Threes appear to be friendly, but are still not the intelligent alien(s) running the Ship that the explorers are looking for. This is the longest installment, so be prepared for a big third-act blowout and the summit of the conflict.

All Judgment Fled is technically a Big Dumb Object™ story, but that’s desceptive given how close-quarters the novel’s scale is. From start to finish we’re stuck with two small ships from the Prometheus Project and the Ship, which while nearly half a mile long is not spacious like the interior of, say, Rama. Comparisons will inevitably be drawn between White’s novel and Arthur C. Clarke’s undying classic, which depending on your worldview may or may not be favorable. If you’re looking for gosh-wow moments that provoke your inner child (what Rendezvous with Rama does in spades) then you’ll have no such luck with White’s novel. The setting is cramped, paranoid, claustrophobic, verging on inner space rather than outer with how much we’re stuck with the flawed humanity of the characters, but this is still a hard-headed old-school SF tale at the end of the day. McCullough, our lead, never becomes fully human in that his conscience never wanders from the physical problem at hand for long, but the novel still deals with the ethical equations of first contact more than some of its ilk.

It’s respectable is what I’m saying, if also cagey.

There Be Spoilers Here

After losing Drew (for real this time) and Berryman we finally get to have a “chat” with the alien that’s really running the Ship, and it looks—interesting. Another thing I gotta give White credit for is that we do not get any humanoid aliens here, with the different types vaguely resembling Earth animals but having nothing that could be mistaken for human. (I bring this up just so we can rest easy that none of the explorers go chasing lustily after some blue-skinned space babe.) The intelligent—and benevolent, wow how lucky—alien running the Ship is itself nightmarish in appearance to our battered explorers, “a great, fat, caterpillar, an LSD nightmare with too many eyes and mouths in all the wrong places.” Still the two species are able to communicate through visuals, since obviously verbal communication will do nothing, and ultimately we get a sort of cultural exchange.

Since half the human crew is dead there’s now few enough people to accommodate the reduced number of space suits, along with one of the P-ships no longer working. Which is all rather… convenient? If also morbid. I don’t totally buy the happy ending here, but then maybe White is not the kind of writer to totally fuck his characters over. J. G. Ballard would fuck shit up with this premise, which makes me wonder what this novel would’ve been like had it been a more ruthless deconstruction of first contact narratives—a premise that’s started here but not completely fulfilled.

A Step Farther Out

I know a couple people who prefer this over Rendezvous with Rama, and I can see the argument for it even though I ultimately have to disagree, because in some ways All Judgment Fled is the anti-Rama. Whereas the explorers in Clarker’s novel are always up against some tangible external problem that can be solved fine with bruce force or swiftness of speed, the conflict in White’s novel comes largely from the fact that the people heading the Prometheus Project failed to consider the possibility of interacting with alien lifeforms, not to mention explorers who might not be the most rational people; yet All Judgment Fled also feels incomplete somehow, whereas Rama is undoubtedly the complete package. This is a short novel, coming in at no more than 55,000 words, and truth be told it could’ve been 5,000 words longer, much of that devoted to scenery and character moments. The characters are not the flattest, but it can be easy to confuse some of them; half of them lack clearly defined roles but also nuance. White also has this thing for not describing places in any great detail, which made the action-heavy back end of the novel read as too abstract for my tastes.

Next post will be on time, trust me.

See you next time.


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