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Gurglings of a Putrid Stream

Thoughts on books and other assorted topics.

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My name:  Brian Martin

A Brand New World by Ray Cummings

A Brand New World - Ray Cummings

I think it would have been fun writing in the early part of the last century. At least, if you were writing for the pulps. It was a time, after all, when a guy like Ray Cummings could churn out roughly 750 novels and short stories in a 35-year career, with about 350 of them coming in the 7-year period from 1935 to 1942 (which, if you're curious, works out to an average of one per week -- for five years!). And Cummings is a man whose best-regarded work, The Girl in the Golden Atom, was his first published story. Well, I don't know about that, not having read Atom, but, if true, what a whip!: having to read that prodigious output only to find out that the best thing he ever wrote was the first thing he ever wrote.


A Brand New World is from 1964, according to the disingenuous copyright notice in my edition. In fact, it was first published as a six-part serial in Argosy in 1928. It appears to have made its first appearance as a novel in 1942, but I have no idea whether any updates were made to it at that time or later. I'm left wondering about that because on more than one occasion Cummings mentions a human weapon too terrible to use against the story's alien invaders; too terrible because of what it would also do to the remaining human population. Which sounds a lot like the atomic bomb. And if Cummings predicted that in 1928, that's not half bad.


Much better than his idea of a planet wandering through space for millennia, complete with a living population of humanoids.


This planet, dubbed Xenephrene, enters into an orbit around our Sun, passing fairly close to Earth every 17 months. Close enough that its initial passage causes Earth to tilt on its axis, disrupting weather patterns and making much of the planet uninhabitable. If that isn't bad enough, while humankind scrambles toward the relatively hospitable climes of the equatorial regions, the aliens, armed with their superior "infrared" weaponry, begin an invasion against which Earth appears all but defenseless.


Meanwhile, our hero, Peter Vanderstuyft, falls in love with an alien girl named Zetta.


Metaphorically, the aliens are the Enemy du jour, and this is one of those funky utopian novels in which millions must die in order for human beings to see that they really aren't so different, after all. If people are that stupid, though, then "utopia" isn't oneness and peace, it is war and wasted lives. Peter may see hope in the way the world's nationalities unite to fight the invaders, but I see only an ad hoc coalition destined to crumble the first time someone screams "democracy" or "God."


Literally, the aliens are rather disappointing, being chiefly different from humans in their weight. They look just like us, but for some reason they weigh much less. Zetta, if I remember correctly, appears to be a normal woman, but weighs only 18 pounds. (Well, at least she and Peter can effortlessly enjoy the Clasp.) Otherwise, they are, like us, ruled by greed, jealousy, and the lust for power.


It wasn't always that way. The aliens used to be a peace-loving race. But, writes Cummings -- in another of those remarkable statements for 1928 (if indeed that's when it was written) -- one man changed all that, through the eloquence of his oratory. "It is a frightening thing," Peter's father says, "what one evil man can do."


That the problems of the world are only temporarily forgotten is evident in the novel's one real claim to "alienness": man-sized multi-legged insects that the aliens use as guards and cannon fodder. Combine the two worlds and the insects are second in intelligence only to men. Yet Peter isn't fascinated by them; he is repulsed by them. So much for tolerance and equality.


Cummings is by no means an exceptional writer and A Brand New World is by no means a good book. But it is competent, on the level of pulp. And I doubt many people read old science fiction for the quality of the writing. Personally, I was hooked by the blurb: "Xenephrene...made a pretty vision in the evening sky -- until flying things and strange visitants appeared. Xenephrene was inhabited...and its inhabitants had discovered Earth." I was half hoping for an atmospheric first act full of mystery and menace. Of course, at the time, I'd forgotten the story had started its life as a serial and that there was clearly no time for that.

Still and all, I suppose it isn't too bad for a week's work.