Geoffrey Landis is an author who has built an oeuvre one novel shy of being entirely short fiction. Operating predominantly in retro mode, his stories are conventional adventures and thrillers reminiscent of the Golden and Silver Age with a hard sci-fi idea or two thrown to found the mix. His first ever published work, 1984’s “Elemental”, is a cheap opening act. Eminently quotable for all the wrong reasons, this bit of pulp is best left in the bargain bin.
For those with low expectations, the novelette is easy to engage with; Landis makes no assumptions on reader intelligence (i.e. everything is spoon fed, right down to the speech tags), nor does he attempt a story with any sort of relevancy. Check the following explanation of the magic/science system.
Modern thaumaturgy-usually simply called "magic"-was the logical outgrowth of quantum field theory. The basic premise of thaumaturgy is that "reality" is merely an abstract mathematical construct. Therefore, it can be controlled by the manipulation of abstract symbols-provided that the correct symbols can be chosen. The snow ward which Ramsey took for granted was only one of many changes wrought by the consequent technology.
For more sophisticated readers, “Elemental” is a continual battle in overcoming mainstream tropes, naïve prose, and at times pure silliness. Cheesy science-fantasy the outlay, readers will have to plow through pentagrams, spells, and other wizardly effects while reading a story that uses space ships and interplanetary adventure as its main tropes. In the hands of a writer like Jack Vance, this combination might work. But Landis aims for the obvious. Rather than trying to couch the ideas in a mood or mode all of its own, the widest possible audience is presented to, in turn diminishing any chance at uniqueness.
Style is thus the largest obstacle to overcome in “Elemental”. The following is a sample of dialogue between two flirting characters:
"That can be arranged. But what would you need a love potion for, though?" She looked at him coyly.
He missed her look, or else ignored it. "Oh . . . I'm sure 1 could find some use for one."
"It turns out that you can't actually make a love potion. Love isn't something you can turn on and off." She sighed. "Unfortunately."
She looked up at him. "But sex, now . . . that's something simple, and relatively well understood."
Ramsey laughed. "Well understood? It darn well ought to be, considering all the time people spend thinking about it."
"Oh, Ramsey, you're impossible," she said. "Won't you let me keep any dignity at all?"
Ramsey laughed: "Sorry," he said. He walked over and cradled her face in his palms. Then he kissed her.
"That's more like it," she said.
For people reading this review who see no problems with that quote, “Elemental” may be an enjoyable read. The rest, well, the words speak for themselves; it’s like the script of a 1950s sit-com rehashed for 1984.
In the end, “Elemental” is cheesy science fiction that asks nothing of the reader save suspending any standards of quality they might have for what constitutes literature with purpose. E.E. "Doc" Smith and other such writers of the pulp and Golden era are thus firm company, and readers who enjoy such stories may enjoy Landis’, as well.