Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Review of A Tale of Two Clocks by James Schmitz

After finishing a book that has no obvious flaws I feel guilty writing something of a negative review.  Viable critiques generally focusing on the concrete, more objective aspects of writing, James H. Schmitz’s 1962 A Tale of Two Clocks (also known as Legacy) has no glaring surface flaws.  The prose, while not attempting anything lush or attractive, nevertheless moves forward one step at a time and is technically correct. The structure, while perhaps a tad padded, nevertheless suits the story desired to be told.  The characters are rather flat, but they were never intended to win the Booker or Pulitzer, rather fill a space opera.  The setting, while not rich, occupies the backdrop.  And while developed at a slow pace, some sense of mystery and adventure is built.  In short, A Tale of Two Clocks does the the things it should relatively right.  Why then do I feel so underwhelmed?  I think it has to do with a more subjective aspect of writing: tone.

Seemingly unaware of mood, and thus unable to fully generate plot momentum, the tone of A Tale of Two Clocks is like that party guest who asks the socially appropriate questions, responds in uncontroversial fashion, and leaves at 9:30 when things are just starting to pick up.  This is strange as the main character Trigger, top graduate student researching mysterious alien plasmoid objects and a crack shot with her pistols, is most everything heroines of yesteryear genre are not, and would seem to be an inviting center point for a fun space opera… 

A mysterious organization (less mysteriously) called the Grabbers threaten Trigger’s university.  Wanting to steal one of the unique plasmoids, A Tale of Two Clocks opens with a little intrigue.  Trigger in a singular position working with the alien objects, she doesn’t wait for the Grabbers to reveal themselves, and when placed under curfew while the military sorts out the thieves, takes matters into her own hands.  Her escape unraveling quickly in ways she never imagined, events at the university, from the academics studying to the military guarding the plasmoids, soon evolve into interplanetary adventure.  And yes, her crack shot with the pistols is needed. 

In character primary and secondary, A Tale of Two Clocks presents an interesting juxtaposition.  Trigger is on one hand an empowered female lead with agency.  She confidently (but not overly so) goes about her business, is competent in the tasks she takes to hand, is respected by colleagues, and is highly informed in her area of expertise.  She makes things happen and takes control more often than not.  Undercutting this portrayal is Trigger’s social backdrop.  Men make curvy motions with their hands when Trigger leaves the room, talk about her ass when she’s not around, and the overall social attitude of her peers is one far more ‘traditional’ than progressive. I’m still trying to figure out how Schmitz reconciled these two sides.

But the juxtaposition is what it is.  The tone, as mentioned, is far more unequivocal.  Schmitz writing in a straight-forward, undecorated, unnuanced, un-anything style that failed to engage this reader, the novel may not be an easy to read, depending what expectations the reader has in the area of technique and style.  (Hint, the lower the expectations, the less affected you’ll be by the flat narration.)

In the end, dry bread is nourishing but tasteless.  Given A Tale of Two Clocks’ mode and presentation, I can’t help but feel the metaphor appropriate.  Is dry bread good or bad?  I guess it depends how hungry you are…

1 comment:

  1. Schmitz writes as a man of his time and did not expect society to change. He also wrote for the pulps before SF started to think it should have "tone". It moved what you perceive as slowly because the ideas were once new and most readers needed time to take them in. Normal readers today still have trouble with SF because they find the hints of technology and aliens and different societies hard to absorb, though most people have gotten somewhat more sophisticated by watching Star Trek reruns.