CLASSIC SCIENCE FICTION BOOK REVIEW: "Rogue in Space" by Frederick Brown (1957)

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I'm using the word "Classic" here in the sense of "Really old," as in "boring old classic rock" and not in the happier "Really good and influential" sense of the word.

A friend of mine loaned me a bunch of old pulp SF Novels, and I’m making my way through them. This is the fourth one that I’ve read by the same author and. thus far, Mr. Brown has been very hit-and-miss. He’s done two novels about solipsism, one of which was very funny, the other wasn’t nearly as funny as he thought it was, but was still pretty good. He’s also done two “Straight” SF novels that aren’t supposed to be comedies, and don’t involve solipsism. Both of those have been pretty terrible.

“Rogue in Space” is one of these, and of the two bad novels I’ve read, I think this is the more frustrating simply because the first half of it is a really good story. For about half its length, the book is a real page-turner, a twisty, turny crime-and-spy caper which, with a few minor pushes, would have made a good Hitchcock movie. Then the plot reaches its climax about half-way through and just sort of stops. The next half of the book involves a kind of long, boring deus ex machina that completely violates the narrative rules of the first half of the novel, is painfully unoriginal, irrelevant, and is also patently obvious from the climax a half-dozen chapters before. This comes as kind of a slap in the face to me personally since I was totally on board and loving the story for the first half.

I’ve seen this kind of thing before, actually. It’s not terribly uncommon in pulp novels of the fifties. The author writes a story, with a beginning, middle, and end, all nice and tight and plotted out, then the publisher says “Oh, crap, we intended this for an Ace Double, but that fell through, you need to pad it out!” or “Astounding SF said they want to serialize your story in three parts, instead of two, so you need to pad it out” or “Fred, honey, you’re getting paid by the word, right? Well, we’ve got a balloon payment coming up on the mortgage, would it be possible if you padded out the novel you’re working on?” That kind of thing. The common denominator is, of course, that the bastard is padded out needlessly, and it ruins the story as a whole.

Plot: Oddly puritanical atheist criminal “Crag” (Not “Craig”) is framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and is then tricked (a’la “La Femme Nikita” or its crappy American remake, “The Girl Nikki” - yes, I know that's not it's real title. Shut up!) in to working illegally for a government official who’s trying to reform the government. He semi-willingly goes on a quest for a MacGuffin Device that we’re told will provide a new source of energy for humanity, and break the dominance of the corrupt two party system, but the MacGuffin Device ends up being a MacGuffin Weapon in a big double-cross. The Bad Guy is defeated, the MacGuffin Gun is destroyed, and everyone dies, the end. Then an alien shows up and brings everyone back to life, “Crag” has problems fitting back into society after his ordeal, he and some friends attempt to form a new civilization, but then most of them decide they prefer decadence to a life of pioneering privation, and leave Crag to an Adam-and-Eve existence in a world custom-built for him by the god-like alien. The end, again.

Obviously, that’s one ending too many.

The novel is well enough written. Mr. Brown isn’t quite as immediately likeable as Heinlein or Bradbury or Padgett, but he’s worlds better than Asimov or Clarke, and he’s got a somewhat terse Hemingwayesque style that is punchy and fun to read when it’s in service of a good story, somewhat pointless and meandering when it’s not. The book is quite a bit dirtier than I would have expected from a late-50s potboiler. “Crag” was done wrong by a woman who broke his heart sometime before the story begins, and as such he’s a woman-hater. He’s a heavy drinker, and a gambler, but avoids more prurient vices in a society that we’re told is decadent. Presently, he’s hiding out from the law in an apartment that is apparently owned by a gay couple (They’re on vacation, he breaks in), and there’s a couple pretty funny scenes of Crag maliciously ruining their stuff, because “Crag didn’t like homosexuals.” I suspect this scene is only in the book to make sure we’re aware Crag isn’t gay, since his woman-hating could easily give you that impression otherwise. Later on, the author has a lot of space to kill with no pesky plot to get in the way, and he decides to show us exactly how decadent society has become – prostitutes (Any gender or age) come free with luxury hotel rooms, or if you just like to beat people up, they can provide those too, necrophilia is an accepted part of society, the government is hopelessly corrupt, voyeurism is common and marketable, libraries have pretty much nothing in them except pornography, transvestitism is accepted, there’s a brief ménage-a-trois scene towards the end.

Without exception, every bit of this is put forward with stolid 1950s disgust, and modern readers might actually suspect the author had some kind of “Right Wing Agenda,” but no, he was a liberal atheist, 1950s style, a brown-shoe democrat with a stern commitment to civil rights and a fear of what creeping perversion would do to society, based on what I can find out about the guy. Of course it’s entirely possible that he’s feigning outrage so as not to alienate his audience. I know for a fact that Brown was best buddies w/ Robert Heinlein, and Heinlein was keen on at least several kinds of perversions mentioned in this book.

You know, now that I think on it, even though this novel isn’t theoretically solipsistic, it’s just about as close as you can possibly get.
On the whole, I’d say avoid this book, or if you must read it, just stop half way through were everyone dies.