Another summer of mission creep following the pattern with Ambrose Bierce and Kathe Koja.
I was just going to review the last two books in James Gunn’s Transcendental Trilogy and then one thing led to another.
This one is a Gunn rarity. My signed chapbook implies only 126 were printed.
Review: Tiger! Tiger!, James Gunn, 1984.
Gunn concludes his introduction to this short novel with:
The year is 1952 when the short novel was written; or, if you prefer it is a portion of the Planet Stories of 1955 or 1956, [Gunn sold the story to Planet Stories, but the magazine folded in 1955 before it was published], although, to be sure, “Tiger! Tiger!’ was not typical Planet Stories stuff and you will be disappointed if you expect science-fantasy or adventure. I don’t know why Planet Stories bought it. This was a new direction I was trying to take, a direction illustrated by my first novel, This Fortress World (already underway, although it would not be published until 1955), which tried to combine gritty naturalism and literary skills, and by the stories in Station in Space.
I had not yet taken it as far as I wanted to go – there is, for instance, the kind of romantic subplot that I thought was necessary in those days, and moments of action that I thought readers wanted. If I were writing the story today, I’m certain I would leave them out. But I couldn’t write the story today.
This is a story of aliens “monitoring our technological development” as Gunn says in that introduction. He’s not certain he had yet read Arthur C. Clarke’s “Sentinel of Eternity” aka “The Sentinel”. He had certainly read Ted Sturgeon’s “The Sky Was Full of Ships” and wanted to take the idea in a different direction.
There are several things here that makes this a characteristic Gunn work despite his reservations how he wrote it: a flawed hero, literary allusion, a tone of melancholy mixed with hope, that gritty naturalism – though, as he remarked, less gritty than later works, and even a prefigurement of his later Gift From the Stars.
Our flawed hero is Lester Blake, an astrogator in America’s space program which has put up a space station and a base on the moon, an ex-alcoholic, divorced, balding, a man who is evasive about his age because he feels old, and something of a career failure in that he didn’t become an astronaut as hoped.
The literary allusion, as you can guess from the title, is to William Blake’s “The Tyger”, and Gunn gets a surprisingly effective amount of power in working its lines into a story about a mysterious body orbiting Earth.
The story starts with Lester Blake, operating on a hunch and knowledge of previously anomalous observations of cosmic rays, the aurora polaris, and radar detections, aborting a scheduled relief mission to the moon base.
His partner, at the White Sands Rocket Base, manned by the U.S. military, is Rich Dodge. He’s everything Blake isn’t: an actual astronaut, young, handsome, confident, easy with the ladies.
Yet, Dodge supports Blake in his possible insubordination even though the latter urges him not to damage his career by doing that. There is the inevitable inquiry.
Base Commander Brigadier General van Devlin is convinced by Blake that something strange is in a circumpolar orbit and that it’s not natural. Blake mistakenly does not contradict Van Devlin’s belief it is a Russian weapon. He thinks it’s alien. Van Devlin’s aide, Colonel Allen, is out for Blake’s head though. They have history. Allen married Blake’s ex-wife Sarah, and it was that divorce that precipitated three years of heavy drinking by Blake.
Tony Fazio, a troubleshooter in the base’s research division, backs up Blake’s belief that the orbiting object, dubbed by Blake “the Tiger”, is artificial.
Fazio, Blake, and Dodge meet to discuss what to do – not that the decision will be in their hands since Van Devlin has contacted Washington and the Pentagon with the recommendation the object be destroyed. They are joined by a third member, Jeff.
Jeff, actual name Jessica but her father wanted a son, is the object of Blake’s love from afar. But she hangs out with Dodge, and Blake thinks she can’t be interested in him, an older man, divorced, and ex-drunk.
The romantic subplot Gunn talks about is this relationship, and he does lay it on a bit thick at the end when the two get together after Jeff convinces Blake she really loves him and was just waiting for him to realize it.
The group ponders the Tiger. What is its purpose? Surveillance? A weapon? What happens if it is destroyed? How can its technology, which may give humanity the path to the stars, be harnessed? Is it really the source of observed cosmic rays?
The action part of the story comes in with the second half of the story.
The base is locked down with no communication to the outside, and the group decides van Devlin’s plans to destroy the Tiger need to be stopped. Word of the Tiger’s existence has already been leaked to the outside world, but the spin of a Russian threat has been put on it.
The group hatches a plan for Blake to get off base and contact the media about the possibility of the Tiger being alien, and not Russian, in origin.
When he goes to a nearby town, Gunn’s gets to put some gritty detail into Blake’s contacting, via phone and letter, a reporter he knows. The town was built for workers building the White Sands base, but it is still a sleepy small town 15 years later. When Blake goes into a nearly deserted bar to make a phone call and, later, when escaping the MPs sent after him once his exfiltration from the base is discovered, a small town hotel. The bartender is surly. The hotel clerk is asleep. Gunn also characteristically details the layouts of those buildings.
Returning to the base, Blake is charged with espionage. He learns van Devlin has been removed from command and Allen is in charge. In jail, he even gets a visit from ex-wife Sarah who tries to talk him into retracting his analysis. In exchange, Allen will drop charges against him.
Eventually, though, Blake’s contact with the media pays off. The world begins to consider the Tiger may not be Russian. Russia denies it is and calls for a UN investigation.
Blake is released. He reunites with Dodge who tearfully confesses he implicated Blake because Allen threatened to end his career as an astronaut.
Blake, the would-be astronaut, forgives him and tells him he understands. It’s at this point the subplot with Jeff and Blake is wrapped up.
But there’s one more sting in the tale. The missile targeted for the Tiger is still on the launch pad, primed and ready to go. Van Devlin suicidely launches it, and the Tiger is destroyed.
The story ends with Blake and Fazio forming a company to investigate commercial space travel, and the aurora polaris has vanished.
Space travel enabled by alien technology is, of course, at the center of Gunn’s Gift from the Stars. Depiction of a space program, as with Gunn’s Station in Space, is realistic given it’s pre-Sputnik. The air of melancholy, lost opportunities for alien contact, prefigures Gunn’s greater The Listeners.
As Gunn says, this is a 1952 story (set in 1967). Explicit references to the Red Scare are here, of course. With all the exposure since 1952 of Soviet espionage and subversion in America, the gulf between Red Scare paranoia and Red Scare reality was less than what midwestern liberal Gunn implies. (His autobiography Star-Begotten mentions him being puzzled at his wife going to see Senator Joseph McCarthy at a rally and finding him charming.)
Of course, the story, with its depiction of nationalism and a military only being concerned with immediate security and not long range concerns, fits in with Gunn’s view of science fiction as racial fiction with the race being humanity as a whole.
And, with Blake’s activities at media manipulation, Gunn, even before his professional public relations career, shows an interest and knowledge of that field.