Am I allowed to get the main characters confused?
Space Vulture by Gary K. Wolf and Archbishop John J. Myers. Tor (New York): 2008. 333 pages. $24.95. ISBN-13: 978-0-7653-1852-7. ISBN-10: 0-7653-1852-0.
See the official homepage here.
Science fiction is, supposedly, always looking to the future, yet much of it has a curious nostalgic streak. In stories such as Joanna Russ's "My Boat" (1976) or Harlan Ellison's "Jeffty is Five" (1977), authors pine, not simply for yesteryear, but for the science fiction, fantasy, and adventure stories of yesteryear, for the adventure stories they innocently enjoyed as kids before they, and science fiction, grew up. A novel like Space Vulture, then, should be able to find an enthusiastic audience.
Gary K. Wolf and Archbishop John J. Myers first encountered science fiction in Anthony Gilmore's Space Hawk, a serialized adventure from the early thirties, and both claim the work created their interest in science fiction. Later in life, however, they returned to Space Hawk and discovered that it was much, much worse than they remembered. A great many enthusiasts can probably sympathize with this; a few years ago, I discovered that the book that first hooked me on sf, The City Beyond the Clouds, was not nearly as wonderful as my memory made it (though the prequel On a Torn-Away World wasn't half bad). Director Kevin Munroe once commented in an interview that Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Speed Racer, when he experienced them as an adult, were not as good as he remembered. And of course William Goldman's Princess Bride is a novel based entirely around the disheartening discovery that a book loved in childhood may appear less impressive in adulthood.
Space Vulture is an attempt to create Space Hawk as it might have been if it were written better. The hero of the story is Marshall Victor Corsaire, who can be described as Matt Dillon from Gunsmoke stuffed into a silver jumpsuit and dropped into space. Corsaire is characterized by broad shoulders, a quick draw, and a strict moral code. As the story opens, he is hunting down a ne'er-do-well crook named Gil, but just as he finds his quarry, the infamous pirate Space Vulture sweeps in and captures Corsaire, Gil, and a hapless space colony. So the villain is a pirate but the hero's name is Corsaire. You got that?
To make a formulaic story very short, Space Vulture releases Gil, who ends up, against his will, babysitting a couple of boy geniuses who forcibly enlist him in their quest to find their missing mother, an adventure that gradually softens his heart. Corsaire escapes Space Vulture, gets captured again, escapes Space Vulture, gets captured again, and escapes Space Vulture again while finding time to develop a love interest and demonstrate his quick draw on some nefarious but expendable villains who happen along for the sole purpose of having quick draws demonstrated on them. Through it all, Wolf and Myers find cause to quote or paraphrase actual passages from Space Hawk, so they better hope that copyright has run out.
The real centerpiece of the novel is the titular villain. If a literary character can be said to chew the scenery, then Space Vulture devours it. It is clear that Wolf and Myers expect us to have the most fun with the bad guy in this novel, and we do. Long passages are dedicated to Space Vulture's superhuman good looks, his extravagant tastes in decor and diet, his dandyish clothing, and his extraordinary intelligence, in spite of which he makes all the classic Bond villain mistakes, including but not limited to killing messengers who bring bad news, toying with captive women, and failing to immediately murder an apprehended nemesis. And yes, as you see on the cover, he does carry a sword and raise one eyebrow.
Space Vulture is first and foremost a work of pulpy adventure fiction, and should be read in that light. It is PG-rated, featuring violence without carnage, seduction without sex, and, as Robert Louis Stevenson would put it, "pirates without oaths." It has a predictable plot, a touch of gross-out humor, and a habit of unnecessarily narrating the characters' thoughts, feelings, and life histories. It's a novel for people who like space pirates and ray guns. It will probably give many readers the impression it's intended for children, though the official website suggests otherwise. While reading it, however, I did get the impression that Wolf and Archbishop Myers were, shall we say, a little too eager to imitate their source material. The writing is not exactly first-rate (see the article at StarShipSofa for a good critique of the prose). Coupled with the poor writing is a certain carelessness in the story development: early on, for example, we learn of the high-tech processes Space Vulture uses to make himself superhuman. "Once begun, the processes could not be stopped," the book says, and "Once he entered this state, he could not be awakened" (p. 113). Later on, however, one of Space Vulture's minions interrupts the process to inform Space Vulture of an emergency. The inconsistency is minor and arguably unimportant in a novel this lighthearted, but it's still bothersome.
If we wish to understand Space Vulture, the story around the book is almost as important as the story within it. Wolf and Archbishop Myers grew up together and describe themselves as virtual brothers; in his preface, Archbishop Myers says, "My mother and father treated Gary as one of their own. His mother and father did the same for me" (p. 13). In their interview with BustedHalo, Wolf says, "I’m an only child, and John is as close to a brother as I have. And my mother treated him like her son." It is no surprise, then, that the novel contains a running meditation on brotherly love. The ne'er-do-well crook Gil thinks back on his mistreatment of his younger brother and the hero Corsair thinks back on the way his older brother mistreated him while the slightly annoying boy geniuses Eliot and Regin have a close, mutually supportive relationship, all gently conveying the idea that family members are supposed to take care of each other.
Although Space Vulture is not, according to its authors, a religious novel, there are a number of religious references. They would probably be less obvious if the word "Archbishop" weren't printed on the book's cover, but as it is, they stick out. A few characters off-handedly mention prayer and going to church, but the novel's moral and religious stance becomes most pointed when a character whose will is controlled by Space Vulture asks Corsaire to assist him in a suicide. This scene would probably work better if Corsaire's answer were somewhat sophisticated, but instead he ends up conveying little more than, "Gee, I don't like killing people if I don't have to." Of course, it would have been out of character if he suddenly launched into,
Man is made master of himself through his free will: wherefore he can lawfully dispose of himself as to those matters which pertain to this life, which is ruled by man's free will. But the passage from this life to another and happier one is subject not to man's free will but to the power of God. Hence it is not lawful for man to take his own life that he may pass to a happier life, nor that he may escape any unhappiness whatsoever to the present life, because the ultimate and most fearsome evil of this life is death, as the Philosopher states. Therefore to bring death upon oneself in order to escape the other afflictions of this life is to adopt a greater evil in order to avoid a lesser.
Still, I found myself thinking that if Wolf and Archbishop Myers were going to open that can of worms, they could at least address the issue in a complex or nuanced manner instead of offering a hero's queasiness coupled with a deus ex machina. The blog Toddled Dredge suggests that the "action is dictated by the external morality of the authors rather than growing naturally from a well-crafted character," and I'm inclined to agree.
On the whole, Space Vulture is entertaining, fun, nostalgic sf. It's a good summer read, exciting and family-friendly if imperfect. It's my hope that, with an archbishop's name on the cover, it might introduce sf to some Catholics who don't normally read it. Perhaps it may even introduce Catholicism to some who don't normally think about it.
Content Advisory: Contains action violence.
The Sci Fi Catholic's Rating for Space Vulture:
Myth Level: High (it's classic)
Quality: Medium (high on entertainment, a little sloppy on the writing)
Ethics/Religion: High (good clean fun, addresses some ethical issues in an unsuccessful but good-hearted way)