What I learned about pacing & structure reading obscure pulp sci-fi THE BIG EYE

I have of late, and wherefore I know not, begun to colour-code my bookshelves.

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As you can see, I clearly don’t have enough books yet. However, to that end, I’ve been spending inordinate amounts of time and money hunting for book bargains on eBay.

One fine seller I discovered has reams of sci-fi pulp fiction that they’re selling in sets of three, original prints from the 50s, 60s and 70s.

The covers are amazing.

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(Of course, with my new-found book ordering system, I no longer judge a book by its cover, nor indeed its contents, but its spine. I am currently in desperate need of more greens and blues.)

One of the novels, which came bundled with Ray Bradbury’s The Golden Apples Of The Sun, tickled my fancy in its own right; for its name, its cover, and, upon delivery, its musty odour.

Look at that ridiculous title, that 50s artwork, that awkward pose, as though someone has been caught entirely by surprise by a meteor. Holy shit!

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So I dived into The Big Eye by Max Ehrlich with an unblinking fervour, and was engrossed within a few pages. The story is fairly simple – the near-future world of 1960 (!) is on the brink of cataclysmic nuclear war. Our protagonist, a research scientist working at the largest cosmic observatory ever constructed – the eponymous Big Eye – is sent to New York with a briefcase to deliver to US generals deciding whether or not to make the first strike against those blasted Commies.

The book opens as PROTAGONIST (let’s call him 1950sMan, for there’s not much more to him, to be honest) is flying in to land in New York, which has been all but evacuated for fear of being the prime target for the damn Ruskies. There are reports that earthquakes across the States are being cause by a new Soviet secret weapon, and…

OK, it’s not that simple.

I’m not going to insult your intelligence now by warning you of SPOILERS. The freaking front cover is the spoiler. It turns out the earthquakes weren’t administered by a Soviet super-weapon (gasp!), but were in fact the result of magnetic interference from a gigantic rock hurtling through space towards Earth.

Unfortunately, unlike me, the author does insult your intelligence, by persisting with this conceit for a good hundred pages before anyone admits the world will end by meteor and not by missile.

So the story rattles along with the reader in no doubt as to what is happening, and the author pretending it isn’t obvious, like a partners in a failing marriage too polite to mention the D word.

I suppose Ehrlich wouldn’t have known while he was writing it that the cover would give the story away, but regardless, it’s clear there’s a lack of story here. It’s all padded out with a fruitless errand (1950sMan is ordered to take a briefcase (containing we don’t know what) to some generals, but is ordered to return before he can make the delivery, and to no consequence), and a mundane love story.

Double vision

There is a twist – two, I suppose. The first is really, really silly. It turns out, the celestial body spotted with The Big Eye turns out to resemble… a BIG EYE. The planet has a mountain range on it of prominently ocular proportions, similar, I suppose, to Jupiter’s red storm.

Then there’s the really big twist, and it is a shameful doozey. IT TURNS OUT… the Big Eye was always going to miss the Earth, and the astronomers got together to play a trick on the world, in the hope it would prevent a nuclear apocalypse.

The ruse works – the world becomes a peaceful, decent place, with a world government and the dissolution of borders – and for some reason inspires a cure for cancer. There’s a little drama concerning the head astronomer, who kept the secret even from his sick wife, who might have lived had she felt there was a world to live for. But otherwise it’s a bit of a damp squib.

But also, the big reveal – like everything else in the book – is so laboriously signposted you find yourself once again clawing at your eyes for Ehrlich to spit it out.

So what did I learn reading this piece of pulp from the Atomic age?

  1. Treat your reader with respect. Acknowledge their intelligence, and don’t needlessly hide things from them that they no doubt have already gleaned.
  2. Cataclysmic sci-fi requires more than the end of the world to retain your attention. Interesting characters are paramount, with the odd perplexing moral dilemma for good measure. Global events are meaningless unless they physically and emotionally affect your protagonist.
  3. Padding your book is as obvious as stuffing a pineapple down your trousers – no matter how impressive the girth, upon closer inspection you will appear misshapen and ultimately unsatisfying.
  4. (Unless you are particularly enamoured with pineapples)

 


 

Thanks for reading – leave a message if you’ve ever delved into pulp, I’d love to hear recommendations or if you just have fond memories of these silly stories.

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Take it easy!

 

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4 thoughts on “What I learned about pacing & structure reading obscure pulp sci-fi THE BIG EYE”

    1. Damn right. Another book in the batch I got, I–Alien, is from the 70s and a juvenile first-contact romp. Turns out it’s also massively racist, doesn’t give one of its black characters a name even, just refers to them as “the black”. Amazes me that casual racism was in everything 40 years ago, even silly sci-fi.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. The reason why it all seemed so obvious want because of sixty years of derivative sci-fi? I’m now curious to read the book to see how the concepts tie into later works.

    Your struggle with the characterizations brings to mind a bunch of conversations about the rise of character stories across genres. Generic characters were the standard in mid-century sci-fi, like a bland female lead in romances was until more recently. Expectations change as stories build on each other.

    Like

    1. Yeah, it’s what I think of as the hard-sci-fi dilemma; balancing interesting exposition and world-building with character drama and engaging arcs.

      Some books manage it, but an awful lot fall to either side. This one is all about the situation, with very little of interest regarding characters.

      On the other side there was a book called Spin I read a few years ago that tried really hard to have a love triangle front and centre, but which frustratingly got in the way of the super-interesting premise.

      Liked by 1 person

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