Planets of Adventure

Bless Jim Baen, who at times seems determined to reprint the entire
Golden Age midlist of SF. for he has given us a good thick anthology of
some of the best stories of Murray Leinster — a writer once counted
among science-fiction’s reliable best, but since unfairly forgotten.

I come away from Planets of Adventure (pb, Baen 2002,
ISBN 0-7434-7162-8) with a renewed appreciation of something I have
long known. When John W. Campbell and Robert Heinlein invented modern
SF after 1938, Campbell perforce had to train a new crop of writers to
produce it. Very few writers with established careers were able to
meet Campbell’s standards.

Murray Leinster (born Wil F. Jenkins) was one of a very few
exceptions — and one of only two (with Jack Williamson) who
actually managed to produce better work after Campbell than before
him, rather than merely imitating previous pulp successes on a grander
scale (as did, for example, the now-unreadable Edmond Hamilton and the
still-enjoyable E.E. “Doc” Smith).

For this alone Leinster deserves more attention from the historians
and critics of SF than he usually gets. I, personally, was ready to
rediscover him because I had fond childhood memories of reading his work
from the 1950s and early 1960s when it was not too difficult to find
in the used bookstores of ten years later.

One of my sentimental favorites was the Med Service
series, tales of a doctor making interstellar house calls to solve
ingeniously constructed medical puzzles. I was delighted when Baen
Books printed a Med Service omnibus a few months ago — but it is
after reading Planets of Adventure that I am truly
impressed with Leinster’s achievement.

The first story, The Forgotten Planet is a fixup
novel assembled from three novellas, published respectively in 1920,
1921, and 1953. The rest of the stories were published in the decade
after 1947, the last quite coincidentally in the year I was born. In these
stories we get a fine view in miniature both of SF’s pre-Campbellian past
and the most fertile period of the Campbellian Golden Age.

The first section of The Forgotten Planet, written
in 1920, is deeply primitive. It’s a dark thalamic adventure of
regressed humans battling lethal fungi and giant insects in a fetid
alien ecology. The only touches we can recognize as SFnal are a
framing story Leinster added after the fact, in the early 1950s, which
make the humands descendents of a crashed starliner — in origin, the story
had been set on a far-future Earth. One feature of the original
repays notice; Leinster referred to climate change via a
carbon-dioxide greenhouse effect caused by burning fossil fuels. In
1920!

The end of The Forgotten Planet, as rewritten at
the beginning of the 1950s, reads very differently. The stranded
primitives, having struggled up on their own to barbarian status, are
accidentally rediscovered by interstellar civilization. This is not
merely a different story than Leinster had begun to write thirty
years earlier, it is written in a profoundly different way, suffused
with plucky optimism and cool efficiency. The protagonist, Burl,
began the action as a a Joseph-Campbellian mythic hero; he ends
it as the archetype of the John-Campbellian competent man, bestriding
both his own world and that of his advanced galactic kindred with an
ease that disconcerts the latter.

In the next section, The Planet Explorer, Leinster
demonstrates a flawless command of the Campbellian idiom. These
stories, written in 1955-56, are classic planetary-puzzle pieces of
the sort that filled the pages of Astounding magazine.
The protagonist solves life-threatening problems posed by conditions
on alien worlds. These were intelligent stories when they were
written and they’re still intelligent today. One of them won a Hugo
in 1956. Aside from a slight stiffness in the language, they read
remarkably well.

And we’re in for another surprise. The next story,
Anthropological Note, dates from 1957. In it, Leinster
captures perfectly the tone and style of the first post-Campbellian
wave in SF, the social-science SF of the mid-to-late 1950s and
pre-New-Wave 1960s. Truly this story could have been written by Fred
Pohl or C.M. Kornbluth. The wry tone, the anthropologizing, and the
not-so-subtle satirical edge are all there.

The story following that, Scrimshaw, is a creepy and
dark little mood piece that manages to anticipate the New Wave of the
mid-1960s by ten years. The rest of the anthology (Assignment
on Pasik
, Regulations and The Skit-Tree
Planet
) is mostly filler, workmanlike enough stuff from the
late 1940s obviously written to pay bills. These stories are still
readable, but of no special interest other than as a demonstration of
consistent competence.

And there you have it. In these stories Leinster manages, with so
little effort that you won’t be aware of it unless you’re looking, to
span four eras of SF and meet all their demands with unobtrusive
efficiency. I am unable to think of anyone else in the history of the
field who can quite match that.

This observation is more interesting because Leinster was
essentially a hack writer. Besides the SF, he churned out reams of
pulp fiction — formulaic Westerns, hard-boiled detective stories,
jungle adventures — during a career that begain in 1917 and
ended only with his death in 1975. It appears that the last thing he
wrote was a Perry Rhodan novel which I have not read but
which almost certainly stank to high heaven.

His SF, though, was not mere hack-work, or at least not
usually mere hack-work. He was a genuine innovator in the
form who invented the parallel-world story in 1934 and the
first-contact story in 1945. It is impossible to read Leinster
without sensing that to him, constructing Campbellian puzzle stories
was a delight, and probably the closest approach to art for art’s sake
that he ever allowed himself. Certainly in Exploration
Team
, the story that won him the 1956 Hugo, one gets the sense
that Leinster is using the story to think through some issues that are
important to him — and they are not trivial issues, even
today.

But for all that he helped invent some of SF’s central tropes,
Leinster never quite became an SF writer of the first rank. He was a
solid midlist presence — the comparisons that leap to mind are
his rough contemporaries James Schmitz and Ross Rocklynne. His novels
tended to be uninspired; his best work (including the genre-defining
First Contact and the hilarious and rather prescient
A Logic Named Joe) was in short-story form.

What Murray Leinster does show us is that SF was as liberating for him as
for his readers — that even a hack writer could take from SF the
challenge and the invitation to be intelligent, and give back
something a bit better than he might have written otherwise. I never
got to ask him, but I strongly suspect that Wil F. Jenkins would be
prefer to be remembered for the SF more than for anything else he
wrote.

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