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I have a soft spot for fifties sci-fi where Venus is a habitable, and often inhabited planet, usually one of exotic jungle and balmy seas. This book was published much later; in the year that Venera 4 transmitted the first telemetry from the surface of a planet already known to be hotter than Mercury, reporting an atmosphere of mainly CO2 at incredible pressure; it's odd then that Wilhelm continues to describe the old pulp fiction Venus of swamp and seas, where Man struggles not to breathe, but to wade through mud and silt.
The inaccuracy may be deliberate, a knowing reference to the militaristic "golden era" of the pulps: Wilhelm sets a new-wave tale in an old-school universe; at first this seems to be military fiction in the vein of Heinlein, as the body of the story concerns a plucky soldier who must use ingenuity and science to outwit a diabolical, single-mindedly homicidal robot on a hypothetical desert planet, all set against a John W. Campbell backdrop where Man proudly expands His destiny in space and subjugates the weak and savage humanoids that oppose him on the worlds he colonises. Soon enough, we learn through a series of flashbacks how ignoble such a reality can be, with Wilhelm confronting a great many sci-fi tropes with ethical argument reminiscent of her husband (esteemed author, editor and critic Damon Knight) and a feminist slant that connotes Ursula Le Guin. The key theme is survival: the struggle of a stranded soldier to outwit an invincible enemy; the womenfolk of conquered planets who must surrender to the sadism of the Earthmen; the "mad scientist" working in secret on a world where intellectual freedoms are suppressed; the robot who is programmed only to preserve itself; the resistance group whose tinkerings make a tool into a monster.
The impact of this worthy premise is reduced by the monotony of the frame story and some bad science(particularly, a tornado that hurls giant rocks at the hero, but never blows him over or picks him up). There are a great deal of dream sequences and flashbacks from the hero's perspective, mixed with chapters that relate past events occuring outside of his experience and while this delirious style is occasionally effective, more often it interrupts the narrative flow. This is nothing new: often, when reading Wilhelm, I am greatly excited by the sheer number of concepts and associations she introduces and she's never anything less than highly ambitious, but, as in this case, what should be a wonderful book is often undermined by the knotty tangle of concepts she never quite manages to weave into a satisfying whole.
Having said that, there are contemporary sci-fi novels and "classics" still in print that are less well-written, less thoughtful and less relevant: This book was plainly influenced by the expanding Vietnam War: the humans of Earth are mired in guerilla conflicts with insurgent populations far from a home that is becoming alien to them; the sole motivation for these wars being self-enrichment, the justification being "might makes right". We start to anger at the hubris of a World Government that only knows the escalation of war, an attitude that will cost humankind dearly when it pits itself against the mysterious "Outsiders". In 2010, much sci-fi of the 60s has a greater resonance because of such allegories. The West is embroiled in a new kind of cold war, so perhaps it's time to rediscover this forgotten cry of fear and protest, lost for so long to the silence of space.