I've been reading Colonial Survey
, a 1956 collection of short stories by Murray Leinster, and finding it somewhat annoying. The stories themselves are all right (one is a Hugo winner), but the format is a problem.
It's a fix-up, which is a venerable dodge whereby a collection of stories is arranged, often with a bit of editing and some new linking material, to make it look like a single unified work, thereby expanding the potential audience to include people who don't read short story collections. This can work, if you have a set of stories with a single protagonist, or failing that a common setting and some kind of plot or theme you can use as a through-line. (Isaac Asimov's Foundation
is a fix-up, as is Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles
. I could go on in this vein for quite a while. Charles Stross' Accelerando
and Ryk Spoor's Digital Knight
are more recent examples.)
The trouble with Colonial Survey
is that, faced with four stories about four different colonial survey officials (the internet tells me they were named Massy, Bordman, Roane, and Hardwick), someone decided it would be a good idea to fake
a common protagonist by renaming them all Bordman. This might have worked if Leinster were a worse writer, but even when he's writing classical puzzle-as-plot SF he gives his protagonists some individuality, and it's quite apparent that each story's protagonist is a different person and trying to reconcile their various personalities, or form them into a sequence of character development, won't get you anything but a headache. (There are continuity issues, too. The protagonist of one of the early stories falls in love and gets married. In the new interstitial material added to glue the stories together, much is made of how our pseudo-protagonist misses his wife and family when he's away working. But does he ever mention them in the stories themselves? No, of course not.)
I said that the stories themselves are all right, but actually one of them is annoying as well. "Sand Doom" has a neat puzzle-plot, and Leinster does some nice work on the psychological side: what it is about the protagonist that makes him the the one who figures out what nobody else does, and the jigsaw puzzle of the supporting characters that each contribute their bit to the solution. I would say that the characters are each distinct, rounded individuals, except...
...except that this is the one story in the collection with a significant presence of characters who are not white males, and they are not allowed to be individuals. The female lead isn't the way she is because she's that kind of gal, but because that's the way women are. (Except, okay, that she's self-sufficient and "not at all a nuisance", which is apparently "extraordinary".) The Amerind characters - who wear feathers in their hair, shun urban civilization, and all live together on a planet where the global parliament meets in a building constructed in the shape of a teepee - are the way they are because they're Amerinds. The African characters - you know what, I think you've got the idea.
It's largely a failure of show-versus-tell. What we're actually shown is a well-drawn group of individuals interacting and collaborating to save the day, if only the author would stop telling us about how they're all exemplars of their race and gender. (Except the white male protagonist, of course, he's
an individual.) A stage or screen version of the story would be a considerable improvement just by dropping the narrator.
To end on something resembling a lighter note: While I was hunting up details of the stories' original publications, I learned that all but one of them was the cover-featured story on its first magazine publication. "Sand Doom" had one of those classic pulp cover illustrations that amuse serge_lj
so much, depicting a man in an environment suit and a woman in a bikini standing together on the surface of hostile alien world - and for once this is a thing that actually happens in the story.