Sunday, July 18, 2010
A Matter of Matter by L. Ron Hubbard
I have enjoyed Galaxy Press’ rerelease of L. Ron Hubbard’s early stories in their Stories from the Golden Age series, particularly the short stories over the novellas, and so I was excited to receive another collection, this time the latest science fiction release in the series, A Matter of Matter, which contains four stories.
“A Matter of Matter”: Chuck Lambert is a little too given to flights of fancy, so when he sees an offer to buy his own planet, he goes for it without seeing the warning signs. After years of labor, Chuck is in for a surprise when he lands on Planet 19453X, his very own world, where things don’t seem to follow quite the same physical rules. Oddly, the title story for this volume is the weakest. Its playful nature didn’t work for me, the characters were flat, and the story felt more like an outline. Not bad, but not too memorable.
“The Conroy Diary”: The story of a man who set up humanity’s future in the stars by mocking it, this one gets a little too ridiculous at times, but is a fun tale with a twist that, while not a surprise like it wanted to be, is still satisfying.
“The Planet Makers”: In a future where planets can be designed according to blueprints, it is the job of people like “Sleepy” McGee to do the engineering. However, between someone set out to make the project fail, and Sleepy’s laidback nature, it doesn’t seem like the project will ever succeed. This story is quite a bit of fun. Sleepy is a fun character, and while he doesn’t show a lot of depth, you root for him to pull through, in part because you know he isn’t as out of the loop as he seems.
“The Obsolete Weapon”: The longest story of the volume, this tale follows an American soldier who slips back in time and fights in the gladiatorial arena of Rome. This one packs in the action and is a fun romp. The time travel angle is glossed over, so it may not be for those who need every plot point justified, but it is great for those who want a fun, fast, action-packed story.
This volume also contains the usual features of the series: the foreword, “Stories from Pulp Fiction’s Golden Age,” by Kevin J. Anderson, a preview of the next volume, Greed, a glossary of potentially archaic terms, the biographical “L. Ron Hubbard and American Pulp Fiction,” and a list of all of the stories to be released in the Stories from the Golden Age series.
This volume isn’t without its issues. Beyond those mentioned in the story comments above, there are two that spring immediately to mind. First, the racism found in the stories. “The Obsolete Weapon” can’t get over “the shiny black skin” of the African gladiators, and reiterates their skin color over and over. “The Planet Makers” has Barteber, the black cook, who also happens to be the only character in the story who speaks grammatically incorrect English, along with the usual phonetically-spelled mispronunciations, and who is the only character who has to call everyone “Mister [insert name]” instead of being on a first name basis.
“A Matter of Matter” sees the natives of Planet 19453X as simple savages who are only too happy to submit to Chuck Lambert’s self-proclaimed rule. He buys a planet that is already occupied and owned by the people who live there, asserts his own authority, strips the planet of its resources, takes the credit and the reward, and still claims to be the leader of his “subjects,” in what amounts to a rather despicable glamorization of a repeat of what happened in the American west between the native tribes and the European-American settlers. This in part crushed the story for me. As a fan of early pulp era work, the occasional derogatory racial remarks do come up, even among the greats of the era (e.g. H.P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, etc.), and you can try to rationalize some as being the feelings of the time, and the works as products of the time, but that works in cases with Lovecraft and Howard because they don’t frequently dominate the entirety of the story. In cases like “A Matter of Matter,” when that does happen, it just loses some of its appeal.
The second issue I would cite is the value for your money. For ten dollars, you get four stories that take up only 98 pages, and that is with separate title pages for each story, occasional illustrations (which are a nice touch, but also take up extra pages), and VERY large font size. This one won’t take long to read at all. The stories in here are fun, but for a few bucks less, you could pick up copies of The Year’s Best SF 15, The New Space Opera, Legends of the Space Marines, etc., and get far more content. If you aren’t interested in the best science fiction of 2009, space opera, or Warhammer 40,000, then obviously those volumes won’t be of interest, although there are a number of other volumes out there for the same mass market cover charge. If you are a huge fan of pulp era fiction, then you may be willing to pay the high entrance fee.
Judging solely on content, not price, the volume is fun, if short. It stars on a lower note, but picks up at the end, with “The Planet Makers” and “The Obsolete Weapon” being some of my favorite works by Hubbard that I have read so far. Fans of Stories from the Golden Age will find a lot to like in this volume, and it would be a good entry point for those just wanting to get a taste.