REVIEW – The Grayspace Beast by Gordon Eklund

So, it was about 1981. My Mall still had an independent bookstore (It grew later to have two chain bookstores, and now it has none.)  I was at a point where I was fascinated by Star Trek, probably fueled by Vonda McIntyre’s excellent novel, The Entropy Effect. Certainly, in 1981, no one was excited by the Star Trek movies, as Harve Bennett had not yet rescued the franchise. There was no TV Show. I had devoured Alan Dean Foster’s Star Trek Logs series, and had enjoyed (as I mentioned a few months back) a book call Bantam Books licensed Star Trek novel titled Devil World by Gordon Eklund.

At that time, around age 15, I started to realize that I needed to branch out a bit in my reading. I was getting too old for comic books (I thought), and there had to be more out there than Star Trek. This is a seminal point in the development of an SF fan. I know many people my age now and older who still haven’t reached it. Ironically, about a dozen years later, I became a voracious comic book reader again. And now, in my forties, I’m once again feeling that I’m too old for comic books. That, however, has a lot more to do with the publishers’ arbitrary decision to only tell stories geared at particular demographic. That demographic may not even exist, and if it does, it members probably don’t even like comics. So we’ve reached an era where the major comics publishers are publishing super-hero comics for people who don’t like… super-hero comics. But I digress…

Star Trek was my gateway drug to literary SF. It made sense, if I was going to try and branch out, to find works by authors whose Star Trek work I enjoyed. Now Bantam Books tended to hire mainstream SF authors to write Trek, which is why James Blish wound up doing thirteen books for them, followed by contributions from Stephen Goldin, Kathleen Sky, Joe Haldeman, David Gerrold (though David started off in Trek) and Gordon Eklund. All had solid track records as SF authors before coming to Trek. Sadly, they either did not care to or were no asked to adapt their plots or their personal styles to the Star Trek universe. The result was a lot of books that may have been quite well-written, but didn’t feel like Trek stories. So I didn’t go looking, during this transitional phase, to read original works by Goldin, Sky or Haldeman. They simply hadn’t stroked my love for Captain Kirk and company. Eklund, on the other hand, had written at least one book that I felt could have been filmed and dropped in as an episode of the TV series without seeming out of place.

So when I browsed the paperback shelves, having read all the Trek books and wanting more literary SF, Eklund’s name jumped out at me. By 1981, most of his books had already been written. (He published only one more, A Thunder on Neptune, in 1989. His Wikipedia entry says he’s retired and considering writing again. I do hope that’s true.) One three-year-old title, The Grayspace Beast, was on the shelf, however, and I grabbed it for a staggering dollar-fifty. I have no memory of what my sense of the book was, other than knowing it was by an author whose work I enjoyed.

The cover is a monochrome maroon drawing, superimposed on a black background. The artist, interestingly is Rick Sternbach, later to be well-known as a designer for Star Trek: The Next Generation and its many sequels.  At the time, he’d done some work on Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Cosmos, and he was a two-time Hugo winner for best professional artist. Typical of covers of the 1970’s, the scene depicted does not appear in the story. The beast in question is not remotely comet-like, as it is shown on the cover. It does not have a face, except perhaps in an abstract, philosophical sense, and no one ever sees it from the vantage point of a planet’s surface. You can’t even be sure who the two characters pictured on the cover are, but they certainly are not the young protagonists, Darcey and Nova.

But I’m not knocking the cover. It’s a good example of SF covers of the time.

A couple of things are especially notable about The Grayspace Beast. Overall, it’s a young-knight-in-training story. There’s a dragon. It’s called the Grayspace Beast, a mythical creature which lives in the void beyond the universe, the place where interstellar ships go to take shortcuts between two points in “normal” space, essentially cheating and, practically, breaking the universal speed limit of 300 meters per second. There’s a young knight, Darcey, who grew up on an alien world populated by wise alien elders, who know (nut won’t reveal) the secret of the Beast. There’s the maiden fair, Nova, who’s probably neither maiden nor fair. And there’s the wizard, Kail Kaypack, and elderly star explorer-turned-conman, who’s looking for one last challenge and knows more than he’s telling about Darcey’s past. It’s all rather Star Wars in setup, but it’s important to note the book was first published a year before Star Wars radically altered the viewing public’s definition of what a science fiction story was or should be.

Yet Eklund bothers to create a flesh-out ensemble cast for his tale. In a short book (172 pages – probably 60,000 words) this is more depth of characterization than I would ordinarily expect, especially in a fairly formulaic plot. It’s a nice touch.

Another standout about the story is its structure, harking back to the narrative style of much older authors like James Hilton, wherein the story is being related by a narrator to an audience. The narrative passages, as Hilton’s were, are thus told in third-person, though we know there is a first-person narrator present. In this case, the identity of the narrator is a minor mystery, and its solution doesn’t have much bearing on the story.

What’s especially amusing about the first-person passages is that the narrator is a teacher, telling the tale to his class of young people. We get the impression they’re young teens. These students are never given names, but they’re long on personality. Throughout the novel, the kids interrupt to demand why the story isn’t moving fast enough, which of the characters is actually their teacher, why one of protagonists is being stupid, and, notably, why their storyteller is explaining things so plainly. They’re not so young, after all, that subtlety is wasted on them.

The pompous veneer of assumed sophistication from the young readers rings extremely familiar to any teacher of tweens or teens, and also to anyone who’s attended even a few panel discussions at an SF con. It’s as though Eklund is writing the book in front of a room of SF fans, each of them determined to prove that they’re cleverer than he. Speaking as an author, I love fans. I especially love my fans. And I am a fan myself. Yet I understand the frustration with the typical fannish belief in one’s own intellectual superiority which clearly fueled these segments of the story. They expose all the moving parts of the storytelling process, but they’re amusing and familiar. I can’t think of many authors who have incorporated such techniques, at least not in Science Fiction. I suppose A.A. Milne came close in his Winnie the Pooh stories.

The payoff to this story is quintessential 1970’s sf: it’s introspective, psychological, and rooted in questions of human virtue and human evil. I won’t spoil it by saying too much, but the story’s resolution, its description of the nature of the Beast, is something we don’t see often in the post Star Wars days of SF, where everyone is either assumed to be purely good or purely evil, or the characters are so “realistic” that we’re not sure there is any good in humans.

The Grayspace Beast is not available on audio or in eBook. I re-read my paperback copy, untouched since the road trip I took in 1981 to welcome my first nephew to the world. There was a hardback edition from Doubleday as well. Should you wish to read it, and I hope you will, your source is going to have to be your local used book store, Amazon, Alibris, ABE or your favorite online dealer in used books.

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