In 1953 John Myers brought his friend Gary Wolf a book he had just read, Space Hawk by Anthony Gilmore. The two were already avid readers but this would be their introduction to an entire genre, Science Fiction. They both say that it was Space Hawk that sparked a life long love of all things Sci-Fi. According to both of them, they had an opportunity to re-read Space Hawk as adults and found that it had not weathered the years well. They decided they would write their own science fiction adventure in the same style, but do a better job. The result is their book Space Vulture.
As is evident in the title alone, Space Vulture leans much more in the direction of paying direct homage to the work that inspired it, rather than offering something in the same vein but different. There are many more similarities between the books than their are differences. This seems to be at odds with the author’s stated goal of doing a better job. What we get instead of improvement is nostalgia and a throw back to the style and content of the author’s childhood. Seen in that light, for those who wish to go back to those days, this is probably a great ride. They can get a new story, in the old format. The issue for newer readers is that they don’t have the nostalgia to gloss over the stories issues.
I started reading science fiction in elementary school in the late seventies. I moved out of the kids section of the library in the early eighties and tore through anything I could get my hands on. This means that I read a lot of science fiction that was written in the fifties and even further back in some cases. Many books that are still favorites today come from that era. That is what drew me to Space Vulture. As I read it though, I found myself caught off guard. I could not recall reading anything like this, even as a kid. Then it hit me. The books I’ve read from the fifties are the cream of the crop. They are the classics that I am sure will continue to be read for years to come. Space Hawk and others like it do not fall into this category and now I know why.
The characters of Space Vulture are flat and unbelievable. I would say they are cartoonish but many of todays cartoons provide a much richer experience than is found in this book. The villain is Space Vulture. An evil, beautiful, genius. He enjoys rape, murder and slavery. He operates throughout the galaxy capturing innocents to sell as slaves or food. Everyone who would stand up to Space Vulture is either unwilling or incapable of doing so. He is the scourge of the galaxy, with his private army of aliens and humans carrying out his will without any choice.
There is one exception to those who tremble in fear of Space Vulture. It is Galactic Marshal Captain Victor Corsaire. In every way that Vulture is bad, Corsaire is good. Criminals everywhere tremble at Corsaire’s name. He has an unbending code of moral conduct and even in the face of a corrupt and ineffective justice system, Corsaire single handedly brings what peace and safety there is in the universe. The entire book turns on Vulture and Corsaire, though we have a single mom, a couple precocious kids, a shifty con-man and a handful of aliens and such to round things out.
The book reads like the cereal style stories it imitates. In the short time frame it covers, the hero is captured, escapes, gets recaptured, escapes, etc. multiple times. The side plots are filled with narrow escapes and cliff hangers. And it all feels rather like a carnival ride. Characters do what they do because that is the function they fill in the story. There is little ambiguity and very rarely do the actions of characters feel like something that comes as a result of their being a person. They are all set pieces going through the motions that create the ride. So it seems to really boil down to the question, “Do you like this kind of ride?” It seems to me that the only people who are going to really enjoy it are those who have fond memories of going on the same ride as children.
With one of the co-authors being an archbishop, it seems only fair to consider how religion fits into the book. The previously mentioned single mother prays a lot. There is not much over the head religious reference otherwise. Myers and Wolf seemed to have steered clear of any heavy handed dealing with religious issues. At times this is a bit of a weakness. Once again, the hero does what is right because it is. The villain will do evil and there is no effort to dig into what might separate the two. There are opportunities that would be perfect to dig a little deeper but no effort was made to do so. This is probably in keeping with the style and format they are emulating. It’s also probably a part of the reason that you don’t find people still reading the older works.
While the religious angle isn’t pushed there are some anachronisms that do come out that I think would have been better dropped. The most noticeable was the heroin’s apparent inability to do much for herself. She’s not completely useless all the time, and she does make small efforts here and there, but other times she just sits on the side lines and watches events unfold. How a frontier living leader could be so ineffective at times just breaks one out of the story. I guess she can’t show up Corsair or interfere with his heroic scenes. I’m sure in the fifties this would have been an outright progressive portrayal of a woman but today it still comes across as sexist and demeaning.
There are sizable plot holes and inconsistencies. The ending is not going to surprise anyone. I’m not all that bright and I had everything nailed down by half way through the book. Really the bright spot for younger readers is that it may be bad enough to come across as campy, but to be honest I doubt it. For anyone who was reading Space Hawk as a kid, there is that nostalgia factor. I almost rated this a four because of those folks, but I just couldn’t do it. There are just too many good books still around from that time that will provide all the fun but with better writing and plot.
Title: Space Vulture
Author: Gary K. Wolf and Archbishop John J. Myers