Review: This Fortress World

James E. Gunn
1955

James Gunn is a recent Science Fiction Grand Master and a very well respected figure in SF circles.  He has been the director for the Center for the Study of Science Fiction at the University of Kansas since it’s inception in 1982.  I recommend you exercise the link, where you can learn a bit about Mr Gunn, his accomplishments and the work done at the CSSF.  There are some interesting essays and other material there.

I struggled to get into this book, but only for the first few pages.  I don’t know exactly why – if the very start of the book wasn’t as engaging as I needed, or whether it was my own frame of mind at the time.  Whatever it was, I had a couple of false starts getting in to it.  Consequently, the story had an uphill battle to regain what it had lost (or perhaps what I had neglected to appreciate).  Anyway, that it did, and some.

First, a bit of background.  Mankind had forged a Galactic Empire, but it has since decayed into an aggregation of insular planets, each apparently quite independent and mostly run by emperor-like figures.  Aside from the ruling classes, the mass of humanity is uneducated and in a very sorry state.  Humanity seems to be arranged in a kind of caste system, with serfs and noblemen and such.  Religion seems to be the only consistent cultural factor across the Galaxy.  The exact nature of this religion isn’t made explicit, but I took it to be a monotheistic organization something in the nature of a Benedictine or Carthusian order.  Religion caters to the masses while staying away from controversy and consequently the ruling elite are happy with this arrangement providing that it doesn’t evolve and threaten their hold over the people.

All the action takes place on the planet of Brancusi, almost entirely within the capital city.  Our hero, Dane, is an acolyte monk, having lived all his life within the huge walls of the monastery.  The monastery itself is a ‘fortress world’, a motif which recurs throughout the book and one which I’ll talk about later.  In strange and violent circumstances he comes into possession of a mysterious artifact that is believed to hold a secret that could bring great power to whoever can unlock it.  A pursuit ensues that lasts almost the entire book and in the end (to use a cliché) the good guy gets the girl.

The story is fast-paced and keeps it up pretty much the entire time.  Poor Dane finds himself in one predicament after another with the mercenary Sabatini always in close pursuit.

There are a couple of interesting things about the story which I’d like to comment on.

First is Dane himself.  He is a very interesting character and we see him develop from a very naive and cloistered individual into one with cunning and resourcefulness, despite never entirely losing that naivety.  His physical presence and prowess is considerable though it’s never made a big deal of over the course of the story, indeed Dane offhandedly describes impressive feats beyond the physicality of his co-characters.  I’m a huge Gene Wolfe fan and in this way Dane reminds me of the way Mr Wolfe writes many of his characters.  Often very blasé about apparently startling or disturbing events, and deadpan yet fulfilling with descriptions of things that other writers would likely see as opportunity for over-exercising creative prose. I guess what I’m trying to say is that Mr Gunn gives Dane a powerful and intimidating presence (apparently as a by-product of his healthy lifestyle and fitness regime in the monastery) through an accumulation of his actions and deeds, rather than laying it out for us.  I like that style.  It gives me credibility and makes me feel smart as a reader.

The other thing is the fortress motif I touched on earlier. This occurs time and time again throughout the course of this tale.  Because I’m no literary academic – I’m just an SF fan who does this for my own enjoyment and hopefully that of others – I probably wouldn’t have noticed if it hadn’t been for one particular exchange in the book:

“But if people aren’t born evil, how do they get that way?”
“They’re afraid of getting hurt, and they build up a wall around themselves for protection.  They build themselves a fortress and sit inside it, sheltered and afraid.  Afraid that someone will break in and find them there, see them as they really are, alone and helpless.  For then they can be hurt, you see.  When they are naked and defenseless.  We’re a whole galaxy of worlds, revolving endlessly, never touching, crouched within our fortresses, alone, always alone.”

This came about half-way through the book, and was the first use of the word ‘fortress’.  That’s really what made me sit up and take notice.  This is a succinct summation of this societies individuals and it scales right up through the fortress of the caste system, to the fortresses of the independent planets and the only interplanetary organization – the religion – has fortress-like outposts on each world.  Even Dane in his quest to keep the artifact from those that hunt him, and his desire to uncover the motivations of those behind the scenes spends time in fortresses of one kind or another.  From the beginning of his adventure in the fortress of the monastery, to the various brief and secret havens he finds, to the cell Sabatini has him incarcerated in for a while and finally to old Earth which is sheltered from the rest of the Galaxy.

Despite the book being like a fortress itself in that I found it difficult to break into initially, once I was inside the adventure opened up and took me along for the ride.  I can see why Mr Gunn has had a very loyal fan-base for so many years.  I am looking forward to picking up James Gunn’s collaboration with Jack Williamson on the Gnome Press book Star Bridge.

Pop over to visit Bill the SciFi Guy and check out his reviews for Star Bridge and for Mr Gunn’s The Immortals.

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