A (Arthur) Bertram Chandler is a name that has pretty much disappeared from contemporary SF history, although in the 1950’s and 60’s he was an extremely popular author. Baen Books have recently begun to release his John Grimes novels in omnibus editions, although his most famous stories are those from The Rim World.
The Rim of Space is the first of these. Admittedly rather short, they are great fun, if a little dated.
The stories are very much based on a life at sea, (not too surprisingly, as Chandler’s own background was that of a seaman), and cover the issues caused by long distance travel, the loneliness of the seaman space-traveller, the monotony of the different ports relieved only by the fleeting relationships he (or she) has from port to port.
If all of this sounds a little like ‘the Titanic in space’, to some extent you’d be right: Derek Calver, recently disembarked from the Galactic equivalent of the UK Royal Navy, ups and joins the rather less rigid Rim Runners, a space version of the UK Merchant Navy, looking for adventure. Here, as part of the crew of the Lorn Lady, Calver finds himself one of a ragtag bunch. Captain Engels is an old Spacer, as creaky as his spaceship. There’s also Levine, a Psionic Radio officer; Arlen, the only woman on the ship, a rather remote personality; Bendix the Interstellar Drive Engineer; Renault, the Rocket King; Brentano in charge of Electronic Radio; Maclean the Purser; and Old Doc Malone, the Bones of the operation.
Once the key characters are set up (admittedly rather sketchily on the most part) the book focuses on two of them. It’s not long before we find Calver quickly involved with ‘Calamity Jane’ Arlen and saving her from a hostage situation on the planet Tharn. Calver himself is held as a hostage by spies determined to work against the Federation on Grollor and also involved in a dalliance with espionage operative Sonya Verrill. He then meets lizard-like dinosaur aliens with a liking of tea on Stree to then endure a hurricane whilst having repairs on the marine planet of Mellise. Finally, the Lorn Lady and its crew have a challenge saving the spaceliner Thermopylae off the planet Eblis out on the Rim. It’s all good pulp stuff, and all rather 1950’s British Colonial, in its quaintly old-fashioned manner.
On the not so good front, the reader should be warned that the book has typical 1950’s values towards women, although not as explicit as some books of that time. There are times when the only female of the crew goes off to make coffee and sandwiches for the rest of the crew on the bridge. There’s even a bit of slapping going on – nothing sexual, but some rather unfortunate rough handling of the female natives and the odd slap to and from women. (I‘m not condoning this, btw, but it would be wrong of me not to point it out.) These are rather typical of 1950’s & 60’s SF, but some readers may find such stereotypes rather irritating.
Whilst the general plot is typical pulp, as ever on these things, though, it’s the comments along the way that fill out this tale. There’s death, exciting adventure and a fair degree of contemplation over the result of bringing trinkets to natives, nearly a decade before the evolution of Star Trek’s Prime Directive. Life out on the edge of the galaxy, at the Rim, is quite odd and the crew’s encounter with a ‘Rim Ghost’ is quite memorable, suggesting that life out on the Rim may be subject to alternate variations – a theme Chandler was to return to in later stories.
This was a book that rose above its rather low expectations. Expecting fast-paced, low quality pulp fiction, I was surprised how contemplative and well thought out the book was. It’s a great read, which, although typically 1950’s pulp and thus unlikely to blaze a trail through SF fiction, is entertaining enough to hold interest and make me want me to read more. Surprisingly reminiscent of early Poul Anderson for its literacy and often melancholic mood, this is an old gem that’s worth a read.