Book #11: Gordon R. Dickson – Spacepaw

Face it. The instant I saw Gordon R. Dickson’s 1976 novella Spacepaw, there was no way that I wasn’t going to pick it up for Crap Looking Books. First of all there’s that title. Spacepaw. SPACE. PAW. That’s the equivalent of The Fault In Our Stars being called CANCER CHILD, Jane Eyre being titled ATTIC WIFE, or Tolkein’s The Two Towers being called TWO TOWERS.

Not a great example, that last one.

Like classic science fiction’s answer to Snakes on a Plane, the title and cover art of Spacepaw tells you just what you’re getting. Bears on a spaceship.

Well, bears on a planet, anyway. Feudal bears of limited intelligence and technology. On a planet.

Spacepaw is the story of Bill Waltham, an agricultural machine engineer who is drawn into the local conflicts of the bear-like Dilbians, when all he wants to do is teach them how to plough fields faster and dig wells deeper.

There’s a certain laziness to the characterisation of the Dilbians from the start, mainly down to how they’re named. The fat one is called More Jam, the bandit king is Bone Breaker, two of the more manipulative butter-wouldn’t-melt females are called Sweet Thing and Perfectly Delightful, the gobby one is called Thing-Or-Two. At one point the cry “That’s right Thing-Or-Two, tell the young biddy a thing or two!” is heard, perhaps further highlighting how unnecessary these obvious and literal names are.

It may be a quick shorthand, a level of signposting that even J.K. Rowling would shy away from, but it also speaks to the culture of the space bears and how they see things at face value, to the extent that direct deception and saying-the-thing-that-is-not is punishable by death in their community.

This somewhat obvious use of language slips in often. There’s what appears to be absolute show/tell failures when Bill finds himself in certain situations, explains them in detail, then chucks in a simile for no good reason. He’s driven to tell us “exactly in the position of a man who picks up a phone and finds himself connected with an automatic answering service” or “as neatly enclosed as a steer at a meat-packing company.” despite those situations both being more than apparent at the time.

that might make for a better book..

While it might just be jarring, excessive, omniscient narration, there’s the possibility that it’s something more, a clever device used to show the distance of human observation. An excellent example is when Sweet Thing “did not put her hands on her hips, but Bill got the strong impression that if this had been a Dilbian gesture, she certainly would have done so.” One the one hand this is a lazy, roundabout way to tell us the bear-person is indignant, but on the other it’s Dickson using Bill’s own frame of reference to colour how he sees the situation.

Whenever I started to think this was a clever writing trick it went a little too far, and the observations stopped being distant, and became dense. When a short bear tries to throw a much taller bear, Bill is put in the mind of “a five-foot woman attempting to throw down a man six and a half feet tall.”  It’s barely a simile, since it  describes one thing using an almost identical thing. Perhaps it’s intended to show the increasing similarity between humans and Dilbians in Bill’s mind, but that feels like reaching.

Primitive technology sits side-by-side with space travel in Spacepaw. Even the humans rely on spades, winches, ledgers, and telephones, yet have some how mastered the science of travelling between the stars at a decent speed and without being ripped to shreds by radiation. It smacks of the potential that many early science fiction writers saw of space travel being both easy and soon, and not requiring any major scientific advances. It is curious and pleasing that the enthusiasm of the writers of the past can come back around as nostalgia for the readers of today.

Dickson gets a bonus point or two for devising a “programmable lathe”, a turning machine that generates artefacts and tools based on user schematics, eleven years before Star Trek’s replicators started doing it, and nearly fifty years before the current 3D printing boom.

Even the most basic gadgets and tools in Spacepaw are subject to detailed and annoying descriptions however, right down to the pins and screws that hold them together. There’s over twenty pages about a block-and-tackle and how important a block-and-tackle is and how to build a block-and-tackle and the worry that the block-and-tackle was left behind and who would go get the block-and-tackle… With not a single word about what a fucking block-and-tackle actually does, right up until the point when it’s shown working as force-multiplying lifting device (Maybe people in 1970s America knew it better by name?).

That said, while it may seem like unnecessary padding material, it also serves to highlight just how complicated the Dilbians see even the most basic of human technology. The description of these tools and machines without assumptions of how they work reflect how they would be presented to the uninitiated.

The maintaining of a clear distinction between the culture of the space bears and the humans don’t always hold up. The Dilbian don’t have literature, science, religion, or a specific work/life balance, yet they somehow know what a minute is, and know it well enough to effectively wait around for 15 of them when asked.

Well now. If it feels a bit like I’m picking apart the language, imagery and setting a lot more than the story… that’s because there isn’t a whole lot of story. A lifting contest is genuinely the only exciting thing in the first 110 pages, so exciting in fact that the whole town turns out to watch it.

There’s a sub-plot revolving around some very vague and inconstant ideas of feminism, with a human astronaut (clairvoyantly named “Anita”) trying to teach the Dilbian women independence and manual labour skills while the Dilbians frequently refer to themselves as “real men” and the human men as “shorty”, and there’s a few predicaments before the final conclusion to keep the reader interested, but the main story doesn’t seem very substantial, and is easily confused. The story is such a mess of minor allusions that another human character turns up 7 pages from the end to explain everything, in case Bill (and the reader) failed to grasp what was going on.

It’s this lack of a coherent, ongoing story that leaves me unsure exactly what to think. Any value judgements I’ve discussed hinge on whether or not Gordon R Dickson  was making smart, considered choices, or just stumbling through, creating these representations entirely by accident. Given that a lifting contest, some agricultural training, and a local turf war are all the plotting there is, I can’t help but feel that I was reading more into Spacepaw than was there, simply because there was so little there.

I also feel some disappointment that I never really got a sense of the Dilbian space bears as creatures or entities in their own right, only an understanding of what being a tiny awkward man looking at those bears might feel like.

And it doesn’t feel very interesting.