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The Tomorrow People, Judith Merril

September 16, 2015

tomorrow_peopleThe Tomorrow People, Judith Merril (1960)
Review by Ian Sales

Two men flew to Mars, but only one, Johnny Wendt, returned. Now he lives in self-imposed seclusion with his girlfriend, famous dancer Lisa Trovi. For reasons not made entirely clear, although it has something to do with jolting Johnny out of his funk and the suspiciously good psychological health of the people living and working in the USAA (United States of All the Americas) lunar dome, Johnny and Lisa are invited to the Moon.

Meanwhile, General Harbridge is trying to trick a Chilean congressman who is opposed to the space programme into actually backing it, by offering him a free trip to the Moon.

Despite being a science fiction fan – and a member of the Futurians – Merril started out writing for detective and Western pulp magazines and it was a number of years before she tried her hand at sf. Some of her genre short stories and novels now deserve to be considered classics, although she is perhaps best remembered as an editor and anthologist. Her Shadow on the Hearth (1950) is generally reckoned as one of the best post-apocalypse novels of its time, even if it doesn’t have the high profile of similar male-authored works. Some of her short fiction too, particularly ‘Daughters of Earth’, ought to be much better-known than they actually are. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of The Tomorrow People. The pulp style, sort of like Robert Heinlein on speed, tries to carry the story in dialogue, but throws so much speech across the pages it’s often hard to keep up with the plot in among all the phatic conversation.

A few days after Johnny and Lisa arrive on the Moon, they fall out, so Johnny returns on the next flight as planned, but Lisa stays on. While Johnny mopes about on Earth, often drunk, Lisa starts work on a low-gravity dance routine to be performed on the Moon. In order to extend her stay, she is then offered a job as an assistant to the dome’s psychologist. Unfortunately, this only convinces Johnny his girlfriend has dropped him for the psychologist, which makes him even more determined not to reconcile with her.

Meanwhile, Lisa has been spending time observing some “bugs” bought back from Mars and which are currently under study in “the Shack”, an open shelter some distance outside the Moon Dome. As a result, she seems to know things, and understand people, considerably better than anyone else. Something similar is apparently happening at the Soviet dome too with a female pilot. And Lisa is also pregnant – yes, Johnny is the father – so she wants to get back with him, but doesn’t know how to do so…

In a review of the novel in his 1967 work In Search of Wonder, Damon Knight accused the book of being written from the “woman’s-magazine viewpoint” and declared it hard to read because of its “coyness, feminine overemphasis and an unaccountable sprinkling of 1960 jive talk” in the dialogue. While the dated slang does often feel anachronistic – especially given the novel’s clear dateline of 1975 to 1977 – Knight’s other criticism are far from fair. Lisa Torvi is a  strong character, and is perhaps more of a protagonist than Johnny, who actually doesn’t much convince as an astronaut. Although he does as a drunk. And even from 1960, missions to Mars, moon bases, and the unification of all three American continents into one nation by the mid-1970s seems not so much far-fetched as completely fantastical.

However, where The Tomorrow People really does fall apart is in its plot. The book opens with a mystery – what happened on Mars – but then can’t make up its mind if it’s about Johnny and Lisa’s relationship, the politics surrounding the space programme, a Cold War on the Moon between the USAA and Soviet domes, or the strange good-feeling the inhabitants of the USAA dome are experiencing. And it is only after bouncing around between these stories for much of its length that the novel swerves abruptly back on course and resolves the Mars mystery – with a page of flashback and two pages of exposition.

Reading the novel, it often seems the prose style doesn’t quite suit the material. Perhaps at a shorter length, it might have worked better. But page after page of wise-cracking and/or emotive dialogue gets wearying after a while. In fact, The Tomorrow People reads pretty much like a 1940s screwball comedy with a thin, albeit mostly convincing, wrapping of science fiction. Seen in that light, it’s mostly successful… except for the fact it badly overstretches its material.

Judith Merril was an important figure in the history of the science fiction genre, perhaps more important than the bulk of sf fans give her credit. None of her works are currently in print, and her membership in, and contribution to, early fandom is often overlooked. If the genre must choose figures from its past to revere, we could do a lot worse than pick Merril – even if not everything she wrote is worthy of classic status.

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