Worlds for the Grabbing, Brenda Pearce (1977)
Review by Ian sales
Of the many science fiction writers of the 1970s who have been forgotten, it’s probably not unfair to say that Brenda Pearce is among the most obscure. A British woman science fiction writer, whose two novels were published only in hardback, it’s hardly surprising she’s virtually unknown today. And this despite being a John W Campbell Award nominee in 1975. But having now read her second novel, Worlds for the Grabbing, her obscurity is perhaps less of a mystery.
Although Pearce had two stories published in Analog during the mid-1970s, Worlds for the Grabbing very much follows a British tradition of science fiction. Rather than harken back to the sf of Heinlein, Asimov or Clarke, it has more of the flavour of that written by Captain WE Johns and Hugh Walters. Although not marketed as a “juvenile”, Worlds for the Grabbing initially reads like one, even though its protagonists are all adult. Perhaps it’s the faintly pedagogical tone the prose possesses; perhaps it’s the fact the novel is structured as four separate stories, with a framing narrative, each of which builds to a finale.
The story opens with Captain Kjell Redmain of the United European Space Service (which, despite its name, appears to be resolutely English), who is tasked with discovering the fate of a missing “daysider” which is believed to have crashed on Mercury’s sunward face. The daysider is a small spacecraft, specially built to survive the hellish environment on Mercury. Redmain’s small crew is European, but the most important member is geologist Dr Christopher Collins, and it is through his actions and scientific insight that the fate of the missing daysider is discovered. As is a substantial quantity of uranium, needed by a power-hungry and climate-crashed Earth. It goes without saying that the Mercury described by Pearce – a volcanic inferno, liable to send molten rock shooting skyward in a matter of seconds – bears no resemblance to the planet visited by the MESSENGER space probe in 2011, although, to be fair, it’s perhaps not so far from the thinking of the 1970s.
After the events on Mercury, Collins is sent to Pluto to learn why the diamond mine there has been unable to meet its (quite reasonable) quota, and why the staff on-site have been suffering from a variety of mental problems. Of course, the cause is a scientific puzzle, and Collins manages to solve it – even though he too is affected by it. Again, Pearce’s Pluto is of its time – for one thing, it’s described by as a “planet”, whereas these days, of course, we known it as a “dwarf planet” – but she throws out some nice turns of phrase while describing it:
Ahead of him, only slightly dimmed by his helmet’s thick faceplate, a skein of light sprawled blindingly across the sky. The skein was the Milky Way. After the closed in, small scale vistas of the Base, Collins was spellbound by its unimaginable energy, its multi-parsec distances, its intolerable glory. (p 98)
After Pluto, Collins is sent to Venus, this time to learn why two research stations on the surface were destroyed – and both destructions were connected with Venus’ vast subsurface reservoirs of oil. Collins is re-united with Redmain, but also part of the team is meteorologist Katherine Harrer, who proves to be an old flame of Collins’s. More than that, in fact, and their split was far from amicable. Once again, Collins solves the scientific puzzle represented by the oil on Venus. While Pearce describes the surface conditions reasonably accurately, the presence of the oil is justified with some adroit science-fictional hand-waving.
Introduced during the events on Pluto was psychologist Dr Rachel Bloch, and she, along with Collins, Redmain and Harrer, are next sent to Saturn, to discover why the crews of skimmers who dive too deep into the gas giant’s atmosphere begin to hallucinate and lose control. It’s yet another scientific puzzle, and requires the ingenuity of all four major characters to resolve. It’s the most science-fictional explanation of the four stories, and certainly has the most shocking ending – which is firmly rooted in the psychology of one of the characters.
The SF Encyclopedia describes Worlds for the Grabbing as a “routine but enjoyable space opera”. It’s not. For a start, it’s hard sf and not space opera. It’s certainly enjoyable, but it’s not especially routine – not in reference to other sf, US especially, of its type. Pearce’s prose bounces from workmanlike to quite good, and while there are no sentences that will take your breath away, neither are there any which may cause pain. However, Pearce’s race-relations are, even for the 1970s, border-line offensive. One of the second-string characters, Simon Litua, a physicist, is black, and he often defuses situations by using racist comments ironically. It’s painfully done. The gender politics in Worlds for the Grabbing are also somewhat backward. All of the major characters, with the exception of Rachel Bloch, are male, and the women seem to be confined to the “softer” occupations and sciences. For all its surface appearance of equality, Pearce’s future maps almost precisely onto the UK of the mid-1970s.
If I see a copy of Pearce’s debut novel, Kidnapped into Space (1975), I will buy it and read it. But the fact that she’s been forgotten in the forty years since her first publication comes as no real surprise. Perhaps she might have gone on to write more interesting books – she was, after all, a Campbell nominee – but we will never know. Worlds for the Grabbing is certainly no lost masterpiece, and reads more like an historical document than a science fiction novel for the ages.