The Revolving Boy, Gertrude Friedberg (1966)
Review by Ian Sales
According to the Science Fiction Encyclopedia, Gertrude Friedberg published only a single sf novel and three sf short stories (one in an original anthology and two in F&SF). Her novel, The Revolving Boy, was not, I’d been told, especially good. So I was somewhat surprised to discover it was a nicely-written, slightly whimsical, but very much science fiction, novel, with an engaging protagonist and an appealing voice.
Derv Nagy is the boy of the title. He was conceived in orbit during a space mission – one of the novel least convincing elements, it must be said; it’s passed off and hand-waved away with little or no attempt made at plausibility. Initially, Derv’s strangeness exhibits itself in a desire to face in a specific direction whenever possible, or to take routes, or move his body, in such a way as to maintain some sort of specific heading. As he grows older, so the urge becomes stronger, until he is only comfortable when facing in the “Direction”… and this is taking into account the rotation of the Earth, the movement of the Earth about the Sun, and so on. Of course, this makes life difficult for him. Which is not helped by the fact that he and his parents are pretty much in hiding – they fled the publicity and notoriety generated by their space mission, and are now living under assumed identities.
For much of The Revolving Boy, Friedberg describes the development of Derv’s strange talent, and how he learns to fit his life around it. And how his parents learn how to cope with it. He grows up, marries, begins on a career as a chemical engineer… But then the signal, whatever it is that indicates the Direction to him, stops. Derv falls ill as a result, but the only condition the medical establishment seems to think fits his symptoms is a brain tumour. So they schedule exploratory surgery. In desperation, Derv’s wife, Prin, visits Green Bank, a renowned radio telescope facility. They had been listening to a signal from somewhere out in space, origin and purpose unknown but, they suspect, the product of intelligence. Except the project had fallen out of favour years before, and the signal had not been listened to since. Prin’s visit prompts a young radio-astronomer to check the signal, and he discovers it has returned.
Meanwhile, Derv miraculously recovers from his “brain tumour” and discharges himself from hospital. The Green Bank astronomers – who were aware of Derv and his ability – now want his help in conforming the direction and source of the signal. But they can’t find him, as he has been living under a different name for decades…
The SF Encyclopedia describes The Revolving Boy as “a minor classic in the field”. I don’t think I would go quite far, but it’s certainly a novel which doesn’t deserve to be forgotten. Friedberg’s prose is good throughout, and while the central premise – ie, SETI – is a real thing and so very much plausible, the story elements wrapped around it are a little too hand-wavey for comfort. Derv’s difference is handled sensitively, and makes for an interesting metaphor. But the lack of explanation, or the feebleness of the explanations which are offered, often work against it.
Read The Revolving Boy for Friedberg’s writing, for Derv’s story… but don’t read it necessarily as heartland science fiction. It works better in the areas peripheral to its central conceit, in the adjustments its cast must make to that conceit, in the way it affects them and their lives. It’s not a classic, but it does deserve a fresh audience.