Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Review: A Plunge Into Space

A Plunge Into Space
A Plunge Into Space by Robert Cromie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I got this from Singularity & Co's Save the Scifi kickstarter, as the first (and so far only) reward. The idea is that they'll clear the copyright of out-of-print SF works and turn them into ebooks. This particular one is, presumably, in the public domain, having been published in 1891.

They scan the books and run them through OCR. Now, the thing about OCR is that it needs very, very thorough human proofing afterwards, and this just hasn't received it. In fact, it doesn't seem to have even been thoroughly spellchecked, judging by the words with letters misrecognised as numbers. There are very frequent and obvious OCR errors, most of which are just annoying (because it's easy to see what the word should have been), but some of which are obscure enough that the sentence is turned into nonsense. And for some reason the font is tiny (I had to crank it up two extra notches on my Kindle) and the text is double-spaced. These basic ebook formatting errors, added to the lack of proofreading, don't bode well for the professionalism of future releases. Because of how annoying this makes the book to read, I can't rate it above three stars.

The story itself is surprisingly good for an author from 120 years ago who I've never heard of. It's witty (in a wry 1890s way), it has characters who aren't just there to point to the shiny but actually have conflict and friendship and story going on between them, and the speculation is well done, at least in patches. The civilization of Mars has advanced technology (some of which we would recognise as commonplace today, though it was wild-eyed speculation in the 1890s), gender equality and minimal government, but isn't a pure utopia - it's on the point of beginning a decline because of the lack of challenge, which is a well-observed point. There have been plenty of SF writers since (in fact, there are some still writing today) who have less insight into technological progress, social progress and psychology, who are less amusing and tell a less interesting story.

On the other hand, the technology is very handwavey, and although women have equality on Mars they don't appear to have it in the writer's head yet. The trope of "naive innocent daughter of a scientist who's basically the cause of all the trouble" was to last well into the 1950s, sadly, and this may be one of the earliest examples.

More interesting as a historical curiosity than as a story, but I think it stands up better than other early SF - in some ways, I'd put it above the much better known H.G. Wells story [b:The Time Machine|2493|The Time Machine|H.G. Wells||3234863], which is seriously lacking in character development in comparison.

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