Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, August 10, 2012

1958: VOR (Blish, James)

Long slow start, great cruise, quick landing (4/5)

VOR was written, as a novel, during the same years as Blish's much more famous Cities in Flight series (1955-1962). Oddly enough, VOR doesn't carry the same characteristics as Cities in Flight does: the lengthy sentences, abundant commas and semicolons, and the dry dialogue. VOR is a drastic departure from the starchy, iron-pressed pockets of Cities (don't forget your slide-rule!); VOR is a grittier, more down-to-earth romp through first alien contact. I wish, wish, wish I could compare this first contact novel to Blish's other first contact novel, A Case of Conscience (1958), but I, sadly, haven't been able to procure a copy yet.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The first 'alien' from outer space arrives on earth:
How 'it' comes and what 'it' wants.
How we greet 'it,' nourish 'it,' communicate with 'it.'
What we learn from 'it' of interstellar worlds, galactic powers, and void beyond.
And how--in the terrifying moment of Earth's ultimate crisis--we defend the complex civilization of tomorrow from 'it!'

This could happen tomorrow, or the next day--but the awesome moment is certainly within the realm of possibility--and may be close at hand!"


Marty Petrucelli has led a complicated life. He's been a WWII fighter pilot, a US senator, and married to a lithe pin-up girl. He's largely given up the glamorous life to volunteer in the Civil Air Patrol of Merger County, Michigan. His simply duty in the squadron is to identify aircraft, a hobby or Marty's since he was a young boy. However, some other volunteers in the squadron are frustrated with Marty's new-found fear for flying. He may be the most experienced flyer among them, but the flying to left to the other flyboys.

Compounding this fear of flying is Marty's inability to "maintain" his wife, a pulchritudinous woman who draws the eyes of men like vultures to a carcass. The other volunteers are aware of this discomfort and one man, the head-headed pilot Al Strickland, is even openly friendly with his missus. The defeated Marty keeps to his job. When a forest fire breaks, the crew are issued orders to fly over the area and spot the cause of the outbreak. With photographs taken, Marty examines the proofs and identifies the mirrored craft at the center of the fire to be an atomic missile. Only later, when the air force come to examine the radioactive craft, is the tubular craft assumed to be a alien spacecraft.

With radiation spilling forth and heat in excess of 2,000 degrees Celsius, the cooling craft opens to reveal a 15-foot black-sheathed monstrosity standing silent, standing tall, and not communicating in any way. A crane is hoisted to mobilize the metallic hunk, but when the crane tips and the alien uprights it, the black-clad behemoth follows the crane. With radiation still being emitted through the entire spectrum, the only likely place to contain the walking star is the disused fusion plant in Grand Rapids. Once behind the massive lead-impregnated concrete walls, scientific examination of the alien can begin.

Marty is chosen for the elite team because of his knowledge of the event since its onset. The politicking among the military and the advisors drives some of the team from inclusive plans on how to deal with the enigmatic alien. Eventually, the shifting colors on its skin reveals the pattern violent-orange-red, which reveals the aliens name: VOR. Patching a computer to the color analyzer, the linguists are able to build a vocabulary with the alien. Very limited to physical representations, the linguists find it difficult to express abstract ideas and gain meaningful answers from the ebony-clad alien, whose interior temperature climbs up to 6 million degrees Fahrenheit.

The linguists eventually asks the question, "What do you want?" The alien ambles towards the viewing platform, frightening the scientists, and says, "I want death." The hull of the alien is impenetrable by diamond drill, cutting torch, or cyclotron bombardment. Still, the alien passively sits in its cradle endlessly reciting its name--VOR. The same linguist who has cracked the alien's language and has been able to communicate with also poses theories as to why the alien needs a temperature so high, that consumes so much energy, and why it wants death in the first place. The train of logic proves to be true when the once stagnant alien ambles forward and announces, "Why will you not kill me... you have not tried... there is no more time."


The first forty-six pages (of 159 pages) are a slog to get through. With the initial observation of he object amid the forest fire and the levels of bureaucracy to commit an action plan, the pages are studded with decent attempts at creating a sympathetic, downbeat man--Marty Petrucelli. It feels like the novel is going nowhere, likes its one big hoax in the plot or one big hoax on the reader, until, "The nose was a circular door or airlock. It opened. It came out" (46-47). This is the fulcrum where the entire book tips from mundane bureaucratic red-tape to full throttle alien communication mystery!

The investigation of the radioactive alien and its gradually cooling craft proves to be some of the most enticing mysteries served up in any science fiction book, on par with Clarke's Rendezvous with Rama. The entire situation of the alien's arrival and the alien's condition spawns so many questions and ignites the fire of possibility within the reader. It's a short read, so the momentum through the remaining pages is difficult to carry the reader through. For the most part, Blish is successful.

However, Blish is not immune to abrupt awkward plot transitions. At a crucial scene of action, Blish takes six full pages to detail the starting sequence for an old propeller plane and its ascent to the sky above Grand Rapids. This wholly kills all the momentum Blish had written prior to the transition. What follows feels like a hastily written, though fairly convincing, conclusion in the remaining nine pages. It may be a tad too simple, but I had a feeling that the course taken would be the same course I had plotted in my mind.

Marty as a sympathetic character is hard to like. He seems to rely on his fear of flight on basis alone, without having to tell anyone WHY he's taken an oath not to fly after his  service in WWII. Eventually, the truth is revealed and any respect the reader has for Marty is evaporated. Given that his wife is running around behind his back at the same time, Blish wrote the tale of a hero who is as unlikable as the situation he finds himself in.

VOR may be a tad boring at the onset and a tad predictable near the end, but sandwiched in between the two is an excellent, excellent mystery which will have the reader's blood a-boil with anticipation. In the last chapter, Chapter 10, the escalation of excitement is over and Blish pens a short epilogue of Marty's ranting about heroism, victory, and a possible Oedipus complex.

If Cities in Flight was written with the same fervor of mystery and enjoyment as Blish did in VOR, the four novels of the collection may have felt like a carnival more than a chore. Where Blish lacks in sophistication here he makes up for in enticement and excitement.


  1. I can't wait to get my hands on this one -- A Case of Conscience is a delightful rumination (but, I did read it at least 10+ years ago).... but more heavy on the philosophy than this one (at least from what I gathered from your review).

    I also agree with your first two ratings for the Cities in Flight novels -- I haven't gotten to the third one yet and reviewed them separately on my blog.

    1. Philosophy in VOR? Ha, no sir. It's no really action packed either, but Blish has the ability to leave the plot simmering for quite a while. What should have been a bang was interrupted lengthy flight preparation.

      P.S. - Like my new background?

  2. Definitely, too bad you hated the book.... HAHA