Having enjoyed 'Bimbos of the Death Sun', a legendary book in circles I walk in, I felt that I should follow it up with the second of the two novels with Jay Omega in the lead. I enjoyed 'Zombies of the Gene Pool' too, but not in the same way and not in any of the ways I expected.
Sharyn McCrumb is best known for her mysteries, many of which have won awards in the field. 'Bimbos of the Death Sun' is a mystery too, as much as it's a light-hearted jab at science fiction fandom. The murder victim is a popular science fiction author at a science fiction convention and Omega, engineering professor, debuting author and fish out of water at his first convention, is shoehorned into solving that murder. The book fit into her wider oeuvre.
Given that this is a sequel, with a similarly outrageous title, featuring the same lead character and with a murder mentioned in the back cover blurb, we might feel safe in assuming that it's going to follow in the same vein. It doesn't. Pretty much at all. Let me explain...
The title is probably the closest aspect to the original, because it's a sort of joke, a pun to be exact that's pretty cool. Jay Omega does return for his second book, but he's far from the lead and, in fact, he's firmly relegated to a supporting role. For most of this book, we might even be forgiven if we forget that he's even there. Oh, and there is a murder, but it doesn't happen until page 181 of 274 and isn't confirmed to be a murder until page 242. The mystery is important but it's not the most important aspect of the novel.
Really, this is a very different look at fandom, which is vastly deeper, but also better grounded and more respectful. Some fans hate 'Bimbos of the Death Sun', accusing McCrumb of failing to understand what fandom is and for taking potshots at it. I don't buy that. Clearly she isn't part of fandom and built that novel on research but, while there are certainly mistakes, I believe she got a lot of things right too.
Here, she conjures up a favourite of the mystery genre, a reunion, but drapes it in science fiction terms. We focus on the Lanthanides, who were a group of Golden Age fans who turned a farm in Wall Hollow, Tennessee into a slanshack. Back in 1954, half a dozen of them decided to drive across country to the San Francisco Worldcon but failed miserably and returned to the farm, where they held a "convention" of their own.
Most importantly, they all wrote something that they then collected together, put into a time capsule and buried in the yard, with the aim of digging it up three decades later in 1984. The catch: Wall Hollow was evacuated by the TVA (coincidentally, a crossword answer I looked up about a week earlier) so they could submerge it in the fifties under the newly created Gene C. Breedlove Lake, the "Gene Pool" of the title.
Back in the present, the lake is going to be drained to do structural checks on the dam that keeps it in place, so the living Lanthanides, the "zombies" of the title, can finally return and dig up their time capsule. And that's a big deal because some of those fans turned into dirty old pros.
Brendan Surn became one of the great authors of the genre, Peter Deddingfield a literary darling and Curtis Phillips an abiding cult author, even though he was institutionalised for believing his Lovecraftian stories were real life. Reuben J. Bundschaft, fan, became Ruben Mistral, bigshot Hollywood producer, and he spins this reunion into a massive media event, including the literary auction of the time capsule's contents. He calls it "the Dead Sea Scrolls of SF."
Omega is drawn into this story because a fellow professor, Erik Giles, turns out to be one of the Lanthanides, even though he's been hiding from that in respectable circles pretty much ever since his novel under the name of C. A. Stormcock. Giles wants to attend the reunion, but only with colleagues, just in case it all goes pear-shaped. After all, not all the Lanthanides reached literary heights. So, Dr. James Owens Mega, a.k.a. Jay Omega, finds himself packing for Tennessee, along with his girlfriend, Dr. Marion Farley, who is also his guide into the world of science fiction fandom.
While the last forty pages or so include some neat twists and deductions, it seems fair to say that this sucks as a mystery. It's just not the point. This is a character study, pure and simple, one that looks at fandom but even more at the people who expand out of it to become professional authors. Using the Lanthanides as a sample of fandom is a great idea and it gives McCrumb plenty of opportunity to mix things up.
I should introduce the others. Dale Dugger became an alcoholic and has been dead for thirty years. Pat Malone is also long gone, vanishing from the scene after publishing 'The Last Fandango', a mimeographed publication in which he slammed everyone, betraying privacies in the process. Deddingfield is dead as well, leaving a much better legacy, and Phillips too. Giles grew out of the scene and, while that old novel is increasingly well-remembered, is happy to be gone. Jim Conyers left fandom too, becoming a lawyer. Only George Woodard is still as much part of things as he ever was, still publishing 'Alluvial', the zine he ran back in the fifties, even as a teacher.
But wait, there's more. While Surn is still alive, he hasn't published in a while because he's suffering from dementia. Those who accuse McCrumb of doing another hatchet job on fandom really ought to look at his assistant, Lorien Williams, who visits his house as a fan and promptly moves in to take care of him, because nobody else is doing that, effectively becoming his care worker and his literary agent. There aren't many women in this book, so I'd agree a little more with accusations of sexism. There were female sf fans and female sf authors, many being notable, even back in the fifties. Not so much here, just a couple of hangers-on who play minor supporting roles.
What happens in this novel isn't really that important. The Lanthanides that are left have their reunion in Tennessee, are thrown a curveball when one of their dead compatriots returns unexpectedly to the fold and dig up their time capsule. That surprising extra body becomes just that and that prompts a lot of self-inspection and reevaluation of who they were and what they've become.
And the latter is where the value is here. Read this as a mystery and you're very likely to be disappointed. Read it as a sequel to 'Bimbos of the Death Sun' and you'll be bored. Read it as a comedy like that book and you'll catch a few neat jokes, like the unopened letter from John W. Campbell included in the time capsule, but not too many. You won't laugh much or often. But look at this as a character study of fans who become more, less or different and it becomes acutely incisive and worthy of exploration. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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