James Gunn’s first novel, This Fortress World, was published in 1955. I read the Berkley 1979 edition of the paperback – which, of all the publications, I think is the best cover art. I have not been able to ascertain who the cover artist was – but I do really like this cover art. And it is not necessarily just this particular piece. Any comic book cover that resembles the basic structure of this cover is something that will also draw my attention. Another example: Glen Cook’s The Black Company cover.
When trying out a new author, I like to start with their first work. Generally, this has either become their magnum opus – or they have nowhere to go but up, so to speak. Also, it soothes all of my pseudo-OCD feelings on the matter. So, naturally, thinking highly of the cover and knowing this is Gunn’s first novel, it was the obvious choice for my next read.
Surprisingly, this is not the most well-read novel. I figured that I would find heaps of reviews of this. I, of course, found some, however not as many as I expected. Interestingly, the ones I found seemed to be very opposing in their overall rating. At first this looked odd, but after reading the novel I can completely understand this disparity.
It is a difficult novel. I enjoyed the first few chapters. The story and characters were engaging, interesting, and this novel seemed to have a lot of good things going for it. However, I had the feeling that a certain viewpoint/ideology was being espoused – one that I am not too sympathetic toward. This disappointed me, but I read onward. Just because I disagree with something does not mean I will not read it. But then, around the middle of the book, everything seemed to get bizarre and I felt that the author really had no clear-cut direction of where he was taking this novel. Threads of the story seemed to get lost or change. And there are a few scenes that are a bit strange – unless you have some psychoanalysis in your academic background. I mean, why do authors love to torture characters? But not, as PKD does, in an offbeat and kosmological way. Instead it is always: in a dank cell, naked, with torture devices. I could live without a whole lot of this particular trope. . . .
Anyway, much of the story itself involves escape/evasion/chase. The novel is written in the first-person. We meet William Dane immediately, looking much like the cover art here. William is an acolyte at the monastery/cathedral. Because he is an acolyte, I assumed he is between 15 and 25 years old. I cannot recall the novel sharing his age with the reader – if it did, I missed it. This is one problem that I have with the novel: sometimes William seems too capable for someone so young. Maybe his innocence and youth are what help him succeed? However, does his name mean anything to you? It was familiar to me in a dusty way. It finally came to me after reading the book: Cp. Silas Marner.
So what is this novel about? Telepathy. It is also a really hopeful, futuristic conception of humanity. It is also a love story. And it is also a “chase/escape” plot. It is about fortresses – personal, architectural, moral, etc. But – most important – I believe this is an entire novel about READING! (Chapter 6 contains some of this!)
The writing is not so good. The ideas are good – whenever there is also a consistency and continuance. When events happen at random, or there are obvious “changes” that don’t mesh so well, the ideas seem forced. Two things must be said: the viewpoint that I thought was being demonstrated (the viewpoint that I disliked) actually was not being put forth. Or, it was, but not in the expected way – in a way that is actually positive and redeeming. Color me surprised. In some ways, it is the opposite of the viewpoint that I suspected I was going to be dealing with! Very tricksy, Gunn! Also, while the middle chunk of the novel is not great, the last several chapters are quite good; matched with the first few – this would be a 4.5 – 5 star read. The resolution is interesting and impressive – especially after the middle section. And I enjoyed it quite a bit.
From late in the novel:
And so we have the fortress psychology which pervades everything. It means isolation, fear of attack, hatred of the alien. It means strong, centralized governments. It means concentrations of power, wealthy, and authority. It means oppressed populations, looking ignorantly, hopefully, fearfully to superiors for defense and order. It means stagnation, decay, and slow rot which will eventually destroy all semblance of human civilization as technical skill and knowledge are destroyed or forgotten and the links between worlds are broken. (pg. 193)
Honestly, many readers will hate this novel. The writing is not good. The subject matter is not contained enough and seems to try to include too much in such a short novel. Nevertheless, even if it is not perfect, many readers will also like this novel for presenting the positive, hopeful, and revolutionary feelings for humankind in the far future. Also: telepathy.