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Give Warning to the World by John Brunner2 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsAnyone acquainted with the old Body Snatchers/Puppet Masters alien invasion scenario (which should be all of you) will know they’re in familiar territory with Give Warning to the World, a compact little suspenser that allows its story to unravel like layers peeling away from an onion. A reworking of one of Brunner’s earliest novels, 1959’s Echo in the Skull, the book has high geek appeal. But considering by the early ’70s, Brunner already had such significant works to his credit as Stand on Zanzibar and The Jagged Orbit, one wonders why he bothered. One conclusion is that this was all about the paycheck. Even Brunner’s admirers — of whom I am one — will give voice to a collective “whatever.”

The action begins in London when Sally Ercott, an amnesiac young woman experiencing unusual visions, is rescued from a tenement house whose owners, an aging prostitute and her boyfriend, have been holding her prisoner and performing experiments of some sort on her with the help of a disreputable physician named Argyle. Sally’s rescuer Nick Jenkins makes it his business to help figure out what’s happened to her. As Nick’s good friend is a doctor who once worked under Argyle, and knows a lot about the man’s legal troubles (deliberately overprescribing to junkies so they could sell the extra drugs on the street), Nick feels some degree of connection to the strange goings-on. Are Sally’s visions memories, hallucinations...or visions of another world? Scotland Yard has also been investigating the boarding house in connection with a rash of disappearances around the country. Sally is not the only one, it seems. 

The whole story presents the kind of scenario that could only take place in the World of Pulp SF, which certainly lends it an old-school charm. This kind of unabashed adherence to pulp conventions isn’t really done like this any more, or at least not without groan-worthy self-consciousness. In this day and age readers want tales, even ones set in distant galaxies or secondary high-fantasy realms, that are at least grounded in some sort of identifiable reality they can relate to. What you get in Give Warning is a classic damsel-in-distress yarn. Nick first enounters Sally when she leaps into his car at a stop light wearing only an overcoat and screaming for help. I must admit that hasn't happened to me lately. When the cops stand around looking bewildered, Nick and Sally naturally take command of a crisis. 

I suspect that one of the major revisions Brunner made involved a supporting character named Clyde West. A respectful characterization of a black man is more consistent with the socially conscious SF of the ’70s than that of the pre-civil rights ’50s. His presense is certainly a benefit, although he does stand out in such a way that the story’s more archaic elements are underscored by the contrast.

I was entertained through much of this book. But in the end, Brunner just doesn’t want to have a romp with any of this. He takes the wind out of what appeal the book has by, in the common practice of 1950s SF, resolving the plot with exposition rather than action. Considering how well Brunner has managed to hold readers’ attention despite the derivative story, it’s a shame he had to wrap everything up with a long-winded (and often ludicrous) scene where Sally just explains what’s been going on, and everyone stands around listening and saying things like “Hmm!” or “That’s absurd!” or “Have you got a better explanation?” Considering our villains are alien blobs of slime that reproduce by exploding, there ought to have been some way to make the finale more fun!

I know it’s a temptation for artists, once they reach a certain level of stature and accomplishment, to go back and revise crude early works by applying the skills they lacked at the time. But sometimes it’s better just to let the old stuff go. Certain work serves its purpose in an artist’s creative journey, and that purpose doesn’t have to include posterity. Echo in the Skull was a book that helped Brunner develop the talent to write Zanzibar and other later, greater works. It didn’t need to be trotted out after those books had been released just because Brunner’s name now warranted it commercially. But then, a paycheck is a paycheck, eh?