Thursday, January 4, 2018

Combat by Mack Reynolds

ETs in the Kremlin
Science fiction authors have often used the genre to express their political and philosophical views, but few writers have made sci-fi as political as Mack Reynolds. During the Cold War, this prolific author penned dozens of novellas and short stories dealing with political and socio-economic issues, filling the pages of the pulp magazines with anticaptialist propaganda thinly veiled behind adventure and espionage plots set in the near future. One such novella, Combat, was originally published in the October 1960 issue of Analog Science Fact-Fiction magazine. Though this one is more engaging than many of Reynolds’s works, it ultimately suffers from the same fault that marks so many of his stories: too much politics and not enough sci-fi.

Hank Kuran is a U.S. government agent stationed in South America, where his job is to see that American industry competes favorably against that of China and the Soviet Union. His superiors call him away from his post, however, to assign him to a special secret mission to Moscow. Extraterrestrial visitors have landed on Earth, and instead of contacting the Americans, they have chosen to deal with the Soviets instead. Needless to say, the prospect of a Soviet-Alien alliance strikes fear in the heart of the American government. Kuran, who is fluent in Russian, is to pose as a tourist traveling on a package tour of Russia. When his tour group arrives in Moscow, he is to contact the aliens and act as the de facto ambassador for the U.S., opening the interplanetary lines of communication and stating the case for American supremacy over the Soviets.

For most of its length, Combat is a pretty fun spy novel. (The title is meant to be ironic. This is a Cold War after all, so the only warfare is spycraft.) To conceal his identity, Kuran pretends to espouse the views of a typical American businessman with a relentlessly pro-capitalist, American-supremacist attitude. His fellow travelers, who perceive him as an old-school conservative fuddy duddy, are quick to point out the successes and advantages of the Soviet system and rub them in his face. This approach to the story gives Reynolds the opportunity to promote his own socialist views. Throughout the narrative, he continually expresses admiration for the Communist economic system, while conceding that corruption in the Soviet hierarchy has led to totalitarianism and human rights violations. He seems to be advocating the middle ground of a socialist America that is free of capitalism yet retains its Constitutional freedoms.

I don’t have a problem with Reynolds’s political views; in fact I agree with him on some points. I just wish he would have put more effort into the science fiction framework upon which the story is built. I’ve read about a dozen of Reynolds’s works, and it surprises me that the science fiction magazines would even publish some of his stuff, since there’s actually so little sci-fi in it. The extraterrestrials in this story are little more than an afterthought. The ending is lazy and disappointing; almost an absence of an ending, quite frankly. Still, Kuran’s journey to Moscow was a fun ride while it lasted. Reynolds is a good writer when it comes to establishing characters, setting a scene, and building suspense, even if, as in this case, he doesn’t do anything with the suspense he’s built. Perhaps that’s why I keep coming back to his work. He offers just enough hope that one of his stories will deliver a truly visionary alternate future. Combat is not that story, but it is a moderately fun read for fans of Cold War sci-fi.
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