Lester del Rey
Completed 5/17/2014, Reviewed 5/24/2014
I read this book for the Grand Master Challenge on WWEnd. Lester del Rey was named a Grand Master of Science Fiction in 1991. I also got it because it’s the only book by del Rey in the entire Washington County Library System. They don’t even have a collection of his short stories. So maybe I was going into this read feeling like I had no options. And the result was that I didn’t really care for the book.
“Pstalemate” feels like a novella stretched by about a hundred pages of overwrought prose to give us painful insight into the main character and his relationship to his psychic powers. Harry Bronson is a brilliant engineer and inventor of a new, more efficient car engine. He has almost no memory of his childhood or of his parents who died in a car crash when he was ten. After an encounter with a psychic researcher and a quack doctor, he comes to the realization that he has psychic powers, a concept he has always secretly loathed. He searches for his foster sister who also happens to be psychic, and together they unlock the secrets of his past and try to overcome the terrible inevitability of life with these powers, insanity.
The prose is actually pretty good. It’s very much like the prose of many of the grand masters of SF, technical, yet personal. And the character development of Harry and his foster sister Ellen is strong. The supporting characters were a bit cardboard, like the rich overbearing, opinionated foster father and the goofy business sidekick. But the book lost a lot of its momentum through the long passages of Harry and Ellen doing their investigation into their past, the phenomenon, and those gone insane from their gift. Throughout the book, I couldn’t help feeling that the plot was simply another variation of “Flowers for Algernon”.
What saves the book from a two star rating is the last page. There’s a huge reveal that’s mind-blowing. In retrospect, I could see the allusions to it, and it is masterful and really disguised. I think any reader, even knowing that there’s a twist at the end like me, will not see it coming. I actually had to read the ending twice to make sure I read it right. And that’s where I realized the greatness of del Rey lies.
By definition, this is soft SF, in that it deals with the soft sciences. My feeling is that hard SF people who like a lot of intricate detail will enjoy this book even without hard science descriptions. And the writing style is very much like other Grand Masters. In retrospect, I probably would have had a better first exposure to del Rey by going to the bookstore and finding a cheap, tattered, out of print collection of his short stories.