The book I own is not much to look at it: it’s a 1961 1st Four Square copy, with the binding held together by tape and the pages yellowed with age. But good fiction knows no age, and I devoured this in one day.
Five Earthlings, selected apparently at random by aliens, are each given the power to wipe out the human species. After 27 days, the power will evaporate and be gone forever. It’s still the height of the Cold War. What would you do?
I picked this book up as I was heading out to work this morning and paused, flipping through it quickly to decide whether or not to take it along with me. I opened it to a random page — page 78 out of 192 — and skimmed to get a sense of the style of book. (Yes, sacrilegious I know, whatever, and I also read last sentences of books first so there!). What do you think happened next? I got so involved in the scene that I spent a good five minutes reading, standing still in my hallway instead of heading towards work. That’s when I figured I should take it along with me and start reading it from the beginning!
The strongest point of this book is its characters and their interactions, particularly when it comes to the dialogue. That’s why, when I opened the book halfway through to a scene of a man and woman escaping the police, I was immediately sucked in. I had no idea who they were, their history or background, but I didn’t need to. I felt like I knew them within seconds. It was impressive.
So of course when I went back and started reading the book properly, I was even more hooked. You’re introduced to five ordinary people, scattered across the globe, who are all of a sudden faced with a huge responsibility. And while the resolution was obvious the whole time — and so the book wasn’t as thrilling as it could have been — the real part of the story that was of interest to me was seeing how these ordinary people faced extraordinary circumstances. The story made me wonder what I would do if faced with the same responsibility — how would I ensure the safety of the human race?
I particularly enjoyed the interactions between the English girl and the American journalist (yes, romantic subplot right there) because there was a wit and humour to their interactions, the kind of humour brought on by desperate circumstances. The portly German scientist was also a fun character, the typical absent-minded professor type. And the Russian soldier… his was the toughest ordeal, I think, and I definitely felt for him. (The Chinese peasant has a very small role, so I didn’t connect as much with her.)
Perhaps the resolution was too easy. It definitely felt a little anti-climatic. And of course — Cold War back story and this being written by a Canadian — the Americans come off looking far better than the Russians. But hey, it’s a reflection of attitudes at the time, and I think the bravery of the Russian soldier makes up for it.
In any case, I really like these classic science fiction stories. There is something very human about the problems they explore, and you don’t really get books like this any more, which is a shame. And while the concept behind this story isn’t ground breaking, it was the little things that really made it for me: the banter between characters, the insights into the Russian leader’s mind, the alien psychology….
In sum, if you like your classic science fiction, this is a book to pick up. It’s a really quick read and I enjoyed it immensely — I even put off checking emails, Twitter, etc when I got home so I could finish reading the book!
This book is one of my 100+ Reading Challenge!