Runts of 61 Cygni C by James Grazier
Price I paid: none
Capt. Alex and his team had been computer-selected to explore the sun-twin planet Cygni C. They found there a race of men who wiled away their lives playing childish games, making love, and vegetating in the deep, luxuriant jungles. Alex’s friends quickly succumbed to the planet’s many delights. Only he felt duty-bound to return to earth.
This feels good.
It’s been far too long since I’ve read a book that caused me to yell WHAT THE FUCK so loudly that my roommate thought I found a snake in my bed or something. But Runts of 61 Cygni C broke that streak, I’ll tell you what.
Credit/blame for this one goes to reader and commentator Headless Unicorn Guy, who recommended it to me in the comments section to my review of The Feminists, way back in 2013. I’m sorry it took me so long to get around to it.
Shout out to the Northridge Library at California State University, who sent me this copy via Interlibrary Loan. From the looks of it, I’m the first person to check out this copy in 32 years. I can see why.
Let me tell ya, I’ve read some bad books in my day, but this one takes the cake. It’s definitely in the top five worst books I’ve ever read, up there with gems like East of Danger, The Outer Fleet, and the Star Quest trilogy. I know that makes a total of six books. I don’t care. It still makes more sense than most of this novel.
From the cover alone I was pretty sure of what I was getting into. I mean, it’s just…awful. From the artwork to that downright stupid tagline, it’s a pretty clear summation of what’s inside.
Except there’s so much more. There’s the insanely clunky and unnatural dialogue…
…to unflattering depictions of the human women…
…descriptions of “science” that sound like “look at me, I’m smarter than all the scientists in history…”
…and the worst sentences ever written in the English language.
But that’s not all!
The book has this tendency to go on for far too long about the stupidest shit. Take, for instance, the way food is consumed in this future year of 2090. It comes in tubes now. This book talks about the food tubes for six goddamn pages, telling us how and why they were invented, how they work, and just how freakin’ wonderful they are.
Just about every scientific discovery gets this treatment, and it’s so often completely inane. There’s a special kind of gold somebody found on the moon. When combined with titanium, it manages to negate all air resistance. It even goes out of its way to state that it cancels out this resistance while the ship is in space.
It throws the words DNA and Quarks around with no understanding of what those things are. They’re just buzzwords used in places that don’t make any sense. Sometimes they’re used together.
Music is now “perfect” because it is created electronically instead of with “wildly inaccurate” human beings and analog instruments. The author’s attitudes toward food and music are remarkably similar, actually.
You know what’s the only thing the author doesn’t seem to describe far beyond sufficiency? The things mentioned in the title. They’re there for about twenty pages of this 156-page book, and they don’t do anything. Our heroes only manage to communicate with them for fifteen or so of those pages, and everything about their culture and the planet they live on is glossed over with no attempt at explanation or justification. The Runts are the only animal life form on the planet. It explicitly says there are no worms, or bugs, or lizards, or birds, or anything else. On the other hand, the planet is rife with plant life, all of it bearing delicious and edible fruits.
A competent author would have used this to set up a sort of ecological mystery. How does the web of life work on a planet like this? Is it somehow controlled from outside? Maintained by another force, either subterranean or in space? But no, James Grazier doesn’t give a shit about the science part of science fiction, he just wants to throw random stupid ideas at us.
I say this as a staunch advocate of the idea that stories should sometimes have mysteries that aren’t answered in the narrative, leaving it up to us to imagine what the deal is. From Tolkien’s cats of Queen Berúthiel to the brilliant bit where the heart of Halley’s Comet is mysteriously glowing in Clarke’s 2061, there are little unanswered micromysteries that are handled very well in speculative fiction and they’re one of my favorite things about the genre. Runts of 61 Cygni C doesn’t do any of that. It just throws a world at us and hopes we’re able to suspend disbelief, or perhaps just not give a damn what we’re reading.
I take that back: the book actually had a decent bit here and there that fit that description. While our heroes are on the way to the titular planet, they see a few things that are a bit weird. For one, it’s broadly hinted that Jupiter’s Great Red Spot is actually an artificial construct hiding a civilization below it. The civilization must be highly advanced and secretive, because all efforts to breach the cloud are met with failure. A similar event happens as the ship passes by Barnard’s Star and finds a planet that is completely smooth and green with a single perfect band of silver encircling it. Again, all efforts to explore it are rebuffed, even to the point of endangering the ship and crew.
I’ll be honest, I liked both of those bits. They reminded me of much better authors.
I guess I should talk about our barely-there heroes. The crew of the unnamed ship is two married couples: Alex and Diana and Amos and Ruth. I chuckled when I realized that the men of this crew were also half of the crew of the Rocinante. (Also, read The Expanse or watch the show, either one, if you haven’t already, which, if you’re reading this blog, is probably unlikely? Whatever. They’re so good.)
(Proofreading note: Do I always write such complicated goddamn sentences?)
I’d like to see a sf work that uses the “send married couples” trope, but chooses not to be 100% heteronormative about it. I’m sure there’s at least one noteworthy example out there. Let me know!
Anyway, the crew is traveling to 61 Cygni C in a ship that can exceed light speed because apparently engines are good enough now. No mention of how this is possible what with Einstein and all, although time dilation is still a factor. Objective travel time is eleven years each way, although subjectively, it’s about two years. They spend the majority of the trip in cold sleep, which, as we’re told over several pages, is extremely great. Perhaps most notable is that the body temperature is brought down to -1000°. We’re not told on which scale that is, but the rest of the book unfailingly uses imperial units, so I’m going to assume it’s Fahrenheit. On that scale, we’re at 540.33 degrees below absolute zero.
So after more than half of the book full of bad exposition and even worse expository dialogue, our heroes finally arrive on the alien world. There they meet the Runts. I wish they’d chosen another name. The Runts are pretty much exactly as shown on the cover of the book, although the artist gave them breasts when the book explicitly states that the females do not have them. The aliens all stand about four and a half feet tall. The males have foot-long penises. Apparently this makes them incredibly attractive to our human protagonists.
The Runts live a quiet life of constant play, sex, food, and sleep. It’s the ultimate in Hakuna Matata. Three out of the four of our spaceship crew are enraptured by the culture and join it. Alex is the holdout, for no adequately explored reason.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, things are going to crap. All the countries have united under two factions: the Asians and everybody else. It’s never quite explained what the two factions have against each other (imagine that!), but they hate each other and eventually War III starts.
No, I didn’t leave a word out. The book consistently calls it War III. It’s the sequel to War II.
So the entire Earth gets nuked to smithereens while our heroes are gone. Nothing survives except perhaps a few bacteria here and there. Maybe some lichen, if we’re lucky.
decides to fly back to Earth just to check it out. Maybe he’ll find survivors? It mentions the possibility, but never goes into what he hopes to do with those survivors. The smart thing might be to bring them back to sex planet, but it’s never mentioned as an option.
Alex does a quick fly-by of Earth, establishes that everything is destroyed, and flies back to 61 Cygni C, where he meets a Runt and has sex with it for the last few pages of the book before mentally commenting to himself on how his penis has gotten bigger.
Folks, this book is a miracle of bad writing. It was published! Someone at Belmont said, “Yeah, sure, this is good enough.” They bought it! Gave real human money for it!
It should give us all hope!
There were points in this book that were so badly written that I seriously wonder if English was the author’s first language. I don’t say that to pick on ESL speakers and writers. I’m seriously impressed with them. English is a nutzo language. It’s just something I thought about while I was reading, and not too seriously, because the writing didn’t have that unnameable ESL feeling to it. I can’t describe it any better than that, but it felt like someone who grew up with English but was just really bad at it. Chalk it up to some kind of linguistic intuition.
I mean, c’mon, who calls it War II?
Oh, and random words would be italicized like they were important futuristic concepts, except they weren’t.
This book is dedicated to “my critics: Iole, Kathy, and Stella.” Look, Iole, Kathy, and Stella: You had the potential to stop this book from seeing the light of day, and chose to ignore that responsibility. Shame on you.
And there are also many other things which James Grazier did ineptly, the which, if they should be written every one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written.