The Revolving Boy by Gertrude Friedberg
Del Rey, 1980
Originally published by Doubleday, 1966
Price I paid: 90¢
From early childhood, Derv Nagy was marked out as being different. His uncanny sense of direction, his compulsion to turn and turn again until he felt somehow right, and the slight but definite slant at which he stood—all set him apart. Only his parents knew why Derv was unique among Earth’s billions—and they were determined that their son would never learn the truth.
Eventually Derv realized that his personal “compass” was oriented toward a world far distant from the one he had grown up on—but he did not know of the mysterious transmissions emanating from that invisible point in the sky…
John Clute of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction calls this book a “minor classic.” While I’m not sure I’d go quite far, I agree that The Revolving Boy is a dern fine novel. Heaven knows I didn’t expect that when I picked it up. The title is a little goofy, and the cover art looks like a kid cosplaying as Carl Sagan is…doing…something. I don’t know what he’s supposed to be doing! Is that a gyroscope? Is that the deal? It doesn’t look right to me.
Still, this cover art is significantly better than the original 1966 art. Yeeugh.
The back cover synopsis is basically correct on all fronts! It leaves a lot out—that’s understandable—but yeah, all this stuff happens. Del Rey didn’t feel the need to claim that “his discovery will alter the fabric of existence!” or “he must go on the run so that the government doesn’t learn his secret!” or “he takes a journey to the farthest galaxies!” or anything like that. Nice work!
Gertrude Friedberg is worth talking about. She mostly wrote plays. Her 1933 play Three Cornered Moon was made into a movie. This is her only novel of any sort, although she also wrote some short stories. The author’s note in this book says that she was also a math teacher.
The book hinges on a character named Derv Nagy. Yes, this is a weird name. Most of the other people in the book have regular names, but Derv and his family are Nagys. Nagies? His parents’s first names are never given; they’re just called Mr. and Mrs. Nagy. We later learn, after some secrets are revealed, that their original name was Yang. They’re not Asian, though. That’s made clear. For some reason, they’re Caucasians named Yang. I guess maybe it’s because this is the future.
The book spans a long stretch of time (we get to see Derv grow up), but it starts somewhere around the turn of the millenium. Derv grows into a teenager and we learn later that some events in that block of plot took place in 2014. We learn this after the stories has jumped forward a ways, somewhere around 2030.
From the start we know that Derv is a special kid. It first crops up when he’s very young, around two or three. He’s with his mother at the beach. A group of young ROTC-types are also at the beach, learning how to do things like about-face and the like. Derv joins in, his little toddler body knowing exactly which way to turn as the drill sergeant yells directions. This is very amusing to the rest of the people at the beach, but his mom freaks out a little.
As he grows, Derv’s amazing sense of direction does not diminish. He also begins to need to orient himself toward a particular direction, always the same. Usually this involves spinning around a few times, a quirk that draws some commentary on the playground and from the neighbors. He learns to hold it in over the course of the day and then orient himself in one big go right before going to bed. This often involves complicated somersaults and stuff.
Derv’s early behavior sounds a lot like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. The real thing, not the misused term tossed about by people who just like things neat. Bear in mind that I’m not any kind of psychologist or whatever, so I’m the last person you should take commentary on mental health issues from, but that’s just what I thought. I have read at least one biography of someone with real OCD (Crystal Zevon’s I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead, about Warren Zevon) and I got the feeling that OCD is not so much “I like things this way” but more of “I need things to be this way or bad things will happen.” Warren, if I recall correctly, had a complicated ritual that he’d have to do if he saw a picture of Uncle Sam, or else disaster would fall. I don’t recount this as a ha-ha.
Derv has to do this complicated orientation thing. It’s like a mental itch that won’t go away if he doesn’t do it.
Derv grows up. He does well in school. He starts to make friends, particularly with a young lady named Prin, who fascinates him because she has perfect pitch. He associates her acoustic ability with his own sense of perfect direction.
He begins to think that he’s orienting himself toward something specific. Something in space. He has to compensate for the Earth’s rotation and revolution, the movement of the Sun through the galaxy, and so forth. He starts doing some research, and this is the part that delighted me most. While some of the science in this book was highly speculative, there were also bits that showed excellent research into how things actually are. F’rinstance, at one point Derv is convinced that he’s aligning himself with the galactic center. A little research shows that the galactic center is located in Sagittarius, which is not his direction. So he thinks that maybe he’s pointing at the center of the universe. He learns that there’s probably no such thing, and if there is a such a thing, it’s an enormously complicated concept.
The more speculative stuff comes into play when he makes friends with some scientists, who humor him in this whole search. They just happen to have an anti-gravity chamber sitting around? So they put him in it. They figure it’ll help him align with his target for more than a microsecond. Sure enough, they get a fix on his feeling. They point a radio telescope in that direction. Sure enough, there’s a signal! It’s a regular little beep right around the wavelength of hydrogen. It’s undeniable, although there’s still plenty of skepticism that it’s from an intelligent, or even extrasolar, origin. Nevertheless, they send a response back. They have no idea how far away the signal’s origin is. There are some guesses, but there’s actually not anything visible in that direction, so there’s nothing obvious to pin it to.
Another weird speculative thing is how Derv got his ability. See, it turns out that his parents were astronauts before manned space exploration was stopped. They were, in fact, the last astronauts. Lastronauts. They took part in an experiment. A grand experiment. They were a married couple and they had a baby in space, just to see what would happen. Somehow or another, the fact that the baby was born outside of a gravity well meant that it was now more sensitive to something aside from gravity, and that’s why Derv ended up orienting himself toward this signal. Not sure how that’s supposed to work. Also, the book never mentioned whether Derv was conceived in space, but I think we can all agree that that’s the most likely scenario. I feel like subjecting a pregnant woman to crushing gee forces would be a bad idea, but I’m not a doctor.
We then jump forward a bunch of years again. Sixteen, to be exact.
We meet somebody named Fred Gany. Nobody’s ever going to break that code. Later on, after there’s this big worldwide search for Derv, that it’s “statistically more likely” that an assumed name will be a “permutation.” That’s probably the weakest point of the book, because what the hell? Nobody in the world changes their name to an anagram of their own name unless it’s something that makes sense. I’m certainly not going to start going around as “Sathom.” Actually, that has a decent ring to it…
Anyway, the thing with “Fred” is that he suddenly collapsed just now. His wife is freaking out. He’s lost all sense of direction and can’t figure out where he is. He goes to the hospital. The doctors think that maybe it’s some kind of a brain tumor, but the “anti-cancer” drugs don’t work in the brain, so they’re going to have to go in there and see. This future society that has “teevys” and programmable cooking devices and multi-leveled hover-roads doesn’t have CAT scans, apparently. The exploratory surgery is a little bit dangerous. It might leave him deaf if the doctor slips. This is worrysome.
Fred sends his wife out to figure something out. Yeah, it turns out he’s Derv. Surprise! Also, he married Prin, which is sweet. Derv sends her to the old observatory to see if maybe the signal stopped and that’s why he’s gone all crazy. It turns out that the old observatory is closed down in favor of a newer, bigger one, but there’s a guy there cleaning out the old records. Prin talks to him. He finds the records, but they don’t say anything about the signal stopping. She leaves, dejected, but it gets this guy curious. He goes back to the new observatory and starts asking around. Sure enough, the signal did stop for a brief period, but it turns out that nobody knows precisely when it stopped! They think that maybe this stoppage is acknowledgement of receipt of the Earth signal, but because they don’t know how long the stoppage was, they don’t know how to acknowledge the acknowledgement.
The climax of the book comes as all these scientists put out a search for Derv and eventually find him. Sure enough, he knows exactly when he passed out that first time, as well as when he suddenly felt better. With that information they…
Actually I’m not exactly sure what was supposed to be done with that information because something else happens. The signal changes to a geometric progression. Instead of beep…beep…and so on, it becomes beep…beep beep…beep beep beep beep….and so on. Up to eight beeps. This verifies that the signal must come from an intelligent source, everyone celebrates a bunch, and the book ends.
I feel like I missed something. Probably something important. The book ended in such a way that left me feeling a little cold. I felt like the story of Derv and the story of the signal didn’t have to happen in the same book to get the same story in one direction or the other. They didn’t come together in a way that felt right to me.
Still, the book was fine up to that point. And the ending did have some real emotional impact, even if I was a little confused by it. The whole book had some great emotional resonance, to be honest, and that’s mostly what I liked about it. It felt…nice. Gentle. There were some tense moments, to be sure, but nothing really dangerous. The stakes were relatable. The most dangerous thing in the book was the possibility that Derv would go deaf if Prin didn’t find the information fast enough and he had to go through the surgery, although it occurs to me that this is another case of a buildup with a letdown. Prin comes back to the hospital to find that Derv has recovered completely. Moreover, he just up and left. Her whole mission didn’t actually mean anything in the end.
The book kept me going, though. I spent the whole thing wondering what was going to happen, which is something not a lot of books can do for me anymore. At no point was I pounding this paperback against my head screaming I DON’T CARE I DON’T CARE. Exposition dumps were kept to a minimum. Characters were relatable and likable. A sense of mystery and wonder pervaded the mood throughout. It wasn’t very problematic sexually, racially, or otherwise.
In short, this was a really, really competent book. I’m glad I read it.