The Jungle by David Drake
The novella I actually bought the book I have just been reading for was the classic Clash by Night by Henry Kuttner. One would never know from the cover that this ground-breaking work was included in that book at all; only by looking at the table of contents does one see this fact. I’d had the good fortune though of dealing with a now retired on-line merchant I knew as well as one can someone on a different continent whom one has never actually met. I had emailed asking if Kuttner’s Clash by Night were available. The response was that one could not find it then in print as a separate volume, but that the book The Jungle by David Drake included it; so I bought the book. I did not bother until now to read the work emblazoned on the cover and first in the volume. After all, I had never then heard of the science fiction author David Drake and knew he was certainly writing well after the Golden Age in which I was then almost exclusively interested.
Now several years later, I have read The Jungle by David Drake, who described the novella in his afterword as “not a Kuttner pastiche” (emphasis his) but rather an homage set in the world created by Kuttner in that novella. My opinion of Drake’s work is frankly mixed. On the one hand, Drake both tells a good story and in terms of the overall plot and themes, the author is firmly in the territory of good solid science fiction— the kind of themes that make science fiction as a genre great.
Yet I have several quibbles with the execution of the work. For example, throughout, Drake uses the phrase water spout to mean the water which cascades upward from the surface of a body of water when a large powerful projectile hits it, instead of the standard meaning of that phrase (also written as a compound word waterspout) to mean a storm which is essentially a tornado that occurs over a body of water. Had this occurred once or twice, one could just shrug it off, but this erroneous usage is so frequent that one cannot help but think that either the author himself or at least his editor should have caught the blunder before publishing the novella. Next, the author’s descriptions of life in the Keeps (the domed underwater cities characteristic of the world Kuttner envisioned) seem to emphasize the lewd and crude behavior of incidental characters in a way that suggests the work might have been written by a horny teenager. For example, why would one care that a woman at a party who plays no significant role in the story wore a dress cut such that when she moved other guests at the party could see her pubic hair? Another example occurs much later in the novella when a character refers to something being better than sex after a week at sea (and yes I have bowdlerized here). The problem with that incident is again that it is distracting; the viewpoint character would be highly unlikely to be thinking of sex when he is otherwise so focused on just staying alive. Finally, the copious use of curse words and other obscenities just seems sloppy writing. The principal problem with using words such as f–k, especially in the non-literal sense, is that the word has become such a catch-all that it means literally nothing. Different inflections in the voice can make it either very good or very bad and it can be substituted for other words about as arbitrarily as the word smurf in the the Smurf comics or cartoons. A writer should use words precisely to tell a story and convey his themes without distracting the reader from these but the use of empty verbiage and distracting details undermines this part of the craft. That such language never occurs in Kuttner’s Clash by Night so that doing so appears inconsistent with the milieu in which Drake has chosen to set his novella just makes all these point worse so that the cumulative effect of these quibbles becomes a significant detraction from an otherwise fine work.
Putting those issues aside though, The Jungle offers the reader a novella which (apart from issues of its execution) embodies what makes science fiction great as literature. The story is told in two parallel storylines with each chapter consisting of two dated sub-chapters. The first portion of every chapter deals with what could be regarded as the main storyline which focuses on a group of soldiers from a mercenary company (termed a Free Company) who crew a hovercraft which operates much like a conventional torpedo boat. The world in which this story is set is a Venus covered largely by water and which is populated by highly dangerous plant and animal life because the process of terraforming the planet was interrupted at a critical stage. (At the time Kuttner wrote both the novella Clash by Night and the novel Fury, the latter set on the same world by much later, the notion of the planet Venus being covered largely by water was considered plausible in scientific terms.) In this main storyline, the crew of the hovercraft crash on an island and in the process the equipment they would otherwise use to contact their main fleet is damaged, but a laser communication device which requires line of sight survives. The result is that the crew has to climb to the top of a mountain on the island. Unfortunately both the plant and animal life on the island and in the water are nightmarishly dangerous,and the island is covered by jungle. The second storyline (using the term admittedly loosely) consists of flashbacks portraying the background of the characters who have crashed on the island.
The two principal characters are the commanding officer (CO) of the hovercraft crew, a man named Brainard, and his executive officer (XO) who is named Wilding and from one of the twelve aristocratic families ruling the planet. Both the CO and the XO credit the other man with being seemingly impossibly brave in the situation and with having the greater credit for keeping the crew alive– although at least one man is killed. The men get an exaggerated idea of the courage of their officers as well, but all of it seems plausible– at least as much as I can say having no military background myself.
In the course of the background story we learn that XO Wilding is effectively head of his aristocratic family and that he joined the mercenaries in order to learn leadership abilities. What he wants to do ultimately is lead not only his family but the people they rule to better things, including colonization of the land surface of the planet; the idea is to try to make Venus a planet on which humans thrive rather than marginally surviving. To that end, Wilding took a degree concentrating on studying the plant and animal life of the planet’s surface, all of which is highly mutated from the original forms once found on earth, before the inhabitants of that planet made it uninhabitable. Similarly CO Brainard who originates in the lower classes also has long striven for something better than the pointless existence of life in the Keeps. The bonding experience of the struggle to survive on the island jungle solidifies mutual respect between Wilding and Brainard, as well as the men under their command. Not only do they get off the island and back to the fleet, even after their laser signaling device is also destroyed, but in the epilogue Wilding has used his position to begin efforts to colonize the planet’s land surface supported by Brainard and his former men. In other words, the crew has banded together to strive for something to benefit humanity on the planet and are making it work.
Thus, Drake’s The Jungle fits the classic mold of science fiction in which ordinary people work to achieve things on a great scale, even starting from humble beginnings. That theme of people as individuals dealing with the great issues facing their society is common throughout the genre of science fiction literature, and Drake accomplishes an admirable work in that respect. Yet at the same time the irrelevant crassness, both of language and of details, detracts from that greatness because the quality of the writing itself suffers. So the novella The Jungle by David Drake could perhaps have been great, but the author chooses to pander to the lower elements of his readership so that the result just misses the mark of greatness it could otherwise have achieved.