Thinking about Gimp Hines

>> Sunday, April 04, 2010

Not everything I'm reading shows up over in the "Reading" or "Read" sidebars. Some of it's just kind of ephemeral, and a lot of times that includes whatever e-books I might be reading on the netbook or the BlackBerry.

One of those books is Raymond Z. Gallun's 1961 The Planet Strappers, a pulpy but seemingly heartfelt SF novel that entered the public domain some time ago and is available from Project Gutenberg. I'm not sure where I stumbled onto this one--I want to say it was a Boing Boing entry, but it could have been somewhere else; I downloaded it and it sat in various folders, if "sat" is the right word, getting bounced to various backup drives and showing up on assorted reinstalls, before I finally opened it over lunch or dinner while I was out with the netbook and started reading.

The book is an account of a gang of earnest, erstwhile young men (and one young woman) who decide to become frontiersmen in space, pulling up stakes, saving up money and securing a loan for and self-manufacturing their own surplus mobile spacesuits, simple interplanetary ships and the costs of getting themselves and their gear into space. It's slight, pulpy stuff, suffused with that late '50s-early '60s optimism and enthusiasm for space, and not really worth getting into beyond that much background info because this isn't really a review. I mean, I'm not done with the book yet and even if I was, it's slight stuff, ephemera, which is perhaps why it doesn't appear anyone ever renewed the copyright on it in the first place.

No, the reason I mention it is that I do think this is the kind of book that should be required reading for everybody for sort of social-historical reasons, as an example of just how different even a kind of enlightened and progressive mindset was fifty years ago. See, Gallun's view of the future has a kind of Roddenberryesque optimism to it: among the ambitions "planet strappers" of the title are an African-American kid fascinated by botany, an unstoppable Hispanic kid, a disabled young man with MacGyverish propensities, and a tough, independent young woman, all of whom are as qualified as anyone else to go into the last frontier and who indeed make it into the wild black yonder. Heady, progressive stuff.

Except that the MacGyverey young man is named "Gimp Hines" and the planet strappers' sole girl is the group secretary and typist (naturally) before she abandons the boys to go off on her own since they're holding her back--and ends up a dancer in a moon bar. (As for the young African-American and Hispanic characters--they haven't played too much of a role up through the middle of the novel, Gallun's large cast of characters having gotten away from him somewhat--but they're not exactly free of ethnic stereotyping, even if they're clearly meant to defy some of the most onerous and awful bigoted portrayals).

I don't want to rag on Gallun too much, because it's very clear he's trying--no, "trying" is an unfair word: Gallun is sincerely progressive in his views, seeing space as a place where Earthly bigotries fall by the wayside and a man (or woman) is a product of his (or her) pluck and ability. Gimp Hines, for instance, is the book's badass thus far, his missing leg being irrelevant in low-g, zero-g and microgravity environments while his technical skills and never-say-die attitude make him a success at everything he turns his mind to. But his name is Gimp Hines for fuck's sake. Similarly, Eileen Sands, the girl, is plucky and heroic--and yet it's as if Gallun can't get his mind out of the cultural box he's in: okay, girls can go into space too, because space is for everybody--but they'll do girl things when they get there; the idea that maybe a girl will want to operate a Caterpillar p-5000 hydraulic power loader when she gets up there seems to be just-ever-so-tantalizingly out of Gallun's reach.

It's kind of like the old criticism of the original Star Trek: here's an African-American woman as a bridge officer--and her job is basically to be the ship's receptionist. On the one hand it's revolutionary (Whoopi Goldberg's famous story about seeing a Star Trek episode as a kid and immediately running to tell the rest of the family, "I just saw a black woman on television; and she ain't no maid!" is worth bearing in mind), on the other hand... she couldn't be the weapons officer? The navigator? Would that really have been too much, even in 1966? So close... and so... not even....

The point being that these are progressive portrayals. You think it's kind of... I dunno... degrading that these sorts of characters who aren't white guys are relegated to roles like "space dancer" and "secretary" and "handyman" and whatever--try to imagine how these characters would have been written by an actual outright bigot if he'd remembered to include them at all.


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