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The Power
Frank M. Robinson
Tor Books, 222 pages

The Power
Frank M. Robinson
Frank M. Robinson has been writing and editing since 1950, when his story "The Maze" appeared in Astounding Science Fiction. His fiction output dropped during his years as an editor (1959-1973). After his stint at Playboy, he began writing techno-thrillers. For many years, he has been collecting pulps. A recent book, Pulp Culture: the Art of Fiction Magazines (written with Lawrence Davidson), is a pictorial history. His other novels include The Glass Inferno and Blowout! (both with Thomas N. Scortia), The Dark Beyond the Stars, and most recently, Waiting.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Waiting
SF Site Review: The Dark Beyond the Stars

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Victoria Strauss

The idea of the superman -- psionic, intellectual, physical, or any combination of the three -- is an enduringly popular science fiction trope. In his 1956 classic The Power, Frank M. Robinson took that SF premise across genre lines, marrying it to the suspense and frenetic action of the thriller. One of the earliest examples of what has since become a well-established sub-genre, it appears now in a new and slightly revised edition from Tor.

Bill Tanner is a professor of anthropology at an unnamed university in Chicago. He's part of a team working on Navy-financed studies in human endurance, focused on answering the question of what qualities make some people so much stronger, smarter, more efficient, and more likely to survive than others. Colleague John Olson, however, thinks the studies have a secret agenda, and at the tense meeting that opens the book he blurts out a fantastic claim: there's a superman among them, in hiding, just waiting for the right opportunity to take over the world. The human race, he says, is "all washed up."

Naturally this revelation is greeted with skepticism. Tanner, in charge of the team, tries to soothe Olson with an impromptu experiment designed to prove that no one in the room has superpowers. But to everyone's shock, it proves just the opposite. Olson, it seems, is right. But who is the superman? What does he want? And is Olson correct about his nature -- is there a monster loose within the world?

The rest of the book depicts Tanner's struggle to unravel the mystery of the superman's identity -- and to survive, for the closer he gets to the answer, the more relentlessly the superman pursues him. It's non-stop action and suspense from the first line to the last, a tale so thoroughly involving that it isn't until close to the end that you begin to notice what seem to be huge plot holes -- such as why the superman, who can re-shape people's ideas and kill with a thought, can't simply cause Tanner to lose his memory or drop dead, instead of chasing him all over the Midwest. Not to worry, though: the holes are filled with a doozy of a twist in the final pages. There's something very pulpish about this trick solution (which the astute reader may have seen coming, though s/he probably won't figure out just how Robinson finally gets there); nevertheless, it's reasonable enough within the context, and there are enough hints scattered throughout the plot, to make it acceptably plausible.

Robinson's speculations on the possible nature of a superman -- a super-being endowed with intelligence and strength hugely beyond that of ordinary humans, plus a range of mental powers humans don't possess at all -- are very effective. Why, after all, should such a being also be super-moral or super-ethical, when both morality and ethics are largely social constructs, products of the very human minds the super-being has outstripped? It makes perfect sense that such a being should regard the human race as "animals," and use the world and all in it for his playground -- as, in fact, humans themselves have always done. Morality and ethics, after all, are reserved for one's own kind.

It's interesting to compare The Power with Robinson's recently-published Waiting, which takes up a similar theme but executes it very differently. The trappings of the thriller are retained (including the chases and the gory deaths), but the writing is subtler and the characters more deeply delineated. The science fictional ideas -- notably the origins of the super-intelligence and why it works differently from our own -- are more fully fleshed out, and their implications more thoroughly explored. The mystery, uncovered, is not a trick. And yet, though in many ways it's the better book, Waiting doesn't have the raw impact of The Power, or its compulsive readability.

One final observation: the revisions noted above seem mainly to be aimed at updating the book -- such as pushing characters' birthdates forward to make them seem contemporary, and altering references to the Korean War. But The Power's ambience is firmly of the past (characters take the train as a routine form of cross-country transportation and eat lunch at the counter at Walgreen's; out-of-wedlock sexual relationships carry a sense of scandal and professional women are referred to as "girls"); and anyway, what's the point of inserting a mention of the Gulf War if you retain the immediately following references to the WAVES? Far from contemporizing the text, these alterations stand out glaringly from it, and have the effect of making the narrative seem more, not less, dated. The Power is a classic; I suggest it should have been left as it was written, anachronisms and all.

Copyright © 2000 by Victoria Strauss

Victoria Strauss is a novelist, and a lifelong reader of fantasy and science fiction. Her most recent fantasy novel The Garden of the Stone is currently available from HarperCollins EOS. For details, visit her website.

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