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February 1999
 
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The Lights in the Sky Are Stars by Fredric Brown, 1953

I love used bookstores in fly-over country. You make discoveries there which are often impossible in our coastal metropolii.

What I did not want: A bloated modern "novel" fat on gratuitous wordage and slim on plot; lines of overfed type air-puffed by huge kerning and Double-Stuf leading, a book spine wider than half an inch, a story which existed only to terminate a contract.

I found Fred Brown's The Lights in the Sky Are Stars. Ironic, because Brown was a penny-per-word pulpist in the purest sense, writing disposable escapism with an in-print half-life of about six months. Brown remains famous for his short fiction and his humorous work; this was neither.

Lights has a sense of wonder rarely found in today's techno-fetish sci-fi, a kind of blazing, American hopefulness only possible when space was still an unconquered frontier. Its plot is queerly similar to the recent film Gattaca, only peopled with real humans instead of mannequin-like actors, the foremost of these being the compellingly driven Max Andrews, a guy who is so overwhelmingly normal, and so damned modest in the pursuit of his dream---to pilot the first flight to Jupiter on a ship he helped build---that you wish the frustrating bureaucracy which denies his quest (because he's too old) would just grow up, already, and give this well-qualified, deserving Everyguy his shot.

Because of the lean, declarative nature of his prose, and his penchant for writing proto-hardboiled fiction before noir was a genre, Brown could easily be rediscovered amid today's hype-addicted fetishization of the past if only he could be re-christened, appropriately, the James M. Cain of science fiction.

—David J. Schow

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