The Night Face — Poul Anderson (1963)

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Publisher: Ace Books

Second Ace Edition, 1978 (Originally published in 1963 as Let the Spaceman Beware!)

Cover Art: Michael Whelan

Plot Synopsis (of cover): It was a great privilege bestowed upon Second Lieutenant Taylor, to be chosen to be part of the ground crew on his first official mission. The younger officers were usually relegated to support positions on the ship—especially in situations like this one, where the planet in question remained unexplored—leaving the often delicate arts of diplomacy and discovery to those more experienced in such matters. As some mad form of luck would have it, many of the top brass on Taylor’s space barge had succumbed to an exotic, debilitating form of the sniffles, confining them to quarters and bumping Taylor up in the relative pecking order. As excited as he was, the young lieutenant was also terrified. The consequences to his career should he prove inadequate to his task would be dire, and his nerves were raw. To soothe them, Taylor took several long pulls off of a bottle of gin he’d secreted aboard. A klaxon sounded, calling the away team to the departure bay. Shortly after he exited the ship, Second Lieutenant Taylor blacked out. He woke up in the medical bay of the ship, feeling groggy and tasting sandpaper on his tongue. His doctor and his commanding officer were there, standing above him, talking in hushed tones with some poorly veiled humor in their faces. Taylor’s groans brought the attention to those attending him, and the doctor asked Taylor how he was feeling. “A little sick, sir, and worse for not remembering,” Taylor responded. “The last thing I recall, we were disembarking, I felt woozy, and then… then nothing, sir.” “Really?” balked his commanding officer, Captain Heston. “You remember nothing at all?” The doctor interjected, “That’s actually not surprising. The alcohol in his system bonded with the unique strain of airborne bacteriopollenate ubiquitous in the jungle atmosphere. That must have been quite… intoxicating.” The doctor was sniggering at the end. “What?” the lieutenant exclaimed, “What in God’s name is so damned funny? What happened on the planet?” Captain Heston, barely able to restrain himself, answered. “Best if you see it yourself.” He produced a datasphere from his pocket. “This is a recording by one of our dedicated hovercameras. You slipped off into the forest, and the camera drone followed you, as it was programmed to do. We didn’t even notice you were gone until an hour had gone by, well after… well, son, have a gander.” Captain Heston plugged the datasphere into a nearby monitor. Lieutenant Taylor saw himself, stretched out on a rock, surrounded by stocky green hominids. At first, he thought he was being attacked—the creatures appeared to be in a frenzy. He was wrong. “Oh, yes,” the Taylor onscreen moaned, “Please, use your recently evolved opposable thumbs on my relatively advanced turgidity!” Taylor, unable to tear his eyes from the screen, watched aghast as the apes groped wildly at his body. As laughter erupted around him, he felt ready to pass out again. Right before he lost consciousness from shame, he heard himself shout, “Oh, sweet monkeys so close to my heart! Make me your slutty Jane Goodall of fuck!”

Relatively Irrelevant Inside Text: Poul Anderson is the kind of prolific motherfucker that makes a guy feel bad about himself. I mean, looking at the sheer amount of things the man produced before kicking the bucket in ’01, I feel like a right and proper heel for spending my time with my head stuck in a case of Budweiser. That said, let’s see Poul make a beer can pyramid as impressive as mine. Pissing contest aside (I’d win one of those, too), The Night Face is a curious work. It takes part in a larger universe, one which I have not experienced, but Anderson assures me in the introduction that I needn’t concern myself overmuch, and that the novel should stand firmly on its own ground sans its broader foundations. And it does. The book builds a suspense that culminates unpredictably. It’s a queer sort of suspense, perhaps due to the style—it feels like Anderson is constantly writing in allegory, and that the book should be read between its lines. It’s slow at times, feeling occasionally like an anemic version of a McCaffrey novel, and I was ready to judge it harshly. However, the book wraps itself up nicely, and, in retrospect, could not function so well without the dull bits. I have a couple more Poul Anderson paperbacks in my arsenal, and this book makes me look forward to them. Overall, this is a different flavor of speculative fiction, and I enjoy the change of pace. Anderson wrote in the Berkeley of the 1950s and 1960s, and you can totally tell. Sounds like a fun guy, but I could still totally take him in the drinking game version of Agricola.

Rating: 9.1 Warmongering Cat-Lovers

Questions for Critical Cover-Viewing:

  • Is it called his “Night Face” because that’s when the fuckin’ goes down?
  • When asked to fill out a medical history form for space travel, how often is the box ticked for “Fingered by exotic anthropoid”?
  • Do people in the future still use the Craigslist “casual encounters” page (in this case, m4aaaaaaaa)?

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4 thoughts on “The Night Face — Poul Anderson (1963)

    1. Hopefully you mean that you are awe-stricken by the beauty and eloquence of my prose, not that speaking would unleash the bile you’re fighting to keep down. Well, actually, I’m cool with either of those.

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      1. Of course, of course – your prose is amazing! 😉 but that cover! What were they thinking? “Let’s have the hero flat out, being groped by monkeys!” The mind truly boggles…..

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hah! Yup. To be a fly on the wall at that meeting. “Look, I know it might sound crazy, but go with me on this. What if one of the monkeys was reaching between the astronaut’s legs, like he was sticking his finger up his butt, and the astronaut was pulling a really obvious ‘O’ face… Poul? Poul, where are you going? Oh, come on! That gesture is rude and uncalled for!”

          Liked by 1 person

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