Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Review: Call Me Joe

 When James Cameron's Avatar premiered in 2009, it's story about a paraplegic who is able to remotely control an artificial creature so he could explore a hostile planet sounded familiar to many people–so familiar that there was talk about legal action.  That's because the premise of Avatar seemed to be lifted wholesale from Poul Anderson's classic short story "Call Me Joe" (Astounding Science Fiction, April 1957). 

James Cameron was very lucky on two points:  1) Poul Anderson was dead by the time Avatar came out and 2) he didn't nick material from Harlan Ellison again.

Be that as it may, "Call Me Joe" is what a science fiction short story should be.  It takes a single fantastic idea, uses science and technology to give it verisimilitude, and then weaves a compelling story around it.  As in Avatar, "Call Me Joe" involves a paraplegic man, Ed Anglesey, who is psychically linked to a synthetic being.  In this case, the man is in a base on Amalthea, Jupiter's fifth moon, while the creature "Joe" is down on the giant planet's surface trying to prepare the way for a future colony with literally his bare hands because even the strongest Earth material disintegrates in Jupiter's harsh environment.  Naturally, Joe/Angelsey is as rugged as the world he is attempting to conquer; a centaur with a prehensile tail and muscles borrowed from a Robert E Howard protagonist.  Though trapped in a shattered body and confined to a wheelchair, Anglesey can still enjoy the life of the ruggedest of pioneers.

The only problem is that the machine that links Anglesey to Joe keeps breaking down.  The K tubes that form the heart of the mechanism keep blowing out and once those vital and expensive components are gone, the project is lost.  Enter Jan Cornelius, an expert in psionics who has come from Earth to determine what is causing the K tubes to blow out.  Very soon Cornelius comes to the conclusion that the problem does not lie with the machine, but with the waspish and anti-social Angelsey.  Is some deep-seated fear of Jupiter causing the feedback or is there something more sinister going on that imperils  Anglesey's very identity?

Comparisons with Avatar are unavoidable and Mr Cameron's work comes off much the poorer for it.  "Call Me Joe" is a much more economical and tauter work without the appalling layers of political agiprop.  It also takes a much more mature approach with vivid passages showing the attractions of a life on the wild frontier of Jupiter as well as the philosophical implications of sharing you mind with another being.  Anglesey is a true three dimensional character as opposed to the cipher of Sully in Avatar and we get a real chance to see the world through his (and Joe's) eyes–especially the unflattering way in which he perceives Cornelius, who Anglesey rapidly comes to sincerely hate as much as he hates his own crippled body. 

Sorry, no blue-skinned noble savages, but 'Call Me Joe" does have an actual plot by an acknowledged master of his craft.  To me, that beats 3D any day.

No comments:

Post a Comment