This Fortress World

James E. Gunn
This Fortress World Cover

This Fortress World


This is James Gunn's first published novel, although that same year, 1955, he co-wrote a novel with Jack Williamson. To say, at this almost sixty year remove, that Fortress World is of mostly historical interest may sound like damning with faint praise, but the story and style are very much of their time. I read it with curiosity and interest rather than enthusiasm and never got involved with the story or characters. It is almost as much a noirish exercise as it is SF, and I imagined its scenes played out in the grainy black and white of early TV dramas.

Several novels I have read from this period have to do with whether or not the humannity is ready to join the league of advanced alien races that populate the universe, Gunn takes the opposite approach. Humankind has filled the universe but established fortress worlds with little connection to one another. Their shared humanity has been forgotten, but an alien artifact that sets the plot in motion may offer a way home.

It is a good chase novel, that owes as much to works like The Thirty Nine Steps and Rogue Males as it does to science fiction. Our unlikely hero is a young religious acolyte who proves he has the chops to do what needs to get done to save the artifact and himself in a world of intrigue and criminal violence. Towards the end, the story resolves into some long-winded discussions about humanity and the future that have the earnestness of midnight dorm room discussions; but, given the plethora of dystopian novels currently making the rounds, there's nothing wrong with the occasional ray of hope getting beamed our way from the distant past of the mid-twentieth century.