Thursday, June 11, 2009

Review - "Vanishing Point"

Mike Sterling at Progressive Ruin made me aware this morning of the science fiction career of C. C. Beck. Beck is best known to comic fans as the co-creator of Captain Marvel and artist who devised the whimsical style that made the book distinctive.

Beck never wrote many comics; his work was as an artist. As for science fiction stories he only wrote one: "Vanishing Point". It appeared in the July 1959 issue of Astounding and has never been anthologized or reprinted. Fortunately Project Gutenberg is currently distributing copies of the story and has an MP3 audiobook of the story.

So I read the story and I can see why it didn't make a splash. 1959 was a time of shifting tastes and a push for more mature science fiction and Beck's story feels like it's solidly out of the 1930's. It would have fit in perfectly with the pulp tales of that era. On the other hand it is a decently told pulp story and I found it to be pretty good for a first effort.

"Vanish Point" is told from the perspective of an artist whose roommate was obsessed with capturing things exactly as were on the page rather than representative art. To that end this man began tracking the vanishing points of perspective and devised a machine to pull apart that perspective. Needless to say things go badly.

The plot is a common one and Beck didn't do anything particularly distinctive with it. He did trend more toward the Lovecraftian "tampering with malevolent things man was not meant to know and will drive anyone mad" which helped but the tone of the story was light-hearted. Beck didn't take advantage of that disconnection and so all the reader is left with is a familiar plot.

The best thing in the story was the writing itself. Beck was almost certainly pulling in his own experiences when he wrote "Vanishing Point" and the narrative voice of the first artist who just didn't care about the experiments his roommate was conducting was extremely well done. It captured the character very well in a small amount of space. The story is told as a monologue but it's a somewhat believable one; it feels like a story being recounted rather than just someone handing out exposition.

The artist that was experimenting with perspective was not particularly fleshed out and I feel that is mainly due to the point-of-view that Beck chose for his story. He exists almost entirely as a plot device

What I found in "Vanishing Point" was a good effort but flawed in a few ways that harm the whole thing. It does make me think that if Beck had stuck with it he could have been an impressive voice in science fiction, especially with the change in emphasis the New Wave brought in just a few years later. If he could have gotten his plotting into the swing of things then he could have been terrific. Instead we have one decent but not brilliant story from him. I'd recommend checking it out if you enjoy any kind of pulp SF; it'll only take a few minutes of your time and it's likable enough.