Ben Bova’s most popular story, he tells us, is Escape! and it’s a great tale. Part exploration of the surveillance state — not bad work for 1970 — part moral tale, and all-out prison drama, Escape! he tells us is the story that most people write to him about. You can see why. One of the most common heroes in all SF is the young man who thinks he knows best, and such is Danny Romano, the hero of this epic tale.
Epic, yes. Escape! May appear to be a short story as it sits in this collection of more lightweight and lesser tales, but it is a novella, and a near perfect one. There are a great arrangement of characters, from the flawed hero to the idealistic prison warder, who believes he has a new way of curing people of crime. This is a moral method that this prison administrator evolves and so although it’s based on surveillance technology, the core of the approach is something far more liberal, a caring and educational emphasis to penal reform. Maybe that could have seemed possibly in 1970, but Escape! Has many of the rougher and more traditional aspects of prison drama in it.
By this I mean there are several stock characters and incidents, with the centrepiece being a great prison boxing match, in which I think the main character has his racism pounded out of him, somehow. The story Escape! itself is billed as a science fiction tale, but it isn’t really that — it’s a prison story, even if it did first appear in an SF magazine.
It’s not a phrase you hear much these days — ‘the science fiction magazines’. But that is where these stories come from, where they arose, and where they supplied work and kudos to an exceptional colony of writers, largely American, and for decades. Because Escape Plus is a collection of material published in these aforementioned science fiction magazines, it carries with it romance, yes, but also the concision that comes with the coincidence of youth and writing in a hurry. That means to say, you’re not just reading juvenilia, but some of it in this collection — although already passed the editors and published — is hurried so far that it suffers from too many ridiculous ideas packed into too small a space.
But Escape Plus also carries with it one of my favourite science fiction stories, which is A Slight Miscalculation, and this is in essence what a certain type of story should aspire to. A great setting, a phenomenal problem, an insecure central character and a massive punchline. The way these stories find their way around these days is just not the same as it was. Strange Horizons is one of the most popular magazines out there, but it’s all online, and that’s just not the same, not in terms of attachment. When SF was Sci-Fi, magazines collected in a pile on the shelf and were easy to revisit, and a favourite story could be read over and over again until it appeared in one of the many anthologies that were always appearing. Reactionary talk this, I know, but the world of the future awaits — a kickstarted and crowdfunded future at that.