Friday, January 4, 2013

Book Review: 'Newton and the Quasi-Apple' by Stanley Schmidt

2 / 5 Stars

‘Newton and the Quasi-Apple’ was first published in 1975 as a Doubleday / SF Book Club hardbound book; this Popular Library paperback (188 pp.) was released in June, 1977. The cover artwork is by Carlos Ochagavia.

Chet and Tina Barlin are Federation anthropologists who covertly observe and explore alien cultures, while taking measures to avoid violating The Prime Directive.

Their subject is the planet Ymrek, a world populated by the Kengmorl humanoids, who are at a medieval / early Renaissance level of culture. The city of Yldac, in the country of Yngmor, shows particular promise of birthing a civilization that ultimately may discover the industrial age, atomic power, and spaceflight.

However, when Chet and Tina witness an attack on Yldac by a barbarian race known as the Ketaxil, it looks like any burgeoning civilization in Yngmor is going to be snuffed out before it can have a chance to develop. With the reluctant permission of a Federation official, the Barlins lead a field team to Yldac.

Their goal: pose as a troupe of magicians, and, with the aid of novel ‘quasimaterials’ and aircars, give the Kengmorl an edge in their fight against the Ketaxil.

Once on Ymrek, however, the Barlins discover a complicating factor. A young monk named Terek – the Ymrek equivalent of Isaac Newton and Galilieo Galilei – has independently discovered the laws of physics governing falling bodies. His discoveries are met with some hostility by the clergy ruling Yngmor, but Terek, firm in his beliefs, refuses to recant.

When the Federation team arrives in the city and use quasimaterials in their magic show – little plastic disks that levitate – Terek surmises that these are no ordinary travelling magicians. However, the senior cleric is only too happy to argue that the quasimaterials invalidate Terek’s theories.

It’s up to the Barlins to find a way to see that Terek follows the path opened by his discoveries…without angering the high cleric. But the Ketaxil are learning about new technologies, too, and time may be running out for any rescue of the civilization of the Kengmorl…….

‘Newton’ is a middling-quality sf adventure. The concept of a Federation covertly intervening in alien affairs certainly isn’t novel in the genre, and reincarnating the Galilieo – Church controversy in an alien setting doesn’t show much originality, either.

That said, author Schmidt writes reasonably well, avoiding New Wave temptations in terms of his prose style. However, too many passages are literary filler material, devoted to internal monologues on the part of the Barlins as they agonize over whether they are Doing the Right Thing. Deleting these passages would have made the novel a good 20 pages shorter and the narrative more focused.

‘Newton and the Quasi-Apple’ isn’t worth searching out, but if serendipity leads you to find it on a shelf, it may be worth picking up.

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