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Sci-Fi Undercover — Daystar and Shadow

August 1, 2013
Photo courtest of Guy Span

Title: Daystar and Shadow

Listed Author: James B. Johnson

Publishing Information: Paperback, 1981,   DAW Books

Pages: 206

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“I was remembering more every day.  That is, I recalled small bits, when somebody wasn’t trying to kill me and run me all over the deserts of southwest America.  And, hell, I’d lost the girl to them, too.  But one of these days, I’d remember the lost years.  It had taken me years of concentrated effort to drag my given name from the quagmire of lost memory.(page 1)

You’re thinking that you’ve read this novel before, aren’t you?  I certainly thought so after reading the back and subsequent first few pages.  Futuristic deserts of America.  Lost memory.  Girl problems.  And people chasing the protagonist.  A pretty straight forward recipe for commute reading material, huh?  A somewhat bleak picture to kick off Ronald Reagan’s first term.

If you gave up during the first chapter, these thoughts might’ve been as far as you got.  But from the 2nd  chapter onward, as the puzzles of past and present merge, and as the  trials of a disinterested hero (Daystar) and his bosomy young partner (Shadow) evolve beyond mere survival, a pretty fun novel takes shape that assumes a surprising amount of risks.

Daystar and Shadow, published by DAW Books which could be considered the spiritual successor to the playful yet sometimes groundbreaking ACE Double Novels, does not have illusions of grandeur–but after a somewhat brisk 206 pages, I was happy to find the content deeper than I expected.

Did you know Philip K. Dick debuted with an ACE Double Novel story?

An example of the fun and often engrossing ACE Double Novels–two stories in one bound paperback

The biggest risk that Mr. Johnson takes is the mental condition of Daystar, the protagonist and first-person narrator of the story.  The year is 1981, and the author has chosen to not only make the titular character autistic, but has made autism the fulcrum of the novel.  Since the book is told via first-person, there is no avoiding this choice, and everything that Daystar thinks (and Johnson writes) is filtered through this condition–an ambitious task for a debuting novelist.

Because I’m not a psychologist, it’s more important to me that an author stay consistent with their portrayal of a disease even if it doesn’t strictly follow the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.  Johnson does, while also injecting science fiction into a traumatic real-world disorder.  And though he grounds his imagination with observed behavior among autistic people, I can’t help but wonder how this novel–or something similar–would be received in this millennium.

Heroic autistic people?  A secret explanation for their existence?  Eugenics practiced against those with mental conditions?  Autistic people banding together to fight the “normals”?

This isn’t a standard premise in any decade.

Which brings me to another risk Johnson takes, this time one that has perhaps diminished over time: the antagonists of the novel are a militant group of Luddite Christians!   They’re trying to exert their old (and new) beliefs over a world emerging from globally apocalyptic events, and their path (of course)  intersects with Daystar and company.

Johnson doesn’t hesitate in his writing, both in potentially agitating conservative readers as well as shocking me, from the future, who isn’t shocked by many written words.  While sexual scenes are handled more akin to a James Bond / PG-13 movie, the brutality of the characters and  the prose would fit right in with A Song of Ice and Fire / Game of Thrones.   Torture, execution, premeditated murder, attempted rape, and mutilation of a dead body all make appearances, including one bit involving an eyeball that I would skip during a re-read.

But let me be honest as to why I read Daystar and Shadow and, more importantly, why I happily finished it.  A quick clue is the picture below.  When it comes to science fiction, I enjoy post-apocalyptic worlds, unusual partnerships, strange and

I feel like the artist had a specific woman in mind.

After reading the novel, I still don’t know what to make of that tagline

evolving abilities, interesting creatures, solvable puzzles, and party building.  Daystar and Shadow has a little bit of all of this.

But…the cover.  What intrigued me more is: how the hell does this convocation of monkeys and snakes have anything to do with this rugged Han Solo-type and the clothes-defying girl on his arm?  Throw in a laser gun in a desert setting and we’ve got a recipe for a science fiction romp.  It turns out the snakes are fireworms(!) and the monkeys are masochists and the girl, well…the artist did a great job, and she isn’t nearly helpless or innocent herself.

Daystar and Shadow pulls in so many tidbits from so many science fiction tropes that, as Johnson puts his unique spin on the story, I overlooked what may bother modern readers.  Including: occasionally stilted dialogue, flat secondary characters, improbable odds overcome, and juvenile descriptions of the female body–all of these seemed quite minor by the time I reached the conclusion.  An ending that, in more ways than one, reminds me of the third Harry Potter novel.  Featuring minor action and major explanations, the payoff is 70-80% guessable if you put together all of the clues, and that’s something I think many readers do enjoy.

Really though, fireworms should be reason enough to check this book out–I mean, fireworms.  But when you add somewhat sentient monkeys, autistic armies, religious totalitarian control, and a convoluted galactic plot that just won’t leave two lonesome yet solitary desert nomads alone, you’ve got my attention for 206 pages.

Oh, and if anyone figures out the  significance of the crabs–please let me know.

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