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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Gather in the Hall of the Planets

K. M. O'Donnell
(Barry N. Malzberg)

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To purchase Gather in the Hall of the Planets

Title: Gather in the Hall of the Planets
Author: K. M. O'Donnell
Genre: Novel
Written: 1971
Length: 121 pages
Availability: Gather in the Hall of the Planets - US
Gather in the Hall of the Planets - UK
Gather in the Hall of the Planets - Canada
  • Being a novelized version of the remarkable interplanetary events that took place at the World Science Fiction Convention of 1974

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Our Assessment:

B : neatly done; good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       The protagonist of Gather in the Hall of the Planets is Sanford Kvass. Only in his mid-thirties and once winner of the: "Boilerplate Award from the fan clubs of America as the most promising new science fiction writer of the previous year", he's now pretty burnt out and fed up. At the science fiction convention where the novel is largely set he appears on a panel and even announces:

I am resigning from the field of science fiction. From now on, from this moment that is to say, I will no longer read it, I will not write it and I certainly will not discuss it. I want nothing further to do with the field.
       Author Barry Malzberg (publishing this novel under one of his pseudonyms, K. M. O'Donnell) famously grew disenchanted with science fiction, so it's hard not to see a bit of him in the protagonist; meanwhile, the setting -- the book is described as: Being a novelized version of the remarkable interplanetary events that took place at the World Science Fiction Convention of 1974 -- conveniently allows him to take on the genre (and the to-do around it -- writers, publishers, agents, and fans) and illuminate many of his grievances.
       Gather in the Hall of the Planets does also have a science-fiction premise: it opens a few weeks before the actual convention, a trio of aliens coming to visit Kvass and making him an offer they won't allow him to refuse: at the convention one of them will disguise itself in the form of someone attending the convention, someone whose path will often cross Kvass'. Kvass must determine who the alien is: if he can figure it out, then all's well (for humanity, at least -- it turns out there's a downside for this group of aliens if they can't fool the human), if he can't, then they'll wipe out the earth. Kvass isn't exactly keen to play along, and repeatedly along the way considers bailing on the convention and this forced-upon-him wager; he also has repeated interactions with the aliens -- in alien form, not the human disguise -- at the convention itself then, continuing the debate about this challenge they've set him.
       The convention is set in a soon very crowded New York hotel, thousands of people milling about. Among the highlights is a masquerade contest -- the precursors of cosplay already taking on a bigger role at the convention -- which Kvass is also roped into judging. Among the people he encounters are a former collaborator -- who Kvass thinks took more than his fair share -- as well as Kvass' literary agent, whom he owes money to (and tries to hit up for more; this is perhaps the novel's least realistic element: what kind of literary agent would front one of their authors money ?). It's the ideal setting for a critique of what science fiction has become -- as Kvass realizes:
Science fiction is not quite what it was when he broke into it nor, for that matter, are the fans.
       A bibliography early in the novel lists Kvass' output -- over a dozen books, including two series (five and six books, respectively), published between 1963 and 1969, plus four that remain unpublished. It's 1974 already, so it looks very much like he's burned out, despite how young he still is and how short his writing career has been to date -- and, indeed, he does want to go straight, writing regular fiction. He admits that he wanted to write mysteries when he started, but now he's more interested in something beyond genre -- but on top of it all, he's been suffering from writer's block for months now, and can't make any headway
       The panel he sits on early on has as its subject whether:
Now that technology has advanced to the point where much of science fiction is reality, does the field still have a unique contribution to make in aiding the sense of wonder, and will the word-rates increase or will people become less interested in science fiction because it will become only another kind of adventure story and eventually will be phased out ?
       The proposition is dubious -- then as now, what is imagined in science fiction is still far ahead of reality -- but in any case Kvass' issues with the genre are different. For one, they are economic: the writing is simply under-valued, which he (speaking very much for Malzberg) considers a fundamental weakness. As he specifically puts it:
In my opinion, science fiction has no real relevance to the machine age because word-rates are too low
       So also, the work he dreams of writing, one that will not be science fiction, is one he imagines: "will be good enough to sell to hardcover" -- distinguishing it from the pulp output he has so far spent his life producing. To be meaningful, he implies, means also to be properly rewarded (monetarily).
       The convention-setting allows Kvass to encounter and interact with every part of the science fiction industry, and O'Donnell/Malzberg's tour of the increasingly chaotic convention-happenings make for a fairly entertaining story. He has good fun poking fun at various authors and types of fans, in particular, and takes on the science fiction industry comically well. It's all a bit dark and bleak, too, but not too heavily so; it helps that Gather in the Hall of the Planets is a short novel, clocking in at not much more than a hundred pages. If many of the confrontations are a bit rough and tumble, O'Donnell/Malzberg still manages to entertain some serious arguments about the industry and the product, and the novel is certainly a stand-out in this regard -- a small but useful contribution of and commentary on its time.
       The high stakes of the novel's premise seem a bit much -- all of humanity is at stake ! -- but at least O'Donnell/Malzberg plays around with it a bit, acknowledging how hard it is to take this seriously (including in eventually revealing to Kvass that he's far from the only person they approached with this challenge ...). The resolution isn't entirely surprising but certainly qualifies as neat; it makes for a satisfying conclusion.
       Gather in the Hall of the Planets is a pulpy genre novel -- one sees why it wasn't first published in hardcover ... -- but, beyond the somewhat lazy scenes and exchanges (including the sex scenes ...), there's enough that's thoughtful and provocative to distinguish it from the run of the mill. And if not nearly as expansive as it might have been -- O'Donnell/Malzberg could have milked this for a whole lot more -- it's a satisfyingly constructed and very neatly tied up story, and an enjoyably black satire.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 March 2020

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Gather in the Hall of the Planets: Reviews: Barry N. Malzberg: Other books by Barry N. Malzberg under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       K. M. O'Donnell is one of the pen names of American author Barry N. Malzberg, who was born in 1939.

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