Completed: 1 October 2010
A couple of weeks ago I was visiting my book pusher and remarked that he had quite a few Laser Books available. I commented that I had a couple myself at home. We pulled one of the titles we both had off of the shelf. It happened to be this volume and it happened that Augustine Funnell was “a young Canadian author.” That surprised us both and it prodded me into re-reading this book.
Laser Books was a short lived foray into science fiction publishing by the largest Canadian publisher then and now, Harlequin Enterprises. I believe that their goal was to try to reproduce their success with the Romance genre in the Science Fiction genre. A total of 58 books (3 a month with 1 promotional give-away) were published over the course of 19 months. Each book featured a cover by Kelly Freas, a noted SF artist. Each book was an original work which was unusual for a Canadian paperback publisher, or any paperback publisher. Paperbacks were and are almost always reprints. Amongst the authors published were the unknown, the middle-tire and a few who became quite well known, including Piers Anthony, Jerry Pournell, David Bischoff, Raymond Jones and Dean Koontz (as Aaron Wolfe). Tim Powers had his first book published with Laser.
The project was a dismal failure. The books were publicly mocked by SF fans across the continent. By all accounts the editing was terrible. The stories were viscously cut to fit the 190 page format. Much of the writing was just plain bad. I know that Piers Anthony later republished his book But What of Earth in an unedited format with extensive notes on the mangling that Laser editors did to it. Powers also later republished his book (Epitaph in Rust), with a different publisher.
My taste in writing is not the most sophisticated. Not only have I read every single Laser title, at the time I had a subscription to the series. Each month my three books would show up in the mail and I would devour them. They started off with a cover price of 0.95 cents. This rose to $1.25 in the shops after a few months. For the subscribers the price stayed at 0.95 cents, so I was doubly happy with subscribing.
Brandyjack is not the most awful book I have read. It’s not a particularly good read but it’s not horrible either. I once attempted to re-read Edgar Rice Burrough’s Tarzan of the Apes. I had loved that series as a young teen. I attempted the reread, vaguely hoping to recapture some of that youthful enjoyment. Well, the book proved to be unreadable. Brandyjack was not unreadable but it wasn’t good either. Without rereading the rest of the Laser Books, I would venture to say that it is probably typical of a Laser Book and easily illustrates why the series failed.
Brandyjack is not really a science fiction story. It’s not even fantasy. Just because a story is set in a post-apocalypse does not necessarily make it SF. The main character, Brandyjack, is helping a band of misfits to find a space ship and leave the planet. (Why anyone would expect that a 1000 year old spaceship would still be in working order and that they could actually pilot it to a new planet is too much of a stretch for me now.) The authorities don’t want them to succeed, although why is not clear. The authorities seems to have an anti-technology bias. The story ends up being little more than a travel narrative, a la H. Rider Haggard with out the sophistication. Our troop travels about encountering hardships with the weather, animals, robbers, and the authorities. Brandyjack keeps most of them alive while trying to get drunk as often as he possible can. At the end of the story the reader is treated to a very heavy-handed sermon on the foolishness of the authorities (they supressed any innovation) and everyone goes home.
Well, it looks like my reading tastes have matured in the last 34 years! There is hope for me yet. I hold no grudge towards Brandyjack or Laser Books. While I can no longer remember any of the plot lines of the Laser Books (present company excepted) that I read back then, I do have fond memories of many hours of reading enjoyment from them. The Laser titles would probably best be enjoyed by someone who is 12 or 14. There is a sequel, Rebels of Merka, but I don’t think that I’ll read it. Funnell went on and had the occasional short story published. The last one I could find was in 1994. I haven’t read any of his short fiction. Brandyjack was his first novel and his first published story.