My rating: 3 of 5 stars
The Vale of Sad Banana is an easy-to-read science fiction adventure by a now little-known author.
I came to John Lymington via a circuitous route. Kevin Goodman and I collaborated on an examination of the Warminster mystery, and Kevin’s experience thereof, in UFO Warminster Cradle of Contact. I am particularly interested in cultural precursors to the Warminster mystery, and Kevin had discovered that Lymington’s science-fiction novel Night Of The Big Heat had been dramatised for television in 1960. (It was to be subsequently dramatised for cinema in 1967, starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.) The television drama relocated the events of the novel to Salisbury Plain. The novel involves aliens and UFOs; the drama sets these elements on Salisbury Plain; Warminster nestles beneath the Plain. There is, thus, a possibility that the television dramatisation of Night Of The Big Heat, four years before the Warminster mystery exploded, was one of the cultural forebears of the phenomenon.
While exploring this interesting cultural antecedent, I looked at the Wikipedia page for Lymington (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Lym…). I was interested to read that this author, about whom I knew nothing, had been so prolific. Credited with writing over 150 novels, “including 20+ SF potboilers”, he had “made a steady income by delivering thrillers to Robert Hale (the publisher) at a chapter a week”.
I became intrigued, and wanted to know what this little-known but prolific writer was like. What was his style, how tightly were his novels plotted, how distinctive was his voice? I searched the Amazon listings for a reasonably-priced paperback, and settled on The Vale of Sad Banana, as much for its title as anything else.
The novel at least entertained me enough to keep me reading until the end — and there are many other novels, from better-known authors, for which this has not always been true. The Vale of Sad Banana is a science fiction novel set in a small village in England, at some time in the late 1970s or early 1980s. We quickly learn that something is wrong with the universe; the universe is “stopping”. Things are out of kilter. When the universe stops, people become depressed, melancholy, empty and afraid. Nobody knows why the universe is “stopping”, although there is some fear it might be caused by an intelligent defence satellite that has gone rogue. The designer of the satellite lives in the village, and at first the novel centres around him, before expanding to take in more characters, including the boy Bobby, around whom events will later coalesce.
The characters are thinly-drawn, however; and the settings feel only vaguely sketched. I felt no sense of place as I was reading. I didn’t care enough for the characters. The novel was often dialogue-heavy, and included conversations that were, I thought, supposed to be witty and sharp but only sounded, to this ear, clunky and flat. (Although, humour being perhaps the most subjective of discourses, I realise that others might disagree with me, and find the dialogue crackling with wit.) Another problem was that the science of this science fiction novel was flaky, to put it mildly. Nonetheless, I kept on reading. There were no particular surprises in the novel. There were no developments in character. There were no unreliable narrators. Still, I kept on reading. The ending itself was unsurprising.
Why then, if my response was so lukewarm, did I continue reading? Because, I suppose, I did want to know how the set-up was going to play out, and what the pay-off would be.
The novel was not great; it was adequate. The plot was not great; it was adequate. The writing was not dazzling; it was adequate. If you start it, you will probably want to know what happens at the end; if you don’t care enough to know what happens at the end, you will probably persevere long enough to discover what the vale of sad banana is.
Lymington knows how to write a story. He knows how to fill that story with enough interesting incidents to shape it into a novel. He can handle characters and dialogue well enough. He is, then, on the evidence of this novel, of his continued and copious output over many years, and of his continued relationship with Robert Hale, a skilled craftsman, plying his trade to an appreciative audience.
As a novelist manqué, I am a little envious that Lymington has written over 150 novels, ‘including 20+ SF potboilers’, and had a steady income from a respected publisher. Would that I were so crafty…