Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Night Shapes by James Blish (1962)

Cover blurb

The continent lay before them, vast areas of it unexplored, its forests, plains, jungle and mountains teeming with forms of life unknown to modern man.

Here the witch-doctors reigned supreme, using their inexplicable and remarkable powers on men and beasts.

The purpose of the safari was mysterious, its members an oddly assorted group of people unlikely to have any sane objective in common . . .

* Blurb from the 2011 digital edition.

My thoughts

Kit Kennedy has no use for the Western world he left behind. The former schoolteacher has been living among the natives of the Congo rainforest for years when The Night Shapes begins. Kennedy simply wants to be left alone, but when a Belgian official threatens to alert the authorities about the expatriate’s expired passport, he agrees to guide an expedition into a previously unexplored portion of the jungle in return for the official’s silence.

The expedition’s leaders claim their goal is to provide medical aid to the local natives, but Kennedy suspects they have an ulterior motive. Why, for example, is the relief mission accompanied by a small band of well-armed marines? And who is the woman accompanying the group? The mystery only deepens as the land grows stranger the deeper they penetrate into the jungle. Then there is the legend, whispered among the natives, of a creature known as mokele-mbembe.

The Night Shapes is a lost world tale that is not quite sure what it wants to be. It’s obvious that Blish sought to tell an adventure story in the mold of H. Rider Haggard, but he also wanted to critique the casual racism that infests the genre. The result is schizophrenic, to say the least. A good chunk of the book is a screed against the Western exploitation of Africa and its peoples, but at the same time the novel is filled with simplistic stereotypes of native peoples and has as a protagonist a white hero who knows what’s better for the Africans than the Africans. The third act of the book also is a mess, with Blish quickly wrapping up his main storyline to go in a completely different direction with the plot.

As far as the novel’s paleofiction elements, prehistoric creatures play a critical role in The Night Shapes, but they are relegated to only a couple brief cameos. Blish is more interested in the African setting than paleontology, and as a result he makes some head-smacking mistakes in his descriptions of the animals.

I appreciate what Blish was trying to do in The Night Shapes, but he would have been more successful if he stuck to a traditional adventure story rather than the strange hybrid that he ultimately produced. This is a case where the simpler path would have been the better choice.

  • Blish was a well-known science fiction writer who won the Hugo Award in 1959 for his novel A Case of Conscience, which involved dinosaur-shaped aliens.
  • Mokele-mbembe is a mythical central African creature that some westerners allege is a living sauropod dinosaur. There is no evidence the animal exists, but that hasn’t stopped Hollywood from making movies about it. The first film based on the myth was Disney’s Baby, Secret of the Lost Legend, released in 1985 to near universal scorn. The second was the equally bad The Dinosaur Project, a “found footage” film that came out in 2012.


Robert R. Barrett said...

There is a reason that THE NIGHT SHAPES reads so much like a 1940s B Jungle movie. This is a fix-up novel made up of two stories published in JUNGLE STORIES pulp magazine:
JUNGLE STORIES Winter 1948, "Serpent's Fetish" by James Blish and
JUNGLE STORIES Summer 1948, "The Snake-Headed Spectre" by "V. K. Emden" a pseudonym of Blish's.

Robert R. Barrett said...

Whoops! That should be JUNGLE STORIES Summer 1949 instead of 1948.