Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction
Story #49 of 107: “Student Body” by F. L. Wallace
I’m curious why the VanderMeers jumped back to 1953 with “Student Body” by F. L. Wallace? Our last story, “Day Million” was from 1966, and we’ve been going pretty much in year order. And even though “Student Body” has a small level of popularity, it is a big step backward. Project Gutenberg reprints “Student Body” online probably because the copyright wasn’t renewed for the March 1953 publication in Galaxy Science Fiction.
F. L. Wallace, according to ISFDB, produced science Fiction from 1951 to 1961, mostly short stories in the magazines, with only one novel to his name, Address: Centauri, published by Gnome Press in 1955. F. L. Wallace is essentially a forgotten SF writer. ISFDB doesn’t even have a photo for him. Nine of his stories were reprinted in one of those cheap megapacks on Amazon, again probably from copyright neglect.
In their introduction to the story, the VanderMeers writes:
“Student Body” (Galaxy, 1953) showcases Wallace’s adroit handling of environmental issues in a manner more sophisticated than that of most writers of the era other than Frank Herbert (at novel length). Complex issues involving both alien contact and the impact of invasive species are housed within a tense plot. Although “Student Body” received no particular accolades upon publication, it endures as an example of a work ahead of its time—a future classic.
I’m sorry, but I didn’t find the story adroitly handling environmental issues or being more sophisticated on the topic than other writers. Neither is the plot tense or first contact complex. “Student Body” is a nice little magazine story based on a somewhat interesting idea. Like many SF stories from that era, Wallace gets an idea and clobbers together a minimal plot and characters to present the idea. Just compare it to “Grandpa” by James H. Schmitz, a story we read earlier from 1955. That story was no great shake of a story but deals with alien ecology far more adroitly, with more tension, complexity, and characterization.
“Student Body” has been reprinted in some decent anthologies, so it does have its fans, but I’m not one. The problem of the story, a constant threat of new animal life on the colony planet is somewhat interesting, unfortunately, its solution is unbelievable. Undermining what charm “Student Body” does offer, is spoiled by a plodding narrative structure. My hunch is Wallace was inspired by stories by Eric Frank Russell, especially “… And Then There Was None” from 1951, but “Student Body” lacks its charm and sophistication in dealing with an alien world.
I will admit the story starts out promising a load of fun. The colonists sleep outside the ship on the first night and wake up naked. That’s a promising premise for a potential funny story. Unfortunately, Wallace abandons that tack quickly, asking us to believe a small rodent-like creature gnawed the clothing off the people while they slept, and no one notices or woke up. If Wallace had solved that mystery in a different clever way, this could have been a fun story. But it’s like that old advice to writers, don’t show a gun unless you use it in the plot. Don’t titillate the reader with mass nudity unless you have a funny plot solution.
James Wallace Harris, 11/21/21