1968’s Nebula-nominated Picnic in Paradise is part of Joanna Russ’ Alyx sequence1. Although two previous James-reviewed entries in the series (here, and here) were fantasy2, this Alyx outing is closer to the entry in Orbit 6 (Alyx’s descendant, a time traveller, visits a 1920s American family). In this short novel, a fantasy protagonist is dropped into science fiction.
Retrieved from the depths of time, hardened swordsperson and professional thief Alyx is the Trans-Temporal Authority’s foremost agent. Because time scoops do not retrieve the living, and the circumstances that led to Alyx being dead enough to retrieve and alive enough to revive were extremely unlikely3, she is also the TTA’s only agent. However, she has the very skillset needed to guide a group of tourists from point A to point B via unexpectedly hostile territory C.
Paradise has no agricultural or mineral wealth. Its sole virtue is its picturesque landscape, to which tourists flock. The future being rich in technological marvels, it is no great task for visitors to find their way across Paradise. At least, this was true before the war.
Paradise is wracked by a “commercial war,” a phrase whose meaning, like much of the future, is not made clear to Alyx. Any use of hi-tech devices is a giant red flag inviting the hostiles to attack tourists. For this particular group to get from where they are to where they need to be, they will have to eschew all advanced technology. Without their machines, however, the people of the future as helpless as puppies. This is where Alyx comes in.
Alyx does not really understand the future. She does not have to. She understands surviving in the wilderness using only the technology of the ancient past. Paradise is sufficiently Earthlike for her skills to be applicable. The TTA may only have a single agent available to offer, but she is very qualified.
Alone, she would have no trouble safely finding her way to the destination. Whether she can get her collection of well-meaning, naïve charges through a warzone unscathed is an entirely different matter….
Picnic on Paradise was first published as part of Ace Books first Science Fiction Specials. The first and the third Ace SF Specials were selected by Terry Carr. The second was not. Because it was part of the Ace Specials, Picnic got a Leo and Diane Dillon cover. This particular Dillon is not my favourite but it is leagues better than some of the other covers with which this Russ novel has been lumbered.
I suppose if one is going to ditch a Dillon cover, one could do worse than the 1979 Berkley edition.
This novel reminds me of the Jack London short story “To Build a Fire.”4 Both works are stern lessons in the fact that nature is unforgiving. Nature doesn’t care. No matter how elevated your consciousness or refined your philosophy, falling off a tall cliff onto hard rocks is ill-advised. It doesn’t matter if your society enjoys advanced medicine if you don’t have access to it.
On the plus side, this foray into an alien planet went a lot better than the one in Russ’s We Who Are About To…. One might even say that the expedition went far better than it could have gone. It does, however, fall short of a perfect success. It is as though unforgiving wilderness and warzones are neither of them ideal places for people dependent on advanced technology, armed with comprehensive ignorance and an unjustified sense of their own invulnerability. Indeed, it’s not even safe to be travelling with such people, as their ineptitude may put others at risk. Well … to be fair, Alyx’s charges no doubt do well enough in the environments to which they are accustomed.
Picnic is short and relentless. Russ provides enough detail that the deaths — and there are multiple deaths — are tragic rather a mere increment of the corpse counter.
1: All the Alyx stories were collected in the 1976 Adventures of Alyx, which is now out of print and selling for upward of $100 on used book sites.
2: Alyx also somehow found her way into Fritz Leiber’s secondary fantasy setting, Lankhmar, where she had an energetic but brief affair with Fafhrd. Leiber considered this story to be canonical.
3: Alyx was drowning and retrieved on the edge of death.
4: “To Build a Fire” has been much anthologized. You might well have read it.