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The Peter Principle as an Adventure Novel

The Big Black Mark  (John Grimes, volume 10)

By A. Bertram Chandler 

3 Jun, 2015

Military Speculative Fiction That Doesn't Suck


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John Grimes, star of a long-running series of novels and shorter works by A. Bertram Chandler (1912 – 1984), has worked his way up through the ranks of the Federation Survey Service despite the enmity of various senior officers. He has a quality few others can match: he has been extraordinarily lucky. Every error in judgment or failure to follow the precise wording of regulations has been balanced by successes so noteworthy that his superiors have had no choice but to (grudgingly) promote him.

Eventually every run of luck ends. Which gets us to 1975’s Big Black Mark.

Commander Grimes has served on smaller vessels for most of his career. The FSS assigns him command of the Discovery, a large but aging Census spacecraft, where he is in charge of a crew of seventy seven. As he soon discovers, this was not exactly a promotion. Discovery is the ship to which the FSS consigns its drunks, its square pegs, and general riff-raff, in the hopes that the FSS will never have to think about them again [1].

Although Grimes can be an informal sort of fellow, he does feel that maintenance schedules and regulations should be followed, in the interest of spaceworthiness and not dying. The crew, who should be grateful for Grimes’ efforts, do not appreciate being forced to do their jobs. This sets the tone for Grimes’ whole time on board.

One of Grimes’ peculiar talents is for discovering and contacting Lost Colonies, undocumented worlds settled by humans (or their creations) after their ships became lost in space. Thanks to the peculiarities of the now-obsolete Ehrenhaft Drive [2], there are lots of Lost Colonies out there to be discovered. Since Grimes seems to be good at it, that’s the task to which the FSS assigns Discovery.

Grimes follows up a solid lead involving a pair of nearby stellar systems: 1716 and 1717 in the Ballchin catalog. These sun-like stars lie off the regular trade routes. They have never been visited by any Federation ships (or by any ships from the nearby Empire of Waverly); there are millions of sun-like stars with Earthlike worlds and nobody is hurting for lack of real estate. When the psionic communications officer of a passing merchant ship detects the mental emanations of human-like beings, his captain passes the information to Grimes. Discovery may be headed towards a Lost Colony scenario or (what would be even more interesting), First Contact with an alien species. 

As it turns out, what they find is … both.

The inhabited world of 1717 is populated by aliens of a humanoid, although previously unknown, type. Although they have not yet mastered atomic power, they are reasonably advanced. They are also, as Discovery works out from the defensive systems their probe encounters, still divided into rival polities.

Despite Grimes’ diligence in making up for long-deferred maintenance, an equipment breakdown forces Discovery to land on what they hope is a deserted island to make repairs. One of the alien Great Powers dispatches an airship to investigate; their cautious but peaceful outreach is rewarded by the loss of their emissaries and the airship in which they arrive, thanks to the itchy trigger-finger of the senior marine. A second airship is torn apart by the turbulence of Discoverys hasty exit from 1717. Whoever crews the second ship to visit 1717 will have an interesting diplomatic challenge on their hands. Grimes is all too aware that this disaster will not look good in his record.

The settled world of 1716, Botany Bay to its inhabitants, is a positively wonderful example of a Lost Colony at its best. The planet is bountiful and the locals are friendly. Perhaps too friendly; after experiencing a round of aphrodisiac-laced parties, Grimes would do well to worry about how he will ever get his crew to leave. Still, Botany Bay should make a fine member planet of the Federation.

After an entirely enjoyable time on Botany Bay, Discovery heads home towards the Federation. It never reaches it. Long before it can, Grimes’ decision to rid his ship of the Botany Bay aphrodisiac proves to be the final straw for his surly crew (some of whom are already facing charges over the 1717 debacle). Discontent turns into open mutiny; the Discovery heads back to Botany Bay while Grimes and a handful of loyalists are abandoned in deep space, in a small lifeboat.

A lifeboat that, while able to sustain a meager life for years, has no hope of reaching any star system under its own power.…


British-born, Australian by choice, Chandler spent his seafaring life on ships belonging to the merchant marines of Great Britain, Australia, and New Zealand. The general model he used for the Rim Worlds, the setting of many Grimes stories, was the Pacific. While Ehrenhaft Drives are not sail and the Mannschenn Drive isn’t steam, his worlds do often seem like small, isolated islands in a vast, dark sea. If you listen very carefully while reading a Grimes tale, you can hear the waves lapping on the hulls of his ships.

Chandler had a more specific model in mind for this novel, which was the fateful voyage of the HMS Bounty under Captain Bligh [3]. Grimes, our protagonist, is also acquainted with the Bounty saga and aware of the parallels — not that premonitions and warnings do him much good.

Because Chandler liked to jump back and forth in Grimes’ life (for example, The Broken Cycle, set during his time with the FSS, came out in 1975, while The Rim Gods, set considerably later, came out in 1969), readers knew that at some point Grimes exited the Survey Service and eventually fetched up in the Rim Worlds. This book explains how Grimes screwed the pooch so thoroughly that his only reasonable option was to resign from the Service. While all of this has the feeling of inevitability, it’s also a bit of a downer for the generally comic Grimes series. This may explain why, when I look at the entry for this book on the ISFDB, I see vast expanses of time when it was out of print.

While Grimes was always charmingly flawed, this is the novel where all his bad habits come to haunt him, just as his famous luck runs out. Grimes is a compulsive womanizer in a service that is very tolerant of fraternization (both sideways and up and down the rank ladder). In this novel, his choice of bunkmates, and the order in which they are chosen, not to mention the grudges of the unchosen, generate maximum ill-will amongst those whose support he most needs. It was also a gross miscalculation to tell his trigger-happy marine commander that charges would be brought once they returned to base, but NOT to confine the marine to the brig. That leaves the fellow free to sulk and plot. Grimes does his best, but he is out of his depth commanding a ship of this size with this particular crew. His best is just not good enough.

(Of course, the FSS deserves blame for crewing Discovery with malcontents and incompetents, but I just bet that such bold command decisions would never be the focus of an investigation run by the people responsible for said decisions.)

This book was written in the 1970s. Any alert modern reader would spot that just from the language, particularly where it relates to women [4]. While this is a setting where women are not restricted to domesticity, and appear in roles from officers to mayors, and while Grimes has no trouble serving with women, under women, or commanding them (which I must admit probably put Grimes well ahead of the curve for the time when this novel was published, if not for when it was set), he really is a walking Male Gaze. The reader is never left in doubt as to where each woman encountered would rank on Grimes’ attractiveness assessment scale [5].

This novel has appeared in a variety of editions; I have both the DAW mass market paperback and the 2002 SFBC omnibus, Survey Captain. I like both but the latter is more durable and easier to read.

An afterthought: younger readers may never have encountered the term Peter Principle, although they’ve likely encountered examples. Have a link. And a picture:

1: Don’t think of it as creating one poorly crewed ship. Think of it as saving seventy-seven other ships from having That Guy on board.

2: According to the novels, neither the Ehrenhaft Drive nor the Mannschenn Drive that replaced it are faster-than-light, although both will get you somewhere faster than a photon will get there. Ehrenhaft Drives ape FTL by coexisting with themselves all along the lines of magnetic force that they were on” and Mannschenn Drives use time travel to get the effect of FTL. A mishap with the Ehrenhaft can drop a ship anywhere in the galaxy. Mishaps with the Mannschenn Drive start with turning the ship’s engineer inside out,” and then escalate all the way up to poking holes into other universes” and summoning actual gods.” It doesn’t help that the Rim (where Grimes spends most of his time) is the sort of place where casually leaning on the walls of reality will make them fall over like cheap sets.

3: Grimes would get to recapitulate Bligh’s life again; The Anarch Lords draws its inspiration from the Rum Rebellion.

4: Other Grimes novels would establish that Grimes is firmly against racism or speciesism and that he expresses these beliefs in vocabulary that time has rendered quaint. His mother is less pleasant. 

5: Because Grimes is the point of view character, we don’t find out if the women similarly assess the men. The main exception is the charmingly nicknamed Vinegar Nell, who will openly and undiplomatically provide blunt evaluations of the men hitting on her. Grimes holds a grudge against her because a young and callow John Grimes was once the beneficiary of one such evaluation.

Sally the stewardess isn’t as forthcoming, but it’s pretty clear her interest in seducing Grimes has nothing to do with him as a person but rather because she likes to cultivate the captains of the ships on which she serves.