1987’s Bimbos of the Death Sun is the first of two Jay Omega mysteries by Sharyn McCrumb.
Engineering professor Dr. James “Jay Omega” Mega turned his research into a novel. Fellow academic Dr. Marion Farley transformed Jay’s novel into a readable novel and Jay himself into a boyfriend. Jay’s publisher renamed the hard SF novel Bimbos of the Death Sun, slapped a lurid cover on it, and sent it out to bookstores. Now comes the most grueling part of writing SF: publicity. Specifically, interacting with fans at Rubicon, a science fiction convention.
Rather oddly for an SF author, Jay is almost entirely ignorant of science fiction and of the cultures surrounding it. Marion, on the other hand, teaches courses on SF and is personally familiar with its many subcultures, having partaken eagerly before she learned to pass for a normal adult. She is Jay’s guide to Rubicon.
The conrunners are friendly enough, if only because authors who are cooperative and not deranged are a useful resource. The fans are a rich assortment of often poorly socialized weirdos, but with one notable exception, they are mostly harmless.
Star attraction Appin Dungannon is trapped by his own success. He loathes writing the Tralyn Runewind fantasy series. Fans love the books and the income has thus far been too good to walk away from. Miserable, Appin copes by being as unpleasant as possible to everyone that he interacts with.
Guess who is murdered.
Lt. Thomas Ayhan arrives at Rubicon delighted that it is an SF con and not, say, a gathering of the Mystery Writers of America. Mystery authors tend to be inconveniently well informed about police procedure and are all too likely to know how to carry out a murder without getting caught. SF fans seem unlikely to have the same expertise; catching Appin’s murderer should be a matter of a few hours work.
Jay is no more a detective than he is an SF fan. However, he is observant. It does not take him long to work out who the killer must be. However, knowing and proving are two different things. Jay has just the gambit needed to make the killer reveal themselves … one Jay may not survive.
It’s weird how this was a modern mystery when I first read it, but now it’s a period piece filled with little details that hint at the year it is set. It’s before Star Trek: New Generation, for one thing. Computers are everywhere, but novel enough that cops might not know better than to reinsert a floppy disk after dusting it for prints. A certain brand of computer is a MacIntosh, not an Apple.
One major negative thing first: as a whodunit, this is terrible. I guessed the killer before the murder happened. Jay isn’t being particularly insightful to finger the killer. What he does do is show how easy it would be for an amateur detective who has seen too many drawing room scenes to get themselves killed after the big reveal. After all, the person one is putting on the spot has killed at least once before. Jay manages to survive, but it could easily have gone another way.
Another major negative thing: this is not a book where being unconventional in any way is celebrated. A lot of this book is poking fun at the freaks, not always sympathetically.
It isn’t clear how exactly someone as studiously ignorant of SF as Jay could set out to write an SF novel but I am sure it happens. It’s pretty clear that Marion should get co-writer credit on Jay’s book and also pretty clear that Jay will never think of giving it to her.
“It’s a good book. For hard science fiction, that is. It’s scientifically sound; it isn’t pretentious; and I made damn sure it isn’t demeaning to women. That’s saying a lot for this genre.”
Jay is in many ways oblivious to the world around him. Luckily for him, Marion sees potential and is willing to put in the time to bring Jay up to code1. Although I don’t know if the author intended it, there are parallels between Marion and minor character Brenda Lindenfeld, a morbidly obese woman who has discovered male fans are a desperate but often well-paid lot. Thus, Brenda’s current avocation of trading feigned interest and a few minutes of inept sex for financial support from various desperate tedious losers like Richard Faber.
Thank God he knew so much about tactical warfare and diplomacy, Richard Faber was thinking. His explanation of the Battle of Leningrad had really fascinated this intelligent creature.
This could really happen! But in this case, it has not.
As I recall, reaction to Bimbos within SFdom was divided between fans who were pleased to be recognized at all and fans who were profoundly offended by the author’s portrayal of SF, SF fans, and SF fandom. It’s clear the author did a lot of research for the book, but also clear that she disapproved of a lot of what she found.
“They seem happy enough,” said Jay Omega, wishing somebody would laugh or applaud to prove his point.
“Sure, they’ve moved their egos into fictional bodies on the paperback rack so that they can ignore the rejection in real life. I teach science fiction, Jay! I know these people.”
McCrumb seems deeply ambivalent about anyone who deviates from the norm without a sensible, fiscally responsible reason for doing so. It is OK for Marion to know so much about SF, because she transformed her body of knowledge into a career and herself into a respectable woman indistinguishable to the untrained eye from a real person2. The young woman who uses her costuming skills for free, on the other hand, is presented as a baffling anomaly. Sure, the woman is skilled but why waste her talents on something that will never make any money3? Even if there wasn’t the issue of Geek Social Fallacies at play at Rubicon, fandom by its unpaid nature would not appeal to McCrumb’s profit-oriented mindset4.
1: Marion is aware that she and Jay could be parted by tenure. Specially, if she gets it and Jay does not, she expects his wounded ego will force a split.
2: I cannot find the passage but it’s pretty clear that the crucial skillset that allowed Marion to flourish is what the kids today call “masking.”
3: I have read other McCrumb books and they shared the same bafflement regarding people with unpaid but beloved hobbies.
4: I may be a bit down on McCrumb, but I should point out that she had a lengthy career and won awards too numerous to mention here.