Friday, February 21, 2014

Forgotten Books: The Year When Stardust Fell - Raymond F. Jones

THE YEAR WHEN STARDUST FELL is one of those Winston science fiction novels that were so popular when I was a kid, what we called juveniles back then but are considered YA now. I remember seeing this one numerous times on the bookmobile shelves, but for some reason I never read it until now. That's probably good. For one thing, it's not only a fine novel, but reading it now fifty years later also gives it considerable nostalgia appeal. For another, its grim portrait of society breaking down probably would have scared the crap out of me when I was ten years old.

It's set in Mayfield, a fictional college town in Colorado. Our hero, high school student Ken Maddox, is the son of a professor and a budding scientist in his own right, as well as a whiz on the football team and an all-around great guy. He's not perfect—he does a little hot-rodding—but he's pretty darned close. He even has a female friend who's a beautiful blond Swedish exchange student, and even though the author never gets around to developing a romance between them, you know it's inevitable.

Everything is going along in fine 1950s-sitcom style when a comet shows up and Earth gets stuck in its tail for several months. There don't seem to be any effects from that until machinery suddenly stops working and before you can say "dystopia", civilization collapses. It's as if the cast of LEAVE IT TO BEAVER or FATHER KNOWS BEST were dropped down into a dangerous, post-apocalyptic world. The people in Mayfield struggle to survive and maintain at least a small degree of civilization while Ken, his father, and some other scientists from the college try to find a way to reverse the effects of the dust in the comet's tail, which proves to be the culprit in gumming up all the machines.

When it comes to grim and bleak, THE HUNGER GAMES and all the other current YA stuff has nothing on THE YEAR WHEN STARDUST FELL. Characters die right and left, including some you wouldn't expect. There are no miraculous answers, just a long, deadly struggle that Jones does a fine job of depicting. (As an aside, I haven't read any of the Hunger Games books, but when I watched the first movie, I said, "This is just Fifties science fiction." THE YEAR WHEN STARDUST FELL is pretty good evidence of that point.)

I really enjoyed this book. It's dated, of course, but that never bothers me. I'm pretty much out of date myself most of the time, so THE YEAR WHEN STARDUST FELL was a very nice return visit to Bookmobile Days. An e-book version is available for free numerous places on-line.

(By the way, I don't think the Cleavers would have made it. Although I can sort of see a grim, grizzled, heavily armed Ward Cleaver surviving. Eddie Haskell, of course, would be fine and thrive no matter how much chaos ensued.)


Bill Crider said...

I loved those Winston books.

Tom Johnson said...

He wrote a lot of classic SF. I think his greatest was "This Island Earth". I still have the SF Book Club edition, but I must have read the paperback version originally.

Anonymous said...

I don't know this one but it definitely appeals to me.

Amen on the Eddie Haskell comment.

Jeff M.

Cap'n Bob said...

The Cleavers lived in Mayfield, so your analogy isn't far off.

Richard said...

I loved the Winston books, too and read every one the library had, about 20 of them. I don't recall this being one of them, however. I have read THIS ISLAND EARTH by Jones and liked it. I liked that movie, too.

George said...

Add me to the list of WINSTON SF fans! Raymond F. Jones is an underrated and undeservingly forgotten writer. I have an overwhelming urge to drop everything and read some Raymond F. Jones!

Jerry House said...

FYI, this is one of over fifteen WINSTON SF books available online at Internet Archive.