Monday, October 19, 2020

Mark Clifton's Pawn of the Black Fleet (When They Come from Space)

Pawn of the Black Fleet (better known under its alternative title When They Come from Space) is a 1962 science fiction novel by American writer Mark Clifton (1906-63).

I must confess that I hadn’t heard of the author but it turns out he was a Hugo Award winner and had enjoyed at least a modicum of success.

This is a first contact story, set at some time in to not-too-distant future, but it starts with a bureaucratic bungle. Ralph Kennedy is an ordinary guy, a kind of lower management type, working for a large company. He’s more than a little surprised to get a letter informing him that he, Dr Ralph Kennedy, has been accepted into the Space Navy and that he will be filling the important post of staff psychologist specialising in extraterrestrial intelligence. This puzzles him for several reasons. Firstly, he’s just plain Mr Ralph Kennedy, not Dr Ralph Kennedy. Secondly, since no extraterrestrial life has yet been discovered how can anyone be an expert in the subject? And he’s rather disturbed to find that he has no choice in the matter. He has to take the job.

It turns out that his main duties are to help the Director of Extraterrestrial Life Research, Dr Kibbie, spend the two billion dollars that Congress has (for no sensible reason) allocated to the department. 

In fact Ralph Kennedy will soon get to study actual extraterrestrial intelligence. This unexpected opportunity arises when the Black Fleet arrives. The Black Fleet is a swarm of sinister spacecraft and they are clearly hostile. But another space fleet arrives, and they’re clearly friendly. And a deputation from the friendly alien fleet wants permission to land in Washington DC. Curiously enough they seem very anxious to meet Ralph Kennedy. This does not please scheming billionaire media mogul Harvey Strickland who sees the alien visitation as a splendid opportunity to increase his own wealth and power.

This book starts out by giving the impression of being an amusing light-hearted satire, taking potshots at some sitting targets - bureaucrats, politicians and the military. As the story progresses it becomes evident that it’s actually something much cleverer. It’s a much more thorough-going and much more complex satire. At the same time it’s an intelligent and original first contact story.

As you might expect there is much speculation about the nature of these alien beings, and about their motivations and intentions. Ralph Kennedy has his own theories and finds that he’s out of step with the rest of humanity.

This is an amusing and very cynical little novel. This is definitely not hard science fiction. Clifton has little interest in science or technology. He spent much of his life working as a personnel manager and it’s obvious that he’s very interested in what makes people tick both as individuals and in groups. This is humorous science fiction but with some more serious overtones.

Apart from this novel Clifton apparently wrote a number of other Ralph Kennedy stories.

Pawn of the Black Fleet has recently been reprinted by Armchair Fiction in their series of pulp science fiction double novel paperbacks, paired with Henry Slesar’s  lightweight but enjoyable The Secret of Marracott Deep. This double-novel paperback really is worth grabbing. I was impressed enough to want to check out more of their double-header editions.

Does Pawn of the Black Fleet qualify as a neglected gem of science fiction? I think it does, or at least it’s a neglected gem of a certain type of satirical psychological/sociological science fiction. I’m now on the lookout for more of Clifton’s work.

Pawn of the Black Fleet is highly recommended.


  1. This definitely sounds interesting! The double-bill edition you mention is on Amazon UK, but it says the book is 216 pages - is this right?

    1. The double-bill edition you mention is on Amazon UK, but it says the book is 216 pages - is this right?

      Yes. I've bought several of these Armchair Fiction double-bill editions (both crime and science fiction titles) and what you usually get is a short novel and a novella.

      I don't mind because I like novellas and a lot of the interesting science fiction pulp writing from the 1930s to the 1960s was in the form of novellas (or novelettes although I've never been able to figure out exactly what distinguishes a novella from a novelette). But if you're expecting a thick volume with two full-length novels you might be disappointed.

      But so far the ones I've bought have been pretty entertaining. Very pulpy, but fun.

  2. Thanks - tbh, I just wondered if it might be abridged; I'll get this one.