“The Road to the Rim” by A. Bertram Chandler: Adventure in High Space

A little over a year ago I was given a recommendation about author A. Bertram Chandler’s John Grimes series of books. I had to confess that I’d never read anything by Chandler, and I was not familiar with him at all. After looking up who he was and what the John Grimes series was about I discovered that Baen Books Publishing had reissued the entire John Grimes series in chronological order. The basic description of John Grimes story interested me so greatly that I downloaded the entire series.

A. Bertram Chandler
A. Bertram Chandler

If you haven’t heard of Arthur Bertram Chandler (1912-1984), I’m not surprised. Born in England he later emigrated to Australia, Chandler worked as a sailor before turning his hand to writing science fiction. His work was well regarded enough in Australia to earn him four Ditmar Awards, he just didn’t seem to get the historical attention he deserves.

In The Road to the Rim, John Grimes is a newly minted Ensign of the Federation Survey Service straight out of the Academy. He is catching a lift aboard the civilian vessel Delia O’Ryan to his first post. We are given a tour of the ship and learn about how spaceflight works in this universe. Then we spend some time reading about ship life and customs. They reflect the era the stories were written in and are rather quaint. They would not find a place in modern science fiction, but they can be overlooked or taken as a historical point of interest. Jane Austen is no less highly regarded because attitudes were different when she wrote her novels.

Cover of The Road to the Rim by A. Bertram Chandler.
Cover of The Road to the Rim by A. Bertram Chandler.

The action heats up when a distress call is received from the ship Epsilon Sextans, she has been attacked by pirates. After some debate the Delia O’Ryan heads out to find the Epsilon Sextant and any survivors. Grimes, brought into active service, sets about to arm the civilian ship using the cargo stores aboard the Delia.

Being young and inexperienced, Grimes gets himself into a lot of bother before getting out of it, which many of us will recognise as things we did in our own arrogant youths. The rest of the story focuses on how Grimes and the crew of Delia O’Ryan deal with the rescue of the Epsilon Sextant and their pirate attackers.

John Grimes is easily summed up as Horatio Horn-blower in space with an Australian flavour. If you are familiar with C. S. Forester’s famous character then you can easily grasp the intention of the Grimes stories. They are meant to be thrilling adventures, not philosophical reductions of Forester’s own works. The difference is that Chandler has clearly used his own seafaring experiences and his attitude as an emigre to Australia to bring a unique realism and style to the stories.

The Road to the Rim is the first story of John Grimes chronologically, however, it is not the first Grimes story to have been published. Prior to publishing The Road to the Rim Chandler had had Into the Alternate Universe published by Ace in 1964 and takes place much later in Grimes’ career. The rest of the stories were not written in a straight chronology either. This path mimics C. S. Forester’s own path of writing the Hornblower stories. Whether this was by accident or design, I can’t say.

What The Road to the Rim offers, when you overlook certain historical attitudes, is a cracking space adventure that almost any reader can appreciate regardless of their genre preferences. The plot, once we get to the space pirate bit, clips along at a fine pace with a depth that is surprising for such a short book. I have commented elsewhere that much of Grimes could have been dropped wholesale into any Star Trek series without so much as a comma changed. I cannot say with any authority if Gene Roddenberry had read any Chandler before creating Star Trek but it would not surprise me in the least if he had.

A. Bertram Chandler's creation, John Grimes.
A. Bertram Chandler’s creation, John Grimes.

Where John Grimes, perhaps, lets readers down is that Chandler seems to have put too much of himself in the pages. It could be construed that these are simply ‘Mary Sue’ stories and can be dismissed. I hate that term but if these are indeed Mary Sue stories they are damned good ones.

Chandler writes the kind of sparse prose I tend to enjoy. His descriptions are vivid without being flowery, his characters are generally likeable but not perfect, and he makes action the focus and not an interruption. Chandler is telling a story to thrill and entertain the reader, and he does it well.

I have only read The Road to the Rim, To Prime the Pump and part of the short story collection The Hard Way Up so far but I have been very satisfied with each story I have read. I don’t regret for an instant purchasing the entire series at once. In fact, I intend to hunt down physical copies of the original publications to add to my already overburdened bookshelves.

At the time, the Grimes stories were quite popular and well regarded, but since the last story was published in 1984, the Grimes stories rapidly fell out of favour for some inexplicable reason. This is pure speculation, but I think it may have something to do in part with the cyberpunk movement exploding onto the science fiction world. Stories became darker and more technically oriented with a dystopian flavour. It may be part of the reason I had not read Chandler before since I was completely caught up in the cyberpunk movement at the time.

The Road to the Rim and indeed all the John Grimes stories I have read so far are written with a joyful enthusiasm that seems to be lacking in many modern science fiction stories. There is a hopeful eagerness to face the challenges of space that has become either passé or blasé. Given the current state of this world I find John Grimes optimism remarkably enlivening. If you are looking for a little thrill in your science fiction you won’t go far wrong with A. Bertram Chandler’s John Grimes stories. Pick one, any one, and dive right in. I’m glad I did.

On a side note, over at Mike Bickerdike’s Starfarer Science Fiction he has written a short review of The Hard Way Up, I recommend giving it a read.

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