Kris Neville (1925-1980) was a science fiction writer who (except for an occasional story) left the field sometime in the 1960’s, but not before creating an impression on some critics and other writers. His primary career in the plastics industry must have been a sounder place for his time and energy, especially after the collapse of the “pulp” market for SF short fiction. Barry Malzberg has championed Neville and edited a 1984 collection, but his work has mostly remained scarce. The fixup novel Bettyann (1970) seems to have been published in only one English edition, as a paperback by Tower Books. Despite the groovy cover palette, this paperback is only nominally a post-Woodstock effort: the constituent short stories of Bettyann were published in 1951 and 1954.
Bettyann is the story of a child of two shape-shifting aliens that suffer a car wreck in the opening pages: she is born just as both parents are killed, and is brought to a hospital. The doctors save her life but one arm is left irreparable and useless. After Bettyann (as she is named) is adopted and taken home, she grows as a human defined to large degree by her “otherness.”
Unsurprisingly, Bettyann struggles to maintain relationships with inside the small town of her upbringing. Her dedicated step-parents quietly struggle to save for her education (the father Dave suffers from overwork in the town powder mill, which is being driven on a dangerous level for wartime production), but they largely shield Bettyann from their worries. When she visits home after a semester at college, she desires contact with the son of the deceased town doctor, but her emerging preternatural abilities get in the way. The cast of characters is small and the setting details are restricted to the bare necessities, producing a compact but deeply felt work. Like many of Ray Bradbury’s classic stories, Bettyann accomplishes much in a small space.
Bettyann’s “human” story is interleaved with the tragic saga of the Anio, the race of aliens who are the true parents. Driven by a desire to advance other civilizations and their shared racial memory, the Anio spend their years traveling between distant planets. Having lost most (if not all) of their youngest generation in various disasters, they redirect their nomadic wanderings to seek out Bettyann in a last desperate attempt to recapture their future. They finally find her, of course, after she has begun to glimpse some of abilities (as well as in tendency for these talents to fall short of her ambitions to use them). Despite their obvious emotional need to bring her back with them, the Anio allow Bettyann to choose between her world or theirs.
Despite its origins as 1950’s short stories, Bettyann certainly reads like it belongs after SF’s growing pains of the 1950s and 1960s – the focus is on Bettyann’s self-actualization and disappointment, and the SF tropes are only there to support this essential development. My review is largely in agreement with SF Ruminations: it is a small, focused book but could be considered a lost classic.
Perhaps Kris Neville’s writing style was ahead of his time, and he did not have the patience to tailor more of his stories to the editors’ tastes. Perhaps he consciously restricted his writing to a small, high-quality group of stories. Or maybe Neville’s primary occupation as a technical writer precluded his following through on his inspirations on a daily basis. Whatever the case, Bettyann is certainly good enough that I will pick up the next Neville I happen to find. 8/10.
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I am Kris Neville’s son. Every once in a while I’ll run into a fan who, when I mention my father, will tell me they enjoyed Bettyann. When dad worked for Epoxylite he would come home eat dinner and spend 2 or 3 hours writing. He wrote fiction. He wrote letters to LA Times. Basically he wrote for himself. He sold only two stories in the 4 years prior to his death, one was published after he died. He was published regularly into the early 70’s. As the decade wore on he lost interest in what was then being published. I went to conventions with him in the late 70’s and he seemed out of place on panels. Thought I’d just jot down thoughts that ran through my mind after reading this article.
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Thanks for stopping by.
Fortunately, his stories were widely published for a time, so it’s possible to find his work in anthologies, in addition to his increasingly scarce paperback editions of Bettyann and other novels.
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Remarkable posts. Just read Bettyann in the original anthology (1951) and think the review under-represents its psychological insight and beautiful writing. Definitely a neglected classic.