Paul Danton found his brain whirling, lost in the complexity of it. He felt curiously humble. This duplicate, who differed from him only because a Security agent had thought him more devious than he really was, reasoned in a way that was utterly alien to him.
The Duplicated Man is about four political hierarchies and their relationships with each other, each of them to varying extents revolutionary and tyrannical, three of them riven by no-holds-barred factional infighting. The four political groups--the parliamentary rulers of Earth, the dictatorial cabal of Venus, an Earth revolutionary party which sympathizes with Venus and a revolutionary party on Venus which sympathizes with Earth, have been in a tense stalemate for many years, but political and psychological pressure has been building over that time, and the novel describes the course of events as things boil over into crisis and everybody takes extreme measures to win power or just survive.
I guess we should see The Duplicated Man as a meditation on the world politics of the 1930s, '40s and '50s, which were characterized by communist and fascist revolutionaries and mass war and saw, in response to economic and military crisis, a major increase in state power in liberal societies like the United States and Great Britain; the book also expresses Blish and Lowndes' negative view of technological change and their bizarre wish fulfillment fantasy of how geniuses might manipulate everybody to bring peace to the world.
The Background: A century before , back in 1971 (the year of my birth!), the "Peace Squadron" bombed "the ice-cap," causing mass flooding worldwide and transforming the geographic and political landscape. Countries like the United States and the U.S.S.R. ceased to exist, and a world government, the Security Council, took over. Each of the newly designated nations of Earth was given a seat on the Council. The first thirty pages of The Duplicated Man follow a publicly-broadcast parliamentary debate (the Security Council prides itself on its transparency) lead by Joachim Burgd, representative of Antarctica, about the so-called Earth-Government-in-Exile on Venus; this debate also touches upon the Pro-Earth Party, an underground organization on Earth itself.
You see, not everybody is happy with the Security Council's rule. When they first took over a bunch of people, including one of Earth's greatest scientists, Geoffrey Thomas, fled to inhospitable Venus where they established subterranean cities. From Venus these people periodically launch missiles (with conventional warheads) at the Earth, about a dozen a year, indiscriminately blowing people and property to bits. The Security Council is unable to counterattack because that genius Thomas has surrounded Venus with an energy screen through which no nuclear weapons or nuclear-powered vessels can pass, and the Venus settlements are too small, well-concealed and widely dispersed to target with conventional weapons--also, the Security Council's charter explicitly forbids warmaking! This bombardment has been going on for like one hundred years (!) and the people of Earth are starting to crack under the strain!
name, presumably, is significant.)
After introducing us to Danton and the Earth situation, Blish and Lowndes switch the camera to Venus, where we meet Thomas himself, leader of the exiles and a man of over 500 pounds and over 140 years--he needs the help of assistants just to walk! He's having a meeting with the Directorate, usually called "the cabal," all of the members of which want to depose him and take his place and somehow squeeze the secret of immortality out of him. On Venus we are also introduced to an underground group (one of the authors'' little jokes is that on Venus the "underground" organization meets on the surface) called the Earth Party which hopes to put Venus under Earth control--they too are having a meeting.
The Plot: Danton has been investigating rumors of a Duplication Machine, a device which can create duplicates of human beings. At a meeting of a division of the Pro-Earth Party he reports that the fabulous contraption is no myth--he has located it and seen it with his own eyes--and the leaders of the Party announce plans to seize the amazing machine and use it to support a direct military attack on the Earth government. Their idea is to kidnap members of the Security Council and duplicate them, which will sow confusion in the government hierarchy. Immediately after this announcement, party members who are in fact government infiltrators shut down the meeting, capturing everybody present, including Danton.
Danton, it turns out, looks just like one of the members of the Venus cabal (this kind of thing happens in fiction all the time, like to our pal Fred, and even happens sometimes in real life!) and the Security Council enlists him for a mission to Venus. Imitating the Pro-Earth Party's aborted plan, the Security Council will use the machine to duplicate Danton five times and send all six of them to Venus, where they will disrupt the Venus government's operations.
One of the recurring themes of The Duplicated Man is how plans always fail--nothing anybody does seems to work as they had hoped--and another, related theme, is limited intelligence. Because of the thick cloud cover of Venus, people on Earth have no idea what is going on on Venus (the Earthers don't know Thomas is immortal, for example, and assume he has been dead for thirty or more years), and people on Venus have little greater knowledge of conditions on Earth. The Security Council activates the Duplication Machine without knowing how it really works, and, in the event, it doesn't actually duplicate Danton very well. The "new" Dantons have all of the original Danton's memories, but their looks and personalities are all skewed and influenced by members of the Security Council apparatus. One Danton dupe, thanks to the subconscious input of the beautiful woman on the Council who is in love with Danton, has powerful sex appeal, for example. The passage used as an epigraph to this blog post refers to another dupe, one influenced by the aforementioned secret agent,
In the end of the book we find that everything that has happened has been orchestrated by Geoffrey Thomas and Joachim Burgd and that half the things everybody else, including us readers, believed is not true (e. g., there has never been an energy screen around Venus!) Venus is now under the control of the one man on Venus devoted to peace and the Earth is under the thumb of the Security Council (but held in check by the Pro-Earth Party) so freedom and peace now reign throughout the solar system. This ending is absolutely incredible* and very frustrating, in part because it undermines all the interesting themes of limited intelligence and failed plans we've been seeing for 210 pages--Thomas and Burgd are like omniscient and omnipotent gods who knew all and successfully manipulated billions of people to accomplish their goal.
* [in-kred-uh-buh l] adjective, 1. so extraordinary as to seem impossible: incredible speed. 2. not credible; hard to believe; unbelievable: The plot of the book is incredible.
The Duplicated Man is a pretty mixed bag. The actual science fiction elements of the book are good--the passages on the form of immortality experienced by Thomas, the Duplication machine, the Earth agents' exploration of the Venusian surface, and the space war, are all interesting and evocative. Blish and Lowndes also do a lot of psychology and sociology stuff I appreciated, even if I don't buy their theories--the stress endured by Earthlings who could be killed at any moment by a falling bomb and the claustrophobia of Venusians who live their entire lives underground; the lust for vengeance of some Venusians who feel they were unjustly exiled to that barren desert planet and the yearnings of other Venusians to live on Earth, even though they don't know a thing about life there; the psychology of people like Danton immersed in a merciless and totalitarian revolutionary organization. No doubt feminists will not appreciate the psychological profiles the authors cook up for the women characters--like the Venusian femme fatale who uses sex to dominate men but is looking for a man to dominate her and the Earth politician at the top of the heap who falls in love with a low-ranking terrorist she just met and abandons her career for him--and I have to admit I never really understood why the Dantons were willing to undertake the dangerous mission to destabilize Venus--didn't Danton like Venus?
The plot and characters are flat, like watching a bunch of lifeless cardboard counters move around a gameboard until you lose track of which is which. And Blish and Lowndes' philosophy is lame. Instead of responding to the nightmare world created by the Bolsheviks and Nazis by considering that just maybe governments have too much power, they give us a childish fantasy of governments with even more power than Hitler and Stalin had but headed by selfless geniuses who can kill millions of people in just the right way to create peace. It's bad enough to find yet another SF story in which we are supposed to welcome elites manipulating us (an idea the story undermines by portraying most of its characters as psychopaths--Thomas even tortures a guy!) but the authors also put into Burgd's mouth some pretty absurd luddism:
"Do you actually believe that we would need to run the Earth at its present peak of technology, if our only concern were to keep the people well-clothed, housed, fed, healthy and so on? Nonsense! We passed that peak around 1910. Medicine, agriculture, education--none of them require a technology as advanced and as energy-expensive as the one we maintain."1910? Is that a typo? The magazine version and my hardcover copy both have "1910," so apparently not. Did Blish and Lowndes really think that people's lives had not been improved by technological advances in medicine, agriculture and education between 1910 and 1950, and wouldn't benefit from further advances in the future? Dumb!
Alright, time to sum up. I've got a lot of complaints about The Duplicated Man as a piece of literature and entertainment, and I don't find its ideology congenial. On the other hand, it feels ambitious, it addresses interesting issues in a way that (to me, at least) is strange, and it was never boring or painful--in fact, at times it was surprising, and I think surprise in fiction has value, even if the surprise is how crazy or foolish the author's opinions turn out to be. One reason I read speculative fiction is because it exposes you to ideas and people that are outside the mainstream--A. E. van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, Theodore Sturgeon, Barry Malzberg, and R. A. Lafferty, to name a few, often write in ways or express ideas that ordinary people do not, and that is one reason I like them, even if I disagree with particular ideas or find particular writing techniques unsuccessful. I've never read and have no interest in reading Stephen King, but I found the recent controversy about an underage sex scene in one of King's 1980s books a little bewildering--shouldn't we expect to find material that is challenging, offensive, disgusting, bizarre, etc., in horror novels and speculative fiction in general? Don't people read speculative fiction and horror specifically because they are looking for such material? I'm not on board with a lot of what Blish and Lowndes do in The Demolished Man, but being exposed to it was worthwhile.
It's a borderline case, but I'm giving The Duplicated Man an "acceptable" rating. I don't feel like reading it was a waste of my time...but don't expect to see me reading any more Blish soon.
The Space Egg, Across Time, and Hidden World, all of which have suffered this blog's attentions. I own a paperback of Virgin Planet; maybe it's time I read it?