Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Genius Unlimited by John T. Phillifent

"I'm Rex Sixx, escort to the expert from Interstelpol.  Put that to music and you should have a hit number.  Excuse my levity, won't you?"

For 45 cents, on the eastern reaches of the land where the tall corn grows, I purchased DAW No. 16, Genius Unlimited, written by John T. Phillifent and published in 1972. The back cover copy includes the phrase "a yen to do the science-thing in your own way," and warns us that our hero is named "Rex Sixx."  Is this a novel about a hair band?

Another question: Who is John T. Phillifent?  We'll let the people at DAW answer that one:

To make this blog post relevant to today's youth, I will point out that Phil also wrote some novelizations of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. TV show, the basis for the latest movie craze!  (Why are there so many TV shows and movies and comic books that expect us to just forget all about the Katyn massacre, the Gulag, the '56 Hungarian Revolution, Prague Spring, et al., and cheer on some KGB agent because this week he's taking a break from murdering kulaks and tossing samizdat typists in prison to help the U.S. fight some fictional terrorist group?)

I like the cover by Jack Gaughan.  The guy climbing outside of his space ship to fire his pistol at some menace reminds me of the famous cover of The Gods Hate Kansas. I remember seeing postcards reproducing the cover of The Gods Hate Kansas for sale on a spinner rack in Union Square, across the street from that famous coffee shop.

My copy of Genius Unlimited was once owned by a young man by the name of Patrick Blackowiak.  Mr. Blackowiak planned to order four more DAW volumes, and even filled out the forms in the back of this book, but for some reason didn't tear out the pages and mail them off.  Let's hope this was a case of Mr. Blackowiak finding these Dean Koontz, Donald Wollheim, Mark Geston and Jeff Sutton books on his local bookstore's shelves, or photocopying these pages and mailing them off, and not Mom refusing to enable his addiction to DAW's fine product line.

Fellow SF fan Patrick Blackowiak, we salute you!
Enough preliminaries, what is up with Genius Unlimited?  The first thing I noticed was how poor the writing was, full of clumsy transitions, strange colloquialisms, labored sentences, and odd word choices.  Here's a section from page 11 to give you an idea what I'm talking about:

"I made it grow a name."
The whole book, 140 pages, is like this.  One odd tic that stood out for me was Phil's love of the word "angular."  On page 44 we are told of Alma Tillet that "There was just the faintest hint of Scottish angularity in her speech."  On page 74 we learn that Olga Glink, "despite her angular name was as chubby and curvaceous as any Greek marble..."  On the very same page Graham Packard is described as "a long, angular, austere hawk of a man...."  This is a book which could really use some copy editing.  

The story: On planet Martas is an island, Iskola, where geniuses who can pass a stringent psychological test are invited to live in seclusion and do their work unhindered by the rules and regulations enforced elsewhere.  These are real antisocial types, each living alone in a private compound surrounded by a force screen fence and thousands of acres of dense jungle. When Iskola suffers a mysterious crime wave, its leader calls for outside help.  Interstelpol (I.S.P.) sends a sexy woman (I mean lady) detective, Louise Latham, and Interstellar Security (I.S.) provides her two bodyguards, our hero Rex Sixx and his partner, Roger Lowry.  Latham is a genius herself; her senses are so acute and her brain operates so quickly she is practically able to read minds, foretell near-future events,and see in the dark.  In fact, her nervous system is so quick that it stresses her out, and she medicates herself with vast quantities of alcohol! For their part, Sixx and Lowry wear stark white "immunity suits" (with helmets) that readily identify them as I.S. agents and provide protection from vacuum, radiation, gunfire, and other dangers.

These three characters, who are essentially comic book superheroes, take 55 pages to get to Iskola.  Twice on the way Latham's super senses save her from deadly booby traps, while in a tepid action scene Sixx and Lowry's armor saves them from an attack by thugs with rocket launchers.  Once on the island they do detective stuff, investigating the murder of a senator, Arthur Vancec, who had been visiting Martas from Earth.  Our heroes gather together suspects and witnesses and question them, look at crime scene photos, and search the area for clues.  

Science fiction novels often try to teach you some science, and/or address economic or political issues.  Phil tries to do a little of this.  For example the Iskola geniuses have "high brow" conversations with Sixx and company.  One genius explains the concepts of signal, noise and distortion, another talks about how so many men throughout history have been willing to risk their lives in war in defense of the "abstraction" of the nation or homeland, and argues that only a society that was dying would endeavor to enforce material equality, a policy that punishes those with ability. Then there's the description of the island's environmentally friendly power source (chimneys that draw in moist warm air to drive wind turbines.)

Iskola, an island where superior people can go to live in isolation and do their own thing, is (or could be) a means of exploring themes like the relationship of the individual to the state and society.  At one point Latham says that "Iskola is private property, and it's no one else's business how they live," but Sixx "contradicts" her: "It is now...Vancec's untimely demise has made sure of it.  In a murder investigation there is no such thing as privacy...."  I wondered if Phil meant Iskola to be a satire of or response to Galt's Gulch from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged--the geniuses on Iskola are kind of dysfunctional, and have to call for help from the I.S.P., which I guess is a government agency, and in the end they repudiate (at least the most extreme aspects of) their individualism and plan to invite a bunch of normal people to the island.

(I should note that I have not actually read Atlas Shrugged, only read about it.)

Perhaps Phil means Genius Unlimited to contribute to a dialogue with other writers interested in libertarian issues, like the aforementioned Rand, Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson.  I detected other, more concrete, connections to other SF authors.  For one thing it is hard to believe that the murdered senator's name was not inspired by Jack Vance, who, like Phil, wrote mysteries as well as SF novels.  And in the very beginning of the novel there is also a jocular reference to Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth: "Martas," we are told, means "gravy" in Hungarian, and Lowry suggests the discoverer of the planet must have gotten the idea for the name from a book.

Anyway, in the final third of the book there are chases through the jungle and gunfights and explosions as it is revealed that hundreds of people (paranoids and megalomaniacs who failed that psychology test) have sneaked onto the island over the years and have been hiding in the jungle, awaiting their chance to steal the geniuses' new technology for use in a plot to take over the galaxy.  Lowry and Lapham are captured, but Sixx rescues them.  The geniuses learn the value of cooperation ("...we must discard our policy of independent isolation and work together on this") and Sixx and one of the geniuses, the curvaceous Olga Glink, fall in love.  It seems like Lowry and Lapham will also soon be getting it on.  So a happy ending for everybody (we even learn that Vancec was terminally ill anyway, and came to Martas to expose his evil half-brother, which he succeeded in doing by being murdered by him.)

This book is pretty bad.  The writing is bad, one of the characters is silly and all the rest are without any personality, the jokes are bad, the action scenes are boring, much of the detective stuff and the science stuff feels perfunctory.  There was actually a sequel, printed as a serial in Analog and then as half of an Ace Double, called Hierarchies.  Do not expect to see a discussion of Hierarchies in this space in the near, far, or very far future.  

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