Saturday, November 7, 2015

Inheritors of Earth by Gordon Eklund and Poul Anderson

He was Alec Richmond--a Superior.  But what was the use?  The point? Where did all of these talents lead?  His greatest accomplishment so far was producing a flesh-and-blood machine capable of committing legal murder with speed and precision.    
Oy, this cover has to be one of the very worst I have ever scanned for this blog. 
This blog has not been particularly kind to Gordon Eklund (check out examples here and here) but I decided to give this novel a chance because Poul Anderson's name was attached to the project (as they say in Hollywood.) First published in 1974, on the publication page of my 1979 paperback edition we are told Inheritors of Earth is based on a 1950 story by Anderson called "Incomplete Superman." 

Our story begins in the California of the future, a world of hovercars, moving sidewalks, and android servants (not robots, but artificial biological people). The Northern hemisphere has enjoyed a long period of stability and peace under a government which controls how many kids you can have and keeps an eye on everybody--there is almost no violent crime, for example, and nuclear weapons have been outlawed for decades. But this period of tranquility is about to end, due to the machinations of a cabal of over 300 geniuses who call themselves "the Superior."

The Superior can telepathically sense other people's emotions, and communicate with each other by projecting and receiving each other's thoughts.  A Superior person can read a book as fast as he can turn the pages, and do math in his head almost as quickly as a computer.  The Superior have kept their existence a secret, ostensibly out of fear of the prejudice of the mundanes.

Our main protagonists are engineer Alec Richmond and his artist wife, Anna, both of them Superiors. Alec is one of the foremost developers of those androids.  Anna is one of the world's leading creators of "tape sculptures."  It wasn't really clear to me what a "tape sculpture" was.  At times I thought it was just abstract music (maybe like Frippertronics?) or some kind of psychological holographic sculpture (maybe like those in one of Robert Silverberg's best novels, 1971's The Second Trip), but at other times it seemed to be something akin to a film that could relate a story.

Life for the Superior is far from a picnic. For one thing, they are sterile; for another, they are psychologically unstable, prone to suffering bouts of insanity. Early in the novel we witness both Anna and the leader of the Superiors' Inner Circle, Samuel Astor, throw violent fits that require they be physically restrained. Then there is the fact that some equally secret group, about whom the Superior know nothing, opposes them. As the novel begins these mysterious "others" have tortured and murdered Alec's business partner Ted Mencken, the very day he and Alec got a government contract to manufacture an army of androids for employment as infantrymen.

Astor invites Alec to join the Inner Circle, and reveals his plans to trigger a cataclysmic world war between the wealthy Northern ("civilized") nations and the poor overpopulated ("primitive") nations of the Third World.  After the catastrophe the world will be weak and weary, and the Superior will take charge of what is left. Alec's android army has a role in these plans, but he is a softie who does not share the contempt for ordinary humans felt by most of the Superior, and is skeptical of the war project.

Inheritors of Earth has many characters and many subplots.  Anna and Alec Richmond's loveless marriage collapses and Alec takes up with Mencken's daughter Sylvia, his new boss.  Anna tries to teach her android servant Eathen to feel real human emotion. She has also hired the police detective who is investigating the Mencken murder, Cargill, to investigate the fate of her parents. (None of the living Superiors were raised by their own parents--Anna was raised in a foster home and her husband in a government orphanage.) Cargill appears to be a follower of Ah Tran, the Oriental leader of a religious movement who makes public and TV appearances, claiming "the Messiah" is soon to arrive, and warning that some cataclysm is soon to come. Anna and Alec Richmond suspect Cargill and/or Ah Tran know that the Superior exist and about their plan to trigger a tremendous war.

This scenario bears similarities to A. E. van Vogt's Slan, and Eklund and Anderson obliquely acknowledge this, informing the classic SF fan via clues that Richmond has read Slan, without actually using the novel's title or van Vogt's name. A more easily recognized inside joke is their reference to DC Comics' Kal-El--the Superior eschew the name "supermen" because that word "conjured up visions of an overly muscled creature dressed in brightly colored long underwear." Another 20th century cultural reference: one of those big-eyed Keane paintings makes an appearance--Anna considers it "horrendous" and Sylvia calls it "ugly," and I'm guessing Anderson, whose conservative taste in the fine arts we've noticed before, felt the same way.

In the second half of the novel we learn the truth of what is really going on.  The Superior are hybrid mules, each the offspring of a normal human and one of the true supermen, space aliens whom the Superior have been calling "the others" and who call themselves "The Inheritors."  The Inheritors have psychic powers that enable them to control people's minds and work them like puppets--the whole time the Superior thought they were manipulating the mundanes they themselves were being manipulated by the Inheritors, their own evil parents! Sylvia is an Inheritor, as is Anna's father--in fact, he acts as their leader.

Luckily, the government (with all its surveillance measures) figured all this out a while ago, and Cargill and Ah Tran (not really a Tibetan mystic but a Brooklyn-born "Negro" in disguise) are working to defeat the Inheritors.  Ah Tran's newest disciple is Eathen the android.  Like Rei Ayanami in Neon Genesis Evangelion, Eathen, being soulless, is used as a vessel for the souls of two dozen disciples as they and Ah Tran make an effort to achieve transcendence, but Anna's father, with his superior psychic powers, foils this attempt. After Anna commits suicide rather than obey her father's psychic command to murder Alec, Cargill convinces Alec to act in Eathen's place, as a conduit for the souls of the two dozen seekers after transcendence.  Alec, Ah Tran, and the two dozen disciples achieve transcendence because a minor character, Anna's biggest fan, vengefully murders Anna's father, removing the obstacle to their spiritual strivings.  

Inheritors of Earth isn't great.  At times it may be a little slow, and some elements seem a little vague and undeveloped.  The mystical transcendence business is one example; it is introduced on page 123 of the 198-page novel with little fanfare and feels unconnected with the larger Superior-Inheritor-war plot.  Samuel Astor and the Inner Circle, which seem important in the first third of the book, are not even mentioned later on.  We never really learn where the Inheritors, who were born to human mothers, came from--it is hinted that they are the product of alien spores which somehow impregnated Earth women.  And I had to wonder how it was that Cargill was the head of the San Francisco police department's homicide squad, and a private investigator, and the leader of the federal government anti-alien task force.

The way the plot is resolved is not very satisfying--Anna and Eathen are dead, and Alec and Ah Tran are part of a noncorporeal collective consciousness in touch with other races of the universe, but we don't find out what happens with the war between the advanced Northern nations and the impoverished Third World nations, or with the war between the Superiors and Inheritors.  I suppose that, now that (a small portion of) humanity has achieved collective consciousness and made contact with benevolent aliens, we are not supposed to care about the rest of the population of the Earth.

But, as a whole, Inheritors of Earth deserves a mild, borderline, recommendation. The scenes about the Superiors' and the Inheritors' psychic powers, the ramifications of their being able to sense people's emotions, are good.  I liked all the scenes with Anna--she is alienated from society, borderline insane, and half the time under the psychic control of the merciless Inheritors, which makes her an interesting character whose scenes focus on her psychology and are full of tension and suspense.  In particular I liked the scenes near the end of the book in which she struggles to disobey the programming of her father, which has her feeling compelled to murder Alec.

Alec, on the other hand, is a wishy washy sort of character who can't really make up his own mind about the war or Ah Tran's project of pursuing transcendence and so just goes with the flow, letting Astor, Sylvia, or Cargill tell him what to do.  Alec's love affair with Sylvia, and Sylvia's personality, could have been much better developed; Alec witnesses Cargill shoot Sylvia down (this is before Alec realizes she is one of the evil Inheritors), which should have been a powerful scene, but isn't because Eklund and Anderson didn't spend any time telling us about Alec's feelings for Sylvia or building up much of a picture of Sylvia for the reader.

Inheritors of Earth has many problems, but I think people who like van Vogt-style plots with secret factions of psykers and lots of weird plot twists might enjoy it.          

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