Friday, August 4, 2017

Planet in Peril by John Christopher

Raven said to Charles: "Well, Mr. Grayner?  Destruction or salvage?  A corrupt and decadent world--do you destroy it or do you try to mend it?"
Charles stood in silence; he felt that his irresolution must be written all over him.  Raven and Dinkhul were both looking at him--Raven with calm confidence, Dinkhul with the trace of a mocking grin.
He said: "I don't know--"  
I can't actually remember any
pretty blonde ladies in the book
Like so many people, I found John Christopher's first three Tripod books entertaining.  I liked No Blade of Grass when I read it a few years ago, and thought The Long Winter not bad when I read it before this blog first exploded into the public consciousness.  (Joachim Boaz rated The Long Winter "Good" back in 2012.) So, when I saw the 1959 Avon printing of Christopher's Planet in Peril with the cool Emsh cover, I got it.  As I announced to the world via twitter, which, despite my best efforts to create mesmerizing content like blurry pictures of the birds and graffiti I spot while visiting Akron, Ohio, is apparently in terminal decline, this edition is very fun, the book designer integrating elements of Emsh's cover illo onto the back cover and the title page.  My copy was owned previously by a Michael Wachover; amateur handwriting analysis suggests it was some other owner who wrote "Good" on the inside cover along with a long cryptic string of characters.  Mr. Wachover also wrote his nickname "Mike" on page 23, and that string of numbers (and letters?) appears a second time on page 11.  This paperback has lived a long and eventful life!

Planet in Peril was first published in the United Kingdom in 1955 with the considerably more appropriate title The Year of the Comet and stars Charles Grayner, 21st-century scientist.  Grayner is a sophisticated man--when he comes home and finds the cleaning lady has left the telescreen on the pop music channel, he switches it to the classical music channel.  After a long day studying diamonds as a possible power source, a little Mozart is just what he needs!  In the first ten pages of the book Grayner visits a used record store, where he runs into the guy who operates and stars on (as a kind of DJ or talk show host) the classical music TV channel, Hiram Dinkhul.  Even though they have only met once before, this guy seems to know all about Grayner's career, including the fact that the diamond expert has just this very day learned he will be transferred from Michigan to sunny California!

Fellow SF fan
Michael Wachover,
we salute you!
Planet in Peril is set in a world in which almost nobody, even a sophisticato like Grayner, knows any history.  Luckily Grayner and we readers have Dinkhul to handle the exposition duties for us.   Following a cataclysmic 20th-century war, the Western world was rebuilt by and is now run by "managerials," the various pre-war business sectors (they have names like "United Chemicals," "Atomics," "Steel," "Agriculture," "Genetics Division," "Telecom," etc.) consolidated into monopolistic entities which act as independent states.  These states are fascistic/socialistic, their citizens assorted into rigid classes and assigned their roles from above during their youth after psychological profiling.  (We learn that at school Grayner was assigned to Squad D, "research and development work.")  Like jobs, all goods and services seem to be distributed by the bureaucracy.

Outside this managerial system is "Siraq," a religious state (Dinkhul calls it a "deity-centered nation") that controls the "Near East."  (Though Grayner and Dinkhul are Americans, they use British lingo--Dinkhul at one point talks of the paucity of students who "read History" instead of the American usage "study History," while Grayner tells Dinkhul that he "tipped down the drain" the "containers of mescalin" provided him by his managers for use on vacation.)  While Westerners all smoke cigarettes, use "mesc" and engage in casual promiscuous sex (Grayner is said to frequent brothels), the Siraqis refrain, having what is said to be a "puritanical" culture.  (Christopher never uses the words "Islam" or "Muslim," just like he never uses "socialism" or "fascism.")

Like the Siraqis, Dinkhul is critical of the managerial states and to some extent lives outside of them.  His TV channel represents "one of the few remaining strands of capitalism in the modern world," he tells Grayner, and he complains that the society of the managerial states is decadent, pointing out the failure to colonize Mars and Venus though the technology to do so is available (Raymond F. Jones in The Cybernetic Brains also used the failure to explore space as a sign that a socialistic high-tech society had fallen into decadence.)  We later learn that Dinkhul, besides being a broadcaster, is a bigwig in an underground organization trying to undermine the managerial system, The Society of Individualists.  This group doesn't have a plan to take over, they just want to see the whole managerial system fall apart, assuming what comes next will be better.

I guess those are the Siraqis on their
diamond-powered flying machines
Grayner's managerial is United Chemicals, and his superiors transfer him to Cali to take the place of some other diamond expert, Humayun, who got killed in a boating accident.  Grayner falls in love with Humayun's (now his) assistant, Sara Koupol.  Koupol, like Humayun, is a political refugee who fled from Siraq; her father, a history professor, escaped Siraq with her.  Sara thinks Grayner's predecessor was murdered, and when she disappears before Grayner can even get in her pants (damn her puritanical Siraqi upbringing!) her father purportedly commits suicide.  Of course, Grayner and we readers think all these people have been kidnapped or murdered.

Much of the book consists of Grayner being cajoled or kidnapped by Dinkhul's Individualists or one managerial or another, all of them trying to convince Grayner to work for them.  Again and again Grayner is liberated from captivity at one managerial by another managerial or by the Society of Individualists--in this book people are always getting put to sleep by gas or drugged drinks or hit on the head by blunt instruments and then waking up in the custody of some other faction.  People in this book are also always putting on disguises, and members of one managerial keep turning out to be moles or turncoats who are in fact working for a different faction. When Grayner is "reunited" with Sara Koupol, Dinkhul, after some days, exposes this woman as an impostor (no wonder she was putting out!)  This is the kind of book in which the protagonist is carried along by the winds of fate and manipulated by mysterious forces--until the very end Grayner doesn't make any decisions, figure out any mysteries, or defeat any foes; Grayner does not drive the plot in any way, he is merely its passenger.

Anyway, all the managerials want Grayner (and Humayun and Sara Koupol) under their control because everybody realizes that they are on the brink of figuring out how to turn diamonds into a super efficient power source and super powerful weapon--if one managerial gets this power before the rest it will be able to rule the world.  Dinkhul, who I guess is like the book's conscience and Christopher's spokesman, tries to preserve Greyner's freedom to choose his own way while hoping Greyner will not stand in the way of a collapse of managerial society.

Loosely affiliated with the Society of Individualists is an underground cult of religious fanatics known as the Cometeers who think the appearance of a comet in the sky is a sign that managerial society is about to fall.  (You probably know that comets are associated with the crisis of the collapse of the Roman Republic and the Norman conquest of England.)  The managerials tolerate the Cometeers, and their revival-style meetings provide a cover for the Society of Individualists' own smaller meetings.  In the last 30 pages of the 159-page novel Dinkhul leads Greyner on a country-wide tour of Cometeer groups, seeking clues about the whereabouts of Sara Koupol.  As the puritanism of the Siraqis contrasts with the indulgence in drugs and promiscuous sex of the managerials, so the ecstatic Cometeers provide a contrast to the passionless managerials--on their faces Greyner sees "a concentration, a passion, which he never remembered seeing anywhere."  Dinkhul and Greyner get kidnapped again, and this time taken to Siraq--it turns out the Cometeers are being financed by the Siraqis as a means of further undermining the managerials.  We learn that Humayun, Sara Koupol and Professor Koupol have taken over Siraq in a palace coup, built the diamond-based super weapon, and are going to take over the world.  Greyner has to decide if he will try to alert the managerials and save the (drug-addled, corrupt and static) West from the (semi-capitalistic, imperialistic and puritannical) East, or just settle down with Sara and live a happy life with her as a member of the world's new ruling class.  

When I bought Planet in Peril, and when I started reading it, I had hopes it would be an exciting adventure story and/or a human drama.  I was disappointed because it is a kind of satire of and meditation on modern Western life, religion, radicalism and conservatism.  (I didn't realize it at first, but the character's names have an allegorical ring--Grayner, Ledbetter, Raven, etc.  Is "Humayun" supposed to reminded us of "houyhnhnm?")  Do I agree with Christopher that individualistic capitalist societies are more vital and productive than bureaucratic collectivist ones?  Of course I do.  Do I agree that while religion is a scam, it brings structure, meaning and even joy into people's lives?  You bet.  Does my agreement with what I think Christopher is trying to say here mean I loved this novel?  No way.

Sad!
Planet of Peril's plot, characters, and tone are weak.  The story conveys no emotion--all of the characters remain calm and detached, either gently ironic like Dinkhul or, even worse, cold fish like Grayner. Perhaps by design (to show how a technocratic society saps the life and emotion out of people), perhaps due to incompetence, Christopher's characters have no passion and the story develops no tension.  We don't get any sense that Dinkhul really hates the static collectivist society of the managerials or that Grayner deeply or ebulliently loves Koupol or is bitter or angry about the way the various factions are manipulating him.  The stakes feel low because the different factions don't threaten or bribe Grayner, and none of the characters gets shot at or risks death or maiming--looking back, I suspect that all the scenes of people getting knocked unconscious were played for laughs, though I didn't laugh.  The lack of feeling and danger makes the book flat and boring.

The scene I quoted as an epigraph to this blog post, in which Dinkhul and Raven (head of Atomics) both try to sway Grayner, reminded me of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, in which a representative of modern liberalism and a representative of religious and communist radicalism compete for the soul of a bland middle-class guy. The book as a whole reminded me of Anthony Burgess's satiric The Wanting Seed, which I also found didn't inspire in me much feeling.  Planet of Peril, however, suffers in comparison to The Wanting Seed because while Christopher is subtle (to be kind) or limp (if you want to be harsh about it), Burgess is loud, sharp, edgy.  Burgess just comes right out and tells you homosexuals are disgusting and that English people are superior to Third Worlders and lays his theories about history and religion right on the table for you to see.  This is a way to generate excitement, or at least interest, in your novel if it lacks human drama and tension.  Christopher's Planet in Peril, unfortunately, though it has a provocative theme (Muslims armed with a super weapon are going to conquer the world, and we decadent Westerners should welcome it!) isn't stirring or captivating because it is too soft and too vague.

Barely acceptable.

2 comments:

  1. Still interested in reading this since I've liked the Christophers I've read.

    I'm getting a vague sense that maybe Christopher had read James Burnham's The Managerial Elite and used some of its ideas for this one. (Vague because I know Burnham only by reputation.)

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    1. Ahhh, very interesting! Googling around is giving me the idea that Burnham, one of those guys who was a hardcore communist in his youth but matured into a hardcore anti-communist, was very influential in the '40s, '50s and '60s, even if he is rarely cited today.

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