She was looking at me frankly, warmly, with complete openness, her hair, golden...her eyes, an infinite blue...the beauty of her face, soft and quiet.
"You see, I really am to be yours...as I said last night. It's part of Dearborne's plan."
I could only stare at her, understanding, but not really understanding. "Dearborne's plan..." I said.
She nodded. "You do believe in the plan, don't you?"
"Of course I do!"Robert Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt or Poul Anderson. And anybody can read a SF novel by the pioneers who inspired people like George Lucas to produce the sort of SF that now dominates our culture, people like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton (in 1980 in "The Science Fiction of Science Fiction" Barry Malzberg suggested that "Much of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back appear to be based upon a close reading of his [Hamilton's] work.") But the crew of the HMS MPorcius are explorers, hard-bitten types who want to go where no one else has been, see things nobody else has seen. Do they love Heinlein, van Vogt, Anderson, Burroughs, Brackett and Hamilton? Of course they do! But they also love investigating the terra incognita, filling in the blank spaces on the map, looking under rocks and seeing what wriggles out. So let's lift up the Curtis Books rock and see what the hell is going on behind the shirtless-guy-near-a-tower-and-a-spun-glass-city cover of Martyr.
Martyr starts with a three-page prologue. A young man is interviewing an elderly black man, apparently a respected hero, getting him to tell the story of his life. This man is our narrator for the next 150 pages of the 155-page novel.
The nameless narrator grew up in our underground future, in a subterranean city of "toobes" managed by a "Mother Machine," where people are incubated in test tubes and don't know their biological parents and the authorities keep a strict control on what food you eat and what media you are exposed to and encourage you to spend your free time at the local "pleasure center." "The Greater Down Empire" has been mankind's refuge for many centuries due to overpopulation--every acre of the planet surface was needed for agriculture if the people, numbering "a million million," were to be fed.
In the first few chapters of Martyr, the narrator is hanging out with two friends--John Dearborne, another black man whom the narrator reveres and follows with an almost blind loyalty, and Roger Pleasant, a more ambivalent and equivocal character with a "dusty complexion, the color of ashes"--witnessing their debate about life under Mother Machine's rule. (The real protagonist of the narrative is Dearborne, while our narrator mostly plays the role of second banana and chronicler.) Dearborne denounces MM's orderly utopia because it has extinguished what he, and he feels all men, really need--freedom, and the challenges freedom brings that lead to personal and social growth! Thus spake Dearborne:
"...I think that a man without the problems of opposition, as we know is supposedly the case Down, will become as stagnant as a receptacle without an outlet.... We wallow in pleasures that dissipate. We delight in a conformity that hedges us all about, denying us our destiny. And our first love is a machine."Dearborne is determined to leave "Down" and try to live "Topside," and the narrator is eager to follow him, but Pleasant discourages them. He lists the benefits of subterranean life and rule by Mother Machine ("Poverty, hunger, disease and all those other nasty little problems are gone, wiped out....We live in mutual approbation, mutual respect....We live in unity") and calls Dearborne's complaints "generalities" that lack proof; he also warns his subversive friends that Mother's agents will destroy any who try to escape. Pleasant should know--he's a member of the elite, with a luxurious apartment in Level 1 (the deepest and most prestigious of the one hundred levels of the city) and some ill-defined job working for Mother. Why Dearborne and the narrator (whom we later learn is a "class two plumber") are friends with this guy and expose to him their heretical thinking is something of a mystery, though later on we get a sort of half-baked explanation.
Pleasant's warnings go unheeded. Dearborne has amassed an arsenal of knowledge and equipment that facilitates our two heroes' egress through a gap in the force field that surrounds the exit to Topside and confounds the hovering saucer robots that chase them. The narrator is surprised to find the surface is a wilderness prairie, not a bunch of robot farms--Dearborne explains that there is no longer any food crisis, that MM is keeping everybody underground to maintain her own control, not to free up arable land.
The pair travel to the mountains, where Dearborne explains to the narrator that his aim is not simply to leave Mother Machine's underground empire, but to overthrow it in what he calls a "crusade" and a "revolution." The narrator is a sucker for Dearborne's oratory and vision, as reflected in these three successive one-sentence paragraphs:
It was almost like God talk.
And...he was telling all this to me.
I suddenly felt rebirth.This epiphany occurs halfway through the novel. Then the narrator gets one surprise after another as Dearborne leads him through a secret entrance (a two kilometer deep shaft down which they must rappel) to an abandoned part of the Empire where they find an extensive array of dusty old machines. Dearborne reveals that he is a member of the underground organization of people who call themselves Forsters (they are inspired by E. M. Forster's story "The Machine Stops," which seems to have inspired Utley to write Martyr), and that he even knew his own parents when he was young, hundreds of years ago! Dearborne, we learn, was born ages ago and put into suspended animation by Forsters, and only recently revived. Via what we would call "hacking," MM was made to forget the existence of this room of machines--a control room Dearborne calls "the Citadel" where he can override some of Mother Machine's operations--and a bogus ID file was created for him in MM's memory banks. From the Citadel the charismatic Dearborne can preach rebellion over MM's own airwaves, even fool the credulous masses into thinking he represents her!
The plot of the last novel we read, Poul Anderson's fun and scientifically rigorous Virgin Planet, could be described as the journey of a man who starts the book physically and psychologically dominated by women but then reasserts his (and the male sex's) independence and authority. I'm tempted to look at Martyr the same way. Not only is the tyrannical computer described in explicitly feminine terms, but before he leaves the Empire to travel with his hero and role model Dearborne, the narrator has to break ties with his girlfriend, "Freddie." During his adventures with Dearborne, when he sleeps, the narrator dreams of Freddie, dreams in which she obstructs Dearborne's quest and implores the narrator to come home. Perhaps Freddie's masculine nickname is a sign that sex roles in the chthonic world of Mother Machine are blurred, that women are usurping men's rightful positions. It is perhaps also significant that Freddie has a "fair complexion."
Dearborne and the narrator return to the Empire via a secret passage, and Dearborne introduces the narrator to more Forsters and provides a replacement for Freddie, "Gentle," a blue-eyed blonde with a "bubbly nymph albedo" who calls our narrator "man of color." In the final third of Martyr the revolutionary crusade starts in earnest with clever (and not necessarily truthful!) propaganda broadcasts and a campaign of sabotage and bombings which kills thousands of innocent people. The narrator participates in an operation that (accidentally) blows up large residential sections, including where Freddie lives! Freddie's apparent death triggers doubt about the wisdom of the revolution in the narrator, who confronts Dearborne, but Dearborne quickly convinces the narrator that the carnage is not too much of a price to ask for freedom.
(I can't tell if Utley is being ironic in having the narrator rebel against the mass murderer Mother Machine, who runs his life, only to let mass murderer Dearborne run his life! Is this a knowing commentary on revolution as it was experienced in France, Russia, China, etc.?)
Finally, the narrator and Gentle get captured, and find that Pleasant is head of the robotic police force! Under torture the narrator reveals all he knows, and Dearborne is captured. But this is all part of Dearborne's elaborate plan! After he (somehow) convinces Pleasant to release the narrator and Gentle of the "golden hair" and "eyes of infinite blue," Dearborne sacrifices himself, detonating a bomb hidden in a copy of The Machine Stops that the government police inexplicably allowed him to bring to his place of execution. This bomb destroys Mother, and triggers an exodus of people convinced by Dearborne's broadcasts that mankind belongs on the surface. Dearborne's own white girlfriend (right before she commits suicide rather than live without Dearborne) tells the narrator that Dearborne left instructions to proclaim the narrator the leader of the new Topside civilization.
In the two-page third-person epilogue we learn that Pleasant survived the explosion and, reconciled with the narrator and Gentle, has grown old on the surface along with them. Utley, with references to flies and blizzards, reminds us that life on the surface is not as comfortable as was life in the subterranean utopia of Mother, and implies that the new Topside society is surviving by excavating stuff from the wreck of the defunct Greater Down Empire.
I'm on board with Martyr's pro-freedom themes, its smothering mother metaphors, and its portrayal of a revolutionary leader who uses lying propaganda and kills thousands of innocent people, just like the tyranny he is working to overthrow. But the book has problems. The style isn't so hot; it's not smooth or sophisticated or thrilling, and when the author and/or the editor mix up "flout" and "flaunt," a pet peeve of mine, as well as "it's" and "its," you feel like you are reading something shoddy. The plot includes twists and turns meant to be (melo)dramatic, but which strain the reader's credulity. But back in the plus column, we have to consider its ambivalent and ambiguous treatments of race and religion, which, for me at least, turn the novel into a sort of intriguing puzzle.
I don't really know what to make of the use of race in Martyr; do the protagonists just happen to be black, or is Utley trying to say something about the black experience with this book, or use allusions to the history of Africa or African-Americans to add depth to his story? Our two heroes are black, and characters who cast doubt on their mission and stand in their way--"color of ashes" Pleasant and "fair" Freddie--are white, but Utley's narrative is not a straightforward tale of blacks fighting white racists; there are plenty of white Forsters, including the heroes' devoted girlfriends, and presumably the population of the underground city that Dearborne is liberating is largely white, and, of course, E. M. Forster is white. All the interracial sexual relationships and the fact that Pleasant and the narrator reconcile suggests Utley is advocating forgiveness and amity between the races. Mother Machine's tyranny doesn't really remind the reader of European enslavement of blacks in the New World or imperialism in Africa--MM isn't exploiting the city dwellers' labor for her own gain, she is smothering them, making their lives too easy. Could one of Utley's aims in Martyr be to attack Great Society welfare programs (less than a decade old when the novel was published) that were meant to help the poor but which have been blamed for weakening the traditional family structure--in the African-American community in particular--and accused of setting up the government as a replacement parent?
Martyr, as the novel's title suggests, addresses the topic of religion as well as race. Martyr largely seems to follow the SF tradition of depicting religion as a scam. In a way perhaps similar to how some Christians bless themselves with holy water before entering and leaving a church and some Jews touch a mezuzah while entering or leaving their homes, inhabitants of The Greater Down Empire are expected to conduct little ritualistic hand movements before entering and after leaving their apartments and elevators and the like. Pleasant conducts these motions with enthusiasm and precision, while Dearborne conspicuously neglects them, and the narrator muses that there are so many such rituals that they "could almost swallow the intellect." Mother Machine plays the role in the book not only of oppressive government but also of oppressive religion.
But, at the same time, Dearborne, the hero of the story, is a figure like a prophet who is compared to a deity more than once. In his propaganda broadcasts he doesn't say Mother Machine is a scam--he claims to be her truest representative! Is Dearborne (who, after all, rises from the dead and dies that everybody else might live in freedom) meant to be a Christ-like figure who opposes a corrupt religious establishment and strives to bring the true word of God to the people? (A Christ figure who is a demolitions expert, fights a cyborg cop hand-to-hand, and uses a ray gun to excavate a tunnel, is certainly an interesting character to contemplate!) That true word perhaps being that a good mother sets her children free, rather than nagging and controlling them, lets them face the world and grow through struggle rather than coddling and cossetting them and keeping them from the world so they stagnate.
I'm reluctant to say Martyr is good, but I was never bored (even though we've seen lots of SF books about stifling utopias and revolutions and unbelievable conspiracies that were better written and more entertaining) and I enjoyed trying to figure out what Utley was getting at with all the references to religion and people's skin colors, so I'm judging it acceptable to mildly recommendable.
isfdb lists 95 publications from Curtis Books--we'll be looking at another one in our next episode!