Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Duplicated Man by James Blish and Robert Lowndes

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.
This recent weekend the Toyota Corolla conveyed the wife and me to Dayton, Ohio, where we took in the Alphonse Mucha exhibit at the Art Institute (strongly recommended) and ate dishes with "shish" in their names and drank coffee and tea at Olive Mediterranean Grill (MPorcius Travel Guide also recommends this establishment.)  On our way out of town we stopped at the One Dollar Book Swap, a huge warehouse next to the highway with masses of used books for sale for a dollar each.  It seems like it is some kind of charity or something, staffed by volunteers and only open on the weekends.  I pored over the SF shelves, which were not alphabetized and mostly had books too recent to interest me, but I did pick up two volumes, a 1990 edition of John W. Campbell, Jr.'s  The Moon is Hell! and a legitimately old book, the 1959 Avalon hardcover printing of James Blish and Robert Lowndes' The Duplicated Man.  Mine is a bedraggled copy formerly in the collection of the Lake Bluff, Illinois, Public Library and so covered in red "DISCARDED" stamps and hand-scrawled catalog numbers, but I'm a reader of books rather than a collector, and I think these evidences of former ownership add character to the volume, and I am certainly glad to have it for one dollar.

The Duplicated Man first appeared in a 1953 issue of Dynamic Science Fiction with an amusing declaration on its cover that assured potential readers that the novel was "complete" and "not an abridged 'magazine version.'"  For this magazine publication of the novel Lowndes used the pseudonym Michael Sherman--the Avalon hardcover of The Duplicated Man is actually dedicated "to the memory of Marcus Lyons, Michael Sherman, and John MacDougal," pen names employed by Blish and Lowndes, a little SF in-joke.  If you are not lucky enough to have secured your own copy of this novel for a dollar, the internet archive has you covered--check out the original 1953 magazine text, complete with disturbing Paul Orban illos, here.

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 Duplicated Man is not structured in the way most of the novels I read are structured; rather than following a single sympathetic or interesting character or group of characters from start to finish, there are twenty or twenty-five characters who drop in and out of the narrative; many of them only appear in the first or second half of the book, none of them is very sympathetic, and only one is actually interesting.  Throughout the 222-page novel people make and break alliances, switch sides or reveal they were moles the whole time, double cross and stab each other in the back.  There is plenty of dialogue that consists of planning how to trick somebody or description of how somebody got tricked, and speculations of how somebody else is going to respond to events based on his or her psychological profile or strategic vision. Much of this stuff is neither easy to follow nor very entertaining.

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!

The Pro-Earth Party is one of those revolutionary groups in which everybody has a code name and is in a three-man cell, the members of which signal each other in public via signs and countersigns like how they light their cigarettes.  These jokers hope to take over the Earth and end the bombardment by negotiating with Venus, but the Party's bloodthirsty leaders can't agree on methods and are always splitting into factions and purging each other, leaving the low-ranking members at risk of being on the wrong side of a purge at any moment. One such low-ranking member is the nominal protagonist of the novel, Paul Danton (his 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.

At the same time, Thomas and the Venus cabal discover that their screen is down so they launch a preemptive invasion of Earth, desperate to conquer our big blue marble before the Earthers realize how vulnerable Venus now is.  The Venusians have sixteen warships, but only five take off because one of the cabal (pursuing his own agenda) joins the Earth Party and they sabotage the launch.  The Danton mission to Venus is also hamstrung: the Venusian preliminary bombardment (2000 missiles!) and assassins from the Pro-Earth Party waylay some of the duplicates on Earth, while the original Danton just stays on Earth because he has to distract a female member of the Security Council who has fallen in love with him!  Only two Danton duplicates and a Security Council secret agent make it to Venus.

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.


On the back cover of my copy of The Duplicated Man is an ad promoting Avalon's SF line, "The Best in Science Fiction."  I have read five of the listed titles, including the two Vances, which I read before this blog sprang fully formed from my febrile noggin, as well as 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?

1 comment:

  1. Avalon Books published some outstanding books, especially the Jack Vances you mentioned. I'm also fond of STARHAVEN ghosted by Robert Silverberg. I've only found about a dozen Avalons over my many years of haunting used bookstores and thrift stores. But, you're right: Avalon Books did publish some marginal stuff, too.