Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Eight Against Utopia by Douglas R. Mason

"A group of us are aiming to set up a colony outside--in the open.  We need two or three more people.  Would you come?"
"How is that possible?  The books say that life outside had to be given up.  North is too cold.  South is too hot and has hostile cities.  You will not be allowed to go."
"Never mind about that." 
Publisher's Weekly, your source for
fake news--every word of that blurb is false
In our last episode I told you that I purchased my 1970 paperback copy of Douglas R. Mason's 1966 novel From Carthage Then I Came, retitled Eight Against Utopia in this edition, partly because it appeared to be inspired or influenced by one of the 20th century's foremost poets, T. S. Eliot, one of the most important of all Christian theologians, Augustine of Hippo, and the ancient tales of the sons of Oedipus.  I even described my experience of reading Seven Against Thebes by Greek playwright Aeschylus and The Thebaid by Roman poet Statius.  Now let's read the lovely blue paperback which set me on that mission of reading books from 2,000 years ago.  Joachim Boaz, star SF blogger and tweeter, warned us that Eight Against Utopia is dull, but let's cross our fingers and dive in anyway!

Seven thousand years ago mankind retreated into domed cities in order to survive a new ice age!  (This must be the ice age J.G. Bennett warned us about on Robert Fripp's experimental rock music album Exposure!)  Over the millennia, ostensibly to conserve scarce resources and maintain order in the shelter's tight confines, the northernmost domed city, Carthage, sited on the African coast of the Mediterranean, has developed into a repressive authoritarian state; each citizen's bodily functions and brainwaves are monitored, so the government can even tell (more or less) what you are thinking!  This system doesn't have the capacity to read everybody's mind at once, reminding the reader of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon, and with effort clever people can evade its probing by filling the surface of their minds with a jumble of tedious calculations and trick it by thinking of forbidden matters via misdirecting symbols. 

Gaul T. Kalmar is an engineer in Carthage, and because his duties include doing maintenance on the outer dome, he knows full well that the ice age is over--he has opened hatches and spent time in an almost forgotten observatory atop the dome, and there he has breathed the outside air and seen that the dome is surrounded by forests instead of glaciers.  He wants to leave Carthage and start a new, more free, society in Europe he will call "New Troy."  He gathers together seven additional like-minded people, including a beautiful psychologist, Tania Clermont, and they plot their escape.  The headshrinker (or "mind-bender," as they call psychologists in this book) is a critical member of the team--in her office is a room shielded from the mind-reading rays, so the pioneers can discuss their plans openly in there.  (People can actually sense the oppressive intrusion into their minds of the government monitors, and so to treat her patients Clermont needs a place where they can temporarily escape this source of anxiety.)

One of the remarkable things about Eight Against Utopia is that it is chockablock with learned cultural references.  There are the aforementioned quotes from Eliot's The Waste Land and Four Quartets, a description of a woman as having a "Marie Antoinette bust," a passage in which the "posture of the wife of Indra" (link NSFW!) is mentioned, another in which a character refers to La Venus du Gaz, and many more.  Of course I enjoy these nods to works of art with which I am familiar, and enjoy looking up online mentioned works with which I am unfamiliar.  (Just a few days ago I was reading Wyndham Lewis's Rude Assignment, and was moved to look up Gerald Leslie Brockhurst because Lewis mentioned him.  Even though Lewis brought Brockhurst's paintings up as an example of lowbrow gunk that appeals to the masses, I kind of liked them!)  Unfortunately, Mason's esoteric references add almost nothing to his book!

Firstly, the fact that the characters are intimately familiar with the work of T. S. Eliot and Pablo Picasso makes them seem more like 1950s grad students in the humanities than the engineers and psychologists of a eugenically bred, constantly surveilled and intensely propagandized population of the year 9000 A. D.  Mason is apparently more interested in showing off his own erudition than in conjuring up the atmosphere of an alien milieu and depicting the mindset of its inhabitants.

Secondly, all these erudite allusions and quotations are not integral building blocks of a deeply philosophical work, but merely window dressing tossed practically at random into a routine adventure story.  Despite the cover text that invokes George Orwell's 1984 and the cradle-to-grave welfare state, Eight Against Utopia doesn't have much to say about how a state socialist system operates or what it does to human psychology and sociology, and it isn't a defense of individualism or a celebration of man's unquenchable desire for freedom.  Rather, it is a series of tedious engineering scenes and mediocre action scenes starring a superfluity of bland and forgettable characters.

The bulk of the first half or so of the novel consists of detailed descriptions of Kalmar and company secretly digging through the dome foundation (they have a sort of hand held disintegrator device called a "matter pulverizer") in search of a point of egress and sabotaging the city's power source, which they hope will hamper the security forces' efforts to track them down after their breakout.  What Mason describes are not emotions or psychological states, but architecture and the laborious cutting of walls and opening of seized doors, and thus these scenes generate no suspense or fear and do not move or even interest the reader.  I have to admit that I found these engineering scenes difficult to visualize, maybe because I have only the dimmest sense of what "tie bars," "flanges" and "culverts" really look like and in what context one encounters them, but also, I think, because of another problem, Mason's writing style, which is not good.

Instead of explaining things clearly, Mason employs a style full of euphemisms, cliches, and not-at-all-funny ironic deadpan humor, which not only makes it hard to tell what is going on in the many scenes that include architectural and geographical description, but undercuts any excitement or tension the action scenes might generate.

Another distracting tic of Mason's is his reusing again and again the same words and phrases, even though plenty of perfectly suitable synonyms are available.  We see "tack" (for direction or approach) three times in the book's first chapter alone, and Mason uses the phrase "when the balloon goes up" (meaning when some dangerous operation has irrevocably begun) on pages 43, 46 and 57.  This brings us back to my earlier complaint: why are people who have lived in a dome for 7,000 years using sailing and ballooning metaphors, anyway?  These people have never seen the ocean or the sky!  If Mason is going to make no effort to depict the mindset of people living in an environment radically different than our own, why does he set his story in such an environment?

A passage that I think demonstrates many of the essential characteristics of Eight Against Utopia comes on the day our heroes make their break for freedom (the day the balloon goes up!)  While everybody is hustling to the airlock and the hovercraft the men of the group have excavated, Tania Clermont is revealed to be a traitor working for the government!  When Clermont pulls her government-issued gun, one of the men, Shultz, knocks her cold with a karate chop, and then he carries her out of the dome on his shoulder because he still thinks he can make her his girlfriend!
She was very light.  He slung her over his shoulder and through the thin leotard could feel the pneumatic tension of her jagana against the side of his face.  Her scent was a matter of some subtlety and care, with a faint overtone of sandalwood.  Without overt intention, she was doing a fair job of mind-bending.  
I'm guessing "pneumatic," which Mason uses four times over the course of the book to describe women's bodies, is another Eliot reference, especially since at one point it is used in the same sentence with "Phoenician sailor," a famous phrase from The Waste Land, but I've never seen "jagana" before.  (I mean I've never seen the word--I can assure you I have seen a woman's jagana...whatever it is.)

Besides Mason's useless literary references, lame jokes, and vague descriptions, this passage also serves as an example of the novel's attitude towards sex and gender--were Eight Against Utopia to take flight in today's grrrlpower/MeToo era I suspect it would run into some heavy flak!  Not only are there many "male gaze" scenes and groping scenes, but during all the action sequences the women are essentially burdens--men need to tell them what to do, carry them over obstacles, rescue them, etc.  We are told that women are less adept than men at concealing their thoughts from the government monitor rays, so Kalmar keeps the women in the dark during the planning stages of their breakout.

Six of the party (this count includes unconscious Tania Clermont) fly off in the dusty old hovercraft, but the fuzz are hot on their tails and Kalmar and sexy redhead female engineer Jane Welland are left behind.  In the third quarter of the novel we get long descriptions of the six baling out the hovercraft and rigging a makeshift sail after the machine loses power and lands in the ocean, and long descriptions of Kalmar and Welland fleeing Carthage on foot.  The team's sabotage having cut the city's power, the pair traverse darkened walkways, creep through empty maintenance tunnels and then ascend the shaft of an inert elevator.  Under cover of darkness, a cop Kalmar already has a grudge against tries to rape a woman we never heard about before whom he just picks out of a crowd, Goda Hurst, and our hero Kalmar stumbles on this crime and takes it upon himself to rescue her.  Hurst joins the fugitive party and promptly falls in love with Kalmar, incurring Welland's jealousy.  From the secret little observatory atop the dome the three rappel down to the surface.

Carthaginian security forces pursue the two groups of fugitives, and we get chase scenes and fight scenes.  Kalmar's trio captures an aircraft from their pursuers, and the two groups of refugees are reunited.  They are chased into an old military installation at Gibraltar in the final quarter of the book, and there Mason gives us another punishing dose of descriptions of architecture and climbing and tunnel running and cutting holes in walls.  Tania the treacherous shrink is vaporized by the security troops' energy weapons, but don't feel bad--she had repented of her treachery and faced death with equanimity, and within minutes Shultz develops a crush on Goda Hurst.  (Any port in a storm, I guess.)  They find a MTB or some such military boat, preserved as a museum exhibit.  After 7,000 years its engine and rapid fire deck gun still operate like clockwork, so our heroes crew the thing and, in the shadow of "The Rock," win a naval battle against five Carthaginian hovercraft.  Then they sail to England to restart civilization.
What a disappointment!  Eight Against Utopia's references to classical and modernist literature are only skin deep and the political and philosophical issues revolving around the individual's relationship to the state get more of an airing on the back cover than in the actual text, leaving us with a 150-page book about engineering, sex and violence, but all the engineering, sex and violence scenes are inept!  Thumbs down!  (Gotta agree with Joachim this time!)


  1. I've passed on buying EIGHT AGAINST UTOPIA for decades. Something about the book just put me off. Thank you for reading the book and rendering judgement!

  2. First, your reviews are getting better and better! Thank you.
    I'm sorry Eight Against Utopia is not a worthy entry. I would have loved finding another companion book for Lafferty's Past Master, where Thomas More and his retinue flee and eventually govern a golden utopia, with far more wild adventure and far less inept engineering and sex!

    1. Thanks! I definitely go into these things hoping to like them or at least find them interesting, and Lafferty's Past Master is an apt book to contrast to Eight Against Utopia, because Lafferty's book is actually informed by a literary classic and by Christian thought, unlike Mason's, which just creates such an expectation with its titles and acknowledgements of its use of Eliot's lines, an expectation which is not fulfilled.

    2. Any other suggestions for companion books for Past Master? My go-to is Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed (an Ambiguous Utopia).

  3. Another great review of this book, a bit more scathing than yours: SCHLOCK VALUE: Eight Against Utopia