Saturday, August 16, 2014

Planet of the Voles by Charles Platt

Here we have another inmate from Joachim Boaz's Wall of Shame.  As you may recall, Joachim and I traded some SF paperbacks recently, he sending me some SF books he thought among "the worst ever written."  (More details of the trade, and discussion of one of the other Wall of Shame titles, which I actually liked, here.)  Since Joachim and I have somewhat different tastes, I was not reluctant to give Charles Platt's Planet of the Voles a spin.

Planet of the Voles first appeared in hard cover, adorned with a cool Paul Lehr cover, in 1971, the year of my birth.  Joachim sent me the 1972 Berkeley paperback; the painting is the same, but the cover text obscures the image a bit.  Some kind of color ad was bound between pages 96 and 97 originally (these old paperbacks often have ads for the Science Fiction Book Club or cigarettes) but a previous owner tore out the ad, leaving mere fragments behind. 

Planet of the Voles is an action adventure in which people shoot ray guns at each other and machete their way through jungles inhabited by giant reptiles and predatory birds, but it also takes a stab at being philosophical.  Unfortunately, Platt doesn't quite make the thing work; the two elements (space opera and philosophy) actually undermine each other, and he also makes irritating mistakes that diminish the entire effort.

It is the future, and man has colonized many planets.  Centuries of peace have led man to forget the arts of war and have bred out of him many of his aggressive instincts.  So, when the mysterious Volvanians start conquering human planets, the Earth has to genetically engineer fighting men and mass produce them in huge vats!

Tomas and Jan are just such men, crewmen of a space battleship on its way to liberate a planet the Volvanians have occupied.  Tomas and Jan are on the support staff, and don't fight on the front line.  Tomas was genetically engineered to be an artist; his job is to decorate the ship with murals and photographs, design insignia and medals, that sort of thing.  Jan was created to clean the narrow tube that runs the length of the ship and is essential to the hyperdrive; he's only five feet tall, and can't reach the controls of a suit of battle armor.

A Volvanian ship sneaks up on Tomas and Jan's ship during transit through hyperspace and attacks with a sort of poison gas weapon.  The ship itself suffers little damage, but the gas drives the servicemen insane so that they fight among themselves and open the airlocks, jettisoning all air and fuel.  Apparently by chance, T & J are the only survivors of the entire thousand man crew.  Now T & J, the least war-like of the ship's complement, have to get the ship, which comes out of hyperspace in orbit over the planet they came to liberate, working again.

T & J take a troop carrier to the surface, and have various adventures, rescuing the humans on the planet, infiltrating a Volvanian fortification, that sort of thing.  Then they lead the attack on the alien base, defeating the aliens and learning their strange secret!

During the attack in hyperspace that killed all of his comrades, Tomas got a glimpse of the commander of the Volvanian ship, a beautiful woman he later learned is known as Galvina.  He became obsessed with her, irrationally certain he had met her before and that somehow Galvina could reveal secrets about himself.  In the climax of the book Tomas confronts her, and learns about the Volvanians' psychic powers.  Using these powers, over twenty years ago Galvina tinkered with the vat in which Tomas was created, trying to make of him a Volvanian spy.  She made sure he survived the attack in hyperspace, hoping to meet him face to face and recruit him for behind-the-lines missions.

Tomas refuses to betray humankind, and Galvina escapes.  Tomas, feeling he doesn't really fit in with the humans, decides to strike out on his own rather than return to Earth.  In the last three pages of the book Tomas, no doubt to the chagrin of the taxpayers of Earth, steals the 500 meter long space battleship and he and Jon set out to explore the universe and maybe confront Galvina a second time.

isfdb image of hardcover edition
There are some interesting ideas and passable action scenes in Planet of the Voles that reminded me of space operas like E. E. Smith's Spacehounds of IPC or A. E. van Vogt's Rull stories.  The Volvanians enslave the humans on the planet by destroying all their food and then planting a bush which bears fruit that is nutritious, but turns people into almost mindless zombies.  The Volvanians then use the zombies' empty minds as amplifiers for their psychic powers.  In those Smith and Van Vogt stories the key to human victory is often scientific ingenuity, and that is true on the Volvanian-occupied planet; one of the humans on the planet is a biochemist, and is able to synthesize yeast to provide food for the resistance movement that links up with Tomas and Jon.

Another cool space opera gadget Platt includes in the novel is a small device that the Earth servicemen employ to control animals.  A little black box with prongs, you imbed it in the skull of a beast and then you are able to direct the beast.  T & J use these boxes to ride around on giant birds.

Unfortunately, for every fun idea like those, Platt commits a distracting error.  Sometimes he uses metric measurements, sometimes English measurements (the battleship is 500 meters long, the troop carrier is 30 feet long.)  The space battleship and the planet are never given names; the omniscient third-person narrator and the characters all just call them "the mother ship" and "the planet."  This feels sloppy.  The style is also bland, Platt failing to convey the kind of urgency, or fear, or thrill we hope to feel when guys are in firefights, or chases, or hacking their way through a jungle on an alien planet.

Another disappointment is the relationship between Tomas and Jon.  You get the feeling that Platt wanted to portray these two men developing a deep friendship based on the fact that they are outsiders, but in the end he just tells you they have developed a bond rather than demonstrating it.  I also expected more to happen between Tomas and Galvina, that they would fall in love and end the war, or fight to the death, or something.     

Then we have the philosophical aspects of the book.  The idea Platt is peddling is a sort of yin-yang thing, that a person and a society need to embrace both strength and beauty, aggression and reflection, muscle and mind, male and female, etc and etc, to flourish.  Tomas, our hero, is such a success because he is a well-rounded person, part human and part Volvanian, both artist and fighting man.  (Maybe Platt could have used the relationship between Tomas and Jon to demonstrate his yin-yang idea, by having each possess skills which complemented the others', but in fact Jon and Tomas have few scenes alone together and Jon mostly tags along while Tomas does almost everything that matters.)

The humans in the book are all male, and represent power and aggression; the Volvanians (the people of the vulva?) are ruled by females, and represent beauty and (I guess) the intellect, including subtlety, deception, and manipulation.  The Earth people have better force fields and energy guns, and the Volvanians compete by launching sneak attacks, using a surface fortress to act as a decoy when their real base is underground, and by using chemicals and psionics to mess with the Earthlings' minds.  

The way the two races represent the two sexes leads to what is probably the most memorable scene in the book, the embarrassing assault on the secret Volvanian base.  The Earth battleship, a long cylinder, penetrates the oval-shaped hanger doors of the alien base, which lies in a valley, and then from the nose of the battleship spew forth the Earth troops.  Platt leaves no doubt that this is supposed to represent the sex act when he tells us the interior of the Volvanian base has red walls that are moist!

It was a wide, deep shaft, almost as wide as the mother ship that had pushed into it.  The shaft led into the earth, curving slightly.  Its walls were moist with condensation, and a gentle red color.            

Besides causing embarrassing scenes like that, the philosophy of the book weakens the adventure story aspects of the book.  Over the course of the story the Volvanians kill hundreds of humans and enslave hundreds more by turning them into zombies.  We are also explicitly told that the Volvanians are the aggressors in the war and that for centuries humans have not made war on each other.  So it makes sense that the reader feel that the Volvanians are the villains.  But, because the ideology of the book requires some level of moral equivalency between the humans and aliens, we get disconcerting scenes in which we are expected to deplore how bloodthirsty the humans are.  We are also supposed to consider that the human buildings on the planet are more beautiful after the Volvanians' ray guns have melted their dull-colored vertical walls into brightly colored curves.  This undermines the gung ho fun often provided by military action adventures, and prevents the catharsis you find in stories in which, at the end, the villains are brought to justice.  And since Platt does not go as far as a book like The Forever War, in which the humans are the villains and the aliens innocent victims, Planet of the Voles ends up provoking mixed and muted feelings in the reader.

Planet of the Voles has many problems.  While it was disappointing and at times embarrassing, I didn't find reading it a painful experience, and I don't regret reading it.  The beginning is an OK adventure story, the end interesting in a bizarre way.  So, a sort of borderline case.


After finishing Planet of the Voles and drafting the above blog post, I read Joachim's review, from July 2012.  Joachim proclaims the book terrible, awarding it one out of five stars.

Besides the fact that I am more forgiving to adventure stories and pulp than Joachim, I think the big difference between our views is our assessments of what Platt's "point" is.  I think the book is more or less sincere as an adventure story and as advocacy of a well-rounded individual and society.  Joachim suggests that Platt is claiming conflict between the sexes is inevitable and perhaps criticizing feminism, and/or that the book is a satire of space opera, a weak version of something Norman Spinrad might do.

The case for Planet of the Voles being a spoof space opera is pretty strong, but it is something that did not occur to me; the adventure elements felt totally sincere to me for some 170 of the book's 192 pages, and even the final attack on the base felt, to me, like overblown symbolism rather than a spoof of the space battles one finds in E. E. Smith.  Well, maybe the joke's on me this time.

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