Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Spawn of the Death Machine by Ted White

"This is the Com-Comp.  Your creator."
"I don't believe that."
"You are an artificially constructed human being, a mobile data-gathering device."

I recently praised two pieces of writing by Amazing and Fantastic editor Ted White, a short story that was apparently the first (and only) episode in an abortive series of stories about a barbarian exploring a strange world, and an autobiographical story in which Ted's buddy and fellow jazz critic Harlan Ellison abused their friendship.  I thought both items well-written, and became curious about White's work.  I still had some credit at the iTunes Store, a Christmas gift from my brother, and used it to purchase the Gateway digital edition of White's 1968 novel, The Spawn of the Death Machine.

Robert Tanner wakes up naked in a tiny metal room.  A computer voice tells him he was created to act as a data-collecting device, and now is the time for him to go gather up that data!  Tanner isn't sure how much of that to believe--he thinks he's a real human being!  A door opens into the sunlight and Tanner is sent out into what the computer calls "the world of Man;" he is to return in one year to have his memories downloaded.

Tanner has been released into New York City, but it is not the NY we know and ♥, it is a ruin grown over with vegetation, and almost completely abandoned!  Tanner wanders around Manhattan for five days, meeting no people, and starts getting a pain in his stomach.  Tanner's memory of his previous life is almost entirely gone, so much so that he has forgotten that he has to eat!  Things start to slowly come back to him, though.  (TRIGGER WARNING: Tanner's first meal is a domestic cat that he eats raw!)

It is when Tanner leaves Manhattan that his troubles truly begin.  (I know what that's like!)  All the bridges are down, so he swims to the Bronx, where he is promptly captured by cannibals!  (These guys haven't yet joined the feline cuisine craze.)

When his captors beat him Tanner gets angry, and goes Lou Ferrigno on them, killing their leader with his bare hands. Tanner, it turns out, is super strong. Accompanied by Rifka, a teenage girl whose life up to now has been characterized by rape and incest, Tanner marches on, leaving the cannibals and New York behind.  

As Tanner and Rifka cross the post apocalyptic landscape westward to California, battling rapists, dogs, and bears and making friends with various people and animals, Tanner's true identity, and his relationship to the computer that once ruled civilization, and then centuries ago destroyed it, gradually become clear.

In the first half of the book I suspected that White was trying to disgust the reader; besides all the explicit violence there are numerous references to vomit, defecation, semen, saliva, parasites, scabs, blood, etc.  We hear a lot about bad smells.  This eases up in the second half of the novel, and I now wonder if White meant this as a satire of traditional adventure fiction, in which close quarters combat, torture, the life of the "noble savage," and being shipwrecked or otherwise lost in the wilderness are romanticized, sanitized, and/or sensationalized. (As I say this I have Norman Spinrad's 1967 novel Men in the Jungle in mind.)  

Some of the towns Tanner and Rifka encounter are certainly vehicles for satire.  One has a culture based on the tiny collection of books that survived the apocalypse, most prominent among them Henry Miller's Sexus and a bound collection of Playboy magazines.  Another town, cut off from the rest of the world under a geodesic dome, is run stringently on eugenicist lines by a cadre of scientists who maintain a society of exactly 500 men and 500 women, and breed them for intelligence and other desirable genetic attributes.  The twist is that the scientists are "Negroes" and one's social status is largely determined by how dark one's skin is, the darker the better.  (The dome society's ruler is called "Mr. Black.")

Our travelers' journey ends in California, where, among the redwoods, lives a community of telepathic (more "empathic," I guess) nudist Indians who are in tune with each other and with nature.  White, who includes more than one obese villain in the book, makes sure to tell us that not one of these people is fat!  Tanner and Rifka are welcomed into this paradise, but Tanner cannot truly enter this Promised Land-- the empathic waves can't penetrate his stainless steel skull!

In the epilogue Tanner returns to New York to tell the computer that humankind will be better off without high technology, at least for a while.

I found The Spawn of the Death Machine entertaining, though I am not sure how widely I can recommend it.  In part I enjoyed it the way you might enjoy an exploitation B movie; the description of a cannibal rapist that includes the phrase "his genitals covered with the glistening slime of a rutting animal" makes me laugh, but maybe some would find such prose repellent.  The satire can be wacky (and what kind of book tries to tell you life in California is better than New York life?) but the satirical parts are not long-winded or hectoring, and, for me, the wackiness is part of the charm.  So I'm giving Spawn of the Death Machine a thumbs up, though with the caveat that it may take a particular kind of reader to appreciate it.

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