Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Serpent Catch by Dave Wolverton

"Tull, I know you believe that we will sell ourselves to the humans, and this bothers you.  But my father is a Spirit Walker.  Someday, he says, we shall be their teachers.  We shall overthrow the Slave Lords."

After graduating from Rutgers University, and before moving to New York, I spent nearly three years working at a bookstore in Northern New Jersey for minimum wage. During this period of my life I read mostly books I thought would prepare me for the study of 18th century British history, but I did read some science fiction novels I borrowed from local libraries.  The SF book that most impressed me during this time was Dave Wolverton's On My Way to Paradise.  I then read Wolverton's Serpent Catch and its sequel Path of the Hero.  Since moving to the Mid West I have purchased all three at used bookstores.  I can still recall quite a bit about On My Way to Paradise, so a few days ago I decided to reread Serpent Catch, curious because I could remember very little about it.

Googling around a little indicates that last year Wolverton released revised or reworked versions of Serpent Catch and Path of the Hero, but I am reading the Bantam Spectra paperbacks from the early 1990s.  Serpent Catch was published in 1991, and has a fun map and illustrations by Derek Hegstead, including silhouettes on the first page of each chapter.

Serpent Catch is set in the distant future on Anee, a moon 2,000 light years from Earth.  Over a thousand years before the novel starts, Earth scientists employed genetic engineering to recreate dinosaurs, mastodons, Neanderthals, and other prehistoric creatures, and populated Anee with them.  When hostile aliens destroyed all the Earth's space craft, humans had to hide on the surface of Anee and interact with their creations. Some humans allied with the Neanderthals, but others enslaved them and built a world-spanning slave empire.

Slavery is a major theme of the novel

Anee, full of prehistoric beasts, primitive tribes, genetically engineered monsters, and almost-forgotten technological cities and artifacts, is a brilliant setting for an adventure story.  And Serpent Catch does follow the format of a traditional adventure story, in which the world is going through major changes (for the worse), and a misfit who has some sort of special skill or attribute turns out to be the chosen one who must go on a quest to counteract these changes and save his society.  The human and Neanderthal town of Smilodon Bay is in trouble, because the sea serpents, who were designed by the scientists centuries ago to keep the rapacious Mesozoic animals from swimming from their continent to the Cenozoic continent where Smilodon Bay resides, are dying out.  If plesiosaurs and dinosaurs can swim to Smilodon Bay they will ruin the local ecosphere and hence the fishing-based economy, and leave the town vulnerable to the slavers who control most of the continent.  Our hero is Tull, who is half human and half Neanderthal and has had a difficult home life, and long been regarded by the people of the town as "a man without a people."  A Neanderthal mystic (a "Spirit Walker") declares that only Tull can travel into the evil land of the slavers to capture baby sea serpents to bring back to Smilodon Bay, so off Tull goes with a motley assortment of human, Neanderthal, and superhuman friends.

Superhuman?  Yes; a small number of humans on the moon still have artificial genetic traits possessed by the spacefaring Earthlings who originally terraformed Anee.  One minor human character, a merchant, can do complex math in his head instantly; this skill allows him to predict the changes in Anee's apparently erratic tides so that his ships can cross the seas more safely and swiftly than his rivals.  A major human character has blue skin, is almost seven feet tall, and has lived for centuries, thanks to his access to advanced technologies.  He has traveled the moon for ages, trying to enforce laws against importing dinosaurs to the Cenozoic continent and against slavery, and to prepare the people of Anee for an eventual return to space.

Blue man says pet stegosaurus is a no-no

In a lot of SF books the author will express his displeasure with humanity by contrasting humans with some nonhuman race, aliens or elves or whoever.  There is also a literary tradition of using "noble savages," American Indians for example, as foils for Europeans/whites/Westerners, in an effort to show how selfish, greedy, and indifferent to the environment "modern" people are.  In Serpent Catch, the Neanderthals (who call themselves "the Pwi") play this role.  While humans are ambitious and aggressive, individualistic and cruel, the Neanderthals are always smiling, always expressing affection for each other, live as one with the environment and for their families and communities. Here's a sample from page 46 of this 411 page novel:
Years ago, he'd realized that humans always seem to tell stories of conquest, of men who bulldog mammoths into the ground and slaughter each other in battle, but the Pwi always seemed to tell stories about reconciliation.  

There is quite a bit of sex in Serpent Catch, and we learn that the Pwi are monogamous and marry for life; Neanderthal widows and widowers generally die of grief soon after the demise of their spouses.  The humans in the book are all adulterers who crave rough sex (the Pwi like tender sex.) The Neanderthal families are all models of amity and devotion, while the human families are dysfunctional, either indifferent or brutal.

I often find this sort of thing hard to take, but Wolverton doesn't push it too far; Serpent Catch isn't a propaganda piece or a broad satire, but an epic quest story with three-dimensional characters.  The Neanderthal and human characters all feel real and the focus is on the adventure elements and on Tull's growth as a person, how he learns about his world and himself, and his place in that world.  By the end of the novel Tull is fully integrated into Pwi society, with a loving Pwi wife (though on his journey he had a variety of erotic encounters with females human and non-human) and Smilodon Bay has a new batch of sea serpents.  However, Tull and the blue man have also learned of even more catastrophic threats to the free people of Anee, setting the stage for the sequel.  

Serpent Catch is stuffed full of weird settings, strange creatures and dramatic incidents of sex, violence, and horror.  (Maybe it could count as "grim dark;" people are getting raped, murdered, and tortured all over the place.)  But there is also a lot about hope and love and wisdom of the folksy pro-community variety (the blue man says, "I have always believed that true morality can only arise when we recognize our mutual dependence on one another...," and a venerable Pwi crone tells everyone "Sometimes a pain is so great it cannot be relieved until it is shared.")  Wolverton's many individuals, tribes and ethnicities all have distinct and believable personalities and motivations.  The plot sustained my interest for the entire course of the novel; I was always curious about what was going to happen next, and I actually cared whether or not characters achieved their goals and lived happily ever after (or, like many people in the book, were frustrated, killed by enemies or eaten by monsters.)  Serpent Catch is a superior adventure story, with much of the flavor of a fantasy quest (people fight with swords and arrows and there is plenty of mumbo jumbo including prophecies), but the elements of a science fiction adventure (there are menacing space aliens, genetically engineered monsters, high tech gadgets and lots of biology and ecology) as well as some musings about crime and justice, freedom and responsibility, and family and community.

Strongly recommended to fans of epic adventure tales.  This week I'll read Path of the Hero; I'm hoping to enjoy it as much as I did Serpent Catch.


What's that?  You are wondering what other books Bantam Spectra offered to the SF-reading public in early 1991?  I'm glad you asked, for that information is right at my fingertips!

I haven't actually read any of the books advertised on the last two pages of Serpent Catch.  I've read one book each by Timothy Zahn (I think Angelmass) and David Brin (Sundiver) and just thought them OK.  As a teen I loved Weis and Hickman's first six Dragonlance books, starring depressed wizard Raistlin, who for a year or two was my personal hero and role model.  I have fond memories of reading the first Rama book in junior high, but have not read any of the sequels.  


  1. My first Brin book was Startide Rising set later in the same universe as Sundiver, and I found it excellent. I recently went back and read Sundiver and like you, found it OK.

    I have read two of the books on the page:

    Nightfall by Asimov and Silverberg, I found poor. The original novella upon which it is based was brilliant for its exploration of an idea and OK in its writing. This novelization pads the original with melodrama and a particularly Heinleinian approach to politics and government. Not recommended.

    Garden of Rama deeply upset me. I loved Rendezvous With Rama, seeing it as an exemplar of how much SF can inspire a sense of wonder. This sequel and the remaining sequels take that sense of wonder and possibility and use it as a backdrop and setting for hackneyed soap opera writing and completely predictable clichéd character development. Arrrgh. At his best, I Loved Clarke's writing. At this level, I felt betrayed.

    Thank you, I will try to find a copy of Serpent Catch. I desperately need to read some more contemporary SF, and 1991 is much more recent than most of what I read.

    1. I should give Startide Rising a try, but it won't be soon. I bought so many SF books and magazines last year that I haven't yet read that I have made a pledge to myself to not buy anything more until I have made a dent in the pile.

      I hope you like Serpent Catch. And thanks for your illuminating comments!

  2. Replies
    1. Hard to go wrong with mammoths, pterosaurs and plesiosaurs!