Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Crack in the Sky by Richard A. Lupoff

Only the windborne sand and aerial particles hurled into the sky by a century of industrial felons moved, and overhead no bird glided in search of hunter's prey or carrion.

Back at Christmas time I read Richard Lupoff's Sandworld.  My blog post about Sandworld hardly qualifies as a rave, but the novel wasn't so foul that it kept me from purchasing a copy of 1976's The Crack in the Sky when I spotted it on the shelves at the Omaha Half-Price Books.  The weak cover illustration apparently depicts a (symbolic?) giant bird piercing a sphere used for storing red paint.  I have to admit that for a few hours I thought the cover showed some kind of evil faucet, perhaps a representation of the easy access to narcotics hinted at in the advertising text.  When our friends in Britain and Italy printed The Crack in the Sky under variant titles they saw fit to provide it more literal cover illos.  

The Crack in the Sky is kind of like a poorly written response or pastiche of Thomas Disch's very fine 334, a fix-up from 1972: we follow several characters over interweaving plot threads and learn about a dystopian future world which is largely an extrapolation of trends that worried people during the late 1960s and early 1970s.

It is the year 2000, and the environment has been destroyed; almost all the vegetation in the world is gone, the air is full of poison and grit, the oceans are black, and all animals bigger than an insect are extinct.  The surviving human population lives under huge domes--the dome in Northern California, where most of the novel takes place, houses thirty million people and stretches for over a hundred miles, covering Bodega Bay, Mount Oso and Santa Rosa.  (This is one of those books which rewards a familiarity with California geography.  Whenever I read one of these I wish it was set in New York, where I know where everything is without resorting to a map.  334 is set in New York, of course.)

There is very little work, and the government, which controls just about everything, provides food (algae) and housing, so people have sex and use drugs and watch prolefeed TV all day.

While Lupoff addresses many issues in The Crack in the Sky, from racism and politics to religion and literature, and the novel's main bugaboo is pollution, overpopulation comes a close second. The domes are crowded.  When the domes were first built one-family homes were seized by the government and split up into tiny apartments and public schools and similar large buildings were turned into dormitories.  Twenty years later masses of people are still living on the streets.  To control the population level, the water is laced with contraceptives and very few people (one hundred people a year in the U.S., chosen specially by the master computer) are permitted to have children. When the characters aren't having banal political discussions (e. g., one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter) or engaging in tired cultural criticism (e.g., discussion of gender stereotypes and "the old, old story of gaining personal esteem by contrast with the degraded") they are imparting history lectures about how the British are to blame for overpopulation because they brought modern medicine and sanitation to places like India, or how only crazy religious fanatics and people obsessed with individual freedom could oppose mandatory birth control.  I found it hard to tell how much of this stuff Lupoff endorses, and how much was him satirizing such views.

Lupoff pads out the novel (to 200 pages!) with multitudinous references to his literary interests.  He manages to shoehorn lots of material about Edgar Rice Burroughs into the book, as well as references to George Orwell's 1984 and talk about underground comics like Yellow Dog and comics creators like R. Crumb, Greg Irons, S. Clay Wilson, and George Metzger.

The plots and characters of The Crack in the Sky are not very interesting:
  • Marco Hyndal, a Chicano, after robbing a taco stand (the vendor is dismissed as a pimply-faced "petit bourgeois") is invited into the high ranks of a rising religious order that hopes to take control of the dome and repair society.  
  • Jomo Silver, a black comic-book fan, leaves his group marriage (to Gonzalez, Min-yi and Jacobson) over an argument about racism and hooks up with other African-American comix aficionados and helps them put out samizdat documents for Marco's religious order.
  • Oliver Gonzalez, a Chicano police lieutenant, pulls strings and saves Silver from being sent outside the dome (a death sentence) when Silver gets attacked by crooks--just like when I was attacked by bullies in junior high, the authorities make it their practice to punish all participants in a fight, including the victim!  
  • Min-yi, an Asian woman, is a former social worker who is skilled at meditation, massage and lesbian sex.
  • Janet Jacobson, a beautiful Jewish genius, works as an actress on the Edgar Rice Burroughs Adventure Hour and as a computer programmer. She is on the team that decodes messages from space aliens.
That's right, space aliens!  Transmissions from space that were received decades ago are finally deciphered during the period of the novel.  Perhaps having read Arthur C. Clarke, Kate Wilhelm, or maybe one of a hundred other SF writers who assure us we'd be better off if aliens were telling us what to do, the U.S. government organizes a major operation ("Project Help") to transmit a message to the aliens begging them to fix our environment.  They call in some communist scientists from the USSR and the People's Republic of Japan (!) to help; this gives Lupoff a chance to put into the mouths of the Marxist scientists the contempt for the common people and electoral government we find so often in SF, and for the US eggheads to agree:
[Communist scientist:]"Your mayor appears to be nothing but a buffoon.  But in your system, even a buffoon is allowed to stand for public office.  Tell me, do they ever win?"
[American scientist:]"Do they ever lose?"
Before Project Help can really get underway Marco, Jomo and their religious order buddies attack the science facility and murder most of the scientists; Janet survives and goes abroad to help the commies with the Project.  America becomes divided into two hostile camps, the pro-Project establishment and a powerful insurgent faction that says the Project is a waste of resources that won't work anyway.  When it looks like the anti-Project voters are going to win the presidential election the pro-Project incumbent prez cancels the election and civil war erupts.  The novel ends with a fire destroying the Northern California dome and killing everybody in it.

The Crack in the Sky is not very good. We've all seen domed cities, pollution, overpopulation, group marriages, planned economies, etc. before, and Lupoff doesn't add anything new that I can see to these well-worn widgets and doodads from the SF toolbox.  He doesn't have the kind of engaging and distinctive writing style that a Wolfe or a Lee or a Disch or a Vance has that lets him get away with working with elements we've seen a hundred times already, and he doesn't give us characters or a plot worth following.

The best part of The Crack in the Sky is how it opened my eyes to some underground comics I had never heard of before.  I know Lupoff's fiction has enthusiastic supporters (mostly for two books I haven't read, Space War Blues and Sword of the Demon, apparently) but so far I have found his work as a critic much more valuable than his work as a novelist.

Unless you are some kind of pollution and overpopulation obsessive, I'd suggest avoiding The Crack in the Sky.

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