Thursday, July 30, 2015

West of the Sun by Edgar Pangborn

"You're proposing," Dorothy said, "to take a chance on love?"
Wright was tranquil, watching the meadow.  "Whenever men put their chips on the other thing they always lost, didn't they?"

One of the few of my 386 SF paperbacks that is not currently packed up in a cardboard box is my Dell edition (#9442) of Edgar Pangborn's West of the Sun, a novel that first appeared in 1953.  My copy was printed in 1966; I purchased it at Second Story Books in Washington D.C., a cool place to buy old prints (I got a Kenyon Cox print) and tribal masks (these are outside the MPorcius budget) as well as 50 cent paperbacks of obscure SF novels.

I was afraid to guess what the blue thing was... could it be a plesiosaur fin?  Is that you, Nessie?
The collage on the cover by Hoot von Zitzewitz is pretty insane; from left to right we've got an orangutan with a (I guess) spear that our man Hoot helpfully drew in, some kind of sea anemone, young lovers running on the beach (we all remember that scene with Elke Sommer in 1962's Douce Violence don't we?) a tree (on fire?) and a hand drawing a bow.  Are these images emblematic of what takes place in West of the Sun?  Sounds like readers can look forward to the sex and violence we all crave in our genre literature.  Looking through Hoot's body of work via google, I was a little surprised to see that Dell used the same cover on its British edition of critical darling Judith Merril's ninth Annual of the Year's Best S-F anthology.  Maybe there was hope that the orangutan would join the rocket and the robot as iconic SF images suitable for any SF paperback's cover.

Internet SF gadfly Joachim Boaz told me (via twitter and in a comment on my post about Pangborn's Davy) that West of the Sun was so weak that he couldn't finish it, but I had just read Nicholas Thomas's book on James Cook's voyages so I was all revved up to explore new territory, no matter how forbidding!

Our cast of characters, and
Second Story's 50 cent stamp
The year is 2056.  The Earth is divided into two unhappy camps, a technocratic and technophilic socialist West ("the Federation") and a despotic East ("Jenga's empire.")  Human freedom has taken a hit, but the Federation has made major technological advances, and as the novel opens the multi-ethnic crew of the Federation's first star ship is about to land on Lucifer, a "red-green" planet named for the "son of the morning."  We get a serving of one of the novel's themes (the potential for all people, and all things, to do both good and evil) right there on the third page of text, when the mission's intellectual leader, Doc Wright, tells his comrades, "Lucifer was an angel....Devils and angels have a way of turning out to be the same organism."

Due to a fault in the construction of the star ship (perhaps an indication that the technology-obsessed Federation isn't even good at what it professes to be its primary focus) the six astronauts who lived to see Lucifer are shipwrecked on the red-green planet.  They quickly meet and befriend a member of an over-sized hairy race of territorial individualists; this character is depicted in all his glory, battling a serpentine reptile, on the Italian edition of the novel, and, I suppose, is represented by our man Hoot with that stock image of an orangutan.  Soon after, contact is made with a society of war-like Stone Age (Pangborn uses the word "Neolithic") pygmy villagers. As Harry Harrison would do with the reptile people in his Eden series in the 1980s, Pangborn flips gender roles with these belligerent shorties; among them the females are big and strong and form the ruling and military class, while the small and weak males are sensitive and raise the kids and form a parasitic priestly class.

The second of the book's three sections takes place a year after the arrival of the humans.  Doc Wright and his crew have tried to convince the queen of the pygmies to stop enslaving people and breeding them for the dinner table, but the pygmies are reluctant to change their ways, and, besides, are busy with a war against another, much larger, empire of pygmies.  Much of this second part of the book is taken up with a blow by blow account of the climactic battle of this war between pygmy empires; the humans with their firearms and a cadre of the hairy giants lead the smaller group of pygmies in battle.  The tone of the war chapters is tragic--the human led side is defeated, and we get lots of scenes of minor characters dying, Iliad-style.

The novel's final section takes place ten years after the Earthlings' landing. The handful of humans, giants and pygmies who survived the war have founded a peaceful city on an island. The pygmies have given up cannibalism, slavery, religion, and their antipathy to the giants.  While Doc Wright was building a libertarian utopia, Ed Spearman, the human most closely associated with the socialists back on Earth, struck out on his own to make himself ruler of yet another empire of pygmy villagers.  (One of Doc Wright's catchphrases is "No one is expendable," which reminded me of Ayn Rand's exhortations that every man "is an end in himself, not a means to the ends of others"--Spearman's oft-repeated catchphrase is "you can't make an omelette without breaking some eggs," a cliche associated with Stalinism and warfare.)  When Doc Wright and friends meet Spearman for the first time in years he is a paranoid dictator of a crumbling city.

Minutes after the meeting with Spearman, in one of those coincidences books are filled with, Earth's second star ship lands nearby.  The four members of this ship's crew are individualist small-government types, like Doc, so when everybody is sitting around drinking wine and talking about how Marx and Lenin suck, Spearman steals the new ship and flies off.  The last dozen pages of the novel are a transcription of a conversation in which Doc and his buddies describe the philosophy and practice of the utopia they have built on Lucifer.
When I talked about Davy, Pangborn's celebrated 1964 novel, I suggested it had a lot in common with the works of big name SF writers Robert Heinlein and Theodore Sturgeon, and the same can be said for West of the Sun.  Like in so many Heinlein stories we get a strong dose of individualism (the likable Earth characters are dismissive of socialism, democracy, collectivism, and the state in general) as well as a discussions of the nature of freedom.  As in both Heinlein's and Sturgeon's work there is a hostility to religion, conspicuous anti-racism, and a stress on the importance of love (e. g., Doc Wright preaches to the natives that "we are all one flesh").

We even get scenes of nudism, another Heinlein/Sturgeon interest, one of those relationships in which an adult man marries a woman he knew as a prepubescent girl (like in Heinlein's Time for the Stars and Door into Summer), and group marriages.  The character of Dorothy, a young black woman, embodies much of the novel's ideology.  She was assigned to the mission as a little girl, straight from the government orphanage (it took eleven years to get to Lucifer.)  (I don't know why the government would use up any of the seven crew slots on its first interstellar mission on somebody with no college degree and no work experience, but there it is.)  Once on Lucifer she takes the lead in diplomatic relations with the pygmies, stripping off her top to demonstrate she has no weapons, and so the leaders of the matriarchal natives (who have four boobs) will be able to tell she is a fellow woman (though two boobs short.)  Dorothy married Paul Mason during the space trip, but when Wright looks to him to see if he approves of sending his wife on this perilous diplomatic mission, Dorothy strikes a blow for individualism and feminism, insisting that whether she will take this risk is her decision to make.  Later in the novel Dorothy bears not only Paul's children but another man's.

I mentioned above that I just read 400 pages about Captain Cook's three voyages to the Pacific in the 1760s and 1770s, and things in West of the Sun kept reminding me of stuff that happened to Cook and his compatriots.  The pygmies, for example, share attributes with some of the various Pacific and South American people Cook encountered: they practice cannibalism, wear tattoos and a smelly oil, worship giant idols, and their culture is characterized by tension between a priestly class and a warrior class.  Maybe Pangborn was influenced by accounts of Cook's explorations?

Click and squint to read Kim Stanley
Robinson's fulsome praise of Pangborn
West of the Sun also brought to mind Virgil and Horace.  Like those Latin poets and their readers, the human characters in the novel are preoccupied with memories of a recent civil war back on Earth.  Like the Trojans in the Aeneid, the humans and the pygmies in the novel flee trouble at home to found a new and better civilization.

I found West of the Sun interesting because of all these connections I was able to detect (or concoct) to other books I've read, and I am sympathetic to its ideology, but is it entertaining?  When it comes to style and pacing, it is just pedestrian, and the characters are not particularly well drawn or memorable. One of my issues with the novel is that there are very many characters, too many to really keep track of: eleven humans, ten or so pygmies, a bunch of giants, and a bunch of riding animals that are given precious names like "Miss Ponsonby" and "Susie."  (My apologies to all the Ponsonbies and Susies in the audience--your name is just too adorable!)  Another of my gripes is how the most interesting human characters, Dorothy and Spearman, disappear from the narrative for long stretches.  Paul is the main character for long periods, and he is just not compelling.

In the end, I have to give West of the Sun my overused "acceptable" rating.  Not bad, but not thrilling or special.  I can't decide whether I like it more or less than Davy... Davy has a better style and is more ambitious, but I think West of the Sun is better structured and more even.


My copy of West of the Sun has five pages of ads in the back.  None are for SF books, though some are for books that would perhaps be of interest to the SF community, like Arthur C. Clarke's novel about World War II flight technology, a pile of anthologies with Alfred Hitchcock's name on them, and the source material for one of the iconic manly man's films.

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