Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Diamond Contessa by Kenneth Bulmer

He had answered three previous ads asking for adventurous young men, to find they were needed to sell brushes and cosmetics door to door.  That might be adventurous, right enough--and damned difficult--but the kind of adventure he meant involved shooting machine guns at tendriled monsters.
It is true that I have had a mixed experience with Ken Bulmer's work.  I thought Behold the Stars presented an interesting conception of space travel and decent action scenes, but I thought Cycle of Nemesis was lame.  But when I saw Ken Kelly's cover for DAW 542, The Diamond Contessa, I knew it was time to give Bulmer another chance.  While I wish Kelly had done a better job of finishing up the chained man's face, I love the composition of this picture; it is the perfect mix of sex, monsters and alien cities to thrill the component of my brain which is still 13 years old.  Besides, I am told that, like David Hasselhoff, Bulmer is a big deal in Germany.

The Diamond Contessa was printed in 1983; for the record, my copy's pages were printed in Canada for the New American Library.  It has not been printed since, which is why this post is going to be "picture-lite," though you can get an electronic text from the people at The SF Gateway.  The Diamond Contessa is the final book in an eight book series (the first seven books appeared from 1961 to 1972 as components of Ace Doubles), something I didn't realize until some time after I had purchased it.  This week I decided to read it anyway, which may have been a mistake.

The novel starts out like a somewhat childish wish fulfillment fantasy.  Harry Blakey is the son of neglectful drunken parents, but he learns he has been born with special powers: he can see and travel through the portals (Harry calls them "casements") between the dimensions that litter the landscape but which most of us never notice. One such portal lies in his parents' cellar, and leads to a sort of refuge or safe room in a world dominated by war robots.  Here Harry meets a surrogate father, Uncle Jim, who teaches Harry about the casements and his "trajector" powers, and even implants in Harry's skull a tiny device that will allow him to understand the various languages spoken in the many different "parallels."  Because the other dimensions are full of killer robots and monsters, Jim puts an "interdict" on little Harry that will dampen his abilities until he is an adult.  As the novel proper begins, Harry is returning to his childhood home, a British Army combat veteran.  His parents have died, and Harry immediately goes to the cellar, finds his powers coming back, and begins traveling from one dimension to another, having thrilling adventures.

If you read adventure novels you won't be surprised to learn that Harry gets captured on page 18 (by a fat woman with some kind of stun pistol) and escapes on page 20, only to get captured again on page 32 (by slavers who employ tentacled monsters) but escape on page 37.

Besides getting captured and escaping, Harry's adventures involve making friends and picking up girls with ease (everyone is just wild about Harry) and battling various monsters.  Bulmer seems to love devising wacky monsters.  In the middle of a battle Harry learns that there is a sort of army devoted to rescuing people from the all-too-common scourge of cross dimensional slavery, an army apparently based on Earth (the soldiers speaka da English and drive Panhard armored cars.)  One of his girlfriends gives him a map to frequently-used casements, and he makes his way back to Earth to join this army (he answers their ad in a New York newspaper.)

Eighty pages into the 175-page book we get our first inkling of a reference to the Diamond Contessa when Harry and some of his comrades in arms are captured and taken to be slaves in the town she rules, the City of Diamonds, where the streets teem with luxuriously dressed fops and ladies of fashion known as Valcini, hideous monster guards of various types, and pathetic slaves.  One of the themes of the novel is a contempt for the bourgeoisie and aristocracy, a sympathy for slaves and workers, and an admiration for barbarians and fighting men.  "The male Valcini wore disgusting two-tone shoes, sharp-pointed, decorated, cream and brown, black and white--ghastly."  I read this sentence once, then read it again, and then realized why it had struck a chord with your humble blogger: "Hey!  I wear two-toned shoes!"

Bulmer actually spends a lot of time describing people's attire, and people clad in fancy clothes and jewels are generally villains.  Bulmer also seems to have it in for fat people.  

If the child-with-abusive-parents-has-magic-powers elements reminded me of a child's wish fulfillment fantasy, the scenes of robbing a factory and mugging a Valcini seem to appeal to class envy.  I toyed with the idea of considering The Diamond Contessa an anti-authority/pro-individualism text, but Harry is actually quite eager to be a part of a collective and sacrifice himself for the group, as long as the group has a leader who displays martial prowess.  Probably we should think of the novel as a series of examples of just and unjust authority, and a condemnation of those who accept unjust authority.  Another theme is Harry's growing maturity; at first he thinks of trajecting from one dimension to another as a kind of holiday, but as he grows into his powers he begins to realize how much he has yet to learn, to take responsibility for others, and consider the moral implications of his actions.

After an escape attempt Harry is recaptured, and his powers are put to use serving the Contessa's business interests.  He then is made the personal servant of a female big game hunter, haughty and beautiful.  During a safari she takes Harry aside into the bush to satisfy her carnal lusts, giving him a chance to escape and hook up with the liberation army again.  (Don't worry, he satisfies her before sneaking off.)

In the final quarter of the novel the army attacks the City of Diamonds and, would you believe it, Harry gets captured again.  But don't worry, he escapes a few pages later. A friend makes him a map to the parallel where resides that girlfriend who gave him that first map.  Harry gets to her, borrows a suit of powered battle armor, and gets back to the City of Diamonds in time to turn the tide of the battle--the armor gives him enough firepower to wipe out entire squadrons of tanks and entire battalions of infantry, singlehanded.  When he finally catches up to the Diamond Contessa, instead of killing her, like everybody else in town wants to, he sends her into exile in a lonely icy parallel.

The Diamond Contessa is a crazy book that feels like it was written in a rush, with little or no revision or polishing.  The plot is a little sloppy.  There are lots and lots of characters, but most of them only get a few pages of attention before Harry flits off to some other parallel and leaves them behind.  The most interesting characters in the book are the Diamond Contessa herself and her chief assistant, who knew Uncle Jim, and betrays the Contessa and saves Harry's life during that final battle, but they are only "on screen" for about 20 pages.  Similarly, Harry visits scores of alien worlds, but we learn very little about most of them; many of them are treated like subway stations, with Harry just passing through them for a few moments en route to someplace else.  I wondered if Bulmer expected to write a sequel in which the Contessa and her various relationships were fleshed out, and a little research online after finishing the book suggests that the earlier seven books in the series include, in greater depth, characters and parallels mentioned only briefly here.  Maybe I would have appreciated the book more if I had read those earlier volumes.

Bulmer's writing feels clumsy.  There are odd metaphors, like these two from page 21, when Harry is clinging to a log, being carried downstream by a raging river:
He just had time to think that this was a damned fine parallel he'd jumped into before the first of the rocks went by like crazed whales pursued by sharks.
The runnels of spuming foam like veins of fat in meat sluiced the log between the rocks.
These metaphors do more to distract the reader than clarify a situation, paint an arresting image or inspire some kind of feeling.

Bulmer also uses words I've never encountered before.  Harry befriends some mercenary soldiers who "pubick" their slain foes; Bulmer compares this to the scalping done by Native Americans here on Earth.  At first I thought these creepos were castrating their enemies, but it becomes clear that what they are cutting off and sticking onto the spikes of their helmets is just the pubic hair and attached skin. (These mercenaries have a marching song in which they sing about "pubicking" people, and Bulmer favors us with four verses.)  The leader of these pubic hair collectors has a "shushy gravelly voice."  I thought maybe "shushy" meant raspy or breathy, like when you shush a person in a theatre or library, but a little googling suggests "shushy" is British slang denoting a campy, extravagant style.  I guess it makes sense to adopt a campy style when you are walking around with other people's pubic hair stuck on your helmet.

"Fleering" shows up as an adjective to describe flags or hair blowing in the wind.  Bulmer also employs "snout" as a verb:
If you trajected yourself into a highly civilized city and appeared brandishing a sword or snouting a rifle, you'd be run in and locked up muy pronto. the fighting tops of this phantasmagoric barge the muzzles of machine guns and machine cannon snouted.
I guess Bulmer has his own idiosyncratic lexicon.

The Diamond Contessa is a difficult borderline case; can I say I liked it?  Can I recommend it?  Obviously a million things are wrong with it, but I was more bemused and bewildered by its deficiencies and eccentricities than irritated.  Though the book was often disappointing, presenting characters and settings and then swiftly abandoning them, I was never bored.  I guess I'll have to say it is a curiosity that fans of planetary romance/sword and planet stories may find interesting, if not truly engaging.  

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