Monday, February 8, 2016

Kelwin by Neal Barrett, Jr.

"Archaics is a thing most dear to me, as you no doubt know, even though there's little enough time for such things in these troubled days."

I bought Neal Barrett Jr.'s 1970 novel Kelwin because I found the oddly-colored but sanguine and sexalicious Steranko cover, with its muscular hero dressed in skull-adorned underpants and its curvaceous heroine clad in chains, attractive.  Such a cover promises excitement!

Presenting the Steranko 2970 Spring Collection!
Kelwin takes place in one of those post-nuclear-war futures in which society has been reduced to feudalism.  While strongmen who fancy themselves lords rule small baronies and compete with each other with their armies of archers, the smart set searches through ruins, hunting for such treasures as hubcaps and telephone booths, even though they don't even know what these thousand-year old "pre-Disaster" objects are.  One such smartypants is Kelwin the Broon, a merchant who deals in these artifacts, which people call "archaics."  The local strongman, Jerry the Bannister, comes to Kelwin's shop as the novel opens and recruits Kelwin for an important mission.  It seems his beautiful daughter Dardarene is being held prisoner by another strongman, Cher Charlie, in a castle.  Charlie is a collector of archaics, and Jerry wants Kelwin to go visit Charlie, bringing along a telephone booth to sell to him.  While there Kelwin is to liberate Dardarene.  As a reward Jerry will tell Kelwin the location of a cave full of 20th-century books.

Kelwin and his apprentice Base (and the telephone booth) join a mule caravan and cross the desert that covers what, a thousand years ago, was fertile North America. Along the way they meet a duplicitous Chinese and a taciturn Indian (feather not dot, as the comedians say), while caravan members who seemed sinister turn out to be friendly and apparent allies turn out to be doublecrossers.  Base gets kidnapped and spends almost the entire novel separated from his master, who makes it to Charlie's fortification, which turns out to be one of the few surviving skyscrapers, currently half buried in the sand.

Sternako's cover led me to expect a sword and sorcery adventure, but Kelwin is full of elements I associate with detective or mystery thrillers: dying men who with their last breaths offer obscure clues, lots of characters with mysterious motives who could be on one side or the other (e. g., Dardarene won't come out and say whether or not she is really a prisoner in Charlie's tower), tiny sheets of paper with encoded messages, secret passages, etc.  While Kelwin plays detective in the tower, Base is playing cowboy in the wilderness; Base's portion of the novel reminded me of a Western--there are Indians, as well as plenty of whites who live among Indians or live like Indians, and lots of scenes of people on horseback and muleback pursuing each other and camping in gullies and valleys.  This whole Base plot thread seemed like a waste of time; it was totally unconnected to the Kelwin-in-the-tower plot, and Base never does anything himself, he just endures a repetitive cycle of being captured, tortured, then rescued by a variety of woodsmen, Indians, slavers, Chinese conspirators, and female archers.

Barrett tries to build tension by having every character talk about how war clouds are on the horizon because guys from lord X's province are raiding territory in lord Y and Z's domains and this will threaten trade along Lord A's road blah blah blah.  Sneaking around the dark chambers of Charlie's tower, candle in hand, Kelwin discovers that these raids which threaten the uneasy peace of the postapocalyptic future are a false flag operation of Charlie's.  Charlie has discovered the power of electricity in the preserved subterranean rooms of his skyscraper and is trying to set off a war he thinks he can easily win by using electrical weaponry!  But is Charlie's electric artillery real, or is he being manipulated by those sneaky Chinamen and the various interchangeable offscreen lords?

Recently, I read aloud some poems from the 1981 Penguin edition of the Greek Anthology.  My audience found some of the poems--misogynist verses (to be specific, some by Palladas: 9.167, 11.287, and 11.381) and epigrams about adult men seducing boys (like Automedon's 12.34 and Glaukos's 12.44)--to be offensive.  Obviously the ancient Greeks had attitudes and mores different from those of 21st century Americans.  But isn't that one reason we read poems written over a thousand years ago, over a thousand miles away--to gain some kind of insight into the lives and ideas of people from what amounts to another world?

I bring up now-politically incorrect ancient Greek poetry because, as with ancient literature, one reason I read SF is to be exposed to different ideas and different worlds, something which I think some of the best SF does.  But presenting new ideas or creating an alien world is something Barrett does not seriously try to do in Kelwin. One scene in particular, in which Charlie leads his household on a dangerous hunt of some giant mutant venomous dogs, brought this home to me.  (In fiction, aristocratic types are always leading everybody on a hunt that somehow turns tragic.)  The version of this timeworn device in Kelwin doesn't serve the plot other than to provide Kelwin, and the other characters whom we are supposed to like, an opportunity to complain that hunting for sport is wrong--presumably this scene is Barrett's lazy way of telling us that Charlie is a jerk and Kelwin is the good guy, something which we know already.  How can it be a good idea to express boring and conventional 20th-century attitudes about hunting in a book set in the 30th century?  If you are setting your book in the 30th century, shouldn't you try to present new, wacky, surprising ideas, not the kinds of ideas your readers will have heard expressed a dozen times already in their actual boring 20th- century lives?

Obviously my criticism that this book puts banal 20th-century opinions on center stage could be applied to many SF novels, including ones I've enjoyed, but in a book this boring yet another lazy and pointless scene had the ability to get under my skin. And Kelwin is boring.  The action scenes are weak and the jokes anemic.  The novel is very long, over 200 pages, and there are lots of characters, scenes and plot twists which are absolutely superfluous.  The characters have no personality or motivation, and the story conveys no human feeling; Barrett fails to convincingly depict a single character experiencing love or fear or lust or greed or anything like that, and the characters have no relationships with each other.  Kelwin doesn't seem to spend a moment worrying what has happened to Base after his apprentice disappears, for example.  As for the impending war, who cares if these lifeless people and their nondescript countries go up in smoke?  Finally, there is no real climax--Kelwin and Base don't even save the day.  After our title character and his apprentice are rescued by minor characters, Charlie dies in an accident offscreen and Dardarene simply leaves the area because she is in love with some peripheral character who never appeared in the flesh--neither the sexual relationship I expected Kelwin to have with Dardarene nor the showdown I expected him to have with Charlie ever materialized.

Promises, we are told, are made to be broken.  Sternako's cover for Kelwin entices with a thrilling vision of an alien world of adventure, but Barrett's text is a bore full of limp raw material which we have seen too many times before.  No wonder the isfdb doesn't list any printings of the book beyond this first one!  Kelwin appears to have been Barrett's first published novel, so it seems possible his later work would show improvement, but I have to pass a harsh negative verdict on this book and report that I will not be seeking out any further fiction by Barrett.

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