Monday, May 23, 2016

Patterns of Chaos by Colin Kapp

"Press that button, Jaycee, you vindictive bitch.  If you dare.  I'd be interested to know what it does--to both of us."
Prepared as he was, the pulse of pain that hit him was far greater than he had imagined possible.

Back in early April I bought the 1973 Award Books printing of Patterns of Chaos in Zanesville, Ohio.  (The novel was first published across three issues of Worlds of If in 1972.)  The owner of the used bookstore where I purchased it asked me if I was a fan of author Colin Kapp.  When I admitted to not being familiar with his work, he told me that Kapp was "like Robert Heinlein or E. E. Smith."

"Well, good," I replied, "that's what I like."  Whether the gentleman was suggesting that Kapp had something specifically in common with Heinlein and Smith, or those two worthies were just the first SF writers that came to his mind, I couldn't tell, but I still took this as a propitious sign.  Another such sign was the gushing blurb from Galaxy on the cover--I tend to think of Galaxy as a relatively literary and snooty SF periodical, in contrast to, say, the science-heavy Astounding and the escapist pulps like Amazing and Planet Stories.  If the pretentious snobs at Galaxy liked it, how bad could it be?

(If I was the cynical type I would think it significant that in 1972 Galaxy and If were both published by UPD and even had the same editor, Eljer Jakobsson.)

The protagonist of Patterns of Chaos is Bron.  As the story opens, Bron wakes up from a coma and finds himself in the middle of an evacuated city being blasted to rubble by the energy weapons of hostile space warships.  Even worse, Bron has lost his memory and has no idea who he is, where he is, or what he is doing!

Luckily, voices in Bron's head fill him in!  Centuries ago humanity spread across the Milky Way and colonized many systems, but these colonies have formed disparate cultures which don't get along.  Currently a terrible interstellar war is underway; the aggressors in the war are "the Destroyers," a space empire which has already laid waste to three dozen inhabited planets.  Bron, Bron learns, is a Terran commando on a mission to infiltrate a Destroyer ship and find out where the Destroyer home world is so it can be attacked by the Terran space navy.  The voices in Bron's head are his controllers back at HQ on Terra, on the other side of the galaxy.  They explain that Bron is disguised as Ander Haltern, a highly respected cleric of this Christian planet, Onaris, which is being conquered by the Destroyers at this very moment--the REMFs on the safe end of Bron's brainphone are sure that the Destroyers will capture Bron and bring him home, revealing to Bron's superiors the location of their base.

Sure enough, Bron is seized and carried off Onaris in a Destroyer ship.  Hours later Onaris is wiped out by huge missiles which streak by the Destroyer task force.  The Terrans believe that the missiles were launched by the Destroyers, but the Destroyers present evidence to Bron that somebody else, a malignant alien force from the galaxy of Andromeda, blew up Onaris, as well as all those other planets!

Patterns of Chaos is one of those novels that is full of conspiracies and mysteries, in which you are never sure what is really going on.  As the story progresses Kapp forces the characters and us readers to reassess our beliefs about the motives and objectives of each individual character and each of the three polities involved in this intergalactic crisis.  Patterns of Chaos is also a novel which dispenses with any commitment to ideas of good and evil, of justice and injustice.  Kapp populates his book with unsympathetic characters who act amorally at best and often with radical selfishness and perverse malice, and never condemns their behavior explicitly or implicitly.

The two most prominent of Bron's controllers are representative.  A male controller, Ananias, is suspected of being some kind of spy, saboteur, or coup-plotting conspirator, while a female controller, Jaycee, is some kind of sadist (she's not the only sadist in the book.)  The dialogue between Ananias and Jaycee and between Bron and Jaycee bristles with disturbingly abusive sexual tension--Ananias and Bron repeatedly call Jaycee a bitch, and she often threatens, and sometimes commits, physical violence against them.  Bron is always trying to rebel against his controllers and in response Ananias and Jaycee warn him they control mechanisms which can inflict punishing pain on Bron or simply kill him.  At one point Ananias tries to push the "murder button" and Jaycee grabs him and breaks both his thumbs!  (Maybe being a REMF is not as cushy as we thought!)

Significantly, Ananias and Jaycee succeed in their ultimate aims--these creepos live happily ever after!

In the final portions of the book we (and Bron) learn that Bron is some kind of superman, a "chaos catalyst" who can alter the course of history.  Before losing his memory, he worked with Ananias to exaggerate the Destroyer threat so that the Terran government would spend a pile of money expanding its space navy.  Then they manipulated events and worked behind the scenes in concert with the Destroyers to make sure the Terran and Destroyer fleets would meet--not to fight each other, but to unite under Brom's command to fight off the invading armada of those Andromedans. After defeating the alien fleet Bron leads the first human expedition outside the Milky Way; on the Andromedans' homeworld he finds their civilization has decayed but left behind technology which will allow him to unite the human race and launch mankind's conquest of the entire universe!

Patterns of Chaos is fast-paced and jam-packed with SF elements of the mind-blowing surrealist kind.  The novel's version of hyperspace is very trippy--each human ship bears within itself a "subspace cavity" which includes a 3D "map" of the galaxy. Navigators string floss-thin copper wires between the minute model stars, and then the ship shrinks inside-out into its own cavity and rides those wires.  People caught within the cavity during a subspace jump are apt to see their own tiny ship passing between the stars and to go insane.  Another surreal episode has Bron boarding a spaceship which has been transformed into a mirror image of itself--text on control panels appears backwards to him, meters, dials and keyboards are reversed, etc. Ananias was on the ship during its "lateral inversion," the shock of which killed the rest of the crew and left Ananias with his heart on the right side of his chest instead of the left.

Reminding me of the Nexialism in the novel version of A. E. van Vogt's Voyage of the Space Beagle, the guy Bron is impersonating, Haltern, is a "syncretist." A syncretist, Bron is told, is one who "works across the channels of scientific specialization rather than along them." Strengthening Bron's disguise is the fact that, through a "hypnotic synthesis" process, Haltern's personality has been overlaid on top of Bron's--if Bron can relax, this Haltern personality will take over in response to particular stimuli, like if Bron has to interact with Onarians or is asked questions about syncretism. (Should that fail, and it does, the real Haltern is hanging out with Ananias and Jaycee back on Terra and can coach Bron, Cyrano-style, in a pinch.)

Syncretists are experts in studying "the patterns of chaos;" chaos, Haltern explains, is "the whole spectrum of cause and effect...considered not as connected incidents but from an entropic standpoint...." Here is some more sample mumbo jumbo from Haltern (we get several pages of this sort of material):
Both cause and effect make detectable entropic 'sparks' that become the centers of expanding shock spheres.  If you can analyze enough of the sphere to be able to determine the radius of its curvature and its intensity you can locate the position of a cause or resultant both in space and time by extrapolating along the geocentric axis.   
The Terrans, Destroyers and Andromedan invaders all have means to detect chaos shock spheres, and can thus predict the future.  The extragalactic aliens, it turns out, predicted the existence of superman Bron millions of years ago, and their armada was sent to the Milky Way with the sole intent of killing him.  (These aliens never invented an FTL drive, and so the fleet is robotic and during its million year transit the race that built it fell into decadence and barbarism.)  Bron, as a chaos catalyst, is able to buck the trends predicted by the chaos detectors, and thus escape death as well as outwit the human race and make himself their dictator with Jaycee as his Queen.

This cover faithfully depicts the
final chapter of the book.
I've already hinted that sadism and masochism are themes of the novel.  Bron gets tortured and beaten repeatedly, and in his guise of religious fanatic Haltern he wears a futuristic living hair shirt in penance for an imagined sin, essentially torturing himself.  This brings us to another theme of Kapp's book, religion.  With the exception of Haltern, the main characters all seem to be pagans; at least they associate Christianity with weakness and when surprised exclaim "Jupiter!" or "Zeus!" the way a Christian might gasp "Christ!" or "Oh my God!"  Kapp seems to have contempt for Christianity; in the opening chapters of the book on Onaris we see that the church establishment there is corrupt (the head priest is a sadist) and its doctrines are nonsense which distract people from reality.  As part of his Haltern disguise Bron carries an antique Bible, and in a MacGyver moment (he's trying to get out of a prison cell) he rips pages out of the Good Book and uses them to start a fire! Is Kapp, whose novel pointedly ignores all issues of morality, dismissing the value of the Bible as philosophy and literature?

I think I can give Patterns of Chaos a moderate recommendation.  Its structure, style and themes are more reminiscent to me of van Vogt than Heinlein or Smith.  The style isn't so hot, the characters are not deep and the only strong feeling the book inspires is one of uneasiness (some will find the book's attitude towards women and/or Christianity offensive), but because it moves quickly and is so crazy and full of so many wild SF ideas, it is entertaining.

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