Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Important New Wave Stories by Thomas Disch, J. G. Ballard and Langdon Jones

When people talk about the New Wave, one of the things they often mention is Judith Merrill's anthology England Swings SF, first published in 1968.  Now, I don't actually own a copy of England Swings SF, but I do own anthologies by two of the most famous and prolific New Wave writers, Thomas M. Disch and J. G. Ballard, which include some of their stories from England Swings SF. Additionally, Joachim Boaz, indefatigable SF blogger and promoter of SF which has faded from memory and perhaps deserves to be more widely read, has generously provided me access to the story by Langdon Jones which was printed in England Swings SF. So, let's check them out and try to gain some kind of insight into the New Wave phenomenon!

"The Squirrel Cage" by Thomas Disch (1967)

I've already praised Tom Disch on this blog numerous times, but Disch has done work I'm not crazy about (when I read them in the aughts, I thought Genocides overwrought and mediocre and Echo Round His Bones and Mankind Under the Leash left me cold) so there's no guarantee I'm going to love this one. "The Squirrel Cage" first appeared in the issue of New Worlds with Charles Platt's The Garbage World.  I read Disch's tale in my 1980 Bantam edition of Fundamental Disch.

Don't tell my wife, but I have had a
crush on this garbage girl for quite a while
"The Squirrel Cage" is one of those stories in which a guy is trapped in a mysterious high tech prison and has no idea how he got there or who put him there.  For some psychological reason I am afraid to carefully dig into, I love stories in which a guy is in a prison and his cell constitutes his entire universe (Araminta Station by Jack Vance and Cage A Man by F. M. Busby come to mind at once as particularly effective SF examples), so "The Squirrel Cage" was right up my alley.  Disch uses the story as an allegory of life (of course), how we all are truly alone and can't know why we are here and have no real understanding of the universe because we cannot trust our senses.  It is also, more specifically, about the psychological reality of being a writer--the prisoner has access to a typewriter, and the text we are reading is things he has typed on his machine.  However, the narrator's typewriter neither admits nor produces paper--the narrator has no reason to believe anybody is even reading what he is writing! (He hopefully fantasizes that his words are being reproduced electronically somewhere and read by someone, maybe lots of people.)  On the last page of the story, when we learn the name of the narrator ("Disch"), he admits that even more terrifying than this lonely meaningless life in the antiseptic prison is the thought of being forced to leave it; a comment on our fear of death or perhaps Disch's own horror at the thought of having to make a living doing work more onerous than writing?

I think "The Squirrel Cage" also serves as a sort of satire of people who learn everything about the world via the New York Times--every day a new copy of the Times appears in the cell and the previous day's copy vanishes.  The newspaper is the only contact the prisoner has, apparently, ever had with any other living entity, and it is his only source of information.  One passage (in which the narrator wishes he could keep the papers and pile them up into walls and corridors) reminded me of the famous Collyer brothers, and perhaps the whole story is a sort of subtle reference or homage to them.

Both bleak and amusing, "The Squirrel Cage" is well-written (Disch has a smooth and engaging style) and compelling.  I liked the "New Yorkiness" of it, and there's also the sad frisson I get whenever I read references to suicide in a Disch story.  Worth a look!                

"The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" by J. G. Ballard (1966)

As with Disch, I have really liked some Ballard, but also been disappointed by him (I know Joachim loves it, but I found Drowned World tedious and silly.)

In this sexiest of blog posts there is even something for the ladies: it's every woman's dreamPTboat, JFK!
"The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" first appeared in the magazine Ambit, and in New Worlds the next year.  This is a two-page gimmick story, an imitation or pastiche of a similarly brief gimmick story by Alfred Jarry ("The Passion Considered as an Uphill Bicycle Race"), larded with dumb jokes and lame puns.  I guess the story is supposed to say something about our society's obsession with celebrity and political violence, and also to suggest LBJ and/or the citizens of Dallas or the American people as a whole are somehow complicit in or responsible for the JFK murder. There are lots of people who like this sort of flashy cleverness and irreverence, but to me this kind of thing is hollow and a waste of my time--as I suppose I have said before online, I'm sick of absurdist humor in which any random shit can happen and of humor based on references to other works of fiction or to celebrities or historical events.

You gotta read this thing because it is "important," but I think it is a facile scam.

"Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy" by J. G. Ballard (1966)

Woah, maybe this post needs a
NSFW tag or a trigger warning!
Here we have a story in the same vein, a gimmicky JFK murder-related story about how people are sexually aroused by violence and by automobiles.  This one is in the form of a dry scientific report about therapy involving catering to the desires of mental patients to assassinate celebrities. Jokes include a clinical reference to a man inserting his penis into a car's exhaust. Presumably this was shocking in 1966, but we are now living in a permissive society in which some of us, me included, are almost entirely shocked out.

Like "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race," "Plan for the Assassination of Jacqueline Kennedy" first appeared in Ambit.  I read both of these stories in my copy of the 2001 edition of The Best Short Stories of J. G. Ballard.

While the Disch story deals with timeless issues, these Ballard stories are very time sensitive, very topical, very much focused on celebrities and events current in 1966.  I sometimes think including references to some "iconic" contemporary celebrity or event is an act of laziness on the part of the writer--instead of doing the work of inspiring the reader to feel by creating a character or a mood, the writer takes the shortcut of just invoking our ready-made feelings about, in this case, the bogus "Camelot" of the early '60s.  This maybe works on people who were old enough to pay attention to the news in 1963, but I was born in 1971, so the murder of JFK has no more emotional resonance with me than the murder of Julius Caesar or Cicero.

(If I am comparing them, Disch's story also has good writing, while these Ballard stories seem like loud jokes meant to dazzle you with their irreverence.)

"The Hall of Machines" by Langdon Jones (1968)

"The Hall of Machines" first appeared in New Worlds along with its two companion pieces, "The Coming of the Sun" and "The Eye of the Lens;" together, there three pieces form a triptych known as "The Eye of the Lens."  Joachim has shared with me all three of the components of "The Eye of the Lens," and I will discuss them all here, even though only the first appeared in England Swings SF.

(Check out Joachim's review of this triptych, and Langdon's entire collection of the same name; we actually cover different ground and have somewhat contesting and complementary views of the work.)

I guess Jones is one of the "etceteras."
"The Hall of Machines" consists of the notes of a scholar from some alternate universe (though see below) about an indescribably vast building which houses massive automatic machines of numerous types.  Most of the text is detailed description of various of the machines; one that consists of shiny blades making elaborate cuts (a "Death Machine"), one which extrudes tiny machines from a tube ("The Mother"), a colossal "Clock" made up of a huge spring and innumerable precise gears whose face is turned away from any possible viewer, and more.

I'm going to have to guess that the mysterious Hall of Machines represents the universe, and that the story is about how the laws that govern our lives seem mechanistic, predictable, and open to close inspection, but are so complex as to be practically indecipherable, and are bereft of any values or spiritual meaning.  Jones provides a clue, however, that this story does take place in our universe, and that he is making, or the reader is expected to make, some kind of ethical judgement: the word "Auschwitz" is inscribed on one of the three Death Machines.

"The Hall of Machines" reminded me of Herman Melville's 1855 "The Tartarus of Maids," which also includes detailed descriptions of allegorical machines.  It also reminded me of Thomas Ligotti's 1996 "The Red Tower," which, as I remember it, is just a description by an investigator of an old sinister factory, presumably in some alternate universe.

Jones presents vivid and exciting images, sets a powerful mood and gets the reader thinking.  Quite good.

"The Coming of the Sun" by Langdon Jones (1968)

"The Coming of the Sun" is a series of connected vignettes, spread over 22 pages, dealing with recurring themes that include insanity, fire, sex, religion, and the sun. The first of these 16 vignettes, a compelling character study of a pyromaniac imbecile, is very good, but after this very entertaining beginning the vignettes become increasingly tedious.  One, involving a grocer kicking a pair of mating dogs, is a shocking and memorable piece of "body horror," but some of the other little tableaus, like a one-and-a-half-page-long description of an elaborate clock burning, and a dream sequence about a guy on a motorcycle driving in circles around and then inside a cathedral, were so repetitive and boring I had trouble keeping my eyes open while I read them.  The last five pages of  "The Coming of the Sun" include poetry that is alternately mind-numbing ("Give me the red and the green of your love--my man, my woman, my child, my God") and groan-inducing ("...an old man masturbates his death-tool and spits white glory at the sun....")  Ugh.  The last page has a drawing of the sun, its flares like tentacles or petals, the words of the last poem jumbled all around it..

When tarbandu talks about the self-indulgence of the New Wave I guess this is the sort of thing he means.  I couldn't sincerely recommend "The Coming of the Sun" to anybody, though it is of academic interest and some might find it "so bad it's good" with its poetry about bloody semen and the cleansing venom of the "sun sun sun."

"The Eye of the Lens" by Langdon Jones (1966)

This one is a description of a film.  (I seem to recall Barry Malzberg resorting to this gag a few times; right now only The Men Inside is coming to mind.)  Jones starts by relating the type of film stock and filters used, and then describes the movie's two actors; all you feminists out there will be thrilled to learn Jones describes the female lead in precise detail over 27 lines, lingering on her breasts and body hair, while dispensing with the labor of describing the male lead in an efficient three lines, even though the man plays two parts.

Banned in Britain?
Then we get what amounts to a script, a description of the shots ("She passes out of the frame, kicking the statuettes idly as she walks") and of the soundtrack.  All you masochists out there will be thrilled to learn that the soundtrack includes just the kind of poetry about love that had us scrambling for cover like an 8.8 cm Flak had zeroed in on us back when we read "The Coming of the Sun"--"love me red with bloody arrows...love me brown, brown as leather..." etc.

The girl walks through a desert, encounters a statue that is crying, then men with flamethrowers who immolate any plants that appear on the desert surface.  (When I was in Denmark, the environmentalist capitol of the world, I saw how they killed weeds with a sort of scaled down flamethrower.  In Iowa I found that they spray Roundup on everything.) She visits a cathedral where a "psychedelic freak out" is taking place, and then comes upon Jesus on the cross. She gets into an argument with Christ, accusing him of being rude, stupid and shallow. In the final scene of the film the girl sits in a field of flowers.

I can't tell if this story is a sincere criticism of Christianity and our society or a parody of an art movie full of banal allegories. Either way it is a bore.


Do these stories tell us anything about the New Wave?  (Let's pretend these stories are our first exposure to this New Wave we've been hearing people argue about.)  Well, they certainly lack many of the very things people tend to look for in conventional science fiction: there is no adventure plot (hell, there is no plot at all), there isn't really much science, and there isn't much speculation on what future societies or stuff in outer space might be like.  It is easy to see why casual SF readers looking for entertainment might be uninterested in the New Wave, and why committed members of the SF community who are into science and interested in what the future will bring might be exasperated by such work.

On the other hand, you can see how these stories would appeal to people who are interested in "serious mainstream literature" and think of themselves as free-thinking individuals or educated radicals.  The stories have the trappings of sophistication: they employ experimental literary techniques and/or abandon traditional literary elements like plot and character; they are pessimistic; they are irreverent or rebellious, implicitly or explicitly criticizing our society and traditional attitudes and beliefs; they include frank sexual content.  The Disch story and parts of the Jones stories are also well-written, and all the stories hope to say something about life or society.  The stories are also connected to long literary, artistic or philosophical traditions.  (And there's the fact that parts of the Jones pieces are difficult to read, and, as we see in academia, sometimes obscurity and tedium can pass for profundity.)

Disch, Ballard and Jones are all obviously thoughtful, well-educated, and capable of good writing--if anything good can come of the New Wave, these are guys who can make that happen--and in this selection I think we can see the golden opportunities presented by the New Wave to able writers, as well as the pitfalls for readers in the New Wave's excesses.  In the same way a quest story or a detective story or an alien invasion story, the kind of thing that has been done a billion times, can be emotionally and intellectually thrilling when it comes from the pen of a talented and dedicated writer, but predictable, shoddy and boring in the hands of the lazy or incompetent, we have to expect that there will be some fine New Wave stories, and some New Wave stories which are a waste of our time.  I think we have seen both kinds here today.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Bane of Nightmares by Adrian Cole

"Vorta's evil is the worst kind--it must be opposed.  And for him the light is fading.  He has evaded me for too long."
As Bane of Nightmares, the third and final volume of Adrian Cole's Dream Lords trilogy, begins, Galad Sarian is contemplating suicide.  I can almost hear you asking "Why, Galad, why?  Didn't you just overthrow Daras Vorta and liberate planet Earth from his tyranny, so that Earth's people practically worship you?  Didn't you just execute your mascara-, lipstick- and perfume-wearing cousin Ravas Tarka, whom Vorta was trying to put on the Dream Lord triumvirate in your place?  Why check out in your moment of triumph?"  I'll tell you why Galad is pointing his blood-stained sword at his own heart--because of a woman!  The same space ship which brought dedicated follower of fashion Ravas to a liberated Earth also brought news that Galad's beloved, Taria, back home on planet Zurjah, seat of the Empire and home of the ruling Dream Lords, believing Galad dead, has gotten married and gotten pregnant!

Bane of Nightmares was published in 1976 by Zebra, with a dark, heavy, moody cover by Tom Barber.  I love these kinds of images (Frank Frazetta is the master of such images) in which a man faces some mysterious and apparently insuperable foe--to me, such visions represent the struggles we all face in life, the futility and the glory of our individual and collective efforts to accomplish something, or to simply survive, in this uncaring universe in which we and all our works are doomed to die and be forgotten.

Galad is in the desolate wilderness, on the island in a polluted sea to which he chased Ravas at the end of the previous volume, Lord of Nightmares.  He is just about to end his young life when a hermit stumbles upon him and dissuades him from committing the sin of self-destruction.  Galad crashes in the hermit's pad, a dilapidated hut, and becomes a drunk, spending every night and day sleeping and guzzling his misanthropic host's wine.  After a few weeks of this self-indulgent lifestyle, Gundar Sabian, Galad's old friend from Zurjah, finds him and tells him something that sobers him up--Daras Vorta is alive and he's on Zurjah, denouncing Galad and the barbarians of Earth!  Galad gets on the first ship to Zurjah to set the record straight, no doubt hoping Vorta hasn't had time to wipe all those incriminating e-mails from his illegal private server!

Things on Zurjah are more complicated than Galad had initially imagined. Galad's father has died, so there is an open seat on the Dream Lord triumvirate. The two surviving Dream Lords, Vidor Karset and Laomidian, want to fill the vacancy tout suite because two Dream Lords can't really muster enough psychic power to hypnotize the Zurjahn population into thinking inhospitable Zurjah is a pleasant place to live. (Clues suggest that Zurjahn is known to you and me as Jupiter.)  Galad is the obvious choice to fill the opening, but Galad hates the Dream Lords and all their works, and then there's the fact that Vidor Karset is the guy who married and impregnated Taria, and he hates Galad because Taria is still in love with our young hero!  Now, if Galad and the two Dream Lords can't work together, there is a backup candidate who can do the job waiting in the wings.  Who else has the mental power for this position?  You guessed it--the diabolical Vorta!

We readers get what amounts to a courtroom scene, with speeches and witnesses and lawyers and all that jazz.  When it looks like Vorta is going to lose the trial he tries some back room manipulations, and, when Galad foils these underhanded moves, Vorta uses his mental powers to murder Vidor Karset and kidnap Taria. Vorta grabs a space ship and blasts off for Earth, and Galad pursues him in a second ship.

Back on Earth, Galad chases Vorta and Taria to a creepy marshy mutant jungle full of giant worms and carnivorous plants.  Living in this menacing swamp are two tribes of degenerate humans, one ruled by a benevolent telepathic creature who is half-man and half-plant, the other an evil army of ghoulish troglodytes molded over the years by Vorta during much-needed vacations from his full-time job of torturing people.  Galad enlists the vegetable-man's tribe to be his army in the war on Vorta.  If you have been following Galad's military career as closely as I have, it will come as no surprise that during the fighting against Vorta and his legions the casualty rate of the army of swamp men approaches 100%.
It seemed that I had fulfilled my old role of Pale Horseman and brought death to these people as surely as though I had wielded the tool of their destruction myself.
The final climactic scene is a mental battle between Galad and Vorta in an ancient cathedral defiled by Vorta and converted into a Satanic temple.  Taria and Vidor Karset's unborn child (!) contribute their own mental powers to the victory over Vorta, who is killed when a huge cross falls on him, crushing him on the altar where he planned to sacrifice Taria. (There is a fair amount of Christian imagery in this novel, adding a horror story vibe to its sword and sorcery feel.)

Bane of Nightmares is easily the best of the three Dream Lords books.  Readers of my last blog post may recall that I was disappointed that there was no climactic showdown between Galad and Vorta in Lord of Nightmares; well, I really appreciated that most of this book feels like just such a showdown.  Bane of Nightmares also feels more focused than earlier volumes, with fewer extraneous characters, fewer overly-long descriptions and fewer superfluous, repetitive scenes. Galad is a more interesting character here, first suicidal, then a drunk, and then driven by hatred to a single-minded pursuit of the despicable and horrifying Vorta.  His relationships--to the swamp men and to the hermit, for example--are more engaging. Maybe Cole's plotting and pacing had improved by the time he did the final draft of this third volume of the trilogy.  The science fiction and fantasy elements, the various monsters and psychic fights and so forth, also work (I love giant worms and man-eating plants and that sort of thing.)

On the negative side of the ledger we must note that Bane of Nightmares contains an alarming number of typos, mostly what I think are typesetting errors, like the transposition of two letters in a word.  There are dozens of such irritating mistakes. Zebra did readers (and Cole) a real disservice by putting the book out in this sadly unfinished form.

Well, that does it for the Dream Lords trilogy, a problem-riddled and brash entertainment which receives little attention and has not been reprinted since the seventies.  In our next episode we'll look at some examples of the kind of SF the high-minded critics are always lavishing with praise and crediting with revolutionary importance!

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Lord of Nightmares by Adrian Cole

"Know you this, that the hand of doom is upon this Black City.  Armageddon is come to Karkesh!"

In our last episode we followed Galad Sarian, heir to one of the three seats on the Dream Lord triumvirate, from the capitol of the nine-planet Empire, planet Zurjah, to planet Gargan, where he had been banished because he had seen through some of the Dream Lords' many lies to the Zurjahn people.  On Gargan, Galad committed himself to the cause of the barbarians of planet Ur, victims of the Dream Lords' oppression, and foiled a plot of the rebellious Warden of Ur, Daras Vorta, who sought to extend his control to Gargan.  But in the course of saving Gargan, Galad was captured and put on a spaceship bound for Ur.

I purchased Volume 1 of Adrian Cole's Dream Lords trilogy largely because I loved the wraparound cover depicting four dark horsemen, the leader of whom wore a skull mask.  The cover of the second volume, Lord of Nightmares, produced by Zebra in 1975, is not nearly so impressive.  Not only is the painting in a wholly different style (isfdb has no attribution, but it is apparently by Jack Gaughan), but the cover text (appealing to the prurient reader) coveys the wholly inaccurate idea that the book is all about torture, and also includes a spoiler, spilling the beans that Ur is the Earth, a fact not baldly stated until the middle of this second volume.  Figuring out that the Empire of nine planets is our own solar system in the future is not exactly a brain-busting riddle, but the spoiler on the cover denies the reader the pleasure of figuring this puzzle out for himself.

While I'm carping about elements of the book beyond Cole's actual writing, I might as well also express my unhappiness with the sans serif font used for the body of Lord of Nightmares' text; it is a font better suited for titles or footnotes than the main text, and I found reading 220 pages of it a little irritating.

Back to our story.  In the first few pages of the novel Galad is lead off the slave ship in chains into Karkesh, the "black city of a million sighs," and introduced to Daras Vorta. Vorta turns out to be a monstrously obese decadent--while he wields mental powers quite like those of the Dream Lords, he has contempt for the Dream Lords' characteristic asceticism, and customarily indulges in the grossest of physical pleasures.  After his little convo with the main villain of the book, Galad is tossed in a dungeon where he meets a bunch of Ur barbarians who welcome him as the Chosen One who will liberate them from Zurjahn tyranny.  (How many times have we seen this Chosen One gag in genre fiction?)  Galad and his new friends are tossed in the gladiatorial arena to fight the colossal monster depicted on the book cover for the pleasure of the massed audience of the Zurjhn colonizers of Ur.  (How many times have we seen people getting tossed into the gladiatorial arena in genre fiction?)  In the resulting carnage (dozens of spectators get killed along with the monster and all but one of the barbarians), Galad and the sole barbarian survivor, General Thuran of the barbarian army, escape the city.  They travel across the weird landscape of Ur, which, thanks to a (presumably nuclear/biological) war in the distant past, is replete with poisonous bodies of water, forests of carnivorous plants, and bands of ghoulish mutants.

Thuran presents Galad to the leader of the barbarian guerrilla resistance to Zurjahn rule, Annulian the Lion, and lots of other members of barbarian society.  Here we get some not-exactly-thrilling descriptions of barbarian villages and cities (the people of Ur are not really that barbaric, they are just called that by the Zurjahns), and not-exactly-engrossing conversations between Galad and the many barbarians he meets. There is a lot of unnecessary rigmarole because Galad tries to keep his status as Chosen One a secret from each bunch of people he meets, so we get multiple melodramatic scenes of people learning who he is and gushing all over him.

A 1977 edition with a Barber cover
and a typo for the volume number
King Annulian is served by a cadre of priests who own an ancient tattered copy of the Bible--the Book of Revelation has them convinced that four horsemen will lead the army that liberates Ur from the Zurjahns, and that Galad is one of the four, the rider of the pale horse who is known as Death! Annulian even gives Galad a cool skull helmet! Annulian and Thuran are two of the other horsemen, but in a move that reminded me of the stories of Achilles and Patroclus and of King David and Uriah the Hittite, Annulian gives Thuran his own royal armor, including lion-faced helmet and monarchical crown, to wear into battle. Annulian, you see, has heard a prophecy that a king will die during the coming battles, and so has volunteered his old chum Thuran to sort of take his place during this crucial time!

(The fourth horseman is Chungsar, ruler of a barbarian horde from the east who has slanted eyes, spiked armor, and very little screen time or dialogue.)

A related subplot, about another of Annulian's shortcomings, has the Lion jealous of his position and less than eager to hand power over to Galad the Chosen One.  Spicing up this subplot is the fact that Annulian's beautiful young fiancé is not attracted to the war-obsessed king and throws herself at exotic Galad; Galad has a girlfriend back on Zurjah, but is unable to resist the barbarian girl's charms.

Leaving behind all that guerilla stuff now that the Chosen One is on board, the four horsemen, each at the head of his own army of cavalry, lead a direct assault on Karkesh, each attacking from a different direction.  Because Zurjah makes sure there are few aircraft or energy weapons on Ur this war is fought primarily with swords, spears and archery.  Annulian has an edge, his secret weapon: kegs of gunpowder, used to undermine fortifications and as a devastating trap when he's on the defensive.

The advertising text on the covers of early editions of both Lord of Nightmares and its predecessor, Plague of Nightmares, compare Cole's trilogy to the vastly popular work of J. R. R. Tolkien.  I didn't see much resemblance to Tolkien in the first Dream Lords volume, but I think the war between the barbarians of Ur and Doras Volta's Zurjahns presents some superficial similarities to The Lord of the Rings.  There's all those meetings between our hero and the leaders of his allies in idyllic forest and city locations; the way Vorta searches the land for Galad with his psychic powers (reminiscent of the eye of Sauron); the use of gunpowder to breach fortifications; and the disputes over who is the rightful ruler of a kingdom.

The attack on Karkesh is a bit tedious, page after page of Galad and his men advancing through the city, killing Imperial Guards.  Cole tries to add variety with various bizarre and horrible images, like a guy who fights with a shard of glass from a mirror, cutting his own hand as he strikes the enemy, and a guy who fights with a length of chain (Galad liberates the many prisoners from the Karkesh dungeons, and these guys join the fray wielding such improvised weapons.)  There's lots of talk about blood and the piles of corpses clogging the city streets and tunnels.  Galad and his barbarian comrades succeed in taking Karkesh and practically exterminating the Zurjahns, but, as those of us who have read Plague of Nightmares are not surprised to learn, every single barbarian fighting under Galad's command is killed.  Luckily Annulian, Thuran and Chungsar manage to keep some of their subordinates alive.

What did surprise me was that there is no final showdown between Galad and Vorta, even though one was foreshadowed--Galad even makes Annulian pledge to leave Galad to him.  Instead, Annulian just reports to Galad that he killed Vorta while Galad was resting in another part of the city.  Could Vorta still be alive, in hiding someplace so he can play the heel in Bane of Nightmares, the final volume of this trilogy?

There are two other final showdowns, however.  Annulian, unwilling to accept the authority of Galad and to negotiate with Zurjah (since Vorta was plotting rebellion against the Dream Lords, Galad is sure he can justify destruction of Karkesh make peace with the Dream Lords) duels Galad one-on-one in the ruins of Karkesh for rulership of Earth, then realizes the errors of his ways and commits suicide in dramatic fashion.  Galad then crowns Thuran King of the Earth.

Then the Zurjahn space fleet arrives for the negotiations with the new Earth regime. This force is led by Galad's old buddy Gundar, so things go smoothly--that is until Ravas Tarak appears and tries to murder Galad!  (I'm sure you'll remember that Ravas, Galad's cousin, was scheduled to be put on the Dream Lord triumvirate in Galad's place, via the machinations of Vorta, after Vorta had killed Galad.)  Ravas, one of those effeminate decadents Vorta surrounds himself with, had time to put on lipstick, mascara and perfume before escaping custody on one of Gundar's ships, so he looks and smells his best when Galad blinds him at the end of the novel.

Lord of Nightmares has a lot of problems with plot and pacing and emphasis, as I think I have chronicled.  (Instead of a small number of deep compelling characters, a few interesting settings and a small number of tense scenes of high-stakes violence, we get an abundance of shallow, repetitive and forgettable people, places and fights.) Cole's style is also weak.  Sometimes he uses words in ways that made me wonder if he knew what they really meant.  (If you are scoring at home I will point you specifically to the use of "reprisals" on page 60 and of "unprecedented" on page 70.)

Most importantly, while Cole failed to elicit much feeling from me (I didn't care who lived or died), he did succeed in sparking my curiosity with his surprising artistic choices and occasional gruesome images.  So, I have already purchased a copy of Dream Lords Volume 3: Bane of Nightmares, which we will be talking about in our next episode.  But I can't recommend Lord of Nightmares to anybody beyond those with a particular interest in these kinds of sword and sorcery shenanigans.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

A Plague of Nightmares by Adrian Cole

“That is a question that you have no right to ask, despite your own self-importance, Galad Sarian. The Dream Lords, who make the unquestionable laws for the whole of the nine worlds, have passed a judgement on Ur and her people for her terrible crimes. To suggest, to even hint, that we Zurjhans are one and the same race is not only blasphemous, it is wicked—evil.”
My copy of the 1977 printing
At the Village Bookshelf in Massillon, Ohio, they have a great science fiction section, and on my recent visit I saw lots of stuff I had not seen before.  One such find was Adrian Cole's A Plague of Nightmares; the evocative cover painting by Tom Barber on the 1977 Zebra paperback blew me away and I had to have it.  This weekend I opened up the volume to see if the text lived up to the cover.

The people of planet Zurjah sleep soundly every night because their rulers, the Dream Lords, three men who seek to transcend the physical and live as wholly mental beings, transmit to them soothing dreams.  But our protagonist, Galad Sarian, son of one of the Dream Lords and heir to a seat among these mysterious rulers, hasn't been sleeping too well.  As the novel begins he comes to realize the Dream Lords are hiding from their subjects some uncomfortable realities--not only do they use their hypnotic powers to make people think barren and decrepit Zurjah is beautiful and comfortable, but the Dream Lords have been concealing the truth that the people of Zurjah did not originate on Zurjah, but are in fact descendants of colonists from Ur, the planet of barbarians and prisoners held in slavery by the Zurjahans!  Strange visions, and a reclusive and shunned dissident wizard over a thousand years old, Chalremor, give Galad the idea that he is destined to lead an Ur revolution against the Dream Lords and unite the people of the nine-planet Empire.

When the Dream Lords get wind of the fact that Galad is on to their lies, they send him to college on planet Gargan.  (As we all know, public school is where the government sends you to make sure you are in accord with the ruling elite's dogma.) Luckily, Galad hooks up with some Chalremor supporters for some extracurricular activities.  Our hero gets mixed up in some complicated intrigues: Doras Vorta, the governor of Ur (Title: Warden; Responsibilities: Oppressing the people of Ur; Skills: Mental powers rivalling those of the Dream Lords themselves; Hobbies: Torture), is infiltrating the Zurjahan establishment on Gargan with his own followers as well as fomenting rebellion among the native Garganians in order to augment his own power—his ambition is to overthrow the Dream Lords and make himself master of all nine planets.

Vorta's agents target Galad (Vorta wants to eliminate Galad so he can put forward his own candidate for Galad's seat on the Dream Lord triumvirate, Galad's decadent cousin Ravas) and the Chalremor underground tries to spirit Galad out of the college town via the sewers.  A running fight involving robots, hover cars, and sword-swinging and spear-hurling guards ensues, and many Imperial Guards fall, but in the end Galad's Garganian friends are killed and he is captured. Galad is dragged before one of Vorta's foremost agents on Gargan, the governor of the college town, a decadent and effeminate homosexual, for a scene that I expect will soon be outlawed in the EU as hate speech.

Galad escapes and joins up with some fugitive slaves who had been brought in chains to Gargan from Ur.
It struck me then how completely I was with the Barbarian cause now, for I had my weapon ready to use brutally against any Guard, or indeed, man, who stood against us.  All the remnants of Dream Lord culture and sophistication had dropped away from me and I had become a physical, ruthless predator.   
Galad and co. travel through secret tunnels and creepy forests to interrupt a human sacrifice to the false gods of the rebellious faction of the native Garganians, led by the mental force of Warden Vorta, transmitted to Gargan from Vorta's HQ on Ur.  Galad's comrades from Ur all get killed (this dude is a bad luck charm) but Galad matches his mental powers against Vorta's, stopping the rebellion.  Unfortunately, moments after executing the gay governor, Galad is captured by Ravas.  On the last page of the book we learn Galad is going to be shipped to Ur so Vorta can torture him!

1975 edition; the Tolkien and
Lovecraft references are not,
in my opinion, very apposite
The setting and plot of A Plague of Nightmares are servicable, and I like such themes as the contrast between the physical life and the mental life, and between the sophisticated colony and the degenerate homeworld it has come to dominate. However, the pace of the first half of the novel, on Zurjah, is slow, with lots of descriptions of buildings and plants and lots of long talky scenes involving characters—like the man who trained Galad how to fight, Gundar, and Galad's girlfriend, Taria—who are just not interesting, and play no role in the second half of the book.  Cole fails to bring the narrator’s relationships with these people to life, so I didn’t care that he had to leave them behind on Zurjah when he was sent to Gargan, or when Vorta threatened to sacrifice Taria to the Garganian gods.

The second half of the book, on Gargan, moves quickly and has some excitement.  Cole appeals to the reader's fascination with the disgusting and the horrible (note how the first edition was advertised as a horror novel); there's the scene in which the perfumed and bejeweled homosexual leers at the helpless Galad (nowadays people might be reluctant to admit they are disgusted by gay men, but we are talking 1975 here), the whippings and other tortures, human sacrifice, and fights in which people get burned to cinders by energy weapons or have their fingers cut off with swords.  I suppose you'd have to say there's an exploitative element to A Plague of Nightmares.

A major problem is presented by Cole’s style; it is not so good.  Occasionally I came upon a sentence which stopped me dead in my tracks. On page 38 we get “Somewhere within me was bedded a compunction to see it through, as though Chalremor had laid on me aegis of sorts.” I don’t like “bedded,” for starters. Then there comes “compunction;” I think of a compunction as something that urges you to not do something, but this sentence seems to be saying Galad feels driven to do something.  Does Cole mean “compulsion?” Then there is “aegis.” I think of an aegis as a shield or as the protection afforded a weaker entity by a stronger.  That makes no sense here; does Cole mean “a geis?” Whether Cole is to blame, or some editor or typesetter, this sentence is a distraction and such sentences really damage the novel.

Despite my misgivings about the style and copyediting, I found A Plague of Nightmares intriguing enough that I shall continue on with the sequels, Lord of Nightmares and Bane of Nightmares.  I am sincerely curious what is in store for Galad on Ur.  And I am not immune to the morbid charms of the book's exploitative and politically incorrect elements--I am still the same person who got those equivocal, uncomfortable thrills while sitting in a dark theater in 1981, seeing a man who had been killed by a spear trap, a hulking Luftwaffe mechanic about to be torn apart by a spinning propellor, and the faces of German agents melted by the supernatural.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Assault on the Gods by Stephen Goldin

"The gods claim to be good, yet I've seen them do some things that even they say are bad.  They claim to be wise, yet sometimes they act foolishly.  I'm learning very quickly not to believe everything the gods have told me."

Back in 2012 I read Stephen Goldin's 1981 novel A World Called Solitude and gave it a positive review on Amazon.  Since then I've read three Goldin short stories, two good, one bad.  So Goldin's name is always rattling around inside my skull, and when I spotted the 1977 Fawcett paperback edition of Assault on the Gods with a striking Don Maitz cover (I love the faces and the weapons) I picked it up.  I was intrigued by what I presumed to be the in-your-face political content of the book, not just the promised "fiercely independent" female protagonist but the anti-religious slant. Goldin, on his website, tells us "we're living in scary times. The Religious Right is trying to form a band of thought-police and turn America into a theocracy. Nothing less than the freedom of thought is at stake, and I refuse to be silent."  Let's see if Goldin strikes any telling blows against the "fanatical Xtians" he envisions are trying to "cram their puritanical dogma down our throats."  

Space Captain Ardeva Korrell is a member of what in grad school we called a marginalized population; not only is she a woman (she provides evidence that fewer than 2% of space captains are women) but an Eoan.  Planet Eos is the most rational and sane human society in the galaxy--Eoans are "beyond morals" because they are so wise.  ("Anthropos [the founding guru of the Eoans] saw morals as arbitrary rules imposed by Society on its less mature members....") This gives Eoans a reputation for arrogance and snobbery.  In the first dozen pages of the story Korrell complains that prejudice has held back her career, that crewmen don't obey her, that she is making less money and getting less respect than she deserves, and that employers are always making passes at her.  Am I reading a SF novel or an article from Ms.?

The cargo ship Korrell is currently commanding is stopped on planet Dascham, where the illiterate natives look like teddy bears and live in filthy huts. (For the record, Assault on the Gods appeared six years before Return of the Jedi, but over 25 years after the first appearance of Poul Anderson and Gordon Dickson's Hoka stories.  I have to admit that if the paperback had a teddy bear instead of gunslinger girl on the cover I would not have picked up Assault on the Gods.)  The natives are mired in poverty and primitivism because of their stifling religion.  When a drunken member of Korrell's crew denies the existence of the gods of Dascham he is struck dead by lightning and a 12-foot tall glowing teddy bear angel with a flaming sword flies down to upbraid the survivors.

The Daschamene "gods" are in fact aliens who maintain a totalitarian rule over the natives, ruthlessly controlling population levels, forbidding technological development, outlawing dissenting speech and exploiting them as slaves.  An extensive network of listening devices keeps the natives under surveillance and the "angels," in reality war robots, inflict swift and merciless punishment.  When one of the natives, disillusioned with the gods, sneaks onto Korrell's ship looking for help in overthrowing them, Korrell's boss, the ship's owner, decides to exterminate the gods and liberate the natives, primarily in hopes of reaping a considerable monetary reward offered by the dissident. Korrell reluctantly goes along with this terribly risky (their ship is not a naval vessel but an unarmed merchant ship, after all) scheme.

The ship is shot down in the attack, and Korrell and her small crew must resort to fighting on foot with laser rifles and grenade launchers.  They climb a mountain, penetrate the gods' fortress, defeat their army of robots, and uncover their secrets, among which is the fact that the gods are mentally and physically feeble.  Fortunately Korrell and company discover an ancient starship in the gods' stronghold so they can escape the planet, though not before Korrell's employer becomes drunk with greed and power and tries to succeed to the place of the defunct gods, necessitating that Korrell execute some rough justice on him.

Assault on the Gods is s pretty good space opera/hard SF story, full of fun descriptions of space equipment and weapons, plenty of scenes of our heroine using logic and technical knowhow to get herself out of sticky situations, and tense scenes of human-alien interaction, both diplomatic and combative. The structure and plot elements of Goldin's novel strongly remind me of something by Poul Anderson; the protagonists are business people, like Van Rjin and Falkayn, not government employees, and their struggle is against stifling tyranny. (Goldin also does the same thing that other icon of libertarian SF, Robert Heinlein, does, arguing for freedom and individualism as well as for the seemingly paradoxical idea that on a ship the captain's word is irresistible law.) Goldin's style is good, the pace is fast, and the book feels short (it's like 180 pages of text, but the print is pretty large.)  The anti-religious sentiment and boilerplate feminism (which will inspire cheers from some and eye-rolling from others) don't overwhelm the narrative--the feminist talking points rarely make an appearance after page 20 or so, and the anti-religious stuff, while pervasive, is pretty broad and vague; Goldin doesn't really single out Christianity or any other religion, unless we count the "neo-Buddhist" member of the crew, who is characterized by passivity.

One "problem" with the novel is that Korrell is smarter, more sophisticated, more courageous, more compassionate, and more ethical than all the other characters. Since we see this sort of shortcoming in so much of popular fiction, from Sherlock Holmes to John Carter to Kal-El to Conan, we can hardly hold it against Goldin here.  Should we see Korrell's superiority as representing some better way of life, the way we sometimes see Conan as representing the (alleged) superiority of the barbarian over the civilized man, or Superman representing "the American Way?"  Presumably she represents the superiority of the rational individual over the ignorant and superstitious masses of society and the selfish and manipulative religious and/or government establishments which exploit them. 

Korrell is perhaps worthy of some kind of feminist analysis.  She plays exactly the same role in the story we often see men play in adventure stories--she is the leader, she solves the intellectual puzzles and overcomes the physical obstacles and enemy combatants, and represents the author's ideological point of view. Goldin seems to have consciously refused to give her any of the kind of attributes we typically associate with women.   Korrell doesn't seem to care much about her looks or her clothes and is a poor cook.  She doesn't express interest in sexual relationships or family relationships (she seems to have been brought up in some kind of orphanage or barracks on Eos, but it wasn't clear to me whether this was due to special circumstances of her life or if all Eoans are raised in such communal institutions).  She loves to read but seems to read popular science texts, not fiction (though she does refer to The Wizard of Oz. The love for Baum we see in so many SF writers--Heinlein and Farmer come to mind at once--is making me think I have to read Baum.)  Whether women will appreciate this depiction of a career woman who has no (apparent) thoughts of love, children or fashion, or find it to be a flat, unrealistic and unconvincing depiction of what women are like, I have no idea.  

Another interpretation of Korrell and the novel that I toyed with as I read Assault on the Gods was Korrell as a strict and long-suffering mother and the crew as her unruly children.  Again and again Korrell orders the crew around, scolds them or punishes them for misbehavior, pulls them out of trouble, assesses their strengths and weaknesses and tries to guide and manipulate them accordingly.  Evidence for this interpretation includes the way Eoan philosophy stresses how mature Eoans like Korrell are while other humans are essentially immature.           

A good space adventure; I enjoyed it and suggest Assault on the Gods is worth the time of hard SF fans and those interested in anti-religious SF and SF "with a strong female protagonist," as they say.  Maybe I should keep my eye open for other books by Goldin.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Parasaurians by Robert Wells

"But what do we know about Nils Bodee except his name, his passion for drugs, his expertise with a rifle and the presumption that he is a millionaire?"
"Mm.  He's a Sternius type, isn't he?  Decided man of mystery.  But I don't find that so unusual.  As I've said before, the people you meet here are full of surprises." 

Years ago I read Robert Wells' Spacejacks, and I wasn't crazy about it.  I lost my notes about Spacejacks in a computer mishap (back everything up to "the cloud," people!), but I remember typing lots of smart alecky complaints.  Then there's my man tarbandu, who could barely finish Wells' Candle in the Sun and awarded it 1 out of 5 stars.  But by the time I saw The Parasaurians on the shelf at Snowball Bookshop in Barberton, OH (one of those bookstores where kindly elderly women dote on the resident cats and customers soon find themselves participating in the doting), the name "Robert Wells" had evaporated from my consciousness.  If I had remembered he was responsible for Spacejacks maybe I would have passed The Parasaurians by.  But probably not; I love the red dinocentric cover and I'm always ready to read about dudes hunting dinosaurs!

There's a long tradition of SF about hunting dinosaurs. Ray Bradbury's 1952 "A Sound of Thunder" is of course one of the classic time travel stories (I own the 1983 collection Dinosaur Tales with the quite fine William Stout illustrations for "Sound.") L. Sprague de Camp's "A Gun for Dinosaur" is also famous. During the period of this blog's life I have read (and enjoyed) David Gerrold's long, repetitive and goofy 1978 novel Deathbeast.  Today let's check out Robert Wells 1969 contribution to the dino-hunting canon!

College professor Rossell Fletcher lives in 2173, a time of robot servants, self-driving cars and rejuvenation treatments that can keep a guy like Ross fit and spry to age 120 or more.  A wealthy expert on ballistics who works at "the State Rocketry Foundation," Fletcher is also a gun enthusiast and big-game hunter, and one day receives an advertisement from a secretive firm that owns a South American island and caters to hunters of means, Megahunt Chartered.  Megahunt, Fletcher is informed in a face to face sales pitch, has created super realistic robotic dinosaurs and for a cool million he can join a safari and hunt down these mechanical titans.

Our man Ross leaps at the chance, and finds himself on safari with three mysterious characters.  There's Sternius, one of Megahunt's guides, a taciturn sort; Kit Namoya, an attractive half-Asian, half-Caucasian freelance photographer hired by Megahunt to film the robot dinos; and Dr. Nils Bodee, an eccentric pill-popping physician, like Fletcher a Megahunt client and expert marksman.

Over 160 of the book's 190 pages take place on the island, and revolve around Fletcher getting to know his three compatriots as they go through orientation and then travel around the hunting grounds, confronted by oppressive weather conditions (among them wearying heat, ferocious thunderstorms and dangerous floods), rough terrain (swamp, jungle, mountain), the saurian robots and each other.  Wells' pace is deliberate, some might say slow; the novel is half over before Sternius actually leads Fletcher and Bodee to any dinos they can shoot.  The main "action" is all the tension between the characters--Fletcher has the hots for Namoya, while Sternius, Namoya and Bodee all seem resentful, suspicious and fearful of each other.  These three are always trying to keep an eye on each other, and always sneaking off alone to do something unbeknownst to the rest of the party, and all three try to wheedle information out of the oblivious Fletcher, or enlist his aid in their mysterious doings.  Gotta feel for poor Ross, who spent a mil to shoot dinos, not get mixed up in these kinds of shenanigans!

Wells drops lots of clues as to what is really going on and what each character is really up to; The Parasaurians in many ways is more like a thriller or even a detective story than standard science fiction.  In fact there is very little reason for it to be set 200 years in the future; Wells doesn't describe social changes, and the high technology described in the first part of the book is just window dressing--on the island everybody hunts with bolt action rifles and rides around in a conventional truck, and they don't have any futuristic medical or electronic equipment; their single radio is a big heavy box like out of a WWII movie, their flashlight runs out of juice in just a few minutes, Namoya's cameras are big bulky affairs, etc.

In the last 35 pages or so all becomes clear: Sternius is a woman in disguise, a mad scientist who is conducting experiments outlawed by the world government--these experiments involve breeding real live tyrannosaurs!  Her tyrannosaur breeding ground is on an isolated peninsula of the island, but her creations have escaped confinement and are now among the robot dinos on the main part of the island! Sternius is desperate to make sure the inquisitive Namoya and Bodee (he turns out to be an undercover investigator for the world government) don't expose what she is up to, and is willing to go to any length to silence them.  As we kind of expect in these kinds of scenarios, the mad scientist's own creation kills her, and Fletcher and Namoya fall in love and (I guess) live happily ever after.

Wells includes some very vague hints of a theme of man's close relationship to nature, and how it is critical that we not forget it, even if we live in automated underground metropolises.  While in a swamp, Fletcher, in the throes of a fever, raves "Listen to our little brothers and sisters singing us awake.  Yesterday!  Yesterday, Kit, we crawled out of the same slime.  And they are still here waiting to welcome us back."  The decision to make the villain a woman who disguises herself as a man perhaps suggests that Wells' "message" is that we shouldn't mess with what mother nature has provided us. But all this feels like an afterthought.  (The late revelation that the villain was a woman, a crossdresser in fact, reminded me of two of the early Mike Hammer novels, I, the Jury and Vengeance is Mine!  And of course it makes sense for a character who brings new life into the world to be a woman.)  

The Parasaurians is competent if not extraordinary.  It didn't bore or irritate me, and kept me entertained, so I'll give it a mild recommendation.

Add The Parasaurians to the honor roll of paperbacks
which have given their lives in service to this blog

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Chieftain of Andor by Andrew J. Offutt

An atavist, they called him on Earth.  A throwback, a semibarbarian.  A "savage," a man who preferred a free life and personal justice, given and taken.  And they were right.  Thus--he belonged here.

In October of last year I read Andrew J. Offutt's The Iron Lords.  That novel, the first of a trilogy, was intriguing enough that I have been looking for the sequels every time I am in a used bookstore, and in the course of this quest buying other paperbacks by Offutt.  This week I decided to read Chieftain of Andor, a 1976 novel by Offutt.  (I own the 1976 Dell paperback; British editions from 1979 bear the alternate title Clansman of Andor--now there's a painful demotion!)  Before starting Chieftain of Andor, I googled Offutt's name and came upon a fascinating and even moving and shocking profile of Offutt by his son, Chris Offutt, himself a critically acclaimed writer, that appeared last year in The New York Times.  I strongly recommend the article to anybody interested in genre literature and the people who write it.  (This year Chris Offutt published a full length book about his father.)

Chieftan of Andor is an adventure story full of elements to be found in other Edgar Rice Burroughs-inspired fiction I have read over my decades-long career of reading books about guys fighting aliens and monsters with swords, sprinkled with some idiosyncratic components reflective of Offutt's own interests and opinions.

The 203-page novel is split into three parts.  In Part I we meet Robert Cleve, a 20th-century American who seeks adventure and so answers a newspaper ad seeking such adventurous men.  We've seen such ads in Robert Heinlein's 1963 Glory Road and Ken Bulmer's 1983 The Diamond Contessa.  Cleve meets a guy named Gordon who represents a secretive organization that wants to transmit a capable man's soul, or consciousness or mind or whatever you want to call it, to the planet Andor, into the head of Doralan Andrah, a fighting man of a medieval society who is dying of a brain tumor.  (Why Gordon's group cares what happens on that alien planet is never divulged.)  If my memory serves me, in Otis Adelbert Kline's 1929 Planet of Peril and Lin Carter's 1972 Under the Green Star, 20th-century Earthmen's minds were transmitted into the bodies of sword-swingers on other worlds.  (I think Michael Moorcock's John Daker stories, like The Eternal Champion, have a somewhat similar, but even less sciency, premise.)

Cleve agrees to take part in this crazy scheme.  Gordon warns him that on Andor magic is real and he should beware witches; Offutt explains this magic with references to "fields" (ensuring that this book is nominally science fiction.)  Reminding me of Poul Anderson's 1954 Brain Wave, Offut tells us that as solar systems and galaxies drift through space, they pass in and out of fields that nullify Aristotelian logic, allowing sorcery to operate.  The Earth was, apparently, in such fields during the lives of Moses and Jesus, allowing their miracles to take place; Andor is currently in such a field, fostering the careers of witches both malign and benevolent.

The first 50 pages of the novel concern court intrigue as Cleve, in Andrah's body and with both his own memories and Andrah's, unites tribes under his leadership and takes back a walled town from a usurper.  As king, Cleve is seduced by an ambitious witch, the slender and beautiful Shansi.  A second witch, Ledni, who has been friends with Andrah since their childhood, tries to save Andrah/Cleve, but is outwitted.  In that New York Times article I recommended to you we learned that Offutt got some kind of erotic charge out of depicting women in pain or torment, and in Part I of Chieftain of Andor get graphic descriptions of how poor Ledni (as well as another attractive young woman) are murdered by Shansi's magic.  (I was surprised by the death of Ledni, whom I had expected would be the love interest, so early in the book, the same way I was surprised by the death of Suldrun so early in Jack Vance's 1983 Suldrun's Garden.) With Ledni out of the way, and armed with a sample of Andrah's sperm (she secreted a sponge in her you-know what!), Shansi is able to cast a spell on sleeping Cleve/Andrah which separates the Cleve and Andrah personalities.  When Cleve wakes up in Part II in Andrah's body, laying on a raft travelling down a river in a cannibal-infested jungle, he is at a total loss!  He doesn't even remember being king in Part I!
"My God!  He did it!  Gordon did it--but he failed!  I'm not on Earth.  But I do not have the memories he said I would have!"
Cleve quickly makes friends with some cold-blooded merpeople by fighting alongside them first against some cannibals and then against some kind of alien octopus.  They take him to their underground city where, having already slept with a witch (though he sadly doesn't remember that caper) he adds a mermaid to his record of conquests--this ectothermic cutie pie can't resist his warm body!

You may recall that when John Carter went to Mars he didn't just participate in wars, marry a princess and make himself top calot of the planet--he also tried to reform Martian culture, teaching the violent Martians to be kind and exposing their bogus religion. Well, when Cleve goes to Andor he doesn't just overthrow usurpers and bed witches and mermaids; he also tries to reform the native culture, by preaching the gospel of tolerance!
"We're both men, Zivaat.  Just...slightly different.  Men need not always be enemies, because they are different."
But don't waste your time nominating Cleve for some diversity award--in a full frontal assault on feminism that cites Stendhal and "all those psychologists I've read," he also expresses the belief that women are creatures driven by emotion who have a natural desire to be a strong man's subordinate, a helpmate whose life is directed by her man. Efforts to emulate and compete with men, or to dominate men, will only lead to female unhappiness!

(I'm assuming all of Cleve's philosophical sallies reflect Offutt's own thinking--"Robert Cleve," like "Gordon," not only reminds the reader of British adventurers in the "Orient," but resembles one of Offutt's oft-used pseudonyms, John Cleve.)

John Carter and Tarzan go native, and Burroughs' fanciful versions of Mars and the African jungle serve as a means of criticizing civilization, and Offutt does a little of this with Andor.  Reminding me of the protagonist of Robert Howard's 1939 Almuric, Cleve is an "atavist" more suited to the primitive and violent world of Andor than to Earth.  Even though the Andorans we meet in the novel are always enslaving people and conspiring to stab people, including Cleve himself, in the back, Cleve persists in his arguments that they are better than Earthmen.  For example, Andorans care more about honor and fairness and less about money than do people on Earth.  Cleve is even willing to excuse Andoran cannibalism!  Not only does he consider many of the predatory elites of Earth no better than cannibals (the Communist Party governments of Russia and China are mentioned specifically), but asserts that our disgust at eating human flesh is just an irrational taboo, man!:  "...what could be more childish than to express disgust at the customs of other people?"  The Christian religion also comes in for some rough criticism from our man Cleve, making me think of Offutt as a kind of 20th century Kentucky-based Marquis de Sade.  

The merpeople live in the base of a mountain; in pitch black tunnels above them live people who have evolved in such a way that they are blind and "see" via echolocation. When Cleve realizes that the merpeople are plotting to maim or murder him he sneaks away with one of these eyeless people, whom the merpeeps have been keeping as a slave.  After he has sex with one of the eyeless women Cleve climbs further up the mountain and outside to its snowy top, where he fights hulking brutes whom he suspects are relatives of the Earthly sasquatch and yeti.  Fortunately he has what amounts to a ray gun, given him by the blind people, to defeat these monsters.  (While Tarzan, John Carter and Conan routinely defeat, by hand, dozens of human assailants as well as lions in a way that challenges our credulity, Cleve wins his fights via trickery, teamwork and superior technology.)  

In Part III of Chieftain of Andor Cleve finds, at the base of the mountain (on the other side from the cannibal jungle and river) the bustling port city of Sharne, whose economy relies largely on the slave trade.  Suave Cleve makes friends there, including with another sexy witch, Lahri, who is eager to share her bed with him.  Lahri, a good witch, can read his mind and detect that there are two personalities in there, and she helps him reintegrate his Andrah memories.  The novel ends as Andrah and friends flee the city on a ship, foiling the pursuit of the soldiers and sailors of yet another witch, Queen Kelas, tyrant of Sharne.    

The novel seems to end in the middle of the story, and lacks a conventional climax, as if Offutt was running into a page limit and/or expected to pen a sequel.  Presumably Cleve/Andrah is headed back to where his adventures started, to liberate Andrah's people from Shansi's rule and avenge the murder of poor Ledni; there is also a prophecy that he will return to the port of Sharne to overthrow Kelas.  It doesn't appear that these adventures were ever committed to print, however.  (Maybe in a sequel we also would have learned why Gordon wanted to save Andrah and why Shansi spared Andrah instead of summarily executing him like she did half a dozen other people.)

I enjoyed Chieftain of Andor, it moves briskly, and all the strange and silly philosophical and scientific asides about feminism, cultural relativism, how merpeople and eyeless people might evolve, how magic could work and how stone age people might construct a ray gun out of radioactive rocks, are fun.  It probably qualifies as rushed hack work, but it doesn't slavishly ape Burroughs or Howard, and doesn't rely on repetitive fight scenes or graphic sex--there are in fact far fewer pages devoted to sex and violence than I had expected.  I don't know that I can recommend this strange piece of work to the average reader, but committed devotees of sword and planet/planetary romance stories may find it an interesting, entertaining curiosity.


My copy of Chieftain of Andor, Dell 4551, has five pages of ads in the back, describing books about a real-life British commando raid, a fictional haunted U. S. Navy submarine, and a celebrity scientist's speculations about extraterrestrial life, as well as a science fiction novel written by Philip José Farmer but credited to fictional author Kilgore Trout, who was based on Theodore Sturgeon--these books all sound pretty good!  (Behold the power of advertising!)  There's also a list of SF titles from Dell that look like they are worth checking out, featuring Robert Silverberg, Jack Vance, and more names readers of this blog will recognize.

Quit your job, ignore your spouse and read all of these!