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 Jose 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!   

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