Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Messenger of Zhuvastou by Andrew J. Offutt

All he had was a better-than-average set of reflexes and a fair ability at fencing, and what that Earthside shrink had called a born leadership ability.  And a tremendous knowledge of history--mostly wrong, since it came from movies.
Alright, here's one with a title I can't even pronounce. I'm sure the boys down in marketing loved this one. "Andy, would it kill you to call this one Messenger to Planet Z or Messenger from the Galactic Empire?" At least it has a terrific Jeff Jones cover, an heroic celebration of the human body and man's unquenchable desire to climb up the most dangerous precipice he can find while wearing as little clothing as possible.  A brassiere?  That shit would cramp our style!  A rope?  You have got to be kidding!  You can wear a metal circlet thing in your hair so you are looking your best when those creeptastic birds attack us, but that is where I draw the line!

(As we saw with The YnglingJones' evocative cover has nothing to do with the actual characters, setting or story of the book which it adorns.)

The people at Berkley presented Andrew J. Offutt's Messenger of Zhuvastou to the sword and planet community in 1973.  This one is long, 286 pages, and the print seems small--two randomly selected pages each have 45 lines on them, while similarly chosen pages in The Shores of Kansas have only 35 lines, and pages of The Yngling weigh in at 35 and 37.  The contents page lists 40 chapters, and they all have titles that refer, perhaps jocularly, to classic literature, history, or conventional phrases. I have a feeling this is going to be a long and crazy ride.  (This feeling was reinforced when I found that the very first word of the text included a typo!  In fact, this book is full of typos.  Shame on you, Berkley!)

Moris Keniston, a minor celebrity as not only the wealthy son of a Senator of the Galactic Empire centered on Earth but also a talented athlete, wants to prove to himself that he has what it takes to succeed on his own without Daddy's money and connections. He finds just the place to prove his prowess: Hellene, a planet whose more or less human natives, a violent, hedonistic and even sadistic lot, live a sort of ancient/medieval lifestyle, with fortified towns, mail armor, crossbows, etc.  Ostensibly, Keniston is going to Hellene in pursuit of his fiancee, Elaine Dixon, who has flown the coop. (I followed the love of my life from New York City to Iowa, so maybe following a chick from Earth to a death world isn't all that unbelievable.)

Years ago I read a bunch of L. Sprague de Camp's tepid sword and planet tales set in his Viagens Interplanetarias universe.  (I thought de Camp's efforts to make a John Carter story more "realistic" drained much of the fun out of the whole business.)  The title and opening scenes of Messenger of Zhuvastou lead me to believe that Offutt was writing this novel as a sort of homage to de Camp--like de Camp's Viagens tales, Hellene is characterized by the pervasive use of "Z" proper nouns, and, just like the protagonists of de Camp's books, Keniston has to have an interview with an official of the Earth imperial administration before setting foot on Hellene.  The authorities confiscate all Keniston's high tech equipment (lest it fall into the hands of the bellicose natives) and provide him an elaborate disguise so he can pass for a native.  This disguise involves invasive cosmetic surgery--the Hellenes have blue hair, manila folder-colored skin, and very wide mouths, and our hero has to go under the needle and the knife in order to get the look that won't get too many looks.  (People get similarly extensive disguises in the Viagens books.) Keniston's cover is as a royal messenger in the employ of the emperor of Zhuvastou; a role which will render Keniston's wealth and extensive travels less suspicious.

Offutt seems to have also taken up de Camp's mission of making the planetary romance more realistic.  Keniston doesn't fight off dozens of foes single-handed like Edgar Rice Burroughs and Robert Howard heroes sometimes do, and Offutt reminds us again and again how unlike a fictional hero Keniston is, how scared he is during fights, for example.  When Keniston kills a man for the first time, he vomits, a reaction the sadomasochistic natives find surprising. (The novel's most memorable scene is when a Hellene woman is sexually aroused by this victory of Keniston's and begs the fatigued Earthman to take her violently, to hurt her, her "dirty talk" consisting of a wound by wound recounting of the gory fight.)

Offutt doesn't just nod to de Camp in the book; Messenger of Zhuvastou comes off as a celebration of dozens of his other favorite books and movies--hardly a page goes by that doesn't refer directly or subtly to somebody like Ian Fleming, L. Frank Baum, Mark Twain, Cecil B. DeMille, Charlton Heston, W. C. Fields, or Alexandre Dumas, and the list goes on and on. 

Messenger of Zhuvastou's plot is episodic and picaresque--Keniston travels from walled town to walled town, spending lots of time in inns, making friends and tarrying with women, learning about Hellene society and getting mixed up in capers.  He befriends a member of an ethnic minority (these people have grey skin) and preaches against racism.  He uses his wits or his fencing skills to survive drunken brawls, confrontations with the police, and assassination attempts.  He helps a woman escape servitude in one town to join her lover in another.  He crosses a swamp full of monsters and an arid desert haunted by bandits, nearly dying of thirst in the process. He falls in love with a woman (she turns out to be a princess in disguise) and has to rescue her from a dungeon torture chamber before they can get married.

There's a lot of sex in this book, though not any really explicit sex scenes.  There are prostitutes and harem girls everywhere, and Offutt obsessively describes women's secondary sexual characteristics and skimpy attire.  Offutt, who is pretty hard on Christianity (he follows the line that Christianity caused the "Dark Ages" and retarded European development for centuries), reminds us repeatedly that the Hellenes don't have an "antisex" religion that stifles their urges, so everybody on the planet is promiscuous and nobody associates marriage or deep meaningful love relationships with monogamy; men share their girlfriends with each other, for example.  

Gender roles, and relations between the sexes, are a big theme of the book, and Offutt comes down firmly on the side of traditional gender roles.  In the last third or so of the book Keniston arrives at Zhavalanko, a fortified city which has undergone a feminist revolution.  A cunning woman, using high tech devices like radios and firearms smuggled onto Hellene despite the precautions of the Galactic authorities, has murdered the king and taken over, ruling as a dictator at the head of an all-female army and an all-female priesthood.  This tyrant is Elaine Dixon of Earth, whom we learn was not Keniston's fiance after all, but his brother's: Dixon murdered Keniston's brother and escaped from a prison planet, and Keniston's true mission to Hellene is one of revenge.

Even though Offutt (and Keniston) admit women on Hellene are second class citizens, they have no sympathy with Dixon's revolution, calling it "unnatural" and comparing her ruling party to the Nazis and the Communists.  Offutt makes clear his belief that men and women have natural roles and it is folly to tamper with this natural order, he even describes the sight of a city street full of women who have taken up bourgeois professions like banker and merchant as a "nightmare."  Psychologically healthy women, he believes, naturally desire a man to be in charge of them and take care of them, and members of Elaine Dixon's all female army prove eager to desert and join the counter revolution once they find it is lead by strong competent men like Keniston and his friends.  Keniston's counterrevolutionary army overthrows Dixon and returns men and women to their rightful places in society, and in the end of the book Keniston decides to stay on Hellene as the ruler of Zhavalanko.  

These Edgar Rice Burroughs/Robert Howard style stories often ask the question, "Is it better to live as a civilized man or a barbarian?" To me this seems like what the kids call "a no-brainer"; of course it is better to sit in an air conditioned art museum across the street from a skyscraper and read a novel than it is to sit in a tree in a steaming jungle gnawing on a raw baby allosaurus leg while bugs gnaw on you and Momma Allosaurus waits at the bottom of the tree, ready to serve up some harsh justice. Somehow, John Carter, Tarzan, Conan, and the guy from Almuric have trouble with this easy question and have to do lots of field research, living in both the civilized town and the hellish wilderness gathering evidence, and somehow they always come to the wrong conclusion, that a life of danger and savagery is to be preferred to a life of leisure and sophistication.

Offutt and his hero Keniston follow in the august footsteps of their predecessors; despite all the fear and danger, Keniston comes to prefer life on Hellene where people are constantly trying to beat him up, stab him or shoot him.  Halfway through the book we are told that he
liked the weight of the sword at his side, the long cloak flapping at his heels, the short unencumbering kilt.  This, he had begun to believe, was the way life should be lived, not existing on Clement Keniston's bequest and trying to run his business empire...
By the end of the book Hellene's bloodthirsty mores have begun to rub off on him, and he is declaring that Moris Keniston is dead and that his cover name is his true name, his true identity.  Hellene, for all its dangers, gives him the opportunity to be who he really is, a natural leader and man of action; life in cushy Galactic society wouldn't bring out his true potential.

But just as John Carter, who abandoned Earth to go native on Barsoom, worked to reform Martian culture and religion, Keniston, uncomfortable with the racism and the power of the priests on Hellene, works to diminish these characteristics of Hellene culture.  And he doesn't fully embrace Hellene's sadomasochism or the way women are relegated to second class status.  The woman Keniston falls in love with and marries is well-educated, a brave fighter, and a skilled rider, and Offutt presents multiple incidents in which her resourcefulness saves Keniston's life.  Keniston also refuses to beat her, even as she enviously admires the bruises proudly borne by other wives.  (Like so many exploitation writers, and the producers of such ubiquitous TV programs as Law and Order: Perverts Division, Offutt has his cake and eats it, too, titillating the audience with talk of denigrating sex and wife beating but maintaining membership in decent society by denouncing such unsavoury practices.)

So, is this long novel which baldly presents Christians and feminists with innumerable reasons to find it enraging any good?  The plot is not bad; fighting monsters and bandits, climbing mountains and crossing deserts and swamps, falling in love and rescuing gorgeous women, and overthrowing tyrants is what we more or less expect from these books.  And the plot is well structured, Offutt offering the reader mysteries to unravel, foreshadowing later developments, and showing how Keniston's actions early in the book make possible his triumph at its end.  But there are lots of problems. The tone and the characters are very bland, and the style is flat; I didn't care who got killed or who had sex with who.  Offutt includes many jokes, and they are all mild, neither funny nor offensively bad, but they help to defuse any sense of drama or terror; we are told Keniston suffers terrible hardships and fears, but the reader never suffers along with him, just watches, detached, knowing another joke is coming along in the next paragraph.          

The biggest problem is perhaps the length and pacing of the novel.  We often praise economy here at MPorcius Fiction Log, and this is a quality Offutt's novel severely lacks; considering how much actually happens in the novel, it is very very long, and the pace is quite slow. The text is repetitive, with Offutt providing a superfluity of incidents that demonstrate each character's personality traits. Offutt also spends a lot of time describing clothes and people's physical appearances, but in a way that fails to add to their characterization.  Offutt's verbosity does not really add to the atmosphere of the book or make its world more vivid or memorable; it just makes the book longer. Typographical errors, the use of esoteric words (maybe if I had gotten my degree at Princeton instead of Rutgers I'd have recognized words like "vermiform," "muliebrity" and "cruor") and of words Offutt has simply made up (the names of Hellene animals, for example) also serve to slow down the reader.  (It is hard to explain exactly why, but when Tom Disch in Camp Concentration or Gene Wolfe in Book of the New Sun hurls some word nobody knows at you it deepens the book's atmosphere, tells you something about the character and his environment, but in Messenger of Zhuvastou the hard words are just obstacles that make the story more vague or opaque.)

Because I am interested in the whole sword fighting on an alien planet genre, and I find Offutt's odd career interesting, I found Messenger of Zhuvastou worthwhile, but only just barely.  I can only recommend the novel to the sword and planet completist or the Offutt collector, and even then, it suffers in comparison to the classics of the genre or Offutt's own better work. Even for its target audience, Messenger of Zhuvastou is merely acceptable.


The marketing boys at Berkley got their way when it came to advertising.  Bound into the spine of the book was a color ad; the ad in mine was torn out by a previous owner, so I don't know what it was shilling; often such ads are for booze or tobacco products. There are also two pages of ads at the very end of the novel, promoting Berkeley SF titles by authors more famous and critically renowned than Offutt hmself:

The boys down in marketing get their final revenge on the back cover, with a mysterious ad for Dream Power which lists no author or description for the volume, just the promise that "IT CAN CHANGE YOUR LIFE."  Both Offutt and I may have our gripes with the 21st century, but at least nowadays we have google to solve these mysteries in a matter of seconds.  Dream Power, it turns out, was a top-selling self help (or shall we say, "self-awareness?") book by Dr. Ann Farady, who advises us that our dreams contain vital messages.  If Dr. Farady is to be believed (and hey, when was the last time a doctor made a mistake?) my recent dreams are telling me to move back to New York because Jerry Seinfeld is eager to be my friend and to stop driving because I will soon be in a terrible automobile accident.  Hopefully my next dream will explain an easy way to finance these oh so welcome life changes.

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