Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Hunting on Kunderer by William Barton

Tikavoi looked over at him.  "Anxious to catch up with your Jew, captain?"
Den Ennov smiled.  "Well," he said, "someone tried to wreck my spaceship.  Not only that, but tried to kill me, my crew, and all of my passengers."  His face took on a look that was increasingly more grim each time that it appeared.  "I mean to find out who."
According to wikipedia, Ace Double 48245, which presents Hunting on Kunderer by William Barton and Life with Lancelot by John T. Phillifent, was the very last of the famous tĂȘte-bĂȘche Ace Doubles. Let's see if the much-beloved and highly collectible series, which showcased such fan favorites as Jack Vance, Golden Age icons like A. E. van Vogt and Isaac Asimov, and innovative critical darlings like Thomas Disch, Samuel Delany and Barry Malzberg, went out with a bang by looking into Hunting on Kunderer. Hunting on Kunderer's first and only appearance was here in Ace Double 48245 in 1973. Hmmmm...that doesn't sound good.

The year: 4125.  The place: Planet Kunderer, where the shrubs are as big as Earth trees and the trees are as big as skyscrapers.  Kunderer, only settled by humans 40 years ago, has only one space port to link it to galactic civilization, which includes the vast human Terran Colony System of hundreds of planets as well as numerous other human and non-human space empires.  It is at this space port that wealthy tourists arrive on their way to Kunderer's jungles (known as "the Thicket"), where they hunt giant reptiles.

Now, I am totally down with a story about people hunting dinosaurs, as dedicated readers of MPorcius Fiction Log already know.  But I immediately got the feeling that Hunting on Kunderer was going to be pretentious when I saw that each chapter began with a sleep-inducing poem.  My fears were strengthened after a few pages of Barton's prose, prominent components of which included long sentences and long paragraphs and long descriptions overstuffed with tedious detail, extraneous romantic phrases, and unnecessary equivocation.  Here's a sentence (about shrubs) from the second page of text:
Their trunks, while of that same alien scalyness of the trees, did not flaunt the dead sameness of lemony yellow that was a blight upon the beauty of larger things; instead, their yellows were tempered and made heir to a strong, perhaps even noble, handsomeness by a monstrous blending of metallic greens and blues and of a widely separated splash of pink or perhaps violet.        
On the same page, the first sentence of a paragraph about the fauna of Kunderer, featuring one of those pointless romantic sallies:
Through the harshly beautiful jungles of the Thicket there wandered things which were parts of that great eddy in the laws of the cosmos called life.
"were parts of that great eddy in the laws of the cosmos called life" doesn't add anything to the reader's knowledge of Kunderer, it is just some bilge that makes the book longer and distracts the reader.  Not good!

Fortunately, as the story proceeded and the detective-type plot got underway, I became acclimated to Barton's style and I think he let up a bit on the extravagant verbiage.  Our story concerns a hunting party of five tourists and their guide.

The main hunting party:

Gilgamesh: Short and muscular, gruff and taciturn, a veteran of service in the Terran Colonial Navy, Gilgamesh is the party guide.  He lives on Kunderer and greets the tourists when they arrive.

Uri ben Baruch: Jewish, three hundred years old and fat, the former prime minister of the Vinzeth Empire.  When he first describes Baruch, Barton tells us that the Jews are the ultimate expression of all that is fine about humanity, and that they ruled the human race back in the Third Millennium, until gentiles overthrew their oligarchy.  At least that is what I think Barton says; judge for yourself:

Bottom of page 14, top of page 15
Baruch was castrated at age ten but recently had a new set of genitals installed.  A three-hundred-year-old virgin, he lusts after the prostitute, Maryam.

Scott MacLeod: Born in Scotland, an officer in the Terran Colonial Navy.  He and Gilgamesh quickly become friends, united by their military backgrounds and shared attitudes.

Pashai anke Soring: An eight-foot-tall alien of great beauty, an anthropologist studying the human race.  He is especially interested in Jews, and asks Baruch a lot of questions:
"I am more interested in the Jewish human as he is today and how he manages to insert himself into a position of power and wealth.  I feel that this is the key to Terran economic structure."
Soring is also fascinated by human sexuality, which he has been exploring with the prostitute Maryam, whom he has brought along on the trip to Kunderer and into Thicket.  A non-mammalian creature, he has no penis, so he uses his hands to stimulate Maryam and observe her responses.  Soring hopes to observe human sexual relations of a "noncommercial" character, and so eggs Scott on to seduce Maryam. When accused of using Maryam as a slave, he denies this, but he does seem to be manipulating her through hypnosis.

Maryam: The human prostitute, born in a slum inhabited by Greeks and Arabs on planet Hekate.  Her experiences with men and their selfishness (or maybe just Soring's mental powers?) have lead her to fall in love with the inhuman Soring.  Her character is an indictment of men and the way society uses women, but feminists may object to the fact that she is the least fleshed-out of the main characters (she doesn't even have a last name) and that she is in the book as a kind of literary device that provides insight into the male characters.  

These amateur hunters all arrived on the same starship, the Wandervogel, captained by Bela den Ennov.  Ennov is even fatter than Baruch--almost 400 pounds!  Ennov discovers that somebody has sabotaged the Wandervogel's space drive, and believes it must have been one of the four hunters.  Because a space naval officer like MacLeod and an alien from a disciplined and peaceful race like Soring's are essentially above suspicion, and Maryam presumably knows nothing about space drives, the apparently emotionally unstable Baruch (he has tried to commit suicide, perhaps more than once, since getting deposed) is the prime suspect!  So Ennov hires his own guide, Tikavoi, a huge ogrish alien, and pursues Gilgamesh's party into the jungle.

Interspersed with the story of the tourists hunting dinos and Ennov hunting the saboteur and various people's sexual relationships with Maryam, are asides about the history of interstellar travel and politics (the "Combine" mentioned in connection with Jews above is described as "a unification of the old Communist International, the Interstellar Businessmen's Syndicate, and a revived and modified Cosa Nostra") and the investigation of the sabotage conducted by Ennov's crew and the port's naval personnel back at the space port.

Stories about hunting often address the question of "what is a man?"  Is hunting big game for sport manly because it is risky and requires a willingness to kill?  (A character is killed by a dinosaur in Hunting on Kunderer, maybe because another character doesn't shoot fast enough--perhaps Barton airing these points.)  Or is big game hunting just a sick parody of the real manliness of hunters who hunt to feed their families?  (Barton includes a scene in which it is revealed that the dinosaur meat is inedible and there is no market for dinosaur hides--the guides just disintegrate the dino carcasses with their power guns after the tourists have felled the beasts with the compressed-air-powered projectile guns supplied to them by the guides.)

After he has sex for the first time, Baruch, invoking Jewish tradition, writes in his journal, in all-caps, "TODAY I AM A MAN."  (Barton provides us a peek into several of the character's journals.)  Ruling an authoritarian empire for 260 years and killing scores of people in self defense and while acting as the figurehead Emperor's executioner didn't make him feel like a man, but bringing Maryam to orgasm does. Baruch is not only the best shot of the group, he is also the best lover, and, even though he has spent most of his life as a merciless unelected dictator, he has the most human feeling of all the characters--he and Maryam fall in love and he plans to buy her the expensive immortality treatment he enjoys.  Baruch, even though he was once a eunuch, embodies all the attributes one might assign "a real man:" he is a ruler and an expert fighter who has killed many men, he is smart and educated and fabulously wealthy, he is a generous and talented lover who pleases women sexually and sees women as more than sex objects.  Of all these attributes, it is his ability to love that makes him happy.    

In what I am considering an interesting authorial choice, halfway through the book the naval officers at the port figure out who conducted the sabotage and the culprit, a character so minor we never heard his name before, commits suicide.  (There is plenty of suicide in this book.)  We observe Ennov's investigation for page after page, all the time knowing the tourists are all innocent.  Finally, fed up with the tourists' intransigence, Ennov tries to manhandle Baruch and Baruch, a master of hand to hand combat despite his fat eunuch's body, kills him.

The real plot of the novel (I guess) is not the dinosaur hunting and the hunt for the saboteur, but how the characters change and what the characters learn.  Baruch goes from sexless tyrant to sensitive lover.  The professional men of violence, MacLeod, Gilgamesh and Tikavoi, all face crises that change their lives and/or their views of themselves that revolve around whether or not they are capable of shooting someone or something.  Soring, in what looks to my 2017 eyes like a foreshadowing of the replication crisis you perhaps have read about in the news (all these stories of useless scientific studies resonate with me because I spent over ten years working in an academic research office and all the social science research people were doing seemed, to me, to be shoddy and/or mendacious), realizes, by observing the other tourists and the guides, that the conclusions of the centuries-long sociological and anthropological research his race has conducted on humans and on Tikavoi's race are probably all wrong.  And Maryam, after a life of poverty as a whore (Barton repeatedly uses "whore," not "prostitute" as I have) and experimental subject, finally finds a man who loves her and will spend a bazillion bucks on her.

I've already suggested that Barton's style can be distracting, and there are other distractions.  Barton says one of the Kunderer monsters looks like the tyrannosaurs of prehistoric Earth, but then describes a creature that walks on four legs and has a spiked tail, which is true of several different dinosaurs, but not a tyrannosaur.  Why unnecessarily use the word "dinosaur" in your book if you know less about dinosaurs than a six-year old?  In his story set over 2000 years in the future he includes jokes and references directly aimed at his 1970s audience: Baruch ostentatiously smokes cigars imported from Earth, from "a place called Cuba," and his weapon of choice is an ancient revolver he got from a museum, even though he lives in an age of "powerguns."  Soring cooks MacLeod and Maryam lasagne, having got the recipe from an old anthropology text on human cuisine by an academic of his species, and finds that his fellow tourists have never seen it before, because it went out of style a thousand years ago.

Now comes the part of the blog post in which I tell you, after listing a hundred things wrong with Hunting on Kunderer, that I am still giving it a thumbs up.  The book is ambitious, tackles subjects you don't necessarily see in a lot of SF books (how often do we read a book which seems to be endorsing Benjamin Disraeli's view that the Jews are a natural aristocracy?), and is full of surprises because of Barton's odd choices.  Marginal recommendation for this oddity, though it is a must read for students of portrayals of Jews in SF.

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