Saturday, August 12, 2017

Finishing off Tomorrow: Neil Shapiro, Andrew Offutt, and Greg Bear


Alright, it's the final installment of our look at 1975's Tomorrow, a hardcover anthology of brand new science fiction stories that was edited by controversial anthologist Roger Elwood and was never printed in paperback.  Three stories remain, Neil Shapiro's "Journey of the Soul," Andrew J. Offutt's "Enchante," and Greg Bear's "Perihesperon."

"Journey of the Soul" by Neil Shapiro

I'm always a little surprised that the general consensus favors Disney's 1982 Tron over 1979's The Black Hole.  I may be the only person that finds Tron a snooze and The Black Hole compelling, but it seems to me that The Black Hole is obviously better. Tron has a lame frame story about office politics, a pedestrian quest plot and totally forgettable characters and actors; The Black Hole is about explorers, haunted houses, zombies, mad scientists, and gun fights (i. e., stuff that is awesome) and features actors everybody loves like Roddy McDowell, Ernest Borgnine and Anthony Perkins.  People make a big deal out of the graphic design of Tron, but to me all that glowing shit is just a gimmick; the robots and space ships in The Black Hole are much more interesting. Now, maybe people think the fact that at the end of The Black Hole the good characters go to Heaven and the evil characters go to Hell is stupid, and maybe they are right, but at least it is interesting and a surprise the first time you see it--in the beginning of Tron people magically go inside a computer to find a magical land inhabited by tiny little people, which is just as stupid and is totally boring.

I rationalize bringing up this pet peeve of mine with the excuse that Neil Shapiro's "Journey of the Soul" is all about people who go into a black hole.  Empress Betty Grey has been deposed by democratic revolutionaries, and they sentence her to exile and send her into a black hole.  (The narrator expresses contempt for democracy and assures us Betty Grey was a benevolent dictator.)  On the other side of the black hole she finds a new universe, devised by fellow human Charon, a hermit who moved into the black hole over five hundred years ago.  The laws of physics are different in this universe--for example, space is not a black airless vacuum, but a phantasmagoria of different colored clouds and mists, a primordial chaos which Charon (and soon the deposed Empress) can form into whatever he likes through force of will.  He has built a city, he has created friends and advisers, he can fly, he can breathe vacuum, etc.

What he can't do is create life, and so he is lonely, despite his artificial friends and advisers, and so he falls in love with Betty Grey.  Betty Grey just wants to get back to our universe and get her ass back on her throne, of course.  But then it is explained to her that there is no way to get back to her Empire (if you go back through the black hole you reappear at a random point in our universe) so she embraces a new relationship with Charon.

This story feels long (it takes up 50 pages) and is boring.  There are boring (and unconvincing) technical explanations of what a black hole is and how people can be crushed while passing through one but come out alive on the other side, boring conversations explaining the nature of the malleable universe on the Charon side of the black hole, and boring scenes in which an artificial person explains Charon's psyche to Betty Grey.  The first page has a sarcastic, iconoclastic tone, but that tone is dropped and the rest of the story is straightforward.  Betty Grey's evolution from Charon hater to Charon lover doesn't feel real and doesn't have any emotional resonance, it just happens.  

Hubba hubba!
Gotta give "Journey of the Soul" a negative vote.

In this series of blog posts I have been talking a little bit about the criticisms Roger Elwood has received for his anthologies, which some have claimed flooded the market and made anthologies by other editors less salable, and which are sometimes said to be full of weak authors who published little.  Shapiro probably qualifies as one of these lesser authors.  isfdb lists only two novels by him (one of them, Mind Call, has a striking cover that suggests it is a sex novel) and ten short stories, though several of the stories appeared in F&SF, which I believe is one of the more prestigious SF magazines.

"Enchante" by Andrew Offutt

This five-page story is overwritten, full of fancy adjectives and lots and lots of metaphors.  Offutt crams two "undead fingers" metaphors into the very first paragraph, and adds a third "living dead" metaphor for good measure:

I guess this is intentional, an attempt to emulate or caricature a florid fairy tale.

A wizard turns a handsome prince into a frog, telling him that he will be returned to human form should a fair maiden kiss him.  The twist ending, which I predicted, comes when he finally meets a perfectly beautiful maiden and she eagerly kisses him ("'What a perfect frog,' she breathed"): as he is returned to human form she is transformed back into the frog she once was before the wizard got to her, and both are heartbroken.

Acceptable.  In the last line, the moral, Offutt writes, "...true beauty and true perfection are not for men, for they are the work only of Allah, and sorcerers, and artists," a reminder of Offutt's interest in Islam, which we have detected in other of his productions, like King Dragon.

(It is hard not to suspect some link between Offutt's interest in Islam and both his apparent sexual interests--he wrote lots of pornography about women in bondage or under torture--and his apparent attitude about gender roles, which we noticed in his L. Sprague de Camp-style planetary romance, Messenger of Zhuvastou.)

"Perihesperon" by Greg Bear

"Perihesperon" has the honor of being the only story in Tomorrow to have been reprinted in English.  It would appear in 2002's The Collected Stories of Greg Bear, and isfdb is telling me a revised version was included in 1992's British collection The Venging.  Was the one in The Collected Stories of Greg Bear the revised or original version?  I cannot be sure.  I have only read one other story by Bear, "Webster," though for years I mixed him up with Gregory Benford and thought of In the Ocean of Night whenever I saw his name.

Karen is a teenaged girl on an interstellar passenger ship.  She wakes up to discover the ship has been critically damaged and she is the only survivor.  An old man appears who explains that he came in his own one-man ship to help when he saw a meteor hit Karen's vessel, but Bear provides clues, or red herrings, that lead us readers to suspect he may actually be some kind of space pirate.  Whether he is innocent or some kind of criminal, he has but days to live because, as he was struck by a sudden flux of radiation from the liner's damaged engine struck him, wrecking his ship and his internal organs.  Karen is also doomed, as the liner is in an orbit around planet Hesperus that will repeatedly take it through a cluster of asteroids ("moonlets") and is bound to hit one before help arrives.

I guess the meat of the story is how these two, an old man who (according to his claims, at least) has a full life of adventures behind him and a girl who hasn't really lived yet, face death.

This story is OK, an attempt to marry hard SF (airlocks, force fields, radiation, space suits, calculating orbits) with (the author hopes profound) reflections on life and death. It's not great, but not objectionable.  I'm curious what we are supposed to think about the old man (I can't help but think he possibly torpedoed the liner to loot it) and wonder if the revision clarifies his role and responsibility.

**********

So, we bid adieu to Tomorrow.  It may not be great, but by no means is it terrible; fans of J. Hunter Holly and Sonya Dorman will perhaps want it so they have access to a solid entry in those women's relatively small bodies of work.  The anthology is perhaps noteworthy for its level of diversity, with a hard SF story, a fairy tale, adventure-type stories, a New Wave story, jokey stories, stories that try to pull your heart strings, etc.  I certainly don't regret spending five bucks on Tomorrow, and I don't think it reflects poorly on Elwood.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Tomorrow Part Deux: John Keith Mason, Brian Aldiss, Sonya Dorman & Terry Carr

In our last episode we read three stories from Roger Elwood's 1975 anthology of original stories, Tomorrow. Those three tales took up like 100 pages; today we've got four stories which are quite short.

"Arctic Rescue" by John Keith Mason

One of the complaints about Roger Elwood's anthologies is that they were (this is a quote from Elwood critic Theresa Nielsen Hayden that appears at Wikipedia) "peculiarly long on authors who had slight or nonexistent publishing credentials."  This is obviously not the case with Tomorrow--in this blog post alone we have towering icon Brian Aldiss, the well-known editor Terry Carr, and Sonya Dorman, whose fiction I am not familiar with both whose name I have seen on the cover of F&SF and Galaxy.  (Even if Elwood really did publish lots of stories by relative unknowns, if you spin that as "provides opportunities for new voices to be heard" it doesn't sound like some crime, but a service to the SF community!)  But John Keith Mason perhaps does qualify as a "slight" author--according to isfdb, he published only eight stories; five in the 1940s under the name John Hollis Mason, and then three in the '70s.  "Arctic Rescue" would be his last published story.

A space boat crashes in the Arctic, and an Inuit rescues the alien who is thrown clear and nearly dies of frostbite. The Earthling takes the extraterrestrial back to his igloo where his wife nurses him back to health.  Recovered, the alien, whose species is part of an interstellar union which has abolished war, contacts the space ship which is orbiting Earth studying our civilization, and then talks to the Inuit couple via telepathy.  The alien's family comes down to collect him, and everybody expresses gratitude and brotherliness and all that.

Acceptable, but totally pedestrian.  Maybe it would be interesting to students of portrayals of non-whites and race relations in SF (the Inuit talks about white people and how they differ from Inuits a bit)?

"Always Somebody There" by Brian Aldiss

My feelings about Brian Aldiss's individual productions run the gamut.  I loved Malacia Tapestry, liked Starship (AKA Non-Stop), thought the Helliconia books full of good ideas but nonetheless kind of boring, and was dismissive of his pretentious experimental triptychs.  So I never know how a piece of Aldiss's fiction which is new to me is going to impress me.  But, in general, I find Aldiss an interesting person with interesting views (he is an important SF critic and historian) whose fiction is always worth checking out.

(A few years ago tarbandu had a good blog post about the Helliconia books in which he sets them in the context of their time of publication.)

I think we are going to have to call "Always Somebody There" a New Wave story.  A spaceship left Earth long ago to search for "the Creator," its crew consisting of a man and a computer.  The man has been in deep freeze for what has seemed to the computer almost 60 million years, but due to relativistic effects, the time passed in the outside universe has been much longer.  So long that the universe has collapsed and a new universe sprung up.

(This is one of those stories in which the human is not really like the humans we know, the computer not like the computers we know, and they weren't really searching for God, but an "objective" that could "be expressed only in mathematical symbols," but words like "Creator" have to be used because they are the only crude intellectual tools at our disposal.)

The human is defrosted and the explorers open the viewports to look at the new universe.  All the laws of physics out there are different.  They land on an "octahedral" planet the size of a soccer field inhabited by creatures like blue-feathered kangaroos with heads on their feet.  The human leaves the ship, but the ship shrinks because "in this universe, time was as much a regular dimension as height or length...." so he cannot get back in it.  He realizes that he will have to stand still on this little planet forever--oddly enough, just this misfortune befell him in the dream he had while in deep freeze for 60 million years.

This story is only five pages long, so it is not a big waste of your time, but I can't say it is rewarding.  Barely acceptable?

"Death or Consequences" by Sonya Dorman

As I noted above, I recognize Dorman's name but am little acquainted with her work, which appears to consist of two dozen stories and a fix-up novel, some poems (I actually read one way back when which appeared in the experimental Quark series) and the book reviews in the June 1977 "Special Women's Issue" of Analog.  I mention the book reviews because one of the books reviewed is Barry Malzberg's Down Here in the Dream Quarter.  What might she have said about the collection of mid-1970s Malzberg stories?  I am succumbing to an ineluctable desire to order this magazine from ebay! While I'm at it I guess I should order a copy of Down Here in the Dream Quarter as well, which I do not own (though I have read stories from it, like the amusing "Ballad of Slick Sid" and two pieces that appeared in Elwood's Future Corruption, "On the Campaign Trail" and "Streaking."

Ebay, here I come!
Alright, back to "Death or Consequences." Like "Arctic Rescue," this story consists of pretty ordinary SF stuff, but I think Dorman's technique elevates it a bit.  Seventeen-year old Sandra, our first-person narrator, wakes up in a space station in 2108--back in the 1970s she was put in deep freeze by her wealthy parents because she had cancer. She has been thawed and cured because of her musical talent--because Earth is overcrowded, lots of frozen people have never been revived, and priority is given to people with special abilities.

Dorman focuses largely on Sandra's emotional reactions, but perhaps more interesting is how she (Dorman) develops a pervasive theme of disappointment in the future--not only does Sandra learn that the Earth is overcrowded and efforts to colonize other planets have come to nothing, but Dorman gives us the idea that everything in the future is fake, phony, fraudulent.  One of the many elements contributing to this theme is when Sandra, who is some kind of prodigy with the flute, classical guitar and piano, hears 22nd-century music for the first time--a recording of a "impertinent, repetitive" "electronic tune" that she immediately recognizes as a mere "popular song."  I always find it interesting when older SF writers like Poul Anderson (Dorman was born in 1924, making her two years older than Anderson), writing in a time when rock and roll and other types of pop music had triumphed, champion classical music.  This is in contrast with such writers as Michael Moorcock (born 1939) who lauds the Beatles in the Jerry Cornelius stories and gently pokes fun at their popularity in the Hawkmoon stories, and Harlan Ellison (born 1934) who publicly welcomed the death of an (unnamed) woman who had the temerity to criticize Jimi Hendrix.

Not bad.

"Castle in the Stars" by Terry Carr

Carr is more famous for his work as an editor, but isfdb lists three novels by him (Joachim Boaz read his third and apparently most ambitious novel, Cirque, last year) and three dozen stories by him.  I don't think I have ever read any of his fiction--Tomorrow is providing me several opportunities to sample authors for the first time.

This is another traditional piece, one about space explorers with a clearly foreshadowed twist ending.  For decades mankind has searched the galaxy, fruitlessly, for signs of intelligent life.  This story is narrated by a member of a three-man team who finally discovers an alien building on a planet where everything is large, because of the low gravity, I guess.  Sand dunes are five hundred feet high, for example.  The three spacemen explore the building, but it seems to lack any real entrance or contents. Suddenly, they realize that it must be a toy or work of art--not a functional building at all, but the alien equivalent of a sand castle, indicating that the aliens must have been hundreds of feet tall.

"Castle in the Stars" is not bad, but it is no more than a trifle.

**********

Four OK stories, though the Aldiss is on the verge of being bad and the Dorman on the edge of "good" territory.  I'm kind of thinking of these as "filler" stories.

We finish up with Tomorrow in our next episode.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Stories from the tomorrow of 1975 by J. Hunter Holly, Alan E. Nourse & Robert Hoskins

The Buckeye Bookshop of Akron, Ohio has a good-sized science fiction section, but almost all the volumes on the shelves are less than twenty years old, and books that new are of little interest to me.  I did, however, discover a hardcover from 1975 with a distinctive typefacey designy cover, an anthology of brand new stories edited by Roger Elwood entitled Tomorrow. The price neatly written in pencil on the book's first page was "$10," but the Buckeye Bookshop people were having a sale so I got away with it for five and tax.

Wikipedia indicates that my fellow son of the great state of New Jersey Roger Elwood had a strange and wide-ranging career that included working on wrestling magazines and writing copious numbers of Christian-themed novels as well as editing a mountainous pile of SF anthologies.  His career was also a controversial one--the Wikipedia page on Elwood is largely given over to describing a hostile assessment of the man's editorial career by Theresa Nielsen Hayden.  Well, here at MPorcius Fiction Log we enjoy looking into the work of unusual and controversial members of the SF community (I think A. E. van Vogt, Harlan Ellison, Barry N. Malzberg, L. Ron Hubbard and Andrew J. Offutt qualify, and perhaps Donald A. Wollheim as well), so let's investigate Tomorrow by reading all its included stories, looking for clues that Elwood perhaps really was a "careless" editor of work that was "low-grade."  Tomorrow is perhaps a good subject for such an investigation, as it appears it was never issued in paperback and most of its stories were never reprinted (not exactly a sign the volume achieved critical or popular acclaim!)

(Back in 2015 the MPorcius Fiction Log staff conducted a similar experiment when we read Elwood's anthology Future Corruption.  I've read parts of other Elwood anthologies, like Frontiers 2: The New Mind, and lots of stories by Barry Malzberg which first appeared in Elwood anthologies.  In 2011 Joachim Boaz read Elwood's Future City anthology--in the comments Joachim and I discuss at some length the included R. A. Lafferty and Malzberg stories.  Tarbandu took a crack at Future City himself in 2013.  In 2012 blogger sanski posted a defense of Elwood which I find very convincing.)

There are ten stories in Tomorrow; today we look at those contributed by Joan Hunter Holly, Alan E. Nourse, and Robert Hoskins.

"Come See the Last Man Cry" by Joan Hunter Holly

Back in 2013 I read Holly's 1960 novel The Green Planet and criticized her editor and made fun of her author's bio and her publisher's line of books about celebrities and kinky sex.  Theresa Nielsen Hayden isn't the only person who can be mean to editors!  I thought The Green Planet a mediocrity, but maybe this 60-page piece will prove Holly, recipient of the Hinman superior student scholarship, was capable of better work!

In the future, the government takes four-year-olds and, using various techniques (like inflicting mild electric shocks on a little girl who reaches for her favorite doll!), conditions them to no longer feel "Affection, Hatred, and Love."  (The government believes "human beings with normal emotions could not survive the superfast pace of change and overcrowding"--maybe we can loosely characterize "Come See the Last Man Cry" as an overpopulation and/or "future shock" story.)  As a result, adults in this future society lack most emotions, almost never laughing or crying.  Because the government scientists want the populace to be aware of the way life was lived in the past, and because people are very curious about the old emotions, the main characters of this story offer thrice daily demonstrations of emotions.

You see, children of low intelligence (the main characters call them "defectives" or "morons") don't respond to the treatment offered at the "Anti-Emotion Conditioning Center," and such children are taken from their emotionless parents and put to work (unwittingly) putting on performances.  The "moronic" child lives in an apartment with a one-way mirrored wall, and at specific times of day the eggheads manipulate him so that he bursts into tears, bouts of misery which people on the other side of the wall observe with rapt attention.
      
The plot of the story follows one of the young scientists, Dainig, who works with a particular low-IQ boy, Peter, and finds himself feeling for the child and beginning to doubt the morality of the whole anti-emotion regime.  When a technical mishap reveals too much to Peter and he begins to suffer a likely-terminal psychological breakdown, Dainig liberates him from the lab and sneaks him around in disguise.  Under Peter's influence, Dainig begins to feel affection and love again, putting himself at risk of extreme remedial anti-emotion treatment at the hands of his colleagues!  And then there is the fact that, without Peter to provide the cold-hearted populace an emotional outlet, morale all around the world is in decline.

This story is perhaps a little long and slow, but I found the scenes in which the callous scientists make Peter cry (by telling him vicious lies like that his parents abandoned him because he has been a bad boy or that his parents have died) to be effective--they actually made me feel sad and angry.  Maybe I'm a sucker, and maybe we should criticize Holly for cheaply manipulating her audience by presenting us with that most pitiable of creatures, a dim-witted child in distress (just like her main characters!), but I have to give this story a passing grade because it affected me.  Also on the plus side, I wasn't quite sure how the story would end, and I think Holly is laying a little Christian allegory on us, with Peter as Jesus and Dainig as Judas, which was interesting.  Not bad.

"Come See the Last Man Cry" is one of the few stories in Tomorrow to be reprinted elsewhere; it was translated and appeared in a German magazine in 1983.  If you find yourself interested in Holly's work you should check out a Facebook page someone is maintaining in her memory--it is full of photographs and info about Holly's life.  I find it pleasing to see this level of devotion to a minor SF personage--the communications and information revolution which has taken place during my lifetime has been a boon for people with niche interests.

"Nize Kitty" by Alan E. Nourse

Nourse produced a respectable number of stories that appeared in such important SF magazines as Astounding, Galaxy, and F&SF, but I've never read anything by him.

As I perhaps should have guessed from the title, "Nize Kitty" is a cutesy story about cats, exploiting people's love for cats and susceptibility to all those tired jokes about how cats are individualistic and act like they own the house, etc. I would have avoided this story if I had known ahead of time what it was all about and wasn't conducting an exhaustive investigation of this volume.  (Exhaustive, I say!)

Extrapolating from mid-century trends like the radical increase in urban crime and what in my academic days we called "white flight," Nourse envisages a future in which the inner core of major cities like Philadelphia have been abandoned, everybody moving to the suburbs or clinging to an outer ring of urban space. The inner city, where the roads and buildings are collapsing due to neglect, is colloquially called "The Graveyard."

Our narrator is a Brooklyn-born cop in Philly. His superiors send him into The Graveyard on his gyro-car to investigate complaints of disturbances from the poor people who live on the fringes of the Graveyard. He is loathe to go--no cop has ventured into the those ruins for a decade! But he goes, and discovers the source of the disturbance when a cat talks to him.

In a long scene which I suppose is meant to be funny, the talking cat explains that cats are more intelligent than humans but have kept their abilities a secret for thousands of years. The noise people have been complaining of is emanating from nightly meetings of all the cats in the vicinity. The cats (who don't get along well with each other but are trying to work in concert because of the gravity of the situation) have decided that mankind has gotten too close to destroying the world via pollution, nuclear war, etc., and so they, the cats, are going to take direct control over the world. This phenomenal cat demonstrates some of its amazing powers to the narrator when the cop expresses skepticism that cats could somehow outfight humans.

The end of the story includes scenes, again I suspect meant to inspire mirth, in which the narrator's wife and superiors don't believe his story about cats plotting to take over the world.  The cop loses his job and nervously waits for the coming feline take over, obsessively going over his conversation in the Graveyard for clues as to the nature of the coming quadruped regime.

Lame.  If I put on my charitable hat, I can tell you that people who love reading stories about cats may find "Nize Kitty" to be acceptable fare, and that it is perhaps an illustrative specimen of 1970s SF, what with the way it focuses on urban decay and touches on ecological issues and fears about international conflict. (I guess as a joke, or as an indication of how chaotic the international situation has become, the country mentioned in the story as a US rival isn't Communist Russia or Red China, but Brazil!) We might also consider how this story fits into the long tradition in speculative fiction of misanthropic stories in which aliens or elves or whoever are portrayed as superior to humans. Nourse seems to have one foot in this tradition, but to also be subverting it--the cats he portrays are just as selfish and just as prone to fighting amongst themselves as humans are. The felines are perhaps, rather than a foil or role model for humans, a mirror image of our selfishness and squabbling.

"The Kelly's Eye" by Robert Hoskins  

I own a few anthologies edited by Hoskins, and at least one of his novels, which I have not read. Maybe this story will inspire me to read that novel?

It is at least two centuries since some unspecified holocaust devastated the world. The people of the United States live in a state of barbarism, while parts of Canada are civilized. (Yeah, yeah, I can hear all you Democrats out there snickering "This is already the case!") A young Canadian diplomat has been sent to the ruins of Trenton, New Jersey to chase a rumor that a Canadian boy is in the custody of a nomadic tribe of bandits. His mission: trade for the boy's release or somehow rescue him.

This is an entertaining story about diplomacy; it actually reminded me of something that Poul Anderson might do. We learn about the barbarian tribe's culture (polygamy, a council of elders, a sort of wise man or witch doctor, ritual circumcision), about the Canadian culture (they have guns and aircraft and radios and so forth) and the interactions between these two groups, and then the hero resolves the problem through a clever mutually beneficial trade that reflects aspects of both societies and of the post-apocalyptic milieu. A solid piece of traditional SF.

**********

I liked the Holly and the Hoskins, and while I didn't like the Nourse, it is the kind of thing I know other people might like--it is no worse than lots of stories one would find in a SF magazine or original anthology. So far, the idea that Elwood is some kind of incompetent or shyster is not supported by the contents of Tomorrow.

More from Tomorrow in our next episode!

Friday, August 4, 2017

Planet in Peril by John Christopher

Raven said to Charles: "Well, Mr. Grayner?  Destruction or salvage?  A corrupt and decadent world--do you destroy it or do you try to mend it?"
Charles stood in silence; he felt that his irresolution must be written all over him.  Raven and Dinkhul were both looking at him--Raven with calm confidence, Dinkhul with the trace of a mocking grin.
He said: "I don't know--"  
I can't actually remember any
pretty blonde ladies in the book
Like so many people, I found John Christopher's first three Tripod books entertaining.  I liked No Blade of Grass when I read it a few years ago, and thought The Long Winter not bad when I read it before this blog first exploded into the public consciousness.  (Joachim Boaz rated The Long Winter "Good" back in 2012.) So, when I saw the 1959 Avon printing of Christopher's Planet in Peril with the cool Emsh cover, I got it.  As I announced to the world via twitter, which, despite my best efforts to create mesmerizing content like blurry pictures of the birds and graffiti I spot while visiting Akron, Ohio, is apparently in terminal decline, this edition is very fun, the book designer integrating elements of Emsh's cover illo onto the back cover and the title page.  My copy was owned previously by a Michael Wachover; amateur handwriting analysis suggests it was some other owner who wrote "Good" on the inside cover along with a long cryptic string of characters.  Mr. Wachover also wrote his nickname "Mike" on page 23, and that string of numbers (and letters?) appears a second time on page 11.  This paperback has lived a long and eventful life!

Planet in Peril was first published in the United Kingdom in 1955 with the considerably more appropriate title The Year of the Comet and stars Charles Grayner, 21st-century scientist.  Grayner is a sophisticated man--when he comes home and finds the cleaning lady has left the telescreen on the pop music channel, he switches it to the classical music channel.  After a long day studying diamonds as a possible power source, a little Mozart is just what he needs!  In the first ten pages of the book Grayner visits a used record store, where he runs into the guy who operates and stars on (as a kind of DJ or talk show host) the classical music TV channel, Hiram Dinkhul.  Even though they have only met once before, this guy seems to know all about Grayner's career, including the fact that the diamond expert has just this very day learned he will be transferred from Michigan to sunny California!

Fellow SF fan
Michael Wachover,
we salute you!
Planet in Peril is set in a world in which almost nobody, even a sophisticato like Grayner, knows any history.  Luckily Grayner and we readers have Dinkhul to handle the exposition duties for us.   Following a cataclysmic 20th-century war, the Western world was rebuilt by and is now run by "managerials," the various pre-war business sectors (they have names like "United Chemicals," "Atomics," "Steel," "Agriculture," "Genetics Division," "Telecom," etc.) consolidated into monopolistic entities which act as independent states.  These states are fascistic/socialistic, their citizens assorted into rigid classes and assigned their roles from above during their youth after psychological profiling.  (We learn that at school Grayner was assigned to Squad D, "research and development work.")  Like jobs, all goods and services seem to be distributed by the bureaucracy.

Outside this managerial system is "Siraq," a religious state (Dinkhul calls it a "deity-centered nation") that controls the "Near East."  (Though Grayner and Dinkhul are Americans, they use British lingo--Dinkhul at one point talks of the paucity of students who "read History" instead of the American usage "study History," while Grayner tells Dinkhul that he "tipped down the drain" the "containers of mescalin" provided him by his managers for use on vacation.)  While Westerners all smoke cigarettes, use "mesc" and engage in casual promiscuous sex (Grayner is said to frequent brothels), the Siraqis refrain, having what is said to be a "puritanical" culture.  (Christopher never uses the words "Islam" or "Muslim," just like he never uses "socialism" or "fascism.")

Like the Siraqis, Dinkhul is critical of the managerial states and to some extent lives outside of them.  His TV channel represents "one of the few remaining strands of capitalism in the modern world," he tells Grayner, and he complains that the society of the managerial states is decadent, pointing out the failure to colonize Mars and Venus though the technology to do so is available (Raymond F. Jones in The Cybernetic Brains also used the failure to explore space as a sign that a socialistic high-tech society had fallen into decadence.)  We later learn that Dinkhul, besides being a broadcaster, is a bigwig in an underground organization trying to undermine the managerial system, The Society of Individualists.  This group doesn't have a plan to take over, they just want to see the whole managerial system fall apart, assuming what comes next will be better.

I guess those are the Siraqis on their
diamond-powered flying machines
Grayner's managerial is United Chemicals, and his superiors transfer him to Cali to take the place of some other diamond expert, Humayun, who got killed in a boating accident.  Grayner falls in love with Humayun's (now his) assistant, Sara Koupol.  Koupol, like Humayun, is a political refugee who fled from Siraq; her father, a history professor, escaped Siraq with her.  Sara thinks Grayner's predecessor was murdered, and when she disappears before Grayner can even get in her pants (damn her puritanical Siraqi upbringing!) her father purportedly commits suicide.  Of course, Grayner and we readers think all these people have been kidnapped or murdered.

Much of the book consists of Grayner being cajoled or kidnapped by Dinkhul's Individualists or one managerial or another, all of them trying to convince Grayner to work for them.  Again and again Grayner is liberated from captivity at one managerial by another managerial or by the Society of Individualists--in this book people are always getting put to sleep by gas or drugged drinks or hit on the head by blunt instruments and then waking up in the custody of some other faction.  People in this book are also always putting on disguises, and members of one managerial keep turning out to be moles or turncoats who are in fact working for a different faction. When Grayner is "reunited" with Sara Koupol, Dinkhul, after some days, exposes this woman as an impostor (no wonder she was putting out!)  This is the kind of book in which the protagonist is carried along by the winds of fate and manipulated by mysterious forces--until the very end Grayner doesn't make any decisions, figure out any mysteries, or defeat any foes; Grayner does not drive the plot in any way, he is merely its passenger.

Anyway, all the managerials want Grayner (and Humayun and Sara Koupol) under their control because everybody realizes that they are on the brink of figuring out how to turn diamonds into a super efficient power source and super powerful weapon--if one managerial gets this power before the rest it will be able to rule the world.  Dinkhul, who I guess is like the book's conscience and Christopher's spokesman, tries to preserve Greyner's freedom to choose his own way while hoping Greyner will not stand in the way of a collapse of managerial society.

Loosely affiliated with the Society of Individualists is an underground cult of religious fanatics known as the Cometeers who think the appearance of a comet in the sky is a sign that managerial society is about to fall.  (You probably know that comets are associated with the crisis of the collapse of the Roman Republic and the Norman conquest of England.)  The managerials tolerate the Cometeers, and their revival-style meetings provide a cover for the Society of Individualists' own smaller meetings.  In the last 30 pages of the 159-page novel Dinkhul leads Greyner on a country-wide tour of Cometeer groups, seeking clues about the whereabouts of Sara Koupol.  As the puritanism of the Siraqis contrasts with the indulgence in drugs and promiscuous sex of the managerials, so the ecstatic Cometeers provide a contrast to the passionless managerials--on their faces Greyner sees "a concentration, a passion, which he never remembered seeing anywhere."  Dinkhul and Greyner get kidnapped again, and this time taken to Siraq--it turns out the Cometeers are being financed by the Siraqis as a means of further undermining the managerials.  We learn that Humayun, Sara Koupol and Professor Koupol have taken over Siraq in a palace coup, built the diamond-based super weapon, and are going to take over the world.  Greyner has to decide if he will try to alert the managerials and save the (drug-addled, corrupt and static) West from the (semi-capitalistic, imperialistic and puritannical) East, or just settle down with Sara and live a happy life with her as a member of the world's new ruling class.  

When I bought Planet in Peril, and when I started reading it, I had hopes it would be an exciting adventure story and/or a human drama.  I was disappointed because it is a kind of satire of and meditation on modern Western life, religion, radicalism and conservatism.  (I didn't realize it at first, but the character's names have an allegorical ring--Grayner, Ledbetter, Raven, etc.  Is "Humayun" supposed to reminded us of "houyhnhnm?")  Do I agree with Christopher that individualistic capitalist societies are more vital and productive than bureaucratic collectivist ones?  Of course I do.  Do I agree that while religion is a scam, it brings structure, meaning and even joy into people's lives?  You bet.  Does my agreement with what I think Christopher is trying to say here mean I loved this novel?  No way.

Sad!
Planet of Peril's plot, characters, and tone are weak.  The story conveys no emotion--all of the characters remain calm and detached, either gently ironic like Dinkhul or, even worse, cold fish like Grayner. Perhaps by design (to show how a technocratic society saps the life and emotion out of people), perhaps due to incompetence, Christopher's characters have no passion and the story develops no tension.  We don't get any sense that Dinkhul really hates the static collectivist society of the managerials or that Grayner deeply or ebulliently loves Koupol or is bitter or angry about the way the various factions are manipulating him.  The stakes feel low because the different factions don't threaten or bribe Grayner, and none of the characters gets shot at or risks death or maiming--looking back, I suspect that all the scenes of people getting knocked unconscious were played for laughs, though I didn't laugh.  The lack of feeling and danger makes the book flat and boring.

The scene I quoted as an epigraph to this blog post, in which Dinkhul and Raven (head of Atomics) both try to sway Grayner, reminded me of Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, in which a representative of modern liberalism and a representative of religious and communist radicalism compete for the soul of a bland middle-class guy. The book as a whole reminded me of Anthony Burgess's satiric The Wanting Seed, which I also found didn't inspire in me much feeling.  Planet of Peril, however, suffers in comparison to The Wanting Seed because while Christopher is subtle (to be kind) or limp (if you want to be harsh about it), Burgess is loud, sharp, edgy.  Burgess just comes right out and tells you homosexuals are disgusting and that English people are superior to Third Worlders and lays his theories about history and religion right on the table for you to see.  This is a way to generate excitement, or at least interest, in your novel if it lacks human drama and tension.  Christopher's Planet in Peril, unfortunately, though it has a provocative theme (Muslims armed with a super weapon are going to conquer the world, and we decadent Westerners should welcome it!) isn't stirring or captivating because it is too soft and too vague.

Barely acceptable.