Monday, July 30, 2018

Dark Dominion by David Duncan

The air was magnificently clear so that the project buildings and the surrounding hills all seemed to be drawn with knifelike precision, and in the valley the "Black Planet" so dwarfed the men and machines moving about its base that it gave the appearance of a lonely monolith.  If it should remain there, that's all it would ever be--a monument to man's imagination, a derisive reminder of his failure.
David Duncan wrote the screenplay to George Pal's Time Machine, the Raquel Welch/Donald Pleasance epic Fantastic Voyage, and the Willis O'Brien caper The Black Scorpion.  He also penned thriller/mystery novels like The Bramble Bush and The Madrone Tree.  isfdb lists three SF novels under his name, and today's subject, Dark Dominion, was the first, published in 1954.  Joachim Boaz recently shipped to me, along with like 99 other SF books, a paperback edition put out by Ballantine, who also published the hardcover edition.  If isfdb is to be believed, the book appeared in hard cover, paperback, and in a condensed serialized form over four issues of Collier's all in the same year.  (Over its long life Collier's published lots of genre fiction, like Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu stories and work by Zane Grey and Ray Bradbury.)  Dark Dominion would go on to be translated into Swedish, Italian, Japanese and Spanish.

All four issues of Collier's containing installments of the serialized version
of Dark Dominion were available on ebay when I looked; click to see a larger image
Our narrator for the novel's 206 pages is Philip Ambert, a scientist who is in charge of America's top secret space station project, Project Magellan!  The government has taken over 900 square miles of Big Sur, famed haunt of bohemian creative types, and built a scientific and construction complex there, and a comfortable town for ten thousand people.  These ten thousand people--scientists, engineers, soldiers, and their families--are not permitted to leave, and somehow the government has been fooling the outside world into thinking all these people are at an undisclosed location overseas.  Ambert has been in charge of this project for five years, and as our story begins the massive space station, designed to carry a supply of nuclear weapons with which to maintain order throughout the world, is only two months away from completion!  (There's a similar space station which watches over the Earth with nuclear bombs in Robert Heinlein's Space Cadet, but that is a station run by the UN or some sort of world government; the station here in Duncan's book is explicitly an all-American deal which, it is said, will allow the US to dominate the world.)

Much of Dark Dominion reads like a soap opera.  Slim-waisted Gail Tanager, who operates a "calculating machine" (her fingers "dance over the keys" as though she is "playing a musical instrument") is in love with the man who will command the station once it is in orbit keeping the peace, hunky naval officer Aaron Matthews.  These two can barely keep their hands off each other (we get scenes in which they almost succumb to their physical desires but step back from the brink) and are heartbroken that they will be parted while Matthews is on his long tour of duty out in space, watching for misbehaving commies to nuke--Gail sees the station, officially called Vittoria but known to everyone as "The Black Planet" (shouldn't it be "Black Moon" if it is going to orbit the Earth?) as a sort of rival.  These doomed lovebirds have other problems, like vain and selfish scientist Warren Osborn, a leader in the field of rockets and guided missiles who has the hots for Gail himself (we get a dramatic scene in which Matthews, in a crowded restaurant, punches Osborn.)  Osborn presents other problems for Ambert, as, his main task at Big Sur completed, he wants to bend the unbendable rules and leave the project early to take up a prestigious job back in New York.

There is also the philosophical/political stuff we might expect in a story about a military space station.  Many people on the project, including Gail and Osborn, are skeptical that the station should be under the control of the military and used as a means of achieving hegemony over the world--shouldn't scientists be in charge of it and use it to study the universe?  (Osborn's arguments in this vein are shown to be those of a two-faced hypocritical opportunist--before the start of the project he was an advocate for just such a project, even writing best-selling books urging America to conquer space so it could crush its enemies; presumably he made these arguments not out of patriotism but so he could sell his expertise.)  There's also talk of free will and the constant striving of life and of Man to do more, to reach further.  (It is probably just me, but the themes and even some individual phrases of Dark Dominion kept reminding me of Horace's third ode, from his first book of odes.)

We also get some serious science talk.  One of the boffins, Tom Hernandez, is bombarding uranium with positrons and creates a new superdense element (it weighs three and a half million pounds per cubic foot) that they call Magellanium.  We witness many experiments conducted on the Magellanium and learn all about its many strange properties.  The design of the space station is described, how it will support its crew and what they will see when they get up into space and so forth.  There's a subplot about exploring a system of caves full of bats, fossils, and geologic formations, including a phosphorescent subterranean pool where Ambert's wife Susan swims naked.

In the second half of the novel it becomes apparent that foreign intelligence has located the project and everybody scrambles to finish and launch Vittoria early, before the enemy can bomb it.  Due to a series of unfortunate coincidences (like the fact that Ambert has been sneaking off to explore that cave without telling his security detail--oops!), Ambert is accused of treason and tossed in jail!  Soon after he is cleared, Osborn's treachery--revenge for his wounded pride--and an enemy air attack destroy the station's fuel supplies.  Ambert, Osborn and Hernandez figure out how to launch the station into space using the Magellanium, and it lifts off with Matthews at the helm just as a second enemy attack is blowing up everything at the project site.  But Matthews--that sly devil--has contrived to leave the military personnel behind and take off instead with Gail and a bunch of women and children--including Susan and the Ambert kids!  The Magellanium is an inexhaustible source of propulsion, and Matthews and his harem are not going to orbit the Earth to ensure America's domination of the globe, but explore and colonize the universe!  (Treason and betrayal on a political as well as a personal level are recurring themes in the novel.)  Ambert, left behind, hides in his cave, waiting for the bombing of Big Sur to end and writing the memoir we have been reading. 

It looks like a Swedish dude just made a
condensed copy of Richard Powers's
cover of the American original edition
for the Swedish printing--brazen and weird!
Dark Dominion, in a way that is difficult for me to define, feels more like a mainstream thriller (I guess what they call a "technothriller") than an actual SF novel.  This isn't a criticism so much as an observation; in fact the book is not bad.  Duncan's writing is smooth and readable, the science stuff is more or less interesting, and while I thought Gail's romance with Matthews was kind of silly, the Osborn stuff was kind of entertaining.  The characters are pretty believable and Duncan deals with the various moral issues in a mature and ambiguous way--neither the military men nor the eggheads are portrayed as unquestionably good or evil.  One of the novel's virtues is that I was unsure what would happen--because every character and even apparently the author (the title of the book comes from a George Meredith poem that is reproduced as an epigraph to the novel, and its choice implies that the station is satanic) was skeptical of the space station and its mission, I had no confidence that it would succeed, but did not know to what extent or in what way it would fail.  I was kept wondering if Osborn's vanity would threaten or even ruin the project, or if he would rally round at the end and do the right thing by the team, and I was curious to see how the author would make use of the cave and the Magellanium in the resolution of the plot.

Mild recommendation. 


In my last blog post I lamented that Joachim Boaz and I agreed about Damon Knight's Three Novels, because two guys agreeing is boring.  Luckily, this time around we've got some fireworks!  Back in 2012 Joachim wrote about Dark Dominion and denounced its "poor 1950s sci-fi melodrama," and its "downright preposterous science" and suggested the plot is predictable.  Ouch!  Check out Joachim's critical panning and then maybe you'll want to get a copy of Dark Dominion of your own at ebay in an effort to sort out our differences or take sides in this literary controversy!   


At the end of Dark Dominion, Ballantine Books 56, are several pages of fun ads for Ballantine's many publications.  There's a full-page advertisement for the "Science-Fiction Preview Club," and then a long list of not just major SF works like Fahrenheit 451More Than Human, and Childhood's End, but also Western novels like Law Man ("twenty-four hours in a sheriff's life") and Silver Rock ("A granite-hard story of the West today") and The Canyon ("A story of a young Cheyenne in the days before the white man"), and mainstream literature like New Poems by American Poets (featuring W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams), The Best American Short Stories 1953 (featuring Tennessee Williams and R. V. Cassill) and Charles Jackson's short stories.  Immerse yourself in this fascinating artifact of the paperback publishing world of 60 years ago by clicking the images below.  (I don't know why the list starts at number 22; maybe a page is missing from this book?)

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Three 1950s "novels" by Damon Knight

Ah, Damon Knight, famed editor, critic, and short story writer, for whom the SFWA (which Knight founded in 1965) renamed their Grand Master Award some 25 years after its inauguration.  I've had mixed feelings about Knight's criticism and fiction, which means I have no idea how I am going to react when I set out to read something by him.  Today we'll be taking just such a leap into the dark not once, not twice, but three times!  Before me I hold a Berkley Medallion 1969 paperback edition of Three Novels, a collection which first came out in hardcover in 1967.  I recently received this volume, with its quite effective Richard Powers cover, from internet science fiction gadfly extraordinaire Joachim Boaz, one of something like 100 SF books he sent me recently.  This copy, which a stamp on the inside cover is telling me somebody, maybe Mr. Boaz himself, maybe Chip or Joanna Gaines, maybe David Koresh--hey, you never know!-- purchased at "Book Rack" in a shopping mall in Waco, Texas for 97 cents, has only 184 pages of text, so maybe the three included works, all from the 1950s, should be classified as "novellas" or "novelettes" instead of novels, but, hey, who's counting?  I will be reading the "novels" in the order in which they appear in this book, which is not the order in which they were published.

Rule Golden (1954)

This is a gimmicky story that applies to the personal level the logic of Mutually Assured Destruction deterrence, something we talked about a lot in my history and poli sci classes at Rutgers in the late '80s and early '90s.  Rule Golden is set in the future of the early 1970s, when videophones are widely used, and is a first-person narrative; our narrator is Robert James Dahl, a Midwestern journalist who brags about how great his paper is and acts like a tough guy.  Knight practically tells us the story's gimmick on the first page of the story, and then he writes page after page (this thing is like 75 pages in this edition!) about Dahl investigating this strange phenomenon.  Rule Golden is like a boring detective story, with lots of mundane places and people for the detective to examine or outwit before resolving the mystery to his satisfaction.

In brief, Dahl discovers that the United States government has taken captive a lone space alien named Aza-Kra who has come to Earth to spread an airborne catalyst that changes your genetic code so that you suffer (psychosomatically) any damage you inflict on another creature.  For example, on the first page of Rule Golden an abusive husband kicks his wife in the ass, and suffers pain in his own ass! (Comedy!*)  Knight gives lots of examples of this, including prison staff and butchers feeling unhappy or ill as a result of their work--we eventually learn that the engineering works on animals higher than insects, so carnivores like lions and tigers are going to go extinct.  Dahl meets Aza-Kra in the army base, and the creature tells him he is from the Galactic Federation of peaceful civilizations and they want the Earth to join but right now we humans are too violent so he is here to genetically engineer us so we behave.  Dahl helps the E. T., which can read minds and instantly put people to sleep, to escape to Europe, the Middle East and Asia, where he spreads the catalyst.  (The substance has to be spread wide quickly, or there will be a period, before the catalyst has made its way to Moscow and Peking, during which North America and Western Europe won't be able to defend themselves from an attack by the commies.) 

Knight tries to add tension to the tale by having Dahl wracked by doubts--is Aza-Kra telling the truth or is he just trying to soften us up so the aliens can conquer us--and by describing how Dahl and his alien buddy evade the authorities in country after country.  This stuff serves to make the story longer (have I told you this thing is like 75 pages?) but does little to make it more compelling.

Because there is no way to enforce the law, and no way for private individuals to protect their property, the world falls into anarchy, with people stealing, vandalizing, trespassing, and crossing borders as they see fit.  (Aza-Kra's genetic engineering doesn't make people feel bad about burning down the crops I spent a season growing or the business I spent a lifetime building.)  The cities are deserted and famine develops, but a fleet of spaceships arrives to hand out food and to revive Aza-Kra, who was near death from eating inadequate Earth food.  Aza-Kra is revealed to be not a professional explorer or diplomat, but a sort of artisan ("I am ordinarily a maker of--you have not the word, it is like porcelain....") who volunteered to risk his life amongst us humans.  (I guess carpenter would have been too obvious.)

Rule Golden appeared first in Science Fiction Adventures, and in 1960 was included in Groff Conklin's Six Great Short Science Fiction Novels.  I'm afraid I cannot concur with Conklin's generous assessment!  This story is so long, and uses so many tired elements (like mind reading and a Galactic Federation pacifying us against our will) that the novelty of the newish idea can't carry it, especially since Knight reveals the gimmick on page one.  Knight also doesn't address the moral issues related to making people behave by crippling them, removing their ability to choose between good and evil, as Anthony Burgess does in A Clockwork Orange.

Weak!  Maybe this story should have been like 10 pages?

*This reminded me of the Corsican brothers from The Electric Company.  That was a good show, with Joan Rivers narrating Letterman and Morgan Freeman as Dracula and narrator of those Spiderman shorts that starred a version of Spidey who never talked!   

Natural State (1954)

I guess you could say that this one is about the urban-rural divide.  It is the year 2064, most cities have collapsed, with only a few of the biggest, like New York and Chicago still standing, totally shut off from the countryside.  The cities have what we would recognize as modern societies, with TV shows and hover cars and social hierarchies and people going off to work every day, but things are getting tough economically--most people work multiple jobs and the lack of contact with the world beyond the city limits means there is no supply of essential raw materials, like metal.  Soon even mighty New York may collapse!  Another problem: the urban population is waning, while the rural population, whom the urbanites think of as unsophisticated rubes, grows, and soon the people of the countryside will be able to militarily or culturally take over the world and urban culture will go extinct!

The rulers of New York propose a solution--trade with the rural population, who presumably will be eager to purchase motor vehicles and telephones and TVs and power tools.  This will provide a source of metal and other much-needed resources, and spread urban culture to the ignorant hicks, preserving the sophisticated way of life enjoyed by city people.  They send out into the countryside the most popular actor on NYC TV, Alvah Gustad, with a hovercar load of trade goods to open up trade with the country folk.

What Gustad discovers is that the 150 million people living in the rural landscape are not a bunch of ignorant rubes--they are living in utopia!  Most of their time is spent sitting around working on little hobbies like whittling and needlepoint or putting on theatricals and having dances!  The basis for this life of leisure is genetic engineering; they breed and grow everything they need, a gimmick we would see decades later in Harry Harrison's West of Eden and Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000.  The country people don't need cars and airplanes, because they ride beasts and giant birds around!  They don't need mines or factories or construction equipment because they have plants that grow knife blades, bulbs that grow into houses, and giant turtles whose shells grow in transparent layers that can be easily peeled off to act as a sheet of unbreakable glass!  They don't know how to read because they have bred talking birds that can recite entire books!  (This last is a little reminiscent of one of my favorite Gene Wolfe stories, "The Doctor of Death Island," in which people abandon reading because of the development of talking books.)

That's Gustad in his hover car,
trying to sell power tools to the
country folk
The country folk don't need or want what Gustad is selling, but their intellectual class is interested in examining him, and they employ a creature which cripples his hover car (by eating an element of its power pack) to strand the New Yorker 1,000 miles from Gotham.  The locals (including a pretty lady who can actually read!) want Gustad to join their happy society, and in the same way that Dahl in Rule Golden has to decide whether or not to cleave to the alien Aza-Kra, Gustad here in Natural State has to choose sides.  Fortunately for the reader, this story is better in every respect than Rule Golden--the characters and their relationships are more compelling, the technological stuff is more interesting, the jokes are more amusing.

When it looks like their idea of fostering trade has failed, the rulers of NYC try some serious skullduggery, what the kids call a false flag operation, in an effort to start a shooting war between the rural people and Chicago--the New Yorkers plan to steal all the metal from the Windy City after the country folk depopulate it!  This scheme fails, and instead of attacking Chi-town the country people turn on the city that never sleeps and liberate the citizens of the Big Apple from the tyranny of books, TV shows, and a steady work schedule.     


Natural State first appeared in Galaxy, in an issue you can read at the internet archive, in which Knight's story is adorned with some pretty good illustrations by Emsh.  Natural State was included in anthologies edited by Martin Greenberg, Frederick Pohl and Georgess McHargue, and was even expanded into a longer novel, Masters of Evolution, which appeared as half of an Ace Double. 

I love the Emsh cover to All About the Future with its sexy spacesuits
and diagrams of a rocket ship and a heavy pistol --gorgeous!
The Dying Man (1957)

Dio is a planner living in a post-scarcity future in which people are immortal and invulnerable to wounds and disease--they also have the power to levitate, which is pretty good (I have long wanted to float everywhere like the fighters in DragonBall Z.)   Everybody has lived so long that most people have actually forgotten the concept of death!  To keep existence from getting boring, planners like Dio rebuild the cities in different styles every year.

Planners are members of the student class, the intellectuals and scientists who read and keep records and figure things out.  Most people, it appears, are "players," members of a frivolous unproductive leisure class.  Claire is just such a player, and she and Dio are having a love affair when it becomes apparent that Dio's body has somehow lost its invulnerability and immortality.  He falls ill, recovers with the help of an army of students who study him to figure out how to create and administer medicines that have not been needed for centuries.  He begins to grow old, his body changing in ways that the rest of humanity finds alarming.

The story, which at like 40 pages is considerably shorter than Rule Golden and Natural State, largely concerns Dio and Claire's reactions to Dio's body experiencing natural human aging and death.  Dio's creative work evolves, becoming more mature and sophisticated--in fact, too sophisticated for his contemporaries, with the result that the city he is responsible for designing is abandoned.  He also embraces ancient ways of doing things, working with his own hands instead of through machines--he carves a reproduction of Michelangelo's Dusk* from stone with a chisel, for example, and grows his own crops with which to bake his own bread.  (I know this guy's feels--I ground the beans for my wife's coffee yesterday.  Sure, sure, I used the Mr. Coffee 12-cup Electric Coffee Grinder with Multi-Settings--I didn't say I was a luddite!) 

The Dying Man is also considerably better than the "novels" with which it shares this collection.  I'm biased because I like stories about immortality and its effect on individuals and societies (the aforementioned Gene Wolfe story, "The Doctor of Death Island," is about immortality as much as it is about reading), but beyond that, The Dying Man has real human feeling, real human characters, engaging settings, and no goofy jokes.  The science behind immortality was also well done.  This is a piece I can really recommend.

The Dying Man first appeared under the title Dio in Infinity Science Fiction, where it is billed as "Damon Knight's Best Short Novel."  This issue of Infinity is available to read for free at the internet archive, and features not only numerous fetching illustrations by Emsh (these include a generous helping of Claire's chest!) but a story co-written by Harlan Ellison and Algis Budrys and, in the book review section, discussions by Knight of novels by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke.  This issue of Infinity is full to bursting with stuff by and about some of classic SF's biggest names!

Dio would go on to be reprinted numerous times, including in Groff Cronklin's 5 Unearthly Visions and Robert Silverberg's Alpha 4.  I actually own both 5 Unearthly Visions and Alpha 4 which means I own three copies of this story.

*Knight has Dio call it Evening, but my art books and Wikipedia are calling it Dusk.


Back in 2014 Joachim Boaz read and wrote about this collection, presumably this very same copy.  (His post and the comments, in which people recommend their favorite Knight stories, are worth your time.)  I know it would be more fun to disagree with Joachim or to have my own off-the-wall idiosyncratic take on these stories, but I'm afraid Mr. Boaz and I are in basic agreement about the contents of Three Novels.  Maybe I am a little more forgiving about the two weak pieces?  I was definitely more forgiving than Joachim when I read Beyond the Barrier, a book Joachim thought so poor he dared me to read it! 

(I'm not always so kind to Knight!  I read a collection of five of his short stories entitled Off Center and declared most of them "Bad!," "Weak!" "Lame" or even worse!)

More 1950s SF from the Joachim Boaz wing of the MPorcius Library in our next episode!

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Slave Planet by Laurence M. Janifer

"Marvor," he said, "do you question the masters?"...
"I question all," he said soberly.  "It is good to question all."
Ever since I first saw its spectacular cover by Jack Gaughan (probably at internet science fiction superstar Joachim Boaz's blog), with its lizardmen and explosions and rifle fire, I have wanted to read Laurence Janifer's 1963 novel Slave Planet.  But I never spotted it at my usual haunts--used books stores, thrift stores, flea markets, library sales.  But all things come to those who wait!  As part of a campaign of downsizing, the generous Mr. Boaz sent me a box (weight: 21 pounds!) of science fiction books, and the first one I'm cracking open is Slave Planet.

(If you don't feel like waiting, it looks like you can read the novel at

I have to admit I am already pleased with the volume, even before I've read a line of the text!  The back cover, with its additional illustrations, a cast of characters, and an ad for a book by Robert Bloch, is almost as cool as the front cover!  And then there is the dedication, to skeptic Philip Klass [UPDATE September 9, 2018: or, more likely, science fiction author William Tenn]:

This self-important and self-pitying dedication is followed by two long epigraphs.  The first is a quote from Boswell's Life of Johnson, a famous passage about the value of learning that records a conversation on July 30, 1763.  The second is a quote from H. D. Abel, a guy I've never heard of and whom I suspect is a fictional character invented by Janifer; Abel controverts the conventional wisdom that slavery is inefficient and has no utility in the modern industrial world and suggests that slavery may make a comeback in the future.

I like when publishers go the extra mile to produce an attractive book by including additional illustrations and fun fonts as Pyramid does in Slave Planet, and Janifer's portentous dedication and epigraphs suggest he is aiming to produce here not a pulpy adventure but a philosophical work.  Well, Janifer and Pyramid have got me on their side with all this additional apparatus; let's get to the heart of the matter, the actual text, and hope that this isn't one of those lipstick on a pig scenarios.

For a century the planets of the Terran Confederation have been receiving shipments of essential metals from Fruyling's World.  But the citizens of the Confederation know almost nothing about what goes on at that colony.  Why do the colonists keep them in the dark?  Because if the citizens knew what they were up to, they wouldn't like it!  They really wouldn't like it!  The culture of the Confederation prizes freedom and equality before the law, you see, and to extract and process all that metal the human colonists on Fruyling's World work the primitive natives as slave labor!

Slave Planet is a novel of 142 pages.  There are 22 numbered and untitled narrative chapters which follow the exploits of the characters listed on the back cover, all of them inhabitants of Fruyling's World, plus seven satirical chapters headed "Public Opinion One", "Public Opinion Two," etc., that are interspersed throughout the book. Twenty-nine total chapters, each of which starts a third of the way down a new page, means short chapters with lots of negative space between them and, ultimately, a short book.

Human Johnny Dodd does not find life on Fruyling's World salubrious, and has doubts that it is right for humans to treat the stone age natives, four-foot tall bipedal herbivorous alligators called Alberts (after the character from Pogo), as second class citizens, even if the natives are dim-witted (it seems that most of them can't even count to five, though they speak a simple English) and live longer and safer lives under human control.  His friend tries to cheer him up, telling him the Alberts need human guidance and taking him to a forbidden sex and booze party in Psych Division, where he meets a young woman, Greta Forzane.  The next day, after his shift training some Alberts for work pushing buttons in a remotely-controlled smelting plant, he has a nervous breakdown and is comforted by this same Greta.

Meanwhile, one of the more clever Alberts at the plant, Marvor, has heard that there are wild Alberts living in the jungle without masters, and he plots a rebellion and tries to recruit two other natives, female Dara and male Cadnan, to participate in the dangerous scheme.

In real life, psychology may be an essentially bogus science, but it is de rigueur in SF to present sciences of all types as astoundingly, amazingly, fantastically, effective, and in Slave Planet we are presented with a master practitioner in the psychological arts in the head of Psych Division, the domineering little old lady who goes by the name of Dr. Anna Haenlingen.  Over 100 years old, Haemlingen has been on Fruyling's World a long time.  She has been both covertly promoting and publicly forbidding the sex and booze parties, in order to provide the young colonial workers a safe way to rebel; their skepticism about slavery inspires a need to rebel, and participating in the ostensibly verboten drunken orgies satisfies that need without threatening the system of slavery that keeps the interstellar economy afloat.  Haenlingen's expertise in psychology has also enabled her to intuit from clues that the existence of a system of slavery on Fruyling's World has been leaked to the Confederation public and that soon a Confederation battle fleet will be arriving to liberate the Alberts.

Some of the most critically successful SF writers may be committed Christians (I'm thinking of Ray Bradbury, R. A. Lafferty and Gene Wolfe here, though if you told me that those three were more like "writers of the fantastic" than actual science fiction writers, I would be hard pressed to disagree), but in general in SF, religion is ignored or exposed as a scam, and Janifer here works in that tradition.  In the second half of Slave Planet we learn that Anna Haenlingen, that genius manipulator, has created a whole religion with which to snooker the Alberts into docility; some of the smarter Alberts are co-opted by appointing them priests who memorize a catechism about how humans must be obeyed--if the Alberts don't "break the chain of obedience" in some unspecified future Albert and human will be equals.  Dodd learns this from Norma Fredericks, Anna Haenlingen's assistant, with whomhe has fallen in love (for some reason, Greta drops out of the narrative--if I was Janifer's editor I would have told him to combine the characters of Greta and Norma.)  When Dodd expresses his doubts about slavery, Norma defends the colony's policies, telling him that only force and authority keep society together.  "Did you ever hear of a child who went to school, regularly, eagerly, without some sort of force being applied, physical, mental or moral?"

Cadnan is selected to be one of the priests, and he tries to convert Marvor, who of course is trying to get Cadnan to join the rebellion.  In the end it is the sex drive that determines who wins the debate: female lizardperson Dara, to whom Cadnan is attracted even though there is some kind of incest taboo prohibiting their coupling (they are "from the same tree at the same time") reluctantly joins Marvor and Dara in their flight to the jungle.  (As our pals Ted Sturgeon and Robert Heinlein would tell us, it makes sense to question all orthodoxies, including sexual ones.)  We actually get a weird alien sex scene featuring Cadnan and Dara and the tree they spread their sperm and ova on.

Cadnan's escape is facilitated by the surprise bombardment from the Confederation space navy that signals the start of the Confederation-Fruyling's World War.  Dodd participates in the fighting, though he is wracked by guilt and even a death wish because he is fighting on the pro-slavery side.  (The psychological toll of being a slave master is a major theme of Janifer's novel--at one point he even says "slavery has traditionally been harder on the master than the slave," the kind of thing that could put your career at risk if you said it today!)  In the final narrative chapter Dodd goes insane and shoots down Norma, who represents the slave system.

The seven "Public Opinion" chapters are presented as primary documents--speeches, spoken or epistolary dialogues, an excerpt from a children's text book--that touch upon the issue of the Alberts, whether they should be liberated and what the effect of their liberation might be.  These chapters don't add to the plot, but simply illustrate at length themes indicated briefly in the actual narrative--the argument that servants might prefer a life of service to independence, the idea that citizens of democratic polities choose their policy preferences in a short-sighted way without first ascertaining the facts, the assertion that businesspeople are greedy, etc.  The first four "Public Opinion" chapters are supposed to be funny; one of the busybody Terran  housewives who participates in the "liberate the Alberts" letter-writing campaign is named "Fellacia," and one of the memo-penning businessmen is called "Offutt," which is such an unusual name it makes me think it is a jocular nod to SF writer Andrew Offutt. (One of Offutt's corespondents is a Harrison; "Harrison," of course, is a pretty common name, but maybe this is a reference to Harry Harrison?)

The sixth Public Opinion chapter is a postwar debate between Cadnan and Marvor--Cadnan is unhappy with his new freedom, arguing that the new masters from the Confederation are no better than the old colonial masters--in particular, he finds that classes in the school the new masters force him to attend are more onerous than his work pushing buttons in the smelting plant back in the pre-war days.  "Public Opinion Seven" is an extract from Anna Haenlingen's speech before the High Court back on Earth, in which she says (echoing Norma's assertion about children and school) that advanced civilizations must wield authority over primitive ones, force them to learn in order to raise their cultural level.  Appended to this is an unenumerated eighth primary document, a report from the new Confederation authority on Fruyling's World which indicates that the ending of slavery there is damaging the interstellar economy.

Slave Planet is ambitious; it is admirable that Janifer tries to get into the heads of slaves and slave masters and abolitionists without giving us a simple good vs evil narrative, and his ambiguous attitude towards freedom, slavery, and the role of elite authority in our lives is provocative.  (If you asked me to pin Janifer down, I would suggest that Janifer believes that, while it may be tragic, it is an inevitable necessity that superior people tell ordinary people what to do, because ordinary people don't know what is good for them--ordinary people cannot handle freedom, and Americans prattle on too much about freedom and democracy.  Janifer thinks that primitive tribes, children, and just ordinary plebeians should all be manipulated by their betters.  This is not an attitude that the staff of MPorcius Fiction Log can endorse!)  However, the book has little to raise it above the level of mere acceptability--it is not exciting, it doesn't tug the old heart strings, the jokes aren't funny, the style isn't charming.  I can't condemn this one, but I can only give Slave Planet a mild recommendation.  I would definitely give Janifer another try--The Wonder War looks like it is about human spies or commandos on an alien world, which could be very fun, and You Sane Men / Bloodworld  might be an effective horror story full of creepy sex.  I saw a paperback copy of Final Fear in a Carolina bookstore once, and it interested me, but it was too expensive to buy.  So I'll be looking at the "J"s in used bookstores in hopes of finding these titles at an affordable price.

In our next episode: another volume from the Joachim Boaz Wing of the MPorcius Library!

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Self Condemned by Wyndham Lewis

"I am really awfully sorry; I sympathize with you most genuinely."  He sighed.  "What Canada is like I do not know.  They say it is a tough place."  Then he said facetiously, with a broad smile, "You may end up as a lumberjack!  That would be rather fun!"
Here's another novel by Wyndham Lewis, one of T. S. Eliot's favorite people.  Check out these blurbs if you think I might be exaggerating:

Damn, now that is a friend.

Self Condemned was first published in 1954, more than thirty years after Tarr, Lewis's first published novel, which I read in June.  As with Tarr, I got my hands on a copy of Self Condemned via interlibrary loan through a suburban Maryland public library.  When I picked up the 1955 printing of the novel, along with a 1951 printing of Lewis's Rude Assignment, the librarian who presented them to me said, "Wow, these books look old!"

The copy of Self Condemned which I read
Self Condemned is the story of René Harding, a 47-year old British college professor and successful author of two books; as our story begins he is living in London.  Harding has decided, without consulting his wife Hester (AKA "Essie") or his family (his French-born mother and his two married sisters), to quit ("throw up" is the phrase used) his position as Chair of History at some unnamed university and move to Canada.  Why is he leaving his "first-rate job, as good as a man of my mental habits can have," an act which one uncharitable character calls "committing suicide."?  Why is René abandoning a center of international culture, power and finance to live in what all the book's English characters think is some kind of godforsaken wilderness, a grim frontier where where he has no job prospects ("I may have to teach Algebra or--oh yes, or History in an elementary school...of course I may prefer to earn my living as a waiter....")?

The novel, like 400 pages in this edition, is split into three parts.  Part One, "The Resignation," consisting of ten chapters, is set mostly in London and its environs.  We accompany René as he visits in turn individual friends and family members to explain to them his shocking change of life and to bid them a final farewell.  Satirist Lewis entertains us with the amusing antics and odd personalities of Rene's acquaintances, most of whom are oddballs or creeps of one kind or another, while exposing us to René the intellectual's ideas and René the man's public and inner character. 

René's best friend is Robert Parkinson, AKA "Rotter," a writer of  articles and reviews for highbrow publications, and we get an extensive introduction to our hero's thinking when Rotter reads aloud--to its very subject himself--a draft of an article he has been commissioned to write about René.  René, we learn, is a master at interpreting and predicting historical events--his more recent book was entitled A Secret History of World War II, written and published before the actual war has begun!  René is bitterly hostile to Marxism and laments and condemns its pernicious effect on academia and on modern life--René believes that if it were not for the malign influence of Marxist thought and of the Soviet Union, that the 20th century, instead of a century of mass war and totalitarianism, could have fulfilled the dreams of peace and prosperity of the Victorian liberals.

Perhaps most importantly, René believes that historians, instead of focusing their researches on and dominating their narratives with rulers, most of whom are tyrants and mass murderers who live out tedious melodramas, should prioritize the small minority of inventive and creative people. In a later part of the book we get another look at René's theory of what historical writing should be when René is explaining his belief that the natural world is insane, is a madhouse:

If the chapter devoted to Rotter gives us a full description of Rene's ideas and his professional work, the chapters in which he has his final meetings with his French-born mother, his sister Mary and her husband Percy Lamport, his sister Helen and her husband Robert Kerridge, and his sister-in-law Janet and her husband Victor Painter, give us explanations and demonstrations of why Harding has chosen to go into voluntary exile from his field and his country.  Not only is Rene's brand of thinking not welcome in the academy, but he in turn looks at the world of academia as "fundamentally a racket" whose inhabitants are, to a man, "dishonest."  He can spend no more time in such an environment lest he lose his self respect!  His last encounters with Percy Lamport, Robert Kerridge (why are there two characters named "Robert?"), and Victor Painter give us an idea of the kind of dolts, jerks and phonies René has to deal with in England.  Percy is an anti-Semite and successful businessman who strikes a pose as a member of the progressive avant garde, collecting Marie Laurencin paintings and reading George Orwell, G. D. H. Cole, George Bernard Shaw and leftist periodicals: "the richer he [Percy] became, the more to the left these newspapers and weeklies moved."  Victor is a snobbish nouveau riche striver with whom René gets into a shouting match at their last meal together in a restaurant.  Robert Kerridge, husband of Rene's favorite sister Helen, is a leftist clergyman; at their last meeting, at the Kerridge home in Robert's country parish, Robert and his friend, a local leftist schoolmaster, insult René, calling him a fascist--Rene's hostility to Marxism and his calling out of the hypocrisy of those who abominate Hitler but admire the equally murderous and despotic Bolsheviks has attracted such attacks from many quarters.  (Self Condemned is to some extent I am not yet cognizant of autobiographical, and Lewis himself is often dismissed as a fascist.)

Lewis is adept at making some of these scenes funny, but also conveying René's sense of isolation from his peers in the educated middle classes and his and his sister Helen's sadness at parting, presumably to never meet again.  (Rene's last sight of Helen actually cleverly foreshadows his last sight of Hester, one of the devices by which Lewis encourages us to compare René's relationship with his wife and his favorite sister.)

The tenth chapter of Part One describes René and Hester's voyage across the Atlantic to Canada; during the journey Great Britain declares war on Germany (we are told that the ships' passengers were "very little affected" by the news or by the King's speech.)  We had Lewis, a successful painter himself, doing a little art criticism when he attacked Laurencin's paintings in Percy's mansion, and on the ship we get some Lewis literary criticism.  René, who has "read few of the English classics," tries to read George Eliot's Middlemarch, and after Lewis presents us a deadpan page-long summary of the novel's beginning, Rene wonders "Why am I reading this dull nonsense?" and throws the book over the side into the ocean.

As Part Two, entitled "The Room," begins, we learn that René and Hester have lived for over three years in the same hotel room in the fictional Canadian city of Momaco.  Lewis, born in 1882, spent the first five years of his life in the US and Canada, and spent World War II there as well; I haven't read any biographies of Lewis yet, but his description of the place in Self Condemned suggests he hated North America like poison!

Momaco has no cafes!  Momaco has no theater, and the cinemas only show Hollywood garbage, no French, Italian, or German movies!  And the weather!  If it is not thirty or forty below, the streets a treacherous sheet of ice, it is the brief summer, when the hard sunlight (sunlight in England, we are told, is soft) makes your eyes water and monstrous flies devour you!  Our heroes come up with divers hilarious euphemisms and nicknames for Canada/Momaco, like "the living death" and "the hideous ice-box."

The hotel in which René and Hester spend their first three Canadian years is ill-run and inhabited by dangerous criminals, maniacs, and whores, and René repeatedly describes it as a microcosm of North America and of the entire world.  North America, Lewis declares, is a matriarchy, and sure enough, the hotel's owner and its (mis)manager are women, a Mrs. Plant and a Mrs. McAffie, called "Affie."  The ethnic diversity of America, that we are all so used to hearing panegyrized, is by Lewis called "a jumble" and held up as one example of the characteristic mixed identity or multiple personality of the New World: "an incoherence customary on this new continent where nothing can ever be one thing."  The different ethnic groups that make up the population of North America all hate each other and contact with each other brings out the worst in each:
...the protestant English, backward and bigoted, rage against the papist hierarchy ruling the French.... the Anglo-Saxon suffers from a Hitlerian superiority feeling, and the 'Peasoups' (as the French are called) have to put up with a lot of contempt from the master-race.
When a Canadian thug and his American friend, a draft dodger, overhear René and Hester's English accents, our heroes are physically assaulted, and René is beaten up, even viciously kicked as he lays on the floor.  The hotel is full of violence, with fights in the bar a common occurrence and René and Hester often hearing the bloodcurdling screams of a German woman tenant as her live-in (American) Indian boyfriend beats her:
...the Indian--drunk as all Indians had been ever since the Whites had landed--dwelling amid the sentimental screams of his blonde Teutonic squaw...
Part Two of the novel concludes with a murder and then a tremendous fire, set by the murderer, that razes the hotel.

Part Two of Self Condemned is very (blackly) humorous, with Lewis presenting us with many strange and amusing figures.  These bizarre characters, among them a generous and wealthy homosexual book-collector, Mr. Furber (one wonders if this is somehow a reference to Faber and Faber, the famous literary publishing house), who hires René to aid him in organizing his library, and the aforementioned manageress of the hotel, Affie, who reads all the hotel employees' and tenants' futures in tea leaves and makes uncannily accurate predictions (her powers derive from her practices of steaming open everyone's mail before it is delivered and plastering her ear to keyholes), are each of them endearing, amusing, and sinister, all at the same time.

The ordeal of the fire and the need to move to another (less poorly managed) hotel works changes in the social and psychological lives of the Hardings.  Furber, macabrely fascinated by René's acquaintance with the hotel arsonist and murderer, intensifies their relationship and shows him off to friends, so that, after over three years in Canada, René and Hester receive their first dinner invitation, to the home of a British college professor, McKenzie, and his wife; the McKenzies moved to Canada a year or so after the Hardings, and experienced the Blitz back in England.  Talking to a fellow scholar reignites René's mind, which begins percolating with new ideas and theories, and he begins writing a new book; his new social contacts lead to a regular job writing a well-received newspaper column in which he applies his expertise to predicting the twists and turns of the raging war, and then a teaching position at a university in Momaco is offered to him!   René hopes that their improved financial circumstances, new intellectual stimulation, and new friends, will make Hester more amenable to their life in the New World, but their fiery expulsion from the vile hotel and intimate familiarity with murder has left Hester more than ever obsessed with returning to England.
"Whether Momaco ignores you or fetes you, it is always Momaco.  Do you really want to spend the rest of your life in this awful city?"  
René, however, has no interest in returning to London.  At the end of her rope, unable to dislodge René from his steadfast determination to stay in the "God-forsaken ice box," on page 369 Hester commits suicide by jumping in front of a moving truck.  René is physically and psychologically broken by the sight of her mangled body and the enormity of this catastrophe, and spends long months recuperating in a hospital and then a Catholic retreat, where he is surrounded by priests and considers converting to Catholicism.  The last 37 pages of the book consist of René trying to come to terms with his new life and sort out his radically shifting feelings about his wife and her final desperate act, feelings which range from love and pity to hate and contempt.  He achieves career success--wealth and a position at an important American university--but he is a hollowed out man, a man who went against the tide, who saw through all of the bogus stratagems and deceptions of the universe and of human society, but who has suffered from this enlightenment, been punished like a character in a Greek myth who defied the gods.

Self Condemned excels as an entertaining and moving story about unusual people and their unhappy fates, but Lewis doesn't see himself merely as a comedian and tragedian, but as a satirist, and he takes a dim view of our world and its people, and he works a number of satiric themes.

Prominent among these themes is the absurdity of life.  Lewis and René use the word "absurd" again and again, and several times Rene is taken aback by how absurdly other characters act.  Lewis also presents us with many incidents which are at once absurd, but also wholly believable.  The attitude of Affie and her staff about janitors, for example:
She actually preferred a man to be a thief and drunkard....the only kind of janitor she heartily disliked was a competent one, like a man called Jan--whom everybody hated because he was so clean, sober, and good at his job.
Another instance is Rene's job with the book collector, Furber; this guy is paying Rene to offer advice on the value of rare books and whether he should add such and such a book to his collection, but Rene is a scholar, not a bookdealer:
He knew as little about the market value of a book, as he did of the value of diamonds or fur coats...since most of Furber's books did not interest him, it was a waste of time consulting him as to the desirability of adding a little-known Marquis de Sade to the collection.  But he had to affect enthusiasm, in order to retain his position....  
The hotel, Canada, and the world: all one big madhouse!

A more recent edition
A related theme of the novel is the prolonged fit of insanity commonly called the Second World War.  We are accustomed, when WWII is discussed, of hearing such terms as "the finest hour" and "the greatest generation" when the Allies are the topic at hand, and denunciations of German aggression and Nazi racism in reference to the Axis powers.  Lewis does not take this tack.  As evidenced by the reaction of the liner's passengers to the King's speech (which I am told has recently been romanticized in a fanciful Hollywood picture), Lewis's characters feel disconnected from the war and are far from patriotic heroes.  When the war is directly addressed Lewis does not mention the stirring victories of military men or the noble sacrifices and selfless dedication of blitzed Londoners and "Rosie the Riveter;" rather, he has René and Hester hear reports on the radio about what we might consider Allied misbehavior, like the shackling of German prisoners in Britain and Canada and FDR's receipt of the gift of a letter opener made from the bone of a Japanese fighting man.  (Lewis does not provide any context for these regrettable British and American actions, such as the fact that they were responses to more systematic and severe German and Japanese atrocities, or that there was a public outcry in America against abuse of Japanese war dead and that FDR later repudiated the gruesome trophy Lewis cites.)  Mrs. McKenzie was far from willing to "do her bit" during the Blitz--she complains bitterly about how the local air warden harassed her over her failure to meet black out regulations and how the government tried to force her to house a crippled twelve-year-old Jewish refugee--she took it as a personal affront that they tried to pollute her home with a Jew!  Mrs. McKenzie also complains about the war profiteering of shopkeepers.  Both times Winston Churchill is mentioned by name it is not done to extol the man; one time it is only so Lewis can goof on him for using outdated American slang.  There is no talk about the German invasion of Poland or Japanese sneak attacks on Pearl Harbor or British Pacific colonies; when the characters blame the war on anything it is on government in general (Rene asserts that "Government is often in the hands of criminals or morons, never in the hands of first-rate men.")  Affie wins Rene's approval when she expresses her horror of the war in a way that condemns all authority and stresses continuity between the World Wars:
'They are taking our boys,' she said in an undertone, as if speaking to herself and the fact that her eyes were dry was only because anger dried them up.  'They are taking our boys again.'
Lewis eschews the particular and the familiar when talking about WWII in an effort to argue that WWII is not as "special" as we are commonly lead to believe, not an episode of unique heroism among the Allied peoples and unprecedented evil on the part of Hitler and his henchmen and the German war machine.  In his telling, war seems like the inevitable result of immutable human evil, not the particular crime of individual malefactors or evil political parties.  In fact, the book René is inspired to write by his intellectually invigorating relationship with McKenzie has as one of its arguments the claim that the cataclysmic period of World War I, the Russian Revolution, the Depression, the rise of fascism and World War II is not some kind of horrible outlier, but a normal period of history: "His slogan was as follows: 'The past thirty years is typical, not exceptional.'"

And another
While relatively few passages address the war directly, many more seem to address it obliquely or symbolically.  One hilarious and somewhat disgusting scene covers Affie's enthusiastic warmaking on the cockroaches which infest the hotel--she is not reluctant to get up close and personal, down and dirty, in her pitiless campaign of extermination against the six-legged fiends, engaging with brio in chemical warfare and hand to hand combat with the vermin.  The hotel's barkeep, after a particularly desperate scrap, declares he is "neutral" and will no longer intervene in the regular bar fights.  And the fire that destroys the hotel occurs just after Rene predicts that the war will trigger the very quick ("overnight") dissolution of the British Empire.

Self Condemned's themes, topics and techniques are perfectly suited to my interests and temperament: loneliness, exile, and suicide; difficult sexual relationships; hostility to Marxism and disillusionment with academia; detailed descriptions of claustrophobic rooms and their psychological effect on those who live in them, who feel imprisoned in them.  Lewis even provides a page-long debunking of the romantic mythology that has grown up around motherhood!  Compared to Tarr, this is a more conventional and straightforward novel; it is definitely "easier" and its settings and characters are more clearly and more sharply drawn, so that you can see in your mind bold and disturbing images of the book's people and the places they inhabit.  I ate it up!

A good balance of laugh out loud humor, pathos, and Lewis's idiosyncratic and against-the-grain opinions make Self Condemned a fun, at times affecting, at times surprising, read.  I particularly recommend it to those who enjoy narratives about down-and-out self-important outsider smart guys, like those of Henry Miller and Charles Bukowski.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Eight Against Utopia by Douglas R. Mason

"A group of us are aiming to set up a colony outside--in the open.  We need two or three more people.  Would you come?"
"How is that possible?  The books say that life outside had to be given up.  North is too cold.  South is too hot and has hostile cities.  You will not be allowed to go."
"Never mind about that." 
Publisher's Weekly, your source for
fake news--every word of that blurb is false
In our last episode I told you that I purchased my 1970 paperback copy of Douglas R. Mason's 1966 novel From Carthage Then I Came, retitled Eight Against Utopia in this edition, partly because it appeared to be inspired or influenced by one of the 20th century's foremost poets, T. S. Eliot, one of the most important of all Christian theologians, Augustine of Hippo, and the ancient tales of the sons of Oedipus.  I even described my experience of reading Seven Against Thebes by Greek playwright Aeschylus and The Thebaid by Roman poet Statius.  Now let's read the lovely blue paperback which set me on that mission of reading books from 2,000 years ago.  Joachim Boaz, star SF blogger and tweeter, warned us that Eight Against Utopia is dull, but let's cross our fingers and dive in anyway!

Seven thousand years ago mankind retreated into domed cities in order to survive a new ice age!  (This must be the ice age J.G. Bennett warned us about on Robert Fripp's experimental rock music album Exposure!)  Over the millennia, ostensibly to conserve scarce resources and maintain order in the shelter's tight confines, the northernmost domed city, Carthage, sited on the African coast of the Mediterranean, has developed into a repressive authoritarian state; each citizen's bodily functions and brainwaves are monitored, so the government can even tell (more or less) what you are thinking!  This system doesn't have the capacity to read everybody's mind at once, reminding the reader of Jeremy Bentham's panopticon, and with effort clever people can evade its probing by filling the surface of their minds with a jumble of tedious calculations and trick it by thinking of forbidden matters via misdirecting symbols. 

Gaul T. Kalmar is an engineer in Carthage, and because his duties include doing maintenance on the outer dome, he knows full well that the ice age is over--he has opened hatches and spent time in an almost forgotten observatory atop the dome, and there he has breathed the outside air and seen that the dome is surrounded by forests instead of glaciers.  He wants to leave Carthage and start a new, more free, society in Europe he will call "New Troy."  He gathers together seven additional like-minded people, including a beautiful psychologist, Tania Clermont, and they plot their escape.  The headshrinker (or "mind-bender," as they call psychologists in this book) is a critical member of the team--in her office is a room shielded from the mind-reading rays, so the pioneers can discuss their plans openly in there.  (People can actually sense the oppressive intrusion into their minds of the government monitors, and so to treat her patients Clermont needs a place where they can temporarily escape this source of anxiety.)

One of the remarkable things about Eight Against Utopia is that it is chockablock with learned cultural references.  There are the aforementioned quotes from Eliot's The Waste Land and Four Quartets, a description of a woman as having a "Marie Antoinette bust," a passage in which the "posture of the wife of Indra" (link NSFW!) is mentioned, another in which a character refers to La Venus du Gaz, and many more.  Of course I enjoy these nods to works of art with which I am familiar, and enjoy looking up online mentioned works with which I am unfamiliar.  (Just a few days ago I was reading Wyndham Lewis's Rude Assignment, and was moved to look up Gerald Leslie Brockhurst because Lewis mentioned him.  Even though Lewis brought Brockhurst's paintings up as an example of lowbrow gunk that appeals to the masses, I kind of liked them!)  Unfortunately, Mason's esoteric references add almost nothing to his book!

Firstly, the fact that the characters are intimately familiar with the work of T. S. Eliot and Pablo Picasso makes them seem more like 1950s grad students in the humanities than the engineers and psychologists of a eugenically bred, constantly surveilled and intensely propagandized population of the year 9000 A. D.  Mason is apparently more interested in showing off his own erudition than in conjuring up the atmosphere of an alien milieu and depicting the mindset of its inhabitants.

Secondly, all these erudite allusions and quotations are not integral building blocks of a deeply philosophical work, but merely window dressing tossed practically at random into a routine adventure story.  Despite the cover text that invokes George Orwell's 1984 and the cradle-to-grave welfare state, Eight Against Utopia doesn't have much to say about how a state socialist system operates or what it does to human psychology and sociology, and it isn't a defense of individualism or a celebration of man's unquenchable desire for freedom.  Rather, it is a series of tedious engineering scenes and mediocre action scenes starring a superfluity of bland and forgettable characters.

The bulk of the first half or so of the novel consists of detailed descriptions of Kalmar and company secretly digging through the dome foundation (they have a sort of hand held disintegrator device called a "matter pulverizer") in search of a point of egress and sabotaging the city's power source, which they hope will hamper the security forces' efforts to track them down after their breakout.  What Mason describes are not emotions or psychological states, but architecture and the laborious cutting of walls and opening of seized doors, and thus these scenes generate no suspense or fear and do not move or even interest the reader.  I have to admit that I found these engineering scenes difficult to visualize, maybe because I have only the dimmest sense of what "tie bars," "flanges" and "culverts" really look like and in what context one encounters them, but also, I think, because of another problem, Mason's writing style, which is not good.

Instead of explaining things clearly, Mason employs a style full of euphemisms, cliches, and not-at-all-funny ironic deadpan humor, which not only makes it hard to tell what is going on in the many scenes that include architectural and geographical description, but undercuts any excitement or tension the action scenes might generate.

Another distracting tic of Mason's is his reusing again and again the same words and phrases, even though plenty of perfectly suitable synonyms are available.  We see "tack" (for direction or approach) three times in the book's first chapter alone, and Mason uses the phrase "when the balloon goes up" (meaning when some dangerous operation has irrevocably begun) on pages 43, 46 and 57.  This brings us back to my earlier complaint: why are people who have lived in a dome for 7,000 years using sailing and ballooning metaphors, anyway?  These people have never seen the ocean or the sky!  If Mason is going to make no effort to depict the mindset of people living in an environment radically different than our own, why does he set his story in such an environment?

A passage that I think demonstrates many of the essential characteristics of Eight Against Utopia comes on the day our heroes make their break for freedom (the day the balloon goes up!)  While everybody is hustling to the airlock and the hovercraft the men of the group have excavated, Tania Clermont is revealed to be a traitor working for the government!  When Clermont pulls her government-issued gun, one of the men, Shultz, knocks her cold with a karate chop, and then he carries her out of the dome on his shoulder because he still thinks he can make her his girlfriend!
She was very light.  He slung her over his shoulder and through the thin leotard could feel the pneumatic tension of her jagana against the side of his face.  Her scent was a matter of some subtlety and care, with a faint overtone of sandalwood.  Without overt intention, she was doing a fair job of mind-bending.  
I'm guessing "pneumatic," which Mason uses four times over the course of the book to describe women's bodies, is another Eliot reference, especially since at one point it is used in the same sentence with "Phoenician sailor," a famous phrase from The Waste Land, but I've never seen "jagana" before.  (I mean I've never seen the word--I can assure you I have seen a woman's jagana...whatever it is.)

Besides Mason's useless literary references, lame jokes, and vague descriptions, this passage also serves as an example of the novel's attitude towards sex and gender--were Eight Against Utopia to take flight in today's grrrlpower/MeToo era I suspect it would run into some heavy flak!  Not only are there many "male gaze" scenes and groping scenes, but during all the action sequences the women are essentially burdens--men need to tell them what to do, carry them over obstacles, rescue them, etc.  We are told that women are less adept than men at concealing their thoughts from the government monitor rays, so Kalmar keeps the women in the dark during the planning stages of their breakout.

Six of the party (this count includes unconscious Tania Clermont) fly off in the dusty old hovercraft, but the fuzz are hot on their tails and Kalmar and sexy redhead female engineer Jane Welland are left behind.  In the third quarter of the novel we get long descriptions of the six baling out the hovercraft and rigging a makeshift sail after the machine loses power and lands in the ocean, and long descriptions of Kalmar and Welland fleeing Carthage on foot.  The team's sabotage having cut the city's power, the pair traverse darkened walkways, creep through empty maintenance tunnels and then ascend the shaft of an inert elevator.  Under cover of darkness, a cop Kalmar already has a grudge against tries to rape a woman we never heard about before whom he just picks out of a crowd, Goda Hurst, and our hero Kalmar stumbles on this crime and takes it upon himself to rescue her.  Hurst joins the fugitive party and promptly falls in love with Kalmar, incurring Welland's jealousy.  From the secret little observatory atop the dome the three rappel down to the surface.

Carthaginian security forces pursue the two groups of fugitives, and we get chase scenes and fight scenes.  Kalmar's trio captures an aircraft from their pursuers, and the two groups of refugees are reunited.  They are chased into an old military installation at Gibraltar in the final quarter of the book, and there Mason gives us another punishing dose of descriptions of architecture and climbing and tunnel running and cutting holes in walls.  Tania the treacherous shrink is vaporized by the security troops' energy weapons, but don't feel bad--she had repented of her treachery and faced death with equanimity, and within minutes Shultz develops a crush on Goda Hurst.  (Any port in a storm, I guess.)  They find a MTB or some such military boat, preserved as a museum exhibit.  After 7,000 years its engine and rapid fire deck gun still operate like clockwork, so our heroes crew the thing and, in the shadow of "The Rock," win a naval battle against five Carthaginian hovercraft.  Then they sail to England to restart civilization.
What a disappointment!  Eight Against Utopia's references to classical and modernist literature are only skin deep and the political and philosophical issues revolving around the individual's relationship to the state get more of an airing on the back cover than in the actual text, leaving us with a 150-page book about engineering, sex and violence, but all the engineering, sex and violence scenes are inept!  Thumbs down!  (Gotta agree with Joachim this time!)