Drug Of Choice, by John Lange January, 1970 Signet Books John Lange was a pseudonym Michael Crichton used between 1966 and 1972, for a total of eight novels, most of them paperback originals. I think this is the first Crichton novel I’ve read, and I really enjoyed it – however word seems to be that the “Lange” books are more pulpy than those bearing Chrichton’s name, and also that this
Fringe: The Zodiac Paradox, by Christa Faust May, 2013 Titan Books Fringe ran for five seasons, from 2008 to 2012, and I never watched it during its original broadcast run on Fox. I was aware of it, though; I recall a coworker sometime in 2009 raving about it, and I was like, “You mean that show with the guy from Dawson’s Creek?” But I never watched it. Then last year a friend who
Mystery, by Matthew Paris
February, 1973 Avon Books
If you’ve ever wondered what it would’ve been like if Philip K. Dick had written a crime novel, wonder no longer; this obscure paperback original gives a good indication of the book that might have ensued. What’s funny is the back cover of Mystery proclaims “An ordinary cop on an extraordinary mission!”, which makes me think the copyist either A.) Never read the book; B.) Read the book and couldn’t figure out how to synopsize it; or C.) Figured the hell with it.
There is in fact nothing ordinary about Mystery. It’s one screwed-up, surreal novel, ostensibly a murder investigation set in New York City, but a New York that seems to be out of some psychedelic sci-fi nightmare. Our narrator is Lt. Salvador, a top New York cop who when we meet him is investigating a murder. Salvador’s white whale is the mysterious Farmer, owner of the infamous Rabbit Club, a shadowy underworld of pleasure palaces. Salvador’s major goal throughout the novel is bringing down Farmer – though first he has to find him, or for that matter discover if he even exists.
Mystery starts off as a typical crime novel, albeit one with a definite literary bent, as Salvador drives around New York City following up clues on a murdered money-runner before he’s tasked by the DA to look into the murder of a call girl who worked at one of the Rabbit Club’s bars. But then Salvador stops off at a suspect’s apartment, a gorgeous woman who throws herself at him, and before they make it the woman tells Salvador to take a look inside her bathroom – and here Matthew Paris lets you know what kind of novel you’re actually in for:
The bathroom door was open. A large cow was sprawled over the edge of the bathtub on its spine. Its black eyes stared at me, probably with more feeling than when they had been alive. Its gigantic head hung limply under the running water falling from the shower. Fluorescent lights streaming from above the mirror illuminated the blood that was running through the hot water onto the colored tile. The cow’s throat was slashed across the jugular vein. I shivered with terror.
Believe it or not, Mystery only proceeds to get stranger. (And this dead cow in the bathtub is never even explained!) In the twisted course of this twisted novel we have conundrum upon conundrum as our narrator encounters a host of bizarre characters, from a general who keeps a harem of young boys to a priest of filth who lives in a church filled with statues made of excrement. There are also “doubles” of virtually every character, including Salvador – who, by the way, isn’t an “ordinary” cop at all; throughout the novel he just blows people away for absolutely no reason, and commits a variety of criminal and murderous acts without any reprimand. I mean, I thought the guy was with the NYPD, not the LAPD!! (Okay, just kidding…)
The name of the murdered Rabbit Club hooker is Velma Roach, and her corpse lies in the Club’s plush Manhattan location. Even the poor murdered girl is strange, as Salvador notes that the corpse is bald; we’re informed this is so because the Rabbit Club girls must be able to change their looks to suit the whims of their current client. Calimyne, one of Farmer’s cronies and the runner of this particular Club location, trades cryptic banter with Salvador in what is a forshadowing of the rest of the novel – for the most part Mystery is comprised of Salvador going from one location to another and trading bizarre, cryptic dialog with bizarre and cryptic characters. While interesting at first it does get old.
You see, the problem with Mystery is the same problem that plagues any overly-literary tome that attempts to be surreal: eventually the reader realizes that there will be no resolution to anything, and what with all of the “weird” stuff the book soon lacks any emotional content. I don’t mean “emotional content” in today’s meaning of the phrase, ie the way everything from movies to commercials will try to milk emotions, pandering to the lowest common denominator – rather I mean you don’t care for anyone in this novel, because each of them is devoid of any human spark.
So then we read with more of an intellectual pleasure as Salvador tracks clues and, uh, randomly murders various people. Seriously, there will be parts where he’s talking to a suspect, and as the suspect walks off Salvador will whip out his gun and blow the person away. Paris works up a subtle subplot that Salvador might be on some psychedelic drug; there is often mention of a mysterious powder various Rabbit Club reps are snorting, and at one point a doctor briefly examines Salvador and asks him, “Are you taking any drugs?” (Salvador’s response is classic: “Should I be?”)
Eventually Salvador hooks up with Kelly Starr, gorgeous Rabbit Club VIP who is an intimate of Farmer but who wants to help Salvador find him…or at least, I think that’s how it goes. The book is very obscure at times. Paris even proves himself unconcerned with doling out regular novel stuff; for example in one scene Salvador heads into a bar to talk to a contact while Kelly waits for him in his car, and when Salvador comes out Kelly informs him that she just received a call from the DA, who asked her to inform Salvador that a host of minor characters were all just knocked off! It’s pretty ridiculous, but just another indication of the surreal world in which this occurs.
It also gradually becomes apparent that Paris is more concerned with word-painting than he is with telling a story with a plot. The murder investigation loses focus as the author spends more time serving up descriptions of his hellishly weird New York. Again, while the writing is good, plot development and any sort of meaning is lost. As mentioned, major events happen “off camera” and the cryptic dialog makes the reader feel as if he’s only getting half the story. Nothing is explained, not even the doubles. For example when Salvador first meets a double, it’s during an apocalyptic firefight, and rather than question the guy Salvador instead tries to kill him. Even when the two meet again in the finale Salvador never once asks who the double is, or even what he is.
Speaking of the finale, there isn’t much of one, but then this is expected given the increasingly surreal nature of the writing. Once again Paris is more content to word-paint rather than deliver a suspenseful climax, thrusting Salvador into a variety of arbitrary locations in which bizarre shit goes down, none of it explained. As for the book’s sleaze quotient, there isn’t much of one; the gunfights are minimally described, and the few sex scenes immediately fade to black. Overall the book has more in common with the self-indulgent hippie lit of the era; funny that it was packaged as a genre novel, complete with a lurid cover painting.
I can’t say I recommend Mystery, but it’s definitely an interesting read. Perhaps this is one of those novels that improves with a second reading, but the constant obsfucation and casual disregard for plot development, characterization, and reality served to turn me off in the long run.
Logan's Run, by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson
May, 1976 Bantam Books
(Original publication 1967)
I really enjoy the 1976 film Logan’s Run: the kitsch, the camp value, the retro sci-fi style and design. I’ve even got it on Blu Ray. Mostly though I love how it plays up on the psychedelic fallout of the 1960s, with sequences of hallucinogenic excess – Logan and his friends getting high on some sort of red smoke in Logan’s ultra mod pad, or Logan and Jessica 6 fighting their way through the delirium of the psychedelicizing love mists during their escape from the City.
So imagine my surprise to find none of that stuff in the source novel. This is one of the few cases where I can say the film version is better than the novel -- much better. (Another instance would be 2001: A Space Odyssey.) Published in 1967, Logan’s Run is straight-up pulp sci-fi, 150 pages of clunky narrative and paper-thin characters. It bears little relation to the film other than the theme, but even that is slightly different.
Anyone who has seen the film knows the story: in this ultra-mod 23rd Century, there’s an enforced life cutoff when you reach 30 years of age. As goofy as that concept is, the source novel is even goofier; here the life sentence ends at a mere 21. Obviously then the novel is a wild extrapolation of the Youth Movement of the 1960s, taken to insane and illogical extremes, but still…it’s very hard to imagine a world being run by those under 21. The film was at least slightly more believable in this regard.
We meet Logan as he’s a ripe old 21, soon to experience his LastDay, after which he must voluntarily submit himself to Sleep, ie death. But that’s it, here. None of the Carousel stuff from the film, where LastDay supplicants would put on white costumes with weird hockey masks and walk around, hoping to be zapped and reincarnated (or whatever the hell was going on in that scene). The book does have the famous crystal flower implanted in the hands of each character’s hands, and when they go black the person is ready to die. If they don’t voluntarily go to Sleep, then Logan, a Sandman, is called in to waste them.
Our hero is a bit more troubled in the novel. As you’ll recall in the film version he has a few years added to his life by the City computer, as a ruse to go undercover among the radicals; again, nothing like this is in the novel. Instead, Logan begins to fear his imminent mortality, so he is intrigued by the mention of “Sanctuary” on the lips of a Runner who is killed by gang members before Logan can get to him.
The dead Runner had a twin sister, Jessica 6, and Logan attempts to track her down. This entails a bit of action within the City, which turns out to be Los Angeles, though it is not the self-contained world as seen in the film. The novel operates on a much larger scale, with Logan shuttling around the entire country; the City of the novel is not closed off from the rest of the world like in the movie, and there’s no mention of the world beyond being a nuclear wasteland.
Indeed, we briefly learn that this world of the novel was created by Youth Movement riots, which blew up in 2000, resulting in a mass youth overtaking of the world, with the guru leader of the movement choosing to end his own life at 21, and his acolytes following suit. The unstated idea being that, since old people created the mess that was the 20th century, then an old-free world would be a much more pleasant place.
The psychedelic haze of the film is still here, if a bit subdued; within the first few pages Logan has visited a “hallucimill” where he ingests a favored LSD concoction, before stopping by a glasshouse orgy den where he has sex with some random female amid flashing hallucinogic lights. But this stuff is brief, and not played out as it is in the film. (And the sex scenes, by the way, are barely there; a quick mention of some girl and the authors fade to black.)
The authors also have a bit of trouble determining Logan’s motivations. He at first becomes interested in Sanctuary because his own LastDay is fast approaching, but later he mentions that his goal is to find the place and destroy it, so he can go to Sleep in a blaze of glory. Whatever the reason, the novel follows the same angle as the film, here, with Logan following a batch of clues to find the mysterious location that is Sanctuary.
It’s after Logan escapes the City, with Jessica in tow, that the book really veers off into its own thing. For one, Jessica and Logan don’t meet until immediately before they escape; the producers wisely built up their relationship in the film. But as mentioned the novel operates on a broader global sweep, and soon enough Logan and Jessica are taking Mazecars to various destinations, from an abandoned factory beneath the sea to a spot in the midwest upon which stands a colossal statue of an American Indian warrior.
The narrative portion here seems excised from the material that came before. Logan’s quest is lost for a bit and it becomes a sequence of unrelated action scenes, Logan and Jess showing up at some abandoned spot, meeting the locals, and getting into a battle. And sadly these action scenes are pretty dumb, not to mention goofy, particularly one where they meet a teenage gang that could’ve come straight out of Doomsday Warrior, their 16 year-old Attila the Hun giving Logan a trio of gorgeous women in exchange for a night with Jessica. (Humorously enough, while Logan partakes of the favor, Jessica keeps the gang leader at bay.)
Along the way Logan and Jessica are followed by Francis, Logan’s former Sandman colleague. Jessica and Logan meanwhile develop the expected feelings for one another, but the authors don’t have anything happen between them, despite their vows of love for each other late in the game. The romance element is just as harried and dashed off as the action.
In the ruins of Washington, DC Logan meets Ballard, legendary leader of the Runners, an actual “old” man at 42. But unlike in the film he’s not some wizened sage, and instead tries to kill Logan, just for being a Sandman. Another escape, more unrelated action stuff, and Logan and Jessica end up in the Florida Keys, where they discover that “Sanctuary” is a space station orbiting around Mars, and Francis is really Ballard (who poses in various Cities to monitor potential Sanctuary candidates), and Logan and Jessica hop on board the rocket and it takes off. The end.
So then, none of the payoff stuff from the film is here – no triumphant return to the City, no confrontation with the diseased computer which runs the place. Like I wrote above, the film is just so much better thought out and entertaining, and publisher Bantam doesn’t help out the authors by inserting 16 pages of photos from the film in glorious color into the book; one can’t help but compare these shots – which detail incidents that don’t even occur in the novel – to the book itself, and find the book lacking.
William Nolan penned the sequel by himself: Logan’s World, which not-so-coincidentally was published in 1976, the year the film came out. He followed this up with Logan’s Search in 1980. During a trip to a local used bookstore the other day I picked up all three novels for a pittance; I’ve read that Logan’s World in particular is in a men's adventure novel vein, so I’m looking forward to it.
If you'd like to see a similar concept given much better treatment, be sure to check out Peter Breggin's After The Good War.
Another End, by Vincent King
January, 1971 Ballantine Books
Here’s a psychedelic sci-fi novel that had so much potential. Vincent King appears to have taken the final section of Kubrick’s 2001 as inspiration, where a lone astronaut voyages “beyond the infinite.” The first quarter of Another End is very much in the same mold, really far out, really great, before the whole thing collapses into a grating exercize in pretensionsness.
The novel occurs in the far future – like, the really far future. I think more time passes in this novel than any other I’ve read; King will jump entire millennia in the span of a sentence. Our protagonist, Adamson (actually refered to as “the son of Adam” on the back cover), is a “Rider,” an astronaut from far-future Earth who has been chosen to voyage throughout the Milky Way in search of alien life.
Adamson is alone in his ship, the Probe, a sentient craft which is capable of repairing itself and gains its power from the stars. The Probe is actually the most memorable character in the book…sort of a HAL-9000 with a bit more compassion. I failed to get an idea of what the Probe actually looked like, though; King’s descriptions of characters are a bit vague at times. At any rate, the Probe is big enough for Adamson to walk around in, looking out at the cosmos and pondering man’s eternal quest and whatnot.
That is, when Adamson isn’t being dissolved and rebuilt in the Dissolution/Reconstitution chamber. In a process never fully described, Adamson is granted immortality by actually being melted down into some sort of protozoic ooze, before being regenerated into flesh by the Probe. This is done during “boring” portions of the voyage where he’s not needed, or perhaps during times when the Probe must enter into super-high speeds, I guess the inference being that Adamson’s mortal body couldn’t withstand the pressure.
This obviously adds a surreal and bizarre touch to the novel, especially when Adamson will be in his dissolved state for several thousands of years. While he is dissolved, the Probe puts Adamson in a dreaming state, where during one psychedelic sequence – which completely foreshadows Inception -- Adamson comes to consciousness within his dream and discovers he is in limbo, his sole companion a woman he names Laura. Together they build entire cities, until Adamson realizes it is all a dream and he must kill himself within it to get back to reality. (Exactly like in Inception!)
All of this – an entire novel’s worth of plot – is over and done with in the first twenty pages or so. Adamson, having voyaged with the Probe for a million or so years, is going insane: they’ve discovered no aliens, and word has not reached him that any other Riders have met any. Boredom and rot have set in upon his mind, and he is stricken with guilt over having killed Laura in his dream world. But when all hope seems lost Adamson and the Probe encounter Protia.
This turns out to be an amorphous (but female) entity from the Andromedan galaxy, a being which communicates telepathically and so, within a few seconds of meeting Adamson and the Probe, has plundered the full depth of human history – indeed, this is why she names herself “Protia” for them, after the mythic shape-shifter Proteus. For Protia too is a shape-shifter, and assumes a host of guises throughout.
This first meeting of man and alien is ruined when Portia realizes that all those “entertainments” she picked up via radio waves in space, beaming her films of WWII and Vietnam and etc, were actually real events in which people died. Realizing humankind is violent and savage, Portia refuses to speak to Adamson, and hovers in a corner of the Probe (her ship is crashed). Meanwhile Adamson goes back to his Dissolution chamber…and several thousand more years pass.
When “the Call” comes for all Probes to return to Earth, the Probe turns back…the mission has obviously failed. Again, we’re not even halfway through yet. Instead of continuing with his (more compelling) tale of millennia-spanning interstellar travel, King now turns his hand to satire and spoof, and the book drops dead.
Stopping off at an Earth-like planet (we learn that humans have colonized many planets in the Milky Way), Adamson is in the midst of an orgy with the female-only inhabitants when Thead appears. Thead turns out to have been a fellow Rider, only now he has gone insane and lords it over these women, who turn out to be robots. He wants to kill Adamson, but when he discovers Portia he wants her instead, to return to Earth with her in victory.
From here on the novel becomes more surreal and wacky, only in a bad way. When Thead confronts Adamson, for example, he throws jam at him…you know, jelly. And since he’s in the midst of an orgy Adamson gets up to fight him, but doesn’t have on any pants, but then figures who needs pants when you’re going to fight someone…! The novel proceeds with this sort of funny-but-not-funny vibe throughout, and I have to tell you, it really grated my nerves.
Thead chases after our heroes throughout the galaxy, and it gets to be repetitive. Other than a memorable scene where Portia investigates a massive ship which holds several deactivated Probes – their Riders having killed themselves to escape immortality – the novel takes on more of a satirical, goofy touch, and the millennia-spanning, psychedelic touch of the opening quarter is lost.
King was a British author, and writes like it…Another End has that same clinical feel to it, with characters talking at one another instead of to one another. I know he achieved a cult sort of fame in the UK with Candy Man and the bonkers-sounding Time Snake And Super Clown (which I don’t believe was published in the US), but I think for me this will be the first and last of his books I’ll read.
Mythmaster, by Leo P. Kelley
June, 1973 Dell Books
I love pulp sci-fi paperback originals, preferably ones from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and especially those that tap into the then-current psychedelic scene, casting their cosmic futures in a hallucenogenic glow. Usually it’s just the covers, but sometimes the novels themselves live up to this lysergic promise, and Mythmaster is a case in point. And just as surprisingly, the awesome Robert Foster cover (sort of) illustrates an actual scene in the novel!
Leo P. Kelley, who passed away in 2002, churned out a variety of genre novels, particularly Westerns; Mike Madonna informs me that he also created the Cimarron series. Starting in the mid-1960s Kelley published a handful of sci-fi novels, and if Mythmaster is any indication, they all might be worth checking out sometime. This is a slim book, a little over 200 pages, but engrossing in its storytelling and psychedelicized future setting. The novel is more of a character study than a space opera or adventure story, but the incidental details Kelley sprinkles throughout the narrative are fascinating.
Our hero is John Shannon, the titular “Mythmaster.” The way he got this title is pretty unusual to say the least. He clusterbombs populaces with pellets containing a hallucinogenic of his own manufacture; the hallucinogen drives everyone who breathes it "Mythmad" -- a euphoric, delusional state, one where they are incapable of controlling themselves. Then Shannon and his team of fellow pirates float down to the planet on their little ships and zap the fertilized eggs from the bodies of recently-impregnated women!!
Obviously Shannon is an anti-hero, and in fact the thrust of the novel is his eventual rediscovery of his own humanity. The novel plays out on a smallscale, personal level, even though it has intergalactic trips and action scenes. Shannon, an orphan who was raised by a robotic “mother surrogate,” once was a captain in the Space Patrol with a promising career, one he ruined in an attempt to save the lives of prisoners who were in an orbiting prison that was in the path of his ship.
Drummed out of the Patrol, Shannon eventually became a self-centered pirate with a variety of money-making schemes. This egg-stealing gambit is only the latest, if also the most disgusting; Shannon steals the eggs and delivers them without a care to their fate. In one case we learn that the buyers intend to eat the eventual humans that will grow from the eggs. (These buyers, the Epicureanites, are another of Kelley’s interesting creations which are only hinted at in the novel – obese lechers who live only to satiate themselves.)
One thing Shannon does get excited about is his infrequent visits to Seventh Heaven, a space station cathouse. Each level features a different erotic delight, and Shannon rewards his all-male crew with visits to the place after successful jobs. On this latest visit Shannon discovers the Star Wars-esque named Reba Charlo, a courtesan who has the entirety of the seventh level to herself, such is her fame and beauty. Reba instantly sets off Shannon’s alarms, as she knows who he is, despite the cover name he’s given (which is “Ackerman,” surely an in-joke reference to Forrest Ackerman?).
Reba knows that Shannon is really the Mythmaker; she knows this through Starson, Shannon’s “astronavigator,” a good-looking dude who happens to be gay, and who also happens to be in love with Shannon. This sets up the strange love triangle which brews through the tale: Shannon tries to subdue the feelings he has for Reba, who once was married to Starson, who himself keeps trying to get Shannon to fall in love with him! Weird scenes inside the goldmine.
Then there’s Oxon Kaedler (another great name!), a fellow space pirate who has been declared dead by the Space Patrol but who really survived; rumor is he is coming after Shannon to cut in on his profits. Kaedler is another of those great little touches of the bizarre that Kelley sprinkles through the book; his body burned beyond repair, Kaedler floats, nude and surrounded by a blue haze, overtop a hovering life-support device, and since his voice is destroyed he communicates through a lizard-like alien with telepathic powers. All of it seems like something that could’ve come out of David Lynch’s wonderfully weird Dune.
To me the novel’s greatest strength is the incidental detail Kelley puts in here and there, showing the alien influences upon this future. There’s Andromedan curtains that play “polyphonic” music when brushed open, and even a device of Reba’s that actually let’s people “taste the colors.” Also on the psychedelic tip is a later scene where Reba covers her naked body with alien “fireworms” which sparkle about her, obscuring her nudity in kaleidoscopic colors.
Kelley follows his love triangle storyline all the way through; during a brief return visit to Earth, Shannon visits Denver with Starson and Reba. The city has been split into UpperDenver and UnderDenver, the former a closed off haven for the rich, the latter a criminal metropolis. The wealthy can buy tickets which allow them to slum with the transients in UnderDenver, and this is where the trio go, checking out the nightlife, the weird wonders on display.
But over dinner Starson spikes Shannon with those Mythmadness pellets – everyone is susceptible to them, unless they have antitode pills – and then he takes the drugged and hallucinating Shannon to a seedy hotel and has his way with him. Surprisingly enough, Shannon comes to the next day without any anger; turns out he’s bisexual (!), and indeed is more upset that Starson thought he could make Shannon fall in love with him through the fog of Mythmadness.
The Shannon-Reba love story however bears the brunt of the narrative, and Kelley provides plenty of sex scenes. But for a novel focused on hallucinogenic drugs and interstellar whorehouses, Mythmaster isn’t very graphic or explict. The sex scenes are more along the lines of “he lost himself within her” and such, and other than a late utterance of “fuck,” the book is devoid even of cursing. However Kelley makes up for it with a general feeling of decadence. For example, the bizarre scene where Shannon, awaiting his appointment with Reba in Seventh Heaven, swims in a pool filled with alien fish – alien fish which like to congregate around particular areas of human bodies, with erotic effects – and ends up “dallying” with them!
Kelley builds up the rivalry with Kaedler in the climax, with Shannon and his crew in a desperate space battle with Kaedler’s superior ship. The last portion of the book sees Shannon, Reba, Starson, and a few crew members stranded on a barren, swamp-like planet, one filled with a strange alien life. Here Kelley delivers another psychedelic scene, when Kaedler drops Mythmadness pellets on Shannon and his crew, who then stumble about in a chemical fog. (This is the scene Robert Foster apparently illustrated for his cover – that is, if his cover was actually based on the novel in the first place.) All of this leads into an unusual ending in which Shannon and Reba are cast as a sort of new Adam and Eve.
Writing wise, Kelley plays it straight, usually just giving the necessary details and moving on. But as stated, it’s those details that I found so fascinating. He also attempts to get lyrical and literary at spots, with his characters prone to delivering soul-plumbing confessions or pronouncements. I don’t think Mythmaster will be to everyone’s liking, but something about it struck a chord with me – the focus on character, the psychedelic vibe, and the incidental and bizarre details.
The Godmakers, by Don Pendleton
February, 1974 Pinnacle Books
(Original publication November, 1970)
Don Pendleton published innumerable books before he found fame and fortune with the Executioner. The Godmakers was one of those early books, published right around the time that Miami Massacre came out. The first edition of the novel carried the “Dan Britain” by-line, a psuedonym Pendleton apparently saved for his sci-fi output. The edition shown here is the 1974 reprint, published under Pendleton’s own name and capitalizing on the mid-‘70s success of the Executioner series, which is name-dropped on the cover…right above the wangless naked dude as he floats through a sort of blacklight-esque dreamspace.
It’s interesting to note that the original 1970 edition of The Godmakers took place in the near future year of 1975…a time when things were slightly different, like “steamer” cars on the interstates and a different sort of structure to the US itself. What’s odd though is this 1974 reprint retains that “near future” 1975 setting. Couldn’t some junior editor have at least gone into the manuscript and changed each instance of “1975” to say “1980” or something?
I’m not sure about the original edition, but the back cover of this reprint does a poor job summing up the novel, making it sound more like a “political intrique meets ESP” sort of thing. In reality, The Godmakers is more of an assault on conservative morality, fundamentalist religion, and the modern world. Indeed it’s almost gnostic in its disavowal of Christianity, even equating the god of the Christians with the devil. And it’s positively Carpocratian in its mindset that sex, sex, and nothing but sex is the only means to salvation. Not at all what you’d expect from the creator of Mack Bolan!
But man, if only the novel lived up to its gnostic promise. It seems to me that Pendleton tried to mirror (or at least was inspired by) Heinlein’s Stranger In a Strange Land, with his know-it-all protagonist who blithely goes about laying waste to all the sentiments modern man holds dear. And while The Godmakers starts off strong, veering into psychedelic realms, it soon becomes an overbearing exercise in semantics, given over to pages and pages of explanatory dialog, our hero Patrick Honor info-dumping on anyone and everyone. And though there is sex (indeed, the action scenes are sex scenes), it’s all metaphysical, with prose more ornate than purple.
Anyway, Patrick Honor is a federal agent who works for a CIA-type agency, his office right beside the White House. His boss is a guy named Clinton, which proves ironic in the later scenes with the President; every time Pendleton would mention Clinton, I would think he was the President. The novel opens with Clinton giving Honor his newest task; to look into the sudden insanity of Wenssler, a scientist who is helming a government-funded research of PPS (psychic power sources).
The Godmakers bridles with a pre-PC mindset; when Honor meets Wenssler’s gorgeous female assistant, Barbara Thompson, he’s instantly checking out her “female form” and hitting on her. We learn that Wenssler has voyaged to such inner reaches that he’s lost his mind. Now all he can do is scream about “the Nines.” Barbara also has a list of dates and names, transcribed from Wenssler’s rants; these dates prove to be recent dates on which various important people have died. Many of the dates are in the future. The President’s name is on the list, with a date coming up in a month or so. Honor’s name is also on the list.
You’re prepared for a conspiracy-laden excursion into politcal intrigue, but Pendleton switches gears fast. Over breakfast Barbara starts hitting back on Honor – apparently Wenssler in one of his moments of lucidity claimed Honor might be “the one,” and Barbara has detected traces of PPS in Honor. Barbara herself has her own PPS powers and, as she telekinetically unbuttons Honor’s shirt, she informs him that sex combined with PPS might be the only way to voyage into the astral realm in which Wenssler’s mind is imprisoned.
The two rush upstairs to screw. Seriously! Pendleton relays the ensuing scene in dialog (Lots of “Ooooh! Patrick!” and whatnot), but it’s over soon, veering into the psychedelic as Honor suddenly finds himself in some sort of dreamscape. This will be repeated throughout the novel; anytime people have sex, they’re intsantly sent into this astral realm. Honor catches glimpses of Hadrin and Octavia, sort of personifications of the Ideal Man and Ideal Woman, I guess the original images that Plato spoke of.
Honor emerges with PPS superpowers. The session with Barbara obviously was the spur that he’d needed, but it comes off as so rushed, especially given that Honor spends the rest of the novel going around and explaining things to people, a sudden know-it-all, whereas in the opening pages he was cynical and didn’t even believe in PPS. What makes it worse is that the forward action of the narrative is also halted, and the entire book comes off as a descent into semantics, numerology, metaphysics, and Jungian philosophy.
Now, I’m interested in all of those things, but it’s just that the way Pendleton carries it off leaves you a bit dissatisfied. Everything is relayed via expository dialog, and Patrick Honor suddenly becomes a total bore. I do find it interesting that Pendleton makes the villain of the tale the god of the Christians. Honor elaborates (at great length, and several times) that our concept of god is actually “The Rogue,” man’s accumulated misconceptions and prejudices about god given amorphous form, so that it is now an actual entity, and worse yet one that has gained self-awareness and plans to take over our world.
The Rogue, as Honor makes clear, is really just the Collective Unconscious that Jung wrote about. What I find so strange about this is that Pendleton turns the typical assumption on its head and makes the Collective Unconscious evil! It’s often proposed that Jung was only re-discovering the god of the Gnostics, the “god of Plato” and etc – ie, the “True God” who has nothing to do with the Demiurge, aka the Judeo-Christian god. Anyway, here the Jungian god is evil, and Pendleton implies quite often that man himself is the true god.
Which brings me to the title: “Godmaker” is a term Hadrin gives Honor during one of their astral-realm chats. Hadrin explains that each human being has the potential to become a god, and Honor spends the rest of the novel tyring to teach that lesson to his colleagues. Soon he has Clinton and Clinton’s wife involved, and together they with Honor and Barbara are having orgies…all to combat the Rogue, of course! But again Pendleton skips over the naughty bits and instead has ‘em all getting ready to go at it, then after a few breathless exchanges of dialog they’re all in the astral realm.
Things get super goofy when the friggin President gets involved, “initiated” into the astral realm of PPS-assisted sex by Clinton’s wife and Barbara! (Goofier yet, Honor later informs us that Abraham Lincoln is still out there in the astral realm, a fellow Godmaker fighting the Rogue!) Anyway the President is very interested in PPS research, and there follows many scenes where he just sits around and listens to Honor tell him how much evil the Rogue threatens. Pretty soon he’s even calling fellow world leaders and warning them!
It’s all just hard to believe. Also problematic is the nature of the Rogue’s threats, and the way Pendleton delivers his metaphysical action scenes. Simply put, you have no idea what the hell is happening. Our heroes will disrobe, engage in group sex, instantly be transported into the astral realm, and then they’ll be yelling incomprehensible things to one another, like “Follow me into the root square!” or “Slice through the plane and into the geometer!”
I find it interesting though that Honor, even after “ascending” to his Godmaker status, still shows flashes of that pre-PC mindset, always referring to Barbara and Clinton’s wife as “the girls” and giving them the simple tasks. Or the sexual ones…there are many other goofy scenes where the ladies go about telepathically feeling out the sexual impulses of others and goosing them into public displays of sex…all to fight the Rogue, of course.
Also interesting is that Pendleton never once mentions homosexual sex…not that I look for such things, but it just seemed an obvious question given his position that one must have sex to fight the evil god we humans have created. Yet Pendleton never mentions what the gays are supposed to do – he makes it clear that heterosexual sex is the only way to combat the evil Rogue, that men and women are of different genders so that they can combine and achieve Godmaker status through sexual union.
Maybe the fact that the novel even caused me to think about such things is a sign of its success, that Pendleton was at least getting me to think about and question his sentiments. (The novel also promotes a healthy "question everything" attitude.) However I still feel a much better story lurked within Pendleton’s concept. Less semantics, less exposition, and a bit more understandable action would’ve made a big difference. As it is, though, I appreciated The Godmakers for its ideas and its psychedelic, sex-as-sacrament mindset.
Here’s the original edition, which sported a cool Frank Frazetta cover:
Zardoz, by John Boorman and Bill Stair
April, 1974 Signet Books
Zardoz is one of those films that’s more fun to talk about than to watch, just a weird blitz of a movie, with a flying stone head, future hippie communes, rampant toplessness, and Sean Connery running around in thigh-high boots and red diapers. At the very least, I can respect director/writer/producer John Boorman’s attempt to “go beyond 2001.” I mean, you’d never see someone attempt anything like this movie in today’s world, where most sci-fi is just cgi-laden, PG-13 junk that caters to the tweener market.
What’s most surprising about this novelization is how slim it is. Given the elaborate/psychedelic nature of the actual film, one would expect the novel to be a bloated mess. Instead it is so focused that it almost comes off like some tractate from a forgotten gnostic religion. According to his preface, Boorman’s initial draft of Zardoz more resembled a novel, and after filming the movie in late 1973 he decided that perhaps it should be a novel after all. So he called in colleague Bill Stair, who helped Boorman during the writing stage of Zardoz, and went about fashioning it all into a book, using excised portions and storylines from his earlier screenplay drafts.
One thing I can say is, if you rewatch the actual film after reading this book, you will certainly understand everything you see. Zardoz is pretty unique in that it’s a film that shows more than it tells, so this novel really fills in a lot of blank spots. And this isn’t the typical sort of film novelization, where it’s the work of some contractor who’s churning out a book based on some early draft; this is the actual work of the film’s creator.
The story follows the film quite closely, only changing things here and there, with the biggest changes coming at the climax. Those who have seen the film though will not find anything much different in the opening section, other than a brief background on protagonist Zed – we learn that his father was also an Exterminator, thus high above the common rabble, and so Zed too was raised to be a leader of men.
The setting is hundreds of years in the future, and some apparent calamity has sent hummanity back into a near-primitive existence. Zed is an Exterminator who rides about on his horse, armed with pistols and rifles, blowing away the Brutals, ie peasants and the like. His god is Zardoz, a gigantic stone head that flies around and pronounces things like “The penis is evil” in a booming voice, then spits out more pistols and rifles from its gaping mouth. (Can you imagine Boorman pitching this to the studios? Man, there will never be another time in Hollywood like the early ‘70s.)
We meet Zed as he has snuck into Zardoz’s mouth, lifted off into the air and flying inside his god. Zed is not filled with holy reverence, though. We eventually learn that Zed is here for revenge. Instead of being the murderous villain we expect him to be, Zed is actually enlightened – for one, when Zardoz proclaimed that the Exterminators stop exterminating and instead force the Brutals into slavery, to harvest crops, Zed started to suspect something was up. Then, after a mysterious meeting with some shadowy figure in a library, Zed began to read, homeschooling himself…and he was a fast learner, too, as the novel informs us that Zed is a “super mutant,” with both physical andmental superiority over normal humans.
All this is learned much later in the book (and film), but long story short, Zed discovers in the goofiest possible way that his god Zardoz is nothing but a joke. (Famously, the name is a play on The Wizard of Oz.) So Zed has snuck within the stone head to find out where it comes from, who is behind it. So focused is he on his mission that when he sees another man inside the stone head (Arthur Frayn, the creator of Zardoz, though we don’t learn this until later), Zed simply shoots the bastard and watches him fall to the ground far below.
The stone head lands in a vast plot of land filled with buildings and robe-wearing Eternals, ie humans who have somehow learned to cheat death and now live in a sort of hive community. This place is called the Vortex, and it is protected by an invisible barrier. Zed comes in contact with some of the Eternals, but plays dumb, not admitting to having killed Frayn. Not that it much matters, though, for the Eternals regenerate, even if the body is destroyed, and even now Frayn’s embryo is growing into an adult being.
A pair of Eternals latch onto Zed as if he’s a wayward dog, or at least one of Pavlov’s dogs. The first “normal” human they’ve seen in perhaps centuries, they marvel over Zed’s “barbarian” nature and carry out various experiments on him. In particular they are fascinated by his lusts and desires. Since these people cannot die they’ve cast aside their sexual impulses, with the result that no one now has sex and no children have been born for hundreds of years.
Things proceed much as in the film. After a psychedelic group mind-vote, the Eternals deem to allow Zed to stay in the Vortex for a few days, until Frayn has regenerated – then they can get to the bottom of what happened to him. Meanwhile Zed is shuffled around the Vortex, sometimes hanging with Friend, a male Eternal who despises his immortality, other times being traded off between Consuella and May, female Eternals who harbor lustful thoughts behind their sneers. The book even replicates the unintentionally hilarious scene where the gals try to goose Zed’s libido via a series of sexual images projected on a screen.
Zed’s mere presence fosters revolt within the Vortex, which in addition to Eternals is made up of those who have rebelled and have been aged as punishment, and finally those who are so apathetic that they do nothing but sit around and stare into nothingness. The moral of the story is that man is not designed for infinite existence, and immortality will eventually lead to apathy and madness.
Along the way Zed learns a bit about the Vortex. Most importantly he learns of the Tabernacle, a mysterious force which apparently controls the Vortex and its occupants. It also mentally unites them and keeps them from remembering how it was created, or indeed where it even is, so that they may never destroy it. Zed, who has sworn to destroy the Vortex, realizes that to do so he must destroy the Tabernacle. But to do that, he must first figure out what it is. Meanwhile, he discovers that the Tabernacle is trying to destroy him.
With a group of Eternals led by Consuella out to kill him, Zed hides out with Friend and a gaggle of May’s female followers. They understand that Zed can save them, but he must be prepared first. Since time is of the essence, they must instruct him by “touch-teaching.” This entails a very elaborate and very psychedelic section where Zed mentally voyages into inner and outer space, and really clarifies all of the nonsensical stuff that occurs in the film version.
Here the novel delivers the answers that the film did not. For one, we discover that the Vortex is really a spaceship, one that never left the earth. Hence the force field which surrounds the place, which is really just clear material of dense construction that was created to endure the rigors of space travel. (Why is it clear? So the spaceship occupants could see outside into space and thus manuever around asteroids and the like…!) The Eternals were so created so that they could survive the long years of space voyaging, and indeed their fellows are far out into space, but for whatever reason this particular ship never took off, and the Eternals instead became vapid occupants of a desolate earth.
Still in his psychedelic mind-trip, Zed sees the construction of the Tabernacle. Created by a scientist, it “lives” in crystals which are implanted in the minds of each of the Eternals. Further, to ensure that none of them ever died, the scientist made each of them, including himself, forget how the Tabernacle was created. It just sort of goes on and on, with Zed free-floating through psychic space, witnessing past events – that is, when one of the female Eternals isn’t having astral sex with him. There’s a lot of psychedelic-hued purple prose here, with Zed getting busy on the mental plane with a few of the Vortex gals.
The denoument is basically the same as the film. Chaos overtakes the Vortex and Zed’s fellow Exterminators swoop in, delivering the sweet relief of death. Zed, who was being prepared as the ultimate deliverer of the Eternals, has been reborn after his astral/psychic voyaging, and can no longer bring himself to murder. Nothing stops his old Exterminator friends, though, who chop down characters like Friend and the reborn Frayn, who go to their deaths with cheer, in what I assume we are to take as a happy ending. Zed meanwhile escapes with Consuella, where we are told – just as in the film – that they eventually have a child and then grow old together and die.
Writing-wise the book is pretty good, with a literate feel...or, at least, the striving for a literate feel. It does though have the expected clinical/sterile tone I get from most British pulp, but in this case it actually complements the aloof tone of the story itself. Finally, the authors are adept at doling out metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, serving up some truly delirious dialog. (Choice line: "Stay close to me, inside my aura.")
Writing-wise the book is pretty good, with a literate feel...or, at least, the striving for a literate feel. It does though have the expected clinical/sterile tone I get from most British pulp, but in this case it actually complements the aloof tone of the story itself. Finally, the authors are adept at doling out metaphysical mumbo-jumbo, serving up some truly delirious dialog. (Choice line: "Stay close to me, inside my aura.")
So then, the novel really exists as a clarification of the events in the film, sort of like a companion piece. I guess the biggest compliment I can pay it is that, after reading this book, I wanted to watch Zardozagain. And who knows, maybe one of these days I’ll get drunk enough that I actually will.
The Savage Report: 1994, by Howard Rheingold
No month stated, 1974 Freeway Press
I’ve been meaning to read this one for a while – I love retro sci-fi, particularly of the psychedelic variety, and Howard Rheingold’s Savage Report: 1994 seemed to offer everything I could want when I first spotted it 6-7 years ago in the sci-fi section of a Dallas Half Price Bookstore. Rheingold’s name might be familiar to those into dream research and/or New Age-y nonfiction pieces; in the early ‘90s, for example, he co-wrote Exploring the World of Lucid Dreaming (the book on lucid dreaming, for all those who might be interested in experimenting with it).
The Savage Report: 1994 is the first volume of what is promised on the back cover as a monthly series by Rheingold, published by Freeway Press. In reality though, the “series” lasted all of two volumes. No idea if this was due to low sales, problems with the publisher, or simply because Rheingold couldn’t keep up with the accelerated publishing schedule. And it’s not like there’s much info on the book out there; Rheingold, who has his own website, leaves the Savage Report books strangely unmentioned in his bibliography. But given the novel’s predilection for New Age mindsets and psychedelia, there’s no question it’s the same man’s work.
It also seems like this series was an obvious attempt to meld men’s adventure with sci-fi. The only problem is, Rheingold’s leanings toward inner exploration, yoga, and the like don’t really jibe well with gung-ho men’s adventure action, to the effect that the few genuine action scenes here are rendered a bit…clunky. But then, the entire book is kind of clunky, with a goofy far-flung future world of 1994 populated moreso by caricatures than actual characters. What makes the clunkiness odd is Rheingold’s gift for wordspinning; he doles out a brace of ten-dollar words, many of them concantenations of his own devising, which only serves to heighten the psychedelic/Future Shock feeling of the book.
Anyway. The series details the adventures of the three-person “Savage Squad,” movers and shakers in the very-different United States of Rheingold’s 1994. Rheingold pulls a neat trick here in that he shows more than tells for the duration of the novel; with intimations and references from the many characters, you only get a glimpse of what happened to make this 1994 as it is. Only toward the end, during a televised debate (which is the friggin’ climax, by the way), does Rheingold get into a bit more depth – namely, after the hippies ushered in a new mindset in the ‘60s, the public went into an eco-awareness sort of thing in the ‘70s, to such a degree that capitalism itself was abolished in the ‘80s.
Now, the United States, which we’re told is no longer a world power nor is interested in being one, is a nation of inward-journeying post-hippies, more interested in self-potentializing than in making big bucks or messing in world affairs. Yet for all that, somehow this doesn’t stop them from creating ultra-advanced technology, well beyond what we even have today. But then, science fiction is always more about the time it’s written than the time it takes place, and The Savage Report: 1994 comes off more like a hyper-accelerated 1974. Despite the advanced technology, the changed national mindset, it all still comes off like a mid-‘70s book, with an appropriately-macho hero and a refreshingly-liberal attitude toward sex and drugs.
Eve Savage is the gorgeous blonde host of “The Savage Report,” what we’re told is the most popular “holo-program” in the entire world. Eve I guess is like a female version of Norman Spinrad’s Jack Barron; with a mere word she can make or break entire organizations. But even with such power and influence she only has a small, two-person team at her disposal: Jack Anderson, the aforementioned macho hero who, wouldn’t you know it, used to work for some shadowy intelligence agency as a covert operative, and Smoky Kennedy, also-gorgeous combat master and tech wiz, who has a casual sex thing going with Jack…who himself has a casual sex thing going with Eve. (Unfortunately, Eve and Smoky don’t have a casual sex thing going.)
So the way this all works is, Eve hosts her globally-popular show while Jack and Smoky go out in the field and perform research and investigations, even setting up shots in dangerous locations for location footage and the like. It’s just a goofy concept, a reporting team that’s also a group of commandos, especially with Jack packing a “radar-jamming” .357 Magnum and Smoky backing him up with a host of weaponry. (The weapons throughout are positively sci-fi goofy, like Smoky’s “lase-knives.”) The storyline of this first novel has the team uncovering a plot among the military elite – a plot to put the US back into the world arena as a verifiable military presence.
Jack Anderson is really the star of the piece, though Rheingold often trades off to scenes from Eve’s point of view. (Smoky gets relatively little screentime.) Jack is actually the impetus for the Savage Squad’s latest piece; while enjoying a drink at a “shuttle port” bar (a drink served up by a “lesbian bartender,” we’re told…and Rheingold just leaves it at that), Jack meets up with a former covert ops pal who, mere seconds after saying “so long,” is killed in a shuttle-bombing. The guy left behind clues, and pretty soon Eve’s team has stumbled onto an elaborate plot, one that has Jack and Smoky fighting off a variety of assassins, infiltrating a secret base in the jungles of Mexico, and even being psychically tortured by the infamous Dr. Tek, aka the villain of the piece, a cyborg evil genius who is behind the governmental conspiracy.
Back in the US, Eve’s narrative concerns her trying to figure out who is behind this military plot, the goal of which appears to be the ousting of the president and the restoration of America’s military roots. This culminates as mentioned in a live debate on Eve’s show, with Eve up against one of the generals behind the plot; Rheingold makes the general yet another caricature, spouting out all sorts of right-wing blowhardy, ranting against the hippie-fied mindset of the world; of course, it all comes down to Vietnam, which, according to the general and his cronies, is when America truly lost itself, because it left the war unfinished. Ironically, the stuff the general says throughout this scene seemed to me more “realistic” insofar as what an American of today would say, if debating with a Brave New World-type of character like Eve Savage, whose reality is impossible…it’s hard to imagine this America of Rheingold’s ever happening, especially in just twenty short years from publication.
So if Rheingold’s future world comes off as a bit too rushed, so does the novel itself. The book is a little breathless, which adds to the clunkiness. Well, breathless so far as the scenes with Jack Anderson go. The scenes with Eve come off a bit as wheel-spinning, with Rheingold using her parts to sort of recap what has happened thus far. In fact there’s quite a bit of repetition in the narrative, not to mention a ton of grammatical and spelling errors – which, again, just adds to that breathless pace, I guess. But as mentioned, it is admirable how Rheingold shows his weird future world in effect, instead of spending pages and pages telling us about it.
Another admirable thing about The Savage Report: 1994 is the focus on self-potentializing, which itself was a mainstay of ‘70s sci-fi. Jack and his colleagues spend a goodly portion of the narrative boosting their reaction times and whatnot via popping pills; “stims,” as Rheingold calls them – neurostims to help them think more clearly, a muscle stim that Smoky takes that makes her run so fast that she plows through a rock wall, and etc. Heavy focus is also placed on meditation and yoga, but then this comes off a bit goofy when a captured Jack assumes a yoga position when faced with his captors, in an effort to protect his thoughts from the expected mental probing. It’s a bit hard to imagine say James Bond settling into a lotus position when confronted by Blofeld.
Again though, this is just another example of how the two thrusts of the novel don’t work together, the action stuff and the New Age/better tomorrow stuff. Another problem with the book is the characters. In short, none of them are likable. Jack is the typical men’s adventure protagonist, so nothing surprising there. But Eve comes off as shallow and manipulative, not to mention arrogant. We’re constantly told how popular and respected she is, but she does nothing really to make us understand why she’s so esteemed. And Smoky doesn’t do much other than save Jack, have sex with him (usually right after saving him), or trade banter with Eve – the two have a bit of hostility toward one another, and Rheingold intimates this is because they both like Jack.
In addition to the stim-popping, yoga-practicing, and politicking, Rheingold also adds a little sex and violence. There are just a few action scenes, the most memorable being where Jack and Smoky defend themselves against black-garbed assassins, killing the lot of them…and then having sex right there amid the carnage. Rheingold combines sex and violence again later in the tale, when Smoky frees Jack from a cell deep within a cave; Smoky informs Jack that the muscle-boosting stim she used to run through the rock wall has some rather unexpected side-effects. Rheingold gets a bit purple in the sex scenes, which makes it all the more enjoyable.
Because in the end, that’s the one word to describe this goofy book: “enjoyable.” I mean, you could bash Rheingold for concocting such an impossible 1994, mock him in retrospect. But I respect it when an author just gets out there, and in its own way The Savage Report: 1994 is like a more action-focused, pulpy take on Shea and Wilson’s Illuminatus! trilogy. Not as good, but similar, even with a bit of an occult/metaphysical streak. (No fnords, though. At least, none that I could see…)
So yeah, it’s rough and it’s wild, and at around 220 or so pages it’s a bit too long for its own good. And yet, it’s also too bad that the next volume, The War of the Gurus, was the last one. But I’ve got it, and I look forward to reading it for another blast of retro-futuristic, stim-popping sci-fi.
The Martian Viking, by Tim Sullivan
May, 1991 Avon Books
The concept of this novel sounded too good to pass up – a Classics professor of 2070 or thereabouts is banned to a penal colony on Mars, where he gets hooked on psychedelic drugs that give him visions of ancient Vikings that surf the cosmos on their battle ships! It’s all very Philip K. Dick (whom author Sullivan even thanks in the dedication), combined with a definite sort of late ‘60s radical feel…I mean, there’s even a Patty Hearst analog here.
I get the feeling Sullivan must’ve seen the (awesome) 1990 film version of PK Dick’s Total Recall, which subdued Dick’s philosophies and replaced them with prime-era Arnold and Verhovian gore (not to mention triple-breasted mutant gals), and figured to himself, “Hey, I should do my own version of this, only more faithful to reality-questioning spirit of Dick’s original, a-and I’ll add lots of drugs! And vikings!” And somehow he pulled it off – this breezy novel, not even 300 pages, has all the signs of a late ‘60s slice of psychedelic sci-fi.
But the debt to PK Dick’s work is strongest; Sullivan even replicates the goofy names Dick would give his characters. To wit, our hero is Johnsmith Biberkopf, a professor of the Classics living in the Conglom world of the future, where Big Brother has taken over good and proper. Johnsmith actually reads the Classics, much to the puzzlement of his fellows. But such radical thinking raises eyebrows, and soon enough Johnsmith finds himself without a job – which is against the law in this grim future, one punishable by banishment, usually to the moon.
Johnsmith has also been left by his wife Ronindella, a thoroughly unlikable character who does nothing but instill reader animosity. Perhaps the biggest question is why a nice guy like Johnsmith would even get involved with her in the first place, but this is one of the many questions Sullivan leaves unanswered. Anyway, Ronindella, who wants more out of life, has contrived to get Johnsmith fired from his job so he can get banned to the lunar minepits, where Ronindella will be able to cushily live off of half of Johnsmith’s ensuing paychecks. Oh, and she’s secretly sleeping with Johnsmith’s best friend.
For a bit of a brighter note, there’s Smitty, Johnsmith’s 9 year-old son, who looks up to his dad and of course doesn’t want him to be banned to the moon. But Johnsmith has no choice and, the night before he’s to appear before a committee for his official banishment, he indulges in some illegal “onees” (pronounced “one-nees,” the narrative would imply): psychedelic drugs which look like ball bearings. Hold one of them and you’re off on a trip; hold three and you’re in another world.
Johnsmith, for his first time out, holds all three at once and suddenly finds himself in an ocean, a massive Viking ship coming at him. Johnsmith, who has a special fondness for Beowulf, spends the novel wondering if they’re really Geats – since he’s a professor he’s given to such pedantic concerns.
Another thing never properly explained is that Johnsmith is banned to Mars instead of the moon – actually, a better fate, as the Mars colony has it easy compared to the lot of prisoners on the moon. Along with him go Alderice, a heavyset gay black man who was actually employed as a government tail on Johnsmith, but who was so bad at his job that he too was fired, and Felica, the aforementioned Patty Hearst type, a radical devoted to ousting the Conglom, who in reality is the daughter of a mega-wealthy family and who was kidnapped by some anarchists and eventually turned over to their side.
The characters are basicaly two-dimensional, even Johnsmith himself. My assumption is that this is just due to the fact that Sullivan intends The Martian Viking as satire. There’s a lot of material in this book, a lot of subplots and characters, and a vast world with a history that’s untapped. What I mean to say is, the novel easily could’ve been twice its length, and this is both a strength and a weakness. I guess it’s a sign of the novel’s quality that I wished there was more of it.
Anyway, Johnsmith finally arrives on Mars, where he lives in a military complex overseen by the cliched sort of lieutenant you’d expect, who rules the prisoners with a steel fist. Johnsmith and his two friends (Felicia though soon becomes more than a friend) assume they’re here to help in the agricultural projects going on, terraforming the planet for eventual human colonization, but first they’re put through army training, firing guns and laser weapons and etc. Turns out there are “Arkies” here, aka anarchists, who rebel against the Conglom and attack the military base. How these Arkies got here is yet another unanswered question.
Eventually Johnsmith is told his true reason for being here – he’s supposed to take onees in a sort of controlled experiment. Turns out onees are developed here on Mars; some of them have been “archecoded” to give the Viking ship visions, and the government wants to find out how it’s happening. Gradually Johnsmith will learn that it’s the work of the Arkies, who have an insider agent who archecodes the onees as they are made; the Arkies, beyond their political beliefs, are also psuedo-religious, and believe the “Great Ship” will soon be coming to Mars to deliver them all. You guessed it – the Ship is the Viking ship Johnsmith and others see in their onee trips.
There’s more besides. Sullivan works in an elaborate subplot back on earth featuring the loathsome Ronindella and her manipulating of Johnsmith’s former best friend. There’s also another subplot about Johnsmith’s pal getting advice from a “cyber-therapist” (Madame Psychosis), and his goofy plot to get Ronindella away from what passes in this goofy future as the Christian church. All of this stuff had nothing to do with anything and just got annoying, mostly because the characters here were so self-involved and despicable.
The material on Mars is more interesting, and Sullivan keeps it moving, with Johnsmith caught up in an attack on the Arkie base, where he discovers who is the insider archecoding the onees; it’s a fellow prisoner, an attractive woman named Frankie, who too soon becomes involved with Johnsmith. Pretty soon Johnsmith is caught up in her plans to escape – plus there’s an Arkee deserter who stumbles onto the military complex, proclaiming that the Great Ship is soon to arrive. In fact, it might just appear at the site of the old Viking rover which trundled across Mars nearly a hundred years before, in 1976. Hmm...
Everything comes to a head with both Smitty and Ronindella on Mars (Smitty won a ticket for two there in an utter piece of deus ex machina), Johnsmith, Frankie, Alderice, and Felicia escaping, and the Vikings appearing in a sort of celestial whirlpool, sucking both Johnsmith and Smitty up into it so that pretty soon they’re traveling about the cosmos on the Viking ship, fighting sea monsters (!), before a strange sort of “was it all a dream?” kind of ending that seems tacked one because Sullivan couldn’t figure where else to go.
But then, the clues are there all along, and it’s not like Sullivan goes out of his way to make it subtle – one could easily see the entire book as nothing more than an onee trip on Johnsmith’s part. This is even hinted at in the finale, when Johnsmith finds himself on some barren plain, talking to his deceased father. To me the most interesting thing here is how the end of the novel prefrigures the sucktastic finale of the overpraised Lost series, with our hero not only finding himself in limbo, but also being given the scoop by the ghost of his father. And hell, the Arkies themselves come off very much like the Others on Lost, all of which makes me wonder if Sullivan ever watched that show and grit his teeth in rage.
Sullivan’s writing though is pretty good. The characters as stated don’t have much depth, and the goofy names get annoying (not to mention Sullivan’s strange decision to give two of his main female characters names that begin with an “F” – but then, that might be another clue that all of this is the product of Johnsmith’s limited imagination).
The action scenes aren’t very violent, and beyond the occasional curse word the novel’s almost prudish…save for an unexpected and somewhat-graphic sex scene late in the game, when Johnsmith beds Frankie – who, by the way, turns out to be more of a Conglom-fighting radical than Felicia ever could be. (Felicia herself meanwhile sort of drops into the background of the narrative...more sign that all of this is the product of Johnsmith’s hallucenogenic delusions, or just Sullivan’s inability to juggle all of his characters and plots?)
Sadly, the psychedelic stuff goes away as the novel proceeds, and despite being sent to Mars to test onees, we hardly get any more scenes of a drugged-out Johnsmith. However there’s a definite lysergic haze to the novel, particularly as it approaches its freeform ending, which takes it into the outer limits of fantasia. The reader expecting a pat ending will be frustrated, as Sullivan goes for more of a “Bobby in the shower” type of a Dallas ending. But really, such endings are never satisfactory for readers who have invested themselves in a novel.