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.