Category Archives: science fiction

Addendum: Anarchaos in Russian

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“There’s a way to make it easy,” the steward told him.  “Start to say anarchy, and midway through switch and say chaos.”

The missionary tried it: “Anarchaos.” The apologetic smile flared again, and he thanked the steward, saying, “It certainly is a name to give one pause.”

“I suppose they meant it that way,” said the steward.

“And their sun,” said the missionary.  “Do they really call it Hell?”

“It is Hell,” said the steward.

Though we’ve been seeing less of Ray Garraty since I came to the Great Starkian Interregnum in Westlake’s bibliography (hopefully he shall return once I’m reviewing Parker novels again), my correspondence with him has continued apace, and this past week he shared something with me–seems an online friend of his in Russia has created a special limited edition of Anarchaos–just thirty copies–with illustrations that look like woodcuts (but are not).

I’ll let him explain how this all happened–

It’s really only 30 copies been printed. They weren’t even offered for
sale, distributed through the small closed circle. Actually, the idea
to make this book came to the publisher Sergey after my review on
Anarchaos two years ago. A little later he found out that a translator
started to translate this novel, they got in touch, and after that the
publisher decided to make this edition.

All books by this press are made with illustrations. The illustrator
is a young artist who lives in Moscow, Diana Kuznetsova, who did
illustrations for other books by this press.

I think this is the first instance I’ve ever seen of an illustrated edition of a Westlake book (other than Philip) that really works.   Westlake didn’t write novels with the intention of having his words accompanied by pictures (his short stories for the pulps were another matter).  The publishers he was working with mainly didn’t do that.  They might hire superlative artists for the lurid paperback cover, or the more respectable hardcover dust jacket–they might not.  But never did any of his novels feature artwork like this.

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Or this.

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Or this.

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Not to mention this.

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If you’ve read the book, you can figure out which scene is being illustrated, most of the time, without needing to read the text.  And you can probably figure out what this picture is doing in the book as well.

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Prince Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin, whose revolutionary ideas were chosen as the founding principles of Anarchaotian government (or lack thereof). Interesting that they use a picture of the younger man, not the white-haired old sage.

(This is what I get for writing this too quickly, and not doing the research I typically do for my reviews–that’s Mikhail Bakunin, and a perfunctory check of Westlake’s novel would have prevented this egregious error, but ah well.)

If I might offer a very small criticism, Rolf Malone is supposed to be a very large strong intimidating looking fellow, and if this is supposed to be him, he’s a bit on the skinny side.

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But nothing wrong with his virility.

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So this is a very Russian vision of Westlake’s science fiction novel–and it translates beautifully on a visual level.  (I can only assume the textual translation is equally inspired.)    They’re not emphasizing the hardboiled American detective fiction element of the story.  This is Anarchaos transplanted into another literary milieu.  It feels more like Dostoevsky, or Tolstoy, or even Turgenev (with the Strugatsky Brothers thrown into the mix).  An earlier era, a period romance with philosophical overtones.  A harsh semi-feudal frontier environment, and a hero who is somehow just surviving from page to page.  It’s different, but that’s all to the good, I think.

There is something timeless about the story of Rolf Malone, and his single-minded quest for understanding and revenge, and finding the social currents he navigates deeper and more treacherous than he could have ever imagined.  You can find similar stories in many cultures, from long bygone eras, like the Irish saga of Máel Dúin.

If I might make a suggestion to the publisher, perhaps an additional copy could be mailed to the Westlake estate.  Westlake loved to collect odd foreign editions of his works–it gave him a great deal of personal satisfaction to know his ideas, his characters, his stories, were being read and appreciated in many languages, all over the world.  He understood that something is always changed in translation–something lost, something gained–and that this is part of how we as a species learn from each other, share our experiences, our perceptions–and find out how much they have in common.  He might have particularly appreciated the independent nature of this publisher, the almost hand-made feel of this edition.

This is one of many ways we have of staving off the nightmare scenario that Westlake painted in this book.  Stories have preserved the knowledge and legacy of many a fallen civilization.  Hopefully ours won’t be next–but just in case.

I’ll try to get the next review up shortly.  (Just in case).

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, science fiction

Review: Smoke, Part 3

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I am an invisible man.  No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of  your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms.  I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids–and I might even be said to possess a mind.  I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.  Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass.  When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination–indeed, everything and anything except me.

Ralph Ellison

“Nobody has ever seen me,” she said.  “Seen me.  Neither of my husbands ever saw me; they both felt cheated whenever that trophy on the shelf acted as though it were an actual living creature.  The last time my looks gave me pleasure I was probably nine years old.  I can’t scar myself deliberately, that would be stupid.  But this?  Why not?  No one can see me anyway, so why not be invisible?  Make the rest of my life a phone-in?  With pleasure.”  That dazzling smile had something too shiny in it.  “Let’s hope your invention is a success, Dr. Heimhocker,” she said.

Donald Westake

I know a funny little man,
As quiet as a mouse,
Who does the mischief that is done
In everybody’s house!
There’s no one ever sees his face,
And yet we all agree
That every plate we break was cracked
By Mr. Nobody.

’Tis he who always tears out books,
Who leaves the door ajar,
He pulls the buttons from our shirts,
And scatters pins afar;
That squeaking door will always squeak,
For prithee, don’t you see,
We leave the oiling to be done
By Mr. Nobody.

Nobody admits to writing this.

In writing about an invisible man, Westlake was primarily influenced by the first and best-known book on that subject, reacting to it, revising it, as I detailed last week.  But he could not possibly have failed to see the significance of a far more important book with virtually the same title, published when he was a teenager.

I don’t know when he first read it, but I would bet everything I own that he did.  Invisible Man is the supreme 20th century novel of human identity.  The fact that it’s specifically about the African American experience, black identity, does not in any way detract from its universality, any more than Shakespeare’s tendency to write ancient Romans, Danish princes, and medieval Scots as Elizabethan English people detracts from his universality.

We all know what it’s like to have people look at us and not really see us.  And in that moment of empathy, we can see past our own parochial little worlds, and feel the pain of Ellison’s nameless narrator, down in his basement, see his point of view, see him–and see ourselves in him.  And that is something only a great novelist can do.  And regrettably, Ellison could only do it once.  Tough act to follow.  But it earned him a monument in my nabe, where he used to live.  Want to see?

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Westlake isn’t trying to compete with Ellison’s vision here, let alone revise it.  That would be a fool’s errand.  But it’s there in the subtext.  H.G. Wells wasn’t really looking at identity in his novella about the abortive rebellion of Hawley Griffin, though it crops up here and there, tangentially–his story was about a failed one-man revolution that might pave the way for more successful future attempts. There’s at best the faintest suggestion that Griffin’s failure comes from his inability to know himself.

It was the very essence of Ellison’s book–a man who finds out that the revolution that really matters is the one going on inside–can’t change the world if you can’t change yourself first–and it’s central to this much less ambitious book as well. Westlake liked to put deeper messages into seemingly light stories.  Spoonful of sugar, don’t you know.

See, if you are literally invisible, not just metaphorically, the question of identity changes.  You can’t even see yourself in a mirror anymore.  You can’t see your own hand in front of your face.  The woman you love is starting to forget what your face looked like.  So are you.  So if identity is another term for self-image–what’s left? If nobody can see you, but you still get blamed for your actions, are you in fact Mr. Nobody?  Or is somebody still there, all the same?

Perhaps the closest thing here to a direct reference to Ellison’s book  comes in a brief episode where the two scientists who accidentally made Freddie Noon invisible try to do it on purpose.  They have two volunteers recruited by the tobacco company that indirectly funds their research.  One is a black man, George Clapp, who works as a limo driver for the company–he’s had a somewhat checkered past, and there are outstanding warrants out on him in other states.  His fingerprints are on file.  He’s one police stop away from getting arrested and extradited.  Invisibility sounds just fine to him (he probably hasn’t read Ellison), and they’re promising lots of money.

The other is a woman, a brilliant young nuclear physicist and theoretical mathematician, who has been cursed with extraordinary physical beauty.  Nobody can see past the way she looks. Nobody can ever take her seriously, no matter how good she is at her job.  In spite of her considerable intellectual gifts, she’s been forced to work as a statistician for a tobacco company.  To her, invisibility would be like taking the veil.  She can finally escape the ogling eyes of men, the envious eyes of women.  She can finally just be herself.

So to these two very different people, invisibility is the answer to their prayers, or so they think, but they never get to find out, because the two experimental drugs that Freddie took in combination are unpredictable in their effects.  George just becomes lighter-skinned (as Big Bill Broonzy sang, ‘If you’re brown, stick around’).  His scars vanish.  His fingerprints are simplified to the point where they can no longer be identified.  He looks years younger, says he feels like he did when he was nineteen.

And of course the company stiffs him out of his money, since they can’t use him as a spy, but he doesn’t care.  As far as he’s concerned, these are the best doctors in the world.  Free at last.

And the woman–Michael Prendergast–well, we can’t all be so lucky.

She was no longer the lushly healthy California-style beauty Mordon had met on Tuesday.  Her skin was pale and pink now, almost translucent.  A kind of ethereal glow surrounded her, as though she were an angel, or one of the lost maidens mourned by Poe.  She looked fragile, unworldly, un-carnal, and absolutely stunning.  She was ten times the beauty she had been before.

“Ms. Prendergast,” Mordon stammered, poleaxed.  “You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen in my life!”

She burst into tears

Later, George tells his two saviors that Ms. Prendergast (also cheated out of the money she’d been promised for participating in the test) resigned from her position, taking a job working on the nuclear program of some middle eastern country (Iran, Iraq, George isn’t sure which), where she can hide behind a chador.  And there was some talk of her wanting to blow up the world, but I’m sure she got over that eventually.

There are basically two major antagonists in this story.  One is NAABOR, which stands for National American Allied Brands Of Raleigh–it would take too long to explain, but suffice it to say they make cigarettes.  And they devote an enormous amount of money towards the growing problem of people increasingly associating cigarettes with life-threatening illnesses, for some strange reason.

They were funding the Doctors Heimhocker and Loomis’ work on  melanoma cures mainly to say “Look, we’re against cancer too and after all, cigarettes don’t cause all cancer, do they?   There’d be cancer anyway!  So light one up, where’s the harm?”  But when the good doctors report the strange case of Freddie Noon to Mordon Leethe, a lawyer who works for NAABOR, and he reports in turn to his employers, they seem to think that now they own Freddie Noon, or his newfound ability, anyway .  And it could come in handy for spying on people, couldn’t it?

Mordon relates the details of Freddie’s very literal disappearance to Jack Fullerton the Fourth, who inherited the title of CEO from his uncle (who died of heart disease because he smoked), who in turn inherited it from his cousin (who got lung cancer because he smoked), and etc.  Jack is himself dying of emphysema.  Well, I suppose that’s one way to get rid of capitalist overlords, except they keep reproducing–there’s always a nephew somewhere.

Jack IV, whose voice is described as sounding like ‘the wind in the upper reaches of a deconsecrated cathedral, possibly one where the nuns had all been raped and murdered and raped,’ goes around all the time with two medical attendants and an oxygen tank, a tube jutting from his nose.

Some users wear that tube as though it’s a great unfair weight, pressing them down, down into the cold earth, long before their time; on others it becomes a ludicrous mustache, imitation Hitler, forcing the victim to poke fun at himself in addition to being sick as a dog, but on Jack the Fourth, with his heavy shoulders and glowering eyes and broad forehead and dissatisfied thick mouth and pugnacious stance, the translucent line of plastic bringing oxygen to his emphysema-clenched lungs was borne like a military decoration, perhaps awarded by the French: Prix de Nez, First Class.

Charming fellow.  Anyway, he mainly just wants Freddie so he can spy on his doctors, who he is convinced are lying to him about his health, and apparently they were, because he dies a little over halfway through the book.  (His funeral is compared to that of famed Columbia Pictures exec Harry Cohn, and if you don’t know that joke, I’ll just let you discover it for yourself).  He is succeeded by (ta-dah!) his nephew, Merrill Fullerton, who does not smoke, and fully intends to keep as many other people on this planet smoking as he possibly can.

And now that he’s privy to the existence of Freddie Noon,  he wants to use him for a much more Machiavellian end than spying on a few demurely diplomatic doctors who were just trying to keep a mean old bastard happy.   He wants Freddie to spy on elected officials, congressional subcommittees, that kind of thing.  And he wants Doctors Heimhocker and Loomis to devote themselves to a different kind of cancer research.

He’s been reading about this Human Genome Project (I get the distinct feeling Mr. Westlake did not approve).  Soon we’ll be able to identify faulty disease-producing genes in advance, and abort imperfect infants (they’re already selectively aborting girls in some parts of the world, not that you need the genome project for that). We’ll be able to tell which of our impending offspring meet our exacting standards of perfection (that we have never lived up to ourselves) and stop them before they happen.

(Merrill brings up the gene for homosexuality in this exchange, which you might imagine is not a comforting thought to the two gay scientists he’s basically inducted into his cause, but also shows Mr. Westlake now subscribes to the Born That Way view of sexual persuasion.   Mr. Westlake, as we now know, was a sickly infant, born with an inability to digest his mother’s milk.  He only survived because of an experimental soybean-based formula just developed.  His sympathy for the oddballs in life is well known–and well-founded.  Only Life itself can test  your worthiness.  Genes are merely a roadmap–not the destination.)

But how, you may ask, would any of this assist an industry known primarily for producing self-administered carcinogen delivery systems?

Merrill leaned forward, his eyes now hot ice.  This was the gist, at last.  “I want the code for lung cancer,” he told them.  “I want the code for emphysema.  I want the code for congestive heart failure.  I want the codes that tobacco taps into.  And then I want a reeducation program, aimed directly at our consumers, not just here, but around the world.  Abort the lung cancer cases.  Abort the emphysema cases!  Never let the little bastards see the light of day!”

David and Peter both blinked.  Merrill sat back, as though after an orgasm, and smiled.  “We’ve spent the last forty years,” he said, “trying to make cigarettes safe for the human race and we failed.  We can spend the next forty years making the human race safe for cigarettes!”

Oh brave new world, that has such people in it.  And believe you me, it does.

Since NAABOR clearly can’t make more invisible operatives, their desire to find and recruit Freddie Noon–forcibly if need be–takes on a new urgency.  Mordon Leethe had already enlisted the services of possibly the most cheerfully corrupt and brutal New York City cop Westlake ever created, which is saying something.  And a restaurateur to boot.   Also our other major antagonist.

A restaurant can be a very satisfying business.  Barney Beuler found that so, certainly.  It had so many advantages.  For instance, it always gave you a place to go if you wanted  meal, but you it didn’t cost an arm and a leg.  It gave you, as well, a loyal–or at least fearful–kitchen staff of illegals, always available for some extra little chore like repainting the apartment or standing in line at the Motor Vehicle or breaking some fucking wisenheimer’s leg.  It also made a nice supplement to your NYPD sergeant’s salary (acting lieutenant, Organized Crime Detail) in your piece of the legit profit, of course, but more importantly in the skim.  And it helped to make your personal and financial affairs so complex and fuzzy that the shooflys could never get enough of a handle on you to drag you before the corruption board.

The downside was that, in the six years Barney Beuler had been a minor partner–one of five–in Comaldo Ristorante on West Fifty-sixth Street, he’d gained eighty-five pounds, all of it cholesterol.  It was true he’d die happy; it was also true it would be soon.

To say his personal and financial affairs are complicated is somewhat understating things–“A man with three ex-wives, a current wife, a current girlfriend, a very small drug habit (strictly strictly recreational), two bloodsuckers he’s paying off to keep their mouths shut and himself out of jail, a condo on St. Thomas, a house and a boat on the north shore of Long Island, and a six-room apartment on Riverside Drive overlooking the Hudson from eleven stories up needs these little extra sources of income to make ends meet, as any sensible person realizes.”

So Barney is quite open to collecting a fat finder’s fee for fetching Freddie.  His off-the-books employers don’t consider it necessary for him to know why they want to talk to this small-time burglar, but Barney’s a man who likes to play all the angles, and he fully intends to find out anyway.  Little extra sources of income, you know?

His first ploy–a fake lottery notice, claiming Freddie won over 200 grand, gets sent to his parents’ house,  and one of his brothers gets the word to him, but Freddie’s too wily a bird to fall for that old game.  All that means is that the law is after him, which is what triggers his and Peg’s exodus to the Hudson Valley.

Barney has a meeting with Mordon at a parking garage (don’t ask me which one is Deep Throat), and tells him that Freddie’s been fingered–he left prints at his heists at the Diamond District and the Fur Warehouse.  Mordon muses this is because he couldn’t wear gloves.  Barney’s really intrigued now, and using the world-class intimidation tactics his career in law enforcement has equipped him with, he pressures the scared shyster into giving him the fully skinny on Freddie Noon.  (And as the plot progresses, he begins to think he could use Freddie’s talents himself–make him murder those blackmailing leeches clinging to him–hire him out to to the mob as a hit man.  Never mind if that’s in Freddie’s nature or not).

A game of fat cat and invisible mouse follows, which ends with Barney tailing Peg to a train station in Rhinecliff, through the use of a tracking device.  Whereupon Freddie and Peg turn the tables on Barney, and he not only loses them at the station, but gets four slashed tires into the bargain.  And now it’s personal.  Barney gets maybe a bit too involved in the case for his own good.  “The thing about anger is, it tends to overwhelm one’s sense of self-preservation, even if that one is such a one as Barney Beuler, whose sense of self-preservation had been honed for years on the whetstone of the New York City Police Department.”  He had to take a fucking Amtrak train home.  Vengeance shall be his.

And by all right, this actor should have been his, but he died in 1989, and there was no movie anyway.

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(But if things had arranged themselves differently, then Baron Vladimir Harkonnen of Planet Giedi Prime would be only the second scariest sumbitch Kenneth McMillan ever played.)

The hunt goes on throughout the long summer, through private detectives, and taps placed on Peg’s phone in her Brooklyn apartment.  But for some strange reason, an invisible man can be hard to trace.  He even arranges a meeting with Doctors Heimhocker and Loomis, figuring (correctly) that sooner or later, an invisible man will want to make himself visible again, and who else would he turn to?  That meeting could have gone better.

Barney and the doctors were meeting for the first time, of course, and it was interesting to Mordon to see how immediate and instinctive the loathing was on both sides.  The body language alone was enough to set off seismographs in the neighborhood, if there were any.  Mordon was watching two herbivores meet a carnivore on the herbivore’s own ground, and the rolling of eyes and curling of lips and stamping of  hooves was thunderous.

Mordon, as though nothing at all were wrong, made the introductions.  “Dr. Peter Heimhocker, Dr. David Loomis, I’d like you to meet Detective Barney Beuler of the New York City Police.”

“Harya,” Barney snarled.

Loomis remained wide-eyes and mute, but Heimhocker looked Barney up and down, raised an eyebrow at Mordon, and said, in a you-rogue-you manner, “Oh, really.”

Yes, really.  And as the two doctors become increasingly aware that NAABOR is trying to get its hooks into their former test subject, they become correspondingly determined to get him under their own control–not to use him for espionage, but to study him, and figure out where they went wrong–or right–whichever.  David and Peter’s feelings towards Freddie are complex–a mixture of guilt, responsibility,  and a sort of proprietary professional interest.  Plus there’s one little thing they need to tell him about his, urm, condition.

“It’s a one-way street,” Loomis said, and Heimhocker said, “Freddie Noon’s invisibility is irreversible.”

“Irreversible.”

“Think of albinos,” Loomis said, and Heimhocker said, “That’s a loss of pigmentation in a different way,” and Loomis said, “Not as thorough, not as severe,” and Heimhocker said, “But just as irreparable,” and Loomis said “You can’t paint an albino and expect it to stick,” and Heimhocker said, “And the same is true, forever, of Freddie Noon.”

“In the movies,” Barney said, “once the guy is dead, you can see him again.”

Heimhocker curled a lip.  “I have no idea what the scientific basis for that would be,” he said.

(Another little side-reference to the H.G. Wells novel, since Hawley Griffin was born an albino, and he does famously become visible once more after his death, and there’s really no science in these stories at all, you know.)

The final crisis is triggered by an announcement from Peg that has been brewing for some time now.  Being the Invisible Man’s Girlfriend has had its moments, but on the whole, she finds the role limiting, and more than a little unsettling.  She figures he’s got plenty of cash now from all the heists (of which she asks no split for herself, even though her role in each operation was vital).  She says she loves him–that hasn’t changed–but she wants to go back to Brooklyn, work as a dental technician again, and maybe they can see each other later, um, awkwardly phrased.  And she doesn’t really mean it, anyway.  She’s letting go of him.

Peg was all that was anchoring Freddie, and without her, he starts to become unmoored.  Stuck in the rental house, with nowhere to go, he phones the doctors at their townhouse–only to find they’re spending the weekend with friends–just a short distance from where he is.  Peg has the van, but he borrows a bicycle, peddles naked down back country roads, and you can imagine how that works out, but he gets there.  And spying on them, as they unburden themselves to a circle of equally gay friends and general hangers-on (they know he’s coming to see them, but they don’t know he’s already in the neighborhood)–he learns the truth.

See, they’re trying to persuade the other guests to help them restrain Freddie, so they can talk sense into him.  They’re his only real option, otherwise he’ll end up in the clutches of NAABOR, or (even worse) Beuler.  It’s just that they think he’ll be understandably upset when he finds out–

“When he finds out what?”

“That it’s permanent, of course,” Peter said, and then looked up and frowned at everybody, to see them all frowning at him. “Who said that” he asked.

They all went on looking at him.

“It’s permanent?”

“Oh, my God,” David whispered, “He’s here.”

“Impossible!” Peter cried.

“Peter,” David whispered.  “Can he fly?”

“I’m never gonna get myself back?”

This is also the point in the story where Freddie finds out that his fingerprints are not invisible, and he’s wanted by the police in connection to jobs at the Diamond District and the Fur Warehouse. Some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed, ya know?

And so a merry chase ensues, with a very confused group of prosperous weekending gay men chasing a very agitated invisible man, who in his mental turmoil, drank a lot of (presumably excellent) champagne right in front of them, and it takes about two hours for food and drink to stop being visible inside of him, which is most upsetting to all, you can be sure.  He runs outside, breaking a four hundred thousand dollar Ming vase as he goes.  Peter and David are never getting invited back, you know.  (Oh, and can I recommend a friend of mine for the repair job?  Chinese ceramics are her specialty.  I have her card here somewhere…)

They finally have him trapped in the swimming pool, the retractable cover closed over his head, and he’s getting cold, and when all hope seems lost, a gray van comes roaring in, like Victoria’s Messenger Riding. It’s Peg. She came back to the house, figured out where Freddie was from the map he’d left behind, and she could have just said it was none of her business now, but then she wouldn’t be Peg, would she now? Freddie slips through the edge of the pool cover in the confusion and jumps in the van, which departs, leaving the lawn and the gardens in some disarray (the poor delphiniums), and Peter and David are very definitely never getting invited back.

And her courage and loyalty notwithstanding, she’s still going back to Brooklyn without him. She’s gotten him a car–an AMC Hornet with tinted bulletproof windows. It’s green. Don’t say it. And yes, we saw another green Hornet (damn, now I’ve said it) in Drowned Hopes. This one at least won’t end up at the bottom of a reservoir. Peg and Freddie end up in the pool at their rented house, having sex, and Peg seems to be warming up to the idea of an invisible man in her life (among other things), but she still needs some time to herself.

And so Peg Briscoe returns to her native Brooklyn, only to find Barney Beuler and some well-dressed thugs who work for NAABOR waiting for her. Barney intimates, in his usual disarming way, that she’s either going to help him get Freddie, or he’s going to start cutting her fingers off and mailing them to Freddie, care of his family, I suppose. And would you believe she actually tries to con him?

She gives him the address of a part-time smalltown lawman, who she and Freddie had a run-in with earlier. Lots of subplots, I can’t do them all, sorry. Only he wasn’t wearing his lawman hat when they arrived, and Barney caught him off guard, again in his usual disarming way. Barney’s really not kidding about the finger thing, and so Peg reluctantly calls Freddie at the house, and clues him in. Figuring it’s his choice whether he comes to rescue her or not. Not entirely sure what choice she wants him to make. But his choice is never in doubt.

Is this a problem with the book? I think so. We always know what Freddie is going to do. He’s one of Westlake’s most predictable heroes, and there’s a reason for that. Westlake was responding to H.G. Wells, and to a lesser extent, Ralph Ellison. Wells’ invisible man never really knew who he was, so invisibility breaks his already tenuous grip on sanity. Ellison’s nameless hero, invisible only to white people (and certain overly dogmatic black people), spends the entire book finding out who he is, and who he isn’t, losing the whole world, but gaining his immortal soul in the process.

But Westlake wanted to have as his starting point a man who had already gone through the long painful process of self-discovery before he became invisible–because he figured only such a person could survive invisibility, triumph over it. It challenged Freddie’s sense of identity, changed it–but he was coping very well, as long as he had Peg. Now somebody’s threatening to take her away from him forever. Bad idea.

But also, one might argue, a less than satisfactory protagonist–less interesting than Parker, than Dortmunder, than Tobin, than most of the Nephews. Because he was a finished product before we ever met him. That’s a weakness in the story–but its saving grace is that the normally obligatory romance angle you get in books like this becomes essential. Because like the song says, You’re Nobody Until Somebody Loves You. Whatever her doubts about their future, Peg proved her love and loyalty to Freddie. Now it’s his turn to save her.

And he does. Spoiler alert. I see no reason to spoil it any further. True love wins out, aided by invisibility, low cunning, and an everpresent willingness to dissemble. Evil is punished, and the shooflies of Internal Affairs are getting Barney Beuler giftwrapped, all tied up in a nice bow. Mordon Leethe and our two madly gay scientists, having chosen their master unwisely, will be forced to serve him indefinitely, but the money’s good at least. Oh, and you’ll never guess where Merrill Fullerton’s apartment is!

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And Peg pays a visit to Freddie’s mother’s far more humble abode in Ozone Park Queens, telling her that Freddie can’t come to see her right now, he’s been sick–but he’s okay, and they’re going to stay together now, he and Peg, because Peg realizes now they need each other. They’re going to take a plane somewhere, and be together, and it’ll be all right. There is one kind of glance that can pierce the veil of invisibility, after all. And hey, blind people fall in love all the time.

Freddie’s mother, who has no illusions about her son’s true nature, but doesn’t hold it against him (you have nine kids, you have to figure on some variety), and she fully approves of Peg. An easygoing girl, just right for her boy. She is worried about how vague Peg is being, and asks fearfully if he’s dead.

“I’m alive, Ma.”

Peg Briscoe smiled a slightly nervous smile, said, “He’s fine. Bye.” and pulled the door shut.

Did I hear that? What was it?

Elizabeth Louise opened the door and watched Peg Briscoe cross the sidewalk to a little old green car. As Peg opened the driver’s door, the passenger door opened by itself. She got in and shut the driver’s door and the passenger door shut by itself. She waved and smiled, and drove away, and another wide-body jet’s shadow crossed over Elizabeth Louise and the house.

This one she noticed. She looked up, as the shadow went by. One of those would be Freddie, with his nice girlfriend. From now on, it could be any one of them, going over. One of those shadows is Freddie.

It’s a big, teeming, funny, angry, intriguing, detail-heavy, and somewhat messy book, with a protagonist a bit too easy to figure out. I have a sense that Westlake put several different ideas for several different books he never wrote into it. But it’s a grand piece of work all the same, though it had the misfortune to be overshadowed by a novel that followed fairly close on its heels; shorter, darker, bloodier, more focused, more angry by far, and we’ll be getting to that one very soon.

But we have another book to cover before that, and let me say something before we do–I don’t plan for these little coincidences of timing that happen now and again here. I didn’t plan for my review of Adios Scheherezade to come along around April Fool’s Day. I didn’t plan for my review of Brother’s Keepers to come along around St. Crispin’s Day. I didn’t plan for my review of Good Behavior to start right around both the Feast of St. Dismas and Good Friday. The world is not simple enough to understand. We all need to understand that. So I can only assure you all that it just happens that my review of the next book in the queue has come up just about a month before Election Day. Serendipity trumps all, you know. And maybe it even trumps–well. Let me conclude with a snatch of poetry.

In the Land of Dortmunder, where the shadows lie.
One ring to rule them all, one ring to find them.
One ring to bring them all, and in Las Vegas blind him.
In the Land of Dortmunder, where the shadows lie.

It’ll be huuuuge. Believe me.

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Filed under comic crime novels, Donald Westlake novels, science fiction

Mr. Westlake and The Psupermen

Now let me tell you a very sad and very funny story.  A while back, Randy Garrett was staying at my place.  We worked in the same room, and we were both writing stories aimed at Analog.  Enjoying ourselves in the process, we both included private jokes for the other guy’s benefit, and one thing I did was make a minor character, an Air Force Colonel who showed up in the last three pages of the story, the spitting image of John W. Campbell, betting Randy that Campbell would never notice it.  I described the guy as looking like Campbell, talking like Campbell, and thinking like Campbell.

We brought our respective stories in at the same time, handed them to the great man, and both went back the next week because he wanted revisions on both stories.  I forget what he wanted Randy to change in his story, but I’ll never in the world forget what he wanted done with mine: He wanted me to make the Colonel the lead character.  I did it.  Eighteen thousand words.  Four hundred and fifty dollars.

(P.S. That’s the story he wanted a sequel to.  He really liked that Colonel.)

(P.P.S. It was a better story the first time, when it was only fourteen thousand words.  If I was going to rewrite, I wanted more money, so I padded four thousand unnecessary words into it.  It makes for duller reading, but frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.)

From Don’t Call Us, We’ll Call You, by Donald E. Westlake.

The major nodded, unruffled.  He’d known Jim Brice for twelve years.  He understood that the colonel’s abruptness wasn’t so much the result of a nasty personality as it was the result of his single-minded desire to get the job done.  The major realized that no offense was intended, and so no offense was taken.

“I’ll do the job,” he told the colonel.  “Or at least I’ll take a healthy stab at it.”

“A healthy stab isn’t enough.  I want that boy’s ability out on the surface, where I can get some use out of it.”

“You talk as though you owned him,” the major chided gently.

“I do,” said the colonel.  “I own his ability, at any rate.  Or I will, once you dig it out for me.”

“Own it?

“I’ll get the use of it,” said the colonel.  “I can’t teleport myself, but I don’t have to, not if I have someone else who can do it for me.  I’ll get the use of his ability, and what’s that if it isn’t ownership?”

“If I didn’t know you better,” the major said, “I’d think you were power-mad.”

“Not power-mad.  Power-hungry.  That I am.  I have a job to do, and a tricky job, and I need all the power I can get in order to do that job.  And I need the power locked up in that boy’s mind.”

“Us slaves do okay,” said Ed Clark, grinning.

“I own his ability,” said the colonel, pointing at Ed.  “I get to use it through him, and he doesn’t feel as though I’m some sort of evil mastermind.  Do you, Ed?”

“Sure I do,” said Clark, the grin even broader than before.  “But it’s worth it, to get to wear civvies and eat in the BOQ.”

“It’s a pity,” said the colonel, “that brains and psi-talent don’t always go together.”

“Simple Simon met a psi-man,” said Clark.

Look Before You Leap is an 18,000 word novella by Donald Westlake, that was first published in Analog in May of 1962.  It’s only recently become available in ebook form (if you’ve got Kindle Unlimited, you can read it for free, otherwise it’s $2.99).  Westlake goes into some detail about its origins in that passage up top, taken from his bile-laden polemic against the entire genre of science fiction that was published in the fanzine Xero (which I will again remind you can be read in The Getaway Car), and which I talked about in more depth in my review of Anarchaos.

This is not a review of that story.  You want a review?  Okay.  Not terrible.  Kind of dull.  Westlake said as much.  He was right.   It was probably a much better story when he first submitted it to John W. Campbell, but still far from a classic (honestly, I think Anarchaos is the only really first-rate straight-up SF Westlake ever wrote, mainly because he wrote it as a hard-boiled detective story, as well as a savage critique of anarchism/libertarianism).   Purely on its own merits, this story is not worth going over in any great detail.

But having finally read it recently, I feel like it sheds quite a bit of light on the next novel I’m reviewing, one of Westlake’s longest works, certainly one of his most complex, and, you know, look before you leap.

Analog: Science Fiction and Fact began as Astounding Stories in 1930, piggybacking off Hugo Gernsback’s pioneering Amazing Stories, which launched in 1926.  It was under the editorship of John W. Campbell that the title was changed to Astounding Science-Fiction in 1938, and to say that Campbell was the single most influential figure in the SF genre overall might be something of an understatement.  He might be the most influential figure in genre fiction, period.  Not so much for what he wrote himself (though every time you watch the latest remake of The Thing, he goes there), but for what he got others to write on his behalf, and perhaps most of all for what still others wrote in reaction to him.  He was the kind of man who inspired extremely strong reactions in people, and they weren’t always positive.  To say the absolute least.

(Mr. Campbell was the first truly powerful figure in the SF genre to insist that his writers know something about science and technology and incorporate that knowledge into their stories–his own knowledge in this area can perhaps be gauged by the fact that he renamed his magazine Analog in 1960, getting rid of the juvenile ‘Astounding’ he’d always hated–doing this at the very dawn of the digital revolution in computing that he was probably largely unaware of to the day he died.  But it sounded cool.  And I guess you could argue all fiction is analog.  I don’t think Campbell ever made that argument, though.  He strikes me as a very digital personality.  Not someone who went in for middle grounds, gradations of truth.)

The patriach.  The father figure.  Rigid.  Demanding.  Overbearing.  Domineering.  Egocentric.  Yes, more than a bit power-mad (even though his only real power was over struggling wordsmiths trying to pay their bills).  Perpetually endeavoring to impose his own personal Weltanschauung on every single writer who ever submitted a story to him.  Also a fierce advocate for pseudoscience of all kinds;  spiritual father to both Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard, a committed apologist for racial supremacism and slavery (a much misunderstood institution,  in his view).

(Gee, you think this might possibly be a guy who’d rub a young Donald E. Westlake the wrong way?)

Basically, when you see a story, in any medium, that deals with some elite group of specially talented people fighting the forces of evil or whatever, you’re probably seeing the very long shadow of John W. Campbell to a greater or lesser extent.  He didn’t invent the idea of The Superman (superheroes were already a thing before he took the reins at Astounding, and of course Nietzsche was a thing long before that), but he popularized it, systematized it, normalized it.

And a whole lot of very good stories came out of that, along with many more bad ones, but to him in particular probably goes the credit/blame for our cultural obsession with outsider groups, splinter cells of ultra-nerds, at odds with the mediocrity of everyday society in some way, plugging into The Matrix in order to upend it.  “Fans are Slans!” was the slogan boldly chanted at the conventions (very different from what we have today–lots of ideas, no Hollywood whoring or cosplay), and A.E. Van Vogt’s novel Slan, about a telepathic mutant super-scientist, who begins as a lone rebel, and ends as leader of a triumphant revolution that overthrows homo stupidicus, was instigated and overseen by John W. Campbell, first saw print in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940.  Frank Herbert’s Dune began as a serial in Analog in the early 60’s.

A very long shadow indeed.  And all relating to Campbell’s personal obsession with finding ways to convincingly portray supermen (highly evolved humans, not beneficent aliens in tights) in fiction.  He was particularly interested in supermen with psychic abilities–telepathy, telekinesis, teleportation, precognition, etc.  ‘Psi-talent’ was the kind of term he’d use when drumming the need for more stories of this nature into his writers.  And for this reason, Westlake took to using the derisive term ‘psupermen’ to describe the classic Campbell-type character.  The ‘p’ is silent, of course.

(You can read much more about Mr. Campbell and his Psupermen in a chapter from Brian Attebery’s deceptively titled Decoding Gender in Science Fiction–I say deceptively because the book is actually well worth perusing, in spite of the pernicious whiff of post-modernism that title emits.  Maybe the publisher pushed it on  him.  The market for something like that is pretty much entirely limited to college campuses these days.  Google Books leaves out a few pages, as it so annoyingly tends to do, but most of it’s there.  I couldn’t get the link quite right, but just click on Page 62 and you’re there.)

Now there were different ways to respond to Campbell’s obsession–one was to agree with it, become a disciple sitting starry-eyed at his feet.  Another was to pretend to agree with it, pander to it in order to sell a story to pay your rent (which Westlake self-admittedly did, and he did this with other pulp editors as well, such as Frederick Pohl).

A third path, which Westlake didn’t take back then, (because he was frustrated with the SF genre, tired of the lousy pay-rates and overbearing editors, and increasingly convinced he didn’t really know how to write a good story in that genre) was to satirize it. Turn it on its head.  Take it to its illogical extremes, show how absurd the whole psuperman thing really was.  Philip K. Dick often did that–suppose the psuperman was actually a corrupt morally inferior being, who just happened to have superpowers, but otherwise had no real value to society, and was actually a destructive and/or oppressive force within it?

Even Isaac Asimov, a lifelong friend and admirer of Campbell’s, created perhaps the ultimate evil psuperman in The Mule–the main villain of the Foundation Trilogy, who temporarily derails the Foundation’s work of rebuilding galactic civilization with his ability to exert mass mind control over vast distances.  His psi-tyranny is only ended by the fact that he’s unable to procreate, making him an ultimately doomed pathetic creature.  Superior abilities won’t necessarily make you a superior being.

In fact, they never do, because there’s no such thing.  Darwinian evolution, which Campbell, like so many before and since, blindly worshiped without really understanding how it works, isn’t about creating superior beings, superior races.  It’s about adapting to change in the environment, and change never stops.  There is no final perfect form, for humanity or anything else.  Social Darwinism is a corruption of evolutionary science, no matter what futuristic finery you dress it up in.

Octavia Butler and other non-male non-white authors went another way that Campbell would have hated most of all–what if the first real ‘psuperman’ was (for example) a black woman?  (I’m thinking here of the Patternist novels, particularly Mind of my Mind.)  What if the overseeing mentor who created her was a diabolical disembodied psychic vampire who preyed on his own children?

Butler, a profound and complex intellect, never thought that kind of development in human evolution would mean the dawning of some golden age.  It would just mean change, for change’s own sake, and much of that change would be for the worse, if not necessarily all of it.  The psuperhuman might well be impossible to categorize as good or evil.  But good and evil would still  mean something.  Might doesn’t make right.  All life matters.  Not just life that has satisfied some biased evolutionary meddler’s artificially arrived at standards of perfection.  Eugenics is the worst pseudoscience of all.  Because nobody is qualified to say what adaptations are beneficial over time.  Only evolution itself can make that determination.

The best stories John W. Campbell inspired, I would say, were the stories that were rebelling against him, deepening and subverting his borrowed ideas, while still working within the general set of fictional tropes he’d helped establish.  Using the tools he’d given them to tear down the prison he’d built for them.  The old story.  Fathers and Sons (and frequently Daughters).

Man, I really do not want to talk about Westlake’s story, do I?   Well I do, but again, not at length, because it’s not the point.  The point is that he threw in a John W. Campbell caricature at the end of a story he submitted to Analog as a joke–and Campbell took it seriously, insisted that this character become the real hero of the piece, that his POV be shown to be the correct one.  He did to Westlake what he’d done to countless young authors before.  Force him to get with the program.  Change his vision in exchange for a few hundred bucks–after all, Westlake could already wear civvies, and I don’t think he particularly wanted to eat at the Bachelor Officers Quarters (what BOQ stands for, in case you didn’t know).

All I can read is the version that Campbell published.  A young man named Jeremy, doing a stint in the Air Force, lonely and homesick, placed in a situation of extreme stress during a training exercise, suddenly finds himself at home–then back at the base.  He reports the experience, not entirely believing it himself.  But Colonel Brice, the Professor Xavier of military intelligence (only without any extra power of his own, unless you count hubris), was monitoring him and all the other guinea pigs, and knows he really did disappear for a moment.

So for most of the story, the young hero, so clearly modeled after Westlake himself, his own conflicted feelings about his time in the Air Force, is manipulated, not told that he really did teleport, prodded and tested by ethically conflicted military psychiatrists (under orders from Brice), forced to question his own sanity, until he finally discovers how to use his untapped mental powers (which he reasons were a product of evolution, and that his uncle had them as well,but most people never discover them, because teleportation is so frightening and disorienting).

At which point he joins Brice’s little cabal of psuperman (a telekinetic and a remote viewer), all of them destined for a mission of vital importance that is never really spelled out.   If there’d been sequels, probably it would have been.  Campbell would have doubtless shelled out for more, as long as his crusty alter-ego was in the mix. But no sequel to Look Before You Leap was ever written.

Westlake wasn’t interested in enabling the old man’s fantasies any further. He wrote his polemical farewell to the genre for Xero, which certainly made it impossible for him to ever submit anything to Analog until Campbell’s death in 1971, and possibly afterwards.  The money just wasn’t that good.  Insufficient compensation for him to go on writing what he didn’t remotely believe, that being Westlake’s precise definition of a hack.

It was both a decision made for both creative and economic purposes, as he said in that piece.  Writing mysteries, he was able to appease both his own need for self-expression while still meeting the demands of magazine editors and publishing houses.  He wasn’t very good in either genre to start with, he knew that.  In the Mystery genre he was able to gradually progress towards a more three-dimensional mode of storytelling.  But when it came to science fiction, as he discussed in his response to reader letters reacting to his original piece–

On those few occasions when I thought I’d taken a small step forward, I was immediately returned to Start, either by a No Sale, or a slant-oriented revision.  The Campbell story about the Colonel is a fine instance.  (It was in the May issue of Analog, to answer the questions).  In the original the Colonel showed up at the end of the story.  There was no secret organization of psupermen in the Air Force.  The point of view never deviated from Jeremy.  It was a story about a person.  God knows it was no masterpiece, but it was a story.  (In this connection, Harry Warner Jr’s idea that the Colonel was a “real living characterization” just ain’t so.  Analog is full of Secret Societies with Strange Powers, and the Colonel  under one name or another, runs them all. You will find this same character in spy stories.  He’s the chief of Counter-Intelligence, the hero phones him in Washington every once in a while, and his name is Mac.)  At any rate, I for one am more interested in a person, who suddenly and shatteringly learns he is a teleport, who doesn’t want to be a teleport, and who more than half suspects he’s lost his mind, who struggles through the problems thus created–aggravated by the fact that he can neither control nor repeat the initial teleportation–and works things out to some sort of solution or compromise with the world, than I am in all the Secret Societies and Mystical Powers in the Orient.  But the writing and rewriting of the story kept me vigorously marching in place, back there at stage one.

I have a small quibble here–that character he refers to, that the Colonel quite certainly is one form of (and 007’s ‘M’ would be another)–isn’t yet another to be seen in the Continental Op stories of Dashiell Hammett?

Hammett was possibly Westlake’s supreme literary model, certainly his biggest influence in this stage of his career.  The Op was Hammett’s most important contribution to mystery fiction, and the Op has to report back to The Old Man, head of the San Francisco office of the Continental Detective Agency (frequently referred to throughout Westlake’s fiction).  To a certain extent, the Op is merely The Old Man’s sometimes-rebellious pawn–who nonetheless never quits the agency, as Hammett eventually quit the Pinkertons.

The Op hates and to some extent fears The Old Man.  He fears he might become his boss someday, thinks of him as a mere simulacra of a human being, all identity subsumed by the company they both work for.  The Old Man certainly isn’t a hero of the Op stories, we don’t see a lot of him, but he’s always there, and to some extent, that makes the Op a more believably flawed figure than Sam Spade or Ned Beaumont (and Nick Charles, as Westlake knew well, is a former company man who has lost his identity by quitting his job, driving him to depression and drinking–maybe there’s no escape for a company man, not even a beautiful heiress who adores him).

He’s not a true independent, the Op.  He’s not merely wedded but welded to his job.   Westlake, of course, wanted to write about independents.  Mere hirelings tend not to fare well in his stories (neither do private detectives, as a general rule–hmmm).

And it may well be that it was, in part, his experiences with Campbell and similarly controlling editors in the 50’s and early 60’s that confirmed him in this predilection.  However, it’s not only Campbell he’s reacting to here.  He’s also rebelling against Hammett.  He doesn’t want any Old Man pulling the strings in the background, even though that conflict adds depth to the Op that Hammett’s other detectives mainly lack.

To be a true Westlake hero means to pull your own strings (and in some cases, thwart or destroy anyone who tries to pull them for you).  But in a way that is more believable than in Hammett’s later stories about independent operators.  He’ll have to find other types of conflict for his heroes, to make them more credible.  Because he can’t write about company men, cogs in a machine.  Not unless it’s to mock them (as in I Gave At The Office).  Because he could see too well how close he’d come to being a cog himself.  Because he was always afraid it might still happen to him, if he didn’t find a way to succeed as an independent.

As few science fiction authors have, I might add–the other half of Westlake’s beef with the genre.  Many authors succeeded as he had not, in working past the constraints that frustrated him, creating brilliantly individual work that satisfied both the genre’s demands and their personal muses–but rarely were they able to make a good living doing so.  Philip K. Dick, whose literary estate is now highly lucrative to his heirs, lived at the edge of indigence for most of his adult life.  To be sure, Jim Thompson had the same problem.  Being an independent always comes at a high price, regardless of occupation.  It’s for each independent to decide for him or herself how that price shall be paid, and in what coin.

And years later, having escaped the coils of Campbell and his cohorts, having created many amazing books, made many a compromise along the way to pay the bills, finding himself in a bit of a slump in the 80’s and early 90’s–Westlake made a very odd decision.  He wrote a very long comic crime novel (his established niche) about a man who suddenly and shatteringly finds himself to be invisible.  Who doesn’t want to be invisible (though it has certain short-term career-based advantages for him).  He can’t control his newfound ability, and struggles through the problems it creates for him.   He knew who he was–now he’s not so sure anymore.

And even though no Colonel-type figure knowingly created him, there are several aspiring Colonels in his life.  And he’s got to escape them all (in which he shall have the aid of one hell of a woman).  As Jeremy, in Look Before You Leap, could have quite easily escaped his Colonel, by simply vanishing into thin air, free as a bird, and I wonder if that’s how the original version of the story ended.  If so, small wonder Campbell wanted it changed.  Slaves should know their place.

Westlake’s primary model/antagonist in that novel was not John W. Campbell, though–it was a much earlier father of Science Fiction (much as he preferred the term ‘Scientific Romance’).  H.G. Wells, like many a progenitor before and since, had nothing but contempt for his bastard stepchildren, loathed the science fiction of the pulps, wanted no credit for it at all.  Frankenstein recoiling from his monster.  Wells did that a lot.  Idealists are born to be disappointed.

But in fact there was much that Wells and Campbell had in common, philosophically speaking.  And much that Westlake wanted to say in reaction to that.  And he did, under the guise of comedy, which is in fact the very medium Wells himself had employed in his book.  A seemingly superficial adventure story may contain hidden depths.   Appearances can be deceiving.  What you see is not always what you get.  Oh there’s going to be so many puns along that line.

“A Grotesque Romance” is the subtitle for the book Westlake used as a template for the next adventure in our queue.  And Westlake’s book is all of that, and more.  I have no idea how long this review is going folks.  I’ll try to get Part 1 up sometime next week.  In the meantime–Smoke ’em if you got ’em.

(Thanks once again to the Official Westlake Blog, for providing the artwork from Analog that accompanied Westlake’s story.  A resource any independent operator like me can only thank the beneficent gods for).

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, Donald Westlake short stories, science fiction

Review: Humans

Once when he was dining with Rabbi Goldman in Chicago he stopped in the midst of Mrs. Goldman’s pot roast to discourse on the improbability of a God or a life after death.  Rabbi Goldman’s eleven-year-old daughter listened gravely,  then replied, “Mr. Darrow, Mother gave me a beautiful box of beads for my birthday, and when I dropped the box the beads rolled all over the floor because they had not been strung.  We need God to string together all the different parts of life.”

Darrow smiled as he replied, “I won’t argue with this younger generation.  I’ll stick to the older generation, they’re easier.”

From Clarence Darrow For The Defense, by Irving Stone.

We are all of us parts of God, parts of His dream, His desire, but none of us know any more than our own role in His plan, if indeed He has a plan, and is not merely moved this way and that by cosmic Whim, as sometimes seems to be the case.  And so I, a tendril in God’s imaginings, had to be informed by another entity, as insubstantial as myself, just what my task was to be.

“A messenger.”…..

“And an affector.”….

And my Task?

“To announce, and to affect, the end of their World.”

I don’t have to explain myself.

The instant I saw it there, sitting with the woman, I knew what it was.  The stench of God was all over it, like dried roots, like stored apples.  Laughing!  And a servant.

I am not a servant.   We are not servants.  He Who We Serve is not our master but our lover.  We act from our will, no others.  Could this…thing say as much?   Or any of its swooping, tending, message-bearing ilk?

And did its master really think he could sweep away this compost heap without the knowledge of He Who We Serve?  We love this world!   How it seethes, how it struggles, how it howls in pain,  what colors there are in its agony!  It is our greatest joy, the human race.  We cannot see it removed, like game pieces from a table at the end of the day, simply because he’s bored.

Don’t be afraid, you wretched vermin.  We will save you.

I’m going to try and make this a one-part review.  I have several reasons for this, but chief among them is that hard as I look, the only edition of this book I can find is the first one, from The Mysterious Press.  So I don’t even know what images I’d use for a Part 2.  I don’t believe that’s ever happened before.   Westlake novels nearly always got a bunch of editions, foreign and domestic.  If there are any foreign editions at all, I can’t find them.  And that’s more ironic than I can possibly express.

This is not on its surface the kind of book The Mysterious Press was established to publish.  If this is a crime novel, a mystery, and I think you could make a fair case that it is, then the criminal mastermind is God Himself, his primary henchman an angel, and their intended victim is Life on Earth.   The novelist Michael Upchurch (no, I never heard of him either), reviewing this novel for the New York Times, referred to it as ‘universal fiction,’ which I kind of like, and Westlake might have too, but the review, while decent enough, says that Westlake’s prose is ‘hokey’, that he has an excessive reliance on italics (oh really?), and this keeps the book from being as good as it might have been.

Much as I agree with Mr. Upchurch that this book could and should have been more than it is, hokey writing and over-accentuated typography are not the problems with it (oh no, I used italics!).  But in saying it failed to live up to its potential, I am, of course, assuming I know what it was supposed to achieve.    The Great God Westlake moves in mysterious ways.  That’s why he’s a mystery writer.

This much we do know–it was supposed to be a best-seller.  It was written for that express purpose.  Westlake mentions in the dedication that Evan Hunter told him he should write something large in scope, unexpected in subject matter, and in that it most certainly succeeds.  Lawrence Block, in a piece you can find in The Crime of Our Lives, went into a bit more detail about that conversation, and I think a rather vital clue to why this book failed (in more ways than one) is to be found there.

While Evan hit the bestseller list a couple of times,  it frustrated him that he didn’t sell better.  Men and women who couldn’t write their names in the dirt with a stick were hitting the list all the time, and he wasn’t, and he couldn’t understand why.  Once he and Don Westlake were on a plane together, lamenting the fact that neither of them was writing the sort of book that had a real shot at bestsellerdom.  They agreed that each would make a special effort to come up with a genuinely commercial idea, and before the plane landed Don told Evan triumphantly that he’d done the trick.  The perfect can’t miss idea had come to him.

The idea?  The narrator’s an angel, sent to earth on a mission.  Don wrote the book, called it Humans, and three or four people went out and actually bought it.

Probably a few more than that (I’ve found a surprisingly large number of positive online reviews), but then again, I can’t find even one other edition, and I looked hard.

I cannot help but detect a certain unseemly note of satisfaction in Mr. Block’s recounting of that telling little anecdote (it’s a writer thing), but had he been so inclined, Mr. Westlake could have reminded him of Ronald Rabbit Is a Dirty Old Man, a 1970 novel about a man in his thirties engaged in various orgiastic activities with a group of bisexual teen-aged Catholic school girls, that Block wrote in four days, and which he had at the time firmly believed would be a huge critically acclaimed racy best-selling novel along the lines of Lolita, The Ginger Man, and Portnoy’s Complaint.  They had good drugs back then, didn’t they?

Bad writers can write bestselling novels on purpose, by design.  With a few rare exceptions (maybe Stephen King), good writers can’t. Because good writers are good precisely because they are not prisoners of formula (even those known for a specific genre), because they listen more to their inner voices than to book sales.  The rest is up to us, our secret desires, which are hard to predict, once you’ve strayed away from the mediocrity of market surveys.

Westlake got close to the bestseller lists a few times in his life, but never, not even once, with a book he wrote to that end–the harder he strove to reach that goal post, the further away it got.  It always came as a surprise to him when a book of his sold especially well, and not always a pleasant one either (we’ll be talking about an instance of that a few books from now).

So right away, we see the identity crisis in this novel–not in its characters, but in itself–that it is at the same time striving to break away from the kind of story Mr. Westlake was known and admired for, to convey a powerful (and not entirely palatable) message to all of humanity–and at the same time is basically trying to out-Hailey Arthur Hailey, who Westlake had lampooned mercilessly with Comfort Station, years before.   “Earth–crossroads of five billion private lives.”  Or in this case,  just five, standing in for the five billion.

When you know you’re so much better than most of the people selling untold millions of books, it must be frustrating to keep failing to reach those Olympian heights.  You have to settle for having actual depths, and plumb them as best you can.

Westlake more than once referred to Humans as a special favorite of his among his many novels, but I’ll point out once more that calling something your favorite is not the same thing as calling it the best.  Our preferences and our judgment are often at odds with each other, a human oddity the angelic narrator of this novel (parts of it) would be at some pains to point out.   And if I want to make this a one-parter, I had better be at some pains to get the synopsis in gear.  This one’s going long, so bear with me.  And my italics, pace Upchurch.  (Upchurch–I can hear Westlake chortling all the way from 1992).

Humans is divided into three Hegelian sections–Thesis, Antithesis, and Synthesis.  The chapter count does not reset at the start of each new section.  As we’ve seen him do in several previous books, he alternates between numbered third person chapters, and first-person narrated interludes, in this case from two different characters–an angel and a demon–each commenting on the story thus far, and speaking directly to the reader about the apocalyptic situation that is unfolding–and with the usual Westlake perversity, it’s the demon who is trying to reassure us, and the angel telling us we’re all doomed.   For such beings, there is no fourth wall, it seems.

The premise is actually very simple–God has gotten tired of us.  We’re not entertaining Him any more.  We just keep doing the same stupid things, over and over again.  It’s boring.  He’s got a lot of other shows to watch (we’re informed there are many other inhabited worlds in His Universe), so He’s deleting us from the cosmic TiVo.  Permanently.  But there are rules to how this is done.   He won’t just smite us.  God gave us free will, and it is by our own volition that we must shuffle off this mortal coil.

God dispatches Ananayel, a relatively callow and inexperienced angel, who hasn’t been to earth in centuries (his last memories of Manhattan involve birch bark canoes).  He thinks this is because some of the more experienced angels like Michael and Gabriel could have hidden sympathies for humanity.   Knowing so little about us, he won’t have any interest in our survival.  Angels have free will as well, he explains.  They can choose to disobey, and one of them did, quite famously (there’s a very long poem about that, and you see an early edition of it up top).

All knowledge of our civilizations is available to him, along with the services of legions of cherubim (he insists they are not chubby infants in diapers like in the oil paintings), but his means of enacting the doom of Terra are limited.   And it’s the entire planet that is to be destroyed, you should understand–not just humans, but all biological life.   Clean sweep.  The Big Guy’s not kidding around like he was with that flood.  No rainbows this time.  No doves.  No bacteria, even. Nada.

Ananayel must find five representative humans, from each major racial group (black, white, Latino, Asian), and each major inhabited land mass (North and South America, Eurasia, Africa–sorry to tell ya, Australia, but you didn’t make the cut–and you’re doing so well at the Olympics too).  They must all speak a shared language (English, in this case, but we’re told if this attempt at Gaiacide doesn’t work, French might be next).   And they must all have some reason to give up all hope in the future–without having actually done so yet.  It is that choice–the choice to give in to utter and absolute despair–that Ananayel is to invoke within the five of them, at a crucial moment in time.  At that moment, they will be given the physical means to commit suicide on behalf of us all.

Ananayel is capable of possessing a human body, but this is a power that angels only rarely use, and on this mission he will use another ability to create physical forms for himself, which he can do with ease, becoming anyone he needs to be, creating a variety of human identities for himself, to influence his five catspaws, move his playing pieces across the board.  This latter power is something that the fallen angels have been deprived of–they can take on many different shapes, but not a human form–so they have to rely heavily on possessing existing bodies in order to interface with humans.

And as God dispatched just one angel to bring about our destruction, Lucifer, having learned of God’s plan, and thoroughly disapproving of it (we’re like the best most dysfunctional reality show ever–so fun!  God doesn’t know good TV when he sees it!), may only send one demon of consequence to oppose–we never learn his name–he is referred to only as ‘X.’  That’s him talking up top, and we never do get quite enough of him for my liking–far and away the most engaging character in the book, but that’s always going to be the case, isn’t it, when you bring demons into a story.

Everybody who reads Paradise Lost (I first read it in high school) sooner or later starts skipping over the tedious moral sections to the parts with Satan and his brimstone brigade.  C.S. Lewis, that most conscientiously committed of Christians, was invariably more entertaining when he wrote about such devilishly compelling creatures.   There is much of his senior devil Screwtape in ‘X’, but Westlake’s incubus is not addressing his dear nephew Wormwood–he’s talking to us.  The way you or I might talk to a hissing cockroach somebody gave us as a pet.   Kind of cool to watch, but still disgusting.

As for the widespread belief that they inevitably win, well, that’s just crap, isn’t it?  Of course it is.  If they inevitably won, we’d no longer be here, would we?  But here we are.

And here you are, you scrofulous fleas.  And now he’s after you as well, isn’t he?  Now you’ll know what it’s like to suffer his snotty displeasure.  But be encouraged.  He can be resisted, as we are here to prove.  He was just an early master of propaganda, is all.

But how shall we save you bilious earth-lice from your creator’s boredom? First we have to know what he’s up to.  He’s always, of course, up to something: testing Job and Isaac, tempting Thomas and Judas, on and on. Idle hands are whose workshop?

The notion that the biblical stories all happened in some form, but that the versions of them we have, the interpretations they place upon events, are mere heavenly hype, is not a new one.  The science fiction writer James Blish had covered this angle very well in 1968, with his short novel Black Easter (or Faust Aleph-Null).  I can’t be sure Westlake read it, but note with interest that a minor character in that supremely dark story (that I’m oddly disappointed to learn Blish wrote a more optimistic sequel to) was named after Anthony Boucher, that great linking element between mystery, science fiction, fantasy, and horror, and someone Westlake knew very well also.

Westlake had mainly cut his ties to science fiction by the late 60’s, but that by no means proves he stopped reading it.  And if we consider that book science fiction, wouldn’t this also qualify?  Westlake’s book actually has real science in it–well–kind of.  We’ll get to that.

Jesus was part of God’s plan, we seem to be told here, but he was a mere mortal–God was using him to try and get His experiment back on track.  God tempted Judas to betray Jesus, because he needed a martyr.  Somehow I don’t think Westlake’s Catholic School teachers would approve, but no question at all–they left a mark.  Once a Catholic, always a Catholic–you can never really shake it off, and the more you fight it, the stronger the influence becomes.  I know what I’m talking about.  But enough of the ethereal.  Let’s talk about the humans.   They are, after all, what the book is really about.

Although Ananayel is only supposed to recruit five people, factors in a planet-killing equation, he needs sufficiently appealing bait to dangle in front of one of them, and she ends up becoming a factor in her own right, so we’ll start with her.

Susan Carrigan:

Well, yes.  I have made a study of this one problem, while my players have been ricocheting toward one another, and I have proved to my own satisfaction that Susan Carrigan is nothing special.  There are millions of such young women scattered over the globe, unmarried as yet, doing small things with clean neat fingers, whether in banks like Susan, or in clothing mills, or in lawyer’s offices, or in computer assembly plants, and they are all the same.

Susan Carrigan lives in Manhattan, works in a job she doesn’t particularly love or hate, just got out of a bad relationship, and is tricked by Ananayel (in the form of a bag lady in a coffee shop) into entering a contest where the prize is a free trip to Russia (where another factor awaits, we’ll get to him).   She’s another of Westlake’s perky blonde ingenues, which we’ve been seeing so many of lately, and I wouldn’t say they’re all exactly the same, but none of them are going down as his most unique creations, and I kind of wish he hadn’t gotten stuck in that groove, and maybe he did too, at times.

Her significance in the story is both pivotal and peripheral (and in fact she never comes close to finding out what’s going on), but basically it’s the old story–angel falls in love with mortal.  Many variations.  There was one with Jack Benny once. Well actually he was in love with another angel in that one, but again we see Mr. Westlake taking with both hands from old movies.  The point is, the angel can remain detached from the impending death of humanity only so long as he remains detached from humanity itself, and Susan is the great sticking point.

She’s not a very interesting character (a fact much commented upon in the book itself), but you do like her.   She’s a certain kind of American that people all over the world look at with a mixture of bewilderment, affection, and perhaps a soupcon of contempt.  The ones who always think that something can be done. They don’t know what the world really is, and you’re not sure if you ever want them to know.  Somebody has to have hope, right?

Susan reminds me of something I read in a book of photos of feral dogs in the Greek Islands (who are, to my way of thinking, leading an utterly enviable lifestyle)–the way different sets of tourists react to them.  The photographer, in his introduction, said that the French find the dogs funny, the Japanese snap endless photos, the Germans think it’s a bit of a scandal they’re running around unsupervised, and the Americans scream “They’re starving!” and run off to buy them food.  My people.  I’ve lost count of all the foreign ferals from far-flung corners of the globe I’ve met at our local dog run.  Sometimes we take strays home with us at the end of a vacation (or a tour of duty).  Well, I digress.  Well no, I really don’t.  That’s what happens to–

Grigor Alexandreyovich Basmyonov:

Was he not, after all, the power behind a television throne?  Was he not the author of half the words to come out of Boris Boris’s mouth?  Wasn’t he the next best thing to a celebrity; which is to say, a celebrity’s ventriloquist?  Be off with you, my man, Grigor thought, I have Romanov blood in my veins. (Hardly).

From the least interesting human to perhaps the most interesting.  Grigor was a fireman at Chernobyl during the meltdown.  He did his duty bravely, as so many others did, and is dying of cancer, as so many already have.  By some quirk of fate (that Ananayel does not take credit for) he met a rising comedian, Boris Boris (not his real name, it’s a joke, and if you’re Russian it’s apparently hilarious), taking advantage of glasnost to do a satirical television series (a Russian Jon Stewart, though maybe closer to Benny Hill in some respects–or Bob Hope?), and he liked Grigor’s understandably morbid sense of humor, hired him on as a writer, and he’s been a great success.  Which is fine, except cancer is one thing success doesn’t cure.

He’s a complex brooding sardonic personality, loving his country yet alienated from it, which is why he’s ideal for Ananayel’s purposes, and vulnerable to his method of attack–he arranges for Grigor to meet Susan at a party held at the Savoy Hotel in Moscow, and when she hears her story–do I need to say it?  She says he must come back with her to America, she knows doctors, who know other doctors–something can be done.  And she’s very pretty and appealing and alive, and interested in him, and he agrees.   He has nothing to lose–or does he? Does it ever go well for Russian characters in novels when they leave their motherland?   Not in Russian novels, and Westlake is writing in the spirit of that great branch of world literature here.

Sound billowed from the International Room like pungent steam from a country inn’s kitchen.  Cocktail party chitchat is the same the world over, bright and encompassing, creating its own environment, separating the world into participants and non-invitees.  Cheered suddenly at the idea of being among the blessed this time around, Grigor moved forward into that cloud of noise, which for him was not rejecting but welcoming, and was barely aware of the person at the door who took his invitation and ushered him through the wide archway into a large,  high-ceilinged room that had been deliberately restored to remind people as much as possible of the pomp and privilege of the tsars.  Gold and white were everywhere, with pouter pigeons of color in the Empire chairs discreetly placed against the walls.  Two chandeliers signaled to one another across the room, across the heads of the participants in their drab mufti; not a red uniform in the place.  It was as though, Grigor thought, the nobles had permitted the villagers one annual event of their own in the chateau’s grand ballroom.

Was there a joke in that?  Well, there was, of course, but was it usable?  Now that the proletariat had been shown to have made a mess of things, there was a great embarrassed ambivalence about the aristocratic baby that had been thrown out with 1917’s bathwater.  Both Grigor and Boris Boris had been trying for months to fit references to the tsars and their families and their world into the stand-up routines, but everything they’d come up with was too flat, too wishy-washy.

The trouble was, they had no clear attitude to express.  Surely no one wanted to go back to rule by a class of people who sincerely believed that peasants and cattle were at parity, and yet…And yet, there was something about the style.  Not the substance, the style.

 The tsars are still in our throats.  We can’t swallow them and we can’t spit them out.

That isn’t funny.  That’s merely true.

I think Tolstoy would have been proud to have written that passage.  The book as a whole maybe not, but who can say?  Leo was writing weirder things than this by the end of his life.  And even before that, there was an entire story written from the POV of a horse (quite good, too–livestock have things to say for themselves as well).

And over next to Russia, there’s China–even less free, but in spite of that, the birthplace of a truly free spirit, who goes by the name of–

Li Kwan:

“The trial would last one day,” Kwan told him.  “I would get to say very little.  The second day, I would be taken outside and told to kneel.  A pistol would be put to the back of my head, and I would be killed.  The third day, the government would send my family a bill for the bullet.”

Mortimer’s eyes widened at that.  “A bill?  You’re kidding me.”

“No, I’m not.”

“But why?  For God’s sakes…”

“That’s the family’s punishment,” Kwan explained, “for having brought up a child without the proper discipline.”

Kwan (Li of course is his family name) was one of the people holding bullhorns in Tianamen Square when the tanks rolled in.  Remember that?   All we here in the west really got out of it was that thing about the two characters signifying ‘crisis’ meaning ‘danger’ and ‘opportunity’ when looked at separately.  That was very popular at the time.  He got a lot less than that.  But he’s still in there pitching.  I think in many ways he’s the one Westlake admires and identifies with the most–and treats the worst.

Kwan is a libertine for liberty, a trickster with integrity–much like Eugene Raxford in The Spy in the Ointment (who ironically had to contend with a Chinese American secondary villain), and perhaps a few others among his protagonists.  Instead of pacifism, his goal is simple Democracy–something we take for granted here.   Kwan dreams of somehow overthrowing the ‘Ancient Murderers,’ as he thinks of the ruling class in China, all ruling classes in China, going back for thousands of years.  If not overthrowing them, at least giving them one in the eye.  Something.

He’s a shameless seducer of women (who find him nigh-irresistible), a sly and humorous person with a great zest for life, but he believes absolutely in what he’s doing–while knowing too well he’s actually done nothing but put his own life in immediate danger.   Tricksters don’t tend to do well in totalitarian societies.  Even fictional ones.  Ask Harlan Ellison’s Harlequin.   A trickster needs more room to maneuver than a closed society will ever offer.

He’s managed to make his way to Hong Kong, but with 1997 approaching, even there he has nowhere to run, no safe harbor–the authorities there will hand him back to Beijing if he’s caught.  He’s about to be apprehended, betrayed by a naively cynical American journalist in exchange for a story, when Ananayel directly intervenes, gets him onto a luxury liner, working in the kitchen, heading for America, but it all goes wrong when he reaches New York.  Ananayel intends for it to go wrong, makes sure of it.

He’s betrayed again and again, and languishing in a detention cell in New York, where the authorities fully intend to send him back to avoid an international incident, he tries to commit suicide (with toothpaste, yet–didn’t even know that was a thing), and by the time he meets the others, he’s a shadow of his former cocksure self, with a damaged esophagus, incapable of even speaking, or eating properly.  The point, again, is to crush all sense of hope.   To guide him to despair.  So he’ll make the intended choice.  At least he could take the Ancient Murderers down with him.  All of them, not just the ones in Beijing.

Oh, and that thing about the bullet fee?   Westlake didn’t invent that.  I forced myself to look it up.  It happened to this girl’s family.  If you feel like it, you can force yourself to read online discussions where people in our great Democratic West cast doubt on it, say it’s not really proven to have happened, just an urban myth, and if it did happen once, it doesn’t anymore (now they have roaming vans that give lethal injections, yay progress!).

Except it’s apparently happening in Iran too.  It’s a bit funny, people who accept the reality of the authorities shooting someone in the head for disagreeing with them doubting that they’d humiliate the family just to hammer their point home. Maybe they just charge the bullet fee if the family wants to claim the body.  Well, that makes it all better, now doesn’t it?  Kind of rooting for Ananayel now. Maybe I’ll feel differently when I get to writing about–

Maria Elena:

Frowning, Maria Elena said, “The company is Brazilian.  Isn’t it?”

“The subsidiary is Brazilian.   That’s the company you know about.  But the main company is far from here.  The stockholders don’t live in Brazil.”

“Where do they live?”  I’ll go there, Maria Elena thought.  With photos, with statistics.  How dare they not be part of what they’ve done?  How dare they not even have to lie?

“Where do they live?”  The pilot looked down at the copper colored river they would follow for the next quarter hour.  “Some in Britain,” he said.  “Some in Germany, Italy, Guatemala, Switzerland, Kuwait, Japan.  But most in the United States.”

“The United States.”

“The multinational corporation is responsible to no country,” the pilot told her, “but it was an American idea.”

“They couldn’t do this in America.  That’s why they come here.”

“Well, of course,” the pilot said, and laughed.

Maria Elena is, I believe, Westlake’s first and perhaps only Brazilian protagonist. She is described as exotically attractive, not thin, and we don’t find out her precise ethnic ancestry, but we can assume she’s a mixture of Portuguese, Indian, and perhaps African ancestry, like most people in that remarkable nation, regardless of color.   What we know about her for sure is that she is a person of conscience and determination–and almost unfathomable sadness.

She had been a singer in her youth, a minor star, growing in fame, but she put that aside to marry and have a family–only her rural town was next to a factory that poisoned the earth and the water, and even the children in her womb.  Her husband left her, saying she was cursed, and part of her believed that was true. The church offered no comfort.  Her environmental activism achieved no results.

And now a pilot, transporting her with the American doctor she works for, tells her that she hasn’t even been directing her efforts in the right direction.  The true malefactors are elsewhere, mainly in America.   That isn’t a lie.  But the pilot himself is–it’s Ananayel.  Bringing his players together.  Suggesting she only has to marry the doctor, named Jack, who is in lust with her, and he’ll take her back to America with him.

The marriage goes sour when the doctor’s passion fades, and her activism is no more effective there than it was at home.  She leads a drab passionless middle class suburban life, with nothing to anchor her.  One day a woman who has been having an affair with the doctor comes to the house, and accuses Maria Elena of refusing to give Jack a divorce (it’s the first Maria Elena has heard of it).  The woman says she and Jack deserve a chance at happiness.

Maria Elena looks at this deluded creature wearily, as at a spoiled child, and asks what she has ever done to deserve happiness.  A question I’m not sure anyone has ever had a good answer to, but if anyone ever did, it’s Maria Elena herself, and look at her. She can’t even sing now–the music isn’t there in her anymore. Everything has been taken away from her, partly by Ananayel and God, but mostly by her fellow humans, by what we have made of this earthly paradise God gave us so long ago.  But she somehow soldiers on, waiting for a change to come. All good things, right?   Sure.

Westlake was drawing here upon research he’d done for the 1984 short story, Hydra, which I covered in my review of Westlake’s science fiction anthology, Tomorrow’s Crimes.  I don’t know when he started research on Russian politics, but of course it was all over the news at this time.

I’m now wondering if his interest in China and Hong Kong predated his agreeing to work on the James Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, which he is supposed to have written in 1995.  Seems unlikely he’d be doing research for that this far in advance.  But really, all over this book, we see his enduring and all-encompassing interest in the world around him, his conviction that Americans ignored what went on beyond their shores at the peril of both their own material welfare and their immortal souls.  Hmm, I suppose that is a bit hokey.  Mr. Upchurch would be cross with me, no doubt.

You have perhaps noticed that these three humans Ananayel has recruited for God’s plan thus far are not the people you’d think would be chosen to bring about world destruction–each has shown exceptional courage and devotion to the common good.  Each is a true member of E. M. Forster’s fabled Aristocracy of the Considerate, the Sensitive, and the Plucky (and indeed there will be a secret understanding between them when they meet).

But that is, in fact, the point of choosing them–that they know, so much better than the average human, what a cruel place this world is, how resistant to change, how entrenched the Ancient Murderers (in all their innumerable forms) truly are.  To be hopeless, you need to have had some hope to start with.

And all have been afflicted physically in some way–not for nothing did Job, having lost his family and his fortune, only curse God when Satan (visiting God in heaven, as we are informed the Satan in this story sometimes still does) was given permission to inflict great physical suffering upon him.  As long as the body is strong, the spirit can withstand almost any reversal.  But the body is fragile, an untrustworthy bastion to fall back upon.  It always fails us in the end. Gosh, how did this book ever not make the best-seller lists?

And how did I think I was going to make a one-part review out of this?   I’m closing on on six thousand words, and I still have two more characters to talk about before I even move into the wrap-up.  Two very different characters than Grigor, Kwan, and Maria Elena, but not entirely different.  All human, too human.

So I’ll come up with some images for Part 2 somewhere–it’s hard to search for foreign editions when you don’t know what the title would have been.  But I would say the intended audience for this book was not the rest of the world.  It was America.  And it missed the target, badly.  And perhaps that was Mr. Westlake’s failure.  And perhaps it was someone else’s.  Perhaps there’s blame enough to go around.

And perhaps we could do with a song now.

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, science fiction

Review: Anarchaos, Part 2

anarchaos_3anarchaos_1

Why is the element of crime so useful to the storyteller and such a magnet to the reader?  I’d like to try to answer that by borrowing from the classical description of theater: One character on a stage is a speech, two characters an argument, three characters drama.  The variant I would propose begins with society.  When  you have only society, you have predictability and order; life in an anthill.  When you have society and the individual, you have conflict, because the greater good of society is never exactly the same as the greater good of any one individual within it.  When you have society and a crime, you have a rent in the fabric, a distortion away from predictability and order; but to no effect, it’s merely disordered.  When you have all three, society and the individual and a crime, you have all the multiple possibilities of drama, plus all the multiple possibilities of free will; that is, life.  Society and crime are in unending opposition, but the individual is in a shifting relationship to the other two, depending on how this individual feels about this crime in this society.

That’s why there are detective stories about cops, but also detective stories about robbers; detective stories in which virtue is triumphant, and detective stories in which virtue is trampled in the dust; detective stories hinged on professional expertise, and detective stories  hinged on amateur brilliance; detective stories in which we root for the hero, and detective stories in which we root for the villain.

Donald Westlake–From the Introduction to Murderous Schemes: An Anthology of Classic Crime Fiction

He said “Are you very stupid, or very clever?  You present me with your mythic qualities, the slain brother, eternal questions, the unworldly view. You think if you show yourself to me as a saint you’ll impress me and I’ll stay away from you.”

I didn’t understand him, yet it did seem to be true that he was impressed by something.   He was getting more and more nervous.  I said “I’m not stupid, but I’m not clever either.  I came here, I came to this planet, I thought I was hard, I thought I was the strongest thing there was and it would all go my way, and nothing went my way.  I lost every fight.  I lost a hand.  I learned nothing and I’m sitting here a prisoner of a man I don’t know, caught up in some kind of problem I don’t understand.  You’re the one making the myths, the money myth, the golden fleece.  I don’t have what you want.”

From Anarchaos, by Curt Clark.  

If I gave the impression in Part 1 of this review that Westlake, by writing a highly critical opinion piece on the state of science fiction for the fanzine Xero, had completely alienated himself (so to speak) from the science fiction world, that may have been misleading.   He had some supportive mail–not, to be sure, from the influential people he’d attacked, but from younger writers, who felt just as oppressed by editorial expectations (and lousy pay-rates) as Westlake did.

Science Fiction was then, as it is now, a community of like-minded yet highly individualistic people, who shared a common passion.   And who often shared remarkably similar backgrounds. For example, Harlan Ellison’s life story is almost an alternate retelling of Westlake’s.   Born the year after Westlake, lower middle class family, didn’t finish college, got drafted into the military (the army in his case), lived in Greenwich Village, cranked out sleazy erotic paperbacks under pseudonyms to pay the bills, married repeatedly (though Ellison never managed to stay married very long), and wrote both science fiction and mystery.

As I said last time, there was nothing unusual about being a Mystery/SF switch-hitter back then.   You could win awards in both genres, and Ellison did (two Edgars, four Nebulas, eight Hugos).   He wasn’t the only one.   Westlake pretty much kissed any shot he ever had at a Hugo or a Nebula goodbye when Xero published his critique.  I don’t think it worried him much.

Ellison also contributed to Xero (so obviously he read Westlake’s polemic), and has said many highly complimentary things about Westlake over the years.  You don’t offend Harlan Freakin’ Ellison and escape unscathed, so it seems likely he admired Westlake’s chutzpah, and agreed with much of what he’d said. Ellison clearly didn’t agree that the only thing to do about the lousy state of SF was to go write in some other genre.  He went right on going to SF conventions and getting into fights, and we’re not just talking verbal disagreements here. Truth is, scrappy disputatious personalities have always been welcome in SF.   Westlake didn’t leave because there weren’t kindred spirits there.

Westlake wrote contemptuously of Robert P. Mills (called him a ‘journeyman incompetent’), who edited The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction–but that magazine was founded by Westlake’s greatest early critical champion, Anthony Boucher (real name William Anthony Parker White–emphasis added, and hmm!).   And Boucher, equally at home in both genres, went right on championing Westlake in the New York Times, with ever-increasing enthusiasm.

Basically, he’d been attacking the system whereby it was decided who got published in the science fiction field, what they wrote, and how much they got paid.   And the only people much bothered by what he said were the people in charge of that system, and those loyal to them.   It’s unfortunate he went after Frederick Pohl, who hadn’t had a chance to prove himself as an editor yet, but Pohl was in authority, and we all know by now how Westlake tends to feel about authority figures.   Like John Cougar Mellencamp, except for the ‘authority always wins’ part. When reading him, you always have to allow for that.

So as I said in Part 1, Anarchaos is a reworking of Robert A. Heinlein’s Coventry–which is about a young man with anti-authoritarian and rather libertarian leanings, who is living in a liberal society set up after the overthrow of a religious dictatorship. He expressed his rebellion by punching somebody in the nose for insulting him. Instead of agreeing to accept psychological reconditioning (which sounds terrible, but basically it’s just talking to psychiatrists for a few weeks), he opts for exile to Coventry–an area of the U.S. that’s been cordoned off by a high-tech force field, where America sends those who can’t or won’t agree to certain basic standards of behavior.

He expects to find Libertarian Paradise there, but instead he finds three messy oppressive rival systems, which show no respect for his rights, rob him blind, and throw him in jail. He escapes with the help of a seeming criminal, named Fader, and it turns out the only people you can trust in Coventry are crooks–except in the end, Fader turns out to be a government agent keeping an eye on the Coventry crazies.

By that point, our hero has realized the error of his ways, and gone to warn America that the crazies are banding together to smash the barrier and take over–turns out their plan was never going to succeed, and his warning was unneeded, but he’s proven himself loyal, so his sentence is rescinded. He’s pondering joining the same secret service as Fader at the end.

This is a product of Heinlein’s early liberal period, but he republished it after he’d become much more conservative, so I think we can say it’s representative of his general philosophy throughout his life–he liked the idea of freedom from all constraint, but didn’t much care for the chaos and tyranny he saw in countries that didn’t have strong Democratic governments.

In other words, his politics were confused, and continue to confuse readers to this very day. This is why right after Starship Troopers, a novel that is still required reading in military academies, and said only those who served in the military should be citizens and order is to be prized above all, he published Stranger in a Strange Land, which became a sort of bible to the Free Love Movement, and the counterculture in general, and contained phrases like “Thou Art God.” Forget it Jake, it’s Heinlein-town.

Westlake would have read Coventry with a mixture of fascination and revulsion. There’s the germ of a good story in there, and a rather prescient message for Libertarians of all eras (“be careful what you ask for….”) but it’s buried under civics lectures, bad satire, and two dimensional characters. Nothing the protagonist does makes the slightest difference, and his late-day conversion is abrupt and poorly motivated. His rebellious nature is simplistically blamed on a controlling father (Heinlein believed in psychiatry–unlike Westlake). He goes from being an idiot who hates the government to an idiot who wants to spy for the government, with scarcely a moment’s pause.

Because Westlake mentions having written 20,000+ words of a science fiction novel in the piece he submitted to Xero sometime in 1961 (and certain things he says in that piece and its follow-up make it clear that’s the year he submitted it in), it seems likely he started work on Anarchaos sometime in ’60 or early ’61, at the dawn of his career as a crime novelist.   I’d love to know if he started it before or after 361 and The Hunter–it shares a very similar sensibility to both, but is closer to the former than the latter, not least in that it’s written in the first person.   This isn’t ‘Parker in Outer Space’–this protagonist will tell us what he’s thinking and feeling in great detail.

It’s more like 361‘s Ray Kelly in Outer Space, and just like Ray Kelly, this guy is out to avenge a murdered family member.   Like Ray Kelly, he pays a heavy price, both psychologically and physically. But unlike Ray Kelly, he’s got a whole planet to fight, and he has a much rougher time reaching his goal.   He’s actually telling us a lot more about his feelings than Kelly–Westlake hasn’t yet perfected the muted emotional responses he favored in his most hard-boiled work–so I’ll go out on a limb and say he started it before 361.   And maybe just after Killing Time–because aside from Coventry, it also bears a familial resemblance to Red Harvest.   Hammett meets Heinlein–ain’t that a trip?

Our hero, if you want to call him that (he wouldn’t care whether you did or not), is Rolf Malone–he tells us he just got out of prison on Earth for killing a man in a fit of rage.   He’s been plagued by a vicious temper all his life, and he’s got serious anti-social tendencies, but he’s always loved his older brother Gar, who looks enough like him to be his twin.  Gar has always been calm, easy-going, trusting–perhaps too trusting–there’s a strong sense that the two brothers were opposite sides of the same coin–each incomplete without the other.

Gar asked Rolf to come work with him on the planet Anarchaos, once he was released, and Rolf was all too happy to get away from Earth and make a fresh start.   Gar was exploring for mineral deposits, on behalf of a major corporation there.  But before Rolf could leave, he got word Gar had been murdered–the other half of his identity gone forever.  And every time I type the name ‘Rolf’ I see a Muppet dog playing piano, so from now on when I say ‘Malone’, I mean the protagonist, okay?

Malone decides that his only purpose in life is to find whoever killed Gar–he’s told this is a pointless quest–that Anarchaos itself killed his brother. One way you can know this is a very early Westlake novel is that he’s not a reluctant detective–he’s also not a professional one. He prepares himself for his journey, reading up on Anarchaos, a world with a dying red giant for a sun–and where, because the planet doesn’t spin on its axis, only half of it is livable (if you use the term loosely), and is bathed in a perpetual red glare. The other half is dark and cold. This dying sun’s name is ‘Hell.’ A good alternate title for this book would have been Planet of the Noir.

Malone opens his narrative with a line from a book he read about Anarchaos–“Those who see by the light of Hell are blind to evil.” Basically, we’re in a universe where interstellar travel is as fast and easy as a Mickey Spillane blonde, and humans have colonized a wide variety of worlds. Each is free to create its own culture and political system, under the overseeing authority of The Union Commission, which has very limited power to intervene. The only stricture is that each new world has to choose a system of government that has previously existed, if only in the imaginations of men.

Anarchaos was founded by nihilists, who chose Anarchism as their guiding principle, as imagined by Mikhail Bakunin and Prince Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin, among others. It started out well enough, because the original founders of the colony had, in spite of themselves, absorbed Terran ideals of cooperation and human rights–but once a generation or two had been born and raised in this environment, living in the light of Hell, anarchy devolved into chaos (hence the name). Every man for himself. The planet is ruled by guilds, which are in turn ruled by offworld corporations, which intend to strip the planet bare of its rich mineral resources, and are pleased as punch at the total lack of regulations they find there. What a fantastic futuristic scenario! (that was irony, in case you missed it).

Most people are extremely poor, nobody respects anybody’s right to anything, there are no laws of any kind, slavery is legal and commonplace, murder is a perfectly normal way to resolve a dispute, and life, to coin a phrase, is nasty brutish and short–as is most of the citizenry, though that doesn’t really seem to be the word to describe them.

Malone knows all of this–in theory–but growing up in the far more placid law-abiding atmosphere of earth, and being a large powerful and aggressive man with little regard for law, has become accustomed to thinking of himself as an almost unstoppable force. He is going to challenge Anarchaos, and the system it abides under, and he’s quite ready to kill anyone who gets in his way.

He murders the driver who takes him to the city his brother was headquartered in–more or less proactively, before the driver can do it to him. He knows he can’t trust anybody on this world. And yet, he still fails to recognize just how bad things are there. In a sense, he’s almost enjoying Anarchaos–he can finally unleash his inner chaos. But the further he goes, the more he realizes that won’t be enough.

He gets what information he can from his brother’s employers, mainly from a cool blonde named Jenna, who works for ‘The Colonel’, the old man who runs this planetary branch of a multi-planetary corporation–she also has to sleep with the guy, because women’s rights–not an issue on Anarchaos. She had some kind of relationship with Gar on the side, and she ends up sleeping with Malone–because he asks her to. And a good time is had by all. It’s a science fiction version of a Mickey Spillane fantasy up to this point. A dream of absolute freedom, power, and sex.

Then the dream becomes a nightmare–Malone isn’t out on the street hunting for clues even a day before he’s ambushed, left for dead, and sold into slavery. He’s a slave for several years, mining some metal he doesn’t even know the name of–he forgets his own name after a while. He loses a hand. He completely loses his sense of self.

If a man is treated like an animal, he will become an animal. There is something inside every human being that craves mindlessness, that aches to give up the nagging responsibility of being a creature with a rational brain, that yearns to be merely instinct and appetite and blindness. Those who join a rioting mob have given in to this animality within themselves; alcoholics and drug addicts are perpetually in search for it.

Because the planet doesn’t rotate, wherever you are on the day side of Anarchaos, it is always the same time of day–morning, afternoon, or evening.

Without the solar rhythms of night and day it was impossible to keep hold of the passage of time, so that we lived our lives to a pattern we could not comprehend. We were awakened by shouts and the sun read evening. We ate gruel from a trough and then trotted into the mine, and behind us as we went the sun still read evening. We worked scraping out a vein of some pale metal through the interior of the mountain, and at a shouted order we put down our tools and trotted back to the compound along the damp cold tunnels, and when we emerged the sun said evening still. We ate again at the trough, and crowded into our shed, and closed our eyes against the light of the evening sun, and slept.

At first, I tried to keep hold of that within me which was rational and human, but it was impossible. My brain atrophied; in any realistic sense, I had ceased to exist.

Once he loses a hand to an infection, he’s given an indoor clerical job, that allows him to gradually come out of this mental torpor–during this time, he sees three company men, one of whom seems to recognize him. Then he finds a note some other slave left–“WE MUST UNITE”–it touches something buried inside of him. But slaves can’t form labor unions.  Resistance is truly futile here.  So he begins to plan his escape.

Having hitched a ride on a truck carrying minerals, he finds himself exhausted, in a barren environment, far from the nearest settlement. He’s going to die–but then a lone fur trapper who lives in the frozen twilight region between day and night finds him, takes him in, feeds him, tends to his wounds–and informs him that now he’s going to be the trapper’s slave. Even the Anarchaotians (actual word from the book) who most value their own liberty have no respect for anyone else’s. There are no good Samaritans here.

Malone knows he owes the trapper his life. There’s no real malice in the man–he’s not abusive, and he’ll treat Malone decently enough. The trapper doesn’t know any better than to think enslaving another human is perfectly okay–everybody does it. He can use the free labor, and maybe the company, but he’s already building a room to imprison the weakened Malone in, to make sure he never gets away.

Malone thinks to himself that if you want to be a true anarchist, Rousseau’s noble savage, utterly free of laws and limitations, this is the way–to live alone, relying on your own resourcefulness and strength–and dying alone, once your strength fails you. But if that was how the trapper wanted to live, he shouldn’t have tried to enslave someone else–not because it’s wrong, but because it’s inconsistent–a flaw in the pattern–he’s corrupted his identity, and in a Donald Westlake story, this is almost always a fatal error. Malone kills the trapper in his sleep, and uses his hairhorses (an Anarchaotian species used as pack animals) to head back to what passes for civilization on this godforsaken world.

Malone reaches a city, goes to the Union Commission outpost there, and identifies himself as a Terran citizen–but by this point in time, he looks like a native of Anarchaos, and they’re used to natives trying to escape their hellish world by telling tall tales–they feel no sympathy for them (the planet’s caustic atmosphere rubbing off a bit).

Malone, who long ago lost all track of time, tells the skeptical civil servant he’s been on Anarchaos four months–maybe six. But according to their records, Rolf Malone arrived four years ago, and vanished, and obviously he must be dead. The man claiming to be Malone fits the description of an escaped slave, and two familiar-looking men (the prototypical Westlakeian duo of sardonic hired killers we’ve seen in several books so far, though this might actually be their first appearance) arrive, pretending they’re going to take him back into bondage–Malone thinks they’re going to kill him.

But that isn’t their job–not yet–now that they know who he is, there’s someone who wants to talk to him. Turns out Gar Malone made a rich mineral strike before he was killed, but nobody knows exactly how to find it. So our Malone is taken to a ship on a frozen sea that belongs to a different corporation than the one his brother worked for–the same corporation that tried to kill him, then unknowingly enslaved him–and he sees the man who thought he recognized Malone at the mining camp–because he looks so much like his brother. They had him right in their grasp, and they didn’t even know it–they assumed their hit men had gotten the job done.

One thing we start to realize about these company men–they may be powerful and ruthless, but they’re not exactly the sharpest knives in the drawer. The ones who get sent to Anarchaos are the ones who screwed up badly somewhere else. They make a lot of mistakes. Organization men usually do. The man interrogating Malone, named Phail (damn, I never even noticed the pun before) has been a screw-up even by Anarchaotian standards.

And his biggest screw-up to date was to try and kill Malone–their top man (called The General–well, haven’t you ever heard of the military-industrial complex?) believes Malone might be able to help them crack a code in his brother’s journal–that would lead them to the mineral deposit he found. That Gar was working for The Colonel’s rival corporation at the time is entirely beside the point. Finders keepers.

Phail wants to break Malone before The General arrives, and he threatens to use a drug called ‘antizone’–that makes the person given it literally spill everything he knows–erasing his memory and higher consciousness in the process, rendering him a vegetable. And still shellshocked from everything he’s been through, Malone confounds and horrifies his captor by demanding he be given that drug immediately. He’s tired of being who he is–he wants to be nothing, forever. He wants to give up, but he doesn’t know how.

While I live I have a responsibility and a purpose and they require of me strengths I no longer possess. It is not permitted me to stop with the job undone, but I cannot go on. Antizone rescues me from this dilemma. I embrace antizone with the last of my will.

Alternatively, you could say he wants what Paul Cole, the amnesiac protagonist of Westlake’s novel Memory got inflicted upon him, and finally accepted. Seemingly, the idea of oblivion, of surrendering the burden of identity, was going through Westlake’s mind back around then. But this is a a very different sort of story, with a very different sort of hero, and much as he may want to forget everything that’s happened, Malone still has a functioning memory.

A sympathetic functionary shows him his brother’s notebook, to see if he can help decipher the coded entries–Malone leafs through it, and sees something written in plain English–a note Gar wrote to himself, saying that he has to give his brother another chance in life, after all the hard luck he’s had. He admired Rolf (there’s the piano playing Muppet dog again). He says Rolf has a gift that he lacks–the strength to make hard choices.

Remember what I said–these two brothers were two halves of the same divided self–and symbolically reunited with his lost half, Malone finds the strength to shake off his existential malaise, and renew his quest for justice. Which he begins by torturing the sympathetic functionary until he tells him the truth. Then he strangles the man with his one remaining hand. Then he strangles Phail–after making it clear he knows Phail was the one who murdered his brother, trying to get the secret of the mine’s location (which the functionary revealed under torture). Then he sets fire to the ship, and everyone onboard (including The General) and leaves by way of a small boat.

Is he done? Not by half. He docks at a remote fur-trading outpost, and there’s Jenna, waiting for him–word got out. The Colonel wants to talk to him too.  Malone makes like he knows how to decipher his brother’s code (he doesn’t, but it’s easy to lie to people who want to believe you). He kills The Colonel in his room, and tells Jenna they’ll get the wealth of Gar’s mineral strike together, and leave Anarchaos in style. He asks her to obtain a few items for him. She eagerly complies. He knows she has no feeling for him, or anyone else, but it’s all moot now. He realizes now what has to be done.

They make the circuit of all the major cities on Anarchaos–five in all–and in each he leaves a suitcase at the Union Commission building–and one at the spaceport in the city of Ni. He tells the UC rep that if a blonde woman comes looking for him, she’s not to be allowed in–Jenna is staying right where she is, unless she can find her own way out. He gets the next shuttle off the planet, making his way back to Earth.

What everybody told Malone from the start was that no one person murdered his brother–Anarchaos itself did. He didn’t find that answer satisfying, but now that he’s disposed of the actual murderer, he realizes they were right all along. Anarchaos murdered Gar Malone–so Anarchaos must die.

Each of the five suitcases contains a powerful bomb–enough to level each Union Commission building, and the spaceport, killing everyone inside, destroying all records, and the planet’s system of currency–you can’t have an economy without some form of government. No one will know Malone was responsible–they’ll assume it was the insanity of the planet itself, and the UC will finally be forced to act–to either take charge of things, ending the lawless society, bringing order to chaos–or to isolate the colony, starve it, make all commerce impossible. Either way–his brother is revenged.

He’s taken on an entire planet of criminals–and he’s won. He really was the hardest strongest thing there was. But only after he’d discovered the whole truth about who he was–only after he’d gazed into the abyss, and seen it gaze back at him. And only after he’d reclaimed the part of him that was Gar Malone.

And now he’ll have that second chance Gar promised him–on earth. He doesn’t think his temper will be a problem any more. And he knows now the value of human society, of law and order, of rules one may follow or break, but  never just ignore. Because without them, there is chaos. And there is no freedom in chaos. Nothing but evil in a world where people see by the light of Hell.

It’s a powerful piece of work. Not quite Westlake, not quite Stark, not quite Coe–Curt Clark, brief as his pseudonymous existence was, had a voice of his own. Because he’s a science fiction writer, and in science fiction, anything is possible. That’s both a strength and a weakness of the genre–sometimes writers need limitations to struggle against, just as humans need laws.

When Westlake wrote that polemic and sent it to the editors of Xero, he was setting off his own bomb–destroying not science fiction, but his connection to that community of stargazers, future-dwellers, alien seekers. He was going to stay home, on Earth, and work to understand the world he lived in, the times he inhabited, and the species he was born into, and that would be more than enough work for a lifetime. He would stick to earth-bound mysteries, and human crimes.

But in openly declaring his rejection of the established order of the genre he’d once thought he’d spend his life contributing to, he was being true to the spirit of that genre–which has always been about rebellion, questioning the way things are, seeking something new. And perhaps to honor the best of that tradition, he finished this book, and accepted whatever pittance Ace Books paid him, and he said little about the book in interviews later on.  It was a job he had to finish, is all.

Is Anarchaos really just a crime fiction novel dressed up in science fiction clothing? The influence of Hammett is far stronger than that of Heinlein here–yes, he got ideas from Heinlein, a starting point, but the spirit of the book comes from Hammett, a far better writer than Heinlein, and a better teacher to Westlake. The lone detective comes to a corrupt lawless place, and by playing one faction against the other, he brings down the whole rotting structure. The Interplanetary Op.

But this specific story Hammett could not have written–where the detective becomes a terrorist, slaughtering thousands of (relatively) innocent people, to end a system that enslaves and brutalizes millions. For that kind of ending–for this kind of story–you need science fiction. You need the freedom that genre gives its practitioners, the ability to say what needs be said, in a setting where people can accept it, and hopefully not take it too literally.

That passage I put up top, where Westlake tries to explain why crime can be so valuable to storytellers, applies to more than just crime fiction. That, I think, is why so many writers used to go back and forth between those genres, finding useful elements in both, and often creating fascinating hybrids of the two (Alfred Bester, who Westlake never mentioned in his polemic, was certainly writing hardboiled crime fiction just as much as SF with The Demolished Man and The Stars My Destination). But it was only once he’d begun to fully grasp that relationship between society, crime, and the individual, that he could write this book–where the individual has to bring an entire society to justice for its crimes.   For failing to be a society.   For not finding an acceptable balance between order and chaos.

So by combining what he intended to be with what he’d tried and failed to become, Donald Westlake succeeded just once in creating genuine, first-rate science fiction–and he substantially improved on an idea borrowed from the most successful science fiction writer of all time. And I think he got some satisfaction out of that. And probably just a few hundred dollars for the book, but money isn’t everything.

Try telling that to Parker, though. Back on present-day earth, with no siblings to avenge, he’s going to have his work cut out for him in our next book–the last novel Westlake published in 1967, and one of his best. Parker may not be taking on a whole planet–being held to more stringent laws of credibility–but how about the United States Air Force? And the field of psychoanalysis–which Robert A. Heinlein may have thought held the answers to everything, but Donald E. Westlake feels quite differently about it, and so does Richard Stark.

PS: I’m not entirely happy with any of the covers this book has gotten–none of them really capture the mixture of wealth and squalor, futurism and primitivism, that is Anarchaos. The recent reprint actually has somebody wearing a space helmet on the planet’s surface–even though it’s very clear Anarchaos has a breathable atmosphere. But for what it’s worth, the cover art for the French edition came closest to summing it up with one image. Which makes perfect sense. Vive la France!

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Filed under Donald Westlake novels, science fiction

Review: Anarchaos

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“You complain that our way of living is dull and unromantic, and imply that we have deprived you of excitement to which you feel entitled.  You are free to hold and express your esthetic opinions of our way of living, but you must not expect us to live to suit your tastes.  You are free to seek danger and adventure if you wish–there is danger still in experimental laboratories; there is hardship in the mountains of the Moon,  and death in the jungles of Venus–but you are not free to expose us to the violence of your nature.”

“Why make so much of it?”  MacKinnon protested contemptuously.  “You talk as if I had committed a murder–I simply punched a man in the nose for offending me outrageously.”

“I agree with your esthetic judgment of that individual,” the judge continued calmly,”and am personally rather gratified that you took a punch at him–but your psychometrical tests show that you believe yourself capable of judging morally your fellow citizens and feel justified in personally correcting and punishing their lapses. You are a dangerous individual, David MacKinnon, a danger to all of us, for we can not predict what damage you may do next.  From a social standpoint, your delusion makes you as mad as the March Hare.

“You refuse treatment–therefore we withdraw our society from you, we cast you out, we divorce you.  To Coventry with you.”  He turned to the bailiff. “Take him away.”

From Coventry, by Robert A. Heinlein

The other two looked curiously at me as they left.  Once the door was closed behind them I said, “You can’t stop me either, you know.”

“I know that.   Mr. Malone, there are no tourists on Anarchaos.”

“There’s me.  I’m a tourist.”

“No.  Customs at Valhalla reported you carrying a surprising assortment of weapons, for which you had no believable explanation.”

He waited for me to say something, but I had nothing to say.  I sat there, and looked at him, and waited.

He grimaced and half turned away, and then turned back to glare at me again; I was beginning to anger him.  People get angry at what they don’t understand; they always have.

“You can’t beat these people, Malone.  You’re on their ground, playing by their rules.”

“No rules,” I said.  “There aren’t any rules here.”

“You’ve been here before?”

“No.  This is my first time off Earth.”

“You won’t tell me what it is?  Unofficially, I give you my word not to use whatever you tell me.”

“I have nothing to tell you.  I’m a tourist.”

He made a quick gesture;  anger, bafflement, defeat.  “Go on, then,”  he said.  “Kill yourself.”

“See you later,” I said, as I started for the door.

“No, you won’t,” he said after me.  “You’ll never make it back.”

From Anarchaos, by Curt Clark

Sometime in 1961, the editors of a shortlived but influential science fiction fanzine called Xero received from Donald Westlake what can only be described as a polemic.

In this brief pungent tirade, entitled Don’t Call Us We’ll Call You, and in a follow-up he wrote in response to the deluge of outraged, offended, and often just plain curious letters it provoked, Westlake definitively cut his ties to the genre, openly mocking many of its most influential figures at that time, such as John W. Campbell and Frederick Pohl, and saying in so many words that science fiction had little to offer an aspiring wordsmith in terms of money or creative expression.

It is still a painful thing to read–painful because it was patently unfair and hurtful to many of his fellow professionals–and because it was devastatingly (if one-sidedly) accurate in its assessment.  Westlake had said in print what most of his peers only said in private.   The old guard had to be pushed to one side.  Things needed to change (and eventually did).   But he wouldn’t be the one to change them–he was outta there.  That’s what you call making an exit–Westlake had not only left the space ship–he’d blown it up.

Along with his work in the crime genre (and in the ‘sleaze’ genre, which he was not at all eager to take credit for), Westlake had been writing science fiction  throughout the 1950’s, often under the sobriquet ‘Curt Clark’ (a rather pointed pun); mainly short stories submitted to an ever-dwindling number of magazines, as the genre (at least in its written form) declined in popularity, due to the the tastes of its primary audience of adolescent boys and young men shifting elsewhere–and as television and cheap paperbacks made the pulps increasingly irrelevant.

But Westlake was part of the generation that had made the ‘Golden Age’ possible–he’d spent much of his youth devouring science fiction stories–as well as mysteries.   It’s actually pretty rare to find a science fiction reader and/or author who hasn’t read Edgar Allan Poe and A. Conan Doyle (ancestors to both forms), and the later ‘hardboiled’ school also had a powerful influence.  Writers in one genre would often cross over to the other–for one thing, it was damned hard to make a decent living if you only wrote one kind of story.

For another, there were things you could say with science fiction that you couldn’t with mysteries–and vice versa.   And often, the two forms were blended with great imagination and creativity–I’d say Isaac Asimov’s two best novels as novels were The Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun–set on a future earth, featuring a team of unlikely detectives–the agoraphobe Lige Baley and the robot R. Daneel Olivaw.   Asimov was, of course, a noted expert on Sherlock Holmes–and just about any other subject you can name–but this cross-pollination between the two genres had never raised the slightest eyebrow in either circle–the circles, in fact, heavily overlapped.

I don’t think this is true any longer, sadly–though Sheldon Cooper on The Big Bang Theory still quotes Sherlock Holmes as readily as Mr. Spock.  With few genre magazines to write for, most present-day genre writers have gone down Westlake’s path of specialization, just to survive.  The worlds of mystery and science fiction are no longer so easy to travel between, though science fiction and fantasy remain closely linked.

But even back then, most writers who crossed back and forth between the genres were known for one of them–if they were known at all.   In his polemic, Westlake referred to Jack Vance as a fellow escapee from science fiction, because he was writing mysteries at that point in time, but that was a misjudgment on Westlake’s part–Vance continued to write mostly science fiction, and is mostly remembered for that. Nobody will ever remember Isaac Asimov as a mystery novelist, or even as a nonfiction writer, in spite of his staggeringly voluminous output of nonfiction.

Nobody will remember Donald E. Westlake (under any name) as a science fiction writer, though truth be told, he found ways to contribute to that field well after he left it.  You don’t have to limit yourself, but to a certain extent, you do have to choose–or else posterity will choose for you, decide which stories defined you.  Westlake had made his choice–but why did he have to make it so loudly?

The answer many have come up with, with which I partly concur, is that he was intentionally severing his ties to that genre–as long as Campbell and Pohl and all the other lions he’d bearded in their dens were influential, he’d have a much harder time getting any science fiction published after this (according to Lawrence Block, Pohl never forgot or forgave what Westlake said about him).   Without the option of getting published in science fiction magazines, and knowing most book publishers in that field paid next to nothing, he could concentrate on writing mysteries.  But couldn’t he just quietly stop writing science fiction?  Or just write it here and there, as a useful sideline, the way Jack Vance wrote mysteries?

For all Westlake’s avowed contempt, science fiction still held a fascination for him–the unlimited possibilities of the genre have attracted many eminent ‘mainstream’ authors like George Orwell, Kingsley Amis, and Margaret Atwood, after all–but he was wasting valuable time and energy cranking out stories that had to be crafted to appeal to editors whose tastes and ideological eccentricities he increasingly deplored, and it was creating a sort of professional identity crisis. He had to focus his efforts on the mystery field, figure out what he could do there, build a reputation.

He’d be dealing with many tiresome formulaic constraints in that area as well (and would later write about them in terms only slightly less impolitic than the Xero polemic)–but overall, he’d be more free to express himself, and better able to support his growing family.   It wouldn’t have been necessary for most writers dealing with this kind of inner conflict to have expressed themselves this way, but it was necessary for him. His agent was aghast that he’d intentionally shut himself off from a whole market, but then again, this was the same agent that later told him not to write a comic crime novel that turned into his first genuine hit.

So this is all prologue, of course–and this will be a two-parter, of course–the first time I’ve ever begun writing a review knowing that I wouldn’t finish it in one installment. But here is where we spy my point, looming in the distance, like a futuristic city on a barbarian plain–in that manifesto he sent to Xero, Westlake wanted to make it clear that this wasn’t sour grapes–that he was having no trouble getting published elsewhere.

He said he’d sold three novels to Random House, and was working on a fourth–only two of which had been published so far–he didn’t name them, but clearly he’s referring to The Mercenaries and Killing Time. The third would be 361, which was published in 1962; the one he’s working on would be Killy.   Besides these hardcover mysteries for Random House, there was a completed novel aimed at the paperback market, then being considered by Dell–The Hunter?  The lack of a literary biography for Westlake can be irksome at times.

He also mentioned that in a desk drawer he had over twenty-thousand words of a science fiction novel that he thought was good, that would run to over forty-five thousand words if finished, but he would never finish it, because he had nowhere to sell it. He specifically ruled out Ace as a publisher because they didn’t publish books that long–either he was exaggerating, or something changed at Ace, because that’s who did eventually publish it, in 1967–I’m guessing Frederick Pohl didn’t read it.  But no doubt, that novel was Anarchaos.  Finish it he did, and it’s damned good.   But is it a science fiction novel?   We’ll talk about that next time.

In his article for Xero, Westlake was dismissive of everything else he’d written in the field–and as a lifelong science fiction fan, having read most of his SF stories (you can guess my generation by my refusal to use the hated ‘SciFi’), I have to agree with him in that assessment. It’s not bad, in the main, it’s just–average. Written to the market, which is what he was complaining about having to do–he sourly described how he’d written one character as a none-too-subtle caricature of John W. Campbell, and Campbell (never known for his sense of humor) had then insisted that character be turned into the hero of the piece.

He didn’t know how to be himself in that genre, and while part of the problem was the genre itself, another part, as Avram Davidson suggested in his response to Westlake’s polemic, was that Westlake was a mystery writer who had just wandered into science fiction by mistake.

In his response to the responses, Westlake didn’t take offense to that at all–he thought it was a fair point. He also said he’d given up Perry Mason for science fiction when he was fourteen years old.   He wasn’t in it just for the money (nobody with any sense ever went into print SF for money).   When he decided to be a full-time professional writer, his intention had been to write primarily science fiction, with mystery and crime fiction being the sideline. This had been an affair of the heart, and it was ending badly, as they so often do.

I think the deeper problem was that he was a novelist who’d started out writing short stories.  His early shorts in the mystery genre aren’t that impressive either, and well he knew it. But his early novels in that genre are remarkably good. Westlake realized more and more as he went on that he needed room to run, to explore an idea, create a world, build his characters.  It was easier for him to do this in the mystery genre, which was publishing a lot more novels, and paying a lot more for them. Westlake also wanted to write more about people than about ideas–science fiction tends to put ideas over people, though some authors in that genre have managed to do justice to both–very few were doing this at the start of the 1960’s–many more would be by the end of that decade.

He said the kind of book he’d like to write would be about somebody who (let’s say) suddenly found out he had the power to teleport, and instead of feeling empowered by this, would be frightened and confused and would have a hard time figuring out how to make it work for him (he wrote a version of that book much later, only it was about a burglar who accidentally became invisible). Emphasize the personal over the fantastical.  Inner space over outer space.

But science fiction was most often about being special, unique, above the common herd–small wonder the likes of Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard would latch onto the conventions of the genre like parasites, use it as a springboard for their puerile empowerment fantasies, not to mention their self-seeking philosophical/religious meanderings. Today’s equivalent would be Orson Scott Card, or whoever writes those ‘Divergent’ books. The Hunger Games is science fiction, even if it’s not marketed as such (because it wouldn’t sell a tenth as well if it was).   Telepaths, mutants, secret organizations out to save and/or remake the world, cognoscenti of one kind or other–Westlake referred contemptuously to these types of characters as ‘Psupermen.’

It’s a valid component of the genre–basically that’s a big part of what Frank Herbert’s Dune is–but without anything deeper behind it, it becomes very tiresome and limiting and juvenile (often literally). Writing to the market–and getting swallowed up by it.  Herbert wouldn’t have written nearly so many Dune books if his wife hadn’t become seriously ill. And his heirs will never stop publishing more of them, until the vital original ideas of the first are buried under a dungheap of mediocrity and work-for-hire.

(Sidebar: Donald Westlake is not the only person who ever waxed polemical on the subject of science fiction. There’s a reason this is the genre Harlan Ellison is known for.)

So.   Let me point out one curious omission from Westlake’s two-part rant on the deficiencies of science fiction–Robert A. Heinlein.  Westlake refers to Asimov, Clarke,  Bradbury, and really all the most significant players at the time–all the people who had real influence and power in the field, the grand masters, the established elite (the wild and wacky up-and-comers like Philip K. Dick and Robert Silverberg are spared his withering gaze–and indeed, they were a big part of the next wave, that would at least partly invalidate Westlake’s critiques).

But not The Dean.  Quite possibly the most influential and enduringly popular SF author of all.  How can you write anything about science fiction in this period without mentioning Heinlein?   Well, that could be respect–maybe Heinlein meant a bit more to Westlake than the others.   Maybe he didn’t want to smash that particular idol.

But for all his remarkable achievements, doesn’t Heinlein embody the failings of science fiction as literature that so aggravated Westlake better than anyone else ever did?   His cardboard characterizations, his tendency to pontificate, his unfathomable narcissism (all his heroes are folksy idealized self-images–as bad as Campbell in this regard, if not worse).  And let us not forget his racism, which somehow got worse when he tried to address it, as in Farnham’s Freehold.

True, he was able to sell just about anything he wrote (he legendarily sold the very first story he ever submitted for publication–as Isaac Asimov once reminded aspiring writers discouraged by rejection notices, “He was Bob Heinlein.  You are only you.”).   He was not, like Asimov and Clark and Bradbury, spending more time writing other things besides science fiction–and he was just about to become more popular than ever, following the publication of Starship Troopers and Stranger in a Strange Land, each appealing strongly to opposite ends of the political spectrum, as they still do today.   Maybe Westlake thought mentioning him would weaken his argument that SF was not a commercially viable field for writers, that even the established masters were abandoning.   But somehow, I just don’t think that’s it.   He could have just said Heinlein was the exception that proved the rule.  So what else could it be?

One of Westlake’s earliest published stories saw print in Universe, in 1954 (so written not long after he turned twenty, right around the time he was in the Air Force)–entitled Or Give Me Death, it’s a prime example of how often science fiction veered over into pure fantasy, even in the heyday of the ‘hard’ stuff.  Westlake made fun of this kind of story in his polemic, saying that Ray Bradbury and all the ‘little Bradburys’ (Richard Matheson and Charles Beaumont) were writing ‘bad bigtime fantasy for television and Playboy’–for The Twilight Zone audience he means–and I’d bet good money he gave himself a swift savage psychic kick in the pants when it came out later how horribly ill Beaumont was.   With a bit of fleshing out, this story of Westlake’s could easily have served as the basis for a Twilight Zone script.   Except it’s much too conservative for Rod Serling’s tastes.

The story is about a doctor coming into a newspaper editor’s office with a whopper of a tall tale to tell–Patrick Henry, perhaps the most famous ‘Founding Father’ of the U.S. who never became President and was not Benjamin Franklin, had come to him for treatment–still alive, in the 1950’s.  He explained his survival as the result of somebody up there having a twisted sense of humor, taking his “Give me liberty or give me death!” speech literally.  As long as there is liberty, there is no death for Patrick Henry.

But when the doctor met him, he’d been getting sicker and sicker, because liberty is being eroded–by things like Social Security.   Nothing wrong with government insurance, but it shouldn’t be mandatory.   Any time the state imposes something on the individual, Patrick Henry dies a little more.   Personal freedom is being chipped away, a piece at a time, by liberal do-gooders, who Henry perceives as “Tories” (yeah, it does sound familiar, doesn’t it?).

The doctor finishes his ripping yarn by saying that Patrick Henry just died.   Which means liberty itself is dead.   The editor says this is nonsense, freedom of the press is guaranteed in the Constitution, and he’ll publish any damn story he wants–and right on cue, in come the men in suits to shut him down, end of story.

Basically it’s a long involved joke with a not very subtle twist ending–you can recognize the outlines of Westlake’s later comic stylings in it–there was never a time when he couldn’t write kvetchy.   Patrick Henry says stuff like “I can back up my statements with diseases.”  It’s surprisingly well-written–but as a story, it stinks.  It’s all one idea, and not a very original one at that–a lot of people were saying this back then.  Ayn Rand was getting famous doing this same shtik, only taking it seriously.  Of course, Ayn Rand ended up on Social Security and Medicare, which allowed her some measure of dignity and independence in her declining years, but why ruin a good argument with facts?

Now we should bear in mind, reading Westlake’s early science fiction and mystery, that he was intentionally writing to the market–reading what genre magazines were publishing, and aping the conventions he saw–so part of this is him identifying a streak of libertarianism in science fiction, and appealing to it–he thought the editor would buy it, and he was right.

But I think it’s also true that Westlake had a streak of libertarianism–if not downright anarchy–in his nature.   He reflexively resented and feared all forms of authority, particularly the kind that can arrest and interrogate you, as had happened to him a short time before he wrote this story.   His heroes are rebels against the established order in one way or another–sometimes by choice, sometimes by accident, sometimes by nature (like Parker)–but they are never well-oiled cogs in a machine.  They resist–they get out of step–they go their own way.   Or if they don’t, things turn out very badly for them.

Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.  Says the guy who managed to avoid having a job with a boss for most of his adult life.   But of course, that’s what made him angriest about science fiction–that it couldn’t support him–so many of its practitioners had to take day jobs.   Frederick Pohl worked in advertising–he and Cyril Kornbluth turned that experience into The Space Merchants.  I’ve got a copy somewhere.  Fact is, Pohl distrusted authority as well.   It’s something that unites many who wrote science fiction–but in most cases, I wouldn’t call it a dislike of authority in general–rather a desire to be in authority–to reshape the world in their own idealized self-images–or, if you’re going the dystopian route, to imagine your own worst-case scenario, and give it flesh.   Oh Brave New World!

Heinlein was a prime example of this, but also a confusing one.   He had been very liberal in his early days as a writer–but after his second wife died, he married a third and final wife (now that does sound familiar), and it’s generally believed that she pulled him well to the right in his thinking (though not with regards to sexual morality, one area in which Heinlein would never conform to anyone’s expectations).   Only a few years after Westlake’s Patrick Henry story came out, Heinlein founded a small Patrick Henry League–and called on Americans who felt as he did to found more chapters across the country.   This was in response to groups pushing for nuclear disarmament, which Heinlein vehemently opposed.   So again, taking “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death!” a mite too literally.

Westlake would have known all about this–what was his reaction?   What did he think of Heinlein?   There’s no way in hell he hadn’t read most or all of Heinlein’s work, discussed it with peers, debated Heinlein’s controversial views.   His politics, such as they were, were also a mix of liberal and conservative and libertarian ideas–but he was a lot warier of trying to pontificate about them.   He understood the pitfalls, I think, far better than Heinlein did.  Politics can become a trap for a writer–he ends up trying to make people fit the ideas, instead of the other way around.   Actually, that’s a trap for all of us.  And we keep blundering back into it, left and right.

I have the cover for an edition of Heinlein’s story Coventry up top because I think Westlake used it as the model for Anarchaos.   And I think that’s why he didn’t mention Heinlein–he freely confessed in his polemic that he’d written to the specific tastes of editors like Campbell and Pohl, but had stoutly defended himself from the charge of copying them, or their styles.

But in this case, he’d written part of a novel, the nucleus of which was somebody else’s novel (novella, really), and that, I believe, is why he refrained from attacking The Dean–not so much out of respect, because a polemic is not respectful–but out of a sense of decency–and discretion.   He was taking a far more successful writer’s ideas and turning them inside-out and upside-down, without so much as a by-your-leave–and acknowledging his source would have been risky.  You never know what will make a fellow writer sue you for plagiarism.   Of course, this means he probably did still think on some level he was going to finish and publish that book.

Coventry is part of the Revolt in 2100 collection of stories, which fits into Heinlein’s Future History continuity, but it stands very well by itself.   It was originally published in John W. Campbell’s Astounding Science Fiction, in 1940–Heinlein’s liberal period–then expanded and republished in book form in 1953–early in his conservative period, and not long before Westlake published that Patrick Henry story. Wikipedia has an admirable short synopsis here.   If you like, you can read the entire story as a PDF.   I got my copy of Revolt in 2100 off a table full of used books on 231st St. in The Bronx, just a few years back.

In the introduction to my edition, Henry Kuttner calls Heinlein a ‘romantic idealist’, says that what makes Heinlein a great writer is his understanding of people, and the fact that they are pretty much the same wherever (or whenever) you go.   He says you can’t be a good writer without this quality–but Westlake was saying in his polemic that science fiction writers, even the good ones, frequently did not show this quality enough.   Their characters were not that well drawn, and were treated more or less as incidental to the story–one thing he particularly hated was the way the protagonist in a story like Coventry (which of course he did not specifically mention) would end up not making much difference to the outcome.

Heinlein and Asimov in particular liked to write stories about social trends, which the main characters would be witness to, but not seriously impact in any way.   I assume they’d defend this by saying this is how history really works–the individual, with the exception of a few Great Men of Vision (Valentine Smith, Hari Seldon) can’t make much impact on history–true enough, but Westlake would say that he or she can still make an impact on his or her own personal story, which is what the writer should be most concerned with.

Tolstoy writes about people caught up in the turmoils of history, making no great individual impact on it, but he still writes as if every decision they make has profound and eternal consequences, because it’s all our actions combined that make history–not just the great men.    And because each human being is of consequence–each of us is a universe unto itself–an identity in the making–or unmaking.  And this is something science fiction too often ignored, with its stock characters, and its grand tableaus.

Coventry is aspiring to be more than this, and not quite succeeding.   Its protagonist is in a process of self-discovery, but a rather shallow and not terribly moving one.   He has a lesson to learn about his proper place in society–he starts out as a not-so-rugged individualist, who doesn’t understand that everything he values is the result of the collective efforts of many who came before–the kind of guy who’d read Ayn Rand and take it seriously–and ends up  contemplating joining the secret police patrolling Coventry, to make sure things don’t get too out of hand there.

He isn’t even allowed to be the hero of his own story.   Nothing he does makes any difference to the outcome–the only thing that’s changed at the end is his perspective–he’s now willing to be an organization man, a cog in a machine–and how do you think the romantic idealist that was Donald Westlake (and even more so, Richard Stark) felt about that?   It’s a fascinating story, and a deeply unsatisfying one.   I personally approve of its message–that individuals need to learn the value of social conventions, even when rebelling against them–but to me, it shows the limitations of Heinlein’s approach to storytelling.   People go to him for ideas–not for people.   His characters are more interesting than John W. Campbell’s ‘Psupermen’, but that’s not saying much.

King Lear was once described as “A magnificent soul trapped in a puerile intellect”–I’d argue Heinlein was the obverse of this.  So much intelligence, so little understanding.  That’s why ultimately, I turned away from him, looking for deeper expressions of the ideas and stories he helped pioneer, and finding them–in Philip K. Dick, James Tiptree Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon), Octavia Butler, many others.  Science Fiction can and does create vital three-dimensional characters whose personal choices matter, even as they struggle in the context of a much larger picture they can only incrementally change, for better or worse.

But maybe I read more crime fiction now, because like Westlake, I’m looking for a smaller story–in which the outlines of the greater stories can still be perceived.  And in Anarchaos, somehow those two worlds–science fiction and crime fiction–come together more perfectly than anywhere else.  And only Donald Westlake could have done that.  And I’ll talk about how he did it in Part 2.   After writing almost 5,000 words of a book review and barely even mentioning the book.   Let us all collectively roll our eyes, and I’ll see you next week.

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