Tag Archives: libertarianism

Review: Anarchaos, Part 2

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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, that 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, accepted whatever pittance Ace Books paid him, said little about it 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 much of his SF output (you can guess my generation by my refusal to use the hated ‘SciFi’), I am forced to concur. 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; 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 Clarke 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.

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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