To give Piers Anthony some credit, I’m sure he’s written something good, given he’s been writing continuously for about 60 years now; you know the thing about stopped clocks. With that said I can’t bring myself to read a great deal of Anthony. The last time (actually it was also the first time) I had read Anthony was his 1972 short story “In the Barn,” which was a few years ago and which put me off from reading more Anthony for that span of time. I hear Macroscope is supposed to be good…
Part 2 was published in the August 1968 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. I can’t tell if it’s in-print or not, but used paperback copies are easy to find. For the morbidly curious, the whole trilogy (all three novels being mercifully short) can be found easily as an omnibus. Why someone would want this is beyond me.
As you know I didn’t like Part 1, but I’ll admit Part 2 is an improvement—partly because it’s much shorter. Not much happens and there’s a lot for me to talk about, so this review will be just as succinct. Last time on Dragon Ball Z we had Sol enter the battle circle in an effort to recruit Bog, a big dumb brute who has impressive stamina and is real mean with the club. The match ends in a draw and Bog chooses to not join Sol’s tribe; he simply likes to fight people in the circle for the fun of it. Bog is dumber than a bag of hammers but he’s still the most relatable character in the novel. Sos will run into Bog much later (in the installment) after a time-skip and it’ll be the most enjoyable sequence in Part 2. Did I say “enjoyable”…?
Why yes, Part 2 is, surprisingly, not constant pain and suffering; this is due largely to the absence of Sola, who does not reappear until towards the end (regrettably but inevitably) of this installment. Indeed women are mostly absent from the narrative at this point, which is great because Anthony is about as good at writing women as John F. Kennedy was at staying faithful to his wife. The trio that defined Part 1 has dispersed, with Sos reaching the end of his one-year “contract” with Sol and splitting off from the tribe. To do what? Not really sure. He comes to a crazy-run hospital and has a chat with one Dr. Jones, who by all appearances is a normal modern-day doctor. We find out that Sol was an orphan and that he is in fact a eunuch, not that these fact change anything profoundly. It’s here that Sos also finally gets the bright idea to take on a new weapon, and you can guess what it is.
Sos, previously weaponless and bitchless, decides to adopt the rope as his new weapon; it’s not conventional but it functions similarly to the whip, which Dr. Jones points out as a viable offensive tool. “That day Sos gained a weapon—but it was five months before he felt proficient enough with it to undertake the trail again.” That’s right, we get another time-skip! The pacing in this installment is a little too fast if anything, to the point where I struggle to get invested in what’s happening; there’s so little time to get attached to characters and action. The speed at which Anthony pushes the plot forward reminds me, as someone who’s written fanfiction (don’t ask for what) in his time, of competent but underwritten adventure fanfiction you’d find on AO3. The wish-fulfillment element doesn’t help.
Dr. Jones brings up something I had thought of before but which the world of the novel seemingly did not have an answer for, which is the fact that even in the sword family there are many distinct types of sword that require different technique and levels of physicality. Someone who kicks ass with a broadsword may not be so effective with a rapier. Thus Sos uses this loophole to adopt such a niche tool as the rope for his new weapon. What if someone were to use a shield as their weapon of choice? Random thought. The shield is known mainly for defense but it could also serve as a gnarly weapon in a pinch, especially depending on the materials of the shield. I wanna be more interested in the mechanics of the novel’s world-building than I actually am, saying this as a bit of a Dark Souls fan. I’m just saying if combat is the focal point of your story, whether it be literature or a video game, you should put more thought and energy into making that compelling.
There Be Spoilers Here
Eventually Sos runs into Bog again and they have their own match, mainly to test Sos’s proficiency with his set of rope; it’s another draw! Then Bog watches cartoons on a TV set; this is the best part of the installment. Then we’re finally reunited with Sol and Sola… sort of. Sola had gotten pregnant with Sos’s kid at the end of Part 1, and well, it’s been over a year since that happened. It’s a baby girl and her name is Soli. Cute. One problem: even though Sol is perfectly fin with Sos taking Sola as his wife (he’s actually quite happy to get cucked like that), he wants to keep Soli. Admirable that Sol wants to raise a child as a single parents, and it’s not even technically his, but the question is: who does Soli belong to, her mom or her “legal” dad? I feel like this whole situation would be solved with polygamy, what with Sos and Sol respecting each other a great deal and certainly the three of them would agree to share. But oh well, we need drama…
What’s to become of the baby? Will Sos and Sol’s friendship end over this dilemma? Should we care? Stay tuned to find out!
Piers Anthony is a totally uncontroversial and universally beloved author whose genre fiction, often aimed at a younger audience, has inspired generations of readers with wholesome Christian values. Whereas some fantasy authors are content to rely on gore and fanservice to boost sales, Anthony, in the more than half-century that he’s been active, would surely never stoop so low as to pander to a horny and passively misogynistic base of teen boys with boobs as the carrot at the end of the stick!
I cannot keep doing this.
Look, I know that for people of a certain age (i.e., people old enough to have bought Titanic on VHS), Anthony may or may not have been a part of their formative years as young impressionable readers—ya know, when they were not old enough to have acquired taste yet. With that said I have to wonder how promising a guy can be whose books have such lovely titles as Roc and a Hard Place (very funny, Piers) and The Color of Her Panties (I feel dirty just for typing this one). And then there’s the one ecounter I had with Anthony prior to all this, which was “In the Barn,” his story for Again, Dangerous Visions, one of the most disgusting pieces of writing I’ve ever come across. I’ve read Blood Meridian and American Psycho, and I will gladly take those (which are, after all, pretty great novels) over “In the Barn.” When something is compared to “In the Barn” it should serve as your cue to run in the opposite direction. Not a great first impression.
Sos the Rope was Anthony’s second novel, and by this point he was a Hugo finalist for his first novel, Chthon, which everyone I know loathes; well somebody must’ve liked it. I try to be the optimist, but assuming the quality doesn’t change then Sos the Rope looks to be the first bad serial I’ve covered for this site, which I get was inevitable; there are more bad serials than good. Oh, but how bad can it be? It’s not as bad as “In the Barn,” but…
Part 1 was published in the July 1968 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. I advise against downloading this one as for some reason the PDF compression messes up this particular issue pretty badly; so I went and used the print copy I already had! Although, as if to warn me of what I was in for, the front cover nearly completely tore off and had to be taped together. There is a somewhat recent paperback edition from Planet Stories (not the magazine), but if you’re feeling brave and wanna read the whole Battle Circle trilogy, you can! There’s an omnibus containing all three novels (which are mercifully short) and while out of print it can be found used for pretty cheap. If you daaaaare.
We start with the most confusing of dynamics, in which two men have the same name—Sol—and fight over who gets to keep the name. We have Sol the sword and Sol of all weapons, with the latter proving to be the more skilled warrior and robbing the first Sol of his name and weapon. Let’s retrace our steps a bit. In this far future, adult males in this part of the world base their livelihoods on their ability to beat others in what are called battle circles, “heart of the world’s culture.” The rules are simple: whoever gets thrown outside the circle loses. There are many reasons for these fights and indeed they mirror somewhat the duels noblemen would have in olden times, although from what I can gather fights in the battle circle tend to not be fatal. A man has his name, which apparently he can change in much the way we change shoes (put a pin in this one), and his weapon of choice, which becomes part of his name. Thus, if your weapon is the sword (never mind if it’s a short sword, long sword, etc.), your name might be Sol the sword; or in the case of the Sol who wins the fight at the story’s opening, you’re a jack of all trades who goes by Sol of all weapons.
I have too many questions, but we’ll get to some of those.
Sol, because he’s such a nice guy, not only gives the former Sol a new name but also recruits him to be his right-hand man, despite being weaponless temporarily. Sol wants to build an empire, recruiting dozens of men over a span of months to form a tribe that in time will hopefully form a new civilization; the criterion for recruits is trial by combat. The former Sol is now Sos, and the two men are quickly joined by a woman residing at the hostel they fought at, who “marries” Sol and takes on his status as well as the name of Sola, the “a” at the end denoting her as Sol’s property. There isn’t even a ceremony for a marriage; only a bracelet is required, and it can be removed presumably with the husband’s consent at any time.
Before I go on a rant about how marriage works and how women are treated in the world of the novel, I do wanna give Anthony a point for bending genres here a bit—in the spirit of Jack Vance of all people. Reading the opening stretch, you may think that Sos the Rope is a fantasy novel not too removed from the likes of Vance and Robert E. Howard, but like Vance at times it soon reveals itself to be science fiction masquerading as fantasy, the setting being a post-apocalyptic America a good century after some vague nuclear holocaust. Mankind has devolved back to the stone age, with the only spots of civilization (as far as we know) being hostels that are scattered throughout the land and which are run by “the crazies,” people who somehow are able to remember (probably by way of an oral or written tradition) what the beforetimes were like; but these people keep themselves apart from the nomads who roam the landscape alone or in small groups. The nomads themselves are good survivors but not much skilled otherwise.
Anyway, Sola iss clearly hitched to Sol for his status as future emperor and not because she magically thinks he’s a nice guy; the two do not even seem to like each other much as people, never mind as partners. Sos is frustrated by this, in part because he’s very obviously horny over Sola but is unable to bed her because to bed another man’s wife would be dishonorable. “Could sex mean so much?” A funny question! Actually I have a few questions of my own, such as: If all it takes to change partners is a changing of bracelets then how come Sos doesn’t ask Sol if they could switch up every now and again? It’s not like there’s a signed contract for the marriage. Come to think of it, given the tribal nature of so much of humanity, how come there’s no plural marriage? We have something of a love triangle here (really a lust triangle, since no reasonable person can suppose any of the three parties are in love with each other) whose tension could be resolved by Sos and Sol agreeing to share Sola—with her consent, of course. Why does Sola agree to marry Sol now and not much later when he has proven himself as a leader more? I assume this is so that she doesn’t look like even more of an opportunist than she already does, which still does not help much.
A few more questions not strictly related to the interpersonal conflict of the novel but which I think are worth asking, such as: So women, when hitched, take the names of their husbands and simply add a letter to the end. What if there was same-sex marriage? What if two men got married? Would their names change? There seems to be a pattern that all the adult males have monosyllables for names. What if two women got married? This one is doubly vexing because as far as I can make out, women literally do not have names in the world of the novel if they’re not hitched to some guy. How does that work? How would anything in the legal realm get done here? How would there be a transference of property without names or even agreement in writing? Is there such a thing as property aside from what people are able to carry on their backs? The answer to that last one is probably “no.” No wonder civilization is in ruins, without the concept of property outside the micro scale (for the socialists in the crowd who are wondering, there does not seem to be an overarching government that would allocate land) and with the vast majority of the populace being illiterate.
The misogynistic implications—no, never mind, I wouldn’t even say implications—simply the misogyny deeply embedded in the novel is impossible for me to get around, even as someone who tends to be apologetic with misogynistic writing in old SFF. I know sexism is a problem that has to be called out as such, but I also understand that people from different places and times are often writing under different personal and economic circumstances than what someone reading in [CURRENT YEAR] would have personal context for. The rampant woman-hating in Anthony’s novel is not something I can excuse because not only does it badly skew our understanding of one of the main characters but it also contributes to some incredibly sloppy worldbuilding, such that the novel is built on a shaky foundation of misogyny. Sola is the most rounded character of the trio, even more than Sos (ya know, the protagonist), but she also acts as the malicious temptress who repeatedly and not so subtly tries coaxing Sos into doing something that he’ll most likely regret.
A pet peeve I have with modern reviewers is when they seem to think that a female character being physically active in a narrative must mean then that said female character is well-written. With all due respect to these people, because some of them really are astute critics, this is a lousy line of thinking when it comes to character writing. Sola lacks even a hint of interior life; her goals are all external in that they’re physical, which are a) to one day rule an empire as Sol’s wife/property, and b) to get her pussy licked. Sadly (for both Sola and the reader) these two goals are mutually exclusive, for a reason I have the misfortune of knowing. It’s time to get into spoilers, but I do wanna make one more criticism that may not be as much of a deal-breaker for some people: the action is somewhat boring. I don’t know what Anthony’s status as a writer of action scenes is, but whenever there’s a battle circle fight (and there are a few in the back end of Part 1), my eyes glaze over. Our Heroes™ also have run-ins with creatures of the wasteland such as killer shrews (yeah) and poisonous white moths that are little better to read about. Still better than some of the dialogue, which threatened to kill me.
Okay, enough fucking around, let’s get to spoilers.
There Be Spoilers Here
Particularly I wanna talk about a section in the middle when Sol is out of commission, having been bitten by one of the aforementioned white moths and with Sos having to carry him. It’s here, when the trio are in the badlands (later to serve as a training ground for men in Sol’s tribe), that the sexual tension between Sos and Sola reaches painful levels. A question that had been simmering in our minds (both mine and Sos’s) is why Sola and Sol agree to stay together despite being like oil and water; at first Sos thinks it’s that they’re dynamite in the sack, but it turns out there would not even be a fizzle in their bed. Undressing an unconscious Sol at one point, Sos and Sola discover to their horror that something is wrong with Sol’s junk. “Sol would never be a father. No wonder he sought success in his own lifetime. There would be no sons to follow him.” There’s the implication that Sol is a eunich, although I like to think his cock just looks really funny. In a show of mercy Anthony refrains from describing Sol’s deformity in detail; he also spares us of having to read the inevitable sex scene between Sos and Sola (the latter all but blackmailing the former into it), although that probably has more to do with editorial precaution than Anthony’s own.
For a time Sos is basically the one running the show, and after the trio’s encounter with the shrews (but why shrews) they start recruiting men deemed able enough to join the tribe. Like I said, trial by combat. Sos is intelligent and physically attractive enough to catch the eye of several women (who, being unmarried, are nameless), but turns them down because he is still weaponless; he also has his eyes set on Sola still, in spite of his better judgment. “Possession of a woman was the other half of manhood,” (ech) and clearly Sos’s lack of a weapon would be a metaphor for his lack of manhood (as in his dick). I do appreciate the irony of Sos being quite capable as both a fighter and lover despite being weaponless while Sol, the warrior who can do well with any weapon, is impotent; it’s a shame that this is buried under a shit-colored pile of male chauvinism and treating women as things to be owned. Why Sos has not started training with a new weapon I don’t know. We know that Sos will at some point apparently take on rope (huh) as his new weapon of choice, going by the novel’s title. I assume we’ll get more answers in the next installment, but something tells me thosse answered will be unsatisfying, not to mention there are simply too many holes in the worldbuilding for the ship to not sink.
James White was one of the more successful British SF authors who did not (as far as I can tell) partake in New Wave antics in the ’60s. His loose Sector General series started in the ’50s and remained steadfast as a conventionally written setting for hospital dramas IN SPAAAAAAAACE, and his novel that I’ve reviewed, All Judgment Fled, is, excepting a couple passages (there’s a bit toward the end of Part 3 that references LSD), a pretty vanilla affair—which is not to say it’s boring. On the contrary, White is clearly a writer who considers the logical implications of his narratives, which naturally then snowball into ethical implications; he also has a sarcastic whit which at no point rang as irritating to mine ears. While my feelings on the novel are a bit mixed I do look forward to future adventures with White, especially since he’s one of those prolific magazine contributors and therefore someone (like Poul Anderson and Jack Vance) I fall back on for emergencies.
Part 3 was published in the February 1968 issue of If, which is on the Archive. I’m not usually a fan of If‘s cover art, but the Bodé covers (we got too few of them, sadly) are very well done and eye-catching, including this one. As for book publication we only have a few editions to work with, for a novel that’s over half a century old, but you can find used copies cheap.
Before I get into the installment itself, I wanna talk a bit about what the past week has been like for me. If you’re reading this it means it’s May 22nd and by extention this post is two days late. I set deadlines for myself with these but I found out the hard way that there was just no doing this post on-time. I didn’t even finish reading Part 3 until the night of the 21st. Last week round this time I guested on a certain podcast, which went well and which you can expect to see at the beginning of June, probably back-to-back with my review forecast; that was not the hard part. No, the irony is that going on vacation can make it very hard to do things you normally do in your spare time. I had requested time off work and flew to Chicago (from Newark) on Friday, and only got back Monday. I was there to visit a couple friends I very rarely get the chance to hang out with in person; as such, combined with the brief time window I’d given myself, we crunched a week’s worth of fun times into three days. It was a good time, needless to say, but I also got precious little time to work on this site, hence the delay.
Now that I’ve said that, it’s time to finish this damn serial.
Last time we were with the boys, the mission had gone to hell. Morrison got killed by a Type Two, a tentacled creature with a giant horn and without any capacity to reason with the explorers. As violence has broken out on the Ship, a mysterious object orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, the higher-ups at Prometheus Control have been chastising McCullough (the audience surrogate) and company for their lack of professionalism. The Twos are hostile to the point of seeing the humans as food, which results in much of Part 3 being an all-out skirmish between the explorers and a horde of Twos, making for an extended action sequence that admittedly sort of struggled to hold my interest. A weakness of mine as a reader is that my eyes tend to glaze over when it comes to action, whith it being too easy for me to lose track of who’s dealing with what and who’s still alive and who has bitten the big bazooka. The action in Part 3 is especially confusing, partly (I suspect) deliberately and also because White refuses to give us a clear picture of the ship’s interior. The illustrations do a lot of leg work.
The most egregious example of White’s confusing laying out of action happens at the very beginning, wherein we’re told via narration that Drew has died—somehow. I wondered if I had missed something at the end of the previous installment, made worse because the recap section makes no mention of it—but no, Drew is not dead, he’s actually fine. The logic seems to be that in the heat of battle McCullough thinks Drew is dead, but this turns out to be a false alarm; the third-person narration sharing McCullough’s confusion is a hard pill to swallow, however. A similar case happens toward the end when (not getting into specifics here, because spoilers) a character has apparently died and the narration does not tell us this explicitly (unless I missed something, which is possible) until after the fact. Did he die offscreen? What happened? I’m getting ahead of myself.
We’ve discovered by now that the Ship is, or was, operated in all likelihood by a very small crew, and that the Twos wandering about looking for scraps are either non-sentient or driven (by something) to insanity. We never get a clear answer as to the nature of the Twos, but we do know that they’re an active threat to the explorers. Drew’s maddened call for extermination of the Twos (which is supposed to inform us that the explorers have basically reached rock bottom) does not come off as too unreasonable. Regardless, the mission has degenerated to such an extent that Prometheus Control and the explorers are all but no longer on speaking terms—a relationship that is about to get even rockier, if you can believe it.
McCullough sums it up nicely:
He realized suddenly that although he was terribly afraid for his own immediate safety he was furiously angry about the things they had done and were doing on the Ship. From the very beginning they had no control of the situation. It had been a stupid if well-intentioned muddle. And while they had changed their minds several times when new data became available they had not really used their brains. They had been panicked into things. They had not allowed themselves time to think. And when threatened with danger they thought only of survival.
The higher-ups at one point bring in a woman on the speaker to calm the men and reassure them with an incoming supply drop, but this doesn’t work too well. Keep in mind that said woman, whose name we never learn and who is called “Tokyo Rose” at one point (I get the reference, but it’s also a cute bit of symbolism with how the woman’s reassuring voice functions as and is acknowledged as basically propaganda), is the only female character in the novel; and she’s not really a character at that. From here on it’s all a war of nerves, of the explorers fighting off Twos while trying not to have total mental breakdowns. We do get some relief in the form of a new alien species with the Threes, which are like a cross between a snake and a teddy bear; I know that sounds like a weird combination. The Threes appear to be friendly, but are still not the intelligent alien(s) running the Ship that the explorers are looking for. This is the longest installment, so be prepared for a big third-act blowout and the summit of the conflict.
All Judgment Fled is technically a Big Dumb Object™ story, but that’s desceptive given how close-quarters the novel’s scale is. From start to finish we’re stuck with two small ships from the Prometheus Project and the Ship, which while nearly half a mile long is not spacious like the interior of, say, Rama. Comparisons will inevitably be drawn between White’s novel and Arthur C. Clarke’s undying classic, which depending on your worldview may or may not be favorable. If you’re looking for gosh-wow moments that provoke your inner child (what Rendezvous with Rama does in spades) then you’ll have no such luck with White’s novel. The setting is cramped, paranoid, claustrophobic, verging on inner space rather than outer with how much we’re stuck with the flawed humanity of the characters, but this is still a hard-headed old-school SF tale at the end of the day. McCullough, our lead, never becomes fully human in that his conscience never wanders from the physical problem at hand for long, but the novel still deals with the ethical equations of first contact more than some of its ilk.
It’s respectable is what I’m saying, if also cagey.
There Be Spoilers Here
After losing Drew (for real this time) and Berryman we finally get to have a “chat” with the alien that’s really running the Ship, and it looks—interesting. Another thing I gotta give White credit for is that we do not get any humanoid aliens here, with the different types vaguely resembling Earth animals but having nothing that could be mistaken for human. (I bring this up just so we can rest easy that none of the explorers go chasing lustily after some blue-skinned space babe.) The intelligent—and benevolent, wow how lucky—alien running the Ship is itself nightmarish in appearance to our battered explorers, “a great, fat, caterpillar, an LSD nightmare with too many eyes and mouths in all the wrong places.” Still the two species are able to communicate through visuals, since obviously verbal communication will do nothing, and ultimately we get a sort of cultural exchange.
Since half the human crew is dead there’s now few enough people to accommodate the reduced number of space suits, along with one of the P-ships no longer working. Which is all rather… convenient? If also morbid. I don’t totally buy the happy ending here, but then maybe White is not the kind of writer to totally fuck his characters over. J. G. Ballard would fuck shit up with this premise, which makes me wonder what this novel would’ve been like had it been a more ruthless deconstruction of first contact narratives—a premise that’s started here but not completely fulfilled.
A Step Farther Out
I know a couple people who prefer this over Rendezvous with Rama, and I can see the argument for it even though I ultimately have to disagree, because in some ways All Judgment Fled is the anti-Rama. Whereas the explorers in Clarker’s novel are always up against some tangible external problem that can be solved fine with bruce force or swiftness of speed, the conflict in White’s novel comes largely from the fact that the people heading the Prometheus Project failed to consider the possibility of interacting with alien lifeforms, not to mention explorers who might not be the most rational people; yet All Judgment Fled also feels incomplete somehow, whereas Rama is undoubtedly the complete package. This is a short novel, coming in at no more than 55,000 words, and truth be told it could’ve been 5,000 words longer, much of that devoted to scenery and character moments. The characters are not the flattest, but it can be easy to confuse some of them; half of them lack clearly defined roles but also nuance. White also has this thing for not describing places in any great detail, which made the action-heavy back end of the novel read as too abstract for my tastes.
James White was most popular in his time for the Sector General series, about a giant hospital station in space where conflicts comes not from epic space battles but doctors dealing with bizarre alien biology. White wanted to become a doctor but financial concerns at the time prevented this, although frankly I would’ve just assumed he was a doctor, going by what I’ve read of All Judgment Fled so far. I’m very curious about exploring White more, given his fascination with non-violent causes for conflict, and how violence isn’t treated as a solution but a catalyst for bigger problems.
Part 2 was published in the January 1968 issue of If, which is on the Archive. Bad news is All Judgment Fled has not been given many paperback editions; good news is the few editions we have go for cheap used.
Now that we’re on the Ship, it’s time to do some exploring! The men of P-One (Drew, Morrison, and Hollis) and P-Two (McCullough, Walters, and Berryman) are officially stuck together, with the two small ships being now conjoined near the Ship to make moving between the two easy. Last time we hung out with the boys, Walters narrowly survived an encounter with one of the starfish aliens (now called a Type Two), and his suit is now basically unusable. This is a bit of a problem. For the men the suits are like a second layer of skin that, if removed, would greatly increase the risk of death, even though they don’t need the suits in the Prometheus ships; on the Ship it’s a different story. And apparently the aliens are hostile!
On top of all this, the men also have to deal with an increasingly cranky Prometheus Command, the top brass back home who are relaying the men’s actions back to Earth, with millions people (at least a billion, actually) tuning their radios to hear about what happens next. There’s a bit of meta hijinks going on here since McCullough is made all too vividly aware that the men’s sense of privacy has been eroded, that nearly their every move and word is being judged by a vast unseen audience—although unbeknownst to the characters that audience also encompasses readers. We’re given a better idea as to the relationship between the explorers and the rest of mankind, with this lop-sided arrangement that’s probably not good for the explorers’ mental health. Hollis was already on the verge of a breakdown in Part 1, but that turns out to be the least of the men’s problems.
Then there’s the question of the aliens’ intelligence. Frankly there’s no way to be sure. Somebody must’ve been intelligent enough to have built the ship, but the aliens that are actually onboard are unlikely to have been the culprits. The Type Two, for instance, is almost certainly non-sentient, but even then there’s no guarantee about that. Maybe up to now there’s just been failure to communicate. There are also at least two types of alien (as in, aliens that cannot be of the same species) that are on the Ship, and likely there’s a third species waiting for Our Heroes™ down the road. Still, despite the close encounters with aliens, the question as to who built the Ship remains perfectly unanswered—and yet conceivably it has to be something of at least the same intelligence as humans, and more likely of greater intelligence. White understands that in the highly unlikely event of first contact the aliens in question would be akin to angels—or an amoeba.
Their idea was simply that any piece of machinery beyond a certain degree of complexity—from a car or light airplane up to and including spaceships half a mile long—required an enormous amount of prior design work, planning and tooling long before the first simple parts and sub-assemblies became three-dimensional metal on someone’s workbench. The number of general assembly and detail drawings, material specification charts, wiring diagrams and so on for a vessel of this size must have been mind-staggering, and the purpose of all this paperwork was simply to instruct people of average intelligence in the manufacture and fitting together the parts of this gigantic three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.
Speaking of first contact, Murray Leinster doesn’t quite get namedropped, but he gets the next best thing: a not very subtle hint directed his way. At one point McCullough, evidently a science fiction fan, thinks about “the old-time author responsible for a story called First Contact.” We also get a reference to another classic Leinster story, “The Ethical Equations,” and both these stories are indeed very much relevant to the current situation. White’s fannish side comes to the surface here, but at the same time it makes sense for the explorers to have been made at least somewhat familiar with classic science fiction, since SF would be the only even remotely useful reference point for their mission. I could fault White for a couple things, but over and over I find his logical outlook admirable; he takes something that with most writers would get pushed under the rug with some handwavium and he guides it along to a logical conclusion. There are no easy answers.
Part 2 does suffer a bit from what we might call Middle Installment Syndrome, in which the middle entry of a trilogy has to contend with not having a beginning or a conclusion, but making do as a big gelatinous second act. Why do people remember The Two Towers less than Fellowship of the Ring and Return of the King? Well, what happens in The Two Towers? We’re introduced to Gollum properly, that’s gotta be worth something; and we get the Battle of Helm’s Deep, often the most cited action set piece in the trilogy—yet going by IMDB and Letterboxd scores people aren’t quite as fond of The Two Towers as its siblings. Middle Installment Syndrome. I’ve come to realize that this also applies to novel serials, although I probably wouldn’t feel the “gelatinous second act” thing as much if I was reading All Judgment Fled as a single unit. Still, it’s short enough to not drag much.
There Be Spoilers Here
Things really go to shit in the second half of Part 2. The explorers kill a Type Two in another encounter, which is more or less accidental but which starts a snowball of paranoia and calls for violence among the men. As I supposed should be expected with White, violence is treated as something to be prevented as much as possible, since it will not solve issues but instead cause a snowball effect of greater violence. Command is not happy with how things are turning out, since at the outset this was supposed to be a mission that would unite mankind, rather than cause people to splinter on, for example, the treatment of alien lifeforms. “But now that the meeting had degenerated into violence, had become literally a blow-by-blow affair, the idea had backfired.” This culminates in the first fatality among the explorers, with Morrison, one of the most experienced men on the team, getting brutally killed by a Type Two. Even though we don’t get to know any of these men (except for McCullough) too much as individuals, Morrison’s death still works as a point of no return for the venture.
For better or worse, the men can only move forward.
After Morrison’s body is tucked away, the men keep searching through the big corridors of the Ship, coming upon rooms of different kinds, although McCullough seems to be the only one keeping his eye on the prize at this point. Most disconcerting is a room that almost resembles something humans would use—like a bedroom or a drawing-room. “A lab animal would not require a furnished room. Which meant that there were intelligent extraterrestrials on the Ship.” Maybe the Type Twos aren’t sentient, but somebody here sure is. And just as it looks like the men are about to hit a big clue as to the aliens’ nature, the Ship has started moving—away from the Prometheus ships. The Ship, which hitherto had been orbiting freely, is now moving on its own again. Well gosh darn it!
A Step Farther Out
It’s enjoyable, but there’s also something missing about it that I can’t put my finger on. It could be that there are too many characters that can be thought of as “nondescript white guy,” with only a couple standing out. That can’t be it, though. The characters in Rendezvous with Rama are made of cardboard, but that doesn’t bother me. I think it may be that White, unlike Clarke, is not concerned with evoking a Sense of Wonder™, which no doubt contributes to Rama remaining popular after half a century. White obviously has different goals from Clarke, which so far he’s been meeting admirably; it’s just that if you’re expecting a first contact narrative that’ll leave you breathless you’ll be disappointed. White does, however, have a special talent for making me think about the situation these characters are in—about logistical problems that would naturally arise from such a situation, but also the deep moral quandary that would come about in the event of first contact with a spacefaring alien race. Looking forward to how White’s gonna end this!
James White was an Irish SF fan-turned-writer who was one of the many authors to have found his footing in the ’50s, and it was in that decade when he started his Sector General series—about a massive hospital in space that deals with many alien species. Rather than focus on hardboiled adventure narratives, White seemed to prefer to write about issues that naturally arise from psychology and biology; he wanted to practice medicine, but economic troubles apparently led him elsewhere. With this in mind I’m ashamed to say I’ve not read anything by White prior to today’s novel, All Judgment Fled, which is a one-off and which was serialized in If, as opposed to New Worlds, where the Sector General series was published. All Judgment Fled is a Big Dumb Object™ story, published in the midst of several famous BDO stories (notably Ringworld, and, more regrettably, The Wanderer), but White looks to add his own flavor to the basic premise.
Part 1 was published in the December 1967 issue of If, which is on the Archive. (You may notice that this issue has been mislabeled on the Archive as the May 1967 issue. Somebody fucked up.) Also be aware that If and Galaxy under Fred Pohl’s editorship well actually Galaxy also had this issue when H. L. Gold was in charge have some pretty sloppy copy-editing, which may distract from the experience. Sadly there aren’t many paperback editions either; the most recent edition, from Old Earth Books, predates 9/11. The good news is that used copies still go for cheap.
In the near future (a future which rather closely resembles the space race in the years following the moon landing), a mysterious vessel is spotted orbiting our sun between Mars and Jupiter, “shaped like a blunt topedo with a pattern of bulges encircling its mid-section and just under half a mile long.” The Ship (with a capital S) is a massive cylindrical object that is no doubt artificial, and which has not responded to any attempts to contact it. Thus we have the Prometheus Project, a first contact mission wherein two small ships, P-One and P-Two, are sent out to rendezvous with the Ship. (If this sounds a bit like Rendezvous with Rama, keep in mind that All Judgment Fled came first.) Six of the sharpest minds in the space program, three to each ship, are set to spend more than five months locked up in tight quarters on their way to the Ship, with McCullough, the doctor on P-Two, as the closest we get to a protagonist. Perhaps not coincidentally, all six of the men chosen are unmarried; survival is not guaranteed.
Aside from McCullough on P-Two we have Berryman and Walters; and on P-One we have Drew, Morrison, and Hollis. McCullough is the only one of the six to have sufficient medical training, and while the ships are always in communication with each other, they’re still a good distance apart as they voyage out to the Ship. Berryman and Walters are trained astronauts while McCullough is the outlier; meanwhile on P-One Hollis is the noobie while Drew and Morrison are the veterans. While it must’ve been tempting for command to hire all veteran spacers for the voyage, a more diverse team (in profession, though it must be said not in skin color or nationality) was probably for the best. Certain skills might be needed…
Instead of six of the world’s acknowledged scientific geniuses there had been chosen four experienced astronauts and two under training who were not even known in scientific circles and were respected only by friends. All that could be said for them was that they had a fairly good chance of surviving the trip.
Something about this novel that struck me is that you can tell that it was written when the space race about the reach its climax. The moon landing was still more than a year off, but Yuri Gagarin had left Earth’s orbit several years prior and it’s quite possible White wrote the novel immediately following the Apollo 1 tragedy. It was widely known by this point that being an astronaut was dangerous—that blood had already been spilled in the name of the US and Soviet Union outdoing each other. As such, despite the peppering of light sarcastic humor throughout (more on this in a bit), there’s still this persistent sense that Our Heroes™ could meet an unfortunate end at pretty much any moment. Of course, space is scary enough; the astronauts also have to deal with each other.
The boys are stuck with each other, in living quarters “which compared unfavorably with the most unenlightened penal institutions,” having to eat paste through tubes, having to wipe themselves down with alcohol periodically since they can’t take water baths, having no idea at all what they’re gonna do exactly when they arrive at their destination. When Hollis comes down with a skin condition and McCullough has to venture out to P-One to take care of him, there’s some worry—not just for Hollis’s body, but his mentality, which doesn’t look good either. McCullough doesn’t have to prod Hollis for long before the latter starts ranting about his co-workers. “A person could say an awful lot about themselves by the way they talked about someone else.” It’s clear to McCullough that Hollis is threatening to have a mental breakdown—that he’s having paranoid delusions about Drew and Morrison, whom he claims have snuck a “Dirty Annie,” a small nuclear weapon, into P-One. Even after Hollis is calmed down, it’s clear that this man’s instability will probably contribute to later problems.
Both the characters and the third-person narrator engage in some banter, which makes sense given the situation; few things deflate tension like humor. Actually while I have my reservations about the characters themselves, I don’t fault White for bordering the narrative with jokes—helped by White’s sense of humor (in my opinion) being often effective and unintrusive. While the BDO story had certainly not been done to death at this point (give it another decade), White’s deconstructing of the premise almost feels like commentary on the basic premise and how in reality, if we were to make contact with some alien vessel in our solar system, things would be much less glamorous than what Hollywood gives us. The lack of imput from the outside world, despite us being told about millions of eyes and ears keeping track of the voyage, only adds to the isolation and claustrophobia.
There Be Spoilers Here
So we finally get to the Ship, and we even meet some aliens, although these are far from little green men. The aliens are obviously intelligent enough to have built the Ship, but whether they’re capable of understanding human speech or even gestures is another question. “We know,” says McCullough at one point, “that they do not have fingers, and may have a two-digit pincer arrangement.” Turns out they have even less than that (or more, depending on how you look at it), with one alien looking like an actual starfish while another resembles a dumbbell. Between Hollis’s paranoia, Walters nearly dying from getting a tear in his spacesuit, and the aliens being totally unintelligible, Our Heroes™ have some work to do.
A Step Farther Out
I’m cautiously optimistic about this one. I occasionally find White’s attempts at dry humor chuckle-worthy, but I’m not sure if this is the norm for him or something unique to this novel. We’re also about a third into All Judgment Fled and the action has barely started; this is not the fastest of reads, despite being short overall. At the same time White is focusing on things that are not normally dwelled on in Big Dumb Object™ stories, namely the logistical and psychological cost of coming into contact with a BDO in the first place. McCullough and crew are not the most vividly drawn of characters, but their uneasy dynamic should be fruitful for future conflicts. Given the nature of the aliens this may also prove to be an unorthodox first contact narrative, since we’re not dealing with humanoids or even seemingly aliens capable of verbal speech. I’m already prepping to start Part 2.
Thomas M. Disch would’ve been no older than 26 when he wrote Camp Concentration, and yet he already had three novels under his belt, including the immensely bleak The Genocides. Like other New Wavers, Disch was edgy, transgressive, but also cultured, bringing a literary flair to the field that was previously the exception and not the rule. In terms of installments Camp Concentration is the longest serial covered on this site thus far, but going by actual word count it is certainly not the longest; indeed the book version is only about 180 pages, or I’d reckon round 50,000 words. A lot of that word count is spent on monologues, by the way. This is a very chatty novel that substitutes plot for character (kinda) and symbolism (oh yes), which may rub some people the wrong way. Disch is showing off here at least a little, but most of it I think is worth the trouble—most of it.
Part 4 was published in the October 1967 issue of New Worlds, which is not on the Archive but which can be found on Luminist, link to the New Worlds page here. Camp Concentration in book form can be found used easily, and if you want a fresh copy then the Vintage paperback is still in print.
Part 4 is the shortest installment, which means I won’t have as much to talk about—at least on paper. There’s about as much plot here as in the previous installment, which is not a compliment towards Part 3 I might add, but what’s more, Disch has one hell of an ending to give us; more on that later. To start things off, Louis has gone blind by this point: one of the inevitable symptoms of the super-syphilis (that’s what I’m calling it now) as we reach the end of the victim’s life. Shit’s not looking good for Our Anti-Hero™, and Louis is an anti-hero if anything; it’s not like he does anything heroic or has any grand scheme for escaping the prison. Indeed the novel’s ending depends on Louis being deliberately kept out of the loop by his fellow prisoners at Camp Archimedes, a true innocent who has no idea there’s been a secret plan to escape the prison this whole time.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Last time we heard that Dr. Busk had left the prison, or rather vanished into thin fucking air, and even at the end we still don’t know what exactly became of her. We do know that Busk had apparently contracted the disease, all but certainly of her volition, and in the months since we’ve been seeing the work of a super-syphilis super-spreader in the outside world. This is all a little silly. I have to wonder if Disch would’ve written this subplot the way he did had he written the novel in a post-AIDS world; more specifically Louis’s projections about the disease spreading, evidenced by quite a few stories being connected and making it clear that at least a couple million people now have the super-syphilis. To quote Louis:
Within two more months 30 to 55 per cent of the adult population will be on their way to soaring genius. Unless the government immediately reveals all the facts in the case. Less specific warnings against venereal disease will have no more effect on promiscuity than thirty years of Army training films have had. Less, because nowadays we’ve come to place our faith in penicillin rather than in condoms. Penicillin, sad to tell, has no efficacy against Pallidine.
Yeah, would not be the case if this was 1985 and not the novel’s version of 1975. I could go into a long tirade about how the Reagan administration completely denied the public knowledge of AIDS for four years after the first reported case in the US, and how misinformation from both news media and the government contributed to the spread of AIDS even after the public was made aware of the threat, but we’d be here for a while. In some ways Camp Concentration is creepy and prescient, helped by most of the novel only being nominally science fiction, but in other ways it very much comes from a point in time when the worst thing you could catch from doing the nasty was syphilis, which could be treated with penicillin—although that (rather conveniently) has no effect on the super-syphilis. Death is certain unless someone can invent a cure, and even if you were to become impossibly intelligent you only have months to use that intelligence.
My point is that even if you had someone deliberately spreading the disease, the actual number of people infected after, say, a five-month period, would be waaaaaaay lower than what’s Louis’s estimating; his stats are bogus. Sadly as the novel creeps more and more into outlandish territory the harder it becomes to take seriously. I wanna point out that when I say “outlandish” I don’t mean stuff like Louis having dinner with a grossly obese Thomas Aquinas—stuff that’s clearly a product of Louis’s psyche—I’m talking real things that are supposed to be really happening in the world of the novel. Keep this in mind, because the ending Disch decides to go with is a real doozy. It’s here, in the home stretch, that the novel stretches my suspension of disbelief before finally snapping it in two with what is admittedly, to Disch’s credit, a clever twist if totally removed from reality.
One more thing…
It’s here, a bit in the last installment but especially here, where we’re introduced to yet another batch of characters who, like what’s-his-face from before, serve no purpose other than to mark time in the narrative. The cast of characters we actually care about has whittled down to Louis and Haast, which I know is not entirely accurate if you know the ending, but from the perspective of a first-time reader we’re left with two main characters, a goofy replacement villain, and some redshirts. In a way I can see why Disch opted for a bombastic and ludicrous ending, because the back end of the novel is otherwise lacking in both plot and character, only kept afloat by some poetry and musings on symbolic connections with other works.
There Be Spoilers Here
After having gone blind and suffered a stroke, it looks like Louis will be put out of his misery at the hands of Skilliman and his henchmen, with Skilliman (so it seems) having overpowered Haast but who may be losing control of the prison guards. For the first time in months Louis gets taken outside, into the cool air of the real world, and in a nice little exchange he asks if it’s day or night. Now of course we know that Louis can’t die because if he did then he wouldn’t be able to write about said near-death experience, but let’s put that aside for a moment. Haast ends up killing Skilliman and reveals that a) the guards are in cahoots with Haast, and b) Haast is not really himself. I wanted to build up to this more, but I may as well say it now: Haast is actually Mordecai, who you may recall had died two installments ago. A switcheroo of epic proportions had been committed a while back.
I won’t dignify the explanation by going deep into it, but apparently Mordecai and the prisoners under his leadership had conspired to save themselves by… swapping their minds with the bodies of the prison staff. Okay. So Haast was in Mordecai’s body when “Mordecai” died of an embolism at the end of Part 2. Haast has, in fact, been dead for about half the novel. “Mordecai maintains that it was the thought of being a Negro.” What’s more is that Louis’s own life is miraculously saved when his mind gets moved into the body of one of the prison guards. This is rather hard to explain, and even harder to justify given what we’ve known about the mechanics of the novel’s world up to this point. I don’t think I’m being unfair when I say Disch jumped the shark when he came up with this deus ex machina, and yet I don’t think he did it because he was pressured by Michael Moorcock or anyone else. Looking back, the twist had been established as early as Part 2, although even so the bread crumbs Disch leaves are so small that only the most desperate of rodents would deem them a fine meal.
I’m reminded of the A. E. van Vogt story “The Great Judge,” which has a twist ending very similar to the one in Camp Concentration, to the point where I have to wonder if Disch was inspired. In “The Great Judge” you’re given a mad scientist, an evil dictator, and the solution the mad scientist uses to take out the evil dictator, all in the spance of half a dozen pages; and yet even within the tight confines of a short-short story van Vogt alludes to the solution early on and implies that such a solution, though incredible, would be possible given what we know about the story’s world. Mind you that “The Great Judge” is far more removed from everyday reality than Camp Concentration and thus the mind-swapping is much easier to digest. I’ll give Disch credit in that the ruse is a good one because it’s nigh-impossible to predict, but it’s also like that because it’s so far-fetched. You wouldn’t expect the twist because it totally goes against your understanding of what is possible in what is, like I said, only nominally science fiction otherwise.
I’m conflicted about the ending because while I think it’s ridiculous, and snaps my suspension of disbelief in half like a twig, it’s not predictable and it’s not boring—unlike a couple stretches earlier in the novel. There’s debate as to whether the ending of Camp Concentration breaks or redeems the novel, and I think that debate wouldn’t be happening if it wasn’t such a flabby and uneven novel, even at its short length. It’s a fine novel, but it could’ve been even better had it been a 30,000-word novella, cutting out tangents and monologues that lead nowhere; then again I’m biased, as I think a lot of flawed SF novels would be better if they were novellas.
A Step Farther Out
I have issues with the endings, which brings it down half a point, but I can’t say it wasn’t memorable. I wanna accuse Disch of being outrageous for the same of itself, but I don’t think that’s the case. I also have to wonder how this novel would read as one unit, as opposed to four short installments, because goddamn did it feel longer than it actually was when stretched out like that. Not helping was also the microscopic type used in New Worlds during this period, which was seemingly made to be read by ANTS. And my ass is legally blind. Doesn’t matter too much, because if you want a taste of what New Wave science fiction is all about (sex, drugs, foul language, snobby literary references), then Camp Concentration is a good choice.
A bit of a tangent here, but I do recommend reading Disch’s “The Brave Little Toaster,” also the film based on it. People of a certain generation might remember The Brave Little Toaster, but it’s a relatively obscure movie now and the source novella is doubly obscure. A shame, because even when he’s deliberately writing for a younger audience (or at least a less jaded audience), Disch has tricks up his sleeve. Disch’s writing sometimes raises questions of gender, of war, of the human condition in general—which is to be expected considering he was part of a wave of queer SF writers who happened to come along around the same time in the ’60s. Another thing Disch and his fellow New Wavers had in common was a love of literature that fell well outside the confines of magazine SF; he had read Dante’s The Divine Comedy and Joyce’s Ulysses, and he wanted to make sure you knew that.
Part 3 was published in the September 1967 issue of New Worlds, which is… not on the Archive. But it’s on Luminist! Just gonna link to the magazine’s page here, rather than the specific PDF; you’ll know where it is. You can get a used copy, as far as the book version is concerned, or you could buy a fresh paperback from Vintage. Apparently there’s an SF Masterworks edition of Camp Concentration as well, if you don’t mind it being British.
Last time we were with Louis he was in the midst of an existential crisis—which continues quite merrily here! Now, in reviewing novels installment by installment I’ve come to notice more the workings of structure, and how a novel that’s being serialized on a monthly or bimonthly schedule might be written in such a way that the author deliverately deploys peaks and valleys in the narrative. With Camp Concentration there have been crescendos of action and/or plot revelation at the end of each installment, with the stakes and scale of the action widening or even narrowing accordingly. Most of Part 3 sees a profound narrowing of scope, but the intensity of the action has not ebbed—only been funneled into what amounts to a drama of values between two characters. Interestingly, we’ve done away with dates for Louis’s journal entries at this point, not that I noticed much of a difference.
Not only is Mordecai dead, but Camp Archemedes has become generally a much smaller and quieter place in the months since that event. That’s right, we’re experiencing not so much a time skip as a time slippage, and like water through the gaps between his fingers the people Louis has come to know and (maybe) love have all left him, to go the way of Abraham. By this point he doesn’t even have fellow prisoners to chat with, now being stuck with Haast, the man he despises most and yet feels a strange pity for. And what about Dr. Busk, the token woman of the group? She’s left house. “She has been out of sight, in fact, since the very evening of Mordecai’s death.” Make sure to put a pin in this one, because it’ll come back much later.
While the cast has shrunk, however, we do get a new character in that we’re finally introduced to the camp administrator—man by the name of Skilliman. Does that sound a lot like “skeleton”? Hmm. And oh boy, he’s Haast’s boss! Holding your breath for his actual arrival will be quite the challenge, though, as we don’t see or hear much from him for most of Part 3. Before we’ve even gotten a good word from the guy we’re immediately told, rather indirectly, to be wary of him, partly because of his name and partly his backstory, which does not give the impression of a fine role model. A (thankfully small) portion of this installment concerns Louis writing a short story that’s based maybe a little too much on Skilliman’s life, with Haast does not approve; and, though I would not be eager to agree with Haast, I also would not approve, more so for the reason I found the story-with-in-a-story borderline unreadable. The best I can say of Disch’s little experiment here is that since it went in one ear and out the other, I can’t say it was painful.
What’s of more interest is the changing relationship between Louis and Haast, which is naturally adversarial to an extent but which also seems to strike both men as a necessary evil. Sure, Louis could give Haast the silent treatment, but then who else would he talk to? He’s already losing his mind, and his body is following suit as well. (I’m not sure how much time Louis has left, since he’s been infected with the Pallidine for at least a few months now, and the physical symptoms of the disease have made themselves very much known. Our boy is having a bad time.) It’s here that we get what might be the most telling exhange in the whole novel up to this point, and unlike the fiery monologues that came before this is but a brief dialogue between Louis and Haast that says a lot about both the latter’s character and the integrity of Camp Archimedes—or rather the lack of it.
I did ask him, jokingly, if he too had volunteered for the Pallidine. Though he tried to make of his denial another joke, I could see that the suggestion offended him. A little later he asked: “Why? Do I seem smarter than I used to?”
“A bit,” I admitted. “Wouldn’t you like to be smarter?”
“No,” he said. “Definitely not.”
Even the director doesn’t want it. In case it wasn’t clear before, Disch does not think highly of the prospect of artificially heightened intelligence, not that this is a unique view among SF writers. How many cautionary tales have there been, especially in old-timey SF, where the protagonist or some other character experiments so as to raise their brain power, or even to force themselves into evolving beyond normal human capacity? I’ve mentioned Flowers for Algernon before, but I’m also thinking of Poul Anderson’s Brain Wave, wherein the suddenly heightened intelligence proves to be as much a curse for some people as it does a blessing for others. If you think about it, Camp Concentration is not unique in its pessimism, although the delivering of said pessimism certainly raises eyebrows. I honestly can’t think of a magazine SF story published prior to Camp Concentration that was as vulgar, as shameless, as filthy, and yet as literary in combination with the vulgarity. While he teeters on being edgy, Disch knows what he’s doing.
There Be Spoilers Here
So, about Dr. Busk. Apparently the camp staff, even with the help of a nigh-infinite budget, have been unable to track her down; not only has she left the reservation, she’s seemingly gone into hiding completely. Personally I find the mystery of Busk’s whereabouts a bit hard to believe. I was also reminded about the plot point that, at least according to Haast, Busk was, despite being a fairly aged woman, a virgin; the keyword here, though, is “was.” Oh yes, now we’re getting to the big reveal of Part 3, and I have to admit it’s quite the climax despite Skilliman’s lengthy and kind of insane monologue toward Louis threatening to weigh down everything. Skilliman, being a late addition to the play that is the novel, is not as convincing an antagonist as Haast or even Busk, and it’s possible that Disch is aware of Skilliman’s lack of actual personality; even Louis is ultimately unconvinced. “Suddenly he [Skilliman] was not Satan at all, but only a middle-aged balding seedy administrator of not quite the first rate.” Just as well, because soon human villains will be outdone but a much larger and more shadowy threat.
(One more thing: we did get another new character, in the form of Bobby Fredgren, Busk’s replacement, but if I’m being honest I totally forgot about him while in the midst of writing this review; I had to check my notes again to be reminded of his existence. Indeed the few characters introduced in this installment seem mere shadows of their predecessors, which might be intentional; I hesitate to call this shallowness a flaw.)
You may recall that the prisoners of Camp Archimedes were infected with a special kind of syphilis, and syphilis is an STI. Sexuality—specifically the grotesque side of it—permeates much of Camp Concentration, but it comes back with a vengeance at the end of Part 3 as we find out that the disease, previously contained within the camp’s walls, has found its way into the outside world. It’s implied, and most likely true, that Mordecai had sex with Dr. Busk not long before the former died, presumably with the latter’s knowledge (I mean it would be impossible for her to not know)—specifically that the good doctor took it in the rear. I know, the “it doesn’t count if it’s anal” joke, some things never change. More importantly, Busk has possibly been spreading the disease among other people, which sounds evil as fuck if I’m being honest, but also coldly logical from Busk’s perspective. After all, the terminal status of the disease has no known cure, but suppose you infected enough people and someone were to find that cure…
Well shit, we may have a crisis on our hands.
A Step Farther Out
The plot thickens!
For a bit there I was worried we had run out of momentum and were just gonna devolve into mad ramblings from Louis, but things pick up again and we’ve reached the precipice of what might be a delicious climax. We’ve been stuck in Camp Archimedes so long that I forgot there was even an outside world to think about, but that’s just what Disch was counting on anyway. The world suddenly opens up again, but not in a ray-of-hope kind of way; rather the horrors inflicted on the prisoners of Camp Archimedes now reveal themselves as a real danger to the outside world. I have heard from some reliable sources, however, that the ending for this novel is… not good; so I’ll be going into the final installment with modest expectations.
There’s debate as to when the New Wave of science fiction started, since certain works, such as Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, anticipated the transgressions made during that movement. Authors who would be often affiliated with the movement, such as Kate Wilhelm, R. A. Lafferty, and Harlan Ellison, also usually got their start in the field well before the mid- to late-’60s height of the New Wave. Another author who came around just in time was Thomas M. Disch, who in the ’60s saw pbulication on both sides of the Atlantic, in both the US (ohh) and the UK (eww), and aside from having the handicap of being a filthy British magazine, New Worlds proved to be the ground where Disch could be his saltiest and most transgressive. Camp Concentration saw serialization in New Worlds in 1967, just before that magazine was to run into some real legal (on top of the already financial) problems, and thus, regardless of its flaws (I do have some quibbles), it can be seen as emblematic of New Worlds during its peak, despite being written by an American author. Disch’s novel would see book publication in the UK the following year, although weirdly American readers would have to wait until 1969 for an American edition.
Part 2 was published in the August 1969 issue of New Worlds, which is on the Archive; and just to keep my bases covered I think this will be the first time I’ve linked to Luminist. Just be aware that PDFs on Luminist tend to be BIG, including this one, but at least its collection of New Worlds is more complete than the Pulp Magazine Archive’s. As for book versions there aren’t a lot of options, but it looks like the Vintage paperback is still in print and readily available, so yeah, probably go for that.
Before we get to the plot, which there isn’t a whole lot of for this installment, let’s talk about interiors and how they can relate to the stories they’re supposed to be illustrating. Sometimes an interior, depending on where it’s placed, can be illustrating something that has already happened in the text, or it can serve as a kind of foreshadowing, alluding to something that will happen later in the text but which, upon seeing the interior, we will not have read for ourselves yet. Part 2 of Camp Concentration opens with an interior by Zoline, depicting a rabbit on its hind legs kissing a cherub, which sounds transgressive but also like a non sequitur—for now. Believe it or not this is a pretty good use of illustrative foreshadowing, as it sets up the meat of what is to come in Part 2, though we’re not able to connect those dots yet. I guess it’s NSFW, given the cherub’s dingus is hanging out, but that’s also not an uncommon sight in religious paintings and sculptures.
Last time we ended with a performance of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus that went wrong, with the magic pixie dream boy George having fallen violently ill with what turns out to be a condition all the prisoners at Camp Archimedes have—a condition that gives them only months to live. George soon dies and there’s a funeral held for him; we didn’t get to know him very well, but he clearly serves as the sacrificial lamb for both Camp Archimedes and the novel, Disch seemingly telling us that even the most innocent of the lot are not safe. Louis, who was already an unhappy camper (lol) before this, threatens to have a breakdown.
The prisoners do things to preoccupy themselves, partly because the drug they’ve been given has heightened their intelligence and thus their need to satiate cognitive activity, and partly to keep their minds off the fact that they will all die rather soon. Louis starts writing a three-act play of his own, titled Auschwitz: A Comedy, which perhaps for the best we learn very little about. This is one of those little things about the novel that can be taken as either simply edginess for the sake of itself or a bit of very dark comedy; I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. I’m reminded of a line in the film Crimes and Misdemeanors wherein a character insists that comedy is simply “tragedy plus time,” a philosophy Disch might agree with—that is to say, once enough distance in time is made from a terrible event, that terrible event can be warped and recontextualized to become funny.
Louis has another conversation with the camp doctor and local Ms. Exposition (not to mention the novel’s only female character), Dr. Busk, where we’re finally told what exactly the prisoners have been injected with, because it’s not just any drug. To make a long story short, the prisoners of Camp Archimedes have been infected with a highly advanced form of syphilis, that most horrible of vinereal diseases in a pre-AIDS world which sees the victim succumb to insanity, then death. Some famous people thoughout history were known, or at least suspected, to have contracted advanced syphilis, the most famous example probably being Friedrich Nietzsche. Yet, as Dr. Busk points out, these people who were ultimately ruined by the disease also seemed to have flashed of brilliance amidst the madness that could have been a direct result of the disease, and though he is loathe to admit it, Louis has to agree somewhat.
But it has been suggested—and by some very reputable people (though they were not usually in the medical line)—that neuro-syphilis is as often beneficent as it is at other times malign, that the geniuses I’ve mentioned (and many others that I might add) were as much its beneficiaries as its victims.
Meanwhile there’s an apparent rivalry between Haast and Busk with regards to certain activities the prisoners take up to preoccupy themselves, with Haast being on the side of the mystic and Busk being on the side of the materialist—a rivalry that involves Louis and Mordecai. Mordecai, last time we saw him, had taken a keen interest in alchemy, which by now has blossomed into an autistic fixation. It’s here that we get the most memorable scene in the installment, and the point of inspiration for that opening interior illustration. Mordecai, who by this point become perhaps a little unscrewed mentally, introduces Louis to his three “familiars,” those being rabbits who have also been infected with the disease and who subsequently only have a short time to live—though for them it’s a matter of weeks rather than months. The rabbits seem to all be male, for they also have incredibly swollen testicles because of the disease.
That’s one half of the equation for the illustration, but we’ve not quite reached the other half involving the cherub yet…
There’s an obvious parallel between the prisoners and the rabbits, with the two being treated more or less the same. Testing on animals, and rabbits especially, has historically been pretty common, to the point where the imagery of rabbits in cages in some laboratory has been shorthand for experimental (and unethical) testing. I do have to wonder if Disch was thinking of Flowers for Algernon when writing Camp Concentration, since the two have similar premises and play with the same notion of accelerated human intelligence. Of course, the premise of Flowers for Algernon is actually a bit more implausible because scientists, no matter how unethical, would not test their hypothesis on a single rodent and then greatly upscale that experiment for a human. Disch also uses his premise to comment on the US government’s gross treatment of protestors during the Vietnam war; it’s not hard to think the government at this time would see infecting a bunch of naysayers with a terminal disease in the name of “science” as a convenience, even killing two birds with one stone.
I know I mentioned this in the previous installment, but the Tuskegee experiment, wherein dozens of African-American men were unknowingly infected with syphilis, was still in progress, unbeknownst to Disch and the rest of the American public. The lesson here is to never underestimate the potential evils of government—then or now. This is all made extra eerie since Mordecai is easily the most prominent black character among the ensemble, and it’s clear that he’s also been taking his condition not too well. We’re never sure how sincere Mordecai is being about his turn towards mysticism, but what’s not so ambiguous is that he’s dying, and he’s a man in the midst of an existential crisis. “The whole goddamned universe is a fucking concentration camp,” he says at one point, and for him that might indeed be true; for a terminally ill man, where freedom is impossible, life itself has become a prison where “escape” means death.
There Be Spoilers Here
Mordecai, with Haast’s approval, performs a religious ritual on Midsummer’s Eve, one which pushes Dr. Busk’s buttons, but while the not-so-good doctor is triggered in the short term (of course the one female character is a total stick in the mud), she feels morbidly vindicated when the “elixir” Mordecai has been working on seemingly has no effect; not only that, but Mordecai dies, pretty abruptly, before completing the ritual. Haast, who really did believe in Mordecai’s promise as an alchemist, feels betrayed by both his death and the lack of effectiveness of his studies, and he has quite the episode. Mysticism has failed, and materialism does not provide a cure for the specter of death which plagues them all.
What’s strange about the series of revelations in this installment is that Louis treats his own terminal condition like it’s supposed to be a surprise; like sure it sucks that you’ll die from syphilis in a few months, but given what we’ve known up till now I would’ve just assumed that was the case. Of course it makes sense symbolically, in a deal-with-the-devil fashion: Louis and the other prisoners were trapped in more conventional prisons, ones which had shitty living conditions but which at least showed the posibility of release, and they made a deal with Haast where they got to live in an underground facility that was more like a hotel than a prison—only, unbeknownst to them, they had all been given death sentences. Still, I can’t always make sense of Louis’s reactions to plot developments, like how I also can’t tell if he’s merely a lapsed Catholic or an apostate; he certainly sounds concerned with the theological minutia of the Church scriptures.
Speaking of which, the actual ending of Part 2 is a protracted dream sequence, which Louis is somehow able to recall in detail (writers beware that dreams, and the recollection of dreams, basically never work this way), wherein he has a rather odd conversation with a monstrously fat Thomas Aquinas, with cherubs as minions. Louis, eyeing one of the cherubs, notices something worrying about it, “the distressing inflammations that had swollen its tiny scrotum and caused the poor thing to walk with a strange, straddling gait.” Does this sound familiar? Now it all adds up… sort of. I’m still not quite sure what Disch means with the swollen testicles bit, but he’s clearly drawing a line between rabbits and people, with cherubs standing in for the latter. There’s also a subliminal homosexuality about all this, since both the rabbits and cherubs, given their genitals, are supposed to be male. (I know what you’re thinking: that sounds bioessentialist. I’m talking specifically in the context of the novel, which is so lacking in women anyway that male homosexuality is all but inevitable, even without Disch’s teasing.) What could it all mean, though? I’m not sure yet.
On a final note, we’re one again reminded of the Faustian theme of man’s hunger for knowledge at any price, with Aquinas’s obesity being symbolic of his insatiable hunger for knowledge. Obesity is typically used in fiction as shorthand for a character’s greed (a gross demonizing of obesity that even left-leaning people are guilty of using at times), but at least here I can sort of look the other way since Disch is using it less to illustrate Aquinas (who after all is just a figment of Louis’s imagination here, and thus a projection of his own insecurity) and more to illustrate Louis’s character, not to mention how it ties into the novel’s general thesis. How problematic this all could be considered is a topic for another time, perhaps.
A Step Farther Out
Sorry for the relative brevity of this one, but given how short these installments are and how pressed for time I am I don’t see why not. There’s also not a whole lot to say with this one, since it has middle-of-the-trilogy syndrome written all over it—just replace “trilogy” with “quartet.” Something I’ve come to realize about this novel is that, structurally, it has peaks and valleys: there’s a long conversation or three followed by a Very Important Event™ that changes the course of the plot. We have scenes where characters are just talking, which in some way set up what’s about to transpire, followed by a crescendo wherein Louis’s world is rocked.
Strange thing about Part 2 in particular is that we get basically two climaxes: the first one with Mordecai, and then at the end we have the dream sequence with Aquinas which, admittedly, bordered a little too much on padding for my liking. I think I get where Disch is going with the latter, symbolically, but given how short this novel already is I have to wonder if he drew out the dream sequence as long as he did because he realized oh shit, one of the novel’s major characters is dead and we’re only about halfway through. Still, it says something about the evocativeness of that symbolism that I’m still thinking about it a couple days after having read it.
Thomas M. Disch started out not too dissimilar from close contemporaries Samuel R. Delany and Roger Zelazny, being at least adjacent to what we’d call the New Wave period of science fiction. Like Delany and Zelazny, Disch was literate, uncompromising, at times crass, but also quite funny; he had a sense of humor, even when working with premises that produced the bleakest outcomes. His debut novel, The Genocides, is apparently one of the bleakest works in the genre’s whole history, and he was just getting started with that one. Disch wrote a ton in the ’60s (about half his novels were published that decade, so by the time he turned thirty) for a variety of outlets, but his presence at New Worlds, under Michael Moorcock’s editorship, had to be the most unconstrained, the most vulgar. New Worlds was the only SFF magazine on either side of the Atlantic at the time where you could see dirty words like “fuck,” “shit,” “piss,” “pussy,” “cock,” “cunt,” “twat,” and “Englishman.” As such it shouldn’t be surprising that the first installment of today’s novel, which appeared in New Worlds at the height of its powers, has some of those words along with ones I did not mention.
I’ve been curious about Camp Concentration for a while, and since starting this site of mine I’ve gotten a good reason to read it carefully. It’s also the longest serial I’ve done so far if we’re going strictly by number of parts, but in its book form Camp Concentration clocks in at only about 180 pages. Each part is only 10 to 25 pages, but keep in mind that the type is microscopic, on top of being two-columned, and in A4 format—some made-up British thing, I think. Not a long book, this one, but it looks to pack a punch.
Part 1 was published in the July 1967 issue of New Worlds, which is on the Archive. Just a heads up, we’ll be moving to Luminist at some point for this serial, because the Pulp Magazine Archive’s coverage of New Worlds is a bit spotty right now. This is a very nice cover by M. C. Escher too, which is a nice change; a lot of the covers for New Worlds from this period are just kind of ugly. Anyway, this is not a novel that has been reprinted very often; it wasn’t even printed in the US until 1969, hence American reviewers were slow to cover it. I do believe the most recent paperback release from Vintage is still in print, so try looking for that one. It’s at least much easier to find than the chapbook release of Disch’s “The Brave Little Toaster,” which has been out of print since the ’80s and which goes for prices that’ll make your wallet weep.
Louis Sacchetti is a poet, and at the outset he’s also a political prisoner, with a history of dissent. A few things immediately struck me about Louis, all of them seemingly contradictory. Despite his history of protest he does not act like one of those “flower children” that would’ve been making the rounds on college campuses and at rock concerts in the ’60s, but rather someone of the older generation who was sympathetic to the cause. He’s also a believing Catholic—a “WASC,” he calls himself at one point, although aside from confessionals he hasn’t done much that could be considered Catholic-y as of late. He’s also, really by his own admission, an egocentrist: he gets a kick whenever someone mentions that they’ve read his poetry, which he hasn’t been able to read in book form himself on account of being held prisoner. “For ten years I could lay claim to no book but my wretched Doctor’s thesis on Winstanley; now my poems are in print—and it may be another five years before I’m allowed to see them.” We start off in a normal everyday prison, without any science-fictional trappings aside from what’s happening outside the prison, but we won’t be here for long.
Right, so I don’t think we’re given an exact year, but Camp Concentration takes place in the near future—like the very near future. The US president is McNamara, as in presumably Robert McNamara, which seems to imply that he would succeed Lyndon B. Johnson; keep in mind now that Johnson and McNamara were partly responsible for the war effort in Vietnam (which hadn’t even gotten so bad yet when Disch was writing this novel, probably in late 1966) escalating like it did. Pretty much immediately we’re placed in what now reads as an alternate past wherein the US’s efforts to “defend” South Vietnam grew more drastic than anticipated—or maybe just as drastic as reality would have it. Something you have to understand about Camp Concentration is that it’s a bit of a time capsule; Disch makes no secret of what current events he was taking inspiration from when writing it. In that way the novel feels very much “of its time,” but there were also few SF novels at the time that placed such a high bet on capturing that specific time frame, to the point where metaphor is all but expelled.
The novel is written in the form of Louis’s diary, which he keeps at the prison he starts at and will keep when he’s moved, unexpectedly, to somewhere else without his knowledge or consent. We’re given a month and day but not a year. In this initial sequence we’re introduced to a few characters who will probably never be seen again once we get to that other place, namely a couple “faggots” (look, I’m bisexual and Disch was gay, I think we can use that word with impunity) who share Louis’s (what I have to think is a large) cell with a “Mafia” guy. These first several diary entries establishes Louis’s character somewhat, and get us in touch with the unabashed crassness of the novel’s world, but we’re given very little insight as to what’s happening or what any of this might signify. Not gonna lie, I was worried the salty language was just gonna be there because this is New Worlds and we gotta have some shock value at first, and I was also worried that this would be one of those SF novels where the SF element is so subtle that it might fly over my head, but thankfully this will not be the case.
There’s a brief pause where Louis is unable to write in his diary before he’s given it back at the new place: Camp Archimedes, which is not a prison in the conventional sense but something else—call it a testing facility. There’s a bit of eerie prescience set up here, because I’m not sure how aware Disch could’ve been of several gross human rights violations that the US government was committing against its own citizens at the time; the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, for one, would not be made public until five years after this novel’s publication. Anyway, Louis is introduced to the head of Camp Archimedes, Humphrey Haast, or as he likes other people call him, H. H., a former big-time military man who now in his old age looks after this little testing facility of ours. Haast pretends to wanna be on friendly terms with Louis, but seems aware that kidnapping a man is not a surefire way for him to become buddies with you—even if you compliment his poetry and he’s always up for such a compliment.
Louis is horrified to be here at first, but soon becomes relatively accustomed to the quirks and mysteries of Camp Archimedes, which after all proves a much different and possibly less dreary existence than back when Louis was in Springfield Penitentiary. “Shall I confess that there is a kind of pleasure to be had in the situation, that a strange castle is rather more interesting than the same old dungeon all the time?” Why yes it is, maybe. It’s here, once we’ve gotten introduced to a few of the main characters, namely Haast, local Ms. Exposition Dr. A. (stands for Aimée) Busk, George the happy idiot, and Mordecai, the unofficial leader among the “students” of this establishment. Or you know, if you’d rather think of them as guinea pigs, which really they are. A lot of the men here are exmilitary, brought in on insubordination, aggrivated assult, those sorts of things, being given the choice between prison and Camp Archimedes and picking the latter; it must’ve at least sounded more exciting for them. Everyone here plays a role, with Louis as the equivalent of the town poet, as well as a sort of middle man between the fellow prisoners and the leaders of the place.
A few things to note here before we get to the climax of Part 1, since there both is and is not a lot of ground to cover. With a couple exceptions we don’t get any meaningful descriptions of places and objects; this is the sort of thing you’d expect from someone writing in a diary. One of the chief advantages of having a first-person narrator write a diary or memoir, especially for a new writer, is that you need not worry much about giving places and things flowery descriptions, because realistically, if you were the one writing in a journal or whatever, you’d focus on what matters to you specifically, which would probably be people’s personalities and your conversations with them. There’s also some possibility (I’d argue almost inevitability) of Louis being an unreliable narrator, since he recites quite a few conversations (indeed these convos take up the bulk of the “action”) that probably didn’t go down exactly as how he recalls them, but chances are we’re supposed to take his writings at face value. If you’re looking for adventures with spaceships and rayguns then you might have to wait—or that stuff might not come at all; what we have is a series of dialogues that border on Socratic.
There Be Spoilers Here
By the back end of Part 1 we’ve come to know that there is very little that’s off the table for Camp Concentration, with homosexuality and harsh language being not implied but overtly parts of the text. There’s another thing that would usually be considered taboo that gets referred to almost with glee here: drug here. Unfortunately for Louis and the others, the prisoners are not taking drugs of the fun kind, but rather something wholly experimental that is supposed to raise one’s intelligence. Now, we’ve seen many stories in the field before this that played with the notion of accelerating human intelligence, and drugs may have even played a part in some of them, but probably not as depicted in Disch’s novel. The prisoners are given a drug that might work, or it might not—or hell, it might work but have some serious side effects. People are only now, in the year 2023, coming to the realization that the truly dangerous drugs are not cocaine and heroin, but prescription drugs that you can buy perfectly legally. The legality of Camp Archimedes is pretty murky, of course, but given that the military is involved to some extent and that the site is backed by “a private foundation,” the US government probably doesn’t mind.
George, the friendliest if not brightest man among the lot, has been ill as of late for reasons none of the other prisoners can explain, but that doesn’t stop our boys from performing Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (with a shoutout to Goethe’s version, of course) in Part 1’s climax. Keep in mind that up to this point both Louis and Disch have toyed with intertextuality in a way that’s kind of frivolous but which also bring some light to what’s going on within the novel, especially Dante’s The Divine Comedy. The connection with the Faust/Faustus myth being made explicit is only the cherry on top, what with humanity’s quest for knowledge and the repercussions of that quest, and I have to wonder if Disch is teasing us here. Disch, like Delany and Zelazny, loves to play with mythology and juxtapose myths from ye olden times with “modern” lingo and anxieties.
I find all this amusing, but I have to admit I’m a little concerned that the pyrotechnics of Part 1’s climax might be something that Disch cannot top, or at least elaborate upon. the point being that its here that George illness enters dire territory, and it’s here that the prisoners are all suddenly made aware that George’s declining health is not unique to him—that it is, in fact, something that will afflict them all within a matter of months. The fruit of knowledge reveals the worm inside…
A Step Farther Out
At first it was rough going a bit, just because we spend time in a location that we never come back to, and at first we’re not even sure what the plot is. Once we enter Camp Archimedes, though, it’s off to the races. On the one hand I’m tempted to call Disch’s use of profanity edgy, and yeah, it’s a bit edgy, but don’t we tend to use saltier language when we’re chatting with close friends? Despite the darkness of the atmosphere, and the mass death implied at the end, it’s far from a dour novel—at least so far. Louis is a conversational and pretty coloquial narrator, and while he is egocentric and pretentious, he readily admits to that. Indeed the point, so far, seems partly to challenge Louis’s vanity and bring him down to the level of the rest of the prisoners. This is in essence a prison novel, complete with references to homosexuality, but it’s also playful riff on multiple myths: Disch knows that we know that he knows, so he has fun using intertextuality like a carrot on the end of a stick. I very much await what he has in store for us…
There’s been an ongoing debate over the decades as to hard SF’s place in the context of SF literature, and even the basic question of what hard SF is. Now, I’m just a lay reader; I don’t have a degree in the hard sciences. I took a chemistry course in college that I’ve basically forgotten everything about. I do, however, feel confident in giving a succinct and easily understandable definition for hard SF that will hopefully mellow the conversation: hard SF is Hal Clement. Now remembered as a writer (he also did painting on the side), Clement was a trained astronomer and chemist who seemed eager (to the point of obsession) to convey his love for the wonders of the natural world to the rest of us mortals. Most famously with Mission of Gravity but palpable in so much of his work is this sense of a clockmaker or a sculptor who never tires of the delicate mechanics of his craft. Clement was what we might call a planet builder, and he was one of the best.
Clement’s career is also one of the longest of any SF author, although except for a bright period in the ’50s he was never too prolific. He debuted with the short story “Proof” in 1942, written when he was still a teenager, and his final SF work, the novel Noise, was published in 2003—the year of his death. From beginning to end he kept the faith, demonstrating that it was possible to extract artistry from the intricacies of physics and chemistry. More than any other figure (despite some being more popular), Hal Clement is the grand architect of hard SF. Our understanding of hard SF as fiction which puts roughly equal emphasis on both science and fiction goes back to Clement. To crib a line from James Nicholl, in his Tor.com article on the Ballantine slash Del Rey Best Of series, “Current exoplanet research suggests that we are living in a Hal Clement universe.”
Part 1 was published in the May 1949 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. A word of warning: a scanning error on a specific page it’s page 26 renders a handful of words therein illegible, which left me feeling cheated slightly. Apparently this same scan is on Luminist, which means that, as far as I know, there’s no scan of this issue available online that does not have this problem. Anyway, from what I understand the serial version of Needle is arguably novella-length; Clement would expand Needle for book publication, although I can’t imagine he could’ve added that much material. Used paperback editions are not hard to find, although if you want something in print and a little fancy then go with The Essential Hal Clement Volume 1: Trio for Slide Rule & Typewriter, which collects Needle along with Iceworld and Close to Critical.
We start with a spaceship chase that quickly becomes earthbound. An alien police officer known only as the Hunter is after a fugitive, a member of his own species, when both ships crash land on Earth—and on a rather specific part of Earth, too. The Hunter is a blob-like semi-liquid alien that’s also, technically, a parasite, albeit a symbiotic one; the Hunter survives the crash but his alien host does not. Upon leaving the ship the Hunter finds himself in our ocean, not too far from shore, which is where we get the inspiration for both the cover and the first interior, involving an unlucky hammerhead shark that mistakes the Hunter for food. The Hunter at first tries taking on the shark as a host, finding a) the shark is a predator who is trying (unsuccessfully) to devour him, and b) the shark is of markedly low intelligence (apparently the symbiotes are used to taking sentient beings as hosts), the Hunter thinks it best and only fair game to leave the shark for dead once he’s able to get it to beach itself.
A few things immediately stood out to me. The narrative is third-person and sort of omniscient, but also totally from the Hunter’s perspective. The decision to make the hero of the story both an alien and non-humanoid must’ve also been a rare decision in those days, especially in the pages of Astounding; but don’t worry, there’s still some human chauvinism thrown in once the Hunter acquires his human host—more on that later. Another is the tropical setting. I don’t think we’re ever told specifically where this is set, but I’m pretty sure it’s supposed to be Hawaii, in the late ’40s when Hawaii was a US territory but not a state yet. This would also be taking place presumably a few years after the end of World War II, although the war never gets brought up directly. Finally, as is often noted when people review this novel, this is, if not the first then one of the first attempts to wed science fiction with a good old-fashioned mystery.
A common criticism (or at least it used to be a criticism) of SF-mystery is that the author can pull anything out of their ass in order for the mystery to be solved conveniently, not to mention that in a futuristic setting there would be a wide arsenal of tools the protagonist can use to solve the mystery. At least with for the latter Needle presents no such issue; while the Hunter is an alien, he has to make due with what was then modern Earth technology and the cooperation of a human who, on top of being a teenager, might not be keen on letting an alien slime ball inhabit his body. The Hunter and the fugitive are also on about the same playing field since they’re both symbiotes who both crashed in the same area, and both ideally want a host of high intelligence and mobility, in which case humans would be the only good option. Of course, finding someone who could be inhabiting any given body would be like finding a needle in a haystack (hence the title, very clever), and even with the small island setting the Hunter has potentially dozens if not hundreds of people who could be hosts for the fugitive.
You may be thinking to yourself: “Wait, an alien policeman goes after another alien that has crash landed in Hawaii, a place conveniently surrounded by water, and the latter alien is able to blend in with the local population?” No, this is not Lilo & Stitch, this is something totally different.
Now, about that human host. The Hunter comes upon a bunch of teen boys hanging out on the beach, and one of them, Robert Kinnaird (Bob for short), is taking a nap while the others are distracted. What happens next is… interesting. The Hunter makes it clear both to us and later to Bob that a symbiote much prefers to take another’s body with the host’s knowledge and consent (there are indeed benefits to having a four-pound blob inside you, as we’ll see), but since the Hunter knows nothing of the local language and has enough common sense to figure that the boy would probably not just let him come inside (there should be a better way to phrase this), he takes the sneaky option. I don’t think Clement intended this, but the body horror potential of this whole ordeal is quite big. Take the following passage, in which the Hunter creeps into Bob’s body unbeknownst to the latter:
The boy was sound asleep, and remained so. The alien organism flowed smoothly along the bones and tendons in his foot and ankle; up within the muscle sheaths of calf and thigh; switched to the outer wall of the femoral artery and the tubelets within the structure of the thigh bones; around points, and along still other blood vessels. It filtered through the peritoneum without causing the least damage; and slowly the whole four pounds of matter accumulated in the abdominal cavity, not only without harming the boy in the least but without even disturbing his slumber. And there, for a few minutes, the Hunter rested.
Ech. This was meant for teenagers? Right, Needle is technically a juvenile, although as is often the case with juvenile SF from this period (see also Robert Heinlein’s juveniles) I struggle to believe it was aimed at such a young readership. Not that the prose is hard to get through. Clement’s style is… well, it’s not poetic; actually it’s the opposite of poetic. When people say they have a hard time getting into hard SF, especially the classics, because of the inelegance of the prose, they’re thinking of some variation on what Clement was doing, and to be fair he can be occasionally clunky, but I think far more often it works. The mix of the third-person narration and the Hunter’s running inner monologue reads almost like a script for a nature documentary, albeit one that David Attenborough would be pleased to narrate. Clement writes about the Hunter as if intelligent symbiotes from another planet were as real as hippos and alligators, something that always draws me to his writing even though the human characters, by comparison, feel like little more than abstractions.
Also unusually for a mystery, the Hunter does not immediately take advantage of Bob in order to find his adversary; actually he spends several months simply trying to understand human culture as filtered through Bob’s day-to-day life, along with making sure the boy doesn’t hurt himself too bad. A symbiote can, to some extent, heal the host’s body, but the importan thing for the Hunter is to make sure Bob stays mobile, so that when they finally do reach an understanding they’ll be able to venture out and see what they can do about the fugitive, who no doubt has similar plans. The curious result of the Hunter looking after Bob is that the former almost serves as a parental figure (mind you that we don’t even hear about Bob’s father until towards the end of Part 1), although it’d be more accurate to say he becomes Bob’s guardian angel. If Bob gets a bad cut then the Hunter can speed up the healing process, or at least quarantine the injury. But of course eventually Our Hero™ will have to make himself known to his human partner more directly, which concerns the back end of Part 1.
There Be Spoilers Here
The Hunter can do some things that would give Bob the impression of something being off about himself; he could make Bob trip balls mess with Bob’s vision and make it seem like he’s hallucinating, forming letters in the air in front of him. He could do things with Bob’s body that would certainly be unusual, unless there was a far-out explanation, like say, someone not strictly human being in contact with him. But the Hunter is, ultimately, little more than a lump of jelly who can’t even pick up a pencil without the host’s imput. He at least has used his time in Bob’s body to understand enough English (he becomes oddly fluent in it in five months, but that’s still more plausible than Frankenstein’s monster becoming a Shakespearean actor after eavesdropping on some random people), but not enough to understand the limits of the human physique. There’s only so much he can do.
One night the Hunter sneaks out of Bob (I don’t know if Clement understood the implications of what he was writing) and manages to write a note for him when he wakes up. Up to this point Bob was vaguely aware that something odd has been going on with him, and it’s not puberty—no matter how tempting it is to try to make that connection. While the revelation of Bob being in contact (and rather intimate roommates) with a symbiote can feel abrupt, at least by modern standards (no doubt Needle would be at least 300 pages long if written today), it’s not sudden. We have in fact, for most of Part 1, been building up to this moment—the moment when Our Alien Hero™ and his human partner make contact.
Bob wakes up to find this at his desk:
“Bob,” the note began—the Hunter did not yet fully realize that certain occasions call for more formal means of address—“these words apologize for the disturbance I caused you last night. I must speak to you; the twitching of muscles and catching of your voice were my attempts. I have not space here to tell who and where I am; but I can always hear you speak. If you are willing for me to try again, just say so. I will use the method you request; I can, if you relax, work your muscles as I did last night, or if you will look steadily at some fairly evenly illuminated object I can make shadow pictures in your own eyes. I will do anything else within my power to prove my words to you; but you must make the suggestions for such proofs. This is terribly important to both of us. Please let me try again.”
Bob, despite being a teenager, adjusts quickly enough to the fact that he can communicate with an alien that also happens to be living inside him. A little implausible? Maybe. Clement seems to go out of his way to prevent any chance of getting an allegorical or Freudian reading from the text, although some things seep through despite his best efforts. Bob is a good American high schooler who plays football in the fall while keeping an eye on his grades, and in typical Clement fashion as far as his human characters go Bob is perhaps too rational. No matter. Most of Part 1, and by extension about half the damn novel in its serial form, has been preoccupied with the Hunter getting his bearings straight rather than going after the fugitive, but now that the Hunter and his human have “found” each other, the game is now truly afoot. Still, how will they even hope to find that other symbiote, who after all can be hiding damn near anywhere? Stay tuned…
A Step Farther Out
This is… oddly cozy? There’s a mystery, sure, and a criminal to be captured, but the majority of Part 1 is just the Hunter trying to make sense of his surroundings and adjust accordingly’ in the process we find out a good deal about the biology of these blob-like aliens, and while we don’t find out much about their culture we do get to know how the Hunter and others like him interact (at least ideally) with their hosts. I’m of course thinking of Dax from Deep Space 9, who is also a symbiote, although the Hunter presumably can’t pass along memories between hosts. Bob is not exactly a unique character, being a pretty average teenage boy, but it’s how the Hunter tries to communicate with him (or even make himself known in the first place) that generates interest. I won’t be surprised if Clement ends up taking the easy way out with regards to how the hell the Hunter will be able to find the fugitive, but I’m willing to forgive that if he keeps up this level of intrigue and pseudo-documentary atmosphere. Despite taking place on Earth and evidently being aimed at a younger readership, I’m pretty stoked about this mixture of mystery and hard SF.