Since I spend so much time ingesting works of Science Fiction I figure I should start reflecting on how these speculative realities influence my perceptions of the world and potentially offer ways forward for us all. (aka book reports)
Each yearly visit to Champaign, IL to visit my family is not complete without a lengthy adventure through the maze of books housed within the Jane Addams Bookstore downtown. A charming building from the early development of the railroad town over 100 years ago, it has been a local used and new bookstore for almost as long as I have been alive, and definitely since I could read. Lauren and I love to browse its dense and near-endless shelves for treasures of literature and uniquely unexpected gifts for our friends and families.
This year while navigating the two-layer deep shelves of the SciFi room on the second floor I can across two books by Alfred Bester. We have had a couple of his classic science fiction novels on our list for SkyFi book club for many years, but have never gotten around to it (its a long and ever-growing list). The front layer of books reveled The Computer Connection from 1975 and sneakily placed behind it, Deceivers from 1982. Both are old, wonderful smelling mass-market paperbacks with cracking flaking covers and yellowing pages. Perfect indulgences for travel and the gaps of time on trains and Sunday mornings.
My initial impression of Deceivers, straight from the cover (that is what they are designed for after all), was that this must be some slightly ridiculous classic male hero space adventure. There is a macho man with face tattoos in a spacesuit standing chest proud and ready for battle. He is wielding a tribal spear and large stone with a ceremonial knife tucked in his belt. This has to be some cheesy 60's sci-fi adventure story, set on the moons of Jupiter, filling the background, in the pursuit of a woman, honor, and riches. I flipped the book over and noted the $2.50 price tag, further eliciting my interest in this discovered gem. Even more than the over the top cover art and the easy on the wallet price (I may buy too many books) the back cover description sealed the deal.
(I have copied the text below for easier reading)
IN A COSMIC CON-GAME OF DEATH AND DECEPTION IT'S WINNER TAKE ALL...
Rogue Winter - king of the Maori commandos, Starstud and Cosmic Casanova - embarks on a journey across the Solar System in search of his kidnapped lover, Demi Jeroux. Cruising the speedy Solar Circuit - From the Paradise of Carnal Pleasures to the bloody torture chambers of asteroid Triton - Rouge uncovers a grisly pattern of evil...a snakepit of spies and skullduggery, blackmail and murder.
Kidnapped by the demonic Manchu Duke of Death, Demi is a pawn in his sadistic struggle for control of Meta-crystals - a super-secret source of unlimited energy concealed deep beneath the surface of Triton, Rogue is one of the few men alive capable of following the Manchu's trail. On his interplanetary voyage in pursuit of the deadly Manchu, Rogue encounters the brutal Meta-Mafia henchmen, their treacherous golden-skinned virgins, and a shadowy terrorist network determined to end the Maori king's reign.
But Rogue's ultimate confrontation will be with the Duke of Death. Their fiery battle of wits will decide not only his own fate and that of his lovely bedmate Demi Jeroux but also the future if the Solar System and its freedom from the Manchu Empire.
What more can I say, Starstud, skulduggery, Maori commandos in space, the Duke of Death and his shadowy terrorist network? This must either be a cosmic spectacle or the inevitable disaster of a machismo James Bond in space. Shall we venture inside?
(I won't go into too much detail about the story, it was entertaining with a unique and fitting style)
1) The story has a real James Bond (interstellar) man of mystery with a dash of Clark Kent, (anything but) mild-mannered reporter larger than life male fantasy vibe to it. There is even a self-conscious reference to Ian Flemming's stories in the book as a subtle jab at the absurdity of it all. It definitely had that machismo chauvinistic womanizing conquest undertone (overtone) but also provides sneaking moments of self-awareness and even subtle critique. I was very surprised when I turned to the front cover to see that is was published in 1982 as it feels to be much more of a product of the mid-1960s. I kept having the sneaking suspicion that the whole thing is a bit of a gag with a subtly heavy-handed criticism of the lingering culture of mid-century American male superiority complex. I will have to read a couple more of Bester's novels to see if this is a trend or an anomaly.
2) Race, Culture, and Sexuality oh my! Each of these subjects is treated as over the top stereotyped abstractions. There are many instances of cultural or racial denigration that made me a bit uncomfortable to be reading this thing on the subway (do other people know about this book, this author?). I did some quick Google research on Bester and didn't find any Internet gossip of him being a bigot (but definitely a little exccentric) so I again suspect that there was a deeper purpose to this. Was he throwing these absurdities in the face of his readers to challenge us to leave such antiquated notions behind as we move into the future and the starts?
The solar system, at first glance, seems even more starkly divided by racial and cultural boundaries. Whole planets are settled by specific ethnic groups and are often rooted in isolation and tribal superstition. Why has our interplanetary society not progressed beyond the closed-minded world of the 1960s? Again I suspect there is some sneaky subterfuge at play since it is gently revealed that most of these enclaves of ancient boundaries are actually quite diverse and integrated societies. That people have dispersed through the galaxy and found new and better models for social interaction. It is a strange and almost schizophrenic scenario that perhaps is the only possible universe for such a fantastically ridiculous adventure to take place with lighthearted insanity. Maybe my expectations of Science Fiction as a battleground for everything that could be better in humans through utopic vision and brutal critique are giving this dime-store adventure too much credit.
3) The depiction and demeanor of women is another complex and confusing position of the book. Demi is demure and literally melts to her desires for this Rogue. His own alpha male mentality is both overt and also constantly self-critical. The two quickly develop a steamy romance and a timeless bond that know no boundaries or limits of imagination. The female protagonist feigns weakness but displays extreme independence and cleverness. Women are top operatives and assassins, heads of secret societies and news house typists. Perhaps it is a desire for the adventures of a genre from younger days and a struggle with the emerging social organizations of the late 20th century (especially in SciFi). There is definitely a conflict at play, one that is uncomfortable and difficult to resolve, but also entertaining to navigate with a 2020 mindset.
When all is said and done, it was an entertaining and thought-provoking yarn. It was interesting to read something so far removed and yet perhaps so apropos to today's current struggles with race, class, gender, sexuality, and difference. I struggled to place the voice and intention of the author beyond a galactic romp, but I think there are deeper more complex forces at play. There are some dark scenes near the end that really push on the social justice and tolerance buttons, but it is never painted in the light of acceptable or desirable. The protagonist is not a model, but a figure, an aspect of acceptable prejudice that has a fading fire in the universe.
While that should probably be the final note, I will say that the story presents some very exciting ideas about computers in this strange future. They are organic machine hybrids, enslaved or nourished in tanks of vital fluid forming a network through the stars with their own secret society, only slightly revealed in the post-climax cooldown. I am now very interested to dig into The Computer Connection to both have a deeper glimpse at Bester's psyche and see where his speculations of future computer systems were going nearly fifty years ago.
Read. Write. Repeat.