Friday, September 3, 2010

The Mind Masters #1

The Mind Masters #1, by John Rossmann
July, 1974 Signet Books

This is a series I've been waiting to read for a long time. Over the past few months I've tracked down volumes 1 through 4, but only now I've started to read them. So it's with a great deal of disappointment that I discover this series to be so awful.

Mind Masters focuses on Britt St. Vincent, a man with so much backstory that it takes John Rossmann over a hundred pages of tiny type to relate it. In short, Britt was a Ranger in Vietnam, where a landmine blast awoke his latent psychokinetic powers. Transported back to the US he took part in a shadowy, government-funded ESP/psychic warfare research center run by a nutjob military officer. Britt fell in love with one of the women there, and after the two made clear their plans to leave and get married, the aforementioned nutjob accused Britt of being a spy. It all ended with the woman dead, the nutjob dead, and Britt a free man...only he could no longer dabble in ESP-related fields and was forbidden to speak of the research he took part in. But all that was years ago, and now Britt makes his living as an internationally-famous race car driver. Talk about one hell of a career jump!

Britt's contacted by the Mero Group, a consortium devoted to fighting against the psychic warfare centers of the world, no matter if they be in the US or the USSR. Posing as the second-string member of an international racing crew, Britt will now globehop for Mero, looking into various psychic phenomenon. (To say this series was fashioned to capitalize on the various hot topics of the mid-'70s would be an understatement.)

His first mission takes him to Sicily, where a haunted castle might provide Mero with a lead into the untapped psychic webwork which blankets mankind. This castle is medieval as can be, but for some reason Rossmann has it as a fortress built back in the age of Imperial Rome, complete with "vintage furniture" (which in reality would've decomposed over the millennia, but so what).

Promptly upon arrival Britt meets a comely local wench named Maria who speaks perfect English and who offers him a room in her mother's nearby inn. Maria is a Berkley student who comes back home each summer to help her mother; in a harrowing but incidental passage she relates how back at Berkley she was once almost sold into slavery, going into detail about how she was raped and what each man felt like as he took her...all of this shortly after she's met Britt! But other than that Maria's here so Britt can unload various bits of psychic-related knowledge upon her.

In addition to the haunted castle there's a Grand Prix-style race, a counter-team of cyborgs, and "psychic kamikazes" who come after Britt, men who have been programmed to kill with their minds but then die immediately after discharge.

It all sounds enthralling, doesn't it? Too bad the novel is so boring.

Here's the main problem with Mind Masters #1: John Rossmann's writing. He has little understanding of what makes a fictional narrative work, his characters are paper thin (even moreso than the standard trash fiction character), and his dialog is atrocious.

Actually, it's not even dialog. The "dialog" in this novel is nothing more than exposition. Exposition piled atop exposition. Each and every character speaks in the same way, this sort of flat monotone in which they gurgitate facts and information. We read in disbelief as characters will talk for unbroken paragraphs, relaying incredible amounts of information -- the history of psychic research, the rigours of race-car driving, the way their psychic-detecting gizmos work -- with zero emotional content or any sense of humanity. They're all like computers that have been programmed to speak.

If any of you remember the sitcom Cheers, then you'll remember Cliff Clavin, the resident know-it-all who would go on and on about trivial facts. Well, Mind Masters #1 reads as if it came from the pen of Cliff Clavin. It's nothing but pages and pages of one character telling another all sorts of trivial facts about psychic phenomenon or research or what-have-you. And to make it even worse, after every chunk of exposition Rossmann will write something like, "Maria is very interested in what Britt is saying." As if telling us, Look, reader -- my characters are interested in this, so you should be too...

Here's my theory: I think John Rossmann wrote a nonfiction piece on ESP and psychic warfare, and either he couldn't sell it or he decided to "spice it up" and turn it into fiction. But all he did was take his chunks of information and place quotation marks around them. Voila -- instant dialog, instant fiction. Only it's not that simple.

Rossmann writes in third-person, present tense, an unusual style for a men's adventure novel, but a style I've always enjoyed. My favorite novel of all time, Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon, is written in the same style. But Rossmann is no Pynchon. He has little grasp on the style; rather than capitalizing on the rush, the "you-are-here-now" thrill of present tense, he instead achieves a sort of "see Spot run" simplicity with his passive verbs (Britt IS running...Britt IS thinking...etc). And the opening hundred pages are a nightmare of needlessly-complex prose, flashing in and out of Britt's backstory. It's not complex because it's so deep, it's complex because Rossmann is unable to handle the backstory while retaining the present-tense style.

I can only hope that the next volumes improve. I have no idea who John Rossmann is/was, but later volumes are published under the name "Ian Ross," even though the style doesn't appear to change. So was Rossmann the psuedonym and Ross the real name? Or vice versa?


Curt Purcell said...

Here's a little context for why I might have overlooked/forgiven some of the faults you mention. Probably, I was just fixating on the groovy ideas and ignoring as much else as I could. I do plan to reread this series (along with others I've enjoyed) some time in the next year or two, so we'll see how it holds up.

Joe Kenney said...

Curt, thanks for the comment. You and I are definitely of the same mind...the "groovy factor" is one of the main things I look for in trash fiction from the sweet spot of 1968-1973. I'll definitely read the rest of the Mind Masters series...if only it could be like the Baroness series: well-written, entertaining, and positively groovy!

Scisne said...

Hmmm...when Publishers Weekly reviewed Mind Masters #1 in 1974 it hailed the book as "good adventure...a nifty, thought-provoking genre novel" whose "real thrills its remarkably realistic use of real people and events." And The Los Angeles Times Book Review did something it had never done before or since for any book: It gave the Mind Masters #1 two glowing reviews in successive Sunday editions on August 4 and 11, 1974, with then-Book Review Editor Digby Diehl proclaiming that the protagonist was "a psychic James Bond" and the book was "the beginning of a new series that I suspect we will hear more about from television and motion pictures," which might have happened had not the author encountered health problems. All the books in the Mind Masters series are just what the reviewers promised: A good read.