Thursday, January 18, 2018

Phoenix Prime

Phoenix Prime, by Ted White
No month stated, 1966  Lancer Books

Ted White was an editor of various science fiction magazines and, in addition to writing many short stories, published several paperbacks. I’m not sure how well they resonated with the readers of the day, as it seems that many of them only received a single printing, Phoenix Prime being one such example. And perhaps the novel itself provides the reason why – it’s a bit ponderous, self-important, and takes forever to tell a story that proves to be underwhelming and familiar.

Humorously, Phoenix Prime starts off being about one thing before taking a sudden plot change and becoming something else – almost a prefigure of the later Richard Blade series, but without the lurid charm. For White, strangely, wants to play it serious throughout, invoking the novel with a gravitas that comes off as more irritating than compelling. This is particularly strange when you consider that Phoenix Prime is about a superhero-type guy who is thrust into a Conan-esque world. One expects lots of comic book-type fun, but instead one gets lots of ponderous page-filling, including lots of walking in the desert.

I’m not sure when the novel is set. It seems to be the mid ‘60s, as there’s no effort to make it sound like the future; people still listen to transistor radios, there’s no mention of space travel, etc – though World War II is referred to as “long ago” and our hero apparently feels the need to explain what it even was to his girlfriend. But then that could just be the pedantic nature of our hero – and the pretentious tone of the novel itself. (Actually of the decade itself! Friggin’ hippies!!)

Our hero is Maximillian Quest(!), a 23 year-old New Yorker who has never applied himself; while intelligent, he dropped out of school and makes his meager living via various menial jobs. But the novel opens with Max waking with newfound, inexplicable powers – levitation, pyrokinesis, etc. He just plumb wakes up with superpowers, folks. His girlfriend Fran walks in on the latest display of superpowers – “the Human Torch and all that,” and freaks out; Max explains to her his new condition in a rambling dialog that displays the ponderous nature of the entire novel:

“It was like double vision, a second sight. I could turn it on and off. I could make it overlap my normal vision, or supplant it. The funny thing was, I discovered that I could function on my new sense equally well. I could look at the whole room that way, ignoring the minute patterns and seeing the larger ones. In a way, it blended right in with normal sight. I mean, have you ever really looked at things? If you stop just glancing over all the familiar objects, and look at the room as though you’d never seen it before, it can be fascinating. You can make out all sorts of relationships, the rhythms of color, the placement of masses and empty areas, the similarities and clashes in the lines of different furniture – this place is a real hodgepodge – and you can see the whole room as a three-dimensional area, an integrated whole.”

Have I mentioned yet that Max drives a taxi?

Seriously though, Phoenix Prime is so of its time you can almost hear The Jefferson Airplane in the background. Normally I like such things – any era is better than this one – but in this case it comes through most strongly in the pretentious vibe. On the other hand, I suspect I would’ve loved this novel had I read it several years ago, when I was into the hippie literature of the ‘60s and early ‘70s. White hits all those bases, from mentions of The Fantastic Four to Alan Watts. But he appears to want to take this sort of psychedelic superhero concept he’s come up with and treat it seriously, instead of the fast-paced pulp actioner the concept demands.

To put it another way, folks: at one point in Phoenix Prime we get a two-page dissertation on “What is love?”

Anyway, just a few hours after getting these powers, Max discovers that he’s being watched, and then tested in increasingly-dangerous (but pretty humorous) ways: first he’s attacked by a squirrel and some pigeons in Central Park, and later some kid turns momentarily nuts and tries to push him into the path of a train. Max dubs his unsees assailant “The Other,” assuming correctly that someone else has the same powers as Max. He gets confirmation of his theory later that day; a conservative-dressed but nondescript man gets in the back of Max’s taxi and tells Max he is to “renounce his gift” or else suffer the consequences. There isn’t just one “Other,” but a few, and they are evil and do not appreciate the fact that Max intends to use his gift for good.

Max tells ‘im to go to hell, the guy disappears, and later Max finds that, of course, Fran has been kidnapped. The Other had given Max an address in Manhattan, for a law office, and there Max finds a party of the jet-setters in full swing. In one of the novel’s few cool sequences, the Other and his comrade summon Max through a mirror, where they wait for him in some sort of pocket reality. Fran is there, unconscious on a couch. They tell Max they’ve sent her soul into another dimension, and he can follow her there to reclaim it. I guess it’s one way to get rid of the competition. Max takes the challenge, and is promptly zapped away, his body left behind here on Earth.

Now here, at page 54, the novel changes entirely. We’ve spent this first quarter expecting a story of superhero Max taking on the supervillain Others, but instead he’s zapped off to a new planet – a planet where he no longer has his superpowers! Folks this was so goddamn dumb I almost tossed the book, but I didn’t want to damage the awesome Frank Frazetta cover. I mean the entire point of the first 50 pages is rendered moot! Why even bother with the belabored intro of giving your protagonist superpowers, when in reality you just want to write a planetary romance about some guy sent nude and confused onto some alien planet?

But anyway here Phoenix Prime prefigures Andrew Offutt’s Ardor On Aros, only this one’s in third-person and it isn’t as snarky or satirical (however Offutt’s book also had a Frazetta cover, so how’s that for unironic irony??). Finding himself in the middle of a seemingly-neverending desert, Max trudges on…and on…and on. The novel is an uphill climb, as it’s nearly 200 pages of dense narrative, with hardly any dialog or white space – it’s practically all telling instead of showing. Even the action scenes are boring, like when Max is attacked by what he dubs “desert pups,” and later on when he takes on some wolves by a pool – a scene Frazetta captures in his masterful cover painting. 

Max picks up one of the wolves and it becomes his sort-of pet; he calls it “old boy” in what few patches of dialog we get in this turgid section of the book. Again befitting the style of the times, Max at one point drinks the “water” from a cactus even the wolf seems to shy from, and of course it sends him on an arbitrary drug trip which entails him carrying on a coversation with mental projections of Fran and his Other enemies. Eventally Max comes to a city, Ishtarn, and there befriends some desert folk; the tribe leader “gives” him 15 year-old girl Bajra, but Max turns down her offer of sex, as she’s too young. He apparently changes his mind later on, as they engage in some off-page screwing – Max consoling himself that the people of this world, despite their actual age, are of hardier, tougher stuff than the humans of his own world.

The Richard Blade parallels get stronger with a bonkers sequence that has Max and his new desert pals attacked by a tribe of gay desert warriors who put women in harems, using them only for procreation, but look to men for their true sexual delights(!). Bajra’s put in a harem, a development she takes almost casually, and Max himself is harrassed by the desert chieftan who “won” him in battle; Max makes short work of him before he can act on it. From a harem girl Max learns that Fran, for whom he’s been searching in vain, was briefly in the harem as well, and was the favorite of Rassandra, ruler of these desert warriors.

But when Max catches up with Fran, he finds that she’s already gone – through a “matter transmitter” that took her to another world! It’s like this from now on in Phoenix Prime, almost like a Looney Tunes cartoon, Max eternally just missing Fran. Anyway he steps through the portal and finds himself in another part of this world, which is called Qanar; this new place is an island kingdom, and the matter transmitter is used by a “sorcerress” who herself is from a different place – actually a different era, as she’s from this world, just not this age. Through her Max learns the transmitter creates a “local anomaly” in the space-time continuum which lets him, at much explanation, retain the use of those superpowers he had back on Earth, but here he draws the power from within himself and thus quickly tires.

Oh, and Fran’s no longer here, either – just missed her! But Max uses the machine to somehow track Fran, and gradually locates her in another place, one called Qar. After a fight with some Robin Hood-esque outlaws, Max frees Fran, who casually informs him, “I’ve been raped a number of times,” as if she were telling him the hour of the day. But hey, at least they’re together again. One problem, though: Max, the dumbass, only now figures out that the Others, back home, have destroyed his body, so he has no body to return to! So they continue with the ‘60s tenor of the novel and merge together into Fran’s body, voyaging back into the dimension of Earth.

Now Max-Fran wreak their vengeance on the two Others…and White, for reasons unknown, keeps the vengeance off-page. He keeps it off-page!! Instead we are informed the two Others have themselves been cast into Qanar. Now, vengeance sated, Max takes his leave of Frank’s body, having become a “phantom;” indeed, the “next step in human evolution.” He don’t need no stinkin’ body, folks. No, he’s gonna venture on into the infinite, to probe and think and whatnot, and he leaves Fran to her own devices – and meanwhile we learn that, during her own time on Qanar, her comatose body here on Earth was repeatedly raped by paying clientelle. She takes this raping just as casually as the raping she endured on Qanar.

White published two more novels that take place on Qanar, The Sorceress Of Qar and Star Wolf!, but I don’t think I’ll seek them out.

1 comment:

Marty McKee said...

What was even the point of giving the hero superpowers???

Perhaps it was a dictate from the publisher -- write something about a cab driver who wakes up with powers -- and White thought, "To hell with that, I'll write what I want."