Thursday, January 3, 2019

Vigilante 21st Century

Vigilante 21st Century, by Robert Moore Williams
No month stated, 1967  Lancer Books

With a plotline that sounds like a ‘60s prefigure of NYPD 2025, Vigilante 21st Century is ultimately more of a probing into the unknown metaphysical force that is called “good,” and how it can perform miracles and whatnot in the battle against “evil.” Robert Moore Williams wrote for the pulps and the book reads like it; the dialog is stilted, the description is sparse, and despite being set in 2012 it comes off like a futuristic 1940s.

We’re only given a vague understanding of this future society; the planet has become riddled with crime (and also has a globalist government…hmmm…) and the police are constantly outmatched by the “super-gangs,” given that the criminals have all the latest and greatest in weaponry. So various factions of private citizens have banded together into vigilante groups, sort of self-deputized people who have some sort of authority and work with the cops. The novel takes place in Los Angeles and concerns this vigilante group, led by a complete cipher named George Bright. He’s barely described – but then none of the characters are really described – and we’re told that there’s nothing particularly remarkable about him.

But Bright is a “sword” in the hand of “something,” as it’s constantly referred to – ie God. The vigilante groups see themselves as Zen warriors, nothing but tools to be used by the unseen entity “something,” upon which they hang all their hopes and beliefs. In other words they are Jedi and “something” is the Force. But any hopes for some proto-Star Wars light sabering action pulp are quickly dashed. The vigilantes are pretty bland, to tell the truth – just average citizens with no special quirks, other than a seemingly-arbitrary numbering designation that brings to mind The Man From UNCLE.

I say arbitrary because Williams refers to some of them by name, but others just as “Number 5” and such, and the characters do this as well. It’s kind of weird and barely explained, but then Williams doesn’t much go for explaining things. Other that is than the crazy weaponry the criminals use; this stuff is discussed in bald exposition by the vigilantes while the weapons are being used on them. It’s all very laughable, folks, and it’s as “bad pulp” as you can get. “Intelligent gas” (seriously) will be hunting our heroes, who stand around and argue if the gas really is intelligent and if the criminals themselves are immune to it.

That being said, the book has car chases, a couple bloody hand to hand battles, tons of young women exploding, and a gunfight or two. It also sets a precendent for the number of kids killed in a pulp book. A baby is murdered in its crib in the opening pages(!), some other kids are killed later in the book; we’ll even learn a pair of twin toddlers have been killed off-page. This casual infant brutality lends the book an off-putting tone, especially when coupled with the meat-and-potatoes blandness of the writing style. Williams’s passive style also doesn’t help; he’s very fond of phrases like “Horror was in him” and stuff like that – he’s always, always telling instead of showing.

The story concerns Bright and his group going up against sadistic Mrs. Kether, a wealthy super-criminal who retains an “inner-circle” of young women who carry out her murders. Their chief weapon is a new device buried into their forearm and extending to their fingertips; they point at the victim, and the victim goes red and dies. If the women go rogue, or are compromised, Mrs. Kether can shout a command to “scratch” the girl, and a small bomb implanted in the girl’s back will go off. This becomes especially crazed in the finale, in which Mrs. Kether’s “girls” basically go kamikaze, so we have exploding young women all over the place.

Bright is introduced to us just as he’s about to be killed – by the lovely (apparently) young Carole Zenner, one of Mrs. K’s gals. But Bright stops her and gets her back to his headquarters, where Doctor Dee operates on her. At the same time, a group of criminals infiltrate the place, and we have one of the more dispirited “action scenes” ever, as Bright and his loyal sidekick Rebel watch the crooks on a viewscreen and exposit about them. This part does veer into the psychedelic when Rebel is hit by an “R device,” which basically causes an out of body experience.

Carole is saved and ultimately joins the vigilante cause. We only learn barebones stuff about Mrs. Kether, but she apparently hoodwinks young women into joining her, then turns them into brainwashed assassins. A further unexplored detail is that the women have something done to them and can’t have children. Carole undergoes some psychoanalyzing under Bright’s “analogical computer,” which matches music to colors on a domed ceiling, bringing out suppressed memories and fantasies in the subject in the hopes of cathartic healing. There’s a lot of random childhood-flashbackery and the like in Vigilante 21st Century, which again reminds one of the era in which it was published, but this sure as heck isn’t hip sci-fi. The characters refer to each other as “Mr.” and “Ms.” and not even a single breast is mentioned, let alone exploited.

Mrs. Kether herself has an enemy: the General, another of the super-criminals. The plot gradually turns into Bright and his team shadowing Mrs. K, who is trying to kill the General. Before, during, and after this “plot” stuff, Williams indulges in what he really wants the book to be about – the presence of the miraculous. Over and over Bright will brow-beat any who doubt the existence of “something.” Sometimes it’s egregious, like Doctor Dee “curing” the blindness of his redheaded nurse Mikey, whom he loves, and while the Doc says it was just psychosomatic blindness, Bright insists it was the real thing, and Doctor Dee healed her with the power of love.

But then, all this “healing power of something” stuff seems rather strange in a book that features so many innocent kids getting killed. Mrs. K at length sneaks into the General’s fortress of a mansion and kills his little girl (later we’ll learn she also killed his twin toddler sons), and we get vague explanation that she and the General were lovers at one time, and Mrs. K had a kid with him, one who later died (yet another!). The General proves himself more memorable than most of the characters, and features in a crazed scene where he fights several of Mrs. K’s girls to the bloody death. This part in particular features some exploding women, as Mrs. Kether starts activating dead ones as makeshift bombs.

Overall though there’s just, uh, “something” lacking about the book. As mentioned the characters are too bland, their dialog too stilted. This “future” 2012 is horribly underdeveloped; we do learn there’s space travel, and some characters like to drink “Martian teng,” an alien sort of absinthe that causes hallucinations. But it all seems to be something pulled out of a 1940s issue of Amazing Story; I kept expecting to encounter the phrase “Bright adjusted his fedora.” I did find the metaphysical stuff interesting, but in the end I was kind of happy to finish the book.


Steve Johnson said...

Mike McQuay wrote a series called "Mathew Swain, the 21st-Century Private Eye" which was good hardboiled action, with titles like "When Trouble Beckons." Can't recall the publisher ...

Unknown said...