Death Merchant #17: The Zemlya Expedition
July, 1976 Pinnacle Books
The Death Merchant veers again into sci-fi with a plot that could come out of John Eagle Expeditor (or one of Roger Moore’s Bond movies), as “pig farmer”-hating hero Richard Camellion heads to a massive high-tech city beneath the sea. However any hopes that this will be an interesting installment are quickly dashed, as for the most part The Zemlya Expedition is about 130 endless pages of densely-detailed gun battles, and, like most other books in the series, quickly becomes a chore to read.
Not to come off too negatively; as ever, Joseph Rosenberger injects enough of his patented bizarro diatribes to brighten the occasional spot. We’ll get random arguments about religion, mind control, and even doomsday prophecizing straight out of one of those faux-“documentary” type end of the world movies that were so big in the late ‘70s. But to get there you have to read like twenty pages describing in minute detail a gunfight between Camellion and legions of “Stalin saps” and whatnot.
The Zemlya Expedition starts off strongly enough. When we meet him Richard Camellion has snuck onto a Soviet research ship in the freezing desolation of the Arctic Ocean. He’s the only American in a few hundred miles and he’s surrounded by KGB and Russian soldiers. We learn that, for the past eleven weeks, Camellion has been working on project “Saddlesoap – Two Bars” for the NSA. Apparently there is a Russian doctor who is a contact for the US government and who has gotten in touch with her handlers about something major going on, for which she needs to be exfiltrated immediately.
The only problem is, this doctor, a climatologist named Raya Dubanova, is deep down in Zemyla II, a high-tech underwater complex built by the Russians in the Barents Sea of the Arctic circle. In the first few chapters Rosenberger occasionally hops back to Camellion’s briefing with the NSA and CIA several weeks before, shoehorning as customary tons of exposition about the Zemyla experiment as well as other odds and ends that don’t have much to do with anything. But we have to read tons and tons of stuff about ocean research, deep currents, and the dangers of weather being used as a weapon. Indeed the novel ends with a warning of the earth’s upcoming destruction.
The first of many, many fights ensues as Camellion is promptly discovered on the ship. He beats three men to death and assumes the identity of one of them – as we’ll recall, Camellion lives up to his surname by being able to disguise himself. Indeed he considers himself “the Rembrandt of plastic putty.” He now goes about the ship as “Valentin Prisk,” arrogantly confident that “even Prisk’s mother” wouldn’t realize that he is an imposter. And yet Camellion’s discovered in just a few pages, as he’s overlooked the fact that the real Prisk was missing a finger. Confronted by the KGB man in charge of the ship’s security, Camellion gets in the first of endless gunbattles that take up the brunt of the novel. It goes on and on and on, but Camellion is uninjured thanks to his “Kevlar-Thermacoacytl longjohns” which are bulletproof and even absorb impact.
However Camellion is caught, and here we have a bit of human depth from him, as he’s photographed and fingerprinted by the Reds, and this burns him to the core, as this has never been done to him before. Now Moscow will know what the legendary “Death Merchant” really looks like. For reasons of plot contrivance the KGB leader decides to take Camellion down to Zemyla instead of sending his ass posthaste to Moscow; he wants to show off how far advanced the USSR is in underwater technology. Thus Camellion is escorted to the “underground pig pen” on Weise Island in the Arctic, where the Russians have hidden their SPECTRE-style massive underwater fortress.
Zemyla II is straight out of science fiction. It’s composed of five transparent domes deep in the ocean, each about 75 feet high, with sodium lights illuminating the crushing depths above them. Even Camellion has to admit the Russians are far advanced in this regard, and KGB leader General Vershensky gloats over it. “Too bad Jesus Christ and all the wild-eyed prophets didn’t have to deal with these Russian pig farmers,” Camellion thinks to himself. While this sci-fi underwater vibe sounds like a fascinating premise for an entertaining novel, Rosenberger basically just uses it as the framework for 130 or so pages of Camellion shooting at people.
First though we have more bald exposition, as Camellion, Vershensky, and a host of other Soviet bigwigs argue about brainwashing, with Vershensky even reading verbatim from a handy copy of Argosy magazine! Just like the blatant exposition in The Mind Masters, Camellion even argues back, citing sources with apparent photographic memory. It’s interesting but stupid, if you know what I mean – they’re on the bottom of the ocean in a high-tech fortress and they’re arguing over whether America uses Russian brainwashing techniques!
But we haven’t even gotten to the religion-bashing yet. Camellion, imprisoned, meets Dr. Raya Dubanova, a two-hundred pound lady in her mid-40s (forget about the blonde on the cover; she doesn’t exist in the novel). When Raya makes the mistake of mentioning God to Camellion, he goes off on a ranting diatribe that would even befuddle Archie Bunker. He does get in a good line, though: “One man’s religion can be another man’s hell.” But anyway, given her off-hand mention of God, Camellion promptly regards Raya as “a Commie Christian crackpot” and rants against her beliefs – mind you, while they’re in the middle of an escape!
Raya you see totally saves Camellion’s bacon, coming into his cell and killing the two guards. After arguing about Christianity for several pages (another rant of Camellion’s: “Christianity denies man his right to reason, makes him a moral slave”), the two finally escape the cell. Here we are given lots of technical detail about Zemyla. It’s made up of five domes but only a few of them have anyone in them. Rather than bring the place to life Camellion just fills up several pages with bald technical detail. Camellion and Raya two split up – Raya confident that her cover will protect her from suspicion in Camellion’s escape – and Camellion gets in yet another protracted battle.
Here Rosenberger as ever lightens up the overbearing grimness with bizarro phrases like “he took a one-way trip to stiff-city.” Coming across a cache of “nitrostarch” explosive, Camellion is able to blow up the dome he’s currently in – that is, after another endless gun battle. Seriously, this novel is like Die Hard for 150 pages, but without any of the fun or charm. It’s really just dire and endlessly detailed, and again the helluva it is the book is so densely written with small print and hardly any white space. If Rosenberger had just loosened up and had fun with it, he might’ve had something more along the lines of The Cosmic Reality Kill and less along the lines of Hell In Hindu Land. Why not skip the gunfights and have Camellion shown around Zemyla II, perhaps even meeting a sexy but duplicitous female KGB agent who tries to sway him? But fun pulp like this does not exist in the world of the Death Merchant.
As is customary for the series we get a lot of cutovers to arbitrary Russian characters who worry over Camellion’s swathe of destruction and wonder how they can stop him. But they are uniformly stupid, like a group of KGB soldiers who buy Camellion’s story for mercy and get in a diving bell and are then all blown up by a few RPG blasts. (Camellion even briefly feels sorry for them, a rare moment of sympathy from Camellion for the “pig farmers”). Oh and meanwhile Raya is in the process of being beaten and tortured; turns out the Russians aren’t total morons and quickly learned she was the one who freed Camellion, mostly because she didn’t ensure her kills when she shot the two guards.
But Raya’s able to free herself (she’s no damsel in distress, which is admirable on Rosenberger’s part) and reconnects with Camellion, who all by his lonesome, surrounded by about a thousand Red soldiers, has managed to blow up most of Zemyla II. They escape on a “little boat” (the apostrophes constantly and annoyingly used to describe them), aka a small submarine, and escape into the freezing ocean. Camellion suits up in a high-tech deep diving suit and takes on some Russian frogmen just for the hell of it, but this too just comes off as more endlessly-detailed action. He plants some more nitrostarch on the last few domes and that’s all she wrote for Zemyla II, though we learn General Vershensky has escaped.
The novel wraps up in a several-page “Addendum” in which we learn why Raya so desperately wanted to be pulled out of Zemyla. She has learned that earth has entered a “magnetic null zone” and that, due to the earth’s core about to be ripped apart or somesuch, the world will end “within twenty years.” More doomsaying straight out of a late ‘70s faux-documentary ensues, with rampant description of how the earth will be destroyed by chaotic weather and earthquakes and this and that.
But does Camellion give a damn? Of course not…he’s more concerned that his next mission will be taking him to…Algeria! And that’s that, and we readers need a breather even if Camellion himself doesn’t appear to. Or Rosenberger, for that matter. While his writing doesn’t do much for me I still have to respect this guy; I mean he never took a shortcut with his writing. The books just go on and on and you just want to go back in time and tell him to cut some stuff out and worry less about the endless gun detail and, you know, have a little more fun with it.
Finally, here are reviews by Marty McKee and Allan Wood.