Thursday, May 27, 2021

The Baroness #9: Death Is A Copycat (unpublished volume)

The Baroness #9: Death Is A Copycat, by Paul Kenyon
Undated manuscript, circa 1974

Back in 2012 I did a post on the unpublished volumes of The Baroness; as a recap, there were three installments that never made it to print, one by series newcomer Robert Vardeman and two by main series author Donald Moffitt (who passed away in 2014). Well folks, I’ve managed to get copies of both of Moffit’s unpublished manuscripts: Death Is A Copycat and A Black Hole To Die In. In this post I’ll be reviewing the former, with a review of the latter coming soon. 

First of all, I want to confirm that this is not a joke or a hoax or a very late April Fool’s Day prank. These are the legit manuscripts straight from Moffitt’s typewriter, circa 1974 (as dated by internal references in the novel). And as can be seen from the screengrab of the title page above, the print is sometimes a bit faded, making for a difficult read at times. But it goes without saying that I was very thankful to get both these manuscripts; I’ve wondered for years what Moffitt’s two unpublished volumes would be like. And I can say, at least so far as this first of the two goes, that Death Is A Copycat would’ve made for another great installment of the series. It’s certainly better than the volume that would have preceded it, Black Gold

In my 2012 post I noted that Death Is A Copycat had been published in France, under the title Photo-Phobi, as part of the Penny series, which is what The Baroness was titled in France. I included comments from a reader named Hans Henrik who stated that Photo-Phobi concerned “a three-legged villain named Triskelion” whose plot was “to cause chaos by duplicating the world’s currency.” While the plot of Death Is A Copycat does ultimately concern a villain’s plan to duplicate all the currencies of the world, there’s no character named “Triskelion,” let alone anyone with three legs. My only conclusion is that the French translator took great liberties with Moffitt’s manuscript and basically published his own yarn. 

It was a very strange experience reading this 286-page manuscript; often I realized I was one of the very vew people who had even gotten to read it. I would imagine Engel read it (note Engel’s BCI address on the title page; I’ve lined out Moffitt’s phone number), and perhaps the translator in France got a copy. But other than that, this manuscript has sat in storage for the past few decades. As I read it I kept wondering how fans of the day might’ve reacted to such and such a scene, only to remind myself that it had never been published. I also often wondered what sort of cover Hector Garrido would’ve devised for Death Is A Copycat. Ultimately I felt bad for Moffitt, that something as entertaining as this never saw print – it’s proof positive that he had not lost interest in The Baroness, even nine volumes in. 

Given all this my review will be a bit more in-depth than usual. Actually my reviews are always too in-depth, but this time I’ll elaborate a bit more and provide excerpts, given the ultra-scarcity of the book in question. One thing to note, though: again referencing the title page, we can see that “Money to Burn” is given as an alternate title, in paranthesis. My assumption is this was Moffitt’s original title for the book, but “Death Is A Copycat” is given the all-caps treatment because that’s the title Engel gave him. Or maybe it was the other way around? I guess we’ll never know. 

At any rate, Death Is A Copycat features a memorable opening: Penelope “The Baroness” St. John-Orisini barrelling along the country roads in the Loire Valley of France in a red Ferrari, driving barefoot. At her side is the “improbably handsome” Duc de Chataigne, Hughes, “a big loose-jointed man in his thirties, with clear gray eyes and a mocking smile.” Hughes we’ll recall was introduced in the final pages of Black Gold, and Hans Henrik also mentioned this character was in Photo-Phobi, so at least some of the French translation was faithful to Moffitt’s original manuscript. Penelope, we’re told, is here in France to scout locations for a commercial she’d like to film on Hughes’s chatteau; she met him on the beach, only to discover he owned the entire place, as well as a stretch of the countryside. But the idyllic scene is shattered when a vintage Bugatti Type 57 – painted a garish pink – comes out of nowhere and runs them off the road. 

Penny proves her mettle straight away; she gets the Ferrari back on the road and gives chase, ultimately running the Bugatti off the road in revenge. All Penny sees of the occupants is a red-faced man with yellow hair peeking out at them from the oval-shaped window in back of the Bugatti. Later, at a roadside diner, Penny and Huges see the Bugatti drive by – without a scratch or mark on it. But enough of that; from here we get to what the series was known for: hardcore sex. Penny decides that Hughes’s chatteau is too old-fashioned for her; when Hughes mentions that a “nouveau riche” man named Alphonse Pollux has a tawdry chatteau nearby, Penny decides without even seeing it that it will be the place for her commercial. But Hughes refuses to introduce Penny; though he has never met Pollux, Hughes assures Penny that word has it “the man is a boor.” Penny convinces Hughes the best way she can: treating him to an explicity-rendered sexual escapade that goes on for pages. An escapade that caps off with the a rather, uh, memorable usage of the word “splat:” 

Meanwhile in a cutaway we see the development of the threat Penny will face…a threat which of course will coincide with her storyline in France. A government employee with traitorous intentions at the US Embassy in Paris sneaks into the copy room in the middle of the night, his goal to make photocopies of incriminating evidence (CIA shenanigans, etc) and send them to the various papers of the world. We’re told in a bit of foreshadowing that new photocopiers have recently been installed – photocopiers made by the Pollux company. We’ll eventually learn that “The Pollux copier is as big in Europe as Xerox is in America.” Then a mysterious figure in a uniform with “Pollux” on it comes in while the copier is running and murders the would-be traitor – a particularly vile murder at that, jamming the photocopied pages down his throat so that he chokes on his own vomit! 

Hughes, still fuming over how much of a “swine” Pollux is (even if he’s “the richest man in France”) escorts Penny to Pollux’s Chateau Jumeau, “a lacy fantasy of pink marble.” And yes the “pink” is more foreshadowing, for as expected Pollux is the owner of that garish pink roadster that got in the chase with Penny the day before. Indeed Penny and Hughes see it on the grounds, being repaired; here we have confirmation of when the story is set, as the car is now specified as being “a 1934 Bugatti Type 57,” and earlier we were informed it was “forty years old.” The place is patrolled by guards and an electrified barbed wire fence; Penny suspects something and sneaks off to inspect, leading to a brutal combat scene when she’s attacked by sadistic fieldworkers in Pollux’s vineyards who come after her with bladed tools. Penny kills three men, including a memorable bit where she crushes one guy’s throat – something else Hans Henrik says occurred in Photo-Phobi

Henrik mentioned the plot of that French “translation” concerned counterfeit money; here in the opening of Moffitt’s manuscript, Pollux is instead stealing secrets and selling them. In typical series fashion, we see the effect on several one-off characters: the US Secretary of State’s secret plan is outed to the press, a research group has their antibody formula stolen, and a firm loses a major contract. In each case a Pollux copier was involved. We soon learn that Pollux, “the duplicating king” who employs “duplicate chauffeurs” (a matching pair of muscle-bound thugs), has implanted his copiers with devices that store everything that’s copied on them. Moffitt gives the villain a suitably Flemingesque appearance: 

Penny decides to break into the headquarters of the SDECE, France’s version of the CIA, so as to see what they have on Pollux; this is another of those suspenseful sequences Moffitt does so well, with the Baroness using a host of gadgetry. We see the ever-present Spyder in use, Penny using it to walk up the wall of the building, Batman TV series style. Also this time she actually shoots someone with the Spyder; a guard spots her and Penny does “the only thing possible” and fires the Spyder’s grappling hook into the guy’s gaping mouth. A crazy sequence that even features Penny using a “miniaturized winch” to haul the corpse up a few floors so she can hide it. This sequence also sees more of the series’s patented spy-fy gadgetry in effect, with a pair of “sunglasses” Penny sports to help her see in the dark – a “binocular photon multiplier,” at that. 

There’s an almost Russell Smith-esque fascination with corpses this time around; Pollux dispenses of one of his underlings, stabbing out his heart with a machine in his vineyard, and then his twin chaffeurs “stand the corpse up” and hold it there while Pollux laughs uncontrollably. Then later when Penny kills the guard with her Spyder, she goes to elaborate lengths to hide his corpse under a desk in the SDECE building, using a “super-epoxy” to fasten it to the underside; we’re told the hands are especially troublesome, as they keep “flopping down.” After which Penny thinks to herself, “with sudden amusement,” that “the first man tomorrow to tie his shoelace or bend over to pick up a pencil was going to get a surprise.” 

There are in fact a lot of gadgets in this SDECE sequence; Penny also uses a “foot of thick twine” which is actually “woven of optical fibers that could transmit light around a 180-degree bend; the glass was a fish-eye lens, optically perfect despite its small size.” Then there’s “the Nose,” which Penny uses after knocking out a guard, taking off his shoes, and wrinkling her own nose at his smelly feet: 

And by the way, we’re only 62 pages into the manuscript at this point, with over 200 more pages to go. So it seems pretty clear to me that Moffitt was reinvested in the series after the middling Black Gold; this SDECE sequence alone is more entertaining than the entirety of that previous novel. The Nose is memorably employed to track the footprint-scent of the guard, who has just come from the Records room, so that there’s no “blundering about in these dim corridors” for Penny. The sequence climaxes with Penny (with assistance from Joe Skytop, out in a stolen car) knocking out the electrical grid of this area so that she can swoop into the Records room in the pitch darkness and take photos (with a high-tech camera, naturally) of the SDECE’s “Alphonse Pollux” dossier. But guards with “battery-powered lanterns” suddenly arrive: “The lights went on, and she was standing in front of three dozen Frenchmen in her underwear.” 

Of course Penny manages to escape, thanks to yet another new gadget: a mini-rocket fired from the clasp of her black bag which blows a hole in a brick wall so she can plummet down to Skytop, who waits in the stolen car. Soon thereafter Penny assembles her unwieldy team, each of whom are given the usual introduction as they arrive at her suite in Paris. When Sumo and Farnsworth (Penny’s handler, back in New York) review the purloined data of all the European companies that use Pollux copiers, they soon determine that Pollux himself has benefited from the recent swindles – ie the “little French investment firm” that beat the other company on the patent turns out to be owned by Pollux. As are all the other companies that have benefitted from recent industrial upsets. “It’s not our business,” Farnsworth tells Penny. She replies: “Monsieur Pollux scratched my new Ferrari. I’m going to make it my business.” 

Moffitt shows eerie prescience in a somewhat-overlong sequence in which electronics wiz Tom Sumo hacks the CIA’s main database; a protracted scenario that has him enacting a high-tech contraption he set up outside the home of the agency’s director years before. Even though it seems clear that Pollux is also involved in “the other kind of espionage,” ie not just industrial-related, Farnsworth insists this is a CIA affair, one they aren’t even supposed to know about. But the Baroness, who by the way is smoking a joint throughout this scene, insists that they will take the job. This is a different setup from the previous volumes, in which the Baroness and team were activated due to a specific threat that had come through Farnsworth. 

There’s actually a fair bit of breaking into buildings via unusual gadgetry this time; Penny next infiltrates Pollux’s factory “on the outskirts of Paris” while the villain is having a nighttime meeting with his crime world contacts. There’s also a lot guard-killing, including a bit where Penny kills a guard who “farts” as he dies, “as they often do.” In this break-in Penny uses “The Creeper” (later referred to as “The Crawler” in a mistake Moffitt doesn’t catch in his manuscript): a leg-powered vehicle with “Teflon wheels” that allows her to speed three feet above the road, gliding under parked cars. After this she puts on “mittens” and “booties” with a “time-release solvent” that allow her to climb Spider-Man style up the side of the factory building. Here Penny sees that Pollux has built a giant copying machine – which he uses to chop up yet another underling – but the Baroness is almost caught, leading to a running action scene in which she hurls a few tear gas grenades as the goons try to catch her. And she uses another gadget: 

Rivaling the “escape from the orgy turned Mafia massacre” bit in #1: The Ecstasy Connection, this sequence features Penny running “like a deer, stark naked,” through the darkened streets of Pollux’s “25-acre industrial park” – naked because she’s knocked out the man at the guard booth (and also done some nerve damage to his “scrotum”) and then dressed him in her own clothes, to throw off Pollux and the other mobsters. An “unwilling transvestite” who gives Penny the opportunity to run away. And the opportunity to use the Creeper/Crawler again: 

Yet even more gadgets are employed in this escape; the Baroness carries a “utility belt” throughout, her only piece of clothing left. First she uses what looks like “a child’s windup toy, a cute tin ladybug with six legs and floppy pads for feet.” This contraption, another made by NASA, hauls Penny up and over a wall via a “glistening string” that she fashions into a harness. This leads to something right out of the Connery Bond films (that is, if Bond was a woman and the film was rated R), as the Baroness uses a mini-rocket to fly away: 

Meanwhile the Baroness’s team gets a little share of the narrative: Eric (aka the blond language expert) impersonates a new CIA agent at the US Embassy in Paris, Fiona (aka the redhead sexpot) visits the psychiatrist of the would-be traitor at the Embassy (her story being that she can’t “come” – and Moffitt really piles on the kink factor here), Wharton (aka the blueblooded Green Beret) gets in a fight with yakuza thugs, and finally Yvette (aka the black beauty) features in the longest sequence, going to the tiny town near Marseilles in which Pollux was born 48 years ago and trying to find any info on him. What she finds is that anyone who knew Pollux back then has turned up dead – usually run over by a car. This is by far the most focus Yvette has gotten in the series; she’s captured by a Corsican gangster aligned with Pollux named Andre the Shark, his nickname due to his teeth, which have been filed down like a shark’s. 

Hans Henrik also stated that in Photo-Phobi Penny “confines herself to just one lover,” aka Hughes, and that at one point they have “sex in a barrel of vintage wine.” This is also true of Death Is A Copycat, on both counts. Penny and Hughes are invited to dinner on Pollux’s estate, and Penny convinces Hughes to go; Moffitt well captures Hughes’s aristocratic prejudices toward “boor” Pollux. But as a “joke” on the little man they decide to have sex in a barrel of wine Hughes no longer cares for (he has a massive wine cellar, naturally), and then serve that to Pollux at the dinner. Thus they strip and get in the “six hundred gallons of sparkling white wine,” and Penny declares that she can “taste” the wine…through her, uh, nether regions. A sensation that soon extends to both of them: 

At Pollux’s dinner that night Penny and Hughes get the answer to the “mystery” of how Pollux’s vintage pink roadster looked unscathed immediately after Penny ran it off the road: he actually has two of them, both put out in front of his chatteau to show off his wealth to his guests – which turn out to just be Penny and Hughes. Also, Pollux reveals that he’s aware it was Penny who ran him off the road; he has cameras in each of his cars, and as it turns out it is a “game” for him to run cars off the road and keep a running score! Moffitt really attains a Fleming vibe here, only inverted; Pollux goes over the top with dinner in a gauche way, with the Baroness and Hugh secretly amused at his pathetic attempts at seeming aristocratic. The humor is almost too pronounced; Pollux reveals he has two of everything, including chefs, and that they constantly fight, with even a pair of wrestlers to keep them separated. It gets even goofier: 

The “joke” of Pollux drinking the wine Penny and Hughes had sex in doesn’t get exploited very much; Penny and Hughes watch as Pollux makes “quite a production” of swilling it around in his glass, then he sips it and declares it a “fine, unpretentious little wine…perfectly adequate to the occasion.” After dinner Penny is granted a tour of Pollux’s chatteau; when the thug escorting her warns there are areas she must stay out of, Penny of course knocks him out and goes investigating. She finds a massive copier here, bigger than the one at the factory, and it appears to be making copies of various currencies. This leads to another action sequence in which the Baroness kills more guards and unveils yet another gadget: a dress that transforms into “a graceful bat-like sail – a hang-glider.” On the grounds Penny discovers that Pollux has “all the money in the world:” acres and acres of paper currency, baled and stacked. A quick check confirms it all looks as real as the real thing – even the serial numbers are consecutive, and not repetitions as they’d be in the average counterfeit. 

In previous Baroness reviews I’ve complained how Penny was often being saved by her team. It seems that Moffitt himself must’ve realized this, as in Death Is A Copycat it’s as if he goes out of his way to put Penny in dangerous scrapes and have her get out of them via her own devices. As here; she is surrounded by around 500 of Pollux’s men – the army made up of mobsters from around the world – and she takes one of them hostage, an older Mafioso named Papa Ugo. Penny, clad only in a halter top and “black bikini panties,” forms a sort of conga line with her gun to Papa’s head, adding more and more people to the line as she tries to escape. But she’s caught, leading to some brutal hand-to-hand combat: 

It gets more brutal, with Penny ripping off Papa’s prosthetic arm (complete with hooked hand) and slicing and dicing thugs with it. However Penny is ultimately captured by Pollux, leading to a sequence that is the closest The Baroness has ever come to sweat mag territory. Penny, now clad only in the bikini bottom, is trussed up in a frame sort of contraption, her arms and legs chained, suspended facedown a foot above the ground. Pollux, claiming he will soon “own” Penny, pulls off her panties and proceeds to have his first “taste” of her, attempting to prod at her private regions. But Penny thrashes so much to evade him that she breaks the framework and lands on the ground. So Pollux brings out Hughes and has his little finger cut off to convince Penny. Our heroine relents, promising she will not put up a fight while the villain has his way with her. 

Moffitt skillfully plays this sequence out, even finding the opportunity to again compare and contrast Pollux’s “boorish” nature and Hughes’s true aristocracy. The French duke remains silent as his finger is sawed off, and tells Penny not to give in. But this turns out to be Penny’s “price,” something which Pollux assures her everyone has – Penny will indeed have sex with Pollux in exchange for no more damage to Hughes. Just as Pollux is demanding that Penny go down on him, to “prime the pump,” an explosion shatters the courtyard. Initially I thought, “Well, here comes the team to save her, after all,” but instead it’s due to the arrival of the Russians, who had their own spy in Pollux’s ranks and are now here to steal all the counterfeit money – which, by the way, Pollux intends to destroy civilization with. He’s made an exact duplicate of every bill of denomination in every single major currency, and the counterfeit currency will be offloaded by the crime syndicates he’s made deals with in various countries. 

A series motif is Penny being nude for the climax, or most of it, and the same happens here, with her running fully naked around Pollux’s grounds while the Russians and the mob fight one another. Penny’s able to get back to Hughes’s nearby chatteau, to call in her team for reinforcements and to put on some clothes. Moffitt doesn’t dress her in the black catsuit she often wore in the series (and wore on all the covers) – though she does wear the catsuit in the sequence where she breaks in the SDECE building. Here in the finale she wears: 

This leads to an action climax in which Penny and team, in three vehicles, race through the three hundred acres of Pollux’s chatteau and blast away at the Russians and various mobsters. Throughout Penny is armed with a Galil submachine gun. I found this part a little anticlimactic, as it’s just Penny and the others randomly gunning down any enemy soldiers they come upon. Which is to say, there’s no “emotional content” to it (to quote Bruce Lee). It’s just Penny and her team trying to kill everyone before any of them can get hold of the counterfeit currency. The most memorable image here is Joe Skytop on top of a jeep firing a “movie camera,” which is really an automatic cannon. 

Here we also have a surprise appearance from Alexy, the GRU commando Penny got cozy with in #3: Death Is A Ruby Light. He’s part of the Russian army taking on the Syndicate, and talks surrender with Penny after she and her team have blasted everyone apart with their superior firepower and routed the various mobsters: 

Penny allows him to escape with some of the counterfeit Chinese currency; Alexey claims “I know your employers will be pleased at the way we’re going to use it.” And then he’s gone; all told, he appears in the book for a mere page, but it’s a nice shout-out to a previous yarn. Penny’s team fashions an explosive to wipe out the rest of the fake money, however Penny allows Paul and Fiona to sneak off with a couple bales: “What were a few million, more or less?” The Baroness and team watch as the acres of money burn – ie, the “money to burn” of Moffitt’s alternate title. 

But the finale is a bit unfocused; whereas you’d figure this attack on Pollux’s chatteau would be the climax, instead Penny again sends her team off on separate missions – one group to blast one of Pollux’s supertankers, before it can make off with any of the counterfeit currency that had already been taken away, and the other group to go find out what happened to Yvette. So we have in the one sequence Skytop, Wharton, Eric, Inga, and Fiona in a helicopter shooting at the supertanker, then diving into the ocean in scuba gear to plant explosives. 

In the other sequence Sumo and Paul go to save Yvette, who by the way has been tortured and raped this entire time…! This part’s real sweat mag territory, with the poor girl trussed up and beaten so badly that one eye has swollen shut and her breasts have been used as a pin cushion. However she hasn’t talked; the implication is clear that all of the Baroness’s team are as tough as the Baroness herself. And speaking of which, Tom Sumo – aka the nerdy “electronics guy,” here turns out to be a veritable superman, thanks to his knowledge of the martial arts: 

The humor here is pretty dark; Andre the Shark is threatening to cut Yvette’s nose off with a straight razor when Sumo and Paul arrive on the scene. In the melee the two make quick work of the Corsican thugs, using their hands and feet (and in Sumo’s case, a camera). Moffitt tries to gloss over Yvette’s grim condition with a jokey reveal: 

Yvette has discovered what has become increasingly apparent as the novel’s went on. SPOILER here, but I figured I should be as comprehensive as possible given the unpublished nature of the manuscript. I didn’t find Pollux to be the most memorable villain of the series, but Moffitt has skillfully created him and his plot with subtextual layers. Hence, Pollux is the “duplicate king” who has two of everything and who has made his fortune via copying machines. Yet he’s also a “fake” in that he’s from hardscrabble roots and is desperate to come off like the aristocracy which has spurned him. And the fake nature extends to his plan for counterfeit currency. But given how there are two of everything in Pollux’s world, it would of course pan out that there are actually two of Pollux – as Yvette discovers, Alphonse and Felix Pollux were siamese twins born during WWII, surgically separated at age 9, but have continued to secretly act as the same person all these years. 

Penny herself finds this out after she’s already dealt with one of the brothers; a memorable sendoff in which she slams both feet into his chest while riding down the bannister of a double helix spiral staircase in Pollux’s chatteau. This occurs before the big “mob versus Russians” action sequence, throughout which Penny is under the assumption Pollux is dead. But then she gets a glimpse of the man on the battlefield. She wonders if it was her imagination, but when she is investigating his grounds after the battle – once her team has dispersed on their dual missions – Penny is caught unawares by the surviving Pollux, Alphonse. He holds a gun on her and forces her to carry several bales of newly-printed counterfeit currency which he plans to use to start over again. But fittingly he ends up in his own contraption: 

Death Is A Copycat ends soon after, with Penny finding Hughes asleep on one of the beds in Pollux’s chatteau – a bed with a “100,000-franc bedspread that had belonged to Marie Antoinette.” Hughes says he won’t miss his little finger at all: “There are very few things in life that one uses a little finger for.” But Penny has other intentions, as she climbs in bed with him for the final moments of the book:

The “explosion,” by the way, is the giant copier Pollux just died in; Penny set it to blow. Also it’s interesting that Hughes is here in the finale of the book, same as he was in Black Gold. This would make him the most, uh, long-lasting of Penny’s lovers. I’m curious to see if he’ll appear in A Black Hole To Die In as well, but I suspect this will be it for him. Also, there’s no part where Penny explains to Hughes who she really is; her running around Pollux’s grounds and fighting and killing people is just taken at face value, and Hughes never once asks her if she’s like a spy or something. But it would be clear to him at this point that Penny isn’t just a jet-setting cover model. 

As promised, I went into great detail in this “review,” which was really more of a blow-by-blow account of the book. But really that’s what I wanted it to be, given that it’s hard to review something that’s never been published. I don’t know if this was Moffitt’s final draft – as seen in the screengrabs above, it was clearly his second draft at least, given the lined-out corrections – but it would appear to be the only surviving draft. But then Moffitt was a contract writer working to deadline, so I’m assuming he didn’t have the luxury of multiple drafts. Given this, I’m figuring this manuscript was his completed and submitted draft of Death Is A Copycat, and likely was the draft that made its way to France for translation…a translation which sounds like it had elements that were not in Moffitt’s manuscript. 

I’m also assuming the manuscript was written in 1974. I know from Len Levinson that it took “about a year” for his own manuscripts to see print in paperback in the ‘70s, and given that The Baroness was cancelled after Black Gold, which was published in February 1975, I’m assuming Moffitt had to write this a few months earlier than that at least. In other words, he probably got word the series was cancelled in early ’75; maybe Dell let editor Lyle Kenyon Engel know that Black Gold would be the last one (hence that title being more scarce than others in the series – it received a lower print run). What I’m trying to say is, Moffitt wouldn’t have written this manuscript if he knew the series was about to be cancelled, which leads me to conclude that he wrote it sometime in mid to late 1974, going on to write A Black Hole To Die In soon thereafter. 

I really did enjoy this one; it had everything that was great about the series. I also appreciated how Moffitt took a few risks with his template; I liked how this time Penny was the initiator of the assignment, and also I noticed that for once we didn’t get the digressive recap on how she got into the whole “Coin” game. I also appreciated how Moffitt was able to employ Penny’s team a bit more, so they didn’t come off like the cumbersome nuissances of past volumes – if I recall correctly, Moffitt stated in an interview with ppsantos on the Baroness Yahoo Group that the “team” setup was specifically requested by Dell, and that he himself had a hard time with it. 

Again, it’s a shame this volume was never published, as I think it might’ve become a fan favorite. It lacks the globe-trotting nature of previous installments – and the graphic sex is somewhat reduced, with only two fairly-explicit sequences – but it more than makes up for it with a plethora of imaginative gadgets and scenarios. I also like how Pollux’s nature was worked into his fiendish plot; that alone was downright Flemingesque. As I wrote above, Death Is A Copycat makes it clear that Moffitt was still invested in the series and the lackluster Black Gold was just a fluke. 

Usually I take about a year or so between installments of a series, but in this case I’ll be reading and reviewing A Black Hole to Die In soon, probably within the next few weeks. I’m definitely looking forward to that one, especially given how entertaining this one was – and I was very thankful for the chance to read it.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Infinity Five

Infinity Five, edited by Robert Hoskins
No month stated, 1973  Lancer Books

This was the fifth and final Infinity collection Robert Hoskins edited; I don’t have the others, but it’s my understanding they all were along the same lines: forays into the “new wave” science fiction that was en vogue at the time. In other words, no space opera or pulp or anything, but lots of drugs and sex and four-letter words, the stories generally taking place in some perverted future (which is now the past in most cases). It doesn’t look like these five volumes have much clout in the sci-fi world – I mean you don’t see them namedropped like Ellison’s Dangerous Visions books – but my copy was so inexpensive I figured I had nothing to lose. 

Overall the stories are fairly weak; it seems that the various authors were so excited about the prospect of having curse words and “dirty stuff” in a sci-fi story that they forgot about little things like plot and character. Also too many of the stories veer into satire, trading on spoofy extrapolations of the era – in other words, futures with mass psychedelics, wanton free sex, new permissiveness, and other trends of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s. Also a lot of the writers don’t even bother with plots, going for stream-of-conscious exercises in the manner of William Burroughs. I mean I’m all for the “future ‘60s” or “future ‘70s” setups, but I’d like a little plot and story to go along with them, and for the most part the stories collected here fail to deliver. On the other hand, all of them are original to this book, so if they weren’t reprinted elsewhere this might be the only place to find some of them. 

“The Science Fiction Hall Of Fame” is by Robert Silverberg and starts off the collection. This one seems more of a writing exercise than a full-on story, yet regardless I still enjoyed it quite a bit. It alterntes between the viewpoint of an unnamed sci-fi fan in his 30s and excerpts from the various sci-fi stories and novels he’s read over his life, which range from psychedelic to space opera to pulp. Honestly I think this one would’ve worked better if it was a full-on novel, with more space to flesh out the narrator and maybe see how the story-snippets intertwine with his life story. At any rate he’s a lifelong sci-fi fan, with whole collections of magazines and novels; interestingly, all the novels and authors he refers to, at least the sci-fi ones, are fictional. The “A” story has it that the narrator worries over how he could still be a sci-fi fan at such an “old” age, and also how it gives him comfort in that he’s afraid of the future and looks to sci-fi for a “road-map” of how the future will pan out. The dude could’ve saved himself a lot of trouble and just bought a copy of Orwell’s 1984

Silverberg’s writing is good, especially in the excerpts from the fictional stories; he has a firm command of the various styles, and again some of them would’ve been fun to see fleshed out more, like the psychedelic take on two characters sharing a “thought-transference helmet.” But in this short story format the effect is sort of squandered, as the excerpts seem wily-nily and don’t have any bearing on the narrator’s plot, which gradually concerns his veering into science fiction realms during his waking moments, as if he were losing his mind. We also get a few LSD shoutouts, per the era. But I have to say, for a sci-fi geek the guy gets laid a lot; the story opens with the memorable moment of him picking up and screwing some blonde the night of the moon landing (complete with her “frenzied” climaxing as Neil Armstrong sets foot on the moon), and later we learn he’s having an affair with his friend’s wife. Otherwise though, I found this story thought-provoking, and wish there had been more of it. For as it turned out, this was my favorite story in the collection. 

“In Between Then And Now” by Arthur Bryon Cover is a short narrated by an alien in a never-ending war against another alien, which is female. This one is very much in the “art for art’s sake” department and came off as unreadable for me, for the most part. 

“Kelly, Frederic Michael: 1928 – 1987” by William F. Nolan continues the trend of stream-of-conscious gibberish. This one’s another short of featuring random events from some guy’s life, but as with Silverberg’s story it’s just wily-nily with nothing to hold it together. Only it’s much worse, here. At this point I was getting annoyed with the book. However, we have yet another scene where a narrator gets lucky while watching the moon landing on TV! (Or, “She twisted under me, doing a thing with her pelvis, and I came.”) The plot per se has to do with the narrator going into space in 1987 at age 59 to help with “a new system,” but the entire “story” turns out to be “thought transcripts” picked up by aliens who have captured him. Or some such shit. 

“Nostaliga Tripping” by Alan Brennert is more of the same, but slightly more focused. This one’s another short of some guy experiencing various past timelines, and as with Silverberg and Nolan’s stories it randomly jumps from era to era with no thread. It’s short, at least; late in the game we learn something happened in 2003 and either the world came to an end or some other event occurred. The most notable thing about this one is the past timelines are incorrect, and keep changing, like for example the Rolling Stones releasing albums in 1949. 

“She/Her” by Robert Thurston is yet another short narrated by an alien, a la Cover’s story. This one has a little more semblance of plot, but still is more opaque than one would like, as Thurston really tries to capture the viewpoint of an alien being. Basically the narrator now thinks of himself as a “he,” even though the aliens don’t have gender – it’s all due to “corruption” by the humans, who insist on thinking of the narrator being as “him” and another of the alien beings as “her.” Same as with the Cover story, this one has feelings developing between the two alien beings, with “she” wanting to travel off with the humans and “he” being against it. This story too left me dissatisfied, but I did appreciate Thurston’s attempts at capturing a truly alien viewpoint. 

“Trashing” is by Barry Malzberg, who around this time was penning the Lone Wolf series. This one’s as psychedelic as that Mystery novel I reviewed years ago, and so similar at points that I wondered if Malzberg was the “Matthew Paris” who wrote it. This short is also in first-person, as are the majority of the tales in Infinity Five, and concerns a professional assassin who works for “The Committee.” He’s after a “madman” politician who (apparently) has an army of killers he lets loose on the populace wherever he appears, or something. The LSD fumes were particularly thick with this one. 

“Hello, Walls and Fences” by Russell Bates really tried my patience. Another vague “weird future” story where a narrator, who is like a builder or engineer or something, is offered a job by a rich guy but is so offended by the job that he storms out of the office…dithers around at home with his girlfriend…then months later changes his mind about the job, only to be told it’s no longer available! We’re never even told what the job is nor what so offended him about it! 

“Free At Last” is by prolific Ron Goulart and reminded me why I have never been able to get into his work – for, like his other novels at the time, it is a satirical look at the near future, with overblown ‘70s concepts and whatnot. Told mostly via dialog, this one features a guy in a “Wide Open Marriage” in 1992; his sexy wife enjoys wearing “neotex skirts” and is apparently having multiple affairs, her lovers ranging from a cyborg to a warlock(!). Meanwhile the guy, Stu, is having an affair of his own; the belabored setup has it that his aunt is old and sick, but in reality she’s dead, and Stu is sleeping with her “nurse” while the corpse rests in cold storage nearby. Overall this one was another dud, an unfunny comedy, mostly comrpised of made-up “futurespeak” words. 

“Changing of the Gods” by ubiquitous sci-fi editor Terry Carr continues the “wacky future ‘70s” trend, only to more extreme and perverted lengths. This one’s about Sam Luckman, an agent at an advertising firm (just like Darrin in Bewitched!) whose latest job is to come up with the concept of “unselling children” for an order of religious “Pragmatists.” We learn Sam went to college in the ‘70s and is now 38, so once again we have another “future” that is long in our own past, but anyway the setup is that various religions collapsed in the ‘80s and new ones, like the Pragmatists (as well as monks who are “psychologically addicted to LSD”), have sprung up. 

Meanwhile the population is way overblown (Sam has to stand in a long line with other executives just to use one of the urinals), and so is crime – we learn that if Sam were to use the regular employee bathroom, he’d encounter the danger of “tough homosexual rapists” lurking about. But Sam has problems at home – an ultra-horny “youth-injected” wife who enjoys hitting on preteen boys…and might be in the midst of an affair with her own 13 year-old son! Carr pushes all the sleaze buttons in this one, with Sam catching his wife and son in the actual act (complete with the unforgettable phrase “his long pink incestuous dork”), after which Sam goes off the deep end in the ensuing commercials he devises for the Pragmatists, which make children look like everything from violent street punks to baby vampires. This one’s wild and wacky to be sure, but at the same time comes off as so satirical that the center just doesn’t hold. 

“Interpose” is by George Zebrowski and seems to be a take on Jesus and time travel, but at this point I just wanted the book to end so I skipped it. 

“Grayword” is by Dean Koontz and is clearly the centerpiece of the book, running to around 90 pages. This full-blown novella seems to have come out of the Lyke Kenyon Engel fiction factory, and is so close to the Richard Blade setup that you wonder why Koontz never became one of Engel’s stable. After all, around this time Koontz published Writing Popular Fiction. This is the sole story in the entire collection that follows a standard plot, and also whittles way down on the sex and kink factors. And the only drugs here are ones that have been devised for research purposes. While I appreciated having an actual plot and characterization, I have to say that ultimately “Grayworld” was as frustrating a read as the others, mostly because it just kept repeating itself. 

The opening is memorable, at least: a well-muscled naked dude wakes up in a sort of laboratory, one filled with strange computers and the like. Much like a reverse Richard Blade, with Blade waking up in the teleportation chamber instead of a new world in Dimension X. The guy has amnesia, and has no idea how or why he came here; he finds a skeleton in another chamber, and what appears to be cryogenic chambers – also with a skeleton in one. Eventually he pieces it together that his name must be “Joel,” given the name above the chamber he woke in, but before he can figure anything else out a “faceless man” with syringe-like needles on his palm comes out of nowhere and slaps at him, and Joel goes into darkness. 

From here “Grayworld” picks up its maddeningly repetitive plot; Joel continues to wake up in a sequence of realities, all of them always featuring the same three people: himself, a hotbod brunette usually named Allison, and an older guy usually named Henry Galling. In some “realities” Allison is Joel’s wife, in others she’s a nurse (with a different name) who claims Joel has tried to rape her. In some realities Galling is Allison’s uncle, and in others he’s running a research project into a new drug. It goes on and on, Joel passing out – or being knocked out by the ever-present faceless man – and coming to in some new reality or other, not knowing which is real…but certain that the initial one, of him waking up in the chamber, was the “real” one. 

Koontz drops some eerie foreshadowing in the opening sequences; in particular mentions of dust on everything and everyone, even how “dust lay between the full cones of [Allison’s] breasts.” (For some reason I suddenly want ice cream!) The reader can ascertain that we are in some dystopic future; nothing seems to exist except for the countryside mansion in which all this occurs. It’s also very heavy on the mindbender vibe, with Joel – in multiple realities – discovering that the scene outside the window is just a hologram; one can even reach out and touch the moon! But this forward momentum is lost as Joel is incessantly thrust into one new reality after another; in some he’ll have Allison on his side, ready to escape, then the faceless man will come around again and in the next “reality” Allison will be someone else…or even one of the people behind the mind games. 

So let me jump to the reveal here, SPOILER warning. “Grayworld” has the biggest copout ending ever. Joel has had one “flash” that something big happened at some point, something he glimpsed out the window, but he’s unable to remember it. And finally, after 80 or so pages of endless mysteries, he remembers everything immediately. So basically there was like an “eco disaster” which destroyed hummanity, and all this is occurring a thousand years later. Joel is the last human on the planet, part of a group of astronauts who were supposed to leave Earth but who never got off the ground due to various computer snafus or something. So Joel has created androids from “vats” (it sounds like an incredibly easy process, too), and over the years he fell in love with one of them (aka Allison). But he was so haunted by this “miscegenation” that he gave himself amnesia so that he’d forget everything and have the androids put him through various trials…so that he would be able to gravitate to Allison free of any guilt, unaware that she’s an android and all. 

I mean honestly I think I speak for everyone when I say, what the holy hell??? And Koontz isn’t done yet; in the very last pages he doles out this eleventh hour plot about these evil creatures that have been trying to break in for hundreds of years or something, and Joel marshalled the androids to stop them before, but now he’s still getting over the amnesia so they have to remind him, and etc…and here the story ends, with Joel about to lead his android pals in attack. Just the most mind-boggling finale ever, but humorous in how Koontz flat-out kills off all the suspense and psycho-sexual mystery he spent the majority of the novella building up. 

“Isaac Under Pressure” is by Scott Edelstein and seems to have been about genies in bottles or something – it’s another short one – but I was so turned off by “Grayworld” that I skipped it. 

And that’s all she wrote for Infinity Five. This one sounded a lot more promising than it turned out to be, so there’s no mystery at all why this series is relatively unknown.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

Mafia Death Watch (The Sharpshooter #16)

Mafia Death Watch, by Bruno Rossi
No month stated, 1975  Leisure Books

Well folks I can hardly believe it, but here we are: the final volume of The Sharpshooter. It’s taken me over ten years but I’ve now made my way through this entire series – a series which was published in the span of two years! – and I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself now that I have no further adventures of Johnny “The Sharpshooter” Rock to look forward to. 

But on the plus side, I’ve been looking forward to reading Mafia Death Watch since I started collecting the series all those years ago. Rayo Casablanca memorably declared “take a shower after this puppy,” noting the outrageous sleaze element of this final volume – something Lynn Munroe and Justin Marriott also pointed out. But if you all know anything about me from the reviews on here, you’ll know this one sounded right up my twisted alley! And I have to say, Mafia Death Watch certainly delivers on the sleaze angle: we’ve got copious female exploitation, several explicit sex scenes, gory firefights, and not one but three separate characters who receive their fates courtesy a bullet to their nether regions. Indeed there seems to be a sick fascination with shooting people in their bodily orifices. 

This final volume was courtesy a writer named Dan Reardon, of whom not much is known – save that, in 1980, he also published an installment of the Nick Carter: Killmaster series (Tarantula Strike, which I have but haven’t read). What makes this interesting is that there are a lot of Killmaster elements in Mafia Death Watch. “Johnny” (as Reardon refers to Rock) uses a “luger” as one of his favorite firearms, a la Nick Carter’s Luger, and Johnny also carries a “golf ball” that emits tear gas, similar to Carter’s mini-bomb “Pierre.” Johnny also carries a derringer in a “crotch holster,” which brings to mind where Carter generally stores Pierre. Anyway, I found all this interesting because it’s as if Reardon was already thinking of a Killmaster installment when he wrote this book. 

But folks there’s no volume of Killmaster as perverted and sleazy as Mafia Death Watch. We get our indication posthaste of what sort of novel we’re about to read: the novel opens with a chapter in which “Mafia chieftan” Joe Bartolo, in Detroit, meets with a lovely young girl named Nancy Jenkins; Nancy is a new hooker, you see, one who is part of the Mafia’s stable, and she’s had second thoughts. In fact her uncle down in Florida wants to pay for her to go to college. Bartolo is kind and understanding, telling her no problem – but first he’d like to try her out. This leads to a crazed moment rivalling the opening of Corporate Hooker, Inc.: Bartolo, having gotten Nancy naked on his pool table, whips out an automatic shotgun and has her fuck it while she blows him – and then pulls the trigger when he climaxes! 

Meanwhile Johnny Rock is visiting his parents’ gravesite in New York; we learn it’s four years after the first volume, and Johnny, despite his better interests, still visits this grave each year. We’re told the Mafia has yet to figure out that “Johnny Rock” is the son of this murdered couple, and interestingly Reardon does not make Rock the legendary figure he is in the other Sharpshooter novels. Indeed throughout the book Johnny refers to himself by a variety of sarcastic titles – ie “I’m just a citizen,” and etc – and there’s never a part where his Mafia prey realize he’s the same guy who has been raising hell for them for the past four years. 

Speaking of Johnny’s origins, I think it’s clear Reardon was brought into the series the same way earlier ghostwriter Len Levinson was: series editor Peter McCurtin gave Reardon a few Sharpshooter books and told him to read them. But in Reardon’s case I’m certain it was one of Len’s books he was given to read, for Mafia Death Watch is a direct sequel to Len’s second contribution to the series: Night Of The Assassins. Johnny is attacked at the gravesite by some men who overpower him; they knock him out and fly him to Miami, a city Johnny last visited “a few months ago” (later stated as being “last spring”). The captors turn out to be Miami cops, and the guy who put them on Johnny turns out to be Detective Jenkins of the Miami police force. 

I couldn’t recall if Jenkins had been in Night Of The Assassins, but I did remember that there had been a “Detective Jenkins” in Len’s Bronson novel, Streets Of Blood. I checked my copy of Night Of The Assassins and, sure enough, a “Detective Jenkins” appeared in it as well. So I went to the source: I told Len that Reardon’s Sharpshooter was a sequel to one of Len’s own, with Len’s character Detective Jenkins appearing, Jenkins even mentioning the “Peter Dominick” pseudonym Johnny had used in Len’s novel. However Len’s Bronson novel was set in New York, not Miami, so I asked Len about the Jenkins character, and if he was aware that this final Sharpshooter was a sequel to one of his own books: 

John Jenkins was my supervisor when I investigated child abuse in Dade County, Florida, which included Miami. He was a retired NYPD police officer. I have used his name in several of my novels. I never heard of Dan Reardon. 

So then my assumption is Night Of The Assassins was probably the most recently-published installment when Reardon started working on his manuscript (from Len I know it took “about a year” for these manuscripts to see print), thus Reardon used it as a springboard for his own novel. However Johnny doesn’t remain in Miami very long. Jenkins turns out to he the “uncle” who was going to fund Nany Jenkins’s college education, and he’s since found out that the girl was murdered – “shot through the genitals.” Jenkins wants to finance Johnny on a blitz campaign against the sadist who killed his niece. Jenkins doesn’t have the details, he just knows the Mafia was involved, and he also knows from the events here in Miami “last spring” that Johnny Rock is the number one killer of Mafia. 

It’s interesting to note that Johnny Rock is in no way, shape or form a hero in the hands of Reardon. Not that he ever has been in the hands of any of the series ghostwriters, but here he’s particularly crazed and sadistic. For example, he is in no way pleasant to Jenkins, and even takes the opportunity to punch him in the gut after they’ve eaten a lobster dinner. Granted, Jenkins hired some men to knock Johnny out, drug him, and take him to Miami. But through the course of the novel Johnny will show no heroic nature; there’s a shocking part midway through where he even shoots a dead girl in the head so as to taunt a mobster. The implication is he’s just as bad as the Mafia he’s sworn to kill, and the portrait is so crazed you wish there’d been more volumes of the series just to see how much crazier Reardon could’ve gotten. 

We get more rampant sleaze in a cutaway sequence in which we meet Tonia, yet another Mafia hooker; this one trainbound for Detroit with her pimp, Tony, as well as a Mafia stooge named Cardo. The implication is clear that Tony is going to give Tonia as a “gift” to Cardo once they get to the city. Or, as Cardo puts it, “I kept thinking about them nice tits of yours.” As with the opening chapter, we get a very explicit sequence told from the girl’s point of view as Cardo “eats it out of” her – despite her revulsion over the heavyset thug, Tonia’s body reacts to just about any sexual stimuli. There’s a big focus here on how Tonia’s body reacts to the various probings, that’s for sure. The scene has a nice conclusion, though, with Tonia getting hold of Cardo’s gun and blowing his guts out – after which Johnny Rock arrives on the scene. 

But for a character that is so built up, Tonia is almost casually dispensed with. She gives Johnny some info on the Detroit mob scene, engages him in the expected bedroom shenanigans (which unbelievably occur off-page), and then is almost shockingly removed from the narrative. Later Johnny will meet yet another hooker with a heart of gold, Anne, and she will turn out to be what passes for the main female character in Mafia Death Watch. But she’s so similar to Tonia – who gets more of an intro and more character development – that you wonder why Reardon didn’t just combine the two characters into one. 

At least Reardon keeps the focus on Johnny throughout, and doesn’t forget the action. He’s merciless in his attacks on the mob. There are frequent scenes in which he’ll take his Luger or .38 and go out blasting; an extended sequence in the final quarter has Johnny staging a series of lightning strikes on various Mafia bigwigs, blasting them away from afar with his rifle. But despite being prone to aggressive action, Reardon’s version of Johnny Rock still displays some of Len’s take on the character in that he’s a little too concerned with things at times. There’s a bit too much needless explanation on how such and such things happen, or what Johnny thinks might happen, or how certain things came to pass. What I mean to say is, Reardon often stops the narrative to explain too much, and sometimes Johnny comes off as too thoughtful, as did Len’s. But as we’ll recall, this was in Len’s first two installments; in his last one, Headcrusher, he delivered a Johnny Rock who had no anxiety hangups and, per the directive of McCurtin, “killed in cold hate.” 

Actually the occasional anxiety jibes against Johnny’s otherwise bullish behavior; he meets Anne by going into a mob bar and starting up a ruckus, setting his sights on Anne because she looks more sophisticated than the other hookers there. Johnny basically just follows a string of names to figure out who was behind the murder of Nancy Jenkins, and Anne helps him make a lot of connections. But there’s a fair bit of coincidence at play, too; Johnny will find someone in the chain, only to discover they are related to someone else in it, or what have you – what I mean to say is, we aren’t talking a highbrow mystery here. Oh and also I love it that Johnny specifically goes back to that bar to dish out bloody payback to the thugs who beat him up during the ruckus, even blowing out the knees of the bartender before killing him. 

And Johnny is certainly brutal in Reardon’s hands; I mentioned already the shocking part where he shoots a dead girl in the head. But later, when one of Johnny’s new friends is almost beaten to death, our hero finds out that Bartolo’s “main girl” was behind it – yet another hooker, one who has been elevated to becoming the top man’s mistress. Johnny breaks into Bartolo’s compound, kills a few guards, and surprises the girl in her bedroom (dressed in a negligee and reading a “paperback,” no less). Here Johnny does something not even Russell Smith would’ve come up with in his most fevered moment. Johnny plays a variation on “an eye for an eye” and treats the girl to the same death Nancy Jenkins experienced: “The .38 spat twice into the gaping orifice.” A “vicious rape” indeed, and well beyond any of the sadism Johnny Rock committed in any previous volume…which is really saying something. 

Surprisingly, Johnny isn’t done shooting into “gaping orifices.” The finale borrows from McCurtin and Russell Smith in that Bartolo and his various underlings conveniently gather together in one spot; this even takes place on a boat, same as the usual scenario courtesy those other two series writers. Instead of blowing the place up with a bazooka or whatever, Johnny gets on the boat and delivers Bartolo with a fitting sendoff – Bartolo by the way having disappeared from the narrative since the first chapter. SPOILER WARNING, but I mean come on we aren’t talking Citizen Kane here or anything. Johnny holds his rifle on Bartolo and has him stand in front of his underlings as a sign of what happens to men who shoot unarmed girls in the groin – and then jams his rifle up Bartolo’s ass and pulls the trigger! 

Indeed, Mafia Death Watch is so depraved and grimy that it equals other such lurid crime paperbacks of the era: Death List, The Savage Women, and even Bronson: Blind Rage. Sales must’ve been really low for the series not to have continued past this point; I can imagine Peter McCurtin was thrilled to discover a writer who could deliver such wanton sleaze and violence…with pretty good prose stylings, to boot! But this was it for The Sharpshooter; last we see of Johnny Rock he’s gotten out of the hospital, where he spent three weeks recuperating from injuries he received in the climax (Anne by his side the entire time, we’re informed). He heads down to Miami to meet again with Detective Jenkins – telling Jenkins that the money he was going to use to pay for Nancy Jenkins’s college education can now be used to pay for Anne’s. 

And that’s it for The Sharpshooter. I could re-read the series, as I’ve done with other series I’ve finished, like The Baroness, and have planned to do with TNT and John Eagle Expeditor. And maybe I will. But given the jumbled nature of this series, with manuscripts from The Marksman brought over and changed to Johnny Rock stories and etc, I don’t see how much reward there would be in the re-reading. Then again maybe I’ll change my mind in a couple years. In closing, The Sharpshooter was one of the series that inspired me to start this blog in the first place – I remember how excited I was to learn about it, and quickly went about collecting all the volumes. I know my reviews are overlong and pedantic, but I hope over the years I have inspired similar excitement in other readers.

Monday, May 17, 2021

Traveler #8: Terminal Road

Traveler #8: Terminal Road, by D.B. Drumm
February, 1986  Dell Books

I’ve been wondering how John Shirley would handle this eighth volume of Traveler, given that his previous contribution, #6: Border War, was basically a series finale, with Traveler literally sailing off into a Happily Ever After with his lady love Jan. But as we know from the previous volume, which was courtesy Ed Naha, Traveler’s HEA was short-lived: his boat was bombed out of the water, Jan lost, and Traveler returned to the weary, battle-hardened life of a post-nuke road warrior. 

So as it turns out, Shirley basically just ignores that previous book; other than a late, very brief recap of what happened after Border War, Terminal Road just picks up the pace from the earliest installments as if there’d been no change to the status quo. Traveler’s back in his armed and armored van, the “Meat Wagon,” playing tapes as he travels the road, his riding companion old Army pal Hill. Shirley has read Naha’s previous volume, as we do get a bit of detail on that one, and the fallout from it. Like for example that Traveler’s other old Army pal Orwell is still recovering from the wounds he endured, and thus decided to stay in Mexico a bit with new US “President” Jackson. And Shirley also answers one thing – while Naha left Jan’s fate a mystery, Shirley clearly informs us she was killed in that seaborne attack. Bummer! 

Shirley also answers another question I had – namely, when the series takes place. He makes it clear throughout that the year is 2005; the nuke war occurred “sixteen years ago,” which we’re informed was 1989. So this confirms my theory that the Dell editor who handled the back cover copy was just plain confused…because once again the back cover states that the book takes place “twenty-seven years after doomsday!” This would place the action in 2016, which is incorrect. Otherwise Shirley doesn’t dip into the subplots he introduced in previous books, ie Traveler being a supernaturally-chosen savior of post-nuke society or whatnot; in fact, I get the impression that Terminal Road was quickly churned out so as to fill a contract, or maybe because Naha needed help. 

Chief evidence of this is that Shirley, for the first time in the series, borrows a gimmick from William Gibson; each chapter alternates between two protagonists. It’s been decades since I read Gibson, but I recall this being a schtick of his in every post-Neuromancer novel. So one chapter will focus on Traveler, and the next will focus on a character new to the series, a bounty hunter named Hastur. And as with Gibson these concurring storylines slowly coalasce into one. Shirley’s never done this before; Traveler was always center stage from beginning to end, so this really gives the impression that Shirley had said all he wanted to say in Border War and was just churning this one out in a pinch. 

Which is not to say Terminal Road isn’t good. In fact it was one of my favorites in the series yet. Like all of Shirley’s Travelers, it’s essentially just a fast-moving action story, but what adds to it is the contrasting natures of Traveler and Hastur. While Shirley never outright states it, the implication is that Hastur is everything Traveler could have been: a Special Forces badass who has turned his back on any vestige of goodness and murders with impunity for money, fuel, or supplies. He’s a seven foot giant of black-American Indian heritage and built like a pro football linebacker. He carries a host of weaponry and rides an armored “trike” with a teardrop windshield. He takes glee in killing for profit, and is in every way the antithesis of Traveler, which makes for an entertaining read. 

The only problem is, Hastur seems like a poor man’s substitue for the Black Rider, that jet-black mutant biker villain who appeared in Shirley’s earliest installments. But unfortunately Shirley killed the Black Rider off, thus he had to come up with this new guy…who, despite lots of setup, turns out to be pretty much a dud in the supervillain sweepstakes. I mean when we meet Hastur he’s killing with ease – and we see how evil he is, as he wipes out his target’s entire family – but when he tries to take out Traveler later in the book he just makes one goof after another. Which makes the whole “alternating protagonist” chapter-switches all the more strange: are we supposed to be rooting for Hastur in his chapters? Hoping that he catches Traveler unawares? While it’s a neat narrative trick, it just comes off like it did in Gibson’s novels: an easy way to meet the word count. 

Another curious thing about Terminal Road is that the customary gore of Shirley’s previous books is mostly gone, and the sex almost nonexistent. I mean there’s a part where Traveler, as expected, gets busy with some post-nuke babe he meets along the road, and it fades to black! This from a series that would at least give a paragraph or two of lovably purple prose. Granted, Traveler and the lady’s second “bout” is slightly more, uh, fleshed out, but still it’s nothing compared with what, uh, came before. (My mind’s permanently in the gutter, in case there were any question.) So to recap – our hero is only in half the book, given the alternating chapters, and the sex and violence have been greatly reduced. Regardless, Terminal Road is still heads and tails better than the previous volume, which makes me sad that this was Shirley’s final installment. 

Shirley opens the book with what will be the only big action scene: Traveler and Hill, barreling through West Texas, take out a small army of Roadrats. After this they take on a job from a commune that’s been hit by Bubonic Plague; Traveler and Hill will do a “serum run” to a hospital in Utah in exchange for fuel and supplies. Traveler learns about the job opportunity via his short-wave radio; can’t recall if this aspect was much mentioned in previous novels, but here Shirley has a whole post-nuke radio society, with people on the various bands recreating old radio shows, just jabbering away, or calling out for aid. There’s a great part later on where Hastur gets hold of a shortwave radio and starts fucking with people, like a post-apocalyptic Jerky Boy or something – this could’ve gone on much longer, so far as I was concerned. 

Speaking of Hastur, in his sections we see him also offered a job: to bring Vice President Veronica Barlowe the head of Traveler. Barlowe I don’t believe has been mentioned before, but she is the VP of crazed President Frayling, who we learn is still recuperating from the previous book. In fact, Traveler is wanted dead because he nearly killed Frayling. Shirley excels in unexpected humorous bits; my favorite in this regard is when Hastur, who has never heard of Traveler, reads the dossier Barlowe provides on him – how he’s seen so much action that he’s become a legend – and bluntly declares, “Sounds like a nobody.” 

Hastur actually carries most of the narrative, shuttling around the South and trying to find Traveler. Most of the action takes place in New Mexico, by the way, and Shirley does a great job bringing the setting to life. Meanwhile Traveler just drives along, blissfully unaware he has a bounty on his head. Hill has suddenly developed a personality, so there’s a goodly bit of chatter between the two. Also this time Traveler’s listening to a “Coltrane tape” as the miles roll by, the music blotting out any thoughts. The cover depicts a random encounter with a “war mech;” for the first time Shirley introduces a sort of sci-fi element to the series, with these battle robots having been created shortly before WWIII and used to guard secret military installations. Most of them, we learn, were destroyed with the nukes, but a few survived and have gone solo, attacking people at random. 

The robot is described pretty much as it appears on the cover, and comes after Traveler and Hill while they’re fixing a flat tire. It’s a rolling tank with .90 caliber cannons and .80 caliber machine guns, as well as other stuff. Solar-powered, to boot. Traveler and Hill are only saved by the sudden appearance of two women in “powered gliders;” they swoop over the war mech and start dropping bombs on it. This is Vickie, a pretty blonde, and Dennie, an also-pretty redhead. Soon we learn their story: Mormons who have come from a high-tech sanctuary built beneath Salt Lake City before the war, so that a new generation could survive any nuclear calamity. 

Only the girls reveal that the men never showed up; while the women and kids made it down there before the nukes fell, the men didn’t. In the passing years a community has developed, with two warring factions: the “conservatives” who think religion should dictate all affairs, and the “liberals” who want to follow the Constitution. Vickie and Dennie are part of the latter group, and they’ve come up to the surface world to find a group of escaped conservatives – who have taken off with computer gear and other essentials that are necessary to maintain the underground society. Meanwhile Traveler and Hill have actually met these escaped women, not knowing who they were – early in the book they came across a bunch of smiling and polite blonde women who looked like “women from before the war;” their bus had been damaged and Traveler helped them repair it. 

It’s inevitable something will soon be happening with these couples – I mean Vickie and Dennie are presumably virgins, having grown up in a “matriarchal” society, both of them having been kids when they went to the sanctuary years ago. Shirley doesn’t elaborate much on this, but he does of course have Traveler hook up with Vickie (the hotter of the two, naturally). But as mentioned he doesn’t go into the full-bore sleaze details of past volumes, dammit. Instead Shirley goes another route – that Traveler, “despite himself,” starts to fall for Vickie. Even though he “promised himself he’d never love again,” yada yada yada. I mean you’d think Jan’s fate would give him a prefigure of what could happen, but nope. 

Hastur slowly makes his way to Traveler, using cunning to figure out where he’s headed. But as mentioned he’s a poor villain. He bungles chance after chance to take out his prey. But with this sole villain it’s clear Terminal Road isn’t headed for a big finale. Rather, Shirley goes for something that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Marvin Albert novel, with two men squaring off in the harsh elements. After a few firefights – some of which are rather costly to Traveler’s companions – Hastur holes up in a cliff and Traveler scales it to take him on man to man. The villain’s sendoff is memorable, but the climax seems more in tune with a suspense-thriller than a post-nuke pulp. 

And that’s it for John Shirley’s run on Traveler. We leave our hero as we met him, adrift in the post-apocalypse with the Meat Wagon his sole recurring companion. And also Shirley doesn’t plant any carrots for future volumes, unless Naha intends to do something with the newly-introduced Vice President. Otherwise Terminal Road is another entertaining installment of the series, though honestly the sixth volume came off like a more fitting conclusion. Here’s hoping Naha will take a few cues from Shirley in the following novels and deliver similarly fast-moving yarns.

Thursday, May 13, 2021

The World Inside

The World Inside, by Robert Silverberg
September, 1972  Signet Books

Robert Silverberg was very prolific in the early ’70s, especially in the short story market, and this is where The World Inside first took shape; the “novel” is really a fixup, as they’re called, of a handful of stories and novellas Silverberg published in various sci-fi magazines and anthologies in 1970 and 1971. It would appear that he wrote the stories with this very novel in mind, so in essence the book does come off more as a novel than as a short story collection, with the understanding that there isn’t a main plot that runs through it – other, that is, than the general overarching plot of the “horizontal” society of the year 2381. 

So the novel clearly delves into the overpopulation concerns of the era, a la Futureshock and the like (starring Orson Welles in the film adaptation!). Silverberg clearly seems to be satirizing it, though, as the Earth of his future is incredibly overpopulated, however the denizens are damned determined to keep adding to the number. We learn that, sometime in the 22nd century, the people of the Earth (now of course united in a sort of hive mind global community, per another recurring theme of the era) decided to take up the challenge to see how many human beings could actually live on Earth, and thus changed their society from “horizontal” to “vertical.” Ie instead of building out, they built up, erecting towering structures which could hold hundreds of thousands of people. And if you run out of space, why you just build another structure. 

These are the “urbmons,” aka “urban monad” dwellings; buildings that span nearly two miles high and have a thousand floors. The World Inside concerns Urbmon 116, which as the novel opens has a current population of 881,115 people. It’s in the “Chipitts” region, which gradually we learn is what was once known as the “Chicago-Pittsburgh” region of the US, however these names are mysterious to the people of 2381. As with most other sci-fi of the day, the story has dystopic roots, as we learn some great calamity in the past also befell the Earth, leading to this vertical approach. Also it’s worth noting that while the novel is entirely earthbound, mankind has ventured into the solar system, with colonies on Venus and likely elsewhere. It’s also worth noting that the offworld colonists live in places more like the “old” Earth than the people of Earth do. 

Another hallmark of the era is the psychedelic vibe that permeates the tale, with a “new morality” of open sex and wanton drug use. Society has completely changed in that there is no such thing as privacy, and people enter into marriage while in their preteens, the goal to have as many children as soon as possible. All this, including the rampant psychedelics, is very similar to Logan’s Run, even down to the fact that the majority of the characters are incredibly young. So while there is indeed a lot of somewhat-explicit sex in The World Inside, the characters engaged in the shenanigans are teenagers. So we’ll have stories concerning a 14 year-old boy who has “had hundreds of women” in his time, or about a fifteen year-old girl desperate to get pregnant, else she might be moved out of Urbmon 116. 

Personally this sort of killed my enjoyment level; I mean even when I was a teen I wanted to read about adult protagonists. A curious thing though is that these kids act and talk just like adults, to the extent that you could read the book and think it features 30 and 40 year olds. (Even more curiously, 30 and 40 year olds are rarely mentioned.) The implication here is that people in this future world have become so self-involved that they have grown exponentially more self-aware and wise than modern kids their age, to the extent that even a 14 year-old is so intelligent and observant that he’s being groomed for the highest echelons of Urbmon 116. However unlike Logan’s Run this “kid’s world” element isn’t due to a lifespan cutoff or anything; it’s just that Silverberg has decided to only focus on preteens and teens for his stories. 

That said, Silverberg has created an entire world in Urbmon 116, which really is the main character of the novel. Each Urbmon is essentially a country in itself, and there doesn’t even seem to be much communication between the various buildings; even though the other Urbmons are visible from the windows of Urbmon 116, they’re basically mysteries – mysteries that no one is interested in, at that. What I mean to say is, the hive mentality is so strong that people only care about the Urbmon they live in, with no desire to leave the place or see the world. In fact there is almost an air of desperation in how “happy” the occupants claim to be. At any rate, groups of floors are blocked together into separate “cities” named after cities of the past; for example, top floor Louisville is the pinnacle of Urbmon 116’s social and political order. 

Silverberg parcels out this info throughout the stories; the new social structures are shown rather than explained, which adds to the enjoyment. The only story that comes close to flat-out exposition is the first one, aka Chapter 1, which concers a visit to Urbmon 116 from “the Sociocomputator from Hell.” This turns out to be a literal title, not a facetious one; the guy in question is indeed from Hell, ie one of the moons of Venus. He is visiting Charles Mattern, a sociocomputator who lives in the Shanghai section of Urbmon 116, which is a little over halfway up the building – though Mattern feels he’d be even higher in the social order if he had more kids. The visitor, Nicanor Gortman, is shown around the building, and while this is a fine intro to the world it comes off more like heavy narrative lifting to set up the story. 

Given the short story origins, characters will come and go in the narrative; Mattern will be the first indication of this, as he drops from the “novel,” only to appear in passing once or twice more later on. But this does add a cool factor to the book, as you see how other characters feel about one another. (As for Gortman, he’s never mentioned again.) Mattern’s story is mostly there to show how Urbmon 116 works, and to explain this weird social structure: there’s no privacy (families even use the toilet in front of each other), there’s no sadness, there’s much pride in the Urbmon overall, and there are free drugs. Free sex, too; “nightwalking” is a facet of this society, with men and women free to roam at night, entering any door (none of which are locked), and requesting to have sex with the person who lives there – and it is socially taboo to turn down the request. 

This sounds like a rapist’s paradise, but we’re to understand that the people of this future are so “advanced” that there’s no such thing as rape or cheating or adultery. The joy is in sharing and giving; thus if someone came into your apartment to have sex with your wife, you would feel honored that he even chose her. Silverberg introduces a great bit midway through the book where an Urbmon couple manages to bring 20th century hangups into this society, with a wife who brings adultery back into a world where adultery no longer exists. This world is very hard for us to imagine, and Silverberg turns this concept on its head, too, with a section where another character tries to figure out the 20th Century and realizes it’s just too weird for him to grasp. 

Another thing I noticed is that, even though childbearing is of prime importance so as to raise yourself up in the social pecking order, the children really don’t seem to matter much to their parents. Again, this is not actually spelled out, but in all the stories the children are just wallpaper, and often just left to their own devices; there are at least a few parts where a “daywalking” character will go into someone’s home, only to find the babies there, unattended in their “slots.” Silverberg does not go for much description or detail, leaving the reader to do the heavy lifting on the whole imaginating department, but we do learn that these “slots” seem to actually nurture the babies, even up to putting a force field around them. We learn this latter tidbit in a part where someone tries to blow the drug of a smoke toward a sleeping baby, and the force field blocks it. 

Speaking of drugs, like Logan’s Run and After The Good War this is a very psychedelicized future. Drugs are available at kiosks on each floor, some of them with extraterrestrial origins; we learn of something called “tingle,” which comes from Venus and is shared in a communal bowl. There are also “multiplexer,” apparently a super-potent psychedelic, which so blows one’s mind that he or she shares a sort of mental link with everyone in the Urbmon. There are also darker drug-world elements; one story concerns a young girl who is unable to get pregnant and learns that she and her husband will be shuttled off to a new Urbmon. She fights against this to the point that she’s sent to a sort of reprogramming chamber, where she floats in serenity while being dosed with various psychedelics. When she comes out she’s happy and positive and seemingly a totally different person. 

Another dark element of this future world is when a person goes “flippo” and is sent “down the chute.” To go flippo means to bug out, specifically to rail against the Urbmon society. Initially I thought “going down the chute” meant being cast out of the Urbmon, but we soon learn that the chute pretty much vaporizes whoever goes down it, their body energies absorbed and funnelled back into the Urbmon. We see this process in action in a later story. But it’s rare that Silverberg actually describes or explains things to us, presenting everything matter of factly and letting us understand what’s what via dialog or action. Indeed, he goes for a “literary” style throughout, writing the novel in third-person present-tense and doling out huge blocks of narrative, to the extent that it sometimes comes off more like Cormac McCarthy than the typical science fiction novel.

I’ve talked about the drugs; now let’s talk about the sex. As mentioned, most of the time it concerns teens and pre-teens, so there’s that. (And plus we even learn that kids in the Urbmon start sexually experimenting when they’re nine years old – sometimes even younger!) There’s a lot of sex in The World Inside, but we aren’t talking paragraphs of boinking a la The Baroness. In fact there isn’t that much exploitation at all. We’ll get minor detail of the female characters – usually that they’re “shapely” or whatnot – but even here it’s not very exploitative. What I mean to say is, you won’t read about “upthrusting full breasts” or anything like that. More along the lines of, “…she shrieks and pumps her hips and makes hoarse animal noises as she claws as him. He is so astonished by the fury of her coming that he forgets to notice his own.” This sort of thing is what passes for the sexually-descriptive material, and again it has more of a literary vibe than an exploitative one. 

Okay so the sex and drugs are covered; now the rock and roll. One of the stories here is more “rock novel” than some of the actual rock novels I’ve reviewed on the blog. This one concerns Dillon Chrimes, a 17 year old “who plays the vibrastar in a cosmos group.” Oh, and his wife paints “psychedelic tapestries.” Clearly indebted to the era in which it was published, this one’s basically the late ‘60s psychedelic rock scene projected into the future; Chrimes even lives in the “San Francisco” section of Urbmon 116, an artist and musician section in the 370th floor region. As mentioned Silverberg doesn’t elaborate on much, presenting his future world in matter-of-fact terms: thus what a vibrastar even is remains a bit of a mystery. It seems to be a sort of audio-visual instrument, projecting displays of the galaxy and whatnot, and takes a lot of work to control. Chrimes’s story is one of the highlights of the novel, featuring his group playing a gig. Their music isn’t really described, but it’s clearly instrumental, and seems to have a prog rock-meets jazz fusion sound. After which Chrimes drops a multiplexer and psychedelically communes with the building (while having sex with some random babe, of course). 

I thought Chrimes’s story would be my favorite, but the one that I found most interesting concerned Jason Quevedo, a somewhat nebbish historian whose subject of study is the 20th Century. This chapter is not only entertaining due to Jason’s attempts to understand the alien world of the past, researching it via “cubes” he calls up from a data source, but also because he is slowly “contaminated” by the mindset of the 20th Century and begins feeling resentment and suspicion toward his wife. He’s certain she’s having an affair with her twin brother (incest is condoned so far as only children are involved, we’re told – but one must stop such stuff when he or she is an adult!), and Jason’s jealousies get the better of him. This story is darkly comic and definitely was my favorite of the novel, particularly the O. Henry-esque ending, in which Jason and his wife realize they are more similar than they thought. 

But I have to admit, after this story my interest started to wane. We have a somewhat-recurring character named Siegmund, the aforementioned 14 year-old headed for big things, and his story didn’t resonate with me; same goes for a very long story concerning Jason’s brother-in-law, Michael, who longs to see the outside world. This story in particular just seemed to drag on, with this guy venturing outside the Urbmon, meeting the strange communal humans who live outside them, making a fumbling pass at one of the women, and then foolishly returning to Urbmon 116. After this we return to Siegmund, who actually is the closest we get to a main character in the novel; his continuing story, which finishes off the novel, also displays that not all is happiness and joy in Urbmon 116. 

Overall though I really did enjoy The World Inside. It definitely has that psychedelic sci-fi vibe I enjoy so much, and Silverberg did a great job of projecting the early ‘70s into the future. If anything it’s made me decide to read more of his work, especially from this period of his career.