Thursday, March 31, 2022

The Creator

The Creator, by William Hegner
June, 1978  Pocket Books

As far as I’m aware, this was the last novel William Hegner published for over twenty years, not returning to the publishing world until 1999’s Razzle Dazzle, which he co-wrote with the actress Stella Stevens.* (And in fact I’m not even sure if this was the same William Hegner.) In my review of The Worshipped And The Damned a commenter named Tex posted an obituary of Hegner from the Sandusky Register, but the link’s no longer valid and not even available on the Wayback Machine. I’m assuming this is Sandusky, Ohio, and some Google searching reveals that a “William (Bill) Hegner” was the sports editor of the Sandusky Register in 1947. Again, no idea if it’s even the same guy; according to Hawk’s Authors’ Pseudonyms, William Hegner was born in 1928, so that’s pretty young for an editor. I can’t recall what else that obituary said, nor even what year Hegner died…it’s curious so little is known about him, with zero in the way of biographical info online; per the cover blurbs of his Pocket Books paperbacks, William Hegner’s novels sold in the “millions,” so he certainly had readers in the day. 

Hegner was also prolific: he published 16 novels in the ‘70s, almost all of them Pocket Books paperback originals. The sole non-Pocket paperback he published that decade was Rainbowland, first published in hardcover in 1977 and then in softcover by Playboy Books. The Creator capped off this productive decade, and would turn out to be Hegner’s last book (perhaps; see the asterisked footnote below). Pocket Books gives no indication of this, again blurbing those “millions” of novels sold; the cover art and layout follows the previous year’s The Bigamist. In fact for a long time I kept confusing these two books due to the similar covers. (All the kids at school would make fun of me!) But what I’m trying to say is that the decision to no longer write must have been Hegner’s, for Pocket was clearly still trying to promote him as a major seller. 

Maybe Hegner was just burned out with writing sleaze, as I theorized before. But if so, the curious thing would be that The Creator also follows The Bigamist in that it’s an actual story, with a plot that develops over the book’s 262 pages. In other words, it isn’t just a random snapshot of depraved sleaze, a la earlier Hegner novels The Ski Lodgers or Stars Cast No Shadows. While there is a good bit of sexual tomfoolery in The Creator, Hegner’s focus is more on telling his tale and bringing his characters to life. To a certain extent, at least. I mean the novel’s basically a roman a clef, obviously based on the relationship between Elvis Presley and Colonel Tom Parker, with the titular “creator” being a silver-haired shyster who calls himself “Dr. Jack Jordan” and the Elvis analog being a hillbilly singer named Orville Tanner. 

As usual with a Hegner novel, I had a hard time figuring out what year this was set in. The opening features the character who will ultimately call himself Dr. Jack Jordan instead posing as a hellfire and damnation-type preacher named Reverend Carter Simpson. He drives a bus around the Appalachians, preaching to poor country folk, and we’re informed he has a fake religious college certificate hanging in his bus that’s dated 1944. So at first I thought we had a period piece, but later we’ll learn that this guy is 53 years old. Also later in the book we’ll learn via an offhand comment that the United States was founded “one hundred and ninety years ago.” So unless my math fails me, this would put us sometime in the 1960s…the mid to late ‘60s in particular, given random mentions of “acid rock.” Otherwise there are no topical references to the ‘60s, and unlike most roman a clefs Hegner doesn’t even mention any real-world celebrities or real-world events to add verisimilitude to the tale. So The Creator is of a piece with other Hegner novels in that it takes place in a cultural vacuum. 

The opening seems to come from a different novel; in it a preacher named Reverend Carter Simpson, of the Church of Hell, Fire, and Damnation, drives around Appalachia preaching to the yokels. He’s got long white hair and it’s all a crock to him, of course, but one night in some tiny town in West Virginia he comes upon Lurleen Raven, a mega-hotstuff babe who reminds the reverend of the brunette beauty in the Lil’ Abner comic strip(!). Immediately “Reverend Simpson” sees a new angle: he takes Lurleen into his entourage and quickly gets a gander of her nude body. With the na├»ve but not innocent beauty fully on board, Simpson drops his preacher schtick, sells off his church, changes his name to “Dr. Jack Jordan,” and becomes the manager of Lurleen Raven – the hottest thing to hit the burlesque circuit in many a year. As Dr. Jack later thinks of it, a “segue from gospels to G-strings.” 

Now a real curious thing occurred to me as I read this. There was an episode of The Simpsons many years ago that also spoofed the Elvis Presley-Colonel Tom Parker relationship; in it, Homer Simpson acted as the Colonel Tom analog, and he became the talent manager for a hotstuff hillbilly gal named Lurleen Lumpkin, turning her into a country music sensation. And let’s not forget, Dr. Jack Jordan goes by the name “Reverend Carter Simpson” in the first quarter of The Creator. The episode, titled “Colonel Homer,” aired in 1992 (ie the show’s third season), and is credited to Simpsons creator Matt Groening. Surely all this is a total coincidence. And yet, the plot of The Creator features Dr. Jack Jordan, the novel’s Colonel Tom Parker analog, becoming the talent manager for a hillbilly country music sensation. Now in the novel the singing sensation is a man, but still; there’s a “Simpson” and a “Lurleen” in this Elvis Presley roman a clef, so what are the odds? 

Dr. Jack and Lurleen travel around, with Lurleen headlined as “Heavenly Angel;” part of her schtick is that Dr. Jack has used hyrdogen peroxide to dye her pubic hair, so that it’s as platinum as the hair on her head. But the clubs become more tawdry and the bookings fewer, and soon enough Dr. Jack has tired of this latest angle. Also, he and Lurleen grow to hate one another, traveling around the country by bus and sharing rooms. Curiously our author leaves their few sexual dalliances off-page; in fact, Dr. Jack is more attracted to money than he is to women. Even though this section of the novel ultimately has nothing to do with what comes later, Hegner still displays his gift for memorable repartee: one of my favorites in this regard is when Lurleen is spotlighted in an “industry” publication on strip clubs, and Dr. Jack tells her that the magazine is “respected in the field.” To which Lurleen responds, “Yeah, but the whole damn field’s disrespected.” 

Destiny intervenes when the two decide to stop in the little town of Covington, Kentucky one night, pulling in to a cheap diner. There Dr. Jack witnesses a young hillbilly boy with an “outdated pompadour” putting on a show with his guitar, singing country music stuff, and Dr. Jack is riveted. He decides on the spot that the young man, Orville Tanner, will be his new client; to seal the deal, he arranges for Lurleen to spend the night with him. Which leads to another off-page sex scene! As I say, Hegner must’ve really decided to reign in on the sleaze in his later novels; compare to The Ski Lodgers, where the entire plot was the explicit sex scenes. But speaking of Lurleen, Dr. Jack now considers her an obstacle, and goes about trying to get rid of her; ultimately he sells her contract to a mobster who wants to feature “Heavenly Angel” in porn flicks. 

So with Lurleen out of the way, Hegner moves into the main plot, and belatedly I realized The Creator was actually a rock novel, even if hillbilly Orville Tanner isn’t a rocker. Hegner does mention “acid rock” at times, in particular a new group called The Questions and Answers, which has a weird act where they sing off each other. But Hegner certainly is no expert in this field. For one, he has musicians wielding “electronic guitars,” rather than plain old electric ones. This delivered a humorous mental image. Even more curious is Dr. Jack’s decision that Orville’s music will be a “fusion of jazz and Country-Western.” He ropes in a famous New York producer, one who takes the job precisely because such a thing’s never been done before, and likely for a reason. We’ll have occasional scenes in the studio, as well as a few concerts, but Hegner doesn’t much bring the music to life. Instead, the focus of the novel is on Orville Tanner’s insatiable drive for women, plus his sort-of gay relationship with Skip, Orville’s best friend since childhood and basically his soul mate. 

There’s a lot of stuff with Skip, from the two good ol’ boys drinking beer and shooting the breeze (when Dr. Jack discovers Orville, he and Skip are truck drivers, living out of their rig) to their frequent interractions with the hookers Dr. Jack hires for them. Dr. Jack is your classic control freak, and one of his concerns is that some floozie will take advantage of his prized client, even by the standard gambit of getting knocked up by him. So Orville is only allowed to screw the endless stable of professionals Dr. Jack supplies for him; this entails a meeting with a high-class “modeling” agency that has a brochure of the women available. But again Hegner doesn’t do much to dwell on these scenes, even though they occur frequently. But the craziest thing is that there’s actually a sleazier novel within The Creator, but Hegner ignores it: we get a random cutover to Lurleen, “acting” in her first porno flick, and it calls to mind books like Mafia: Operation Porno and Memoirs Of An Ex-Porno Queen. This is all we get, though, but man it would’ve been fun if Hegner had written a novel soley focused on Lurleen’s descent into mob-financed skin flicks. 

Actually the most explicit sequence is the strangest. Late in the novel, apropos of nothing, Orville and Skip decide to have a jack-off competition. Really! They set up markers in their hotel room, stand with their backs to the wall, and set off upon themselves, to see who can shoot the farthest – with the curious bit that the other guy takes over before climax. In other words, Skip strokes himself up good and proper, and then before the, uh, happy ending, Orville takes hold of Skip’s dick and gives it the last few strokes. So yeah, pretty weird. After this the two good ol’ boys get in a wrestling match during a rehearsal in the studio, much to the dismay and shock of the professional musicians and producer and etc. And yet they’re not truly gay, we’re to understand…at any rate, it’s not something Hegner really puts the spotlight on. He just leaves it as a subtext that the two are clearly in love with each other. 

Regardless, late in the novel Dr. Jack’s worst nightmare comes to life: Orville goes back to Kentucky to visit his beloved mama (another element lifted from the real-life Elvis story) and she sets him up with a local hotstuff chick. One who happens to be sixteen years old. And Orville knocks her up. This sets off a spiral which causes Dr. Jack to question his future – that, and the increasing threat of a lawsuit from his former client Lurleen, who has hired lawyers around the country to set in upon Dr. Jack. Lurleen has become a “sexual cripple” due to that hydrogen peroxide treatment Dr. Jack introduced to her genital area, and she’s out for revenge. However at this point she’s completely disappeared from the narrative; the last we see of her is a random bit, midway through the novel, where Orville and Skip duck into a dingy New York nightclub and “Heavenly Angel” is the featured dancer. Hegner leaves Lurleen in the background of the narrative, only occasionally referring to her descent, with the unstated implication that she is just a poor victim of Dr. Jack, her life destroyed by the con man. 

Overall though I really did enjoy The Creator. One grating thing about it though is that nearly all of the dialog is written in a Southern dialect, life for example “heah” instead of “here” and etc. Literally almost every single character talks like this – Dr. Jack, Lurleen, Orville, Skip, Orville’s mother, etc. This renders long sections of the novel almost indecipherable, as if we were reading a redneck Irvine Welsh. This alone prevents The Creator from being a trashy classic along the lines of Hegner’s earlier The Worshipped And The Damned. Otherwise there’s nothing here to indicate that Hegner was burned out; indeed, stuff like The Ski Lodgers gave the impression that he was burned out with writing “filth.” If that one had been Hegner’s last novel for a few decades, I’d understand it. But it’s curious that what turned out to be William Hegner’s last novel for a few decades was one of his stronger ones. If anything The Creator indicates that Hegner had more novels in him. 

*But then perhaps Hegner did publish one more novel before 1999’s Razzle Dazzle. Above I mentioned Hawk’s Authors’ Pseudonyms. Hegner actually has an entry in it: according to Pat Hawk, William Hegner published a novel titled Nicole under the pseudonym “Morgan Saint Michel.” Hawk gives no further info, so it took a bit of digging for me to figure this out. “Nicole” was a series of erotic paperbacks published by Jove Books in the early ‘80s: Nicole Around The World, Nicole In Flight, Nicole In Captivity, etc. The books were actually credited to “Morgan St. Michel,” ie “Saint” was not spelled out as it is in Hawk’s listing. All of the books featured photo covers of a woman in lingerie, and the series must have had scarce printings given the few, overpriced copies online. From my research, someone named Coleman Stokes served as “Morgan St. Michel” for most of the novels, but Pat Hawk certainly knows more about pseudonyms than I do; thus, I must conclude that Hawk is correct and William Hegner wrote the first novel in the series, simply titled Nicole and published by Jove in 1982. But I have no plans to confirm this by acquiring the book and actually reading it – copies of Nicole are around a hundred bucks.

Monday, March 28, 2022

The Hard Corps #8: Devil’s Plunder

The Hard Corps #8: Devil’s Plunder, by Chuck Bainbridge
July, 1989  Jove Books

The final volume of The Hard Corps is courtesy Chris Lowder, who previously wrote the sixth volume. He no doubt wrote the seventh volume as well, given how often its events are referred to, but I don’t have that one. Lowder was clearly British, as the Hard Corps quartet, Americans all, often sound like Brits during the course of Devil’s Plunder. This is especially humorous in the case of wiry Joe Fanelli, who happens to be from Jersey. But then maybe “arguing the fucking toss” is a Jersey-ism and not a British-ism. 

Speaking of which, this must be the most crudely-toned series in all men’s adventuredom. “Fucking” is used as an adjective repeatedly in the narrative; it’s all “fucking this” and “fucking that,” with the occasional “shit” or some other curse word thrown in. I mean it gives the impression that “Chuck Bainbridge” is just the most burned-out, grizzled, and uh, hardcore son of a bitch in history, spewing out his inner venom via the narrative. I was going to excerpt an example of this but soon realized I could almost just exerpt the entire novel; I mean this book’s like a David Mamet script. Only with more gunfights…and, spoiler alert, one of the most depraved and insane sex scenes I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. Now that I’m gonna excerpt in full, later in the review. 

We meet the Hard Corps already on the job: O’Neal the boss, Wentworth the sword-loving “gentleman merc,” Fanelli the loudmouth demolitions guy, and Caine the bearded blade freak. They’re all sort of the same as they were in the first few volumes by William Fieldhouse, only a bit diluted; Caine in particular lacks the weirdo spark he had in the Fieldhouse books, coming off just like the other three. Meanwhile McShayne, the gunnery guy or whatever he is, stays off-page for the majority, back home doing computer stuff. We learn via incidental dialog that the Hard Corps had a “disastrous” mission in the previous volume, to the extent that they have taken this current job, which sees them providing protection for a Papa Doc-style dictator in the Caribbean, in exchange for a hefty payment. 

I had the belated realization that “Devil’s Plunder” was actually a pun; the dictator is named Deville, and he has accumulated his share of plunder over the years. (Those Brits and their fancy word games!) This is on the “tiny Caribbean island of Esmeralda,” which is near Cuba and is ruled by “Big Daddy” Deville, corpulent sadist who is infamous for frequent massacres of his own people, torturing them for pleasure. Whereas Deville is the type of guy the Hard Corps would normally take out, this time they’re here to safely escort him off the island. They’ve taken the job because it’s paying a cool million, and we’re informed they swallowed their pride because they needed the money; once again they’ve gotten the assignment courtesy their CIA contact Saintly. 

Whereas An American Nightmare was relatively tame in the action department, Devil’s Plunder is reminiscent of the Fieldhouse installments with its occasional action overkill. The opening is our first indication of this, as the Hard Corps, newly arrived on Esmeralda and posing as hapless tourists as they eat in a restaurant, are attacked by gun-toting Cubans. They’ve come without weapons, and also argue whether they should even try to fight back, given that they’re just “tourists.” Of course it quickly escalates into a gun-blazing melee, with Wentworth indulging in the usual series schtick of picking up some stray object (in this case an old man’s cane) and using it as an impromptu martial arts weapon. 

Here our heroes learn that the situation is a bit complex. The CIA wants Deville safely off Esmeralda because he has gathered incriminating evidence against a host of American VIPs; later in the novel we’ll learn Deville’s got photos of famous senators in bed with underaged children and whatnot. But Deville’s people are revolting against him, and the FFE domestic terrorists (Freedom For Esmeralda) are stirring up a lot of trouble. There are also the Cubans, who are looking to take advantage of the increasing turmoil on the “tiny island” and take the place over. The Hard Corps find themselves being shuffled around these various contigents, trying to remain professional and do the job they’re here for, but increasingly seeing how monstrous Deville really is. 

Lowder peppers the novel with a few female characters: first there’s Marie-Claude Colbert (no relation to Claudette, I assume), leader of the FFE. She’s a feisty hostuff babe whose father was set up by the CIA to take over Esmeralda, but was asssassinated. Now she’s here leading the terrorists against Deville. There’s also mention that she was once a lawyer in New York(?). At any rate she wants Deville dead, and occasionally her forces run into the Hard Corps, accusing them of being CIA plants. A recurring gag is that everyone knows who the Hard Corps really is from the moment they arrive on Esmeralda. It’s also through Marie-Claude that we learn of the horrors Deville has perpetrated on his subjects over the years; later the team will see photographic evidence of the torture sessions. “Snuff film stuff,” as Fanelli puts it. 

And indeed the novel really picks up when Big Daddy Deville and his depraved entourage show up. “The Supreme Chief and Savior of the Esmeraldan People” is morbidly obese and calls to mind the similar island dictator in Agent 3S3: Massacre In The Sun, only a lot more evil. He’s also got a cache of stolen artwork, which he’s willing to shower on the Hard Corps as additional payment; Wentworth chooses the antique samurai sword instead, of course. But the novel really kicks in gear when Deville’s latest wife, the “beautiful wanton” Simone, shows up. This light-skinned “mulatto” is notorious for personally overseeing the torture sessions, with the clear intimation that she gets off on them. She’s also known for taking any man – or woman – she desires to bed, “Big Daddy” no longer able to please her. Simone sets her sights on Joe Fanelli, drawn to his wiry build. This leads to one of the most bonkers sex scenes I’ve ever read: 

I mean ten points for “rich reek” alone. Actually there are a ton of memorable descriptions in that sleazy sequence, to the point that you figure Lowder was cacking madly as he tried to outdo himself. To say a sequence this explicit was rare in ‘80s men’s adventure would be an understatement; the majority of men’s adventure protagonists were celibate that decade, content to clean their guns while hanging out with other guys. That this sequence comes so out of the blue in Devil’s Plunder makes me regret that this was the final volume of the series. If Lowder could write wonderfully depraved stuff like this, who knows where he could’ve taken The Hard Corps

But this was to be the final volume; after the fatal bout with Simone, the climax (the book’s climax, that is) comes off as underwhelming. It’s the usual action onslaught, with the Hard Corps blasting away in full-bore automatic hellfire. This excerpt should suffice – actually it encapulates the entire novel, with the curse-filled narrative, parenthetical gun-porn, and bloody gore: 

The finale inadvertently points toward the end of men’s adventure novels in general, seeing as it does a focus on “computer stuff.” A subplot has it that Deville’s son is a computer geek and has built a data warehouse of that incriminating evidence, and McShayne has been working to hack it or something. So in a way Devil’s Plunder is not only a capoff for The Hard Corps itself but for the genre as well – one last volume of high testosterone, hellfire blasting, rich-reeking men’s adventure action before the “techno-thrillers” of the ‘90s. It was also easily my favorite volume of the series, if only for the sequence with Simone Deville, though I did enjoy Fieldhouse’s take on the characters more.

Thursday, March 24, 2022

Bloody Vengeance

Bloody Vengeance, by Jack Ehrlich
September, 1973  Pocket Books

I learned about this Pocket Books PBO via one of the last posts on Bill Crider's blog in 2017 and picked it up soon after, when I was on another of my frequent ‘70s crime kicks. I put it aside when I discovered that it was in first-person, though. I know it sounds lame, but I just prefer my pulp to be in third-person. Bill didn’t provide much of a review for Bloody Vengeance, just stating that it concerned cops taking the law into their own hands and that this turned into a national political movement. He concluded that “the book is very well done and pretty dang scary. You can tell yourself that it can’t happen here, but don’t you have to wonder a little?” To which a commenter named Jeff Myerson responded, “This sounds almost Trumpian.” 

It's interesting to read comments like this in 2022. Since 2017 we’ve had George Floyd and Botham Jean, cops arresting the parents of sexually-assaulted children at PTA meetings, cops arresting soccer moms for taking their kids to playgrounds that were closed due to Covid, cops arresting paddleboarders for being out on the water (alone!) during quarantine. We’ve watched as cops have choked unarmed women for the heinous crime of not wearing a mask outdoors, as they’ve trampled underfoot anti-mandate protesters in Canada. 

But then, cops haven’t had it easy. This past year 62 police officers were killed by guns, and crime is rampant in cities across the United States. Not so coincidentally, the current administration ran on a “defund the police” program. They’ve made some laughable attempts at walking this back recently, even lying that they never even said they wanted to defund the police, but…well, here’s a seven-minute montage of Democrat politicians saying they want to defund the police. 

So yeah, I guess an army of cops who go rogue to take down violent criminals could be considered “Trumpian,” but to tell the truth I like the idea better than the jackboot aggression we’ve seen directed toward citizens. But really my main issue with Bloody Vengeance is that it isn’t so much a “vigilante cop” novel as it is a political novel set in DC. While it starts off delivering on the setup promised on the back cover – frustrated cops finally deciding to make violent criminals pay – it ultimately derails into more of a “corrupt politics” yarn as the narrator, Lt. Rob Royce, finds himself spearheading a national movement…and being referred to as a new Hitler by the press. All this is indeed very “Trumpian,” particularly given that Royce is constantly accused by his left-leaning detractors of doing a bunch of Hitlerian stuff. 

Things begin a lot more smallscale, though, with Royce deciding at novel’s start to dish out some off-the-book justice in his Cape Cod domain. From there ultimately it will become a politicial movement, but the issue is that author Jack Ehrlich doesn’t go in the progression you might think. The helluva it is, Royce and his colleagues only ever take out violent criminals: murderers, wife-killers, even a hippie terrorist who has been trained by the KGB. The novel never goes into the darker realms one might suspect, with Royce’s movement becoming a fascist army taking out anyone who opposes them, not just criminals. So Bill Crider’s remark that the novel is “pretty dang scary” seems a bit hollow today…I mean personally, I think cops trampling anti-mandate protesters and siccing attack dogs on them is pretty dang scary. But killing off violent criminals who are back on the streets thanks to liberal judges? Not so much. 

The first half of Bloody Vengeance is pretty cool and delivers on the violent ‘70s crime vibe I wanted. We meet Royce, a veteran of Korea with fifteen years on the force, as he comes upon the mutilated remains of a woman who has been raped and killed – a “mass of breathing meat and bone.” The killer is easily captured and booked, but he gets off on a technicality thanks to one of those aforementioned liberal lawyers. When the creep flaunts his freedom as he waltzes past Royce in the courtroom, our narrator decides on the spur of the moment to get some bloody vengeance. Royce’s partner, Sgt. Willis (who himself has twenty years on the force), is game. The two men chase down the killer and execute him moments after he’s left the courtroom, dropping the body and car off at the junkyard to be smashed. 

This introduces what will become a trend: next Willis comes to Royce – who by the way is terrified his partner is going to turn him in, or that the Internal Affairs guys will easily deduce that he killed the perp – and proposes some bloody vengeance he wants to sow. This would be a “wife garroter” who we learn, via long flashback, killed his wife and again got off due to a liberal judge, despite the overwhelming evidence against him. Again Royce and Willis execute the creep and then head on over to the junkyard for corpse disposal. But as it develops, Internal Affairs never checks in on anything, and indeed no one cares that these violent killers are getting their just desserts. Royce realizes he’s tapped into something when the captain calls Royce in and basically gives him carte blanche to go off the books and kill the killers. Royce is even given his own department to do so. 

So already from the first quarter Bloody Vengeance is headed for something grander than just a “killer cops” angle. Soon enough Royce is reporting directly to the Commisioner, who not only support’s Royce’s extracurricular activities but gives him a “hate list” to work from. Royce begins putting together his team, from a “living computer” type who stores all the department’s details in his head so nothing is on the books, to a guy called “Super Jew” who was so violent when he was walking the beat that he got moved to a desk job. Of course, Royce puts him right back on the street. The team first goes into action against a gang of black criminals, taking out the leaders who have constantly gone free due to those goddamn liberal judges. Next up is a bloody melee against a biker gang, Royce memorably wearing “dusters,” ie brass knuckles that look like “gentleman’s gloves.” Royce doesn’t always kill, though; sometimes the vengeance is more poetic, like crippling the biker leader who himself crippled an innocent victim. 

Gradually though the story develops more into a political angle. Operating under the guise of the “International Police Benevolent Association,” Royce and his colleagues throw charity balls and make speeches, donating the proceeds to widows and families of downed cops. Through various connections they also meet up with a wealthy older man who “wants to give America back to Americans” and sets up the rogue force with its own massive country estate, a helicopter, and even a jet. Meanwhile Royce fears the FBI is onto him…but soon enough learns that the Feds too are approving of his methods. If anything in Bloody Vengeance shows its age, this sequence would be it. But as you can see, Ehrlich doesn’t seem to have any hidden theme; yes, every law agency supports Royce’s killing of criminals…but that’s all they’re looking for. They’re just sick of violent criminals constantly going free. Just compare to the Keller novel Death Squad; author Nelson De Mille handled this much better, delivering not only more action thrills but also working in the “deeper implications” stuff, with those rogue cops also killing off liberal judges and the like. 

Royce is so focused on telling us about his exploits that he doesn’t bother much with personal stuff. In fact we don’t even learn until page 35 that the dude’s married and has a kid, but he comes home one day to find that his wife’s left him and taken the kid with her. Royce shrugs it off, already feeling more free to pursue his goal of killing crooks! He isn’t the most likable of protagonists, though, which I’m assuming was Ehrlich’s intention. His narrative voice is also kind of annoying; the narrative itself is relayed in perfect diction, but when Royce speaks via dialog he says “ain’t” a bunch. It just comes off a little awkward. And for that matter, a lot of Bloody Vengeance is told via summary, with Royce thinking back to how all this started and then detailing moment by moment as the movement grew. He’s also very shy with the sleazy details; Royce seems almost suspiciously disinterested in women, but then late in the novel starts hooking up with a few of them, including most notably the hotstuff wife of a senator who is out to get Royce’s force. But in all cases the sexual tomfoolery is totally off-page. Boo! 

And yes, the senator – at this point we are into the “DC politics” stuff, with a senator being the lone man who wants to bring down Royce’s killer-cop force. Royce starts working behind the scenes to frame the guy, and as this goes on Bloody Vengeance loses its pulpish conceit and trades more on “realistic” political manuevering. I mean when it gets right down to it, the novel’s kind of a failure if what you are looking for is a pulpy action novel that rips off Magnum Force. I mean these rogue cops have a mansion outside the city, a helicopter, a jet, and unlimited funds, but Ehrlich instead wants to focus on backroom politicking in Washington. Occasionally we’ll get some action scenes, like when they’re called in to handle activists who have taken over a college campus for social justice reasons having to do with a domestic terrorist. Despite TV coverage Royce and crew perpetrate the “Grace College Massacre,” as the media soon dubs the ensuing carnage. Once again the book shows its age here; it’s hard to imagine a college so willing to violently purge social justice activists today. 

But then, Bloody Vengeance was published in a more rational era. Royce finds himself becoming more of a celebrity due to his frequent appearances on TV. While the media rakes him over the coals, the people respond incredibly favorably to him. (Hmm…this somehow sounds familiar…) Gradually Royce begins to understand his own cult of personality, and uses it to expound on the benefits of his force. There’s a great part, very resonant today. where he gives a speech on TV and turns it into a rallying cry for the silent majority, which per his argument is sick to death of the increasing crime and lawlessness of the land, and of course this only wins him more support.

Ehrlich takes the novel in an unexpected direction when Royce, chagrined over the increasing hatred directed at him by the media, calls up a certain reporter and asks him for his advice on how Royce could appear non-Hitlerian. Predicatbly, the reporter – who has become the chief voice against Royce – initially believes it’s all a put-on, before refusing to help Royce and then hanging up on him. This I felt was nicely-handled commentary by Ehrlich. However our author leaves Royce’s future a big question mark; the novel climaxes on another major speech, where Royce considers disbanding his group. At this point they’ve even done jobs for the President himself, heading over to London to take out that aforementioned hippie terrorist. But after a surprising late action scene Royce changes his mind on disbanding, and by novel’s end it seems that his association is about to become more powerful than ever. 

At 220 pages, Bloody Vengeance aspires to be something “more” than just a violent cop thriller…but at the same time, I wanted a violent cop thriller. I wasn’t interested in the politics stuff, and I thought the novel could’ve benefited from more sex and violence. But then I say that about most every book I read. What I found most interesting was how our modern world is so similar to the one depicted here; indeed, Royce tells us at one point that “The entire national crime rate was up.” But whereas this leads to a cop army in Bloody Vengeance, here in the real world we, uh, defund the police. But then that’s clown world in a nutshell.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Ninja Master #8: Only The Good Die

Ninja Master #8: Only The Good Die, by Wade Barker
May, 1983  Warner Books

Once again I’ve taken years to get back to the Ninja Master series. This final volume is courtesy Ric Meyers, who after Ninja Master wrapped up spun hero Brett Wallace and crew out into two ensuing series: Year Of The Ninja Master and War Of The Ninja Master. Initially it seemed to me that Meyers was just rewriting his previous volume here, with Brett up against a trio of psychopaths, but as it turns out Only The Good Die is a bit more complex…and muddled. 

Maybe it’s my new contacts, which require me to wear friggin’ readers to even see the words on the page, but this time I found Meyers’s prose a bit too hard to follow. Some of his sentence structures I thought were a bit awkward, particularly in the action scenes, which often pulled me out of the moment. In fact I get the impression that he wrote Only The Good Die on a tight turnaround. The plot is also as jumbled, opening as it does with a trio of psychopaths killing some poor young girl (a recurring Meyers staple if ever there was one – that, and jamming an s&m rubber ball in the mouth of the girls before their torture). But then this ghoulish opening incident is completely ignored until very late in the novel. The result is that the reader keeps wondering who the hell those three psychopaths were and how their story ties in with the novel itself. 

So serial killers torturing and then offing young women is a thing with Meyers; that’s been established in every other book of his I’ve read. This installment opens with three separate chapters in which three separate women experience brutal fates: in the first, and most squirm-induing, a young black girl in New York is abducted by those three psychopaths and driven off to her death. In the second, a successful businesswoman in New York is pushed in front of an oncoming train. And in the third, a young Japanese girl is burned alive when a gang war breaks out in a New York club, the place being set on fire in the melee. Nothing connects these three atrocities, and Meyers does his best to confuse readers by next jumping into another seemingly-random chapter, where a bald and muscular Chinese dude barges into an apartment filled with New York lowlifes and starts beating the shit out of them. 

Eventually we’ll learn that this is Hama, the cook “at the Rhea Dawn in Sausalito,” ie the Rhea who is the Japanese beloved of series protagonist Brett Wallace. Not that Brett still bothers to show up, though. Instead, Hama seems to be the star of the show, next wading into another group of gangsters, these ones Chinese triads, in a Manhattan movie theater. Meyers here indulges in his own interest in martial arts cinema, with mentions of the Shaw Brothers and Japanese samurai movies. And finally, on page 60, the Ninja Master himself appears, slipping out of a hole he’s cut in the film screen with his ninja sword and taking out the triads who have gotten the better of Hama. At length we’ll find out that the young Chinese girl killed in chapter three was Hama’s niece, and a vengeance-minded Hama headed for New York without informing anyone. Brett, Rhea, and Brett’s student Jeff Archer quickly followed him. 

This is the setup. But it’s a clunky first quarter before we figure out what the heck is going on. And really, Meyers just turns the tale into a series of extended action scenes. Brett and team get in frequent clashes with various street punks, to the extent that you keep wondering what the point of it all is. And Brett too seems to wonder what the point is. For there is a muddled mystery at the heart of it all – the gang wars, the Triad club-burning in which Hama’s niece was one of the victims, and even those opening murders of the three women are all somehow connected. But this isn’t Agatha Christie we’re talking about. Instead the vast majority of Only The Good Die is comprised of Brett Wallace engaging a seemingly-endless series of New York punks in bloody combat. 

But the helluva it is, I found the action scenes so awkwardly handled. I constantly found myself having to re-read certain passages to determine what was going on. Maybe it’s just me, though. Meyers does include some fun stuff in the narrative. Brett kicks one guy in the crotch and we learn afterward that the guy’s “private parts looked like three-alarm chili.” And there’s a long sequence where Brett battles a “street mob” in a tenement building that’s very reminiscent of Able Team #8, only minus the auto shotguns and drug-mutated street punks. Brett hacks and slashes his way through an endless horde of punks, using a variety of ninja weaponry. In this sequence Brett learns that the punks aren’t just after him, but given that they’re members of rival gangs they’re trying to kill each other at the same time. There’s a crazy bit where Brett kills several of them in sixty seconds while they are occupied with fighting one another: “They were all biodegradable punks on a one-way trip.” 

Meyers introduces a nursery rhyme conceit to Only The Good Die, with occasional mentions of “The Butcher, The Baker, and The Candlestick Maker,”’ as well as “Jack jumped over the candlestick” and such. In fact the first-page preview would have you believe the Butcher, Baker, and Candlestick Maker – ie the three psychopaths in the opening sequence – will be the main villains of the tale. While that ultimately proves true, it isn’t until very late in the novel that we learn how it connects. And for that matter, this too is muddled, as it turns out the villains with nursery rhyme nicknames are really just underlings in this crazy army, not the leaders. For example the “Baker” turns out to be a psycho chick who gets off on being tortured, and who has lured Brett into this long tenement battle…again, it’s all very hazy and jumbled, but apparently “the Baker’s” bosses learned about this “Oriental” avenger who wiped out the Triads (ie Hama – though they think Hama is really Brett…or something), and this tenement attack has been staged to entrap him. 

I’m assuming in the ensuing series Meyers further elaborates on Rhea and Jeff; the former only has one memorable scene here, and the latter doesn’t do much except get shot (in the chest!). Rhea’s bit has her using “saimin jutsu” on a detective, a sort of seductive hypnotism which has the cop slackjawed at Rhea’s beauty and thus giving up confidential info to her. But for all this empowerment Rhea ultimately suffers the same fate as most other female characters in a Ric Meyers novel: she’s caught toward the end of the book, tied up, and shipped off to an “elegant sexual torture chamber,” which made me think of the swank sex chamber in the groovy film version of The Adventurers. And yes, a rubber ball is shoved down her throat when she’s tied up. I mean it just wouldn’t be a Ric Meyers novel if one wasn’t. As for Jeff Archer, I honestly thought he was killed in the finale; he gets shot in the chest and that’s the last we see of him, before Brett quickly exposits in the final chapter that Jeff’s seriously wounded but will recover. 

Meanwhile, the Candlestick Maker turns out to be aligned with the Black Liberation Army For Social Terrorism (which totally shouldn’t be confused with BLM); this group of black terrorists has taken credit for the nightclub fire that killed Hama’s niece. This entails another extended action scene, but one with a bit of a TNT flair, as Brett faces attack dogs in explosive vests in a TV studio. His sort-of companion here is Tommy Gun Parker, a mountain of muscle-type who is fond of wielding Mac subguns in each hand. While they start off as enemies, Parker being one of the thugs hired to kill Brett, they ultimately develop a sort of Lethal Weapon relationship of bantering. But speaking of Tommy Parker and Meyers’s sometimes-confusing prose style, check out this excerpt and tell me if you too think it’s a bit hard to follow what’s going on: 

Things wrap up in an estate outside the city where the three freaks from the opening paragraph finally return. And it turns out they aren’t psychos in the purest sense; indeed, they’ve been hiring “homicidal psychopaths” to do their dirty work in the city. And their dirty work is cleaning up the streets. These three men have suffered their share of misfortune due to rampant crime and have decided to go outside the law to restore law and order. To this end they’ve started a variety of gang wars, hoping to use their homicidal psychos to stir shit up. Of course, the resulting loss of innocent life is just seen as collateral damage. These are the guys who capture Rhea in the finale – despite her being an asskicking ninja babe in her own right – but Brett and Jeff are there to save the day. The final sequence is very odd, as Brett wants the main killer to suffer horribly, and tortures him via drowning. Overall a strange, somewhat off-putting way to finish off the Ninja Master series. 

A year or so later Brett Wallace was to return in Year Of The Ninja Master, also published by Warner. Since I took so long to read Ninja Master I think I’ll dive into the first volume of that next series posthaste.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

The Tomorrow File

The Tomorrow File, by Lawrence Sanders
September, 1976  Berkley Medallion

The book should be nominated for the Hugo, but it won’t, because Sanders isn’t one of “us.”Richard E. Geis, Science Fiction Review #20 (February 1977) 

Lawrence Sanders was a very prolific and very popular author, but it seems this mid-1970s foray into Future Shock-inspired science fiction has almost entirely been forgotten. And I wonder if it was even overlooked in its day. I had never heard of the book until recently coming across James Nicolls review (warning: James gives away a lot of the plot in his review, so tread carefully), and to tell the truth if I ever saw “The Tomorrow File” listed among Sanders’s books I would’ve just assumed it was another crime thriller, along the lines of The Anderson Tapes

While there is a crime vibe to parts of The Tomorrow File, this is certainly more of a sci-fi novel…one that’s set in the far-flung future year of 1998! (Coincidentally, the year Lawrence Sanders died.) This means that Sanders was projecting a future a mere 23 years after the 1975 of the original hardcover edition; the novel opens in January of 1998 and ends in late 1999. In this regard The Tomorrow File comes off as very radical; Sanders here presents an entire society that is completely different from his day. And yet at the same time the novel is that kind of 1970s sci-fi I so love, in that it’s just a wildly progressive projection of the ‘70s itself. In other words, if the ‘70s had never ended The Tomorrow File might be the world that ensued. So Sanders was very wrong in many of his predictions; as James Nicholl noted, one of the biggest misses was the importance of computers…but yet I had to keep reminding myself that the novel was set in 1998. Even in the real world computers and the web and etc hadn’t achieved nearly the ubiquitousness of today in 1998. 

Recently I read a great review of Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock which included the memorable phrase that it was a “deep, hard shot of heroin” for the science fiction genre, and The Tomorrow File is evidence of this. In fact, I’m betting Sanders based a minor character, “leukemic dwarf” Hyman R. Lewisohn, on Alvin Toffler himself. Not that Toffler was a foul-mouthed dwarf with a protruding forehead (at least I don’t think he was), but Lewisohn is a Tofflin-type futurist and sociologist who gained prominence in the late 1970s of Sanders’s world and whose ideas have created this strange 1998. And Sanders throws us right into it this world. There’s no scene-setting or world-building; Sanders skillfully using plot and dialog to paint the details. In fact it isn’t until late in the novel that we learn why a lot of stuff is the way it is in this 1998. However, Sanders is guilty at times of “addressing a flock of Rip Van Winkles who had fallen asleep in the mid-seventies,” as the New York Times put it. 

What the Times reviewer means is that, even though narrator Nicholas “Nick” Flair “speaks” to us as if we are as familiar with his 1998 as he himself is, sometimes he will slip in background material and setup that would only make sense to someone in the 1970s. And of course this means that these explanations come off like “duh” moments to those of us reading the novel in 2022; what might have seemed fantastical in 1975 is commonplace now. This occasional tendency to “address Rip Van Winkles” sort of ruins the conceit of The Tomorrow File, and honestly I think it would have been solved if Sanders had written the novel in third-person instead of first. That way he would’ve been free to build his world and explain things without resulting to the occasional exposition, sort of how John Brunner did in Stand On Zanzibar (which I’m assuming Sanders read). 

Speaking of Brunner, I’ve somehow acquired three paperback editions of Stand On Zanzibar over the years, but I still haven’t read the book. And yet I know it is and always has been considered a landmark of science fiction. It is very strange that The Tomorrow File did not achieve the same status. Because this isn’t a quick sci-fi cash-in; Sanders is fully invested in his tale for 551 pages, creating a fully-realized world complete with new beliefs, a new governmental and societal structure, and new fashions. The back cover of this Berkley paperback edition sports a blurb from The Los Angeles Times, which states that The Tomorrow File “picks up where Aldous Huxley and George Orwell left off.” It took me about a hundred pages of this Future Shock assault to realize that this is exactly what Lawrence Sanders was going for – a 1970s take on Brave New World or 1984, set in the soon-coming future and detailing a horrific world of government overreach and the resulting loss of humanity. A world of rampant drugs, easy sex, and genius-level people who strive for progress at all costs. 

So why isn’t The Tomorrow File considered on the same level today as Huxley or Orwell’s novels? I can think of a few reasons. For one, the novel’s too long. Not that I didn’t enjoy it. If you love reading then there’s nothing as pleasurable as a very long novel that you can lose yourself in, and The Tomorrow File certainly delivers in that regard. In fact it got to the point that I had a weird echo effect with some of the new lingo Sanders devised here, more on which later. But at 551 pages of small, dense print, Sanders delivers too many plots and subplots, particularly when compared to the more streamlined novels he was inspired by. In fact, Kirkus clearly had a hard time figuring out what the main plot of The Tomorrow File was, though I have my suspicions that the uncredited reviewer didn’t read the entire novel. No surprise there – it wouldn’t be the first reviewer to skim a book. 

The novel is just too packed to be considered a classic, to the point that there’s no main plot to hold on to. Three “Books” comrpise the narrative (titled X, Y, and Z), and each have a different plot, with the overall storyline of Nick Flair uniting them. In Book X we’re introduced to Nick and his world, and the plot here concerns his being tasked with running a sting operation on a group of domestic terrorists who are united against this brave new world. In Book Y, Nick learns he was used as a dupe in the sting operation and sets out to get revenge, for no other reason than pride. In Book Z, Nick finds out that he himself is the target of a sting operation…while he tries at the same time to have an affair with the First Lady(?!). In addition to this there are a ton of incidental subplots and characters, from Nick’s frequent visits to his wealthy industrialist father to various science projects Nick helms – among them various bizarre ways to keep that leukemic dwarf Hyman Lewisohn alive, given his importance to the United States. 

I feel if Sanders had just made one of these subplots the main thread of The Tomorrow File he might’ve had something along the lines of Orwell. The first book in particular, if elaborated, could’ve resulted in a worthy successor to 1984, given that Nick, an unquestioning member of the ruling class, is brought into the fold of “terrorists” who merely seek independence in this tyrannical world. But Sanders is too caught up in his novel – so caught up, in fact, that it’s contagious – and he barrels on, doling out so many plots and repercussions that he seems to lose control of himself. But then, the world-building is immense here; Sanders takes us into the inner workings of this 1998, in which the United States has now spread internationally, with a hundred countries now “states” (another of Lewisohn’s visionary ideas), and in which scientists rule society. This in particular was pretty uncanny in our post-Covid world, more on which anon. 

Before I dive more into the plot, I wanted to note that another issue I had with The Tomorrow File, and another thing which might’ve impeded its fame in the day, was the narrator. In short, I spent 551 pages with Nick Flair, and never once did I like him. He’s a 28 year-old scientist for the Federal government – the Department of Bliss, one of the many new bureacracies in this 1998. Nick then was born in 1970, though Sanders never outright acknowledges this. I was 24 in 1998, and Nick Flair is unlike any 20-something I ever knew, that’s for sure. He is a super genius, the result of “advanced conditioning” (also referred to as “mental conditioning”) at a young age; Sanders also has a bit of Logans Run here in that this 1998 is mostly run by youth, people under 30 like Nick who have been groomed into geniuses and who strive in all areas for progress, the past be damned. One of the newspeak words Sanders introduces is “obso,” which is used interchangably for someone who is over 30 and for someone who is conservative, at least in the sense of sticking to the old ways. 

It must be tough to narrate a long novel through the perspective of an incredibly intelligent young man, but Sanders pulls it off with aplomb. The guy must have been pretty smart himself. We are privy to a host of scientific experiments and sociology experiments, and Nick is always ten steps ahead of everyone else – so Sanders doesn’t just create a world of smart young people, but narrates the novel in the voice of a young man who is smarter than most. This however ultimately creates a disconnect between Nick and the reader, in that it’s very hard to relate to him. He’s so out of touch and “progressed” from even our own era, let alone 1975, that you just can’t feel anything for him, even when his plight worsens in the final quarter of the novel. And speaking of which, Sanders for reasons of the plot undermines Nick’s intelligence, having our narrator not notice stuff that’s very obvious to us readers. For example, and no spoilers I swear, but as mentioned in the third book Nick learns he’s the victim of a sabotage attempt. He discovers that someone has been impersonating him…someone of the same height and build as Nick himself. And then shortly after this discovery, Nick mentions to us via the narrative that he notices a minor character is, you guessed it, the same height and build of himself. Of course we learn at the very end of the novel that this minor character was indeed the “fake Nick” (Sanders doesn’t bluntly state so, but it’s obvious)…and yet Nick never connects these two things himself. So in some cases Nick Flair’s super-genius level must take a backseat to plot contrivances, and this too could’ve been overlooked if the novel had been written in third-person. 

And here comes the other reason, the biggest reason of all, why I think The Tomorrow File never achieved 1984 or Brave New World status: this is a very permissive society, even by 1970s standards. Nick Flair is openly bisexual, and the novel has him engaging in frequent sex with his best friend/direct report, plump and “effete” Paul Bumford. Sanders delivers several sequences in which the two men kiss or hop in bed together; there’s a very explicit scene between them in the final pages of the novel. This must have been quite disconcerting to readers in 1975. Hell, I found it disconcerting in 2022. (Looks like it’s back to Diversity & Inclusion training for me!) Not only that, but Nick and Paul and most other men in this 1998 are not only bisexual, but wear makeup as well. This too must’ve seemed radical in 1975, let alone the real 1998. We’re certainly making, uh, “progress” in that area, though – have you all seen the current administration’s nomination for the deputy assistant secretary of the Office of Nuclear Energy? Not only is it yet another indication of how our nation’s norms have been restored in the past year, but it’s also another indication of how Sanders was so wildly progressive in his predictive future; in this and many other ways, we still haven’t caught up with The Tomorrow File

Not that we should catch up with it, that is. I don’t know Sanders’s politics, but this novel is definitely aligned with Orwell in that it shows us the face-stomping jackbootery of the Left in full soul-crushing bureacratic effect. Politics are never mentioned in the novel, but Nick and his colleagues are self-proclaimed “progressives,” and they are united against “conservatives.” And as mentioned “conservatives” are obsos, outdated in their thinking and sentiments; one of the many, many sociological initiatives Nick looks into is a way to legally kill off older people, who are too conservative in their beliefs and, just as importantly, don’t produce or consume like younger people do. In this 1998 science and politics have been united, thanks to “the first scientist President,” who radically altered the course of the country in the 1970s, following the direction of Hyman Lewisohn. 

Above I mentioned the First Lady, but that’s not the correct title in Sanders’s 1998; we learn that, post-Watergate, the US government was seen as too intrusive and bureacratic, and the slate was wiped clean. Now the President is merely a figurehead, not making any policy decisions, and the real power is “the Chief Director,” who makes all the decisions in the country…lording over an even larger bureacracy than the President did. It’s the wife of the Chief Director, Grace Wingate, that Nick falls in love with late in the novel, leading to one of the more unexpected plot developments. Love is a new concept to Nick, an obso sentiment that he considers himself above. He has a ton of sex with other women, though; sex is as casual as can get in this world (again, the vibe being that it’s the 1970s wildly projected into the future), and Nick sleeps his way through several women in the long course of the novel. But as ever Sanders isn’t too explicit, going for more of a poetic effect…again, in keeping with the overall highfalutin tone of his narrator. 

The novel is certainly science fiction, but it’s entirely Earthbound. We learn, only via incidental dialog, that there’s a “permanent moon colony” as well as a new Skylab. And while Sanders overlooks the importance computers would have – though one of the subplots has Nick orchestrating artificial intelligence for “the King Mrk. V” computer system – Sanders does go into more Future Shock territory with a lot of clones and etc. One aspect in which our real world is more “progressivised” than Sanders’s is in gender “fluidity.” Early in the book Nick mentions he is a “natural male,” and to this I assumed he meant as compared to a trans man, etc. But we learn that the differentiator is artificial insemination. Paul Bumford, for example, is a test tube child, as are countless others, though Sanders never tells us if the “clones” he mentions are the same thing as the test tube kids. Meanwhile Nick Flair is “natural” in that he has parents. This leads to a nice but understated scene later in the book where Paul grapples with the relationship between Nick and his father…how there is an instant trust and rapport between them, Paul never having known a father. Ultimately it’s yet another subplot in a book stuffed with them, and works toward the overall theme: this is a society created by humans who no longer possess what was once considered “humanity.” 

Sanders is also prescient in that this 1998 has achieved that (un)holy grail of the modern Left: the sexualization of children. Paul’s dad became wealthy due to anatomically-accurate dolls that were used “to teach sex education to four-year olds,” and launched a wildly successful commercial line of them. One of Nick’s many conquests is a “retardate clone” named Millie who lives near Nick’s father in Detroit; she’s 16 years old, and was only 14 when Nick first started sleeping with her. There are no legal issues concerning sex with minors; again, it’s not only indicative of this wildly permissive society, but another instance of how Sanders was able to predict what was coming in the future. Read, if you have the stomach for it, about Kentucky’s Sexy Summer Camp. For children! Not to mention recent revelations that activist teachers see themselves more as groomers than as, uh, teachers, encouraging underaged children to pursue alternate sexual lifestyles and hiding it from parents

Indeed, the overall theme of The Tomorrow File is that progressivism run amok will lead to a literal “slave society.” The titular “Tomorrow File” is a sort of “Christmas list” Nick has put together of things he’d like to research, but must be put on hold until “tomorrow” due to societal or political concerns. In other words, stuff the public isn’t ready for yet. Paul is his idea board, and yet another subplot in the novel is how Paul transforms from an effete and pudgy underling into a rugged man of science who pushes for such extreme progress that even Nick is taken aback. One of the Tomorrow File ideas is the “Ultimate Pleasure” drug, or “UP” as it is soon known, and Nick and Paul will have frequent discussions on what the nature of pleasure is, and how a drug can be introduced that caters to it – again, Sanders has done such incredible world-building here, so fully invested in his characters, that he even goes through menial stuff like how the drug would be packaged and opened. But Paul is the one who ultimately sees the UP as so revelatory that society could be catered around it; in other words, the UP drug wouldn’t be seen as a boon to those who worked harder, but the very basis around which a societal structure could be centered…a ruling class overtop a “slave society,” as Paul eagerly posits. 

But what’s missing is Nick’s expected and gradual “slide” into obso thinking. This is why I think the first book, Book X, should have been expanded into the main plot of The Tomorrow File. Not that the plots of the other two books aren’t exciting; indeed, Nick’s masterful sting operation in Book Y to get revenge is one of the highlights of the novel. But the obso domestic terrorist plot in the first book could’ve easily been used as a means to open up this strange world and show how independence is crushed by progressivism. Instead, Nick’s comeuppance in this regard is rather awkwardly handled by the romantic subplot with Grace Wingate, the wife of Chief Director Michael Wingate. It’s just hard to buy, that’s all. But one thing I learned from The Tomorrow File is that it would be next to impossible to have an affair with the First Lady! (But then I can literally only think of one First Lady you’d even want to try to have an affair with…) Indeed this entire subplot is so weird and unwelcomed that I wished Sanders had just jettisoned it, and maybe used it for another novel…I mean that’s a plot that could use its own novel to be expanded upon. 

This is one of those novels where I feel like I could ramble on and on, as usual, and still only just scratch the surface. So in that regard it’s like Boy Wonder. There are just so many characters, so many subplots. And Sanders’s skill is such that I never felt lost; I always remembered who was who, and even the most minor of subplots were compelling enough to keep my attention. I did feel though that there was a bit too much fat at times. Nick eventually helms the Department of Creative Science, yet another bureacratic venture of politicized scientists, and this entails a lot of trips around the country with him giving speeches. There was also random stuff like an overlong trip to a fight club sort of place near Millie’s house, where Nick and the “retardate clone” watched a seemingly-endless gladiatorial match. While bloody and lurid, it just seemed shoehorned into the narrative, making an already long book even longer. But again, Sanders is so invested in his tale, so enthusiastic about it, that I couldn’t help but still enjoy everything. He must have been crushed that the book didn’t achieve at least some level of enduring fame. 

Part of Sanders’s worldbuilding is a host of newspeak vocabulary. Some of it is a bit much, and like the rest of the novel it’s hard to believe these terms would be commonplace within two decades of the publication date. The more important new terms would be em for men, ef for women, objects for people, love for money, serve for work, stop for die, operative for true (and inoperative for false), and profit for happiness. Sanders even word-plays at time, intentionally using the words in the original (ie 1975) fashion – for example, in Book Y Nick and Paul talk about their plan to “stop” the character who used them as patsies in Book X, and initially you think they mean to “kill,” ie in the novel’s sense of the word, but really they just mean they want to plain old stop this character’s machinations. As mentioned earlier, I spent so long reading this novel that there were times where I found myself confusing words in real life with their usage in this book. And in some ways Sanders was prescient in this regard as well; I’ve been in more than a few marketing meetings where some hipster says that such and such a promotion “needs a little love.” In this context it means more attention, but it’s very similar to how Sanders uses love to mean money in The Tomorrow File

Another aspect I wanted to touch on was Sanders’s prose style. He manages to convey this strange new “future” while still retaining enough characterization that Nick and several other characters go through definite changes over the course of the novel. The female characters are especially interesting, and another cool thing is that Sanders’s 1998 is truly progressive – more so than even our current world – in that absolutely no big deal is made out of the fact that women are equal (and in many cases superior to) men. This is not a #metoo world, or a world of identity politics; race is only occasionally mentioned and even the black characters are high up in the Federal food chain. Indeed the strongest character in the earliest section of the novel is Angela Berri, Nick’s hotstuff, green-haired boss…a character Nick “uses” quite often in the novel. (That’s one I forgot – “use” means to have sex.) 

But a grating quirk to Sanders’s narrative is that, in the action and sex scenes, he goes for this clipped, staccato effect. Midway through the book Nick learns that there have been periodic terrorist attacks on the Chief Director; in this highly-bureacratic world, the national “satrep” score is key. This is a weekly report of the nation’s satisfaction. Although the satrep shows overall positivity, Nick learns – via Angela – that terrorism is skyrocketing. So obviously the satrep score is being “fiddled” with, and Nick gradually learns that it’s by those obso terrorists. (As for the satrep of the real-world United States of 2022, I’ll let this guy speak to that.) Nick gets a first-hand look at the terrorism when, during a personal meeting with the Chief Director, they come under attack; here's a glimpse of that grating staccato style Sanders employs for such scenes: 

The sex scenes go for the same clipped prose effect: 

Granted, that excerpt is from late in the novel, when Nick is under the sway of a trial version of the Ultimate Pleasure drug. But sex, while not super explicit, is very central to this 1998; people “use” each other casually, and there’s none of the restrictions of today (or the real 1998, of course). In fact, it seems clear that most everyone is sleeping with each other casually, with no emotional attachments. Women proposition men just as frequently as men proposition women. This sex-focused aspect extends to the fashions (we learn that a “flying penis” icon is a new fashion accessory) and to TV – another super-weird bit, where Nick visits an old woman who sews as she watches her favorite TV program, “The Twenty-Six Positions.” Tonight’s episode: masturbation. Next week’s: Anal sex! (Nick informs us, again as if speaking to “Rip Van Winkles,” that television became increasingly permissive in the ’70, to the extent that graphic sex is shown.) 

And to futher the “future 1970s” vibe, drugs are everywhere. Nick takes – and creates – a ton of drugs in this book. Given there are no restrictions (or inhibitions), people can buy “cannabis cigarettes” and indulge in basically any form of recreational drug. We also learn that there’s an “addictive soft drink” called Smack that literally everyone drinks; there are innumerable instances where Nick mixes himself “a vodka and Smack.” Coupled with the rampant mechanization of this future, as well as the fact that everything seems to be made of plastic, we are very much in a Spaced Out type of ultramod future; there were some parts of The Tomorrow File that had me certain Lawrence Sanders was aware of Haus Rucker and their designs. A recurring bit is that practically everything begins with “plasti” or “petro,” being that these two substances are used to create everything from food to furniture. My favorite in this regard was “plastiforks;” surely there were plastic forks in 1975, they couldn’t have seemed that “futuristic” at the time! And also this is very much a ‘70s future in the fashion regard, with government employees wearing jumpsuits, aka “zipsuits.” 

But as you can see, there is a darkly humorous undercurrent to the novel. Nick has a sense of humor, but for the most part everything is pretty serious here…it’s just hidden humor. For example, I’m positive I found an in-joke. Early in the book Nick tells us of another of his projects, the IMP, a sort of molecular ID verification concept. At one point he calls up an underling and tells them that if they need any help with the IMP to “call Jim Phelps.” Of course, “Jim Phelps” was the name of the character Peter Graves played in Mission: Impossible, and Phelps’s crew was called the Impossible Missions Force…or “IMF.” I will accept no other explanation than that this was a clear in-joke from Sanders. And then on the more lowbrow tip, one of the titles a person can acquire in this future is “AssDepDirRad,” which just sounds so juvenile that it has to be another buried joke. A less subtle recurring joke is how the food – all of it artificial and created out of petroleum or other chemicals – looks great but tastes terrible. There’s also recurring humor in the various ultra-bizarre dolls Nick’s dad creates, from a doll that pukes to a doll that dies (the Die-Dee Doll) and must be buried; it even has upsell accessories like a shovel and coffin! 

As I read The Tomorrow File it dawned on me that the only thing Sanders really got wrong was the date: if anything, we are getting closer and closer to the 1998 he depicts here. The most prescient thing in this regard is the “politician/scientist” class Sanders presents; in our Covid world of “trust the science,” in which “the science” changes depending on the latest poll results, Nick Flair and his colleauges are quite similar to real-life career politician/scientists like Anthony Fauci. I mean just read this and tell me if it doesn’t encapsulate the mindset of the activist “scientists” of our recent era:

Not only that, but as mentioned this 1998 is an Orwellian hellhole…if you run afoul of the government. As Voltaire said, it is very dangerous to be right when the government is wrong. You will be caught and “drained” (ie interrogated), and then your “corpus” (ie body) will be sent to some experimental compound “for the good of society,” where you will ultimately “stop” (ie die) as the result of some experiment, perhaps the recipient of a new chemical blood infusion. And you’ll do all of this after willingly signing an acceptance form – willing due to the fact that you’ve been drugged into compliance! 

This is the iron fist behind the sex-and-drugs future of The Tomorrow File, and as expected Nick will ultimately get a first-hand view. And as we go along with him we realize it isn’t so much that Sanders incorrectly predicted what 1998 would be like; it’s just that he got his year wrong. He clearly saw the way the future was headed. Sanders even manages to predict the proposed Covid Visas, which ultimately might lock into every facet of our lives, including our bank accounts, only granting “access” once we’ve been approved by a third party; in The Tomorrow File it’s called a “BIN card,” and it operates in the same capacity. So clearly Sanders’s view of the future is the same as Orwell’s: “a boot stamping on a human face – forever.” But no one will ever learn anything from 1984 or The Tomorrow File. The US will continue on its path into leftist bureacracy, crushing indepence and free thought every step of the way. Compare the above excerpt to the plight of the January 6 protesters, deemed “domestic terrorists” and held without bail in Federal custody. Political prisoners. In the United States. And that’s okay in today’s world…because, like the “obso” terrorists in The Tomorrow File, their protests ran counter to the greater good. And who tells us what the “greater good” is? Why, the ruling class does, of course. 

Perhaps that’s one thing Sanders delivers more than Orwell did (it’s been like thirty years since I read Orwell): he gives a glimpse of what it’s like to be a part of the ruling class. Nick Flair is one of the elite, a scientist who can effect political and social change, and who is 100% aligned with progressivism. And he is accordingly amoral, as are all the other brilliant youth around him, solely devoted to “serving” and moving the human race down the evolutionary path. The drugs and easy sex are just fringe benefits. But, as Nick ultimately discovers, humanity has been lost. I still think this theme could’ve been better elaborated via the obso plot in Book X than by the “fling with the First Lady” plot in Book Z, but still…I started this review thinking I’d pick on the things that bugged me, but the more I thought about it the more I realized The Tomorrow File really is a great novel. I mean it drew me in, it kept me interested, and it made me think about our own world…so really I don’t know what else would make for a great novel. 

There were a few paperback editions over the years, but The Tomorrow File seems to be forgotten now. I’ve even done hard searches for “forgotten science fiction novels” and haven’t seen it mentioned, so it hasn’t resonated at all over the decades. Above I wondered if Lawrence Sanders was crushed by this; I’d love to know his own thoughts on the book and how it performed. He never again delivered a full sci-fi novel; in 1984 he published The Passion Of Molly T, a thriller set in the “feminist near future” of the late ‘80s, but it doesn’t look to be anywhere on the worldbuilding level of The Tomorrow File. But if you’re into ‘70s science fiction, and ‘70s fiction in general, then I’d definitely recommend The Tomorrow File. In fact I imagine it would improve even on a second reading, something I plan to do someday.