Thursday, September 14, 2023

Cage A Man (The Demu Trilogy #1)

Cage A Man, by F.M. Busby
May, 1974  Signet Books
(Original hardcover edition 1973)

First off, an admission: I didn’t read this actual paperback, but the reprint included in full in the 1980 Pocket Books collection The Demu Trilogy. On a recent visit to the nearby Half Price Books this thick paperback grabbed my attention, and they only wanted two bucks for it. I’d been in the mood for some late ‘60s/early ‘70s sci-fi, so I figured what the hell. 

This first volume of the trilogy was initially published in hardcover, but the next two novels were paperback only. Actually, the last volume of the trilogy can only be found in The Demu Trilogy. Cage A Man was the first novel published by F.M. Busby, and it’s my understanding he was 50 or so when he started writing; before that he ran a well-regarded sci-fi fanzine or somesuch. So he was clearly a sci-fi fan, and he went on to be a pretty prolific author, passing away in 2005. He’s certainly got a handle on pulp sci-fi; Cage A Man is a fast-moving 144-page novel that features a macho hero fighting (and eating!) lobster-like aliens. 

But then, Busby throws a helluva curveball with this book, as Cage A Man starts off in one direction and ultimately veers in another. It very much reads like the first half of a story, so you have to figure there were some frustrated readers back in the day; the story wouldn’t continue until 1975’s The Proud Enemy (which came out in paperback only, and courtesy a different publisher to boot), and then the final volume, End Of The Line, didn’t show up until 1980’s The Demu Trilogy (itself courtesy a different publisher!). I wonder though if Busby wrote the whole thing at once…whether or not, he clearly knows this is just the start of a bigger story, as he doesn’t even finish anything by this novel’s end, despite the fact that the novel keeps building and building…to a resolution that never comes! 

I mentioned “macho” above, but an interesting thing about the hero of Cage A Man, the thirty-something Barton (no other name provided), is that he’s kind of a dick. Indeed, F.M. Busby almost goes out of his way to make Barton unlikable at times. Initially though I thought we had a hero in the mold of Leigh Brackett: a resourceful individualist willing to get savage when necessary. And this is the Barton we get for the first half of the novel. After that, though…actually to tell the truth, the books I kept flashing back to when reading Cage A Man were the spy-fy novels John Quirk wrote a decade earlier: Busby has a very similar narrative style, and the similarity of a self-centered “masculine” hero flying around on his own private spaceship while dealing with humdrum “business stuff” was very reminiscent of that earlier series’ self-centered “masculine” hero flying around on his own private jet fighter while dealing with humdrum “business stuff.” 

When I picked up The Demu Trilogy I checked out some reviews online, and I have to say that most of the reviews out there are very misleading in that there’s a ton of sex and whatnot in Cage A Man. Maybe it you read nothing but Star Trek tie-ins or Harry Potter or whatever the hell, this book might seem to have a bit more of a focus on sex. But folks, all the sex happens off-page! All of it!! And the exploitation is minimal at best. Even the violence is minimal, and pretty sparse. 

Indeed, another parallel to those John Q. books is that not much really happens in Cage A Man. A lot of the novel is given over to the preparation to do stuff. But the first half of the novel is a different story, because it’s all about the mystery and the buildup. It starts cold, with Barton waking up to find himself naked and stuck in a room with a bunch of other naked men and women. Gradually he will discover that some of them are aliens. Busby gives no background or setup, so that the mystery is just as puzzling to as as it is to Barton: how did he get here, and who has taken him? 

So yes, it’s an alien abduction story, but it sure isn’t Whitley Streiber. Busby will dole out little details, like that Barton is a ‘Nam vet and is 32 years old at the time of abduction, which happens in the early 1980s. So it’s a “near future” sort of thing, given that the novel was published a decade before. There’s no real futuristic stuff in the first half, though…just a lot of stuff about Barton pissing and shitting. Seriously, there is a focus on feces here that’s on the level of your average William Crawford novel. Barton, in this room with others and later alone in his own cell, will find that he must piss or defecate directly onto the floor and the waste, even the “solid waste,” will slowly just slip through the floor, even though Barton himself can’t go through the floor. 

So yeah, there’s more scat-sleaze than real sleaze in this one, so if you’ve ever hankered to read about a guy who is kept nude in a cage for eight years and must always piss and shit on the floor, you’re definitelly gonna want to run out and get a copy of Cage A Man. And yeah, late spoiler alert, but Barton’s here for years and years…but the years are almost casually dispensed in the narrative. Barton’s caught, confused in his cell, then a page or so later we’re told that he figures, by the length of his beard and hair and such, that he’s been here for a few years. 

But first we do have some of that hanky-panky; soon after awakening at the beginning of the novel, Barton encounters fellow captive Limila, a nude alien beauty who looks like an Earth girl, save for having only six fingers and toes, and double rows sharklike rows of teeth…and also her breasts are lower on her ribcage. She wants some sex with Barton posthaste – she has limited English because she’s been a captive for longer and has met more Earthlings – and Barton gives her the goods, though as mentioned it’s off page. And that’s it for Limila until later in the novel, which makes it quite odd that Busby will ultimately spend so much time developing this soap opera romance between she and Barton. In fact the entire second half of Cage A Man concerns Barton’s realization that he’s in love with Limila. 

After this boffery Barton is placed in his own special cell, which is nothing but an empty room with a floor that you can relieve yourself through, and he’ll stay there for years and years. Oh and also occasionally food – a sort of mush – will pour through the also-pourable walls, and Barton will have to put his face up to it to eat. There is quite an off-putting vibe about Cage A Man, what with this nude and dirty guy crapping and pissing in a cell and lapping mush-like food off the wall. In a way the novel practically captures the entire gross, burned-out bummer vibe of the post-Altamont early ‘70s era, or maybe that’s just me. 

This goes on for a long time and Barton develops “hallucination” skills, in which he sits in a corner and visualizes things in his mind, thus making the years pass by quickly. The never-seen aliens keep screwing with him, though, like at one point sending a Tilaran woman into his cage – not Limila, but of the same alien species, with the low-hanging jugs and six fingers and whatnot. This whole bit is weird with the two engaging prompty in (mostly undescribed) sex and eventually the alien gal becomes…pregnant! And Barton, unable to deliver the ensuing baby, has to break the girl’s neck to end her misery and pain! After which she vanishes, the aliens clearly having watched all this from their hidden place but never interfering to help. 

It goes on…like eventually the aliens start trying to teach Barton their language, via some sort of projection on the wall. He also gets a glimpse of them: humanoid lobsters, basically. And their whole schtick is, they consider themselves the only true thinking creatures, and all other aliens they encounter are “animals.” But, if these lobster creatures, ie the Demu, find an “animal” that can learn their language, then that alien becomes Demu – complete with forced surgery to remove/add various bodyparts so that they look like Demu. Now that’s some freaky and weird stuff, which basically sums up the whole vibe of Cage A Man

The Leigh Brackett similarities are in how Barton is a hero who refuses to bend his knee; he fights the Demu relentlessly. The similarities become even more pronounced when Barton manages to escape and runs roughshod over the planet – plus even more Brackett similarities here, as there’s no real concern over “science” in this part, ie how Barton can even breathe on this alien planet. But Barton gets hold of a few of the Demu, learning to his satisfaction that their hard exterior shells are very breakable, and he starts breaking arms and limbs and – most memorably – eating some of the “lobster meat” within. 

But this hard edge is lost when Barton gets in a Demu spaceship, and it all just becomes rather juvenile in tone; Barton’s able to take off and fly this thing with rudimentary instructions, and also manages to free Limila and two of Barton’s fellow Earthling captives. But all three of them have been surgically changed by the Demu, so there’s a lot of body horror stuff afoot. Barton also makes off with the apparent leader of this research facility, and the leader’s “egg child,” a little Demu that Barton eventually takes a liking to – despite breaking “her” arm on first meeting and later threatening to eat her. 

At this point the second half of Cage A Man gets underway, and we’re grounded on Earth – and grounded in very humdrum, mundane things. All the tension and payoff of the first half is lost. It’s also very juvenile in tone; Barton flies his spaceship to Earth, figures out how to use the radio to communicate with the (undescribed) Earth space vessels that try to shoot him down, and manages to land the craft unscathed. I mean it’s all on the level of Tom Swift. It gets even goofier, with Barton lording it over the “Space Agency” rep, Tarleton, who serves as the official government contact for Barton for the remainder of the book. 

And meanwhile Barton’s brought along his alien prizes: Histhtoo, the leader; Eeshta, the little girl; Limila, the lobsertized Tilaran. And also there are the two humans who have been Demu-ized. And also meanwhile F.M. Busby decides to turn the whole thing into a melodrama, with Barton slowly realizing he’s in love with Limila, but he can’t bring himself to touch her, because she’s a friggin’ lobster and all, with all her bodyparts hacked off. So off she’s sent to a plastic surgeon to try to get some semblance of human form back; I mean folks seriously, this takes up a huge chunk of the plot. Talks with the surgeon, Limila’s refusal to get human breasts (ie higher up on the chest than the low-hangin’ Tilaran ones), and also lots of talk on how fake ears will be necessary because real ears would be impossible. And also how Limila won’t be able to have her sixty sharkteeth. 

And through it all Barton hops on his commandeered Demu spaceship and flies around, helping Tarleton create a fleet of similar ships to launch an attack on the Demu planet – an attack of vengeance, given that those damn Demu have been abducting humans right and left these past eight years Barton’s been gone. And speaking of which, Busby’s powers of description are minimal at best, so there’s no attempt at bringing this “future” Earth to life…only mentions that there’s a lunar colony now, and also three-dimensional TV, or Tri-V. More focus is placed on the “slop” Barton eats via ready-made packets, complete with Barton bitching over the constant commercials for said slop on Tri-V. 

It was with a crushing sensation that I realized Cage A Man wasn’t building up to anything – the entire second half of the novel is nothing more than the preparation for the next volume. Barton and Tarleton putting a fleet together, comprised of forty ships of various nationalities, to attack the Demu home planet. And Eeshta learning to speak in English while Limila tries to become human again so Barton will screw her. And in that regard we get a lot of stuff about how she insists on only wearing a padded bra, plus she wants a wig made up to look like her real Tilaran hair – an “Elizabethan” style in which her forehead is bald and the hair, which runs down her back, starts in the middle of her forehead, which sounds real friggin’ lovely – and when it finally gets down to the long-awaited conjugation between the two, Busby again leaves the act entirely off-page. Vey curious, then, how so many reviews of Cage A Man go on about the rampant sex. 

Things limp to a close on the act that should’ve happened like a hundred pages before: the Earth fleet launches into space for the voyage to the Demu planet. But before that Busby must grind more gears: we have this super lame, nonsensical subplot in which Barton keeps avoiding this government psychiatrist who is trying to figure out if Barton’s mind has been scrambled by his eight-year abduction. Well, duh! So he keeps “hallucinating” in the tests to throw them off, and finally the “climax” of the novel features Barton being ordered into a last test before they’ll let him fly on one of the spaceships, and he goes berserk when they replicate the cell he was imprisoned in…but it was all a test, you see! Just a test! 

I didn’t much enjoy Cage A Man. But since the novel ends on a cliffhanger I’m already halfway through the next volume, The Proud Enemy, and will be reviewing it anon. Finally, special mention on the cover (credited to someone by the handle FMA, per the signature), which is great, and almost looks like it could be on a prog or krautrock LP.  Or the cover of a direct-to-VHS sci-fi flick: “Starring Lance Henriksen!”

No comments: