“I say, ‘Find somebody who wants to be brainburned and use him.’ ” 101
The greatness of an artist is in his simplicity, Courtenay. You say to me: ‘Nobody wants to be brainburned.’ That is because you are mediocre. I say, ‘Find somebody who wants to be brainburned and use him.’ That is because I am great.
Frederik Pohl and C.M. Kornbluth, The Space Merchants, Chapter 11, 101.
The Space Merchants is some kind of rollercoaster thriller that reminds me of no book more than the Alfred Bester classic The Demolished Man. Except that the sense of peril in that sci-fi thriller is replaced by the breathtaking cynicism of The Space Merchants. Reading this mid–20th Century novel today, in 2013, I couldn’t help feeling that in the world of The Space Merchants, we are all totally screwed.
I read the book quickly, but it rewards quick reading; the Walker and Company edition of 1969 that I borrowed from the local dusty library wraps up at 158 pages, so you can finish it as I did in a single evening.
The above quote is probably not the most representative in the book, but what it does represent to me is the rainforest-like lushness of the book’s conceit, that if ad executives ran the world, the human race would be more miserable and more deluded than at any time in the past. The solipsism, clichéd phrasing, and instrumentality evident in the 43 words are what make me labor over describing The Space Merchants on this blog.
Her finger stirred through what she had written yesterday, toying with the parchments; circling them around slowly; slowly flexing and turning, watched by her, watched by him.…
The finger moved on the desktop where she would write a short poem about him in the evening, one he would copy secretly in case she wasn’t happy with it and threw it out, and as his desire grew and her calm face saw no finger move, one of them was just a passing thing, just a leaf pressed between the pages of the other’s diary, and what they had talked themselves into, they could be silent out of.
Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons stands up all the way through as
a pretty good read, but when I read the good quotes over again after
having finished it, I thought it had slumped a little bit in my
recollection. His best book is probably The Wasp Factory, the
engaging story of a psychopathic child. Banks writes literary fiction
as “Iain Banks” and space-opera sci-fi as “Iain M. Banks”; Use of
Weapons is from his sci-fi side and shares the same conceit of a
galaxy-spanning impossibly advanced civilization as several of his
While I quite like the quoted passage above, what makes the book that
contains it fall short of my expectations is how the quoted passage
(and by extension, the other good passages I had highlighted) fits
into the rest of the book. I guess you can redeem a pop song with a
killer hook, but it’s hard to do the same thing with a novel. What I
learned from reading Anna Karenina last month is that a notable passage in a novel (or
at least that novel) does not coruscate by itself alone, but reflects
in its facets the structure and the themes of the rest of the novel.
In this passage, the hero is on vacation on a remote yet civilized
planet. He has commenced a love affair with the planet’s best poet.
The love affair is about to end and he will move on to another planet,
another assignment as a mercenary for the galactic civilization. The
entire chapter is set as a recollection within its overall structure
as a picaresque, and the chapter includes probably the densest
concentration of figurative language in the entire book. This quote is
the one that pulls together the best the reciprocated feelings between
the poet and the soldier. But still the chapter feels disposable
because the true vanishing point of the novel’s entire perspective is
placed somewhere else, in the relationship between the soldier and his
childhood companions. No matter what happens between the soldier and
the poet, it’s not going to change the outcome of the book or the fate
of its characters.
You may have read that author Philip Jose Farmer has passed away at the age of 91. I read a good portion of his oeuvre when I was in high school, including the Riverworld books and the World of Tiers books. I didn’t think Dayworld was particularly well-thought-out, but that didn’t really diminish the effect that those other two series had on me.
It took me until a couple years ago when I was reading author Charlie Stross’s blog that the real impact of Farmer on my life as a reader sunk in. Stross was discussing publishing cycles, and if I recall correctly, his formulation had about a 15-20 year shelf life (literally) for pop fiction like Stross’s work. In other words, he was writing now what teenagers would be reading in 2025. It hit me that Farmer’s work was an important part of the pop canon in the 1960s-to-1980s period. That was also the last gasp of science fiction as literature, rather than as movie tie-in. The great imaginative works of sci-fi that have come after that, with few exceptions, have been very closely associated with movies and television: think ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’ and the Harry Potter series.
The World of Tiers series remains blessedly unfilmed. I’m sure a director could put it on screen, but as a teenager reading it avidly, over and over again, I could and did construct the whole universe in my head. My individual imaginative renderings of Kickaha and his bride Chryseis will always populate my conception of the bizarre, picturesque, and dangerous pocket universes they inhabit. There are other great sagas of pulp, including some of my other favorites: Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom/Mars books and E.E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series, but Farmer’s books still claim a place in my heart because they explicitly endorse escapism: Kickaha, the World of Tiers hero, shares his initials with the author and had been an ordinary plain-jane from the USA before stepping through a magic gate into the World of Tiers. The Riverworld series, which posits the resurrection of all human beings at once on a purpose-built planet and the heroic struggles of a few of them to figure out what they were doing there, is purpose-built for adolescent escapist fantasies. According to the conceit of the books, both you and I are there on the Riverworld too.
Strange and strong magic to the savages. What myths they must have built about this room, what tales of horrible and powerful gods or demons imprisoned in that wall of dirt! Surely their old women must whisper to the wide-eyed children stories of how the Great Cat-Spirit had been caught by their legendary strong man and savior, some analog to Hercules or Gilgamesh or Thor, and how the Cat-Spirit was the tribe’s to keep prisoner with their magic and to appease from time to time with human kills from other tribes lest it become so angry it burst through the wall of earth and devour everybody upon the floating island!”
“One thing puzzles me, Mr. Biebursson—and I am a technical man myself—the use of congealed water, this vitreous quartzlike substance. How do you form the water into these patterns, these compound curves, and hold it so while you concrete it with the mesongun?”
Biebursson smiled. “No problem, with the natural advantages that are mine. I am a spaceman—I work where the forces of gravity have no effect, where the whole of time is mine for contemplation.”
The protagonist: a serial murderer. The antagonist: a woman seeking to solve the mystery of her own death. Jack Vance through these hoary clichés gives life to a far-future society, where death is the last taboo and immortality is the prize awarded to one of every two thousand citizens. For the other 1,999, the high black car of the Assassins will come at a specified hour to take them away.
Early in the book, Gavin Waylock, the protagonist, who has been hiding out for the seven years required to prove the death of his earlier identity as one of the immortal Amaranth caste, resolves to climb the slope of society and win again a place in Amaranth. He did it once as a journalist; he can do it again in another discipline.
His efforts to find a place in society are continually foiled by The Jacynth Martin, the woman who sees through his new guise and identifies him as The Grayven Warlock, the notorious Amaranth-caste murderer. Gavin’s original crime and his murder of The Jacynth are only temporary, however: each victim has a spare body ready and therefore suffers only a temporary loss of consciousness.
This could all be safely left on the shelf, unread, as thrills-and-spills literature, except for Vance’s creativity and wry humor in his characterization and exposition. His description of a pantomime performance is breathtakingly beautiful, even as the mime herself is revealed to be a self-indulgent brat, and the concept of the congealed-water sculpture (and the sententious spaceman sculptor character responsible) is the kind of impossible-in-real-life artifact that only literature can supply.