Star Treasure by Laumer, Sleepwalkers World by Dickson

Reading with adult eyes a favorite novel from one’s youth is always an interesting experiment, because it brings to the forefront the changes the passing decades have visited (or inflicted) upon the reader, and upon the genre.

I recently reread THE STAR TREASURE by Keith Laumer and SLEEPWALKER’S WORLD by Gordon R. Dickson. These novels, being neither the best known nor the least of these two science fiction authors, who are neither the most celebrated nor the least in the genre, may serve as apt examples of SF of the Silver Age, provide us some entertaining comment on the evolution of the genre.

Comments on the devolution of the reader is less entertaining, and can be summed in a sentence: I was easier to please.  In my carefree youth, I would not have cared about whether the light reading of a summer’s day contained a deeper meaning.

Before discussing the books, let me discuss their age of origin.

While endless ink could be spilled on the Linnaean classification of the ages of science fiction as it has changed over the decades, for the rough and ready purposes of this essay, let me make a simple definition: Every genre has accepted conventions or tropes that do not need to be explained by an author to his target audience. What makes the conventions conventional is that the audience knows them. Science fiction, however we want to define the genre, is by and large a matter of setting: naturalistic stories set in the future are science fiction. In the same way that the past brought forth technological wonders as the ironclad, the submersible boat, the skyscraper, the electric light, and the horseless carriage, the future is expected to bring forth interplanetary travel, the atomic bomb, the laser-ray, the flying car, and the mechanical man. I propose we define the ages of science fiction by the conventional idea, the consensus, of what the future would hold. Every time the basic expectations changes, that is the watershed of a new era of the genre, or, in other words, a new sub-genre separated by time.

The very earliest science fiction, Jules Verne and HG Wells and Olaf Stabledon, did not operate within any convention, but, rather, established them.  These works were well regarded by the literati of the time, and taken seriously. In America, our beloved pulp magazines in the Early Age produced juvenile trash that was not well regarded, and the consensus background of a science fiction yarn was something like Barsoom or Pellucidar, a Venus covered in dinosaur-haunted swamps, a Mars crisscrossed by canals, an asteroid belt haunted by Space Pirates, or a Pluto where men wore parkas against the intense cold.

The Golden Age was inspired by John W Campbell Junior, and the consensus background included real principles of rocketry, chemistry, or engineering. Authors like Isaac Asimov, A.E. van Vogt, Robert Heinlein, and Arthur C. Clarke defined the theme of the consensus background: that of men solving problems using only the tools nature provides. In the famed stories of Campbell’s day, Asimov did not once explain by what means the Galactic Empire whose fall Hari Seldon predicted sent forth it conquering navies faster than light; nor more than did Heinlein explain the faster than light dive invented by Slipstick Libby and used by the long-lived Howard Families to flee an earth suddenly turned hostile; nor more than did A.E. van Vogt explain the hyperdrive of the Space Beagle when it encountered the Black Destroyer. Hyperdrive was merely a given: a consensus. The Galactic Empire was merely a given. The Golden Age was the paramount of Hard SF.

The Silver Age, perhaps provoked by John W. Campbell’s own interest in parapsychology, ushered in softer SF, where mind-readers with psychic powers became a commonplace. The Silver Age was also more concerned with humanities than with nuts and bolts. THE LANGUAGES OF PAO by Jack Vance was concerned with linguistics; LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS by Ursula K LeGuin with anthropology; MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS or STARSHIP TROOPERS by Heinlein with politics, as were Polesotechnic League or Terran Empire stories by Poul Anderson; DUNE by Frank Herbert with ecology. Note that the Ekumen of LeGuin, the Federation of Heinlein, and the Empire of Known Space Herbert have foretellers, sensitives and witches, each with various mental powers, introduced without demur into futurist fiction.

Let me mention merely for contrast the consensus background of the Brassy Age, inspired by Michael Moorcock and called the New Wave, where one was more likely to come across sex and drugs and rock and roll than across a working hyperdrive engine; or of the Iron Age, inspired by Walter Gibson and called Cyberpunk, where one was more likely to come across cybernetic ninja in finely-tailored suits with narrow black ties with optically implanted sunglasses working for a Japanese-owned international cartel chasing a streetwise but lethal brainjacker down a dark ally in the drizzling rain.

I propose further that not merely a similarity of tropes define an age, but also a theme or outlook. The two examples below will serve to show something of the moral outlook of the Silver Age.

Keith Laumer’s work can be divided into two sections: Retief stories, and everything else. Retief stories are his humor pieces, where the author brings scathing satire to bear on the antics of the Terran Diplomatic Corps, which consists of bunglers and bureaucrats, ideologues and idiots, place-servers and toad-lickers, and one superhumanly all-competent James Bondian junior diplomat, Retief, who routinely manages to save the world from the combination of malign enemies and clownishly incompetent friends, without ever once getting due credit, or any reward aside from a job well done.

Fan as I am of Retief, I have always preferred his serious pieces: DINOSAUR BEACH, or THE LONG TWILIGHT, or THE INFINITE CAGE, or THE GLORY GAME, ‘Graylorn’ or ‘Thunderhead’ or ‘End a Hero.’ Whether writing about secret agents of time traveling organizations attempting unsuccessfully to escape the collapse of the timespace continuum caused by the meddling of other time travelers; or about superhuman aliens living on Earth as the last survivors of an eon-old and long forgotten war; or about a naïve yet saintly but amnesia-afflicted telepath living among the sin and dirt of the gutters of earth; or about a career officer in the space navy who sacrifices his career to stop a space war; no matter the plot, Laumer captures both the mood and theme of Noir detective yarns in the crisp and ironic masculine directness of prose which could have sprung from the pen of a Dashiell Hammett.

And the theme is always the same: a man who stands for an understated or unstated principle, like a battered knight, a Don Quixote but who lacks or has lost any comforting Quixotic illusions, faces a world that is sickened and addicted to falsehood, a grime-ridden and crime-ridden world, but a world worth saving nonetheless. Keith Laumer heroes are always men who stand alone at the tattered standard, tight lipped and without a boast, and do not surrender.

STAR TREASURE is a prime example.

————–(SPOILERS BELOW)————–

The plot concerns career naval officer Ban Tarleton who is framed for the murder of a friend and fellow officer after he stumbles upon hints of corruption, perhaps treason, in high places. The world is ruled by the allegedly benevolent plutocrats called the Star Lords, whose monopoly on inexpensive pollution-free energy called the starcore has ushered in an age of abundance and world peace; and opposing them are revolutionaries called Hateniks, who claim a conspiracy oppresses mankind.

Ban eludes corporate gunmen and brutal cops, trying to reach highly-placed officers in the admiralty to uncover the plot he’s discovered; but, betrayed again by the very ones he was trying to save, he is condemned to transportation and exile to a life of hard labor in the waterless wasteland of a far world. The harsh life of the work camp is a parody of laissez faire, as everyone is free either to work for the gangs that work for the company, or free to die.

Framed again and betrayed again, the work gang leader sends Ban out into the wasteland to die; and he is found by a tiny band of exiled survivors living on moss in a cavern oasis, the only spot of water on the waterless world. And when he will not join in a futile attack on the work camp, Ban is exiled from the exiles among the exiles, and thrown even from that last troglodyte vestige of humanity.

Desiccated, dry, delirious and dying,  benevolent aliens called the Ancil rescue Ban, last of an extinct species, unlocking within him in the mind-over-matter powers he must have to repair the cellular damage to his body and survive. The ancil accidentally reveal to Ban the secret of the Star Lords. The starcore is not merely a source of pollution-free electricity, it is a psychic fountainhead, giving those who control it power over the minds of men. There is only one star lord, Imbolo,  a man who discovered the same alien secret as Ban did, is armed his same mind powers, secretly rules the world, having corrupted both the corporation and the navy to the single task of preserving his secret and its source. The starcore is a psychic engine, an alien technology discovered by the first Star Lord, Imbolo which not only creates endless energy from nowhere, but grants control over the nervous systems of other men. The alien fear to use the power, because any use of starcore energy calls a primordial enemy from the extragalactic darkness to destroy any form of intelligent life not their own. In activating the starcore, man is now under the curse of these destroyers, who may not appear for a century, or a millennium.

Armed now with the ability to take control of anything, from a handweapon to a starship, powered by the starcore energy, or to use that energy to manipulate the nervous system of any foe, Ban returns from exile, superhuman and unstoppable. Without breaking a sweat or raising his voice, he moves in rapid order, first to the moss-eating exiles in the oasis cave,  then to the gang-run work camp, then to the company outpost, to the naval base; then, with the entire fleet helplessly trailing him, to Earth. Ban walks alone into the mansion fastness of Imbolo.

The Star Lord, whose motive was understandable, perhaps admirable, dies, and in death begs Ban to take over as master of the world from him, to maintain the peace and prosperity of the age; even as his Ban’s best friend, a Hatenik, asks him to overthrow the world and its corrupt system.

Ban makes no decision, but merely walks away from power and responsibility, leaving the non-superhuman humans to work out their own destiny.

What I recalled mostly from my first reading in my youth was the galling unfairness of each appalling betrayal, one after another, that afflicted the hero, and the dark if dry humor of the almost poetical descriptions of the physical suffering of the main character as he starved nearly to death aboard a space lifeboat, or walked nearly to death across a scalding red desert land.

What I did not recall was the moral ambiguity that defined the end scene. When, beyond hope, Ban discovers the secret the Star Lord destroyed his life to keep, his retaliation turns him almost inhuman, but offers no more satisfaction than does the similar but longer retaliation of the Count of Monte Christo. Revenge is not sweet, but bitter. It is carried out with no more joy than the necessity of killing a mad dog. Keith Laumer is as firmly convinced that power corrupts as Gene Roddenberry. Laumer’s hero at the end of the tale refuses the political power which lies in his hands, lest he lose all hope to recover his human nature which the gift of unlimited power stole from him.

Reading with adult eyes, I cannot help but see the work as a product of its time. The postwar America was flush with abundance without parallel in human history, just as Star Lords ushered in; and in the midst of abundance, a discontent with civilization that was likewise without parallel, a youth movement, that combined the highest rhetoric with the lowest goals imaginable. No man of good will, hearing the soaring rhetoric, could dismiss the goals of the utopians unheard; but no man of common sense could see their acts without seeing the sinister and disastrous results which followed, and no man of common decency could fail to be appalled.

This irony was reflected in THE STAR TREASURE. In once scene Ban is captured by Hateniks, who regard him as one of their own; when he hears their scenery-chewing rhetoric, their complaint about the degrading slavery of their society contrasts sharply with the comfort, even the luxury, of their fine homes and gardens and the delightful scenery surrounding. And yet, ironically again, the Hateniks are correct that the Star Lords engage in a conspiracy of oppression stinking of rankest injustice to maintain their power over mankind. Ban, and perhaps Laumer himself, could not dismiss the argument to be made by either the conservation of the established order, or by its overthrow in the name of a vague higher ideal: but neither ideology appeals to the pragmatic and worldly-weary ideal of the hero of a Laumer story, who does the right thing because it is right, without fanfare and without reward—not even the reward, as in a fairy tale, of ruling the kingdom he saved. Ban walks away.

THE GLORY GAME by the same author has the same theme and the same resolution. In that book, a career officer is caught between the competing claims of two equally implacable rival  factions controlling the government of earth. The Hardliners, who yearn for genocidal open war Earth’s alien rival superpower the Hukk; and the Softliners, who seek total disarmament in the face of the aggression from that rival. As in STAR TREASURE, the main character is mistaken by each faction as one of their own, merely because he objects and works against the fanatic insanity of the rival faction. He wishes neither to provoke a war nor to surrender preemptively; and both factions seek to punish him as a traitor when he refuses to support their excesses. Having saved, by a daring bluff, the Earth from the alien forces once, he is rewarded with a court martial, exiled to a lonely post where he, disobeying orders, single-handedly stops a second alien sneak attack: but now his sidekick is discovered to be, in the last paragraph of the book, an agent of the secret service who had not believed the official slanders against the hero, and, seeing him save the earth again, the secret service want to restore him to his rightful rank and station. Unexpectedly, in the last line of the book, he merely says, “I’ll think about it.” And once again, there is no worldly reward for our hero.

SLEEPWALKER’S WORLD by Gordon R Dickson contains some interesting parallels of theme.

————–(SPOILERS BELOW)————–

The rather gothic background is this: every night, at dusk each time zone of the globe placed under a power broadcast whose frequencies force the human nervous system into a somnolent, alpha-wave state. Everyone, wherever he is, whether in bed or behind the wheel of a car, falls asleep. However, certain individuals, called zombies, are able, albeit in an altered state of awareness, to stay awake, and therefore are free to commit any crime imaginable without fear of reprisal. Certain of the zombies can project a shadow-image of themselves from their brains, and these shadows are able to walk through walls and club victims to death. The nightly broadcasts cannot be shut down, because a starving world needs the automatically run food factories, powered by those broadcasts, to run at peak capacity for as many hours as possible: any interruption means starvation, riots, or world famine.

Our hero, Rafael, is an astronaut who discovers a conspiracy at the highest levels of business and government to prevent mankind from breaking out of this trap. Rafael is also blessed with superhuman reflexes and the ability to alter his states of consciousnesses at will, and use any section of his brain as may be convenient  whenever his cortex is being damped by an application of broadcast power. He can move through the night world of the zombies at will. The beautiful but lame daughter of the scientist kidnapped by the conspiracy likewise has the sleepwalker ability to stay awake despite the power broadcast, and so does her pet timber wolf, Lucas, who was given an artificial speech center of his brain, and intelligence. In rapid Hickcockian fashion, Rafael the scientists beautiful daughter and the timber wolf , discover the conspirators in the military industrial complex, find the dark military conspirators are themselves helpless puppets of a deeper conspiracy of dark magicians, whose leader in turn seems to be the kidnapped scientist, promising a glorious utopia, but who actually turns out to be none other than the Old Man of the Mountain of Middle Eastern lore, known as Shaitan or Satan, who has discovered side effects of the broadcast power, enabling him to control the minds and souls of men, and to achieve immortality. And he is promising Hell on Earth. In the final confrontation, Satan kills our hero’s dog (or wolf, but the pathos is the same) and locks our hero into a mental duel of power-broadcast amplified wills. Rafael struggles forward one step at a time, kills Satan by strangling him, and wakes up in a hospital room, freakishly convinced that he is dead, and unable to be talked out of the proposition.

What I recalled from my youthful first reading was the character of the wolf, who could speak but only if the computer chip in his brain happened to have the correct vocabulary for his wolfish concepts. How it is, for example, that Lucas can tell that his master is still alive, or follow the shadow man back to the zombies projecting them, he does not explain, because of this unavoidable taciturnity. I thought then, and still do, that Gordon Dickson met the Campbellian challenge to describe an alien intelligence, something that thought as well as a man but not like a man.

Rereading, I found my enjoyment marred by the awkward, even appalling way the author decided to handle the theme of good versus evil. Now, perhaps the author wanted to show how the Sleepwalker’s World was falling unintentionally back into the darkness of primitive superstition, or, more precisely, that man’s unwise meddling with nature had wakened primordial darkness and revealed that the lamp of science is no match for the powers of Chaos and Old Night: but his method selected for this was to put in the mouth of the hero and his sidekicks some of the most silly dialog concerning the nature of good and evil ever penned.

First, our hero Rafael announces, without a trace of modesty, that he is a perfect human being, able to accomplish everything to which he sets his mind, ergo unstoppable. Since he can, apparently at will and whenever the plot requires it, develop new forms of conscious control over subconscious and automatic nervous system actions in his brain cells, the reader has no reason to doubt the boast.

Second, Rafael then says that an absolute evil has taken over the world, seeking to destroy mankind, and that therefore something (Fate? Fortune? Destiny? Deities? Spiritual antibodies? The Mechanisms of Psychohistory?) has produced him, the absolute good, as an equal and opposite reaction; as opposing poles, the good and evil must be drawn together, and so evil cannot stay hidden. As a reader, I was spectacularly unimpressed with the ego-hero’s self-regard, but even less impressed with his theory of police procedure, which was to rely on the magnetic properties of the D&D alignment of the character.

Third, however, his sidekick says that believing in good and evil implies religious conviction, since there can be no secular nor human reason to think that some things are bad or good. All the characters shudder at the mention of religious conviction, and agree that “good” and “evil” are merely labels.

Fourth, Rafe then offers that good is whatever cooperates with the powers that be ruling society and evil is whatever opposes them. He then soars off to go do battle against the evil powers that be that rule his society, apparently without noticing the jarring contradiction. To me, the contradiction was as obvious as when you accidently chew a bit of the tinfoil wrapper stuck to the stick of gum: the zing of wrongness.

As best I can guess, Mr. Dickson wanted to put across something of the mood and flavor of ancient and primordial evil facing a archangelic good — but he could not think of how to do it in a science fiction background, because he could tolerate to have the satanic Old Man of the Mountain in that background, but not any angelic power opposite, and certainly nothing like an objective and non-secular definition of good and evil.

The consensus of the Silver Age contained, as a background element, that mistrust of objective thought about morality which metastasizes in later years into the full-blown and morbid nihilism which poisons so much of our modern literature today.

Let me emphasize a certain coincidence of elements in these two stories. They were both used broadcast energy as the ‘McGuffin’ or machinery to propel the plot. Both granted the hero Way Cool  Mind Powers. Both were conspiracy thrillers, in which the Powers That Be were evil; which ended the same way: one lone hero facing the demiurge or prince of darkness in single combat.  The basic difference was that the evil Ban faced had a human face whose motive was an understandable fear; Rafe faced a grotesque giggling horror, flat and nameless shadows, and an urbane devil whose motive is evil for evil’s sake. Ban, because he did not boast, and was not insufferable, unlike Rafe, who did and who was.

More importantly, both took place in worlds where the technology was a golden cage, where the side effects of the world man has made almost overbalance the benefits. This was the basic attitude, not just of science fiction readers, but of the world at large, in the postwar years to the wonders of technical progress: Dr. Frankenstein looks on his creation with doubt.

Touching on the books mentioned in the paragraph above as ‘Silver Age’ material, we can begin to glimpse how social institutions were portrayed in a typical book of the times, particularly the government:  THE LANGUAGES OF PAO, the world monarchy of Pao is an absolute monarchy; the Ekumen of  LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS is a benevolent organization but one with no governmental power, whereas the governments of planet Winter include a monarchy that unjustly encompasses the death of one main character, and a totalitarian bureaucracy that unjustly imprisons the other; in MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS the state is malevolent, except when revolutionary; STARSHIP TROOPERS the state is not merely benevolent, but above suspicion; the League of Poul Anderson is dying and corroding, the Imperium beyond is corrupt; DUNE concerns a brutal and barbaric theocracy overthrowing a brutal and corrupt overcivilized monarchy.  Of the institutions just listed, the only two which as not malign are the veteran-run state of the Federation in Heinlein, in which morality has been reduced to a science like civic engineering, and the ecumenical and interstellar non-state of Le Guin, whose officers seem more like disciples than diplomats: both ideas are so radical as to portray something very little like current institutions.

I propose that Hard SF of the Golden Age of Campbell is necessarily optimistic, because it assumes, and expects the reader to assume, that science can solve the ills to which man is heir. (And Campbell rejected the Darwinian cosmic despair portrayed in the previous generation of science fiction, as seen in THE TIME MACHINE by Wells, or LAST AND FIRST MEN by Stapledon.)

The Soft SF of the Silver Age is more cautious than Campbell, even cynical, and dwells on the human costs that the solutions proposed by science impose. The slide into cynicism accelerates in the Brassy Age, and culminates in the Iron Age, where no product of technology is portrayed as anything but grossly dehumanizing.

I cannot think of the last book I read from the New Age or the Cyberpunk era where a large corporate organization, organized Western religion, or a agency of the government was even subhuman, much less neutral or benevolent.

Whether you, dear reader, regard the change between the Golden and the Silver Age of science fiction as the welcome enlightenment out of an enervating optimism, or the darkening and tarnishing of once-noble ideals into insolent cynicism depends on factors outside the field of science fiction itself. I merely submit for your consideration that, in addition an unspoken consensus on such things as hyper-drives or Galactic Empires, the Silver Age contained a consensus opinion critical of current social institutions, seeing little hope or none for the future that daily approaches.

These books and others of their ilk are many things: enjoyable as adventure stories, thrilling as tale of intrigue, and simplistic as an adolescent daydream about super-powers. But let it not be overlooked that books and other like them are much darker and more negative than I noticed at the time.

What of the current age, whatever it shall be called? The topic is admittedly unrelated to the review and comment above, but I do note, with the deepest misgivings and regrets, the difference in the world between the somewhat healthy norms of postwar America, and the morbidity of postmodern America.

Ours is the first era in human history with no metaphysics, hence no account of the nature of reality or our place in it; no spiritual institutions aside of glorification of unreflective, immature, petulant, or raw appetite, preferably perverse; and no aesthetic vision or sense of life embodied in arts aside from a morbid glorification of the unseemly, ungainly, ugly, degrading or disgusting.

What SF books represent the modern age, whatever it might be called? I nominate BLINDSIGHT by Peter Watts, PERDITO STREET STATION by China Mieville, and AMBER SPYGLASS by Philip Pullman to represent the vacuous metaphysics (Watts proposes in his novel that consciousness does not exist, or is unnecessary) the vacuous aesthetics (Mieville’s work is a study in various forms of freakish ugliness, all of which are dank, brown, and dripping with raw sewage) and the vacuous theology of the modern day (Pullman proposes that the cure to the Fall of Man is some combination of deicide, underage copulation, and mass euthanasia.)

Ours is the first civilization to reject, on a spiritual and intellectual level, everything that civilization offers. Our science fiction books reflect the idea that the men of the future will have no future.

The mild cynicism of the Silver Age which I detect from the pages of SLEEPWALKER’S WORLD and THE STAR TREASURE comes as a nostalgic contrast, almost refreshing.

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