This is not a book review, but a meditation upon the enemy prompted by a book.
The book is NIGHT OF DELUSIONS by Keith Laumer, a minor effort by an accomplished author whose accomplishments are all but unknown these days. This author is a particular favorite of mine, and always has been, and only recently did I come to realize that he is not as well known in science fiction circles as authors of frankly smaller skill and output. I cannot recall when last I saw any of his books even at the used bookstore. And I find it hard to understand why. (I hope to introduce his works to some readers who have not had the pleasure, and urge you to try him.)
The enemy is, of course, the one enemy. There is only one. More on him later.
This non-bookreview will read as if I am criticizing this book, or, rather, a single scene or a single line in the book. It will read as if I am criticizing the author. I am not. I adore this author.
I am criticizing the spirit of the age; I am criticizing subversion in literature as in life; and I am contenting with powers and principalities that have very little indeed to do with science fiction.
However, spoilers abound, since I discuss the surprise endings of several books below. Readers are warned.
Keith Laumer, to put him in perspective, hales from the time of the great paperback boom after the Second World War. His peak was between 1959 and 1970. So he is not from the John W Campbell Jr days of the Golden Age of science fiction, when Asimov, Heinlein, and van Vogt were writing the bulk of the quality stories for the magazine. He is later. He comes from the same period as Gordon R Dickson, Poul Andersen, Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, Ron Goulart, and shares much of their same audience.
Laumer has the same tough, cynical hard-boiled protagonists cut from the same cloth as Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe. He writes in a lean , rapidfire and masculine style, adorned with wry metaphors worthy of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett. Laumer is easy to read and he makes it easy to turn the pages.
His heroes are as typically American as Gary Cooper: stoical, curt, soft-spoken men who do their jobs with steely-eyed realism, and perhaps a touch of sorrow at lost chances and failed dreams.
He is most famous for his ‘Retief’ yarns, which are satirical stories about a James Bondlike junior diplomat continually using his wits and brawn, suaveness and all-around competence to save the Terran diplomatic corps from the disasters toward which their incompetent section chiefs, muddle-headed ambassadors, lunatic policies and self-serving bureaucrats lumber and stumble unceasingly. And, incidentally, Retief hinders the ruthless expansion of the Russian-esque Cold War foes, the Groaci. Laumer himself was in the American diplomatic service, and so if a touch of realistic detail, or real bitterness, comes through in his satire, that is why.
Other humor yarns include THE GREAT TIME MACHINE HOAX or the Lafayette O’Leary novels, which involve likeable clods accidentally prying into the secrets of the Cosmic All, and fumble their way past blundering super-enemies to wealth, happiness, fame and winning the girl.
Myself, I like Keith Laumer’s serious stories better than his humor pieces. DINOSAUR BEACH (perhaps my favorite of all his works) is a time travel story where agents from the Fourth Era of time travel are attempting to clean up the debris from the Third and Second and First Eras, without creating new paradoxes that threaten the integrity of the continuum, but without erasing the paradoxes and events which gave rise to the Fourth Era: and then it is discovered that a Fifth Era is interfering with the Fourth, and so on. All the forces in the universe are pitted against an agent of the Final Era, a titanic superintelligent machine who, out of love for long-extinct mankind seeks to prevent the entire universe from collapsing, makes the fatal and suicidal decision to redact the invention of time travel itself, and obliterate the even the possibility of time travel. This is by far my favorite time travel and time paradox story, since even the best efforts of other authors to tie time into Celtic knots seem tame and pedestrian in comparison.
THE LONG TWILIGHT is about two enemy agents of a dying space empire stranded on Earth, ageless and immortal, attempting to wait from the bronze age to the modern day for the native earthlings to develop the technology needed to return them home: but the dreams of home under a distant star turn out to be as false as the conflict which set the two immortals against each other to begin with.
A PLAGUE OF DEMONS is about jackal-like alien monsters who dwell invisibly among us, picking among the dying men on battlefields, harvesting their brains for use in cyborg supertanks: the hero, after his death, organizes a rebellion against the jackal-monsters.
Both THE GLORY GAME and THE STAR TREASURE are about lone officers in the military betrayed and falsely accused by two enemy factions in the system, who must alone discover the truth at the root of the plot, and alone save or damn the world.
In short, nearly all Laumer stories are about the theme of the last stand at the Alamo: men who without any fuss or fanfare defend the last ditch against the elaborate falsehoods and tyranny of the world collapse on them.
Beneath all the action and fight-scenes in his works, the wry wit and the tough talk, the world view is unrelentingly bleak. Every sheriff is a petty tyrant and every preacher is a petty con-man. Laumer is a consummate Film Noir writer.
NIGHT OF DELUSIONS is one of Keith Laumer’s minor works marred by an a single flaw so vast that it is only suited to be read by devout Laumer aficionados like myself. In discussing the flaw, I needs must discuss the ending of the book, such as it is, and cannot help but spoil the surprise.
I can only recommend this book to someone who wants to read Laumer only for his slick Noir style and deadpan humor, in the same way I can only recommend CAT WHO WALKED THROUGH WALLS to really hard core fans of Robert Heinlein, who want to read pages and scenes written in his particular style and mood, but who do not really care if the scenes connect to anything or tell a story. In both cases, they don’t.
The conceit of the book (there is no plot) is thatJim Florin, private eye, has been hired by an Inner Council of five unsavory politicos to bodyguard a certain all-important Senator. The Council says that the Senator has gone insane, become paranoid, and the Inner Council in desperation seeks to cure the Senator by sending him and Florin into a dream machine which can create realistic illusions deceiving all the senses where his paranoid fantasies will become real, and, it is hoped, shock him back to reality.
However, when Florin meets the Senator, the Senator reveals that he knows all about the Inner Council’s scheme, which is meant not to cure but to kill him, and that he, the Senator, arranged for Florin to be assigned to him despite this. Florin, uncertain which side is telling the truth, plays along, trusting neither side, but trying to keep his man alive.
The two men sneak from the Senator’s mansion to a nearby city, which seems to consist of nothing but dark and deserted streets, empty warehouses, tailor’s shops, candy stores and gin-joints, are shot at by agents of the Council from the back window of a Nile-green Buick. The Senator, wounded, reacts in a strangely panicky fashion–not in the fashion of a man escaping from powerful enemies, but in the fashion of a man in a play who is shot for real from what he thought was a prop gun containing blanks. The two hole up in a sleazy bar, and the Senator apparently slips Florin a mickey, and he blacks out.
Florin wakes to find himself sitting at the same table in the gin-joint, staring into the eyes of the oddly-named Miss Curia Regis. Miss Regis is merely beautiful. Nothing else is said about her, not even her haircolor. She has no personality whatsoever, no memorable characteristics.
And reality starts fraying around the edges. An ear phone he removed still whispers instructions to Florin. The night sky unaccountably turns off for an hour. Turning two corners of a square building finds the front of the building again, a topological impossibility. A man throws himself to his death out of a window that is a television screen in a moveable frame. And so on.
Each scene thereafter follows the same basic pattern. Florin goes looking for the lost Senator, sees something anomalous or impossible, such as that the Senator is an actor named Bardell who is only impersonating the Senator, or that the Senator is dead, or that Florin is the senator, and Florin is knocked unconscious and wakes to find himself with Miss Regis again.
Or Florin comes across the Council members engaged in some meaningless conversation fraught with hints of deeper goings-on, all striking the same note of panicked emergency; or Florin stumbles into a landscape which must be a world circling another sun; or Florin runs into a lizard-like extraterrestrial named Diss.
Each scene begins with another moment of waking where Florin is offered yet another explanation concerning the endless sequence of hallucinatory scenarios. He was a drunken bum who accepting an offer from an unscrupulous scientists to submit himself to the dream machine; or he is a field agent returning from an inter-dimensional mission which left him disoriented; or he is an captain whose memory was damaged during a space accident; or he is a young student emerging from the effects of being etherized; or he is the scientist experimenting with the dream machine which created unintentional but vast interference in an extraterrestrial machine of a similar make; or aliens are attempting to meddle with his thinking process while the dream machine makes him helpless; or he is the officer of a cadre of psionicists seeking to use the dream machine to fend off an extraterrestrial ESP attack.
Each scene ends with Florin refusing to believe the explanation offered him, and doing the opposite of whatever he is being urged to do, in simple frustration rather than with any rational plan of action.
So each scene ends with him being driven unconscious or (despite the desperate protests of the antagonists) hooking himself up to yet another version of the dream-machine, so that he can wake up again in the next scene and restart the cycle.
Miss Regis is always there. Usually she is a stranger; sometimes she is a woman plagued by odd dreams; once she is his wife, but with no memory of where or how they met. In some of the scenes Florin remembers who he allegedly is, and in some he does not.
Toward the end of the book (I hesitate to call it the climax, but it occupies the position a climax ought to take if the book has a plot) Florin gains control of the dream, and can make his subjective reality do whatever he wants. He handily defeats the Diss enemy, who literally turns into a tiny lizard before vanishing, and Florin accidentally destroys all reality.
There is then a chapter where the main character suddenly uses his dream-controlling power to play at being God, creating the Earth out of the void and creating man and attempting to find various form of satisfaction through sport or adventure or wine or women or politics or the rat-race or in utopia or in dystopia. In each case he is grossly and satirically disappointed, and finds himself unable to find a meaningful or even a tolerable way to pass the time as an omnipotent being.
This scene goes on and on for page after page, having no purpose and no relation to anything before or after. It is just a list of a man’s idle and shallow wishes betraying him when they come true, due to the intractability of man’s fallen nature. It is a list of different lives a man could live if he could live any life he chose, and a pratfall of some sort at the end of each one.
Then the character suddenly decides that there is neither a heaven above us luring us on, nor a hell below whose flames drive us. The God-playing scene ends.
Florin then summons up or finds the other characters from the Inner Council and banishes them. They vanish. He and Bardell stare in a mirror together, and he mocks himself for his inability to live his life. They combine, or, rather, he realizes he was always one personal all along. He steps into a gray mist, feels weary, and unscrews and removes his head.
He wakes up yet again, in a scene where he apparently has lost his omnipotence, and he is yet again offered an explanation of the dream machine, which I will not bother to repeat here, because it is, at this point, no more convincing than any of the other explanations offered at any other scene; and perhaps less convincing, because it sounds like wish-fulfillment.
But suddenly Florin is satisfied with this explanation, and he goes to live his life as it has been presented to him, a life which is not any one whit less shallow than the list of lives the reader saw listed in the God-playing scene, except perhaps that Florin is no longer omnipotent, and he is with girl, Curia Regis, who once again is his wife. Uncharacteristically, he declines to pursue Diss the lizard, nor to investigate the oddly swirled glass object which is apparently the dream machine, but has it thrown into the sea.
Florin announces that no one can tell if he is in a dream or in reality, meaningful or meaningless, but one must live life as if it were real and meaningful nonetheless.
That noise you just heard was the sound of a mass of events without a plot rushing over the side of a cliff in the dark to make a horrid and tangled wreckage from which nothing can emerge alive.
Uncharacteristically, he declines to pursue Diss the lizard, nor to investigate the oddly swirled glass object which is apparently the dream machine, but has it thrown into the sea. The last scene, as far as I can tell, is simply Florin surrendering to the dream he is in, and refusing to continue to look for the truth.
There is a hint that the whole dream sequence from chapter one onward was some sort of test of mankind which Florin finally passed by rejecting all dreams and waking to reality, but, if so, the reality to which he wakes is the reality that there is no heaven, no point in life, and no way to tell truth from delirium.
Every single clue and lead and hint peppered throughout the book turns out, finally, to be meaningless. This is what we call an ‘Neon Genesis Evangelion’ ending, where you find out that the writer had no intention from the beginning of carrying out the implied promise of explaining where all the hints led.
It is not a point where the plot is resolved, merely the page where the writing stopped.
Now, I assume what happened when this book was being written is that Mr Laumer originally had something in mind, some idea of where this was going. He was going to write an ‘unreal reality’ book, where the main character could be certain of nothing, not his senses, not his memory, not his name or identity, nothing but his own inner rock-solid certainty that he had to keep fighting until he found the truth.
There are other unreality books in science fiction: the theme crops up in Robert Heinlein’s ‘All You Zombies’ and in ‘The New Prime’ by Jack Vance. There are any number of movies or Twilight Zone episodes centering on this semi-Buddhist notion that reality is an illusion and we are not who we think we are. (I did not like THE MATRIX trilogy as much as my friends is that unlike them I had seen this same reality-is-unreal theme done before. I saw it the week before, in fact, done much better in the movie DARK CITY, and I saw it four decades before in the Keith Laumer book we are discussing.) Philip K Dick and A.E van Vogt made something of a cottage industry out of this kind of story.
In most such stories there is only one level of unreality, which, when pealed away, reveals the reality beneath. It takes a more daring and skillful author to establish more than one layer of falsehood.
One reason why I was so greatly disappointed with the third Matrix movie is that at the end of the second movie our hero, Neo, does something which, according to the premise of the story established so far should have been impossible in reality: namely, he knocks down a flotilla of evil robots with a gesture and a thought. Now, logically that meant the thing he thinks is reality is in fact merely another matrix, another computer-generated illusion that he must escape. I supposed the third movie would show that the blasted and sunless world ruled by evil computers using millions of dreamers trapped in tubes was itself merely an illusion, perhaps experiment in virtual reality or dream research gone horribly wrong , or some private dream of Neo’s. But, no, the movie-makers merely meant Neo to have magic or psychic powers unrelated to the science fiction premise of the Matrix.
If the writer is attempting a multiple-layer of reality story, such as the movie INCEPTION, the reader has to be given certain clues which distinguish reality from dream and one dream-layer from the next.
The movie INCEPTION did this elegantly and brilliantly by having each layer of the dream world pass at a faster time rate than the one above, and by having certain sounds or sensations bleed over from higher to lower levels, such as a character in a dream where he is in a truck falling from a bridge, in the dream within a dream is in a hotel corridor that is suddenly weightless.
The clues must establish to the reader’s satisfaction whether the character is still deceived by an illusion within an illusion or not. If the character’s memory returns when he wakes, or he recognizes things hitherto unexplained, this is a clue that this is not an illusion.
If he wakes with his memory but the memory is false, there must be a second clue to show the first one is a red herring. For example, if the character’s memory of being a drink-soaked street bum are false, his personality must be at odds with that character, such that he shows an ability to resist the temptation of drunk which do not fit in with the character of a rummy.
When he finally wakes at the final scene, his personality quirks and strengths must fit which is being presented to him as his real life. But neither can the waking world be too perfect, lest the scene seem like a wish-fulfillment, that is, seem like something merely meant to lure the hero into embracing the illusion.
And this final explanation, has to explain all the other clues and hints dropped earlier, such as why Florin keeps seeing Nile-green objects that remind him of something he cannot put his finger on, or such as what is the twisted glittering object he keeps seeing hidden in chandeliers or school rings, or who the Lastrian Concord are. And the final explanation has to explain things the red herrings did not explain.
In short, the clues a writer uses to tell the reader in a story like this that the character is awake rather than asleep are basically the same ones you or I use to distinguish dreaming from waking: you can see things in dreams that remind you of something you saw when awake, because it is your mind filling in the background and characters, and so the dream world takes its color from your personality; whereas nothing in reality takes its shape from our dreams except perhaps as a result of deliberate work. What makes a dream dreamlike is that it comes from us yet seems not to; what makes reality realistic is that it does not come from us.
The problem in NIGHT OF DELUSIONS is that the author used up all the clues in earlier chapters which ordinarily would tell the reader the scene was real, so that when the final scene rolls around, there is nothing in it which makes it seem as if it has any right to be the final scene. One too many Russian dolls had opened up to reveal another Russian doll inside, and there was nothing about the last Russian doll so make it seem like it was finally the solid one.
So I assume that Mr Laumer found himself nearing the end of the sellable length for a novel, discovered that he had painted himself into a corner by not establishing the kind of dream clues mentioned above to confirm that the final waking was the true one and not merely another falsehood, and so he threw in the God-playing scene, had his dream characters banished, and ended with another waking scene, and decided not to worry about whether or not all the dream clues lined up with the reality.
The character in this God-playing scene is entirely unlike Florin as he appears before or after. The God-playing scene also is written in the satirical style reminiscent of Laumer’s humor pieces, rather unlike the tone set by the rest of the novel, which reads like a Film Noir, a grim and driving style not unalleviated by wry humor, but nothing like slapstick satire or farce. Florin is no longer the grim but all-competent Gary Cooper hero, but suddenly is a likeable clod who stumbles from mishap to mishap, displaying a sudden lack of self-understanding one might expect from Maxwell Smart or Moe Howard.
One glaring oddity is that the character’s motivation suddenly evaporates. Instead of trying to wake up out of the dream machine, he merely plays with his dreams, inventing and destroying one make-believe situation after another—unless it was the author’s intent that Florin actually WAS a god in reality at this point in the tale, in which case the author left out the expected explanation as to how Florin managed to shed his godlike powers once the dream scenarios resume.
Another glaring oddity is that the Florin character is attracted to Miss Regis in a serious way, as if they indeed knew each other in another life, whereas the likeable clod character the God-playing scene is a skirt-chasing womanizer who seduces three or four women in the course of three or four paragraphs, is as disappointed with fornication as he is with matrimony.
So the result is that the scene reads like something the author wrote as an experimental satire on omnipotence (not unlike, for example, ‘The Man Who Could Work Miracles’ by H.G. Wells and similar tales) and then the author did not know what to do with the scene, and so stuck it in the middle of this novel about a man struggling to find reality.
The point or moral of the God-playing scene is the same as that of John Lennon’s execrable song ‘Imagine’, namely, that there is neither heaven above us nor hell below. We are the only reality there is. This point is made with all the subtle nuance of a thumb mashed beneath a carpenter’s hammer. The main character merely announces it.
I should also mention in passing that this conclusion does not follow from the logic of the scene as presented. If even an omnipotent man cannot find joy on earth, the only logical conclusion possible is that we can neither foreswear the quest for joy, nor can the earth satisfy us even if reality yielded to every possible desire. If the quest for joy is vain, then that is hell exists for that is hell; and if not vain, and not found on earth, then heaven exists.
But let us allow the main character to draw what conclusion he wishes from his disappointment with omnipotence. Heinlein uttered the same point in fewer words: Thou Art God.
Whereas the point of the rest of the novel is that whether or not we know what we are doing is real and meaningful or unreal and meaningless, a man should never tire and never surrender to the forces of falsehood and conformity.
To make this contradiction utterly clear, let me quote the two passages. The first is from the God-playing chapter, which is chapter 37:
Success is a challenge nobody’s ever met. Because no matter how many you win, there is always a bigger and harder and more complicated problem ahead, and there always will be, and the secret isn’t Victory Forever but to keep on doing the best you can one day at a time and remember you’re a Man, not just god, and for you there aren’t and never will be any easy answers, only questions, and no reasons, only causes, and no meaning, only intelligence, and no destination and no kindly magic smiling down from above, and no fires to goad you from below, only Yourself and the Universe and what You make out of the interface between two equals.
Sounds a bit like the words to Lennon’s ‘Imagine.’ No answers, no reasons, no meaning, no hell nor heaven, and yet (somehow) you and the universe are equal, and you can create meaning out of nothing ex nihilo.
Note the nonstandard capitalization: Man and You are capitalized in this paragraph and throughout the last half of the chapter, whereas god and i are not. No doubt this seems profound to a sophomoric mind.
Here is the second passage from chapter 41, which is also the curtain line of the book:
“how do we know this isn’t a dream?” she asked.
“Perhaps it is,” I said. “Perhaps nothing in life is real. But it doesn’t matter. We have to live as if it were.”
While it is possible for one man to believe both these maxims, it is not possible for one story to have both these maxims as its moral, because they do not fit with each other. The idea that there is no god aside from the god of our own human willpower is the basic idea of Nihilism, the idea that there is no truth; whereas the idea that one should keep searching for truth even if everything tells you there is no truth to find, and to break the universe if you must, because nothing is more important than the truth, is simply the diametric opposite belief from Nihilism. It is Absolutism.
Nihilism says nothing is real. Absolutism says reality is absolutely real. So why was that nihilistic point about heaven being empty plopped into the climactic scene of a tale about a man trapped in illusion struggling to find truth and reality?
I suggest simply that it was the work of the enemy. You know which enemy I mean. There is only one. No mortal being is truly and entirely your foe, for all the mortals who think themselves your foes are themselves victims of deception of this one enemy, and he breaks his tools when he is done with them.
I do not think that Keith Laumer intended anything sinister in this little bit of light entertainment, but I do think the period of time in which he wrote tempted him to write something mildly subversive, and perhaps he gave in to that temptation.
But — a word of caution! — such speculation is merely that. Mr Laumer may have added the point that there is no heaven and no hell because it is something he earnestly believed — one can see parallel passages in some of his other writings — or he may have thought that as a character Florin could not be a Christian, because the religion is too hopeful or too unrealistic for Florin’s hardboiled cynical pose. Or the author may have realized that a story about finding ultimate reality had to have a blatant anti-religious disclaimer because otherwise the readers would see in the yarn a religious metaphor, since most readers see religion as the search for ultimate reality. Writers are tricky fellows, and no one can guess their motives from their works.
So leaving aside the author’s motive, let me say a word about the reader’s motive, and the author’s duty not to deceive or manipulate his reader.
It is only to be expected that rereading a novel at fifty years of age one first read at fifteen will have a disorienting effect, for strange binocular vision of two eyes looking on from two different periods of life, the old eye and the young eye, would be strange if it were not strange.
The expected result of revisiting youthful haunts is disappointment, for the mature eye sees flaws invisible to the infatuation of youth; and perhaps one sighs wistfully over the inability to recapture lost enthusiasm. However, from time to time the result is like finding a lost treasure buried in the litter of one’s own attic, if the mature eye sees virtues invisible to inexperience; and perhaps one smiles over the callowness of youth.
I hasten to add that I doubt this is due to any defect in the authors, but rather due to a decision of what kind of stories they set their pens to tell. A story about the technical wonders the coming decade may hold is not meant to be read after that decade is over. A story touching a deep truth of the human condition can be read and with profit as long as man is man.
The effect of disorientation is even more pronounced in genres that emphasize enthusiasm over craftsmanship, or play to the young audience. Science fiction in its golden age was a juvenile magazine literature, and nine tenths of it was written to be read, enjoyed, and forgotten: when it tries to be deep and serious, it takes upon itself the solemnity of a sophomore, usually of the fashionable socialist bent (or, depending on the degree of shallowness, libertarian or theosophist or nihilist) and repeats some triteness which seems fresh and profound only to other sophomores.
When I was young, a fair-sized portion of these sophomoric writers, dissatisfied with the restrictions of writing forgettable fiction, made a bold attempt to write their socialist tripe (or libertarian, or theosophist, or nihilist) and were adored by critics and ignored by fans, and so hit upon the idea of writing what they called ‘subversively’, that is, deceptively.
The idea was to write what seemed like entertaining fare on the surface, but to insert some extraneous point in every tale, if only a scene, if only a paragraph, or if only a line, reciting the sophomoric tripe (socialist, libertarian, theosophist, nihilist)to the unsuspecting young readership, in the hope that the slogan will become lodged like lint in their empty heads.
When a second story, or a third, or a dozen, smuggles in the same point or slogan, in the empty head of youth will be created the illusion that this slogan is the common wisdom. No youth will recall when he started to believe it or from where, any more that anyone recalls where or when he learned common wisdom.
The difference is that common wisdom is the repeated experience of many men, and actually contains as much wisdom as experience can bestow, for it is oft repeated because it is often found true. Subversive writing, on the other hand, is an attempt to make some falsehood seem wise by having a few crackpots and zealots repeat the points and slogans often enough to make it look as if experience confirms the point, when in fact experience confirms the opposite.
In technical terms, subversive writing is bullshit.
Subversive writing is bullshit because it is, of necessity, writing that lacks integrity. Integrity exists in a piece of craftsmanship when all the elements work together to create one artistic effect. A work of open propaganda, meant for nothing other than to inspire the troops of true believers and preach to the choir, can nonetheless retain a certain degree of integrity if everything in the work is directed to that end.
ATLAS SHRUGGED is a consummate work of pure integrity, as every sentence if not every word-choice fits the author’s theme. It is also pure and honest propaganda. STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND is not a machine-milled pure in its rigorous pursuit of its propagandist theme, but all parts still work toward the whole. Both are entirely open about what they intend.
But the whole point of subversive writing is that it is not open. It is secret propaganda. It is a story wearing a clown mask, pretending to be meant for entertainment, but under the cloak is the dagger of its true and unsmiling purpose, which is to convince an unwary audience unwillingly of a point the audience would reject if the point were made too openly or clearly. So the one point, the one paragraph, the one scene when it crops up has to by its nature be one that does not fit in the story, and indeed runs counter to the main current of the story.
Hence, the subversive point has to be made in a pose of studied casualness, a by-the-way remark, a comment by a minor character, hidden in what seems like stage-business or trivia.
As I said above, I do not know the author’s motive nor can anyone. But why stick in a message about the godlessness of the universe in a book where it does not fit the theme and does not advance the plot and does not sound like what the character would say?
I do not know, nor can anyone, what Mr Laumer had in mind for this book. But I can tell you what the spirit of the age had in mind.
From 1959 to 1970 were a catastrophe of unparalleled magnitude with regards to the mental, moral, intellectual and spiritual progress of mankind.
It was as if, in a single generation, all the painful gains of civilizati0n had been reversed, and the race of man had reverted on the instant to barbarians, or even monkeys, when it came to the ability to think clearly and logically about moral and legal issues. Our technology continued and continues to grow and develop, and our material wealth, fattened off the accumulated seedcorn of prior and thriftier generations, continued and continues to expand, but the period of those years saw a return of the moral and intellectual conduct of barbarians, and then a sinking into a moral and intellectual darkness even lower than mere barbarians ever suffered.
Barbarians at least know that some taboos keep them alive and keep the tribe in business. The postmodern and postrational values born of that era of which I speak hold that the courage of soldier is worthless, whereas the violation of the laws of society, of decency, or of reason displays the only courage worth lauding.
Was Mr Laumer helping the forces of subversion, or was he merely, as so many artists and intellectuals of that generation were, one of their first victims, who bought into the snake oil they were selling?
Or was he merely a bystander who happened to add an extra scene and an extra line into a book where it did not belong because he was pressed for time? I don’t know and I will never know.
But I know what was in the spirit of the age. It was an age when the forces of subversion did their work, and whole books could be, and were, written merely so that one scene or one line could be added to persuade the impressionable young the life was hopeless, God was dead, and so on.
If God is dead, then a well-ordered self-disciplined life where everyone obeys the few simple laws needed for maximum liberty is best, and every man minds his own business and there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch. That is the libertarian bromide.
If God is dead, and libertarianism leads to inequity, then an unselfish life serving the highest ideals of man of looting the rich and sharing all property in common is best, or at least ironing out the inequalities produced by evil money-love. There is a free lunch if the laws compel it. That is the socialist bromide.
If God is dead, and socialism leads to materialism and poverty and violence, then spiritual unity with the entire cosmos, good and bad alike, neither seeking material comfort through capitalism like a libertarian nor seeking shared poverty through egalitarianism like a socialist is a worthy goal of man, but only high-minded spiritual aspirations that make no particular demands on the seeker is the best life. There are higher things than thinking about your lunch. That is the theosophists bromide.
If God is dead, and neither material comfort, nor egalitarianism, nor spiritual aspirations are possible nor desirable, then nothing is real and nothing is worth doing. All things are permitted and reality is optional, and the only thing not permitted is thought, for thought leads to conclusions and conclusions are judgmental, bigoted, biased, and motivated by hatred. By eliminating all profound thought and belief, we eliminate the source of conflict and war, and can live in peace. As blobs of nothing, mere meat lumps waiting for someone else to eat for his lunch. That is the nihilist bromide.
But you see where it all begins.
The subverters do not bother to be subversive any longer. They do not need to hide. They are no longer ashamed of their evil, but proud and loud and not to be cowed. Their claptrap and drool and nonsense is now the common wisdom, unquestioned and unquestionable.
You know the drill. You know what they taught your fathers and grandfathers. America was racist, Industry was pollution, Thrift and hard work was a rat race, Love was blind, and that the wisest course was to Tune In, Turn On, and Drop Out, Go Green, Make Love not War, and the only meaningful hope for salvation in life was to worship the Dear Leader, whoever the Dear Leader happened to be this season. Kill your children in the womb; strangle the old folks in their deathbeds. It is more convenient that way. Stop making sense. Logic is mean. There is no reality, no reason, no rules and no sanity, therefore eat and drink and be merry for tomorrow you destroy yourself.
Now, who is it that tells you to destroy yourself?
Who is it that tells you any man wishing to help you to preserve yourself and your dignity and your sanctity and your sanity is your enemy, indeed an irrational subhuman enemy motivated by pure hatred?
Who is it that tells you your vices are your friends, nay, your very identity, and also tells you that your virtues are vices, particularly the vice of bigotry, of being judgmental?
There is only one enemy, and he tells only one lie. All the myriad lies on Earth are merely variations on the theme of this one lie. The one lie is that heaven is empty.
One would think that a book about finding the truth no matter the cost and no matter what temptations lured the hero to conform to the expected answers, to bow to the world and the prince of the world, would be the last place where one would find the answer that there was no answer. How do you know life is not a dream?
How do you know life is meaningful and real, a quest, nay, an epic with eternal consequences and cosmic significance such that all the devils will shriek and all the angels sing based on what you do with this life, if not this year, this month, this day, this hour, this very minute?
An author whose philosophy is basically cynical and nihilistic cannot answer the question in an artistically satisfying way, or even a workmanlike way. You cannot write a detective story if you yourself, as the author, believe that crimes have no solution and that sleuthing is in vain. Likewise, you cannot write a love story if you think love is nothing by a disordered chemical flux in the brain.
That was why this book was disappointing. The author who is so skilled at cynical Film Noir books or writing zany satires about likeable oafs had no skill for writing about the one thing which is neither cynical nor zany, namely, the belief in an ultimate supernal truth, shining like the sun.
Not even if you are as skilled a wordsmith as Keith Laumer, you simply cannot write a story about a man trapped in a labyrinth of dreams and deception, a man suffering a night of delusions, if you yourself, the author, do not believe in the dawn and sunrise of shining truth, blinding bright, heralded by a trumpet call loud enough to wake the dead.