Catchworld by Chris Boyce
Note: this is a reprint of a column from 2009.
I have been wanting to write this belated book review for a while. Years, actually. It is a combination of an homage and a eulogy for a once-beloved favorite of mine.
CATCHWORLD by Chris Boyce is a book that I read as a child, which haunted my memory for decades. There are certain books one reads just at that golden time of life, usually age twelve, that do that. Coming across a paperback copy again as an adult, on impulse I purchased it.
I was curious to see if, like the writings of Jack Vance and Gene Wolfe, the tale would hold up on rereading, when seen with adult eyes. I was also curious why the book (and author) was unknown. I had never read anything else by Chris Boyce, had never heard his name discussed where science fiction fans gathered, had never known anyone else who had read him. Considering how thrilled I was with CATCHWORLD in my youth, I was puzzled at the omission.
The shock of disappointment could not have been greater. The book is bad. The mystery of why the work was obscure was solved.
Even had the book been as wonderful as I recalled, the Internet reports that Mr. Boyd was Scottish and his output was very small and intermittent (CATCHWORLD (1975), BRAINFIX (1980), BLOODING MISTER NAYLOR (1990)). This alone would have made him an unknown here in the United States.
And yet my curiosity remains. I can still see the things in CATCHWORLD that I liked. I think I can guess what the author was trying to accomplish. What did the book do right and where did it go wrong?
I mean to discuss the plot in detail, because this is not really a book review, it is more like an autopsy. My purpose here is to find out for myself exactly what went wrong in a book that had many things going right for it.
The Prologue: A time-traveling godlike entity known as The Crow has captured two or three alien races at Altair, at a place called Catchworld. What The Crow intends is unknown.
The Opening: Tamura, warrior-monk of a neo-Bushido monastery, has been raised since birth to be the Captain of the starship Yukoku, one of a flotilla six starships meant to fly to Altair and annihilate the alien civilization there.
The previous attack from Altair – they are spaced decades apart – was defeated by an ancestor of Tamura who committed a kamikaze attack with his nuclear-powered warship in trans-Jupiterian space. That is the legacy Tamura must not shame.
When the Abbot of the monastery decides Tamura is unfit for command, the warrior-monk escapes confinement, outsmarts the guards, outwits and confronts the Abbot, kills him and his bodyguard in a display of cold-blooded savagery. Nothing will prevent Tamura from sailing to Altair.
Tamura has donated sperm to a sperm bank, as required by law, and records a message telling any sons he posthumously fathers to do their duty without complaint, like the ancestor whose kamikaze saved the Earth.
[The good: This is simply a Way Cool way to open a book. Keep in mind that this before Oriental Martial Arts entered Pop Culture, and making the main character a neo-Samurai badass was new and unheard-of. Looking at it as an adult, I wonder if making the main character a Yellow Man was also a bold new thing in those days, like making Juan Rico of the Mobile Infantry or Sparrowhawk of Roke a Brown Man. Of course I did not notice this as a child—if it were not for the endless drip of allegedly anti-racists agitprop in which my culture is inundated, I would not (then or now) notice skin color any more than I notice hair color.
[The bad: Unfortunately, this is all the characterization we are ever going to get. Unlike a Heinlein character or a LeGuin character, neither Tamura or anyone else has any recognizable patterns of speech, likes or dislikes, attitudes or values, loves or hates. He does not stand for anything. Unfortunately, the character is remarkably unsympathetic. I did not notice this as a kid because kids don’t really care about characterization.]
The Backstory: Decades before, without warning, alien crystalloids from the constellation Aquila destroy major cities on Earth. The method of attack was to accelerate bodies to near light speed, too swift to be detected or intercepted, and ram them into major energy-using centers, with the resulting kinetic energy released equaling that of an atomic bomb. Civilization is obsessed with revenge, and devotes itself to the massive project of retaliation across a gap of the sixteen lightyears.
An entire generation is raised, shaped and trained for this task.
[The good: the setup is Way Cool. The concept of a war between the worlds not new, but the concept of aliens who would not or could not speak first immediately gives a stature to them. We know from the outset that we are not dealing with a book that takes some earthly war and plants it in space, such as the Roman Empire in Space (FOUNDATION ) or the American Revolution in Space (MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS). The emphasis on the distance that a slower than light ship must travel even to reach a relatively nearby star also brings a realism to this tale lacking in the typical space opera.
[I confess I have a prejudice against hyperspace drives: the staggering size and majesty of the universe in which we live in underemphasized in any book where ships fly from Andromeda to Milky Way and make it home in time for tea. This book, when I first read it, stood out to me for the same reason Haldeman’s FOREVER WAR stood out: the sheer magnitude of the distances involved in interstellar war was impressive.
[The near-lightspeed method of attack is based on sound physics, and (at least in the 1970’s) I had not come across it before in an SF book.
[The bad: The problem is not in the idea, which is excellent, but in the execution and follow-through. One of the upcoming plot-twists is that the attack was completely pointless. ]
Rising Action: Tamura meets his crew, and they dock with the starship. There is some discussion of how the ship will be organized and run during the long, long voyage: apparently the ship’s charter says the crew can experiment with various living arrangements. The crew is coed, which I suppose was a new idea in 1970, when the book was written.
It is revealed that each member of the crew, all of whom are as devoted to the mission as Tamura, as ruthless and murderous, have been psychologically conditioned, and their brains rewired so that normal sexual responses are now directed, not toward the mating impulse, but to the mission goals. Furthermore, most or all of the crew is sociopathic.
[The good: to postulate ‘Brave New World’ style conditioning by an implacable and faceless government is a Science Fiction idea of the first water. It is good science fiction because it prompts that horripilation of creepiness all good SF ideas prompt, when you realize that the idea is a possible ramification of current technology, creating a fundamental change in society—not necessarily a change for the better.
[The bad: the mere fact that our characters are the products of psychiatric engineering makes any of their personality characteristics, good or bad, less interesting. The vices as well as the virtues of Tamura’s warrior-samurai toughness are reduced to mere implanted programming.]
It is revealed that the psychological conditioning has carefully measured every nuance of the personalities involved, and the ship’s compliment has no way it can live together in harmony: the people where trained since birth and psychologically conditioned to be ever in conflict with each other.
[I was never sure of the purpose of this plot thread. It allegedly was something the mission designer, a man named Rullkotter or Rolkuller (or something like that), put in place, in order to prevent the crew from being able to cooperate.]
Tamura ruthlessly squelches any talk of the crew organizing its living arrangements: he is the Captain, and will brook no interference from anyone, no matter what the Ship’s charter might say.
[The ship’s charter is another interesting Science Fiction idea: the author here does not allow us to assume people in the future will follow our customs and traditions, such as having ship captains be the absolute monarchs of their commands. But since Tamura seizes control and brooks no defiance, and since the other ships never come on stage, this background detail is insignificant.]
The flotilla prepares to come to full acceleration and depart from the solar system. The ramscoop system of the starships described. However, computer errors imperil the ships; they collide or suffer near-misses of their magnetic drive wakes. During the emergency, the computer Machine Intelligence does not respond to lawful commands by the Captain.
During the emergency, Allaedyce (keep that name in mind), one of the crew, see an image or vision of a black shadowy devil-being in the communication screen. He screams!
Plot Twist Number One! The mission is not what it seems. The so-called crew and captain are merely cargo. The Machine Intelligence is the real (and sole) commander of the mission.
Captain Tamura manages to deter the Machine Intelligence from carrying out its murderous program by threatening the ship with self-destruction. The Machine places a higher value on its mission imperative than on its murder imperative, so it desists.
[Were the Machine Intelligences of the various ships trying to collide with each other? If not, what was the point of their behavior? If the Machine Intelligences are capable of basic math errors in calculating trajectories, it means the mission planner’s decision to place total command secretly in the claws of the ship machine intelligence is simply a stupid one, as well as being traitorous, and homicidal.]
Aliens attack! In exosolar space, the flotilla encounters an incoming fleet of crystalloids from Altair, who open fire, destroying four of the six earth-ships. Only Yukoku and her sister ship, Valley Forge, are left. By themselves, they cannot form the titanic magnetic field needed to induce a supernova explosion in the heart of the star Altair, which had been the mission goal.
[The good: the technical descriptions of the ship and computer, as far as I know, are perfectly well researched hard SF at its finest. Every detail seemed realistic and fits with known physics.
[The plan for retaliation against Altair is to induce a nova in the solar core by manipulating the ship magnetic fields: this is both sound SF and big-ticket space opera thinking. I like it.
[The description of the psychology of the Machine Intelligence is both chilling and memorable: to the machine, the universe is merely a series of numbers, and its various command imperatives are equations, and when all equations are solved, all the numbers reach zero, the Machine is satisfied. We are not dealing with a malfunctioning HAL 9000 here, but with a machine following its real programming.
[The bad: the plot twist makes no sense. The reason for having a live crew is to teach the computer how to learn to think like a human. Why couldn’t this have been done on Earth? Why kill the crew in the process? Why train the crew if you’re only going to kill them? Why bother training the Machine Intelligence to think like a human if all it has to do is go to Altair and blow up the sun?]
The two surviving ships sail to Altair while the crew enters hibernation. Years pass.
Upon arrival, the crew awakens, and discovers Plot Twist Number Two! Each of them were selected, not because of their skills and ruthlessness, but only because they are prone to a neurological disease, which, with the aid of an artificial gene spliced into their gene code, allows the Machine Intelligence to map all their brain functions and neural activity. The Machine Intelligence can both read their minds, introduce thoughts into their heads, and make an exact replica of their thought-patterns in its computer core.
The neurological disease has progressed since launch, and they all have less than a year to live.
The crew attempts to mutiny against Tamura (because they want to return to Earth and destroy the leaders who outfitted this expedition) but Tamura’s devotion to duty is such that he will not permit it. There follows a scene of him making a one-man war against the mutineers, crawling through catwalks, locking doors, setting traps, and so on. He is a badass, so he wins.
[Now, I honestly may have forgotten when the mutiny took place. Maybe it came earlier or later. No matter, because nothing comes of it.]
The crew is now trapped with no hope of escape. There are no facilities aboard ship to diagnose or reverse the disease, and the Machine Intelligence would prevent any attempt to find a cure in any case.
Only one crewman, Allaedyce the Bushman (or maybe he is an Eskimo, I forget which) by mere coincidence is not infected with the disease. There is an eerie scene or two as the crew learn to send and receive telepathic voice and vision communication from each other and the Machine Intelligence. Allaedyce is left out of the loop, goes insane, (or, rather, more insane) and begins conspiring to kill everyone with a bio-war weapon he cooks up in the lab.
Altair is reached. There is an outer gas giant and an inner Earthlike world.
The outer gas giant is explored: this is apparently the home of the enemy, which turns out (surprise!) to be not one race, but two: the crystalloids (surprise!) are not spaceships but living beings adapted to exist in a vacuum and propel themselves across interstellar distances. The crystalloids (surprise!) are not intelligent and did not attack the Earth for any particular reason.
[The good: The description of the gas giant is both visually striking as, as far as I know, scientifically accurate. These passages are simply top-notch science fiction writing.]
The second race, called the Shebeen, or the Dream Kings, exists deeper in the cloud layer of the gas giant, and (surprise!) they have only a subconscious mind. They have no consciousness and no ability to reason. Instead, all their communication and engineering and all their works and all their ways are based on their mass unconsciousness. (Surprise!) The Dream Kings are psychic, and can read the sub-consciousness thoughts of men, but not their conscious thoughts.
[The good: the idea of thought patterns as intelligent as human, but not self-aware in a human fashion is one I have seen before: THE GARMENTS OF CAEAN by Barrington J. Bayley, STARMAKER by Olaf Stabledon, and BLINDSIGHT by Peter Watts all had some variation of the idea of vegetative, passive, or non-self-aware consciousness. CATCHWORLD contains is one of the better-imagined variants of the idea.]
[The bad: Psychic powers are an old standby in science fiction, but the author is supposed to tell us earlier in the story that we readers have entered a universe where psychic powers are possible. It could have been done in a single sentence in Chapter 2. Here in Chapter 14 or whatever, it just looks arbitrary, and breaks the suspension of disbelief.]
One or two of the crew begin to see demons: real demons from real demon-lore, Babylonian deities like Pazuzu and Lilith. Pazuzu induces a vision or hallucination in the crew, and they see a demon break out of Allaedyce’s skull. It seems like an attack.
[Okay, so now we have gallivanted from a hard SF military novel to a CUBE-ish trapped in an experiment psychological thriller to THE EXORCIST IN SPACE. I do not mind plot-twists. In fact, I love plot-twists. I am not sure what to make of a plot-twist that twists you entirely out of the genre you thought you started with. However, no complaints from me: I have enjoyed more outrageous plot twists and weirder in things in Keith Laumer’s NIGHT OF DELUSIONS or ‘The New Prime’ by Jack Vance. For that matter, SPACE 1999 and UFO had episodes which started off Hard SF and veered into total magic-fantasy weirdness. Maybe it is a UK sort of thing.]
Plot Twist Three! The Dream Kings are not trying to attack, but are warning the crew that Allaedyce is planning to poison them all, using the dream image of Pazuzu, a demon from the Id of mankind, to express the concept. Their only method of communication is through the subconscious symbols found in the racial unconsciousness, which means, in this case, mythical demons from the Middle East. The Dream Kings are good guys!
[It was not explained how Allaedyce managed to whip up his plague virus in the lab without being detected by the Machine Intelligence, which, up until that moment, was nigh omniscient about goings-on in the ship.]
Allaedyce, the one crewman immune to the neurological disease, and therefore the one crewman the Machine Intelligence cannot mind-read, seems to go insane. (Or, rather, even more insane). The crewmen cannot touch him; their hands pass right through his body. Allaedyce cannot see or hear them: he thinks he is aboard a ghost ship.
Plot Twist Four! The crew all wake up dead!
Their bodies were moved by robotic manipulators into the sick bay while they slept, and their brains removed and stored in special cells in the computer bay. They are now one and the same as the electronic copies of them the Machine Intelligence was developing over the course of the mission. So they are now virtual beings, not really moving about the ship at all, but merely in a computer representation of the ship superimposed on the real ship.
[The good: I must say this was a wild and mind-blowing concept to run across circa 1974. It was certainly the first time my younger self read anything like it. The reason why the movie THE MATRIX did not wow me as much as it wowed by friends, is that I had been wowed by this scene 20 years before.]
Plot Twist Five! No, the Dream Kings are bad guys after all, and try to destroy them for no particular reason I can recall! Space demons are now out to get them!
Plot Twist Five-and-a-Half! One of the crewmen is a sorcerer who has studied Black Magic! He throws off his robe and is covered from head to foot in tattoos. He chants a line or two from Crowley’s Goetia, and banishes the demon! Of course, the practice of black magic is outlawed on modern day Earth, but the magician crewman managed to keep his head-to-foot tattoos covered up and hidden from the various doctors who performed complex neurological surgery on him, as well as from the psychiatrists who carefully and precisely balanced every aspect of crew personality traits.
[The bad: Okay, now we are getting ridiculous. I have no beef with one character suddenly throwing off his robe in Chapter 15 and announcing he is a practitioner of black magic, or we suddenly find we are in a universe where Black Magic works. It is the tattoos that bug me. It does not seem to make sense that Magician-dude (whosename I forget. MacLeod? Beckett? Owen Glendower? Something like that) could keep this a secret. Since the crewmen were all reduced to electronic avatars by this point anyway, the author could have just said this form represented Owen Glendower’s inner picture of himself or something.]
The crew helps Magician-dude Owen Glendower perform a Ritual of Binding! The Machine Intelligence has the repair-units draw a magic circle in real chalk on the real deck of the galley. The virtual crew chants.
Suddenly, the real Allaedyce (who cannot see or hear the crew, because they are actually dead, remember?) stumbles into the galley, sees the repair units drawing a magic circle, sees the demons from Altair (who apparently are real and able to manifest physical bodies, not just telepathic images) and freaks out. His foot scuffs one of the chalk lines with typically disastrous results: the demon escapes from the circle and rips two of the crewmen to shreds! The magician sacrifices his life in order to drive back the demon with his mega-mojo! Or maybe the magician dude lived! Who cares, since he is already dead since Chapter 15!
But, no! The dead crewman are actually dead! Deader. More deader. The psychic energy of the demon erased the computer circuits where the personality information had been stored. If you die in computer sim, you die in real life! And the computer does not have a back up file.
[The meh: I don’t mind the dead crewmembers being killed even deader, but it should have been set up correctly to be believable. Once the crew had been reduced to electron patterns in the computer memory, they should have been able to look or act like anything the Machine Intelligence would allow. The writer did not explore the ramifications here.
[The bad: there was absolutely no reason why the crew, who were disembodied memory-beings living inside the ship’s electronic brain, could not have turned on the loudspeaker or the telephone and called Allaedyce and told him what was going on. If the Machine Intelligence was trying to drive Allaedyce mad, no motive or reason or explanation was given.]
This may have been the point at which the real reason behind the attack on Earth is revealed. I think the demons tell the crew: a supernatural being called The Crow attacks alien worlds in order to provoke the target into sending a retaliation mission to Altair. Once the retaliation mission, whatever its form, arrives, The Crow disarms it and adds it to its collection.
The Crow is slowly gathering the various intelligent races to itself for some unknown purpose.
[I must say, I simply love this concept. It is at once crazy and simple and creepy and almost makes sense—which is as we might expect from an alien being or an alien superbeing.]
So, no, the Dream Kings are good guys after all, merely victims of the catch-world of The Crow, and decide try to help the ship for no particular reason I can recall!
When the Machine Intelligence (still trying to carry out its preprogrammed mission of revenge) decides to ram the gas giant and ignite its drive units into a superhyperatomic explosion, the crew finds itself utterly helpless, since, after all, they are nothing but memory patterns in the computer at the moment. The crewmen, urged on by Tamura (remember him?) try to gather all their psychic powers to influence the Machine Intelligence. [What? Where did those psychic powers come from? The Dream Kings had them, but not the humans.]
[And what happened to make Tamura suddenly no longer gung ho about destroying Altair? That was his whole reason for being since birth, and it is the only personality trait he has in the book. Without that personality trait, I have no idea what his purpose in life is. Why should he care whether the Machine Intelligence destroys the Dream Kings? The ship intends to commit a kamikaze attack which will kill all the crewmen, but Tamura was A-OK, fine and dandy, and hoping for a kamikaze type die-in-blaze-o-glory type death since page one, Chapter 1, so why does it bug him now?]
Just using their mental effort, the crew try to, um, think at the Machine Intelligence to get it to stop its attack run. They think hard at it. Of course that has no effect.
Plot Twist Six, suddenly a new form of consciousness arises called The Overmind! It is an admixture of the crew minds in the computer, the computer mind, but it is superior to them all. The Overmind takes control of the Machine Intelligence and bitch slaps it.
I should mention that the other surviving ship, the Valley Forge, either survives or get destroyed or something happens to it. I don’t remember and I don’t care, because nothing about that ship was ever onstage. I do recall that the crew of that ship was absorbed into the Machine Intelligence as ghosts just as the crew of the Yukoku.
Then, for no reason whatsoever, the ship and the Overmind merge with the psychic powers of the Dream Kings, and this merges with the crystalloids of space, and the Yukoku turns into a giant crow, and flies to the inner planet of the system, the Earthlike world.
Plot Twist Seven: The Crow, the being that attacked Earth and killed zillions of people, as well as attacking the home worlds of the Dream Kings and the Crystalloids, is none other than the crew of the Yokuko, they themselves, evolved by chance—or was it fate?—into an Overmind that could enter mind-union with the three alien races and give birth to itself.
Oh, and this is merely one of several possible origins of the time-travelling Crow.
[The bad: The Crow does not do any time travelling in this book, nor are there any time paradoxes to explain, except for the basic one, that the attack on Earth by The Crow gives rise to the counter attack which gives rise to The Crow.]
The Last Chapter: Allaedyce (remember him?) wakes on the one Earthlike world of Altair. It is an odd world, inhabited by balloonlike trees and balloonlike animals. Every form of life is blind. The ghost or transcendent post-human mind-projection of Tamura appears next to him, and orders Allaedyce to approach a mountain fortress beyond the poisonous forest.
Plot Twist Eight: Tamura, now nothing more than an aspect or fragment of the unified Overmind, says that the real enemy is a ship from Earth, and that Allaedyce must follow the road to defeat this enemy. The enemy is not Altair! The enemy is Earth!
We are treated to several pages of pointless suffering on the part of Allaedyce as he is starved, burned by poisonous sap, almost drowned, attacked by wildlife, and almost dropped on his head. He makes it to a huge and utterly pointless black castle, where he is captured.
[The good: it is very difficult to describe an alien planet and make it seem alien while giving it a personality of its own. C.S. Lewis did it successfully in PERELENDRA. David Lindsay certainly did it in VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS. One would never mistake a perelendrian creature for a tormancean creature. Chris Boyd accomplished a similar feat here, and it is not to be underestimated or passed over.]
The captor of Allaedyce is not The Crow. Tamura and the gathered minds of the crew and the aliens of Altair is The Crow, remember? Instead, his captor is an Evil Brain made by the ruthless scientist named Rutkoller (or something like that) who is, by no coincidence, also the man who programmed the Machine Intelligence of the Yukoku and sent all the ships on the pointless suicide mission we have just been suffering through for the last twenty chapters.
This Evil Brain was actually developed on Earth after the departure of the Yukoku and her flotilla, and faster than light drive was developed, and so this brain was placed aboard the experimental FTL ship. It left Earth after the Yukoku, overtook it, and arrived earlier. [Actually, the idea of cryo-sleeper ships being overtaken by later superlight-drive ships is a cool SF-ish idea, first used in ‘Far Centurus’ by A.E. van Vogt.]
Then the author says that the Evil Brain is not from the Earth the crew left, but from a parallel timeline, where events were different. I am not sure why this plot element was introduced, but maybe it was meant to explain why Rutkoller (or whoever) sent a second mission to Altair, knowing the first mission would arrive afterwards and ignite the sun to a nova.
Presumably, the mission of Evil Brain was assigned the same as the mission of Yukoku, but the Evil Brain does not seem to be taking any steps to harm the Altairians. Instead it captures Allaedyce, who just spent a whole chapter trying to avoid it.
I should mention that the reason why The Crow/Tamura/The Overmind spirited Allaedyce to Altair II and dumped him on the planet without a knapsack or a bean shooter is left unexplained. Nothing in the scene is explained.
Oh, then Allaedyce sees a black shadow image of a devil, that same devil shadow we saw in Chapter Three, and then the Evil Brain screams, and Allaedyce screams and is sucked into the black devil shadow and then something happens. Or maybe not.
Huhn? Was The Crow actually formed by the merger of Allaedyce with the Black Shadow just now? I thought it was created by the Overmind of Yukoku merging with the Dream Kings. Or something.
Epilogue: Rutkoller, the only real villain of this story, back on Earth, before the Evil Brain is loaded aboard the faster-than-light ship, made this evil brain from gene samples available through the gene bank. The parents, so to speak, of the Evil Brain are all the members of the crew of the Yukoku. Aha, but Captain Tamura, before he departed years before, recorded a farewell to his son (remember that from Chapter 1?) and it turns out that the Evil Brain which Tamura had Allaedyce destroy (if that is what was going on in that scene, who the hell knows?) hears Tamura’s last words telling him to do his duty. Oh, the Irony!
Thud. That is the noise of the book hitting the floor, or maybe the annoyed and bored reader hitting the floor. This is not the stupidest ending to any story ever—that distinction belongs to the anime NEON GENESIS EVANGELION—but this is not like the ending of an O Henry tale either, nor even like the ending of a Van Vogt story.
But it was a remarkably bad, absurdly bad ending.
This book could have been brilliant. Every scene was well written. Most of the plot twists are both unexpected and logical given the set-up. Most, but not all. Some of the plot twists are just poorly thought out.
The hard SF aspects of the book are sound and well done. It is as good as anything I have read in Larry Niven or Arthur C. Clarke. Even the magic is well researched: the author used real Middle-Eastern demons from real Middle-Eastern lore: Pazuzu and Lilith are real (so to speak). The worlds of Altair gas giant and earthlike planet both were well realized. The idea of man-machine interface, a melding of mind and database into a new entity was a novel and revolutionary idea then, and even now all the ramifications in SF have not been explored. The concept of the alien Shebeen with their supersubjective psychic powers able only to speak through dreams and not through math is a novel idea.
Lots of science fiction stories have Brave New World type mind-conditioning, psychic powers, neo-samurai killers, evil governments setting up expendable criminals on suicide missions, interstellar war, weird questions of consciousness and identity, tales of intrigue and betrayal, time paradoxes, and transcendence into superhuman states of being.
So all the elements for a good, unique, astonishing science fiction tale are here.
What is wrong with this book?
I venture to guess that the author was following the footsteps of A.E van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, Charles L. Harness, and meant to write a mind-stretching mind-blowing work of baroque labyrinthine wonder, introducing a plot twist every scene or two, so that the characters, and the reader, has to re-evaluate the real meaning of what just happened.
There are schemes within schemes and wheels within wheels. Tarmura thinks he is outsmarting his superiors by killing the Abbot and forcing himself aboard the ship, but actually Rutttkotter (or something like that) meant since Tamura’s birth to have him aboard; but even the schemer is trapped in schemes, since Rotkuller (or something like that) and all his actions are merely part of the time-travel paradox arranged by The Crow to bring itself retroactively into being.
But unlike van Vogt or Charles Harness, the juggling act drops too many balls. The sudden introduction of psychic powers, and demons, and time travel, and whatnot, could have been accomplished with a little more set up. Plot points once established could have been followed through, most especially the major plot point: what was the Machine Intelligence programmed to do? What was the point of including human crew on this mission? The ostensible reason given was to perform an experiment to allow the Machine Intelligence to learn how humans think—but why?
The author was following in the same footsteps as books like TODAY WE CHOOSE FACES by Roger Zelazny, or VOYAGE TO ARCTURUS by David Lindsay or WORLD OF NULL-A where the identity of the main character merges and blends and changes: having Tamura turn out to be The Crow should have been as odd and satisfying as this, but the difference is that in these other books, the identity confusion serves a purpose. The mysterious person who sends Gilbert Gosseyn or Angelo di Negri out on their bizarre mission is acting for an understandable reason. Here, there is no rhyme or reason for the actions of The Crow. It is merely a time-paradox for the sake of time-paradox, the kind of thing Robert Heinlein did much more convincingly in ‘All You Zombies’ or ‘By His Bootstraps.’ But those were time travel stories. This was not.
The mood of the book is grim and cold, and every character is ruthless to the point of being sociopathic. This is not a bad thing in a book that means to be grim and cold. ‘The Cold Equations’ by Tom Godwin is still remembered and discussed merely for its unrelenting coldness.
It may be a good thing that Tamura is so dislikable, since when he dies in Chapter 21, no one gives a hoot. His personality is absorbed inch by inch into the personality of the Overmind. I cannot think of a more horrible or nightmarish way to end one’s existence than to be absorbed into the Borg, but the author does not dwell on this, and Tamura seems not to mind. He is, after all, a murderer—remember the Abbot from Chapter 1?
The other characters are just as dislikable, but have the added drawback of also being forgettable and numerous. I could not keep straight who was who.
But making characters unsympathetic, and changing their identities, and having them all be victimized by a Mad Scientist who traps them with a Mad Computer on a one-way voyage to nowhere means that we are left with neither sympathetic characters nor comprehensible plot. So what is the point of the book?
The rule is that when you write a labyrinthine plot, full of Hitchcock twist and Vanvogtian alterations of paradigm and personality, everything has to come together at the end. All the loose plot threads have to be bound up in a neat knot; otherwise the reader is left with that dull, cheated feeling one gets from watching the last episode of NEON GENESIS EVANGELION or, THE PRISONER, or TWIN PEAKS.
The story reminds me of all the drawbacks present in BLINDSIGHT, by Peter Watts. Horrible characters, mind-programming technology, long hibernation trips on warships, which attempt kamikaze attack on an evil non-self-aware alien group minds, the ship machine intelligence turns out to be the real captain, the whole plot is some sort of obscure trap, the aliens cannot be reasoned with, things happen for no reason clear to me, and then everyone is dead at the end. Oddly enough, all the same strengths are present as well. Really solid science fiction, and mind-blowing concepts layered thickly into a dark and menacing future.
The basic problem was that the ending was terrible.
Whatever the explanation, or even the meaning, of the events with Allaedyce and the Evil Brain was not clear to me. The whole point of a novel where the paradigm suddenly shifts is that things are not what you thought they meant. The point cannot be that things mean nothing, none of them, not one.
Let us compare and contrast. In the A.E. van Vogt short story ‘Asylum’ a man named Ungarn, the main character, is not who he thinks he is. In the end of the tale, he returns to his normal superhuman state of mind. The scene is weird and astonishing, and slightly scary, as Ungarn tries to resist becoming something other than human. But he is not becoming less than human; the story establishes that altruism and other admirable human characteristics will be present in the Greater Galactic being, enhanced and expanded. We are told what the next step of evolution will be.
Here, The Crow is nothing but a name. Reading this review, if you never read the novel, you will know as much what The Crow is, and what it represents, as I do. It represents nothing. The Catch-world is not established to catch anything in particular.
Maybe I am being too hard on this novel. There were plenty of good scenes in it.
But it was overwhelmingly negative from stem to stern, and everything turns out to be pointless. The Abbey where Tamura was raised was nothing more than a Skinner Box meant to control him; a trap, in other words. Killing the Abbot was pointless, because Tamura was no more in charge of his starship than the Russian Space monkey Abrek was of the soviet spaceshot Bion 6. And he was selected only because he was prone to a special nerve disease. The ship was a trap, in other words. The mission in turn is a trap, and Altair is a trap: a catch-world (hence the name). At no point does any character escape any of his traps, nor does any action by the character precipitate any change. The crewmembers do not deliberately merge with the Overmind—nor, as far as I can tell, does the Overmind deliberately merge with The Crow.
If The Crow had been some sort of creature worth reading about, the ending could have been like Arthur C. Clarke’s CHILDHOOD’S END, a story about transcendence. If The Crow had been a bad guy, the story could have been like Harlan Ellison’s ‘I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream’, a chilling tale of what happens when human beings are trapped by an arbitrary inhuman power. But the birth of the Crow is meaningless.
Tamura is absorbed into the Overmind. The Overmind is absorbed into The Crow. The Crow fights or opposes or something the Evil Brain. Allaedyce dies. Unless he doesn’t. Why was not the Evil Brain absorbed into The Crow the same way the Dream Kings and the Crystalloids had been, since that was the modus operandi established in the prologue of how The Crow built up its pointless collection of spacefarers?
What was the moral of the story? Life’s a bitch and then you are absorbed by the Crow?
Not a single action by any character turns out to have any meaning by the end. It should have been filled with supreme meaning.
And that, more than anything, is the fault that a would-be Vanvogtian thriller has to avoid.