Dean Ellis

Eight Against Utopia

Eight Against Utopia - Douglas R. Mason; Paperback Library, 1970

Eight Against Utopia – Douglas R. Mason; Paperback Library, 1970

Eight Against Utopia is the first (I am reasonably certain) novel by Douglas R. Mason.  It was published in 1967 under this title.  A year prior, this novel was published under the title From Carthage Then I Came.  The cover art for my 1970 edition is by Dean Ellis.

This is not a well-written novel.  I mean this in several ways.  At the most basic – it’s not always coherent.  It is like an editor just hacked at it randomly – an editor who has not even read a chapter, but had some quota/word count and so he just chopped wherever.  The story suffers for this.  I do not need every detail written out for me, but there are times where I swear the pages must have stuck together and I missed something.  Besides that, the dialogue is horrendous.  Now, dialogue is one of the things I think are the most difficult to write.  But the work here is awful.  The few points where Mason attempts to use sarcasm or wit fall flat – because one actually thinks he might be serious.  Sometimes his “humor” is actually offensive and inappropriate. Most of the dialogue is written as if it were a bold sketch suggestion for actors who would then ad lib at their own discretion – no one would actually speak like this.

This is a very misogynistic/chauvinistic piece.  I grew up watching Archie Bunker and thinking hockey is the greatest sport on earth – so if the chauvinism is subtle and mild, I might miss it.  No worries here with this novel – it is big as day and bright and flashing in neon.  This is quite surprising because I did not expect this level.  I would expect this in any of those pulp 1940s/1950s “men’s novels.”  Sure, it’s common as water in those.  But I had assumed in Mason’s science fiction, the misogyny would not be at that level. Surprise.  And sure, we can say the novel is a bit dated (it’s not that old) and even so, a little chauvinism is a far cry from outright rude and barbaric thinking.  Much of this comes into play in the story when the male characters – in the middle of risking their lives, completing dangerous physical exertions, being sleep deprived, being chased, or applying themselves to intense intellectual scenarios – have to pause every time a skirt walks in the room.  And the “way” Mason describes these moments is just creepy and icky.  I’ll be honest:   at several points I would not have been surprised if suddenly Mason turned the storyline into some erotic fiction orgy.  Thankfully, that did not happen. Whew.

Finally, in terms of terrible writing, the most interesting part of the story is the situation in Carthage (the domed false-utopia).  But instead of developing this further, Mason’s storyline spends most of the book after the escape from the dome.  So, then it becomes a survival story. A wilderness chase.  And all of this is implausible and poorly written.  I wish that Mason had stuck with events in Carthage.  Having left Carthage, characters act like they have the physical and mental stamina of heroes of the Iliad.  It’s just not thought out.  And when Mason writes action scenes, it is sometimes difficult to imagine what is going on.  Even The Executioner series of men’s adventure/pulp manages to make action clear.  Mason fails spectacularly at all of these things.

It is a fast read, though. I read it quickly and it was still better than a few other terrible, horrible, awful novels I have been forced to read. (e.g. The Great Gatsby)  Also, I like some of the original concept of the storyline.  This is a copy of Big Brother in 1984, surely.  But I do not mind reading about this topic.  However, Mason has Big Brother (in this case, The President) somehow monitoring citizen’s emotions, vocal tones, inflections, and thoughts.  Well, this is interesting.  Or, it could be if it were fleshed out and developed and done by an author who actually understands anything about writing (including character development and dialogue).  I actually really want to take this kernel of idea and hand it to any other capable author and see what they can do with this concept.

Also, I do not think Mason has a concept of how long 7,000 years is and how much can happen in such a long time.  He needed to get with some historians and some sociologists et al.  Some items in the story seem plausible, others not at all. 7,000 years is significant. Anyway, don’t bother reading this slog.  It would only be good for those who have already read everything else and who can look past a whole lot of bad.

2 stars

To Live Forever

To Live ForeverTo Live Forever by Jack Vance was first published in 1956.  I think it can be considered Vance’s first “real” novel.  I found my copy for $1 at a comic book store, of all places.  My copy is the second edition 1976 by Ballantine Books.  The cover art was by Dean Ellis.  It is also the first Vance novel that I have read.

This novel is another dystopian story.  Overall, I found the book a good, average read.  And this is pretty good, because I was concerned that the first novel of this author might not be great and also that the story would be dated and tedious.  However, it really does not seem dated at all and as a early novel by the author, it’s a solid entry.  There are problems, though. For one thing, there just was not “enough” science in the science fiction.  There seemed like there might be – particularly in the first half of the novel when the main character finds a way to manipulate his memories, but then the science disappears.  Another reason that I only give this novel three stars is because the relict/clone/surrogate scheme is never really fully explained – or, I suppose, I was too dense to figure it out.

In this dystopian future society, the highest class of citizens have clones.  How many, by what real means, etc. was a little confusing and a bit sketchy.  Maybe other readers will have a better time of it than I did.  I get the general concept and I shrug my shoulders at any attempt to figure it out further. So there’s clones. Okay – moving on. The whole point of the novel is that a stratified society of classes has been developed.  This is not an organic development, but an artificial one that is the society’s official policy.  It was instituted presumably to avoid Malthusian catastrophe; specifically the problems arising from overpopulation.

The classes of the society are a form of meritocracy wherein the “slope” of one’s life is measured and ranked.  There are several strata – and each individual can progress, via striving, to a higher level.  The goal is to reach the highest level:  Amaranth.  As one progresses upward through the strata, one’s life is extended by medical procedures.  Instead of making the procedures to extend life available to all – it is granted based on the striving/slope merit of the individual.  The top level, Amaranth, is reached by the fewest members of society and one is awarded immortality (life through a number of clones, etc.).

Although this meritocracy of classes was instituted in order to save the population from a lack of resources and to provide order, it is really a sham.  The ratio that governs the population and promotion is hindering.  Also, it is not entirely “fair” because those in power have more say in the matter than they ought to.  Finally, this ordered policy was to reduce stress and misery in society, however it has had the opposite effect.  A very high percentage of the population suffers from mental breakdowns due to the stress of their striving/slope efforts.

The main character is Grayven Warlock/Gavin Waylock.  I think on the back of the book it even reads Garven Waylock.  So, basically, it gets a bit unsteady.  The main character is a “glark” – which is a person who is not participating in the official Fair-Play policy.  This amounts to about a fifth of the population.  Glarks do not strive and are much like the Other-Outsider class of the system.  The individual Grayven Warlock, however, had reached Amaranth and was involved in a criminal situation and therefore was forced to escape by becoming part of the glark segment of population.

Glarks live in Carnevalle – an almost lawless eudaemonia wherein the citizens of Clarges come to play, act-out, and otherwise blow off the stresses of their striving.  Waylock begins his quest to once again reach Amaranth after running into an Amaranth named Jacynth Martin while in Carnevalle.   Needless to say, Waylock ends up causing a revolution.  The latent frustration at the official system that runs deep in the lower classes of the society is expressed in certain groups like the Witherers, but Waylock does not align himself with any group.  He is self-centered and seems almost completely amoral.

As you can see, Vance really developed an interesting dystopian society.  The novel itself is heavy on presenting the difficulties of striving/slope/fairness.  It indirectly calls into question the fairness and ethics of characters individually and as a whole.  In the end, it even suggests that such a system is full of artificial and meaningless striving, which has stifled any real creativity and striving that is inherent in humans.  Throughout we meet various characters that represent different views of the society.

This is a very good novel to be read in a political philosophy class, a comparative literature class, and even as representative of the anti-hero archetype.  However, as a science fiction novel, I can only give it three stars.  I feel the overall pacing of the novel was slow, fast, slow, fast, slow fast…. in other words, it had moments where things picked up and were very intense, but then things always fell down and plodded along again.  The characters are not really developed much. Jacynth Martin seems really bizarre, but Vance does attempt to explain her motivations.  Waylock, overall, did not strike me as any more amoral or monstrous than other characters, he just seemed to be a lot more luckier than he should be.  I would have liked a little more about the cloning-situation.

3 stars