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The Spawn of the Death Machine

The Spawn of the Death Machine by Ted WhiteThe Spawn of the Death Machine front
Paperback Library, 1968
Price I paid: 90¢

“You are an artificially constructed being, a mobile data-gathering device.”

Locked in his cell, there is no way Tanner can dispute the computer’s metallic-voiced assertion, for he has no memories. The machine releases him to get facts on the present state of humanity.

Naked, without weapons, Tanner emerges into the savage world of the twenty-third century. He is prey for the bears and cannibals that roam the forested streets of Manhattan.

Struggling to stay alive, Tanner learns that it was the power-crazed computer that had destroyed civilization. If he follows its orders, the machine will again control the state of mankind. If he rebels, he faces the brutality of a world united on only one thing—its eagerness to destroy his existence as THE SPAWN OF THE DEATH MACHINE.

You know, I try, I really do. I go to the used bookstore, look for the trashiest science fiction I can find, pay less than a dollar for it, and hope that the results will be entertaining. I look for hilarious titles with great taglines and scantily-clad ladies on the cover. I seek out things that are truly awful. And sometimes I get The Spawn of the Death Machine. Ted White, you make my job difficult to do.

You see, this book was really good.

I’m serious, I was gripped the entire time. Almost everything about the book was well-written, well-planned, and totally comprehensible. That makes it really hard to criticize.

I will say that the font choice on the cover really doesn’t work, though. So there’s something.

The book starts off with our protagonist, Tanner, being released from a sterilized environment, completely devoid of memory or purpose. Like the back of the book explains, he is being sent out to gather data on the world and report back to his computer master, named Com-Comp, what he finds out. As soon as Tanner steps out, we begin to learn that something has gone terribly wrong.

The city of Manhattan is a complete ruin. Something bad has happened at some point in the remote past, and the book’s description really made me want to keep reading just to find out what it was. Was this catastrophe limited just to New York, or the United States, or was it a world-wide thing? What was it? How did Tanner survive? Is he a human being, or something more?

Tanner’s first contact with humanity is in the form of tribal nomads. They’re pretty much the prototype of ignorant savages, barely surviving. They go to the bathroom wherever they please, their skins and clothes are totally filthy, and they talk like “Me am hongree, me eat meat.”

While briefly hanging out with these folks, Tanner comes across a young lady named Rifka. She’s waifish and filthy, but Tanner can’t help but be intrigued by her. At one point, Tanner catches someone trying to take her forcefully, and it’s at this point that we discover that Tanner is more than human. He deftly and quickly dispatches her attacker, disemboweling him with his bare hand while doing some kind of time-slowdown stuff. He then takes Rifka and flees from the savages.

They wander around the forests around Manhattan for a while, when Tanner one again proves his super-humanity by killing a bear with a laser beam. The book does a pretty good job of masking what happened there, though, and it’s only much later that we learn what Tanner can actually do with his laser beam. All we know now is that there was once a bear, and then the bear is dead and its got a smoking hole in it. Tanner skins the bear and in the meantime discovers that it was a mama-bear. Rifka insists they take the orphaned cub with them, and it’s a remarkably touching scene when the little cub dies because it couldn’t eat real food yet.

More wandering leads our two protagonists to a little village where they’re accepted for a while, and then kicked out because of bad mojo or something like that. They are joined there by villager named Avram, who serves as a bit of a guide for Tanner and Rifka.

It’s at this point that I realized what I was liking most about this book. Ted White has managed to take the United States, which presumably most of us are rather familiar with, and make it totally alien. Tanner doesn’t have any idea what he’s seeing because he just woke up or something, and Rifka is an ignorant little savage. Avram is able to point out all these alien creatures to them like squirrels and deer and whatnot, and it’s like the reader sees them for the first time through Tanner’s eyes. The first-person narrative helps with that. The disconnect works with geography and history as well. We know that something big has happened, something awful, but we get it fed to us piecemeal and we want to know more.

The first bit of history we get is from a random guy named Tom Greenwood. Tanner randomly comes across this guy one night when he decides to take a walk away from the camp. Tom lives in the forest and can apparently communicate with animals to a degree. He lives in a strange house and knows a lot about history, in particular what led the world to be in the shape it’s in, since he has a copy of his great-great-to-the-somethingth grandfather’s diary, which covers the destruction reaped by the eponymous Death Machine.

Tom Bombadil Greenwood gives us some exposition, telling Tanner about the day the Death Machine ruined civilization by turning off the utilities, railroads, and boardwalk. We get tantalizing hints about mind-scanners and sanity police that don’t get filled in until much later in the book.

This part of the book actually felt a little forced and tacked on, not to mention the disturbing similarities to a certain blue-coated yellow-booted Tolkienian mystery man. It’s only referenced once more in the book, and only in passing, and feels like maybe the author was getting desperate to find a way to fill us in on some backstory.

Tanner gets back to camp and finds Rifka and Avram doing the Horizontal Hustle. Tanner experiences emotions like jealousy for the first time, and the next morning confronts them about it. Rifka explains that she always expected Tanner to put the moves on eventually, but she gave up and found Avram ready and willing. Tanner is confused and infuriated, and after a few days of stewing in his own jealous juices he packs up and leaves them again, this time for good.

Tanner comes into a full-on town this time, where we learn that the town has a Terrible Secret. The mayor’s awful plan, which is actually pretty clever, is to capture passers-by and bring them into town, and then entice them into staying by introducing them to the Welcoming Committee, by which I mean a glorified prostitute. This young lady keeps the newcomer company by sexing them into submission, then the new guy is given a physically exhausting job so they don’t have enough energy to escape. Time passes, the Welcome Girl becomes cold and distant while the new guy is promoted to a less physically demanding job and is at the same time introduced to some local girls. He meets one, falls in love, gets married, raises a family, and has been forever trapped in New Mercer, Pennsylvania.

Hmm, if that’s not some kind of commentary on the American Dream I don’t know what is.

Tanner’s not quite ensnared for good by this devilish plan. At some point, Rifka shows up, and she’s mad. She came looking for Tanner after he left, leaving old Avram in the dust. Rifka gets captured and thrown into the slave pits, though, and it’s up to Tanner to get her out. He does so, handily, and off they run into the night.

Savages, village, town. Are we seeing a pattern here?

The duo heads west some more. In the meantime, Rifka teaches Tanner about this human thing called boinking. He finally gets it.

After that town is a bigger town, and after that, in the natural progression of things, is a geodesic dome full of black people.

Whoa, whoa, hold up. What?

It seems that some “Black Seperationists” started up their own little community just before the Death Machine did its thing. Their goal was to create a haven for themselves, and especially folks like “scientists, engineers, and technicians.” So yeah, this happens, and I started to get worried. A book written in 1968, featuring a community of super-smart black people living under a Buckyball. Was MLK even cold when Ted White wrote this bit? The community is even divided into a hierarchy based on skin color. The darker the better.

So yeah, is this bit racist, or progressive, or both? I can’t really tell. The book never derides this community, never talks about how “implausible” it is. Never says anything like “Negro scientists? How quaint!” They’re definitely succeeding at what they do, even filling us in with a some more backstory about the Death Machine and what it did. They do brain scans to reveal that Tanner does in fact have memories of The Chaos (the name for the day civilization fell), and furthermore, he helped instigate The Chaos. And he had a pretty good reason for it.

The pre-Chaos world was pretty bad, it seems. Efforts to regulate humanity into something that remotely makes sense had resulted in a complete stagnation of human endeavors like science and art. People deemed “un-sane” were carted off and executed. All this was due to a company called The Complex, which really had everybody’s best interests at heart but didn’t do a very good job of it. This resulted in Tanner’s attempt to shock the world out of its complacency by pretty much destroying civilization. Robots turned people out into the streets and wilderness. It was expected that maybe one out of a million people would survive.

Realizing that, Tanner undergoes a little bit of guilt, as you might expect.

This sort of dystopia is probably nothing new, even in 1968, but it’s not often we get a story about its ultimate dissolution. Usually stories of dystopia end with our hero going “oh no there’s nothing I can do about it” and dying or adapting or whatever. Tanner did what he thought was necessary for human survival by destroying civilization with the help of the Death Machine, which of course was the Com-Comp from the beginning of the story.

The folks of the dome, led by the hilariously named Mr. Black, let Tanner and Rifka stay for the winter, and then turn them out again, but not before letting them know that Rifka is pregnant. Tanner’s worry about whether he is actually in any way human is somewhat allayed. Yeah, he has a steel skeleton, but he can father a baby. That’s nice.

The story pretty much ends when Tanner and Rifka meet a guy who runs a train and takes them to Sequoia, a magic land where people are basically psychics and live in trees. When I say they live in trees, I mean that literally, too. The giant redwoods are hollowed out, apparently carefully enough that they don’t die, and people build houses inside them. That’s pretty nifty. There’s some trouble when they realize that Tanner can’t connect with their psychic gestalt because of his steel skull, but the story just kind of ends there, with everybody settling in and Rifka having her baby.

There’s a short epilogue that features Tanner going back to the Com-Comp and denying to give it any information other than what basically amounts to “people are fine I guess except when they aren’t.”

So yeah, the ending was pretty bad, in that it didn’t really go anywhere. The book just sort of ran out of steam. And looking back, the only real conflict in the story was Tanner’s inner “am-I-man-or-am-I-machine” conflict. Rifka changes over the course of the book, becoming less savage, but Tanner only really learns a bit about the past and his role in it and then doesn’t do much about it.

Overall, though, I had a lot of fun reading this one. Post-apocalypse following dystopia makes for an interesting story, and White did a good job of spooning out little bits of information, just enough to keep me hooked.

I think I learned that one thing a writer can do to make a story interesting is to cause him- or herself to selectively forget things. There are things that the author and the audience know that the characters will not necessarily know. It sort of goes back to the pen-and-paper RPGer’s mantra: “I know this, but does my character know this?” Dramatic irony can be hard to pull off without making it really hit-you-over-the-head bad. Think of all the times you’ve heard the equivalent of “Thank God you’re not a secret serial killer!” said to someone who was a secret serial killer. Yeah, I’m talking about Dexter there. I like that show, but jeez.

This book, though, manages to describe things, very familiar things, in such a way as to convince us that the main character doesn’t know what they are. In the meantime, we can fall into his shoes and sort of forget what those things are too. When Tanner describes a “furred creature that arched its back and hissed, eventually trying to claw my eyes out,” we can see it through his eyes as a strange and mysterious creature, and not just a damned cat.

So there you have it. For ninety cents, this was a really fun read. It had its flaws, yeah. The narrative between chapters would sometimes jump in time in an unexpected way, and there was the tiny bit of maybe-racism, and the ending sucked, but yeah, if you can find this one, give it a read yourself. Or dig up something else by Ted White. The man won a Hugo, assistant-edited The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction for years, edited Amazing Stories for years after that, and wrote a book about Captain America that I’d love to find and read. He deserves some attention.

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3 Comments

  1. Joseph Nebus says:

    I’m rather impressed. This does look like the sort of book I’d pick up because of the promise to be awful in characteristically dated ways. For it to be a generally good read on top of that would be a thrill.

    The starting point is probably still a workable premise too.

    Like

  2. Guy says:

    Hi It was sounds like a book I vaguely remember reading maybe in high school. I have always remembered the beginning and wanted to look at the book again. Now that you have supplied the title and author I will track down a copy and confirm it was the book I remembered .

    Thanks for this
    Guy

    Liked by 1 person

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