Earth’s new order has declared non-productivity a crime—dooming Johnsmith Biberkopf to life imprisonment in a Martian penal colony. Sentenced to a life of never-ending toil and despair, he seeks escape in the hallucinogenic power of “onees”—a government-banned substance that will lead Biberkopf through the portals of a strange and timeless dimension where ancient Viking ships sail the cosmos…and illusions become uniquely, terrifyingly real.
It’s a well-established fact that the two coolest things ever are Vikings and Mars, and now, thanks to Tim Sullivan, we get both of them in one convenient package. How could this book be anything but great?
Unfortunately, The Martian Viking deals a lot less with Vikings than we were promised, although Mars does feature quite prominently, and as far as crapsack future societies go, the book does present us with a pretty interesting one.
Johnsmith Biberkopf is a college professor who specializes in Vikings, and particularly in the Geats. His knowledge of Beowulf crops up a few times. As it is, though, he’s on the verge of losing his job, and getting fired is a criminal offense in this world, which is fairly dumb as far as future laws go. The poor and the unemployed get sent to the Moon, or Mars, or the Asteroid Belt, working as miners or something for the rest of their lives.
Johnsmith is apparently getting fired because he can read and likes to flaunt that fact. You see, this future society is based entirely around video. Nobody reads anymore. Books don’t figure into anybody’s daily entertainment, and Johnsmith’s job is teaching not books but videos to his students. The fact that he’s actually read Beowulf is a source of amazement and shock to his colleagues.
Also, his wife has left him and she’s sleeping with his best friend, but he doesn’t know that quite yet. What he does know is that said best friend has passed him some “onees” and bids him to try them before he shows up at his Space Selective Service hearing that’ll send him off-planet for the crime of sucking at his job.
Onees are actually sort of interesting. They’re a powerful and illegal hallucinogen, but they aren’t ingested or injected or anything like that. You just hold them in your hand and they go to work, stimulating nerve endings somehow or another to produce highly detailed sensory experiences. When Johnsmith tries it out, he envisions himself in the sea, nearly drowning, as a Viking ship comes up alongside him and extends an oar to save him. He drops his onees at this point and comes out of the delusion, figuring that the experience must have stemmed from his own personal knowledge of Vikings and their doings.
While all this is going on, Johnsmith is being spied on by a guy named Alderdice V. Lumumba. Once again, we’ve got a sci-fi novel that uses really weird names to convince us that we’re reading about a world distinctly different from our own. Alderdice is something all his own, though, and this character has left me with some mixed feelings about this book.
Alderdice works for the government as a Pre-emptive Agent. Basically, his job is to spy on people who might commit a crime just so he can catch them doing it. Shades of Phillip K. Dick there, I guess. The thing about Alderdice is that he’s gay. This book is pretty progressive about that, even. He used to have a husband, and nobody in the book seems surprised by the idea of homosexual marriage, an attitude that would seem foreign to many people even in 2013 and must have seemed completely wacky back in 1991. So that’s okay. Alderdice is also grossly obese and black. It’s like the book invites us to dislike this character by throwing lots of traits on him that people might take offense to if they’re racist or homophobic or disgusted by fat people, but there’s no reason to do so other than those things because he’s not especially offensive in his actual personality. I imagine Tim Sullivan creating this character and then sitting back in his chair, so proud of himself, because if anybody says anything bad about this character, it proves they are an awful person.
But then there are statements like
“But you’re gay,” Felicia said. “How can you be gay and believe in monogamy?”
“Look at the size of that thing,” he said to no one in particular.
Alderdice, perhaps believing Johnsmith’s comment to be sexual in nature, was roused from dozing.
The first one might be somewhat more acceptable, seeing as how it came out of a character’s mouth and maybe that character was just small-minded on that point, even though nothing else she’s ever done would indicate that. The second quote, though, was in narration, and was just a pointless little jab at Alderdice’s sexuality, for absolutely no reason. Both quotes play on the idea that homosexual men are totally promiscuous all the time, and for a book that treats that subject with such progressiveness at times, it’s really shocking to see this kind of stereotype show up.
Alderdice, incidentally, is also pretty bad at his job, and he shows up at the Space Selective Service office on the same day as Johnsmith. Both of them are sent to Mars, which is apparently the best possibility they could have hoped for. On the way to Mars, they meet the aforementioned Felicia, whose life’s goal is to topple the current world government. We later learn that she’s heiress to one of the largest fortunes on Earth, which the government propaganda machine is spinning as a sort of Patty Hearst situation. Felicia denies all of that, though, saying that she joined the revolution willingly and eagerly.
Mars might have been the best option this trio could have gotten, but it turns out to be pretty terrible. After all, the leader of the work camp is named Angel Torquemada.
(Auto-da-fé, what’s an auto-da-fé?)
The trio realizes something’s up, though, when they find out that they’re working on building a factory instead of the terraforming operation they were convinced was the heart of Mars labor camps. Their questions on the matter are evaded for a while, but eventually they find out that the factory will be producing onees. Shocker!
They also are tasked with combat training every day. They think this is pretty weird, since who are they going to fight on Mars? They find out soon enough, though, when their camp comes under attack by “Arkies.” The fight is swift and brutal, and when it’s all done, nobody wants to explain to the newbies what exactly an Arkie is.
Johnsmith and Co. have a new task, though. They are to take as many onees are possible and report back on what they experience. Apparently, lots of people get the onee experience with a Viking ship, and this appears to be some kind of message from the Arkies, who we find out are some kind of extremist faction rebelling against the Earth government.
A failed raid on an Arkie base at Olympus Mons has Johnsmith meet up with a few Arkies, where he develops sympathies for them. Not long after he finds out that another worker at the camp is an Arkie spy, and he starts hooking up with her. This doesn’t please Felicia, with whom he’d previously been hooking up and who had pledged her undying love to him.
Felicia is another point of conflict in this book for me. When we first meet her, she’s headstrong and idealistic about her revolutionary cause. She’s a fairly strong character, despite being pretty one-note about the whole thing. As soon as she starts falling for Johnsmith, though, she gets all gushy and clingy and completely loses all her personality and idealism and interestingness. This is in contrast to Johnsmith’s former wife, Ronindella, who is spiteful and hateful and a religious nut and has left Johnsmith for his best friend and all sorts of nasty things. The worst stereotypes about women are present in these two characters, much in the same way that Alderdice occasionally serves as a receptacle for negative homosexual stereotypes.
Johnsmith’s new bunkmate, Frankie, informs him that the Arkies believe in something called The Ship, a giant Viking ship that will appear in the skies of Mars at some point and help bring about a whole new society across the Solar System. Johnsmith is skeptical of this, of course, and is uncomfortable with religion ever since the maniac ravings of his ex-wife.
Frankie, Johnsmith, Alderdice, and Felicia all escape the compound, though, and flee across the Martian desert. They’re not exactly sure what they’re planning on doing, but in the meantime they flag down a bus full of tourists and take it over. Onboard are Ronindella and Johnsmith’s son, Smitty II, who are there because Smitty won a trip to Mars from a fast-food chain. While attempting to take the bus to Olympus Mons to join the Arkies, the radio alerts them that the time of The Ship has arrived, and all the Arkies have gone to see it. They divert course so they can see it for themselves.
Where does this viking ship show up? At the landing site of the first Viking probe, of course! All the Arkies are there, seeing for themselves this fortuitous arrival, and in the meantime the government officials show up, led by Torquemada, who starts mowing people down. Johnsmith takes his son and manages to escape to The Ship. The Vikings welcome him on board. They’re speaking some kind of Scandinavian language that neither Johnsmith or Smitty can understand, but fortunately there is also a one-off character from earlier in the book onboard, who explains the situation to them.
This is where the book got pretty weird.
The Vikings are flying through the cosmos in some kind of Time-Space bubble. The bubble occasionally comes close to inhabited planets, like Mars, or less frequently, Earth, where the people there can see it. There is also a place full of monsters, which they eventually pass through. The Vikings make great sport of killing those monsters, and Johnsmith joins in with a sort of bloodlust. Eventually, though, something odd happens and they wind up beached on some kind of planet.
After getting off the ship, Johnsmith meets, of all people, his father, who explains to him a bit more about what’s going on and how all those monsters they killed were just curious about them and were totally harmless inhabitants of a sort of asylum. The people who run the universe, Johnsmith learns, are not happy with him for what he’s done. Then Johnsmith’s dad explains that this whole thing might very well just be some kind of onee hallucination dating all the way back to Johnsmith’s first experience with the things, but fails to tell him whether or not that is, in fact, true. He then leaves and Johnsmith wakes up on some kind of beach world with Frankie and Smitty, to live out his life in joy and stuff. And the book ends.
The book leaves a lot of problems unresolved. What, exactly, is the deal with onees? What are they supposed to actually do, and how are they made? Why are they illegal on Earth but not off it? Why is the compound on Mars manufacturing them? How are some of them being made to produce images of a Viking ship? Is it just a crazy coincidence that Johnsmith is a professor of Vikingry and that the whole plot hinges on them? How the hell do you pronounce onee?
I had a lot of problems with the ending of this book, especially because I was actually rather enjoying everything up to that point. The mystery was intriguing, which made it altogether infuriating that it wasn’t actually solved in any meaningful way. The Ship shows up out of nowhere, just like in the onees, and then they get onboard and fly around the cosmos for some reason until we get some kind of Or-Am-I-A-Butterfly-Dreaming-He-Is-Chuang-Tzu crap that in turn is not resolved.
The world we are presented with is a fairly interesting form of dystopia, though. The world is taken over by something called the Conglom, which appears to have set up some kind of governmental monopoly over all goods and services and has rendered everybody ignorant and illiterate. The only media is in the form of video. Even things like magazines have moving pictures and sound.
There’s also this odd commentary on religion that I thought was noteworthy. We are presented with three different religious sects that are active at the time of the book: The Video Church of God, which is basically evangelical Christianity for the new millenium; The Video Church of the New Age, which is hippy-esque Age-of-Aquarius stuff mish-mashed with psychotherapy for the new millenium; and the No-God Sect, which just seems to be hedonism for the new millenium. Ronindella is a member of the first bunch, who teaches your basic fundamentalism with lots of pro-government stuff. This church, of course, scorns the latter two, claiming that the New Age Church is sinful for its belief in psychotherapy and that the second is just straight-up devil worship. One thing that I think firmly roots the book in the time it was written was Ronindella’s belief that the No-God Sect sprang up in the period of licentiousness following the discovery of a cure for AIDS, before the Conglom managed to step in and straighten up everybody’s morals.
All-in-all, The Martian Viking was a pretty fun read. It sort of petered out at the end there, and its treatment of women and homosexuals varied between progressive and truly awful, but Tim Sullivan managed to set up a really interesting future world. Sullivan’s use of future slang put me in mind of Genetic Bomb, which really worried me for a bit, especially since both books used the word “apt” in place of “apartment.” Is this a bit of slang that is far more common than I thought, and I’m only now becoming aware of it? These books were written about fifteen years apart, so I figure maybe both authors stumbled upon it independently, but I’m definitely going to keep my eyes open in the future for that word, mostly because I hate it so much.