SAR, by John Robert Russell
Pocket Books, 1974
Price I paid: 75¢
Nothing remains of the human race but a few tribes struggling to survive. Ruled by strongmen and warlords, the people toil, produce babies, and submit sullenly to brutality and sexual exploitation.
But one man does not submit. His name is Sar, and, though only a slave, he carries within him the rebellious flame of human dignity…
This magnificent novel is Sar’s story—a globe-spinning adventure filled with the drama of war, love, and the unquenchable spirit of mankind.
That description is so full of bullcrap that I’m wondering if it’s actually brown with age by this point. This book was not an adventure and if anything, my “unquenchable spirit” has been thoroughly and possibly eternally quenched. What the hell.
Let’s start with the cover. Shakira is going to hit Duran Duran with that whip, apparently for wearing that godawful underwear. Meanwhile, something happens in the background. Some kind of…building? And the sun is huge? And what’s with those cubes, especially the ones around Shakira’s head in a sort of halo? Will Duran Duran learn the answers to any of these questions?
Nope. No questions are answered in this book. It is a meandering journey through the bleak world of the future with nary a plot to break the monotony.
We first meet Sar, who I assume is supposed to be Duran Duran on the cover there, working in what amounts to a medieval sharecropping franchise. He’s in love with a lady named Lady and occasionally meets up with her for sexytimes, although that’s forbidden because he is a slave and slaves are bred like cattle and have no choice in the matter. His happy trysts with Lady come to an end when she is kidnapped by the son of the guy who runs the farm, the lord of the manor I guess. He goes to rescue her and kills a bunch of people in the meantime, in the end being kind of upset when he finds out that Lady is having a pretty decent time living in the manor house. It’s warm, after all, and she’s pretty well-fed. So Sar leaves.
He wanders into a group of bandits and then leaves. He gets captured by slavers and sold to a family in New Rome, where he becomes a toy slave for an eleven-year-old girl, who rides him like a pony and makes him have tea with her. It’s not a bad life, but New Rome is falling apart due to being run in a completely stupid way, so he manages to leave again.
A bit about this New Rome. It’s run by the military, in particular the ranking members of the military. They have a school where they put insane children and when the time comes, they make one of those insane children Emperor. The current emperor is less criminally insane than just a bit wacky, ordering people to break windows and stuff like that rather than just murdering people with impunity. The military people who run the city come up with some harebrained scheme to divide the city into shares and split it amongst themselves, which causes riots. They figure they can kill the emperor to set things right, but this time it doesn’t work and that’s what gives Sar his chance to escape.
The idea of a “New Rome” is an interesting one in science fiction and I’ve wondered what makes it such a compelling idea for some people. Rome was, of course, the height of civilization for a while, as well as the height of decadence. SAR capitalizes on the decadence part more than most authors, who generally try to set up a sort of new grand civilization that rules the world far better than the Caesars ever could have. Rome is, of course, a bedrock of Western history, so I suppose most authors bring it up as an instantly recognizable symbol of glory and whatnot, but why do we always want to bring it back? Why not just write a book about Rome?
Sar’s stay in New Rome is a brief one, like most of his stays throughout the book. In case you haven’t noticed yet, he’s just wandering from place to place, learning a little bit about people and stuff but really not accomplishing much.
Sar takes up with some raiders who started to sack New Rome after it started to fall, because history always repeats itself. These raiders take Sar to an island nation that serves as an anchor to the rest of the journeys, insomuch as there is one. The island is a matriarchy and Sar is taken to the queen.
We enter the adolescent fantasy portion of the book at this time, although all of Sar’s casual murder throughout the book may well have set us up with some of that beforehand. Sar’s mission is, of course, to mate with the Queen. So he does. He does his duty and knocks her up, so she passes him off to three of her most beautiful attendants. They pass him around for a while and he knocks them all up too. Finally, the queen decides that maybe Sar can make himself useful beyond laying in bed all day, because he’s more than just handsome and virile, he’s also
recklessly stupid strong and masculine.
Ugh, first a reborn Rome and now a matriarchy that needs men to breed with. I’m already sick of this book and its ridiculous cliches, and I’m not even halfway through yet.
But wait! The Queen has one last post-apocalypse cliche to throw at us! It turns out that this island nation is more than just a bunch of hot women waiting for men to show up and give them babies. They’re also collecting books about the history of the world before it fell apart. They refer to this beforetime as “before whatever happened, happened.” I kind of liked that at first but it got old.
The ladies are trying to recapture old technology and learning in an effort to jump-start civilization. Congratulations, ladies, you managed to come up with the same idea as A Canticle for Leibowitz only fourteen years after it was published.
Sar is sent off with two man-warriors to find a library in the middle of a desert. He goes there, but on the way some savages kill the other two guys. It literally happens moments after they set out to find this library. Also, the savages are black and shout things like “Bwanga-bwanga,” which is just…I don’t even know what to say there. Yeah, I understand that civilization has collapsed and maybe some people are like asinine 1930s caricatures of African natives. We’ve already nailed some other ridiculous cliches on the way here, but come on. There’s no need for that.
These guys shoot poison darts and they are at war with guys that throw rocks. Sar helps the people who throw rocks beat the guys that shoot poison darts, and in the meantime he meets Sheela. He shacks up with Sheela, like he does with every woman in this book, and she and some other rock people set off to find this library.
Sure enough, there’s a library! But all the books are gone! Whatever shall Sar do, if he can’t kill or sex something to make it all better?
Actually not all the books are gone. There’s a vault somewhere in the basement of the library that Sheela finds, and sure enough, it’s got some books in it. The books are all about how killing off rats may have doomed humanity or pollution or stuff like that, so Sar grabs some and figures that later he can come back with more people to cart off the rest of the literature.
He gets back to the island to find that what he just did was totally useless and they don’t even want his books anymore, because the island is under attack. Queen person has a plan, though. She’s going to send Sar even further away, both to learn all he can about what killed civilization and also to scout out potential sites for a colony. So he leaves again. Sheela stays behind, though, to become a captain of the guard.
And so, Sar sets to wandering some more, and I start to despair that anything important will ever happen in this plot. He finds a civilization of people who are complete religious nuts because they happened to have found a Bible once. He goes off to war with them but turns on them when they attack a tribe of nomads. He settles in with the nomads for a while but then takes some of them off to find whatever he can about why whatever happened, happened.
The book is beginning to wear down at this point, and sure enough, we think we might have found the last vestiges of civilization. Sar and crew find an electrified fence and break through it, whereupon they are captured by university professors.
I’d say the book went off the rails, but I say that a lot and besides, this book didn’t have any rails to go off of.
The university they’ve found is the super-repository of all existing knowledge of the world before whatever happened, happened. Like every damned group of people in the book up to this point, they make Sar work for them. He becomes a university student in the history department, studying what they call the Cataclsym. Apparently no one else in the university is especially interested in why the world is in such a crappy state, so Sar’s efforts are looked upon with a degree of amusement.
The next ten pages are what Sar finds out about the cataclysm. Apparently the information wasn’t especially hard to find, it’s just that no one cared enough to find out and just tell him.
This whole book of post-apocalypse cliches finally closes with the greatest cliche of them all: why civilization ended.
Armed with this knowledge, Sar goes back to the island and meets the Queen and Sheela and all that. He then says that the greatest part of history was Elizabethan England, so let’s just emulate that and end the damn book there.
Okay, this whole book was just Sar wandering around, killing people, having sex, and exploring a bit. There’s no major conflict, just a bunch of little pointless ones.
Sar is seriously the most uninteresting character I’ve ever had the joy of reading about. Everybody in the book goes on and on about how great he is and how he’s going to win their little conflicts for him, but nothing he does ever proves that. All he does is stay somewhere for a while and then leave again. The best part is near the end when, armed with all the knowledge he learned at the university, Sar reflects on the fact that he’s probably the most intelligent person in the world outside of the university.
God have mercy on us all.
2 thoughts on “SAR”
I have a list of Overpopulation themed novels/short stories (I love social sci-fi on the theme) — do you think this discusses that theme enough it include it?
One of the worst covers of all time — haha
I’d say that SAR didn’t so much discuss the theme as throw it in there in a sort of “Oh crap I need to finish this book, let’s throw a dart at the board” kind of way. The fall of civilization could have been any one of a hundred other things and the overall plot would have been exactly the same.