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The Day of the Klesh

The Day of the Klesh by M.A. FosterThe-Day-of-the-Klesh-front
DAW Books, 1979
Price I paid: 75¢

His name was Meure and he hired out on an alien ship to see the universe. There were ler aboard that vessel—transmuted humans who were partial supermen—and specifically there was the ler girl Flerdestar who had a mission.

When Meure and Flerdestar were marooned on the world they called Monsalvat, they were confronted by a planetary enigma involving time and space. For Monsalvat had a myriad human species, all alien to each other, and all in awe of the Mystery that dominated their isolated planet.

Here is the long-awaited major novel by the author of THE GAMEPLAYERS OF ZAN and WARRIORS OF DAWN. It is a masterwork of alien wonders, human ingenuities, of the past invading the present, and of the perverted legacy of the legendary mistress of the first starship, the mad ler Sanjirmil…

Okay, I’ve been doing these reviews for a little over two months now, and I thought I’d gotten to the point where I could read a book fairly quickly with enough detail to talk about it later. I mean, I already read a lot, and I did fairly well as an English major, which of course involved a lot of quick reading, so you’d think I could knock a book out at a fairly good clip. Not so with The Day of the Klesh. I started reading it yesterday at around ten o’clock in the morning. I looked up about forty pages later and discovered that two hours had passed, in the absolute worst way.

It’s not that this book is shoddily written, you see. Far from it. The Day of the Klesh is exquisitely planned out, crafted, and developed. Foster has created a whole universe of alien races and of future man, and has fleshed out their ways, languages, and cultures to a point worthy of a Tolkien or a Herbert. The problem is that he feels the need to tell us all the details. At great length. With more details piling on those details. Not one aspect of his crafted reality is allowed to escape the notice of the reader, until ultimately it’s a giant jumble of hard-to-read words and extraneous exposition.

In science fiction and fantasy, it’s fairly routine for an author to introduce words and concepts that are unfamiliar to the reader. This is expected and welcome. It’s how these words and concepts are described or handled that make all the difference. Perhaps the word will be left unexplained to the reader and understood by context. A really good author might be able to leave the word or concept unexplained as a sort of tantalizing mystery. Or, if elaborated upon, it might go something like

Steve was a freedok, a sort of outer space ombudsman.

or

“I’m a freedok,” said Steve.
“That’s a sort of outer space ombudsman, right?” said Rick.

But here’s how M.A. Foster would handle it:

Steve was a freedok.*

And then there’s a footnote:

*In the time following man’s expansion into the galaxy, it was established that colonization rights would have to pass through a distinct, governmental third party when there was conflict. Various systems were tried, from the melorge or governors of the planetary phase to the expanded baylinor system in place once man left the Solar System. In time, this level of control degenerated into a less centralized entity, known as the Freedokim, a policy-making body that might be compared to a group of modern Earth ombudsmen. At the current time, there were 165 freedokim operating within the Solar System alone, with another 745 representing man’s interests in the galaxy at large. They were largely elected by planetary populations, although on the fringes the system was more relaxed and a freedok might well be self-appointed, or appointed by members of the upper class.

THERE IS SOMETHING LIKE THIS ON NEARLY EVERY PAGE FOR THE FIRST HALF OF THE BOOK.

ALSO, I MADE ALL THAT UP. GO ME.

Seriously, this book is 240 pages long, and the first half or so is all about setting up this universe, from the Ler and their crazy ways to the Spsom, a group of raccoon-like aliens, to the way that humans act in this future setting. And most of it is completely unimportant to the story.

The story, as it is: A guy named Meure is with a group of friends on a planet named Tancred attending what amounts to an outer space job fair. Yearly, starship captains will set down on this planet to look for people to fill out their crews for the next year. Meure and his friends have little luck at first, but eventually they meet some Ler representatives on a Spsom ship who are undertaking a fact-finding mission to planet Monsalvat.

One of these Ler is a lady named Flerdestar, who is, quite astonishingly, not absolutely stunning and gorgeous or angelically beautiful but in a fragile way or any of that. I was pretty shocked when she was described as sort of skinny and homely. I have expectations, dammit.

A hundred pages of exposition later, we arrive at Monsalvat, where we learn exactly what’s going on down there that needs to be investigated. Monsalvat was once a Ler experiment on humanity. Whereas humanity is now pretty much racially merged into that guy you see on the front cover of the book (the one with the sword, not the little furry guy), the people of Monsalvat are more racially distinct that humanity has ever been. They were genetically split up to be that way, somehow. There are people whose hands have degenerated into feet and vice-versa, there are harelipped rabbit people, there are folks who compose entire epic poems in their heads every day of their lives that are then recited right before death, and so forth. Each of these peoples, when met, are explained in great detail, of course. Collectively, these people are the Klesh.

After landing on the planet and losing their ship, Meure and Flerdestar encounter some people, Haydar, that take them in for a while. One of the things about Monsalvat is that future-telling and prognostication actually work, and so these people take our heroes to some sort of future-seeing artifact, called the Skazenach, the “most powerful of all oracles.”

Once the Skazenach is reached, wacky things start to happen. It’s an object that can see throughout time and space, so you might expect that as they near it they are being watched from elsewhere in time and space. It turns out that a Klesh from the far distant past is doing the looking right now, and through some arcane art he is able to use the Skazenach to bring himself from that past into the present, inhabiting a host body. That host body is, of course, our hero Meure.

What does this mean for our protagonists? More exposition, obviously. Inhabiting Meure’s head, this guy, Cretus, fills us in on all sorts of Klesh magic and mysticism, as well as history and anthropology and geology and anything else you might want to know about this world. Finally, he gets to the meat of the thing, and we learn that the people of this planet are being controlled indirectly by some kind of being that Cretus has been unable to contact or dispel. Cretus has a bad feeling about this thing’s plans for the Klesh and the universe at large, so he decided that he would lock the Klesh in a sort of societal stasis before coming forth thousands of years into the future to take up half of Meure’s brain, whereupon he might be able to do something about it.

The combined smarts of Meure and Cretus, amplified by a Vfzyekhr, an ancient psychic race that also happens to be the little fuzzy thing from the cover of the book, are able to face down this entity, which is in fact a gestalt entity that was once an entire race that flourished before flowers even appeared on Earth. The Vfzyekhr refer to this thing as the firstborn, they themselves being the secondborn. The Vfzyekhr (thank the gods for copy/paste, incidentally) trapped the thing here when they learned about it, rightly sensing that it was evil. Seeing as how they themselves were heading toward a gestalt psychic consciousness, they decided that it just wasn’t for them and so degenerated into little monkey things that don’t talk and hang around the Spsom.

And so Meure/Cretus/Vfzyekhr take down the malevolent entity and in the meantime merge into a veritable Traveling Wilburys of smarts, deciding that they were best serve the universe by guiding the Klesh now that they have escaped the control of the malevolent gestalt entity. Also since the entity existed outside time it was the source of all the prognostication on Monsalvat, they’ll have to learn how to do without that too. And that’s it for plot.

Seriously, this book could have been about fifty pages long without all the detail. I mean, I like a well-crafted universe as much as the next guy, but there are ways to make it interesting and explorable that M.A. Foster all but ignored. A good universe hinges on plots and actions, not on the fun developed ideas that the author may have come up with. What makes something like Dune or The Lord of the Rings is less the details that the authors have created but the truly interesting stories that fill those universes. Yes, the fans will often latch on to details, memorizing them and discussing them long into the night, arguing over the Cats of Queen Beruthiel or whether what Duke Leto invoked was properly kanly, but it’s all because the stories were there to draw us into the universes. Detail is a tool to enhance a story, not the point of a book itself.

And then there’s the problem of overly complicated proper nouns. We talked briefly about the Vfzyekhr and the Spsom and all that, but there are dozens more examples in this book of proper nouns that are utterly unpronounceable. This was probably one of the reasons it took me so long to read this book before I just started skimming it and looking for action words and dialog. I’m the sort of person who simply has to try to figure out how a word is pronounced. Books like this slow me down drastically because I devote so much more time and close reading to every other word. I don’t mind so much the matter of time—a good book that keeps me going for days is a true joy—but in the case of Klesh it was a problem of immersion. I couldn’t get into the book at all just because of all the unfamiliar text being thrown at me, constantly and without mercy. At this point it stops being interesting, and just starts being frustrating.

Oh, I just remembered something. Every chapter began with a quote, always simply cited to “A.C.” At first I thought it might be a character that would come up later in the book, sort of like the Princess Irulan in Dune. About halfway through I actually read one of the quotes and immediately recognized it as coming from Aleister Crowley. I was bothered not only because I couldn’t figure out what the point was, but also because I actually recognized where the quote came from.

In the end, I didn’t have a lot of fun with this book. It wasn’t that it was bad, it was just so little disguised as so much. It wasn’t that it was overly padded to disguise a thin plot, it’s that the plot felt really secondary to the creation and detailing of the universe and its constituents. Maybe if something about that universe had really grabbed me and pulled me along I wouldn’t have minded quite so much, but I really couldn’t get into it and it all felt overwhelming and bothersome. If it weren’t for this review, this book would have been a huge waste of my time. As it is, I’m glad that I was able to share the pain a little bit.

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4 Comments

  1. Are you sure this novel wasn’t intended to be read in the voice of the Swedish Chef? Try rereading the synopsis like that, it makes a lot more sense.

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  2. Steven Perry says:

    I remember owning a copy of this paperback, moving it from shelf to shelf through Europe and three of the United States. Never read it and am now glad I didn’t.
    By-the-way. I love this website. These are my kind of paperbacks.
    I’m looking for a book I read as a teenager about a society where it was as publicly indecent to eat in front of another person as it would be to drop trou(sp) and take a dump in front of them. I don’t remember the title or who wrote it. Any idea?

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    • Thanks for reading!

      Hmm, the the book doesn’t ring any bells, and Google isn’t being much help. I have a vague memory of Orson Scott Card (in his How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy) discussing possible themes like an alien society where eating is treated like we treat sex, but that’s all I’ve got at the moment. I’ll keep looking, though.

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