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Under the City of Angels

Under the City of Angels by Jerry Earl BrownUnder the City of Angels front
Bantam Books, 1981
Price I paid: 75¢

Jack Kelso is a scavenger, a half-crazed loner, a burnt-out cause, always one jump ahead of the government, eking out an uneasy living in the sunken ruins of L.A. Then he meets Judith—mysterious, beautiful, driven—who offers him an assignment only “Mad Jack” Kelso would be crazy enough to take on. He takes the job, and gets love in the bargain. Suddenly, their newfound happiness, and perhaps the fate of the entire planet, is threatened by a deadly power struggle on an alien world light centuries away…


Well, this certainly was an odd book. It surprised me on several occasions, and was a lot better than I thought it would be. It’s not great, but it’s pretty good. I’m not exactly sure what all I should say about it.

Jack Kelso, our hero, is in a bad way at the beginning of the book. He’s got a submarine that he stole from somewhere, probably the government, and he conducts illegal salvage missions at the piece of ocean where Los Angeles used to be.

Right off we’ve got a pretty neat premise. I was expecting, when I picked this book up for the first time, that the sunken ruins of L.A. would be due to something like rising ocean waters, probably due to global warming or somesuch. It turned out I was in for a surprise. Los Angeles sank to the bottom of the ocean in a sudden and violent earthquake, killing millions of people and reducing the entirety of Southern California to a lifeless wasteland. The origins of the quake are unknown at the beginning of the book, although a lot of people have been spending a lot of money in attempts to find out. Jack has his own theories on the matter, usually driven by cynicism and misanthropy. The waters around Los Angeles Bay are radioactive and toxic due to the several nuclear power plants that were in the area when it sank, so scavenging there is not only illegal, but dangerous. Someone as crazy as Jack Kelso, though, can make a pretty good amount of money looting the mansions and shops in that once-rich city.

The fact that this is a world with no Los Angeles makes this book, I think, the first piece of Utopian fiction I’ve read for this blog.

After introducing us to Jack, the narrative turns to a guy named Vincent Polliard. Polliard is a man with a grudge against Kelso and is in many ways Kelso’s nemesis. They have some history, it seems. Polliard, as we see throughout the rest of the book, is pure and simple evil. Almost laughably so. He kills people indiscriminately, he threatens to rape several women throughout the book and goes through with it in one case, and he goes on and on about how there’s no such thing as morality and that the only real morality is the will to gain wealth and power.

Writing a convincing villain is hard, I know. I can especially understand it in a book like this one, where the author is trying very hard to establish his own moral lessons, that it is important to cast the opposite of the book’s morality in an unquestionably negative light. In other words, if you’re trying to set up a good versus evil scheme, it’s important that the evil not be somebody you can even arguably get behind. Doing that believably is hard. In this case it’s one of the places where this book falls short. Having someone give the equivalent of a “Greed is good” speech is one thing. Making him a rapist and a murderer is another one.

Anyway, the narrative cuts to Polliard occasionally just to remind us that he’s evil.

We also get our first glimpses of Judith, the mysterious woman with a hidden past who needs, desperately, to have someone take her down into the L.A. ruins to find something. She’s not even sure what it is and so that makes things a bit difficult. She falls in with Jack Kelso and they start doin’ it almost right off, like you might expect.

So I’ve gotten into the groove while reading this book, getting used to the idea that the story is going to jump back and forth between these people until they all meet up at some point, probably at the final showdown. I was in for a very, very weird surprise.

The book jumps, completely randomly, to space. Far away in space. What we see is an alliance of worlds striking out against the rulers of the evil space empire. The Naravamintarans, also known as the Death Lords, have given themselves over to technological perfection and look down upon other races that are still mostly biological. The Naravamintarans don’t believe in things like the individual will, and their only morality is the search for power.

Why does that sound familiar?

Anyway, a loose coalition of races is gonna take down the Empire. What’s odd is that they don’t even seem to find it all that difficult, since the Empire has fallen to decadence and overconfidence.

Back to Earth, and Judith and Kelso are working together to get to the spot in Los Angeles Bay that Judith feels she needs to get to. In the meantime we get fed, piecemeal, some information about what’s going on in the world. Speculation on why L.A. sank into the ocean ranges from figuring that the Earth had finally had enough crap from humanity and just decided to open up, to some kind of man-made disaster, to the idea that Hell itself finally opened up to take down all the Los Angelinos at once instead of one at a time. Kelso seems to fall into the camp that suspects that humanity did it somehow. He knows that there was some kind of secret project going on in the mountains outside L.A., even if he doesn’t know what exactly it was. He also figures that oil had something to do with it, since apparently people had been setting off small nuclear detonations deep underground in an effort to free up some oil from the surrounding rock. Kelso’s misanthropy seems fairly well justified at this point.

Judith, meanwhile, is having some kind of mental breakdown. She’s hearing voices in her head and she can’t figure out what her history is. She knows what she’s been told, but in an interesting twist she begins to doubt that she actually remembers being told those things and that being told about her past might be a fabrication. It makes sense in a Philip K. Dick kind of way. She reads a lot of books on self-hypnosis and alien life and genetic engineering in an attempt to figure out just what’s going on in her head. They don’t really seem to help. Kelso is getting worried, because he’s already head-over-heels in love with her.

The duo evade capture several times by goons hired by Polliard, and finally find themselves in the murky depths of Los Angeles. They do not explore whether or not Warren Zevon’s hotel is still standing and whether or not he finally paid his bill.

In space, the rebellion is going well. The leader of the rebellion, a chick from some planet where everything is nice and wonderful, is searching for someone who used to be her lover. The Naravamintarans, it seems, share a common heritage with her people. They factioned at one point in the distant past and the Naravamintarans went their route of mechanical perfection while her people chose a path of nature worship and telepethy and benevolence. The Naravamintarans (thank God for copy/paste, incidentally) highly prize the males of her race and capture them and turn them into soldiers for the Empire, for reasons that weren’t really explained. She’s not able to find him, but the war is going really well.

As Judith nears the spot where she needs to be, she starts hearing voices more clearly. It seems that she’s a soldier for the Naravamintaran Empire, sent to carry out an important task because she has proven her loyalty and devotion to the Empire. She was transformed into a human, from a he, incidentally, in order to carry out her mission, but things are going weird. The transformation was too successful and she’s becoming more and more humanlike in her outlook and devotion to individuality. She tells none of this to Kelso, who spends most of the book brooding and hoping she’ll finally tell him what the hell’s going on so they can have sex again.

Her Naravamintaran half takes over almost completely when they reach the location of the whatever, and she almost kills Kelso when he tries to stop her from going out alone. He survives and goes along with her, when they reach something from beyond the knowledge of man.

The mysteries are unraveled at a pretty quick clip at this point. Judith is after an underwater city left by the ancestors of the Naravamintarans and the whatever-they-ares. The Empire is afraid that if humanity discovers the city, they will travel out to the stars and possibly become a threat to the Empire. I suppose it’s kind of ironic that Imperial paranoia led to this mission while at the same time they Empire is being destroyed by the Alliance. The city was originally directly underneath Los Angeles, and the controlled explosions and search for oil did in fact lead to the destruction of L.A., but not as directly as Kelso always believed. The scientists and oil companies had managed to set off the city’s auto-defense system, which in turn led to the ground giving way. I don’t think that was explained very well.

Polliard shows up and gives a speech about power and wealth and greed before getting vaporized in an attempt to rape Judith. She goes into some kind of spasm because she’s trying to fight the influence of her Naravamintaran masters, so it’s up to Kelso to carry out the mission. They destroy the city and escape back to the submarine. When Judith finally comes to, she tells Kelso everything up to this point about Naravamintara and her mission and how she’s really an engineered alien and all that, and also reveals that the good guys in the space fight have been trying to contact her too. She is in fact the dude that the rebel leader is looking for, but she decides that she wants to stay on Earth because even her actual, benevolent, race has lost something of passion and individuality, something she feels has awakened in her time with Kelso. I guess the moral is that even paradise can be as stifling as tyranny and that humanity, as usual, is special.

This was rather a lot of book to get through, but on the whole I think it was worth it. It was pretty heavy-handed at times with the morality and Jack Kelso seemed like little more than a mouthpiece for Jerry Earl Brown’s pro-environmental views, but the writing itself was quite excellent. Instead of great big blocks of text revealing backstory and detail and other stuff, as is common in the bottom half of the science fiction genre (and plenty common in the better works, too), Brown managed to travel the thin line of revealing information piecemeal, keeping me interested in what was coming up and preserving the mysteries until the end of the book. Sure, I started to guess what was going on much earlier than Brown probably intended me to, but there was still enough wiggle room that I thought I might be wrong.

The outer-space chapters were pretty weird, though. All they really seemed to do was give us a look at what kind of evil the Naravamintarans were up to and give us some context into what Judith was up to. I didn’t feel like they were strictly necessary, but they were fairly interesting, I suppose. A lot better than I would have expected in a book that cost me seventy-five cents, and the alliance of worlds against an evil mechanical menace seeking perfection sort of reminded me of the Mass Effect universe.

All-in-all this is a boring review because there wasn’t much I could take offense at. Sorry about that. There also wasn’t a lot of crazy awesomeness, so I can’t gush at you about that either. It was just a book that was pretty good, not great, and possibly worth your time if you happen to find a copy as cheap as I did. It kept me interested enough, and it was definitely neat exploring the sunken ruins of L.A. in a setting that is still remarkably close to the present. It was more like an underwater Fallout than anything else when it came to that aspect of the story, and I like that.

The book never did tells us when it took place. We get a few hints. Kelso has a picture of him and his late wife (she died with Los Angeles) that’s dated 2003. We don’t get any clue how long that picture was taken before the calamity, nor how long it was after the calimity that the story took place. The book mentions an economic collapse not long after the start of the 21st century, so Jerry Earl Brown definitely gets some points for predicting that one, although he also has characters sending actual letters to each other so he breaks even.

I guess that about covers it. I promise I’ll try to have something to get really mad about next week.

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1 Comment

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    Ah, I have this one my shelf…..

    Like

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