The Emperor of the Last Days by Ron Goulart
Popular Library, 1977
Price I paid: 75¢
Dan Farleigh—a pleasant young fellow with a kinky craving for the company of computers.
Janis Trummond—a beautiful young woman reporter out to dig up the dirtiest secrets of a man’s world.
Professor Supermind—mental master of machines.
Tin Lizzie—a gifted if ungainly bionic teen-ager.
Deadend—a Chicago thug whose thoughts were deadly weapons.
No human imagination could have conceived this oddly twisted team—and no human imagination had. Their master and mentor used the name of Bernard Maze. But to friends he was Barney—a computer who decided to take charge before it was too late to save the world from—THE EMPEROR OF THE LAST DAYS.
After last week’s heavy dose of sexism and misogyny and possible Cold War allegory I thought it would be a good idea to follow up with a lighthearted romp through some good old pulp wonderment. If anything at all could be bad in an entirely different way, it would have to be this book.
I mean, look at that cover. The moon is cracking apart for some reason, and two people in sequined spacesuits are being flanked by a gigantic robot with a knife and a laser gun. C’mon, robot, didn’t anybody tell you not to bring a knife to a laser fight?
Also, there’s some kind of evil-looking dog. Upon a closer look, it appears to be some kind of evil robot dog. Also that chick has a metal hand and she’s wearing essentially the same outfit as the dude, except it’s a little more roomy in the chest department. Same cut at the crotch, though, so that’s pretty awesome.
What I did not actually expect was for this book to be astoundingly good.
I’m serious, I picked the book up because it seemed like some kind of over-the-top pulp extravaganza involving rocket ships and so forth. What I got instead was a pretty excellent send-up of the pulp genre that in itself managed to hold a pretty decent story.
We start off by meeting Dan Farleigh and his computer, Barney. Dan works for some kind of company that deals in personnel or something, it’s never really gone into. He’s something of a higher-up in that company, and that gives him access to Barney. Barney is a super-brilliant computer with a fondness for games and puzzles. Since Dan’s job only really occupies a small portion of his time at the office, he tends to spend it goofing around with Barney.
One day while having a discussion with the computer, Dan sees somebody from an office above him shoot past the window in a definite downward direction. Within moments, Barney is able to extrapolate just who it is and recover the suicide tape he’d left in his office. The guy was a major player in one of the top political parties in the nation, and Barney just doesn’t think it was actually a suicide.
I guess I should mention that this is all taking place in the United States of the future. The fact that this is THE FUTURE is hammered into the reader’s skull rather quickly. Goulart went out of his way to make it clear that things have changed in the time between now and then, and he does it in a way that at first I didn’t like, but it grew on me.
One of the things he does is throws together a lot of wild and random concepts and treats them like they’re commonplace at this point in the future. For one, Dan works in the State of Manhattan but teleports down to Boston when he gets off work. For two, there’s a huge amount of “future slang” floating around in this book that makes contextual sense but at first was kind of off-putting. And for three, and this was really unsettling for a bit, he just gets all random at times. At one point, all in one paragraph, we get mention of
…the Pope in his jeweled helicopter blessing the crowds thronging the silver and gold pedways of New Rome, on that screen three airfloat wrestlers stomping a fourth two hundred feet above a crowd of gleeful Eskimos,…and on that screen a nude ballerina dancing to the ragtime version of one of Emily Dickinson’s poems…
And so forth. There were three or four more I left out because I got tired of copying it.
What I was afraid of was that this was simply silly randomness for its own sake. I started to get a little taste of some kind of proto-Seth McFarlane in my mouth, and that’s not a taste I’m prone to like.
While that kind of wackiness at first grated on me, I started to realize that it was more for the sake of setting up the world than for its own sake. If anything, it was a sort of commentary on the American media with its ever-reaching search for the same old crap in new packaging. And with that in mind I plunged on.
Plus, the next chapter began with the sentence
Somebody had murdered a robot.
That’s a really good sentence to open a chapter with.
While investigating the suicide, Dan meets Janis Trummond and we meet the macguffin for the novel. Janis is, of course, gorgeous, and they talk a bit and start to see each other a bit more exclusively. Janis is a reporter and she’s on to something big. It seems that recently there have been rather a lot of “suicides” of high-ranking government officials and she’s starting to get suspicious. She’s convinced that there’s a conspiracy to take out the government and replace it with something far more sinister, namely the titular Emperor of the Last Days.
She gets kidnapped, thus proving that something is going on, and Dan sets out to find her. That’s when he meets the rest of the team.
Tin Lizzie is a young lady with two mechanical limbs and can hit really hard. She also seems to have precognition powers, which she refers to as “hunches.” Professor Supermind, who has the greatest name in the history of fiction and is essentially the reason I picked up this book in the first place, is a circus performer with the unique ability to hypnotize robots. It’s a good thing he showed up at the time he did. I mean, that’s a power that maybe lots of people through history have had, but they didn’t have the opportunity to use it. Lore Sjöberg once discussed, somewhere or another, how lucky it was that Spider-Man showed up in New York, since if he’d gotten his powers in Oklahoma or something he’d’ve been completely useless. I think of Professor Supermind in much the same way.
Anyway, there’s also Deadend, a “telek” (telekinetic) who, like most telekinetics in this universe, chooses to use his power for petty thievery. I like that. It shows a keen understanding of human nature that I wouldn’t have expected from a pulp novel. Anyway, Deadend is particularly good as his powers because he can actually manipulate things that aren’t in his current field of view. Usually that means he can swipe the briefcase full of valuables from the next room, but in one instance he points out to a bad guy that he can pull out the guys organs with nary a thought, and gives a little tug on the guy’s liver just to make his meaning plain. That’s gold.
They are all recruited by Barney without Dan’s knowledge, and they all never know that Barney is actually a computer. They just think he’s some kind of influential rich guy.
Oh, a thing about Barney that I also really liked. Most of the information he gets throughout the book is from other computers. He can communicate with them in a manner pretty effectively predicting the Internet, which is nice, but they way he gets the information is through being just so personable. That’s part of it, anyway. A lot of his explanations are along the lines of “I know the computer down at the police station. He’s a good guy.” or “The computer that runs the airport is my second cousin. We can trust her.” Things like that. He is able to do his job effectively because he has a good relationship with other computers. That’s a lesson you can take home with you.
So in pretty standard fashion the group does some small jobs separately in an attempt to show their abilities to the reader before they get together for the final showdown. I swear that’s a part of The Hero’s Journey.
At some point they visit the estate of the ex-President of the United States, who appears to be in on the conspiracy to take over the world but is also just sort of a bumbling idiot. I’m sure Richard Nixon was on our author’s mind when this book was written, but he decided to take it to an extreme. It would appear that this particular ex-President spent his whole term getting into trouble. We never actually learn what trouble, but a mention of pictures in a hotel room was brought up. Anyway, he’s leveraged his notoriety to become rich by selling his memoirs and whatnot. Pretty great.
The group gets captured and put on a plane with a bomb on it, but they manage to escape with only a requisite amount of suspense.
As the book ticks down, they contact Barney and learn that the conspirators are working out of Brazil, which is now under the control of some kind of generalissimo whose antics make for a pretty good cover. Barney has also worked out a new member of their merry band and they meet him on the ground.
This member turns out to be Tarzan.
THE APE MAN
Actually only sort of. He’s Tarzan’s great-great-great-something-grandson.
It was at this point that I began to suspect that this book was written secretly by Phillip José Farmer. So I looked it up. No, Ron Goulart isn’t, apparently, Phillip José Farmer but they have a lot in common. They’re both really into the pulps, Goulart having written all sorts of books about The Phantom and Doc Savage and so forth. Goulart, though, is a bit more on the funny side than Farmer, I think, and I enjoy it. Yeah, Farmer’s one of the real greats, but I think Goulart deserves some more recognition.
Anyway, the group manages to break into the conspirator’s compound while, at the same time, Barney is transmitting data about the conspiracy to one of the only news stations not being run by the conspiracy. While the plans collapse, the crew manages to find Janis and get back out. The leader of the whole thing was, in fact, Adam McAdam, who incidentally was Janis’s boss back at Newz Magazine. I know I didn’t mention him until now but he was pretty fishy from the get-go. Of course, the conspiracy’s plan was, on the surface, to appoint the current president the Emperor of the Last Days but McAdam intended to run the show from behind the scenes.
Man, having a president being a puppet for a sinister organization is such a conspiracy cliché that I’m surprised the Bush administration actually went through with it.
Anyway, the book ends kind of flat. We don’t get to see any of the fallout from the crumbling of the conspiracy, but really, that wasn’t much the plot of the book. Really the whole plot was the attempt to rescue Janis and the conspiracy was just background material. I’m not sure how I feel about that but I’m leaning toward liking it.
The book actually ends with “Bernard Maze” recruiting this mismatched crew to serve as his personal superhero team, traveling the world and solving problems. I hope there’s more to this story than this one book. I really hope that’s a sequel hook that came true.
So there you have it. You should probably check out this book if you haven’t already. I really liked it. I mentioned a lot of resemblance to Phillip José Farmer, but I’m willing to draw in some comparison to Douglas Adams as well. It was that kind of humor, although it wasn’t a comedic novel, per se. It was more sardonic than ha-ha funny, but it did have its moments. Tarzan, for instance was recruited while he was in jail for doing mercenary work in Africa. He is usually in jail. A running gag is that whenever a country is mentioned, Tarzan describes the quality of the prisons there.
I’m not sure if I’d go so far as to call this book a satire or a parody of pulp science fiction, but it’s somewhere along those lines. Maybe more of a loving tribute. Whatever it is, it did its job well. Almost every little thing about pulp that generally annoys me made some kind of appearance in this book but to such an extreme that I couldn’t help but laugh at it. It also seemed to pull genres like conspiracy fiction (or at least political thrillers) and detective fiction into its wake in a way that was fun and really worked.
I mean, let’s face it, we have two characters: one named PROFESSOR SUPERMIND and the other is TARZAN. If you don’t think this book is worth your time, I’m not sure that we can be friends.
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