Who Goes Here? by Bob Shaw
Ace Books, 1977
Price I paid: 90¢
Men have always joined the Space Legion to forget, devoting the rest of their lives to fighting for Mother Terra in return for the perfect inner peace of forgetfulness. Most forget a little; the memory erasure covers just the area surrounding their falling away from grace. But Warren Peace can’t remember anything at all: “You must have been a monster,” say his admiring fellow troopers.
With only a blue plastic toad to guide him in his search for his past, and the forces of Lieutenant Toogood, the redoubtable Captain Handy and, worst of all, the dreaded Oscars ranged against him, Warren sets out to learn just
WHO GOES HERE?
Man, I do like the cover to this book. In a way it’s really understated. Sure, there’s some kind of monster with another monster on it, or maybe it’s a double monster, but all told it’s not as wacky as this book deserved. I’m about ninety percent sure it was attached to this book pretty much at random. Somebody said “Get me a picture of a space soldier and a space monster for this new Bob Shaw book. No, it doesn’t have anything to do with the plot, but we’re not in the truth-telling business here. We sell science fiction!”
The book was, more than anything, a string of really interesting ideas and applications without a great deal of coherent plot. Sure, one was there, and eventually it all came together, but that was the part I liked least. It was also all wAcKyTiMeS and that started to grate on me. Was it supposed to be satire? Was that the deal? Because I really couldn’t figure out what it was supposed to be a satire of except possibly for, very broadly, the military, and even then it didn’t have a lot to say beyond “Militaries are sometimes pretty dumb, aren’t they?”
So our hero, Warren Peace
Ugh, let me stop right there. I hate hate hate “wacky” names. I especially hate punny names. They’re never funny, they never help anything, they add nothing to characterization, and they’re immensely distracting. Based on names of characters alone, I’d say that science fiction would be my second-least-favorite genre of all time, right after fantasy. Alien names are one thing, be as weird as you want to be as long as I can still read it. You’re in the fiction business, at least make your book readable.
That isn’t to say that I dislike meaningful names. Or even names that, once you understand what the character is doing, make a sort of interesting sense in the context. I suppose what I’m saying is that if you’re going to name a character with an odd or punny name, at least be somewhat clever about it.
That being said, Warren has just found himself having recently joined the Space Legion (not to be confused with the Legion of Space). You know the French Foreign Legion? The Space Legion is basically that IN SPACE and also in THE FUTURE. As popular fiction has taught us, people joined the Foreign Legion to “forget,” that is to say to distract themselves from their guilty consciences or broken hearts. The Space Legion takes this one step further and just wipes your memory for you. God bless technology.
So Warren has recently been memory wiped and he can’t remember anything. Most people just forget the time they pushed an old lady down the stairs or whatever. The machine targets the guilty memory and kills it. So the fact that Warren doesn’t have any memory left must mean something special. Was he Space Hitler? That is the mystery.
The Legion itself turns out to be just one massive joke. Warren’s training consists of learning how to fire his radiation gun, whereupon he is congratulated and proclaimed to be a graduate of the Class of 10 a.m., November 10, 2386. He is then directed toward the nearest war.
Despite all the possibly satirical ridiculousness, there are some really interesting aspects to the Legion. The reason the training is so short, it’s explained, is because past armies had to instill discipline and unthinking loyalty in their soldiers. In the army of the future this is no longer necessary because all officers have an implant in their voiceboxes that will, via hypnotic suggestion or something, force their soldiers to do whatever they say immediately and without thought. Discipline is a thing of the past. To prove this point, Warren’s C.O. frequently tells his soldiers to tweak their own nipples as punishment. So there’s that.
Another interesting element was how space travel works in this universe. Einstein is still upheld, nothing can go faster than light. However, teleportation is possible over distances of about two hundred meters or so. The result of this is that there is a teleporter on the front and the back of the ship and the ship teleports itself through space very quickly in very short hops.
I don’t know if this is brilliant or ridiculous. Maybe both.
It wasn’t surprising for me to discover that Bob Shaw was from Northern Ireland, because his treatment of the officer class in the Space Legion was very similar to other satirical writers I’ve read that come from British Isles and that general area, which is to say he reminded me rather a lot of Terry Pratchett. The officers are bumbling, incompetent, and very willing to sacrifice the men placed in their charge. Back that up with a lot of talk about “honorable war” and “Mother Terra” and all that and it got to be pretty familiar.
Warren’s plan is to find a way to escape and figure out just who he is and how he could have lived such that he has forgotten his entire life. He does this by getting chummy with his idiot lieutenant who spills the beans about how the Bene Gesserit implants work. Warren immediately goes and builds a special helmet that allows him to resist the orders given to him. He then does really well in some battles and earns some leave to the planet Aspatria where he is then able to ignore his orders to report back to the ship after four hours.
What follows is madcap adventure through the streets of Aspatria, where Warren fails to meet anyone or anything that would help him remember who he is/was. Instead he runs afoul of the police, waiters, and the dreaded Oscars.
Nobody knows who or what the Oscars are, they just kind of showed up one day on the planet and started…being there. They apparently react very strongly to anyone getting out of line, and they seem to serve as some sort of peacekeeping or vigilante police force. Most people are wary of them, but they’ve also learned how to alert them to any kind of wrongdoing and have come to rely on them for their services. They apparently communicate telepathically or something, but people have fashioned whistles that will summon them. They’re after Warren for reasons that he’s not especially certain of.
They’re called Oscars because they’re very muscular, very tall, bronze, and nearly invincible. The book never once says they were named after the award statue, but it’s obvious they were. I appreciate that Bob Shaw decided not to draw attention to that fact, actually. Lots of other authors would have inserted the equivalent of “GET IT? GET IT?” Shaw just let it be there for us to figure out. I can appreciate an author who doesn’t assume I’m an idiot.
Warren’s madcap adventures come to a head—quite literally—when he runs into a bathroom that is a time machine. It flings him backward in time about ninety years into the lab of a scientist who is very bad at his job. The scientist assumes that Warren is there to seduce his daughter and so threatens to kill him, but not before he explains the time machine situation. He didn’t build it, it was there when he moved his lab into the abandoned warehouse. It was installed back when the warehouse was still a raincoat factory. The manager of this factory was a rather mean person who became increasingly frustrated at having to pay his employees while they went to the bathroom, which is a fairly standard problem to have. He acquired this time machine through illegal means and installed it such that no matter how much time a person spent in the bathroom, when they exited it would always be exactly one minute after they had gone in. I could see my company doing something like that if the means were available. Anyway, the time machine started to go on the fritz and the factory shut down after people started disappearing after going to the bathroom. Warren, upon discovering this, jumps back into the bathroom and finds himself back in the present, roughly.
In fact he lands a couple of days before he was due to join the Space Legion. A prime opportunity to find himself, he figures, so he heads back to Earth and camps outside the recruiting station so that he can meet himself at the gate.
This is where he learns the terrible thing that caused him to join the Space Legion in the first place.
See, he meets his past self in a bar. The time since he joined the Space Legion has worn heavily on him, so he doesn’t even look like he did before he joined. This allows him to essentially sidle up to his past self and say something to the effect of “Hey, what’s your story, pal?”
Past Warren gives him the story.
See, he’s about the join the Space Legion so that he can forget and atone for his terrible crime of DESERTING THE SPACE LEGION.
I did not see that coming!
Man, that’s pretty good!
See, Warren, whose real name is actually Norman Nightingale, grew up in a military family. His father is one of the most famous men ever to lead the Legion, and Norman was brought up with every intention of carrying on that legacy. Thing was, he really didn’t want to do it. He had absolutely no interest in joining the military, and that was the cause of all the guilt throughout his life that the machine latched onto and deleted. He eventually did join the Legion as an officer, and one day on Aspatria during heavy fighting he just up and fled the battle. He got into some madcap adventures on Aspatria, all of which were pretty much identical to the ones we saw Warren get into, up to and including going back in time. The difference, though, is that when Norman went back in time he did in fact have an affair with the scientist’s daughter, and furthermore used his amazing technical skills to invent something for which the scientist took all the credit. What he invented, see, was the memory-wiping device that the Legion uses on its new recruits.
Anybody else read Robert A. Heinlein’s “—All You Zombies—?” Because Bob Shaw and I did.
Wracked by the guilt of having invented the machine that allows the Legion to recruit people and send them to their untimely deaths for the promise of peace of mind, he has decided to join the Legion himself as a man of the ranks and live out his life in blissful unawareness of that fact.
Oh, and the name Warren Peace? See, when some recruits join the Legion they choose to undergo a hypnotic name-change procedure that is somewhat illegal. Norman decided to go through it so that he could join without being recognized as A) a deserter and B) the son of one of the most famous Legionaries of all time. Due to his “dark Russian mood” he decided that he would take the name Leo Tolstoy and brought along a copy of War and Peace to help remind him of that fact. Something went wrong with the procedure, though, and that’s how we end up with the name Warren Peace.
Okay, so just this one time the punny name was justified. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.
So with all that knowledge unlocked in his brain, Warren is suddenly overwhelmed with the guilt that caused him to join the Legion in the first place. His first impulse is to, well, join the Legion again, but this is put short by the fact that a pair of Oscars pursued him to Earth and are still after him. He finally gives up, figuring they’ll kill him, but that turns out not to be the case. See, the Oscars are actually people who entered into a symbiotic relationship with one of the native Aspatrian animals. This relationship gives them superpowers and a powerful sense of ethics, which they use to essentially be Superman. They’ve been chasing Warren not to kill him, but to get him to join. He does and the book ends.
I dunno, guys. At first I thought this book was some kind of satirical failure, but there at the end it got pretty good. And there’s a lot of really clever stuff in the book that I thought was neat at worst and brilliant at best. So I’m going to say I liked this one. It took me a bit to get into, but that’s fine. At least I did. It reminded me of a goofier Terry Pratchett without the stealth philosophy, although I think there was in fact some life-lesson in there after all. The book was, at its core, a story about how the effort to discover oneself may not be all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe you won’t like what you find, so be careful. In the end, though, it was worth all the distress, so I think the book is in favor of the idea of some self-reflection and brutal honesty. Maybe I’m just reading that into it, but that’s what I’m going to take away.
Oh, and anybody else think the title might be a reference to Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell? I have a sneaking suspicion that it might be, but no evidence to support it.
One thought on “Who Goes Here?”
I read this year’s ago and loved it. I’d forgotten the title and the author, but remembered Warren Peace and the Space Legion, Google did the rest.
An excellent read full.of fun and pun. I need to get myself another copy.
LikeLiked by 1 person