Psi Hunt by Michael Kurland
Berkley Science Fiction, 1980
Price I paid: 90¢
Astral Emprise sold metaphysics, mysticism, paranormal phenomena, astrology lessons—and anything else that Believers were willing to spend a dollar on.
Not the kind of operation the U.S. Navy was used to dealing with.
Until the People’s Republic of China decided it could blow up half the United States with five telepathic kids who spent their days watching grade-B war movies in an L.A. theater.
And Lieutenant Junior Grade Robert Burrows was assigned to call their bluff…
When I started doing these blogs in January, my goal was to do one a week for a year, mainly as a sort of experiment to see if I really can carry out any kind of long-term project. As this year has wound down, I’ve discovered two things: A) I really enjoy doing this blog and reading these books, and B) I have a backlog of books and I’m not going to let ten bucks go to waste. So, with that being said, I have every intention of carrying on Schlock Value into 2014 with all the snark and dismay you’ve come to expect.
So this week’s book, then. Psi Hunt. It’s got psychic mumbo-jumbo. It’ s got a horrible cover. It’s got Cold War extremism and the threat of nuclear annihilation. It’s got everything that made the 80s just so wonderful.
I mean, that cover. Wow. A really young Liza Minelli is having dreams about Nostradamus/The Ayatollah/Sad Santa while at the same time thinking about a Navy guy who had the misfortune to get stuck in a Spirograph. That tagline, though, is solid gold. It absolutely sold me on the book. And, as is the usual situation, it left me sorely disappointed.
Our main character is a Lieutenant JG named Robert Burrows. He’s your pretty standard Navy guy in a pretty standard Navy of the future, which is to say that the Navy has no boats anymore so what the heck could his job actually be? See, right around the turn of the century the US Navy decided to pool almost its entire resources into submarine warfare. Everybody was all about the subs. But then, alas came 2002 and an international treaty that banned weaponized submarines that left the US Navy out in the cold. Apparently they couldn’t devote themselves to some other kind of warfare? I dunno.
So Lt. Burrows joined the Navy in defiance of his uncle. His father and uncle, see, were highly renowned members of the US Air Force, in particular the Space Service. I think the text said something about his father landing on Mars at some point. I think he may even have died there. Robert’s decision to join the Navy, something he never told his uncle about, was based on his rejection from the Space Service. The letter he received said, essentially, that while he was a genius, he was too much of a rebel to fit in well in the space program. That’s not good news for him or us.
He’s investigating a situation wherein a naked sixteen-year-old girl was found screaming in a hotel room with some kind of box attached to her. She’s completely out of her gourd, muttering indecipherable gibberish. The suspicious thing about it is that she was found on a floor of a hotel that was currently housing members of the John Paul Jones Society, an ultraconservative branch of the Navy. They suspect that somehow or another she was being used to spy on them, hence the hilarious bit on the back cover that someone, somewhere, undoubtably thought was just terribly clever:
Enter at this point Addison Friendly and his sexy secretary Leah. Addison runs Astral Emprises, a stupidly-named corporation that specializes in such practices as ESP, astrology, UFOs, and all that sort of thing. While that kind of thing is still treated as on the fringes of plausibility in the universe of this book, there’s been a resurgence of interest in it in the past couple of years. Robert cynically assumes that Addison is capitalizing on that, but as the book progresses we learn that there are, in fact, more of heaven and Earth than are spoken of in his philosophy.
Addison enters the fray as the resident Wise Old Man character, even though I guess he’s not all that much older than Robert. He goes about teaching Robert about all the wacky stuff that lies on the edge of human consciousness, proving time and again that he is indeed telepathic and that such feats of the human mind are possible. The middle part of the book somewhat put me in mind of a Sime/Gen novel, in that our heroes are wandering around while the powerful mentor figure tells the unlearned student figure that he really doesn’t know everything about what he thinks he does. It’s just as tedious as it always is.
We learn that psychic children are being kidnapped by the Chinese government and being used to spy on the United States, in particular these John Paul Jones Society types. While on the surface the JPJS looks like your standard naval officers’ social club, it turns out their motives are far more insidious and deadly.
Addison and Robert scope them out to discover their true motives while Leah, completely unrelated to the plot, decides to check out this weird cult in the Los Angeles area. We don’t learn an awful lot about them other than they are interested in people with psychic potential and they are run by this super-charismatic guy who is more-or-less your standard cult leader. She gets captured by them as a spy, since relations between the cult and Astral Emprises is on the bad side. So she’s out of the story for the time being, despite not actually being in it as anything but eye candy up to this point.
We learn that the JPJS has as its goal the complete annihilation of China via nuclear warfare. They’ve established several underwater bases from which they can launch nuclear missiles. These bases, in keeping with the occasionally-mentioned Age of Aquarius vibe of the book, are named things like Lemuria and Mu. Where the plot actually gets interesting for a little while is when we discover that the Chinese psychic spying has actually worked to some degree and they’ve already developed plans of their own.
See, the JPJS is working covertly because the United Nations in this plot actually seems to have some small degree of actual power, and if they get caught in any way, shape, or form they’ll be punished for it. So their plan is to launch their missiles in secret and then find some kind of way to pin it on the Chinese they just nuked. The Chinese, upon discovering this, devise their own plan. They will infiltrate one of the bases and launch some nukes ahead of schedule, thus exposing the plot and allowing them sufficient cause to retaliate against the US. What this plan means, of course, is that the launch be as convincing as possible, so what we have is a Chinese spy tasked with the rather stressful mission of nuking his own homeland.
The main problem with the plan, other than having Addison and Robert on the trail, is that the psychic intelligence reports have misjudged the number of nukes at each particular underwater colony, so the spy will in fact be destroying his own homeland utterly. If that’s the case, why did the JPJS build more than one underwater city? Why did they have something like eight? Where did they get the money? How did they keep it secret from the rest of the US Government?
Why is any of this happening?
Speaking of “Why-is-this-happenings,” Addison discovers that his secretary and possible lover (the book does not actually discuss how far their relationship goes. It’s definitely more than professional, but as to whether they sleep together or whatever, we never learn) has been kidnapped and so abandons the mission, Robert in tow, to rescue her. So about thirty pages from the end of the book it just jumps the good ship Lollypun and turns into a story about a psychic and a useless guy going to save the princess. And they do, rather handily and without a great deal of effort. There’s a little scene where everybody’s happy to see each other again, Addison learns that his wonderful secretary is just as psychic as he is, and we return to the actual plot of the book.
Except we don’t. Leah is rescued, and then we take a hard cut to some Chinese spies discussing their plan when Addison and Robert drop in and stop them. Then we get another hard cut to the headquarters of the JPJS and again, Addison and Robert dropping in and stopping them.
And then the book ends.
I’ve read some really awful endings in my life, but this one takes the cake. It has not one, not two, but three endings that are the equivalent of “He ran in and stopped the bad guy.” When I was in the third grade I fancied that I could write stories, and those stories frequently ended after a page or two with essentially that kind of plot. The big difference is that this book was 180 pages of New Age hocus-pocus and my stories were two pages of Godzilla fan fiction. I’m not sure who wins.
Actually, the New Age bullcrap really does take a backseat in this book. It’s an element of it throughout, but never does it seem like it’s what the book is about. That’s actually one of the things I liked most about it. The climax doesn’t come down to some kind of inane psychic showdown or anything. It’s just a tool in the box of one of the characters, albeit the most powerful tool in the box of the only character who actually does anything.
In the end, though, it’s not the tool that really saves the day. The author at least tries to make it so that actual human things like ingenuity and hard work save the day, not some kind of psychic deus ex machina. And sure, the setup of the book involves psychic children spies, but once the thing they’re spying on is discovered, they take a back seat as well.
The problem I have is that the book can’t really decide within itself how this element of the plot should be treated. The cover of the book, both front and back, wants to make it everything worth knowing. And a large amount of the plot consists of Robert basically swaying back and forth between “Oh that’s all just BS” and “WOOOOW!” It’s like he’s both Mulder and Scully in one guy and also he sucks.
I think if this book has one saving grace it’s that it isn’t Links. See, whereas that book had a tone of “THIS COULD HAPPEN TODAY!”, Psi Hunt was definitely more of a traditional science fiction spy thriller set in the near future. It played with New Age stuff and treated it like it was true, but never once tried to convince me that any of it is actually true. It’s more of a fun “what if” kind of story than one trying to put forward an Age of Aquarius agenda or, as is the case of Links, trying to capitalize on it, although it would be hard to say that Psi Hunt wasn’t trying to bank on silly hippies. It’s a fine distinction, but I think it’s an important one.
Not to say this book was especially good, it definitely had a lot of flaws in storytelling and characterization, but at least I didn’t feel like I was being lied to or capitalized on as anything other than a person who reads ridiculous science fiction for fun.
Last thing, I just want to point out that this book took a lot longer for me to read than most of the other books I’ve read. This isn’t because it was especially dense or difficult to follow, but rather because the typeface of this book was tiny. It was like a freaking one point font. My eyes hurt. I needed my reading glasses to get through it, which I couldn’t find so it’s a wonder I can see to write this review. Publishers, please, I know you need to save money by limiting the amount of paper in a book, but at least make it seem like you actually want somebody to read the damned thing.
Oh, and Happy 2014, everybody. I’m looking forward to seeing what ridiculousness I can dredge up in the New Year. I would never have made it this far without the dozen or so of you who read these things, so thanks.