There was a name, but the name was myth. The myth rode the tongues of ten billion men—and ten times ten billion not-men—on ten thousand worlds, and wherever the name was spoken, it was with awe and respect.
The secret name for the masters of space, the creatures who ruled without office, who served without reward.
The deepest mystery and the greatest power of all the myriad stars. Wherever two creatures met in fear of oppression, a silent cry to the men of that code-named organization rose in the birth of new hope. For the galaxy was Citadel…and Citadel was the galaxy!
A lovely cover and a lovely cover synopsis. Neither of them tell you anything, anything at all, about what this book is about. What is that thing supposed to be on the front cover? A lizard head? In space? Is it an organic spaceship? Is it going to eat the moon? Is the moon its egg? Are all moons giant space lizard eggs? And why do the giant space lizard heads eat their own eggs?
Despite that cover and that synopsis of lexical white noise, this book turned out to be really quite good. In a way that annoys me. I haven’t had a genuinely groan-inspiring book since, let’s see, Assignment—Star Stealers, and no science fiction worth throwing away since Star Giant more than a month ago. Where has all the bad science fiction gone? Did I accidentally read the entire supply of my used book store?
Or even scarier: Have I become desensitized? Has all literature just automatically moved down a few rungs in my estimation? Or up, or whatever? Before I started these reviews I read a lot of Heinlein and Clarke and Asimov and Bradbury and Farmer and Sturgeon. Not exactly authors to set your baseline by unless you want to get disappointed in the rest of the genre.
Does that mean if I go back and read To Your Scattered Bodies Go again it’ll be all that much better by comparison? Will it floor me even more than it did the first time?
What an odd situation.
Anyway, this particular book was really entertaining. Lin Carter was super prolific and despite the name was a he. He did all sorts of pastiche and tribute and parody-type stuff, and so with that in mind I tried to see if this was something original or if he was paying homage to somebody he particularly liked at the time. As it is, I think this was a tribute to the pulps—something I can get behind.
Our first-person hero doesn’t have a name until page 91. That really sort of bugged me. The whole time I was reading it I was trying to figure out what I was going to call him when I wrote up the review. I had settled on “Leonard V. Crinklepsychic” when suddenly it was revealed that his name—or one of his names, at least—is Saul Everest.
Saul is an immortal. He’s been around for a really long time, although the book doesn’t exactly say how long. Hints are dropped that he remembers things like The United States and cows before they went blooey for also-undisclosed reasons, but that doesn’t really date him within this context. The book itself takes place somewhere in the eighth millenium, so there you go.
I assume that Saul is supposed to be the “Poor superman!” from the front cover blurb, but since that blurb had nothing to do with this book and probably was meant for another one it’s pretty hard to tell. He doesn’t own the universe and nothing is said about the state of his soul. Still, he’s very much a superman since he is, as I’ve stated immortal.
See, being immortal gives you a really long time to get good at stuff, capitalize on some long-term investments, and just generally have a good time turning into a wise old man who doesn’t look any older than 35. When we first meet our hero he’s learning Sanskrit just to pass the time and he’s simultaneously learning the art of writing his own autobiography, which is pretty much why we get to read this narrative in the first person.
As our immortal superman, Saul is a “Star-level telepath,” the first and to his knowledge only human to attain that level of telepathy. Telepathy’s pretty commonplace in this future, but Saul’s the very best at it. He’s also the very best at everything else. He’s got money, he’s got streetwise, he’s got natural twenties on every roll. He’s even got a secret hideaway in “paraspace,” which is pretty much what you think it is, so that nobody can find him and divine the secret that he is immortal and amazing. So amazing, guys.
So Saul comes out of hiding because a long time ago he set his computer to tell him if anything’s up in the universe that he ought to know about. See, Saul can do that because he’s a member of Citadel.
Citadel is a group of people who act behind the scenes. They’re considered a myth by most of the thinking people of the galaxy, but of course they’re all wrong because otherwise we wouldn’t have a story. Unlike most shadowy organizations you might compare them to, Citadel is apparently on the side of the good guys. Among other things they keep an eye on the Imperium and make sure that whoever is sitting on the throne is doing it to their liking, i.e. is not insane and megalomaniacal. Citadel actually works in the interests of freedom and justice, although the book doesn’t really say whose freedom and whose justice. The only difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter is whether they’re on your side.
Still, the idea of a galactic good-guy Illuminati is a pretty neat one.
So Saul and Citadel. He founded them, because he’s the pulp protagonist. Remember Captain Future? That’s basically Saul. Cap gets a shout-out in the author’s notes to this book, so I feel like it’s pretty intentional. Pretty humorously so, I’d say, until it starts to get subverted. That’s what brings us to what I liked about this book.
So Saul goes out to see what set his scanners off and gets jumped by some people. It seems they were looking for him, which strikes him as odd because he’s supposed to be thought dead by anybody that ever would have known about him in the first place. The people that jumped him throw him in a cell with a very lovely young lady named Meade, who tells him that she works for Citadel and is investigating the very same phenomenon (something to do with the magnetic field of the galaxy) that Saul is.
Saul apparently gives right in to her feminine wiles, all the time noting that whoever did this capture is doing a pretty crap job of it. There’s a big show of him being the superman all over the place, using his psychic powers and awesome devices to escape the prison and bring Meade with him. He avoids answering any of the enemy’s questions because of his awesome mental blocking skills and ability to resist all poisons and drugs. He lies so well that he’s able to convince these dunderheads of things that aren’t even remotely possible. Everything’s coming up Saul.
Until Meade, the helpless pretty little lady he’s been keeping safe, turns on him and shoots him in the head.
Ha! That’s just great. All it takes is a pretty face to throw our amazo-man off his game, right?
Well, no, it turns out that he knew what was going on the whole time. He used his psychic powers to convince Meade that she shot his brains out so that he could follow her to her own hideout, knowing that she was on the same side as the bad guys and was just plying him for information.
Saul takes a minute to gloat to himself about how clever he is and wonderful and a Star-level telepath and an immortal and he can communicate with his space ship with telepathy because it’s sentient and all this stuff when BOOM
Tables turn again. Plots within plots. He’s captured again because really, he’s not as clever as he thinks he is.
That I like. This is one of the few books that actually pits our superhero protagonist against an enemy that is actually worth reading about.
So who is this enemy? Some gigantic alien menace? Some creature from beyond the galaxy? Some ancient evil waiting from beyond the shadow of time?
Nope, it’s an old woman. A fantastically rich, very ambitious old woman.
This woman wants to rule the galaxy. And she could probably get her plan off the ground, too. She’s got resources, she’s got co-conspirators, she’s got her awesomely hot granddaughter (Meade, incidentally) who will do terrible things, and she’s captured the hearts and minds of most of the galaxy already. She’s also got her very own Star-class telepath. See, Saul thought he was the only one, but he was wrong, and that’s what makes him a pretty decent superman protagonist, because he can be wrong.
So why hasn’t she taken over the galaxy yet?
I mentioned that to most people, Citadel is just a myth of the spaceways. A legend, spoken of with no real belief in its existence, although people will still call out to them if they have need of their services. Later, when things turn out okay, the people figure it just all worked out on its own.
So Madame Lyntonhurst wants to set this scheme in motion. It involves putting a puppet emperor on the throne or something pretty standard like that, but she can’t take the risk yet because she has to know whether Citadel actually exists. If they do and they’re as powerful as everybody says they are, there’s no reason to ever actually try to take over the Imperium, right? Pretty clever.
So she sets up a scheme for the sole reason of attracting Citadel attention. She spends a lot of spacebucks to make it seem like something big and scary is entering the galaxy from outside. This is the thing that attracted Saul’s attention in the first place. Turns out it wasn’t anything trying to get in, it was just a spaceship with a powerful transmitter on it making it look like something was trying to get in. With a lure like that, surely Citadel would pay attention and send somebody to investigate. If nobody showed up, Madame could be fairly sure that there was in fact no such thing as Citadel and go about her merry way.
Unfortunately what she got wasn’t Citadel but the greatest person in the galaxy of all time forward and backward. Ooooops.
It’s a struggle for Saul to pull through, though. Madame has her own Star-level psychic and through a mixture of drugs and telepathic assault Saul’s reaching the breaking point. About fifteen pages are just descriptions of the crazy awful hallucinations being implanted into his mind. In the end, though, Saul is able to break through just enough to see Meade come in and shoot the bad psychic down.
Turns out she really doesn’t like her grandmother and her schemes. It was a pretty quick about-face and one of the weaker points of the book, I felt.
Saul, now free, drags Meade out of the Madame’s mansion and psychically communicates with his spaceship, Wayfarer, which follows him around the galaxy whether he’s in it or not because Saul is awesome like that. He tells it to blow up the mansion, which is does, and the book pretty much ends there.
In an odd thing, there’s a postscript from the author talking about this universe he’s creating and the history of it. Turns out this book is the second in a series, although it’s not really so much a series as a shared universe so that’s okay. He also talks about how hard it is to tell a story set so far in the future, and he basically says that he tried not to think about the details too hard because there’s no way he could even approximate what will happen in the next five thousand years. Basically he tells us not to take it too seriously as a prediction of any kind of future events.
That’s okay because why would I?
Still, it was a pretty ripping yarn. It was chock full of a lot of details that I didn’t go into here, rich little things about various technologies and aliens that exist in this future. Carter put a lot of thought into these things and described them well. Even still, they usually came up as asides and digressions that were a bit distracting. And yet this book is written like an informal memoir from an immortal human written for his own personal amusement (and in a very informal style that I liked), so that kind of thing actually fits the theme of this book much better than it would in plenty of others.
I want to read more Lin Carter. From this book and exploration online, it seems he and I share a lot of the same opinions about science fiction and a lot of the same influences, although he had the advantage of living alongside a lot of those same influences. He even names a ship in this book the Robert A. Heinlein, which I appreciated less because it was an homage to my favorite author but because it was, in a tongue-in-cheek way, acknowledging that this book was in many ways a Heinlein pastiche.
It’s got an immortal human who has learned a great many skills over his long life and talks in a folksy way and expounds “wisdom” that is more-or-less what the author seems to think is right. Our hero is basically Lazarus Long (from Methuselah’s Children, at least. Time Enough for Love was a few years off), isn’t he? But it doesn’t feel like a ripoff. If feels more like “Hey I’m gonna poke some fun at Robert.” And I can appreciate that.
Yet it’s a different enough scenario that it’s not just an attempt to write a Heinlein novel. The Admiral didn’t usually go in for psychics or galactic empires and the like. He was an engineer and his stories read like something an engineer wrote, with all the positives and negatives that come with that.
Carter was a lover of science fiction and his stories (or at least this one) sound like something a fan wrote, again with all the ups and downs that entails.
So put this book, or something else by Lin Carter, on your book pile. I don’t think you’ll regret it.
And here’s hoping I can find something truly awful for next week’s review. I’m getting sick of things I like.