EARTHMEN IN TROUBLE
Harris was caged in an underwater “zoo” by a pack of blue lobsters
Maria drew a five-year sentence on a puritanical planet for trying to buy a souvenir—and for being excessively feminine
Taranto & Meyers had committed the crime of being shipwrecked on a planet that didn’t like strangers
Gerson was simply kidnapped—and nobody had any idea why
Five citizens of Terra were being held on other worlds—and the ultra-secret Department 99 existed only to set them, and others like them, free.
This tense novel is the story of one evening’s work for Department 99—their successes and failures—and of the strange crisis that almost wrecked
I simply cannot believe that I have managed to read and finish this pile of whatever it is that I have read. It’s not exactly dreck, although it’s getting there. It’s more like condensed boredom that was transmitted to the page. This book ranks among the greatest insults inflicted upon the printing press since Major Bored Boredom’s seminal work of intense boredom Defeat the Germans with Boredom: A Step-by-Step Guide to Winning the War by Having No Redeeming Qualities (1943, Bored Press, London).
Well, I’m being a bit harsh there. This book did have one redeeming quality, and it’s the cover. Man, I really do like that cover. I like the guy in the front, just looking into the camera while the other green coneheads are trying to do their jobs. I imagine them going “Gleepnork! Get back here and stop messing with the cameraman! Help us carry these pink dudes!”
Just the sheer level of detail that went into that guy is amazing to me. Far, far more work went into making the cover to this book entertaining than went into the actual text of the book. That cover is by Ralph Brillhart, who I just looked up in ISFDB and it seems that quite a few of his covers are great. So there’s that.
The book, though, is just…ugh. I don’t even know. Nothing happened. At all. I’ve said that about some other books but this one puts them all to shame, except maybe Earthchild because I’m still reeling over that one. D-99 ranks highly in regards to nothing happening, though.
So the titular D-99 is a secret office of the Department of Interstellar Relations. Their job is to find Terrans who have been detained on other planets for some reason or another and spring them. From the start it’s kind of a barmy premise. It doesn’t say anything about how or why they do this. It doesn’t seem to matter if the Terrans are being held for legitimate reasons, either. There’s a job to do and somebody’s got to do it, I guess, morality or logic be damned.
So our viewpoint character for a lot of the book is a guy named Willie Westervelt. I hate him. I hate his stupid name and I hate his stupid uselessness. What the crap. I also hate pretty much everybody he works with.
See, Willie is our viewpoint character, like I said, and he doesn’t do anything. I say that a lot, don’t I? I call out a lot of books for having protagonists who just get ping-ponged around the galaxy or Israel or the ocean or whatever. Well, gear up your useless socks because this book takes it all the way. The whole damned department he works for seems to have people who just don’t do anything.
Seriously, this whole book was pretty much hilarious sixties office hijinks while hardworking Earthmen are being detained on other planets for flouting those planets’ laws because they weren’t informed about them.
D-99 has some cases on its desk tonight and Westervelt gets to watch while other people don’t actually do anything about them.
If this book actually has any kind of strength, it’s in coming up with the ridiculous laws that lead these people to have been captured. Two of the people are stuck on a planet because, apparently, crash-landing there is illegal. It has something to do with a war in the past. One lady is stuck on a Terran colony that is all puritanical. Her crime was trying to offer more money to a shopkeeper. See, she wanted an item and there was only one left on display so the guy wouldn’t sell it to her, so she offered him a bit more cash to change his mind, and that’s a crime on this world. Bribery. Also, she tries to seduce her way out of a puritan planet, and that just gets her into more trouble, because come on.
Another guy has been captured for unidentified reasons by some lobster people. They put him in a zoo at the bottom of the ocean. And one guy is just confused or something. I never actually figured out what was going on there.
Back in the office, things are getting really tense. See, Westervelt has the hots for one of the secretaries in the office, a dame named Beryl, but it seems that she’s got the hots for one of the other office workers, a dude named Parrish. It’s all very stressful for him and he just doesn’t know how he can take it.
See, that’s pretty much all that goes on in the office. We see a lot of Westervelt’s moaning and groaning and ogling and whatnot over this blond secretary (incidentally the other secretary is a brunette, and not all that bad to look at herself, while the girl on the phones is a redhead college student who is very youthful and attractive).
But uh-oh, it seems that maybe something is actually afoot at the office! See, the power has gone out! Well, not for D-99, but for the surrounding block. Since D-99 is so high-tech, they have their own power supply, but no one can get out of the office because the elevators are down. Rather amusingly, the door to the stairwell is out because it’s designed to open in case of an emergency and it’s powered by electricity, so it just won’t open at all.
Incidentally, this book doesn’t say anything about when it actually takes place. They have elevators and television-phones and, presumably, spaceships. Also there’s a lab in D-99, staffed by a guy named Lydman, and he is their Q-type character (gadget guy, not omnipotent prankster). We don’t actually see much of anything that the lab produces, though.
Nobody in this office does a damn thing! See, the power goes out and everybody just figures they’ll bunker down for the evening and work on these missing people, except they don’t. Beryl runs around with Parrish while Westervelt gets all jealous. The boss, Smith, occasionally comes out of his office and tells Westervelt to fetch him a file from the office library. Lydman is oblivious to everything.
Really the only remotely tense thing about this book is Lydman. He was a spacer once upon a time before he got locked up in some kind of alien jail. His intense hatred of being locked up against his will is what led him to work for D-99. The idea that the doors won’t open would possibly drive him into an insane rage, at least according to everyone else in the office, so they jump through all sorts of hoops trying to keep it a secret from him.
God, this book is like a really really stupid sitcom.
Which, actually, is the worst thing about it. Things are supposed to be making me laugh, I guess, but they don’t because they just aren’t any good. Westervelt is a creep so his little crush on Beryl is less amusing than it is icky. The whole deal with Lydman isn’t funny because it’s about a man facing one of his worst fears imaginable. And the people on other planets are being held against their will to be zoo animals or whatever.
There’s one point when Westervelt goes into a supply closet to fetch something and catches Beryl and Parrish in there. They aren’t doing the horizontal Cotton-Eyed Joe quite yet, but apparently they were well on their way because this is an office of professionals, dammit.
I mean seriously! This whole department is supposed to be coordinating break-out schemes all across the galaxy and they’re hiding in supply closets making out? What the crap?
Is this supposed to be comedic? Is it supposed to be like Get Smart or something? Because it’s not. It’s really not funny. Not in the least. It’s infuriating and stupid.
So anyway Westervelt walks in to the closet and spooks our little lovebirds. He tries to talk with Beryl about it after Parrish leaves and says something like “All you really need to do is loosen up!” and tries to put his own moves on her. She punches him right in the eye, which was great because he deserved it. She stalks off and he thinks to himself, and I quote
I ought to go in there and belt her!
Because, see, in the sixties, casual sexism is a totally cool thing.
Not to mention all sorts of things that would qualify as sexual harassment about a million times over. I mean, Westervelt calls the girls in the office everything from “cutie” to “legs” to “sweetie” and all the girls seem to do is giggle at him. They giggle, people. I think that says everything you need to know about the treatment of women in this book. They come in three colors, they are beautiful, and their job is to giggle secretarially.
The actual resolution of the problems in this book is just as pointless and stupid as the rest of it. The power comes back on. Yay. All this tiptoeing around Lydman was for nothing because he knew about it the whole time and had already managed to build a ladder out his office window so he could step out for some fresh air. Beryl forgives Westervelt for walking in on her tryst. Parrish didn’t care about it in the first place.
But what about the people trapped on these alien worlds? Well, it’s not like D-99 did anything about them, but those stories are, in fact, resolved.
The guys on the planet where it’s illegal to crash land are able to escape by virtue of some pills that get smuggled into their cell by a field agent. It knocks them so cold that their jailers, the green guys from the cover of the book, incidentally, take them for dead and so consign their fates to the desert as is their custom. They leave the “bodies” out there and a spaceship picks them up.
The lady who just wanted to buy a souvenir and show her legs to puritans is sprung by a field agent in a very lame way. He dresses up like one of the locals, tells the jailers that he’s taking her to a different jail, and then puts her on a spaceship and they fly away. As they leave the planet, the woman is so relieved by being rescued that she tells the field agent that she loves him and they have sex.
WHAT THE (*#r%(*$#
The guy who got kidnapped for no real reason turned out to be under some kind of mental influence, so when the rescuers showed up he went crazy and they accidentally killed him. Oops.
The guy trapped underwater is left for tomorrow.
Seriously? You’re just going to not resolve part of your plot? Is that supposed to be some kind of realism or something? See, the whole book takes place over one evening, like it’s a fly-on-the-wall story of how crazy things get around D-99. Whatever it is, it’s supremely unsatisfying.
And really, that’s the book. Seriously and really. Oh, the boss tells everybody that they can come in late tomorrow. I think that was the actual end of the book.
What was this supposed to be? Office hijinks meets outer space adventure? Because it really failed on both of those counts. And it was so boring.
I seriously had to reach deep into my brain to dig out ways to maintain my concentration while I read this book. It was like I could stare at the page, eventually turn it, and then stare at the next page, all the while nothing is actually going past my eyes and into my head. I just couldn’t care. Nothing about the book prompted me to care or be interested or anything. I didn’t like any of the characters and it didn’t seem like it was one of those book where I’m not supposed to like any of the characters. It’s like how Humbert Humbert is a complete sleezebag but it’s okay because Nabokov meant it that way. This wasn’t like that. It was just a bunch of bland sixties sitcom characters sitting around walking into closets and drinking martinis and coffee and smoking.
Oh Jesus, the martinis. There were so many martinis in this book. It’s the future, so the martinis are in little packets, premade. Also the coffee comes in cups that heat themselves, and cigarette packets have lighters built into them.
You know, that last thing would be really awesome, actually. The rest of the book I consign to a birdcage, but that I’ll keep.