What better way to get rid of your political enemies than to shove them back into the past and maroon them there? It isn’t exactly murder but it sure could raise hob with history!
That was what was happening when they yelled for the Wild Talent Division. The actual time machine was a secret known only to the president—who was apparently the culprit. But someone like Jake Conger would be just weird enough to be able to locate the kind of nut who could travel in time himself.
It’s Ron Goulart with as whacky and wonderful a novel as any he’s written. Back to Old Vienna, back to the Middle Ages, back to Ancient Rome—it’s a mystery trail through time conducted by a madman and guaranteed to keep you on the edge of the seat with suspense and falling off it with laughter at the same time!
I didn’t realize until about twenty pages into this book that I’d read and reviewed a work of Ron Goulart before. Specifically I did The Emperor of the Last Days back in October. I don’t know why the name didn’t jump right out at me as soon as I saw it in the store.
Possibly it’s because I was too busy thinking about the amazing cover on this book. It’s fantastic. At first I assumed those lizard guys in the foreground were supposed to be some kind of dinosaur people since this book is, after all, about time travel. It turned out I was wrong.
Incidentally, that cover is by Josh Kirby, perhaps more widely known as the guy who did the cover work for Terry Pratchett novels for something like twenty years. I should have recognized it right off the bat, but I guess I’m just an idiot.
Anyway, the back cover is mostly lies (I’m going to incorporate a series of checkboxes into these reviews. Back cover lies? Check. Useless protagonist? No check this time. I think it would save us all a lot of time.)
So knowing that this book is by Ron Goulart, I girded my loins for something that would be fun and wacky and random. I was not disappointed. It was pretty much all over the place. People with weird powers. Barely-useful technology. Incompetent and insane government officials. It’s really quite similar to the other book I’ve read.
This is made especially interesting by the fact that he wrote both of these books in 1977. Was something of note on his mind specifically that year, or is this just the way all his books read?
So our hero, Jake Conger, is retired from government service. He was once a member of the Wild Talents Division, which is basically where they send people with amazing superpowers to do government work. His particular power is that he can turn invisible.
Oh, I guess I should mention that it turned out this book was a sequel. Jake was introduced a few years earlier in A Talent for the Invisible (1973). Nothing about this book suggested that fact to me until I was quite invested in it and it started referencing all these past adventures. At first I thought it was just setting up some backstory by way of Noodle Incidents, but I finally looked it up and there you go. The book stood pretty well on its own, though, so I’m not too mad.
Since the events of the previous book Jake has retired and is living in California with his vegetarian wife. A big deal is made about her healthy eating habits like it’s completely bizarre and ridiculous that anyone would choose to eat that way. I work in a gourmet grocery store so she struck me as perfectly normal.
Actually a lot of this book’s treatment of wacky California people with their environmentalism and “healthy” decisions struck me as rather prophetic. He really hit the nail on the head with that one. Either that or it’s just a matter of how much things don’t really change over time.
So Jake gets called out of retirement by his former boss, a guy named Geer, because Jake is the only person Geer can trust. See, the president has gone insane and he’s sending all the people in the government who displease him into the past.
There’s supposed to be a government agency in charge of preventing illicit time travel, but apparently the head of that department was one of the first to be sent back, so that’s nice.
Since Jake has the ability to turn invisible, he’s the perfect person to go back in time and snatch up all these exiled government officials so they can all work together and stop the plot. Jake agrees and heads on out.
The first thing they do is recruit another guy for the job. Buford True is another person with a superpower, although he doesn’t work for the government. He works as a teacher in the New Mexico Free Colony. Buford is convinced that teaching is his true calling and that gallivanting all across time and space would just be wasting his talents. He is soon convinced otherwise when the government sends some goons after him to take him in for the president’s insidious purposes. We briefly meet such characters as Dr. Madrid, an android chiropractor, and the Hellroarers, a formerly great musical group that has fallen onto some hard times. They are dispatched and never heard from again.
It’s all so wacky and random, you see.
Buford and Jake travel through time to find these lost government folks. First they go to Vienna, right around the time that Sigmund Freud was tromping around, and find the Secretary of Mental Health. He’s when he is because the crazy president apparently has a lot of fun finding appropriate times to send people to.
While there Buford and Jake get separated, so Jake finds a temporal agent employed to keep an eye on the timeline, goes invisible, and steals his portable time machine. He heads to the Old West to find the guy who invented the president’s illegal time machine, the titular Panchronicon, and gets into some Old West funtimes there before meeting up with Buford again and taking this guy back to the present.
A couple more hops back and forth and that’s pretty much the book. We get some glimpses into other goings-on in the story. For instance we meet Vice President Runningwater who gets drunk and talks like a Red Injun caricature from on Old West movie (me scalpum you) because he’s so out of touch with his actual heritage that he’s convinced that he’s getting in touch with his roots by doing that.
I don’t know if that’s funny or pathetic.
VP Runningwater is also running around with a lady with android boobs. She uses them as stunguns, among other things, but really that part of the story doesn’t go much anywhere. Nor does most of the rest of the book.
It was a good idea in the wide view. A president sending people back in time because he’s trying to consolidate his power and take over the world, all the while being completely insane. But get this ending:
Jake and Buford show up at the president’s unveiling of the Panchronicon. There’s a party. Jake tells the press what’s going on. There’s a report. The president panics and throws himself into the time machine and disappears. It is revealed that Jake tampered with the machine somehow. We’re not told what he did.
And that’s the actual end of the story. Really? That was extremely disappointing. Everything up to this point was pointing toward some kind of awesome showdown, maybe a cross-time chase across all of history in an attempt to bring this guy to justice. Anything at all.
There’s a third book in the series. Maybe it was supposed to be a cliffhanger.
Whatever the case, I was sad when I reached the end. I really enjoyed everything else. Goulart has an eye for goofy detail that I actually quite admire. He has all these little running gags and things that made this book really entertaining. Whenever he mentions what a person is wearing, for instance, it’s always described as a “something-piece somethingsuit,” depending on what they’re doing and what species they are. So a human newscaster might be wearing a “2-piece mediasuit” or a person on vacation a “1-piece beachsuit.”
There are aliens in this book although they’re always in the background. There are cat people from Mars and lizard people from Venus. The Venusian lizardfolk are what show up on the cover of this book. Also of note is the fact that the lizard people are mostly transvestites. It doesn’t really do anything for the plot, it’s just that the males like to adopt human female dress patterns.
Oh, and one Martian newscaster (in a 7-piece newssuit or something) was named Tars Tarkas. No reason. Goulart just wanted to throw in that reference, I guess.
So yeah, this book was really enjoyable to read until it just kind of crapped out on me. Looking back, I see I said pretty much the same thing about The Emperor of the Last Days. Both books didn’t have much of a standard storytelling arc, they just kind of meandered around in an enjoyable way until the ending happened.
I’ve got another one of his books around here somewhere. I’ll probably read it. It’s hard to know what to expect, though. We’ll see.