Whisper from the Stars by Jeff Sutton
Dell Publishing Co., 1970
Price I paid: 75¢
Nights are the worst.
Those cloudless nights when a thousand eyes look down, mocking me. Because I know that Man, in some form other than my own, quietly has taken over the universe.
I know because I’ve lived and died and lived again.
Worse yet is when the whisper comes.
It comes from beyond the blaze of lights, from beyond the gulf of darkness which separates the burning suns.
“We are here,” the whisper says. “We are here.”
I’m not sure what book that synopsis is describing, but it sure as heck isn’t this one. It sounds like it’s describing some kind of invasion literature about things from beyond time and space come to feast on thought or harvest our oxygen or something. There’s none of that in this book. Not a trace, even.
What we’ve got instead is some kind of mixture of Nineteen Eighty-Four and a vague sort of science-Buddhism that, while well-written, easy to follow, and interesting, didn’t go anywhere.
The cover of the book doesn’t help. Sorry about the condition of my scan, incidentally. While the mark above the guy’s head is supposed to be a lightning bolt, I think, the thing separating the bottom right corner from the rest of the book is, in fact, a crease. I suppose I could go somewhere and steal somebody else’s scan, but I have principles, dammit. I’m not going to waste the time I took scanning it in the first place.
But that cover, regardless of creases, just doesn’t tell us an awful lot. Sure, there’s Keanu Reeves. It looks like he’s got a cartoon bump on his forehead, most likely from some kind of mallet. And there’s the string of pearls that I suppose the publisher meant to represent a never-ending chain of “strange, multiple worlds.” Even the construction of this book’s tagline just screams pointless and amateur to me. “Multiple strange worlds” sounds so much better. Even better than that would be “untold strange worlds” or “As exciting as THE EXECUTIONER.”
Right off the bat this book starts with a literary device that I find tired and boring and trite. I just hate it. It’s something I first noticed on a lot of latter-day Star Trek series, but lots of shows and books and some movies do it too. Let me see if I can describe it using a made-up Star Trek episode:
THE ENTERPRISE is flying through space, hot in pursuit of a ROMULAN WARBIRD. They exchange fire and the Warbird explodes. CUT TO the bridge, which is manned not by the familiar crew, but by ROMULANS themselves! The Romulan commander says “Set a course for BETA EPSILON III, maximum warp” just before the opening credits roll.
ENTERPRISE bridge, CAPTAIN PICARD is giving his log about Romulan activity along the Neutral Zone. A CAPTION at the bottom of the screen reads SIX DAYS EARLIER.
See what I mean? You start off with something shocking and unexpected to build up narrative tension and a feeling of “What the hell?” and then spend the rest of the episode explaining how it got to be that way. Usually act three begins with the same footage from the teaser and you get to see what happens after that, too.
The literary equivalent is to describe something weird and then have your narrator go “But I guess I should start at the beginning of this story, five years ago…”
Writers, just start at the beginning. Don’t try and tease me with an in medias res opening unless that’s how the rest of the story is going to play out. Going back to explain what happened just stinks of lazy storytelling.
This story starts with our narrator and protagonist, Joel Blake, doing just that. He’s lying in bed, thinking about all the weird that has just happened, and then cuts back to the start of the book.
The proper beginning of the book kicks off at a party. Joel has just stepped out for a breath of fresh air when he meets a lovely young lady, Ann. She seems a bit aloof but he finds her attractive so he decides that he can ignore her obvious leave me alone attitude. They have a conversation about how she feels like people cannot describe certain things with mere words and that there seems to be a whole universe just beyond the realms of our understanding and all sorts of things that made me wonder exactly what kind of party this was. Ann also talks about how she only feels like she begins to grasp the ineffable when she’s playing the violin. Stuff like that. Joel is all like “whoa” and then she leaves.
He can’t stop thinking about her for days when he finally finds somebody that can direct him her way. It turns out she’s an astrophysicist. He gives her a call and they start to go on dates, but despite the deep nature of their conversations, she remains aloof to him.
Joel is a journalist and later on gets an assignment to do a story on a guy named Mark Randall. Mark is also some sort of physicist and talks about a lot of way-out stuff himself. Joel’s not a science journalist so he’s supposed to just get a character study of the dude. Mark turns out to be a huge bear of a man with red hair and a great attitude. Their conversation turns out a lot like Joel had with Ann, and the conversation brings up that fact. Mark decides he wants to meet Ann because she’s on the same field he is. Rather shockingly, Joel agrees that maybe she does belong with Mark and not with him. The two meet and hit it off.
All this sounds really mundane but bear in mind the book also takes place in the 23rd century. Man has colonized the Moon, Mars, and some of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. A lot of that stuff is in the background, although eventually the story goes to the moon. The Earth at this time is controlled by a monolithic government that exists primarily to keep itself going. People are happy with living wages and healthcare and free education, but civilization has stagnated. Any people who bring up that fact are dealt with by the Bureau of Public Safety and the mysterious Department L, of which only a few people are aware. Joel is one of those people who know about Department L and the hideous lengths it goes to keep people in line. A government that exists to prevent social change would not be thrilled with Mark’s work, so it seems like trouble might be brewing.
I’ve been glossing over that work because it’s all sort of weird and Buddhist but with some kind of futuristic science angle to it. I’ll see if I can explain it, I guess.
Mark thinks that the entire universe hinges on the human mind. Everything is as we conceive it to be, and as a person grows to understand his or her own mind the person will learn that the limits of imagination and cognition are as boundless as the universe itself. He believes that at some point in the future, maybe thousands or millions of years from now, humanity will on the whole attain this ability and transcend time and space.
His goal, then, is not only to reach this sort of spooky science Nirvana, but to come in contact with the people from the future who already have. See, since they transcend time they’ll be around, and Mark has evidence that they like to tamper with their past to improve their present. Some very gifted people are capable of remembering timelines that have ceased to be thanks to these future meddlers (although they’re treated as benevolent and benign, that wouldn’t be my first instinct on the matter), and it turns out that Mark and Ann and, perhaps surprisingly, Joel, are members of this cognitive elite.
What was infuriating about this book is that I just described all the interesting stuff in it. This part of the book was more or less a macguffin, though. It wasn’t delved into as much as I would have liked. While the book never says that Mark has found the scientific existence of Nirvana, that’s what I kept thinking about. A book that dealt with that as its theme would be fascinating. Maybe there are some, but this isn’t one. Instead we got a book about how the government wants to keep all this a secret without knowing anything about it and is going to great lengths go keep anybody from ever knowing anything about it.
Mark and Ann disappear and Joel is being hounded by some government guys from Department L. A few people get murdered for no particular reason given, people who might know something about Mark and Ann’s whereabouts but don’t seem to. Joel himself is only being bothered and threatened.
Joel finds out, via a random conversation somewhere and a bit of sleuthing, that Mark and Ann have fled to the Moon. They’re working as miners for reasons that never came up other than the Moon is a pretty safe place from the government and, I guess, mining is all there is to do. Joel goes to visit them because he figures that leading danger toward his two best friends is the best course of action. He finds them and is warmly greeted and then told to get the hell out.
He doesn’t have time to do that when he’s met by a pair of BPS agents who have been pestering him throughout the rest of the book. They capture him and get him to lead them to Mark and Ann. He doesn’t have much choice. Mark and Ann are currently preparing to leave the mine they’re working for to go to a different mine, so Joel leads the government guys out to the Moon’s surface to follow them. What happens is one of the most anticlimactic endings I’ve ever read.
It’s a slow moon rover chase across the airless surface. Joel keeps thinking about how dangerous everything is since any mistake will leave them stranded to die on the moon. Mark and Ann’s moon vehicle suddenly stops, apropos of nothing. Joel and the agents get out and investigate to find them gone. Apparently they unlocked the secret of whatever while they were being chased and then disappeared off into the cosmos. Using their newfound powers (I guess? It’s hazy at this point) they manage to get rid of one of the government guys, leaving the other one to shoot Joel and kill him.
Joel wakes up back in his hotel room on the Moon, completely confused. He goes back to the Earth and talks to some people. It seems that various things have disappeared from the time stream, including those government agents, the Department L they work for, and the murders they committed. So everything’s fine? Just like that?
The book ends with Joel thinking about how he’s one of the very few people who would remember what happened and wondering if he’ll ever see Joel and Ann again.
Ugh, man, that was just bad. The thing is, the writing was pretty good. And the sortascience that the book hinges on was interesting and easy to follow. It’s just that everything around it, namely the plot, was trite and boring. Ooh, it’s a dude being chased by an nearly-omnipotent government that will go to any lengths to preserve itself. Man, that’s original. The first time I encountered a plot like that I was so intrigued I fell off my mastodon.
So what bugs me most about this particular bad book is that I liked it. I wasn’t floored by it, but it was interesting enough to keep me reading. I kept going because I wanted somebody to explain what the heck was going on. I thought maybe if Joel caught up to Mark this one last time there would be some kind of revelatory moment where he and I finally get it, some kind of explanation that puts Mark’s theories into some kind of perspective that I could look at and go “Hmm, that’s neat.” Instead I was just intrigued enough to be confused in a rather pleasant way. Like maybe if I thought about it hard enough myself I’d be able to figure it out. And I feel like that’s how Joel felt as the book went on, so that made him a sympathetic character to me even if there wasn’t much else for me to see in common with him.
So what I feel like is that Jeff Sutton had a pretty good cerebral idea and figured he needed to put it into a book. Problem is, that idea doesn’t work easily into a plot by itself, so instead he through a kind of interplanetary thriller around it and sent it to the publisher. I feel like maybe it wasn’t even his fault that the book was so dull. Like maybe if he hadn’t needed to make a mortgage payment or something he’d’ve had more time to think about what it was all about and produce a much better book. It just didn’t work out that way.