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The Rim-World Legacy

The Rim-World Legacy by F.A. JavorThe Rim-World Legacy front
Signet Science Fiction, 1968
Price I paid: 75¢

He was a stranger to Poldrogi. But someone had marked him for a patsy in an incredible power game played for galactic stakes…a power game with a Machiavellian twist…a power game in which murder was only the open gambit.

THE RIM-WORLD LEGACY

is a brilliant science fiction novel by F.A. Javor. It is the story of the treasure hunt of the ages led by a man who doesn’t know that he holds the key to limitless control of the universe.

The cover art on this book is just fantastic. Something about it just draws me in. That sickly green. The weird hat/helmet building. The guy way up in the front that might be a statue. The futuristic cityscape in the background. All of it is just everything I look for in a science fiction cover. Not a single element has anything at all to do with the contents of the book.

By that token, the back cover synopsis really makes this book out to be some kind of pulp adventure in which a device might be used to hold hostage countless worlds or mind-control the galaxy or any number of  things. Something big. It probably goes without saying that that’s not the case, but the sheer scale of it is amazing to me. This was a pretty personal story, focused mainly on the trials of one man who’s not even that much of a hero. It was more a mystery than anything. I’d even go so far as to say it has more in common with noir than with science fiction, excepting of course the fact that it takes place on a faraway planet with future technology.

More than anything this book reminded me of a Coen brothers movie. It’s sort of like an outer space Big Lebowski. It’s a lot less funny or quotable than Lebowski, but in terms of plot it’s really close. It was a very competently handled plot, with lots of twists and turns and schemes within schemes. It was, unfortunately, a bit hard to follow at times, though. It’s not that it was poorly written, it just wasn’t exciting enough to keep my mind on the plot while it was going on. All the plots sort of ran together and none of the characters, save the protagonist, really stood out to me.

The protagonist is a guy named Eli Pike. He’s tall and balding and a photographer. He travels the spaace lanes looking for work and it seems he does a pretty good job of it. He’s on a planet called Poldrogi, which for reasons I didn’t understand was sometimes represented in the text with italics. Poldrogi is a rim-world, sparsely populated and with a wild climate. The days are scorching, but that’s okay because the planet spins quickly so they don’t last long.

The book starts with Eli on the run. He’s hiding in a lake from a mob that’s out to kill him. A pretty exciting way to begin the book!

But wait, it does that thing I hate. I’ve mentioned it before so I’ll summarize. Basically, the book begins in the middle of the story at a really climactic moment and then says “Let’s talk about what led up to this crazy circumstance, shall we?” I’m not sure I will ever grow to like that writing device.

So Eli takes us back to what led up to this point. I think what bugs me so much about this kind of plot is that, in some weird metaphysical narrative way that I’m not sure makes any sense to anyone but me, it doesn’t count. You’re not moving the story forward, you’re bringing us up to the present. If the story started where it was supposed to start I wouldn’t feel that way, even though it’s exactly the same story.

I would love to hear some opinions on this gripe I have.

So Eli flashes back to what got him into this mess. A very lovely young lady, Brigit, approaches him in his hotel, which is called a transhaus in this universe. She wants him to take some pictures of her husband, the very rich and influential Anton Plagiar. Anton likes to put on magic shows for local orphans because he’s a big softie. She wants Eli to go down to his next show and take some pictures. It’s all very sweet.

Things get wacky once the show starts. Eli raises his camera to take a picture when, out of nowhere, his camera starts shooting a laser beam right at Anton! More than that, at almost the same time Eli is narrowly missed by a sniper shot! It’s all so crazy!

So that’s when the crowd starts chasing him and he ends up at the bottom of a Poldrogi lake.

Seriously? You start the book with a flashback and then the next twenty or so pages bring you up to that point? I don’t know if that makes me more or less mad.

What follows is a lot of convoluted plot, but simply put, it seems that Eli is entangled in something that he knew nothing about beforehand and yet everybody involved seems to think he’s the mastermind. This is the part that reminds me of The Big Lebowski. Eli gets hauled to a police station where the police chief just starts going “Where’s the boy?” over and over again. Eli maintains that he has no idea what the hell’s going on. In the back of my head I heard “Where’s the money, Lebowski? Where’s the money?”

Finally the cop believes him and he gets pulled in by Anton. He gets much the same treatment, but at least we get a bit of explanation, too. The thing that made this book so enjoyable is that a lot of the explanations can’t be taken at face value. We’ve got a lot of liars, or at least people with agendas, in this book.

The basic idea goes that some guy made a matter transporter. See, in this universe it’s possible to go FTL, but it’s very energy intensive and that energy requirement is directly proportional to mass. Transporting large amounts of supplies to other planets is very expensive.

What a matter transporter would be able to do would help alleviate that problem. Oddly, it’s not in the way I was thinking. Despite being called a transporter throughout the book, what they’re really working on is a matter replicator, although it could be used as either thing. The replicator part is the important one. In this universe ships might be able to travel faster than light, but no data signal can, so the idea is that you break down a thing into its component information, store it on the future equivalent of a floppy disc, send that thing to another planet, and then start replicating the matter. Pretty nifty.

Except I have to wonder how using a replicator to create a billion cheeseburgers would be any less energy intensive than a warp drive holding those cheeseburgers. This book neglects the conservation of mass and energy completely. Stupid laws of physics, ruining a decent plot!

Thing is, this device is really just a MacGuffin. It’s never used. It’s never even seen.

The guy who invented this device was murdered by his partner. That partner has subsequently been murdered. Anton knows about this device and wants to seize it because it’s probably the most important thing in the universe at this point. He has a problem, though. The plans and prototype device are stored in a trunk with a security mechanism. The lock will only open if it recognizes a particular DNA imprint. You’d think it would be the imprint of the guy who created it, right? Oh no, this is far more convoluted than that. It turns out that the imprint of that guy’s son, because it’s less obvious that way. And that’s the “boy” who everybody’s looking for.

After a while we find out that Eli does know the boy. He was working the desk at the transhaus where he was staying. Wacky coincidence! Eli doesn’t want the boy to be found because he’s afraid something bad will happen to him, so he tries and fails consistently to throw Anton off the tracks while all the time pretending to work with him. My head was starting to hurt by this point.

Oh and the reason that Anton put on magic shows for orphans was because he thought it would be a good way to draw out the boy he needed. Is it just me or does that make Anton a much less redeemable character? At first he’s introduced as a sweet old man who puts on these entertainments for children to make them happy, and then you find out that he’s doing it to find and kidnap a child. That’s cold.

The boy shows up as the book winds down, but we find out that there’s a whole ‘nother element to this already complex plot. Remember the assassination attempt? It turns out that was, in fact, Brigit’s doing. She was working with one of Anton’s bodyguards that she had seduced. She made the camera swap while the bodyguard took the shot. If things had worked out, Anton would be dead and the bodyguard could claim he saw Eli do it and that’s why he sniped him.

This whole book is just a comedy of murderous errors.

So Brigit reveals her true colors just as the boy is brought to the scene. The bodyguard hits Anton with a stun gun. Eli can only stand and watch because he’s as confused as I am, I guess.

But the book had one last joke to play.

Brigit grabs the boy and puts his finger on the lock-scanner-thingy. And nothing happens. This goes on two or three times.

Early in the book we were briefly introduced to the fact that androids exist in this universe. At the time it seemed like a throwaway thing. In this book androids are almost entirely lifelike and as a result they have by law an identifying mark, a blue A, on their temple. I didn’t think much of it other than it was a pretty neat little detail.

But it was Chekhov’s Android! And a pretty good one! Apparently the real boy was safe with his mother. This android duplicate was made and programmed with the orders to evade capture but leave a trail.

The cops show up and the trunk is destroyed, dooming billions of people to famine because the power of the matter replicator is too great. I guess. I wasn’t thrilled with that.

So one thing about this book is that it was somewhere between a heist fiasco and a mystery. And that’s great except that it’s also science fiction. For me, mystery plots and science fiction or fantasy don’t mix altogether well. Yes, there are exceptions, but here’s my reasoning:

Mysteries are meant to be read because the reader wants to follow along with the investigator and make all sorts of guesses about who it might have been. A competent mystery writer is successful because they follow certain rules. The narrative has to work within the framework of everyday life so that the book is fair. You can’t have a ghost show up and confess to murdering the rich bachelor. That would be dumb. Likewise you can’t have a clue show up because the investigator has some kind of ridiculous technomagical item that hears through time or something like that. That is also dumb.

Fact: CSI and its clones are dumb.

But with science fiction we aren’t constrained by those rules. Literally anything could happen. A science ghost? It’s possible! A temporal viewer? Why not? And so the problem becomes one of figuring out the framework of the narrative universe and how it plays into this mystery. I don’t know what could happen in this book in terms of technology so I don’t know what could possibly have happened. Since I, the reader, am not constrained by realism, it makes it really hard to guess whodunnit because there’s absolutely no way of me figuring how they might have dunnit in the first place until the book is over.

I think I’m rambling.

I’m not saying that a science fiction or fantasy mystery need necessarily have that problem, I just think the odds are stacked against it.

One thing that was great about this book, though, was a little detail that I might have missed if I hadn’t been paying attention at that moment. (It was that kind of book.) See, Eli’s a photographer and so he has a camera. Cameras in this future are kind of neat. They use a microburst laser for a flash, for one thing, which is how the camera with the killing laser came about. But one little thing caught me and made me chuckle. It was an offhand comment about how the camera had a small screen on it so that Eli could analyze the picture he had just taken before committing it to onboard memory. He paid extra for this feature.

F.A. Javor predicted regular digital cameras!

A pity he didn’t predict that digital cameras had a hold on the market for like five years before everybody got smart phones. Oh well.

So I’m gonna close by saying this book was a pretty good one. It had some problems but at least it was mostly comprehensible, and where it was confusing was because it was intentionally so. It’s the first in a series featuring Eli Pike as the protagonist. I’m not sure I’ll be on the lookout for sequels, though. The book didn’t thrill or move me, it just didn’t make me mad.


2 Comments

  1. Joachim Boaz says:

    Yeah, I’ve always LOVED that Paul Lehr cover — all of his work is so recognizable.

    Like

  2. Thanks for slogging through this so I don’t have to. Now I know why I got it so cheap!

    Like

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