Jandrax by Syd Logsdon
Del Rey Books, 1979
Price I paid: 25¢
As a child he’d learned the ways of death in the worst holy war known to man…
As a scout he’d tamed four planets—and more women than most men ever see…
As a colonist, he’d have to tame a world, then fight the people he’d tamed it for. He was the colony’s best hope for survival—but somebody wanted him dead!
Ohhhh man have I got a weird one for y’all this week. It really doesn’t seem like this book should be all that weird, though, does it? I assumed it would be a pretty straightforward read. We have this Jan Andrax guy who kills pink chocobos. Or maybe he’s investigating why one of them died and the other one is a witness. Bird’s like “Seriously, dude, I came over here to get something out of the fridge and I just found him here like this. I don’t know why you’re making me out to be the badguy.”
The cover really tells you all you need to know about the main character, too. He’s a frontiersman of some kind. Probably an Indian (you can tell because of the long hair). Also he has magical bird-talking or bird-killing powers. One or the other. I guess we’ll have to dive in and find out.
The thing about this book, the really weird thing, is that no, hardly any of that is true. Yeah, Jan Andrax is a badass who scouts out planets for future colonization and gets into some weird shenanigans. That much is fact. For about half the book, though. After the midway point we just…don’t see him anymore.
So the book kicks off, see, with a bit of sabotage. That’s a good way to get a plot rolling, isn’t it? We’re setting up some kind of a mystery, all the while we’re watching these people come to terms with their new home and get to share in what I believe is a pretty common American fantasy: taming a wild new land. What an exciting setup for a—
Oh wait, about twenty pages in we just…learn who did it. It’s not even a mystery solved. The narrator tells us. Out of the blue. It was very disappointing.
But I get ahead of myself. We’ve got a ship full of colonists who are heading out to tame a world. On the way there somebody throws a grenade onto the bridge and destroys part of the ship’s computer. The hyperdrive or whatever they call it goes haywire and the ship ends up far from known space and nowhere near the intended planetary destination.
That’s a pretty good setup, too!
Enter Jan Andrax. He’s a Scout, which means he has all sorts of training in settling new worlds. The author actually put a lot of thought into what a Scout should be able to do in this universe. Andrax knows more than the obvious things like first aid and hunting and how to build bathrooms so they don’t flow into the drinking water. He’s also trained in things like small group psychology and conflict resolution and things like that, because a colony that can’t get along is a doomed colony.
I really, really like that.
The folks settling this planet are, for the most part, members of a religion called Monism. This is another thing I liked about this book. Monism is a variation on that classic sci-fi trope of the amalgamated religion. Somebody at some point in the past said “You know what? It would be great if people stopped fighting over religion. Let’s find all the common ground in all of humanity’s religions and put them together into a great big religion so everybody can just agree on stuff.” And that’s what happened.
It went horribly wrong.
Instead of uniting humanity in a religion based on common ground like “Killing people is bad” or “Steve Buscemi is a fantastic actor,” it immediately split into hundreds of factions arguing over what actually constitutes universal religious practices. Most of these arguments are trivial in the extreme, but hey, this is humanity and religion, so is anybody surprised?
So these settlers are Monists of some variety or another. Jan Andrax doesn’t especially get along with Monists because he grew up as one. His planet, Hallam, underwent a massive holy war because two Monist factions couldn’t agree on some fine point of scripture. In fact, the war was started, as least in part, by Andrax’s father, Daniel Andrax (Dandrax). It was brutal and Jan Andrax was captured by the other side and forced to witness the atrocities done by his father’s followers. Instead of switching sides, Andrax basically forsook religion altogether.
Okay so a lot of this seems like unnecessary backstory. It is. But the book up to this point was mainly backstory. It was also the best part of the book because it’s where all the actual decent ideas were.
Oh, and the guy who threw the grenade on the ship and got everybody stranded was the leader of the colony. I don’t think it was explained, other than the guy is a religious fanatic.
About halfway through the book this same religious fanatic whips up a fervor among the followers against the minority of colonists who themselves are not Monists. This includes Jan Andrax. He helps them escape to the wilderness. He tries to take his girlfriend, Angi, with him, but she refuses to go, and the book makes a big deal out of her “clutching her lower belly.” Honestly it was supposed to be subtle, I think, but come on.
And that’s when the book goes PART TWO
23 YEARS LATER
And I have to learn a whole bunch of other character names after not caring about any of them in the first part. Plus I get to try and figure out which of these new characters are related to which of the old characters and gaaaahhh this is where the book lost me.
We meet this new guy, Jean. Jean is Andrax’s son. I guess we could call him Jeandrax, but we won’t. Also, we’re not supposed to know that yet, but seeing as how the first part ended with a woman clutching her PREGNANT WOMB I thought maybe it was a little obvious from the outset. Also his name is one additional letter away from Jan and at some early point it explicitly states that his mother was Angi, so there you go.
What was less obvious was whether this Jean character and his associates were members of the original colony or of some splinter colony established by Jan Andrax after he was run out of Dodge. It eventually became clear, but at first I was confused and annoyed.
Also, in the time between the halves of the book Jan Andrax got elided into Jandrax, thus giving us the title of the book. It seems he’s passed into legend for most of the colonists, or at least for the new generation of them. The original generation will barely even talk about him, presumably due to embarrassment.
So Jean is a second-generation colonist and he’s got a bit of a problem. Hunting is the way all men in the colony establish their manhood. Any other job is emasculating, even if it’s completely necessary. Unfortunately for Jean, he got maimed by a “trihorn” after his hunting partner, Anton, failed to do his job. It’s pretty apparent that Anton did it on purpose so he could claim a woman named Chloe, but without any proof Jean is just a guy with a busted leg who can’t hunt.
So what he does instead is apprentice himself to the gunsmith just long enough to learn the craft, whereupon he leaves the colony. I guess he sets out to find himself? I dunno. He doesn’t really know, either, other than he knows that if he stays he will be an object of both pity and revulsion, so there’s no point in staying.
I forgot to mention some details about the planet they landed on. It’s actually got some interesting stuff going on. It’s a desert planet, but it’s a cold desert planet. It never rains, but there is a sort of snowstorm that circles the planet. Wherever it goes life springs up for a short while as the snow melts. Whereas the colonists just sit and wait for it to show up, Jean decides to follow it.
What we get is a really weird story about how he finds an island in the middle of a lake and explores it, finding an alien species that exists outside time who are basically humans with fairy wings and they are always naked. The naked part was especially pointed out. Jean meets these people and briefly tries to teach them the meaning of linear time, which works about as well for him as it did for Commander Sisko in DS9, but Jean has the advantage of meeting their god, who he just refers to as the Presence, who fills him in on some details and then asks him to leave.
It was weird, it was out of place, it was tinged with teenage-level sexuality, and it was dumb.
After leaving, Jean comes into contact with some people. It turns out that these are the people who left with Jandrax twenty-three years ago. Jean endears himself to them and finally meets Jandrax himself, who reveals himself as Jean’s father.
Now that he has a father figure to look up to Jean figures the best thing he can do is head back to the colony and get his revenge on Anton for crippling him, so he does that. He also takes the son he fathered with Chloe but everybody thought it was Anton’s. The book basically ends there.
Except there was an epilogue where we see Jean go back to the island of fairy people one last time to learn more about them. At some point in the future he comes back and founds a religion based on them and the Presence. This is considered the right thing to do, since Monism was a religion of Earth, and what the people of Harmony need is a religion for their own planet.
And that was the story.
What the crap, book? You had me going for a while there. I was expecting a sort of planetary adventure story about a castaway learning about the world and then coming back to teach the colonists the error of their ways. I was basically expecting something a little bit more clichéd than what I got. So why am I so mad that I got something else?
Well, I’m mad because the something else I got was completely nonsensical. It was all over the place, like Syd Logsdon had three or four short stories sitting around that weren’t selling, whereupon his publisher suggested he just throw them together into a book and see if that sells instead. I really just don’t get it.
But I’m also mad because this book had, at its foundation, some pretty good ideas! It had some good, original thinking in it that just went to insanity. I liked the ecology of the planet. I liked the religious elements (up until the fairy people thing, at least), and I liked the human drama elements. A lost colony isn’t a new idea for a science fiction novel and wasn’t then either, but Logsdon brought some interesting things to the table and I respect that. Unfortunately the story just didn’t work at all because it zipped around for point W to point T to point F with no greater, overarching point.
The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction tells me that Logsdon wrote two sci-fi novels, the other of which, A Fond Farewell to Dying, looks really really interesting. Something about cloning and Hindu religion and whatnot. I find fiction that analyzes the implications of technology and science on religion immensely fascinating, and I think it would be right up my alley. Jandrax also takes a look at religion, but in a way that felt like it didn’t have anything to say other than “Haha religions make people do evil and stupid things, even when they’re well-meaning.” Most of the time I’m willing to agree with a statement like that—mainly on the grounds that people just like to be stupid and evil and religion is a pretty good excuse—but if that’s the whole point of having religion in your book, you’ve lost me. Give me something interesting.