Space War Blues by Richard A. Lupoff
Dell Science Fiction, 1978
Price I paid: 90¢
Man’s questioning nature conquered space…then his eternal stupidity turned it into living hell….
On Yurakosi—where swashbuckling aborigines ride the colossal membrane-ships, buck-naked to the winds of space…
On N’Yu-Atlanchi—where tiny gelatinous angels are ripped from a crystal cavern paradise to be brutally used as pawns of war…
On N’Haiti—where ultramodern technology marries voodoo to sire a race of blond-haired, black-skilled killer zombies…and
On New Alabama—where a government spokesperson recently announced: No cruvvelin black animan nigra goin lay one filthy paw on some golden curly-headed surn baby while Pissfire Pallbox draws breath! Are you with me?
Wow. Oh wow. What a ride. This book was just…I’m struggling to find the words. I’m not sure whether I like it—I’m not even sure how to describe it. It’s like it was just there, and I read it, and things happened, and I met some characters, and they were pretty interesting while I read about them, but after it’s all done I feel sort of empty inside? Not like “I wasted my time” empty, but rather “I’m not entirely sure what happened” empty. I think I need to sit on this one for a little while and let it sink in.
For starters, there was a lot going on in this novel. Lots of characters, lots of situations, lots of incidents, and lots of backstory. And a lot of that lot was pretty darn good. I was hooked on this book while I read it, even the parts that got a little confusing or downright confounding. When it got difficult to read I wanted to press on, not for my usual reason of knowing I had a review coming up, but because I genuinely wanted to know what was going to happen. Sometimes I was pleased, sometimes I was disappointed. It’s like my emotions were all over the place as I read, and then I hit the end and I was both let down and satisfied.
I don’t know what I’m trying to say! This book confuses me!
One bit that might help is the forward to this book. There are actually two. One is written by Harlan Ellison, who spent a good bit of time devoted to making sure this book was released in some form or another. It was sent around as a short story, a novella, and finally a novel before somebody picked it up. Harlan himself says that he was sometimes less of a help than he could have been, as he would go about working on helping get it printed and then get caught up in his own work for a while, forgetting about it while Richard A. Lupoff, the writer, sat and simmered and worried and stressed. A novella form of the book, “With the Bentfin Boomer Boys on Little Old New Alabama,” made an appearance in Ellison’s Again, Dangerous Visions, and there was apparently a bit of controversy over when Lupoff was offered a full novel deal if only he’d withdraw the rights to the book for printing in Ellison’s collection, whereupon Ellison stated that he could not in full conscience let those rights go. It led to a lot of strain between the two men, but it seems they made up.
What Ellison says in the first forward, and Lupoff backs him up in the second, is that this book was absolutely hated by so many of the publishers and editors who got their hands on it. They just couldn’t understand it. It was unpublishable. On the flip side, all of the writers who got hold of it, including Ellison himself, loved it. It was new, it was original, it was ahead of its time. It tackled issues like racism that were a bit on the transgressive side at the time. The problem was that none of these writers were really in a position to publish the book, so it languished in the literary equivalent of development hell for nine years.
Finally Dell picked it up in 1978 and I got to read it.
Normally I guess I’d start off by introducing us to the protagonist, but that’s one of the things about this book that makes it so difficult to summarize or think about. It’s got something of an ensemble cast. Some of the members of that cast are involved in a war—let’s put it bluntly, a race war—between the planets of New Haiti and New Alabama. We meet some other people, though, who aren’t really on either side. There’s an ambassador from New Louisiana that we follow for a little while. His story wasn’t all that interesting other than the fact that it was so personal. He’s just a regular dude with a government job. His daughter might be pregnant (she has a BIG ANNOUNCEMENT) and he loves his wife. While he’s on the way to hear the BIG ANNOUNCEMENT he gets a call to report to the president so that he can attend a conference on the New Haiti/New Alabama war.
And then there are the Sky Heroes. They were my favorite part of the book, but really they didn’t play much of a part in the war itself or the plot so I was left thinking “What’s the point?” They tie into it, and the story of Jiritzu is another personal and sad one.
Jiritzu is, as I stated, a Sky Hero. That’s their term for themselves. They hail from the planet of Yurakosi and they are the descendants of Australian Aborigines.
SIDE NOTE: All of the planets and cultures in this book are descended from individual nations and cultures of Old Earth. Emigration to space was a bit cliquey, I guess.
SIDE NOTE TO THE SIDE NOTE: Old Earth still exists and is populated almost entirely by Jews and Arabs, who chose not to leave and now get along.
SIDE NOTE TO THE FIRST SIDE NOTE BUT NOT NECESSARILY THE SECOND ONE: The United States and the USSR each broke apart before the migration to space. It seems that the rest of the countries in the world got really sick of the two of them threatening to destroy everybody else in their little tiff, so they all banded together and forced them to break apart into individual states/republics. So that’s why we have “New Alabama” and “New Louisiana” and so forth instead of “New America.” This is a part of the back story that I just found great.
So the Sky Heroes are both the best-fleshed-out part of the book and my favorite. It seems that, for some reason or another, the original Australian Aborigines were immune to the cosmic rays and somesuch of deep space. Using “close air” generators (whatever those are), they are able to work in the vacuum of space without needing radiation shielding or anything of that nature. Because of this, they have a fleet of membrane ships (the membranes are solar sails) that are in many ways the direct descendants of the oceangoing vessels of Old Earth. They are the prime mover of goods and services between the worlds of man, and they have a strict code of ethics to show that they take this responsibility very seriously. Also, over time the “wind” of space bleaches them white and they are no longer able to sail on the deck of the ship, so that’s when they retire. To retire and go planetside before that is a great shame.
Jiritzu’s story, then, is that a group of New Alabamians try to take over his ship (he’s just a crewmember). They do it because they believe that the Sky Heroes are really using technology and not some inherent gift to do the things they do, so they want that technology. Also they are racists. In the mutiny they manage to kill Juritzu’s wife-to-be, which causes him to kill the person who killed her. Even this is considered a tremendous breach of trust and honor for a Sky Hero, so Jiritzu’s story ends with him flying out into space on his own to die.
Thing is, the start of that story was at the beginning of the book, and then it wasn’t mentioned for a long while, and then the end of the book was him facing his punishment. It was weird.
Meanwhile there’s the war between New Haiti and New Alabama. We see this war from the vantage point of members of both sides. There were a lot of characters involved and none of them were as memorable as Jiritzu, so I didn’t bother to distinguish them all that much.
New Alabama, as you might expect, is redneck, racist, and awful. I say that, and I was born in Old Alabama.
Whenever we’re following one of the characters, the entire narration changes as well to this weird future Southern dialect:
Pallbox here listen all spacerines we gettin moren we an fuckin ticipated soonern we ex hubbadubba pected everybody to assembly areas goddam now…
It was crazy and it was stream-of-consciousness and it was a bit distracting at first but, you know, I got used to it. I’m not sure how or why, but eventually I just got to the point where I was able to read it.
Anyway, the New Alabamians are mad at the New Haitians, mainly on the grounds that the New Haitians are black. It’s a space race war, which sounds like a “Before and After” puzzle on Wheel of Fortune. It doesn’t go much into more detail than that, although we do find out that New Alabama’s allies are staying out of the conflict because they think it’s dumb, although they don’t say that out loud. New Alabama’s on their own.
One of the things I was afraid of when I picked up this book—I say I was afraid of it but really I was also sort of counting on it—was that the New Alabamians would be the good guys. I sort of expected this book to either be all-out racist or just “sympathetic to the Southern cause.” Something like that. I was surprised. Really, though, since we see everything through the fighters and the veterans of the war, there is a bit of sympathy there, but it’s a sympathy for the kind of people who are deluded into being xenophobes and racists by their governments and then sent out to die for a really stupid cause.
On the flip side we’ve got the New Haitians. The people we meet from New Haiti are scientists and other assorted smart people. The scientists of New Haiti are working on a plan to defeat New Alabama, and boy is it a doozy. See, they’re going to create zombies.
But wait, this is actually kind of interesting. For one, they found a life form on some planet (it’s hinted that the life form is somehow descended from humanity? I’m not sure) that’s a small little fishy type thing, barely sapient, that can merge its nervous system with a host. Usually the fishy things use it to merge with each other and share information. The New Haitians have found a way to graft one onto a corpse and revivify it.
They are fully aware of the fact that this discovery is eerily similar to the voodoo trappings of their ancestors. They use that fact to their advantage by encouraging a revival of the old practices among the populace. The plan there is that word of that kind of thing will make its way to New Alabama so that when the New Alabamians end up fighting these zombies, they crap their pants in terror because magic is happening. I like that.
Where does all this lead? That’s the problem, really. It doesn’t lead much of anywhere. There are some battles in space and on planets, we get the points of view of some of the people who fight in them, they go back home and face troubles and the scars of war, and the book basically ends. I’m pretty sure New Haiti wins.
This book was a lot of really great buildup with a really flat ending. I was let down. There was so much good about it up until that point.
I skipped a lot of details because that kind of thing doesn’t make for a great review, but at the same time that’s a bit of a shame because this book sort of lived on the details. The points where it talks about how starships move, for instance (they’re powered by something called “agonized matter”). And this a book that’s about the characters and their personal situations, more than about the grander scheme of the war. And that’s okay! It’s definitely worth reading on those merits.
I might even say that the letdown aspect works for this story. We focus on characters who fight a war and then either die or have to live on after it and we don’t actually get many details on the war itself in the grander scheme. It just happened and it didn’t matter except for the way it touched the lives of the people who had to deal with it. Even the racist morons from New Alabama had sympathetic stories in their own way. One guy got most of his body blown off in a space battle—
I should mention that the way space battles in this book worked is that they were, by and large, man to man. Large ships would pull up and fire broadside, meanwhile people in spacesuits would pour out of the sides of the ships and engage hand-to-hand in the emptiness of space. Think one of the big fleet action scenes in Star Wars, but instead of X-Wings and TIE Fighters buzzing around, it’s people. Awesome.
—but he manages to survive. Surgery basically gives him a prosthetic body. For a while, he delights in how perfectly sculpted and fully functional it is. He is now a really handsome man who can perform, so he more or less goes into porn to make ends meet. He gets disenchanted, however, when he realizes that for all this perfection that was granted him by a prosthetic body, he can no longer feel things in the same way. There is sensory input that is registered by his brain, but there is no emotion attached. That’s frightening and sad.
So I’m gonna end this by saying it was a book with a lot of good little stories but not much in the way of an overarching story to tie them together. Yeah, there was a war, but the war was just when the stories took place. The stories tied together here and there but really only because of the shared setting. And the only theme I can really piece together is that War is Bad.
So here’s this book. Some people really hated it, others adored it. Me? I’m somewhere in the middle. I have really mixed feelings. And not “I am questioning my beliefs!” mixed feelings, like some books give me and I feel weird about. This was just a book that had some good parts and some middlin’ parts, and I guess that means, on average, it was a success? But I don’t feel like that in my gut.
God this is frustrating. I might have to get back to you on this.
3 thoughts on “Space War Blues”
I am really intrigued — some rather surreal. And I enjoy satirical/surreal SF.
Check out the novella if you can – that’s where I encountered it myself, and I quite liked it in that form. I haven’t seen this incarnation of it (yet).
I’d read the novella in rereading Again Dangerous Visions a couple years ago and realized that this was all just … well, it was probably one of the most actually still-dangerous stories in the book, both because it was explicitly about race war but also because the story felt like it was running so very close to being a catastrophic Race Fail of its own. It was astounding seeing the story all hang together and not go horrifyingly wrong.