The Outer Fleet by M. Matzkin
Manor Books, 1978
Price I paid: 25¢
It seemed to be merely a matter of time before Solonius VII, a lone solar system, would be crushed by the tyrant. Supplies and manpower were going fast. The only hope left was the “Outer Fleet,” a band of courageous guerilla warriors from the far reaches of the universe. But would the “Outer Fleet” and Solonius VII join forces in time for one last desperate stand against this overwhelming evil power?
For a person who delights in finding the worst books available to the public, this cover led me (quite rightly) to think that I’d found a veritable goldmine of awfulness in the text behind it. Look at it! What’s going on there? I choose to see it as the man is shrugging. He is saying “I don’t know why this book was published either.” An alternate, if slightly more blue, interpretation is that he is having an in-depth sex fantasy that entails, at least in part, that he is a voluptuous woman. He sensuously supports his swollen mammaries as he considers the delight of womanhood. Also he reminds me a little bit of Zachary Quinto, but that is unrelated and elevates my rating of this book a full star, which if I did star ratings of my books would bring it up to zero stars.
This cover text, though. Woo. That is some hard-hitting stuff. Looks like there’s an Evil Empire. There’s a holdout group in some Solar System, and also a ragtag fleet. Apparently the ragtag fleet is from “the far reaches of the universe,” a sentence that does not bode well.
Here’s a thing I’ve started to learn about these synopses. I tend to think of outer space as a series of magnitudes that go
- Solar System
- Local Cluster
There’s some wiggle room there, and some stuff in-between, but I think that’s a pretty good system. Now here’s how that ties into back cover synopses: If one of those levels of space is mentioned, just knock is down one. These guys hail from “the universe?” They’re from the edge of the galaxy.
This is really just a good rule of thumb more than anything, because I’ve seen books that tell me it’s going to go up and down the universe on the back cover and then I read it and the furthest anyone goes is, like, Mars or something. Just what is up with that?
Oh and it works on front covers, too. See this one? “Ruthless tyrant of the galaxies?” Nope. Just one galaxy. I think it’s supposed to be ours? You know, I’m not sure if that’s ever made clear.
As boring and trite as all this is, it’s nothing compared to what’s actually in this book. Here we have the most boring, tired, clichéd, lazy book I’ve read in a good long while. It’s got everything. Evil Empire. Actually the Evil Empire is an Evil Imperial Federation, so we get two for one. There are a few holdouts from this galactic menace. They are both inherently noble, although one of them is what you might call “plucky.” There is a princess who is very beautiful and she eventually hooks up with the scruffy protagonist.
I started playing the Overused Tropes drinking game and now I am DEAD
Also have I just given away the entire plot? What else is there to talk about?
OH THERE IS SO MUCH
This book is probably one of the most poorly edited things I’ve read in a good long while. Sure, East of Danger was probably worse for that, but it was essentially self-published so I have to cut it a little slack, as much as that pains me. This book was published by an actual publisher. I looked them up. They were around for eight years or so and published works by Damon Knight and A.E. van Vogt and other people who are certainly respectable. Did they treat those authors just as poorly? This is the only book I can find listed by an M. Matzkin. Sure, this book was awful, but the publisher could have mitigated some of that, so I wonder if this venture into the world of fiction writing left such a bad taste in his mouth that he gave up? Or could it be that he realized that it was tripe? Or could it be that he figured that he needed to make a quick car payment and would hack out one of those “fictitious science” novels that were all the rage since that Star War came out.
THIS BOOK IS SO BASICALLY STAR WARS
I think that maybe I could just list all the terrible editing decisions this book shows and that could be my whole review. I won’t, but I want you all to know it was an option.
- Words are inconsistently spelled. Character names especially, but also planet names and universe concepts. Also just regular old words. Our hero, Lars Jorgenson is also sometimes called Jorgensen, or Lrars, or Lasrs (which looks like “lasers” so that’s cool).
- You know the “sectional symbol?” Sometimes you might see it as a footnote indicator or something. It looks like §. There were at least two instances of that symbol at the beginning of a paragraph, which makes me think that some editor put it in while proofreading or something (it’s really hard to imagine this book was ever actually proofread, though) and just left it. That it made it into the final printing just shows a level of sloppiness I can’t even comprehend.
- The last thing I really noticed and bugged the living hell out of me might take a bit more explaining, although it’s really obvious and jarring when you see it for yourself. You know if you’ve got two narratives going at once in two different places, you put a double space between paragraphs that are in those different places so the reader knows that you’re switching viewpoints? You can also use asterisks or something, I guess, but either way, there’s some kind of indication. This book neglected to do that for the most part. It would be talking about some of the characters on the planet and then in the next paragraph, with no indication, would start talking about some of the characters on a ship in orbit. If I wasn’t paying attention, I would wonder how it got to be that Lars suddenly showed up and was talking to Maia (the princess) before they’d even met in the story.
- But then sometimes there would be a section break, and it would be right in the middle of an actual conjoined bit of narrative! It totally wrecked the flow, for absolutely no reason!
It’s like this book was a parody of how not to format a book. So, so sloppy.
So Lars Jorgenson is commander of a spacefleet that has managed to escape being destroyed or controlled by the Evil Galactic Emperor, Nehbed Nezzer (it was spelled a lot of different ways). The fleet is the titular “Outer Fleet.” He manages to hold his own by using “tactics” that the Empire “never thought of,” although there’s absolutely no indication of what those tactics are or why the Empire is too stupid to think of them.
Actually, I might be a bit wrong on that latter part. The book does tell us that the Empire is starting to crumble from within, because the only real intelligence is Nezzer. The command of the fleet seems to be equal parts cronyism and nepotism, while the rank-and-file are draftees who hate the Empire anyway.
The actual plot of the book is really simple. The Solonius system has seven planets, all of which are inhabited. Because each of the planets is markedly different from the others, humanity has developed in startling ways on each of them. There are water-dwellers on one planet, psychics on another, and so forth. They are the last free system in the galaxy, until the Imperial fleet shows up and starts bombarding the planets.
Lord Klaudos of Solonius decides that the best way to die is to go down fighting, so he orders all the ships in the system to plunge into the sun, figuring that it’ll make the sun go nova and destroy the fleet as well as the system. He’s stopped at the last minute when Lars Jorgenson shows up.
Lars leads the outer fleet and he’s got some comrades like a psychic and a robot. The psychic is from Solonius and Lars found him at the beginning of the book. He uses the psychic to communicate with Klaudos and tells him to drop the nova idea because he’s got a better one. Apparently this better idea is to pretend to be an Imperial ship and tell the fleet to leave because there’s a problem elsewhere. He’s oh so clever, that Lars.
The fleet commander, a guy named Grom, demands that princess Maia, Klaudos’s daughter, be sent up to his ship as a hostage. Grom has other plans, though, because Maia is hot. I figured she’d be little more than a macguffin in this book but really she holds her own as well as anyone else in this narrative, although that’s not saying an awful lot. As soon as she shows up on the ship she goes into hiding and meets one of the enlisted men on the ship, who reveals that he is the long-lost rightful prince of the galaxy. I believe that title was spelled “Kadin Kaduze” more often than not.
So with the Kadin Kaduze in tow she manages to escape the ship. About that time Nehbed Nezzer shows up and starts laying into Grom for being stupid and incompetent. For one he just up and left the system he was supposed to be taking when an out-of-date security clearance told him to leave.
Best thing: Nezzer berates Grom for this kind of thing and straight up says something like “Don’t you get the memos I send you?”
He also tells him off for letting the princess escape, since instead of taking her straight to the prison Grom took her to his quarters and tried to get her to sleep with him. He’s a classy guy.
Oh, in her escape attempt, Maia manages to use her womanly wiles to get past some guards. I just have to quote this:
Then she unhooked the neck of her tumic [sic] so that it hung partly open in front. Luckily, she had thought to continue her dark make-up over the top of her chest, so that no difference in skin tone could be detected as the partially open tunic exposed the upper curves of her softly rounded breasts.
I think that paragraph really sums up a lot of the book. A typo and some childish sexuality. Really, though, this part of the book was probably the most blatantly sexual and as a result it was a bit jarring. It’s one thing to treat women like beauty objects throughout the book and quite another to bring them down to the level of “softly rounded breasts.”
Her escape plan consisted of showing off her cleavage to some guards and then going “Can one of you big strong boys open this lock for me?” Of course it worked, for a while anyway. She and Jak (the Kadin Kaduze) get captured again and sent to the Imperial palace.
Nezzer orders the fleet back to Solonius while figuring out ways to punish Grom. Grom is his nephew, I might add, and there was a really great line:
His sister would just have to understand that her son was a complete boob and deserved to die.
Lars, who is in love with Princess Maia even though he has never actually spoken to her, mounts a rescue attempt. It is very lame. The psychic guy makes him invisible and he goes in and frees her. Hooray.
They get back to Solonius just in time for the Imperial fleet to show up again. With the help of the Outer Fleet, all the planets in the system have been developing super weapons to “match their characteristics.” You’d think that the hot planet would develop a heat ray or something, but actually it was the opposite. The hot planet made a cold beam and the cold planet made a hot beam. The big planet made a gravity beam, though, so there you go.
This final showdown is just as climactic as you’d think it would be. The fleet shows up, starts to lose, and then Nehbed Nezzer escapes in his personal shuttle. He starts to fly away, Lars chases him, and then without warning there’s a black hole and Nezzer accidentally flies into it and dies. Lars turns around at the last second though so he’s okay.
Back home, the Kadin Kaduze is named king or something and Lars marries Maia and everybody lives happily ever after in a universe that lets this kind of ridiculous crap happen.
There were other things I glossed over, I guess. There was a maser battle at one point. I think somebody had something that was essentially a lightsaber. And early in the book there was a chick named Zar who Lars totally had the hots for and who fell in love with him instantly but then he turned her down for Maia and she hooked up with somebody else. There was an ad for Newport cigarettes and another one for True cigarettes, which is a brand I wasn’t familiar with. No Kents in this book.
The book also had a lot of made-up words, usually insults. Whereas Battlestar Galactica gave us the all-purpose “frak,” this book had a new one for every instance of “swearing.” Examples include “gezis,” “Great Gaplox,” “nimkluck,” “dolop,” and my very favorite, “blog.” Someone was seriously called a “stupid blog” in this book from 1978.
Oh, and there was this tiny part of the book where some Solonian guy, Kernig, who was supposed to be betrothed to Maia, I think, goes traitor. Like any poorly-written traitor character, he didn’t even have any actual grievances other than people didn’t kowtow to him nearly as much as he would have liked them to. He goes to Nezzer and gives him some information, whereupon Nezzer kills him because a traitor is still a traitor. That would have been great if I hadn’t seen about twelve other Dark Lords do exactly that same thing over the course of my literary life. Pretty sure I’ve seen Vader and Palpatine do it at least twice each.
So…yeah. This book really doesn’t have a lot going for it. I will say that it was enjoyable, if only in the sense that I was able to read lines out loud to whoever was nearby in an attempt to show them how awfully written it was. When a book’s most redeeming feature is how awful it is, I think that says a little something.
I will say this, though. If this book had been written about, say, forty years earlier I might have been willing to give it some slack. But here it was, trying to be a Space Opera less than a year after Star Wars and failing miserably at it. In tone it actually reminded me a bit of Captain Future, which would have been fine if this thing had been serialized in Amazing Stories or something. But really it just came across as a lazy cash-grab that, at best, was trying to capitalize on some nostalgia and not just ride George Lucas’s coat-tails.
It was rarely straight-up offensive, though. I can say that. Yes, it did treat women like objects to be desired and that bothered me. Both Zar and Maia, the only two female characters in the book, were defined entirely by how they looked, for the most part. I think Zar was a good pilot and Maia turned out to be fairly clever. But much more important was the shape of their curves and the fullness of their lips. Ugh.
But that’s fairly inoffensive compared to some of the things I’ve seen women subjected to in these books. That doesn’t make it right, but it helps to keep it in perspective.
I’m curious about this M. Matzin guy, though. Where did he come from, why did he write this book, and where did he go? The ISFDB says he’s still alive, albeit something like ninety, so I wonder if that’s just a hole in their database. This is the only thing he wrote, apparently across all genres, so what induced him to do so, and what induced him to stop? I hope somebody knows.
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