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The Suiciders

The Suiciders by J.T. McIntoshThe Suiciders front
Avon Books, 1973
Price I paid: 90¢

KILL AND DIE

That was the battle tactic of the Tinkers, rough, vicious interplanetary invaders who would rather die than be captured alive. Controlling them in some way were The Six—an occult group that had learned how to duplicate human beings and use them as pawns in a grandiose plan to control interstellar space.

Defending civilization against this onslaught were Rey Cottrell, a war consultant without even a fortress from which to fight his battle, and captain Brixby, a lone idealist faced with mutiny when he tried to take his ship into the combat zone. Their chances seemed hopeless—especially since Cottrell suspected that there were supernatural forces involved that could take over the whole galaxy!

J.T. McIntosh, famous for many years for his action-packed science fiction adventures, has excelled himself with this new blend of drama and totally original, mind-expanding ideas. 

First up, I love this cover art. That spaceship in the foreground is just the best. It’s all black and it has little green thrusters and some huuuuge orange thrusters. What’s going on there? I like that it seems to have, at least as far as I can see, some kind of bizarre asymmetrical design. I can’t tell which way is supposed to be up, although that distinction doesn’t have much use in space anyway so there you go. I guess that sort of tower on top might be the control deck or the bridge or whatever? Who knows? It’s not like it was in the book or anything.

There were spaceships in the book, at least. That much was true. There was even a battle, although it was at the very end of the book and not especially climactic.

The back of the book makes it all more dramatic than it really is. I guess the villains had an eventual goal of galactic conquest or something, but if they did, they never told me about it. In fact, their goals were a lot more mundane but also vague. Witchcraft, though, right! That’s cool!

I was drawn to this book because it seemed ridiculous, as is usually the case. Witchcraft in space! That’s gold! I had to know how it was going to work. Was this some kind of techno-witchcraft, using high technology to mimic magic in a Clarke’s Law kind of way? That could be neat, although it was already done quite well in Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light. Maybe the people aren’t really witches, but they live on some kind of backwater planet that persecutes them for having abilities outside the norm? Or could witchcraft be a code for something else, like psychic powers?

Well, it turns out that the psychic option is the most correct one. I was a little let down. The book does go out of its way to say that magic and psionics are actually the same thing and that they’ve been around for as long as humankind. Those witches you read about getting burned in the history books? Some of them were actually witches. Psychic witches.

But not all of them! Oh no, the book is clear on that. Most witch hunts tend to get the wrong people. It makes sense, in a way, doesn’t it? If a witch actually has any kind of power, of course he or she would be able to use that power to escape regular people who just have pitchforks and torches. No, just let the people find old ladies who live alone and like animals a little bit and sacrifice them instead. Everybody goes home happy. Except the dead people, I guess. Maybe they do. I guess it depends on your outlook on the afterlife.

Our hero isn’t really a space witch hunter, at least not at first. I guess I’m getting ahead of myself here but by the end of the book he figures that hunting space witches is his calling, so he sets out to do that. At the beginning of the book, though, he’s a totally unlikable pick-up artist who has two goals in life: being a “war consultant” and sleeping with women.

The first one first: a war consultant is called in by governments or armies to help them end a war. The phrasing there is important. They end wars, not necessarily win them. Rey Cottrell, our protagonist, makes that abundantly clear. His goal is to make sure that a war ends with the least waste of lives and resources. If that means forcing one side to lose, even the side that called him in, that’s the choice he’ll make.

That’s kind of neat.

The other part of his personality is the part where he just sleeps with women all across the galaxy. When we first meet him he’s putting the works on a married woman. He succeeds but only because he finds out that she was also putting the works on him. See, it’s important that the author make sure we realize that this guy is gallant and attractive and not at all a sleazeball. I think he failed.

The thing that bugs me about it so much is that Cottrell is the sort of space sex hero that we’re supposed to admire because we’re all teenagers. Making a male character sexually successful is an easy way to make the reader use him as wish fulfillment. I have nothing against wish fulfillment characters in the main. Sometimes fantasizing about being someone else is fun. But using sex to do it is just too easy.

Still, Cottrell’s schtick is that he’s the ultimate gentleman. He loves all women and wants to show his appreciation for them. He respects and admires all womankind and uses his good looks and bedroom skills to thank them for being beautiful and wonderful. He’s game, giving, and good, as Dan Savage puts it. It’s just that the way he does it is by seducing them, sleeping with them, and then crawling out a bathroom window the next morning.

I guess this is supposed to be all “lovable scoundrel” or something but I don’t find anything lovable about it at all. What’s the absolute worst about it is that I can pinpoint times in my life where I would have been all about this guy. I can certainly identify with finding women attractive in some way. I can understand, on some level, that “loving all women equally” kind of mentality. I was a lot less successful at using that angle than Cottrell is—after all, I spend my weekends reviewing bad science fiction on the Internet—and maybe that’s what gets my goat so much. I learned eventually that manhood isn’t defined by sleeping with lots of women, regardless of motivation. This kind of character is meant to appeal to people who never got that memo.

Now that my anti-PUA polemic is done, I guess let’s discuss the plot.

The Persephone system has two habitable planets, called Alpha and Beta. Alpha is also called Shangri-La, which is shortened to Shan. Beta is just called Beta. Shan is the more pleasurable planet. The colonists there are working to turn it into a major tourist attraction one day. Beta is habitable but just short of a hellhole. Unfortunately, it has lots of useful things to be mined out of it, so people have to stay there. The folks that do are called “Tinkers” for some reason, and they’re the sort of rough-and-tumble individualists you would expect to see in an asteroid belt.

The Tinkers want to live on Shan. The people on Shan do not want to share their planet with the Tinkers, since they’ll be up all night carousing and drinking and yelling and taking our white women. And yet the Shan are supposed to be the good guys? Sounds to me like they just want to set up an interstellar gated community to keep the riffraff out. Next thing they’ll be opening up a gourmet grocery store just so they can complain that it never has the stuff they want.

The Tinkers have started to attack Shan to take what they want. They do it in an odd way. They attack with bows and arrows and swords and the like and have absolutely no interest in things like surviving. It’s an all-out suicide attack and it gives us the name of the book.

In Britain, where this book was originally published, it was called The Space Sorcerers. That is a MUCH better name.

Rey Cottrell is called in. He finishes banging some woman first and then heads out, figuring that while he works he can find more women to alienate in the name of universal love or some crap.

Gods, it’s like this author found all of the most justifiable complaints people have against Robert A. Heinlein books and just condensed them all and added witchcraft.

Rey shows up and starts figuring out what’s going on. It doesn’t take him long. Not only is he the galaxy’s finest lover, he’s also just hypercompetent at everything else. Whenever the Tinkers are setting up an attack, he just goes “Oh, they’ll land here and try this” and then figures out a way to counter it. This goes on a few times.

Oh hell, it’s the plot of the whole damn book.

One time he figures out where the Tinker ships are going to land and just puts a bomb there. As soon as it lands it blows up. That’s some Penetrator-level masterminding there.

It soon becomes clear that the Tinkers aren’t the ones doing the brainwork. Cottrell, of course, knows this the whole time. He’s well acquainted with witchcraft. He’s even pretty skilled at it himself.

We learn from him about the whole psionics/witchcraft thing. It turns out that science has never been able to prove their existence because magic and science are polar opposites. Magic requires belief, and testing magic with scientific skepticism causes it to not work. I think I’ve heard television mediums make that claim when their powers are called into question. All I’m saying is that the Randi Foundation Paranormal Challenge prize remains unclaimed.

Cottrell reveals that the heads of this operation are a group of witches known only as The Six. The members of The Six go by names like “The Planner” and “The Girl” and “The Soldier.” Actually The Planner was on board the ship that got blown up with the bomb, so now they’re down to The Five.

What The Five are able to do is transfer a person’s life force into a new body. In this universe, growing a clone body and putting somebody’s brain in it is simple except for the fact that it doesn’t work. Something doesn’t transfer properly, call it the soul or whatever, and so that skill remains outside of human capability. These witches are able to use magic to finish the process. They’ve promised the Tinkers that if they fight and die to take over Shan, they’ll get new and improved bodies to play with. What exactly is in this for The Six is never quite explained, except that it might just be a means of testing the process before they themselves get to move into new bodies.

One of them, The Girl, decides to take the initiative on that. She leads a force of Tinkers down to Shan who get predictably slaughtered by Cottrell’s machinations. She survives long enough to present herself to Cottrell and some other folks, whereupon she stabs herself in the heart and is able to transmigrate into a new body.

Unfortunately, it turns out that the new body, which is TOTALLY HOT by the way, doesn’t have her magical powers. Oops.

So she turns herself over to Cottrell and they become sex besties and witch hunters. The remaining Four try to flee the system and get shot down by one of the characters mentioned on the back of the book, Captain Brixby, who really didn’t do much else in the novel except get witchcrafted once.

That’s the end of the book.

Okay, so the plot was light and the hero was hypercompetent and annoyingly sexy. The book itself wasn’t awful, though. At least it clipped along at a fair pace and I was able to knock it out in a few hours. Still, I didn’t like it. I feel really let down.

The whole idea of injecting magic into a science fiction setting has a lot of appeal to me. There are a lot of ways that it just wouldn’t work, but this book almost got it right. Sure, saying that magic and psionics are the same thing seems a little trite in retrospect, but I wonder how original that was back in 1972 when the book was being written. It’s not something I’ve come across all that often.

Cottrell, as a character, was unlikable because we’re supposed to like him so much. That’s not really all that surprising. It happens a lot and is an easy mistake for an author to make. Even beyond the whole sexuality thing, he was just too good at what he was doing for me to see any enemy, even witches, as a credible threat. Even the sex thing isn’t all that out of place for some of the books I’ve read.

The closest he gets to being threatened is when The Six cast a spell on him. I suppose the intent was to kill him. Since he already knows about witchcraft and how to fight it, he just does what he does. There’s a young doctor on Shan, Lynn. Cottrell had his sights on her from the moment he landed, although she didn’t want anything to do with him at first. Over time he manages to wear her down into liking him. When he gets hexed, he reveals that the only thing that can fight off the curse is the Horizontal Mashed Potato. So she does it with him, mainly because she’s a doctor who needs to heal people. What made it really bothersome was that the whole experience turns into some kind of sexual awakening for her. No man was able to unlock the innate femininity of this skilled doctor until Cottrell showed up. He’s just that good, I guess.

Perhaps surprisingly, though, and this is almost a positive note, this sexual awakening does not turn into outright adoration for Cottrell. She still doesn’t really like him all that much. She turns down a second go in favor of a young man she met from the B plot that I didn’t really describe because it didn’t do anything to advance the story. Cottrell, to his credit, takes it gracefully, although we all know he was figuring out how to bail on her first anyway.

This book angers me. Not because it was awful, but because it was almost really good. It’s like everything about it was good except for the protagonist, and what makes it even worse is that when I was sixteen I would probably have idolized this guy. The plot itself was okay, if a bit barebones and meandering. It could have been a lot better. As it is, it was just mediocre.

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