Captain Setni, of all the officers of space, was the most immune to hypnotic suggestion and psychological delusions. Hence, when reports reached the Great Brains of a strange new planet in the Hydra group, Setni was the logical astronaut to check it out.
Because by all accounts the planet seemed a double of Old Earth—but of Earth as it had been in the far past—and legendary beings were alive and well there.
Setni was specially trained for the task, but even the best training in disbelief was not sufficient. For on that pseudo-Earth, not only was Charlemagne in power and knighthood in flower, but the pagan gods were visible, physically real, and devilishly active.
Setni knew it was no illusion—
but then what was the reality?
So this is the third book I’ve read that happens to be translated from French, after The Mountains of the Sun and Starmaster’s Gambit. I’ll admit, I had no idea just how active the French were in science fiction until recently. I sort of wrote off the previous two as outliers. I’m sure every country with the time and resources has produced at least one science fiction book. This one, though, was a tipping point. Not just for France, but in general for non-English-language sci-fi. It’s something I’d never thought about until now.
What led me to consider the idea that plenty of countries and cultures have produced their own brands of science fiction is, perhaps oddly, an ad at the back of this book. See, this is a DAW book (Gods bless ’em), and like most paperback publishers, DAW puts ads for its other books in the back.
I’ve often wondered about that. Has anyone, ever, in the history of the world, cut out the little order form, threw in $1.25, and checked off the three “Other Amazing Novels from DAW” that caught their fancy? It’s not just the obscure or niche publishers that do it. I’ve read a lot of Stephen King and all of the 80s paperbacks I have from him also have order forms in the back where you can order more Stephen King novels, or perhaps branch out into other horror writers like Peter Straub.
What I think is funny is that I’ve never seen any of those forms in a book new enough that I could actually act on it.
Anyway, the point of bringing this up is that this particular book advertises a collection of international science fiction. It’s got a book from “Germany’s master of hard-core science fiction,” for one, but we’ve also got a Belgian, Austrian, and Swede represented.
That is so cool!
I’m laying my ignorance right out in the open here, but I just never think about the international science fiction community beyond, say, England. I think of authors in places like Sweden or Austria as dealing with experimental but personal stories that win Nobel Prizes, stories where a lesbian Arab woman comes to question her beliefs after inheriting her grandfather’s chocolate factory in Bern, written backward in a combination of Finnish and Maori.
What I don’t think of is pulp science fiction. This is a personal failing, and I admit it.
So the book I have now is Games Psyborgs Play, written by French author Pierre Barbet. It was originally published as A Quoi Songent les Psyborgs? in 1971. I can’t look at that French title without bursting into laughter. Barbet was a pseudonym of Claude Avice. Avice was a pharmacist as well as a pretty prolific author. Games Psyborgs Play is actually the second in a series, but it seems like the first book was not translated into English, as far as I can tell.
Reading a book in translation is frustrating. I can’t tell if the book was poorly written to begin with and the translator did the best he or she could, of if the translator ended up ruining some great prose. At worst, you get a book that’s poorly-written twice.
I do love the cover to this edition, though. It’s a pretty accurate depiction of one of the scenes of the book, albeit a short one. That’s not saying much, since nearly all the scenes in this book were quick. In a bad way. I’ll try to explain in a bit.
So our hero, Captain Setni, is sent to this planet in the Hydra constellation.
Okay, problem number one, and this isn’t the first time I’ve seen it. Using constellations to tell the audience where a star is just plain doesn’t work. Maybe if our hero had set off from Earth we could make some sense of it, but that’s not the case here. A constellation has no meaning except for the person looking up at it. The stars that make it up may look close together from an observer assuming they’re in the same plane, but they could be nowhere near each other in the third dimension. Let’s look at a well-known example: Orion’s Belt. It looks like three stars that are pretty close, right? The stars are, from left to right, Mintaka (915 light years away), Alnilam (1340 light years away), and Altinak (736 light years away). These three stars are nowhere near each other except from the vantage point of Earth.
So saying your destination in space is a “constellation” is fairly meaningless. You might have your narrator say “In the Hydra constellation as seen from Earth,” sure, and that can be a bit helpful, but this book never even mentions Earth except in the back synopsis.
Anyway, this planet in the constellation Hydra has some weird things going on. Captain Setni learns this from The Great Brains, which are exactly what they sound like. The Great Brains run The Confederation, which is also exactly what it sounds like. Setni works as a space captain for The Confederation. The Great Brains summon him because he has certain talents, mainly in that he has a natural resistence to psychic interference. This planet has some things going on that can only be attributed to a great psychic power, so that’s why Setni gets to go, right after the training montage.
Setni lands and finds himself in some kind of medieval fantasy world, also known as France. Charlemagne is still in power, but he is opposed by some “infidels” on the other side of a mountain. There are also great and powerful wizards running around and messing with people. The one Setni learns about first is named Oberon.
Setni guesses quickly that these powerful wizards are likely highly-advanced aliens who came to this world and took it over with Clarke’s Law. He ends up with a sidekick named Huon, a native of the planet, so he just pretends to be a magician too.
The rest of the book goes thusly, and this is the bad part: one of the magicians, be it Oberon or Dahut or Wotan, will throw a “trial” at Setni and Huon. It might be a storm, or some kind of monster, or a bunch of mermaids, or whatever. This happens again and again and again, none of the “trials” taking more than, oh, two pages, because Setni is able to counter them all immediately. He has so many devices on his person that any challenge is immediately countered by a device I had no idea existed or could exist in this universe. Massive thunderstorm? Electro-dampener dissipates it. Monster? G-force enhancer pins it to the ground. Seductive mermaids? Same G-force thing, reversed, flies the ship away.
There are many, many more examples of this. It’s the premise of the whole darn book. Setni is never once challenged. At worst it takes him a little bit to figure out which device to use. Maybe a couple seconds, tops.
Oberon doesn’t have much information for Setni. He prefers to chill and fly around on a cloud and watch people. Dahut, the witch, seduces Setni. She’s gorgeous, but she’s evil so Setni feels kind of gross afterward. His greatest challenge is to find out who Wotan is. He seems to be the leader of the bunch.
The trials are countered by forcefields and stun lasers and so forth. We’re told that they’re challenging and are probably the most difficult things Setni has ever faced, but come on. I’m challenged more when I have to pay the bills every month.
Setni finally finds himself in the hall of Wotan. We’re in the last thirty pages by this point. Will Setni, and we, learn what’s going on? Why these powerful tech-wizards are controlling this society and keeping it stuck somewhere in the equivalent of Earth’s middle ages? Why, if they’re so powerful, they can’t deflect a single space captain with a space army knife?
I guess? A little, anyway. Not enough.
We learn that these three wizards are, in fact, brains a lot like the ones that sent Setni on this mission in the first place. They are the last survivors of this planet. We get expositioned here. A long time ago, there was a land on this planet with an ideology. There was another land on the planet with an opposite ideology.
NO, BOOK. NO. DON’T DO THIS.
They coexisted in relative peace for a while, but things got hostile eventually, and the weapons at their beck and call, ones that maintained the balance of power for so long, had devastating effects across the planet.
It wiped out almost all life. The only human survivors were buried deep in a subterannean base, and they’re the folks who turned into giant brains. They’re more than giant brains, though, they’re Psyborgs.
What. The. Hell. Is. A. Psyborg.
(I hear you asking)
Well, it’s exactly what you think it is.
That’s the best answer I’ve got, because I don’t know.
I think they’re, um, something like psychic technology ghosts? Like, they have machines, robots and the like, and they can sort of possess them and walk around and stuff?
Anyway, it also turns out that they’re good guys. Never mind all that “trying to kill the protagonist stuff.” It was all A TEST.
Oh my GOD we’re in EVERY STAR TREK.
See, the Psyborgs were somewhat isolationist, seeing as how their planet got blowed up by means of competing ideologies and warmongering and Cold War allegory. They were afraid that other races (all human races, incidentally, it’s that sort of book) were just as belligerent as their own, so they only thing they could do was lock themselves off and move the planet around.
Setni changed their minds. He is a Good Man.
Umm…how exactly did he do that?
Whatever. We get expositioned until the book ends and Setni goes home. Yay.
I’m gonna say this book was bad before the tranalator got to it. It’s barely got any plot. The protagonist is too powerful to be entertaining. There’s this weird heavy-handed moral about the Cold War or maybe just plain warmongering at the end that just barely fits.
You know what would have been better? If it had been Earth all along. I actually expected that to be the case for a while. It would have made sense, seeing as how the Psyborgs had absolutely no other reason to be mimicking medieval France. Just what is the deal with that?
The translator didn’t help much, though. The prose had that certain, nearly undefinable, quality that just screams TRANSLATED. I studied the Middle Ages in college (for the job prospects, obviously), and so I read a lot of things in translation. Even did a bit of translating myself, from Old English. I’ve come to recognize the marks of a bad translation. See, translating isn’t just about moving words around. After all, El perro grande come la comida roja doesn’t mean “The dog big eats the food red.” There’s syntax involved, yes, but there’s also style and feeling. Those things are hard to translate. One feels that maybe some of the original intent of the manuscript is lost if one translates the style. But at the same time, going all literal makes for something that’s hard to read because it’s now English writing with French style, which doesn’t really work unless you’re going for a Nobel Prize.
Two zings against the Nobel committee today.
I’ll give you an example of some of the prose, just so that maybe what I’m talking about will make a bit more sense. Here’s a sentence from page 62:
I could not say with certainty: all our adventures seemed to have happened as in a dream.
Even with the context that’s just awkward phrasing.
I wish I could read French well enough that I could grab an original copy of this book and see what was lost in translation. I can tell you there was something, yes, but at the same time, it was not the fatal flaw. Probably.