THE FUZZ: VINTAGE 1990
When Sibyl Sue Blue, unique police sergeant of the future, smokes a benzale cigarette, she has a strange dream about the disappearance of her husband on the mysterious planet of Radix.
So she pulls of [sic] her wig and rouges her knees, and goes off to Radix with sinister millionaire Stuart Grant, and crew, in his space ship.
She finds her husband there, horribly transformed, and is in great danger of the same fate herself, unless she can get back to Earth in time. But this presents difficulties, because only Sibyl and the loathsome Dr. Beadle are in any shape to fly the ship, and neither one of them has ever done it before….
I wish I had liked this book. I really do. It had a lot going for it. For the first half or so it was well-written and interesting. Only after about the halfway mark did it start to go off the rails a bit and get weird and boring. It even had a female protagonist who wasn’t terrible, which is rare enough for the time period. Or at least she started off as not terrible. She went downhill along with the rest of the book. It’s a darn shame.
The book was apparently published originally under the name Sibyl Sue Blue. It says so right on the front cover. Why does the cover feel the need to proclaim that? I don’t understand it at all. Was it to make sure people didn’t think it was a sequel? Lots of other books aren’t that considerate. Or was it just a friendly reminder that if you’ve read this one before, you don’t need to buy it again? A sort of “Don’t waste your time” message? In that case, they could have done that for plenty of other reasons.
It’s just a shame that while digging around the dregs of science fiction, searching for lost gems and even more lost crapfests, it turns out that the books by woman authors I’ve read have tended toward the latter. With one exception, Leigh Brackett, I’m not sure if I’ve reviewed a book by a woman author that I’ve genuinely liked. I certainly hope it doesn’t come across that, for some reason or another, I don’t like science fiction by women, because I can assure you that is not the case. It’s just bad luck or something that it looks that way.
Despite the name that seems to suggest otherwise, Rosel George Brown was in fact a woman. I know, it surprised me too. Tragically, she died less than a year after this book was published. A sequel to this novel, The Waters of Centaurus, was published posthumously by her husband.
Our heroine is the titular Sibyl, who does not actually have the word “galactic” in her name. As to whether she’s mad or mod, I cannot attest. She seemed fairly sane throughout the book. And I’m not qualified to attest to her mod-ness. I suppose she could very well have been quite mod.
One thing I’d like to bring up: she rouges her knees. A lot. It mentions it once in the jacket copy, but it comes up about a dozen more times throughout the text. My main problem is that I have no idea what that means. I know what rouge is and I know what knees are, but never in my life have I ever considered the two things in proximity to one another. What the crap?
Okay, wait, I looked it up. Apparently it’s a 20s thing? Something flappers did? See, knees were generally covered up until about that point, so some women, once knees were allowed to be seen in public, would rouge them up to make them stand out even more. So that’s a thing. Thanks, Straight Dope message boards!
Now that that’s out of the way, I guess we can talk about the book. It starts out promisingly enough. Sibyl is a cop, specifically a sergeant. She’s good at what she does. She’s tough and rough and she can protect herself (and does). She’s also feminine enough to take care of her daughter and raise her up right, all the while using her feminine wiles to get what she wants out of men. She’s sexually awakened, is Sibyl Sue Blue, and nobody puts her down for it or anything like that. That’s nice. She’s a sexual woman, but she’s never judged to be a slut or anything.
At the beginning of the book she’s got two problems. The first is that there are Centaurians on Earth and some of them keep trying to kill her. Centaurians aren’t described all that much. The most we get are that they’re vaguely reptilian and they have tentacles instead of fingers. Some of them are green, which isn’t supposed to be normal but nobody comments on it at first. The green ones are the ones that keep attacking her. She handles herself quite well every time.
The other problem is called benzale. It’s rolled into cigarettes and the Centaurians smoke it like we would tobacco. The problem is that it has strong hallucinatory side effects in humans. It makes for an interesting science fiction setup: something that is basically harmless to one species having a tremendous and dangerous effect on humans. What is the reaction? Human governments are seeking to have it banned outright, but that infringes on the rights of the Centaurians. The Centaurian government keeps saying that it has seen no connection between human deaths and the smoking of benzale cigarettes, so it refuses to buckle down on shipping it to Earth.
The Centaurians are depicted as having been staying on Earth for quite a while now. Long enough for everyone to get used to them. The book states that when they first showed up they were praised and celebrated, but now that the novelty has worn off they basically live in ghettos around spaceports and are either ignored or discriminated against.
This is the part of the book I liked. It had a realistic flair to it that I thought was pretty spot on. There was a sense of understanding humanity in the first half of the book that, while a bit cynical, really worked for me. And then it went nuts.
See, a particular kind of benzale cigarette has been working its way around and it has deadly effects. The people who smoke it end up with complete liver shutdown. It seems that there’s some kind of virus making its way through the benzale trade. It’s also apparently what’s making some of the Centaurians green, although its revealed that Centaurians are color blind in that spectrum so they don’t actually notice. I thought that was a nice touch.
Sibyl is investigating these crazy benzale cigarettes. Her plan is, apparently, to just smoke one and see what happens. So she does. She has a vivid hallucination of her late husband, Kenneth, which tells her to come to the planet Radix and see him. Kenneth had been on the first, ill-fated, trip to Radix. No one returned. That was about ten years ago. Sibyl figures that a hallucination under the influence of a drug that almost kills her is pretty good evidence.
That puts her on the track of Stuart Grant, one of the richest and most powerful men on the planet. He controls most, if not all, of the space trade in and out of Earth. Anything or anybody that goes out or in does so through his company. Sibyl has a hunch that he has something to do with the benzale virus since, after all, the benzale shows up in his company’s spaceships. He flatly denies having anything to do with it and then tells her to come with him to the planet Radix and she can see for herself.
And so Sibyl agrees. Mainly because she’s attracted to him. This is where the book started to lose me.
She just up and leaves all her responsibilities, including her job and daughter, to look out for themselves while she gallivants across the stars with this rich man she’s attracted to. After they first sleep together she’s completely convinced that she’s in love with him. A few days later she’s had some time to think about it and now she’s convinced that she’s not in love with him anymore. If this weren’t by a woman author I’d claim that the book had gone completely misogynistic, but it’s not so I guess I can’t? Sibyl doesn’t seem to be negatively affected by these feelings, she just sort of experiences them and recounts them to us.
Aside from Sibyl, Stuart, and the rest of the crew that we don’t seem much of, the only other person on board is Dr. Beadle. He showed up a few times back on Earth, usually as a mysterious also-there whenever Sibyl was investigating a benzale-related death. It turns out that he’s basically Stuart’s doctor. He’s pretty good at his job but he’s thoroughly unlikable to Sibyl, a feeling that is mutual.
Sibyl thinks that Stuart has some kind of insidious motive behind his trip to Radix. It turns out that she’s right, but she doesn’t catch on quickly enough to do anything about it. It turns up when they arrive on the planet. Radix is a plant world. In fact, it’s not that it’s completely covered in plants, but rather it’s completely covered in plant. The whole ecosystem is just an extension of this one plant.
The plant, in a rather Borg-like fashion, can assimilate things into itself. This is something it did with the first expedition to the planet. Now it has some sort of intelligence. Somewhere mixed in with this intelligence is Sibyl’s husband, Kenneth, who shows up occasionally when the plant uses a human body to do its talking.
It’s eventually revealed that Stuart’s goal on the planet is to merge with it and use its power to take over Earth and Centaurus. He figures that he can control the massive plant. This is proven wrong when the plant takes him over and he’s not able to do anything about it.
The plant kills everyone on the ship except for Sibyl and Dr. Beadle. Stuart is taken over by the plant, which refers to itself as Radix.
Of note, Radix is Latin for “root.” As in Radix malorum est cupiditas. Reeeeal subtle.
Sibyl chops off the bit of Radix that has Stuart by the head and then, for reasons I didn’t exactly figure out, plants it. With Stuart on the other end. She even feeds it and makes sure it doesn’t die. I didn’t find out why, although I think it had something to do with her dead husband, like she was keeping him alive or something? But also I guess maybe they were afraid that if the plant died it would take Stuart with it, although I’m still not sure what the problem there would be.
Sibyl and Dr. Beadle try to get the ship back to Earth, but it turns out that neither of them know how to do it. They are sometimes able to access Stuart’s personality and he helps them a bit, but it all goes wrong when, due to overwork and exhaustion, they both pass out one night without turning off the lights in the greenhouse where they’re keeping Stuart and Radix. The plant grows out of control and threatens to take over the ship. In a bit of quick thinking, the two of them turn the heating off on the ship and freeze the plant to the point where they can dump it off the ship.
Nice, except that space doesn’t work that way. The problem with running a vessel in space isn’t so much the cold getting in as the heat staying in. It’s really hard to radiate heat away in space, so astronauts tend to roast in their own waste heat rather than freezing to death. Still, it was a decent bit.
Sibyl and Dr. Beadle cordially detest each other all the way back to Earth. Once they get back Sybil finds out that her job and her daughter are both safe and sound, which is nice. She also finds out that Stuart Grant has an illegitimate son who has gone missing, so that sets up the
Oh wait, no, there’s just this little coda where it turns out that somebody she knows is harboring this illegitimate son. The really interesting part is that the son is via a Centaurian woman, which, rather amazingly, isn’t supposed to happen. It turns out that the mother of this child was a mutant who was capable of breeding with a human, so interestingness is all around the place right now.
Well, now that the kid is found it’s time to end the
Oh wait, no, not yet. Sibyl gets a mission to take the kid back to Centaurus. Her daughter is able to come with her, and everybody’s happy, and she meets some dude she can sex with all the way to the other planet, so that’s nice. And that’s where the book ends.
Okay, so the end of the book was pretty meh. I just couldn’t get into it. It seemed like one plot twist after the other, or something like that, and none of it really came together to be especially coherent or entertaining. It’s not that it was especially bad, it just certainly wasn’t good.
Another thing about this book was the writing style of the author. I don’t know why, but for some reason she just wasn’t very good at verbs. I’ve read another book where people “lighted” their cigarettes, and this one does that and several others. It’s like strong verbs just weren’t in this woman’s vocabulary. People “waked up” and “speaked” to one another and all sorts of things like that. It was infuriating and distracting. I wonder if this was a stylistic choice or what. Either way, I didn’t like it.
As a book, I can’t really say this one was a failure altogether. It had some good bits. The first half had some bits that came across as almost noir, but with the added bit of aliens hanging around like it wasn’t any kind of big deal. The writing treated it like it wasn’t a big deal and so that fact came across very well. The Centaurians were barely described, and I get the feeling that it was because Sibyl herself wasn’t paying that much attention because they were so commonplace, like if in another book a character described a cat they wouldn’t have to state that the cat had four legs and pointed ears and a tail, they would only have to establish traits that might be identifying ones, like the fact that it was an orange cat or that its ears were ragged. I like that. It’s a hard thing for a lot of authors to do because, and I can completely understand this, they went through the trouble of creating these aliens so people should know what they look like, right?
Sibyl was a decent enough character but sadly she just didn’t have a lot of depth. She was tough, sassy, and sexy, and that was about it.
I’m putting this book down near the middle of the rankings (although I don’t actually do that much in the way of rankings). I didn’t hate it, but I couldn’t really get into it. It almost had me for a while, but then it didn’t anymore. I think it might have worked better if we’d gotten more of the Centaurian/Human interaction. Maybe if the book had taken place entirely on Earth instead of blasting off on an outer space adventure halfway through. It’s worth thinking about.