Offworld by Max Daniels
Pocket Books, 1979
Price I paid: 75¢
EXILE OR “REHABILITATION”?
Not much of a choice—and Max, a born prankster, stands to lose either way. But he chooses exile, and finds on an unknown planet the adventure—and danger—his own utopian world lacked.
Befriended by the warrior tribe called the Enthok, Max must enter the corrupt city-state of Salf to find and recapture the beautiful leader of the proud Enthok. But to do so, he must first discover the secret behind the cruel power of the threatening figure of Bithe.
Is this the ugliest cover of any of the books I’ve reviewed? Maybe not. I’m not going to go back and check. I’m willing to bet it’s in the top, oh, five. I just can’t stop looking at it. I guess that guy in the front is supposed to be our hero. He’s doing something to some kind of rainbow heart turkey eagle without feathers. Did he put it in a bag? Is that its skin? I can’t tell. It’s so poorly conveyed.
And the ladies with gross six-packs are just sitting there watching him. The one with the cow monster is all like “Hey, when you finish taking out the garbage, it’s time to wash the cow-thing.” Meanwhile, the blue one behind him is all “I’m so cold because I’m wearing the absolute minimum of clothes to keep this book from being pornography.” Looking at her shoulder it looks like what little she’s wearing is in danger of falling off, too. She’s got an arm wound and a dagger, so I have to wonder if maybe she stabbed herself in the arm in a desperate ploy for our hero’s attention.
A note on the author: Max Daniels was a woman. Her real name was Roberta Gellis and she’s written a fair number of things, including a series with Mercedes Lackey. She only published two books under the name Max Daniels and I have to wonder what that was all about. I know a lot of women science fiction authors wrote under either male or androgynous names (or just their initials) back in the fifties and early sixties, but this book was almost a product of the eighties. Surely Pocket Books didn’t still think that a woman’s name on the cover would hurt sales.
It doesn’t help that “Max Daniels” is a really stupid name. Also, the main character in the book was named Max, which puts me in mind of sitcoms where the star has the same first name as his character.
white saviour hero, Max, is from a far future Earth that has gone utopia. It doesn’t seem all that bad, but Max has made the mistake of being an jerk. A prankster, really, but what’s the difference? He’s decided that it’s his job to shake up this utopia and pull the kinds of pranks that’ll get people to break out of their robotized routines. At one point in the backstory he robbed a bank and then sent all the money back but rigged it so the money would fly all over the place when they opened it. He’s a real card.
The justification he gives is that he’s playing an essential role in society by pointing out its flaws. Fine, whatever, but society doesn’t see it that way so they give him a choice. Either he undergoes a procedure that’ll pull that part of him out of his brain, or he can be teleported to a far off planet. He noodles this for a while and then chooses the latter option.
He finds himself on a strange world where he gets to be all awesome all the time. He meets up with a group of people called the Enthok, who are noble savages. They’re having a rough time of it, though, because the more civilized people in the nearby city of Salf have given them the shaft and kidnapped their leader. Max figures that the best option is to integrate with their society and save them all because they’re not able to do so themselves.
Does any of this sound familiar? It’s your standard “white man saves the virtuous primitives” story, IN SPACE!
To be fair, there’s this bit before he gets sent to the planet where we learn that Max isn’t really white. This future Earth has put aside its racial prejudices long ago and so he’s actually a mixture of races like most other people. We get a rundown of the positive attributes he got from each of his racial ancestries.
So these people are the Enthok, and they’re having a tough time with the Bralidom who use the Bolvan as bodyguards and soldiers. The leader of the Bralidom, Sinkek, has broken all the customs and rules that previously kept the peace, and so the Zel (or was it Thal, I don’t remember) of the Enthok, Jael, has been kidnapped for breeding purposes.
Got that? Let’s talk about space languages for a moment. See, this book has a lot of terms that are unique to the Enthok language.
Wait, no, I’m lying. These terms are not unique, they’re just different words. We get a bunch of vocabulary for things that are just the same things we have on Earth. Example: a pev is an adult member of society. A briska is a child.
WE DON’T NEED THESE TERMS
This is a common enough problem with science fiction and fantasy but I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a chance to comment on it. Orson Scott Card goes over it in his How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, and while I’m sure most of us have disagreements with Card over certain issues I think we can all agree that he makes a good point here:
Don’t call a rabbit a smeerp if it’s just a rabbit.
In this book it’s especially egregious. The dialogue is already being rendered into English for our benefit, so there’s no reason at all for it to refer to basic concepts with alien words. It would lose nothing to say “The adults looked after the children” as opposed to “The pevi looked after the briski.”
I know the plurals to these words because there is a handy GLOSSARY.
WE DON’T NEED A GLOSSARY
That’s a thing I’ve been over before, but I’ll say it again: If you need a glossary to explain the terms and ideas you introduced in your book, you did a bad job writing the book. Use your invented vocabulary well, with good context and consistency, and your readers will figure out what you mean. We’re already readers, which puts us well ahead of most people in terms of intelligence, and science fiction readers at that, which makes us the cream of that crop.
Yes, I can be elitist.
Oh, and to cap it all off, the words are also defined in the text of the book. Very clunkily. We’ll get some dialog or exposition and we’ll get words defined midline. Let me make up an example, because it’s time to revisit the story of Steve the freedok:
Steve was a freedok [ombudsman]. He had often had unaftim [legal troubles], but he was learning how to survive around the yurin [courtroom]. His pyreen [mother] and merren [father] had brought him up well. He knew how to avoid hyrenc [setbacks].
So Max figures that since he looks different from the Enthok, he’ll be able to sneak his way into Salf, get a job as a guard or something in the palace (a big deal is made about how the palace guard is all-mercenary), and then make a break for it. The Enthok try to tell him not to do this because it’s dangerous and he’s already proven himself super useful to them (a common enough trait of this kind of hero is that he quickly adopts the ways of his adopted people, often better than they do themselves, and then sets out to instruct them in his own ways which are somehow superior).
Still, he goes about this mission and it all goes really well for him all the way to the end. I guess he’s just that good. He gets a job as a guard and explains his funny looks by saying that he comes from a land far away beyond the radioactive ruins of the Old Ones.
Oh, I forgot to mention the Old Ones. They’re the previous inhabitants of this planet before they nuked it. They’re a source of superstition and awe for the current people of the planet. Now you’re caught up.
Also, the people of this planet are descended from reptiles, which I guess explains why their eyes look weird. I think they also don’t have ears? A big deal is made about Max’s ears. Also the males’ penises retract into their bodies when they aren’t aroused, which turns out to be another big deal. It comes up. Several times. Not only are the women of this world totally attractive to Max, it also works the other way around, and he gets to have some fun here and there.
Most of the middle of this book concerns Max learning his way around the castle and figuring out what’s up with the politics of this strange place. The ruling family of this city has gone insane due to inbreeding and he gets to learn about the various ways that takes shape. He hooks up with the sister of Sinkek, the ruler, and manages to use that to his advantage. He also meets Zabulin, one of Sinkek’s sons, who turns out to be fairly sane and so Max decides that in addition to rescuing Jael, he should set this guy up as the new ruler.
Max wanders around the castle until he finds Jael, but they don’t make a break for it quite yet. Turns out there’s some setup that needs to be done. Also, he and Jael fall in love. Did I mention Jael was female? She’s also super gorgeous. It’s established that even though the male anatomy of this planet is different from that of a human’s, the female anatomy is compatible enough for the usual things to take place. Ugh.
The grand escape isn’t all that exciting. It was planned and set up enough that there’s not much in the way of risk involved. I think there was one fight, but Max, Jael, and Zabulin took care of the situation quickly.
They get back to the Enthok and then Zabulin tells Max that while Senkik is insane, he’s also just a puppet ruler for something called Bithe. It’s unknown what Bithe actually is, but speculation is that he’s a holdover Old One. Max takes this information and then whites it up, saying that maybe it’s not an Old One but another space traveller like himself. Everybody is all “okay, whatever you say, you’re always right” and Max gets it into his head to go back to Salf and figure all this out. He takes a raiding party.
So they fight their way back into the city and the palace. This time there’s a lot more action. At some point they get fired at by a blaster gun, which isn’t supposed to happen. Max takes this as final evidence that Bithe is some kind of space alien, since the people of this planet don’t have that kind of technology. Some fight scenes later, he finds himself at the door to Bithe’s domain. He bursts in and discovers Bithe’s true face.
He’s a Nompeg! Holy crap!
Okay, so once, very briefly, in the beginning of the book, it was mentioned that Earth had some kind of space war with a race called the Nompeg. It wasn’t even backstory so much as a casual reference to Earth’s new policy of sticking close to home. Earth won the war and almost (I guess there’s an emphasis on the almost) wiped them out.
But that casual mention was about 150 pages ago and it was never brought up again. When Max spat out the word “Nompeg” like a swear word I honestly had no idea what was going on. He finally explained what the Nompeg were to one of his Enthok pals and I vaguely remembered that they’d been brought up once before. I suppose this is a case of Chekhov’s Alien but it was a poorly executed one, since I had no idea who the Nompeg were, what they were capable of, how they worked, what they wanted, or how they were a threat. All I knew was that they were evil. And this guy Bithe is evil too because he is one of them.
The book ends with Max wondering if there are any other Nompeg on the planet and speculating that maybe the folks that banished him to this planet did so for a reason, namely killing off some Nompeg. I guess. Whatever.
I’m not happy about anything in this book, but it wasn’t so awful as to warrant disgust or anger. It was a very meh read.
At least Max was a pretty decent hero, though. He was active and had agency and did a lot of things without them just happening to him so he could respond. He could have been worse. On the other hand, I think the book might have been better if he hadn’t been in it. If his character had been, say, one of the Enthok and there were no humans at all in this novel, I think it would have worked better. He didn’t need to be human to make the story work, and I think a story of a society fixing its own problems has more weight to it. Heck, the Enthok and their kin were human enough that they didn’t even need to be aliens. This book didn’t actually have to be science fiction. It could have been the story of some Bronze Age nomads hanging around the outskirts of a Greek city and it could have been basically the same story. Bithe could have been some other foreign element. An Etruscan or something. I don’t know.
It would have been a better book.
I guess that leads us to the question of how often a science fiction element just isn’t integral to the story. I think of this partly because my friend was reading the submission guidelines to one of the sf magazines, Analog I think, and they brought it up. They don’t want stories that just happen to take place on another planet unless that is the point of the story (for example). It’s something I’d never really put a lot of thought into, and now I’m going to think about it more often when I’m reading. Exciting!