Century of the Manikin

Century of the Manikin by E.C. TubbCentury of the Manikin
DAW Books, 1972
Price I paid: 90¢

Dale Tulliver was his name and he was a product of the 21st century, the era of non-violence, permanent peace, and the drugs that controlled warlike emotions. He was a police agent of the Peace Committee that controlled the world.

Naomi Constance Fisher was her name, and she had been a crusading writer of the 20th century. She had been a vigorous advocate of world peace, woman’s liberation, and social progress. She had been frozen in near-death all these decades—and then they brought her back to life to enjoy the fruits of her thinking. 

But instead of augmenting the forces of peace it turned out that what Dale’s world meant by peace and what Naomi meant by peace were two different–and violently conflicting things.

The mixture could shatter civilization.

I really like this cover. There’s something about that blue woman up there that seems ahead of its time to me. It also looks like a cartoon. The bottom of the image is more what you’d expect from the early seventies. Plus there’s the amazing tagline of “BEWARE THE CRYOGENIC LADY FROM WOMAN’S LIB!”

I picked up this book for multiple reasons. An obvious one is that I liked the cover a lot, but it also helps that I’ve read one E.C. Tubb book before, S.T.A.R. Flight, and it turned out to be great. I enjoyed that one a lot. Adding to that is the possibility that I’ve got another The Feminists on my hands, since surely anything from that time period that focuses on “woman’s lib” is bound to be both offensive and hilarious. The combination of an author I’d previously liked and a concept that was bound to be bonkers stupid had me captivated.

Unfortunately, it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment.

The description we’re given on the back cover has very little to do with the content of the book. Likewise the front cover. We’re led to believe that this book is to be the clash of a 20th century feminist with the world she helped create, and she doesn’t like it. In a way that’s true, but not nearly enough. What we get turns out to be a collection of stories about people in this time period, the things they face and deal with, and then Naomi Constance Fisher pops out of cryogenic freeze just in time to tell us, the audience, what we’d already figured out.

Very sad.

We’re told that our viewpoint character for this novel is going to be Dale Tulliver. He is a character in the book, yes, but he’s one of many, all of which have their problems. Dale’s some kind of cop, but he works for the ministry of propaganda, (PAEC, Propaganda and Emotional Control), which seems to be the entire government.

In this future of the 2080s, everybody is controlled by PAEC. They seem to like it, but it’s propaganda so of course they would. People have been conditioned to find childbirth disgusting (because of overpopulation) and violence as the ultimate sin.

Everybody also takes these drugs, accentuators, that modify one’s personality. Supposedly they emphasize or de-emphasize aspects of a person’s personality, and the proper accentuators are chosen for the occasion. A person going for a job interview, for instance, would take the pills that make them confident, talkative, and friendly.

It’s the novelization of Jonathan Coulton’s “I Feel Fantastic!

The accentuators were the most interesting part of the book, especially since for the first quarter or so I felt like these characters were acting odd and unrealistic. Specifically all the conversations felt very exaggerated, full of one-dimensional characters. Normally I would just put that down to bad writing—gods know I’ve done it any number of times before—but in this case it felt extra-strange. For one, I know that Tubb is a better writer than that.

So when the accentuators part of the story became clear, it made a lot more sense. People were acting in exaggerated ways because, well, they were experiencing exaggerated feelings. Characters were overloaded on, say, aggression, or loquacity, or gumption, or whatever, and that’s why they felt so weird to me.

This is a book where the details are a lot better than the overall plot.

Dale is investigating some kind of organization. He’s not even told why he’s investigating them, it’s just that his bosses want to know what’s up so they send him in to look around. As time goes on, it turns out that they’re some kind of violence fetishists. They meet in sewers and just beat the living hell out of one another.

Meanwhile there’s a pair of guys named Simon and Tom. They own a business where they make aerosol aromatherapy cans. That’s how I interpreted it, anyway. It’s not a new line of business in this world, but the guys have decided that their niche in the market is providing the highest-quality versions of that product. They’re going out of business, mainly because their suppliers keep dropping out and cancelling contracts.

Part of that has to do with the fact that Simon’s wife is pregnant. In this future America, having a baby is just about one of the worst things you can do. The world is overpopulated, so adding yet another mouth to feed is seen as the height of selfishness. Having a baby also requires government permission and a large fee to secure that government permission, so they get you in every direction.

This whole part of the story is just an outside-looking-in view of a regular dude in this future. He’s stressed and he’s trying to deal with it by drugs and such, but those things aren’t working quite as well as he’d like. His wife wants to emigrate to Brazil because their policies are looser than in America, but emigration costs money and the business is going downhill and aaaaaaarrrrgggh poor Simon.

Also it turns out that this narrative ties into the other one when it’s revealed that Simon’s partner, Tom, is creating special violence-inducing pheromone spraycans for the group that Dale is investigating. These things are illegal, and if Tom gets caught it would turn out that Simon would also take the fall. This makes Simon even angrier.

I’m not sure if this bit was ever resolved. All I remember is that Simon began having more and more violent fantasies. There’s this weird but well-done bit where Simon meets a shady guy on the street near the slums. This guy has a gun. For a dollar Simon can play with it for a little while. You know, just hold it, twirl it on his finger, pretend he’s shooting it, and so forth. It’s very sexual.

The bit tells us a lot about this particular future: violence is the new sex. Whereas in our own time (and a lot of western history) sex is a secret, shameful thing to have and desire, this future has granted people sexual freedom but has placed societal restrictions on violence. Not through law, but through indoctrinating people to think that way. Whereas in our own time we glorify violence through the media even while knowing we’re not supposed to act on it, this future makes violent thoughts and acts out to be a perversion. What’s happening, then, is that these repressed feelings are beginning to bubble forth from the collective subconscious, and while everybody feels ashamed of it, that makes it all the more powerful.

This is certainly an interesting lesson. I’m not sure if I’m behind it, but it’s a real thinker.

There’s a third part of the book where Dale’s boss, Joseph P. Lincoln, is being asked by the leader of Brazil, Labrea Ituassu, to cryogenically un-freeze a particular woman. This woman is Ituassu’s great-great-grandmother. The woman is also Naomi Constance Fisher, the woman mentioned on the back of the book.

I wonder if we’re supposed to think “Oh maaaan, it’s about to get REAL” because that’s what I was thinking.

I was disappointed here, too.

Ituassu doesn’t make it all that clear as to why he wants this woman unfrozen. He says some vague things about family and stuff but I didn’t believe it, and neither did anyone else in the book.

Also, in this future most people who have some kind of terminal illness end up being cryogenically frozen. This is a practice that has gone on since the 1980s, and Fisher was the first person to have the procedure. She’s also going to be the first person to be woken up from the procedure, so this is a big propaganda boon for Lincoln anyway. She’s been frozen for a hundred years and two days, as of the page in the book where that statement was made.

She wakes up and the story just upends itself. She’s fiercely independent and refuses to go along with Ituassu. Instead she ends up staying with Dale for a few days. She picks fights with people and is generally just a mean old witch. She reads Dale’s poetry and just trashes it. Eventually she leaves him and goes off with Ituassu to a “Naturist” camp. The Naturists are folks who claim they’re trying to be rid of the artificialities of society and live with, well, nature. They’re also nudists.

She picks fights with these people too. Just trashes their whole philosophy.

So this goes on for about twenty pages. Fisher was woken up about thirty pages from the end of the book. Her role is minimal except for one thing: after she does all this we get a scene where she’s talking to Lincoln in his office. She states that her attitude was a test. She was seeing how people would react to her. Since they all backed down, she was disappointed to see that the fighting spirit of humanity has all but extinguished. She then tells us everything we’ve already figured out about how violence is bubbling up under the surface of society, people are trying to express it in secret and shameful ways, and all that sort of thing. Her solution is to arm the entire populace and let them fight it out, because violence is human nature and to repress it will mean it will finally come forth explosively and wreck the whole world. She, on the other hand, is going to go back to being cryogenically frozen.

And the book ends.

That ending is so unsatisfying. Actually everything to do with that part of the book was pretty bad. The book would probably have worked better without Fisher being involved at all. She just showed up and yelled a bit and then told Lincoln, and us, what we already knew, with an added preachy bonus of how gun control is apparently wrong. I did not like this ending.

But I did like a lot of the details of the world as it was set up. It was cynical, yes, but in many ways it struck me as a bit prophetic. I’m skeptical when it comes to using various drugs to modify people’s personalities. I understand that some people really do need things like antidepressants and all that to function, and I do respect that. Sometimes nothing else helps. I just feel like drugs are overprescribed for “personality issues” that could be controlled or dealt with in more meaningful ways. This is not an original or especially controversial opinion, but there you go. E.C. Tubb seems to have felt much the same way at the time he was writing this book.

The book also brings up the question of whether violence is inherent to the human animal. I suppose you could make the argument that it is and I’d believe it up to a point, but the solution as presented in this book by Naomi Constance Fisher is not one that I’d get behind. Arming the populace and letting natural selection take care of the deal is abhorrent. I’m disappointed that Tubb didn’t feel the need to bring up any alternatives that didn’t involve mass murder.

As a series of character studies and a “walk around the future” book, this one was a success until it stopped being that. Once it became this sort of “let me tell you what’s wrong with the future, and by extension, the present” moralistic fable I was turned off. Even then, that was working fine until the final pages of the book just decided to come out and try to tell me what to think.

At least the cover is still great. They can’t take that away from me.

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