The Rakehells of Heaven

The Rakehells of Heaven by John BoydThe Rakehells of Heaven
Penguin Books, 1969
Price I paid: 90¢

John Adams and Kevin O’Hara are graduates of North Dakota’s great Mandan Space Academy. Both trained to be conquistadors of space, explorers in an age of interstellar imperialism, Adams and O’Hara are as different as any two space scouts could possibly be. Now, together, they are sent to explore a distant world called Harlech. The Harlechians are unclassified aliens; relations with their women are strictly forbidden by the Interplanetary Colonial Authority. Adams is willing to play by the rules—but whoever made those rules hadn’t counted on the lusty Red O’Hara, rakehell of heaven…From the Adams-O’Hara probe, only John Adams returns.

So yesterday I found myself, completely unaware of it, reading another John Boyd book.

It’s one of those situations where I just didn’t remember the author’s name in connection with another book I’d reviewed.

What tipped me off was an introduction by the author. It mentions that this book is the third in a trilogy.

And I was all dammit.

But as he went on he mentioned that it’s more of a thematic trilogy than anything, spurred by his interest in mythology and how science fiction could retell mythological stories within a futuristic context.

He mentions the first book in this “trilogy,” The Last Starship from Earth. Something about that title dug at the back of my brain like I should recognize it. Then he mentioned the second book: The Pollinators of EdenI slapped myself on the forehead and then mentally steeled myself for what was likely to be another incomprehensible and ridiculous tale of people having sex with things they shouldn’t.

I was mostly right.

I enjoyed this book more than its predecessor. It made a lot more sense and had a more coherent story. Some parts were pretty funny. Other parts were more mystifying. And some parts just bugged me.

The book begins with a starship arriving ahead of schedule at Earth. Our first-person viewpoint character at this juncture is a psychologist whose job it is to figure out just what’s going on. The guy in the starship spouts some nonsense about trying to stop the Adams-O’Hara mission and how he arrived “too late.” Finally this psychologist gets the guy, John Adams, to tell his story.

The book jumps viewpoints now as Adams recounts his life to this psychologist guy.

John Adams was born somewhere in Alabama and joined the Space Navy. He was computer-matched with Kevin “Red” O’Hara, an Irishman, as roommates. The computer bases its matches on who will be compatible enough to go to space together without killing one another. This is an actual problem.

John begins to think that the computer messed up because he and Red are very different people. Red is an Irish Catholic womanizing drunkard coward of a con-man. John is all that but Baptist. And less of a con-man. Red is an excellent con-man. This is important to the story.

The two of them hit it off pretty well. They go whoring together and get into some adventures. After a weekend of visiting the local brothel, the two of them are walking, flat broke, back to the base, when they see a sign that says “Free coffee and donuts.” They figure what the heck, might as well, and drop in. It turns out that to get the coffee and donuts they have to sit through a sermon. Fair enough.

John gets TOUCHED by the SPIRIT. Red fakes it well enough that he sleeps with the pastor’s daughter. They get married right before John and Red blast off into space on their mission of discovery.

John has decided that his true mission is to bring the Word to the rest of the universe. This is against Space Navy regulations, so he has to do it in secret.

One of the funniest bits of the book, or at least the most satirical, deals with the long list of Space Navy regulations. To qualify as a true human species, with all the rights and privileges thereto, there is this rubric that an alien species must meet. It is pretty clear that the list is not made to qualify people as human, but rather to disqualify them so Earth can exploit the planet. A species must, for example, be able to defend itself from threats from space (the point here being that if it can defend itself, it’s not worth trying to invade). There are also rules like “must have sex face-to-face” and “gestation periods must be no less than seven and no more than eleven Earth months long.”

We learn much later in the book that the Earth is actually run by an insurance company that managed to buy out all the governments of the planet by promising them lower premiums. Once they took over, the insurance company decided that the only way it could grow was to expand into space. Qualifying “human” species are granted colonial status and also have reduced premiums, whereas non-qualifying “intelligent animals” are put to work in factories and stuff.

The species that John and Red meet, the Harlechians, seem to fit into the latter category at first. While roughly human-shaped, there are some differences. They run around naked, for one. Their legs are a bit different from ours, built for jumping rather than running and with prehensile toes. All the women are beautiful.

Our heroes land on this planet and set up shop in a pretty literal sense. They have a display that they put up like they’re at a job fair or are getting people to switch to the new N-E-WEAR Unlimited Minutes Plan. Then they play the waiting game.

The surface of this planet is a tranquil wonderland where all these naked people come out and play soccer for a while, completely ignoring the promise of Weekend Minutes and $100 off the new iPhone (certain limits may apply).

Finally a delegation comes up and explains what’s going on. Of note is the fact that this delegation has a translating machine, something that’s top of the line for Earth people, so it seems that maybe this civilization is actually more advanced than we are. They dismiss this for satirical and cynical reasons.

They explain that they’ve landed on the Planet of College. Since all basic needs are taken care of, scholarship is the main point of this whole planet, Harlech. If the Earthmen are so interested in sharing their ideas, they are welcome to set up some elective classes for the students to share what they know. There is absolute academic freedom on this planet, so teach whatever you want.

Red is all “Yes! I’m gonna teach these women how to have Earth Sex!”

And John is all “Yes! I’m gonna teach these people about JESUS!”

And that’s what they set out to do. Red has a lot of fun. John has some difficulty, since the Harlechians take everything literally and so don’t understand such concepts as the Trinity or the Resurrection or the idea that there is a giant invisible beard in the sky who judges them.

What we get to see over the rest of the book is how John’s preaching turns a pretty nice planet where people run around naked having all the sex they want and studying whatever interests them and just generally having a good time into a place that just isn’t all that fun anymore.

He introduces concepts like monogamy, which then leads to sexual frustration and murder because of it. So he tries to introduce justice. “Eye for an eye” works pretty well, if a bit on the literal side. A nice bit of realism is that John introduces that aspect of Mosaic law, sidestepping the part of the New Testament where Jesus is all “Yeah, don’t do that.”

Red introduces the Harlechians to drama, which they take to even though a lot of them have trouble figuring out that what’s happening on the stage (and television) isn’t actually happening. He and John start working together to make Christmas pageants to help get the idea of Jesus across.

While Red is sexing up every woman on the planet, John is having trouble keeping himself celibate. All the women are willing, but he feels that to give in would be defiling the flesh. He’s also not sure if mating with the natives would constitute bestiality under the laws of the Space Navy.

Finally, though, he gives in to one of the native girls, a blond named Cara. He introduces the concept of marriage to the planet through her. They do seem to love one another, although John’s efforts to introduce so many Earth concepts to the Harlechians keep them apart for a while and she grows jealous. That marital tiff is indirectly solved by John’s introduction of a Secret Police Force. It turns out that she uses it to keep tabs on him and knows full well that he’s not cheating on her.

Cara gets pregnant. Meanwhile, Red is trying to put on a Passion Play for Easter. On top of all that, there’s a murder and John wants to get the perpetrator to convert to Christianity before his execution, not only to save the man’s soul but also as a massive PR stunt for the Nazarene.

Also, the dean of the university, a guy named Bubo, seems to have something against John and keeps trying to set people against him.

A lot’s going on at this point of the book, but I didn’t have all that much trouble keeping track of it. Color me surprised.

Finally this house of cards comes to its inevitable collapse. Bubo forbids John to teach Religion as a university course, so he takes his church underground. The murderer guy publicly converts and then kills himself, figuring he’ll get to heaven quicker. Bubo uses that as further evidence that John’s religion is wrecking the planet.

The stinger comes when Cara gives birth to her baby. The child ends up having red hair. John knows what’s up and decides that the only thing he can do is kill Red for impregnating his wife. Cara insists that she’s always been faithful to him, but later admits that Red used her as an in-class demonstration of an “Earth wedding night” once before they ever got together. John forgives his wife and loves the child, but still feels the need to kill Red out of good old Christian vengeance.

So the thing I love about this book is that John isn’t a bad guy, but he’s a nice summation of everything that’s gone wrong with Christianity since, oh, Paul. He’s self-righteous and hypocritical, honestly believes he’s doing the right thing by bringing his religion to this alien planet, and is perfectly fine with ignoring huge swaths of his own Holy Text while simultaneously arguing over minute points of doctrine. While teaching the natives that the commandment says “Thou shalt not kill,” he introduces the death penalty to Harlech and sets out to murder someone.

I know I was supposed to see this book as satire but honestly I thought it had a disturbing amount of realism to it.

(For the record, I’m not running down on Christianity per se. If anything, John is a great example of what worries me most about Evangelical Christians specifically.)

The book starts to get a little bit wacky at the end. Red goes on the run. The Passion Play is still going ahead without him. As the whole thing starts to pick up, John notices that the guy portraying Jesus is actually Red. Realizing what’s about to happen, John tries to stop the whole thing, but fails. Red gets crucified for real. Suddenly, a storm starts to sweep in (Harlech is prone to sudden and violent lightning storms, which is why the people live underground). The Harlechians flee to safety but John can only watch as a lightning bolt strikes the cross with Red on it, disintegrating them both. John buries the nails, says a quick prayer to Mary on Red’s behalf, and leaves.

He finds out that now the whole planet hates him. I didn’t get this part. Everybody is now convinced that Red was God incarnate, the Jesus of the Harlechians, and that John is a false prophet. I got the idea that this was all part of Red’s game, a long con, and that made a certain amount of sense, but there were details that I felt were missing. Cara rejects John and almost kills him. He flees back to his starship and heads back to Earth. He figures that if he can go fast enough he’ll be able to compress time to the point where he arrives before he left (which doesn’t make much sense) and stop this whole sorry mess, but he fails at that and arrives at Earth so that he can tell the story we just heard.

We jump back to the psychologist, who tells us that John was arrested for his crimes. The psychologist comes to the conclusion (out of sheer guesswork and a weird feeling, as far as I could tell), that Red didn’t die and actually came back after three days. He concludes that Red was in cahoots with Bubo, the dean, the whole time, and that Red is likely to build a starship himself and come back to Earth, using the method that John failed at using, to show up at Phoenix Park, Dublin, in 1882.

So I had to look that up. There was some murders then? By Fenians, probably? I don’t get it? Here’s the Wikipedia article. Best I can figure is that the murders ended up delaying Irish Home Rule and Red wanted to stop that.

The end of the book has two characters give their names, one of whom is the psychiatrist. They both have Irish names and I guess that’s supposed to be a shock and imply that Red succeeded or something.

I still feel like I’m missing something.

This book was a lot better than The Pollinators of Eden, I’ll say that. It had some flaws but it was satirical enough that I could feel like I didn’t have to take those flaws seriously. I mean, our heroes flew to an alien planet in another galaxy in a matter of months . That’s bonkers. I’m not advocating that all science fiction be hard science fiction, but some things just grate on me. Why did the planet need to be that far away anyway? Our own galaxy is plenty big enough.

I guess my biggest complaint about the book is that, while it satirized elements of Christianity that I think are deserving of satire, it didn’t do it in any kind of way that I thought was deeply original. We have a plot where some natives live in paradise until a missionary brings the idea of Hell to them. We have another plot where somebody cons their way into being Space Jesus. Maybe in 1969 this was bold and new, in fact I might even bet on it, but I was still left cold.

And it JUST occurred to me that the main character is John the Baptist.


2 thoughts on “The Rakehells of Heaven

  1. I actually have this book sitting in my ‘to-read’ pile- mostly because the concept of sexy space hijinks seemed worth a dollar. Not sure if I’ll ever get around to reading it…but who knows?


  2. You do make the book sound awfully interesting while being perhaps gently deranged.

    The Penguin cover is awfully striking, though. If I saw the book I might have picked it up just on the strength of that.


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