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The Devolutionist

“The Devolutionist” by Homer Eon FlintThe Devolutionist and the Emancipatrix front
Ace Books, 1965
Originally published in Argosy All-Story Weekly, July 23, 1921
Price I paid: none

Which was the strangest world of the galaxy? Was it the world of THE DEVOLUTIONIST, where two planets traveled through space locked to a common axis?

Or was it the world of THE EMANCIPATRIX, shaped like a sharp-edged doughnut?

The mind-space team of The Lord of Death again crosses the void to explore these worlds—and the result is a pair of interstellar classic adventures worthy of the author of THE BLIND SPOT.

Well, well, well, this is something quite interesting.

For one, this book turned out to be two books, but not in the usual “We’ll throw these stories together and make it seem like a complete novel” kind of way that I’ve gotten used to. This was an omnibus, which is great, because it means I don’t have to pick a book for next week.

Still, I think I can be forgiven for thinking that the title of this book was The Devolutionist and the Emancipatrix. At least the back of the book refers to them as a “pair of interstellar classic adventures,” though. One doesn’t often get that level of honesty from jacket copy.

What I figure is that I’ll read “The Devolutionist” this week and “The Emancipatrix” next week. I feel a little cheap doing it that way—the book in its entirety is only something like 190 pages—but I also figure that reviewing two books at one time is something I’m not exactly ready for yet. I’m surprised that any of you people read my ~2000 word essays every week. If I did both of these books in the same review, it would probably run about 5000 words. I imagine you want to read that about as much as I want to write it.

This book was something to behold. It wasn’t bad, if that’s what you’re thinking. In fact, it had a lot going for it. It was also deeply entrenched in its time, which is something I can’t hold against it one bit, but man, 1921 was a weird time for science fiction.

Jesus, this book is almost a hundred years old.

I mean, holy crap, this book is sixteen years older than Star Maker.

What’s great is that there isn’t much in this book that I’d call dated. Yes, it has some off-hand references to women that I would deem a little less than politically correct in today’s climate. And yes, anything and everything even remotely approaching actual science is so completely bonkers that it’s not even worth considering as an attempt to be accurate.

BUT

This is a work of social science fiction, pretty hot on the heels of the venerable Mr. Wells. In that regard, I’m going to say that this book was darn close to a success.

That’s sort of a tough call to make. I wasn’t alive in 1921 and I haven’t done an awful lot of reading about the 1920s and its attitudes, concerns, and so forth. What makes me lean toward the negative is the fact that all the social commentary in this book strikes me as painfully obvious. There was nothing new to it for me. What makes it difficult there is that I know that a lot of what was concerning to the author at the time is a really big concern right now. This is a book about income equality, social justice, the rights of workers, and lying governments.

What I don’t know is whether this book is ahead of its time or if it’s just tackling things that are obvious problems in all times.

We start out, though, by meeting Dr. William Kinney and his pals. Dr. Kinney is your standard-issue super-scientist. He’s the sort of character who goes, “Hmm, a space ship would be a neat thing to build.” And then boom, quick cut to a week in the future and the dude has a fully functional space ship. Where were you when we were racing the Russians to the moon, Dr. Kinney? Selfish bastard, letting us rely on Nazis.

Turns out that this novella, or whatever it is, is the third in a series. The back of the book sort of references that, but in a really confusing way. Catch that bit about “the mind-space team of The Lord of Death?” My, that sounds pretty ominous. Well, all that’s referring to is the first novella in this series, “The Lord of Death,” in which Dr. Kinney and his pals take a space ship that he invented one afternoon and visit Mercury. There’s a dying civilization there, as I understand it. That was followed up by “The Queen of Life,” which details a trip to a Venus that plays host to an advanced and benevolent civilization.

It was on Venus that Dr. Kinney learned about mental telepathy or whatever it is. Basically, he and his friends, whose names I have completely forgotten but I’ll look them up if it ever becomes necessary, sit in some chairs and fly out into space with their minds. They find a civilization that is similar enough to humanity that they can make a mental connection with some of its members. The alien host mind and the human mind have to be pretty simpatico before there can be a connection, too. I remember that being a thing but really it was little more than a detail. The similarity between two beings that allowed for the contact was described as basically ineffable, anyway.

The rule is that our humans can’t interfere in any way with the people they’re observing. It’s strictly one-way communication. The aliens, who incidentally are from Capella, are completely unaware of their human ridealongs.

Honestly, that seems kind of gross to me. If somebody were looking through my eyes without my knowledge, I’d be pretty upset if I found out. The Capellans never find out, so I guess everything’s okay, except it still leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Assuming that aliens would have the same notions of privacy that we do is silly, I realize, but in the case of this book, the aliens are just humans again, so it comes across as a bit squicky.

The aliens have a pretty interesting setup that flies in the face of all rational science, but here it is:

They’re not really from a planet, they’re from two planets. The planets are stuck together. Like this:

Wasn’t this a Pinky and the Brain episode?

I’ll admit that there’s a lot I don’t understand about planetary physics. I could be wrong here, but this seems like it’s probably impossible. I would imagine that the two planets would need to be spinning very fast around their center of mass, which would probably need to be right where the two planets are conjoined, which would probably mean that the two planets are exactly the same size for any of this to actually work.

Still, it’s a neat idea. And I’m probably wrong. If any of you are or happen to know Phil Plait, Randall Munroe, or anybody else who would be able to think about the physics of this situation better than I can, please let me know. I’m genuinely interested.

The social commentary comes in at this point. Basically, the two planets have separate populations and never the twain shall meet. Planet 1 ought rightly to be called Planet 1%. Its pal, then, is Planet 99%.

Planet 1% is a paradise. Planet 99% is an industrial hellscape.

They are called, in the native language, Hafen and Holl, which translate to Heaven and Hell.

Because not only do these humans physically resemble humans, the also have similar religious concepts and even a language that remarkably sounds like English.

But yeah, this is the basic scheme. The poor people live on Holl and do all the work. The “owners,” who also happen to be the government, live on Hafen, get all of the benefits, and bask in luxury.

At the time our heroes are observing the planets, there’s a bit of a revolution brewing. How lucky! Some of the people from Holl have started to get it into their heads that they’re getting majorly shafted. As I read it it became clear to me that these people face a lot of the same problems that we do! How surprising!

Except here’s something funny:

At one point there’s a conversation between a loyalist and a revolutionary. The loyalist points out that under the current scheme, there is

  1. No child labor
  2. Free education for everybody
  3. No poverty
  4. No war
  5. Equal rights to work for both sexes, including equal wages

Man, that is sweet!

Our revolutionary shoots back that yeah, all of those things are great, except that they aren’t for our benefit, they’re for the benefit of the owners, man, because things like war and child labor and poverty just aren’t profitable, man, I mean, yeah.

The big difference between Earth and there is that the owners are just as self-interested but they’re actually smart about it.

I mean, I have no big problem with that kind of enlightened self interest. I’m a strong believer in benefiting oneself by being good to other people. It constantly amazes me that people do not ever seem to understand that being good to other people will make their own lives easier and that is BASIC SENSE I MEAN COME ON WHAT IS WRONG WITH OUR SPECIES

This revolutionary is all “Okay so they give us all this great stuff but what’s in it for us?

Ugh.

I mean, I get it. Capitalism, as it is practiced on our own planet, is poison. I’m not going to argue with that.

The other thing about these planets is that the government is constantly trying to keep the people on Holl from realizing how shafted they are. Part of the deal is keeping them happy and healthy (god forbid), but the other part is also the part that rings a lot truer to our own planet’s situation. It’s the old “keep them distracted” trick.

The folks on Hafen decide that the thing to do is declare war on yet another planet, named Alma, which is also within their solar system.

Oh, before I forget, there was this one bit where Dr. Kinney realizes that he’s in the mind of someone from another planet because he quite conveniently got placed into the mind of a schoolboy receiving his lessons. At one point Dr. Kinney thinks something like “I must be in a completely different solar system altogether, because our system only has eight planets!”

There’s gotta be a term for science that goes from correct, to dated, to correct again.

Alma is a peaceful planet, just chock full of social democracy and enlightenment and all that good stuff. When some astronauts from Hafen and Holl went to visit, they sent back a letter that was essentially “Oh man, eff you guys. We’re staying here.” The government responded by forging a letter that says “Oh no they won’t let us leave please you have to declare war and then save us.”

“Also they have weapons of mass destruction.”

I made that last part up but come on. This book is PROPHECY.

The plan for this war goes like this: Build a Planet Gun.

YES

OH YES

If there is any science fiction concept I love more than a Planet Gun

It probably involves atomic zeta rays from the 8th corridor

But god I love Planet Guns.

They get this Planet Gun operational pretty quickly. They were probably building it already, just in case. In fact, I think they were.

The whole book is resolved by the Planet Gun. It turns out that one of the revolutionaries, probably the one from earlier, has infiltrated the project. He managed to get it placed in juuuuuust the right spot…

that when it’s fired…

it separates the planets.

And this is supposed to help things. We already know that somebody has space travel, and the planets aren’t all that far apart. Not to mention the fact that they’ll both experience extreme tidal forces, and who knows whether they’ll end up coming back together in a gigantic explosion due to some gravitational dealies from elsewhere in the solar system. Oh no. This will all turn out great.

The titular devolutionist is the guy who destroyed society in order to save it. And that is great. I am down with that.

Our observer-heroes get back together to discuss what they saw and plan their next adventure.

Okay, so that was actually pretty great. It was goofy, but man did it nail some social commentary on the head. To be fair, I think it was a fairly easy target. It’s not exactly surprising, then or now, that some people have all the political power and money while other people have to live in houses made of poop. But I’ll still state that the novella did a pretty good job of putting that phenomenon into a situation just alien enough to let us look at it from a different angle, and in the end, that’s what social science fiction is for. To see that kind of thing happening in 1921 and not be H.G. Wells is a special treat.

Next week, another strange alien world! What will we discover from THE EMANCIPATRIX?

(Other than a totally rad name)


4 Comments

  1. Joseph Nebus says:

    This sounds like a magnificent and somewhat deranged book. Thanks for making me aware of it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    I notice in your “Pinky and the Brain” diagram, the continent in the center of the right-hand planet (Holl, the world of the 99%ers) is flipping the finger at the viewer.

    Like

  3. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Next week, another strange alien world! What will we discover from THE EMANCIPATRIX?

    Channeling Criswell, I PREDICT (with the track record of National Enquirer’s “New Years Psychic Predictions”) that it will have to do with a feminist uprising in a male supremacist society. It would have been written around the time woman suffrage was a hot-button item.

    Like

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