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.
Folks, this is disappointing.
Last week’s novella, “The Devolutionist,” turned out to be a decent bit of social commentary wrapped around a ludicrous lot of science. It was entertaining and it was smart in some places. I enjoyed it and was looking forward to the second novella in this little omnibus, which according to the jacket copy would have to do with a torus-planet. I was thinking there would be more commentary and goofytimes and it would make me laugh all the way home.
Well, the thing did make me laugh. I can say that. What’s unfortunate is that “The Emancipatrix” lacked a lot of what made “The Devolutionist” as successful a story as it almost was. “The Emancipatrix” still has a few good bits, I can say that much, but not much else in praise of it.
The thing starts out with our Earth-heroes, Dr. Kinney and his pals, discussing what went on in the last adventure. At the end of “The Devolutionist” there was a difference of opinion between two of our mind-adventurers, who also happened to be husband and wife. The husband sympathized with the ruling classes, saying that the proletariat are too stupid to govern themselves and that a governing class exists for a reason. The wife held the opposite opinion and sympathized with the working classes. They’ve gotten so strong in their opinions that it might even break up their marriage.
I started this novella expecting that “The Emancipatrix” would revolve around an opposite-type situation from the last novella. Maybe we’d see a planet ruled by the working classes and it’d give us a new kind of perspective and perhaps even show us the flaws with that system too, perhaps with a moral that people are people and as long as one type of people are allowed to rule another type there will be problems. Maybe Homer Eon Flint would cite the results of the Stanford Prison Experiment a full fifty years before the study took place.
And I think that maybe that was the plan at one point before the story got really stupid.
Dr. Kinney and his pals do choose to look at planet where the “workers” rule. That’s established. Apparently they learned about the planet from the Venusians a few novellae back. So they strap themselves into their psychic chairs with glass bits on the legs (one strength of these stories was keeping the details of how this stuff works on the DL) and project their brains across the universe to a planet named Sanus in the vicinity of Arcturus.
The first person we meet over there is, well, a person. A primitive-type person, running around all half naked and stuff. This person and its friends will occasionally mention a “Them” but that’s probably the most important thing we get at this part of the story. We are, however, told that the the people on this planet were supposed to be unlike humans, so that’s a little confusing, I guess. Is it a mystery or a continuity error? Stay tuned!
The other mental-travelers get this whole bit of narration that was very good. I liked this bit a lot. They all end up in what they think is some kind of flying craft. Note that once our adventurers are inside the head of their subject they have absolutely no control over what the subject does and can see only what they see and hear only what they hear. It’s actually a pretty limited observational technique. Because of this, though, this whole section turns out to be a great exercise in perception and how it is influenced by preconceived notions.
Our folks think they’re flying around in the mind of some kind of pilot, or more likely an observer, because an early thing they notice is that their host never looks at any controls or dials or anything. They figure that the host is looking through some kind of periscope. The aircraft is pretty amazing. It can stop on a dime, change direction with effortless agility, and can even crawl around on the ground and climb up vertical surfaces. It’s also likely some kind of worker vehicle, because at one point it goes down into this colorful cave and there’s a bunch of gold in there which the vehicle loads into itself in some kind of unseen manner.
And at one point one of the observers sees some animals. One of the animals is a GIANT beetle. Just enormous. Let me quote page 112:
It was infinitely larger than any beetle the engineer had ever seen—infinitely! It was as large as a good-sized horse!
In case you’ve ever struggled with trying to wrap your head around something of infinite size, just keep this little trick in mind: Imagine a pretty big horse. You have now imagined infinity.
A page later he sees a fish:
The fish simply could not be described with ordinary language. It was as large as the largest locomotive.
I’m sure glad the author did away with ordinary language and made use of some crazy extraordinary language to describe what the character is seeing.
What’s really funny is that this section was the best in the novella. I thoroughly enjoyed it. And then I got a taste of some awful, awful writing right in that very same section. What I didn’t know was that more awfulness was yet to come.
So if you haven’t figured it out yet, our heroes aren’t in the minds of human beings flying in some kind of an aircraft. The book takes a long time to finally make that reveal, even going so far as to have our humans think that these aircraft (they eventually see another one through the eyes of the “pilot”) are designed to look exactly like bees down to the slightest detail.
FINALLY somebody realizes that these things are actually just bees.
Dr. Kinney is the first to realize what’s going on, as usual. In this novella, far more than in the last one, everybody but Dr. Kinney comes off as just…dim. The good doctor will try to clue them in on his thinking processes and it just takes forever for them to catch on to something that he—and we—see as blatantly obvious.
So after talking to everybody like they’re six years old, Dr. Kinney reveals that he’s figured out that humans on this planet are actually slaves to bees. He speculates that that’s what the Venusians meant when they said that on this planet the “workers ruled.” Because bees are good workers.
Everybody thinks that this situation is just intolerable. Humans! Slaves! To bees! This will not stand!
“So,” asks the doctor, “what led to this situation?”
“We don’t know!” everyone else answers in chorus. “Please tell us!”
“Did you see any volcanoes or lightning on this crazy planet?”
“No? So what?”
“What about fires? Did you see the humans using any fires?”
“We don’t get it.”
“What I’m saying is that the people on this planet never developed fire.”
“And that means that humans got subjugated by bees because bees are also smart and humans didn’t get their primary weapon.”
“We don’t get it.”
“On our planet, people got fire, and people used fire to become the dominant species on the planet.”
“They didn’t do that on Sanus.”
“We don’t get it.”
OH MY GOD SO MANY PAGES OF THIS CRAP
But then Mr. Smartydoctor makes this proclamation on page 135 that made me set the book down for a minute until I stopped laughing:
“All the other animals are afraid of fire. Such exceptions as the moth are really not exceptions at all; the moth is simply driven so mad by the sight of flame that it commits suicide in it. Horses sometimes do the same.”
This man is a doctor.
Finally, somehow or another, Dr. Kinney manages to get his point across. The result is that everybody agrees they need to give fire to these poor humans to fight off their bee overlords because the idea of bees ruling over humans is just INTOLERABLE
I mean, it verges on xenophobia. Or something. I just don’t know. It’s crazy.
I feel like somewhere along the line we, as a species or a society or just as readers of science fiction, got the idea that just because a situation somewhere in the universe is different from the one we’re used to, it’s not necessarily an abomination. I would really like to nail down when that started. It was likely sometime after this book was written.
So I suppose by now you’re wondering just who the titular “Emancipatrix” is. By this point I was wondering too, and was starting to figure that there would be a woman involved in some kind of plot to overthrow the bees and restore humans to their rightful place as lords of the galaxy. And that’s almost right.
Our observers back on Earth establish that they can, under very specific circumstances, communicate with the people whose heads they’re riding around in. We got a glimpse of this back in “The Devolutionist” but it was so minor I probably forgot to mention it. This time there’s a concerted effort, and the plan is to introduce the idea of fire to these primitive people.
Oh, fun thing I just remembered: in order to have the humans on Sanus come across as “primitive,” the author had them talk in a funny way. Interestingly, he chose not to go with the old “Me am hungree, me eat meats, him am eat meats too” dealy. Nope, to show that these people are backward, primitive, or whatever, he has them all walking around talking like William Shakespeare.
“What is this magic flower thou hast made, what eats yon leaves and grasses to produce yet more flower?”
Yeah, there’s a lot of that.
So the only time our Earthans can communicate with their hosts is when the host is almost, but not quite, asleep. Right on the edge of falling asleep. That’s kind of a neat detail, except it doesn’t really matter because apparently people find themselves right on the edge of sleep for periods so long that a person can communicate to them the entire concept of conflagration.
The Earth-humans have another wonderfully stupid conversation at this point. The question is, “How do we teach them to use fire? What method shall they use?”
And our idiots seriously go back and forth saying things like “What about matches! Matches start fires! Or what about magnifying glasses? We can teach them, through hand signs and grunts, how to create glass and grind it into exact shapes and focus the sunlight! No, no, that’s silly, we’ll just teach them about electricity! That’s a great idea! They can use electricity to start fires!”
I’M NOT MAKING THIS UP
THE PEOPLE IN THIS BOOK ARE THAT STUPID
Of course, Dr. Smartypants comes in and tells them that no, these are dumb ideas, here’s a good one:
FLINT AND TINDER, BITCHES
And everybody else is all “OH! Why not we think that?!?! You so smart!”
They introduce this idea into the brains of the primitives, who get it. Two of the men run off and find some flint and iron pyrite. Apparently pyrite is very important to this situation, and it’s hard to find on this planet. A bit later professy goes “Oh, I guess we could have used just about any other rock as long as they had flint. My bad.”
Well, his bad means that the two guys who “discover” fire on Sanus get caught by the bees and tortured. One of those guys has a girlfriend named Rolla. She becomes the titular Emancipatrix. Kind of.
She runs off to find more fire-making tools. She wanders in the wilderness for a long time. Eventually she comes to a drop-off into clear nothingness. It’s the edge of the world. She decides, simply because every person in this book is apparently some kind of genius, to climb around the edge of the world and see what’s on the other side.
Bear with me here.
Yes, it turns out that there is another side. We don’t get a good explanation of what’s going on until Rolla meets some folks on the other side.
I also want to mention that for the entire duration of Rolla’s adventure, the people back on Earth are just…forgotten? We never hear a word about them, there’s no “Dr. Kinney saw through Rolla’s eyes the fantasticality of this bizarre planet” or any of that. I think the author just decided that the premise of this whole novella was clunky and hard to write so he might as well do without it.
There are people on the other side of the world. They were once a technological society, until war happened.
Interesting: this war is described as a war of Communism versus Capitalism. This book was written in 1921. There wasn’t even a Cold War yet. Russia was in the midst of the Communist Revolution while this book was being written (The Soviet Union was founded in 1922). There was a lot of tension in the West over that, usually the ruling classes worrying that something like what was happening over there would happen over here.
So all that’s neat.
Rolla meets some of the survivors of this cataclysm. They are just twelve dudes. They explain to Rolla that the world is like a giant ring. She lived on the inside of it, while they live on the outside.
This ring is apparently a natural formation.
Nobody anywhere asks any questions about, say, how this is even feasible. I think Dr. Kinney says something about how a “ring of gases cooled faster than they did in our solar system” but that means nothing when it comes to questions about gravity and how it’s actually supposed to work on this wacky thing.
I mean, if it were a Niven-style Ringworld I’d give it some credit. But this thing doesn’t encircle the sun like that. It’s just a planet that’s a ring. It’s not even a doughnut ring. It’s thin, like a wedding band or something.
After Rolla explains her situation, the guys from the outside of the ring decide that they want to go help liberate her people from the bees. They discuss amongst themselves (we learn this because, out of nowhere, our Earth protagonists are back and in their heads) the idea of first freeing the enslaved humans and then reslaving them under themselves. Good guys.
And it almost works. They bring some high-tech things like matches over to Rolla’s side of the planet and there’s a big war against the bees. The bees take a lot of hits, but then they get the idea that they have pretty much total control over their humans, why not force them to fight? And it works. The bee-humans start killing the rebel-humans and the book actually ends before there’s any resolution.
Yeah, seriously. That sucks.
There was no actual Emancipatrix because there was no emancipation. She tried, I guess. She just found herself among some other humans who said they’d help but they turned out to be just as bad as the bees and nobody learned anything, least of all the readers. Such a disappointment.
This book would have been a lot better if it weren’t for the fact that every single human in it was stupid as a can of bricks. I know that some of the facts and the science is dated and that at the time we didn’t know any better, but the folks in this book, the actual Earthy humans, had so little sense that it hurt. I would say they were like children, but that does a disservice to children. They were like caricatures of children. Children who think they’re smart but they just don’t know enough to know they’re stupid.
GOSH, PROFESSY, WE’LL JUST TEACH ‘EM TO SPLIT ATOMS AND THAT’LL SOLVE THEIR PROBLEMS
I know that when this book was written that we didn’t know how to split atoms, I’m just trying to make a point.
There was another thing that got me about the whole “Teach them to use fire” bit. The Earth humans couldn’t talk to the Sanus humans, even in the dreamtime. They could only use hand signals, at best. So there’s this scene where one of the Sanus humans is talking to a pal about this dream he or she (I don’t remember) had. Now, in a good book, you might get sentences like
“And then the dream person seemed to say that I was doing it right.”
Or something like that. But instead we get
“And then the dream person seemed to say to me, ‘Yes, this is a good idea. Here’s how you make fire. Fire is a combustion of oxygen and a fuel. It makes things warm and is good for cooking and scaring away animals and it makes light so you can see further at night. You’ll need flint. Do you know what flint is? No? Okay, let me explain it to you. It’s a stone. You make stuff out of it already, like shovels and hoes. Grab one of those. You still with me? Okay, so you’re gonna need some…”
For people so dumb trying to communicate with people so primitive, they can get some pretty heavy ideas across with grunts and hand signals. And if that weren’t bad enough, when the whole “interfere with an alien planet” idea started, Dr. Kinney was all “Okay, this is gonna be hard, folks.”
Yeah, the book had some okay bits, but it was nowhere near as good as “The Devolutionist,” and that makes me sad, because that last one gave me a lot of hope. Unlike its predecessor, this novella was inconsistent, had nothing of interest to say on human nature, and made every single person look like they couldn’t chew gum and walk at the same time.