Heinrich Copernick and Martin Guibedo came to the States as penniless refugees after World War II. By 1999 they had made huge fortunes in the field of medical instrumentation. But Heiny and his Uncle Martin weren’t just filthy rich, they were also the world’s best gene engineers. And their latest inventions could free Humanity from want and oppressive governments forever. At least, that was the plan.
Free homes with all the furnishings and utilities!
Free food! Even free babysitters!
Heiny and Uncle Martin even thought they should give their inventions away. Free.
That’s when their troubles began.
I admit that I did a little preliminary research on this book. I try not to, since I’m afraid that it’ll affect my judgement as I’m reading it, but in this case I decided to look up the author before I started. I’m not sure why. I think maybe I was trying to avoid reading it. What’s funny is that the research I did made me even less likely to think I’d enjoy it.
It really all boils down to the fact that on the author’s website, which is now only available via The Internet Archive, he really comes across as an asshole. Let me quote him as he discusses who should read his work:
If you are a Feminist, with their desire for all the benefits and none of the responsibilities of citizenship; if you are a Liberal who thinks that productive people exist for the sole purpose of supporting non-productive people (and most especially Liberals); if you think that Political Correctness is just wonderful, and that The Cult of The Victim is justice—-
Well then, you’d probably be a lot happier spending your money somewhere else.
He also points out that the people who do enjoy his books are generally “males with military and technical backgrounds” while “Others, mostly Feminists, Liberals, and Homosexuals, seem to instinctively hate my guts.”
Well, looking at the balance on those scales, you’d expect me to instinctively hate his guts. If I’d ever met him, I’d probably had wanted to leave the room before I had a stroke. Of course, it’s his right to believe what he wants to believe and talk about what he wants to talk about and write about what he wants to write about. That’s obvious and I shouldn’t have to say it. But it’s my right to respond by calling him a blowhard and a jackass.
As a clincher, the About the Author in this book, among many other things, mentions that Frankowski was active in Mensa, which to me is one of those things a person brags about when he or she has no other way of making a claim to intelligence. It’s one of my little pet peeves.
So with all that in place, I expected to hate this book. And, for the most part, I was wrong.
I really don’t know what’s up with that!
I’ll start off by saying that there is indeed a lot to dislike about this book. The author’s attitudes toward women were, to say the least, pretty bad. I almost typed “reprehensible” or a word like that but I backtracked because I would rather save that word for books like Genetic Bomb or The Feminists. The treatment of women in this book wasn’t a crime against the gender the way some other books are. Rather, it was just laughably stupid in the way you’d expect from a book written in 1955, except this book came out in 1987.
All told, if he hadn’t passed away in 2008, it’s really easy to see which side Leo Frankowski would have taken in the Hugo Award shenanigans last year.
A large part of the exposition in this book came in the form mansplaining, where a “competent” male figure condescendingly spells out everything for a female character. In the context of fiction I find this concept really interesting (but still bad). The gut reaction to this kind of thing is to think that the author has something against women and thinks they’re dumb or nontechnical or whatever. But what I just now realized (I’m probably the last person to realize it) is that it’s not only insulting to women in general, it’s also insulting to whoever is reading the book regardless of their sexual identity, because this author is thinking, on some level, “The people reading this book are probably too dumb to understand the concepts I’m writing about, so I’d better have somebody explain it to them like they’re women.”
And to cap that off, most of this book is exposition anyway. There’s a lot of talking about what’s going on while sitting around, walking around, and lying around.
There is a plot to this novel, but only in the same sense that a history text (or The End of Man?) has an overarching plot. What it really is is a bunch of little things that come together into a really broad, paper-thin narrative.
And yet despite all this, I had a fun time reading this book. It went quickly and had a good narrative pace between the little vignettes of action. And even though the women in this book were little more than a pair of breasts to be condescended to (holy cow did this book love talking about breasts), the main viewpoint character, Martin Guibedo, was well-developed, had a decent personality, and was really relatable. Perhaps this is because he was short, fat, and ugly, so I had a sort of connection with him, but I think there’s more to it than that. Copernick wasn’t all that bad, but he did come off as that sort of know-it-all too-perfect Übermensch that one recognizes from some Heinlein novels or the later Dune books. In fact, you could really spend a lot of time comparing this guy to Leto II, and you’re certainly welcome to do that, but I’ll spare that for everyone else and abstain from doing it today.
The core of this book is that Heinrich Copernick and his uncle Martin Guibedo are phenomenally gifted at bioengineering. With Copernick focusing on “animals” and Guibedo on “plants,” together they put together a system of life forms that will rid the world of most of its problems. Guibedo creates a kind of tree that grows into a house in a mere six months. The treehouses are self-cleaning (they actually live off human waste) and provide food. Copernick creates animal forms that take care of people and provide transportation, defense, and caretaking. These animals are intelligent and can think, and moreover, they want to provide those services. They’re designed to exist symbiotically with humans. They would die without us and, by the end of the book, we’d die without them.
One of the strengths of this novel was that Frankowski obviously put a lot of thought into how these things were going to work out. There were a lot of times when I sat the book down, amazed, and thought Geez, he really covered all the bases. Not only do the new animals and plants want to provide help to humans, they’re also unable to breed in the absence of human interaction, so they can’t escape and crowd out “real” organisms.
What this leads to is a complete revamp of how human society, especially economics, works. Copernick and Guibedo have given the world the means to create a post-scarcity society. There are a lot of people who don’t like that.
The people who contest this societal shift are painted pretty one-dimensionally. Mostly they’re just stupid and short-sighted. They’ll rave on about how Copernick, who is the face of this entire thing, is trying to destroy the economy and that’s bad. How dare he provide free shelter and food to everybody? Doesn’t he know what that’ll do to the people who create these things for a living? Farmers and carpenters and bakers and so forth will all be out of work! How dare he do this?
Of course, the whole point of the venture is that these people don’t need to work like that anymore. Sure, they’ll be out of the job, but what does that matter when all the base essentials of life are provided for free? By Jove, they might actually be able to work on self-improvement! Learning things! Making themselves happy! Not worrying!
Tensions between Copernick and the American government come to a head after a society of treehouses is founded in Death Valley, which is now renamed Life Valley. The government decides to “accidentally” drop an atomic bomb on the community. This fails spectacularly. In fact, at no point do we ever fear for our protagonists or think that their schemes won’t come to fruition.
Copernick’s retaliation is to create a kind of mosquito whose larvae eat metal, specifically iron and aluminium. It leads to a complete breakdown of society. Buildings and bridges collapse, planes can’t fly, cars can’t go, and the entire infrastructure of the entire world falls in a heaping pile. It’s the end of the world.
This is exactly what Copernick wants. Now that the fruits of the Industrial Revolution are killed off, he can really kick his Biological Revolution into gear. People learn that they can rely on the treehouses and various creatures to provide for them. It all shapes up very nicely.
And that’s really the bulk of the book. Everything ends with this perfect little happy note. Sure, there are pitfalls along the way to that ending. Copernick’s creatures, although intelligent, don’t really understand some things sometimes so they make mistakes. The first half of the book or so revolves around those mistakes. Mainly it comes down to creatures taking orders too literally. They end up killing or wounding people. Copernick accepts responsibility for these mistakes and then sets about making new models of creatures that are better able to understand what they need to do.
It’s all a little too perfect, but golly, I enjoyed reading it. And I’m not sure why. Do I just enjoy having people sit around explaining things to me? I know people who hate, say, the Foundation books or the Dune books for being too little on character and too much on sounding like history books. That’s totally valid, but it’s also exactly why I like them. Different strokes, I guess.
And despite all the author’s blustering about those damned lib’ral feminazi ho-mo-sexurals on his website, very little of that came out in this book. I talked about the women in the book and how they were just cardboard cutouts with bits sticking out in front, but that’s more eye-roll stupid than offensive. At least to me. I admit that I’m not a member of the sex being insulted there. Maybe I should check my privilege in that regard.
But dammit, the book came off as pretty liberal to me! I mean, nothing in this book suggested that what Copernick and Guibedo were doing was bad, and what they were doing was essentially creating a perfect socialist state! They wrecked the very foundations of capitalism and made it so that nobody, anywhere, had to be at the mercy of the top guys who didn’t care about their basic well-being. Guibedo would go on these long rants about the “big shots” and how no real progress could ever get done in our society because “big shots” don’t like progress or change that might affect their own status and comfort. That doesn’t sound like the kind of thing you’d hear a conservative say.
Maybe I’m missing something? Maybe Frankowski was satirizing, but thanks to Poe’s Law I’ve come out supporting what he thought he was lambasting? I find that idea…interesting. I need to put some thought into it.