Dr. Charles Howard Gilley was a brilliant man. And he was in charge of a very remarkable, very expensive computer.
So expensive, and so remarkable, that the authorities were much concerned with his proper use of its time.
They of course couldn’t know that to Dr. Gilley the computer had ceased to be an “it.”
Wowza, this cover is great. I can’t find any reference to who did it, but whoever you are out there in trashy sci-fi cover art land, I want to thank you.
This is either my second or third book by Charles Eric Maine, depending on how specific you want to get about it. I’ve read World Without Men and Alph, but you might recall that those books were the same book shuffled around, so take that as you will. All we can really say is that this is the third time that I’ve written a review with this guy’s name on it.
I’m having a hard time trying to figure out what to tell you folks about this book. I liked it. I’m trying to figure out why. I think there’s plenty to say about this book but I keep feeling like it’s all things I’ve said before, so many times, over and over again. Some of that has to do with the fact that this book wasn’t especially original or even well thought-out. The logic was shaky and the treatment of women was laughable at best. There’s not a lot of positive to attribute to this novel, but I still feel a strange sort of appreciation for it. I don’t know why.
The main thing about this book is that it’s very, very similar to several books I’ve read from English authors from the sixties. It’s much the same, mainly in terms of setting and mood, as, say, a book by D.G. Compton, but without a lot of the keen insight into human nature that Compton displays. In my review of John Lymington’s The Screaming Face, I dubbed that book a “type-a British government science fiction plot” and drew some comparisons to Compton there, but B.E.A.S.T. subverts that classification just a little bit. I couldn’t go so far as to call it a “type-b” plot. I don’t think it’s distinct enough for that.
The difference is that while the type-a plot features an employee of Her Majesty’s government, usually a scientist or an engineer, working on some top secret super-project that’ll win the Cold War and, at the same time, has some major wife trubs, B.E.A.S.T. features a secret agent infiltrating the scientists and engineers of a British top secret super-project to figure out why the leader of that secret project is using computer time to do things that are not what he is being paid to do.
The other distinction is that this book’s character does not have any marital problems. This is mostly because he is not married. He does have girlfriend problems, for much the same reasons as the protagonists of these books do (he’s not around enough), but in this case it’s made explicit that he doesn’t much care for this woman emotionally, it’s just that she’s hot and he’s a man who likes to have sex with hot women and does. You know, a totally relatable character.
Said hero is Mark “Definitely not the Penetrator” Harland. He works for the D.S.S., a government agency that’s so secret we’re not even supposed to be reading about it, I guess. I often wonder about this kind of thing. This book was told in the first person, like Harland is letting us in on this little story or something. But if that’s what he’s doing, he’s committing high treason. There’s no indication of why or how Harland is communicating this story to us—which, of course, is hardly unusual—but if you’re prone to overthinking things like I am, it starts to break down. If this is the story of something that technically never happened, why are we being told about it by the person who technically never did it?
Something I noticed as I read this book was that it didn’t have what I’d call a plot heartbeat. You know what I’m saying? If you were to graph the action of a lot of narratives, it would look a lot like a heartbeat monitor. We get some high action sequences, sometimes exactly on cue, with some downtime in the middle for, say, exposition or romance or whatever. This book didn’t really do that. It just sort of grew toward a climax over the course of about 180 pages. I feel like that shouldn’t have worked, that perhaps I should have gotten a lot more bored while slogging through a slowly developing narrative, but I didn’t.
I think a lot of that had to do with the narrator’s voice, which was at the very least there, along with the fact that the character/narrator actually had some personality. Yes, that personality was basically a wannabe James Bond. Fleming’s creation actually gets name-dropped a few times in the “You need to stop believing those James Bond books are real” kind of way.
I’m wondering, not for the first time, if the reason I’m enjoying a book is because my tastes have been beaten down to the point where basic competence shines like a golden beacon.
Harland is investigating a guy named Charles Gilley. He’s a scientist and he’s supposed to be using a big computer to do research on genetic weaponry. The book does a decent enough job of making genetic weaponry sound like a really bad thing. Namely, the world is on the brink of a Malthusian catastrophe (funny, you never hear about that anymore) that’ll destroy civilization. The British government is concerned that after said catastrophe, there will be a race (probably between the races) to repopulate the world. There’s speculation that those cunning Commie bastards are getting a headstart by spraying chemicals all over the British Empire that will damage their DNA (Oy, the book gives us a loooooong description of what DNA is and does. This from the author who once told us that men have more chromosomes than women). The dastardly Reds are playing the long game, no doubt, killing us off not now, but a few generations in the future, and meanwhile turning us all into Cronenbergs before that.
What Gilley is supposed to be doing is running all these tests on plants, animals, water supplies, and things like that to make sure this hasn’t happened. I assume that someone else is figuring out just how we can do exactly that same thing to the Commies ourselves. Instead, he’s using valuable computer time for things that are not that. It’s Harland’s job to figure out exactly what that is and whether it’s a threat to Western domination.
Harland goes undercover as a replacement head of security for the research institute. Along the way he meets a young lady named Synøve Rayner, an incredibly beautiful Swedish nymphomaniac exhibitionist who is also a competent computer programmer, or so we’re told. The only parts of her character that are actually demonstrated are the parts that have nothing to do with computers. They strike up a love-hate relationship where Harland gets her all hot and ready and then refuses to have sex with her. I suppose this was supposed to accomplish something. I don’t think it did. I’m not sure what it did. I don’t think it did anything but titillate.
This story slowly builds and then we get some information about what Dr. Gilley is actually doing. I found this part interesting. It would seem that Dr. Gilley has decided to use the incredibly advanced computer at his disposal to play SimLife (SimEarth would also be an acceptable reference). He generated some “single-celled organisms” and then set them through evolution. Eventually they grew to “multicellular organisms” and “higher forms,” as if evolution will always follow the same direct path to human intelligence. I’m actually willing to give this instance of flawed evolutionary science a pass because it turns out that Dr. Gilley is purposefully altering the environment so that these beings will develop the way he wants them to. And, because they’re all computer programs, the generations pass in the blink of an eye.
Seriously, the whole reason Dr. Gilley wants to do this is so that he can create what we’d now call an AI that is more advanced that humanity and can answer all of our important questions like “Why is there suffering?” and “How do we destroy the global Communist threat?” and “Do publishers really think they’ll make money on this garbage?” This plot is—up to the ending—at the very least incredibly similar.
Where the stories diverge was actually where I liked it the most at the time but I’m starting to change my mind. Dr. Gilley is growing more and more out of control. He starts drinking heavily and at one point he tries to assault Synøve. Harland confronts him and Dr. Gilley says that his creation needs to have a body and that he has volunteered to offer it his own.
I thought this was going to turn out dumb, but there’s a lot of ambiguity here and I appreciate that. Dr. Gilley is convinced that he’s released the creature and that he needs to breed, hence the fact that he kidnaps Synøve and runs off. Harland isn’t convinced. He thinks that Dr. Gilley has constructed this personality to give life to all the passions and needs he’s been repressing his whole life, so now they’ve exploded outward and taken over his mind.
This particular kind of ambiguity strikes me as very British.
There’s no way to prove which is the true option. All that matters is that Dr. Gilley has kidnapped a woman and probably intends her harm. We also see that he’s gathered superhuman strength somewhere. Our hero decides that this is all a matter of mind over matter, that Dr. Gilley has kicked into some kind of adrenaline overload and that he can’t possibly sustain it, whether or not his mind is occupied by a computer program.
Never once is it explained how Dr. Gilley would have managed to get the computer program from the reel-to-reel and into his brain. I think this lends a lot of weight to the idea that it’s all in his head. This just occurred to me and now I’m a little ashamed that I thought there was any ambiguity at all in this narrative.
But wait! It turns out that the ending is very ambiguous!
Dr. Gilley escapes to a random house in the country. Police and government agents try to get him out without hurting Synøve but things are going poorly. Harland, who up to this point assumed this was all in Dr. Gilley’s head, gets the bright idea to call up the research facility and get somebody there to destroy the tapes with the computer program on them. Someone does and, sure enough. Dr. Gilley falls dead immediately.
I have no idea how that was supposed to work. Dr. Gilley wasn’t hooked up to the tapes at the time. He wasn’t networked with the main computer hub. If we’re supposed to believe that the B.E.A.S.T. had moved from the tapes into Dr. Gilley’s brain, there’s no reason at all to assume that doing anything to the tapes would have any effect on it now. This ending is so illogical. There’s no way I can overthink this into making it work.
Did I say I liked this book earlier? What the crap was wrong with me?
I’ve actually got some answers to that question. For one, I’m liable to immerse myself totally in a narrative while I’m reading it, especially if, for whatever reason, it turns out to be easy to read. Between characters and narration and tone, this book was a breeze. I knocked it all out in just a couple of sittings.
It’s only later that I start to think about how things didn’t really work plot-wise and how certain other things said about, say, women, are offensive.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. There are plenty of books I’ve gone at with a purely skeptical mind from the beginning and found myself picking apart during the entire reading process. Those are fine, too! I believe that reading can and should be a conversation between the reader and the author, even if just to help the reader confirm to him- or herself that what they’re reading is awful and dumb.
Well, B.E.A.S.T. is one of those books where the conversation has to take place after the fact. I enjoyed it while I read it. It wasn’t bad until I finished it. And then the logic set in and I found myself questioning my own senses. There’s a lot to be said in favor of questioning one’s beliefs, and so I thank the book for giving me that opportunity.