The Traveling Soul by Hugh C. Rae
Avon Books, 1978
Price I paid: $1
LATE OF THE WESTERN WORLD
Then how can the late Poet Laureate’s words be coming through the Interlink? And what horror could have caused him to leave this safe, gentle world of his own free will?
THEY PUT THE BALL AGAINST MY EAR
AND LET ME HEAR THE SLUG.
Alexander Blunt, the complete conformist, the tame poet of the Freeman state. Can the benevolent Freeman be a murderer? So say the messages from the dead.
I AM ONE WITH THE DEER AND THE JAGUAR.
Blunt journeys to the mysterious Bellerophon, in the western mountains, where ancient rebels have come back to life, where an aged Mexican sorceress can control events…and where awesome powers gather strength for the coming struggle.
I WANT REVENGE, ALEXANDER…
Well, the back of this book doesn’t make a damn lick of sense. That’s most of the reason why I read it. It raised a lot more questions than it answered, which I guess is what jacket copy is supposed to do, but when those questions are all “What the crap is going on with this book?” I don’t think we can call it a success.
The front is great, though. Stone tiger cat thing shooting lasers. Nothing can beat that. It’s the best. It looks like the final boss from an NES game. The hands help with that. You have to dodge the hands while you throw grenades into the cat’s mouth so that the lasers stop shooting long enough for you to shoot golden arrows into the eyes. As you can tell from the very top of the image, our hero decided that it wasn’t worth it and took the spaceship somewhere else.
It turns out our hero had the right idea. This book sucked. Hard.
It didn’t have any giant hands in the forest and it didn’t have any stone cats with laser eyes. It also didn’t have anything described in the jacket copy except for a guy named Morello and another guy named Blunt. I guess there were also some guys called Freemen. I’m going to give this book one out of five for accuracy, which is actually pretty good. It might be my highest rating.
But the text of this book was just one lousy science fiction trope after another, all handled in a way that gave me no reason to want to read anything it had to say. This is one of those books that mysteriously seems like it doesn’t want to be read, but that’s not all of it. I read all but the last fifty pages on Saturday, and on Sunday morning I came back to it realizing I had no idea what was going on up to this point. Nothing made any sense and I just couldn’t be bothered to go back and refresh myself. I think a bit of it came back to me, but I’m going to be honest, most of what I remember about this book are some extraneous backstory details and some really unlikable characters. I don’t think it actually had a plot.
In fact, instead of a plot rundown, let’s just talk about all the stupid clichés this book threw at me and why I hate them.
1. The Setting
Okay, so this book takes place in a New York of the future. It’s a dystopian future New York where some guys have taken over and the American government has fallen and something was said about how the last mayor of New York was a debacle and they decided to get rid of the position after that and now the whole country is run by these guys called Freemen and they used to be the owners of corporations but now they are the government. You got all that? No? That’s fine, because it’s also the backstory of 90% of all dystopian futures and there’s nothing new to see here.
You might also be happy to know that the population of America is held at a cool 15 million, both sex and violence are outlawed, people do the jobs they’re supposed to do, and psychological stability is maintained for every citizen through various means.
This is directly tied into another main thing I hated about this book and most dystopian fiction, and that is
2. The Tone
Folks, this book is so effing smug, self-righteous, and half-baked that I wanted to punch it in the neck. Here’s the hell of it, though, I don’t necessarily disagree with it.
A lot of the extraneous backstory tells us how this civilization came about. In fact, the bulk of it is given to us entirely by a single character, the Wise Old Man, who is explaining it to our “protagonist,” the Guy Who Trusts the State Implicitly Until the Book Happens. Things include
- “Art” and “entertainment” became indistinguishable. What this means is that our elitist author hates the idea that anything popular might also be artistic, or that anything artistic might gain popularity. See, there has to be a distinct set of things. Art is for intelligent people and entertainment is for the masses. If ever the twain shall meet, it’s because there’s no intelligentsia anymore and the whole world is run by morons.
- “Artertainment” and “propaganda” became indistinguishable. Okay, I can see how this one might be scary, and I can see parallels with our own time and culture. I don’t think anybody wants to live in a world where the media is a tool of the state, but I can also see how people might argue that this is already the case and the difference between our world and book’s world is that in book’s world it’s open and overt. Still, if the reasoning behind this coming about is that the masses are deluded sheeple, I’m not going to take your book seriously.
- “Government” and “corporations” became indistinguishable. Again, also scary, also has parallels. Why did it happen? Because the people are so dumb they let the media tell them it was a good idea! Also scary, also has potential parallels, also superior as crap.
It’s perhaps worth noting that our protagonist is a poet and that he works for Freeman Florian, i.e. he writes poetic propaganda on behalf of the corporate state. That’s until somebody wakes him up out of his delusion that he’s contributing anything worthwhile to humanity. They also tell him his poetry sucks, which, based on what I read in the book, is correct.
3. The Characters
Alexander Blunt is a robot clown poet sheep who eventually gets woke.
Eugene Morello is his partner in poetry, but it turns out he is already woke.
Dowd Hartmann is a Woke Old Man who was also behind the rise of the American Dystopia, which is why he is allowed to help everybody else get woke.
The Women are Magical Mexican Indians. One of them is old and tells the future somehow. The other is young and hot. The old one dies at the end of the book and is picked up by an Obsidian UFO, which makes no sense and has no place in the book at all. The implication is that the Old Aztec Gods are Real, but none of that came up in any way in this book about how people are supposed to get woke.
Florian is a Freeman, which means he is described literally as a Champion of the Status Quo, which is just so wonderfully smug and hippie that I can’t stand it. He’s also decided that life would be better if he were the only Freeman, so he’s got plans to take over.
The narrative jumps between all these characters, and more, in that way that demonstrates the author was not confident in his ability to adequately tell the story from just one or two viewpoints. We get the bad guys’ points of view, the good guys’ points of view, neutral figures’ points of view, and so on. We learn that there are plots within plots and that there’s a lot of dramatic irony, none of which is worth caring about because every character has literally a name and a trait.
4. The Plot
Eugene gets murdered. Alexander goes to investigate for some reason. Florian is behind it for some reason. Alexander meets Dowd for some reason. We are expositioned a lot. It turns out that Eugene wasn’t really murdered. We meet The Women. They are magical in a world that doesn’t have any other openly magical ideas expressed. This is not a fantasy book, nor is it Magical Realism (a fantasy book filed under literature). Florian sends some goons. There’s a video tape that Eugene and Dowd think will bring down the Freeman state. They have plans to broadcast it. Florian and his Freemen buddies bomb the broadcast station in Mexico to stop the tape. It turns out that the whole point was the bombing, not the tape, and now the whole world can go back to the way it’s supposed to be for some reason. Everybody dies but Alexander and one of The Women. The Other Woman gets a magical respawn and that’s the end of the book.
5. The Ending
“Is it over?”
“No, it’s only just beginning.”
I HATE YOU
Whenever this is a thing said at the ending of a book, I want to ask the author why they didn’t just write the story instead of writing the prologue. Because that’s what they did. Are they trying to lead us out on a cliffhanger? Was Hugh C. Rae planning a sequel? He never wrote one.
It’s up there with “Just a Dream” and “Did Any of It Really Happen” and “They Were Adam and Eve All Along” as one of the most trite endings to a book ever.
6. The Message
I think the message of this book was that civilization is bad and the “Natural Way of Doing Things” is good.
Our “heroes” are trying to bring down the United State (it was actually called that once and—you know what?—I like it) because everybody is too comfortable. It’s that kind of dystopia. The kind where everybody is happy and content and not starving and not diseased and everybody lives 200+ years and there’s no scarcity or disease or war or anything negative.
Of course, this kind of utopia has to have a dark side, right? That’s how we get a story out of it. Maybe it’s got a lot of underlying racism. Maybe it’s propped up on the work of a hidden under-class. Maybe it’s running out of gas and the utopia is on a tight time budget. All of those are valid stories.
The dark side of this utopia, like so many, is THERE’S NOT ENOUGH FREEDOM.
Yeah, it’s that vague statement, come back to bite us once again.
The other thing our heroes have problems with is that this kind of utopia is “stagnating.” If people are happy and healthy all the time, they don’t have any impetus to work and improve and grow. They “aren’t really living.” Or so they claim. And that’s why they have to wreck it all.
I have multiple problems with that.
The first is the assumption that people who are comfortable and happy won’t seek to improve themselves. I dislike that idea a lot. I fall on the Star Trek side of that fence. Once people aren’t worried about where their next meal is coming from, that allows them room to grow and explore. When the whole populace isn’t out hunting and farming for their next meal, they can be scientists and engineers and, dare I say it, science fiction writers.
The other is that, apparently, this kind of hero wants a world where a 13 year old woman dies giving birth to a three pound baby that dies of polio. Because that’s how nature works. Nature is a hellbeast that doesn’t care about anybody. What humanity has over nature is that thing called compassion.
Somebody’s gonna think that I’m saying we should burn down all the forests and kill all the zebras or something, and that’s not at all what I mean. I believe that nature is to be respected for what it is and not idealized as some kind of noble savagery.
This book was stupid and I hated it and I’m glad I’m done with it so I can move on to something else.
Don’t read this book.
From what I understand, this author mostly wrote Historical Romances. He wrote two other science fiction books. Maybe the romances are the way to go. Maybe they’re better. One of them won a prize, so that’s something.