A PLACE OF CRAWLING SPIDERS AND POISONOUS SNAKES—WHERE NIGHTMARES CAME TRUE
That was The Black, where men were punished for challenging minds more powerful than their own. The detective from Earth feared The Black more than any torture his own planet could conceive. But he had to uncover the sinister plot that threatened Earth and all its people.
Is this the same J. Hunter Holly who wrote The Flying Eyes? I assume it is, considering every place I look her up I see that both of these books are listed, plus there’s the question of just how many J. Hunter Hollys could exist in the world and write science fiction. There’s no indication that it’s a house name, either.
The reason I’m so perplexed is that this book was as good as The Flying Eyes was bad, which is to say it was fair-to-middlin’. I enjoyed this book, but perhaps not for many of the right reasons. At the very least, I didn’t enjoy it for the same reasons that I tend to enjoy other books.
There’s not much of a story. It’s a short book, about 140 pages long, and the story is a strict linear narrative with a single protagonist who is probably in over his head the whole time. A lot of that is just refreshing. I didn’t have to put a lot of work into this book at all. Of course, last week’s review was a book I had to put a lot of work into, and I still liked it, so I think what I’m trying to say is that there are different books for different moods and that The Mind Traders matched up with my mood pretty well this week.
Our hero is a guy named Morgan Sellers. I like to think he looks like Peter Sellers, and nothing in the text gives me a reason to think otherwise. Nobody gets much physical description in this book, so I felt free to imagine that everybody was Peter Sellers, and this is not the first book to make me do that.
Morgan is a detective or something. I think he works for the Earth government, but he might be freelance. It wasn’t one of those things that mattered much. What matters is that people are disappearing en masse and the likely culprit are those dastardly Rigans.
Right off the bat this book surprised me. The Rigans were brought up so matter-of-factly that I had to go back and check for a prologue just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything. I hadn’t, and it just turned out that this book was pretty well-written in this regard. The Rigans are a fact of life, somebody humans have known about and interacted with for years. It’s just that now there’s a problem.
There’s not been a lot of interaction between the two species up to this point. They trade and that’s about it. Despite both species being humanoid, they don’t have much in common. The Rigans have psychic powers, for one thing, and so they tend to be arrogant around the humans. This leads to problems throughout the book, but eventually that little wall comes a-tumblin’ down.
Morgan is partnered with a Rigan named Jael. The likely culprit for these disappearing humans is on Riga, but nobody knows who it might be. The Rigan government denies any knowledge of such activities, but of course they would, wouldn’t they?
Jael comes across as a bit of a dick at first, something that Morgan notices immediately. They agree to work together, and on the way Jael fills Morgan and the audience in on how Rigan society works. This is the part I liked.
John W. Campbell once challenged authors to “Write me a creature who thinks as well as a man, or better than a man, but not like a man.” It’s a damn fine challenge for a writer to take up. I most certainly am not a good enough writer to fill that order. J. Hunter Holly didn’t quite nail it with this story, but she tried, and the results were enjoyable.
For starters, Rigans don’t have a lot of the same emotions we do. They don’t love, for instance. While that might seem a little trite, I think this book pulled it off well. For one, I can very very happily say that this book never once featured our hero teaching the Rigans how to love, nor did it end with some kind of Grinch ending.
In fact, what I love about this book is that our aliens are different, but they aren’t judged for it. I take that back, Morgan judges them a lot and is also berated for not understanding how the Rigan mental capabilities work. But he’s a character voicing his opinion, and nothing ever makes it seem like his opinion is the one the audience needs to take.
A lot of this emotion stuff comes along with the fact that Rigans are empaths. They don’t read minds, only emotions. Imagine Counselor Troi getting annoyed at people for not masking their emotions well enough and you’ll be on the right path.
At one point in the story Morgan thinks he’s falling in love with a particularly pretty Rigan lady. She notice his emotions, but instead of putting him down gently or anything, she’s just “What the hell is that emotion?” And he’s like “Luuuurrve.” And she’s like “Get it away from me. It’s gross.” I was amused.
And then there’s the main fact: Rigans can control people mentally. This is, of course, the main reason for suspecting that the Rigans are behind the disappearing humans. They’re mentally enslaving them, of course. What we learn throughout the book, though, is that such activity would be considered highly unethical—abhorrent even—to the Rigans, but not for the same reasons it is to humans.
Rigan society is rigidly structured based on mental power and the resultant ability to enslave people mentally. People are ranked based on how powerful they are, and that is represented by a number that represents the number of people they can Control (yes, with a capital C). Our protagonist, Jael, for instance, is a forty. He can Control forty people. It’s noted that all of the forty people he Controls are, in fact, thirties, which means that Jael has reached the limits of his power as a forty and is ready to take on the challenge to become a fifty.
The numbers go up by tens, except for anybody lower than ten, in which case it’s one to nine.
Jael himself is Controlled by an unknown number of fifties and up. No one knows exactly how many Controllers they have, only that when they receive a summons they have to act immediately or face punishment, usually in the form of The Black, which is something the plot does not hinge on nearly as much as the back of the book would make it seem.
This whole setup sort of feels like it would make for an interesting video game scenario.
So Morgan and Jael spend a lot of time getting to know each other, Morgan learns about Rigan civilization, and they move closer and closer to discovering just who is kidnapping humans and forcing them into labor. Since humans are all zeroes to the Rigans, capturing them would be easy-peezy. The only thing stopping a Rigan from doing that is the strict code of law they all follow.
It probably comes as a surprise to nobody that when they finally find the Rigan behind the plot, he says “Look, the law only applies to how Rigans treat other Rigans. Ain’t no rule says a Rigan can’t have a million human slaves.”
The person behind the whole thing is, incidentally, an eighty. Eighty is the maximum rank, and there are only about 200 of them on the entire planet. They run things. The investigation part of this plot isn’t especially deep. Eventually somebody shows up and tells our heroes to back off, at which point they capture and interrogate him and he spills the beans.
Our villainous eighty has enslaved all these humans and is using them to do field work. At first our heroes think he’s just trying to use some cheap labor, but it turns out that he’s prepping them to be an invasion force. Not of Earth, mind you, but of Riga. He wants to take over his own homeworld using psychically controlled humans. It’s not the best villain plot I’ve ever seen, but it’s okay.
Jael isn’t able to take down this guy, whose name was Ranz, I think. There’s just no way that a forty could try to take down an eighty and survive. It’s Morgan who comes up with the winning scheme, though, and of course it’s one that the Rigans would never have thought of. It takes a human to come up with the alien strategy of TEAMWORK.
They call in Jael’s family, whom we’ve met over the course of the rest of the book. He’s got a sister and a nephew and, I think, another sister? Either way, their combined numbers add up to over eighty, it’s just that no Rigans have ever thought to combine their powers to take down another Rigan. It makes sense when you read more about how their society works than I’ve recounted here, but basically it comes down to the nature of honor and stuff. In this case the rules are suspended because Ranz is already breaking the rules by trying to jump from eighty to a million in one fell swoop.
The book ends right as Ranz is taken down. There’s no denouement or fallout or anything, basically just a round of high fives and then an ad for some other books I might find interesting.
I liked this book, although plot-wise it was pretty light. Normally I get grumpy about books that are just excuses to show off an invented history or society or whatever, but this time it was so light and unpretentious that I was not in the least bit inconvenienced or annoyed. This was a light read, and an enjoyable one.
There were a lot more differences between human and Rigan society that the author put in the book, and on the whole they were pretty well-thought-out. A lot of them didn’t make much sense when I read them, but there was something there that suggested that no, they wouldn’t make sense to me because they’re aliens and they think differently. Part of that was the way that Morgan served as a point-of-view commentary service. Every time he opened his mouth to say what I was thinking, he was shot down with what generally amounted to that exact argument.
I got a little frustrated as it became clear that Morgan was learning exactly nothing from this little adventure. At the very end some things started to come together for him, but so much of the dialog was some Rigan, usually Jael, saying something along the lines of “Look, don’t talk until you know what you’re talking about, okay?”
There were at least three separate instances where Morgan asked Jael to read somebody’s mind, each of which ended with Jael saying “Dammit, it doesn’t work that way” or something to that effect. This frustrated me, because as a reader I got how these aliens worked almost immediately, at least in terms of the very basics. Morgan, whose life was on the line, took so long to understand what were base concepts to the setting.
If you were wondering if “The Black” ever showed up in this book as the back cover suggested, the answer is yes. The Black is basically a form of punishment and/or torture for the Rigans, where the unfortunate one submitted to it gets to experience scary things like darkness and bugs. It’s somewhere between dreaming and hallucination, and it only comes up once in the book for real, although it’s threatened a few other times. I guess the real occurrence was there so the readers got an idea of how terrible the threats were, or something. But no, it was not the main threat of this book. It was barely a threat at all.
This book gets a good rating. It’s not deep and it’s not a must-read, but if you find yourself with a copy and nothing better to look at, give it a go. I was pleasantly surprised by it.
The front cover does perplex me. I have no idea if it has to do with anything at all. It’s just an old man. There were no old men in this book. The 1966 cover from Avalon is much better. I like it a lot.