The Loafers of Refuge

the-loafers-of-refugeThe Loafers of Refuge by Joseph L. Green
Ballantine Books, 1965
Price I paid: 90¢


That was what the humans called the rich, attractive planet—a refuge from starving, over-populated Earth. And the Colonists could provide millions of tons of desperately needed produce for the hungry billions left on their home planet.

If only the native inhabitants of Refuge weren’t so natural-born lazy: harmless, it’s true, but actually nothing more than a bunch of loafers. If the loafers could be made to turn to, Refuge could really be the Earth’s breadbasket.

But the Loafers steadily refused to “turn to”—there was nothing the humans could do about it. And the years went by. And everything remained friendly and quiet. Until one day, a young human, born and raised on Refuge, decided he’d rather join the Loafers!

I wish I could find a credit for this book’s cover artist, because he or she deserves a solid handshake. Great work.

The book itself wasn’t bad, either. It had some issues, mainly because it was a fixup that strongly felt like a set of interconnected short stories, but in the end it brought it all together to a decent conclusion. The main problem was that there were the occasional short stories still floating around in there that were from a different point of view from the main track, stories that jumped back in time a little unexpectedly and made me wonder just what the heck was going on for a second. Part of me thinks that has a bit to do with how short the rest of the book was. Sitting at a hundred and sixty pages, I feel like our author or publisher felt the need to pad things a bit. Still, this was an enjoyable read.

When I was doing a little preliminary research, I found that Joseph L. Green was, among other things, a prolific short story writer and a charter member of the SFWA. That’s cool. Aside from that, he worked for NASA for a rather long time, which made me expect that this book would be some fairly hard science fiction. That seems to be the case when scientists and engineers write fiction—you end up with something that’s very sciency or engineery, and then it turns out that the people part of the story falls by the wayside. In extreme cases, you get a story about spaceships that has no characters and hardly any story. While that’s great for some people, and I don’t begrudge them that, it’s not my cup of tea.

I started the book anyway and found myself surprised. This was almost as soft as science fiction gets, and it definitely didn’t fall down on characterization. Yes, some of the characters felt a little stock and there wasn’t much in the way of development, but on the whole they felt true-to-life and managed to be quite likable. In fact, this whole book was pretty likable, I’m delighted to report.

The novel details the exploits of early colonists on a planet called Refuge. It’s a garden world and the colonists are having a good go at it. The native wildlife is edible, and they mainly supplement that with growing peanuts. They do this not just to expand humanity’s reach throughout the universe, but also in a struggling attempt to feed Earth itself. With a population that has finally topped eighty billion, Earth needs all the help it can get. Matter teleportation is a thing in this book, and that’s how all the many tons of food get back to the homeworld, but when living things pass through the transporter they die, so the task of sending humans out into the cosmos is slow going, at best.

Refuge has a native population, and here things get a little bit sticky. The native Loafers exist in harmony with nature. They don’t change their environment, they control it, mainly through the use of various psychic powers. Life is very good to the Loafers, and they exist in what is usually called a “primitive” state of development. They’re humanoid and covered with fur. Their unwillingness to work for their bread is a matter of consternation to the human colonists. At one point the phrase “virtuous drudgery” comes up, which made me chuckle and sums up the relationship pretty well. The Loafers do not buy into the Protestant Work Ethic, and for that I salute them. Of course, they don’t need to, which is something the humans don’t understand for quite a while.

The back of the book makes it look like a human going to live among the Loafers is the main conflict of the book, but it’s not. It’s a conflict for, oh, a few pages. Our hero (for most of the book), Carey, decides at the beginning that he wants to learn the ways of the Loafers. His mom disagrees. He goes anyway. He gets pretty good at Loafer powers, and for the rest of the book serves as the bridge between the two cultures, helping to resolve conflicts, except that for several long sections he’s not even in the story and doesn’t do much. Still, when he does act, he does it well, and he’s decent enough.

The text is mainly a series of vignettes. At the beginning we get to follow Carey through his initiation rites where he learns, like all Loafers do, how to control wildlife with his mind. It turns out that the skill is strictly noninvasive, serving mainly to prod and poke an animal or plant into doing things instead of employing brute force methods (read: the way humans do). He passes his test. With his Loafer pal Timmy he uses these skills to solve problems between the humans and the natives. One such story involves a farmer who wants to get rid of a grove of trees on his land. The nearby Loafers are very, very against that, which is odd because they don’t normally interfere with what people do on their own lands. There is conflict. It is later revealed that the trees are intelligent and that they have served as guides to the Loafers for countless generations. Unfortunately, those trees have been dormant for a while because a rare salt in the land is no longer available. The trees have become un-dormant again and are attacking the humans’ crops. It is later established that the rare salt is, in fact, borax, which takes up a portion of the humans’ fertilizers. With this discovery, everybody ends up happy. The trees are saved and are provided with ample supplies of borax (rare on Refuge, abundant on Earth).

Most of the conflicts in the book end up this way: everybody’s happy and it all works out for the best. Part of this has to do with the fact that the Loafers are a bit on the sickly-sweet side of things. They’re nonviolent and run around naked, the ultimate in noble savages, and part of me cringes at that because it’s such a common element in stories. Humans are bad, natives are good. More than anything, this gives me the feeling that the author was looking back on Earth’s own colonialism and thinking how it’s such a shame that the ignorant, awful Europeans disrupted the marvelous, in-tune-with-nature lifestyles of various native populations. Yes, there’s a lot of truth to that, but the problem with making a science fiction species a stand-in for every Earth culture that got subsumed by European culture is that it denies them the fact that they were, in fact, a distinct culture with customs and religion and language. What it does, in essence, is distill entire cultures into “noble savages” that “commune with nature” and “aren’t destroyers,” like that’s all that matters.

The other element that shines throughout this book is the conflict of the city versus the frontier. A lot of the colonists left Earth because it’s just so crowded and dull. People are assigned meaningless jobs just to keep them busy, childbearing is highly regulated, and there’s just no nature anywhere. In a common enough theme, people are no longer allowed to explore and expand and all that fun stuff, so they leave for a fresh planet where a man can be a man and a woman can have lots of babies and take care of the house. To be fair, The Loafers of Refuge was better than a lot of books in this regard, but there was still a lot of “women are on the planet to have babies while the men farm” kind of stuff floating around. There’s a schoolteacher who is trying to snag a husband before the last of her “fleeting good looks” fade away, for instance. I like my science fiction to be a little more enlightened than that, not just rehashing a bunch of westerns and other frontier fiction.

On the plus side, Carey’s sister, Doreen, is a capable young woman. She follows her brother into the Loafer society and learns the same skills, often better than her brother. It’s she who manages to find a way to transport living matter without killing it by using Loafer knowledge. When that happens, the floodgates open and humanity comes pouring into this wide world. This is viewed, at first, as generally okay.

One person who is not happy about it is Carey’s Loafer friend, Timmy. He goes on a grand pilgrimage to learn how human-Loafer interaction has affected his species. What he finds is not good. All across the world the Loafers are giving up on their native gifts in favor of human technology. In some cases the two things manage to integrate in gross and capitalistic ways. In one place he finds a Loafer whose job is to transmit sexy dreams to sleeping humans. For the most part, though, he just finds Loafers coming into human society and acting like humans. They’re getting jobs. They’re eating too much. They’re forgetting who they are.

Like a lot of the book, this comes across as an indictment of what happens when European cultures collided with others throughout history. And it’s fair. A lot of great things have been lost as white people across the world have subsumed native cultures and forced them to adopt European customs and values and languages. One thing the book seems to miss, at least at this point, is that there is some give-and-take, although I think we can all agree that in most cases it’s mostly just take-and-take. I’m not saying that any of this is a new revelation or that the book really stood out in its treatment of these situations, but it’s there and it does okay at it.

Timmy’s solution is to take a group of Loafers into the forest and isolate them so that they can preserve their native culture. No humans are allowed, although Carey is almost an exception because he’s so great. Thing is, Carey’s not allowed in at all, although his son will be when he reaches the age of initiation. Doreen, who was in love with Timmy throughout most of the book, is heartbroken.

Since there were so many threads going throughout this book, various storylines and whatnot, it probably comes as no surprise that there’s not much resolution. The book basically just ends. Doreen gets over her heartbreak and we get a positive message from the Loafers in the forest. Things will probably work out okay. I wasn’t thrilled with this ending, but I’ve read worse.

It’s funny, but this whole book was suffused with what I can only call a cloying positivity. Even when things were pretty dark and Timmy was examining the death of his native culture, it seemed like things were just going to work out in the end. After all, any conflict up to that point ended up working out for the best for everybody. I never got the feeling that much was at stake in this book, that anything or anybody was really in danger or needed to grow, but despite those storytelling issues I thought the book was honestly quite good, or, at the very least, readable.

In the end, though, there’s not much to say about it. It was a standard story of culture-clash, but unlike most of those kinds of stories (from fiction or otherwise), things tended to end okay. There was one little section where some Loafer kids were going to enter a human school, an obvious reference to integrating schools (this book was published in ’65), that I thought might get ugly, but nope, it didn’t. There was one guy who was against it and apparently somebody gave him a talking-to and he changed his mind. The end.

Humanity comes off as both pretty decent and pretty awful throughout the narrative. At first everybody is fine. We get a very Heinleinian sense that pioneers are at heart good people who just want to make a living for themselves and be decent neighbors. It’s only once the floodgates open and the rest of humanity can pour through the teleporter and take over the planet that things start to get ugly and we get all the standard human vices running around. That’s not a fair way of summing up our species’s complex history, but if you’re not looking to dig too deep, I guess it’ll do.

2 thoughts on “The Loafers of Refuge

  1. “Matter teleportation is a thing in this book . . . but when living things pass through the transporter they die.” Wow, there are so many things you could do with that idea, that I wish I had thought of it. SL

    Liked by 1 person

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