Spacehawk, Inc. by Ron Goulart
DAW Books, 1974
Price I paid: 90¢
In the Barnum system, Malagra was considered to be the most uninviting planet of them all. In fact, among the engineers and androids of Kip Bundy’s set, it was known as the pesthole of the universe.
Which made things quite sticky when Kip’s rich uncle assigned him to Malagra to make certain top secret reforms. Because Kip was no Hercules, and this task would have balked even that mythical fixer.
But then there were compensations—if you could call them that—a sex-mad photographer, a couple of lovely maidens in distress, and the ardent guerillas of the Boy Scout Liberation Army.
It’s Ron Goulart at his whackiest best.
I’m glad that my spellchecker agrees that “whackiest” is a wacky way of spelling “wackiest.” What’s up with that? Was that the norm once?
I love the cover, though. This cover is one of the stand-out covers of this blog. What is that? What is going on? Why is that giant going to eat that surprised elephant? What is the giant in the first place? Is it the villain? The protagonist? Will we ever know?
Turns out we won’t. This cover has nothing to do with the book and was, in all likelihood, tacked on by DAW because it was sitting around somewhere. It doesn’t even have anything to do with the title. There is no connection between this amazing cover and this book. Sadness.
Well, this is Ron Goulart again. I’ve got a soft spot for him, even though every time I finish one of his books I feel like I might have had a better time with another author. For lack of a better way of putting it, Goulart has a lot of fun writing his books and that really comes across, but in the end they seem a little empty. Wacky random events and technology that doesn’t work will only get you so far. I might laugh, but it’s not the same kind of laugh I’d get from somebody like Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. Of course, that’s an unfair comparison. Nobody will give me the kinds of laughs that those two do, but the point isn’t so much quality as it is substance. Adams and Pratchett have something to say in their humor. They dig deep into the human condition and pull out all these little life lessons. Goulart doesn’t do that, but at least he doesn’t try and fail.
He gets his laughs from zany bit after zany bit, sprinkled liberally with smart-ass robots. What’s Goulart’s deal with robots? I swear, not a single robot in his books works as intended. That’s the whole point of this book, in fact. In this case, it’s robot butlers. They need fixing. Kip Bundy is the man for the job.
Kip gets sent down to the planet Malagra to fix these robot butlers, but on the way he gets into all these wacky adventures. They don’t even count as adventures, to be honest. I think they’d be better described as situations.
I’m not running the book down when I describe it this way. I enjoyed reading it quite a bit. Goulart definitely has a way of writing that is a) very much his own, and b) fun to read. I knocked this 160-paperback in a few hours, tops. To use a cliché, I didn’t want to put it down. That’s rare for me.
Kip runs into some people who make his mission more difficult than otherwise. He’s supposed to kick around with a guy named Palma, one of the more problematic parts of this book. He’s not a bad character, and he didn’t bother me, but I can understand how some readers would be bothered by him. His main characteristic is that he really, really loves breasts. He also loves sex in general, and this is always getting him into trouble, but it’s breasts that really make him do what he does. He has a very large vocabulary when it comes to breasts. At one point he even enumerates some of his terminology:
“You mean yonkers,” said the bald photographer, “kabobos, knockers, yams, mambos, boobs, chabobs, buns, hangers, the old outfit, twin forty-fours, propos, big berthas, etc.?”
This kind of behavior is mainly limited to that character, so it doesn’t get too far out of hand, but after a while I found myself rolling my eyes whenever he was on the page, because all he would do was talk about breasts. The guy had a whole philosophy of them. I can get, on some level, why this is supposed to be funny, but I think more than anything the times have changed.
It does make a good example of what makes Goulart so very Goulart. What I like about his work is that it takes itself, and all of science fiction, with a minimum of seriousness. Goulart’s just goofin’ around and havin’ a good time while Heinlein is trying to make big political statements and Clarke is trying to expand our minds and Bradbury is trying to wax poetic. The lesson one gets from reading Goulart is that humor and irreverence have their places in science fiction, too, all the while still loving the genre. Goulart isn’t taking the piss out of science fiction, he’s playing with it like a beloved toy.
Another fine example of this is an offhand remark that the planet Malagra is a main exporter of an ore called malzbergium. I chuckled at that.
Kip meets a young lady named April who is looking for her brother, Dillon. Kip falls in love with April and so agrees to go looking for Dillon, despite the fact that his job is to fix those androids. They get into adventures together. Some of the obstacles they meet are
- Android gypsy musicians
- The Boy Scout Liberation Army (lovingly depicted in the trademark DAW books frontispiece)
- Some prince who talks like an offensive parody of Asians, but I don’t think was ever described as Asian
- A guy with a swearing parrot, although the parrot’s swears are never stronger than things like “poopy,” which nevertheless fills its owner with great glee because he was never allowed to swear as a child or something
- A self-driving car with attitude that eventually tries to kill them
- Lizard and cat people (Goulart staples)
As the book draws to a close, the heroes get kidnapped and enslaved, although even that doesn’t last very long. A guy from the titular Spacehawk, Inc. shows up and saves the day. We met this guy at the beginning, although he was supposed to be forgettable and alcoholic or something. I had trouble deciding if he was supposed to be a detective or a government agent or what. Either way, the slavery and drug operation is shut down, April’s brother is rescued, and everybody gets to live happily ever after, although the real close of the book is when Kip finally fixes the android butlers like he was supposed to do the whole time. Apparently it was very easy.
There’s not a lot of substance to this book, and normally that would bother me, but this one had so much personality that I didn’t mind all that much. Plus I knew what I was getting into as soon as I saw the author’s name on the cover. Getting mad at this book for being light and breezy and plotless would be like getting mad at a soda for being fizzy and sweet and rotting your teeth.
Although things get a little problematic with the boob worship and the womanizing, the book as a whole was inoffensive, which is also nice. As a book of humor, it didn’t degrade anybody to achieve those ends, except maybe the boob worshipper guy. I can’t decide if that was degrading to anybody or not. I mean, Palma wasn’t exactly a person I’d like to hang around with, but his boob worship came from a place of respect. He respects boobs.
My point is that most of the humor came from situations. The usual instigators of humor were robots, lizard people, and cat people. Even then, the lizard people and the cat people were just people acting in a weird way. There was never any kind of “cat people are stupid” or “lizard people are inherently bad with money” or stuff like that. If anybody is degraded to make this humor work, it’s humanity in general, not any particular slice of it.
It might be worth noting that the women in this book were mainly just damsels in distress who didn’t do anything, but the men were pretty much the same in that regard. I think the only heroic character in the book was the Spacehawk, Inc. guy who showed up at the beginning and the end.
I think the best way to describe the general tone of this book’s humor is to cite one of the bits that I found funniest. It’s not even that funny, it’s just so…true to life? That’s all I can think to call it. And of course it won’t be funny when described secondhand, because nothing is, but I’m not telling you this to make you laugh, I’m telling you this to make a point.
So when Kip meets that weird prince guy who talks like a stereotype, he puts this thingy on the guy’s head to make him do his bidding. This thingy shows up a lot in this book and seems to be mostly a plot-advancing device, but that’s not the point. The point is that Kip is grilling this guy for exposition for this entire scene, but the damn thingy keeps falling off. Over and over again we have to interrupt this exposition sequence because the thingy falls off the guy’s head and rolls under the couch, causing the prince guy to call for some guards. Kip manages to get the thingy back on the guy’s head just in time to make him tell the guards to go away again, which they do.
I think Goulart’s attitude toward technological devices—that they can do some plenty amazing things if they’d just work—is a large part of why I enjoy reading his books. I think it’s an attitude that a lot of us share, something we can all find the humor in without necessarily having to bring somebody else down in the process. Making fun of gadgets that don’t work might rank as the most universal, inoffensive form of humor our society has, and that’s why this book works so well, even forty-two years after it was written.