Can a human being be reconstituted like orange juice?
To find out, the Army backs a futuristic research project that transfers a man’s personality onto computer tapes. Guinea pig for the experiment is technical writer and dreamer Bob Shairp.
But the project barely gets off the ground when a computer accident wipes out Shairp’s mortal body and only his tapes remain. Is Shairp doomed to this encoded state forever? Or can the bizarre process be reversed?
I’m going to try to tell you about this book, but I want to issue a forewarning: It will be very difficult. I’m not sure how I’m going to do it.
This book is one of those New Wave books that makes me frustrated. I’m not going to say it’s bad. In fact, for what it is, it’s very, very good. Even though I’m not a big fan of whatever this kind of book would be, I can still objectively recognize that the author was skilled at writing whatever he set out to write. It shows. I congratulate him.
It’s just that this kind of novel doesn’t do much for me. It’s very typical of the late sixties, early seventies New Wave scene, something I have to admit that I’m not all that into. Maybe I’m a Philistine. Feel free to call me one. I just happen to like my stories a little more on the traditional side, with things like plots and narratives and characters and things that make sense.
This is a book that isn’t for me, and that’s okay! Not everything has to be! That’s a lesson that a lot of people these days―probably in all days―need to learn. Still, I read it, and I’m going to try to tell you about it as best I can. This will be, as I said, difficult, because this book is all over the damn place.
(In case anybody wants to assume my appreciation of “traditional forms” means I’m sympathetic to those damned Puppies, you will be very wrong. Very, very wrong. So wrong that you should probably chastise yourself for thinking it, even though you don’t know me. Thank you.)
The first thing we can point out is that the back of this book is broadly accurate. Some of those things happen. They also take up, oh, a tenth of the book. Tops.
This novel had so many different narratives whirlpooling around that, if I were reading a lesser writer, they would be difficult to keep up with. To his credit, Sladek managed to keep them all straight. Even while the characters were basically cardboard strawmen (yeah, both!), I had little trouble distinguishing them. This is probably because their single defining characteristics were pretty, well, defining.
Bob Shairp exists in this book. He has a wife and a son. His son wants to go to military school and wears a Nazi uniform. He’s eight. Bob is about to lose his job as a technical writer. I say “writer” because the book does, but really he’s more of a technical editor. A computer does most of the work and he just proofreads it and tweaks things to make them more readable. He loses his job when he is replaced by a dog.
He is then volunteered for a project, where his mind and genetic code are transferred to something called Müller-Fokker tape as part of an experiment. As this happens, the laboratory is attacked by White Supremacists, who are convinced that the experiment will lead to Black-White brain swaps and allow African-Americans to further infiltrate “decent society.”
If you’re wondering, yes, Müller-Fokker is apparently a play on “motherfucker.” Hilarious?
Shairp is stuck on the tape, after which he is rarely referenced again. Most of this book has nothing to do with Shairp, the tapes, or anything like that. They crop up again here and there, and we follow the stories of his wife and kid on occasion, but this book mainly consisted of unrelated stories that often involved racism and cross-dressing.
We get at least three instances of a scene that I’m pretty sure exists in about eighty percent of all fiction written during the seventies. This includes a fair number of movies and TV, as well. And not just science fiction, either.
This scene is what I call the Party Where Everybody is Trying to Be More Weird Than Everybody Else. I can’t think of a shorter name.
I’d rip some text from this book to tell you what I’m talking about, but honestly, I think it would be more fun if I just made one up.
Four identical lesbians in pink catsuits sat in a corner arguing about W.C. Fields. A sociology professor in his boxer shorts attempted to insert his opinion that Fields was a Messiah figure in all but most of his movies. Across the room, a man smoking a cigar shaped like a frog was playing a version of “Hey Jude” on the harpsichord, except he was singing “Hey Jews.” People gathered around him laughed every time he said it and ignored him for the rest of the song.
Write your own in the comments! This is fun! Let’s all be wacky random seventies writers complaining about the frauds and phonies!
This kind of narrative sequence leads me to think one of two things when I read it. Either the author is trying too hard to describe some weird and unique people or the author is doing a good job of describing people who are trying too hard to be weird and unique. It’s a damned fine line and I only have my intuition to tell me which is which (usually I default to the former). This time, though, that same intuition told me to run with the latter. I think Sladek did a good job describing some really irritating people, and he did it on purpose. He’s also skilled at taking us around the room, over and over, like a guest at one of the parties, only allowing us snippets of conversation and information as the party progresses. It’s quite good.
The people at these parties all have their own narrative arcs. I can’t describe them all because this book has about nine plots running around, but I’ll give you a taste.
Glen Dale is the host of these parties. He’s a stand-in for Hugh Hefner. His magazine is called Stagman. Glen’s problem is that he’s pushing forty years old and he can’t get laid. It’s not that he hasn’t tried. It’s mostly bad luck. He’s seeing a psychologist about it, but the psychologist is convinced that Glen’s sexual frustration is being sublimated into his media empire, in which the psychologist is heavily invested, so it’s in his financial interests to keep Glen from ever getting past first base.
Other people involve a guy who calls himself an artist even though he’s never arted. His plan is to use a random number generator to create a work of pointillism, but he’s not found an RNG good enough for his tastes. He eventually gets hold of one of the tapes holding Shairp (there are four) and uses it, except what he ends up with are just variations on pre-existing art. He’s hailed as a genius for a little while.
Perhaps the most notable character in this book, especially since his narrative arc gets the most screen time, is a guy named Wes Davis. Wes is a white supremacist who wrote a book in prison about the Vast Negro Conspiracy. There are a lot of aspects to his story that made me keep reading because they were scary and appropriate and maybe this is low-hanging fruit but let’s run with this:
Davis’s book is a hit. People praise him for “telling it like it is” and “saying what others are afraid to say.” He’s further praised for “talking straight to the blue-collar Midwest” even though, it turns out, he’s from New York.
He runs for president.
Page 138, quote:
“My chances don’t depend on ‘statistics’ and public opinion polls. I’m casting my vote for the average, honest, decent, Protestant, gentile, American, Anglo-Saxon, hard-working, God-fearing, not overly intellectualized but clear-thinking white man―and I know he’ll be casting his vote for me!”
Is any of this starting to sound familiar? Campaign of hate, normalization of racism, a man representing the “common folks” that has little in common with them himself?
I know I’m being about as subtle as our president-elect but my point is that, well, this book had some prescience to it. What’s also interesting is that I’m not sure if the author was doing one of those “it could happen here” things at all: the bulk of this character’s story just seems to be taking the piss out of Hitler.
Oh, one thing about this book that was genuinely, laughably, honestly prescient was near the end when Washington, D.C. is under attack (I’ll get to it) and a single line tells us that the president is being evacuated. We never get a first name, but his last name is Reagan.
1971, folks. That’s when this book was written. And I’m almost certain that name drop was there as a cynical joke.
Okay, the last quarter or so of this book is the assault on D.C. It’s led by Wes Davis and his white supremacist army. It started out as a march but things went a bit crazy. There’s a lot of misinformation and chaos floating around and this book does a great job telling us just how incompetent people can get when a lot of craziness is going on. Again, this is some great storytelling, even though it had so little to do with the rest of the book, especially the so-called premise.
White supremacists clash with Black Panther stand-ins. The Klan shows up. There’s this bit where the Klan lynches a group of White Supremacists wearing blackface. I’ll admit, I thought that was a little funny. Anarchists show up and start sowing rumors and other discord. They eventually blow up the Lincoln Memorial. The army arrives and is just incompetent. Everything goes bananas.
All of the opposing sides enter the Capital Building for a final showdown, at which point the military drops some kind of a gas on them and kills them all.
Meanwhile, Wes Davis is having a breakdown, alleging his own followers of being Black spies and forcing his other followers to throw them out of windows. I guess he dies or something, I don’t really remember.
The book ends with this guy we’ve met a few times before, Mac Hines, showing up at Shairp’s wife’s house and telling her that he’s got the tapes and can reconstitute her husband, which he does, and I guess everything ends okayishly.
I didn’t cover nearly as much of this book as I could have, which makes that back cover synopsis so understandable, although the thing about back cover synopses is that they only need to hint at the nature of the book instead of covering any details, so a better version of it would go
Can a human being be reconstituted like orange juice?
Nobody cares and this book has little to nothing to do with that, but prepare yourself for a book that bounces around a lot of characters’ heads and some of them have some real problems but others are just fakes and fraudsters and you’re gonna learn a lot about human nature maybe but in the end I think you’ll see that racism is bad and then everything comes to a head in Washington, D.C. and a lot of people die. Some of the stories resolve, but others are left up in the air.
Because this is a book about how people are terrible.
Welcome to the seventies, bitches.
I probably sound like I’m being really hard on this book. I want to make it clear, I don’t think it was bad. I think it was a very well-done example of a subgenre and narrative style that’s not my cup of tea. Even while I was confused and a bit annoyed, the book was still pretty readable. Even when it had wordplay and accents that I didn’t quite understand, I was able to work through it.
Even when it had chapter-long stream-of-consciousness-nonsense sections that I guess were supposed to take place from the vantage point of a guy in a computer tape…
Actually no I skipped those. I hate that stuff.
Still, if works like this are your jam and you haven’t read this book, I hope you do so you can tell me if it’s actually any good for people who like this kind of thing.