Hook #1: Whirlpool of Stars

whirlpool-of-starsHook #1: Whirlpool of Stars
Pinnacle Books, 1974
Price I paid: 75¢

The century is 10,000, Earth dating. The boundaries of the world as we know it have expanded beyond belief, beyond thought. Earth still remains―but as one of many planets throughout the galaxies, where myriad life forms exist.

Life has taken a new direction, to a new future, but there are still problems to overcome―and the same struggle for survival.

And Ryder Hook is just one Earthman who is equally at home on a starship, on an alien planet, and on Earth. But he has been singled out for a purpose―to take place in a singular experiment…

This is the first novel in a spellbinding new science-adventure series about a superhuman warrior of the future. Ryder Hook travels through the cosmos as a master of all he encounters. He is a man of supreme adventure, timeless in his fearless conquering spirit! Watch for further books in the action-packed saga of Ryder Hook!

I put the choice of what book to read this week on the blog’s Facebook page because I had a fairly good supply of new books and, moreover, I was having trouble picking from them. There wasn’t much response―the whole Facebook page idea is still fairly new to me―but enough people spoke up that I went with this one. I’m not disappointed at all.

I figured this book would be bad. The back cover matter makes it seem like the kind of pulp throwback from the seventies that the New Wave folks were reacting against with good reason. Pulp heroism is great in the proper timeframe, I think, but once I start seeing those tropes coming around after, say, 1960, I get wary. Either the author hasn’t caught up, or he or she is consciously trying to bring back a genre that had its place and time and then died.

The author was another factor. I’d never heard of Tully Zetford, which isn’t unusual. Most of the time I choose a book to review it’s because I’d never heard of the author. This is one of those times where that may have backfired. It turns out that Tully Zetford is a nom de plume for good old Kenneth Bulmer. I seem to remember not finding his Behold the Stars all that great, but golly gee did this guy write a lot of books.

I think Hook #1 was probably better than Behold the Stars, but not by much, and not in the ways one might expect.

This book was about an arrowhead away from being the Penetrator in space.

This makes a degree of sense. Both the Penetrator and Hook are published by Pinnacle Books, and moreover, these books were written at the same time. One gets the feeling that Pinnacle was looking for a very specific tone for their books in the early seventies, along with specific hero types and plots.

Mostly, though, I think what they were looking for was incredible violence.

I don’t mean to suggest that I found Whirlpool of Stars as entertaining as a typical Penetrator novel. This is not the case. But it was entertaining in its own right, mostly for the wrong reasons.

The prose is about as purple as you can get, the hero is surprising in some of his attitudes, and the setting is pretty much the same setting you get in any kind of pulp adventure series. Let’s get crackin’.

Ryder Hook is a man of the galaxy. I know the back of the book says galaxies but I think we all know what that means. Frankly, I’m surprised the book didn’t take place on, say, the Moon.

The back of the book also says that “the century is 10,000.” That blew me away. I’m pretty sure that that 10,000th century would be, at least, the year one million. I might not be good at math but I can add zeroes to something. Still, that’s a long, long time in the future, and suggesting that humans would be even remotely relatable that far in the future is just laughable.

Well, it also turns out that the back of the book got that wrong too, or at least whoever wrote it didn’t quite get how centuries work. Nobody today would say “the century is 2000” or anything like that. Would they? Is that a thing?

Well, the upshot of this is that the text of the book clearly says that this is the 100th century, not the 10,000th. Even more accurately, our hero was born on January 1, 10001. Just to give you an idea of how special he is.

We enter this book right as the ship Ryder is on is falling apart. It’s a passenger ship. The very beginning of this book did an excellent job of making me wonder just what was going on. All I knew was that a ship was exploding and this guy whose name was also all over the cover of the book was taking it quite calmly while also looking to save himself.

He and about a hundred and fifty other people make it onto some kind of escape vessel and set out for the nearest habitable planet. We start to get an idea of what kind of setting we’re in by now. There are aliens, lots of them, but there are also derivatives of humans and plain old human stock. Hook is mostly the last option. We learn more in a bit.

One of the things that made Ryder interesting to me, at least in comparison to other pulp heroes of his ilk, is that he was not the sort of chivalrous hero that would never harm a woman. Ryder is completely and utterly self-interested, regardless of whom he’s dealing with. In a way, that’s refreshing. There’s none of that putting women on pedestals action that we so often get in adventure stories. None of that “I’d never shoot a woman” or whatever. Ryder will do whatever it takes to survive, and it doesn’t matter if the person trying to deprive him of that survival is a man or a woman.

That said, you’d probably expect this story to involve him finding some woman and then she softens his heart or something and it’s all Han Solo at the end of Star Wars. Unfortunately, that’s basically true. Fortunately, it’s only true for, say, the last page (and presumably the last ten books in the series).

The woman in question is named Pera Sotherton and she is not a good female protagonist. As a character, she’s downright offensive. Ryder spends most of the book on the verge of walloping her, and most of the time she seems to deserve it. She does nothing to contribute to any solutions and downright refuses to do anything Ryder suggests, not because she’s got any kind of agency of her own, but because those things might make her less pretty.

I was not thrilled.

Anyway, the escape pod enters orbit around a planet called Lerdun, where it turns out that the main export is asshats. Not a single inhabitant of this planet comes across as anything more than corporate scum, which leads us to another aspect of this story.

In this future, the galaxy is run mainly by groups called “Econorgs.” They are gigantic business conglomerates that, like I say, extend across the entire galaxy. That’s a fairly standard science-fiction trope these days, often in video games where you have to fly a vessel around the stars and choose a side. I have nothing against this kind of setting when you get down to it.

Ryder Hook chooses not to belong to this setup. He’s a loner. He doesn’t even have a credit card. This causes him no end of trouble.

At least hard cash still exists in this universe. It’s called money-metal.

One of the things about Econorgs is that they set up shop on certain planets, and if you’re trying to deal with a planet and your Econorg isn’t represented there, you’re screwed. This means that Ryder is, of course, screwed, but so are Pera and a few other people on this lifeboat. Everybody else gets to leave.

Oh, most everybody in the galaxy, with the exception of book protagonists, are somehow affiliated with an Econorg in some capacity.

The lifeboat won’t last forever, so Ryder takes it down onto the surface against the wishes of the planetary government. It’s here that everything starts to go downhill for our hero. First, he’s almost sold into slavery. Then he and Pera have to find ways to survive until they can get rescued. All of the rescue attempts go awry, mostly because the people on this planet are all corrupt and terrible. This section takes up the bulk of the book, but it’s also the least summarizable because it’s mostly just “Oh no, that went wrong too, I guess I’ll have to kill people.” There’s a fair amount of killing people.

The death scenes are pretty good. Futuristic lasers that blow spines out of backs, stuff like that. There’s at least one gun that melts people into plastic.

The couple eventually makes its way to one of the planet’s major Econorgs, Interstell-Imp. Holding Pera hostage, the head of this Econorg (I’ll never get tired of typing that word) forces Ryder to break into the headquarters of some other Econorg and steal important secrets. If he can kill the head of that other Econorg while he’s at it, so much the better.

So that’s what Ryder does. Even though he repeatedly says he gives no craps for Pera and doesn’t care if she’s sold into slavery or whatever, he does this thing. I guess he’s doing it for himself? Either way, he breaks in, does some stuff, and then he gets a hint that there’s a Boosted Man nearby.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re probably thinking the same thing I was when I got to this section of the book. It doesn’t help that Boosted Men, whatever they are, were mentioned offhand a few times earlier in the book, something about how they were the one thing Ryder was really afraid of. So it turns out now that this Econorg is run by one, and Ryder gets scared enough that he springs into action, as you’d expect.

Along the way we get a bit of exposition about what’s going on here. It turns out that Ryder was once a guinea pig in a Human Enhancement Project. They gave him some pretty good advantages before kicking him out of that same project. (Except they didn’t really kick him out; that was all a cover for turning him into the greatest assassin in the galaxy.)

Ryder has some cool skills, like nigh-unbreakable bones and a computer in his head, but his full powers don’t seem to come into play unless he’s near a Boosted Man. The Boosted Men are the culmination of that same project. Why, exactly, Ryder gets enhanced whenever he’s near one isn’t exactly explained, but it led to a pretty cool climax to this story.

The Boosted Men are evil and Ryder Hook is going to rid the galaxy of them.

The book takes a hard right turn here and becomes something completely different. Ryder is now a man on a mission instead of just a dude trying to survive. He tracks down this Boosted Man, who also happens to be the head of this Econorg, and dispatches him brutally. More brutally than is called for, to be honest.

The guy never even gets a chance to put up a fight.

This is where it turns into a Penetrator book.

Ryder knocks the guy out and searches his lodgings for a weapon. This takes a little while, even though one of Ryder’s superpowers is now super-speed. Occasionally he has to come back to the Boosted Man and knock him out again before he finds what he’s looking for. Ryder eventually finds an anti-grav pack and gun big enough to blow a hole in the wall.

All of this craziness is explained away by the fact that as soon as the Boosted Man dies, Ryder will lose his crazy enhanced powers, meaning that escape will be nearly impossible. I can dig that. It makes for an interesting complication. Ryder uses this complication to make it so that killing this guy and escaping are one and the same.

Ryder jumps out of the hole in the wall carrying this Boosted Man guy. But then something goes wrong! Some goon shoots the anti-grav pack and now Ryder and the unconscious Boosted Man are falling a great many stories. Ryder positions himself to where he’s basically standing on the Boosted Man’s shoulders, meaning that at the last second before they hit the ground he’s able to jump off those shoulders and land somewhere safer (does this make any sense at all?) while the Boosted Man hits the ground with a very satisfying crunch. Dude’s got metal bones and stuff but he still dies instantly.

The book ends with Pera being freed, Hook getting paid, and passage off the planet being arranged via Pera’s boss, an alien that looks like a wicker basket with hair (the alien design in this book was pretty good sometimes). The last thing we see is Hook and Pera in bed having a good old time.

This book was pretty enjoyable in a dumb kind of way, but it also suffered from a variety of writing problems, not all of which are the author’s fault. Plenty of times I could tell this book suffered from bad editing, and most of that was because the editor likely had little to no experience with science fiction terminology. At one point, for example, Ryder straps on an “anti-gray” pack, presumably to make his hair browner. There are a lot of little things like that. Either it was a typo that didn’t get caught or the editor thought he/she knew better and changed it.

The other thing that made this book that special kind of enjoyable was the prose. I mentioned that it was purple, and that stands. Normally that’s not something people categorize as good, but dammit, I like it when a book has memorable turns of phrase, and purple prose can lend a hand in that. Most notable are the insults the author came up with, a notable one near the beginning being “regurgitated womb-fugitive.” I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean, but it sounds bad.

One thing, though, is that the author would latch on to some of those decent turns of phrase and use them repeatedly. Now, this is a problem I have suffered in my own writing, so I both understand it and flinch at it. “Regurgitated womb-fugitive” gets used a number of times. The title of the book shows up four times in the text. Ryder Hook does a lot of things―pace the floor, eat a sandwich, kill some dudes―philosophically. Bulmer uses philosophically the way Asimov uses atomic.

Ugh, and the way this book treats women is just abominable. I’ve mentioned the way Pera acts throughout the whole thing, but women in general not represented well. For the most part, their only jobs are to be secretaries who keep their bosses sexually satisfied. Any woman in this book that gets described as anything less than young and pretty is basically considered a useless human being, at best. I wanted to fling this book across the room a couple of times.

I can’t say I recommend this book to anybody who isn’t a big fan of the pulp adventure heroes, and even then I’d have to do it with tongue in cheek. This is not a good book if you’re looking for any kind of quality, but if you’re looking for something dumb to read that just happens to take place in the 100th century, give it a go, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

5 thoughts on “Hook #1: Whirlpool of Stars

  1. Technically — and who doesn’t love a comment that starts like this — the year 10001 is in the 101st century, in the same way that anything 19— is the 20th century and andy 20— is the 21st, etc.

    I’d love to see how the expression “whirlpool of stars” turns up four times — that must take some doing. eminds me of Michael Connelly’s none-too-gracefully-titled A Darkness More Than Night, which manages to get that into the text, like, surely 20 times throughout the book; after a while, it starts to feel like a challenge he set himself, and every time he worked it in he’d allow himself to buy another Ferrari or something.

    Great pulping as always. I’ll now have to decide whether to track down The Penetrator or The Penetrator in Space first…

    Liked by 1 person

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