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The Midnight Dancers

the midnight dancersThe Midnight Dancers by Gerard F. Conway
Ace Science Fiction, 1971
Price I paid: 90¢

THE MIDNIGHT DANCERS is a novel of the far future, when mankind has spread through the galaxies, tamed worlds and prospered…until a mysterious plague swept through the worlds of men, a plague that left the race insane and helpless.

Only on a distant rim world where men still fight the elements is there any sanity left. To this world comes the Walker, a supernormal being on a quest to find salvation for humanity. Perhaps here, he thinks, there is a clue to the answer.

But the Walker too is insane, and he plunges even this world into confusion. And one man stalks him across the planet, across the emptiness between the stars, to a final battle against the gods of the cosmos…and a chilling vision of ultimate reality.

Well, this is certainly nothing new. The back of the book completely misses just about everything the book was about. I think the only accurate piece of information is that there was a plague of insanity, and to be honest, that was one of the most background elements of the book. Maybe the bit about “galaxies” is true, but I kind of doubt it. The book never goes into that much detail about how far this human empire extends.

What we’ve got here is another book by the magnificent Gerry Conway, comics writer extraordinaire (he killed Gwen Stacy) and author, under the name Wallace Moore, of the Balzan trilogy. This is almost entirely the reason I picked this book up in the first place. I was curious about how Conway writes when he’s not discussing a young, stupid, angry man who was raised by cat people.

It turns out that the only one of those things missing from The Midnight Dancers is the cat people.

If there was any doubt in my mind that Gerry Conway and Wallace Moore were the same person, that’s been dashed. This book had a lot in common with Balzan, both in tone and characterization. The Midnight Dancers was perhaps a bit less violent, and it was a lot less fun, but it was still pretty stupid.

Our “hero” is a guy named Saul. Saul has the most normal name of anybody in this book. Other folks have names like Haryl, Davina, Tamorr, and Deb. One of those people is a woman. I’ll leave that open to speculation for a moment. Perhaps most annoying was that there was another character named Shul. One letter different from the main one, and he tags along with Saul for the majority of the book. Folks, I know that in real life people sometimes have similar names, but fiction isn’t real life. You have the option to make your characters’ names as confusing as you want. But why make it any worse than it has to be, especially if the names are just random syllables that sound vaguely alien anyway? Sure, the names sound pretty different, so this is a matter of typography more than anything. If I have to read a sentence more than once because I didn’t pick up on which character said or did a thing, that’s on you, author. And I don’t like it.

Saul is an angry young man who was not raised by cat people. He has a girlfriend/fiancée named Davina (did you guess right?). He’s the son of the chief of his tribe, has a lizard-hawk-thing named Kavor, and is from an unnamed planet that is called World more often than not. Maybe that makes it a named planet.

Characterization is scant in this novel. Saul is our point-of-view character, so we get to know him best, but that’s not saying very much. His traits, apart from angry stupid youth, are that he doesn’t believe in any of the old legends and he’s a pretty good Hunter. Hunter is always capitalized. I guess that means it’s important.

The word Rain is also always capitalized.

Near the beginning of the book Saul and his friend Deb face off against some kind of big lizard. They need to kill it for meat. The village isn’t doing all that well on the food front these days. Saul fights the thing but gets knocked out of the way. Deb finishes it off. Saul’s response to this is to berate his friend and punch him in the face for kill-stealing.

And that pretty much sums up the character.

CONTENT WARNING: Possible sexual violence

Wait, no, there’s one more bit, where later he yells at Davina for no reason and then quite possibly rapes her. It’s not clear that this is what happens, but any amount of non-clarity in this kind of situation is unacceptable.

A guy named the Walker shows up and hangs around the village for a bit. Saul is all like “This Walker guy is dumb and stupid and I hate him for no reason. I oughtta punch his dumb face.”

Apparently the Walker was prophesied by Kalak, the founder of the village on this planet. Kalak’s writings are the religion of the village. Saul is against them for no adequately explored reason.

I know I’m harping on this a lot, but I want to make it clear: this book did a very, very bad job at explaining any kind of motivations. Whenever Saul does anything and someone asks him why, he just gets mad. He might say something like “Because I’m the Huntmaster! You wanna fight me, buttface?”

It gets worse when he sets out on his mission that I’ll tell you about here in a second. He gets accompanied by some other people from the village, people who genuinely don’t like him. He doesn’t like them either. They have no reason to accompany him. Everyone constantly bickers and fights. Sometimes one of them will think to themselves something along the lines of Why am I even here?

It’s a valid question, and if your characters don’t have an answer to it, maybe it’s time to make one up.

I swear, this book is like a master class in how to not write characters.

Just after Saul possibly assaults his girlfriend, he finds her hanging around with the Walker, who takes her and disappears. Saul vows to find them, bring back Davina, and presumably punch the Walker in the back of the head.

The tribal council says “No, you’re not going. This is dumb.”

Saul says “Screw you guys, I’m going anyway.” He sets out. Some of his fellow Hunters, including Deb and Shul, set out with him. It bears repeating: there’s really no reason they decide to come along, and they all regret it constantly.

What follows is your standard Walking-Across-the-World-Getting-Into-Danger story. They meet some people, they fight some giant animals, they swim around in some treacherous water, they go through a cave, they get Rained on a lot.

What they don’t do is anything like grow as people, learn lessons, get to know each other better, develop motivations, or have any kind of self discovery.

They pass though a cave. The cave is blocked by an avalanche, but they find a way through. Apparently a river passes through this cave, the river they’ve been following all this way, and that’s the river that ends up at their village. Passing through the rocks knocks the avalanche over a bit more, damming the river and damning the village. One of the guys in the party notices but doesn’t say anything. Saul, completely single-minded about this mission, is not that guy.

They find themselves in a desert. Crossing the desert leads to an ocean. This is the end of the road, and they haven’t found the Walker yet.

Most of the party decides to break away from Saul and go back home. Saul gets―surprise surprise―very angry at this. He calls them traitors and says he didn’t want them to come along anyway. He arbitrarily decides to go north along the ocean until he finds…anything I guess.

One of the party, Deb, comes with.

Saul finds a stargate, except it’s not called that. It’s called a Fold Vortex. It’s what people in this universe use to travel through space. Saul steps through it, because why not? Deb doesn’t.

There’s a trippy sequence where he meets the Fates, who are also the titular Midnight Dancers. They’re, well, the Fates. Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. We’re told they’ve gone insane, although we aren’t told what that means. They don’t really act insane, they just seem huge and ineffable. They’re doing exactly what you’d expect if you know Greek mythology.

Saul’s life passes before his eyes. He sees what a dick he is. I’m glad that the book acknowledges that he’s just pointlessly angry all the time. Makes it seem like it wasn’t an accident. Maybe there’s a lesson to be learned?

If there is, I didn’t see one. All that happens is that Saul comes out the other side of the Fold Vortex and finds himself on another planet in the midst of a giant empty city. He explores a bit and finds the Walker and Davina. He tries to get her to come back with him. She refuses. Rightly so. The Walker then attacks him with lightning and stuff. There’s a struggle.

Saul pushes them off of a…thing…and they both fall down. Davina is obviously dead. The Walker is also dead, but it gives Saul a chance to see that the Walker is also a robot.

Okay.

He turns back around, goes through the Fold Vortex again, meets the Fates again, says something about how he has free will now, and launches a ball of “emotional energy” at them, causing all of their Fate weaving to go awry. I don’t know what this is supposed to achieve, but it seems to be the right thing to do.

He meets up with his friends again, who all remark on how he’s changed. He’s not angry and dumb any more, I guess, although it doesn’t come across as real to me because there was no emotional resonance at all in any of this stuff.

The best explanation the book gives is that Saul has been a pawn to fate his whole life. This apparently means he always took the easiest route to whatever he needed to do, and that’s a bad thing.

Is this a book about how Taoism is bad?

Now that he’s met the Fates and seen how they’re insane, which is what drove the rest of humanity insane too, he’s able to break that spell and be the best person he can be.

The book ends with his going back to his village and convincing everybody to bundle up and follow him back to the Fold Vortex, where they’ll all go over to this other world-city and take it over.

And that’s it. The point of the story is that you have to fight fate all the time, which is a thing that I guess is supposed to mean something. If you don’t fight fate, you’ll go insane because fate is insane. So fight fate. If you don’t, it’ll make you a dick.

I just don’t know. This book was so halfassed. I get that it was Conway’s first novel, but still, nothing about it was especially worth reading. It wasn’t truly awful, just dull and pointless. The story, or what there was of one, was easy enough to read, but it was lifeless.

He wrote this book within a year of starting the Balzan novels, so I guess he learned something. Balzan, for all its many, many faults, was at least more enjoyable to read. Those books had some flavor to them, even if that flavor was just a bad ripoff of Tarzan, full of gore and mindless anger.

What is it with Conway and anger, I wonder? It seems to be a defining point of his protagonists. Dude co-created the Punisher, for crying out loud.

I don’t want to rag on the author too hard. After all, when it comes to things outside of the novels I’ve read, Conway is a certified master. His credits in comics, film, and television are worth drooling over. He’s a brilliant storyteller, I just think that novels aren’t the medium to best show that.


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