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The Penetrator #41: Hell’s Hostages

The Penetrator #41: Hell’s Hostages by Lionel Derrick
Pinnacle Books, 1981
Price I paid: 50¢

Mark Hardin takes on one of the most explosive challenges of his career―on foreign turf. Crazed rebel students, under the banner of the self-styled prophet Ayatollah Kohbali, have gone wild and imprisoned a staff of American diplomats in the consulate―an impenetrable compound.

A mysterious KGB agent―in skirts―is taking orders from the Kremlin and passing them on to the rebels. Somehow, she’s always one step ahead of the Penetrator and his special team of trained fighters―and Hardin smells a rat.

He’s got to figure out―and fast―how to match sharp wits against raw violence if he’s ever going to break through the wave of Muslim madness!

Well, I’d say that this Penetrator novel is the most problematic one I’ve read thus far, but I can’t say that because Hawaiian Trackdown exists. Still, hold onto your butts. This one gives old Preacher Mann’s final story a run for its money. And you know what makes it worse? It wasn’t even a good story, even for the Penetrator.

I mean, I knew what I was getting into when I started. I knew the book was going to have some Islamophobia running around, probably with a healthy dose of anti-Arab racism to go along with it, if there’s a distinction. I feel like there is, but I’m no sociologist. It’s not like I was going to give the book a pass on those kinds of things or anything―that shit’s totally unacceptable―but I was figuring I’d just mention it and move on to the stuff we all came to see, namely exploding heads, guts, and testicles coupled with strangely sympathetic backstories for dying goons.

We didn’t get any strangely sympathetic backstories in this book! Dammit!

This book has some interesting differences from other Penetrator novels, but it also turns out that its problems extend far beyond its treatment of Muslims.

Before that, let’s talk about the setup. Muslim terrorists in not-Iran have taken some folks at an American embassy hostage. It’s a fictional country named Persis. Here’s the thing, though. Pinnacle published this book in 1981. The Hostage Crisis in Tehran ended on Inauguration Day of 1981. I know this not because I was around at the time, but because I did a report on Jimmy Carter in the eighth grade and it stuck in my memory.

(Years later, I won a small prize at a Christmas party for answering a trivia question about it. How many Christmases were the hostages held in Tehran? Well, they were let out on January 20, and they were imprisoned for 444 days. Easy-peasy!)

So my point is that Mark Roberts ripped this plot straight from the headlines, something we’ve seen before. I don’t remember if Terror in Taos ever explicitly mentioned Wounded Knee, but Hell’s Hostages sure didn’t miss any chances to mention Iran. Every ten pages or so you’d get somebody saying something like “This better not turn into another shitshow like Iran!” It makes one start to wonder if the author, in this case Mark Roberts (who also wrote Terror in Taos), was using this book to offer some commentary on the Carter administration…

Hmm…

HMMMMMM

This book rants and raves a lot about liberals and their silly ideas. Lots of characters do it, including Mark, and the one or two that don’t are villainized. For one, there are Soviet agents running around spouting parodies of Marxist doctrine. Yeah, our villains in this piece are the Commies.

Mark joins up on a mission to rescue the hostages. Here’s something different: This mission doesn’t come through Dr. Haskins at all. He’s barely in the book! The same is true of David Red Eagle. They’re mentioned near the beginning and end, but hardly ever in the text itself. Instead, Mark joins up with an old buddy of his from ‘Nam, as is common. Mark has lots of old buddies from ‘Nam. If that wasn’t clear before now, it’ll get clearer now, because not only is Mark part of a team effort in this novel, his entire team of ten other people are all buddies from ‘Nam.

Most, if not all, of those buddies, have appeared in earlier books! I was aware of a few of them. There’s Uchi Takayama, for instance, whom we met in Hawaiian Trackdown. There are plenty of others that I don’t know off the top of my head, but we do get a little backstory when the book introduces each one, and it turns out that there’s at least one Penetrator novel where Mark Hardin goes to space. There were no clues given as to which book that was, although my speculation is that it’s Satellite Slaughter, which I guess I’ll have to find and/or verify.

The team is surprisingly diverse. There’s a black guy, a German guy, an Asian guy, an Irish guy, a Hispanic guy, and several other guys that I can’t think of off the top of my head. What about women, you ask? Well, if you must know, there are no women in this group. Instead, the two women in this book turn out to be an informant that Mark gets to have sexy sex with, and the main villain, Major Katrina Leizenka, a KGB agent with a history of sexual abuse (added to the backstory for no reason other than titillation, I guess, which is common enough in these books but never not disgusting) that has turned her either “frigid” or lesbian. Either way, she hates men, which makes her the Penetrator villain with the most justifiable hatred thus far.

The action in this book is pretty light. There are a few tense scenes heading up to the main event about 3/4 of the way through, but for the most part it seems like people are just sitting around talking, planning, complaining about liberals, and getting basic facts very, very wrong. This brings me to the main thing I thought about when I was reading this book. Let’s get a little meta.

This is the kind of thing that other people might have other opinions about, and that’s awesome and I totally want to hear about it. I especially want to hear about this kind of thinking if you’re a writer yourself. Okay, let’s go.

When I read a book, I assume that it’s taking place in “the real world.” Namely, the world of a novel is our reality + the events of the novel, thus making it fiction. There are variations on this, of course. The book might be asserting that it is set in our world, but the events of the book took place behind the scenes, as it were, but either way, that’s the gist of the thing. Fiction novels take place in our world unless we are explicitly told otherwise, i.e. it’s a fantasy work. Even books that take place in the future take place in the future of our own reality.

All I mean to say here is that this is my basic assumption when I start a book and have no reason to think otherwise.

Now, let’s talk about The Penetrator. Like most books, I assumed that Mark Hardin was doing his stuff in the real world + Mark Hardin. I now have reason to think otherwise. I think these novels all take place in a parallel timeline where certain facts are very different from the ones in our own timeline. Here’s a bit of a rundown:

  1. Cruise into Chaos tells us that “AO” is a character’s blood type.
  2. Northwest Contract asserts that Louisa May Alcott is known chiefly for her poetry.
  3. Terror in Taos says that there’s a castle in Taos, New Mexico. (This might be true but I haven’t found any evidence of it.)
  4. Satan’s Swarm (actually an earlier book, but it’s referenced in this one) indicates that Sickle Cell Anemia is a viral disease.
  5. Cryogenic Nightmare informs the reader that freezing a person to absolute zero will keep them alive via cryogenics.
  6. Most of the books tell us that if rich white men do something wrong, there are consequences.

Hell’s Hostages added more than its fair share to the list, which is why it got me thinking. This book

  • Claims the existence of a “Saturn Four launch vehicle.”
    • In truth, there is no such thing for several reasons. In our world, if it had existed, the name would have been formatted “Saturn IV.” The Saturn family of rockets skipped from II to V, which is the one that took our boys to the Moon. There was an S-IV stage of the Saturn I, which was modified into the S-IVB for use on the Saturn V, used for orbital injection maneuvers.
      • I’m sure you were champing at the bit for all that information.
  • Takes place in a fictional country named Persis.
    • “Persis”, as far as I can tell, has been historically used as an alternate spelling for “Persia.”
    • Persis Khambatta played Ilia in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
    • It’s also the name of a chain of Indian restaurants, according to Google Maps.
  • Critically confuses the differences between Shia and Sunni Islam, claiming that Shiites don’t believe that Muhammad was The Prophet.
    • This is idiotic.
      • The truth is that Shia Muslims believe that Ali was appointed by The Prophet as his successor, while Sunni Muslims believe that there was no such appointment.
        • I’m not a scholar of Islam but I did look it up. I am aware that this breakdown is probably super reductive, and I apologize for that.
  • Establishes that a character’s “rich liberal family” made substantial campaign contributions to the current President of the United States.
    • The president in 1981 was Ronald Reagan, so in the Penetrator timeline, either
      • Reagan’s liberal,
      • The rest of the country has moved so far to the right that Reagan seems liberal (invalidated by something I’m going to say later),
      • Reagan’s campaign was financed in part by liberals, or
      • Reagan’s not the president.

Hot damn I love bulleted lists.

The upshot of all this is that now, when the books make political statements that are patently untrue, I can just justify it by saying that yes, in the Penetrator universe, the courts do have a liberal bias and let black offenders off with a slap on the wrist while decent rich white folks who just made a white-collar mistake are sent to prison forever. (This is just a f’rinstance.)

On the other hand, this book also mentions a character reading a Death Merchant novel, which is another series published by Pinnacle Books, so our timelines do have at least one thing in common.

So what does it mean now that we’re aware that The Penetrator series take place in an alternate timeline the likes of which Harry Turtledove would never even care to dream?

I…don’t know. It’s neat? I guess?

Of course, the alternative explanation to all this could just be that there was no research, rewriting, or proofreading done on these novels because nobody cared. But that’s a lot less fun to think about!

Okay, back to the book. So Mark and his crew all storm this consulate to rescue the people, and while some things go wrong, they generally go right enough that everybody gets out okay, except for one person, which brings us to THE OTHER PROBLEMATIC PARTS OF THIS BOOK.

This book has

  • One black character, who does most of the real work in this book and is killed heroically at the end,
  • One homosexual character, who is collaborating with the enemy and is killed for it,
  • and One woman
    • Wait, Thomas, I thought you said there were two women?
      • Wait for it…
        • It turns out that Rosalyn, the woman from Reuters that Mark has been boinking for most of the book, and Katrina, the KGB agent, are THE SAME WOMAN!
          • You’re shitting me.
            • Nope.
              • Jesus.
                • I know.

Yeah, this whole time we’re led to believe that the KGB woman is getting information about Mark’s troop movements this whole time from some kind of a source other than, um, herself. Up until the reveal, it was an interesting mystery. She was one step ahead of Mark and his pals the whole way, able to lay traps for them and all sorts of stuff. It was pretty decent, and we got to wonder for a while whether one of Mark’s pals was, in fact, a double agent or something.

And there was no reason to suspect that Roz was also Katrina. Roz was blond and sexually aggressive, except she was apparently faking both of those things just to pump information from Mark the whole time. There were no clues, although after the reveal, Mark’s inner dialogue asserts that there were clues, just none that we, the readers, were ever actually told about. They all happened off-text, only to be remembered by Mark at that point.

Bullshit.

It’s worth mentioning that Mark isn’t acting as the Penetrator for this book. This isn’t a Penetrator mission, it’s a Mark Hardin mission. He was hired for his history as Mark Hardin, that is, and nobody else in the group knows that he’s the Penetrator except, I think, Uchi and the guy who put it all together. There is a magic moment where one of the other members of the team thinks, for all of one line and without any reason at all, “You know, I think this guy might just be the Penetrator!” and then just moves on.

Oh, did I mention that the guy who set all this up isn’t a military or government guy at all? He’s a businessman. Vice President of something called Concept Electronics. He’s named Toro Baldwin and his main deal is that he believes that the American government is too easy on terrorists, especially terrorists who take hostages. His solution is to send in a team to just kill everybody, because the damn lib’ral gummint is too chickenshit to do it themselves. Also some of his employees are at the consulate, but that fact never actually comes up again and I don’t remember ever meeting those characters.

Well, maybe the Penetrator-verse is one where that kind of stuff actually works and doesn’t embarrass the country. Like, at one point one of the people on Mark’s team actually succeeds at killing the Ayatollah Khobali with a well-aimed sniper shot. Never mind that this moment is described in lovingly violent terms. It’s also, I’m pretty sure, a war crime. Also, since Khobali was just a willing puppet of the KGB at this point, the murder didn’t do anything useful.

Last but not least, Katrina escapes at the end, but is demoted and transferred for her failure to do whatever it was she was supposed to do.

She’ll probably be back.

So that’s Hell’s Hostages, a book that caused me to entirely rethink the way I read fiction. I guess that’s pretty neat.


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