A World of Trouble by Robert E. Toomey, Jr.
Ballantine Books, 1973
Price I paid: 90¢
Belaker Meas, agent for galactic control CROWN, did not really have any choice: He could spy for them—and risk a rapid death—or he could die, period. But slowly.
He knew going in that his job of Jsimaj was not going to be the gentlest in the galaxy, at lest not if he could judge from the ground transport CROWN had provided, “Pacesetter” was a rendal, originally from Jsimaj, a twelve-legged, armor-plated, fanged, clawed behemoth who was, totally and ideally (and significantly) adapted to his native planet.
But Pacesetter proved to be an affectionate, staunch, and gentle friend in comparison with the other inhabitants of Jsimaj…
Okay, I guess the first thing we need to talk about is this cover. It’s…fantastic. Amazing. Uncanny. Spectacular. Incredible. All adjectives used to describe Marvel superheroes, rolled into a single word that our petty human minds cannot even begin to comprehend, much less formulate. It is a word accessible only to God.
It has very little to do with the book it’s supposed to represent, which I guess is a pity, but today I’m willing to let it slide, because it’s sooooo gooooooood. F’rinstance, the green thing is supposed to have twelve legs, it never once stampedes through some kind of market, and there are no domed cities with Space Needles in this book. Ever. Not a one.
The artist is the late Dean Ellis, whose excellent art has graced such other reviews as Alph and The Texas-Israeli War: 1999. He also did the cover to this classic Star Wars novel, and right now I’m so drowned in nostalgia that I’m going to need a moment.
Thank you for waiting.
So this book. Off the top, I’ll tell you that I enjoyed it. I didn’t expect to. As much as I love this cover, I figured that there couldn’t be any book ever written to meet the expectations given to me by this art. Also, it was clear from the back cover that there would be at least one unpronounceable word, and one of my criteria for pre-judging a book is how many unpronounceable words there are displayed on the cover materials. Any takers on how to pronounce “Jsimaj?”
Fun fact, it took me more than one try to establish that Jsimaj is not, in fact, a palindrome.
A World of Trouble is Bob Toomey’s only novel. According to the ISFDB he also wrote nine short stories, two essays, and two reviews. According to Google, he also wrote Governance and Management in Healthcare: The Collected Papers of Robert E. Toomey. The fact that this is Toomey’s only novel is a shame, because I enjoyed the heck out of this. I intend to dig up his shorts as soon as I can to see if I like them, too.
Plot-wise, the book was okay. The premise wasn’t anything spectacular, and it got kind of flat at the end. But the characters were great. The main character, Belaker Meas (it rhymes with “keys,” we’re told) is a funny guy. His dialogue sparkles with sarcasm and observational humor, and the interactions he has with his main contact, a precocious 13-year-old starpilot named Peter Donovan, are very enjoyable to read.
Meas finds himself on the planet Jsimaj investigating the disappearance of another agent of CROWN (the Coalition of Registered Official World Nations), a guy named Atherton. CROWN’s goal in all this is to bring Jsimaj into its ranks so that it can exploit the planet’s supply of “radioactives,” which I assume means it has uranium or plutonium or thorium or something along those lines. It’s never made explicit. The issue here is that Jsimaj is a primitive planet, and there’s something of a Prime Directive thing going around which means that nobody can just step in and start strip mining.
Meas isn’t thrown onto the planet without preparation. This is something I liked. While the book has some things to say about the idiocy of bureaucracies, Meas is at least ready to do the things he needs to do. He’s been instructed (via some kind of hypno-learning, I think) on matters of custom and language, and he’s been furnished with Pacesetter, an animal native to the planet that is the civilization’s main mode of transport.
The back of the book makes it like Pacesetter is supposed to be some kind of nearly-feral animal that will give Meas a lot of trouble. This is far from the truth. The back of the book also calls him a rendal, which is weird because that word never once appeared in the book. Maybe it came from an earlier draft of the novel, or maybe some editor made it up, or maybe I missed it, but no one ever calls him that. The usual term is that he’s a multipede, but the native language calls him a clarow. He’s a very large, green, 12-legged animal with thick skin, fangs, and claws. He’s also sweet and faithful, described as similar in temperament to a puppy. Pacesetter is also absent for a lot of the book, which was kind of a shame, but that fact reinforces the idea that he was not, in any way, a hurdle for Meas’s mission.
Meas is in disguise as a kirlu, a sort of itinerant priest on this planet. This makes for a good disguise, for the most part. What I liked best is that Toomey chose to establish that not all planets speak the same language in this universe. Meas’s primary language is Basic, which is what he uses when he speaks to Donovan via a radio transmitter in his throat. This is not the language of Jsismaj, which means that whenever he’s caught talking to Donovan, he can tell people that he’s praying in prayer language and they generally believe him.
It’s also a useful way of indicating when Meas runs into somebody who isn’t supposed to be on the planet, because it turns out that they speak Basic too. It makes for a very quick and efficient way of establishing what’s up with other characters that he meets.
And sure enough, there are several characters he encounters that aren’t supposed to be on this planet. It turns out that a rival group, the Grefstyn, are trying to bring this planet under their wings for the same reason as CROWN. The Grefstyn, it turns out, have already been on the planet for a little while, manipulating the government. For some reason I didn’t quite catch (my bad, not the book’s), it turns out that uniting the government of this planet under one banner would allow it to be exploited for its materials legally. The Grefstyn have placed their support in a guy called the Derone.
The Grefstyn aren’t trying to make it so that the Derone conquers the planet. In reality, they’re “gapjumpers.” Gapjumping is an illegal activity wherein technology is introduced to a culture that isn’t ready for it. The civilization collapses from this, allowing the gapjumpers to come in and pick up the pieces. Meas has to put a stop to this, less from any kind of morality and more because if he doesn’t, he fails his mission and doesn’t get paid. It becomes obvious that CROWN doesn’t want to pay him at all, and is in fact hedging its bets that this planet will kill him. Their goal is to get enough information out of his mission for him to be useful before he dies.
Once Meas gets into the court of the Derone, he sets himself up as a soothsayer and ingratiates himself to the ruler. This is the middle part of the book, and it’s got a lot of weirdness that I didn’t much like. Sure, there’s some sexy-sex here, but that doesn’t bother me. Mostly I’m bothered by one specific point that, more than anything, didn’t make any sense in context. While Meas is in the court presence of the Derone for the first time, he notices that there’s an obese younger man in the room being pleased sexually by a bevy of beautiful women. At first Meas assumes that this guy is the Derone, although that turns out not to be the case. Meas assumes that this guy is some kind of pleasure-proxy, seeing as how the real Derone is, in fact, a very old man who wouldn’t get much out of this activity.
***CONTENT WARNING, REALLY REALLY GROSS***
At the end of the scene, one of the ladies catches the pleasure-proxy’s semen in a cup, after which the Derone drinks it straight-up. No reason for this is given. I guess it had something to do with gaining the younger man’s vitality but it was never explained or commented upon.
The Derone is also cruel and heartless, so it’s not that big a deal when Meas poisons him. His successor turns out to be the guy who got a weird handy-jay, and furthermore, that guy turns out to be Atherton, the guy Meas was sent here to find!
We get some expozish about how all that went down, which wasn’t necessary, but was at least delivered well.
All the while there are some close calls with Grefsyn agents, which Meas deals with, although is attempts at interrogation are hilariously inept. After all, it’s not what he was sent down here to do, and I liked that. Meas is an everyman character. He’s had some futuristic preparation for this job, but he’s not immediately skilled at things he wasn’t prepared for.
With the Grefsyn threat apparently taken care of, and Atherton fairly useless, Meas leads an army to conquer the rest of the world so CROWN can move in later. The actual area of land he needs to conquer isn’t that large. A small area of one continent is all that’s inhabited, since it’s a cruel world with lots of deserts. The army only needs to conquer a few more than a dozen villages.
It’s on the way to that first village, while passing through a horrible jungle, that Pacesetter defends Meas from a giant cat monster and is mortally wounded. Meas is forced to put him down, and it’s surprisingly tender when it happens, considering the tone of the rest of the book.
When the first village is reached, it turns out to be surrounded by a wooden wall. Meas tells the army to burn down the wall, which they do, but then it turns out that the rest of the village was made of wood, too, and so the whole village burns down. It’s more embarrassing than anything. The point of this conquest wasn’t to kill people, but rather to cow them into submitting to a benevolent state, so this is an awkward start.
The rest of the war goes in a pretty similar tone. Things go wrong, but they’re solved eventually. It also turns out that the last Grefsyn agent is among this army, and there’s a confrontation. While Meas is dealing with this, Donovan, up in the ship, finds the Gregsyn ship and destroys it. The agent surrenders. The last villages are added to the new world-government, and the book ends with Meas going home.
The book was a quick read for 207 pages. The ending wasn’t spectacular, I guess, but it at least worked. It was well set up. All-in-all, I recommend this book.
There is one other thing I want to mention that distracted me beyond that one weird scene, and it’s a matter of editing. I have to wonder if this was chosen on purpose, because it’s consistent. It’s also wrong and bad, so I don’t know. What I’m talking about is an absence of commas. Not everywhere—there were plenty of commas in other places you’d expect—but in dialogue. This will best be explained by example:
“Yes the sick, the weak, the defenseless, should be protected.”
“Well done Meas.”
“Congratulations Meas on your second village.”
I could give you dozens more examples, but these establish what I’m talking about. I don’t know if this is a stylistic choice, a huge oversight on the part of both the author and the editor, or what, but it was distracting.
The fact that there were plenty of other typos floating around didn’t make it any easier to figure out, either.
Still, the book was so otherwise readable, so enjoyable, that it didn’t bother me for too long. And maybe the comma thing was on purpose? I don’t know. It if it was a choice, it was a bad one, but at least it was intentional, which would explain it better than “somebody doesn’t know how commas work when you’re addressing people.” Or does this fall under the “parenthetical elements” part of comma usage? I should consult my roommate’s Chicago Manual of Style, but it’s, like, across the hall. You should only expect so much of me, dear reader.
(Oh hey, here’s the header to one section, and it’s simply 6.39 “Yes,” “no,” and the like. That’s a lot of the instances right there.)
I was surprised when I checked on this year this book was published. It didn’t feel like it was from ’73. Something about it felt like it was from later. The tone felt more ’80s than anything. Part of that was the language. This book didn’t shy away from swears. It also didn’t overuse the cusses, which is nice, but their presence made the book feel a bit ahead of its time. Most of the books I read from the early ’70s, especially the science fiction ones, aren’t super keen on using words like “fuck.” But more than that, it’s how this book used the cusses. My favorite example is from the end of section one, on page 53:
We moved out again, across the desert…into the wind. I pulled my cowl shut and bore it stoically. A hundred or more years later we reached the city. It was really about fucking time.
That was the first time the author dropped the f-bomb, and like I say, it was quite effective. And something about that irreverence reminds me of the ’80s. In fact, it’s the fact that this book was so irreverent, so casual, that made me like it in the first place. This was not a book that took itself too seriously. It also wasn’t goofy and stupid. It was in that nice middle ground that I like a lot.
You know those kinds of book that put fake self-deprecating blurbs on them that are like
What the fuck is this shit?
—George R.R. Martin (probably)
This book is stupid and I threw up on it.
I only bring that up because I’ve seen a rash of them lately and I want to say I hate them with a passion, but I also want to draw a contrast with this particular book. Those books try very hard to be funny and fail at being both books and funny. A World of Trouble told a story with a particular tone and succeeded at both telling the story and being funny. It’s an important distinction, and Robert Toomey did a good job at helping explore that.