The Cosmic Eye by Mack Reynolds
Price I paid: 50¢
Morris should have functioned perfectly in the rigid totalitarian society of the future where every thought, every word, every action was controlled by the superstate. A state where everyone was watched night and day by the Great Eye of the internal security forces. It was a strange, in many ways inhuman world, but the rewards were great for those who belonged to the right caste. Morris belonged to the master class which ruled the entire world by brain power or brutality, depending on which was needed. Morris was born right at the top—he had everything the Technate Society could provide—and yet he didn’t belong. Nonconformity could mean liquidation, but he was prepared to take the risk.
One thing I’ve always hoped to make clear is that this blog is about things I’m learning, not things I know. And I’ve invited the reader to join me in this learning so that maybe they’ll learn something too, or alternately that I’ll learn something they already know and then maybe they can help me learn more. I feel like I’ve been doing okay at that.
The reason I bring this up right now is to keep people from making fun of me for never having even heard of Mack Reynolds.
Somebody donated a huge supply of classic SF paperbacks to my local Friends of the Library bookstore. Since I work for the library, one of the Friends invited me to look at the collection before they put it out. It’s an impressive collection, but mostly things I was already familiar with. It had a lot of Heinlein, Herbert, Clarke, etc. I didn’t get those. I was looking for Schlock Value material. What I ended up with was a lot of Doris Piserchia and Mack Reynolds. I’d obviously heard of Doris, and even though Earthchild was unreadable nonsense, I figure she deserves another chance. And then there was this Mack Reynolds guy. Whoever had donated their collection had obviously had a liking for the fella. I’d never heard of him. I made some picks and took care of business.
Then I came home and I dove into The Cosmic Eye. I was hooked from the start. I fell into the narrative in that way I’ve struggled to describe so many times before. I wrapped myself in the prose (as well as a cat) and found myself enjoying the book, although with some caveats.
In a spare moment I decided to start a little research on the author, and lo and behold he had a Wikipedia page. It ought to have read
Dallas McCord “Mack” Reynolds (November 11, 1917 – January 30, 1983) was an American science fiction writer whose entire creative output might as well have been addressed directly to Thomas Anderson, whose blog, Schlock Value, makes no secret of his likes and dislikes as regards to both writing and politics.
A quick rundown: Reynolds was an unapologetic Socialist in a time when most science fiction authors tended toward either Heinleinian Libertarianism or the kind of Fascism that Norman Spinrad so unlovingly and deservingly lambasted. This is especially true of the crowd that hung around John W. Campbell, a crowd to which Reynolds belonged.
True confession, if you’d asked me ten years ago to describe my politics, I probably would have said “Heinleinian Libertarian” without even batting an eye. My only attempt to justify is that my twenties were a pretty rocky time for me, plus that age is pretty much Peak Shithead for most people. The upside is that if a shithead like me can grow and improve, there’s no excuse for anybody else.
Reynolds was also a big fan of social science fiction of the sort that goes “Here’s an interesting idea for a society. Let’s explore the ramifications.” I can see how that’s not a lot of people’s favorite. Stories like that tend to be a little light on the plot and heavier on the exposition and that’s not for everybody. It’s not even for me a lot of the time. Still, I love it.
And so this is the case with our book this week, The Cosmic Eye. As usual, I think I can be excused in thinking it would be terrible. I picked it because I seem to have a lot of sci-fi novels about eyes that also have cover art featuring big disembodied eyes. For some reason I am attracted to this kind of thing.
Very little about the jacket copy is true. The only accurate statement is that there’s a thing called the Technate.
The society Mack sets forth in this book is deep. For one, it’s not dystopic. It’s not all that bad at all, really. I was expecting this to turn into one of those screeds where a character in an otherwise fine society starts screaming stuff like MAN NEEDS FREEDOM TO BREATHE FREE or some crap and then tears it all down and is inexplicably successful at it. This is not the case with the Technate. It has its problems, but they run a little deeper than that, and there are some twists along the way. Apparently this is a theme Reynolds liked to explore a lot.
Our main character is Rex Morris. He’s born at the top of this supposedly classless society, and it shows. He’s a worthless playboy with no direction in his life. He steadfastly supports the status quo. He’s a part of the “Technician” caste, which means his life is pretty well set.
Thing is, it’s not that much more particularly well set than the rest of society. The Technate takes care of people. It’s a post-scarcity society. Everybody is guaranteed that their basic needs are taken care of. There’s no poverty. People still work for their luxuries, and that’s where the social stratification comes in.
There are three main castes in this society. At the bottom are the effectives, which are more or less the unskilled labor. They are given make-work because everything that’s of any importance is automated. In the middle are engineers, or skilled labor. They do everything important. And then there are the technicians like Rex. They’re…management.
The main thrust of the book is that the technicians are the parasite class. They don’t do any of the actual work, but they do get all the credit and enjoy greater luxury than the other castes. For instance, Rex’s father is the sole living Hero of the Technate. He is credited with eradicating all virus diseases. It becomes increasingly obvious that he just directed other people to make the cure and then got all the credit for it. Even that might be overstating his input in the matter. Nonetheless, he’s a Hero. Moreover, Rex finds that having a Hero for a father opens a lot of doors.
And that’s where the other main issue with this society comes into play. Nominally people ascend through the castes based on their abilities. This is supposed to be an upwardly mobile society, a meritocracy. It is not. This society is rife with favoritism and nepotism. The castes are fixed, and people who try to move up are viewed unfavorably.
This society is strongly hierarchical. To move up in position, you have to take somebody else’s place, and there’s a strict system for doing that. To create my own example:
You’re a Banana Geneticist, Junior Grade. Your boss, a BG, Senior Grade, retires. All of your colleagues get together and make a suggestion as to whom should move up into your and their old boss’s place. They make the suggestion to whoever the BG, SG’s boss was. Let’s say the Manager of Yellow Fruit Sciences. That person selects who moves up. The key phrase is “Recommendation from below, appointment from above.”
Now, this is all well and good as long as people get appointed based on their competency. Any society based on that would probably be doing quite okay. Mack Reynolds was a realist, though, and saw exactly how it would all go. While you might be the best damned Banana Geneticist, Junior Grade in the last generation, it turns out that the guy in the office next to you is Somebody’s Nephew. So he gets the job.
The result of this is that this society is run almost entirely by people whose only competence is at schmoozing. Knowing anything about your particular industry is secondary, if that. More like, I dunno, quaternary. Pointless. Incompetent people appoint other incompetent people and the cycle continues forever. The Technate is growing stagnant.
Anyone who has ever worked in any place of business, ever, since the dawn of time, will be nodding their heads right now. This isn’t a book about some possible future state. It’s a condemnation of what happens every day, except that we haven’t openly based our entire society on it. We’ve only secretly based our entire society on it.
To take it further, because all social mobility is based on how well you get along with everybody around you, it becomes of phenomenal importance not to rock the boat in any way. Thus, any kind of nonconformity is extremely suspect in the Technate. There’s a degree of government influence in that, as well, but it’s mostly a cultural thing.
Okay, so now that we’ve talked all about that, let’s get on with the story. As you probably expected, there’s not much of it. A lot of this book is either being expositioned directly from the narrator or else from a Wise Old Man character. Mack Reynolds and Robert Heinlein had a hell of a lot in common, they just came at it from opposite ideologies. I bet they were friends or bitter enemies.
Rex Morris is a directionless young man on the verge of finding his place in society. His uncle is helping him with that. What this means is that Rex gets bounced around a lot getting lectured by older people and occasionally remembering previous lectures from before the book started. He’s also dead set on separating himself from his father, who, despite his status as a Hero, is also a noted Nonconformist. As a result, Rex is extremely conformist. Aggressively so. Unbelievably so.
And so it’s a big surprise when, midway through the book, Rex makes an assassination attempt on some Technate bigwig. He fails and then goes back to whatever he was doing previously. While the assassination attempt makes all the news, Rex acts like he had nothing to do with it. It’s all business as usual.
Finally, after a bit more of this, we find out that Rex is actually trying to shake up the Technate. It’s such a small percentage of the words of the story that I thought for a while that maybe I just made it up. It’s there, though. In fact, when he gets caught, the cop who catches him says that he suspected Rex all along because he was just too into conformity. Rex isn’t especially good at this lone wolf terrorism thing. He played the part a little too hard.
F’rinstance, there are things called speakeasies in the Technate. They’re where people go to speak freely to one another. They’re technically illegal, but they’re largely tolerated. Rex gets taken to a few of them as the story goes on, and always makes a big deal of reporting it to the police.
I can’t decide how I feel about this big switcheroo. On one hand I felt cheated. I had absolutely no clue that something like this was going to happen. On the other hand, I feel like Reynolds was able to make me feel a lot like the other characters in the story, who themselves didn’t see this coming either.
I also feel like the whole “You got caught because you’re such an unbelievable character” bit was probably Reynolds taking a look at his manuscript and saying “Oh god, I’ve written some crap here. No time to start over. Can I work into the story the fact that I’ve written a crappy character? Hmmm.” And he even took the time to call himself out on it. I love this guy more and more.
So that was the first big surprise. The other comes at the end of the book, once Rex is finally caught. He confesses that he never wanted to kill anybody, he just wanted to shake things up a bit because society was getting stagnant. This opinion is shared by his Nonconformist Hero father, although said father has nothing to do with Rex’s crimes.
Rex is taken all the way to the top of the societal ladder. The heads of all the major Technate departments are there, as well as the President. As a unit, they all tell Rex that they agree with him. Society is growing stagnant. They need to do something about it. Maybe shooting at people in the street isn’t the answer, but they’d like to have Rex join them in their efforts. Realizing that maybe not everybody running this society is incompetent, he agrees to do this. They appoint him Head of Security, but with some kind of weird name I don’t remember.
The Heads of the Technate all agree that society needs to change peacefully. A revolution won’t accomplish anything for two reasons. The first is that it’s so unlikely to happen. Revolutions of that nature tend to happen when there are masses of dissatisfied people. The poor revolt, usually led by some rich people who will profit off of that revolt. The Technate has no such poor people. No one is disenfranchised. Things may not be totally equal, but nobody’s struggling to survive.
The second is that a revolution of that nature will probably only involve someone who merely turns the old rascals out and puts the new rascals in. Meet the new boss, etc. There’s even somebody they list as likely to attempt that kind of thing, and it’s the cop who caught Rex in the first place, Matt Edgeworth. He’s got a real grudge against the technician class, despite wanting desperately to move up into it himself.
And so the book ends when that cop, Edgeworth, shoots Rex, along with several other of the people we just met. They’re all dead now.
I’m not thrilled with that ending. Things were looking fairly optimistic, but then Mack just decided to make the ending a surprise downer. I guess the idea is that Copman is going to overthrow the government violently in the end, or else get caught after having set back this new peaceful revolution for who knows how long.
Oh well. I liked the rest of the book.
Light on plot though it was, Mack Reynolds was able to tell the story with style and panache. It was a little rough around the edges here and there, but overall I was entertained. His authorial voice had personality, and that goes a long way for me.
It’s my understanding that this is one of his lesser works. I found a few others at the Friends Sale, but it turned out they were parts of series and none of them were the first part of their series. So I opted for this standalone. I’m glad I did, but I bet there’s better stuff out there. I’m excited to look for it.
Reading through Wikipedia, it seems that the themes of this book are explored almost exactly the same way in his other books. Did Mack Reynolds just write the same story over and over again? I hope not, but maybe that’s why I’d never heard of him. He wrote a lot of books, though. A lot a lot. Including the first licensed original Star Trek novel. That’s a neat achievement.
I need to know more!