King of Argent by John T. Phillifent
DAW Books, 1973
Price I paid: $1.25
They told John Lampart that he would have to have his entire bodily metabolism altered to survive on Argent. Because that unknown planet was his most valuable find, he agreed.
He landed on Argent, golden-skinned and different. He had expected to find himself on a barren world, destined for two years of hard work. But Argent had life of its own of a different kind, weird, wild and endlessly challenging.
Not the least challenge to him was the discovery that his Earthly bosses regarded him as expendable—his work would end in his death while they got rich….
Try saying “Phillifent” out loud. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Are you done? I’m not. I keep saying it, over and over again. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get it right. The man was cursed with a tongue-twister for a name. Was it a pen name? Wikipedia tells me it was not. Phillifent did write most of his novels as “John Rackham”, and I can certainly see why.
I didn’t come here to make fun a dude’s name. I came here to make fun of a dude’s book.
Actually, there’s not much to make fun of in this one. This was a competent novel! It took me a little while to get into it, but once I did, it was fine.
Lord knows the cover art wouldn’t lead anybody to think that. Don’t get me wrong: It’s glorious. It’s the ultimate in pulp covers. I want this artwork hanging on my wall. In the Weed Corner.
I do not have a Weed Corner.
This David Mattingly cover is from the 1981 reprint. It turns out that the original DAW edition had art by Frank Kelly Freas and it was also pretty damned great, yet similar. Also, the original had a tagline that is SO GOOD.
Both artists, but Mattingly more so, recreated a scene from the book. All of the stuff in this cover art is in there. I don’t know if the giant lizard they fight is that large, though. I didn’t picture it as such, but we’ve been over my lack of skill in visualization. The weird pedestal thing they’re standing on, though? That’s a hoverthing. The fact that the people are gold? Yep. Genetic engineering. The clothes aren’t accurate, though. See, there’s too much of ’em. Our protagonists walk around naked for the bulk of the work. The woman wears a skirt sometimes. That might be represented here. But dude’s loincloth? Nopers.
This cover did bring to mind a lesson I learned in a class as an undergraduate, oh those many years ago. I can’t even remember which class it was. I want to say it was about propaganda. That would make sense and I remember that class fondly. But I also took a few sociology surveys and it may have come up there, too. Whatever. That part doesn’t matter.
Take a look at how our protagonists are represented on this cover. The man is ready for action. He’s standing, his muscles are tense, he’s ready to go. The woman, on the other hand, is not ready for action. She’s at least two steps away from being ready. Yeah, she’s swinging that sword, but when you really look at it, she’s not in any kind of position to use it. She’s, to put it mildly, in the servile position. She’s willing to play backup to the man, but maybe only barely.
This is a common representation in our culture, and once you start seeing it, you’ll see it everywhere. Take a look at an ad for a clothing line, for example. One that’s showing off both men’s and women’s clothing. You’ll probably notice that the woman is sitting while the man is standing. Yes, this plays into more than one cultural bias. The immediate response might be “Well, it’s normal to depict men as taller than women, and that’s fairly benign.” I don’t know if that’s actually benign, but it’s also not the point. Again, it’s the whole thing about active vs. passive that is problematic. And it’s this whole passive-woman cultural construct that is the reason why a lot of people have spent the last week glued to the news, unable to pry themselves away and finding themselves traumatized by it all the same. Did I say week? I think I meant, um, forever.
I’m not saying that our societal ills are caused by science fiction art, or even artistic gender relation depictions in general. Nonetheless, it’s a place to look at the evidence and try to do better in the future.
So let’s talk about this book, shall we?
Our main guy is John Lampart. He is a scout. In this universe, there’s a form of FTL, and John’s job is to use that to find metal. Earth is starved for metal. So Lampart looks for it.
When we first jump into the story, he’s already on this planet, gold-colored, and being hunted by some kind of animal. It’s an okay in medias res beginning, but not great because it turns out that there’s so much backstory that the first third of the book is flashback and exposition. That’s the part where I was having trouble getting into it.
We learn about Lampart’s job as a scout and what got him into this position. While scouting, he discovered this planet in the Pleiades that so happens to have a lot of metal in it. The planet is inhospitable—scorching hot and high-gravity—and mining it would be a costly venture. Despite the incredible wealth of the planet, the cost of extracting that wealth might not even allow a corporation to break even.
Lampart works for a fellow named Carlton Colson. Colson is mind-bogglingly rich and aims to get richer. Colson is aware of the planet that Lampart discovered and wants to exploit it. Well-aware of the hazards, Colson contacts a scientist friend of his, Leo Brocat, to carry out an experimental procedure. I guess today we’d call it gene therapy, but whatever we wanna call it, it rewrites large sections of Lampart’s DNA to make him not only able to live on this planet, but to thrive there. He’s superhuman now.
Also in the backstory is Carlton’s daughter, Dorothea. We learn that she’s a stereotypical rich-man’s-daughter-type: beautiful, reckless, and spoiled. When she first meets Lampart, she decides that she wants him. Lampart does not feel the same way, which causes her to become increasingly aggressive in her attempts to possess him. Lampart escapes her clutches by agreeing to get transmogrified and sent down to a planet, but at the beginning of the story he’s still having nightmares about her.
The bulk of the story—outside of the catching-up stuff—is Lampart’s effort to survive on this planet, now named Argent. It turns out that survival doesn’t require all that much effort at all. Despite earlier assessments, the planet is far from lifeless. There are dangerous animals, but Lampart handles them deftly and even discovers their meat is edible. He discovers edible plants and is able to craft weapons.
One of the neat things in this book is that Phillifent really took the time to figure out what might happen to a biosphere on a planet that is about 70% comprised of a variety of metals. Both plant and animal life have more of these metals in their bodies, and this leads to some interesting consequences. Lampart learns, for example, that the leaves of plants on Argent are very hard and sharp and can be made harder by smelting them properly. He is able to make knives and swords from leaves.
Lampart also spends a lot of time ruminating, and hearing his thoughts on things got a little tiresome after a while. Early on he worries about whether or not he is still human now, or even whether he’s still John Lampart. He thinks about how much he dislikes humanity and it comes off as very Catcher in the Rye with all the phonies and the fakes and the liars. He much prefers being alone, which is what led him to be a scout in the first place. He thinks about how much humanity ruins everything it touches (it’s compared to a cancer), which leads us to his whole motivation in the story.
Despite being hired to scout this planet for metal and report back to Colson so that Colson can exploit it, Lampart has decided that he likes this planet the way it is and would rather it stayed pristine. He’s been sending fake samples back, ones with only enough metal to convince someone that the planet wouldn’t be worth the cost. Lampart also plans on staying behind once his mission is over. He plans to fake his own death so that he’ll be the only person left behind on this planet. He’ll be the titular King of Argent.
All this comes crashing down when one day Lampart receives word that he’s going to have a guest on this planet. Lampart freaks out at the idea, and freaks out even more when he discovers that his guest is none other than Dorothea Colson. She’s undergone the same procedure as Lampart and has decided to pay him a visit.
It turns out that Dorothea is a decent person underneath. She and Lampart talk a lot about things like identity and one’s place in the world. This book is pretty much a philosophical dialogue for the rest of it, and it’s clear that Lampart is supposed to be the Socrates.
You know what this book is? It’s a Heinlein novel. You’ve got your eminently-capable man who gets to explain the ways of the world to someone weaker or less capable than himself. For bonus points that person is a woman. In the end this person turns out to be also capable, although not as capable as our wise old protagonist. If this person is a woman, we learn about how women are great and capable but, and this is important, at things like caring and nurturing and emotions and girl stuff like that. They can still be engineers and scientists and the like, but there has to be a desire to breed as well. It’s biology.
I think that checks all of the latter-day Heinlein boxes. Perhaps its noteworthy that King of Argent came out the same year as Time Enough for Love.
Lampart and Dorothea grow to know one another and of course they fall in love. But they almost didn’t! I was hopeful for just a split second about this book. At an early point Lampart is ruminating on his feelings for Dorothea and starts thinking about how they’re not love and they’re not sexual and, by god, might be called friendship!
And I thought holy shit this book will have a friendship between a man and a woman that’s not sexual.
And I was WRONG. This line of reasoning goes on for about three pages before the horizontal Harlem Shake.
Dammit! That’s all I ask! One book written before, oh, 2016 that has an honest-to-god friendship between the sexes with no sexual tension, or will-they-won’t-they, or any of that. It’s possible in real life, why can’t it happen in a book?
Also, we’ve fallen into the trope of a “difficult” woman getting “tamed.” Maybe that’s putting it a little extreme but at best, it’s a difficult woman discovering her true nature as a helpful, nice, nurturing woman that a man could conceivably be attracted to.
I’m so sorry.
So after she shows up, the rest of the book is discussion, like I mentioned, and low-stakes survival. There’s rarely any threat to their idyllic existence. There are hints of tension with fighting large lizards and stuff, but largely it’s just a story of competent people being competent, written competently.
The only drama comes from Carlton Colson. Just after Dorothea shows up, Lampart discovers that his ship is laced with some bombs. He determines that this means he is expendable. Colson doesn’t want to share this planet or the profits from it with anybody, so he plans on killing Lampart as soon as the mission is over. Lampart removes the bombs and buries them somewhere, to be forgotten until the end of the book.
Dorothea doesn’t believe that this is possible until another attempt is made, this time on her, because she, too, is expendable.
All this comes down to the climax of the book, where we learn that Colson is well-aware that Lampart has been lying to him about the nature of this planet. Even the sand is so rich in metals that it could be scooped up, smelted, and sold. Colson lands a refinery ship on the surface. Lampart and Dorothea attack it with bows and arrows. They kill enough people that Colson basically says “Fine, I’ll leave, but I’ll be back!” and starts to fly away. As the ship is ascending it passes over the area where Lampart buried those bombs—remember those? I didn’t—and the ship exhaust ignites them and explodes and that’s the end of the book.
We’re told that Colson was definitely on that ship. I believe the line of reasoning was that a man of his nature and stature would never stand to let someone else do his dirty work because that person would have blackmail power over him by knowing what Colson had wanted done. So Colson had to do it himself. Which means that he’s dead now. I’m…not sure I’d take that logic to the bank.
This book was okay. It didn’t rock my world and it felt like a midrange Heinlein novel. The book’s gender relations may have been a bit more toxic than those of a Heinlein, though. While there was a similar patriarchal vibe with a fair amount of patronizing, this book also had this odd and out-of-nowhere diatribe about how women got too much special treatment. That they feel so entitled to things just because they’re women.
There are many better sources of information on how the patriarchy and male entitlement manifest, so I’m not going to get into it here. I’m not qualified. Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me would be a good start if you need one. It opened my eyes a lot.
Or you could just talk to, um, just about any woman. And listen.
So apart from all that the book was fine. It’s not going to go down in any best-ofs, but if you’ve finished all of the Admiral’s work and are still jonesing for more, you could do worse. Just…don’t take any of it too seriously.