The Mercy Men by Alan E. Nourse
Ace Books, 1984
Originally published in 1968
Price I paid: *A picture of Ronald Reagan saying “I don’t recall, mommy”*
It’s the 22nd century and mass mental illness is reaching epidemic proportions. At the Hoffman Medical Center, illegal brain research is performed on living subjects. The victims come as volunteers, already mad enough to risk their remaining sanity for the high prices Hoffman offers. These new-age mercenaries go by the ironic title of—
THE MERCY MEN
This is my second foray into the works of Alan E. Nourse, author of the incredible Scavengers in Space. I picked this latter book up because I thought it would be interesting to revisit him and see how the rest of his oeuvre stands up, but I also did it because I took a look at the cover and I said, “Oh, wow, he was still writing down into the eighties? I have to check this out.”
Imagine my surprise when I learned that this book was a reprint. It was originally published, by Ace, in 1968. That edition itself was an expanded version of a short novel that Nourse wrote in 1955 called A Man Obsessed.
How much does this matter? I don’t know, because there’s a lot going on here.
Science fiction is less about the future than it is about the present. It just transplants the hopes and anxieties of the present into the future—or a different version of the present, or the past, or whatever, I’m just going to refer to all of those things as “the future” too, for simplicity’s sake—so that they can be examined critically.
So for me, a big question when I’m reading a science fiction novel is, “When’s future is this representing?” And that does make a difference. A science fiction novel from the 50s is probably going to be grappling with the effects of world war and the rise of nuclear energy as a hopeful thing, whereas when we get down into the 80s we’re dealing with recession, inflation, and nuclear energy as a dangerous thing. These are just two examples, of course, and reductive ones.
So this all boils down to The Mercy Men thusly: I had a lot of cognitive dissonance as I started this book. I was expecting it to be about 80s anxieties. The back jacket’s discussion of “mass mental illness” bore me out on this. I assumed that it probably had something to do with the Reagan Administration’s repeal of the Mental Health Systems Act of 1980 and the ejection of a lot of vulnerable people onto the streets of America.
And I thought, Damn, this is gonna be good. I had a previous Nourse book under my belt, one that I liked a lot, and the possibility of some hard-hitting science fiction based on something that I’m very angry about. Here we go!
But no, this book is from 1968. 1955 if you count the original, shorter version bundled in an Ace Double.
This knowledge didn’t stop me from thinking of this book in terms of the 80s, which is either unfair or some real Death of the Author stuff, I haven’t decided. Once we learn that a fairly significant aspect of this book is ESP, that only hammered the 80s in for me. That’s an 80s thing in my mind, but maybe just because of that scene in Ghostbusters and a few books I’ve reviewed already, stuff like Links (1979) and Psi Hunt (1980) and Lurid Dreams (1990).
I’m having a really hard time fitting this book into the late 60s zeitgeist. Maybe that’s why it got a reprint in the first place? I wonder if somebody from Ace in the 80s happened upon it and said, “Oh dang, this was really ahead of its time” and sent it back to the presses. Who knows?
The story is that of a guy named Jeff Meyer. When we first meet him, he’s chasing a guy named Paul Conroe. We don’t learn why for a little while, and it’s a bit frustrating. We don’t know if Jeff is a cop, or just a concerned citizen, or anything until about fifteen to twenty pages into the book, and it was hard for me to get started because of that. After we start getting some information things get rolling, but it’s a bit of a slog.
It’s like one of those TV shows where a friend recommends it and says “Okay, the first season kind of sucks but if you can make it through that, it’s some of the best TV on TV” and I’m like “Sure, I’ll give it a look” and then never do. Except in this case, I finished the book in an afternoon, whereas I’ll probably finish Babylon 5 circa 2053.
Jeff is hot on the heels of this Conroe guy when the Conroe guy makes a desperate gambit and heads into the Hoffman Medical Center. This is, we learn, a Big Deal.
The Hoffman Medical Center is a multinational effort, designed to find a way to wipe out all disease and perhaps, one day, eliminate death. Having defeated almost all physical diseases, the Medical Center is now focused on mental illnesses, which are growing to epidemic proportions for some unknown reason.
At least, that’s what it says on the tin.
There’s a rumor about the Medical Center that it runs tests on human medical volunteers in exchange for vast amounts of money, although the tests themselves are very dangerous, so there’s a big chance that the volunteer will never actually see any of that money. Such volunteers are called Mercy Men. The “mercy” part is kinda short for “mercenary,” and the people are “medical mercenaries,” and the whole thing is kind of a stretch because it’s supposed to be haha ironical.
Anyway, Mercy Men are officially illegal. Jeff figures that Conroe, sick of being chased by Jeff for so long, has decided to volunteer as one of this officially illegal things to escape. Jeff, in his brilliance, figures the best thing he can do to prevent Conroe from escaping is to volunteer himself for this, and again I repeat, officially illegal thing.
So he waltzes right in and says to the Volunteer Admissions Staffer, “Hey, I want to be a MERCY MAN. Anybody here recruiting for the MERCY MEN? I’d sure like to do something, since I’m a MAN something something MERCY.”
Aaaaand of course it works.
Jeff joins the small community of Mercy Men, one of whom is a Mercy Woman but she is never called that because this book does not believe in the word “people,” I swear. I know “Mercy People” wouldn’t have the same ring to it but that doesn’t mean you can’t use the word outside of that context. I know, it was the 60s and I’m getting my hackles up over something that can’t be helped now.
But it was also, kind of, the 80s, so maybe the editor could have made a quick decision in favor of including half of the human race when the reprint went through. But who am I kidding? This edition has so many typos in it that I’m pretty sure there was no editor.
We finally learn why Jeff has been pursuing this guy for so long. Conroe killed Jeff’s dad. How does Jeff know that? Well, he just…does.
Normally the “I just know” kind of narrative is indicative of lazy writing. I was afraid that would be the case here, but that turns out not to be the case. In this case, the “I just know” is a mystery itself. This book is by no means unique in employing that side of the trope, but it works well enough.
The medical staff go back and forth between seeming sinister and not. Likewise the other patients. There’s a sense of paranoia that builds for a while, and it’s pretty good. Jeff finally gets the other Mercy Men (and Woman) on his side, and manages to find the central punch card filing system (this book takes place in the 2100s, by the way), where he tries to find information on Conroe. He is unable to find anything useful, but in doing so, gets caught by the main medical guy, Dr. Schiml.
Where this book falls apart is in the ending. Weird, right? This is a case of a book with mysteries, and maybe we get a few clues along the way that either give us some answers or more questions or both. And all that’s fine? How do you end a book like that, after all? In this case, as with so many others, we end the book with “our main character gets captured and then has all the information fed to him for the remainder of the narrative.”
In the case of this book, Jeff gets caught and has a bunch of tests run on him, all establishing things like medical baselines and so forth. Nothing really strange yet. He also breaks into the central database room again and, instead of searching for Conroe, searches for himself. However, he only searches for himself by initials and last name, which means that instead he gets the file on his father. The one that Conroe murdered.
It says that Jeff’s father was insane, was looked at by specialists at Hoffman, and died, but the information on his death is classified. We don’t have long to wonder about that, though, before it’s all revealed.
The tests they run on Jeff involve poking around in Jeff’s brain. Up to this point we’ve had hints about the existence of psychic powers, mainly revolving around an incident with some dice in the rec room, but nothing concrete. In addition to “just knowing” a lot of stuff, there’s also a lot of stuff, usually going hand-in-hand there, that he just doesn’t know, like there’s a memory block. It’s during the experimentation that some of that block falls down, and we get a big exposition dump about Jeff’s dad and Conroe’s role in his death.
Basically, Jeff’s dad was a psychic. So is Jeff. The two of them were psychically linked in a way that had never been seen before. They practically shared all their experiences, up to and including the experience of Jeff’s dad dying at the hands of Conroe.
The thing is, Jeff’s dad was also mentally ill, and apparently it was untreatable. The book describes it similarly to what we’d now call bipolar disorder, with manic and depressive phases, but more severe and problematic, because the guy was also a powerful psychic. His moods would cause actual physical effects on the world around him, without his awareness, and they were getting so destructive that apparently the only way to solve the issue was to end his life.
I’m…not keen on that.
Because Jeff experienced the end of his father’s life first-hand, he himself went into a fugue state for much of his childhood, shutting out a lot of the memories, up to and including the knowledge of his own psychic powers.
Discovering all this means that Jeff suddenly forgives Conroe for his role in his father’s death, since apparently this was all necessary. Still not happy about this. Dr. Schiml, now a good guy, explains that the entire purpose of his research is because of other people like Jeff’s father, people with severe mental illnesses as well as psychic powers. There are an increasing number of these people in society as we speak, and they’re the real cause of the “mental illness epidemic.” These are people walking around, completely unaware that their mood swings and psychic powers are working together to destroy society.
Schiml also explains that, as far as he knows, there’s no way to separate the two. The gene that causes ESP is apparently the same mutated gene that causes mental illnesses, which is kind of an insulting thing to say. Like, if he’d explained that it caused a specific mental illness, maybe even gave it a futuristic sci-fi name, that’d be one thing, but this book lumps together every type of mental illness into one sort of monolithic thing, and says that it’s also caused, in part, by being psychic. Ew.
At least the book is sympathetic to these people. Dr. Schiml certainly is. He’s been desperately looking for a way to cure the mental illness part while leaving the ESP part intact, for the good of humankind. That’s sweet, I guess.
So the book ends with one big set piece inside Jeff’s brain. Jeff isn’t even in control, he’s just kind of experiencing the situation as it goes along, which fits in with the rest of the book, at least. His awareness is following Dr. Schiml’s probe as it explores his brain, and he describes what he sees to the doctor. Never mind that this is a simplistic way of looking at how the brain works. I’m willing to let that pass for now.
Eventually Jeff sees a sort of gateway, guarded my mysterious figures. This is an analogy for something. The figures try to shoo him away, which works, even though we know that Jeff isn’t the one in control, so a lot of this starts to break down logically. He defeats the figures, who happen to have his own face, and looks into the gateway, where he sees INDESCRIBABLE HORRORS. Signifying this to Dr. Schiml, the good doctor burns that part of Jeff’s brain out, which turns out to be the insane part of his brain, curing him but preserving his powers. And the book ends on this happy note, I suppose signifying more than anything that this wasn’t a book from the 80s.
And that’s…it, really. I dunno, this whole thing was kind of a letdown. The story wasn’t great, and its treatment of mental illnesses was too reductive and insulting to have any kind of real meaning. To be fair, we’re talking about the sixties, where doctors were officially aware of two states of mental health, “normal” and “nuts” (official names), so I can’t blame Nourse too much for being a result of his own time.
Nourse was, in fact, an actual medical doctor, so in a way this is an interesting window to the time period and its way of looking at mental health, even in the medical field.
This was a time period when any kind of mental illness was stigmatized. In 1972 Thomas Eagleton, McGovern’s running mate, was so humiliated when it came out that he lived with depression that he was forced out of the race. And the McGovern campaign was the progressive one.
We’ve made some strides on that front, but not nearly enough. I’m privileged enough now that I can talk about my own anxiety and depression and I probably won’t lose my job or have the neighbors look at me funny. This likely wouldn’t have been the case fifty years ago. And a lot of people are not as lucky as I am.
Still, I can easily imagine a that if a political candidate today announced that they live with some variety of mental illness, they’d likely get the same treatment that Eagleton did in ’72. They might not be forced out of the race, but it would be an issue for many. Those many are shitheads, but that doesn’t change the fact that we have a long way to go as a society.
So ultimately, I have to say that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d enjoyed Nourse’s other work. Scavengers in Space had action, panache, and good, clever writing. The Mercy Men was insulting on a lot of levels and it didn’t have a good enough story to justify continuing to read any of it.
To be fair, there were decent points. Characterization was fine, and the mystery was engaging enough until all the answers were pumped into our eyes over the course of a few pages.
Ugh. I’m not happy, but I’m not ready to throw this book onto the trash heap just yet. I think there’s a lot to be gained from it, but it’s all mainly on the “look how far we’ve come, maybe there’s some hope after all, but let’s also look at how far we have to go” front.
I’ve since learned that Nourse did continue writing novels down into the 80s, with one called The Fourth Horseman released in 1983. He also wrote nonfiction books about science and medicine all the way into the 90s, and I’m curious if his nonfiction books are as readable as his fiction, because even though this book had some problems, it went down smooth enough. It was only after I started thinking about it later that I found problems with it, but that’s the case with most of my reading. A book has to be especially bad for me to recognize that fact as I’m reading it.
I’d like the next review to have some kind of association with Thanksgiving, but for the life of me I can’t imagine what that would be. I’d be happy to hear suggestions!