Dare by Philip José Farmer
Ballantine books, 1965
Price I paid: $1 or 2, can’t remember
Jack Cage lived on the planet Dare. He knew that he was human, and that he was the oldest son of a wealthy human farmer. But he hardly dared admit to himself, let alone to his family, the keen interest he felt in the ‘native’ inhabitants of Dare—those spectacularly beautiful humanoid creatures whose magnficent hair, growing clear down to the base of the spine, had given them their name of “horstel.”
It was death for any human to consort with any horstel after they became adult. For the humans of Dare still lived by the standards and mores of three hundred years before when they had been mysteriously whisked away from Earth and brought to this new planet.
Except that Jack Cage suspected this was no mystery to the horstels…
The cover of the book doesn’t have the accent in the author’s name the way it should, and I’m struggling with whether that counts as a pen name. The ISFDB does not indicate as such. There is no annotation saying “as by Philip Jose Farmer.” It does have it for such editions as the Italian, where it says “as by Philip J. Farmer,” though. I think this is an oversight, and I think that the presence or not of an accent mark in the author’s name matters.
Stand for something or fall for everything. Or something. I don’t even know any more.
Anyway, this is not my first time reading Farmer’s work. I’ve read most of the Riverworld books and liked the first couple. I cooled off a little bit as the series progressed but it might be time to give it another go. I’ve been meaning to read the Wold Newton books and still haven’t gotten around to them, although I think Time’s Last Gift is arguably a Wold Newton book? It’s got Tarzan in it. I liked it.
It’s a completely uninteresting and unremarkable fact that the first review I ever wrote for the Internet was probably of Time’s Last Gift. It was for some website that probably doesn’t exist anymore, so don’t go looking for it. I just tried and couldn’t find it. It wasn’t a very good review, with none of the charm and insight with which have so beguiled my seven or eight regular readers, but it did give me the idea to branch off and do my own thing, so for that, I guess I have to give that website some credit.
I also have to give a lot more credit to the random guy I met at the grocery store who told me that if I’m gonna write for free, I might as well do it on my own terms. Thanks, random guy!
Anyway, this is my first non-series-based PJP novel. It’s also earlier in his career than I’ve read before, and that’s probably more interesting. See, this book wasn’t especially good, but it was still recognizably Farmer. It had some good ideas, characterization, and setting. All that was great, in fact. It’s just that the story, and especially the telling thereof, needed some real work.
We start off the book with a prologue discussing the fact that there are groups of people on this Earth who have disappeared mysteriously right around the same time. He mentions the Roanoke colony, a Genovese ship named the Buonavita, “ninety Circassian beauties,” and a Chinese village. The prologue goes on a bit about Charles Fort, which is totally fine by me, and then explains to us that those people were all abducted and taken to a planet in the Tau Ceti system, where they were dropped off and left to fend for themselves.
We then meet the protagonist of our book, a fellow named Jack Cage. A descendant of the original Roanoke colony, Jack is heir to a decent fortune if he can just do what he’s supposed to do. You know the drill—as long as he doesn’t raise any hackles, earns money, and marries a nice human woman. Like many a protagonist in this position, he has a hard time doing what he’s supposed to do. He gets ping-ponged around this plot so much, it’s hard to blame him.
A lot of things happen to him. First off, he meets a cousin of his, a guy named Ed Wang. Ed has just killed something, and this is where we learn about the horstels and the whole sort of situation around them.
Horstels are another sapient species on the planet Dare. At the beginning of the book, we’re to believe that they’re the only other sapient species, but we learn that’s not true as it all goes on. We’re also to believe that they’re the aboriginal people of this planet, which also gets overturned when we hit the big explain-everything bit.
Seriously, I think there’s got to be some kind of name for this plot. I’ve seen it so many times, but I’ve never considered until today just how stock it is. That’s not a bad thing, mind you. Even a stock plot is fine if it’s done well.
You can break this plot down into two pieces:
- The protagonist is on the run for violating the rules of his speculative society
- There is a Big Revelation near the end
I got off track.
So Jack runs into Ed, who has violently killed a horstel. We learn that he’s a member of a secret society called the HK—horstel killers—and that because he now knows about that society, Jack either has to join it or be killed to protect the secret. He joins it, but unwillingly.
See, Jack is okay with horstels. He’s been friends with one, R’li, since they were children. She disappeared for a while, doing some kind of horstel adulthood ritual, and then returns at the beginning of this book in time for Jack to realize, in that teen sex comedy way, that she got HOT.
So horstels are basically human in appearance, except that they have a bit more hair. Some of that hair runs down their spine, culminating in a long horselike tail, hence the name. They also have enough pubic hair that they don’t offend the humans, but they run around naked otherwise. This is not offensive to the humans, who are otherwise puritanical, for much the same reason that Ed is totally fine with having killed one: despite being able to walk and talk and live in society and provide the human settlers with lots of important information, the horstels are considered nothing more than soulless “beasts of the field.” It is also for this reason that it is considered an abomination to have sex with one.
The other thing about horstels is that they’re extremely decent people. They are fond of contracts and will keep them much better than the humans will. They have also done much to help the humans survive on this world.
Jack spends the first half of the book torn between R’li, his old friend who got smokin’ hot, and the HKs. He’s not at all enthusiastic about killing horstels, especially as he spends the rest of his time getting to know them and their culture. But the HKs seem to be a bigger thing than a bunch of random jerks in Jack’s part of the world. They’re spread out everywhere, ready to strike. They’re a big deal.
I thought I had a pretty good idea of how this plot was going to progress, but I gotta hand it to him, Farmer threw me through a loop today. The plot started zipping around willy-nilly, adding one big twist after another. It got to be dizzying.
Around the midpoint of the book, the HKs decide that it’s time to launch some plans. First, they have some guys dress like horstels, who then rob a government weapons caravan. That should get the Queen on their side. After that, it’s a matter of wiping out the horstels, although the humans are expected to take heavy losses. This is, we’re told, a good thing. Taking down the human population will make it easier to control. The poor are starting to get ideas above their station. Ideas like “maybe we deserve better than this society is giving us while the rich are very comfortable.” Ideas like “and maybe we should just take what we deserve.”
Why, in the end, do these people hate the horstels so much that they want to kill them, with a considerable number of human losses to go with it? Taking their land is brought up, but honestly I think it’s a little more vague than that. There aren’t a lot of specific reasons given. The benefits of killing lots of humans was given more time than the benefits of killing horstels. The main reason seems to be some basic racism. There’s another reason we’re told near the end of the book, where it turns out that a certain group is fomenting this war for their own reasons.
This isn’t the first time humans have tried war with the horstels, either. And for much the same reasons. The humans lost the first two times, but they were outnumbered. Now that humans have had some time to breed, folks think it might be time to try again.
So an attack begins and almost immediately goes badly for the HKs. Some of the younger ones decide that taking it slow and building up to a big day isn’t going to work. They decide to go half-cocked and just start killing. There are lots of casualties on both sides. Jack decides to defect to the horstels because he’s in love with R’li. They go on the run.
Time in this book starts to get rubber-bandy, and it’s hard to follow. Sometimes months pass over the course of paragraphs. Jack and R’li are on the run for some period of time, until they run into Rli’s brother. They also run into some HKs at the same time, and there’s a fight. R’li’s brother is killed, at which point R’li reveals that she’s now the leader of her community (called a cadmus by the humans). This means that she has responsibilities greater than Jack now, and has to leave.
It’s around this time that R’li drops a big truth bomb on Jack: the horstels are also from Earth.
They’re just as human as the humans, except that they mutated a little bit in the time they’ve been here.
Both sets of humans, as well as some of the other sapient species on this planet, were brought by some aliens called the Arra. The horstels were brought here about 4000 years ago, presumably from somewhere in Europe because R’li is able to use linguistics to prove that certain words are shared between horstel language and English and Latin. Anyway, the Arra brought them here to serve as pets and servants. Eventually the Arra got into a war with some other species, which culminated in that other species using a weapon that destroys all the iron on the surface of the planet. It’s speculated that this led to the mutation that created the horstels.
Jack, incidentally, spends a lot of this portion of the book being insufferable. When R’li explains that she has to go fourteen days without sex for some kind of ritual, Jack gets real whiny. Not a great look, fella!
And then there’s another big plot shift. Jack meets some fellas from a country called Socinia. (Jack’s own country is called Dyonisa). The Socinians have decided to wage war on the entire rest of the world, in an effort to unite it against a common enemy. That enemy is the alien species that brought the humans here in the first place, the Arra. The Socinians are convinced that when the Arra arrive again, they’ll either take over and enslave humans, overwhelm them culturally, or just kill them all off. The Socinians will not allow this to happen, but to do so will require a unified world front.
It’s also explained here that the human/horstel war was their doing. It weakened the Dyonisans enough that the Socinian army just has to mop up.
Jack joins up with them, again because he figures he doesn’t have much choice. This world-conquering war goes on for a few pages when, boom, yet again, another plot-shattering development happens.
We’re down to the last few pages here and I’m getting tired of all these plotsplosions.
A spaceship arrives. Our main Socinian guy, Chuckswilly, is upset. He thinks it’s the Arra, and he’s afraid that they arrived too early for the humans to do anything about them. It turns out, though, that they aren’t the Arra. They’re…more humans!
I was talking to a friend recently about a certain media property that I otherwise like and won’t name because I don’t want to spoil it, but we came to the conclusion that the latest entries into this media property have relied too much on coincidence to drive the plot. I hadn’t realized how much that bothers me until he mentioned it, but sure enough, it’s a thing that bothers me now.
And that’s what just happened here. Why did the humans come here? Coincidence. Is it the coincidence that would come of some kind of natural progress through the galaxy? Did some grand interstellar hegemony finally make its way to Tau Ceti? Nope, this is the first Terran interstellar expedition, and this is its first stop.
It’s a pointless coincidence that didn’t need to be one? I would have preferred so many alternative explanations why the Terrans found this place. In addition to Space Manifest Destiny, we could have gone with
- The Arra left some kind of space signal and Terrans found it
- Terrans have “human scanners” that cover the entire galaxy
- “Sex radiation”
- Dogs are now the dominant species on Earth and they were brought here by the power of love
I would accept any of those things, and many more. “We picked a direction and just happened to find you first” just isn’t great.
The humans introduce themselves and don’t seem that surprised when they hear the story of why there are also humans on this planet. They’re a bit concerned by these Arra people, and so decide to head back to Earth soon to report back on it.
Chuckswilly decides he wants to destroy the Earth ship because he thinks if Terrans start coming here, their dominant culture will destroy that of the Darians. He plans on this for a while. Jack, in one of the few times he makes a proactive decision in this novel, tells on him. The Terrans give Chuckswilly a firm talking-to and he is convinced of his wrongdoing almost immediately. They drop Jack and R’li off in a nice little spot where they can live together forever, and the book ends on kind of a happy but lame note.
I’m not going to say I hated this book. It had me engrossed for large chunks of it. Farmer created a remarkable little world with some great setup for it. I liked the first half of the book quite a bit.
I was afraid that this was going to be some kind of “What if American colonization but the Native Americans were more savvy” situation. It threatened to be that way occasionally. The horstels had some mystical connection-with-the-land stuff that could have gotten pretty gross if it had been a bit more overt. Maybe it didn’t bother me because of my privilege. I’d like to an opinion on that from someone it would have affected. All I can say is that I don’t know if that’s the direction Farmer was trying to go.
The humans do act toward the horstels in ways very reminiscent of Historical White People’s attitudes toward nonwhite peoples. It’s hard to determine whether this was commentary or just…a given.
Probably what interested me most was a bit near the beginning. One of the horstels is painting a picture, a picture of the humans’ first arrival on the planet. The horstel explains that the Arra dropped off the humans and said that they have to learn how to work together instead of building their culture on cutthroat competition. This whole experiment is to evolve.
Whether or not that’s true in the context of this book (nowhere else is it referenced), it’s interesting that this is pretty much the same hook as the Riverworld books!
Likewise, the planet Dare doesn’t have any iron, so the humans aren’t able to make traditional weaponry. You know what else doesn’t have any iron? The Riverworld! In this book they learn how to make interesting use of glass to kill one another.
I’m not saying that this book was a trial run for the Riverworld novels or anything. I think Farmer just liked to reuse some ideas, which is fine. It’s possible he was building off of the ideas presented in this book when he wrote his Hugo-winner, or it’s possible he just dashed this one off and forgot about it, only to have some of those ideas simmering in the back of his mind. Either way, I just think it’s neat, without any kind of moral judgement.
That’s pretty much all I have to say. This was a decent book, not great, not terrible, by an author I appreciate, who used some of the ideas here a bit later on in a much better book.
I hope you’re all staying safe out there!