Satellite City by Mack Reynolds
Ace Books, 1975
Price I paid: 25¢
THE MOST EXPENSIVE, THE MOST LUXURIOUS, RESORT IN THE HISTORY OF MAN. Where no request no whim or pleasure, was denied. Where anything was possible…for a price.
THE HAVEN AND THE PLAYGROUND OF ONLY THE VERY RICH AND THE MOST POWERFUL. It was the most amazing pleasure complex ever built—and it looked down on the Earth from an orbit 22,000 miles high.
Yet, for all its glitter, there was something ominous about Satellite City—no nation or international body had any jurisdiction there, it was a law unto itself; no one knew who owned it; or what went on within its secret council rooms.
UNTIL ONE MAN PENETRATED THE WALL OF SECRECY AND DISCOVERED SATELLITE CITY’S HIDDEN MASTERS.
Looks like it’s time for another Big Mack Attack!
(I will never say that again.)
I’d been meaning to revisit Mack Reynolds for a good long time, and I’m glad to finally get around to it! Reynolds remains a hugely interesting figure for me, both generally as a writer but also as a radical leftist in a time when the genre tended to skew pretty heavily to the right. Reynolds was obviously not alone in that, especially by the seventies when this novel was published, but I think he still stands out at least a little bit. He started his sf career in the early fifties and wrote for John W. Campbell for ten years. I imagine some fantastic arguments between the two of them, but I have no evidence that any ever happened. For all I know, Reynolds kept his mouth shut about politics whenever Campbell was around.
Satellite City is particularly interesting because I’m not sure if I would have understood a lot of what was going on in it if I hadn’t done some reading on the author. The plot itself was fairly straightforward .Although full of twists and turns that I didn’t expect, it still made sense unto itself. It was also quite great. But there was also a lot going on between the lines and in the background here that caught my eye and would have really made me wonder what side of the political spectrum Reynolds really came down on. I’ll get into that a little bit later, but the general gist of it is that the book seems to be critical of everything. I’ve come to understand that this is a Mack Reynolds specialty, but I don’t know how I would have taken this book if I hadn’t known that.
We start the book by meeting a guy named Harold Brown. He’s hanging around in Tangier, which is the main spaceport hub by which people travel to Satellite City.
We learn a few things as the sequence progresses. The main one is that Satellite City is extremely expensive. That makes sense on one hand because it’s in space. Things are generally going to be more expensive in space. But it goes beyond that. Satellite City is a pleasure palace in space. The ultimate in luxury, where anything can happen if you want it to.
Brown explains to his connection that he wants to go to Satellite City because he knows that it’s not under the jurisdiction of any Earth laws, and he wants to do something particularly nasty. See, he’s a big game hunter. He once killed a Bengal tiger with a .22, he says. All that has gotten boring, however, and now he seeks the ultimate kill, the Most Dangerous Game. He wants to kill a human being, and he thinks that the folks who run Satellite City are the ones who can set that up for him. His contact says that yes, this is possible, if he’s sure about it. It’ll be expensive, though. No worries, money is no object. Okay then, let’s go to Satellite City.
I don’t know if there’s a way that I can make you believe me but it really was at this point that I started to think that something was a little bit off. I don’t mean that in a bad way. In fact, I think I mean it in a very very good way. I think that Reynolds was dropping clues here and while I don’t know that I can point to any one of them in particular, something about them almost subconsciously informed me that things were not as they seemed, but I had no idea what and could not predict how.
This was probably aided by the copy on the back of the book, that told us that “one man” will discover “Satellite City’s hidden masters.” I have to give it credit, this time the jacket copy was both fairly accurate and also did not have spoilers. I was genuinely surprised, albeit also deeply amused, when I learned who the hidden masters were.
There’s a lot of exposition in this book, some of it from unreliable narrators. One bit of exposition stands out though, because it was in a form that I’m sure I’ve seen before numerous times but hadn’t actually thought about before. We all know the kind that starts with something like “As you know…” This kind of exposition is very annoying because it’s so unnatural. If Captain Kirk knows, and Spock knows he knows, they should stop talking and fire the photon torpedoes or whatever. But the audience doesn’t know so we have to find a way to tell them before we do that so they don’t feel cheated. I get it, but there are ways around it.
Satellite City has a pretty clever variation. There’s a guy on the ship up to orbit with Brown, and he explains at great length how the ship works and what to expect once they reach orbit and eventually the City itself. The words “as you know” never actually make an appearance, but narration tells us that Brown does in fact know. But the guy doesn’t catch on to that because he’s an insufferable know-it-all who never shuts up, and furthermore Brown is trying to keep a low profile, so he just lets this schmo yammer on for the audience’s benefit.
It basically boils down to the fact that the old-style Saturnesque rockets are no longer the thing, and there are now supersonic spaceplanes that can reach orbit significantly more efficiently than that. Important information for a reader in the mid-70s but a little more standard these days. It’s fine. We also learn that Satellite City is in geosynchronous orbit. I’m not sure why it has to be but okay, fine, I guess. Seems to be a waste of fuel having to go that far out when a space station is pretty much fine when it’s only 80 or so miles up. 22,000 seems like a bit more of a hike, but then again orbital mechanics are weird and counterintuitive anyway so it’s maybe not that big of a deal. Anybody want to calculate how many m/s of Δv that would take?
So Brown explores this place, talks to other guests and employees, and generally has a nice, but very expensive, time. He learns that there are state-of-the-art hospital and science areas. And we learn a little economics and world history.
I never quite got a good handle on when this book takes place. Clues that I kinda had to think about later seem to date it somewhere in the 2010s, maybe? So a lot of this book is pretty optimistic but also other parts are spot on. Like, Brown and everybody else have a device they keep on them called a pocket phone. It’s pretty much exactly what you think it is. One difference is that pocket phones are government issued. They also serve as ID and credit/debit card and stuff like that. It’s actually illegal to leave the house without it. Neat!
But what’s more important is that Satellite City is the last vestige of true laissez faire capitalism. The Earth is divided into four basic areas now: the United States of the Americas, the European Common, the Soviet Complex, and the unaffiliated free states. The big World Powers are all more alike than not by this point. Even the US, where Brown is from, has got things like a UBI and an incredibly high tax rate. There’s even a straight-up Capital tax. That is to say, if somebody has a bunch of money just sitting around in the bank not doing anything, the government gets a cut every year. Nominally, this would encourage people to actually spend their money or invest it instead of hoarding it, but what it actually means is that they store it in the banks on Satellite City, which does have its own taxes but they are much much more lax.
And that’s where my confusion would probably start to come in if I were a bit less savvy. See, I’m all about the idea of a UBI. The book even explicitly states that there is no poverty anymore. Everyone is provided for enough that they can at least survive. But on the flip side, the tax rates are high enough that rising much higher than the UBI is very difficult, and plenty of people, including our protagonist, resent that. My current takeaways are twofold. For one, I think this is a sign that we aren’t meant to be completely onboard with our protagonist. You’d think the whole “I want to kill someone” thing would be the first sign of that but, uh, I’ll get to that in a minute. The second thing is that Mack Reynolds was just plain delighted in exploring the downsides of Utopias. Did Reynolds himself support the system he described? I don’t know. He spent a lot of time as a Socialist until the Sixties when he got kicked out of a Socialist group for writing a book about retiring without money (thank you to pete for letting me know that in the comments to The Cosmic Eye). In those same comments, Syd Logsdon says that he remembers Reynolds as more of an anarchist than a socialist or a communist, and I think there’s a lot of value in that distinction, especially when thinking about this particular book. And I think it’s worth noting that Reynolds just really enjoyed thinking about alternative socioeconomic systems of many stripes and considering what would work and what wouldn’t. In a way, it’s almost like we enter into a political dialogue when we read a Reynolds book, but also one in which science fiction stuff happens and also a guy turns out to be a private eye the whole time.
What?!? I got ahead of myself!
So Brown finally gets to the point where he gets to kill a person. He’s led to a room where a lady sits waiting patiently, and it turns out that she’s also there to kill a person! And also neither of their laser guns actually work! Haha! It’s a whole weird thing! In her case, she’s taken to the hospital wing of Satellite City where the excellent psychotherapists there will help her come to terms with whatever makes her want to kill a person. In Brown’s case, the people reveal two things. First, they know he’s not “Harold Brown.” He’s a private investigator named Rex Bader, and they’ve known that since before he left Tangier.
(As an aside, the main character of The Cosmic Eye was also named Rex. I checked to see if maybe they were somehow supposed to be the same character, but I very much doubt it.)
The other thing that he learns is who the real “hidden masters” of Satellite City are.
Are you ready for this?
I should point out that at this point we’re only about halfway through the book, which is wild.
Anyway the real masterminds behind Satellite City are THE MAFIA.
Bader is taken to the head of the organization, Big Nick Mangano, who explains the situation to him. First we get an overview of the history of the Mafia, as well as its eventual interaction with organizations like Cosa Nostra and stuff, leading to an overarching group known as The Syndicate. Big Nick is in fact the head of The Syndicate. His contribution to the organization has been to stop dealing in illegal activities and go completely legit. While Satellite City might be technically outside many laws, as no Earth nation has jurisdiction there are there are no extradition treaties, it’s still totally on the up-and-up, insofar as nobody is able to do anything about it. Moreover, the entire enterprise is based on trust. People with secret bank accounts, people retiring there from nations they exploited into the ground, crime lords, whoever, all trust entirely that they will not be exposed. Satellite City does this by keeping a relatively low profile. While Earth goverments might not exactly like what’s going on up there, there’s nothing actually illegal enough for them to come crashing down the airlock doors.
That includes murder. Bader was never going to get to actually murder someone, although Satellite City does like to get people who think they might be able to. It’s a pretty profitable scheme. Folks think they’re going to get some kind of super-taboo thrill and end up just spending a lot of time in the casinos or getting drunk and eventually figure that maybe murder isn’t what they want to do after all. In extreme cases they receive top-notch psychotherapy.
I should point out that Big Nick is described as sounding almost exactly like a very old Chico Marx.
Bader’s job was to basically learn all this on behalf of the American government, so he goes home.
Again, this is about halfway through the book. And again I was completely unsure what was going to happen from here on out. What did happen was entirely unexpected.
Bader gives his report and is offered a new job. See, there’s this guy running around named Ché Djilas. He’s more or less just a rabble-rouser. No one is even sure if he’s a he, or what his motivations are. All anybody knows is that he goes to Free Nations and starts leftist revolutions there. This is a problem for everybody because, as it stands, the great world powers have all managed to create a sort of balance that is working okay. It’s particularly great when Bader asks a representative of the Soviet Complex what the problem is, since isn’t the ultimate goal worldwide Communism? The Soviet guy’s response is essentially “eh.”
There’s evidence that Satellite City is harboring this Ché Djilas feller. So Bader needs to go back up there and either fetch him or kill him. Bader is at first not at all interested, but he comes around after he has an idea of how to make it work.
One one thing I didn’t mention that Bader learned about on his first visit was a game in the casino. It was kind of a Chekov thing so maybe I should have. The game isn’t really a game, just more of a novelty, or a joke. It’s a cage with ten six-sided dice in it. A player makes their bet (I think it’s like $100 to bet) and the cage shakes. If all ten dice come up as sixes, it’s a million-to-one payout.
The book keeps saying that the odds of that happening are six hundred million to one, but that’s either a mistake or I’m being silly, because my math shows that to be an order of magnitude off. Calculating the odds that a die will come as any particular number is one in the number of sides, so for example, the odds of coming up a six on a d6 are 1 in 6. For a six to show up twice on two dice, it’s 1/6 x 1/6, or 1/36. And so on. So for ten dice your odds are one in 610, or 60,466,176.
I’m pretty sure I’m right but feel free to tell me I’m not, if I’m not.
The other thing I didn’t mention is because the book itself didn’t mention it until this point, so I’m blameless there. It’s that psychic powers are real.
Aw man, what?
I guess it’s not that bad because the way Reynolds put it all to use is clever, I thought.
Psychics are neither especially powerful or common. Bader seeks one out at a parapsychology department at a local university, and the guy is barely able to push a ball about an inch. However, it turns out that there’s a drug distantly related to psilocybin (which the book consistently misspells) that can boost those powers. Bader takes the guy and a vial of the drug and gets to work.
Explaining why he’s back on Satellite City isn’t actually that hard. He just explains to everybody that he wants to spend the money he made on his last job before it all gets taxed away. People generally get that. One of the points of Satellite City is cultivating repeat guests. Some of them become permanent guests, in fact.
There’s some snoopin’ but on the whole, this part of the book goes by quickly. We’re on the home stretch, in fact. Bader gets his psychic pal to take the drug one night after hours and flip all the dice in the cage thing to sixes. Then, the next morning, Bader shows up first thing in the morning and goes through the motions of playing it, hiding the fact that he’s not. Then he lets out a loud WOO and now he’s the talk of the town. Satellite City owes him 100 million dollars. (Note: they’re called pseudo-dollars in this book for some reason).
Bader is led back to Big Nick. Everybody is suspicious but Bader hangs them with their own greed. If they don’t pay out, if they make a fuss, everybody will know about it. And they’ll lose trust in Satellite City’s other services.
But then Bader concludes his plan. He says that he doesn’t want the money anyway. In lieu of it, all he asks is that they turn over Ché Djilas. Big Nick has no idea what he’s talking about.
So then we get the last big reveal of the book. There is no Ché Djilas. Or rather, he’s an organization, not a single person. And that organization is…
THE MAFIA AGAIN.
This time, though, it’s not the official Mafia. It’s some guys trying to make their names without Big Nick knowing about it. Their goal is to overthrow the governments of some countries, install their own puppet Communist leaders for a while, and then those leaders will abdicate or take off for Satellite City or just be puppets or whatever, while the real power behind the throne is the Syndicate. It would be extremely profitable.
Big Nick is pretty mad about this, so he hands over the ringleader to Bader and says here is Ché Djilas, throw him in jail or whatever. Your job is done. And that’s what happens.
The book ends with a short epilogue in which Bader, enjoying the new home he’s bought with the proceeds from working for the government (it was a tax-free job), gets a knock on the door from some tax guys. They tell him that he owes them money. He explains that the reward was tax free and shows them the agreement. They say it’s not that, it’s the hundred million he won on Satellite City they’re after. He didn’t declare it. He says that’s because he didn’t actually take it. They disbelieve him, and it looks like maybe Bader won’t quite get the happily ever after he thought he would…
I wonder if that was the lead-in to a sequel. I don’t see any references to one, but maybe Reynolds was hedging his bets.
Folks, this book was great! I don’t know that I adequately indicated that until this point. I really did love it. I loved its twists and turns and surprises and subtleties and convoluted politics. It was great. Maybe not the best Reynolds ever did—I don’t see it on any best-of lists, which seem to focus on his 60s work—but I did really enjoy it.
Sure, the whole Mafia thing is kinda goofy in retrospect but that’s the fault of time, not the author. And maybe the psychic stuff could have been hinted at a little earlier so it didn’t seem quite so deus ex-ish. It wasn’t a perfect book but it was a hell of an enjoyable one.
It does occur to me that The Cosmic Eye also played the “protagonist is actually somebody else, fooled you” card. Maybe that’s a regular thing with Reynolds. I kind of hope not? I can see how that would get old, especially if you come to expect it when you start a new book. I hope at least one is played straight.
I mentioned that the society Bader lives in has a UBI but I didn’t mention the specifics of it, I don’t think. It’s an interesting variation called the Negative Income Tax. I don’t hear much about it these days but it was a darling of Milton Friedman in the 60s and 70s. He even got Nixon on board with the idea. In fact, the whole Republican Party was pretty keen on the idea until the late 70s and 80s when stuff got increasingly “fuck the poor” Reaganesque and now we live in a hellworld.
That’s an interesting thing to think about.