Saturday, June 30th, 2007
4:49 pm - Two More Notches on the Bookshelves...  
Way back when, I watched the miniseries version of Dashiell Hammett's The Dain Curse. It was a long time ago, and I only remember two things about it. One is the opening scene of the detective approaching the Leggett house. The other is that it starred James Coburn, who looks less like Hammett's description of the Continental Op than any actor I can think of. Okay, I exaggerate, but still. I'd never read the book before, and it's pretty good. Owing to it roots as a serial, it's actually three interconnected mysteries about a pretty young thing who thinks she's cursed somehow. The body count isn't quite as high as Red Harvest, but it's still a pretty good sized pile by the end. I was pretty sure I knew who the guiding force behind all the carnage must be, based more on meta reasons than any brilliant deductions on my part, but then Hammett threw me a big curve that knocked me off the scent. Worth a look.

---
I've had my hardcover copy of C.M. Kornbluth's The Syndic since paying 50 cents for it in a used book store back when I was in college. I thought I'd read it back then, but now I'm pretty sure I was confusing it with Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl's, The Space Merchants. Not a single word of The Syndic struck any familiar chords in me at all. Just as well, because it's pretty awful.

This was kind of surprising to me, because I like a lot of Kornbluth's short stories, and I remember liking The Space Merchants. Plus, Kornbluth is one of those SF legends from the early fifties, although now I suspect he's legendary mostly because he died so young (at age 34), and because he was Fred Pohl's best friend. He left behind some terrific short stories ("The Marching Morons") along with his collaborations with Pohl, so there's the feeling that there was certainly better to come. I don't know about that. The Syndic is pretty bad.

Part of the problem is that he tries to squeeze four hundred pages of plot into about half the required pages. Even then, he runs out of gas about three quarters of the way through, because there really is only a tiny germ of an idea here. There is also no characterization at all, although that's sort of expected for SF books of that period. Finally, the book is one long screed on the benefits of libertarian society, complete with a long closing speech on the same by the chief libertarian philosopher.

It's the mid 21st century, and the eastern half of North America is controlled by the Syndic, the remnants of one of the two crime cartels (the other being the Mob) that rebelled against the government in the late 20th century to create a libertarian paradise. The Government of North America is now a pirate state based in Iceland and Ireland that uses its navy to raid Cape Cod for supplies. Meanwhile, European civilization has completely fallen. All that's left are a few barbarian tribes scattered here and there, and lots of forests. Yeah... Uh huh... Right...

The action starts when persons unknown attempt a hit on a young Syndic bagman with connections to one of the big bosses (think young Christopher Moltisanti). The bosses suspect the Government, but have no proof. So they psychologically condition the kid to hate the Syndic and all it stands for, knowing this character flaw will make him irresistibly attractive to Government agents. They hit the jackpot when he's recruited by the most evil Government agent of all. The guy is so evil that when the captain of the submarine transporting them back to Ireland decides to take a nap on deck (WTF?!?), he orders the crew to dive.

Once recruited, our hero is instantly sworn in as a Citizen, which is the trigger that breaks the conditioning. He worries about maintaining his cover, but not for long. Soon after landing at the Government's base in Ireland, he runs into the Syndic princess (lets call her Meadow) who did the conditioning on him in the first place, and immediately breaks cover. Bad idea. See, after she was done conditioning him, she got it into her plucky little head to do the same thing to herself. The problem is that, unlike the feminist utopia that is the Syndic (which even has a euphemistically named department of female recruitment and retirement), the Government only thinks of women as pleasure units. No citizenship for you!

Of course, once Christopher breaks cover, the plucky, albeit self-brainwashed Meadow starts screaming bloody blue murder, and our hero has to run for it. The rest of Ireland is now pretty much as St. Patrick found it, with lots of forests and strange people with curious ways. Sort of like the Pine Barrens. One of the tribes captures him, but only after he manages to kill the old witch who'd lead them. She's replaced by an evil young witch who sees our hero as a way to eliminate any possibility of her brat sister (call her, say, Dawnie) usurping her. It seems that witches' power is not only psionic and genetic, but also dissipates in the presence of technology and lots of metal. So she decides to neutralize the kid by having Christopher show the brat how to repair a jeep. Yeah, that oughta work.

The plan fails because the brat hasn't reached puberty yet, so her power is especially strong. (Insert closer to the earth, wanna-blessed-be stuff here.) It also fails because it was a stupid plan. Dawnie decides not to wait for big sis's inevitable attempt to kill her (Get out! Get out! Get out!), so she helps Christopher break out of gaol and they light out for the woods. They make their way back to the base because he wants to save Meadow and then steal a boat. She's along because she has a crush on him. Plus he keeps eating poisonous plants, so she has to keep nursing him back to health.

They sneak into the base, find Meadow, and swear her in as a citizen, thus breaking the conditioning. As they're leaving, though, Dawnie steps on a stick, rousing the camp. Dawnie leads the bad guys away from Christopher and Meadow, at least until evil guy shoots the little squirt dead. Christopher and Meadow steal a nuclear-powered motorboat (did I mention this was written in the fifties?), and steer a course for North America.

On the way they're intercepted and captured by a Mob ore vessel (also nuclear-powered) under the command of the crazy son of a Mob boss (think Ralphie Cifaretto). It turns out the Mob are apparently in cahoots with the Government. Christopher and Meadow are thrown into a hold full of gasoline fumes as the ship makes it's way to Lake Michigan. As the ship approaches Chicago, they manage to kill Ralphie and escape. They head for the engine room, and force the crew to dump the core of the reactor into Lake Michigan as the crew whines about the monetary value of all that radioactive metal. Christopher sets off all those gasoline fumes with a few well-placed pistol shots, and then he and Meadow go over the side as the ship blows up. They swim and swim and swim until they reach the shore of the lake, where they collapse.

They're found by a Mob citizen from nearby Michigan City. Fortunately for our heroes, he's got a hair across his ass due to the Mob's lackluster implementation of socialized medicine as regards his throat cancer, so he hides them from the Mob dragnet, which, unsurprisingly, is led by evil Government guy. Also fortunately for our heroes, it turns out their benefactor is a forger by trade, so he can forge the travel documents they'll need to get to Buffalo, which is Syndic territory. They head for the train station to skip town, but of course evil guy is there. Once again fortune smiles upon our heroes, because evil guy had a gallon of coffee that morning, and has to take a leak. Christopher follows him into the men's room and kills him with a single, neck-breaking punch. (Good punch! Very fortunate, that.) After he hides the body, the pair board the train while a couple of guards comment on how long it's taking evil guy to do his business. Yet again our heroes are fortunate, because apparently none of the guards ever think to go check up on evil guy, since Christopher and Meadow make it to Buffalo without further incident.

Back at Syndic headquarters in Manhattan, the kids tell their story to the Syndic's number two man (and resident libertarian philosopher), and demand a call to arms to protect the Syndic. He says "so what?" and the novel ends. Well, actually, he says a bit more than just that. After all, this is a fifties SF novel, which by law had to end with a soliloquy by the smartest person in the book on why the bad guys will lose and how everything will work out for the best because clearly the ideas espoused by the good guys are just so much better. In this case it's that the idea of building an army and a navy along with rounding up the disgruntled elements of Syndic society run so counter to Syndic philosophy that to do it would destroy the Syndic even more surely than an attack by the combined Mob and Government would. In the end he says the Syndic will warn folks to be a just little more careful out there, but otherwise they'll just live and let live. Then he thanks them for their effort and tells them to run along and have fun. The end.

The soliloquy is actually the best part of the book, at least when it's read in the context of, oh, say, some hypothetical situation where civil liberties are being restricted in the name of protecting society from external threats. So, anyway, you can skip the rest of the book, and get everything of value in it just by reading the last chapter. What the heck, it's only seven pages.

Actually, you're probably just better off just watching "A Piece of the Action", the old Star Trek episode that took the same idea and did a much better job with it.

Tags: