Department of Book Reviews
In which I review a lot of books many of you have probably never heard of. I have a plan regarding all this, which will be revealed in due course. In the meantime, I’ll share a few of these reviews as the mood strikes.
All will be of a similar format in which I briefly discuss character, setting, plot, and style and rate them on a scale of 100 to 1 (with 100 being perfect and 1 being perfectly awful). I then average the score out to a single 100 point rating. Anything over 80 is a book with minor flaws at worst and a total recommend. Anything between 61-80 is a somewhat flawed book and a conditional recommend. Anything below 60 you read at your own peril.
As I’ve said before, I’m not a harsh critic and don’t do many very critical reviews. This, however, is one of them.
THE MIND CAGE by A. E. van Vogt. First published 1957. Latest edition I’ve seen: 1993
Characters: When your protagonist is morally indistinguishable from your antagonist (David Marin is the go-to military guy whose plans enable the Great Judge to basically conquer the world) , you’re in trouble. Actually, though, there is no human antagonist. The bad guy is a computer who speaks in pidgin. The purported antagonist, the Great Judge, the tyrannical despot who rules most of the Earth and sentences people to death for daring to publicly criticize the regime — that time he ordered the execution of 80,000 people? Under the control of the pidgin-talking computer. And when he collaborated with the secret Communist cabal? He only did it to get the longevity drugs that he kept all to himself to prolong his worthless existence. And Marin is just like him. Except on a smaller scale. 23
Setting: Earth, 2140, twenty years after the third Atomic War. Very little sense of physical setting. Most of Earth is ruled by a ruthless oligarchy which “combines group living with free enterprise,” but we get no real sense of how that actually works. (Other than that they swap wives on a whim. Exactly how this fits in with their over-all philosophy, I’m not sure.) 35
Plot: This book has more crack pottery in it than any I’ve ever read. Here’s just a few examples: There’s an underclass of people with human-animal hybrid bodies which was caused by “disease.” (Later on you learn they were the result of an “experiment.”). Trask, a scientist and self-avowed “observer” or “spectator’ switches bodies with Marin. This causes Marin’s body’s eyes to “take on a nearsighted shape” because of his (Trask’s) behavior pattern as an observer. (They change back to normal when Marin regains his body.) After being knocked unconscious Marin has “ancestral memory” of being a sea creature and other forms way down the evolutionary path. (For no apparent reason, because it has absolutely no impact on either the plot or him as a character.) At one point, the bad guys release a weapon, a “gas that was virus-like.” What? Then there are the plot holes, or plot conveniences. Such as: Marin has to break into the Great Judge’s house because he thinks the Brain (the pidgin speaking computer. An example: “Typical human emotion thinking. In moments of good feeling, humans talk compassion, and be have apparent logic. Not so. Have hate, logic be twisted. Destruction become senseless, far more cruel that I. I be do what be logical — no more, no less.”) is hiding under the Great Judge’s house. Fortunately, it’s easy for Marin to break into the tyrannical despot’s home, because under law he must leave his house unlocked (and, apparently unguarded, though this possibility never seems to occur to Marin. Or van Vogt.). The book turns on the fact that Trask, sentenced to death for criticizing the regime has also (conveniently) invented a machine that can switch bodies, which (conveniently) he does with Marin, who (conveniently) is such a master of disguise that he simply disguises himself-as-Trask as himself. The disguise is so masterful, that no one, not even his ex-lover and the mother of his children (and they do get up close and personal, if not totally intimate) realizes that he is not actually himself, but is only disguised as himself. That is, until the plot needs the revelation, and then, for no apparent reason, the Great Judge realizes that Marin is not his tame military genius (though he is!) but Trask the condemned scientist. Add to this all the usual van Vogtian twitches and half steps and “hidden” character motivations, and it all just makes your head hurt. In the end it comes down to the pidgin speaking computer (who doesn’t appear on-stage until about the last ten pages) and a cabal of Commies hiding in the woodpile (who actually never appear on stage). I’m by far not the first to note this, but frequently van Vogt’s plots make no sense. In this particular case, it was also headache inducing. 8
Style: Written in van Vogt’s typical clunky manner. 50
Rating: 29 (Currently the 6th worst fan/sf novel from the 1950s. I have a long way to go, so it will probably rise in the ratings, but not terribly much. To give you an idea as to how these things go, the ratings currently run between 96 and 12. Which reminds me. I haven’t done this in quite awhile, though I’ve been meaning to. If you can guess which is the best or worst fantasy/sf novel I’ve read so far from the 1950s, I’ll send you a book or movie or something. Good luck! )
So, what do you think? Helpful? Amusing? Boring? Let me know. The next review will be much happier. It was a surprise for me to read and as you’ll see, I recommend it highly. It currently stands tied for 10th best sf novel of the 1950s.
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