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Book Review #13, by Eric Weeks

December 19, 1998
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"The Man Who Never Missed" (1985), "The 97th Step" (1989), "The Machiavelli Interface" (1986), Steve Perry, Ace Books. (The "Matador" series)

You ever hate those pretentious book reviewers who like annoying unfun books? Reviewers that review books with titles like Camp Concentration or who complain about books lacking a message? Reviewers that like Stanislaw Lem's philosophical books thinly disguised as sf? Fear not, I've been reading Steve Perry.

Let's get something straight. Commando is Arnold Schwarzenegger's best movie. And the best scene in that movie is when a bad guy threatens Arnold by revealing that he, the bad guy, is an ex-Green Beret. Arnold replies, "I eat Green Berets for breakfast." Yeah! The point here is, Arnold is so good, he's even better than the best special forces soliders. Arnold is the best.

If this makes sense to you, then Perry's books are for you. They are Arnold Schwarzenegger, they are Commando, they are that scene, and the bad guys are always eaten for breakfast by the hero. The Man Who Never Missed is my favorite book by Perry. Khadaji is the title character, who is fighting a one-man war on a far-away planet. Khadaji has single-handedly taken out over 2000 soldiers; the bad guys are estimating they are facing possibly a thousand opponents. Khadaji is the best -- skilled at martial arts, small arms, everything. The villain of the book is the evil, bloated Confederation which is occupying the planet in question. Khadaji's one-man rebellion is designed to discourage the Confederation, and encourage more rebellions elsewhere in the galaxy. His one interesting twist, shared by the main characters in the other books in this series, is that he refuses to kill anybody. Instead, he is shooting the soldiers with a special poison which completely incapacitates them for six months but otherwise leaves them unharmed.

The other books in this series get progressively sillier, although the two I reread most recently aren't too bad (The 97th Step and The Machiavelli Interface). The premise continues: whatever the main character of a given book, they are always the best of the best of the best. That's all the plot summary you need.

So that's the basic shtick with these books. Throw in some gratuitous sex, of course, and additionally (in The Machiavelli Interface and later books in the series) let the bad guys be sexual perverts. The plots get progressively stupider as the series goes on, but these three books aren't too bad. There's also a good dose of silly zen-like philosophy thrown into these books, which fits perfectly in with the action-movie style (think Steven Segal). Don't be fooled by the titles; with the exception of The Man Who Never Missed, the titles have little or nothing to do with the book (for example, the title The Machiavelli Interface is completely wasted on this book; it should really be called "The Return of the Man Who Never Missed: Khadaji's Revenge" or something similar.)

The bottom line: if you want to read this sort of book, The Man Who Never Missed is the best that Perry's written. As the series progresses they get worse, by any standards, even action-movie type standards. I would like to read the second book in the series, Matadora, but I haven't been able to find it yet. I'll give TMWNM 3 stars; it's not quite the "Commando" of sf, but it's close. The others get 2 1/2 stars, and the books that come later in the series get only 1 star even for people who really like this sort of writing. Hopefully it is clear that the 3 star rating is only in the context of this type of book; considered as a sf book, it's rather mediocre, maybe 1 star at best. There is virtually no good science fiction in this book, just lots of recycled ideas for the most part. But hey -- it's easy to read, a good break from the books I read last month.

While I'm in a reviewing mood, I'll mention that a while ago I read another couple books by Perry set in a different timeline, Spindoc and The Forever Drug. These books are bad; stay away! For example, the main character is a spin-doctor, who is used to manipulating public opinion, and this is well-developed in a sf sort of way. An interesting idea, an interesting profession, but totally irrelevant to the plot development of those two books. Instead, they continue in the violence & sex style of the series reviewed above, with a tiny bit of plot. Again I warn you, stay away!

"The Mindgame" by Norman Spinrad, Jove Publications, 1980.

A very scary book -- because, I believe, it is fairly realistic. This isn't really a sf book at all, but since it's by an sf author I like, I bought the book and decided it's appropriate to review it. The setting is Hollywood, in the present. Jack Weller's wife Annie joins a new cult, "Transformationalism", bearing suspicious resemblance to actual, real-world modern quasi-religious New Age organizations. Early in the book, Annie has gotten so involved in the organization that when she is told she must leave her husband, she does so without protest. Weller ends up joining the cult in order to infiltrate it, find his wife, and win her back. The book follows Weller as he gets sucked deeper into the cult. Despite Weller's skepticism, despite his hatred of the organization, he realizes that some of their mind-messing techniques are working on him. The book is a scary mix of Weller's downward spiraling life: a wife who seems brainwashed, trying to fend off brainwashing himself, trying to fool the cult into thinking he is in agreement with their message, trying to hold on to his miserable job while he pays the cult to brainwash him.

But the really scary thing about this book is that it's so plausible. Without naming names, let me describe the fictional Transformationalism. It was founded by a charismatic man who used to write pulp science fiction. It has many Hollywood stars as members. Initially, members joining up pay for "processing" to resolve hidden conflicts in their personalities. And the organization quickly sues anyone who dares give it bad publicity. If any of this sounds familiar to you, you will find this book frightening. Of course, I'm sure that there are many real-world organizations which bear a superficial resemblance to Transformationalism but nonetheless are completely honest organizations which really help people and definitely won't sue me for writing this book review, because hey, this book has nothing to do with any real-world organizations, especially not the fine upstanding ones.

Overall, the book is best when Weller is in the lower levels of the cult. The "processors" he works with upon joining the cult are smart people, who realize that Weller's real motive for joining up is to find his wife, rather than to achieve enlightenment or because of any real interest in the message of Transformationalism. Weller must somehow fool these people, and also protect himself against the mind-game they are playing with him. Think about it -- he is trying to fool these people, and they know it -- so in order to fool them, he has to play along, which is exactly what they want, in order to try to brainwash him. It's rather twisted. The only odd thing about Weller is that at some points in the book, the things he says are pure genius and work to fool the cult, but at other times, he shows a lack of comprehension for the mindset of the cult members. Frequently, he says truly inspirational garbage to fool the intelligent cultists, but fails to come up with the mindless buzzword-laced propaganda which would help him make friends with the dumber cult members -- like, for example, his wife.

There you have it -- not really sf, unless you have a broad definition of sf, although hopefully you do. But a good book. The "bad guys" by and large are intelligent people, which makes them much more convincing as bad guys. A solid 3-star book -- not as good as other books by Spinrad, but a good book nonetheless. The second half of the book is weaker than the first, thus the 3 star rating (rather than higher). The ending is fairly strong.

"The Joy Makers" and "The Immortals" by James Gunn, Bantam Books, 1961 and 1962.

Interesting, but not outstanding. These two books are collections of several of James Gunn's short stories with related themes/plot threads. Both of these books are 2 star books -- not bad, just not worth rushing out to find.

In The Joy Makers, people have discovered the science of happiness. No longer do we have the right to the pursuit of happiness; now we have the right to actually be happy, all of the time. Of course, not everybody is happy in utopia. Despite having a practical science of happiness, there is a push towards perfection, resulting in corrupt leaders who sacrifice the rights of their citizens to the goal of forced happiness. (For if some people are unhappy, their unhappiness may spread to others, and that's unfair. Isn't it?)

In The Immortals, a man is found who has special proteins in his blood that make him immortal. Better yet, anybody who gets a transfusion of a pint of this man's blood will regain temporary health -- in other words, someone else can be immortal too, as long as they continue getting transfusions. Naturally, lots of evil people try to kidnap this man and force him to donate blood and have immortal offspring. A side effect of this society is that medicine increasingly is only used for the wealthy, who can fund the medical research (and perhaps afford doses of immortal blood). Society has a class split between the corrupt healthy people (and their doctors), and the poor, dirty, unhealthy masses.

Many of the stories in these two books have as their main character a man who is within the system, who gets his nose rubbed in the bad sides of the system, and who finally joins the good fight against the system. Typically they discover the evils of the system with the assistance of a young attractive woman, who also serves as a love interest. In some ways this is one of the weaknesses of these stories -- they often have a very similar structure and similar characters, with just the details changing. The details of these two societies are interesting, but not interesting enough to elevate these two books above 2 stars. As I said at the beginning, they are readable, but nothing worth rushing out to read.

An interesting side note -- James Gunn later novelized an unused original series Star Trek script originally written by Theodore Sturgeon, The Joy Machine. No direct relation to The Joy Makers, but they do have similar themes of forced happiness and a failed utopian society.

One last editorial note, that these two James Gunn novels remind me of... I just saw the new Star Trek movie, "Insurrection". I really liked the movie, but in one way I felt it failed as sf. The movie presents a fairly utopian society that the Star Trek folks help. One of the best sorts of sf focuses on utopias, and their flaws. I wished the movie had attempted to give the utopia some flaws, but instead it makes a rather strong pro-utopia case. For example, at one point a character is asking Captain Picard why he prefers to roam around in space rather than spend his time farming -- and Picard doesn't give any sort of strong response. Doesn't he like being a starship captain? Isn't exploring space exciting? Isn't the point of technology to free us from having to spend time farming, so that we can do other fun things like exploring space and reading books and watching Star Trek movies? I think the movie could have been just as good a story, without having to insist that the utopian society really was perfect -- or at least, that it still had some room to improve. (There is a tiny hint of this at the very end, but I think there could have been a lot more without detracting from anything.)

The bottom line is, I think Star Trek is great entertainment, and I think this new movie is the best of the three ST:TNG movies, but I think there is still a large difference between Star Trek and good science fiction. And this movie points out to me how easy it would be to bridge that gap without detracting from the entertainment -- I am disappointed that the writers seldom seem to know what good sf is, even if they are good at telling an entertaining story.