IT IS IRONIC that Robert Sheckley's new novel 2 Dramocles should come packaged in a conservative brown wrapper. For from its opening sentence to its unspeakably convoluted conclusion, we are treated to continually expanding vistas of bizarreness.
Over the past 30 years Sheckley's work has become known for its Ionesco-like absurdist quality. His output includes hundreds of pungent, perfect short stories, often revolving around bewildered humans bungling their way through incomprehensibly complex technologies. His novels have rarely been as disciplined as his short fiction, but in Dramocles Sheckley seems finally to have struck a balance between his frenetic inventiveness and the need for structural coherence. As a result, it's one of his most satisfying works.
Sheckley is one of the few writers who can get away with having stupid protagonists, and Dramocles, King of the planet Glorm, the tragicomic hero of this farcical saga, is not very bright, though he fancies himself a veritable Machiavel. In the 30th year of his reign, he wakes up one morning in his gargantuan automated palace where nothing works, hunts around for a cup of coffee and his jeans, and sallies forth to hold court. His dull existence is abruptly livened by the appearance of a soothsayer, whose sibylline utterances encourage the king to seek out his destiny, which somehow precipitates a fiasco of an interplanetary war, a byzantine frenzy of court intrigue, interventions by beings from another dimension, bitter familial wranglings, and dozens of operatic revelation scenes of the "My crime I must confess" variety.
This is all rather baroque, and in the hands of an earlier Sheckley might have gotten out of control. But here it is masterfully handled by the expedient of imposing, upon this mess of plottage, the Aristolelian unities. As the happenings get weirder and weirder, the strings of the plot are drawn tighter and tighter, and the final sequence of dramatic revelations is as cogently argued, in its own preposterous way, as a Sophocles tragedy.
Every level of humor is exploited incessantly and shamelessly. Sheckley's dialogue has never been wittier or more acerbic. Some of the verbal humor is sophisticated, as when Sheckley pokes fun at the Elizabethan conceit, ludicrously overextending a metaphor: "Drusilla stood up, her face a field of dubiety across which the black hounds of fear chased the white fawns of hope." At other times he does not shrink from slapstick to keep up the story's furious pace.
Through this acid-trip landscape moves the engagingly incompetent Dramocles. Outlandish planetary societies, each of which might have been the background of an entire novel, are described and dismissed in a paragraph or two. Nothing is what it professes to be. Astonishingly, and in contrast to some of his other novels, Sheckley guides the reader through this insanity with such assurance that all seems crystal clear, and he performs the singularly difficult feat of making his main character at once supremely manipulative and constantly confused. The whole is a superlative achievement, and perhaps the most perfect statement, in novel form, of Sheckley's personal vision, ambiguous, cynical, psychedelic.
Evangeline Walton's novel, The Sword is Forged, is one of the most outrageously mispackaged novels in recent years. There is within the sf and fantasy field a sub- sub-genre of books about mighty-thewed women, Conan-like figures to whom breasts have somehow become attached, and the novel in question would appear from its cover to be schlock of that ilk. What a disservice to its author, who has written a historical novel which seriously attempts to reconstruct a viable Bronze Age from archaeological, anthropological, and mythological sources; which is genuinely feminist without being either patronizing, stridently preachy or wish-fulfilling; and which, while it contains much historical speculation, contains really no shred of fantasy whatsoever!
Like Mary Renault's The King Must Die, which it otherwise resembles very little, Walton's novel is about the young Theseus. Renault's novel, a classic by now, brings one particular Bronze Age to life: the heroic Bronze Age in which Western culture is ultimately rooted. It is full of passion, poetry, visionary fire. Walton's version seems at first cool by comparison, and far more alien. But what she lacks in mythic grandeur she makes up for in gritty realism; and her re-creation of this period does have, besides, the benefit of recent archaeological findings; it's a far more complicated Bronze Age than has been used in historical fiction before, with its pockets of wildly divergent cultures, Hittites, Egyptians, Minoans, various Greeks, and the Amazons, who, as a race, are perhaps the real protagonist of this novel, and who have been superbly imagined from the available evidence.
The love-hate of Theseus and Antiope, an Amazon queen, is the focus of the book. The relationship becomes a symbol for the clash between the dying matriarchal society and the newly ascendant sky-father-figure cult--something much discussed in anthropology textbooks, but never so tellingly personalized as in this novel.
Walton's style is serviceable, marred, perhaps, by a curious Victorian habit of apostrophizing the reader with a running tourist guide to classical Greek literature; her plotting is a little creaky, and there may have been a conscious effort to avoid ground covered by the Mary Renault books; but it is the vivid characterization of Theseus and Antiope--neither of them at all heroic in the mythical sense--that carries the novel. It is also an earthy book, not without ironies--the explaining away of the Labor of Heracles involving the Girdle of Hippolyte is as hilarious as it is plausible.
An important work, then, and the first fresh treatment of this much-treated subject for some time. Yet its packaging will undoubtedly turn off much of its potential audience. I don't understand why the marketing experts would want to stab themselves in the back this way. Perhaps word-of-mouth will get Walton the attention her book deserves.
The late Philip K. Dick, like Robert Sheckley, is a writer with an unmistakable voice. His private vision is a paranoid one, in which reality has a habit of disintegrating around his protagonists; like Sheckley, he generally writes about ordinary people perplexed by their surroundings, but his portrayals are somehow more intense, more compassionate. Although many of his novels are great classics --among them The Man in the High Castle, Martian Time-Slip, arguably the greatest sf novel ever written, and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said--he has not hitherto achieved the out-of-genre sales success of, say, Asimov and Heinlein. Because of the release of the film Blade Runner, which is loosely based on his novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Dick is finally, if posthumously, getting more attention.
The Unteleported Man has a cover that exploits Blade Runner's success, calling it "the world famous classic, now uncensored for the first time," and contains a portentous blurb inside to the effect that some 30,000 words have been restored that were originally--in 1966 --cut for "commercial" reasons. Since the book looks only about 60,000 words, and barely fills 200 pages with largish type, it follows that, at half the length, the original version of The Unteleported Man cannot have been much of a novel. I surmised, and the publisher confirmed, that it was originally half of an Ace "Double" (number G602 for first edition collectors)--those strange blue and white volumes of the '50s and '60s which contained two novellas, each printed upside down with respect to the other and two covers. That, in turn, was reprinted from a 1964 issue of Fantastic magazine.
While it is good to have the original version in print at last, it would dishonor Dick's memory to claim that a forgotten masterpiece has been dredged up. The novel is a frustrating mixture of brilliance and sludge, and a fine example of how Dick's brand of insanity suffered from the straitjacket of pulp publishing. The much hullaballooed ending, restored for the first time, was supposedly too shocking for its original publishers, but although it contains a few references to LSD it is also not as well written as the preceding 30,000 words.
Elsewhere, though, we see some fine vintage Dick. The very first paragraph, in which one Rachmael ben Applebaum is fleeing from an obnoxious creditor jet- balloon that singles him out in crowds and demands that he pay his debts, shows the combination of whimsy and paranoia for which Dick is famous. The novel rushes along. A Germanic corporation controls the world; a one-way stargate has superseded conventional space travel, and millions have emigrated from earth's rampant overcrowding to a planet of the star Fomalhaut.
Unfortunately, they've never come back, and the videotapes sent back, showing a verdant utopia, may be forgeries, and the philosophy of the Neues Einige Deutschland has distinctly neo-Nazi overtones. A group of eccentric protagonists, who believe at first that the setup is a kind of galactic Auschwitz, sets off to uncover the truth, which is, as always in Dick, weirder than we can imagine.
In many ways the book is dated. People live in domes on Venus and other environments common to sf of the '60s. This whole evil German shtick is no longer fashionable in the field. So the important question is whether The Unteleported Man succeeds in transcending these fashions; alas, it doesn't. The marriage of the Dick sensibility and the pulp conventions was always an uneasy one, and this novel is one of its stillbirths. Nonetheless, it is an important release, both for the Dick collector and for the academic, and a significant footnote to one of the most illustrious careers in science fiction.