Unpulped #5: War with the Newts by Karel Čapek

The cover is no more fragmented than the story is, FYI.

War With the Newts

In 1920 Karel Čapek invented the word robot in his play R.U.R. That’s all I vaguely knew about him as an author until I read War with the Newts, a novel about how humanoid newts from the ocean end up taking over the world. Beware!

The novel was written in 1936, but my expectations for the book were based on pulp novels where grand ecological disasters wipe out the world or aliens on a power trip beat-down humanity with a galactic stick. (Yes, there are also the “humanity on a power trip” novels where Earth beats down aliens, expertly done with righteousness, paternalism, and colonialism as its main components.)

But War with the Newts is not that. I’m not sure if because it falls into the very strong line of Eastern European Science Fiction as Social Criticism, or if it’s simply that Čapek is an innovative writer whose novels would seem on the outskirts of fashion no matter what or when he wrote. War with the Newts is not a typical novel. The major thread throughout the book is the newts, chronicling from the point when they were discovered to the end of humanity, when the newts are dismantling the continents to expand their own living area under the ocean. It’s the story of how the “innocent” newts (One strong thread of the novel is how the newts are presented as essentially unknowable—the only way the reader understands them is through the prejudices and assumptions of the human characters) are corrupted by humanity’s influence and learn how to be, basically, human in their assumptions about the world.

Specifically, the newts are treated as animals. They are used as forced labor to extend the continents and build new land areas for humanity to colonize. They are experimented on and vivisected and, in some cases, even eaten (though their meat has to be cooked delicately to make it palatable). When they destroy the continents with explosives, they apologize for the carnage, making it clear they don’t want anyone to be hurt, but that they have to take the land in order to fit their growing population. It’s the worst, most banal, unselfaware explanation since, for example, the taking of Native American lands by the U.S. And perhaps that’s why no one in the book is really horrified, even through their anger: the newts are simply being more effective people than they are.

The book is a history, mostly, told through found documents, interviews, and small scenes that give clear pictures of how newts are treated and how people see them. There are no heroes, and there are no villains, and there isn’t even a single continuous character, really, from beginning to end. This makes War with the Newts hard to get lost in, though it also makes it intensely fascinating to me as I wait to see what Čapek comes up with next.

I’m not sure it’s a recommendation (the book is pretty good, however) but I can’t imagine this book or anything much like it being published today (in the U.S. at least).

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite parts of the book, and most emotionally affecting. This is the final section of a scientist’s self-description of his investigation into Newt physiology:

[The newt Hans] was an able and intelligent animal with a special bent for scientific work; he was employed in Dr. Pinkel’s department as his assistant, and even refined chemical analysis could be entrusted to him. We used to have long conversations with him in the evenings, amusing ourselves with his insatiable thirst for knowledge. With deep regret we had to put Hans to death, because my experiments on trepanning him made him blind. His meat was dark and spongy, but did not cause any unpleasant effects. It is clear that in case of war Newt flesh could form a welcome and cheap substitute for beef.

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Monthly Music Monday: “Reagan” by Killer Mike

I don’t remember where I found this, but what captured my mind was the combination of the music and the animation. It’s a beautiful, disturbing video even without the rap laying out a horrifying view of the world. The quotes from Reagan, especially, are intensely disturbing, how words can be spun so far out of what we think of as “meaning.”

Why is it that artists dealing with politics interest me so much? I was going to say recently, but it feels like forever, long before I read The Gulag Archipelago, back when I was simply trying to decide how my own art (poetry/fiction/plays/essays) could and/or should try to influence the world. I’m still floundering. I wonder if it ever stops.

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Monthly Music Monday: “Guillotine” by The Coup

Tracy Jo Barnwell introduced me to this video, though I’d already heard of The Coup and been entranced by Boots Riley’s lyrics and the music infusing them. The social consciousness of the lyrics appeals to me–artists making political statements–though of course that would mean nothing if the music was simply window dressing.

Here, witness beautiful music and an inventive video all honed with righteous anger (well, righteous to me because I see truth in it).

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Monthly Music Monday: “Food Glorious Food” by Homeboy Sandman

In this very occasional and random series (as is true for pretty much everything on this blog), I’ll present music which has wormed itself into my brain.

In this case, it’s the bass line and the very subject of this intricate rap. Also, who can turn away a song based off a line from Oliver!?

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I Am the Maltese

I grew up thinking maltese was a synonym for black. I saw The Maltese Falcon when I was six, and the bird everyone’s after is ugly, yes, but it’s black, through and through, the magic of the movies making lead into my own kind of gold. The Maltese Falcon, black and proud.

I’d walk around saying, “What’s going on, my maltese brothers?”

The people in my neighborhood, they were very tolerant. We didn’t put up with sticking our crazies in mental hospitals. We kept them on the streets so we could keep an eye on them, make sure they were eating right and not killing people.

I’d say, “What’s going on, my maltese brothers?” and my friends would laugh, and their parents would laugh, and everyone would laugh, myself included.

Be honest. Maltese sounds black, just like corduroy sounds like a name for a white boy.

I’d say, “What’s going on, my maltese brothers and sisters?” because I knew that everyone wanted the Maltese Falcon, and if everyone wanted the Maltese Falcon, that was clearly because it was maltese. Because it was black. And everyone wanted to be black. Everyone wanted to be around blacks. Everyone wanted to hire blacks. Everyone wanted to be friends with blacks.

With blacks.

With the maltese.

What’s really going on, my maltese brothers and sisters?

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Unpulped #4: Apollo at Go by Jeff Sutton (DNF)

Apollo at Go

Cover Story:

An African mask? Some sort of spear? A seedpod shooting through the air?

I imagine this cover was just indicative of its time (early 60s) but the only thing I can say for certain about this cover is that it does not scream HARD SCIENCE FICTION. At least not very loudly.

Back Cover:

Lt. Col. Joseph Faulk, U.S. Marines, is to lead three men on the first flight to the moon. Here is all the suspense endured by Space Team One as they wait to know which of their number will go. Here are all the technicalities of blast-off; the waiting, the tingling drama. The starkly realistic picture of flight to the moon, and the problems of lunar landing and take-off.

Year Unleashed:

1963

Year of First Non-Literary Moon Landing:

1969

What Happens:

Astronauts leave Earth to go land on the moon. They do so. Then they come back.

As you might picked up from the big DNF in the post title, I did not finish this book. I barely dented this book. I was about fifteen pages in (densely typed pages, mind you) before I discovered I wanted to do anything other than read this book through to the triumphant, predictable end.

Representative Quote:

Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Faulk, USMC, faceplate closed and space suit inflated, felt the very first quick vibrations as the five huge F-1 engines build up thrust. Over 30 feet in diameter and 130 feet high, the mainstage could lift six million pounds from the surface of the earth; with the stages above it, it could inject over 200,000 pounds into earth orbit. This particular rocket had been three years in building. Before that there had been long years of dreams, plans, blueprints, mockups, prototypes–incessant changes to meet each advance in the technology. It represented lengthy, bitter debate in Congress, hundreds of millions of dollars funneled to every part of the United States, around-the-clock work by small and large factories, shifts in local economies. It was also the product of tens of thousands of hours over drafting boards, in laboratories, at far-flung test bases.

Evaluation:

The back of the cover is not wrong.

Here is all the suspense as Space Team One waits to know which of their number will go–the fact that “all the suspense” equals “no suspense” does not make the statement any less true.

Here (again) are all the technicalities of blast-off; the waiting, the tingling drama. Mostly you wonder if that tingling you’re feeling in your foot is drama, or just your limb nodding off to sleep. And by all the technicalities, they mean ALL of them. No matter how boring or how mundane or how mind-numbingly technical, the details are all there, included for your bitter-eyed perusal.

Apollo at Go, I dub thee Science Porn! And I will have none of it! Get thee to a laboratory!

Actually, I can see a purpose for this book. I mean, it’s not horribly written, the sentences hang together, there are two-dimensional characters, no egregious flaws–except for the boring. But I’m reading this long after humanity landed on the moon, and long after regular space travel became common(ish). And I can see this book being written and published in order to proselytize space travel. However, that doesn’t make it worth my time.

With most books in this series, I can read them regardless of how bad they are because they have fantastic (I mean unbelievable and/or absurd) premises that spin themselves into oblivion. Apollo at Go is like a transcript of a channel showing the International Space Station live.

Now if we were talking meerkats…

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Unpulped #3: S.T.A.R. Flight by E. C. Tubb

S.T.A.R Flight

Cover Story:

Rocket flight is to be enjoyed by both the old and the young and those wielding electro-whips.

Back Cover:

Could earth survive the terrors of instant youth and perpetual life?

The Kaltich invaders sell their Earthman serfs a rejuvenation process that cruelly prolongs life.

The Kaltichs also promise to share their secret for instantaneous space travel desperately needed by a barbaric, overpopulated Earth.

But decades pass and Earth is no close to the stars. Yet the Kaltichs continue to strip Earth of its riches and its pride.

Only the Secret Terran Armed Resistance movement opposes the Kaltich tyranny. And only Martin Preston, S.T.A.R. agent, can possibly steal their secrets. If he fails, Earth will become a planet of billions of starving people–with no place to go except to their graves!

Year Unleashed:

1969.

What Happens:

Well, it’s hard to say. I mean, at a very basic plot level Martin Preston is recruited by S.T.A.R. to breach a Kaltich transplanetary gate in order to figure out how they work and to bring that knowledge back so that Earth will be freed of the Kaltich tyranny. He, indeed, does this, while also revealing that the Kaltich are actually humans from an alternate dimension and the transplanetary gate actually simply allows them to travel between dimensions rather than worlds, humans colonizing themselves.

None of that plot actually starts–i.e., the espionage–until at least a third of the way into the novel. Before that, we’re treated to Preston being forced into helping S.T.A.R. while being given glimpses of what life is now like on Earth via characters we neither know nor care about. Even Preston’s adventure after the “plot central” starts is more a run of dumb luck than anything else. He eventually finds a rebellious group in another alternate colonized Earth and they help him return to his own with the knowledge of the transplanetary gates and a promise to band together to break the Kaltich’s stranglehold. And then the novel ends, rather unceremoniously and rather quickly.

Representative Misogynist/Sexist Quote:

“Hilda Thorenson had more than beautiful hands.”

Okay, their isn’t really a whole lot of misogyny or sexism in this book, so it gets a pass (except for the quote above, which is an intro to a chapter and relatively unheralded). In fact, most of the characters are treated evenly and fairly, especially as most of them are driven by self-interest, the women given as much space as the men (even though neither group is given very much depth).

Evaluation:

Well, the book is nothing as promised on the cover. The cover illustration implies the reversal of aging, the old becoming young again, but in fact the “eternal youth” is organ-replacement (not, as far as I understand it, including skin), so the old elite, those who can afford it, can stay alive with young organs propping them up. (Early on, there’s a suggestion that the organs are harvested from the Earth’s youth since they are often invited into the gates never to be seen again–but then it’s revealed that an alternate timeline has just perfected medical science to a degree that organ growth and transplant is child’s play.)

But so what? The cover lies and the blurb lies, but I would have read the book anyway. How’s the writing and the story hold up?

E. C. Tubb’s writing is unspectacular. Serviceable with a flash phrase here or there, but nothing mesmeric. The characterizations are sharp enough that everyone is easily distinguished, and motivations are clear, but no one is deep enough to hold one’s heart hostage. The story itself is a bit scattered and hurried, the twist at the end a sudden reveal which comes from nowhere and seems a little deus ex machina as well as being, essentially, unnecessary. In short, it was a quick read that held my interest, but when I put the book down, whenever I put it down, the interest rested with it.

According to his wiki, Michael Moorcock (an author I greatly admire) wrote “[E. C. Tubb’s] reputation for fast-moving and colourful SF writing is unmatched by anyone in Britain.” Maybe that shines much more evidently in other books. I’d give him that chance.

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