Ace Double Reviews, 17: Annihilation Factor, by Barrington J. Bayley/Highwood, by Neal Barrett, Jr. (#33710, 1972, $0.95)
by Rich Horton
This Ace Double looked particularly interesting to me, as Bayley and Barrett have both published outstanding stuff, and both are at their best quite notably quirky writers. However it must be said that neither of these novels represents its author at his best -- both are quite disappointing, really. Annihilation Factor is the longer story, at about 51,000 words, and it is an expansion of a 1964 New Worlds piece called "The Patch". (Bayley's other Ace Double half, The Star Virus, reviewed previously in this series, was also an expansion of an earlier New Worlds story,). Highwood is about 46,000 words long. Barrett also appeared in one other Ace Double, with his 1970 novel The Gates of Time.
I have compared Barrington J. Bayley to Charles Harness before, and I think the comparison holds up insofar as concerns the wackiness and imaginativeness of the concepts they build their books around. But they differ greatly in general attitude -- essentially, Bayley is extremely cynical, often dour (though on occasion almost whimsical); while Harness is very romantic. (Incidentally, I see from an interview on Juha Lindroos's excellent website The Astounding Worlds of Barrington J. Bayley that Bayley acknowledges the influence of Harness on his work.) Bayley remains an interesting author, though not a great one -- his prose is pedestrian, and (like Harness) his ideas sometimes seem simply too weird, too disconnected from any sort of consistent logic -- and the same goes for his plots. Bayley began publishing SF as a teen in the mid 50s, but his first novel was 1970's The Star Virus. He is probably best known for some novels published by DAW and sometimes Doubleday later in the 70s, into the 80s: Collision Course (1973), The Fall of Chronopolis (1974), The Soul of the Robot (1974), The Garments of Caean (1976), The Zen Gun (1982). After about 1985 he had difficulty placing further novels, and from then until last year his only novel to appear was the Warhammer tie-in Eye of Terror (1999). Last year saw the publication by Wildside of two new novels (apparently dating to the late 90s): The Sinners of Erspia and The Great Hydration. He has continued to publish short fiction, some quite good, almost all of it decidedly offbeat. "A Crab Must Try" won the BSFA short fiction award in 1996.
Annihilation Factor is set in a far future human empire riven by economic divisions and dynastic upheaval. It opens with a "young" (only 90) aristocrat visiting the "Pretender Prince" whose father was deposed by the current King. The aristocrat, Jundrak Sann, offers the Prince amnesty in return for aid against a mysterious quasi-living being, called "the Patch", that lives in space and has been devouring entire solar systems, leaving all inhabitants dead. But the Prince, fearing a trick, refuses. On Jundrak's return we are introduced to the corrupt nature of the Empire's society, in which aristocrats can live to be 600 or so while the poor live only as long as we do today. Jundrak himself is something of a mild iconoclast, as he has a lower class lover. But he is also a schemer, and in his role as the head of the Empire's research project into a new faster class of starships he has made arrangements to take control of the new improved fleet himself.
Into this society comes the only man ever to survive the Patch, a basically psychotic anarchist called Castor Krakhno. Krakhno preaches, basically, socialist anarchism, a virtuous position in this corrupt monarchy, but his true goal is the annihilation of all life, which is repugnant to him. His encounter with the Patch has given him superior mental powers that have led to his having considerable success fomenting rebellion. Also, the Pretender has had some military success against the King. But the Patch is on its way to the Pretender's system. And Jundrak is maneuvered by the Machiavellian chief of the King's security into trying to infiltrate Krakhno's organization.
It's all rather busy, and extremely cynical. Everyone is basically bad, though they have good points. Jundrak is the closest we have to a hero, but his character as presented is chaotic -- he's quite cynically evil when the plot demands it, but almost innocent and naive when the plot demands THAT. The resolution involves a few more twists, some of them just plain silly -- though the final fate of the revolutionaries is very well presented, surprising and logical. The story reads a bit slow as well -- I suspect the original version (which I have not seen) might have been the right length to support the basic ideas. It's not a terrible book, but it's not very good, certainly one of the least of Bayley's works.
Neal Barrett, Jr., started publishing short SF with stories in Galaxy and Amazing in 1960, and continued publishing regularly for about a decade, at which time he began selling novels, including the two Ace Double halves mentioned above, and the Aldair series for DAW. I'm not terribly familiar with his early work, but by all accounts it's fairly routine stuff. Then, someone once said, Barrett stood too long next to fellow Texan Howard Waldrop and just mutated. Beginning in the mid 80s he published a few novels and a number of short stories that are gloriously weird, poetic, loopily imagined -- just real neat stuff. Most notable probably are the novel Through Darkest America (1986), and the short stories "Ginny Sweethips' Flying Circus" (1987, Nebula and Hugo nominee), "Stairs" (1988, one of my personal favorite stories ever), and "Cush" (1993). By the early 90s, however, he was concentrating on mystery novels, such as Pink Vodka Blues (1992), a scary mystery about a couple of alcoholics; and Skinny Annie Blues (1996), one of a series about the somewhat antiheroic Wiley Moss. In the past couple of years he has published a couple further unusual science fantasies beginning with The Prophecy Machine (2000).
Highwood is set on a planet, called Sequoia by humans, that is dominated by trees a few miles high. There is an intelligent humanoid race living in the trees, the Lemmits, who have an unusual social structure: the males and females live in separate groups, hating each other, only getting together irregularly for "Motherings". Hamby Flagg is the human representative on Sequoia, but he has issues -- he's a drunk who is down to his last couple of bottles of whiskey, and he's accompanied by an AI companion, a "psych-Bear", which uses sarcasm to try to keep him sane. New on the planet is the beautiful sociologist Kearney Wynn, who is determined to figure out the mysteries behind the unusual Lemmit culture, and who is also disgusted by Hamby Flagg, both his person and his sketchy reports.
Soon after Kearney's arrival, strange things begin happening. A Mothering is in the offing, but so is something stranger still -- a mutilated Lemmit delivers an ominous message that sends both the male and female groups from the tree occupied by Hamby and Kearney on a trek to another tree. Various disasters occur, including Kearney's near rape by the females who have adopted her, Ham's psych-Bear's apparent malfunctioning, Kearney's imprisonment, and the death of a tree. Eventually the two are forced to the deadly surface of the planet, where they make a very unexpected discovery.
I don't think the book works very well at all. It sets up an intriguing mystery concerning Lemmit society, but the eventual solution is unconvincing and very disappointing. Much of the action is disjoint, with lots of confusing jumps in the telling -- I wonder if the novel might not have been rather arbitrarily cut to fit the Ace Double format. And the main characters are not convincing. Kearney's sexual attitudes in particular are cringe-inducing, from her revulsion at the Lemmit's Lesbianism to her own personal ambitions, as shown in this passage from late in the book, a passage that I really would have thought unbelievable by 1972: "I didn't climb all over this damn planet for my health -- or for science, either, for that matter. I was looking for a =man=, Flagg. I didn't know that, of course, and I sure as hell wouldn't have admitted it to myself, but it's true, nevertheless. And now that I've found one, motheaten and grimy as you are, I kind of like what I've got." (To be fair, after first deciding that she must abandon her career on the grounds that she must give all her attention to Hamby, she later tentatively decides that since Hamby will allow it, she might continue to do science along with him.)
By all means people should search out latter-day Barrett -- the late 80s work in particular. (I found The Prophecy Machine somewhat disappointing, though not without interest.) But this early novel is not nearly as good, and not even a harbinger of the better things that he eventually did.