The Novels of Laurence M. Janifer

by Rich Horton

(Some time ago, a variety of threads were posted on rec.arts.sf.written, at the urging of the wonderful James Nicoll, each giving brief summaries of the novels of a given author. I contributed a few, and I'm now posting those here on my web page. The descriptions of each novel are quite short -- these are not full-fledged reviews. Corrections and additions are welcome -- I can be reached at richard.horton@sff.net.)

Laurence Janifer had an SF career spanning 50 years. He was born Larry Mark Harris (or perhaps Laurence Mark Harris), and changed his name to Janifer (his Polish grandfather's name) in 1963. He used Harris as his byline until that name change. He had a short story in the rather obscure magazine Cosmos in 1953, when he was 20. His real career started in 1959, with a few stories in places like Astounding and Galaxy, under the name Larry M. Harris; and with the first of three collaborative novels with Randall Garrett, under the joint pseudonym Mark Phillips; and with another collaboration with Garrett, published as by Larry M. Harris and Randall Garrett, the vaguely soft-porn SF novel Pagan Passions. Janifer's stories were often amusing -- his main mode is comic. His best known series by far, comprising five novels and many short stories, is the Survivor series, about "Gerald Knave, Survivor", a man whose job is to go to newly opened planets and survive, in so doing discovering and perhaps fixing the particular dangers. Janifer died in 2002, aged 69, and his last novel (as far as I know) was published in 2003: Two, a Gerald Knave novel.

I list his SF novels, and other novels under his own name, below. He also apparently wrote erotica as Alfred Blake and as Barbara Wilson, and he may well have written other books in various genres under different pseudonyms.

THE "PSI-POWER" SERIES

Brain Twister (aka "That Sweet Little Old Lady") (37,000 words) (1959)
The Impossibles (aka "Out Like a Light") (62,000 words) (1960)
Supermind (aka "Occasion for Disaster") (69,000 words) (1961)

Randall Garrett was well-known for writing stories to order for Campbell's quirks, and these collaborations with Janifer certainly fit the bill. They are all about an FBI agent named Kenneth Malone, who in book 1 is assigned the job of investigating mysterious leaks in a secret government program. He deduces that these must be the result of telepaths, and he decides to recruit other telepaths to help, and he reasons that the best place to find people with psi-powers would be in insane asylums. Most notably, he finds a very powerful psi who believes she is Queen Elizabeth I. Aside from that quirk, and her habit of knighting her subordinates, she is great help. The book is pretty amusing but doesn't really hold together. It was strangely nominated for a Hugo. The second book features Malone tracking down a group of teleporters who have been stealing cars. Very minor stuff. The third ups the ante a lot, as some psi-interference has been causing people to make mistakes, sometimes minor, sometimes major. Malone tracks down a secret cabal of psis, who are doing all this for the world's own good, IIRC. One of those novels which in the background feature disasters ending up in a tenth or more of the population dead, and nobody much seems to care. The three books feature three separate love interests for Malone, without reasonable explanation as to why he is so unfaithful, though that changes unconvincingly right at the end.

THE SURVIVOR SERIES

Survivor (50,000 words) (1977)
Knave in Hand (51,000 words) (1979)
The Counterfeit Heinlein (65,000 words) (2001)
Alienist (68,000 words) (2001)
Two (65,000 words) (2003)

These novels about Gerald Knave, Survivor, are set in a not very extensively described galactic society called the Comity. A similar society, possibly the same one, certainly also called the Comity, is the setting for his SF novels You Sane Men, Power, and Reel. Thus those might be regarded as pendants to the Knave books, though they are considerably darker and the links really aren't internally important. I should add that it's not at all clear that the Comity is the same in each of these books -- in particular, the Comity in Power is confined to our Solar System, unlike any of the other books.

Survivor is a very poor novel in which Knave visits a world which had seemed benign, but on which people are suddenly dying. He finds a -- well, not quite evil, but not nice to humans -- life form that's been around forever, and eventually learns to talk to them.

Knave in Hand is rather better. Knave is called to the planet Haven IV, which is occupied by some rather nice snake-like aliens called Tocks. There is also a small human enclave on the planet, mostly consisting of people from the other two habitable planets in the system, Haven II and Haven III, which have both been extensively colonized by humans. The Tocks have an unusual social system, and almost no crime. So when their Crown Jewels are found to have been stolen, it's assumed that a human is the culprit. When Knave arrives, the situation suddenly becomes worse, as the popular head of the Human colony is murdered, and a few more apparently random murders also occur, amid some attempts on Knave's life.

So Knave rushes around the place, quelling riots and uprisings, interviewing humans from Haven II (good), humans from Haven III (bad), and Tocks (very good). His problem is deducing a motive for the crimes (he figures out means fairly quickly). I had no problem figuring out the bad guy and the motive right from the start -- I thought Knave rather slow on the uptake. Still, the uptake to be honest. Still, it's an OK story -- much better than Survivor, which I thought very bad, and probably about even with The Counterfeit Heinlein. Janifer's "voice", or I should say the first person voice of Gerald Knave, is kind of fun -- very typical cranky "competent man" narrative, with constant sarcastic asides about the folly of humankind (often taking on blatant straw men, but when was it ever otherwise?). Not highly recommended, to be sure, but decent time passing stuff.

The Counterfeit Heinlein is not really a "survivor" novel, but it stars Gerald Knave. This is more of a detective story (as, really, are all the Knave novels save the first, though the short stories often feature him in honest-to-goodness "survivor" mode). Knave is hired by a library on Ravenal, a well-established planet, to find the person who stole a Heinlein manuscript. Thing is, the manuscript is of "The Stone Pillow", and it's well-established as a forgery (after all, as we all know, Heinlein never wrote "The Stone Pillow", though he did list it as a prospective Future History story). So why did anyone steal a basically worthless manuscript? And how did they steal it -- it was well guarded.

The story ends up mainly being a locked-room mystery. There are decent SFnal aspects -- one fairly interesting alien species, and a fair amount of blather about the spacefaring future which followed the "Clean Slate War" on Earth. There's also, as you might guess, a lot of self-referential "SF about SF" aspects -- indeed the story includes a scene set at a future SF society meeting. The solutions to the couple of mysteries are OK, but a bit flat. Again, a moderately enjoyable novel, but not great.

Alienist is another locked-room mystery. Indeed, in the final analysis, four of the five Gerald Knave novels are mysteries, and have nothing to do with his supposed "Survivor" job. (I should note that a number of the Knave short stories do indeed feature puzzles relating directly to the "Survivor" thing.) I'd say, though, that Alienist is the weakest of the three late Knave novels. It opens with Knave lost in space, thousands of light years from civilization. He is contacted by an alien named Folla, who claims to be "not of these spaces", and who transports Knave back to civilization, indeed to the planet Ravenal, instantaneously. Knave worries about this enough to involve his friend/mentor Master Higsbee, and to meet an alien psychologist (source, I think, of the punning title), but nothing much more happens until a patient of the psychologist becomes the prime suspect in the murder of his wife -- in a locked room. Knave is recruited to prove that the guy couldn't have done it, and before long he has met a policewoman he really likes, and he has realized that some aliens resembling Folla seem to have contacted various people in dreams. And they seem to be up to no good. The locked room mystery is resolved, in an acceptable fashion, and the alien problem is also sort of resolved, much less satisfactorily. I had real problems in this book with the breezy non-science justifications for things, and with the characters jumping to implausible conclusions right and left. Some OK Knavish maundering and food porn, though.

Two is a fairly pleasant story, perhaps the best of the Knave novels. Knave is married (to the policewoman from Alienist), and is trying to relax into retirement with his wife, but the Crown Princess goes missing, and he is recruited to try to figure out what happened. In the process he finds that people are making attempts on his life, and on his wife's life as well. It turns out that more than one fishy thing is going on, involving a humanoid alien species, and some homicidal robots, and incompetence in high places. Enjoyable. The ending sets up a potential sixth Knave novel, but I suppose we'll never see that now.

ANGELO DI STEFANO (written with S. J. Treibich)

Target: Terra (35,000 words) (1968)
The High Hex (35,000 words) (1969)
The Wagered World (29,000 words) (1969)

These are halves of Ace Doubles. Janifer's collaborator, S. J. Treibich, published only these three stories to my knowledge before his death, very young, in 1972.

Target: Terra is not very good, though as with much Janifer, page by page it's fairly amusing. It's about a satellite which orbits a future Earth in which the Western powers, the Asians, and the Africans live in an uneasy armed state, with so many anti-missile missiles that it is even impossible for a relief spaceship to get up to the satellite. The satellite itself is there to carry a bunch of nuclear missiles. The hero, Angelo di Stefano, finds that the missiles have been impossibly retargeted to the wrong cities -- and all of Earth is in danger of destruction. At the same time the satellite is falling to pieces -- the food production is busted, etc. The "villains" are obvious, but it takes Angelo 100 pages to find them. Silly stuff, really.

In The High Hex, the other Space Station, #2, which is jointly run by Africans and Haitians (I found the book's presentation of Africans to be rather on the racist side, actually), has been taken over by the African contingent, which is threatening once again to blow up the world. The crew of SS1, augmented by an English-educated witch doctor, head back up to SS2, where they must attempt to use the witch doctor's psychological abilities to "hex" the SS2 crew and stop their nefarious plans. Unfortunately, this effort is interrupted by an invasion of alien robots, who start consuming all the metal on earth to make copies of themselves. Angelo must come up with a way to save the Earth, with the unwilling help of his machine-loving fellow crewman Chris Shaw. He does, naturally, though it seemed to me that technological civilization was pretty much kaput due to the robots eating all the metal before the end of the book.

The Wagered World is the shortest of this series, the least well structured -- and I think I like it the best. It opens with the crew of Space Station 1, including in particular Angelo and his presumptive love interest, ecologist Juli Dental, crashlanding after the events of The High Hex. First the crew must convince the world's computer system that they are alive even though they were declared dead when their incoming rocket crashed. The next section sees Angelo and Juli sent on a mission in a hastily cobbled together hyperspace ship, sent to backtrack to the source of the invading robots, in the fear that the real purpose of the robots was to soften up Earth for a followon invasion. The two find themselves at a cocktail party featuring the 647 races of the Intergalactic Council, and they also learn that yes, an invasion of Earth is planned. Angelo plays a gambling game, and wins an alien companion. Upon their return to Earth, they are accused of treason (for consorting with the aliens who are about to invade) and rape (for no very clear reason at first). The third section is basically a courtroom drama which ends in Angelo unconvincingly convincing the invading aliens not to attack and instead let Earth join the Intergalactic Council.

All this makes basically No Sense At All. But the breezy manner of the telling, and the cheeky imagination (especially in the middle section), and perhaps especially the briefness of the tale, make it an enjoyable if very minor book.

The main problem with all three books is the very ad hoc nature of the plot. The authors just make silly things up as they go along, and none of the science even remotely makes sense. The only reason to read them is the joky narrative voice, which seems to me to be very much Janifer's voice, very similar to the narrative voice of the Knave books. Thus they can be entertaining as you read along (if you like the voice -- you might just think it's stale), but the whole thing doesn't hold together at all. In sum -- forgettable. Though as I said, I found at least The Wagered World pretty entertaining.

OTHER NOVELS

Pagan Passions (50,000 words) (1959)

Written with Randall Garrett, published as by "Larry M. Harris and Randall Garrett". This was published by Beacon Books as a "Galaxy Novel". They appear to have been trying to push "sex in space" or something. Poul Anderson's Virgin Planet was featured in the same line. There are sex scenes in Pagan Passions, but I don't think it even can be called "soft porn", unless perhaps by the standards of 50s SF.

It's set in the middle of the 21st Century. The Greek Gods, the real ones, have returned to Earth after thousands of years in hiding, and they are in control now. The hero is a history instructor and a worshipper of Athena, but he finds himself recruited to act as a stand-in for Dionysus. In the process he shows himself worthy by having his way with a young student, and eventually with Venus herself. But it's Artemis who really catches his eye ... It turns out that something else is going on, as we find out at the end. It's a fairly obvious resolution. Still, it's a better book than you might expect, fairly breezy fun, with the Greek God milieu nicely enough handled, and if the resolution is obvious it's still satisfying. Certainly nothing special, but not too bad.

Slave Planet (38,000 words) (1963)

Very short novel about a planet on which humans have enslaved the not very intelligent local race. It tries to be controversial in showing that the local race is really too dumb to deserve freedom, but on the other hand it also shows that the humans are themselves psychologically harmed by their status as slavers. A revolution is fomented, which comes to no good end for anybody.

The Wonder War (40,000 words) (1964)

Human agents in the future are sent to a planet to prevent the development of technology which would lead to Galactic war. The humanoids on the planet are fighting a fascist/communist war, and the agents try to stop the war by frustrating all efforts to conduct it. The deal is, they are supposed to do so with no loss of life. It's about a novelette (at most) worth of ideas puffed up to 40000 words, and I strongly suspect Janifer wrote it in a short time under a quicky contract. (Editor calls: I have an open slot in three months, you're a pro, give me 40K!) It features a profoundly unconvincing love story, a lot of rambling about to no effect, and, as I said, one (silly but tolerable) idea that would have supported a '50s novelet for If or something. I almost wonder if it wasn't expanded from an earlier novelet. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction suggests it may be a collaboration with Michael Kurland.

You Sane Men (aka Bloodworld) (55,000 words) (1965)

A deliberate attempt at a controversial novel, this story is told from the POV of a man on an isolated planet which practices sadism as a cultural norm -- the Lords and Ladies go to houses where they pick out "Bound" men and women of lower classes to torture and rape. The "hero" falls in love with a Bound Woman, gets involved in the inevitable revolution, but finds he cannot overcome his "true" sadistic nature. Didn't really work, nice try in some ways, though. It was reprinted in 1968 as Bloodworld.

The Woman Without a Name (26,000 words) (1966)

Gothic novel. A young woman comes to be a governess at a remote house. She encounters a madwoman who complains about the sins of the head of the house. The children are a bit strange. There is a mysterious room in the attic to which she is not allowed to go. And she's falling in love with the young master ... It seems almost a purposeful assemblage of all the most typical gothic cliches. Too short to really develop the story, not really original in any way, but reasonably well done with those caveats.

The Final Fear (29,000 words) (1967)

A thriller. The narrator is on the run, because another man, the husband of his mistress, is chasing him with intent to kill. The kicker is that the husband is terminally ill, so he doesn't much care what happens to him, while the narrator can't risk exposure of his affair, for fear of losing his job. This rules out just going to the police. Not quite convincing, particularly as to how often they run into each other up and down the length of Manhattan. Not bad stuff, though, and it comes to a fairly effective moral conclusion.

You Can't Escape (32,000 words) (1967)

This is a thriller (Lancer calls it a "Romantic Spy Thriller" -- well, one out of three ain't bad -- no spies, and I don't count a relationship revealed in the last chapter as a "romance", but you'd have to agree it's a "thriller"), about 32,000 words long. A woman comes to consciousness on the subway, believing her name to be Dora Jaienna and the year to be 1959. She soon realizes that it is actually 1965 -- she has lost her memory of the past 6 years. She staggers to a hotel, and as soon as she checks in she gets a call from someone threatening to kill her. And she remembers her other name. It seems in the past 6 years she has taken on a new identity and become involved with the underworld. And now she has betrayed them, and they are after her. And the police won't help. The setup is OK, the execution OK, and the resolution is sudden and stupid and flat and a horrible cheat.

A Piece of Martin Cann (36,000 words) (1968)

Even more ambitious than You Sane Men, I think, though again not really successful. I read it years ago and don't remember it well -- something about a guy who thinks he has met a literal angel, but gets cured. I seem to recall reading a snippet from Harlan Ellison praising both this novel and Bloodworld -- I think Ellison was responding to the ambition, not the execution.

Power (63,000 words) (1974)

This is set a few centuries in the future. Humanity is ruled by a semi-democratic Empire, controlling the various inhabited worlds of the Solar System. The Emperor is elected, as are his chief advisors, but he appoints the representatives of the various constituencies, which are not only geographical in nature, but also divided by interest groups. The story concerns a mutiny aboard a warship -- the mutineers demand movement towards a more fully democratic society, else they will destroy a city on Mars. It is a very very talky novel. It focuses on the most influential of the Emperor's councilors, Isidor Norin, and his three children: Aaron, the leader of the mutineers; Alphard, a functionary for the influential Church of Probability and Chance, which hopes to use the mutiny to expand its power; and Rachel, who has married a movie star who is in financial trouble to a mobster, seriously exacerbated by threats to the Martian city. As I said, it's quite talky. It's often hard to follow, and the motivations of the characters aren't fully believable. It is quite serious, and Janifer seems insistent on a sober study of the nature of political power, but the book never really involved my interest, and its mixture of cynicism, pragmatism, and hints of idealism never convinced. Again, an ambitious but not quite successful novel.

The novel is rather poignantly dedicated to S. J. Treibich, who had died not long before.

Reel (40,000 words) (1983)

SF about a "pleasure" planet. The action turns on an attempt to take over the rather anarchic city in which are located the casinos and whorehouses. The main characters are Alex Yonge, the son of the owner of one of the main casino organizations, and Marge Sunday, an influential madam. Yonge falls in love with one of Marge Sunday's newly shanghaied girls, and she is assigned to the S&M section as punishment, but the attempt by another man to take over complicates things. It doesn't really come off -- the love story is unconvincing, worse, the resolution is just implausible. I don't really know what Janifer was trying to do here.

It's quite possible that I have missed a number of his novels, and also that he has written some under pseudonyms. But these are those I know of.