The Novels of Tom Purdom

by Rich Horton

Tom Purdom's first story was published in 1957, when he was 21, and over the subsequent 15 years or so he published some 13 stories in a variety of places (Analog, Science Fiction Quarterly, Amazing, Galaxy, etc.) and 5 novels (three of which were Ace Double halves). It would probably be fair to say that he didn't gain a lot of notice, though at least one story made a Wollheim/Carr Best of the Year collection. Then he fell mostly silent until 1990 -- only two stories in that interval, one in Galaxy and one in Analog. Beginning in 1990, however, he began to publish short fiction regularly again, almost all of it in Asimov's (I've seen one 2004 story in a DAW anthology), and much of it very impressive indeed. Stories like "Cider", the four "Romance" stories about a Casanova-like character in a posthuman future, and "The Path of the Transgressor" are quite remarkable.

As yet Purdom has shown no sign of producing a novel in this late burst of energy. (Though it's conceivable that the "Romance" stories could be building towards a fixup.) So in considering his novels we are restricted to the five earlier works. These are of interest, certainly in their way rather original, but not outstanding work.

I Want the Stars (1964) (42,000 words)

Purdom's first novel appeared as half an Ace Double, backed with Kenneth Bulmer's Demons' World. It is a rather ambitious novel in theme, though the execution doesn't really match the ambition. Still, it shows a writer with provocative and sometimes unusual ideas, ready (perhaps at times too ready) to promote them at novel length. It also, amusingly, features alien races named the Horta and the Borg -- both names that later showed up in different Star Trek series.

Humans have reached the stars, extended their lifespans, and solved most internal problems. But other races are stilling willing to fight, including the mind-controlling Horta. And humans such as Jenorden A'Ley are looking for meaning in their life -- can it be found by fighting evil aliens? Or can it be found elsewhere? And do the super race, the Borg, know the answers? A trip to a Borg teaching planet provides some surprises ...

The Tree Lord of Imeten (1966) (48,000 words)

The Tree Lord of Imeten was published as half an Ace Double, backed with Samuel R. Delany's wonderful Empire Star. It isn't a brilliant book at all, and it's noticeably rushed in its conclusion, but it's a fairly original and refreshing story in many ways.

On a human colony on a planet of Delta Pavonis, two young people are driven by thuggish colonists into the dense forests. There they encounter two separate intelligent species -- a ground-dwelling species without hands (just paws) but great linguistic facility; and a tree-dwelling apelike species which has just entered on an Iron Age. They become involved in an attempt to free members of one species enslaved by the other. All fairly routine, really, but redeemed by a pretty decent job of portraying the two species, particularly the ground-dwellers, and by the fairly well-characterized main characters. The plot resolution is a bit rapid, and somewhat conventional. Still, I liked it overall. A sequel would not have been unwelcome, but he never wrote one.

Five Against Arlane (1967) (48,000 words)

Another Ace Double half, backed with Emil Petaja's Lord of the Green Planet. It's about a group of five people who come from offplanet to Arlane, trying to free this world from the control of a leader who has mind control power over his people, and who is trying to breed a "better" race, as he hates ordinary humanity.

I found the book very exciting, very fast moving. I freely admit that the mind-control villain pushes my buttons pretty forthrightly. Purdom also introduces plenty of moral ambiguity, as the good guys are forced to kill a lot of innocents, while the villain is given at least a hint of a high moral purpose, however perverted in action. And the ending is very mixed -- good people die, the hero's success is tainted, the villain's failure is not complete -- all quite interestingly done. That said, much of the plot is less than convincing.

Reduction in Arms (1971) (52,000 words)

This was a Berkley paperback original (as far as I know). It's set in the mid-80s, I believe, after a radical arms control treaty has been passed, apparently involving pretty much all the major nuclear powers. One proviso is that any nation may inspect any facility whatsoever in any other nation, though only a limited number of times.

US arms inspector Jerry Weinberg is called to inspect a Russian psychiatric hospital in which a microbiologist is undergoing treatment. The US has reason to believe that his "treatment" may be a cover for hiding a lab aimed at developing germ weapons. Weinberg is a partisan of the arms control treaty, and he has to walk a tightrope -- he doesn't want to cause an incident that will give zealots in either country ammunition to abrogate the treaty. If the psychiatric treatment is real, and he barges in, it will be an embarrassment to the US. But if the Russians really are hiding something, as it soon appears they might be, US hardliners, including a member of Weinberg's own team, might insist that this proves the Russians can't be trusted.

It's a bit talky and didactic (though there is a fair bit of action toward the end), and not very convincing on several grounds. I'd say I liked it the least of Purdom's novels. It is very much, seems to me, a novel of the early 70s, and somewhat dated, despite the "arms inspector" theme seeming to resonate with current events.

The Barons of Behavior (1972) (66,000 words)

Purdom has always shown an interest in psychology. This novel, published by Ace, is the most explicit indicator of that. Its theme is the use of psychological profiles by politicians to manipulate voters. It's set in very nearly the present day -- either 2001 or 2003 as far as I can tell. And there are some striking quasi-predictions of current politics, such as using focus groups to decide on "talking points" and "messages".

It is also strikingly uncommercial. Its hero is hardly admirable -- or, if admirable in many ways, he is also not very likeable, and he is shown doing many bad things. The plot is resolved ambiguously, and long before the natural end of the action. The general theme is very scary, and the "good guys" are forced to use the tactics of the bad guys, and not in very nice ways.

The basic story is the involvement of Ralph Nicholson, a brilliant psychiatrist, in a campaign to unseat the slimy politician Martin Boyd. Boyd, with the aid of his captive psychological expert, is using psych profiling in truly scary ways to control his constituency. So Nicholson's boss recruits a candidate to oppose Boyd, and Nicholson is charged with coming up with the methods and messages best calculated to work -- in many ways, that is, he must use exactly the tactics he deplores when Boyd uses them.

The book has some pretty interesting ideas. But it didn't quite work for me. The odd structure, though in some ways logical, just wasn't emotionally satisfying. In the same fashion, I just couldn't warm to the "hero" -- though once again I think his unlikeability was a conscious artistic decision. I'd call this an ambitious book that doesn't quite realize its ambitions.