Well, here we are. The slot on my Home Page rotation has once again rolled around to Doomsday. This is the
fifth book in Dover's collection of thirteen, actually twelve now, because for some odd reason, this one is now out of print. I actually do not own the paper copy.
It is readily available as a free eBook from
Project Gutenberg, as are
six of the other Dover Doomsday Classics. Project Gutenberg also has twenty-four other books by Fritz Leiber, which is a drop in the bucket compared to his
massive output. Here is the search page on
Dover's site for the twelve, and here is my Futuristic, Apocalyptic, Time Travel
Index Page, where you
can read all my Dover Doomsday Classic reviews. I will continue posting a new one every several weeks until I've done them all. This seems to be the
appropriate year to focus on prophetic and apocalyptic literature, if you get my meaning . . . . This one is a quick read and apparently around only 95 pages
in book form, and it keeps you wanting to move on. There's also quite a bit of humor included, so it is not only thought-provoking, but definitely
I had never read any of Leiber's novels, nor even heard of him, but apparently he was well known in sci-fi/fantasy circles. Wikipedia has an extensive and interesting page about him. He was born in Chicago in 1910 to actor parents, which, though he did not follow in their steps, had a great influence on him. He was well educated in psychology physiology/biology and theology/philosophy. His earliest works may have been from 1934-1935, published in Strange Wonders: A Collection of Rare Fritz Leiber Works in 2010. Many of his novels and novellas were published in sci-fi/fantasy magazines, where numerous early writers in this genre were able to get their works out to the public. Leiber's works often fell into the "Sword and Sorcery" category, a term he coined, which also includes, among many others, the Arthurian legends.
Leiber married Jonquil Stephens in 1936. Their only child, Justin, also became a well-known sci-fi writer and philosopher. They moved to California in 1941, where Leiber briefly taught at Occidental College. During WWII, he was a quality inspector for Douglas Aircraft. After the war, the family returned to Chicago. Jonquil died in 1969, and Leiber went off the wagon after twelve years in Alcoholics Anonymous. (In the story, there is a humorous mention of this organization, except it is Murderer's Anonymous!) Though he lived in squalor, he apparently had made enough from his writing to keep him comfortable, according to Wikipedia. He married his second wife, Margo Skinner, in 1992 and died in September of that year at age 82. And now, here is a bit about the story. I took profuse notes as I read!
The novel begins, "I was one hundred miles from Nowhere," a rather cryptic opening, and the facts of the situation are revealed slowly as the book advances, so I will not give too much away either. The male narrator, as we later find is named Ray Baker, sees out of the corner of his eye a female walking parallel with him. Their exact location remains obscure throughout. What we do know is that they are in the "Deathlands between Porter County and Ouachita Parish," somewhere in the central, west central, or south central area of the United States, at least that's what I figured. It is a lawless region, where any remaining human creatures have only two urges—murder and sex. Inevitably, even if sex took place, eventually there would be murder, because it was the primary driving force.
There are a few areas that have grown into semi-populated-civilized cities, which Ray refers to as "culture queers." He refers to humans in Deathlands as "buggers," although the original term was "cats," at least according to the Good Readers at Goodreads. We also gather that there was a war, or numerous wars, and a terrible explosion of missiles that destroyed the U.S., which we later learn was set off by an American. Radiation has burnt up everything. The West Coast was wiped out, and the ocean now encroaches upon Death Valley. There is a settlement at Los Alamos, and in the east, Atlantic-Highlands, or "Atla-Hi." There is Savannah Fortress, and a number of others. Colorado Springs was the Manhattan Project. Hmm, that was real, wasn't it? . . . . The names of locations in the Deathlands are, for instance, Nowhere, Anywhere, Place, It and Manteno Asylum. Here are a couple descriptions of the landscape.
I'd been following a line of high-voltage towers all canted over at the same gentlemanly tipsy angle by an old blast from the Last War. I judged the girl was going in the same general direction and was being edged over toward my course by a drift of dust that even at my distance showed dangerous metallic gleams and dark humps that might be dead men or cattle.
Overhead the sky was a low dust haze, as always. I don't remember what a high sky looks like. Three years ago I think I saw Venus. Or it may have been Sirius or Jupiter.
Gosh, sounds like Ohio, eh? Anyways, he takes notice of the girl, and both of his urges kick into gear. She, of course is armed to the hilt, and also carries a Geiger counter. Her right hand is missing, and there is a stevedore's hook in its place. They gradually move closer to one another.
The girl had eyebrows as black as her hair, which in its piled-up and metal-knotted savagery called to mind African queens despite her typical pale complexion—very little ultraviolet gets through the dust. From the inside corner of her right eye socket a narrow radiation scar ran up between her eyebrows and across her forehead at a rakish angle until it disappeared under a sweep of hair at the upper left corner of her forehead.
I'd been smelling her, of course, for some time.
I could even tell the color of her eyes now. They were blue. It's a color you never see. Almost no dusts have a bluish cast, there are few blue objects except certain dark steels, the sky never gets very far away from the orange range, though it is green from time to time, and water reflects the sky.
Yes, she had blue eyes, blue eyes and that jaunty scar, blue eyes and that jaunty scar and a dart gun and a steel hook for a right hand, and we were walking side by side, eight feet apart, not an inch closer, still not looking straight at each other, still not saying a word, and I realized that the initial period of unadulterated watchfulness was over, that I'd had adequate opportunity to inspect this girl and size her up, and that night was coming on fast, and that here I was, once again, back with the problem of the two urges.
I could try either to kill her or go to bed with her.
Apparently smell became a highly developed sense. Anyways, he decides on the latter, and as she moves
closer, she begins disarming, then he does, too, which includes the removal of the sharpened steel plates he had installed in his mouth in
place of teeth. That is followed by unclothing. Followed by sex, without a word spoken. Nobody speaks here in Deathlands. They silently decide not to
kill each other, at least for now. The next morning they continue to travel together.
Incidentally, the whole process of disarming and unclothing takes up twenty-three paragraphs! As I said, there is humor here, albeit very dark.
Ray also begins to reveal more about "the whole miserable, unutterably disgusting human mess," which, in his mind, makes them easy to murder, but the culture queers just don't understand. He calls them "the new Adams and Eves." He wonders how long he and the woman will be together before one of them is killed.
To embrace, to possess, to glut lust on, yes even briefly to love, briefly to shelter in—that was good, that was a relief and release to be treasured.
But it couldn't last. You could draw it out, prop it up perhaps for a few days, for a month even (though sometimes not for a single night)—you might even start to talk to each other a little, after a while—but it could never last. The glands always tire, if nothing else.
Murder was the only final solution, the only permanent release. Only us Deathlanders know how good it feels. But then after the kill the loneliness would come back, redoubled, and after a while I'd meet another hateful human . . .
Anyways, soon something happens that literally changes everything. A plane lands nearby, and a very
tall, handsome, well-built man steps out. Ray notes that "His face looked
brightly intelligent and even-tempered and kind. Yes, kind!—damn him!" Both
Ray and the woman, of course, still want to murder him, but he is on the alert. All of a sudden, someone cries out, the man becomes distracted, and they
and kill him. His blood sizzles and the metals on his person melt, which was how the Los Alamos people had themselves set up. Then out of nowhere there
appears an old geezer, whom Ray calls "Pop." In the original version, apparently it was "Pops."
This man, though old, is armed to the hilt with knives and the other two soon learn he is a seasoned Deathlander and not to be trifled with. But he talks, too much, it seems, and also seems genuinely friendly. And he's got them both beat in experience and survival savvy. He soon knows that the girl's name is Alice, and he has them both talking. He is also a bit enigmatic, hinting at things, but being careful about not giving definite answers and admitting to nothing. They actually thank him for the scream, which enabled them to kill the man. He doesn't actually admit it was he that screamed. And something else strange happens. Ray is actually beginning to feel a sense of remorse over the slaughter.
So now, what should they do? They are dreading the smell of the murdered man and decide to check out the aircraft. To their surprise, it is not touching the ground, but operating on anti-gravity. While Ray and Alice still have not become comfortable with trusting, Pop jumps right into the plane and helps the others up. And it is he who knows how to get the plane flying. In fact he knows lots of stuff which surprise the others.
The plane, though small, is rather luxuriously furnished with lots of food and other supplies, including strange metal cubes containing one button each. Ray puts one in his pocket, but does not press the button. They find themselves staring at a dashboard map with the green dot, (them) headed to the other luminous green dot to where they are going, which is Atla-Hi. Though they suddenly thought they were set free of this ghastly American wasteland and could now go anywhere in the world, where there were restaurants and bathrooms, they soon find, to their dismay, that the plane is locked into its destination.
The trip now affords the three the perfect opportunity to get to know each other, and though Ray and Alice are still reluctant, Pop never shuts up. He says, though he carries all those knives and is quite adept at using them, he is no longer a killer, but a member of Murderer's Anonymous, a group of Deathlanders who meet regularly and travel around recruiting more and more people. He also says that the man who set off the missiles that blew up America was a member. Though he never murdered, he killed off millions, so was granted membership. Ray and Alice think it is all just a tall tale, but in fact, it proves to be true. I won't reveal the ending.
Ultimately, as they near Atla-Hi, the screen becomes a voice—a human voice from their destination, who gives them instructions on what they must do. The bag of metal cubes will be dropped at a certain place. Another less sympathetic voice says they are atomic grenades and threatens to blow the plane up if they disobey. Pop is the one that carries out the mission. Alice tries to get him to drop a bag of groceries instead, but he sort of hurts her a little, and completes the mission without her interference. As usually, he knows way more than what he lets on. And to make matters worse, they are being attacked by Savannah Fortress. They are told how to use the plane's weapons to defend themselves, but end up being hit. It is not terribly serious and though Ray is hurt, that isn't serious either.
Then they find themselves, unfortunately, heading back to the Deathlands. And they really talk in earnest, like about their past, how Alice saw her wonderful father brutally murdered; how Ray was responsible for the missiles that killed a million in Russia. And, incidentally, Pop was not the one who screamed, which enabled Ray and Alice to kill the original pilot, whose name was Grayl. Lots of questions are answered upon their return, and the story actually has a positive ending.
This novel is a short read, and an entertaining one, with lots of points to ponder, and lots of humor thrown in, which always helps! And you can read it for free at Project Gutenberg.
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