[Editor's Note: On a quest to find a copy of Wild Animus at his local thrift stores, Ray came across a shelf full of books taped together in sets of 10-15 with a $4 price tag for a whole bundle. Sensing that the used book store wanted to get rid of these books because they were hot garbage, Ray bought one of the bundles without looking at any of the titles inside, and will now be reading and reviewing all thirteen of the books that he purchased. Welcome, readers, to Amalgamated Novels Under Scrutiny. Also known as... *sigh*... A.N.U.S. Reviews.]
:D Hello, Ray here. For readability I'm not going to make all of my text purple in this series. From here on out in A.N.U.S Reviews, the plaintext is raytext. If any of the other critics want to get in on this then they can figure out their own anagram for B.U.T.T.H.O.L.E. Reviews or B.I.G.T.I.D.D.Y Reviews or something.
First up in this bundle of books, we have a sci-fi thing called The Undefeated: More Superlative Tales From The Creator Of Retief, by Keith Laumer. Based on the front matter, this was written in the 1960s and first printed in 1974 by Dell Publishing, which does not appear to have any relation to Dell computers.
Upon opening my copy of The Undefeated, I quickly discovered two things about this book.
- This book was previously owned by a reader with a vast collection of varying lengths of body hair.
- This is not a novel, but is actually a collection of four shorts/novellas.
As a fan of hairy men and shortform fiction, I proceeded gleefully into the first of four stories, Worldmaster.
Here aboard the flagship everything was as smooth and silent as a hotel for dying millionaires.
To try to summarize this story without looking back and fact checking literally anything: Worldmaster is the story of a man named Maclamore, who is one of the few survivors after a spaceship battle between the United Nations and some other Earth faction who I have forgotten the name of. After learning that the United Nations space army leader wants to take over the world(?), Maclamore goes on a mission to talk to and also beat up a tattoo artist, several security guards, the vice president, the United Nations space army leader's secretary, and the United Nations space army leader himself. The United Nations space army leader, after getting talked to and beaten up by Maclamore, realizes that taking over the world is bad, so he goes and assassinates the vice president and a few other government leaders and then kills himself, which somehow leaves Maclamore in charge of the United Nations space army. The End.
As is probably obvious from that summary, I found the plot to be absolute nonsense at every step, and I also found that all of the major characters were difficult to latch onto in any way. I probably got plenty of things in that summary wrong buuut not in a way that matters. We're essentially dealing with a story where one man solves the problem of would-be dictators by going and punching them, which is admirable, but also very stupid.
That said, there were a few things I liked that saved this story from being a complete slog. The narrator is extremely quippy, and has wisecracks on every page. Some of the humor completely misses (I think just due to this book being ~50 years before my time so the points of reference aren't all there for me), but enough of the humor works that it can be fun. There was also a twist where the main character gets shot but then he's fine because it turns out he was a cyborg, and that was neat (I think that was intentionally a twist and not something I was supposed to have known about him from the start). And finally, in the climax there's a rad description of the main character walking out of a burning building and his cyborg parts are melting and it is v good. *chef kiss*
I think my biggest takeaway from this story has absolutely nothing to do with the story itself. Normally I never write in books, but for this one, I decided to say fuck it and give it a try. While it was a little fun to write notes in the margin such as
- pew pew pew
- cheese emoji
- what is happening tho
, I just also feel like I'm ruining the book by doing that, even if the story wasn't great anyways and even if I do like reading books where other people have written in them. $shrug
Gonna give Worldmaster a thumbs down. On to the next story!
The Night of the Trolls
My breathing was very fast and shallow now, and my skull was getting ready to split and give birth to a live alligator—the ill-tempered kind.
In spite of being called The Night of the Trolls, this story was actually waaaay better than Worldmaster.
To summarize from memory: Our protagonist Jackson wakes up from suspended animation, where it turns out he's been in stasis for about the last 70 years. In that time, the world has gone to shit. Murder hobos lurk everywhere, and this area is now run by the oppressive Baron, who it later turns out was part of the same science team that Jackson was part of (some have come out of stasis over the years, some are still in suspended animation). Jackson sneaks and fights his way to the elusive Baron to speak with him, meeting some simplistic but memorable characters along the way. The titular 'trolls' are actually combat mechs, who the post-apoc people think are magical. They think that The Baron controls the trolls, but Jackson is clever and realizes that The Baron doesn't control nada. Jackson and The Baron end up having a mech fight, and in the end, Jackson outsmarts The Baron, defeats him, and manages to send off a spaceship with the rest of the suspended-animation'd science crew inside of it, hopefully making sure that humanity will survive beyond the apocalypse. Also, Jackson (who has stayed on Earth) is implied to be the new Baron now.
In broad strokes, Worldmaster and The Night of the Trolls are actually very similar, but the experience I had reading each one was completely different. In both stories, some quippy asshole goes to talk to and also beat up a dictator, and then is implied to take their place in the end. But in The Night of the Trolls, there were also things like
- A protagonist who wants answers to personal questions (Are my loved ones alive? How long have I been asleep?)
- A protagonist who wants answers to world questions (What happened? Why so many murder hobos?)
- A protagonist who wants to make the world better in a way that makes sense (punching dictators actually is more viable in a setting where society has fallen apart)
- A plot that is actually communicated to the reader
- Neat technology
- Humor that jives with the situations instead of being inserted at random
- Solid prose that sometimes goes deeper than surface-level cleverness
Certainly not an amazing story in my opinion. While it was an enjoyable reading experience, it did not rise to the level of offering any deep lessons/questions/thoughts to take away afterwards. Also there are a couple of uncool things that are very unsurprising given this was written in the 60s, but still worth flagging: the only two women in this story mostly just serve as macguffins for the protagonist to want to protect; I don't think we've yet met a person of color in the entire book. Overall though, I would give The Night of the Trolls a thumbs up instead of a thumbs down. It could have aimed higher but I think it for sure hit the mark it was aiming for.
"As long as there are any of them alive, they're a threat," Pryor repeated the slogan.
This one was a bit of a departure from the previous two stories. Still very much in the military sci-fi vein, but in this one, the protagonist is not a quippy asshole. Or at least, the quippy asshole dial is turned way down compared to the previous two stories. Aside from the occasional joke, the author has lowered the comedy mask and put on the tragedy mask for this one.
First I'll go over the gist of Thunderhead's plot without getting into the themes, because we've finally gotten to a story that is actually interesting on the thematic level. Basically, there is a war going on between Humans and an alien species called the Djann. The Djann have made a new weapon/thing that is powered by sacrificing members of their own species, and they're using it for a last-ditch effort to not get exterminated by humans. Our protagonist, Carnaby, is a communications officer on a remote planet who ends up at the crux of this conflict and sets up a beacon to lure in the Djann, who then ultimately kill him while he also kills them.
Worldmaster and The Night of the Trolls were both written in first person, and they were very much the story of their protagonist. Thunderhead was written in third person, and while Carnaby is our protagonist, we actually get a few other perspectives that I think make this story a lot more interesting. Namely, we get the perspective of many of the military figures in the main human spaceship, and also the Djann in their own rebel spaceship.
The Djann in this story are waaaay cooler than the humans. They are these quadrupedal tentacle-having bacteriophage-ish guys who use psychic/melodic communication and kinda just seem to want to survive out in the universe and sing their stories. As is typical of military sci-fi, we're never really told why humans are at war with these aliens, other than the vague notion that we perceive them as a threat. At first I didn't think the author was self aware of this and was just falling into that cliche, but as the story went on, I actually became less sure of that. It really came to a head when we got to this line, delivered by a Djann who has just been dealt a death-blow by our human protagonist, who is also dying. The Djann has just read the human's mind and seen pleasant images of what living a human life is like:
"Have we warred then, Water-Beings?" the One-Who-Records sent his thought outward. "We who might have been brothers?"
As mentioned earlier in the plot summary, the main "evil" thing that the Djann have done is to make a weapon/thing that is powered by sacrificing members of their own species. But like, we also see that a majority of the human military characters are very willing to sacrifice other humans to pursue the Djann.
Whether the self awareness is actually there or whether I'm just reading that into the story using my squishy 2021 sensibilities, who tf knows. Either way that's what I got out of it, so I'm gonna have to give this story a thumbs up as well for having cool aliens and making the humans baddies. I enjoyed The Night of the Trolls more as a reading experience, but Thunderhead is more of a thinky-thinky story.
End as a Hero
I tried to gather my wits and think my way through the situation. I was alone and injured, aboard a lifeboat that would be the focus of a converging flight of missiles as soon as I approached within battery range of Earth.
SPEAKING OF THINKY-THINKY STORIES. If I had only read Worldmaster out of this book, and you had asked, "Do you think Keith Laumer could write a good story about a man with psionic powers reading people's minds and also the story subtly conveys multiple layers of complex character motivation?" my answer would have been "Hahahahahahahahaha no." Well he did! And it was very neat, probably my favorite in this book.
In End as a Hero, our not-very-quippy-but-still-an-asshole protagonist is Granthan. Humans are at war with a species of psychic aliens called the Gool, and our protagonist Granthan has been studying psionics in order to stop the Gool from using their psychic powers on humans. After surviving a Gool attack, Granthan has learned how to poke around in people's minds and do things like:
- Read their thoughts
- Make them give him things
- Knock them out
- Kill them, at least I think he does that at one point
- And more!
and he seems to basically be able to do this at any range, but maybe it's harder if they're farther away idk. Anyways, Granthan has read the minds of the Gool and wants to build a cool teleporter he learned about, but it turns out the Gool have been using their powers on him and he realizes at the end that he's actually been going to build the teleporter so that he can use it to sabotage Humans and win the war for the Gool. After realizing this, he then saves the day and wins the war for Humans instead. Plus a lot of other cool stuff happened. The End.
I think that the quality of writing on the prose level is crucial to the success or failure of this type of story. If the writing was done shittily, then a story about a psychic on a mission would be at best stupid and at worst impenetrably confusing. Here though, the writing does a good job of taking us through the layers of the protagonist's own mind, the journeys into other characters' heads, and the goings-on in top-level actually-the-observable-world Earth. And all the while, we the reader are thinking, "yo I bet this protagonist is hella actually working for the Gool," while the protagonist himself doesn't consider it a serious possibility for a majority of the story. Good stuff. Worth a read if this type of thing sounds interesting. Thumbs up.
The Undefeated – Conclusion
The Undefeated as a whole gets a thumbs up from me, was not a waste of my time, might read The Night of the Trolls and End as a Hero again sometime. For the sake of A.N.U.S. Reviews being on-brand with The Retributionists, I do hope for (and expect) a complete stinker of a book to pop up somewhere in this bundle. Judging the books by their covers, I'd say that The Time-Servers and The Purgatory Zone look the most likely to be stinky. But hey, if all of the books are of the same quality as The Undefeated, I mean, I do have to read them, so that wouldn't be so bad either. Also! I just discovered that one of the other books in this bundle is also by Keith Laumer, so we have that to look forward to at some point.
This is Ray Thompson for A.N.U.S. Reviews, signing off o7