Five Against Arlane, or The Tom Purdom Project, Part 3

A modern ruler could do almost anything, apparently, if he didn’t tamper with the medical care his subjects were used to.

Purdom-ArlaneThis 1967 novel, half of an Ace Double, was the first of Purdom’s stories set in this universe of travel between planets at relativistic, i.e. slightly slower than light, speeds, where most of the travelers between the stars are traders, and where humans have managed to greatly extend their lives with medical care. Follow up stories were 1970’s “A War of Passion” (which I have not read yet) and 2010’s “Haggle Chips” which I reviewed in part 1 of the Tom Purdom Project.

As the cover blurb says, this is a “revolt against the mind tyrant”. The mind tyrant is one David Jammet who has launched, after taking control of the planet Arlane, a taboo experiment: create humans incapable of violence and war. It’s not the first time some one has tried it, but the results have always been so monstrous that four members of a trading mission allowed by Jammet to stop at Arlane — if they do not interfere in its politics — opt to stay behind and foment an armed revolution. The fifth is Anata, a local woman who has fallen in love with the band’s leader, Migel Lassamba.

The central problems the revolutionaries face, five against a planet, is that Purdom has postulated, correctly I think, an innate conservatism among the planet’s residents. When you’re looking at centuries of potential life, why risk a violent death to overthrow a tyrant when he might be gone in a few decades?

Long-lived characters are a typical Purdom interest and so is the idea of personality modification. That doesn’t strictly show up here, but Jammet has a powerful tool: mind control. He implants devices in people’s body which enables him to take full control of a person’s body for surveillance of possible troublemakers or, as happens at several times in the novel, violent confrontation with the revolutionaries.

Essentially, Migel faces a dilemma: does he kill the mind controlled hostages Jammet throws in his way in order to possibly bring down Jammet’s government?

My honest assessment, at this point in my Purdom reading, is that this novel is probably only of interest to Purdom completists or those wanting to read all the stories in this universe. “Haggle Chips” is a much more interesting story.

Spoilers and My Observations and Speculations

The initial strategy of the five to arm the population and take out key armored vehicles sold to them by their fellow traders fails. Eventually, all but Migel are killed or captured and placed under mind control. Then Migel, in sheer desperation, hits on the winning strategy. Staging out of a southern base made livable by stolen air conditioners, Migel makes forays into the northern, inhabited polar zone of Arlane, grabs a mind controlled doctor, undertakes a dangerous field surgery to remove the control, and, as he suspected, finds himself a very willing recruit. The doctor and Migel kidnap more controlled citizens for their operations. Many of their fellow citizens may not want to take up armed revolution, but those who have been imprisoned in their own bodies are prepared to die before returning to that state. The surgery doesn’t always work and kills some. Other citizens die on raids, but Jammet is eventually forced into exile.

At this point, ten years into his writing career, some characteristic Purdom elements are already here. Wargamer Purdom diagrams his combat scenes precisely though, I think, a little less concisely than in his recent short fiction such as “The Path of the Transgressor” which, like several scenes in this novel, has its protagonist trying to break through an encircling enemy force. And, as Purdom characters like to do, Migel and his comrades run lots of combat simulations in planning their actions.

Stylistically, his prose seems a bit rougher here than later on. Migel is the main viewpoint character, but the transitions to chapters where he isn’t were a bit confusing. Purdom is not a lyrical writer; he doesn’t really write “read aloud” prose where great care is taken in linking the sounds of sentences together. But, even at this point, he is capable of memorable epigrammatic lines like the one opening this review.

The weaponry of this military story is an odd bunch. The ground effect vehicles are fairly standard for the stories of the time and were being introduced into the real world. The shoulder cannons with their nuclear shells seem a bit clunky to be practical. The “head turrets” are actually an interesting idea. If you can slave a gun automatically to your line of sight, why not eliminate the whole problem of eye-hand coordination that you have with a regular firearm and mount the gun on your head? The nuclear shells where the fissionable material is kept in a supersaturated solution that reaches critical mass when a firing pin releases a chemical that precipitates it out was a clever and plausible sounding idea.

I wondered if Purdom saw this novel as being in the tradition of James Gunn’s 1962 novel The Immortalsa society distorted by medical care. It is Jammet’s investment in medical care and its integral place in maintaining those lengthened life spans which partially creates the conservative nature of this society and also is necessary for Jammet’s mind control instrumentality and plans to create a new human.

I also wondered if Purdom intended this as sort of a vague metaphor on fighting the Viet Cong in the Vietnam War with Jammet’s mind control victims filling in for indoctrinated communists in that war.

Purdom Explains Nearly All

In the last installment of his literary memoir answers these questions, reveals some unexpected depth to the work, and shows most of my speculations were wrong.

The novel was conceived as his try at the “revolt against a dictator” theme crossed with a Seven Samurai style band of fighters.

He reveals that he gave some thought to the linguistic characteristics of Arlane, the economic background (early on a strength of Purdom’s), his attempt to break new speculative ground in his weaponry (the nuclear shells were borrowed from futurist and nuclear war strategist Herman Kahn’s book On Thermonuclear War), extrapolations on the beginnings of transplant surgeries, and the miniature (as opposed to contemporary science fiction’s usual huge computers) combat computers his fighters use.

The major political or social theme had nothing to do with medicine’s place in the world or the Vietnam War. It was something more basic and typically Purdomish:  the place of war in our development and society, indeed, its seeming necessity. (Or, as the modern historian Ian Morris offered, in response to his querying title War! What Is It Good For?quite a lot, actually.)

Finally, Purdom is a kinder soul than me in that he regards Migel’s winning strategy as that of a fanatic.

More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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