Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Standard introduction for Postscripts to the Belated Reviews

Belated Reviews PS#29: Mack Reynolds

Mack Reynolds wrote a great deal of speculative fiction. Most of his speculation was not directed at science and technology, however, but at politics and sociology. He had ideas about what made a society tick -- and how that might change in the future -- and used his fiction to work those ideas through. He was sometimes successful -- remarkably successful, given the subject matter, I suppose -- at not converting his books into soapboxes. This may be because he found the speculation itself too much fun.

His novels -- many of the best date from the early and mid sixties -- are more consistent in their vision of society lagging in its adjustment to advancing technology. In his most optimistic novels, people adjust to a world of plenty; in his more pessimistic ones, much of the population is unemployed and disenfranchised, despite the fact that there are no material shortages beyond those which are self-induced. The political side of his writing varies more in detail. In general, the enemy is seen as a combatable tendency of people to accumulate -- and then maintain -- power.

Reynolds's writing was never particularly good. Clever, yes, and imaginative, but don't look for characters you'll care about or plots that will keep you riveted to your seat. (I know, but "riveted to your couch" sounds ridiculous.) Don't look for novels that are free of exposition, either, though that tendency is given freer rein in some books than in others. Among the ones I most enjoyed:

"Time Gladiator" (***) displays many of the characteristics I identified as typical. In the twenty-first century, technology-created reality has been codified in a rigid class system: The large Lower class is unemployed for life, and kept happy with bread and circuses in the oldest tradition. Middle class includes most of those who actually have what to do, and Upper class is occupied by entrenched descendents of corporate leaders, major politicians, union leaders, etc. There is some mobility between classes, but not much. Against this background is a world whose alignments are not much different from those of the nineteen-sixties, with America, Europe, and the East Bloc being the major players.

Since weapons have gotten *too* good, however, disputes are settled by low-tech armed combat. Dennis Land is a professor of Etruscan archeology who takes up gladiatorial combat as a byproduct of his research, and finds himself pressured into pursuing it more seriously than he'd intended.When an international crisis threatens to overturn the status quo, he finds himself drafted. (This provides the adventure story which is the vehicle Reynolds uses to portray this possible future.) Reynolds set other novels in this same future, most notably "Mercenary from Tomorrow" (**).

"Planetary Agent X" (***) is the first (and best) of what became a series of novels and stories. The United Planets of this future is one in which tolerance of political diversity is taken to an extreme. Every far-fetched political theory seems to have found itself its own planet -- in some cases the politics just happened and the theory came later -- and the only reason most planets join the United Planets is because it guarantees their freedom from interference from other planets.

Ronny Bronston is the newest probationary agent of Section G, which is charged with enforcing the non-interference clause. His first assignmentis to track down someone codenamed Tommy Paine: *Somebody* has been flouting the non-interference laws with a vengeance, demonstrating a genius for seeking out societies' weak points and using them to bring down existing orders. As Bronston follows Paine's trail of havoc (giving us a chance to see part of the variety of societies in the UP) he begins to realize what might lie behind Paine's endeavors.

"The Rival Rigellians" (***) is placed in a future in which thousands of planets were colonized and allowed to lapse into barbarism. Now, a thousand years later, a ship from Earth has come from to the Rigel system to bring its two settled planets into modern civilization. The Pedagogue is the first of what will be a fleet of such ships, and the crew's knowledge of social engineering is purely theoretical. When the team splits on the best way to effect the desired change, they decide to actually split: Half go to one planet and set out to unite it militarily and introduce change through fiat and central authority. The others go to the second planet and introduce change through competition and mercantilism.

Ah, you recognize a straw man when you see one. Well, you're wrong; this isn't a tract in which one approach works and one fails. Both approaches do quite well -- albeit at considerable human cost. Nor do the social technicians come out unscathed, as they learn the allure of power. It's a pity Reynolds *wasn't* a more skilled author, because there's the germ here of a much better novel than he wrote.

"Blackman's Burden" (***) is one of Reynolds's earlier novels, and his ideas are played out much closer to home, in a time much closer to ours. The time is the near future and the place is Africa. In a reaction to centuries of largely-botched colonialism, the rest of the world has chosen to leave Africa pretty much on its own. Aside from some modernization efforts from by the Reunited Nations and aside from the efforts of various charitable organizations -- some altruistically motivated, others not -- and aside from the presence of agents pursuing the interests of their several home countries, and...

In "Blackman's Burden", and in its sequels "Border, Breed Nor Birth" (***) and "The Best Ye Breed" (**), a small team of those interlopers decides that what the Sahel *really* needs is not minor charities or piddling interventions, but political union and modernization. Needless to say, almost nobody agrees. It's an interesting book -- a knowledgeable view of Africa combined with a cynical view of the human condition. There is a short-story epilogue to this trilogy, titled "Black Sheep Astray" (***).

Reynolds's strength was in his political and social world-building, but I've tried to identify the novels I thought did the best jobs of telling a decent story, as well. An interesting but exposition-heavy effort is the overly optimistic "Looking Backward From the Year 2000" (**). An amusing, largely satirical, one is "Tomorrow Might Be Different" (**+), in which an American team manufactures a religion which they hope will convince Russians to stop trouncing them in the world's markets. If you find that you enjoy his writing, there's a lot more where these came from.

Dani Zweig