Monday, June 29, 2009

A Specter is Haunting Texas

Style over substance isn't necessarily a bad thing. I admit it, I liked the first Transformers movie (live action, not animated) though the story was really pretty thin. But the effects were just very good: explosions everywhere, CGI that was stellar, and awesome music (no, wait, this is not a review of Transformers II). To succeed at "style over substance," the style has to be pretty good, or at least interesting.

Which leads me to A Specter is Haunting Texas, a novel from the late 60s by Fritz Leiber. I'm generally a huge fan of Leiber, and I count the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser books among my favorites. So when I found this novel in a list of forgotten classics of SF, I set out to find it. Fortunately, I didn't have to pay a lot to get it. The plot feels nothing more than a poor homage to Heinlein; no new ground is broken here: an inhabitant of a station inhabiting the moon comes to Earth to discover how different society has become in the course of the last century. The protagonist, Christopher Crockett La Cruz, has been fed the history of Earth and has expectations of what he is going to find up on his arrival, but things have gone to hell and most of the novel is spent trying to describe how the home planet has ended up where it has: nearly all of North America and most of Central America are states in the great country of Texas. Whites in Texas take a "directional hormone" and so have grown to over eight feet in height, even the women. In the meantime they have made a servant class out of the "browns," Hispanics and African-Americans, who are not allowed to grow much taller than four feet. La Cruz, who is nicknamed Scully by the Texans he falls in with, acts as the readers' eyes as he describes the horribly corrupt political system in Texas, which is made even worse by their ignorance about their own history.

As he tours, Scully finds himself somewhat smitten by a female servant, named La Cucaracha, of his host. Scully and she flirt shamelessly, and he refers to her by a number of rough nicknames, including Cooch. However, when Scully meets his first white Texan woman, Rachel Vachel Lamar, he tosses Cooch aside. Of course, once he is back in Cooch's arms, he tends to forget Rachel as well. Fortunately, both Cooch and Rachel are revolutionaries in Texas, fighting to give the "browns" (as they are called in the book) better living conditions and even something approaching rights. Unfortunately, this means that when Scully is not orating on behalf of the revolution, he is swinging pendulously between the two women for whom he lusts.

Specter feels very much like a "if this goes on…" kind of novel, extrapolating the social conditions Leiber disliked the most some fifty to a hundred years into the future. The story of how Texas ended up as it has is never given, but only alluded to. That story would have held more fascination than Scully's peregrination through North America and his odious misogyny. The novel takes on the feel of a journal for a travelling rock show, with the lead singer Scully becoming perverse when his two groupies realize that they are being played one against another and gang up against him. So any political or social commentary, which is fairly obscure when it is not beating you over the head, is lost in the soap opera-ish love triangle. Scully is a scalawag, but intensely unsympathetic—the opposite of Heinlein's rogues. Those rogues at least generally had an interest in something beyond their own ends. Scully is only intent on his own mission and needs. The culture that Leiber creates is rife for satire, but it is either laid on horribly think or is missing altogether.

What's worse is that there is potential for something much greater here. There is a passage of some pages as Scully contemplates what happened to America, in abstract terms:

It had been an ideal country for men with grand imaginations, for geographical and industrial pioneers, until they turned the grandeur to grandiosity and began to broadcast it over the newly discovered mass media…

We grieved at that robust and shrewd land's fatal weakness for making right, then wrong decisions, and standing by the latter beyond all reason and with puritanic perversity…

A nation nurtured on cowboy tales and the illusion of eternal righteousness, perpetual victory…

A nation that sought to create, simultaneously, in the same people, a glutton's greed for food, comfort, and possessions—and a puritanic morality….

Such language and comparison is compelling, and feels especially relevant given the past decade's history. But other than the passage where this analysis takes place, nothing is done about the issues. Scully is just an observer, from a place that feels as if it has some of the same seeds, and though he is proud of his heritage, Scully has no evidence it will go in a direction different than that described Texas. And then, given the way that Scully resolves choosing between Cooch and Rachel, indications are that his home is no better than Texas; it's just home and thus better than a place where one only must visit.

The final chapter performs a little coda to indicate that Texas won't always remain the way it is, but the damage is done. In the fiction, Texas grows more and more ravaged by its own search for uranium and the fallout of earlier nuclear wars. The revolution succeeds over time, not because of the work of Scully or the innate rightness of the cause, but out of sheer stupidity on the part of the white Texans. And as for the book itself, it is beyond redemption in those final three pages. If I had an opinion of Scully that I really valued, I would begrudge him the ignorant happy ending he is given. As it is, I'm just disappointed that the author of some of my favorite books failed so badly, especially when there were fleeting glimpses of something that could be much better.

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