Cast of Simple yet Complex Convicts (4/5)
Rear cover synopsis:
"The time is the future; space travel has encompasses Mars, finding it barren, without mineral resources, useful only as a dumping ground for socially unacceptable humanity -- a latter-day convict settlement.
A new shipload ot deportees lands, and the twenty-four new colonists, male and female alike, have to adjust themselves to the harsh life here, and to the unexpected new social patterns that have developed for defense against the hostile Martian environment. Before long, as the colony is shaken by dangers from within and without, the struggle becomes the most basic of all -- not for comfort, but for survival itself."
This Ace edition synopsis does the 188-page novel no justice. The synopsis above is a flat, unemotional copy written by a desk jockey and doesn't even attempt to set itself apart from all the other Mars novels at the time (such as 1964's Martian Time-Slip and 1969's The Sirens of Titan). If it would have cost more than one dollar, I wouldn't have bothered stocking it on my shelves with a lame synopsis like that. I've got a better one:
Spending nearly ten weeks cooped up in a cylindrical inter-planter javelin, the twenty-four social criminals are at their wits end. Having landed on Mars safely enough, they are met by the convict colony representatives who are both terse and unemotional. The representatives take the haul of food back to the colony while the recent arrivals wait for supportive assistant... until "the arrival of a dust storm. Visibility outside the space craft was down to a matter of inches. The dust storm stayed for thirty-seven day." With their numbers thinned, the surviving nine new-comers find their place in the colony, learning that maintaining the status quo is to survive. To err it to risk taking "the cold way out."
The slim thickness of the novel is misleading as the contents of the novel are quite complex. Of the nine surviving arrivals, seven or eight of them become central characters along with one or two other convicts already stationed in the colony. As a matter of plot device seeking to keep anonymity among the convicts, each space-borne convict is given a biblical name. The banality of the naming compounded by the numerous cast had me reaching for a pen to keep track of their names. These aren't cardboard cut-outs either, they are fairly well fleshed out:
Mark: once democratic leader, justice seeker
Issac: once cocky, now bed-ridden
Simon: illusionary charm, sly, racist
Jacob: black, non-confrontational, internally demonized
Ruth: judgmental and observant, yet crass
Joshua: artistic, cynical, pragmatic
Paul: delusional, self-proclaimed prophet
David: once the second in command
Martha: liberal American spinster
I use the word "black" above but Compton uses "Negro" and two of the less-tolerant characters use the N-word. It's thrown around quite heavily in a few passages and it characterizes Jacob as the prosecuted yet innocent victim. While ethic diversity isn't appreciated on my Mars colony, the acceptance of sexual orientation is unheard of with the penalty for simply being homosexual is "the cold way out." I don't think Compton is reflecting his opinion in this novel, but merely using lack of acceptance as a ploy to show the bigotry and simple-mindedness of the convict hierarchy.
It's a slow read at times, where I didn't know which route the plot was taking but little did I know that I was the one who was going for the ride. Like one quote on the cover states, it "quasi-Kafkaesque" and the last-page conclusion will have you nodding with understanding, rather than approval. Further Compton read are a must for me (Thanks Boaz!)