Science Fiction Though the Decades

Sunday, March 18, 2012

1970: The Simultaneous Man (Blum, Ralph)

Psychopharmacology and Russian Studies (3/5)

Ralph Blum has only this one sci-fi novel under his belt, but he's also published the non-genre novels The Foreigner (1961) and Old Glory and the Real-Time Freaks (1972). Since 1982 he's written some non-fiction titles about Rune magic and UFOs. Raised under the shadow of parental Hollywood fame, subjected to early LSD testing, and speaking fluent Russian, Blum obviously brings to the table a lot of experience, albeit more randomness than anything concrete.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The agency specializes in surgical alterations. Government bureaucrats set about making one man's brain the receptacle for the memory of another. "Bear"--the input. "Black Bear"--the receiver. A research scientist and a convicted murdered become two men with one SHARED mind."

Andrew Horne is the Assistant Director of Research West Wing research laboratory at West Wing, where Project Beta has been running for over a decade. Horne has had his "beta" memory expressed through professional Hollywood cinematography so that it may be played back at a higher speed to a subject whose memory of self had been wiped clean. Subject 233/4 is a convicted murderer and has volunteered to be the vehicle for Horne's memory. When the wind wipe and beta memory transference are complete, Subject 233/4 will essentially become Horne.

Where past experiments have shown a rapid deterioration in the subject's physical condition, the team at West Wing hope that with Subject 233/4 the procedure has been refined. But the mental condition of Horne is thin, at best, when his conditional responses about his Korean War experience surface again and again. While in captivity, Horne was interrogated and tortured by his captors but also had the ear of a foreign man of persuasion, named Chon. Because of this Chon, Horne has been able to alter his memories of his Korean experience to make them more manageable.

When Subject 233/4 rises from his "coffin" of Horne's months worth of experience input, Horne is at the same time arrested and confined to a more luxurious cell--the entire estate of Compass Farm, just outside of Philadelphia. Horne experiences acute telepathic sensations that is "bets-self" has emitted but the flow of telepathy is limited to that narrow range of emotion and that line of communication. After nearly a year of house arrest, news comes from West Wing that Subject 233/4 has escaped... and defected to the Soviet Union. The American government allows Horne to fly to Leningrad so that he may make contact with his "beta-self."

Pulling Blum's biography from three different scant sources, it seems to be fairly complete and nearly everything is laid to bare here in The Simultaneous Man. He's noted to have studied at Harvard and includes that in this novel along with the Harvard rowing team (which I'm fairly certain he was part of). Other autobiographical elements Blum has inserted into this novel include Russian history (which he studied), Russian language (he's bilingual to an annoying extent), Hollywood names (of his parents persuasion), and his scientific forte of psychopharmacology. The novel didn't have a polymath feel to it, as Blum's range of knowledge is as scattered as it is in detail. It all comes off rather pretentiously, as if Blum includes these elements merely to show them off.

Besides the shade of pretentiousness overshadowing most of the novel, the plot unravels pretty well. Subject 233/4 (aka Black Bear) only awakens half-way through the novel, where the first half of the novel is dotted with segments of "input" from Horne to Black Bear. This input characterizes Horne at the same time as it does characterize his yet-to-emerge "beta-self." At times the medical language is off-putting and the reliance of the universal benefit of artificial pharmaceuticals (reflecting the mid-century belief the happiness can be found in a pill) is overdone. But the most repetitively annoying trait found in The Simultaneous man is Blum's long-winded insertion of random Russian words, Russian history or Russian geography onto each page:
Horne stood, suitcase in hand, in front of the Astoria Hotel, watching until the ZIM's red taillights faded from view. St. Isaak's Square matched his memory of old photograph albums: the equestrian statue of Tsar Nicholas, the park, a building of dull reddish stone that had once housed the Imperial German Embassy; and up toward the Neva, visible through the snow, the pillars and golden dome of St. Isaak's Cathedral. (134)
If Blum has a knack for anything literary, it would have to be his talent for setting the scene... at times. Sometimes he's monotonous when describing an office:
The door was open and he went inside. Through the one large window, afternoon sunlight entered to illuminate the dust. The window screen was torn. The room was unchanged: scarred Army-issue desk, two chairs, metal bookcase, security file with combination locks and drawers. There had never been a carpet. (61)
Other times it reads like an Updike nostalgia for life on the farm:
When he reached the stone wall he swung around and slipped the tractor into neutral. Crows drifted out from over the woods letting the wind lift them across the new furrows and the barn, to hover like cinders from a dead fire above his house. (108)
But mainly Blum is one of straight forward descriptions, not really putting any emotion into the scene or any flare into the personalities. The reader will mainly be engaged in trying to figure out what the whole novel is about... macroscopiclly and microscopically. Was the memory transference 100% successful and is Subject 233/4 now Andrew Horne in all but the flesh? What are Black Bear's objectives in defecting to Russia and why hasn't Horne been able to predict his behavior? But the main question the reader will have is... What will Horne find in Russia? THAT'S the one hook which will keep the reader on until the last five pages.

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