Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, March 15, 2012

1973: The Unreal People (Siegel, Martin)

Amidst social decay blossoms revolt (4/5)

Lancer Books had a brief experimental tryst with Martin Siegel in 1969 with Agent of Entropy and in 1973 with The Unreal People. Both books were only published once and left to ebb in the waters of science fiction obscurity. This book was published posthumously after the author's death in 1972. As short as his run at science fiction was, he left an esoteric yet indelible impression on the sub-genre of underground settings, much akin to Guy Snyder's Testament XXI, which, oddly enough, was also publish in 1973 and Louis Trimble's The City Machine (1972), where the oppressed citizens of another hierarchical status and tower strata seek for change by moving OUT of their closed-system society.

Rear cover synopsis:
"Memories of Earth... the world had once been free. Men walked openly in the sunlight, gazed at the starry night, dreamed of conquests greater than that of just staying alive. But freedom had died a long time ago, so many hundreds of years in the past that no one really remembered any longer what freedom really meant. Earth was still there, a few hundred feet over their heads, while men crawled through the ancient tunnels like animals, kept in subjugation by drugs, slaves to the most corrupt government ever conceived--but none dared go there. The surface was dead, poisoned, taboo--until the children of Earth's last generation forced their way out of humankind's grave!"

Less than a dozen floors below the once great city of New York lies the derelict remains of earth's humankind, the filthy enclave a result of an unknown earth-wide cataclysm. In a strata of subterranean and social hierarchy, the First Guides are the privileged class, while on the opposite end of the social spectrum are those living in the Rat Hole. Regardless of wealth or status, it's obvious to everyone that conditions in the complex are deteriorating: the air is more stale, the water is putrid, the food rations are dwindling, and the infant death rate is depressingly high. At the center of the city's existence is the Machine:
Down at the lowest level, far south of the main ganglia of the city, where even the rats seldom went, was Machine, which automatically kept the city clean and sucked some food from the water. Nobody took care of it. The mechanisms were sealed and automatic. Nobody even knew how it worked. (127)
The hellish conditions of the city imbibe their own form of escapism through the government-sanctioned church called the Psychedelic Pswastika:
...offically known as the Cathedral of St. Sominex, PEP (Psychedelic Eclectic Presbyterian)... The religious functions included marriage and death rites; marriage and death counselling; psychoanalytic therapy; other forms of therapy including Reichian, Learyan, Mailerian, Encounter and Botulistic; the Holy Hookers; the drug machines but not the liquor business; the nightclub show, and the pawnshop. (16)
While the First Guides hold a lion's share of the profits from the Psychedelic Pswastika, the shares are lesser for those working further under the tyrant hand of the First Guides. Conrad is second in command of the Narko Skwad and earns a mere pittance from the profits. His disenfranchisement in communal affairs and the loss of his newborn baby have brought him to the wilted edge of the bough of sanity. He decides to kick the habit of the mandatory "loyalty drug" and incur its unpleasant side effects, to partake in treasonous affairs, and to co-plot the murder of the First Guides.

The mention of "Sominex" is a page one introduction to the drug use in the book. Diphenhydramine is only the mildest of drugs used to induce relaxation, inhibition, suggestiveness, and rapture. The protagonist Conrad is often accompanied by his water pipe, while students at the Vincent Price Community College ingest, inhale, or intravenously take their professor-prescribed drugs in order to facilitate their learning (two of the majors offered are Twentieth Century Horror and I-Hate-To-Cookology). The drug use of prevalent but it doesn't override the plot's flow into a psychotropic eddy of imagery and thought association. Only during "Part Two: Conrad's Dream" does the reader get a 24-page surreal view from the use of the "nerve machine" which causes him to detemporalize his memories and forecasts.

The rest of the book dabbles in minor characters tied in with Conrad's life, all of which somehow connect with his plan to assassinate the First Guides and run off to the "out side," where nature has overtaken the city and rumors of illness and radiation keep the people cowering underground. The way Siegel keeps the focus on the grimy tunnel city is unique, as most other authors tend to stray away from their fantastic plot settings in order to chase plot twists and obvious tropes. Siegel keeps is real and he keeps it interesting... and he even drops of huge "uncertainty bomb" is "Part Two."

But Siegel is also inconsistent in his prose. Most of the novel is written without any sort of flare besides the above mentioned focus on the underground city. His characterization of the city's culture is as great as is his personification of Conrad with his hair-trigger finger, dispassionate service, and world-weariness. But his prose fails him sometimes because of his attempt to cross-over the sensation that not everything is kosher in Dodge City... some passages are so herky-jerky that the reading is teeth-clenching-ly bad: "He felt cold. His bowels were in working order but they didn't feel good." (67) and "Coy flashes and twitchings of maniac electricity made the muscles of his thighs and arms move like robot things." (93)

But then Siegel reels the reader back into the poetic fold with:
Suns burst in his head. Sometimes they were the hot suns of deserts--huge blasting balls of heat--sometimes the red eyes of sunset of dying planets; sometimes the blinding but wonderful suns of spring mornings; sometimes even the cool calm peace of the moon. (94)
The old man was praying. A mumbling sound, wordless, came from his lips. After a while the cadence merged into one band of sound--like a whispering under the pounding of surf on the ocean. The old man heard the ocean returning to him as if his prayer reechoed back through invisible seashells pressed to his ears. (131)
So, through the syrupy passages of descriptive bliss and gritty travels through one-word sentences and three-word dialogue, Siegel pens a pretty good novel about the inhabitants of a closed-system city wishing to venture out. Methinks I'll give Agent of Entropy a shot, if I can find it. With only two obscure novels penned by this author, it should be hard to come by.

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