Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

1959: The World Swappers (Brunner, John)

Phantom dictator wields teleportation and benevolence (4/5)

One of Brunner's earlier novels aside from his Interstellar Empire series, The World Swappers captures Brunner's authorship in a state of budding creativity but still immature in regards to subtleness. This doesn't necessarily mean that his early novels aren't enjoyable (with the exception of The Wanton of Argus [1953]) but the don't have the special Brunner quality which is found in the late 60s and 70s with such classics as Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up. With early Ace paperbacks like The World Swappers (1959), the story is condensed into a readable 153 pages and exhibits a hurried yet dense plot.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The galaxy was caught in the crushing vice of a struggle for power. The political titans of the planets of mankind were making their bids for supremacy. The contestants: Counce, a man of strange powers, authority in the spheres of the intellect; and Bassett, a man of money-power, financial and business wizard. As the association of human worlds drew near the teetering edge of internal revolutions, one of these men would be in a position to triumph. The only thing that neither side could foresee was that there were others hovering among the stars, looking for new worlds to conquer!"

Counce is a man of many mysterious resources. The inventor of the transfax three hundred years earlier, the technology is only available to him and his band of intellectual cohorts who are too secretive for any proper title. Able to leap parsecs, infiltrate FTL spaceships, and transport stellar plasma, the teleportation device is also the key to his longevity. If he or one of his cohorts were to be killed, a new yet different body is prepared for them with the data sent from their previous transmission. Counce's influence reaches farther than the earthly domain.

Earth has been cleared of "misfits and malcontents" and the banished persons were shipped off to the thirty-one habitable planets in the surrounding 200 parsecs of space. One planet of such named Ymir was the first to be settled but little did they realize that the planet was entering a glacial period. Stubborn and proud, the people of Ymir endure the three hundred years freeze with reluctant acceptance of aid. One Ymirian, Jaroslav Dubin, acted as ambassador to Earth and resided in the decadent city of Rio; now his earthly pleasures are known to all Ymirians and their ultra-conservative mentality abhor his being. Jaroslav also now acts as a Ymirian secret agent for Counce's transfax fealty.

Counce's group realizes that humans aren't accepting enough to integrate other planetary colonial cultures, so they understand that contact with the Others must be avoided. The alien race, outside of the human sphere of colonization, are discovered to have once visited the human planet Regis and are now headed to the planet Ymir. With the aid of the transfax and a menagerie of magnificent minds, the group intercepts the spacecraft in-flight and transfaxes it to the surface of Regis. Their plans for peaceful contact are interrupted by the violent rebuttal of the Others' weapons. The lone alien survivor, Friend, is fostered by Counce so that a mutual between species understanding can be settled.

Seeing that Ymir is unfit for human habitation yet ideal for an Others colony, Counce uses his age-wizened mind to manipulate Bassett's lust for control of all the colonies so that mankind can avoid contact with the Others and for both races to get what they want. Bassett is cautious of the manipulation but is unable to penetrate Counce's deeper plans for power and peace.

On the surface, it looks like the plot is about the classic case of the good guys duping the bad guys. However, while Counce is indeed a classic "good guy" with cool technology and the brains to match, the seeming nemesis Bassett is more like Counce's unknowing pawn, an easily malleable commodity to benefit Counce's agenda. Even the aliens aren't seen as "bad guys" through the eyes of Counce, but the hostile actions of the Others is seen as a miscommunication. And since the eighteen deaths experienced by Counce's clique were all recoverable due to their transfax data, no deaths were permanent except for the deaths of the aliens themselves. (Could they have been recovered too since they were teleported to the planet by the telefax?)

Counce sets lofty goals onto his organization's shoulders. He has set out to protect humankind from itself--to postpone their confrontation with aliens--because how could they get along with a race not even remotely similar to their own when they shun even the customs of other human planets. Counce acts on behalf of no Earth government or interplanetary government... the buck stops at Counce. He could be seen as a pretentious deductionist or a benevolent phantom dictator, but his treatment of the frozen and famished people of Ymir is a little shocking. Counce basically bullies the stubborn government through refusal of dire aid, where the society eventually give into their misplaced pride and hunger "when a half-eaten child's body was found on the street." (130) That's pretty grim for a 1959 novel. With the downfall of a small planetary society, it is hard to invest sympathy into Counce's self-professed benevolent actions.

The technology of the transfax is the major fulcrum to the plot. If you can believe (1) that one man invented the technology and withheld its existence from the public for three hundred years, (2) that each person who has come across the same mathematics for the transfax becomes subsumed into Counce's organization, and (3) that the transfax can perform amazing feats, then the fulcrum of the entire plot may be a bit more stomachable. It's not major flaw, but the lofty idealization of future technology is often the only fulcrum to earlier novels while serving up ample opportunity to gouge holes in the plot... too many "what-ifs" spring to mind.

For my nineteenth Brunner book, this was a joy to experience some of his earlier non-Interstellar Empire work. With ten more unread Brunner books on my shelves, ranging from 1965 (The Day of the Star Cities) to 1980 (Players At the Game of People), I continue to look forward to experience the wealth of science fiction Brunner penned for nearly four decades!

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