Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, July 27, 2012

1965: A Plague of Pythons (Pohl, Frederik)

The Corruption of Plague and Power (4/5)

Among all of Pohl's novels I've read, only Gateway (1977) ranks highly... this indicates some intrinsic aspect of Pohl's focus into his longer works that has either been lost upon me or has been numb to me. Condensing the length of his works, Pohl's short stories, novelettes, and novellas tend to be well thought out and enjoyable, as is the case in Pohlstars (1984) and Man Who Ate the World (1960). The funny thing is, Pohl produced a large number of novels through the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s--all with some interesting premises. When I see a previously unknown Pohl novel, I can't help but pick it up even though I know I'll be leery about opening it up. This sums up my expectation for A Plague of Pythons (alternative title: Demon in the Skull): an inherently bad novelist who has the unfortunate ability to drag out a perfectly good novelette into a trialing novel.

Rear cover synopsis:
"The World Was Possessed

Rapists, killers, and mass-murders were everywhere. Once ordinary people, they were suddenly possessed by some inexplicable force that controlled them, enslaved them, and made them commit the most horrible crimes imaginable.

Chandler had already raped and brutally assaulted a helpless creature and the town had put him on trial for his life. No was did they believe his story that he couldn't have stopped himself, that he was merely a prisoner in his own body, a slave of whatever force was turning the world upside down and making criminals out o common men.

Desperate for freedom and hungry for revenge, Chandler knew he would travel to the ends of the Earth to find his tormentors and destroy their power forever."


Chandler is an electric engineer in a society which has eroded into the sad, hermetic state of not needing any electrical engineers. The survival of the community had become more important that the success and justice of the individual. Towns, like Chandler's in California, became scattered, limited in number and strict in its growth:

"There was real fear, well justified, of living in large groups, for they too were lightening rods for possession. The world was stumbling along, but it was lame in all its members; a planetary lobotomy had stolen from its wisdom and plane" (30).

His wife having been murdered by his best friend and filled with the guilt of not mourning her death, Chandler now stands trial for a crime his body committed, but his mind had not. The enemy who hi-jacked people's mind suddenly struck on one day murdering others and the bodies they possessed, reeking havoc in the cities, altering the path of humanity's shared destiny of greatness. Now Chandler found himself a victim of "Demons? Martians? No one knew whether the invaders of the soul were from another world or from some djinn's bottle" (17).

Chandler was acquitted of his crime through odd circumstances during his trial; his banishment marked by the branded "H" on his forehead. Traveling by train, he is adopted by a mountain people who live in perpetual pain with barded wire anklets and deeply burned tissue to ward off the many names possessors: "the imps, the `flame creatures,' the pythons, devils, incubi or demons" (42) who have been infecting the minds of the innocent. Their prophet Kahlil Gibran and his words are their mental salve in the time when pain is their talisman against the evil possessors.

Soon, Chandler finds himself among the physical presence of the possessors, the same dreadful being who have been committing acts of "murder, rape, arson, theft, sodomy, vandalism, assault and battery or a dozen other offenses" (15) across the world. Oddly enough, the crimes witnessed first in America (on Christmas during nationwide television) were never perpetrated within the walls of agricultural or medical establishments (nor were the citizens of Russia ever assaulted, but the West's nukes took care of that). His expertise is a valuable trait to the possessors and to his life, which becomes more complex yet more important than ever.


A Plague of Pythons starts out strong and mighty with an enticing plot and a conundrum, which is hale and hearty. The reader remains in the thick for so long that time passes by, seems to evaporate--and I thought to myself, "Wow, I can't believe Pohl wrote this!" Mysteries multiply as Chandler follows a jagged path of revenge, some paths chosen by him but other paths being shifted into Chandler's own agenda. The revelation of "python's" was a bit of a let down, but Pohl masterfully constructed a morality tale reflecting John Dalberg-Acton's quote, "absolute power corrupts absolutely."

It's odd of Pohl to have setting outside that of New York, near-space, or Chicago. The backdrop for Pythons is the American western coast at a point which is "nearly three thousand miles" (40) from Lehigh County, Pennsylvania... which actually puts it at a distance closer to Quito, Ecuador or Reykjavik, Iceland or the Yukon than it does to anywhere in California. Anyway, the important factor is that the Californian setting puts it close to the isolated base of the possessors; it's there that Chandler sees beyond the insidious crimes and absorbs the scene of wholesale slaughter. Pohl really takes a grim view with Pythons, an angle I haven't seen before in, with maybe just a hint of uneasy horror of Reefs of Space (1964) and his later Man Plus (1976). I love horror/sci-fi and this is quite the penultimate novel for the earlier days of the sub-genre.

The conclusion is well deserved and satisfactory, but it doesn't resonate until you recall some of the earlier quotes from the characters, both of the innocent party subjected to the possessors' ill-will and of the possessors' themselves. If the reader is able to suspend one notion in regards to the possessors' ability to infiltrate minds, then welcome to the dystopia Pohl has created, a world oppressed by the brutal crimes of an unseen force acting through the familiar faces of a village's populace.

Perhaps I simply stumbled upon a Pohl novel in his prime, the time prior to 1965; where after he wrote a smattering of short fiction but nothing substantial his 1976 novel Man Plus. This is one of the best of seventeen Pohl books I've read besides Gateway, The Man Who Ate the World, and Merchants War (1984). I won't go out on a limb and say Pohl has reignited my interest in his bibliography, but I will maintain a keen eye out for his earlier titles like Drunkard's Walk (1960), Slave Ship (1957), and Age of the Pussyfoot (1969). After those years there's not much to interest me.

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