Science Fiction Though the Decades

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

1969: The Rakehells of Heaven (Boyd, John)

Cheeky, spry, and deceivingly simple (4/5)

John Boyd’s first three novels are all derived from classic myths of one sort or another, a fact he mentions in the preface of the Penguin edition. I don’t have any interest in classic myths, so when I read Boyd’s novels, I’m taking them as face sci-fi value. Though I hadn’t quite enjoyed the first two books, I had been looking forward to The Rakehells of Heaven simply because of the words Boyd pens about the novel in the preface: “It [Rakehells] was a whoreson of science fiction, but there was great sport in making it” (vii) and “The ideal reader … should have the mentality of a Southern stock-car racer, be a Baptist with a sense of detachment, have a well-developed sense of the absurd, and be fascinated with the quirks and accomplishments of the human animal” (viii). I thought he was alluding to a libidinous novel yet one which is straight forward; a novel which continues the sexual overtones from Pollinators with the rigid plot of Starship. This was not the case.

The first novel, The Last Starship from Earth (1968), had very little room for interpretation—its plot allegory/figurativeness was concrete. The second novel, The Pollinators of Eden (1969), had more room to play with the plot’s suggestions—its plot allegory/figurativeness was concrete/abstract. Here in Boyd’s third novel the plot’s allegory/ figurativeness is definitely on the abstract side. It could have been read matter-of-factly, but degrees of interpretation built up far too quickly. Ask five different people about their interpretation of this novel and you’ll most likely get five different answers.

Rear cover synopsis:
“John Adams and Kevin O’Hara are graduates of North Dakota’s great Mandan Space Academy. Both trained to be conquistadors of space, explorers in the age of interstellar imperialism, Adams and O’Hara are as different as any two space scouts could possibly be. Now, together, they are sent to explore a distant world called Harlech. The Harlechians are unclassified aliens; relations with their women are strictly forbidden by the Interplanetary Colonial Authority. Adams is willing to play by the rules—but whoever made those rules hadn’t counted on the lusty Red O’Hara, rakehell of heaven … From the Adams-O’Hara probe, only John Adams returns.”


Light-years from Earth on a mission to find an inhabitable planet, Adams and O’Hara discover Harlech, plush with greenery and devoid of any signs of civilization. However, one structure on the planet’s surface draws their attention and they set down. The duo set up their “welcome to civilization” booth with displays of Earth-ly life and blare music from their sound system. The aliens which emerge from the woods play their game of football while being oblivious to the presence of the humans. Though bipedal and human in form, the rigorous set of “humanid” qualifications have yet to ascertain whether these aliens are mere animals or human-equivalent.

Being the commander of the scout ship and a stickler for regulations, Adams is hesitant to allow O’Hara out of his sight yet allows him to approach the wooden copse from which some of the aliens had come. After a time, one of the voluptuous alien females prances from the copse with O’Hara’s own green polka-dotted boxers around her once unclothed hips (“Concupiscence and carnality!” [36]). Adams is at a loss for words—though O’Hara had married just prior to the departure, he has a long history of womanizing—yet Adams must maintain either their relationship or the regulations.

An alien contact team makes contact with them, courtesy of Budo the Dean of University 36. All the “cities” on the planet are subterranean universities where everyone is dedicated to one faculty or another and each university is headed by a Dean, a secretive, god-like personage who’s seldom seem and whose personal words are often feared. As the university is open to all and where “total academic freedom exists” (43), Adams and O’Hara are quickly made honorary teachers. Adams decided to teach (a) Human Customs, (b) Ethics and Values, and (c) Earth Religions 1 and 2; Red would teach (a) Love, Courtship, and Marriage, (b) Elementary Human Emotions, and (c) Earth Rituals, Folklore, and Superstitions.

On Herlech, the “entire vocabulary, technical and otherwise, consisted of less than 40,000 words” so Adams and O’Hars are able to  pick up the language through narcosis learning in only four days time. O’Hara, however, doesn’t wait for fluency before bedding every swivel-hipped dame and chugging down boilermakers made from the local hooch. Adams must suppress his bookish advice in the face of O’Hara’s hedonism/bestiality; though the aliens are erect bipeds, they haven’t passed the “7-10 gestation period” or “planetary defense capability” tests yet.

Adams isn’t only a by-the-book commander, but he’s also a “fledgling evangelist” (24) and O’Hara’s debauchery is beyond his skill with words of morality. Little did Adam know when the mission began that his sexually-supercharged sidekick would “become, in the fullness of time, the god of a far galaxy” (24). Regardless of his campus-wide exploits of the flesh, O’Hara maintains his teaching schedule, introduces the natives to theater, and starts the trend of clothing one’s loins in public.

Adams becomes enthralled by the beauty of one of his students, but because the taboo of eye-contact limits his vision of her beauty, there are other bodily locations to stare at while instructing:

Cara floated within my ken in grace and beauty, plus a quality at first indefinable. Cara, I think, more than any other, inspired me to introduce the English word “beauty” into the Harlechian … She was my golden girl, the teacher’s pet, and I never looked on her face from fear of disillusionment. Her mound of Venus swelled as a perfect ovate spheroid tasseled with cornsilk curls. A faint ellipsis to the outer labia gave the whole that strangeness of proportion without which there is no true beauty, and the curve gave it an air of joy blended with a feeling of peace which seemed to exude happiness and serenity. But still its aura defied definition until, one morning, inspiration provided me with the word which encompassed the whole—Cara’s had character. (60)

O’Hara continues his coital gallivanting while Adams, the moral evangelist, succumbs to the pulchritudinous Cara in a moment of weakness, a moment of passion. After their physical union, the two seek marriage on a planet with no religious leaders—so Adams, as commander, appoints O’Hara to wed them—and the newlyweds await for their child to be born. However, with Earth customs now established in the university and in Cara, the archetypical moody woman is portrayed in Cara’s character. Adams is not impressed.

O’Hara’s mind may be between his legs, but he’s able to summon some creative energy for the theater rather than the Karma Sutra. The Shakespearean televised play he directed was a smash success, but Bubo the Dean failed to see the fictional side of the play’s murderous ending and expels one student; this is the duo’s first run-in with the Dean, and not the last. As O’Hara develops his Passion Play for Easter, the Harlechians adopt Earth law and, with it, Earth law enforcement. Though fledgling in both areas, Harlech experiences its first murder in thousands of years and the law is awkward to find purchase. Adams must manipulate the law, the perpetrator, and the Dean in order to construct a fair outcome for all.


In my introduction, I mention the concrete and abstract qualities of each book’s plot. The same could be said for each book’s entertainment value: Starship was sullen, downcast; Pollinators was quirky, inquisitive; while Rakehells is spry, relentless. So Rakehells isn’t only a satisfying book in regards to its behind-the-scenes abstract interpretations, but also because, at face value, the book is fun. While Adams is neat and proper yet fallible in the end, O’Hara is manipulative and randy… sometimes combining the two. As diametrical as the two are, they were chosen to be together on this mission because their faults are supported by each other’s strengths.

Their relationship isn’t quiet dynamic as it is fun to watch develop. Even Cara, whose wondrous bosom and loins tempt not only Adams, has a fallacy which is entertaining when taken in context; surely, reading the snippy quotes of jealousy and exaggeration are irritating, but consider that Cara has never seen another human female, so her emotions emerge purely from her contact with the Earthly classes she has taken with Adams and O’Hara. None of the three (Adams, O’Hara or Cara) ooze a rich history to account for their actions, but it’s still satisfying to watch the three grapple with their imperfections.

Boyd’s prose doesn’t drift into the perverse, but keeps at bay with loquacious passages of Cara’s more salaciously gratifying, libidinously seductive body parts:

Striding beside the girl, I could not help but comment to myself on her beauty of form and carriage. She flowed in grace and all about her seemed a sweep and a glide, save for two high and widely separated breasts, like the forequarters of kittens coiled to spring in play, which jiggled against the fabric of her gown. So palpitant and palpable they were, I jerked my peripheral gaze from the sight and silently muttered a prayer. (77)

I am 2theD, and I approve of this description. Boyd is equally as playful with his prose in numerous passages, yet sometimes slips into banality mode when Adams describes his curriculum or mathematics with a slide-rule and when O’Hara outlines his grand plan for his plays. The two more baneful devices used by Boyd in his book are (a) the similarity of the aliens to humans and (b) the age old crutch of time travel. The reason for the alien/human similarity is mentioned in the book, but merely in passing and reads more like an afterthought without repercussions (aside from the humanid-qualifying gestation period). The time travel crutch is also a spanner thrown into the works; Boyd attempts to justify it with mathematics but succeeds only in twisting the plot in the last three pages. The result is mildly humorous, but feels too warped out of shape for a decent ending.


I’m not sure it’s necessary to read Starship or Pollinators before diving into Rakehells, but reading all the parts of the trilogy brings a sort of referential  context to compare them to each other. I mentioned Rakehells had a slew of interpretations to analyze, but I’m unwilling to taint your opinion if you haven’t read the book. If you HAVE read the book, I’d love to hear about how others perceived the evangelical adventure of Adams and the coital conquest of O’Hara. Having read and enjoyed Rakehells, I won’t abandon hope for his other novels. Read on fiction soldier.


  1. You're BACK!

    Starship really put me off Boyd. I found it clunky at best.... This sounds intriguing.

  2. I'm BACK! February and March... Jesus, all I did was analyze and type for 8 hours per day. It has turned out to be quite the slick little number though (if you consider 193 pages to be little). I hope to pick up the pace a bit this month--I got five days on an electricity-free beach coming on the 13th. Glorious!