Concentrated background frames diluted characters (2/5)
I bought this novel because of the motorcycle on the cover; simple as that. I had never heard of Edward Llewellyn and, after reading this novel, I may never hear again of Edward Llewellyn. We wrote his first science fiction novel at the ripe age of 67 (proof that it can never be too late). After that novel, The Douglas Convolution (1979), Llewellyn wrote only five more novels, two of which were published posthumously. Most noteworthy, which is perhaps too strong of a word to use in this case, is his Douglas Convolution trilogy in includes the novel of the same name (1979), The Bright Companion (1980), and this very novel being reviewed, which acts as a prequel to the series, Prelude to Chaos (1983).
Rear cover synopsis:
“Gavin Knox was bodyguard to the President of the United States and witness to a crime which could shake civilization to its foundations.
Judith Grenfell was a neurologist who discovered a side effect of the most common pharmaceutical on the market which could cause the greatest biological disaster in human history.
Both were prisoners in the most advanced maximum-security prison ever devised.
Without their information the few survivors of biological catastrophe could dissolve in bloody civil war. They had to escape, and fast, to safeguard the survival of the human race, or leave the world barren for eternity.”
Savvy with technology and gutsier than most, Gavin Knox holds a special status among the prisoners on a barren peninsula where the Federal Penitentiary at Jona’s Point sits imperviously. The prisoners are confined within their prison at all times; they never see the natural color of the sky, never see the horizon, and never hear of news from outside their concrete confines; Gavin, however, has the duty to adjust the radio lines on the roof, thereby allowing him to spy on the only ship perpetually near the prison.
Also with a privileged status, Judith Grenfell has access to keypass codes and freedom in the medical ward and its morgue. Also with detailed knowledge of how bodies are packaged, shipped, and disposed of, Judith only needs assistance with technology to hatch her plan of escape, which is where Gavin Know comes into the picture. Though the prisoners are always watched, their time being intimate is knowingly less watched; so with sweet nothings mumbled into each other’s ear, they concoct their plan: bypass doors, hide under a frozen stiff, easily pass the defunct scanners, emerge from their coffins while on the offshore boat, clobber a guard or two, and make off with the mini-copter to freedom…
…if only a mini-copter weren’t so inconspicuous. On a less obvious route, the duo exchange their transportation for a car, which they switch often in order to stay off the law enforcement’s radar. Their once professional trysts in the prison morph into a less formal acquaintance, their respective personal traits bolstering their low profile and dependence on one another. Spooning in cold motels, their budding relationship doesn’t go beyond emotional and technical support, but Judith’s decision to relocate to a religious enclave may change the nature of their relationship.
The enclave, one of many remote places called Settlements by the puritan practitioner’s of The Light, is home to an Amish-esque commune; rather than limit their technology to eighteenth-century standard, the Light communities limit their use of chemicals to pre-1990 level. This single decree of their religion has kept them safe from the terrible effects of Impermease, the “cheapest, safest, and most effective insecticide” (183) but in reality, the chemical built up in the human body and destroyed the female ova even before birth, thereby rendering nearly every female around the world infertile. The Believers of The Light host fertile women, all of whom they encourage to reproduce through marriage. This fixed notion of marriage drives a wedge between Gavin, who makes the suggestion to ease their place in the community, and Judith, who fiercely decries the draconian measure against her feminine freedoms.
Another chemical drug which the community shuns is Paxin, a drug which was announced to have very little side effects other than its calming stat; Judith is one of the few people who actually know the truth: Paxin acts as a primer for subconscious suggestion. Gavin, having been arrested for murder of a colleague in the Secret Service, is under the impression what he had once been under the influence of the drug, a hypothesis which is consistent with his odd impulses. Since the Settlements do not take the drug of Paxin, they live a freedom which is unknown to those in the Affluent, any city or town which is outside of the Settlement. The Believers have a very strong opinion toward the Affluent, but so too do the Affluent have opinions of those in the Settlements.
…Judith, a fine scientist, who might have been adding her brains and skill to the struggle to discover some solution to the Impermease disaster, was more worried about the health of the few hundred children in the Settlement than the sterility of millions of American girls.
I mentioned this to her once. She sighed and said, “I’ve told you already, Gavin. All their research is hopelss. The eggs in those girls were sterilized years ago. I won’t waste my time trying to bring the dead back to life. What I can do is to help the living to grow up healthy and strong, fit to build a better world.
“So America means nothing to you anymore?”
She turned to stare at me. “Oh yes it does! The new America. The America which will rise from the cesspool of the Affluence. That is what we are working for here!” (157-158)
Judith’s opinions are largely shared among the Settlements, but outside the Settlements lurks jealousy and distrust:
…Rumors listened to with excitement and passed on with eagerness for the same conscious or unconscious reasons; to raise a sense of public indignation which might later justify burning the homes and looting the property of the minority concerned. And the hatred behind the desire was fueled by more than common resentment. It was fired by the fact that the Sutton Settlement still contained fertile women. (164)
This mutual dislike boils over during one of the Settlement’s trips to town where they exchange their last load to lobster for gold bullion, a tempting mark for marauders. With Gavin’s military expertise, the crew of the gold-laden truck make their escape after shooting and maiming their way through the local’s blockade. This stunt infuriates them enough to mount a larger sortie to the Settlement’s recluse location, but the organization of Gavin’s wartime awareness easily crushes the drunken yokels. However, the very act of hostility brings in the federal agents who want to capture their women, dismantle their camp, and reeducate the men. For refuge, there is only one resort: the Federal Penitentiary at Jona’s Point, the same penitentiary which imprisoned Gavin and Judith but which may now give sanctuary to the Settlement.
What should be a story to “safeguard the survival of the human race”, according to the book’s own synopsis, fails to gain momentum after the prison escape and devolves into a story to safeguard against small-minded religious zealots, local yokels, and big brother. This has every feel of a potboiler: perpetually tepid action, sexual tension, misogyny, murder, a car chase, shootouts, a sleazy motel, a motorcycle, and the enticement of prison sex. This would be, at best, a mediocre novel if it wasn’t for (a) the overly-detailed background story, (b) the repetition of a few words, and (c) the complaining about women.
Aside from the four-page epilogue, there are 21 chapters, nearly each one with a page or two of background to the current story. This novel is supposed to act as a prequel to the proceeding two books, but the chunky bits of background feel like textbook snippets spliced into the narrative—almost like a prequel within the prequel itself. All of the history feels force fed, none of it has an organic presence in the story.
Within the first few chapters, I noted Llewellyn’s overuse of the word affluent as a proper noun (Affluence), as a common noun (affluence), and as an adjective (affluent). I estimated I had read the word seven times, so I kept a count thereafter: 25 times, about half of which the proper noun accounts for. That seemed a bit much, but another word was idiosyncratically over used, the German loanword “verboten”, which was used four times. I suppose it’s a loanword but while everyone knows what the word means, no one actually uses it… except for Llewellyn.
Gavin Knox is a pretty macho guy. He’s so wrapped up in his militaristic self that the concept of “woman” usually involves their admiration over his manliness or their secret desire to bed him; any experience a female has outside of these boundaries is unknown territory and best left to complaining about: “She strode down the alley, her skirt swinging, her head held high. She was a stubborn, willful, crazy, arrogant bitch … Once she married me, nobody would dare to insult or threaten her” (119). That is, nobody can insult her or all women unless it’s Gavin Knox himself: “That’s the trouble with having a female partner on any mission [aside from missionary, I presume]. Single-minded and resolute in the crunch; illogical and unpredictable when out of it” (144).
On a more minor note, be it an artistic inclination or unfamiliarity with writing novels, compound the three annoyance above with Llewellyn’s affection for sentence fragments and you’ll find a novel which is aggravating to read: word repetition, sentence truncation, rants about women, and exhibitions of textbook background.