Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

1968: The Planet of the Blind (Corey, Paul)

Superficial core to an insignificant façade (1/5)

This must have been one of my $1 buys at my annual splurge at Babbitt Books in Normal, Illinois. I’m back home in rural Illinois once a year, so I only have one chance to stock up on cheap, cheap paperback science fiction novels, which I grab by the dozen and cross my fingers that half are palatable… ‘tis not always the case, but hey, I like to gamble when it comes to old science fiction. Some are hidden gems (e.g., Brian Ball’s Singularity Station [1973]) and others are duds (e.g., Edward Llewellyn’s Prelude to Chaos [1983]). I think I liked the Richard Powers cover much, much more than the book’s synopsis, so that was my catalyst for purchasing this novel… and by “insignificant façade”, I don’t mean the cover is weak because, obviously, the Richard Powers cover is pretty awesome (a word I use sparingly).

In the genre of science fiction, Paul Corey only published this single novel as well as three short stories: “Operation Survival” (1962), “If You’re So Smart” (1969) and “Red Carpet Treatment” (1977). Far from prolific in science fiction, Paul Corey is most notable for his Mantz trilogy about farming during the Depression in Midwestern America: Three Miles Square (1939), The Road Returns (1940) and County Seat (1941). In addition, he is also noted for his science-fiction-sounding novel Acres of Antaeus (1946) which is also about small town farmers in the Midwest.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Eyes to see with…
Eyes to flee with…

What would happen to an intelligent, sighted inhabitant of Earth marooned on a planet inhabited by an unsighted people with a technology equal or superior to his? Further, let us suppose that this man heads a world organization that controls the now the expanding field of tests and testing—Mr. Test himself. How would he fare in this PLANET OF THE BLIND? This is the story of Dr. Thur Stone in just such a situation.”

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Tests on Earth measure one thing: intelligence. Much like the old IQ tests of yesteryear, these tests focus on a person’s logical intelligence akin to mathematical intelligence. According to Dr. Thur Stone, the quantitative zealot he is, if it can’t be measured, it doesn’t exist or it’s simply not important enough to measure. His daughter Karen scored highly, naturally, but turned her professional focus to social work, a move which irked the good Doctor… until she fell in love with a so-called Creativist.

Commonly called a “testnik” in the testing office, this one Creativist—Talcott Jones—was challenging the well establish testing system. His manifesto attacked the genius group (200+ IQ) accusing them of constricting “Earth mentality to a mere manipulation of past-established facts” and making Earth a “many-levelled cage for test-scored human controlled by brain-pickers for brains of other brain-pickers” (7). Further, he spewed forth more  rhetoric: “We have become a puppet people. Tests determine our entire lives … The creative mind, the original thinker, has been permanently relegated to the mental middle of society” (7-8). Thur’s daughter got Talcott’s case all the way up to the Supreme Court, where he was eventually found guilty and sentenced to the ceranium mines on Mars.

To relieve himself of the stress induced by the trial and the disappointment in his daughter, Thur plots a solo journey through the near galactic neighborhood. Without provocation or incidence, Thur’s spacerover is put under remote control and is led down to a verdant planet much like Earth. On the planet’s Earth-like surface and breathing the Earth-like atmosphere, Thur is met by a humanoid figure—a Grendan—who speaks broken English; he could have passed for an Earth human if it weren’t for his lack of eyes, a feature shared by everyone else at the university where he is taken. When the doctors at the research laboratory, who speak perfect English, inform him that they wish to perform a few tests on him, Thur is delighted; however, the tests probe senses which Thur doesn’t have and it soon becomes apparent to the doctors that Thur has eyes. Only animals have eyes; thus, Thur is an animal. Naturally, Thur has a problem with this.

His main crime is invasion of privacy. He can “see”—the Grendans have a difficult time understanding this word—their every movement and action; they consider this to be a gross violation of their right to privacy, so he must be grouped with other animals. He wouldn’t violate their privacy if it weren’t for the ubiquitous construction material of transparent plastic, which they use for everything. Rather than relying on sight to navigate and explore their environment, the Grendans are ultra-sensitive to other vibrations aside from those of light. Curious to Thur, though the Grendans can’t see, some of them have faint eyebrows, suggestive that they’re ancestors may actually have had eyes to see with. Struck by his own genius, Thur tests his theory by rigging up a simple device which focuses light on their vestigial sight organ. When Ello dons the device, she marvels at the new sensation.

Doctor Rhoa heads the research laboratory and is convinced of Thur’s animal nature. His daughter, too, deems Thur to be an interesting animal subject because she studies animal behavior… but she gets a little too close to her subject than she was initially allowing herself. She decides to try to keep him “as a pet” but Thur is offended by the nature of the relationship. Though he find Ello is to very lovely and comely—minus the eyes of course—he draws the line at becoming her pet. His two solutions: (1) get a trail and be declared non-animal or (2) return to his ship and marry Ello…

…only animals don’t get trials and Ello won’t leave her father. When he’s finally transferred to an estate which houses only animals, Thur find security more lax and the watch keepers more dull-witted. With his cat-like companion named Cat, Thur makes an escape from the estate and treks across country toward his spacerover. Through the countryside, he sees a maize-analog crop, the Grendans search parties in transparent bubbles, and, in the thick of the forest, a tribe of sighted Grendans. Though gifted with sight, their intelligence is dull—they attack and bind him up for the non-sighted Grendans to find. Lucky for Thur, Ello finds him and Cat. Returning to the complex which first housed him, Ello and Thur are intimately observed by one of the doctors donning the same sight-device. Scandal strikes the laboratory and Ello is put under trial.

Meanwhile, another storm gathers beyond the mountains. The previous storm’s electrical activity knocked out the community’s power generation, during which Thur’s spacerover had the opportunity to broadcast its distress signal, something which had been suppressed ever since his capture. The Grendan’s motivation for his capture was to study the curious Earth subject, but Thur is also observing the Grendans; he sees them prone to simple electrical storms and strangely devoid to heavy metals. Retaining this information for himself, he schemes for his escape from Grendan in order to amend his mistake about testing back on Earth: “My tests on Earth have sent many Terrans into segregation, one man in particular [Talcott], just because they could not test special facilities” (62). As Talcott has so eloquently put it, “[H]ow can your tests get at that intelligence in a man that knows the secrets of a persimmon? You cannot test for that because you do not know the secrets of a persimmon” (59).

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Regardless of whether the book had a successful plot, Paul Corey does bring up two important issues in regards to testing: (1) quantifying assessment in all areas and (2) limits of old intelligence tests. Many professional educators scoff at standardized testing; the importance attached to the results affects the subject material taught in the classroom. Rather than teaching the minds of children, children are being taught in preparation for the test. There’s very little room for authentic assessment, or accomplishments which qualitatively (rather than a standard test’s quantitative measurement) “measures” the engagement of the student and/or the understanding of the function of the task rather than just performing the task itself. Which brings us to IQ… the old standard of quantitative measurement was based on so-called rational thinking and mathematical logic. The newest paradigm is multiple intelligences, which include mathematical intelligence as well as seven others; these intelligences are an intrinsic, qualitative assessment rather than the old-school quantitative measurement.

Corey may have danced around the issue a bit and pressed ahead ad nauseam with the Grendans’ persistence of Thur’s animal state. What smarts most if the painful obviousness of his dilemma: the man who wronged so many on Earth based on his faulty intelligence test is himself given a faulty test to measure his intelligence and, predictably, now sees the error of his ways. If that’s not obvious from the book’s own synopsis or from the first few pages, the reader must be a child, which wouldn’t be a surprise if that was the intended target when considering the “cutesy” language used. I really, really hate cutesy mild oaths like “Hot-buttered moonbeams!” (Cordwainer Smith’s Space Lords) and, most notably, “Oh, space!” and “Great galloping galaxies!” (both courtesy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation). Corey has two similar eye-rolling mild oaths: “Mother of the milky way” (47, 82, 135 and 139) and “Great galaxy” (54, 67, 80, 91 and 137).

John Carr read this novel and offered his thoughts: “A man can't have his ex-wife, so he clings to his daughter. He can't have his daughter, so he clings to this blind alien girl who thinks he's a great kisser.” Well said, John. This affection for Ello also extends to Ello’s father, Docotr Rhoa: “He just doesn’t want to give up his daughter, a perfect secretary, a devoted child, a quasi-substitute for his unfaithful wife” (137). Thur’s attachment to reconciling with his daughter and eloping with his crush gets repetitive: “The idea of marrying Ello and escaping to Earth, fixed my thoughts on Earth. I got to worrying about Karen—about Karen and Talcott Jones” (130). This stinks of nostalgic science fiction pulp from a bygone era where the conclusion always ends with the protagonist marrying the vixen. Considering this novel was written in 1968—during a revolution of the SF genre, no less—the writing style feels 30-40 years out of date.

The first-person perspective of the novel simply doesn’t work because the protagonist isn’t interesting; he’s maniacal about every women in his life, backpedals on his professional standards, and superficial about his idea of beauty (he actually paints eyes onto Ello’s ocular skin). Considering himself intellectual, his insights aren’t exactly as penetrating as his vision among the blind. Even among the first few pages, the perspective is similar to Pierre Boulle’s Monkey Planet (1963)… minus the frame story of finding the manusxcript in a bottle.

Both Corey and Boulle—or the translator of Boulle’s novel—injected some rather proper-sounding English into the prose. I quote myself from my review of Monkey Planet to pertain to The Planet of the Blind: “The wording is often as formulaic … which leads to passages that feel dryly scientific or lacking any sort of reflective emotion.” Where Monkey Planet’s protagonist was a journalist Ulysse Mérou, Paul Corey actually was a journalist. Perhaps Ulysse Mérou was corey’s inspiration to pen his own novel about a planet almost similar to Earth, strike one dramatic flaw. John Clute says Corey’s novel is “a variation on the theme of the one-eyed man in the country of the blind (for sf) by H G Wells in ‘The Country of the Blind’ (1904)”. Blindness may be a similarity between the two stories, but the most pertinent similarity (borrowed or ripped off?) is the blind population’s insistence the those with vision are inferior; in Corey’s novel, the sighted are considered animals while in Wells’ story, the sighted are considered insane. So… combine an aspect from Boulle and another from Wells and presto!—a rather unoriginal novel.

Lastly, when an author refers to real world facts in their novel, the facts must be accurate. As a journalist, Paul Corey should know this! One mistake is easy to glance over if it weren’t on the first page. Corey writes, “Several centuries ago a Dr. David Wechler defined intelligence as a person’s ability ‘to act purposefully, to think rationally and to deal effectively with his environment’” (7). In fact, the quote is by Dr. David Weschler (with an “s”). Lastly, Thuro undergoes a sound test, “When the sounds came, I guessed: 10,000 decibels, 13,000, 15,000, 17,000. I couldn’t even hear the last one” (55). I think 17,000 decibels would rip the Earth apart because it’d be so incredibly loud (louder than the Saturn V rocket at 220 decibels). Here, Corey means “hertz” rather than “decibels”. Silly journalist.

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Paul Corey once said, “I would like to be remembered for my fiction which I feel has been a credit to me.” I’m sure he meant that he wanted to be remembered in a positive light for his Mantz trilogy rather than in a negative light for his rather lame novel The Planet of the Blind. As much as Corey included nearly every known idiom for sight and vision, I, too, must include my own sight idiom for my recommendation: cast an eye on the beautiful cover… but turn a blind eye toward its content.

1 comment:

  1. Some authors excursions into science fiction land are successful, and others, well, there is a reason they're in the bargain bin... I just finished my own bargain dud, Taflak Lysandra by L. Neil Smith...

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