Chauvinism further mars the mediocrity (3/5)
John Jakes piqued my interest after I picked up and read Secrets of Stardeep (1969) and On Wheels (1973) on a whim. The latter novel is a satisfying satire on American’s obsession with cars yet follows a fairly typical plot line with a predictable finish—3/5 stars in my opinion with 2/5 stars for the former novel. John Jakes was a “bestselling author”, as the cover exclaims, of historical novels with the Kent Family Chronicles of the Civil War era, not speculative fiction. And much like the civil war, this collection is spiced with chauvinism of gender and race. As a bestselling author, one would expect the stories that could plumb the depths of human existence or touch the hearts of many; rather, it’s completely white-male dominated.
This mini-theme starts in the first story—“Machine”—where the only female character is a whiney, concerning housewife, followed by “Political Machine” where only men dominate the political arena and the sole women are, of course, schoolteachers or secretaries. Females as secretaries, models, and victims make an appearance in “The Sellers of Dreams” in which females are naturally so self-conscious of fashion that they are all willing to change their entire person and persona based on the season’s whims… and because men, naturally wouldn’t do that.
In “The Highest Form of Life”, the only female is a reporter who has a “grating female voice” (91)—thus, this story should be the title for the entire collection: White Men: The Highest Form of Life. From this story on, the female and minority roles take a plummet. “One Race Show”—another apt title for the collection—hosts another whiney wife.
This is all taken to another level in “Love is a Punch in the Nose” where the misogyny is obvious yet veiled in satire. When a man punches and hits his wife to make himself feel better, it reeks of something wrong, regardless of the twist ending. But what’s worse than being a woman?—being Asian. When the man finds that it was, after all, OK to hit his wife, he sees another woman—someone lower on the totem pole than himself—take up with a “refugee and freedom fighter from Japkor… [who had] escaped through the Com Chin barricades” (139). He believes the woman victimizes him out of scorn.
Another apt title: “There’s No Vinism Like Chauvinism”. Here, men take the domineering roles and just once it looked like a female would play the leading role in the revolution, but it turns out she’s just a victim, too, as in “The Sellers of Dreams” and “Love is a Punch in the Nose”. Then there’s “Recidivism Preferred” in which the kidnappers plan to free a “sex degenerate” in order to “teach those bureaucrats” of the government for the sake of “free enterprise” (196). Ah, free love is rough love.
The last story—“Here is Thy Sting”—is quite good but, again, chauvinism rears its head. While Cassius is a seriously driven man with the noble goal of writing his own history book, his female partner has a flighty mind bent on whimsical topics for her nitwitted editorial job. And like “Love is a Punch in the Nose”, Asians are the lowest in the rung of humans: Cassius writes about how the Chinese were the defeated aggressors in a fictional Puerto Rican war; another character has a book entitled Alert! The Yellow Underground is Attacking; some “yellow-cheeked bootboy” (217) dies in an brief and unnecessary scene, and Dolly Sue Wei dies in violence stemming from her being “the first non-American ever to register at the University of Levittown” and who was buried “in a free cemetery in Manhattan’s Oriental ghetto” (223). “Here is Thy Sting” scores one point for having a famous female musician, but even she is prone to emotional… the same unsettling, disastrous emotion which affects Cassius in the end.
All this chauvinism could (1) be the result of market demand as the stories were written between 1952 and 1968 yet are distinctly not New Wave, progressive stories of which often assume different sex and race roles. It could also (2) be a symptom of the editors’ hand-picking of Jakes’ 72 published SF stories: Martin Harry Greenberg (noted for over thirty years as an editor and anthologist) and Joseph D. Olander (noted for his anthologies in the 1970s). It could also (3) be just part of the author’s repertoire as he also has machismo novels as Brak the Barbarian (1968).
“Machine” (shortstory, 1952) – 3/5
Charlie swears at and damns the very toaster that’s burned him, claiming it to have a mind of its own. His wife Helen looks on with mild amusement mixed with topical worry. Charlie’s pet hate for all machines good and bad affects his daily life as he forsakes cars in favor of the streetcar, yet at home, he continuously eyes the kitchen toaster. When his wife is away, he follows through with his mechan-icidal plan, but both his wife and the toaster know that he’s up to no good. 4 pages
“Political Machine” (shortstory, 1961) – 3/5
In the American capitol sits the Combined Congressional Building; in that massive complex sits one of many similar machines that perfectly pass laws through rigorous logic: the Illinois Chamber. To facilitate the machine, one man was elected as the Populist Custodian: Elwood Everett Swigg. Behind the man made of metal and flesh is an even bigger mover who commands keywords to Swigg so that he stops and goes as he pleases: Buster Poole. And behind him is the good doctor. Above them all sits a debate, which could unravel them all. 17 pages
“The Sellers of the Dream” (novelette, 1963) – 3/5
TTIC and G/S are the competing companies who drive the future of consumerism, where even personalities and body modifications can change with the season. For G/S to grab a larger part of the upcoming female modification, they send their mole Finian Smith to view the initial unveiling. What he sees astonishes him: the model is a girl he once loved. Having been caught and ousted from TTIC, his boss of G/S sees him and fires him, but not before Finian catches a glimpse of a bigger mystery. Jobless, Finian sets out to find his girl and unravel the mystery. 39 pages
“The Highest Form of Life” (shortstory, 1961) – 3/5
The U.S.S. Sharkbait sits throttling at pier ready to take its scientific journey to the depths of the water in order to communicate with Tursiops truncates—the bottle-nosed dolphin. But just off shore sits the Nikolai Fernoyn, the presence of which seems to indicate that their dolphin communication research is either false or penetrated. Regardless, the Americans feel confident as they’ve already been contacted by an alien race and their translation systems seem legit… only the dolphins don’t want to return communication. 12 pages
“One Race Show” (novelette, 1962) – 4/5
Rhinelander owns a gallery and an estate—actually, his wealthy wife owns the latter, a fact that miffs him. His gallery, however, isn’t the talk of the town as that accolade goes to Swallows, who has received five original painting from an unknown artist named Joe Caul. Morose yet intrigued by the popularity, Rhinelander visits the gallery himself and is hypnotized by the dark, hellish portraits. Caul’s location is a mystery, so Rhinelander becomes determined to hunt him down, but what he finds confuses then disturbs him… and everyone. 28 pages
“Love is a Punch in the Nose” (shortstory, 1966) – 1/5
After Charles heard that he had been passed over on a promotion, his angered compelled him to strike the very thing he loved most: his wife Shirley. Once struck, she forgave him; Charles felt like a new man—his anger relieved and his wife obedient. The coming months saw his fierceness increase as he continued to strike her for insecure insinuations after she had spoken. When he plunged a knife into her chest, his life changed. He was soon learns that his misogyny is only eclipsed by racism in terms of degradation. 11 pages
“There’s No Vinism Like Chauvinism” (novelette, 1965) – 2/5
“[T]hree hundred million Americans who, in these packed vertical cities, found release in the emotional catharsis if fierce partisanship with the armies on either side of the various commercial wars which had uncontrollably wracked the US … for more than twenty years” (151). The wars, however, are carefully scripted from Washington with actors participating in the wars, the multitude of which is under hypnosis. When a real bullet kills a real cow, the unscripted action unveils a cascade of revolution. 44 pages
“Recidivism Preferred” (shortstory, 1962) – 3/5
“Randolf Mellors was a soulless hulk of his former conniving self” (185) as he sits behind the counter of a bumpkin goods ship. He’s polite yet deferring, shy yet competent; his only fault is the one thing haunts him: three words: Acme Lead Works. His day-to-day monotony breaks when a well-to-do trio enters the store, first innocuously then aggressively as they attempt to kidnap him. His reflexes kick in but their planning snares him as he continues to plead his innocence. News reporting, psychology, and crime all clash as Randolf struggles to free himself. 13 pages
“Here is Thy Sting” (novelette, 1968) – 4/5
When Cassius goes to retrieve the casket of his brother who died as a bystander in a knife fight, on the moon, he’s frustrated that someone else had already picked it up. Phone calls and visits to the officials produce no leads as to there his brother’s body may have gone. Meanwhile haunted by a dream in which a savage dog chases him, Cassius sees the world around him full of stagnation and mediocrity. With his own flame of inspiration lit, he begins his long search for his brother, but answers are dangerous. 50 pages