Friday, February 24, 2012

Clans of the Alphane Moon

"Psychosis is psychosis", said Lord Running Clam, "And a fanatic is not to be trusted."

         I was going to give you a post on Empire State, and to do this the time after that. But this was too good to pass up. See, I've wanted to read this for years and never got around to it, and now that I have, I'm very glad I did. Because it's not the book I first thought it was. It's much better than that book.
       So this actually starts with my dad again, like most of my early forays into genre fiction. He's the one who first read me The Hobbit, with its illustrations by Michael Hague. He's also the one who steered me away from most of the books that I wouldn't have got as much when I was younger, and then recommended I read them when I was older. In fact, a lot of my taste in books comes initially from him. It grew and mutated out of that, getting both crazier and a little bit saner, but overall, this blog wouldn't exist if it weren't for him reading to (and telling stories to) a confused little kid and then helping him seek out more of the same.

And, through this book, he was also my first introduction to Philip K. Dick.

    I found the book, like most of the books he turned me on to, on the bookcase in his office. He had a whole mess of mass-market science fiction paperbacks on those shelves, and nestled in between two novels whose names have been lost to time immemorial was a thin gray book with a picture of a strange yellow alien on it, the generic sci-fi type reading Clans of the Alphane Moon*. While at the time I was too young, I remembered it, and later on, when I was in my heavy metaphysical/literary phase**, my dad said that I might find the book entertaining and cited a rant by one of the characters on how everything seems interconnected and planned. Unfortunately, at the time we had misplaced the copy of the book, and when I found it, I was hard in the grip of several interlibrary loans and didn't feel like I had time for it, so it languished in a drawer. 

      Years later, when I went to Hawaii to study librarianism (sadly back-burnering you, Dear Readers****, in the process), I got a job in the reference department and as fate (or indeed synchronicity) would have it, Clans of the Alphane Moon was the first book I found in the literature section. I grabbed it and took it out right on the spot. And it is entertaining, though it is also much, much more.

     Clans of the Alphane Moon tells the story of Chuck Rittersdorf, a CIA roboticist tasked with operating and writing code for propaganda androids in Communist countries, said countries meaning everything that isn't the United States of America. His wife-- a cold, businesslike borderline psychotic named Mary-- has just started a ruthless divorce campaign to take his house, his money, and his children away from him. He now lives in an apartment building with a meddling-yet-well meaning Ganymedean slime mold named Lord Running Clam and tries to stave off thoughts of suicide with a slowly-evolving plan to kill his wife via android while she's on a science mission to the titular moon, Alpha II M3. 

And then things get weird.

        Alpha II M3 is a former mental hospital-cum-penal colony where the Terran influence collapsed and the psychotics organized themselves into clans based on their mental disorders: Manics, Paranoids, Schizophrenics, Depressives, Hebephrenics, Obsessive-Compulsives, and Polymorphics. Mary, a psychologist, is there to evaluate them and try to bring the colony back under Terran control before things get out of hand. They're especially interested in the Manics, as their mania is resulting in highly-advanced technology, and the Paranoids (or Pares), who overanalyze everything to the degree of setting up meticulous political systems and tactical plans. 

       Meanwhile, on Alpha II M3 itself, the clans are convinced that Earth is watching them, ready to attack at any moment. They're insane, heavily armed thanks to the Manic clan, and they aren't going to be re-institutionalized by their former masters without inflicting heavy casualties. They are aided by schizophrenic "Prophets" and "Saints" whose delusions are augmented by actual psychic powers and precognitive abilities. And worst of all, they're all absolutely right.

      All of this, along with a TV comedian who has a hidden agenda and a group of Alphane weapon dealers in his pocket, is about to collide in what could be a highly probable bloodbath all over the moon. 

And if you couldn't tell from that plot description, Dear Readers, it's a comedy. And a particularly funny one at that. No, I'm not making this up. 

   It is also one of the best books I've read this year, hands down. Dick has always handled characters and irrationality the best out of anyone, so a Philip K. Dick book about irrational characters is already getting a running head start. But it's the way he makes everything sound so sane, from a moon ruled by a caste system of psychotics to a slime mold who can't help but resort to telepathy and blackmail to fix someone's life. You never start to question the machinery that runs the book, as Rittersdorf is such a believable schlub and everyone around him plays out as if they have their own self-interests, but they all go through Rittersdorf, thus making him important and also showing why. The character interactions also do a great deal in making the central characters (Rittersdorf and Running Clam) the most sympathetic in the book, as they are the only two people not trying to use anyone or manipulate the situation. It got to the point where, as I was reading it, I'd become so attached to one character that when they died, I actually cried "Noooo!" out loud. The death was such a shock, and such a sudden thing, that it managed to generate pathos without any hint of tawdry emotional manipulation.

    Another reason the book is much better than its parts is the pacing. Rittersdorf's adventure doesn't seem to flag until the last few scenes, and even then, it's still urgent enough to keep one interested. While the start is a trifle slow, it soon pitches full-tilt like the first drop on a roller coaster and doesn't stop until it reaches the end. Even when the characters are talking, there's still a tense, nervous, frantic energy. The dialogue, the characters, and even the slower parts of the plot all contribute to the tension and energy of the book. And the slow parts aren't even that slow. When the plot starts to move, it moves, and even the slow parts move at a quick pace. There's a seduction scene in Clans that doesn't even stop, ripping through the action almost as quickly as the participants do the deed itself.

   Furthermore, the dialogue is paced just as fast as the book, and just as sharp as the humor. There are lines in almost every scene that made me smirk, and two scenes that actually made me laugh out loud. I was in a library at the time and on-duty, which was probably not the best place to be, but hey, it gave me something to brighten up my day. This is nothing new, as Dick has always had interesting dialogue, but it's worth a mention because it makes the crazy machinery behind the book work.

   And finally, the underlying themes are actually decent and worth exploring. Dick has a way with writing insane characters, and a way of writing the sane people so that they're just as crazy. It comes as a surprise, and a funny one at that, when one of the characters who has exhibited signs of being from any one of the clans is declared completely normal to everyone's absolute shock. But that isn't the only theme Dick explores. He also deals with depression and loss of stability in one's life through the story of Chuck Rittersdorf and his wife Mary, both of whom feel the impact of loss when they decide to separate and start divorce proceedings. The intimate, wrenching detail and the feeling of helplessness are very true to life, as well as the well-meaning people who try to get them back on track with their lives, only to cause hopeless disarray. 

     But this is a book with flaws, and most notably, the flaws are that when they finally get around to the big showdown on the moon, the pacing finally does flag. It's sad to see it happen, and more to the point, it takes away from the book. While this is a book that thrives on breakneck speed and insane chases, that it slows down near the end in the middle of a tank battle is inexcusable. It is, however, a tiny, tiny flaw. Especially compared to how absolutely brilliant the rest of the book is. Yes, it may have weak points, and it's not the best Philip K. Dick book, but Dick on his worst day (I'm looking at you, VALIS) utterly buries the competition.

     So in the end, should you read it? Of course you should. It may not have the heavy nature of other books, but it's beyond enjoyable, and touches on some very human themes. And it's funny in the wickedest, blackest way possible, managing to laugh at political assassination and suicide as equally as it does the twisted romantic comedy plot surrounding Chuck and Mary Rittersdorf. It's a book that should not be missed, nor dismissed as simply a laugh. And it is arguably one of the best books I've read this academic year. Yes, you should read this book. Yes, you should take it out of the library. I may not go so far as to buy it, but there is nothing like it in fiction, and for that it deserves your scrutiny.

Next time: Caius finally gets around to Empire State, Fool On The Hill, and possibly The Pilo Family Circus, since that review has been sitting in a cloud server somewhere just waiting to be finished.

* See above image. The book does not contain in any form a nude albino woman with a mohawk licking an alien from Alpha Centauri, but the rest of it is pretty bang-on the money.

** Yes, I had a pretentious college student reading phase. It lasted for four or five years and surprisingly did not include Catcher in the Rye, which was required reading in my high school at the time and which every rational person hated to death. It did, however, contain Ulysses, Ayn Rand, Thomas Pynchon, and William S. Burroughs, so it still counts. So there***.

***William S. Burroughs is still really, really cool, though. Thomas Pynchon, too, in certain doses.

**** All three of you