THE WAY THE
FREDERIK POHL &
Book Review of:
by FREDERIK POHL and CM KORNBLUTH
(Granada paperback – 1978 - ISBN 0-586-05211-9)
Wolfsbane is the common name for the genus aconitum, a highly poisonous plant also known as Devil’s helmet or Monkshood. As well as being used for euthanasia in ancient Greece, it has long-attributed supernatural powers related to lycanthropy, right through to its walk-on appearance in Harry Potter. It’s difficult to ascertain exactly the relevance of this to that, plant to fiction.
It consists of eighteen short bite-size chapters that take the reader deep into the year 2203, two-hundred years after a rogue wandering world – a ‘runaway planet’, has ripped the Earth from its orbit and dragged it beyond the outer rim of the solar system, out past Pluto into interstellar space. Leaving a ‘decimated, fractionated, reduced to what is in comparison a bare handful of chilled, stunned survivors’ beneath the loom of the ‘terrifying sky’. Earth’s new binary ignites the Moon into a series of Suns on a five-year re-creation cycle to illuminate the worlds. It has also set an impenetrable slaggy midnight-blue tetrahedron squatting on the planed-off peak of Everest, for no obvious purpose. And there are insubstantial ‘eyes’ that condense out of the air, and watch people…
The opening chapter of ‘Wolfbane’ is deliberately stilted and formal, reflecting highly ritualised social codes designed to conserve energy and minimise heat-loss in the frigid conditions of the marooned Earth – ‘the ancient gait of fifteen-hundred calories per day, not one of which could be squandered,’ as they hesitantly await the forty-sixth ‘re-creation of the Sun’. In the tight community of Wheeling in what was once West Virginia, the narrative contrasts Citizen Roget Germyn’s ‘necessary calm’ of prescribed gestures and thought disciplines – the sheep who accept, with Glenn Tropile’s more anarchic behaviour as a ‘Son of the Wolf’, who is ‘reckless of grace’.
By chapter two Tropile takes advantage of Citizen Boyne running ‘Amuck’, to raid the bakers. But is seen, captured, and sentenced to Death by Lumbar Puncture, a highly unpleasant spinal-tap from which his fluids will contribute to the community’s nutritional intake. Whereas Boyne accepts his execution with a citizen’s calm resignation, Tropile uses his devious Wolf-nature to contrive escape from the ‘House Of The Five Regulations’. There’s no violence or contrived Pulp-heroics, no-one gets shot. Although Tropile reaches Princetown, a community of Wolves, and Boyne is ‘harvested’, their destinies remain entwined.
But Tropile’s Wolf-nature overcomes his passive acceptance and allows him awareness, makes the snowflake – of which he’s become a part, to become the virus in the program, corrupting and multiplying the sequences and functions in marvellously detailed ways. As the poison in the machine. The Wolfbane. ‘They had done the binary planet a century’s worth of damage in a matter of hours; they were being excellent mice.’ As the perambulating snowflake explores the limits of the planet, and its history in the derelict Polar Library, learning that the Pyramids – or ‘Omniverters’, are machine-intelligences or A.I.’s who destroyed their own creators, the Pyramids themselves become aware of the threat in their midst and begin their retaliation in scenes that anticipate the machine-assault on the subterranean city in the later ‘Matrix’ films.
But it was to be his collaborations with Frederik Pohl that were to become his most celebrated books, ‘The Space Merchants’ (1953, aka ‘Gravy Planet’) – the classic satire on multinational corporations, consumerism and advertising, and ‘Gladiator-At-Law’ (1955) – which extends the field into corporate law and legal machinations, plus ‘Search The Sky’ (1954). ‘Working with Cyril… was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life’ Pohl relates in his autobiography ‘The Way The Future Was’ (Gollancz, 1979). ‘I always did all the dealing with editors and publishers… Cyril and I had a working treaty. After the rough draft of the book was done, he was out of it. I always did the final revisions (except on the last novel we did together, ‘Wolfbane’).
Meanwhile, we have ‘Wolfbane’.