Thursday, June 1, 2017

A Forgotten SF Novel: Point Ultimate, by Jerry Sohl

A Forgotten SF Novel: Point Ultimate, by Jerry Sohl

a review by Rich Horton

Jerry Sohl (1913-2002) was a journalist turned SF writer. He wrote about 14 novels and 16 short stories between 1952 and the mid-80s (with a couple of outlier shorts a bit later). He also had a fairly significant career as a TV writer for such series as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, The Invaders, and the original Star Trek (he wrote "The Corbomite Maneuver"). Nothing he wrote was particularly memorable -- the Science Fiction Encyclopedia allows that he was "competent" and a "professional craftsman", but Gary Westfahl is much harsher on his TV contributions, and Damon Knight absolutely eviscerated the book at hand (Point Ultimate) in In Search of Wonder. To put the final nail in his coffin, my wife Mary Ann, a devotee of Star Trek: The Original Series, describes "The Corbomite Maneuver" as "not one of my favorite episodes".

Still, his was a name I was sufficiently familiar with that I figured I ought to give him a try, and when I found a copy of Point Ultimate in an antique store for a dollar I thought "What the heck?", and bought it. I didn't remember Knight's review -- it turns out Knight was right.

(Cover by Farragasso)
Point Ultimate was published in 1955 by Rinehart and Company (and simultaneously in Canada by Clarke, Irwin). It arguably fits in two separate categories of James Nicoll's themed review series. James is currently doing "Red Menace" books (though he's looking for more "hidden Commies" than this book, in which they've already taken over), and back in 1999 or so, at rec.arts.sf.written, he did a series of books set at the turn of the millennium, and this book is set in 1999.

The following will be full of spoilers for the book.

The book opens with 26 year old Emmett Keyes planning to escape Spring Creek, IL (near Springfield) and somehow meet up with the resistance movement he is sure must exist somewhere. For it seems that in 1969, four years before Emmett was born, the Russians invaded the US (and the rest of the world), and took over without much of a fight, due to two factors: a shield they invented which stops any bombs reaching Soviet territory, and, more importantly, a plague that they have distributed all over the world. They alone hold the secret of immunity, and they give it out as booster shots that last a month, so that all their subject peoples must toe the line, and show up for their shots every month.

Emmett has one secret in his favor: he's immune to the plague. So he heads out on his trek, and before you know it, he has blundered into a farm owned by a nasty Commie collaborator. The Commie tries to kill him, and Emmett, in self defense, kills the man instead. His wife turns out to be thrilled -- she hated her husband and all the commies, and she gives Emmett some money and a stun gun her husband had been issued, and sends him on his way. He soon blunders again into a group of suspicious people in the woods. They quickly subdue him, and take his gun, and they immediately know who he is. But they seem to be against the Commies -- and, more importantly, one of them is a delectable young woman who falls for Emmett immediately. He is quickly released -- without learning anything about the group -- but the girl, Ivy, suggests he try to find a nearby group of gypsies.

But before Emmett reaches the gypsy camp, he blunders again (Emmett blunders a lot) and is captured by the local Communist director, Mr. Gniessen. Fortunately, Gniessen is desperate for human company -- it seems all his Soviet-provided servants are robots, and the only humans who live with him are his chef and his doctor. He is safe, however, because the house brain recognizes all the people on the estate via the bracelets they wear (one is immediately placed on Emmett), so escape is impossible. Emmett becomes Gniessen's massage therapist. Gniessen is a fat and dissipated man. Emmett soon learns of his major recreation -- weekly orgies in which the prettiest of the local girls are brought in for the entertainment of the local Communist officials and trusted collaborators. (The girls are well compensated.) He also learns from the Doctor of an underground network of abortionists who help girls who get in trouble (the Communist regime strictly regulates births, for reasons which take a long time to come clear), and also he finds hints that some girls are sent somewhere special to have their babies -- somewhere from which they never return.

Emmett's chance to escape comes by coincidence, when Gniessen's heart gives out, and Emmett can replace his own bracelet with Gniessen's. He gets away far enough to finally meet a gypsy caravan, and he soon finds to his shock that the magician's girl assistant is no one other than Ivy. After overcoming their suspicions he joins them, and is looking forward to meeting the leader of the resistance movement he had been sure existed, and to go to "Point Ultimate", their headquarters. But before this can happen the Communists track him down, and he is taken to New York to talk to one of the Commie leaders. But magically the resistance leaders desperately want him, so they manage to spring him, and he gets taken to Point Ultimate, where he learns the real secret ... The American scientists (many of them) managed to escape and hide, and they have colonized Mars, and also developed a way for 20% of the population to become immune to the plague, and they are slowly building a force based on Mars to return and destroy the Commie threat. And,look, here comes Ivy, who can't live without Emmett, so she will gladly take the 20% chance that she can become immune to the plague to join him on Mars.

In a way, I'm exagerrating. The book is indeed pretty bad. But on a scene by scene basis it's professionally told, and often pretty exciting. And of course the villains are truly evull, and the good guys and girls are pretty good, and ... well, that's about it. The plot is, event by event, simply impossible to believe. Emmett should have been dead or in a labor camp at every single step. And the depiction of the "Enemy", the Communist invaders, is absurdly over the top, and their subsequent laziness and decadence is also exaggerated. (For all that, Damon Knight's review doesn't really convince -- he's shooting at fish in a barrel and he still manages to miss some. Though it is amusingly executed.)

Bottom line -- a book that has been forgotten for good reason.


  1. Sohl wrote a novel of Fortean paranoia that I really really enjoyed as a kid. Must try to find a citation. Jeff R

  2. update: the Sohl novel I enjoyed so much was The Odious Ones. Loathing packaged as after shave. I believe it has thematic link to Dick's masterpiece Ubik. Perhaps.

    Jeff R

  3. Oh, thanks. I was wondering if it might have been THE TRANSCENDENT MAN.

  4. Sohl has at least one decent novel -- COSTIGAN'S NEEDLE, which I read as a young feller, and then purchased off eBay last year. It held up pretty well, I thought, although the last section was kind of unbelievable. An inventor, the Costigan of the title, creates a teleportation device (the titular Needle). A power surge throws him and a bunch of scientists working on the Needle into another world, marooning them. Over time they recreate society, and rebuild the Needle. Decent escapist reading.

  5. Well, I liked it a lot when I read it at age 12. I thought there was a plot point, not covered here, that Emmett was immune because he played hooky on the day he was scheduled to get his first childhood booster shot - which (the big secret) actually injected the disease, not the cure. Did I imagine that? Anyway this book always comes to my mind whenever Authority hammers hard about universal flu shots.

    1. I think you're probably right about that ... I'll check sometime. And I certainly can't argue with liking it when 12. Lots of what I didn't like now I would either have missed at 12 (some of the plot absurdities) or lapped up (the evullness of the Bad Guys.)