Sunday, December 16, 2018

Birthday Review: The Psi-Power Trilogy, by "Mark Phillips" (Randall Garrett and Laurence M. Janifer)

Birthday Review: The Psi-Power Trilogy, by "Mark Phillips" (Randall Garrett and Laurence M. Janifer)

a review by Rich Horton

Today would have been Randall Garrett's 91st birthday. Garrett was a prolific writer, strongly associated with John Campbell's Astounding. One reason for that was that he would write to order, more or less -- write stuff targeted to his markets. Early in his career, he worked regularly with Robert Silverberg, often in collaboration, using numerous pseudonyms, such that each would use the same pseudonym at the other for solo work, and for collaborations. That had arrangements with a couple of magazines to supply material in bulk, which would largely fill magazine issues under their various names. I recently asked Silverberg who wrote what in an issue that had four stories by Garrett and Silverberg in various combinations under various names. Silverberg couldn't even remember who wrote one of the stories.

It should be said that despite the depiction of Garrett above, as basically a hack, he was capable of pretty solid work. He was a fine comic writer, and a solid plotter. His work is minor, certainly, but much of it is quite entertaining. His best known, and best-loved, works are the Lord Darcy series, set in an alternate history in which magic works, but under strict "scientific" rules.

The end of Garrett's life, alas, was very sad. He contracted encephalitis in 1979, and fell into a coma from which he never woke. He died 8 years later. Just before his illness he had outlined a series of novels, the Gandalara Cycle, and had put together a rough draft of the first novel. That novel was finished by his wife Vicki Ann Heydron, and she wrote the remaining six novels, all of which appeared under their dual byline. I read the first couple, and found them pretty enjoyable.

For his birthday I've resurrected some brief posts I made long ago about three novels he co-wrote with Laurence M. Janifer, under the name Mark Phillips. These were all serialized in Astounding between September 1959 and February 1961. Thus, 9 of 18 issues in that timeframe ran these serials, which is, I am afraid, an indictment of the sorry state of Astounding in that time. They just aren't very good, and as their subject is Psi, one can easily see why Campbell published them. That said, the first of them (and best, I suppose) was (shockingly, to me) nominated for the 1960 Hugo for Best Novel.

(Perhaps I should add that Laurence M. Janifer's name was Larry M. Harris at the time of publication of these stories -- in 1963 he adopted his grandfather's surname.)

(Cover by Kelly Freas)
Brain Twister aka "That Sweet Little Old Lady"

"Mark Phillips" was the pseudonym used by Laurence M. Janifer and Randall Garrett for a series of novels about an FBI agent investigating telepathy related crimes. The first of these was serialized in Astounding in 1959. It seems that a telepath is spying on our atomic scientists.  How to find him?  Our hero has two inspirations: first, find other telepaths (set a thief to catch a thief, see?); second, that telepaths might end up in mental institutions. He strikes paydirt when he finds a little old lady who thinks she is the immortal Elizabeth I of England, but who also is an excellent telepath. With her help he tracks down a number of other telepaths -- most of whom have been driven quite mad by the constant interference of other minds. After a number of adventures, partly caused by "Elizabeth"'s insistence that her entourage of FBI agents and psychiatric help all dress in 16th century togs and accept knighthoods from her, the actual criminal is tracked down.

Very minor stuff, though with a reasonable solution, and OK fun.  Hard to imagine that it got a Hugo nomination, though, but it did.  It seemed clearly written to order to pander to Campbell's obsessions.  It was published in book form as Brain Twister.  The sequels are The Impossibles (which I read a while ago and didn't find even as good as "That Sweet Little Old Lady"), and Supermind.  Five'll get you twenty our hero is a full-blown supertelepath by the end of the series (actually, that's hinted at even in the first book).

The Impossibles aka "Out Like a Light"

(Cover by Kelly Freas)
I read the second in the series as a 1963 Pyramid paperback called The Impossibles, but it was first serialized in Astounding/Analog in 1960 as "Out Like a Light".  Malone is sent to New York to investigate a series of thefts of red Cadillacs, which seem to be impossible.  The cars' locks are untampered with, but the cars are hotwired.  Witnesses have seen the cars drive by themselves.  And a couple of policemen, including on page 1 Malone himself, have been sapped by an apparently invisible person.  The story is pretty routine from there: a lucky break leads FBI guy to the names of the perpetrators, and one of them a) has a beautiful sister to provide a love interest, and b) shows off his power, which is teleportation, in front of Malone.  The book turns on finding a way to keep a teleport imprisoned, since they can jump out of any cell, even leaving handcuffs and shackles behind.  The solution, natch, is unfair: turning on made-up "facts" about teleportation.  The book is breezy and readable, but it also feels very padded, and the story is only so-so.  Not worth looking for.

(Cover by H. R. Van Dongen)
Supermind aka "Occasion for Disaster"

Now, in "Occasion for Disaster", serialized in Analog in 1960/1961, published in book form as Supermind, we learn that various organizations are being harassed by a flood of errors -- accounting mistakes, translation errors, computer problems.  Nothing out of the ordinary, except that there are so many.  It also becomes clear (to the reader -- it takes forever for Malone or anyone in the book to figure this out) that these errors are all affecting bad guys -- the Mafia, corrupt politicians, etc.  While Malone's boss speculates that somebody has spiked the water coolers with hallucinatory drugs, Malone soon decides that a psi power is involved.  Queen Elizabeth soon confirms this -- she has been detecting "telepathic static" while these problems have occurred.  Apparently, some telepath or group of them is interfering with the thought processes of some people just as they do tricky work, leading to the errors.  Malone's investigations take him to a crackpot Psychic society, on the grounds that there might be some golden ideas buried in the dross of their literature.  There he meets a beautiful redheaded secretary.  Soon Malone finds that he himself is being interfered with, as is his boss.  Luckily, he can block out the static -- but he makes little enough progress in solving the problem.  Finally, as civilization basically collapses (essentially because the interference is causing corrupt politicians to resign, but that leaves nobody in charge, since so many pols are corrupt), Malone finally jumps to the right conclusions.

This is the last book in the series, so Garrett and Janifer seem to find it necessary to really up the ante.  Though the book doesn't portray this well, we seem to be left with a major disaster having occurred -- all the industrialized world in really bad shape, millions upon millions dead.  And the authors end up trying to justify this as a good thing.  (The "good" psis are in position to Take Over now, see.)  That didn't go down too well with me.  Plus the ending is a bit flat -- for instance, Malone makes a perfunctory rediscovery that Barbara Wilson is the woman for him, though she has maybe three lines in the book.  And overall, there is a lot of running around to little effect -- not a nicely constructed plot at all.  Weak stuff, motivated, it would seem, by the worst of attempts to pander to John Campbell's obsessions.

(Cover by John Schoenherr)

(Cover by John Schoenherr)

(Cover by John Schoenherr)

No comments:

Post a Comment