Thursday, March 21, 2024

Review: Mindwipe!, by "Steve Hahn" (Stephen Robinett)

Review: Mindwipe!, by "Steve Hahn" (Stephen Robinett)

by Rich Horton

Stephen Robinett was one of John W. Campbell's last discoveries, his first story appearing in the March 1969 Analog as by "Tak Hallus". (Campbell actually published first stories by a few writers who had careers of some significance, and one truly major writer, in the last years before his death -- other examples are Stepan Chapman, Rob Chilson, and James Tiptree, Jr.) Robinett/Hallus had a serial part in the first issue of Analog I bought, August 1974, and indeed he was an Analog regular throughout Ben Bova's time there, and he followed Bova to Omni. In 1975 he abandoned the "Tak Hallus" pseudonym for his own name. I had enjoyed his stories in Analog, and his two novels, Stargate (serialized in Analog, June through August 1974; in book form in 1976) and The Man Responsible (1978). But after the early '80s he seemed to disappear. It turns out he had published two crime novels in 1990, but then fell silent, presumably because he had contracted Hodgkin's Disease. He died, only 62, in 2004.

I did not know that he had published another SF novel, for Roger Elwood's notorious imprint Laser Books. (Laser Books was an imprint of Harlequin, and used a similar formula to Harlequin's romance line -- all the novels were 190 pages, with fairly strict rules about content.) Robinett's novel was Mindwipe! (1976), expanded from his second published story, which appeared as by "Tak Hallus" in the December 1969 issue of Analog. He chose to publish this novel as by "Steve Hahn", why I can't say, though perhaps he wasn't terribly proud of it. To be sure, given the Analog publication of a shorter version, the pseudonym was pretty transparent. 

I recently reread The Man Responsible and decided maybe I'd go ahead and read Robinett's complete works. And so I had to read this book. I also have the December 1969 Analog, and so I read the original story (just called "Mindwipe", no exclamation point), which is a long novelette or short novella, right around 17,000 words.

Laser Books, I will add, do not have a good reputation. The restrictive format, and Elwood's rather iffy taste, certainly were issues, and I suspect they didn't pay all that well, either. Not surprisingly, they published a lot of newer writers. In that context, some of the most admired Laser Books, in retrospect, are two from Tim Powers (The Skies Discrowned and Epitaph in Rust) and one from K. W. Jeter (Seeklight), as well as Augustine Funnell's only two novels (Brandyjack and Rebels of Merka.) In all honest, Mindwipe! does not stand with any of those novels -- it's a pretty weak effort.

It opens with Ernie Schwab, a lowly laborer on a cargo starship, being summoned to the surface of the planet, Paria, that his ship has reached. Paria is an unprepossessing place, inhabited by intelligent ratlike aliens who dig tunnels all over the place, and the small human concession mines valuable minerals from the dirt the aliens dig up. Schwab has no idea why he's there, but suddenly he feels a compulsion to look in on the human governor -- and without knowing what he's doing, he is telepathically sucking out the contents of the governor's mind: a mindwipe. While Schwab had been identified as a low-level telepath, he certainly didn't know how to mindwipe.

What he's done is a crime, of course (punishable by, essentially, mindwiping) so he tries to run, and finds himself in the Parian tunnels. But this is fruitless, and soon he's arrested, and taken back to Earth. His conviction seems certain, but he hires a lawyer, E. W. Benson. Most of the rest of the story is told from Benson's viewpoint. (Robinett, a lawyer himself, very often used lawyers as viewpoint characters.) Benson knows it will be hard to get his client off, but he is determined to do his best, partly motivated by his dislike for the prosecutor, a fairly honest but pedantic and annoying man. Benson is quickly convinced that his client believes he is innocent, but the evidence still seems damning. There is one detail -- a name, Regina, that was present in the governor's mind as he was mindwiped. 

Benson arranges a trip to Paria, and then Schwab complicates things by escaping from prison and also coming to Paria. But there are a couple more details to track down -- a mysterious footprint Schwab has remembered from his time in the alien tunnels, and more details on the mysterious Regina, who seems to have been a powerful telepath and who left her home for that reason. In addition, a mining company official has been importuning Benson, and there have even been what seem like attempts on his life. It turns out the governor was concerned about exploitation of the aliens. This gives the company a motive to eliminate the the governor, but there is also a hotel owner who stands to lose business if humans abandon the planet to the natives. Benson and Schwab end up going into the alien tunnel complex, trying to ... well, the reader will guess more or less what's going on.

The novel is really a kind of mess, that has the glimmerings of an interesting idea at its core, but never quite resolves it satisfyingly. The telling is OK, except there's a fair amount of padding -- the rival lawyer's jabbering goes on too long, the encounter with the hotel owner is a waste of time, even Schwab's escape is boring and silly. And the final resolution is in the neighborhood of reasonable, but terribly muddled.

I read the original Analog story, which is less than a third the length of the novel. It eliminates most of the padding -- the story is entirely from Benson's POV, the hotel owner is not mentioned, the rival lawyer is a minor character, the attempts on Benson's life are gone. All this is to the good. All that said, the resolution remains a bit of a muddle. It's really a minor story, and the novel is even worse. 

Robinett, I emphasize, did lots of better work. But this is a throwaway effort.

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