Tuesday, 1 March 2016

King of the Fourth Planet

Robert Moore Williams King of the Fourth Planet (1962)
Here's another one of those forgotten science-fiction authors who dominated book stands for the first half of the last century - a million novels to his name and yet remembered at best as typically adequate by The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. The description seems to square with a boggle-eyed cover promising the god-king, the man-wolf, and the I-machine, a cover I encountered only when I flipped over an Ace Double partially inhabited by the wonderful Katherine MacLean. Had it not been for her, this probably wouldn't have found its way into my collection, which would have been a shame.

The promised man-wolf is actually just some bloke with a bit of a shitty attitude rather than actual lupine characteristics, and the pop-eyed cover star turns out to be the hero, contrary to expectation; and contrary to everything else suggested by both the cover painting and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, whilst this one may fall short of masterpiece status, it's a long way from being the work of a hack churning out one space opera after another for the sake of paying a bill.

King of the Fourth Planet has some of the functional hard-boiled cadence of its supposed type whilst reading like a more coherent van Vogt - all of the surrealism forced to stand in a straight line and act like a proper narrative. The story occurs on Mars amongst native Martians and deals with John Rolf, the main character, having created a machine which allows the user to read the minds of others. So far so Flash Gordon you might think, but as the narrative progresses it begins to feel increasingly allegorical, and allegorical in the sense of A Voyage to Arcturus and related novels of the Symbolist era rather than William Shatner noticing how the really ugly aliens are actually polite and fairly helpful. The setting is Suzusilmar, described as a Martian holy mountain comprising seven distinct levels. I don't know enough of Dante's Divine Comedy to say whether there are any intentional parallels with Mount Purgatorio, but I imagine Williams had something of the sort in mind given that each level is associated with the advance of technology, culture, and spiritual thought, with the peak of the mountain representing the pinnacle of each. Moving from one level to another is the King of the Fourth Planet, a Messianic figure whom we initially fail to recognise because he appears only as a blind beggar on the lower slopes of the mountain. The key to John Rolf's machine is that it allows one to see into the minds of others and to understand their true motives; so for the sake of the story it is regarded as an innovation which will put an end to all the shitty stuff - wars and what have you - and is thus much sought after. Those doing the seeking represent companies from Earth fearful that Rolf's I-machine will bring about the end of marketing, greed, consumerism, capitalism, and even materialism.

Of course, one might read all of this as no more than an episode of Star Trek wearing a kaftan, but the emphasis on spiritual journeys and the like, couched as they are in terms which pay very few concessions to either space opera conventions or alien biology, suggests that Williams' intention was more ambitious. Whether he succeeded or not is debatable, but this is a weird little book, very engaging, and anything but average.

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