Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Beachhead Planet

Robert Moore Williams Beachhead Planet (1970)
To set the scene, tourists arrive at Golden Fleece, Colorado by helicopter. Golden Fleece is an old mining town which has been restored as a heritage experience by the inventor of something called simulated brain substance, but as the latest arrivals show up, a half-naked fugitive emerges from the mine entrance on the nearby hillside. He is pursued by a ten-foot tall being with two heads, one of which faces backwards and which spends most of the time arguing with the other head. A small orifice opens in one of the creature's foreheads dispensing something like a hornet which chases the fugitive before causing him to spontaneously burst into flames. An individual named Valthor undertakes to investigate Golden Fleece following consultation with members of his mysterious staff, a man who tells the future by referring to a deck of cards and a Gypsy woman who consults her crystal ball. Valthor uncovers a conspiracy. The inhabitants of Golden Fleece are green-skinned zombies, their ghastly complexion deriving from a green oil which is able to revive the dead at the expense of a loss of autonomy. Worse still, beneath Golden Fleece the mines have become a labyrinthine underworld of robot miners, two-headed guards, and captive humans, all at the behest of a race of invisible aliens called the Narks.

Beachhead Planet reads not unlike one of A.E. van Vogt's more coherent works, not just in terms of peculiar concepts but also in the means of their delivery - succinctly descriptive sentences laying out one fact after another like cards dealt by a croupier - or even like Valthor's precognitive buddy - with wild flourishes of surrealism and borderline dream imagery forced to obey some kind of narrative logic by the tightly delivered prose; and given the subterranean aspect of the story, it's hard not to be reminded of Richard Shaver's schizophrenic fantasies of a hellish underworld.

As with the last one I read by the same guy, whilst you might not want to call it great literature, Beachhead Planet is far too idiosyncratic and weird to be written off as mere pulp. The aforementioned King of the Fourth Planet explored Suzusilmar, a Martian holy mountain which lent the narrative a suspiciously allegorical subtext, as though Williams might be trying to say something deeper than is obvious at first glance. Similarly, his Shaver-style underworld is explored with a portentous tread which seems almost to present a counterpart to the other book. The message is either ambiguous or best left to the individual reader - whichever you prefer - but I'm sure there's something tied in to resurrection by the green oil, the fate of the stinking corpses for whom resurrection fails, the two-headed monsters, and the seemingly biological robots. It's something to do with freedom or possibly the false promises of utopian ideologies - which I deduce mainly from certain sentiments expressed and the novel having been written at the tail end of the sixties. It's hard to say for sure quite what is going on here, but it's weird and thought provoking.

Also, extra points for cover artwork depicting nothing relating to the actual story.

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