O Master Caliban!, Phyllis Gotlieb

calibanO Master Caliban!, Phyllis Gotlieb (1976)
Review by Ian Sales

It’s tempting to imagine it wasn’t the female name “Phyllis” on the cover of this science fiction novel but the awful cover art which has caused O Master Caliban! to be mostly forgotten. But, to be fair, the hardback edition, published three years earlier than the paperback pictured, has quite a nice representative design on its front, although it is an even brighter yellow than old Gollancz hardbacks. Still, there’s no denying the four-armed bald man holding a somewhat befuddled head by the hair, while standing on a carpet of mannequin limbs, does the book no favours. Even if it is actually reasonably faithful to the story.

The depicted figure is Sven Dahlgren, who lives a peaceful existence on Dahlgren’s World with Esther, an intelligent, talking gibbon, and Yigal, an over-sized intelligent, talking goat. The world has been nicknamed for Sven’s father, a scientist, who razed a section of the world’s jungle and created an area in which he could experiment with mutation caused by varying levels of radiation (a topic which also forms the basis of Gotlieb’s debut, Sunburst (1964)). However, the machines, known as “ergs”, which Dahlgren and his scientists used to manage their facility have rebelled and killed everyone but Dahlgren himself. And, of course, Sven and his two talking animal companions.

Then a spaceship containing five teenagers crashes near the rude cottage shared by Sven, Esther and Yigal. The ergs destroy the spaceship, and now the children are trapped. So Sven agrees to lead them south, through the radioactive area, to where the scientists’ spaceship is parked unused. Meanwhile, the ergs – led by a queen robot, Mod 777 (which may be a Unix joke, but I’m not sure) – has built a robot replica of Dahlgren, which it plans to send to a scientific congress on another world.

The five teenagers prove to be more than they seem. The youngest, ten-year-old Shirvanian, can control machines with his mind. All five are members of the Triskelion Order, which apparently exists to control the delinquent children of the Galactic Federation’s powerful. As the group moves south, they encounter ergs, which they must defeat, as well as more natural hazards in the jungle. Meanwhile, Dahlgren plays chess with his machine doppelgänger, erg-Dahlgren, which as a result slowly becomes “too human” and begins to question Mod 777’s plans.

For Sven and the others, it’s pretty much a travelogue, as they journey south through the jungle, avoiding the local fauna and the ergs hunting them. Once they reach the research area, they witness some of the changes brought about by Dahlgren’s experiments with mutation  – the whole set-up is wildly simplistic, and reminiscent of 1940s fears of radioactivity and mutant monsters. The trip is not a happy one – some of the characters die en route, and for much of the journey, the likelihood of success seems doubtful.

The title of O Master Caliban! clearly points at Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a play which also inspired sf classic movie Forbidden Planet. And it’s clear that Gotlieb envisaged Dahlgren in Prospero’s role. Shirvanian is perhaps Ariel… But the resemblance then starts to break down. I’ll admit to not being intimate with Shakespeare’s play – I’ve seen the 1980 BBC adaptation starring Warren Clarke as Caliban and Michael Hordern as Prospero, and I remember it as disappointing…  – but I can’t map what I know of the play’s plot onto the plot of Gotlieb’s novel. Perhaps Sven as Caliban is the only link between the two…

Whatever the inspiration for the story, it’s not the most exciting science fiction novel I’ve read in recent months. Having one narrative as a travelogue and the other featuring two men playing chess does not deliver much in the way of suspense or action. Where O Master Caliban! does score, however, is in the writing. The cover art of the paperback proudly proclaims Phyllis Gotlieb as “Canada’s #1 science fiction writer!”,and while some Canadian sf writers may presently have higher profiles, at the time O Master Caliban! was published the claim seems accurate enough. Indeed, the annual Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic is named for Gotlieb’s debut novel (the 2012 award was won by Geoff Ryman).

O Master Caliban! is a strange novel. Its set-up is a little old-fashioned and not especially plausible. Its central trio of characters are a four-armed young man, a talking gibbon and a talking goat. And yet, the writing is a cut above other novels of its ilk, and the characterisation of Sven, Esther and Yigal, and the five teenagers, is skilfully handled. It’s a book that feels like it should be pulp sf, but it isn’t written as if it were pulp sf.

In 1982, Gotlieb was awarded the Aurora Award for lifetime achievement. She returned to Dahlgren’s World in 1989 with a sequel, Heart of Red Iron. Her last novel, Mindworlds, was published in 2002, and she died in 2009. She deserves to be better known outside her home country.


Suburst, Phyllis Gotlieb

Sunburst, Phyllis Gotlieb (1964)
Review by Ian Sales

A garish orange cover, the strapline “A fiendish race of demonic children is spawned in the genetic chaos of a runaway nuclear explosion” and a back cover that promises a story set “in the hideous aftermath of the atomic sunburst”, and you might be forgiven for thinking Phyllis Gotlieb’s debut novel is a piece of 1950s schlock sf which trades more to the genre’s pulp ancestors than it does any kind of serious speculative literature.

It’s true that the novel’s central conceit is straight from the heartland of sf of a couple of generations earlier and wouldn’t stand a moment’s scientific scrutiny in the present day, but Sunburst is more than first impressions would indicate. Its protagonist is a Tom-Sawyerish thirteen-year-old girl who reads considerably older than her years; but then she has reason to. She lives in Sorrel Park, a small US town which was sealed off after an accident at the local nuclear power station. It has been under martial law ever since. However, it’s not simply the fact of the accident which has led to this – those volunteers who tried to contain the incident at the power station subsequently had children… who exhibited freak psionic powers on reaching puberty.

These “psis” are now incarcerated in the Dump, a camp surrounded by barb wire, army guards and a special electromagnetic field, and in which the Dumplings behave like superpowered hoodlums. Shandy, the thirteen-year-old girl, has so far managed to escape testing for psi powers by the military, but has just been caught by Jason, the military’s tame psi. She proves to be an Impervious, which means no psi power works on her. They can’t read her mind, when they cloud people’s minds to make themselves invisible she can still see them, when they knock people out or freeze them it doesn’t work on her…

All this proves very useful when the Dumplings escape. It’s up to Shandy, Jason and Doydoy, a disabled Dumpling reluctantly instrumental to their plans, to find them for the military. It turns out the Dumplings have made a beeline for the “Chicago Pentagon”, which houses the computer which runs “the country and most of the planet”. They plan to hold it to ransom. Happily, they are foiled by Shandy, Jason, Doydoy and Prester, the only African-American psi (who had successfully hidden his powers from the military).

The prose boasts a vim not common in sf novels of the time, and its central cast are drawn well. Unfortunately, even for 1964 that central conceit feels badly dated. Even worse, Gotlieb’s attempt to explain it – through Shandy – proves less than acceptable. Sunburst has a welcomingly diverse cast, but to spend pages explaining that juvenile delinquency is genetic and most often to be found in immigrant families is offensive nonsense. It is this genetic delinquency, Shandy theorises, which has mutated to give the Dumplings their psi powers. While Gotlieb repeatedly argues that this does not make them any less than human, and so they must be treated as fairly as anyone else would be, it’s a definite misstep to equate delinquency with “animal behaviour” and psi powers as something that is useful only to “more primitive” organisms.

It then transpires that Shandy too is a mutant, but of a new type: a “supernormal”. This essentially boils down to a genetic morality. Supernormals must be Impervious so as to be immune to outside influence, they must be of above average intelligence, and they must mature at a slower rate than their peers. Shandy fits all these criteria. It gives her a role in the future, now that the military can no longer keep secret the existence of the Dumplings, or the consequences of the nuclear accident at Sorrel Park. But, still… a genetically encoded morality? That’s a little… absolute. And just the sort of tosh you’d expect in a sf novel of the 1930s or 1940s. It’s a little disheartening it should still be around more than two decades later. And equally disheartening it should be at the core of what would otherwise be a well-written novel.

Many science fiction novels impress with their ideas but are let down by shoddy deployment. Sunburst unfortunately exhibits the opposite behaviour. Disappointing.