Donald Westlake, of course, was a well-known crime fiction and screenplay writer, by early in his career he published a handful of SF stories. After an acrimonious split from the small club of SF editors (detailed here), he published the novel Anarchaos under the one-time pseudonym Curt Clark.
Anarchaos (1967) may not be the only Westlake novel properly classified as “speculative fiction” (I haven’t read Smoke yet), but it definitely is the only one marketed to a SF audience. At least partially written in the early 1960s before Westlake quit the genre, Anarchaos reads like pre-Dangerous Visions SF, but is a solid example of the form. It’s compact and focused on a conflict between two main characters: a violent man and the planet he grows to hate.
Ultimately, I myself wasn’t sure what I planned to do. Learn, to begin with, and once I knew I could decide. Deep inside me the fury coiled like a snake, like a mainspring, but I kept in control. Mindless rage would get me nothing. I had to be cold, mind rather than emotion; I had to be a machine gathering data.
Rolf Malone is an ex-convict who leaves Earth to visit the remote colony planet Anarchaos and investigate the death of his brother Gar. Rolf’s violent past has left him without a home, and he intends to draw some purpose out of recovering Gar’s past. Anarchaos, settled under a charter of Bakunin/Kropotkin-style of anarchy, has descended into a permanent state of lawlessness.
How much does it matter that Anarchaos started out under a Bakunin/Kropotkin-style of anarchy? Not much, really: there was an effort to run the planet this way, but human nature took over and things went to Hell rather quickly. Hell is actually the name of the star that shines on half of the planet. Several cities dot the illuminated side of the planet (there are no seasons or day/night changes), featuring spires that house the various corporations that have taken root. It is these companies that rule by exploitation and espionage, with total disregard for the locals in their way.
Unfortunately, the company men are also a bit too clever for Rolf in the early going; he gets shot, knocked down and sold into a labor camp as a slave. It’s a surprising turn of events, given that he had enjoyed a small string of successes, including hijacking a car, infiltrating his brother’s employer, and even sleeping with the main boss’ secretary. The routine of hard labor and the permanent glare of Hell gradually turns him into an automaton:
Without the solar rhythm of day and night it was impossible to keep hold of the concept of the passage of time, so that we lived our lies to a pattern we could not comprehend. We were awakened by shouts, and the sun read evening. We ate gruel from a trough and then trotted into the mine, and behind us as we went the sun still read evening. We worked, scraping out a vein of some pale metal through the interior of the mountain, and at a shouted order we put down our tools and trotted back to the compound along the cold damp tunnels, and when we emerged the sun read evening still.
He is freed from this routine through more tribulations, and eventually escapes to the dark side of the planet. There, he is rescued from death by a fur-trapper, whose hospitality comes at its own dreadful price. Only through brutality and fast thinking is Rolf able to survive all of these experiences, but one feels his gradual surrender to his suppressed rage.
As with many SF novels of the time period, the second half doesn’t quite live up to the first; Rolf manages to carry out a takeover of a ship armed with nothing but his bare hand, and later he fulfills a coordinated multi-city terror attack pretty much on his own. Any true “Parker in space” story would have included more planning and logic, but here the telling is rushed. I wasn’t looking for “Parker in space” but it was disappointing to witness so much hand-waving at the end. The actions of Jenna, the corporate secretary, do not seem likely, either: why risk everything for Rolf, who has only vague promises at his disposal? There is also the matter of a notebook left behind by Gar, presumably with an encoded message – but we do not learn why Gar chose to encrypt his findings, when he had been serving his company in good faith.
Anarchaos compares favorably to Lester del Rey’s 1956 Police Your Planet, where a tough man travels to the shantytowns of Mars. I read PYP last year, and don’t have the copy anymore, but I remember it being a competent but backwards tough-guy western that was transposed to an SF setting. Westlake, by making his planet a sort of developing-world playground for despicable mining corporations, produced a book far richer in ideas. Rolf’s character arc is well-told and compelling, and Anarchaos largely succeeds as a thoughtful genre novel. The holes in the ending leave it short of classic status, but the point remains: Westlake certainly had an SF career ahead of him, had he chosen to stick with it. 6/10.
NOTE: For an obscure SF novel, Anarchaos has earned thoughtful reviews. Here is a more complimentary review, comparing the novel to an early Heinlein story. Here is a more critical overview, seeing some of the same weaknesses that I did, but fewer strengths.