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.
The problem with niches is that when you go even a little bit outside them, everybody gets confused.
This isn’t Parker in Space, because Parker wouldn’t want to avenge for his brother. Parker wouldn’t even have a brother to avenge. Rolf isn’t looking to heist anything. Rolf doesn’t seem to have anything resembling a profit motive. He also works completely alone, which Parker doesn’t usually do. He talks to us in the first person, which Parker is definitely never ever doing. But Parker is the only thing Westlake does that a lot of people have read that reminds them of this, so it’s Parker in Space.
My guess is that Westlake started work on what would (a few years later) be this novel before he wrote The Hunter, and some of the same general ethos crept into it, but as I summarized it in my review, it’s Heinlein meets Hammett, and Hammett wins by TKO.
It’s Red Harvest in Space. One man vs. an entire society. I might remind everybody, Red Harvest is one short, pudgy balding man vs. an entire city, and he wins. That’s a universally recognized classic that has cast a seemingly limitless shadow. This is science fiction, and way way less plausible things happen in that genre all the damn time.
So I don’t accept these criticisms as legit. People are just confused because this isn’t what they expect from Westlake, and because it’s a dystopian SF adventure and a hardboiled mystery at the same time. (And so is every Alfred Bester novel ever published, but that’s what people expect from him, so it’s cool. The Stars My Destination is less plausible than this, and not quite as well written, but still a good book).
It’s actually not the company men that get Rolf enslaved. It’s the general anarchy and chaos that go with a world like this. Everybody who goes there gets killed or enslaved. This is explained early on. Rolf assumed he was too tough to fall prey to that, but nobody’s that tough. On a planet where being a sociopath is normal, being hard and ruthless doesn’t give you an edge. Those people who sell Rolf don’t know from the company–they just want to make a quick buck. When he disappears, the company just assumes he’s dead. One of their operatives looks right at him at the mine, and doesn’t recognize him. It’s Anarchaos itself that’s to blame for all this (as he eventually realizes.) There are small conspiracies, but no large ones, because large conspiracies require some order, and there is none.
People miss the twin motif, though it’s not that subtle. Gar Malone was Rolf’s other half. Without him, he wasn’t complete. But in finding out what happened to his brother, he gets that part of himself back, and that gives him the strength to carry out his plan. And because even the corporate guys are mainly fuck-ups and losers who washed out of the planets people want to live on, it’s not that hard to believe he wins. They’re used to dealing with braindead sleazebags who can’t plan an hour ahead. And Westlake never has much faith in the abilities of organization men to begin with. In his books, knowing who you are gives you the edge.
I just don’t buy the nitpicks–Parker defeats organized crime, all by himself, nobody bats an eye, there’s two big budget movies based on that novel. So Rolf lost a hand–that’s why God gave him a spare. Parker got shot by his own wife, ended up in a prison camp. Difference is, he’s not going to tell us what it was like there. This book overlaps with The Hunter a little, but is very much its own thing, with its own message, its own ethos.
It’s economical in its storytelling. I would not call it rushed. Very nicely paced. There’s no reason to have a long involved plan, because it’s a book about anarchy, and he doesn’t want to give us too much time to figure out Rolf’s plan.
(Also, Westlake was only going to get a few hundred bucks for this from Ace, no matter how long it was. That’s why he stopped writing science fiction.)
Jenna’s not a plothole either–might as well call Brigid O’Shaughessy a plothole. Brigid’s better developed as a character (there’s a fair bit of genre shorthand here), but Jenna makes perfect sense. She’s the standard noir blonde, looking for somebody to use, and she can’t find anybody else to get her off this dirt ball.
This kind of story, it’s not about whether you can believe this might happen. Obviously most science fiction AND crime fiction could never happen. It’s about whether it makes sense on its own terms, and I think it does. A point has been made about how even a thorough-going individualist with no respect for law and order comes to realize that you need some boundaries in a society, some rules. Even if you’re going to break some of them. It’s good to have them there, just the same. Without them, everything goes to Hell.
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PS: I must confess, I’ve never seen the “Why is Gar’s notebook encoded?” nitpick.
There is more than one amoral exploitative offplanet corporation plundering Anarchaos. They compete with each other with basically no legal system to rein them in. This is also explained.
Gar is, as you say, working in good faith for his company. He’s also begun to figure out what this world is about. Encoding his diary keeps corporate spies working for a competitor from stealing his discovery, and it also gives him some leverage over his employers, so they don’t shaft him out of his share. If you lived on a world where anyone at all might rob/or murder you at any time, you might be a little paranoid too. (Hey, I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty paranoid living on this world–you know, the world where we have to memorize 80,000 passwords, encrypt just about everything and we still get out identities stolen and our elections rigged?)
However, it’s not the entire diary that’s in code, just the section describing the location of the mineral strike. The idea is to remind Rolf who his brother was, and by extension, who he is. That’s the turning point. If that section wasn’t in a code they couldn’t break, they wouldn’t show him the diary, and he wouldn’t get his second wind.
Also–Pete–you’re not actually feeling sorry for the good Samaritan trapper who planned to make Rolf his slave for life, are you?
Bit of a Robinson Crusoe ref there, I think. I missed that when I did my review. Rolf is Man Friday.
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Like Jenna, I was hoping for another hint or two about Gar’s intentions. Rolf never considers the possibility that he may have been wrong about Gar at any point in time.
I’m pretty sure company people were behind Rolf’s capture, or at least they had him followed when he went into the slums to ask questions. He was shot at from behind, and in the ensuing chaos he ended up in the hands of the company he was investigating.
It’s true that there are different corporate interests at work, but with the espionage, disloyal executives, etc., they are all mixed up into one corrupted business culture. Considering these executives are pretty much the dregs of their companies, serving out their terms in a miserable planet, it’s easy to buy into this corporate-made hell. The initial anarchist style of government made the planet ripe for the picking, however.
Even Rolf seemed to have second thoughts about how he handled the trapper. He could have tied him up or something.
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My own feeling–that Westlake clearly shared–is that slavery is so fundamentally wrong, anything becomes acceptable to end that state of bondage. Slaves in America mainly didn’t kill their masters, because they knew the reprisal from white society would be extreme (because all oppressers quietly dread the day they become the oppressed, and know they deserve it–it’s like having the wolf by the ears).
It’s right out of Defoe. Crusoe finds Friday, saves him from a terrible fate, and decides to make a servant of him–his labor will be useful, but mainly Crusoe’s just going out of his mind with loneliness. Actually constructs a room to keep Friday captive in (because he’s afraid Friday will kill and eat him).
We tend to forget Defoe’s entire narrative (it’s treated as a children’s book!) Crusoe was enslaved himself, by Moors. After escaping, he ran a plantation, and on that fateful voyage where he was marooned on a desert isle for decades, he was going to Africa to procure slaves. Without any sense of irony.
Defoe’s own feelings about slavery are ambiguous. Clearly he believes all men share things in common, but sometimes it’s necessary for the stronger to compel the weaker, in order to survive and prosper. He shared the general ethnocentric feeling of Europeans, but was by no means convinced that being white meant inherent superiority. More like being Christian did. (It’s a bit better.) Modern racism was still in its formative stages then.
Something I skimmed over in my review (which was long enough already). One of the reasons Rolf decides he can’t just leave Anarchaos to its fate is that he’s seen the wilder areas of the planet, which are not in the degraded brutalized state of the cities. Trapping and hunting at the basis of existence there, not mining. There actually is a lot of freedom there, a cruder more primitive form of free enterprise, like the frontiersmen of North America, only no native sentients to displace or enslave. In some ways, it’s an enviable life, in spite of the light of Hell gazing down on them. At least it might seem so from the outside.
Rolf realizes, looking at this more vital frontier culture, that it will take a long time for the whole planet-wide system of no system to destroy itself. He can’t wait that long. And he knows, from his encounter with his Crusoe, that even without any alien races to enslave, they enslave each other. His Crusoe never even heard of Christ. They’re going down the same road as the nasty brutish and short city-dwellers, will arrive at the same destination. The seeds of corruption are there, will germinate and blossom. Frontier societies don’t last.
It’s all very logical. He had to kill the trapper because that was the only way he could be sure he woudn’t be recaptured and enslaved permanently. He had to blow up the government buildings because that was the only way he could be sure Anarchaos, as presently constituted, would cease to exist. He abandoned Jenna, because she’s the female embodiment of that world, and he knows how she used his brother–he’s going to take a different path, live a different life, on his own terms, but accepting that even for a son of a bitch like him, a well-ordered society is nothing to sneer at. (Parker would agree.)
You can quarrel with the underlying premise, and that’s true of any story. You can quibble over the ending, and that’s true of almost every novel universally recognized as great (ever read Huckleberry Finn? Of course you have.)
But a plot hole is something different. A plot hole is a violation of a story’s internal logic.
And speaking as someone who has read all of Westlake–they are so rare in his work, you can count them on your fingers, and have fingers left at the end.
The man had a supremely logical mind. But he didn’t think logic was all there was to lfe.
Pete, I reread the section where Rolf is captured, then enslaved.
It clearly has nothing to do with the company. Sure, if he became enough of a problem they might arranged to have him killed, but why bother? He’s going around by himself, outside, asking questions. We’ve been told what happens to people who do that. Basically, it’s what happens to every offworlder who goes around outside the few citadels of order without a security detail.
They didn’t kill his brother. They wanted those minerals he found. And if they had killed Gar, what’s Rolf going to do? Call the cops? There are no cops. Murder isn’t a crime on Anarchaos. There are no crimes on Anarchaos. Anarchaos IS crime.
You can imagine what an interesting challenge this is for a detective novelist who is already increasingly skeptical about the tropes of his genre. A world where detectives are literally irrelevant. Prove anything you want. Point your finger at whomever you want. Compile all the evidence in the world. Nobody cares. Nothing will happen.
I type these words, and a slight chill runs down my spine.
Hell may not be our sun yet, but it’s a lot closer than Proxima Centauri.
And the people bringing it closer are themselves a bunch of losers and fuck ups.
Nitpick LIfe, why don’t you?
I thought the junior executives (I don’t remember of which company, but Westlake mixed those corporations into one big soup of corruption anyway) were implicated in both Gar’s murder and Rolf’s shooting when he beat the confession out of that guy on the boat. I don’t have my copy with me, but all the facts came out in rapid sequence at that point. That was probably the juncture where the troubles started for me — things started falling into place all too easily for Rolf from then on.
Well, we’re both right, and we’re both wrong. Noir can be like that sometimes. Oh what a crooked path we weave…….
The people who originally attacked Rolf and sold him into slavery had nothing to do with the company–you wouldn’t trust people like that to do a job (they’d just spend the money and kill somebody else). Just the kind of random thing that happens constantly there.
The two smirking killers who Rolf meets much further on in the book (I believe the first of many such deadly duos in a Westlake novel, most notably in The Fugitive Pigeon) were sent later, to clean things up, after it came out Rolf was still alive, and free, and still looking for answers. However, they’re not out to kill him, but to capture him for questioning.
The point was to cover up not Gar’s murder–which again, would not be a crime there–but rather to avoid the boss finding out they incompetently killed Gar before getting the secret of the notebook from him. They were in enough trouble for that slip-up already, but they’d told a story to mask their incompetence, that would fall apart under Rolf’s investigation, so Rolf had to go. The higher-ups wanted Rolf to try and decipher the notebook.
Another reason Rolf can win–none of these people have any loyalty. All they care about in the end is saving their own skins. Nothing they did was personal. He doesn’t need to take revenge on any of them, because they were just doing what came naturally. It’s the world that makes all that natural that needs to be destroyed. What he does isn’t personal either. Just business. “Cast a cold eye, on life on death–Horseman pass by!”
As this type of mystery story goes, it’s a lot better than your average Philip Marlowe. Or any of them. Chandler was not big on logic. People are still trying to figure out what happened in The Big Sleep. Book or movie.
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I knew we weren’t going to agree on the Jenna part – I did try to see it another way, but I just wasn’t convinced by her presence at the docks, waiting for Rolf to return. Maybe it was desperation to escape the planet, and she had something going on with Gar that led her to believe Rolf was her ticket out of here. But there were just too many blanks to fill in, IMO.
This being the 21st century, I have some understanding (accurate or not, it’s still an understanding) about how much planning and coordination goes into a successful, multi-city terror attack. Rolf leaving suitcases around, after having very little insight into the operations of the on-planet authorities, just didn’t seem like a plausible course of action. Of course, maybe that was the point and Rolf was just fantasizing at the end, there. I’m convinced the ending of Taxi Driver was pure fantasy of a dying man, so I could see the same thing at the close of Anarchaos.
I got a little hamstrung by my habit of concentrating my reviews on the setup and first plot elements of whatever book I’m reading. The first half to two-thirds of Anarchaos have the makings of a classic – I just think the last part was not executed with the same level of care. Those nit-picks add up.
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Donald Westlake was as foresighted a writer as crime fiction ever saw, and and even in SF he was exceptional in this regard, but seriously–don’t ask him to foresee Post-911 security measures in 60’s America. If we’re going to ask that much, we might as well throw most SF in the toilet. The genre is full of far more implausible things.
But see, that’s the problem with this book–it’s not straight-up SF–it feels more real than that. Because of the Hammett influence. Not that anything Hammett ever wrote qualifies as realism. Just feels that way. So the expectations are different. I think the only reason Westlake wrote this hybrid is that he wanted to make a big philosophical statement, that you couldn’t do in a crime fiction novel.
He needed a whole planet to play with. Just a city wouldn’t be enough. A planet he could destroy–and it would be justified. Because that world needs to die. All those people are already in Hell.
The greatness of SF lies in the fact that there are no limits–all is lawful. Morality and ethics are not absolutes. You question everything. Crime fiction does that too, but on a much smaller more intimate scale. In this case, he wanted a grand scale.
Just a few weeks ago, we were talking about how a Lawrence Block character created in that same era brings a gun onto a commercial airliner, in his pocket, and hides it in a seat cushion, and you know, probably that was not too difficult then.
(Let me just say in passing that I never buy into the “It was all a dream” thing. All stories we tell are waking dreams, with or without the explicit recognition of that fact, so it’s pointless. Dorothy went to Oz. And in Point Blank, Walker got his payback, then walked away from it.)
If you’re going to compare this to The Hunter–an acknowledged classic–you have to acknowledge this is, in some ways, less implausible. Parker is all by himself against an entire criminal syndicate, until the very end. Even in the original version of that novel, he beats them, only to be cut down by random chance, loose ends. Because the conventions of the genre demanded that bad guys go down bloody, but with a bit of encouragement, he set that aside, and went another way with it. Parker went on surviving impossible odds for another four decades and change.
Once you’ve accepted Rolf could survive everything he goes through and come out the other end a whole man (minus a hand), what isn’t he capable of? In this kind of story, absolutely nothing. Jenna believes in him, because he’s survived all that, and has that self-assurance in his eyes that she’s never seen in any of the powerful men who used her, while she tried to use them. In killing her masters, he’s become her master. She’s never seen that look in the mirror either. She didn’t know it existed. She’s fascinated, like a rat gazing into the eyes of a snake.
Now you could write a happy ending, have him get her off-world, but she hasn’t really learned anything about herself. Might as well ask Sam Spade to forgive Brigid O’Shaugnessy. There’s nothing to forgive. She was just acting according to her nature. She won’t learn, because she can’t. Difference is, Rolf never loved Jenna.
But even if he did, when a man’s brother is killed, he’s got to do something about it. And everybody on that planet is responsible–including Jenna. Including that Robinson Crusoe trapper who just assumed saving a man dying in the wilderness means he’s your slave (and who could have broken free and come after Rolf if he were tied up). Including those smug functionaries in those safe government buildings, who just watched and did nothing. The whole damnable system and everybody who made it work.
We see what Rolf does through different eyes now. I get that. But this isn’t earth. That’s the point of making it an SF story. Set on a planet where there is nothing left to save. Which could become our planet, if we don’t watch out. Parts of it come pretty close.
Why did Rolf’s improvised plan work? Well, first of all, it’s a story. Secondly of all, it’s been set up to make sense. This is a planet of individual crimes. There’s no politics. There’s no religion. There’s no law. There’s no terrorism. There’s no concept of collective action more sophisticated than a father and his degenerate progeny mugging people–the last legacy of the anarchist ideas they’ve all forgotten now. Terrorism would be quite justified on this world, but they don’t know how to do it.
Explosives are controlled by the mining companies. Rolf needs Jenna to get them, and she needs him to get offworld. Obviously he had some idea of what he might do, and just assumed he’d find a way, if it became necessary. Security at the government buildings is mainly geared to keeping native Anarchaotians out. He’s not one. He has rights they are obliged to recognize. They don’t have sophisticated scanners, because they don’t need them. Nobody’s well-organized enough there. The corporations have no motive to attack them. They assume what’s out there will never come inside. So they’re soft.
Really, after 9/11, we shouldn’t have any problem believing in the unbelievable. That story was actually told several times before it happened, and nobody believed it. And we’re still pretty soft. At least we have sniffer dogs. No such thing on Anarchaos. Dogs don’t go to Hell.
Well, I certainly didn’t throw Anarchaos in the toilet. So far my least favorable SF reviews have been of “The Trikon Deception” and maybe “Freedom Beach,” but I found plenty of good things to say about each of those books. If the world I’ve lived in made me more demanding of the “how’s” and “why’s” of terrorism in fiction, so be it.
I’ll have to go back someday and read “The Comedy is Finished” again. Its portrayal of terrorism as radical chic was really interesting.
Those are some very compelling comments about Defoe and slavery. I’ll have to put Defoe on my reading list. I already have “Friday” the card game (recommended!), so maybe the book is up my alley, so to speak.
Maybe Red Harvest, also.
In exchange, I recommend William Styron’s “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” whose 50th anniversary went almost without notice last year.
My impression is that Styron isn’t holding up so well over time. I read a bit of Sophie’s Choice. You know that “Not Impressed” meme?
But I take the recommendation seriously. For a more nuanced and contemporary white man’s take on the racial divide, try Westlake’s Up Your Banners–but almost nobody noticed that to begin with, and its anniversary is unlikely to ever be commemorated. It’s out of print. I’m guessing nobody’s in much of a hurry to amend that situation. Anarchaos at least has an ebook.
Styron had his time as a ‘Serious Author.’ Westlake’s may never come. Even though he was a much better writer. Takes more writing chops to impress Dame Academe. But does she stay impressed? Very often those who burn the brightest in life fade away afterwards, and those who were ignored end up going the distance.
Your review was fair, and I just had to nitpick your nitpicks. I don’t see any holes in that plot at all. It’s farfetched, a tall tale, a shaggy man story–and it’s supposed to be. If you don’t want an implausible yarn about a ‘dream man’ (Hammett’s term for Sam Spade) who can do things ordinary people can’t, walk down those mean streets and live to tell the tale, why are you reading a hardboiled noir with an SF gloss? You knew the deal going in. It’s not meant to be taken literally, but it is meant to be taken seriously as a metaphor for how we can face down the bastards in this world, get the better of them, as long as we know ourselves.
People seem to feel cheated if they read a story like that and they start thinking “It’s just a story!” Well, yeah. I think people cheat themselves out of a lot of good reads that way. They also miss a lot of good points. But you mainly got what he was doing here.
I may be nitpicking Hammett himself, soon enough. Sacrilege!
One last comment–terrorism, by its definition, is a way for those who lack sufficient military strength to strike at the established order of things, at the law, at civilization, at the beliefs of others that you do not share.
What order? What law? What civilization? What beliefs?
It’s not terrorism. Not on that world. Even the Union Commission is a passive abettor of this anti-social society. And when somebody knocks on their door, begging to be let out of this asylum, they send them back into that Hell, feel no remorse over doing it. Why does that sound familiar?
The deeper you look into this mirror, the more you see yourself in it. That’s the damnable thing about it. That’s why it has to be in this genre. That’s why he didn’t retool it as a noir, even though he’d turned his back on SF.
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