BOOK REVIEW: “Lagrange Five” by Mack Reynolds (1979)

Sometimes an author will get so hepped up on some goofball idea or another that he’ll write essentially propaganda masquerading as prediction. “Lagrange Five” is a prime example of that, and Heinlein’s thoroughly awful, “For us, the Living…” is another, and we could throw Belamy’s “Looking Backward” in there as well. It’s a common failing of Utopian Science Fiction.

The plot here concerns Rex Bader, Private Eye, who’s been brought to the“Island Three” space colony in order to solve the mysterious disappearance of a professor. There’s also an outbreak of a kind of contagious space-madness. This quickly reaches epidemic levels. There’s also political turmoil within Island Three that threatens to tear their idyllic society apart.

All of that has promise, particularly the madness part, as I’ve always been interested in the psychiatric effects of living offworld. That’s a vein largely untapped by the genre. Sadly this alleged mystery is less mysterious than your average episode of Scooby Doo. (Not counting “Scooby Doo: Mysteries Inc.” which fairly rocks, of course)

There’s a rather hilarious tendency of the author to always refer to the protagonist by his full name. (“Rex Bader wanted a beer, so Rex Bader went into the bar, and spied a barstool where Rex Bader thought he – Rex Bader – would like to sit.” I’m exaggerating, but not by much) He’s as bland as bland can be. The only bit of characterization is his penchant for dropping the word “Wizard” into conversation FREQUENTLY. (More slight exaggeration: “Rex Bader walked into the bar. ‘Wizard,’ he thought. ‘I’d like a beer’ he said to the bartender with the false mustache. ‘Whadya’ think, mate?’ the bartender said, affecting a slight British accent while inquiring of Rex Bader’s opinion of the drink he’d just had. “Wizard,” said Rex Bader, with regards to the drink, after tasting it.”) Oh my gosh, his attempts at future-slang are cringingly awful. “What’s spinning, chum-pal” is a frequent example.

Reynolds’ prose is club-footed. He commits basic sins like using the same words too close in proximity (Only-slightly-exaggerated example: “He got in the car and closed the door of the car and then the car drove off”) He is overly expositional, dropping info-bombs, most of which have nothing to do with the threadbare plot. He’s got a lot of tortured syntax.

The obligatory love interest is the girl Friday of the missing professor. She’s all tweeds and “Clipped Diction” (Whatever that means) by day, and liberated ‘70s shag-around sex-toy by night. Plus she cooks without being asked. Then there’s Whip, an angry 1960s Black Panther type who calls everyone “Whitey,” and wants to start a space colony for radical black isolationists. Beyond these three, everyone else in the book is a cipher or a mustache-twirler, and none of these folks are what you’d call ‘compelling’ as characters go.

Rex Bader is just about the worst detective I’ve ever read. He mostly just walks from bar to bar. He makes an effort to find exactly one-and-a-half clues, then basically gives up and says “I got no idea.” It’s almost as though the author had never read a detective story before, or even made it all the way through a detective movie. He’s spinning his wheels. He honestly has no idea what his main character should be doing, so for most of the book his main character does nothing.

The chick is only there to provide tedious exposition (Because, remember, this book is propaganda for the L5 Society), and honestly I’m not sure why Whip is there. His presence is kind of random, and at odds with the rest of the story. I guess it was an attempt at social relevancy or something, which indicates that the author (62 at the time) was a bit out of touch, culturally.

Despite all that, the question of why people are suddenly going nuts in the station is interesting. Then, about a third of the way through the author abruptly throws in a totally-useless flashback which explains EVERYTHING, and renders the rest of the detective story both superfluous and tedious. Instead of reading an inept detective, we are now reading an inept detective struggling to catch up with what the reader already knows.

The author clearly is not interested in the tale he’s telling. As I said, this is primarily a work of propaganda. The government here is Utopian Syndicalism which, allegedly, is better than anything. Nobody pays for anything because the colony produces more than it really needs. “Island Three” is twenty MILES long (Again, remember this was set only fifty years in the future) and feels like an even-more-sterile version of Epcot. We’ve got fake storybook villages – this one Italian, that one Polynesian, another is British – and one big new ultra-modern city which is only vaguely described. All this is surrounded by garden land and wildlife refuges and parks and lakes and sailboats (It’s an enclosed system twenty miles long. Where the heck is the wind supposed to be coming from?). We’ve got people riding bicycles everywhere (Bicycles won’t work inside a rotating object because the gyroscopic effect that holds them up is negated by the greater gyroscopic effect of the object they’re in) because, we’re told, they like to do things by hand.

Despite being told they have 100% employment and everyone likes to do things the old fashioned way, we never actually SEE anyone working, and we’re told the work week is only thirty hours. Thus everyone has a major time-wasting hobby, like pretending to be a British bartender, or joining a low-gravity ballet troupe. There’s major mixed messages going on here: we’re told this is the rugged frontier, but there ain’t no cowboys in it, just pastry chefs and creepy swingers in a world so antiseptic as to make “It’s a small world” seem gritty and forlorn.

The point of the book is to tell us that we can have this in our lifetimes. Its purpose is to show how superior LaGrangian existence will be, in a world without crime, without punishment, without religion, without money, without makeup, without stupid people (Minimum IQ to join is 130), without racism, without marriage, without sexual mores, without much of anything, really. It’s colorless, sugarless, conflict free. The author is trying to paint a picture of heaven, but it’s just dull and unrealistic and betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of human nature. This is a problem of utopias: they are, by definition, places where nothing interesting ever happens.

Furthermore, the author states

1) The Jews are just as guilty as the Arabs, and both sides are prolonging the middle eastern conflict to make money off of it.
2) Religion is “The biggest con of all time”
3) The Aztecs and Mayans and several African Tribes had a higher standard of living than European civilization at the time, or even in much of the 20th century developed world. This is patent nonsense, but it was popular myth in the hippie-dippie ‘60s. The fact is Aztecs lived nasty, brutish, short lives, were more or less continually at war, practiced human sacrifice on an industrial scale, were frequently subject to famine, had a huge infant mortality rate (As did the entire pre-modern world) and a woman had a 1:5 chance of dying from pregnancy.
4) Egypt gave the world civilization (untrue) but he says that Egyptians weren’t black, so it doesn’t really count as African
5) Planet Earth is overpopulated with three billion people in 2029, and is doomed if they don’t get those crazy numbers under control. (The population of the world when the book was written was four billion)
6) Arabs are portrayed as untrustworthy, manipulative, and vicious and (With one exception) hypocritical about their religion. Italian Mafioso are portrayed about the same, but are not hypocritical.
7) English is ‘a mongrel language composed of French, German, Celtic, and a bunch of other tongues’ and is better replaced with “Interlingua.” (This is a weird assertion from an American writer speaking to an Anglophonic audience in a book written in English)
8) Nobody in the book cares about the industries, countries, and entire economies they’re destroying back on earth. They seem to think the ‘earthworms’ had it coming to them.

There’s also one utterly reprehensible aspect of the book: Eugenics.

We’re told that stupid people, religious people, cripples and homosexuals will not be allowed into the colonies. Rex Bader finds this rather oppressive and snooty, and at first I thought it was intended as a ‘snake in the garden’ thing , a sort of, ‘yes, we’ve got paradise, but at what cost?’ But no: at the end of the book, both Rex Bader and Whip agree these strictures are ideal, and the best of all possible ways for the human race.

In conclusion, this is honestly one of the worst books I’ve ever read.

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