Thursday, October 30, 2014


Curt Clark

Ace Books, 1967

The narrator of this story, that is placed in the unidentified future, Rolf Malone, is released from the prison on the Earth and he is on his way to another planet called Anarchaos where the events of the novel will take place. There, on Anarchaos, the narrator’s brother Gar Malone worked, and before his death he has written to Rolf to come to Anarchaos. Now Gar has died under suspicious circumstances, and Rolf is eager for some answers, for instance, whom his brother worked for and how exectly his brother died.

Right after his arrival on Anarchaos, Rolf is warned that Anarchaos and its habitants are dangerous, and it will be better for his health if he goes back to Earth. These words only fuel the protagonist’s need for answers: he checks his luggage at the station and hails the taxi to get to the town where the corporation his brother worked for is situated. During the drive, feeling that the taxi man sooner or later will kill him, Rolf strikes first, killing the driver and makes his way to the corporation tower alone.

There representatives of the one of the largest corporations on the planet greet Rolf, tell him that his brother was killed during an ambush when Gar was on a survey, and while Gar was killed, his guard survived, and he’s the only one who can provide some answers to Rolf.

Rolf goes to the shack where this guard lives, and there someone ambushes them, killing the guard who hasn’t had time to tell anything about Gar and wounding Rolf. Malone starts his trip to hell.
I have read this novel not to remind myself what state SF had been in during 60s. Curt Clark is a pen name of Donald Westlake, and Anarchaos is his the only SF novel, and I am slowly grinding through Westlake’s entire catalogue.

First, let me say that I hugely enjoyed it. It’s a good novel, perhaps not as good as 361, with which they share more than a few similarities, still it’s quite powerful piece of writing.
That’s said, I wouldn’t say that Anarchaos is truly SF novel, it is a thriller dressed in science fiction clothes. But first things first.

Anarchaos is one of the future Earth colonies, where a few generations of colonists had already changed. On every colony there are embassys of the Union Comission, United Nations-like Earth organization, only unlike its earth counterpart not interfering with colonists activities. Every colony can choose any of the existing government systems and live under this system. Anarchaos colonists remenbered “an obscure Rus¬sian nihilist named Mikhail Bakunin” and his writings, and made his theoretic ideas real on Anarchaos. Therefore the colony dove deep into anarchy, smoothly flowing into chaos. The only anarchy-free places became embassys of the UC.

The planet itself has a few differences with the Earth: Anarchaos doesn’t spin, so there is not a change of day and night there, one part of the planet is Sahara-hot under the sun called Hell, another is dark and cold. The development level on the planet is primitive, early to mid XX century only with scyscrappers.

All that we learn from the first chapters, as part of that Malone tells himself, and another part is a lecture of one of the UC man. Westlake does his infodumping straight away, and not in a subtle way, so for the rest of the story we won’t be distracted from the main plot. Infodumping like this looks too inelegantly, and trick with a lecture is too straightforward.

But does the colony structure play an important role in the book? It does, though not important one. How inventive is Westlake SF writer? Nearly not as much as Westlake the writer per se. We see a distant colony, almost like the Earth, we see people populating this planet, and they are as human as we can be. We see cars, horses, guns, explosives, earth army titles – Westlake just describes Earth. What language do colonists speak? English? Not even without any dialects? Well, there is a bigger difference between accents and dialects between US states than between Earth and Anarchaos. What is that, laziness in the worldbuilding or Westlake’s ignorance? Possibly none of that. He just writes a crime story where a place plays little, very insignificant role.

What I want to say is we can easily imagine a Latin American or African country instead of Anarchaos, and almost nothing will change. An American arrives to Guatemala, to a mineral plant, where his brother died. An American is fed and clothed in the embassy and then goes to the plant. Some thugs from the jungle kidnaps him, he becomes a slave, then he escapes, then he’s soon captured by some General (there are plenty of generals in military states), then he kills a general from this plant, and then another General from another plant. It’ll be the same story. It is a very small bridge between Anarchaos and chaotic republic somewhere on Earth. Blow up a few embassys in African country and there will be chaos (as if there isn’t now).

It should be said, though, that for some plot turns it is important that the action takes place on another planet.

It is a good adventure story, where the premise borrowed from 361, and the middle probably straight from a Grofield novel, where Grofield is in his Lemons-Never-Lie-mode. As SF, the story lacks focus on otherworldliness and scientific details. The only thing from the future here is flights between planets. The rest come from the 60s: paper geographical maps, primitive calculating machines, guns, knives, food. The novel should have been called not Anarchaos, but Archaic-aos, the novel is dated.

As a novel of ideas Anarchaos is far from dated, and it reads as a novel of ideas just fine. Anarchaos could have been called an adventure story with ideas, if that hasn’t been an oxymoron, like Tarzan with brains.


  1. I also think this is a great Westlake effort--I don't know that I agree making Anarchaos more alien would have made it any better. Science Fiction isn't just about creating plausibly alien worlds. Much of the best science fiction takes place on earth--even in the present day.

    Think of this as more along the lines of Pierre Boulle's Planet of the Apes--a fabulist satire using the conventions of science fiction to get a point across. But nobody would deny that Boulle's novel is science fiction, any more than they'd deny all the movies of varying quality based on it were in that genre.

    Westlake gives us all the detail we need, and no more.

    Yes, this is crime fiction in many crucial respects--but as we discussed elsewhere, there are things Westlake does here that he couldn't do in a mystery or thriller story set on present-day earth. And it's not unusual for science fiction in this era to resemble crime fiction, because so many writers were working in both fields. The science fiction elements prevail in terms of the story, but it's science fiction with a crime fiction attitude, and that's what makes it such an exceptionally good read.

  2. Now, if Westlake wasn't lying his ass off about anarchism, I might not've hated this novel from that initial infodump...but he packs, for example, all anarchists into a mindset that would make most survivalists seem like Mister Rogers, and makes claims for statism that are on the face of them insane (essentially that one needs to be a statist to have any empathy)...when, of course, Kropotkin (who gets name-checked, I believe) was one of the most influential pacifists so far, read to their improvement by Gandhi and ML King, Jr. (the Leninists, of course, kept him under house arrest, not daring the bad press of actually killing him outright, when they came to power). And so on. To follow this example of either criminal ignorance or deliberate lie with a relatively bog-standard stranger in an ugly land story doesn't help. A very curt clerk (as pronounced in the Brit style) indeed. The other stories in TOMORROW'S CRIMES, even the weakest, are vastly better.

    1. Okay, first of all, maybe you need to learn the difference between somebody who is lying, and somebody who has a different opinion than you. There's actually nothing technically inaccurate regarding Kropotkin in Anarchaos. Nobody said he advocated violence. Violence was simply the result depicted of trying to create an entire society based on his ideas.

      Now we never did see any such state in reality, but we saw a state based on Marx's ideas, didn't we? Several, in fact. Ray would remember one of those states, though perhaps a bit vaguely.

      Was that state remotely like what Marx intended? No? Then perhaps there's a difference between theory and praxis, hmmm?

      Agree, disagree, at least understand the point being made. The first generation to settle on Anarchaos were not violent criminals--they were starry-eyed idealists, who saw a chance to finally put his ideas into practice--but they had been raised in non-anarchist societies--since no anarchist society had ever existed, and really, the term 'anarchist society' is a contradiction in terms. They still had the ideals of the cultures they'd been raised in, and that kept things going for a short time--until several generations had been born into a world without laws, without restraints, where 'all is lawful', and then things fell apart.

      The people on Anarchaos aren't anarchists like Kropotkin, and if somebody like that ever showed up, they'd rob and murder him. They have no ideology--they are what comes after ideology--after society. When you destroy every aspect of law, tradition, morality--when you say 'all is lawful, do as you will'--then you open the floodgates to chaos. Honestly, we're halfway there already, so I don't know why you're so shocked. "I can have as many guns as I like, and take them all to Starbucks, try and stop me!"

      If that's not anarchism, what is?

      Gandhi and King read Kropotkin, but they didn't need him--they had Jesus. And Buddha. And in no way shape or form can you call either of them anarchists--they believed in laws. They believed in morality. They were appealing to law, to morality, to achieve basic human RIGHTS, and you can't have RIGHTS without LAW. Until you have laws defining your rights, they are just ideas, that the powerful can ignore at their whim. That's something libertarians can't get their heads around--that the weaker government gets, the stronger the corporations get, and instead of being governed by the people who work for us, we're increasingly governed by the people we work for--and guess what? They don't believe in laws or morality either. Just money and power. They're the only real anarchists in this world.

      The point was not "Kropotkin was an evil violent criminal"--the point was "Kropotkin's ideas would not work as a system of government", which really should be rather self-evident. Actually, even that wasn't the point of the book--that was just a starting point.

      Anyway, Westlake thought this was the only bit of science fiction writing he did that was worth a damn. He said so. So you're welcome to your opinion, but it's never going to be widely shared.

  3. You'd have to be a pretty doctrinaire Marxist to label Bakunin a "nihilist"...a label that certainly describes most of the characters in ANARCHAOS. Marx had no greater adversary in the Socialist International than the non-nihilist Bakunin. Perhaps this was all meant to be satirical account of the ignorance of the Anarchaotic, but it sure didn't read that way to me.

    1. Todd, I remember from the high school history course that Bakunin's anarchism is very peaceful system, indeed. Westlake played with the word anarchism, and treated it how it suited him best. I can't fault him: if there was a peace on this planet, there wouldn't be any story.
      The government system on Anarchaos is closer to cannibalistic capitalism than anarchy.
      (And for a guy who uses word socialist in the name of your blog, you sure know a few things about Russian history.)

    2. Well...I'm not sure what to make of that last, Ray...but Bakuniin was in the Socialist International till he was purged, and Kropotkin probably would've been if they hadn't made it clear that they weren't willing to hear from anarchists, to understate...I probably should ask Lawrence Block or Ms. Westlake if they know why he chose to pretend that all anarchists espoused notions that Ayn Rand would find a tad extreme...his list of inspirations for Anarchaos the colony is, to be kind, entropic, throwing all sorts of different anarchists and non-anarchists together. My own politics tend to be, much as those of Noam Chomsky and a number of others are, libertarian socialist, and I'm often comfortable among the less mystical Greens.

    3. Todd--seriously--I don't think you have the slightest notion what Westlake was saying. The people who founded Anarchaos were not warlike. The world that resulted from their actions was not at all what they intended. It is, however, a very believable result of having an entire planet full of humans and no system of law to regulate their interactions.

      Somebody wants something you have--or to enslave you--or to have sex with you--there's no law saying he can't do this. He's strong enough to take what he wants. So what's stopping him? No prison. No gallows. No hell. No reincarnation as a cockroach.

      What you're also missing is that the real serpent in the garden is the offworld corporations--multiplanetary enterprises, that have a low enough regard for the law as is--but now they see an entire planet with no law whatsoever, and it's full of precious minerals. They can pay people what they want--or they can simply enslave them, which other people on the same planet will cheerfully help them do for a nominal fee.

      Honestly, look at the world we live in? What's so hard to believe? It's an extrapolation of existing conditions, something science fiction has always excelled at.

      Idealists always hate it when people raise the point of reality, of human nature--"No, if people just thought believed exactly the way I do, everything would be perfect!" Oh? And if they refuse, what do you plan to do about it?

      Bakunin got purged--Kropotkin would have been too. You are making Westlake's points for him. When you knock over the existing system and have nothing to replace it with, don't be surprised when something worse takes its place.

    4. Colonists on Anarchaos are not highly intellegent and don't have time to study, being busy with surviving. I think there is no difference for them what system they live in, anarchism, capitalism, socialism. They don't even know these terms.

    5. Well, another thing you don't have when you abolish government and the church is education. I'm sure they made attempts to organize some type of schooling when they first settled there, but it clearly didn't last long.

      The planet is rich in resources, and travel between the worlds is (unrealistically) quick and economical--even an ex-convict can travel the parsecs between earth and Anarchaos with no great trouble, and in considerable comfort. I think the problem is not a lack of intelligence, or (originally) a lack of free time, which is after all supposed to be one of the benefits of anarchy.

      The problem is that somebody has to run things--including a system of schools. Somebody has to be able to call and tell you your child didn't come to class--somebody has to administer examinations, and they need to know you're not going to shoot them if you give your child a failing grade.

      And of course, what's the point of studying if somebody can just hit you over the head and drag you into slavery?

      They don't think of themselves as anarchists anymore, no. They've moved past self-conscious anarchism, but they are living as anarchists must, in a world where all order has been abolished. There is a need for a creative tension between order and chaos, law and freedom, and without that, the human psyche can never develop properly. Even hunter-gatherer tribes have laws, mores, taboos, customs, and of course religion. Nobody can live very long without the tribal unit, so everyone respects these rules--to a greater or lesser extent, and of course there is rebellion, but it's within a framework--the innovators rebel against the system, and in so doing, change it.

      Anarchism can be very useful--very productive--in an ordered society. But if anarchists take control of society, there are two possible results--they cease to be anarchists--or society ceases to exist in any meaningful sense. And what happened on Anarchaos was the latter.

      Now there are different ways to imagine it--Ursula Le Guin, in The Dispossessed, imagined a system of socialism so pure that it amounted to anarchy. But the result was hardly freedom to do as you pleased--this is on a moon of a rich world--a moon that is very spare in resources, where crops often fail, and famine is commonplace, and 'egoism' of all kinds is discouraged. Everyone is equal, and nobody is truly free to do as he or she pleases--it's admirable in many ways, but hardly paradise, and starving people have to be prevented from stealing food--even if that means many of them die of hunger.

      The story is about a mathematical genius who believes in their system, but still chafes against its restrictions. He travels to the rich world, which is much like our own, and he's disgusted--and fascinated--by the way people behave, which is to say, the way most of us behave now. The wealth of the planet has corrupted them.

      I was fascinated by that book when I read it, and I think it's a better work of science fiction than Anarchaos, and yet, in retrospect, I have to say--Westlake's argument strikes me as the better one now. The more relevant one to our existing circumstances, anyway.

    6. You raised an interesting topic: if transportation is cheap and available, why we don't see waves of runaways who want to escape this horrible planet? Where are the hordes of immigrants? The chaos system certainly should affect those who are weak or those who are intelligent and want to change the system. With the existing chaos the colony never has seen a war. That's strange.

    7. I think probably because no other planet will take them--we saw this in the book, remember? The Union Commission rep who assumes Malone is some Anarchaotian pretending to be a citizen of earth, in order to get off the planet--clearly this has happened, many times before. But the reputation of Anarchaos and its residents means that no other world allows them to travel there--and most of them are so miserably poor that it's beside the point.

      Travel between planets is so totally under the control of the Union Commission that illegal immigration between worlds doesn't exist. Anyway, Anarchaotians don't have television, or film, or newspapers--so they only have the vaguest of ideas about what they're missing. They may not realize just how much better it is elsewhere--for most of them, this is just how things are.