A couple of years ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing more than 75 vintage science-fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 74.
Of all the many phrases The Simpsons has introduced over the years, I’m not sure any of them have stuck with me as unshakably as “When are they going to get to the fireworks factory?” from “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show.” Milhouse utters this tearful lament while watching the retooled iteration of The Itchy & Scratchy Show featuring the first appearance of the hip, demographically tested new character of Poochie, a “kung-fu hippie from gangsta city.” Poochie appears as Itchy and Scratchy make their way to the mayhem-promising destination of a fireworks factory, as announced by signs reading “Fireworks factory: 1 mile,” etc. Only they never get there, due to being sidetracked by Poochie’s antics.
Hence the lament. I can’t recall how many times Scott Tobias and I have left a movie and ended up talking about the “when are they going to get to the fireworks factory” problem. It isn’t just us, either. I think that phrase and all it implies has crept into the collective subconscious. Hence the impatience when Lost or Battlestar Galactica or what have you appears to veer off-course from a satisfying conclusion. We’ve seen the signs—you better take us where we want to go.
All of which is an elaborate way of saying this: If you read The Duplicated Man hoping for a lot of action involving duplicated men, you’re going to spend a lot of time wondering when you’re going to get to the fireworks factory. That may just be the title’s fault, though I guess A Lot Of Cold-War-Inspired Political Intrigue Dressed Up In Science-Fiction Trappings wouldn’t have sold as many books in 1953, in spite of its greater accuracy.
The Duplicated Man was co-written by James Blish, a prolific writer known both for his Star Trek novels and his original fiction about flying cities—I’ve covered him twice before—and Robert Lowndes, a horror writer, and later an editor. (Both were members of the early science-fiction fans-and-creators group The Futurians.) I’m not sure who did what, and I don’t know that that’s a good thing. Part of me thinks Lowndes did the lion’s share of the writing, if only because this is far less smoothly written or textured than the other Blish books I’ve read. Which isn’t to say that Blish is a science-fiction Dostoyevsky, either. Just that The Duplicated Man is written in the functional, then-this-happened style left over from the pulp era.
What happens is a lot of talking, and precious little man-duplicating. In the future, the Earth is locked in a perpetual war with Venus, now inhabited with colonists from Earth and their descendants. War has become an accepted part of life here, much as it was in the world of Orwell’s 1984. And, as in 1984, there are those who wouldn’t have it any other way, people who use war as a means to exert power and reap profit. Specifically, the governmental organization Security uses it as an excuse to do what it wants and silence everyone who doesn’t agree with it. Like our hero. That would be Paul Danton, who eventually becomes the duplicated man promised by the title. He’s part of an underground network dedicated to making peace with Venus, and Security does not like that.
Meanwhile, on Venus: Well, I’m not exactly sure what’s going on on Venus. There’s a similar underground network there. And a guy who’s like some kind of flesh mountain. And a woman who’s using her access to him to subvert Venus’ equivalent of Security. Really, that whole element of the story seems kind of unnecessary. And it certainly does not involve duplicated men.
After a while, Danton gets duplicated and sent to Venus, and it’s all quite silly. Different versions of Danton take on aspects of the personalities of those around him for reasons I never fully understood, or which Blish and Lowndes never adequately explained. (I suspect the latter.) They don’t really do anything, either. It’s almost as if Blish and Lowndes figured out late in writing The Duplicated Man that, hey, a duplicated man might improve their Duplicated Man book, even though they didn’t really have a lot of room left for him.
Instead, they emphasize the many, many meetings and endless strategizing of all involved parties. It reminds me of Star Wars. Only not the good Star Wars movies—the later ones, where a lot of CGI creatures sit around a table talking about what happened, what’s about to happen, and what they’d like to happen instead of, you know, doing stuff. It’s ambitious in its attempt to deal with the Cold War. And daring, in its way, in its commitment to keeping the action to a minimum, and keeping the fireworks factory deep, deep in the distance.
A column note: We, on the other hand, are getting close to the fireworks factory. Three years after starting this project, I’m about to reach the end. In fact, I can lay out exactly how many more columns there will be, and in what order:
Larry Niven, World Of Ptavvs
A. Bertram Chandler, Empress Of Outer Space/The Alternate Martians (Ace Double)
Philip José Farmer, A Private Cosmos
Ian Fleming, Thrilling Cities / O.F. Snelling, 007 James Bond: A Report
Robert Heinlein, The Puppet Masters
Then? Well, I’d like to stay in the world of old paperbacks, but in a slightly different format. More details to come down the line.
Larry Niven, World Of Ptavvs
“There was a moment so short that it had never been successfully measured, yet always far too long.”
A. Bertram Chandler, Empress Of Outer Space/The Alternate Martians
“Everything was over but the shootings.” / “Science City, the only settlement on the desert planet Venus, does not extend a hearty welcome to guests.”