Shoot to kill
(I wrote this about six or seven years ago and had it posted to my website where I was a graduate student. I thought that it was lost forever, and I only managed to find it because several people archived it. Truly, nothing ever dies on the web. I thank these kind people. It’s a little worn by time and could stand some editing, but I’ll leave it as it originally was.)
Of course, with a title such as this, I had better be able to prove it. After all, hundreds of books are written in the genre each year. Thousands exist to pick from. And who’s to say another, more awful book than the one I’m about to describe, will appear and usurp the uncoveted title of Worst Science Fiction Novel Ever?
These caveats notwithstanding, however, my faith is strong. In fact, I am so absolutely sure that I’m correct in my choice, that I’m willing to risk the title “worst ever”. More on this later.
Many aficionados of science-fiction were weaned, not with short stories and books, but with TV. So it was with me. I started with the original Star Trek, others perhaps with Space 1999. The youth of today will have to make due with Deep Space Nine or Submarine Show (whatever the name is). These shows eased us into the classics, such as Foundation or Stranger in a Strange Land. If you were lucky. Unlucky neophytes wandered into a L. Ron Hubbard treatise or some pulp boiler, complete with front cover fanged monsters menacing beautiful large-breasted women.
Once these innocents, these hapless souls, enter the morass of disagreeable pages they are lost forever to science fiction. Nothing will ever convince them to reenter the fold. Perhaps it is our duty, then, to purge the field of ill-conceived and poorly executed works?
This supposes that one is able to judge the intrinsic merit of the text. Modern critics claim that it cannot be done. They may be right. But this is academic to our subject: what does watching TV have to do with learning to read science fiction? In this case, everything.
Walter Koening played the lovable and overly proud Russian navigator of the Starship Enterprise in the original Star Trek. He appeared in the Star Trek movies. He also wrote a book. Perhaps he felt an inward pull, a conviction that led him to convey a profound message. Or, like William Shatner, it may be that he was trying to cash in on the series and his personal success and make a buck. You be the judge.
Buck Alice And The Actor Robot
The title is: Buck Alice And The Actor Robot (1988, Guild Press). The cover (truthfully, as you will discover) announces it will take you “where no sane man has gone before.” I found this treasure on the shelves of our local grocery store (yes, grocery store) and for the remaindered price of ten cents, I thought I’d give it a whirl. Walter’s picture is on the cover so there can be no mistake that this is indeed Chekov. On the back there is even a blurb from Spock Nemoy himself, logical as always, as the only praise he could give was to say “Walter has written a book…”. This could only mean that he (attempted to) read the thing.
My mere words would fail to give the proper emphasis, the feel, or mood, that is so critical to the opening of a novel. It is here that the author must grab hold quickly and convincingly, enticing the reader to travel forward through the pages. I now quote from page two, where the protagonist Joshua Chaplin’s muses about his toes (I found that it helps to read these passages aloud: you should try it too).
Joshua Wiggled his toes. The four smaller ones had really very little to say. To be sure, there was a symmetry in the arc they formed that was rendered with subtlety and taste, like a quartet of doughty pillars steeped and graded for harmony of thought and action. Reassuring in its way but at a sacrifice, a sense of restraint; the subjugation of the individual for the common good: conformity. All in all, good architecture but not great art.
On the other hand, there was the big toe. THE BIG TOE. No humble petitioner, a craggy tower—intense, feverish, excessive. Not only above but beyond the crowd. Proud, insolent, a testimony to personal commitment. The nail—jagged, splintered, uncompromising; a pioneer. A tuft of hair-like fire in the desert—stark, defiant, liberated. The superstructure itself, a thousand planes and textures, the face of the people, and yet, free-forming, spontaneous, beauty through truth, the soul of the artist bared.
Anyone who’s got this much to say about a big toe, must certainly have more powerful things to write about the human condition. Let’s see.
The plot centers around the destruction and inevitable salvation of the human race. A stock plot, to be sure, but Shakespeare made due with less. For reasons I’m not entirely comfortable describing, an alien race—the Milliginians—come to earth and wipe out all people who happen to be above ground. Our hero Joshua escapes this cruel fate in the following passage where he is first tricked by some precocious youngsters into climbing down a sewer and ‘rescuing’ a lost boy who isn’t really there.
Without so much as a backward glance, Joshua ripped off a nearby manhole cover…(and) climbed down twenty feet beneath the street into the dank underworld of alligators and prophylactics.
When Joshua managed to free himself several days later (the sewer was, after all, six whole feet deep), he discovered most of humanity had bit the you-know-what, literally: “Joshua looked about him and decided he was frightened. ‘Where was everybody and where had all the white dust come from?'”
Stray groups of humans left alive soon started finding each other, including the ill-fated Cathleen and Eric. Eric and Cathleen had struggled towards the (and there’s always one of these) new human settlement “fending against all manner of trap and snare with the additional inconvenience of Eric’s hair lice and for the last seventy-two hours, Cathleen’s first menses.” But, they finally made it and celebrated by having sex. “Afterwards Eric rolled over on his back exposing, in the process, the soul of his left foot to a sharp sting and almost immediately thereafter died of snake bite. Cathleen made several stabs at writing an ironic poem commemorating the whole ordeal but, in the end, settled for becoming pregnant.” Ah, youth.
We soon meet Isobel, ten, possessing pancake jowls that hang from her cheeks, inside of which are—I kid you not—secret pockets. No explanation (well, no logical explanation) is given for these protuberances but it did give Isobel the odd habit of screaming daily, precisely at three. At the close of chapter two we are given hints at her future importance. “Isobel unfolded all the creases in her cheeks…and gave birth to a whole new dimension in cacophony. ‘EEEAHAHAHAHO HOHOOOO WAWAUGUGG GGGGYIYIYIYIIIII,’ said the future mother of the human race.” We should only hope that the mother of the human race would have talents such as these.
There also exists a roving band of folk who, upon discovering the end of the world decide to “Africanize” their names. Hence, Morris Leverne Tate became Mobawamba. Arnold became Arnoldumbo. Louella, Louellalulu; Celeste, Celestealulu; Sam, Samatoba. Raymon and Damon kept their original handles because they were “homosexual twin brothers (who explained) that additional syllables wouldn’t go with their self-conceived images.” Maytag changed to Maytagagawa because he said “‘Glicki-glicki’ (and) rarely said anything else.” The reader is left to discover for themself just why they did this odd thing, but it did lead to new and exciting dimensions in dialogue as this next passage demonstrates.
“‘MOBAWAMBA, Mo-ba-wam-ba, da lordy ob da jumbo, thas who!'” proclaimed Mobawamba nee Tate, explaining to the world how he was now lord of the jungle.” Other Africanisms: “Sheeeet man, this am what ah call Sunday noon in da mibble of da week.” ; “I am da lordy ob da jumbo an everthing is as sweety as sweety potatoey pie.” I have never been to Africa, so it may be that this is an accurate representation of a local dialect.
Before learning to mumble and become jungle lord, Mobawamba had other aspirations. Many chapters later we are led through a touching retelling of his desires as a youth. “‘I’m going to be…I’m going to be…a…Chiropractor!’ ‘A Doctor.’ The word spread through the dirty tenements (where Morris lived) like the gush from an open hydrant. It swept away old condoms and broken wine bottles and the stuffing from torn, discarded sofas.” Powerful words, I guess.
Meanwhile, our hero Joshua has still not found the main group of humans, now labeled the “New Hope Settlement”, and is plagued with self doubts. Things are not going well at New Hope either. Buck Alice (the title’s namesake and a science fiction writer) “got caught in an animal trap of his own invention and hung upside down for nine hours…in full view of the entire settlement.” Buck’s neighbor “one hungry day” was dragged off and “thoroughly chewed by a big bear. (Another) neighbor ran to Buck and begged the use of some heavy stones to divert the animal. Buck, who was building a rock garden and had by then learned his lesson, responded as if born to the Pathfinder cloth and said, ‘tough shit.'” Apparently, Buck had cornered the market on heavy stones, a valuable post-apocalyptic commodity (and don’t even ask about the Pathfinder cloth).
Buck’s real name was Stanizlas Pulsutski and the new name was a joining of Buck Rodgers and Alice from Wonderland. One wonders if this character’s real name is paean to the great Stanislaw Lem? But I, for one, quickly think not.
All was not gloom and doom. Major Hank Hank (retired) introduced the group to orgies. These orgies were to be done “in the spirit of capitalism and private enterprise” as a means to repopulate the desolate Earth. Poor old Hank Hank was unable to join in on the fun because of the “history of the high picket fence (and) the result of his inability to clear it.” But he would make his way around the camp grounds “shaking hands, slapping backs and uttering words of encouragement like ‘well done’ and ‘atta boy’.”
Isobel (of the future-mother-of-the-human-race-fame) was too young to participate, so she ran around the camp insanely “waving her blouse in time to a mad little ditty about budding bosoms.” And “in anticipation of her impending puberty, warm kisses were generously bestowed on Isobel’s forehead and other places” (emphasis !). This comes dauntingly close to child pornography, but we are quickly informed that Isobel was allowed no naughtiness and she stood “abandoned and alone with only bitter tears and her now slightly smaller 32A-sized breasts for company.”
The supreme conquering race of Milliginians were having their own problems. It seems that they died when staying on Earth for too long. This, naturally, upset the Milliginian populace who were bent on colonizing. Tempers flared at the Miliginian invasion conference and “scientists who had vociferously supported the ‘invincibility’ theory of their Earth-stationed species were openly bumped and jostled outside staterooms.” Milliginian politics are indeed hostile!
A philosopher (and you can tell the speaker is an intellect by the following brilliant argument), Glogmor, captured their thoughts with “Only natives of Earth can survive on Earth. We are not natives of Earth; therefore we cannot survive on Earth.”
Their scientists, assumably the unbruised ones, soon discovered the cause of untimely deaths: the Earth’s atmospheric electricity. It was shorting out their internal organs. “‘Praise to the wise new chief scientist for finding the cause,’ rejoiced the assembled idolaters.”
For pulse pounding excitement, stray Milliginian ships harie the two groups of surviving humans (New Hope and New African) with space ships. “The sound of one hundred thousand little girls catching their breath while applying one hand to their mouths in a kind of general recrimination against all that isn’t starched and frilly, accompanied the appearance of the Swoop Craft and its gasping turbo rockets.” The ersatz African tribe fend of the attackers through chanting and hiding. The New Hope group falls to squabbling amongst themselves: who will be the leader?
Meanwhile, Joshua does battle with an International Harvester tractor—actual tractorial battle. With cries of “up yours!” and “remember the Alamo” Joshua struggles with the machine. He loses and is exhausted. “‘Slurp,’ came the captious comment from the shallow contents of the gasoline tank. The taciturn tractor, although an acknowledgedly poor conversationalist, had succeeded in scoring the last word.”
Late in the book we meet (finally) Actor-Robot, the only hyphenated character. He had “been an actor who played a robot for twelve years on a television series and who…had gotten his identities confused and had come to believe that he was a robot with an almost human talent for acting” (or writing?). His speech is even littered with “click-whirls”, “clanks”, and “sputter-coughs”. Actor-Robot is one of three factions who are grappling for power in New Hope. I can’t spoil the fun by telling you wins, but this scintillating passage takes place after one faction takes over and tries a new breeding program:
‘Take off your clothes.’
‘Take off your clothes.’
‘You don’t have a neck.’
‘You don’t have a neck and you always carry that case and you
‘I ain’t going to do it with somebody who does all those
‘I have a neck.’
‘You do not.’
‘You do not.’
‘Where everyone has one.’
‘Point to it…I still don’t see it. Make it come out.’
‘Can’t you see it now?’
‘Is that all there is? I ain’t going to do it with somebody with
such a little neck.’
‘My neck isn’t little.’
‘Then I’m not going to do it with you because of what my mother told me.’
‘She told you…?’
‘Never trust anybody who hunches his shoulders.’
‘He’s hiding something.’
‘I’m not hiding anything.’
‘Then you’ve got a little neck.’
‘MY NECK ISN’T LITTLE!’
‘Take off your shirt.’
‘Take off my shirt?’
‘So I can see your neck.’
In time it got worse.
Much worse. (I swear the above passage is taken directly from the book with no modification.)
Joshua, after his defeat, had turned chalk white, suffered messianic delusions, and was captured by the Milliginians. He did not go easily, and when the evil guards laid hands on him this happened: “‘Cackle-growl, cackle-growl’ went his buttocks but ironic as it may seem (the guards) did not notice.” Don’t feel that Joshua was treated badly—witness this scene:
‘We like you,’ said the first of his jailers.
‘We really do,’ reassured the second.
‘Have a good time,’ tossed in a third.
‘Don’t get overheated,’ cautioned a fourth.
‘Or fall down,’ worried a fifth.
In fact, life downright improved for our hero. Because of his capture, Joshua stars in his first sex scene as this unmodified passage details.
How could he have overlooked her stomach—her belly, her tummy, her tum-tum—how could he have missed that the first time around? He had an almost overpowering urge to bury his face in it and wrap it around his ears. She kept coming. ‘She has no will, no choice, her body is making her come to me…like little Italian women who hate American G.I.’s but love their candy bars? No, no…because…Yes! Because although her body does compel her, Loinine wants to come, wants me, wants me to hold her, to protect her—to do anything I wish with her. Closer still. My God, those breasts, that tummy, so near. And now the thighs. The deep of the thighs, the feel of that against me, Jesus! What, still more? Some yet undiscovered ultimate wonder more than the breasts and the tummy and the thighs? Some final ultimate wonder…oh yes, OH YES! (ellipsis original)
Joshua is soon led to realize that a friendly Milliginian wants to help him. He demands to know why.
‘Just because what?’
‘No. Why are you willing to help us? Why are you willing to kill
your own people.’
‘My business, my business, my business!!!’
It gets rather nasty after this with the alien taunting Joshua with cries of “masturbator!” He denies this. “Oh yes, YOU, you MASTURBATOR, you SELF-MANIPULATOR, you AUTO-EROTIC, you…you PLAYER-WITH-YOURSELFER!!!” Despite this minor altercation, the alien still agrees to help free Earth.
At New Hope there is murder, strife, sex, and pantomime (really). The African tribe eventually meets up with them. Isobel finally has sex and Joshua ascends to a higher plane. The human race goes on. But what have I left out in this brief summary? What abhorations are left undiscovered? Many.
I didn’t get to Buck Alice’s speech mannerisms, which typically read like “(H8mt-t-5elcc2) human beings! Human beings that look (7j3g66) scary enough to be aliens!”—speech literally punctuated by random alpha-numeric characters. No mention was made of Milliginian weaponry: “apex gain zenith laser bang-bangs.” No justification was given for plot—which is illusory at best.
This is not a comic book—it was written in a deadly serious tone. Koenig says “if the characters in this story appear to be a trifle out of kilter, it is because my brain has long been postured at an acrobatic angle with the medulla oblongata flailing precariously in the very thin air and the cerebral cortex perilously close to scraping the cement. Or is it the other way around?”
I could have reviewed this book in the typical manner, brief synopsis with a critique of method. It would not have worked. This book is so appallingly bad, so lacking in structure and coherence, criminal in its abuse of the English language, that a standard criticism would have been meaningless. Hence the liberal use of quoted passages. I would like to have included twice as many—the few I have provided fail to give to proper feel (agony) one has through an entire sitting.
Do not believe, however, I have carefully selected quotes by a method designed to show the book in the worst light. At random I give you: “In defense of her position, she merely elaborated on it and gently parted her thighs. Just like that, Joshua transcended five thousand years of human racism. He lowered himself onto her and experienced the unendurable ecstasy of a prepubescent being bathed by a libidinous young aunt in a tub of water.”
Back to my bet. I would be willing to let an independent panel of judges rate all comers. Worst one wins. If any judge even gets through a candidate book at the first sitting, it’s disqualified. Like Monty Python’s World War II killer joke, no human could sit through this one and live. The pronouncement of these judges will be final and I’m utterly certain the Buck Alice And The Actor-Robot will forever remain the Worst Science Fiction Novel Ever.