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Sunday, 28 September 2014

The Lemurian Conspiracy

As mentioned in a previous post, I went to the Science Fiction Worldcon in London last month. I was disappointed to find very few stalls in the dealers’ hall selling second-hand pulps and paperbacks – I guess nowadays it’s more cost-effective for them to sell such things via eBay. I did manage to get a few interesting items, however, including this 1979 novel by Ron Goulart: Hello Lemuria Hello.

The Fortean connections are obvious right away. “Lemuria” in the title refers to a reputed sunken continent, similar to Atlantis, which featured in a number of esoteric theories including the writings of Richard Shaver – the notorious “Shaver Mystery” of the 1940s. The latter is mentioned in the back cover blurb, as is the almost-as-Fortean “real reason for the death of Elvis Presley”.

There is another Fortean connection in the book’s hero – Jake Conger of the Wild Talents Division. “Wild Talents”, of course, was the title of Charles Fort’s last book. In the novel, the Wild Talents Division is made up of operatives with paranormal abilities – Jake Conger can make himself invisible, while his female sidekick Wizard Wells is an “87 per cent accurate” Precog. This is the last of three books featuring the Jake Conger character, although it’s the first that I’ve read.

The Shaver Mystery is something of a hobby horse of mine, so I won’t get sidetracked into pontificating about it here. Suffice to say that Shaver’s basic premise – involving decadent descendents of “ancient aliens” living in caverns beneath the Earth, and controlling human destiny through mind control and other methods – is also the underlying theme of Goulart’s novel, although Shaver isn’t actually mentioned by name. The most obvious difference is that Shaver, like all paranoid theorists, was in deadly earnest about everything he said. Goulart plays the whole thing for laughs – to much better effect.

There is a character in the novel, a crackpot author by the name of P.K. Stackpole, who broadly approximates to Richard Shaver – albeit a future version of him, since the action is set in 2022. “Hello Lemuria Hello” is supposedly the title of Stackpole’s latest non-fiction book – winner of the prestigious Goofy award at the annual convention of the Crackpot Writers of America (“all sorts of pea-brained yoohoos who specialize in writing about the weird, the occult, the paranormal...”).

The other person name-dropped on the back cover, Elvis Presley, also appears in fictionalized form, as a wealthy middle-aged pop singer named Amos Binky. He doesn’t have that much in common with Elvis – in fact British readers might detect a closer resemblance to the late unlamented Jimmy Savile (“I tell you that girl scout was over twelve. Somebody done falsified her birth certificate or somethin’ to make me look bad.”). The book was published in March 1979, just a year and a half after Presley’s death, so I guess it was a case of cashing in on a still-topical subject. It’s interesting, anyway, that the idea of a “real reason for the death of Elvis Presley” was already part of conspiracy culture by that time.

The book’s setting of 2022 is now just 8 years away – much closer than 1979, which is 35 years in the past. I love reading retro-futuristic stories like this, both for the things they got right and the things they got wrong. The novel is full of smart-aleck robots, automated skycabs, sentient shopping carts and such like... all still very much in the realms of science fiction. On the other hand, everyone still reads printed books and magazines, with no indication there is any electronic alternative.

But Goulart did get some things right. People pay for purchases by putting a plastic card in a slot. They check into hotels by signing their name on a screen with a stylus. They watch mindless garbage on satellite TV. Even more prophetic is the title of one of the bestsellers of the day: “I Blew the President” – clearly a timeslipped reference to the Monica Lewinsky scandal of the mid-nineties!

The portrayal of the conspiracy theorist, P.K. Stackpole, also struck me as being closer to a 21st century stereotype than one from the 1970s. He goes on about how he’s persecuted by Lizard People, and how the FBI implanted a radio transmitter in his rectum. His writings include articles entitled “Here’s a Microwave Threat They Didn’t Tell You About” and “The Government is Building Concentration Camps Again and You are Footing the Bills.” Just the sort of thing you see on conspiracy websites today!

Ron Goulart (who is still alive, as far as I know) was one of the most prolific science fiction authors of the 1970s and 80s. He wrote literally hundreds of novels and short stories, maintaining the cheap-and-cheerful pulp ethos at a time when most of his contemporaries had switched to writing stodgy, pseudo-literary epics. I haven’t read as much of his work as I should have, given that I share his value system – my excuse is that very little of his output saw print on this side of the Atlantic.

I’ve read one of his non-fiction books – Cheap Thrills, a history of the pulp magazines – but he’s written several others, mainly on comic-book culture. I’ve read a handful of Goulart’s short stories in anthologies, and the three of his Vampirella adaptations that were reprinted in the UK. Apart from that, I’ve only read three Ron Goulart novels (all paperbacks imported from the States)... and Hello Lemuria Hello is definitely the best of them.


Colin Jones said...

It's interesting how the vision of the future has changed in sci-fi novels - once it was all about cities on the moon, intelligent humanoid robots and flying cars etc but now it's far more likely to be about surviving a post-apocalyptic nightmare of climate change and environmental destruction. When I was 13 (in 1979) I bought a book called The Usborne Book Of The Future which made a serious attempt to predict future technology over the coming 50 years. Surprise, surprise there was no mention of the internet, smartphones etc but they did predict the ubiquity of satellite dishes although the ones shown looked nothing like the ones we got. They also predicted that the 2020 Olympics would be on the Moon because (of course) there would be a thriving lunar colony by then. I suppose it's a pity that shiny, optimistic view of the future has gone and been replaced by the depressing reality of climate change, overpopulation and environmental destruction.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin - that book sounds a really fascinating piece of retro-futurism. In fact, non-fiction speculations of that type are much more indicative of past expectations than their science-fiction counterpart, because the latter may be driven more by the need to create a good story than to predict the future. In Goulart's case, for example, the robots etc are really only there for comic effect, while other authors use things like interplanetary space missions and cities on the moon as an exciting setting for an action-adventure story (and why not, of course!)

Past predictions of the type you mention seem to fail for at least two reasons: (a) they assume that future technology will be driven by what is scientifically possible, rather than by economic considerations such as affordability and supply-and-demand, and (b) they assume that the social and political values of 50 years in the future will be those of the 20-somethings of the present day. This neglects the fact that each generation rebels against the values of its parents -- so when those 20-somethings are 70-something their hopes and aspirations will be forgotten!