Tentatively, Convenience's Reviews > Slave Ship

Slave Ship by Frederik Pohl
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it was amazing
bookshelves: sf

review of
Frederik Pohl's Slave Ship
by tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - June 19, 2015

I just finished reading & reviewing Iain M. Banks's 1st SF novel, Consider Phlebas (1987) (my review's here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5... ), & it occurred to me that it was the kind of thing that someone might write who might think something like: 'Oh, SF's easy! You just put a bunch of monsters in Outer Space & have them fighting all the time & then add some human love interest.'

THEN I read Slave Ship (1957), Frederik Pohl's 1st solo SF novel (he'd written 5 collaboratively before then), & it was an extreme breath of freshness that had close to none of the clichés that Banks's novel was built on. Largely b/c of the extreme contrast between the 2 bks I'm giving this a 5 star rating (I might ordinarily have given it 4 stars) b/c the Pohl is so much what I like SF to be & the Banks is the opposite. Perhaps I shd call it a Rebound Rating.

Even tho this was published in 1957, Pohl understands the remote warfare that so characterizes the use of smart missiles today: "Even in action, the closest I had ever been to a living Caodai aboard Spruance was a thousand yards of hundred-fathom water." (p 2)

Pohl predicts a completely militarized USA: "It was the first time I had ever been in Florida, and from the observation deck of the airport I could see a skyline of palm trees and hibiscus, just as the travel booklets had promised, back in the days when there were travel booklets. Those were pretty remote days, I told myself—only three or four years ago, but I was a civilian then, and so was my wife. The whole country was civilian then, barring eight or ten million cadres. It was hard to remember—" (p 2)

Pohl has the US's enemy originating from Viet Nam: "There they were—the enemy. The members of the religious cult that had stormed out of old Viet Nam and swept over most of three continents, and appeared to be about ready to take on a couple more." (p 5) What's currently called the Viet Nam War in the US started in 1955 (or even earlier w/ US involvement since it cd be sd to've started w/ advisors in 1950) but wasn't well-known to US citizens at the time. Pohl's story has a full-blown war in progress but it's never declared as such. Sound familiar?

"They called it a cold war. But fourteen million of our men were hotting it up over in Europe, against twenty or so million of theirs. Our land casualties were comparatively low—in the low millions that is.

"And no state of war.

"There was just this one little thing. Our troops were killing theirs all the way from the Pyrenees to the White Sea in local "police actions."" - p 9

Pohl's main character is a bit obtuse, he's a computer expert who doesn't recognize his colleague's experiments w/ using YES/(silence = no) signals for communication w/ a dog as being the equivalent of binary code:

"Language is a supple and evocative thing; how could you dignify a one-word vocabulary by that term? Imagine compressing information, any quantity whatsoever into a simple yes-and-no code.

"Thinking which, I checked the installation of my digital computers, capable of infinite subtle operations, packed with countless bits of knowledge and instruction. And all of it transcribed, summarized and digested into what the mathematicians call the binary system, and reproduced in the computers by the off-or-on status of electronic cells." - p 21

Communication between humans & 'animals" (to me, humans are animals) or, as I prefer, other animals, is a central subject here: "A team of four full lieutenants was reading meaning into the elevation of a dog's tail, and translating it into flipper-positions for the seals they were given to work with." (p 24) Consider this: when I was making my movie entitled "Tents Muir" with some seals in the North Sea in 1988, I waved goodbye to the seals, not expecting any response, & one of the seals lay on its side & waved its flipper, seemingly in reply back to me:


I find this a very convincing example of, at the very least, an unexpected mimicry (a somewhat difficult & unnatural one for the seal) &, possibly, an actual communication. In Slave Ship, Konrad Lorenz is referenced as a pioneer of such communication: "I found out that there was a man named Konrad Lorenz who managed to talk Jackdaw back when Hitler ruled Germany." (p 27) Yet another author whose work I shd read.

"The question, of course, turns upon the definition of the term "language." Bees have been clearly demonstrated to communicate with sets of signal, for example. If one allows only a "spoken" language, we turn to the frog, perhaps the lowest animal to have a voice at all. A species of frog from Santo Domingo owns at least one "word," a sort of pig-squeal alarm cry utterly different from its normal barking sound." - p 145

Check out :50 or so of this excerpt from "Rasps" (a remix of George McCowan's eco-horror movie "Frogs" & Charles M. Bogert's audio research "Sounds of North American Frogs"): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yzZTr...

The idea of non-human languages influencing human language is one very well worth researching further: "A philologist named George Schwidetzky believes he has found traces of Chimpanzee loan-words in ancient Chinese ("ngak"), in a South African Bushman dialect (a tongue click), and even in modern German! (The German word, "geck", derived from Chimpanzee "gack.")" (p 146)

"IN 1931 A GERMAN ANTHROPOLOGIST AND PHILOLOGIST, Georg Schwidetzky, published a short monograph that was translated the following year into English under the misleading title, Do You Speak Chimpanzee? It was an ambitious goal that Schwidetzky set for himself: nothing less than "to discover, through systematic investigation of the speech of animals (in particular apes, monkeys, and prosimians), the first beginnings of speech and the language of prehistoric and fossil men." He proceeded, in self-conscious originality, by "empirical rather than theoretical methods." Schwidetzky, however, is careful to acknowledge the work of his predecessors— Franke, Garner, Boutan, Learned, Yerkes, Furness, Schmid. To many it will come as a surprise that there have long been in existence dictionaries of animal words, of which the most recent is that of Blanche W. [Learned]

"1 Georg Schwidetzky, Do You Speak Chimpanzee? (E. P. Button and Co., 1933)" - Issac Goldman's The Wonder of Words: An Introduction to Language for Everyman - http://archive.org/stream/wonderofwor...

So, 'of course,, yeah, I just ordered a copy of Robert Meearns Yerkes & Blanch W. Learned's Chimpanzee intelligence and its vocal expressions online. Don't I have anything better to do?! & when will I find the time?!

The somewhat naive narrator is annoyed by his Russian colleague who's researching communication w/ dogs: "I counted the spoons of sugar he dumped into his coffee: Six of them." (p 40) Have you ever experimented w/ sugar? I was at a party once where I drank something like 14 cups of tea in quick succession, each of them saturated w/ sugar. A special type of tingling distress resulted. I'll never do that again.

Ahhh, Yugoslavia.. Remember that country? It was kindof like Alfred Jarry's Poland in the Ubu plays. I dated a Yugoslavian woman once, she never forgot, she never forgave. I wondered: are all Yugoslavian's like this? Then I met the Yugoslavian boyfriend of an ex-girlfriend. He was worse. "the Yugoslav Push that had touched off the Short War. That was Semyon's first battle—against Marshal Tito's stubborn little army." (p 41) My Yugoslavian girlfriend sd Tito was good for keeping Yugoslavia united. Given what's happened since then I think Tito must've been quite the man.

There's a thread of 'anti-pacifism' that runs thru this bk. Given that Pohl was no fool I detect more than a little poking fun at the Ignorati here: ""Patchifist, patchifist!" Semyon was bawling; and whether he was the first to have the idea or not I cannot say, but in a moment it seemed that the whole town was screaming, "Lynch the dirty pacifists! String 'em up!"" (p 68) In this instance, the 'pacifists' were anything but. In fact, the 'pacifists' of the novel were.. but I don't want to spoil it for you. Well, maybe I will:

""For ultimate peace!" Winnington flared. "You think we like killing people, we peace men? You're an idiot, you think that peace means sitting quiet and taking punishment, eh?" He was flushed and excited, taking a queer pleasure in the fact that we were all of us near death. "No!" he almost screamed. "That is not pacifism, that's stupidity! We must fight for peace, we must destroy the enemy. Kill everybody who might kill us—then, only then, we'll have peace!"" - pp 109-110

Not exactly the notion of pacifism I grew up w/, eh?! Then again, 'police actions' are to 'keep the peace' & freedom isn't free or probably even French-fried.

I recently read a bk by the Russian writing team the Strugatsky Brothers entitled Space Apprenctice ( https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7... ) There're sections about radiation in that & in my review I wrote:

"I'm reminded of having recently witnessed filmmaker Kathryn Bigelow's K-19, The Widowmaker supposedly based on a real Soviet nuclear sub in 1961 (just the yr before this bk) that was rushed thru in its production b/s of a threat from US nuclear subs. The result being a nuclear accident in wch the crew suffered horribly & many died young. I'm further reminded of Frederik Pohl's bk Chernobyl w/ its attribution of disaster cause being the rushing thru of bad concrete to meet quota. Then again, let's not forget 3 Mile Island: https://youtu.be/WFnEj9c35fE "

Pohl, as w/ so many post-Hiroshima-&-Nagasaki-atrocity mindful people, has the all-too-casual military attitude to radioactivity in a submarine presented here 4 yrs before K-19!:

"For one thing, four inches of sheathing had been stripped from her reactor. It made a nice economy in weight—Weems, from a lumbering snail of a vessel, could now in theory lope along as lightly as a corvette—but it had one drawback that everybody inside her hull was subject to a gentle wash of radiation all the time the reactor was going.

"Semyon looked at me with the roundest of eyes. "Logan," he gasped, "are they making a kamikaze of you?"" - pp 72-73

Never let it be sd that Pohl is w/o imagination. One particularly 'nice' touch is having people getting high, in a socially acceptable way off anthrax: "The anthrax colonies in my system were pretty well established, I had a fine building case of fever and approaching delirium. Any minute now the second layer of the pastille would dissolve and the antibiotics would take over, cleaning out the bacteria and sobering me up." (p 88) Horrifying, yes? &, yet, how many ways of getting 'high' are there that're similarly toxic? Alcohol isn't exactly user-friendly.

Pohl is thorough. He has a warship be named after a religious war rebellion: "We boarded Monmouth, a 40,000 ton carrier" (p 89) Sd naming leading to this reviewer researching it, 1st erroneously thinking it was named after a novel thought to be called "Monmouth the Wanderer" but actually called Melmoth the Wanderer (Charles Robert Maturin, 1820) - wch wd'vee been interesting insofar as according to the back-cover blurb of the Penguin edition that I have "In a satanic bargain, Melmoth has sold his soul in exchange for immortality and now preys on the helpless in their darker moments, offering to ease their suffering" - a good enuf metaphor for militarism. But, no, I was wrong, instead:

"The Monmouth Rebellion, also known as The Revolt of the West or The West Country rebellion, was an attempt to overthrow James II, who had become King of England, Scotland and Ireland upon the death of his elder brother Charles II on 6 February 1685. James II was a Roman Catholic, and some Protestants under his rule opposed his kingship." - https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Monmo...

Then there're the aluminum hats. I was in a movie by Bob Huff where I talked in a NYC park about the use of foil hats by some people in attempt to deflect remote brain manipulation. Then, in 1999, etta cetera & I made a movie called "Foiled Again!" wch partially involved making foil hats for homeless people in downtown Pittsburgh. There's so much to be sd about this subject! W/o getting into it further right now, it's interesting to note that Pohl's reference to such things is the earliest I've come across so far: "He displayed what had just been issued to him, an aluminum helmet, protection against the Glotch. The whole ship was being fitted with them." (p 92) Why, oh why, Mr. Pohl, did you choose aluminum helmets?! Do tell, I'm sure there's way more to this than meets the eye!!

&, yes, yes, Pohl is prescient - in this case I'm reminded of The Autobiography of Malcolm X (w/ the assistance of Alex Haley, 1965) in wch X has the revelation when he visits Islam that 'blacks' & 'whites' aren't necessarily at each throats: "Caodism, like the Mohammedans before then, practiced a rigid sort of tolerance; there was no distinction in skin color or creed for them—if the man whose skin in question was willing to embrace the Caodai revelations and, if necessary, join the Caodai armed forces." (p 113)

&, of course, Pohl is well aware of the machinations of propaganda:

"Picture the Devil come to life.

"Remember what I had seen of old Nguyen. Latrine posters, showing him luring helpless U.N. soldiery into haunts of bawdy vice, his wicked face yellow and fierce, his long fingers clawed like a killer cat's." - p 121

So, yep, I think I'm adding this to my top 50 favorite SF bks of ALL-TIME. ALSO, I haven't even gotten into the title of this bk but all you Animal Liberationists out there will appreciate it.

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Reading Progress

Started Reading
June 19, 2015 – Finished Reading
June 21, 2015 – Shelved
June 21, 2015 – Shelved as: sf

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