The Rithian Terror by Damon Knight
A pleasing blend of futuristic science fiction and hard-boiled espionage caper, The Rithian Terror, by Damon Knight, first saw the light of day in the January 1953 issue of Startling Stories, under the title Double Meaning. For 25 cents, readers also got, in that same issue, a Murray Leinster novelette entitled “Overdrive,” as well as five short stories, including Isaac Asimov’s “Button, Button” and Jack Vance’s “Three-Legged Joe;” that’s what I call value for money! Anyway, the Knight novel later appeared in one of those cute little “Ace doubles,” and, later still, in a 1965 paperback from Award Books … the edition that I was fortunate enough to have laid my hands on. Though barely remembered and seldom discussed today, it is a short novel of some very definite quality; one that tells a tough, fast-moving story in a very efficient manner.
In The Rithian Terror, the year is 2521, and Earth is at the center of an Empire of 260 planets, with a combined population of 800 billion people. The reader makes the acquaintance of one of them in some depth: Thorne Spangler, a commissioner in the Earth Security Department, North American District, Southwestern Sector (and that’s as close as we ever get to learning the precise location of the book’s action!), who, when we first meet him, is facing two very big problems. The first is that seven Rithian spies have recently been discovered on Earth. Six of the seven had been killed, but one had escaped and is currently at large. And since the Rithians — vaguely octopus-like beings with an advanced technology and a spiteful sense of humor — have the ability to disguise themselves inside the body of any Earthling (by a process not quite adequately detailed by the author), tracking down the alien spy will surely prove to be a challenge!
Fortunately for Earth Security, an expert on the Rithi, from the outworld planet of Manhaven, one Jawj Pembun, has been called in to assist Spangler during this case. Unfortunately for Spangler, the uncouth, seemingly bumbling Pembun proves to be a source of constant irritation and even suspicion, when the thought occurs that the outworlder could be the Rithian itself! As for the commissioner’s other problem, it is his girlfriend, Joanna Planter, who, infuriatingly enough, will not agree to marry Spangler, causing the beleaguered bureaucrat to plan a campaign of psychological abuse and attrition every bit as complex and detailed as the one he has in mind for the Rithian…
While reading Knight’s entertaining work, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the hit sci-fi film from 1988, Alien Nation, in which Mandy Patinkin plays a bumbling man from another world, who is called in to assist an L.A. cop (played by James Caan) in the cracking of a case. In both works, the seemingly uncouth helper from outer space turns out to be surprisingly resourceful, and indeed invaluable to his initially skeptical Earthling colleague. The similarities go no further than that, actually, as Pembun is a human (Manhaven had been colonized 600 years earlier by various Caribbean nationalities and French West Africaners, and yes, the reference to “French West Africa” does, unavoidably, date the novel a bit), whereas Patinkin’s character is of a different species entirely. Pembun, incidentally, is easily the most likable character in Knight’s book, especially as compared to Spangler, who is wholly unsympathetic for most of the novel, especially when he is shown physically abusing Joanna, for a psychologically calculated effect. The book gains much of its strength by depicting the contrasting styles of the two men: Spangler hatches his schemes and carries them out rigidly by the book, whereas Pembun is more improvisatory and deep thinking. It is only near the novel’s conclusion that Spangler begrudgingly comes to realize that Jawj’s methods just might be more effective than the Security Department’s own.
As I mentioned up top, Knight’s novel combines both hard science fiction and a fairly tough little exercise in interplanetary espionage. Thus, the author suitably loads his world of five centuries hence with multi-screened communicators, thumb watches, remote-controlled spy cameras that look just like insects, disruption bombs (the Rithians have hidden a handful of these around the surface of the Earth … enough to obliterate the entire planet!), reading spools, a writing stylus with a screen readout, and an interrogation/torture device that Dick Cheney would have probably given one of his best defibrillators to get his hands on! The HQ where Spangler passes most of his time, Administration Hill, is shown to be a complex warren with endless hallways, through which the workers zip about on their power scooters, protected by personal force fields. It is a fairly compelling view of a highly technological Earth, although one ossified as far as individual thought is concerned, as Pembun points out to Spangler frequently, to the latter’s huge annoyance.
The Rithian Terror was the first book that I’ve read by Damon Knight, and he happily turns out to be quite a fine wordsmith. But this should not come as a surprise, I suppose; Knight was, after all, the founder of the Milford Science Fiction Writers’ Conference, in 1956; an annual workshop that ultimately led to the formation of the Science Fiction Writers of America nine years later, of which Damon Knight himself was the first president. His style — in this book, at least — is clean, concise and no-nonsense, with a slight leavening of dry humor and an occasional lovely turn of phrase. For example, here is how he describes Joanna, who Spangler sees as being a neurotic mess because of her love of old music and old books (I suppose that would make me a neurotic mess, too, solely on that basis):
Her skin and eyes were so clear, her emotional responses so deliberate and pallid that she seemed utterly, almost abstractly normal: a type personified, a symbol, a mathematical fiction…
Conversely, in some sections, Knight’s descriptions can be quite UNlovely; for example, the sequence in which a Rithian is dissected by the Earth Security scientists, after it has been forcibly removed from its human “host.” Some pretty yucky goings-on here, trust me!
A minor work, to be sure, The Rithian Terror is nevertheless a pleasing one; a novel that most readers should be able to tear through in an evening or two. I found it rather winning, so much so that I look forward now to reading my next work by Damon Knight. And fortunately, during a visit to Brooklyn sci-fi bookstore extraordinaire Singularity just yesterday, I was able to find what will likely be my next Damon experience; his 1964 novel Beyond the Barrier. Stay tuned…