The Super Barbarians by John Brunner
Ever since the mid-15th century, and continuing on for some 600 years now and counting, coffee has been one of planet Earth’s favorite beverages. Today, I believe, it holds the No. 3 spot, with only water itself and tea being consumed more frequently. But whether taken black or light, as an espresso or cappuccino, with sugar or not, the fact remains that the men and women of our 21st century drink something on the order of 2.25 billion cups a day, or over 800 billion cups a year. (Heck, I just had a nice big one before starting to write these words!) And really, who can blame us? With its delicious flavor and the agreeable jolt provided by its psychoactive stimulant caffeine, coffee is perfect for waking up, staying up, drinking with friends, and sipping with dessert. And, if a certain sci-fi book of the early 1960s can be believed, it also makes for an invaluable tool when confounding the plans of conquering space aliens! But more on that in a moment.
The book that I am leading up to here is John Brunner’s The Super Barbarians, which was released as a 35-cent Ace paperback (D-547, for all you collectors out there) in 1962, when the author was 28. The book sports a somewhat unfaithful, non sequitur cover courtesy of Ed Valigursky. Sadly, the novel has not been reprinted in the 61 years (as of this writing) since its initial publication, although I believe that there might be a Kindle option available today. The fact that the book has fallen into publication oblivion strikes me as a very sorry state of affairs, as a recent perusal of this novel has revealed it to be a highly entertaining piece of work indeed, and one that has not dated a jot since its Cold War debut.
Today, of course, John Brunner is best known for his big, award-winning books of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s; books such as Stand on Zanzibar (1968) and The Jagged Orbit (1969), as well as The Sheep Look Up (1972, and which was nominated for a Nebula Award). But before he entered his sophisticated and more “mature” period, Brunner was busy crafting well-done space opera fare for publishers such as Ace. Indeed, between 1959 and 1967, he would release no fewer than three dozen such! Just recently, I had some words to say about one of his four efforts from 1960 alone, The Atlantic Abomination, which, monster movie that it is at heart, I just loved. For my second experience with Mr. Brunner, I opted for The Super Barbarians, which similarly had sat on a bookshelf here at home, unread, for ages. And now I am kicking myself for having put both books off for so long.
As for those “super barbarians” of the title, as we find out early on, they are the Vorra, who, some 50 years before the events in Brunner’s book properly commence, had defeated Earth by employing their faster-than-light (FTL) space vessels. And the fact that the Vorra have these advanced space capabilities, far beyond Earth’s own, is something of a mystery, as the Vorra society is basically a feudal one, and with nothing much in the way of high-tech industry to speak of. Brunner’s book begins some five decades after the Vorran subjugation, and is narrated to us by Gareth Shaw, a young Terran who had served as tutor to the son of the Vorran governor on Earth, Pwill. After his term as a tutor was finished, Shaw had been asked to return to the Vorran home world of Quallavarra to be the personal secretary of Pwill’s head wife, Llaq. Thus, when we first encounter Shaw, he has already been a resident at Pwill’s enormous estate for seven months, the feudal house of Pwill being one of the largest and most powerful of the 60 competing houses on the planet. Shaw’s complacent existence is given a jolt one day when Pwill’s ninth wife (out of 10), the Under-Lady Shavarri, has the Earthman report to her in the estate’s seraglio to send him on an errand. Thus, Shaw gets to visit the Acre for the first time: an area of a few square blocks in the nearby Vorran city where the people of Earth are allowed to live unmolested. But Shaw’s first visit to the enclave of some 14,000 Terrans does not go well. He is shot at by Vorrans on the way and rescued by three Earth folks – Ken and Marijane Lee, a brother and sister, and their friend Gustav – who look down on him in contempt for the Vorran aide that he is. Shaw is interviewed by the Acre’s de facto leader, Judge Olafsson, who similarly does little to hide his disgust, but he does manage to complete his errand; namely, picking up a love potion from an Earth druggist named Kramer, with which Shavarri hopes to usurp Llaq’s No. 1 wife position.
In the days to come, things get even more complicated for Shaw, who can’t help wondering why he has never taken advantage of his unique position to help the people of Earth, and why he seems to have tantalizing gaps in his memory. Pwill, Jr., the heir apparent, has developed a very serious addiction to (you guessed it!) Earth coffee, which acts on the Vorran metabolism more grievously than heroine does on an Earthling’s. Twill Himself orders Shaw to go back to the Acre and prevent all sources of coffee from entering his house, but our narrator decides to play a dangerous game, as, under instructions from Judge Olafsson, he keeps Pwill, Jr. well supplied … for a while, anyway. And soon enough, the plans of the Acre residents are made known to Shaw: Using drugs (including coffee), rumors, psychology and superstition (the feudal Vorrans, at heart, are a very superstitious lot), the Terrans are plotting to sow confusion not only in Twill’s house, but in some of the other houses, as well, hopefully resulting in a general civil war amongst the 60 feudal lords. But as Pwill, Jr. gets increasingly out of control, and Pwill Himself and especially Lady Llaq grow ever more suspicious of the Earthman in their midst, Shaw’s position becomes more and more untenable…
Now, on the front cover of my Ace edition there is a blurb that reads “What chance had the Earthmen against … the super barbarians?,” and based on what we see of the ghettolike existence of the Acre residents, the reader is initially tempted to think “Very little.” But, oh, those wily Earthlings! Using the above-mentioned tricks at their disposal, they surely do manage to even the odds against their better-equipped foes. As did The Atlantic Abomination, the novel evinces a high degree of intelligent and convincing storytelling from beginning to end. Brunner’s work here is finely detailed, and the author takes pains to describe something of the Vorran language (with its differing syntaxes depending on whether one is addressing a superior, an equal or an inferior), the politics between the Vorran houses and the in-house plotting amongst Pwill’s wives, the customs on the Pwill estate, and something of the Vorran history. The novel’s largish cast of characters, both Vorran and human, is efficiently sketched in by Brunner, and any number of wonderful scenes are included. Among them: the trick that Shaw pulls on the sadistic torturer Dwerri the whipmaster … namely, smearing that murderous weapon with a peyotl derivative that sends the Vorran off on quite a “bad trip,” indeed; the fight that Gareth has with the 20-year-old Pwill, Jr., when the latter is in the final throes of caffeine withdrawal; and the finely depicted civil war between the houses toward the novel’s conclusion. And, oh, that early scene with the hopelessly addicted Pwill, Jr. will surely strike a chord with anyone who has ever been jonesing for some java. As the youth piteously moans, “What devil’s seed you make the drug from, I don’t know. But it’s wrecking my body to do without it. I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I can’t move my bowels, I can’t throw a harpoon, and I can’t take a woman!” And it gets even worse for the miserable lad later on; a marvelous depiction, truly, of drug withdrawal in an alien and futuristic setting!
The Super Barbarians features little in the way of the high-tech gizmos of superscience that some readers might be expecting, and, other than that mysteriously obtained Vorran FTL drive, are limited to a few novel drugs and some anesthetic gas capsules. The weaponry shown in the book, on both the Vorran and Terran sides, is surprisingly conventional and unremarkable. But perhaps the single best aspect of Brunner’s novel is Gareth Shaw himself. The reader worries about him as his position on the Pwill estate becomes flat-out dangerous, at the same time that we marvel at his unknown (even to himself) abilities that keep cropping up, as well as the blank spots in his memory. We can’t help wondering what his earlier background may have been, and when it’s finally revealed, it is a highly satisfying moment. Similarly, the central question as to how the feudal Vorrans ever managed to acquire interstellar capabilities is also neatly explained eventually, and it does make for a nice surprise; one that might have even led to a sequel had Brunner chosen to do so. Still, the book is perfectly self-contained as is.
Actually, I have only one very minor complaint to lodge against Brunner’s very fine work here, and that is that no date is ever given for the events described. Thus, I’m not sure if the Vorrans conquered the Earth in 1965 or 2965. It is a minor point, to be sure, but one that couldn’t help bugging me as I proceeded. But really, that’s about it. The Super Barbarians was a tremendous lot of fun for me, and I do wholeheartedly recommend it. I find myself wishing that some savvy publisher would start reprinting these early, short novels by Brunner; perhaps put three of them in one volume, in a series of volumes, as has been done with some of Robert Silverberg’s early work. I for one look forward to reading many more of Brunner’s early- to mid-‘60s books.
And now, for finishing this review, I think I am going to reward myself … perhaps with a nice cup of coffee…
Oopsie…my bad! That word should be “heroin,” of course, not “heroine”….