Monday, January 3, 2011

Book Review: 'On the Symb-Socket Circuit' by Kenneth Bulmer 

Ever since 1979, when I purchased Ian Summer’s book of 70s SF and fantasy art, ‘Tomorrow and Beyond’ (Workman Publishing, 1978), I wondered what paperback book used this neat illustration by David Schleinkofer:

The answer was revealed when I recently found a copy of ‘On the Symb-Socket Circuit’ by Kenneth Bulmer. This Ace paperback (174 pp.) was released in 1972.

Matt Wade is a ‘coord’ (coordinator), one of a unique race of people gifted with a superhuman ability to intuitively understand computer / AI programming. Uneasy with his role as a member of the CIDG, the galaxy-wide Overmind that controls interstellar commerce and politics, Wade has fled to the planet Ashramdrego, where the Kriseman Corporation maintains plantations of an alien plant called geron. Geron pods produce a potent compound capable of extending the human lifespan to several centuries….a Elixir of Youth that governs the fate of billions throughout the Federation. 

Like all other colonists on Ashramdrego, Wade survives its atmosphere of toxic gases not by wearing a spacesuit, but by the aid of a ‘symb’: a ferret-like animal, native to the planet, whose circulatory system interfaces with that of the human host via a shunt in the carotid artery of the host's neck. Wearing a symb draped around one’s collar, like a sort of living scarf, permits the colonists of Ashramdrego to go about their business in the open air, free of the need for oxygen tanks and respirators.

As long as they have a symb attached to them, colonists can tend to the geron bushes, the once-a-year harvesting of which promises ample reward to those itinerant workers on the interstellar labor ‘circuit’. But soon after his arrival on Ashramdrego, Wade becomes aware of some troubling events that the Corporation seems overly willing to dismiss as random anomalies: for some inexplicable reason, symbs are abruptly abandoning their hosts, leaving humans at risk of dying in the lethal atmosphere unless they can be equipped with an emergency respirator. 

And out among the plantations, a plague of enormous wasp-like creatures known as ‘ruptors’ (depicted on the book’s cover) are tearing up the precious geron bushes and endangering the horticulturists responsible for ensuring a productive crop. Are more dire developments waiting to unfold on Ashramdrego ? For in their single-minded rush to exploit the gifts of the geron bushes, the Corporation may have made some flawed assumptions about the interplay of species on this strange world, assumptions that could threaten the survival of everyone on Ashramdrego….

‘Symb-Socket’ belongs to that subgenre of SF in which a Terran colony, or a crashed spaceship's crew,  finds itself in peril due to an inadequate, often chauvinistic understanding of their adopted home’s ecology. There’s nothing inherently wrong with author Bulmer’s placing another novel in this subgenre, and his use of the symbiont concept as a means by which humans can conduct affairs more-or-less ‘normally’ on an otherwise hostile world brings some innovation to the narrative.

Unfortunately, ‘Symb-Socket’ is a chore to read, because Bulmer relentlessly tries to make his prose too witty and precious, an affectation not unusual among authors succumbing to the New Wave approach to writing. He seems unable to decide if he’s writing a satirical piece in the mold of Ron Goulart, R. A. Lafferty, or Robert Sheckley; or a more conventional SF adventure, albeit one with ‘sophisticated’ literary intentions. Witness this paragraph:

Or- and how sneakily diabolical that would be- just for a moment turn on those circuits in his own brain he had switched off when he’d left Altimus and reach into the computer and pump the hysteresis cycles of ‘The little Preet had a treet whose feetless greetings calokreeted it’ directly into the scientific marvels of the computer’s innards.

These prose contrivances litter every page, and negotiating them left me wanting to abandon the novel well before its midway point. This is a shame, because there is a decent SF story lying underneath the stylistic encrustations of ‘Symb-Socket’. It just stays helplessly smothered under the weight of its author’s pretentions.

Only hardcore New Wave enthusiasts will want to search for this volume on the used book shelves.

2 / 5 Stars

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