Monday, June 11, 2012

Book Review: 'Men Like Rats' by Robert Chilson

2 / 5 Stars

‘Men Like Rats’ (Questar, 212 pp., March 1989) features a striking cover by Barclay Shaw.

‘Men’ is essentially a treatment of the theme introduced into SF by A. Bertram Chandler’s ‘The Giant Killer’ (1945) and William Tenn’s story ‘The Men in the Walls' (1963, later expanded into the novel ‘Of Men and Monsters’, 1968). 

Basically, mankind finds itself reduced to roach-like scavenging among the habitations of aliens vastly superior in size and intellect.

‘Men’ takes place in the future, when some vaguely described calamity has resulted in mankind occupying a vast series of rooms, or chambers, of alien design. The main function of these rooms seems to be as storage places or waypoints for an endless stream of packaged goods, conveyed from location to location by seemingly magical energy fields, elevators, and conveyor belts.

Toting spears, dressed in clothing salvaged from the textiles scavenged from the bales of goods flowing from one room to another, men have set up small fiefdoms or tribes among the various chambers in this alien warehouse.

As the novel opens, Rick, an experienced wanderer among the chambers, is seeking his fortune, and a chance to meet up with female tribals, among the cans and bales of one of the sections of the warehouse. Life among the chambers is not easy; the Sentiences that have erected the warehouse are becoming increasingly exasperated with the depredations of the humans, and a bevy of predatory animal, boobytraps, and robots have been seeded into the warehouse in an effort at vermin control. 

As he journeys deeper into the alien labyrinth, Rick stumbles on disturbing evidence that some of the tribes ruling selected cargo bays may in fact not be human....but they have a liking for human flesh.....

On the whole, ‘Men’ is a fast-moving, at times humorous tale that follows the adventures of Rick among the various tribes in the warehouse. There are plenty of stone-age battles, and violent encounters with monsters, as Rick makes his way to the territory of the most affluent and influential of tribes.

Unfortunately, the novel's backstory suffers from inadequate exposition. Author Chilson's passages devoted to the alien logistical system, however descriptive in nature, are resolutely presented from Rick's POV; and as a  member of a stone-age Cargo Cult, Rick's knowledge of his surroundings are vague and child-like.

There is no omniscient narration that discloses to the reader the exact nature of the landscape in which our hero is cavorting. 

As the novel progressed I became increasingly tired of the diffuse character of Chilson's prose: is the strange green terrain the alien equivalent of synthetic turf ? Are the giant colored blocks stacked in the cargo bays an alien child's toy ? Are the enormous boxes filled with edibles the equivalent of alien MREs ?

While less allegorical in nature than Tenn's 'Monsters', 'Men Like Rats' also will strike some readers as too opaque in nature. It's a workmanlike effort, but not much more, at this sub-genre of sf.

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