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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Report on 1994: The Savage Report

1974...1984...and now the year 1994! Live your own future today...and discover the romance and fury of The Savage Report!

The hyperbolic tagline and arresting cover art stopped me in my tracks when I spotted 1994: The Savage Report nearly 20 years ago at a used bookstore in Calgary. Or at least I believe it was Calgary - the details are somewhat murky. I remember my friend Jeff Shyluk was there with me, and possibly his wife-to-be Susan Neumann, her brother Steven, and perhaps Tony Longworth and Ron Briscoe.

In any event, Jeff was there, and his jealousy was palpable: had I not spotted it first, he surely would have snapped up the tome, for we were both avowed lovers of bad books, and based on the cover copy this novel promised to be very bad indeed, perhaps even as bad as Michael Butterworth's Space:1999 tie-in book Space Brain. ("It hurt - it hurt like nothing had ever hurt her before!")

Jeff Shyluk and Earl J. Woods do some reading in the University of Alberta Star Trek Club office at 620 SUB.

As it turned out, Jeff and I shared custody of 1994 over time, perhaps in unspoken agreement that a novel of this diabolical nature should not fester on one shelf for long. This August, Jeff returned the book to my possession when Sylvia and I visited the Shyluks in Port Coquitlam, at last giving me the opportunity to re-experience a one-of-a-kind book.

The covers themselves are enticing enough to satisfy any lover of kitsch. 1974...1984...and now the year 1994! Ah yes, that far-future year of 1994. (I shouldn't laugh; if my memory serves, 1994 was still one or two years in the future when we found the book.) 1994, the title lovingly rendered in that oh-so-futuristic Checkbook font so popular at the time. 1994, ten years after 1984, a (much better) book the publishers obviously hoped people had heard of, and twenty years after 1974, the date of publication. 74, 84, 94 - that's one way to settle on a title.

Respected cover artist Kelly Freas doesn't seem to know how to depict "the crackling epicenter of the mile-a-second world that is the planet Earth, 1994," so he settles for a collage of violence, cheesecake and confused retro-futurism. My favourite is the man in sunglasses who seems about to punch an explosion.

Speaking of explosions, you get one on the very first page. Rheingold kicks off the action with sabotage at the Los Angeles Shuttleport:

Behind the bar, the blonde lesbian bartender let out a guttural shout of horror and dropped a shaker. It took hardly more than three seconds to react - two more than usual - and when he did, it was to leap across the room, dash through the door, and sprint across the concrete toward the explosion with maniacal vigor, chewing the bitter emergency capsule of neurostimulants which was stored in the third molar on the right side of his lower jaw.

In such emergencies, Jack became a well-oiled reaction mechanism, programmed into motion by his own instinctive computer system. He did not have to think in order to react correctly; his first movement always happened to be the right one, a talent that had saved his life more times than he liked to remember.

As promised, the book delivers fury in the opening pages, though so far its idea of romance is to describe one character as a "blonde lesbian," certainly a valid enough description, but rather clumsy. How do we know the character is a lesbian? The author simply states it as fact, before the reader needs to know or should even care.

As for Jack Anderson, our hero, he's already too smug to like even as the victim of cloying third-person narration. His first movement always happened to be the right one, eh? So much for any sense of suspense with regard to this character's fate.

Jack grabs a MacGuffin from the wreckage and returns to the bar to ruminate on what he's just seen:

"Its (sic) not energy I need now...its (sic) an angle. Have to grasp what's happening, and fast," flashed through his mind. Rafe Bartlett and his anonymous female companion...her wet-look bag...and the destruction of several hundred people. The elements of disaster were adding up.

He then pauses for a flashback, and several paragraphs of prose that I find difficult to categorize. I can't decide if this passage is progressive or reactionary:

Although it seemed like a long time ago it was less than a half hour since Jack first sat down on that same barstool and ordered a drink from the sultry viking goodess (sic) who was glaring at him across the slab of polished mahogony (sic). She was quite a specimen: well over six feet tall, long butter-yellow braids falling to either side of her breasts, gold slave bracelets encircling her bronzed biceps. A tapestry of mirrors and bottles formed a motley backdrop for her beauty, and Jack had duly registered her look of well as the erotic potential of that incredible body. There was a time, he mused, when bartenders were nice cynical fellows with paunches and racing tips...what was the world coming to?

Jonathan Emeric Anderson had a well-controlled and selective obsession for women, and in that sense he considered himself to be old-fashioned and un-liberated. He cultivated his heterosexual decadence with patrician detachment, but he loved his state of dependence and treasured his archaic emotions. In a world that had long since travelled beyond bisexuality, he was proud to be old-fashioned, sexy, open to any and all feminine seductions: a happy dinosaur, a man who rerely (sic) slept with more than two women at the same time and never ever felt the need for a boy.
Women in the nineties were quite different from what they were in his college days. Super-smart, ultra-educated, ruthlessly competitive in and out of the sack...modern women were taking a royal revenge against the male race for centuries of what they called oppression. Terrific teasers, with a hangman's instincts; modern woman had largely succeeded in reducing the male population to virtual eunuchdom. There were still quite a few women one would be able to talk with, and do other things with too, thank God. But it took the training of a super-voyeur to avoid ugly surprises. Fortunately, Jack was confident that he had it under control. He knew that even that butch barkeep in front of him could still be turned him. And she knew it, that's why she was sending him those furious vibes! He looked up and their eyes met; she winced visibly as he flashed his most insulting macho grin at her.

Okay, definitely reactionary. Super-voyeur? That would make quite a comic book character...

Throughout the course of the novel, Jack fills the hero's role in pedestrian fashion: he's fast, tough, smart and sexy in the manner of Bond, Buck Rogers, and Batman before him.

Jack had several extra molars in his of the hazards of the profession. He could get himself into a lot of trouble if he panicked and bit the wrong tooth...

...It just turned out mighty convenient that Jack, as a reporter, knew a dozen ways to kill and could pick locks with his fingernails.

And yet there is another dimension to the character, or at least to the world he inhabits: Rheingold clearly wants to portray a global society on the verge of change for the better. So while some passages might seem reactionary, the setting shows hints of progressivism, with titular heroine Eve Savage, Jack's boss, at the forefront of the movement for a better tomorrow:

"Good morning, world. Today is the 17th of January, 1994. This is the Savage Report." That sentence, and the way she said it, was Eve's trademark in the eyes of nearly 4 billion people. Eve's weekly news report had been the first globally syndicated holo program when the medium of three-dimensional transmission was perfected in the early eighties....

...Eve managed to inject her own rare brand of humor into the grim business of the news...not an easy job to do in 1994! Ecological catastrophe was the catch-phrase of the day. Political conflict had palled (sic) in comparison to the planetary disasters which were piling up at an alarming rate. Multinational corporations and ideological cults maneuvered (sic) for battle stations in an approaching Armageddon that the old prophets would have never imagined. Astounding breakthroughs in the uses of technology for the survival and expansion of humanity were occurring as rapidly as breakthroughs in the continuing science of mass destruction. Hundreds of millions had banded together to form co-ops, attempting to replace the old pirate economy with a new ethic to spread the planet's wealth fairly. The excitement, the hope, the vitality that Eve gave to the events of the day were a reflection of her conviction that she...and every one of the 7 billion inhabitants of Earth...were engaged in determining the ultimate future of our planet.

With its endorsement of collective action and vision of common humanity, this passage seems remarkably jarring when contrasted with Jack's thoughts on women just a few pages earlier. But then, who among us does not contain multitudes?

Smoky Kennedy, Jack's assistant, is the book's chief femme fatale, beautiful and deadly:

Smoky weighed a feather over a hundred pounds...but she was an expert in the "white crane" school of kung-fu. The "burning hand" was her favorite technique. Outwardly, it resembles a light slap. According to the amount of chi applied to the blow, it could inflict momentary unconsciousness, third-degree burns, or instant death...

When it's dark, and you don't know how many there are, you can't afford the luxury of disabling blows. Within a matter of seconds, Smoky and Jack found themselves surrounded physically by the inert body of five husky assassins, and mentally by a pall of suppressed and meditative sadness.

Despite the sadness, Smoky and Jack pick up their fevered lovemaking where they left off, "with five bodies growing cold around their bed."

That's a form of compassion for your fallen foes, I guess. And how hard would you have to slap someone to give them a third-degree burn? Could you deliver a blow of such force without also killing the victim? It's all in the chi, I guess. Remo Williams has nothing on Smoky Kennedy; later on, she even performs brain surgery on
Jack and hacks into the Pentagon database:

"I didn't even move from my lab bench," she said with professional pride and a touch of womanly drama. "I used a little device of my own design to sneak through the public televid lines into the Pentagon intracomputer communications trunk."

This just after Jack and his mouthful of molars take down another half-dozen armed men and shoot down a helicopter with a pistol. Rheingold actually alliterates "abashed assassin," and, ack, additional a-words abound anon.

Sorry, when reading Rheingold, you start to think like him, too, a disturbing, heady feeling. Suffice it to say that by the time a man shows up at Eve's office only to say a few cryptic words before his head implodes, most readers will feel the same sense of dislocation.

There's plenty of erotic horseplay, too; Jack alludes to past sexual liaisons with Eve, there's inappropriate employer/employee fondling, Smoky has casual sex with a Mexican - "Mad" Marcus Murillo - and a mysterious redhead is introduced thusly:

She threw back her head when she laughed, actually threw her mane of copper hair over her shoulders...exposing a fine sinuous neck with a throbbing carotid. Jack had the urge to take her between his teeth.

Hot, throbbing carotid action! There's more:

There no doubt existed computer dossiers in half a dozen capitals on the sexual tastes and proclivities of Jonathan Emeric Anderson. Whoever had selected Charla Boyd knew exactly what they were doing; she looked as if she had been literally materialized out of Jack's own sexual fantasies. The best strategy (he realized with a familiar warmth below his belt), was to let nature take her course. If this one was out to kill him or 'plant' him or interrogate him...she'd better plan to love him first.

Anais Nin really has nothing on Rheingold. Eventually this femme fatale "enclose[s] him anemone-style," on the beach, and Jack muses silently to himself as to whether or not he's going to have to "snap her beautiful neck" before the night is through.
And then there's this sentence:

A piercing poised ocular interlock occurred.

Wha-huh? I know what the individual words mean, but I still don't understand what Rheingold is trying to say. "Jack was stunned," I suppose, but yeesh.

More great lines:

"Oh shit," said Jack, as was his wont in situations like this.

"This fellow doesn't like me," thought Jack at some level of consciousness when Black suddenly slapped him in the face with the back of his hand.

The mixture of mysticism, megalomania, military might, and cybernetic fascism taxed the processing capacity of Jack's cranial computer.

"How charmingly stated," replied Eve dryly. Smoky had her by the balls...a discomfiting position to be put in by another woman.

"WOW!" exclaimed Smoky, "That flash sequence nearly tunnelled my skull! My nerve tracts are still ringing."

Oscillating wavemess of nauseating voltage combined with the foul-tasting asphyxiation of polymerized air: they awoke vomiting plastic on the floors of separate cells.

The book climaxes with an on-air debate between Eve Savage and the renegade General Burns, who is engineering a rise to the American Presidency. Eve represents the forces of progress; Burns is the reactionary, lamenting the co-ops and rising social consciousness Eve champions. Unfortunately, he's also a straw man, a simple right-wing caricature, and while I find myself sympathizing with Rheingold's none-too-subtle point of view, it's not exactly satisfying to have the villain reduced to incoherent babbling with hardly any provocation from heroine Eve, destroying himself on air. Meanwhile, Smoky and Jack battle the bad guys in an honest-to-goodness underground lair, complete with henchmen, torture chambers and a cyborg mad scientist named Dr. Tek, the man pulling the strings on this whole affair. Picture a cross between post-accident Captain Pike, a Conehead and Dracula; that's Dr. Tek, complete with maniacal laughter. Smoky and Jack manage to transmit video (or "holo," I suppose) of the cabal's meeting to Savage during the debate, and the conspiracy is exposed that totally unprecedented manner in the history of human communications, every man and woman in the entire world will be able to see, understand and judge the high drama which is being brought to a conclusion during the course of this present declaration, and during the course of the Burns-Savage debate which is to terminate in a few minutes - and although we have not seen the last segment of that debate, we are confident that it can only have served to consolidate General Burns' image in the eye of the American public.

Shortly thereafter, Dr. Tek causes the heads of all his co-conspirators to implode on live TV - sorry, live holovision - and escapes to menace the world once more. The epilogue features a chilling final message from the antagonist:


Rheingold's 1994 is far more technologically advanced than our own, with roboservants, working holography, a form of antigravity (there's a "heliflivver" made of "hydrovinyl" for crying out loud), commonplace laser weapons, exotic textiles and a universal credit cube of some kind that seems to give the bearer unlimited wealth. (Eve gives one to Jack, but he never uses it; the plot point just disappears.) The Savage Squad (actually referred to that way in the book) relies on high-tech weapons and heavy doses of "neurostimulants," chemicals that accelerate reflexes, speed and agility for brief periods. In other words, Rheingold's world doesn't bear much resemblance to our own world in 1994, or 2009, for that matter. This isn't unusual for science fiction, and I certainly don't blame Rheingold for his overly optimistic predictions of technological advancement. It's just another artifact of a time when anything was possible; after Apollo, science was ascendant, and seemed capable of radically transforming life and politics on every level. Instead of holovision, we have the Internet; instead of heliflivvers, we have hybrid cars and Segways. On the other hand, we're not menaced by insane cyborgs, at least so far as we know...

1994: The Savage Report is replete with purple prose, a disjointed plot, very bad copyediting, macho clich├ęs, cartoonish characters, abusive alliteration, and a too-obvious narrative bias. That being said, I can't help but smile while reading this crazy book. Rheingold's heart seems to be in the right place, and he's clearly attempting to explore a pretty big idea: that of a world undergoing a revolution in consciousness, with the free press as defender of a more equitable new society. Unfortunately, the cardboard heroes and heroines defending this brave new world don't do his argument any favours.

Nonetheless, I don't intend to mock Rheingold or the novel. I have enormous respect for anyone who actually finishes a novel and gets someone to publish it, a task requiring phenomenal perseverance and at least a modicum of talent. I wish I had Rheingold's discipline. And speaking of the author...

When I searched the Internet for information on 1994 and its writer, I was surprised to find only a few meagre links, all of them connecting to online bookstores offering old copies. No one, it seems, has written anything about the book. Wikipedia includes an article on Howard Rheingold, a writer born in 1947 with an interest in virtual reality and, ahem, teledildonics. The science-fictional subject matter of the work and its preoccupation with human sexuality could indicate that Wiki-Rheingold did indeed write 1994. If so, he would have been in his mid-twenties when the book was published in 1974. But his webpage makes no mention of the novels, listing only his non-fiction works.

A cursory search reveals only one connection between Wiki-Rheingold and the one credited as the author of 1994: a listing of books by Howard Rheingold on LibraryThing includes 1994, its sequel War of the Gurus, and several of Wiki-Rheingold's more famous works.

(Yes...there is a sequel. When I discovered the existence of War of the Gurus, I immediately ordered a copy. The book arrived in my mailbox yesterday, in excellent condition - far better shape than my tattered, coffee-stained, dog-eared copy of 1994.)

As far as I can surmise, if Rheingold did indeed write the two Savage Report novels, he soon turned away from science-fiction to focus on essays and non-fiction works. The titles certainly sound interesting, and any mind that can produce a wacky, dizzying, over-the-top novel like 1994 deserves further exploration.

If any readers have read 1994, its sequel War of the Gurus, or any of Rheingold's non-fiction, I welcome your thoughts in the comments section. I'd love to learn more about these crazy books, and to figure out once and for all if the famous Howard Rheingold did indeed write the Savage Report series.

And now, if I may close in the manner of Eve Savage...

My Name is Earl (J. Woods) is now over for today, but we of My Name is Earl (J. Woods) are with you, we are your eyes and your ears, we are your security, your protection against the unknown.
Good night, world.


Hot Jeff! Part Deux said...

"If any readers have read 1994..."

Well, that would probably be me. I think you covered 1994 rather well, and better than it deserves. It's one of those books that takes a long time to read, because there's no way you can just plough through the words. Even skimming the book, you're going to run across a passage that's so bizarrely styled that you have to stop and start again.

I very vaguely recall The Guru Wars, although I've never read it. I hope I am wrong when I say that the sequel is supposed to be less bombastic than the original.

In any case, reading your assessment of the 1994 book, I am pleased that it's going to sit on your shelf for the next ten years. Although now I will have to bug you for The Guru Wars...


... Strangely, the one thing I was not expecting reading 1994 was an almost completely unresolved ending. I'll just have to knuckle under and read The Guru Wars to find out of we all live to see 1995.

James Simmons said...

I actually did buy and read both novels when they came out. I was in junior college at the time. I remember the books as you describe them, including the writing which at the time I admired. It seems to me that the books were described as "Science Faction" on the cover and were supposed to be an ongoing series.

I have read many worse books than these. They were a guilty pleasure at the time.

Some random thing in my brain made me google "War Of The Gurus" and that led me here.

I am as surprised as anyone that Howard Rhinegold wrote these.

Earl J. Woods said...

Glad to hear from someone else who's read these strange novels, James. You're quite right - there are many worse books than these, and I did enjoy them. For whatever reason, they live on in my memory, so there must be more to them than some purple prose.