Reviewed date: 2023 Feb 26
What we have here is a fixup
Yes, this is the classic fixup: a novel cobbled together out of previously published short stories and some extra chapters to create a framing narrative. It's kind of rough, and it's better if you understand that it's a fixup and read the book with that in mind. On the plus side, the second half of the book is original. It contains another "episode" as well as several concluding chapters that wrap up the framing narrative.
From my perspective, the four previously published stories are the much stronger tales; but the new episode and the concluding storyline do a semi-decent job of turning the fixup into a real novel. I don't think it quite works, which is why I score the book rather low even though I enjoyed several of the stories.
The framing narrative
Allan Odegaard is a Conscience. That is, he is a field agent of the Corps of Practical Philosophers. His job is to study life forms on new planets, and, if any of those life forms are intelligent, to declare the planet off limits to human colonization. Overpopulated Earth sorely needs new colonies, so the New Roman political party on Earth opposes the P.P. The Conservationist party supports Allan and the P.P., but if Allan or another Conscience makes a high profile mistake the Conservationists could lose the next election. With the New Romans in charge, the P.P. could find its funding reduced or eliminated.
The original short stories are about Allan's investigations of potentially intelligent life forms on different planets. The framing narrative is about the conflict between the New Romans and the Corps of Practical Philosophers, which becomes so acute that attempts are made on Allan's life. In a dramatic ending Allan comes face-to-face with the leader of the bad guys himself, New Roman Party Chairman William C. Blankenship.
The Decision Makers
Allan travels to the ocean planet Sister to investigate potential intelligence in the native seals. Sister is an ocean planet, but a terraforming project is underway to lower the sea level and create a continent of dry land. In a couple hundred years the planet will be open for full colonization. If the seals are intelligent, the terraforming plan will have to be abandoned.
Allan quickly determines that individual seals are not intelligent, but together they form a group mind. A group mind named Decision-Maker summons Allan and demands that he declare the planet off limits. The seals cannot progress now, says Decision-Maker, but in eight thousand years the planet's normal variation will result in a lowering of sea levels. The seals will then move onto dry land, develop technology, and take their place as an intelligent space-faring race.
Allan makes a surprising decision. He declares the seals intelligent, but recommends that terraforming and colonization continue anyway. Allan is unwilling that eight thousand years should pass before the seals can have more than a primitive aquatic existence. Countless generations of seals will live and suffer and die in primitive and brutal conditions. No. Instead, men will terraform the planet, the seals will move onto dry land in a hundred years or so, and mankind and the native seals of Sister will learn to live together.
The Shamblers of Misery
Allan arrives on the planet Misery. It's a world generally unsuitable for colonization, but a small commercial enterprise has made a profitable business harvesting spices. They use the local humanoid Shamblers as labor. Allan's job is to determine if the Shamblers are intelligent or whether they are, as the company claims, just clever animals.
Allan determines that the Shamblers are intelligent. Unfortunately, as they mature into adults they become infected with a parasitic worm that destroys their brain and robs them of intelligence. Thus they never develop their full potential, which is why the intelligence tests never picked up on their true status. The parasitic worm is actually a symbiotic life form; it survives only in the Shamblers, and it spreads only by emerging from a corpse and infecting nearby Shamblers. Crucially, the worms cannot survive in dirt. Burying dead bodies will break the cycle and allow the Shamblers to achieve their full capacity.
Allan declares the Shamblers an intelligent species. Once again, however, he suggests a deviation from the norm: the planet will not be declared off limits. The company will be permitted to stay, and in fact will be encouraged to expand and employ more Shamblers as laborers—on the condition that they teach the Shamblers the custom of burying their dead. Eventually the parasitic worm will become extinct. In the meantime, the company can reap large profits for many years.
The Cryer of Crystal
Allan meets a lifeform made of living crystal. The crystal plant grows a speaker in order to communicate with the humans. Allan declares the creature intelligent, but he must defend his decision back on Earth in front of the World Council. He asks the crystal plant for help, and receives it: the plant produces a small replica of itself, which Allan takes back to Earth. The plant testifies in defense of its own intelligence. Allan's side wins the day, but he recognizes that the New Roman party will not be content. They will keep trying until the Corps of Practical Philosophers is discredited and all planets can be opened for colonization.
The Butterflies of Beauty
This is my favorite story of the bunch. Allan studies the butterflies of the planet Beauty. A junior Conscience has declared them intelligent, but the P.P. knows the New Roman party will challenge that finding, so Allan must review the data and ensure it is rock solid. The tricky part is that the butterflies display no behavioral signs of intelligence. The finding is based on the fact that a number of people have reported telepathic communication with the butterflies. However, this contact is sensory and impressionistic only—no concrete words.
Complicating Allan's investigation is the fact that the Conscience on Beauty who made the ruling is Secret Holmes, Allan's one-time trial wife. (Marriages in this society begin with a one-year trial marriage before being made permanent, and Secret and Allan had a one-year trial marriage when they were in P.P. training together.) Allan spends about as much time sleeping with Secret as he does checking up on her work. He seems rather more excited about the sex than about the work, particularly when he realizes Secret's work is shoddy and the data is incomplete.
In the end, Allan discovers two things. First, the butterflies are not intelligent. The telepathic sensory experiences are the result of hallucinogenic pollen that the butterflies spread around. Secret should have determined this, and Allan writes her up for poor job performance.
Second, this was a New Roman plot. The local New Roman informant on Beauty knew all about the real nature of the butterflies, and was going to allow Secret's determination to go ahead, putting the planet off limits. Then the New Romans were going to reveal the truth, accuse the P.P. of incompetence, and use the bad publicity to win the next election. Allan's overruling of Secret's decision thwarted their plans. Indeed, the local New Roman operatives try to kill Allan to prevent him from making his report, but Allan manages to survive.
Dwarfs and the Elemental
Now we're done with the original four short stories. This is new material, and it fits much better into the framing narrative. Allan double-checks the data on the planet Zwergwelt where six years ago a Conscience had declared the local dwarf humanoids to be intelligent. New data shows the finding is borderline and probably wrong, but Allan knows that if he overturns the ruling the New Romans will seize on it to discredit the P.P. and defeat the Conservationist Party in the upcoming World Council election.
Then things get weird. Allan is contacted by an Elemental, which is a spirit force or something. The Elemental is a higher form of intelligence, not physical or corporeal like humans. The Elemental informs Allan that his data is wrong, the Zwergwelt dwarfs are intelligent. In a few thousand years they'll be as intelligent as humans.
The introduction of the Elemental into the story is just bizarre, and I didn't like it. It's too much like magic, and it doesn't end up being important to the storyline anyway.
Also, the New Roman sends operatives to Zwergwelt to assassinate Allan. They kidnap Allan and just about manage to kill him, but Allan escapes.
Shenanigans on Earth
Allan returns to Earth to testify and blow the lid on the New Roman conspiracy to murder Consciences. The New Romans try to kill Allan on Earth, too, but again he manages to escape. He testifies, the whole operation is blown, and the New Romans lose the election.
After it's all over Allan takes a vacation in the woods. He runs into an honest-to-god intelligent non-human hominid: a Bigfoot. The irony—Allan has been all over the galaxy looking for intelligent life on other planets when there's another intelligent life form right here on Earth. And what's more, it's being chased by a hunter who turns out to be New Roman Party Chairman William C. Blankenship.
They are in a remote part of the world. Isolated. Blankenship is angry at losing the recent election and blames it all on Allan, so he decides to kill Allan. Unfortunately for Blankenship, Allan is the hero of this particular story so he wins again. Allan and Bigfoot team up and try to escape. Blankenship shoots Bigfoot with a shotgun, but Bigfoot kills Blankenship before he dies from the blast. Allan is the last man standing. The end.
Other thoughts: fixups
I don't know if fixups are a good idea. I think, generally, I'd prefer to read the original short stories as a collection rather than shoehorned into a fixup.
Other thoughts: the male gaze
Oh man this book is certainly a product of the 1960s. Look at how female characters are described:
Allan shed his [spacesuit] with thanksgiving, and turned to find Phyllis Roen already out of her heavy clothes and waiting for him.
The tiny woman was obviously a Eurasian. She had very black hair streaked with gray, and features which were delicate without being pretty. He estimated her age at around thirty-five. She still looked very good to him; the months in space between landings were long and usually lonely ones. There were only a few women in the Space Service at present, though the number was slowly growing.
“Do you like what you see, Conscience Odegaard?” Phyllis asked, and though she was smiling there was an edge in her voice. He realized he had been staring.
Allan is hopeful that Phyllis will have an affair with him, but it's not to be.
Jeri was soon back, dressed now in figure-hugging tights. Allan had to make a conscious effort to keep the admiration off his face. He had been expecting a tall woman of lean arrogance, but the sun hat and inflated suit had concealed a full-bodied, statuesque Nordic redhead. She might have been designed to be an opposite extreme from small, petite Phyllis Roen.
Even in low heels she matched his height of 180 centimeters, and probably outweighed him. She was several years older than he, and strong rather than pretty, but a crackling vitality permeated every pound of her body—which was as shapely as it was large.
Jeri, of course, makes a pass at Allan but Allan turns her down because he's afraid it's a trap.
[The council member's] wife, Gilia, was a small, blonde, and very beautiful Russian. Allan noted with approval that the short woman had a full, almost lush figure, with broad hips and breasts that seemed large for her small frame.
Allan later steals Gilia away from her husband and has an affair with her.
When he swung to the ground he saw a lovely figure running toward him, arms outstretched. Behind her, several other people were coming toward the shuttle at a more sedate pace.
Secret Holmes was bare-breasted, and Allan felt his pulse quicken. She was a trim blonde weighing barely forty-five kilograms in 1 G and only 148 centimeters tall. The short skirt she wore above low open-top boots was made from vertical fibers covered by a thick but light fur, offering tantalizing glimpses of bare skin as the strands curled and yielded to admit the wind . . . and there was the explanation of Secret's provocative dress. The temperature was uncomfortably high, but strong, variable breezes were always blowing, and they were pleasantly cool on exposed skin.
Secret and Allan had a trial marriage back during their P.P. training days, and they pick right back up.
Allan stepped inside, and Pat introduced him to a blonde Amazon named Astrid. The administrator's wife was taller than her husband, and wore only a skirt as short as Secret's. Allan had to make a conscious effort to keep from staring at her magnificent breasts.
Now for something completely different: (not really)
At the door Allan was met by Victoria Gant, the chief of the eight personnel at this field location. She was a short, dumpy brunette, slightly older than Allan and fanatically devoted to her job.
You will not be shocked to know that 1) Allan does not have sex with Victoria, 2) Victoria is one of the bad guys, and 3) Victoria tries to kill Allan.