(Paul Lehr’s cover for the 1972 edition)
Charles Platt’s Planet of the Voles (1971) has a similar feel to one of the more atrocious episodes of Stargate SG-1. In place of all the horridly butchered Egyptian mythology is a weird pseudo-mythology about the inevitability of a battle between the sexes uneasily pasted on an archetypal military sci-fi plot. The work is filled with alien landscapes which look like Earth, soldier/scientists who can do anything and everything with anything anywhere, random bits of hokey technology appear as if by magic to facilitate the pedestrian plot (this black box will make alien birds carry us into the fortress!) etc.
Platt’s prose is lacking all ability to convey human emotions. After our heroes’ entire spaceship (on which they were born) has been destroyed they can only feel numb – and then are grinning on the next page. If this is an attempt at military sci-fi, it fails miserably we care nothing for the men in danger and are hardly scared by the evil aliens.
Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
Tomas was born in a bio-womb on a military mothership hollowed out from a mysterious space rock. The ship births the soldiers, is the training facility for human soldiers, and coveys them to their destination. Fascinating concept: check. Platt makes no attempt to describe this resulting situation of humans whose only world is a gigantic spaceship. Tomas’ genetic makeup was modified slightly from the standard soldier model. He’s the bard, the artist — the man in charge of keeping up moral by endlessly praising the mothership’s great victories.
Earth is at war with the Volvanians. I can’t help but suspect that Platt is writing embarrassingly bad science fiction on purpose – Volvanians are ruled by women, hence, I guess, chosen to mean something along the lines of “those ruled by the Vulva” = Volvanians. Due to the complete lack of women on the military transport ship I guess I should continue Platt’s logic and refer to these militarily minded death machine male humans as “those ruled by the Penis” = Penisians. The Penisians further dehumanize the Volvanians by referring to them as Voles. The reason for the war is never adequately explained. Something along the lines of the women rulers of the Volvanians need more planets for their busloads of children they constantly pop out with their subservient stud male slaves. Without any additional description of the causes of war Platt apparently thinks that it is natural that those ruled by the vulva will fight with those ruled by the penis. It gets sort of complicated when our heroic Penisian Tomas finds out he’s really a Volvanian man and the chief Volvanian evil lady Galvina likes to poke about in his mind. I won’t follow Platt’s mind atrophying logic any farther…
While Tomas is out skylarking around the Penisian (human) mothership taking photos for a war mural while it’s in a hyperspace tube (the innuendo alarm rings and rings and rings), a Vole spaceship joins them in the tube and attacks them with gas weapons. While Tomas wanders around the ship littered with his dead blood brothers he appears to be mildly bothered (I think). He eventually comes across the only other survivor short little Jon who was cleaning out a spaceship maintenance shaft while covered in a layer of magical rock dust. They decide to land a military transport craft on a nearby planet that the mothership was sent to attack. The planet used to be a Penisian (human) settlement until those evil heartless Volvanians arrived and set up a fortress, melted the cities destroying the technology, and aspersed gas across the surface making all the Penisian inhabitants act like zombies.
Tomas and Jon after a few adventures involving large birds and Volvanians driving pick-up trucks meet up with Snipe, a military biochemist who has figured out a way to engineer proteins to enable a few Penisians (humans) to escape the influence of the drug spread around the planet. They persuade Snipe that they need to attack the Volvanian fortress. In order to get inside, Tomas Snipe and Jon attach a few black boxes to the backs of the before mentioned large alien birds and go for a joyride. And then there are some battle sequences, mind probing, Galvina and jeweled pistols – all in all, killing evil aliens ends up being really easy. I guess Platt believes those ruled by the Vulva can be easily deposed.
Tomas and Jon, true blood brothers despite Tomas being secretly a Volvanian, tramps off into the stars, loners but heroes in the ultra-militaristic world of the hordes of Penisians happy to be born, train, and rot inside of their mother (ship).
Platt’s combination of social commentary (perhaps I’m reading much to far into the work but from the name Volvanians, their political structure, and the imagery throughout it’s a logical assumption) and military science fiction is poorly conceived and implemented. The reader cares little for the characters, the action is uninteresting and un-affecting, the climax is less than satisfying, and the technology is silly.
If Platt is writing a satire on space opera (good humans – characterized in this case by ultra-masculinity, vs. bad aliens, in this case ruled by women), it isn’t successful either. The Planet of the Voles lacks any real enthusiasm, earnestness, or intelligent thought. Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream (1972), a satirical work likening space opera to the Nazi fantasies of racial supremacy, is much more successful and hard-hitting.
The only redeeming feature of the novel is Paul Lehr’s intriguing cover for the Berkley Medallion 1972 edition.
Avoid like a piece of smelly old tripe.
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