(Robert Foster’s cover for the 1969 edition)
Robert Foster’s salacious cover for the 1969 edition of Slave Ship (1956) implies a sort of John Norman-esque — of Gor “fame” — sexist slave girl sci-fi fantasy with collars and all. Don’t worry, I bought the novel knowing full well that the “slaves” were not nubile young women but dogs + cats + chimps + seals drafted into the war effort. But a naked seal on a leash won’t sell many books… At least Foster’s outlandish fabrication and manipulation of Pohl’s vision includes a hapless chimpanzee strapped into a mechanical device! In case you’re fourteen years old and find Foster’s cover all dusty in some abandoned seldom seen corner of a used book store be warned — the work is far from lurid pulp…. Thankfully.
In the vein of Pohl’s other novels from the era — for example Preferred Risk (1955) (as Edson McCann with Lester del Rey), Space Merchants (1953) (with C. M. Kornbluth), and Gladiator-in-Law (1955) (with C. M. Kornbluth) — Slave Ship (1956) is an occasionally sophisticated and funny satire extrapolated from the small operation early stages of the Vietnam War and, I might be inclined to argue, ridiculing some of the more outlandish inclinations of pulp science fiction authors.
Brief Plot Summary
Sometime in the near future the United States is engaged in a low-scale “war” with the “Cow-dyes” — as in, the Caodai, a religion practiced in Vietnam whose proponents were instrumental in kicking the French out. Clearly, Pohl’s world and this conflict is modeled on the early stages of the Vietnam war. However, he expands the scope of the confrontation (the Caodais even raid the US) and has America’s Southeast Asian adversaries possess nuclear weapons. Due to the fact that this is a satire, the enemy is faceless and the “good” guys are just as gung-ho for war — even the slightest claim that someone is a pacifist results in drastic punishment! The American people and the American government are so desperate to win that they even draft Boy Scouts and young children for the war-effort… Of course, our heroes have no problem with this.
Our uber-American “hero” Lieutenant Miller is recalled from his post on a submarine to Camp Mako somewhere in Florida. Camp Mako looks like a dairy farm. And Miller is confused page after page after page about the true purpose of the secret instillation — i.e. scientists/linguists attempting to learn animal jargon in order to draft our furry friends into the war effort. Dog warriors, seal bombers, steering subs with paws and flippers… Eventually Miller figures out the purpose of the camp and makes friends with a Russian — who are allies against the “Cow-dyes” in this version of the war — who adores his collie. Of course, the great animal linguistic barrier is deciphered and our heroes can chit chat with their animal friends and prepare them to meet their deaths in battle.
At the same time a mysterious weapon called the Glotch strikes down people telepathically. A large portion of the book details figuring out how to speak to the animals and how to combat the Glotch. Mixed in are jabs at the military bureaucracy, Miller lamenting the capture of his love, and strange sequences where soldiers at the local joint (queue 50s sexism) take anthrax pills, and let the disease kick in before popping anti-anthrax pills…
And then there are aliens…
While reading Slave Ship I was reminded of when I watched Eddie Murphy’s brainless Dr. Doolittle 2 (2001) at a friend’s house against the wishes of my parents. Take Murphy’s Dr. Doolittle 2, mix it with some snarky (and occasionally funny) satire, a few silly action sequences, and throw in a bucket full of half-thought out themes and stir it together = Slave Ship. At points it seems that Pohl is trying to make the claim that animals are closer to humans than we might think. However, his brief philosophical ruminations on the topic are relegated to unsustained asides.
The material is there for a much more effective novel.
Unlike Pohl’s other three co-authored satirical works from the 50s mentioned above, Slave Ship is not as well crafted or well written. And, the hilariously silly ending (yes, poking fun at the tendencies of pulp science fiction to throw aliens into the mix whenever possible) weakens the anti-war theme. Recommended for Pohl completests and fans of 50s science fiction satire. Other than that I’m not sure it’s really worth reading unless you’re obsessed with all forms of 50s sci-fi… (Or collect Foster and Powers covers).
At least the majority of the covers are artistically intriguing…. even the helmet wearing skull on the uncredited Four Square edition from the late 60s…
(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1957 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1963 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1966 edition)
(Uncredited cover for the 1967 edition)
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