Friday, May 8, 2015

Ultima Thule by Mack Reynolds

Does the end justify the means?
Like many earthlings, Ronny Bronston dreams of going into space. When he scores a job interview with the government of the United Planets, he sees a chance for his dream to become reality. At this unspecified point in the distant future, mankind has emigrated to thousands of new planets. So far no other intelligent life forms have been discovered in space, but over centuries mankind has developed a staggering array of cultures, governments, and religions. Every splinter group and fringe element has fled the mother planet to found their own world. The United Planets, headquartered on Earth, is the government that unites all humanoid life wherever it may reside. Articles One and Two of the UP Charter assert that neither the UP administration nor another member planet may interfere with the political, religious, or socioeconomic development of any member world. Bronston is hired into the mysterious Section G of the United Planets Bureau of Investigation, whose mission it is to enforce these most sacred precepts. A mysterious revolutionary, nicknamed Tommy Paine, has been hopping from world to world, inspiring political revolutions, economic chaos, and religious conflict. Bronston’s first assignment is to track down this galactic troublemaker and put a stop to his world-changing mischief.

Ultima Thule, a novella by Mack Reynolds, was originally published in the March 1961 issue of the pulp magazine Analog Science Fiction and Fact. Reynolds often wrote futuristic works in which he explored political themes. As Bronston chases after Paine, Reynolds has the opportunity to delve deeply into the political and social environments of three or four different UP member planets. Given their diversity, it’s difficult to determine what overarching point he’s trying to make, if any, until the final chapter. The ending of the book is really quite good. Unfortunately, all that comes before it is a bit of a bore. Reading about the structure and workings of the United Planets is about as much fun as perusing an institutional history of any other bureaucracy. H. Beam Piper, one of Reynolds’s contemporaries, also frequently satirizes governmental agencies, but he manages to slip in enough humorous touches and far-out sci-fi gadgets to keep things interesting. Reynolds puts so much effort into making his world seem real that it turns out being too real, and therefore not much fun. Despite the intergalactic travel, Bronston’s investigation is still mainly just a series of over-the-desk interviews. The trail of clues he follows in pursuit of his man is a convoluted line of reasoning that I neither could nor really wanted to follow.

Despite such complaints, the eye-opening final chapter really does compensate for a lot of the book’s shortcomings. Reynolds makes some truly interesting points, but one wishes he didn’t take such a circuitous route to get there. In regards to the quality of Reynolds’s work in general, I’m on the fence. I’ve read a few of his stories that I really liked (e.g. “The Business, as Usual” and “Compounded Interest”) and a couple of novellas that left me ambivalent (Status Quo, and this one). With such a hit-and-miss record, I’m inclined to stick with Piper, who more consistently and reliably satisfies and exceeds expectations.
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