Friday, September 30, 2016

Donald E. Westlake, sci-fi writer

Donald E. Westlake a science fiction writer? Well, yes. We know him as a prolific author of modern crime novels, some deadly serious (the Parker books) and others hilariously funny (the Dortmunder books). But Westlake, who died in 2008, did dabble in sci-fi, selling stories to such magazines as Amazing and Galaxy. Nine of these stories, plus a short sci-fi novel called Anarchaos, were collected in Tomorrow's Crimes and published in 1989.

Most of these tales read like Westlake's crime stories transplanted into space or into the future. In one, "The Risk Profession," an insurance claims investigator is sent to an asteroid where a prospector has died soon after making a strike. Was the death really accidental or did his partner murder him?

Yet several of these stories have inventive twists that suggest that, had he wanted, Westlake might have become a first-rate sci-fi writer. In "The Spy in the Elevator," years after a global disaster survivors are still living in giant buildings, each an independent culture and each distrustful of those living in other buildings. One day a "spy" from another building is found in an elevator, and he has something disturbing to say. What's most disturbing is that he may be right.

Anarchaos is clearly the best of these tales. The novel finds Rolf Malone, recently released from prison on Earth, going to the planet Anarchaos to discover why his brother, Gar, has died. The planet's name describes conditions there. Rolf finds anarchy and chaos. Only the fittest survive. His brother was not among them. How about Rolf? A group of men think Gar, as in "The Risk Profession," had made a valuable mining discovery. He left behind a coded message, and they believe Rolf to be the only person able to read it. They will go to any lengths to get him to reveal the secret.

Westlake makes Anarchaos a planet where, like the Earth's moon, one side is always in light and the other in darkness. He uses this feature creatively throughout the story to add to the tension. Another sci-fi twist is a drug called antizone that forces a person to reveal everything he knows while at the same time wiping his memory clean. At one point, eager to forget, Rolf welcomes this drug.

Eventually Rolf decides the entire planet is evil and must be destroyed. The irony is that in his quest he has left a trail of corpses behind, suggesting that if he can manage to leave Anarchaos, the evil will leave with him.

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