Sequels are tricky coves. There was a time, not too long ago, when a novel might have been expected to stand on its own, much as The Humanoids did for over thirty years [see my earlier review]. Great novels were frequently penned, not as part of a series, but as a single set of ideas, a work which said what was needed, then went on its way. Of course, people were often left wondering “what happened next?” But that wasn’t the author’s concern: he had done his bit.
Yet occasionally the clamor for more, more was enough to entice an author to return to his earlier work, and continue the tale. Eventually, coming
hot on the heels more than three decades after his 1948 novel, Jack Williamson did just that. His follow-up is a murky, cold, dark affair. Set roughly a thousand years after the original, The Humanoid Touch deals with what may be the only human survivors left in the… galaxy? Local galactic cluster? Universe? It’s unclear, but the plague of the Humanoids, those friendly little black robots of the previous book and original short story, appears to have spread across nearly all of humankind’s planets, putting everyone in rubber rooms and pumping them full of Republican talking points euphoride, a sort of perfect opiate, until they sit and just dribble happily on themselves. For the Humanoids, it is warned, in an effort to serve and protect humanity, want, like an over-cautious parent, to keep us from harm. Any harm. Ever. Not merely content to keep humans from dangers like sharp stones, pointy sticks and heavy machinery, but from other things, like tripping on a rock or being sad. So the end result is that they deprive human beings of their free will.
Not that anyone believes in this mythical threat anymore.
For example, the inhabitants of the world of Kai, an unpleasant planet with a smaller, and savagely inhospitable moon called Malili, have stopped believing in the Humanoids. Kai orbits the twin stars of the Cat and the Dragon, and is a nasty piece of work: short summers followed rapidly by winters, most people have to live in caves (nice caves, perhaps, but caves all the same). Because of the seasonal limitations, food is sometimes scarce unless one happens to be part of the planet’s elite. Kai was colonized by a group of humans apparently fleeing the Humanoids, some of whose technological knowledge was lost in the ruins of their original vessel. But despite the less-than-ideal conditions, humans on Kai have built something resembling a functioning civilization. In the meantime, the neighbouring moon of Malili is being exploited for its mineral resources, although it too is a hostile place: severe corrosion, called “rockrust,” destroys machinery, and some kind of pathogen, called “bloodrot,” quickly kills humans exposed to the local flora or fauna, including any unsanitised humanoid natives, a strange and mostly indolent race called the Leleyo.
Despite these challenges, gradually humans have begun to eke out an existence in Kai’s harsh climate (think Blade Runner meets a town in the Old West). Keth Kyrone is the son of Crewman Ryn Kyrone of the Lifecrew, an ancient order originally meant to preserve the inhabitants of Kai from the Humanoids. As the novel opens, the Lifecrew have been reduced in status, thanks to calling countless false alarms, and are considered adherents to an ancient superstition… like Chicken Little, no one now believes them. Keth has been raised by the elderly Nurse Vesh, as his mother died on Malili seeking a mythical natural organic source of rhodomagnetics (the proposed forces which enable telepathy, teleportation, and the like, introduced in Williamson’s 1948 book), the Braintree.
Keth is sent to school, where he meets Chelni Vorn, the young daughter of the greatest family of Kai. The Vorns have launched a ship, the Kyrone, on a mission to the planets orbiting the Dragon, searching for a new, better home for the humans of Kai. The vessel went missing, however, with only one mysterious survivor: Bosun Brong (the “Bosun” bit is apparently his rank, in a strange holdover from naval terminology), who claims to have returned in a shuttlecraft from the doomed Kyrone expedition. Yet there is some mystery about this, as it is suggested that Brong didn’t arrive on a shuttlecraft, but simply reappeared on Kai. Brong, however, is clear about one thing: the Humanoids captured the Kyrone’s expedition, and they will be coming to Kai.
With all of this setup, the reader is swiftly taken on a rollercoaster ride. Of course, the Humanoids are actually coming to Kai, but they are doing so subtly. A second ship launched from Kai, the Vorn Fortune, carrying Chelni Vorn and her soon-to-be-husband, also mysteriously disappears, and Keth knows that it must be the Humanoids. As his father and step-mother race against time to build a weapon to use against them from Malili, the unthinkable happens: the Fortune returns. Suddenly, Keth will find himself the target of forces that are far greater than him, and unfortunately, he’s such an inept wet blanket of a character that, of course, he’s going to come up short.
Williamson’s three-decades later follow-up story isn’t all that bad, but it is afflicted with a premise that requires lengthy setup (unlike the original novel, which got to the Humanoids relatively quickly), an essentially unsympathetic central character, and an ultimately unsatisfactory ending. Part of the menace that one would expect in the tale, that of “when are those pesky Humanoids going to show up?” provides suspense, as the reader knows that they’ve got to be around one corner or another. But which corner? Reading The Humanoid Touch is a bit like watching a film in which a clown-faced serial killer is featured on the poster: you know, eventually, that the bastard’s going to jump out and scare you. It’s just a matter of time. What is missing, however, is the finale where the resolution is something other than a roomful of teenagers saying “whatever” with a universal shrug of disdain. There are multiple surprises in the story by the end of the book, which as a conscientious reviewer I don’t wish to spoil, but I can say that if the suprises actually led to a satisfying third act, it would have made me a good deal happier.
My other gripe, and this is truly petty but it strikes me forcibly every time I try to write this review: why have so many proper names beginning with the letter K? I didn’t understand the need for it, and it leant the book an odd, artificial feel, as though Williamson’s book was brought to us by a Sesame Street letter of the day. (See, I told you it was petty.)
If you’re prepared for a conclusion that is something of a let-down, lots of references to the earlier book (and you definitely read the original before tackling this one), and a weirdly compelling but ultimately unsatisfying science fiction tale, then give The Humanoid Touch a go. Three stars.
Reviewed 17 January 2016.
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