I grew up reading a lot of science fiction authors who aren't particularly well known today, but most of them are British. Ron Goulart was American and a writer in the good-old-fashioned American pulp tradition, but I stumbled onto him at some point, probably with one of his 'Barnum System' books for DAW, and became a huge fan. I have stacks of Goulart novels, most of which I've read multiple times, and a few that I never seemed to have read, including this one, his debut, which I'm reviewing now in tribute, because he passed away in January a day after I wished him a happy birthday. He was 89.
Goulart wrote under a lot of pseudonyms. In fact, he wrote under so many pseudonyms that I haven't even managed to put a complete bibliography together of all the books he wrote. Many people know that he wrote the 'TekWar' books that carry the name of William Shatner, a more marketable name in the nineties. Pulp fans are probably very aware that he wrote a slew of 'Avenger' books as Kenneth Robeson, along with 'Phantom' books, 'Flash Gordon' books, 'Vampirella' books and more. Some are passionate about his non-fiction, books about books, including well-regarded histories of pulps and comic books. And then there are his own novels and short story collections. He was a busy man.
I have no idea why this book is called 'The Sword Swallower' but it's his first novel, expanded from an earlier short story, and the first in his series about the Chameleon Corps, an interstellar espionage organisation whose agents are able to transform into other people, usually to take their place in an important mission. One such agent is Ben Jolson, the protagonist of this novel, who's dispatched to the planet of Esperanza, galaxy-famous for its cemeteries and its funspires.
The standard blurbs talk about the mission being to infiltrate a sinister pacifist network that's doing enough to threaten the "sacred institution of permanent war", but that counter-intuitive plot isn't a big deal in the grand scheme of things. Most readers won't even recognise it as the commentary on the anti-Vietnam war movement that it was. It's just a wacky idea to modern eyes.
Sure, there's a mystery at the heart of the novel, and Jolson finds himself shifting from persona to persona as he investigates it, but it's rarely about the answer, or indeed much about the questions. That's not because the mystery is transparent, it's that that mystery really doesn't matter much at all. Everything that matters here is caught up in the investigation. It's about where Jolson has to go while he pokes his nose into what's going on, who he has to interact with as he does so and how wild the environment happens to be.
The first thing to expect when diving into a Ron Goulart novel is humour, of the wacky variety. He was a pulp novelist not a comedian, but there was comedy in almost everything he wrote. Sometimes it's surreal, sometimes subversive, sometimes just plain silly, but it's rarely absent. That humour is here in abundance in his first novel and it's already recognisable as his quintessential style. He'd riff on a bunch of the themes he introduces here throughout his career and he'd become rightly remembered for them, above any individual character or novel.
Most obviously, there are usually robots everywhere in Ron Goulart novels and there are a bunch in this one to start off that trend. However, Goulart robots tend to share a few common characteristics. They're usually doing menial labour, to replace the human element at the bottom of the food chain, though they were created in such a fashion as to mimic the human beings they replaced. They're also usually broken in some fashion, often ironically so. And they're usually oddly cheerful about their lot even though they probably shouldn't be, like the patient wheelchair that has zero sense of direction but locks in its customers in the abiding hope that it'll get them where they need to go in the end.
I've often thought that Douglas Adams had to have been influenced by Goulart because the latter's robots, starting a decade-and-change earlier, could all have Genuine People Personalities, meaning that they could have been made by the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation. They just don't get depressed. There's a robot here, for instance, whose job is to get pinched by dirty old men in a casino. You can see the logic: it's going to happen anyway, the humans likely complained but the robots won't. It's a win all around! We can chat about the ethics later. Then we'll talk about the robots who play Russian roulette for a paying audience.
Another standard Goulart approach is to implement running gags and I was surprised at how English that felt to me in this novel. Under the guise of Gilbert Gillespie, Jolson starts what seems like every other sentence with, "On my home planet...", which seems very familiar to viewers of 'Reggie Perrin' shows. Nat Hockering nickels-and-dimes everything. Wing Commander Eberhardt constantly asks for everyone's stance on everything. And everything that happens is why Franklin T. Tripp looks younger than he should. It's all overkill but it's hilarious. Introduce a character, given him a single catchphrase or behavioural shtick and let them go, like they're clockwork toys with just one job to do.
And there are subcultures, because Goulart loved subcultures and the more ridiculous they are, then the more he loved them. There are plenty of those on Esperanza, many of them within the funspires Jolson starts his investigations in. These are towers of entertainment, but they're not merely casinos and brothels. There are drug floors, for instance. There's a Gluttony Pavilion and Violence Park. You can watch live surgery for fun, probably conducted on menial robots, even contract an extinct disease so that you can feel extra great getting over it. And if all this sounds ridiculous, how about out noise shows? You go in and break things. That's all. And I know people who have been to them. They're just called smash rooms in our world.
Eventually, of course, we reach the pacifists, which enables Goulart to satirise a swathe of American life in 1968 and he trawls in everyone from fanzine editors to folk singers to poets to self-aggrandised cultural influencers to overzealous cops. There are so many fun characters to choose from, but I have to choose Turkus as my favourite. He's a folk singer who had an accident back on Peregrine at fifteen but his family were on welfare and couldn't afford the human parts centres, so replaced his broken limbs with robotic attachments, leaving him half android. At one point, he sings 'Death Don't Have No Mercy', a favourite of mine by the blind, black preacher of a guitarist, Rev. Gary Davis, who I see now could easily have been a Ron Goulart character if only he hadn't been real.
There are surprises, given how subversive Goulart's social satire tended to get. There aren't a lot of women in this book, the most prominent being Jennifer, Jolson's sidekick at a distance, who's shtick is to be instantly recognised by our Chameleon Corps agent because she isn't one and so has to use a more traditional set of disguises. However, given that Jolson was clearly based on the forties private dicks of the pulps and films noir, it's notable that he doesn't actually sleep with any of these women, even though it's completely obvious that he could have slept with most of them. Both these aspects are surprising, though not jarring. Maybe it's just how the short story developed into a novel.
I enjoyed this, though it's definitely formative Goulart. The things he does so well are all here, maybe not done as well as they would be later, but present nonetheless in nascent form. And, quite frankly, I think readers will either like Goulart or they won't. If they do, they'll work through the next couple of dozen of his books with a grin and a twinkle in the eye. If they don't, they won't make it through one. I thank him for such a wild and productive career, now that it's sadly over, and for this beginning.
On my home planet, we read a lot of Ron Goulart. ~~ Hal C F Astell