Neal Barrett Jr. is one of those writers that I’ve been meaning to get around to reading for some time; several of his novels have been stacked in the teetering piles of paperbacks that constitute the décor of my home office. Recently, I picked Stress Pattern largely at random out of a bag of paperbacks I recently bought and read through it. The book is a short, 70s SF novel published by DAW books with the old uniform yellowish covers.
The novel is a picaresque tour of an alien planet, loaded with irony and wry understated humor, which makes it stand out because science fiction is rarely funny. The novel’s picturesque narrative revolves around its protagonist wandering across a strange alien planet and discovering its secrets and nature, a fairly old plot, but it has plenty of unique touches and twists and is well worth reading. Although currently out of print, the novel is readily available on used book sites such as ABE books and Amazon.com.
I appreciate the book’s brevity because a lot of recent speculative literature tends to be overlong and padded. I don’t know if this is true, but I’ve heard that contemporary publishers push writers to produce longer novels because hardcovers are so expensive now that the only way that they can justify the high price is to publish longer books. Give me the speculative ideas and concepts, the gnarly, unusual notions that draw readers to SF, and don’t weigh the novel down with excessive verbiage. I stopped reading Stephen King years ago because his 900 page novels don’t have enough substance to justify the length.
The novel’s protagonist, Andrew Gavin, lives in an advanced space faring society and has lived a rather boring, unadventurous bourgeois life teaching economics at a university. While he’s traveling on vacation in a FTL starship, something goes wrong, and he’s ejected from the ship in an escape module that lands on an uncharted planet. He doesn’t know if he’s the only survivor, or the only person to crash land on the planet.
As Gavin explores the world, it’s slowly revealed as a complex ecosystem that fits together in ways that defy logic and evolution. The primary inhabitants of the world are pot-bellied, dun-colored, roughly humanoid aliens devoid of hair or clothing. Even their faces are flat, bland, and unemotional: they lack jowls, frowns, creases, and marks. If evolution favors the vigorous and the strong, these bland, unmotivated creatures should have been eliminated long ago rather than becoming the planet’s dominant species.
The aliens are only the first of many oddities. First contact stories generally involve a problem with communication, but Barrett conveniently eliminates that problem because on this planet everyone understands one another, that’s one of the rules, and Gavin can immediately communicate with the aliens.
Even though basic communication is easy, useful interaction is difficult. The aliens turn out to be frustratingly literal, answering questions like “Where are you from?” with “Back there.” “Where are you going? with “There.” “Why are you doing that?” with “Because I am.” Despite living on an isolated planet where they have never seen an offworlder, the aliens are not the least impressed with their first contact with Andrew and don’t alter their matter of fact and laid-back behavior.
Gavin comments on his relations with the aliens: “At the university, I was considered slightly reserved. All right – stuffy and dull. And perhaps I was. Now, I had the chance to become the planet loudmouth. The fellow in the next apartment who has wild parties every night. It was a weary prospect. It would be an understatement to say the future looked less than promising” (18). The stuffy fuddy-duddy academic has encountered a planet so overpoweringly bland that’s he’s now the gonzo wild man.
Although the landscape is parched and dry, if you dig a few feet you will find water filled bulbs that can also be eaten, so survival only requires digging beneath the surface. The ease of basic survival partly explains why the aliens are so noncompetitive, but it's odd, if not ecologically impossible, that an utterly dry, powdery landscape would be rich with water filled plants just below the surface.
One of the grotesque, dun-colored females attempts to seduce Gavin: she intently stares at him with her large ball-bearing eyes, and then lies down in front of him and spreads her spindly legs in the air. Since Gavin has no interest whatsoever in her heaving stomach or her flat, bland features, one of the other aliens (named Phrecti) mounts her. When Andrew leaves the village, the female gives him a lemon shaped object wrapped in fiber.
Andrew carries the object, which he thinks is an amulet or souvenir, with him. After Andrew befriends an enigmatic alien Rhamik, the alien teaches him that the amulet must be planted in a trench, and covered with fresh bulbs and water every five days.
Much to Andrew’s shock, he learns that the lemon shaped amulet is the seed of a “new person.” Throughout the novel Andrew fantasizes about Melissa Mills, a beautiful airhead student from one of his classes. Nothing had ever happened between him and Melissa partly because she had not shown much interest in him, but partly because he was not the sort of person to seize the day and seduce a younger woman anyway. When Andrew’s new person hatches, it looks just like Melissa Mills (95). The dun-colored creature had drawn the pattern of the Melissa Mills dream from his thoughts and implanted it into a seed.
Idea and pattern create form in this world, which is reminiscent of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris, a probable influence. Humanoid creatures are not produced by nine months of labor, but by being planted and cultivated. Individuals are born as adults, not infants, and thus cannot be carried around inside the mother. The male and female sperm are trapped in a lemon-sized nurturing organ, dropped down a passage in the mother, and then wrapped in a layer of matting and given whatever nourishment is lying around. The New Person is born a few weeks later, innately knowing the world’s rules.
Andrew is appalled by the whole bizarre process, and tells Rhamik that the new person cannot be “his;” he didn’t touch or impregnate the female. Rhamik patiently explains to Andrew: “There is more to patterning than touching . . . . The female’s urge came upon her, Andrew. She felt a strong patterning for you. Your refusal to complete her did not change the patterning. Your acquaintance Phrecti brought her to physical completion. But he had nothing to do with the act itself” (76). Although Phrecti contributed the sperm that impregnated the female, he had nothing to do with getting her pregnant. The idea of Melissa Mills in Andrew’s head generated the pregnancy.
Stress Pattern doesn't contain gunfights or chases, yet the story's action proceeds at a fast pace. The novel is composed of short chapters usually ending with either foreshadowing or a one-sentence introduction to the next plot point. Barrett gradually reveals aspects of his world through events and the enigmatic explanations of the natives, which helps avoid infodumping.
Barrett's world works according to a framework of firm rules that the natives intuitively understand at birth. The ecosystem of Rhamik’s village is a superb example. Rhamik shows Andrew an ancient fossil buried in the dirt, and then tells him that these are very good to eat, not yet, but later. This comment exasperates Andrew (as do most of the illogical aspects of this world) because an ancient fossil is clearly not something that will be good to eat later. Shortly thereafter the village floods, and no one can get to the underground bulbs, their normal source of food. After the natives and Andrew retreat to raised huts to escape the raging water, the fossils hydrate and swim around in the water, conveniently providing a fresh source of food for the natives: raw silver gator. The ecology works perfectly to make it simple and effortless to eat and exist; true evolution doesn’t work with such clocklike precision, or for that matter hydrates a fossil.
When Andrew and Melissa have sex, she gets pregnant three or four hours later, and they have a son. His son is born an infant, which does not happen on this world normally, but does in this case because Andrew patterns it that way. In an example of the novel’s preposterous and ironic humor, Andrew’s son has a bony structure on his head that is brightly colored homecoming red. His body is covered in a pelt that looks like a football uniform with the number 22 on the chest. Andrew’s father was disappointed in his son because he wanted an athlete, not a bookish economist, and Andrew’s son takes the pattern that his grandfather sought, and planted in Andrew’s unconscious.
Unable to accept things as they are, Andrew travel to understand this odd world, but both Rhamik and Melissa find Andrew’s dissatisfaction bizarre. Why go one place rather than another? On their world desire does not drive them to explore or find answers; they are born knowing the world’s rules, and spend their time following them.
As Andrew wanders across the world dragging Melissa with him, he decides to explore a group of islands that he feels strangely drawn to. Melissa tells him that they are bad places and refuses to accompany him. Over the course of several days, Andrew wanders the monotonous islands stretching away from the coast, drawn forward until even his mount is terrified and returns to shore. When Andrew reaches the last of the islands, he learns the nature of this strange world.
Andrew speaks to the powerful unseen alien that has shaped this world, largely inadvertently, into what it is. The alien is a living network that runs under the surface of the world, and was marooned on this world millions of years ago when its ship crashed.
The alien is a massive creature webbed beneath the surface that sends something like an electric current throughout the world. The alien describes itself and how it affects every being on the planet: “I’m a vast, auxiliary nervous system that links every creature here to every other” (156).
The alien’s network connects everyone and everything allowing strong willed individuals to shape and alter the physical form of other beings. “An individual with strong drives or emotions “touches” everyone around him. . . . “ (156). The network connects the nervous systems of every being on the planet, and alters the course of evolution. “Dominant individuals affected the group’s behavior. The group sensed this danger, though they couldn’t know where the trouble was coming from – only that once a certain individual was out of the way, the trouble stopped. Isolation and conformity became survival factors. A placid mental profile and ritual life patterns” (156). Because all beings are connected through the alien’s nervous system, powerful individuals threaten the community by patterning and altering the other members of the community. Individuals with strong desires and dominant ideas are ostracized, leaving a world dominated by placid, laid-back beings who cannot create chaos with their longing and needs. The dun-colored dull creatures became the dominant species, in a reversal of the survival of the fittest.
The natives overpowering need for simplicity alters even the landscape, bleeding it of colors, mountains, or magnificent scenery. There are no insects or small animals. The agricultural system consists of food and water-bulbs that are simple and require no competition or effort.
This world has not changed much in 400 million years; it has remained in a nonthreatening and bland stasis. The alien tells Andrew: “It’s a plain and artless world, and everything upon it is designed to fit the basic pattern of simplicity. A language everyone understands. That’s a side effect of my “transmission” capabilities, and the unconscious will toward sameness” (158). The alien did not intend to have this affect; he is disgusted and disappointed with the world and the ways he has inadvertently interfered with its evolution. The novel concludes with the alien convincing Andrew to try to change this world for the better and make it a more energetic interesting place. It has “saved” a small primal area where Andrew can try to reestablish evolution on a more vigorous basis.
WILL CONSERVATIVES LIKE THIS NOVEL?
Sure, Stress Pattern is an imaginative, well-written novel with an unusual premise. Barrett has written an intellectually stimulating novel that’s unusual enough to stand out from the many SF paperbacks of the 70s.
Robert Bee is a freelance writer and a professional librarian operating out of New Jersey. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org