Titan, 432 pages
Review by Chris Heyman
Earth is invaded by thousands of super-intelligent beach balls that want to play. This is the high concept that Luke Rhinehart uses to satirise modern economic ruts and wider social absurdities, as seen through the perennial trope of a fresh pair of eyes. Except that these balls have no eyes, just a shaggy coating of extra-sensory hair. It is to Rhinehart’s credit that there are no gags about hairy balls until the very last page, a trailer for the next adventure. Indeed, taken at face value, this is the first of a series, and and is left without resolution. Nonetheless, it’s unusual for satire to invest in such a long game. The book’s page count dwarfs the Vonnegut science fiction that is the closest comparison, yet doesn’t feel too baggy. There are lots of really good ideas here and Rhinehart is not your stereotypical genre-jumping pensioner.
Rhinehart conquered the world of armchair psychologists in 1971 with The Dice Man, an electrifying debut that blurred the line between fiction and reality by chronicling the misadventures of one Luke Rhinehart. The book owed a debt to Joseph Heller’s louche disconnect, and fittingly, subsequent novels struggled to match up. If this early peak wasn’t enough to make me wary, I happen to be mildly prejudiced against the output of octogenarians. Rhinehart is 84. I’m flattered to say that he saw this coming, and rather than sending me a choice verb and pronoun, he creates a main character showing early signs of old age. This creates a bridge between writer and audience, to deliver an old man’s view on a rapidly changing world. If you are, in fact, old then I assume this is less of a conduit and more of a sympathetic character.
The said character is Billy Morton, who comes with a bitching wife and a couple of mischievous sons. He’s a fisherman off Long Island, content with his relaxed lifestyle until a funny fish finds its way to him: Louie, the first of a handful of shape shifting invaders. These are the Ickies, hairy creatures of nigh infinite intelligence from another dimension who have arrived to teach the Earthlings a thing or two about fun. Their idea of ‘fun’ involves rambunctious protests, stage shows, hacking, theft and running for president. Chapters jump between multiple perspectives but it is Billy and his family that anchor the novel, giving it a heart. As the benevolent aliens suffer and die in the face of human evil we see the cost on a nuclear family as the modern media sets them on a pendulum swing between celebrity and terrorist.
As the activities of the invaders amps up, so too does the satire. Rhinehart’s voice breezily unpicks economic fallacies as he tactfully suggests we might all be happier if we thought less about money and politics and more about having fun and helping people. It doesn’t feel preachy, with warm humour and just a pinch of the ribald. In these interesting times things can date very quickly, but the political angle is vague and astute enough to cover the inclement weather of Washington DC. I’m excited to see Rhinehart finish his sequence and resolve a subtly harrowing cliffhanger.
This review was originally published in Shoreline of Infinity issue 7.