Saturday, September 3, 2022

John Cleve’s Purrfect Plunder

John Cleve’s Purrfect Plunder, published in 1982, was the sixth of the nineteen science fiction sleaze paperbacks published by Playboy Press between 1982 and 1985.

Andrew J. Offutt (1934-2013) was an American writer of science fiction and fantasy. He wrote sleaze fiction under a dozen or so different pseudonyms, including John Cleve. To make things a little bit more confusing the name John Cleve was used by other writers and to make things really murky some of the Spaceways books may have been collaborations.

Purrfect Plunder starts with an epic space battle.

Kenowa is one of the officers of the Dauntless. It’s not quite clear what her position is but we know that she’s sleeping with the ship’s commander, Captain Sword. After the battle the spaceship Dauntless is left a drifting wreck. Kenowa finds herself stripped naked and carried off by some kind of tentacled robot. She is placed in a tiny cubicle, in a hold that contains countless other naked females.

It’s a grim situation but things are not as they seem to be.

Then an interstellar cargo ship, the India Spring, sends a distress message. It’s been attacked by pirates. Captain Jonuta picks up the signal in his ship the Coronet and decides to answer the distress call and rescue the merchantman. Which is a little surprising. Captain Jonuta is after all a slaver. That possibly makes him marginally less lawless and disreputable than a pirate, but not much. Jonuta has never been known to do anything unless there’s a healthy profit in it for him.

The India Spring is carrying a couple of passengers. One of them is a female HRal. Her name is HReenee. This is a newly discovered species. They’re felinoprimates. They’re humanoid, but part cat. They’re an intelligent advanced species but they have some very definite feline tendencies. The capture of the India Spring by the pirates was actually fortunate for HReenee since at the time one of the India Spring’s crew members was raping her. Or rather trying to rape her, and in the process discovering that HRal have razor-sharp slashing claws.

What follows are the usual adventures you’d expect in a story about space pirates. Prisoners escape, there are lots of fights and there’s a tense climactic space battle as Jonuta faces off against a hated rival, Captain Corundum. There’s also a complicated four-way romantic/sexual tangle involving HReenee, her stepbrother HRadem, Captain Jonuta and his first officer Kenowa.

There are three lengthy explicit sexual scenes but I figure that if you’re going to be reading a science fiction sleaze novel (or if you’re going to read a review of a sci-fi sleaze novel) you’re probably going to be able to deal with that. And given the setup outlined earlier you’re probably going to be prepared for some inter-species sexual encounters.

Mostly though this is space opera. And it’s pretty good space opera. The author was an actual science fiction writer and he knows how to write space opera. He’s also familiar with at least some of the realities of space travel, things like zero gravity and creating an artificial gravity effect by having a spacecraft rotating. Most of the science and technology stuff is not outlandishly implausible by space opera standards.

And he knows how to handle action. There are some fine zero-gravity fights and the space battles are quite exciting.

There are several things that make this book a bit more interesting than you might expect. The human characters are just a little bit more than cardboard cut-outs. Jonuta is a slaver so he’s a criminal and his ethical standards are very flexible. But he does have ethical standards. He doesn’t like killing. Sometimes it’s an unfortunate necessity and he’s not going to wallow in guilt about it but it’s something he prefers to avoid. He’s had countless lovers but he’s not entirely predatory towards women (just slightly predatory). Jonuta is no Boy Scout. He is not a conventional hero nor is he a conventional villain. He’s a kind of anti-hero, albeit a reasonably likeable anti-hero.

Kenowa is sex-obsessed but not entirely without at least some romantic feelings. Jonuta and Kenowa are not madly in love but they suit each other and their relationship is not entirely based on sex.

The best thing about this novel however is that it features some of the best aliens in science fiction. Catwomen (or catpeople) were by no means an original idea in 1982. They’d been featured in various movies and the best known fictional examples were the kzinti in Larry Niven’s Known Space stories. But the HRal are a lot more interesting and a lot more convincing than the kzinti. The HRal really are both humanoid and feline. They have an advanced technological society and they’re as intelligent as humans but culturally, socially, emotionally and sexually they’re totally cat-like. And the author gives us both a female HRal (HReenee) and a make HRal (HReenee’s step-brother HRadem). HReenee is cat-like in a very female way and HRadem is cat-like in a very male way. HReenee really is a wonderful character - she is totally alien and yet believable. The behaviour of the HRal throughout the book is completely consistent with nature as feline humanoids.

Unlike many science fiction writers Cleve doesn’t seem to have any ideological axe to grind. There is a galactic empire of sorts but in practice it exercises limited control over the various member planets. There’s a galactic police force but it’s overworked ad undermanned and doesn’t achieve very much. Cleve is one of the few science fiction authors to realise that no central government could possibly exercise any real control over an interstellar empire - the distances are too great and it takes too long to cross those distances. It makes no difference what kind of central government you have, they will still be very very limited in what they can do.

The author has obviously given Playboy Press what they wanted - a science fiction adventure spiced up with lots of sex. But he’s also managed to produce a very entertaining space opera with very cool aliens. This book is much much better than you might expect. It's still trashy, but it's quality trash. And sexy space opera turns out to be a rather attractive concept. Purrfect Plunder is highly recommended.

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