Monday, May 20, 2024

Frederick Pohl’s A Plague of Pythons

Frederick Pohl’s science fiction novel A Plague of Pythons was serialised in Galaxy Magazine in 1962.

The writing career of Frederick Pohl (1919-2013) spanned, incredibly, no less than 75 years during which time he won just about every science fiction award going. And, interestingly, he was for quite a few years the editor of Galaxy Magazine.

The story begins with a man named Chandler on trial for rape. He should be able to look forward confidently to an acquittal. He was after all possessed at the time. Dozens of people in his small town have been acquitted of crimes such as murder, rape and arson on the grounds of possession. Chandler knows he was possessed and he knows that nobody has any control over his actions in those circumstances. The law recognises this.

The problem is that the crime took place in a pharmaceutical plant, and everyone knows that demons avoid such places. So he looks certain to be convicted and shot, until events take a strange turn.

Chandler lives in a very near future world in which possession is all too common. It began very suddenly, almost overnight. Since then civilisation has been brought to its knees by an extraordinary epidemic of demonic possession. The world has reverted to a state of near-barbarism. Orgies of murder and destruction are commonplace. Terror stalks the world.

Chandler, having escaped being shot, discovers a strange little community known as the Orphalese. They believe they have found two defences against possession - pain and the writings of Kahlil Gibran (whose works were quite a thing in the U.S. at that time among those with a taste for esoteric spirituality). Maybe there is hope after all.

Chandler later finds himself possessed again and ends up in Hawaii. He hasn’t gone there of his own free will. He was driven to go. For an important project. But for whom?

The possessions are real, but it’s not demons doing the possessing. Whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing that actual demons are not involved is debatable. Either way there seems to be no effective defence. Most people have given up even trying to resist.

Chandler slowly puts the pieces of the puzzle together and figures out what is going on. He just can’t see that he can do anything about it. And he has no idea how it is all likely to end.

There’s also Rosalie and she’s a disturbing factor. He’s not quite sure where Rosalie stands, or where he stands with her. Her loyalties are at best uncertain. Perhaps he should not trust her at all. Perhaps he will have to trust her. Having nothing to do with her is not an option.

There are no actual demons but there are things worse than demons. I don’t want to reveal what those things are because that is something that is revealed gradually and I have no desire to reveal spoilers.

This is a science fiction novel rather than a fantasy or horror novel, although there are worse horrors in this book than in most out-and-out horror novels.

The novel taps into one of the major obsessions of the period (the early 60s) but again I’m reluctant to be any more specific than that, other than to say that it taps into that obsession in a fascinating way and with a few original touches.

Pohl certainly knows how to create an atmosphere of paranoia and despair. Time and again Chandler thinks he’s found a reason to hope only to have that hope brutally snatched away from him.

And I do love the ending.

A Plague of Pythons is highly recommended.

This one is paired with The Bees of Death by Robert Moore Williams in an Armchair Fiction double-header paperback. In this case you get two very good very interesting novels so this paperback is a very worthwhile purchase.

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