40. Barrington J Bayley – The Star Virus (1970)
We’re back on Burroughs’ sci-fi. Specifically, those rich years of the New Wave (sixties and early seventies) when Burroughs was working on his cut-ups. Sci-fi initially provided reasons for them and, I believe, eventually showed him a path out of them as well.
By the time of the 1968 version of The Soft Machine, Burroughs was already talking about the need to return to narrative. The Wild Boys, Port of Saints and Ah Pook is Here demonstrate this turn in action.
The complexity and density of late-era New Age sci-fi’s ideas are, I believe, what made Burroughs realise the need for parsability. Clearly he was bursting with ideas (The Job is a veritable compendium). If he wanted to communicate these, however, he was going to struggle if he insisted on cutting them up all the time.
His reviews of pulp sci-fi published at this time show a tremendous resilience when it comes to reading bad prose in the name of strong ideas (see my blog post on Bloodworld, for eg). His enjoyment of complex ideas clearly expressed is clear, therefore, in both what he reads and what he writes.
Of all the books he reviews, The Star Virus by Barrington J Bayley is perhaps the most chocked-full of these mindbending ideas.
It’s a short novel (bundled with John Jakes’ indifferent Mask of Chaos in an Ace Double edition); a picaresque tale following and intergalactic smuggler Captain Rodrone and his often mutinous crew around a vast, drug-infested galaxy.
Rodrone’s something of an antiquarian. He has a small collection of books about Earth that he whiles away the spaceflight hours in “reading”. In fact, we are told, the constant stimulation of life in the future has left mankind with minds “too ephemeral, too widely scattered for constant attention”, and so Rodrone must take a pacifying drug – “genius in a bottle” – to allow him to concentrate enough to look at the pictures and read a few passages.
We are introduced early to Rodrone’s pet theory, that the Egyptians must have come after the Americans, despite what the few, scattered records say. Looking at the clean-lines of their art, their sun gods and human-animal hybrids, it seems obvious to Rodrone that their religion is more suited to space travel than the Americans’ was.
Needless to say, Burroughs would have been reading intently at this point.
There are other Burroughsian moments. They crew stop off at a dive bar on a sparsely populated planet. They find themselves enamoured of a fat female singer. Rodrone, breaking the conditioning enough to leave the room and explore, discovers that she’s using “sub-audible signals” to “remote control” his crew.
Similar mind weapons are used by the Streall; the extra-galactic invaders that Rodrone encounters at the end of the novel. They seeded humans as an experiment, but now seek to destroy them as one of their “errors of control”. “Men are a cancer,” the Streall tell him. They were supposed to be die out on their own planet.
Mind weapons and Control. Bayley is exactly on Burroughs’ wavelength here. It might even be, if Burroughs bought and read the book on first release, that it’s Bayley’s ideas we are hearing when Burroughs speaks in the interviews for The Job.
Another fun device is the lens that Rodrone spends the majority of the book trying to work out the purpose of. It turns out that it’s a Streall device. A “four-dimensional plan” of the universe that allows the Streall to create life and plan its evolution and overall effect upon the intergalactic balance.
There is an “element of uncertainty” in the plan (“inevitable due to the nature of quantum mechanics”) and it’s this that finally convinces Rodrone that the Streall are merely Control addicts and humanity needn’t be exterminated for the greater good.
He smashes the lens and with it collapses the barrier at the end of the galaxy that keeps humans from leaving. We thought it was a natural law in action but it was in fact a Streall quarantine. The novel ends with Rodrone smashing through it and heading out into deep space.
As much as all of the above feels like it probably inspired Burroughs, the only direct lift he makes is the concept of “deadliners”. These were the lowest of the low when it comes to spaceship crew. Like the French foreign legion or some of Conrad’s upriver colonial servants, the deadliners have turned their back on everything they know. They board craft where “the time dilation effect ensures that they can never return to the generation from which they departed”.
These galaxy-crossing space sailors end up thousands of years from their birthplace. They become detached and hopeless. And yet, by the same measure, they have a sort of deadly mystique about them.
Burroughs was clearly captivated by the deadliners, and perhaps sympathised with them, living his life of self-imposed exile. In The Third Mind he describes reading Bayley’s book in Gibraltar and “seeing deadliners everywhere” as a result. In the same book we get the passage:
“So I make the shooting gallery 4:00pm and spot Skipper B., an old Deadliner… I know him from light-years back.”
One also turns up in The Ticket that Exploded:
“’You might have taken half the planet with you,’ says an inexperienced Deadliner”
I’ve yet to read Blooms’ Anxiety of Influence, but it seems to me that there’s a game going on here, a dance of hiding and revealing. So much of Burroughs’ “own” ideas are similar to Bayley’s that he clearly wants to give him credit – thus the references to deadliners – and yet the ideas of humanity as a virus, Egypt as a space aged mythos, sub-audible mind control, alien Control addicts interfering with humanity, are all so pure Burroughs that he can’t make reference to Bayley without undermining his own “originality”.
This is a key question we’ll have to return to when I’ve read that study, but the “way out” of the dilemma has already been presented in Lowes’ Road to Xanadu. If Coleridge can make his best work from borrowings then why not Burroughs?