Sunday, April 2, 2017

Attar the Merman #2: War of Nerves (Joe Haldeman writing as Robert Graham, 1975)

This one doesn't waste any time with preliminaries. In the opening chapter's mere five pages we learn everything we need to know about the plot. If you're interested and have 15 seconds to spare, you can read its (even) more condensed version from the scanned back cover below. The only really curious detail that gets left out is the name of the poison that villains plan to use. Here it goes:

The drums contained a total of twenty-two hundred gallons of Tabun III developed by army researchers in the early seventies as a more potent replacement for Tabun, called eyanodimethytlaminethoxyphsphine oxide for long.

Guess that the blurb writers didn't have patience and/or space to put "eyanodimethytlaminethoxyphsphine oxide" on the back cover...

Anyway, the second chapter is a mandatory hero introductory chapter. Not much to write about - he's a pretty ordinary men's adventure novels hero, with his unique feature being medically inserted gills that (obviously) enable him to breathe underwater. Not much gadgetry is involved either, with maybe a notable exception of "...incorporated into Attar's ankle sheath was a small radio transmitter, powered by an electrochemical reaction with sea water..."

What makes our hero memorable are his sidekicks introduced in the third chapter. This is definitely the novel's highlight, and it requires multiple readings!

Sam, the dolphin, is only briefly introduced and then later, for some unknown reasons, dropped and replaced with Attar's brother Victor. So let's not waste too much space on him and just see how this friendship was formed:

Then along came Attar and Essence with their strange ability to breathe underwater. Some dolphins decided to open up telepathic communication with these two humans, provided they would keep the ability secret to other humans. It's useless, of course, to lie to a mind reader; Attar and Essence would have been killed immediately if they hadn't been sincere. They lived and divulged the secret.

The Attar's other sidekick, the killer whale Grampus, is the real star here. The whole introductory stuff is simply hilarious and I could easily retype the entire chapter, but these posts are running too long lately, so let's just single out a few paragraphs. The insanity starts with:

Killer whales are normally pretty rough customers. They're intelligent as dolphins but, in the wild, not as easy to get along with. They kill and eat dolphins and other marine mammals. That none has ever been recorded as having killed a human swimmer may say more about recordkeeping than it does about killer whales.
Grampus, though, was an exception. He though he was a dolphin.

Huh? You see, dolphins thought that raising the orphaned orca would be a "grand practical joke"! True, a "pretty dangerous game", but you see,  "dolphins live with danger the way humans live with weather - they don't let it bother them too much". But still, this experiment leaves him a bit mixed up:

The killer whale's mind was even stranger territory than the minds of the dolphins. Dolphins are not exactly gentle - the ocean is unforgiving and a pacifist dolphin wouldn't live long enough to starve to death - but the only fish they kill for pleasure is the shark. Grampus got a little dark thrill every time he killed something, anything. In other respects, though, the killer whale's psychological make-up was very dolphinlike: playful, sarcastic, relatively unconcerned about his own death.

Like I said, I could easily go on with this but let's just wrap it up with an example of one of the Grampus' abilities:

"We've got you a wrist compass and a little sextant," Edward said, "out in the Ford. That should help."
"Sure," Attar said. Actually, he wouldn't need them. Grampus understood maps by reading them through Attar's eyes, and he had an infallible sense of direction.

Great stuff! And I honestly thought I was onto something special here. But then this silliness stops, and with every page the whole thing grows duller to a point when it's almost unreadable. I can see why the series ran for only two entries, and I'm not really interested in finding the first one unless I come across it in some used bookstore for a couple of bucks. But I'll be prepared for that one and will probably stop reading it after the intro.



Attar the merman and his split personality non-pacifistic sarcastic orca Grampus. No, wait a minute! It's actually the split personality non-pacifistic sarcastic orca Grampus and Attar the merman.

Bad guy(s):
Two of them and both pretty pathetic, especially Rasputin. Not menacing at all and foremost cheap. Considering he's blackmailing the USA government and it's about to destroy the entire planet, he sets the ransom ridiculously low to a mere 20 million! And the asshole is so cheap that he even haggles over the assassination fee with his henchman!

Attar is Australian, and this is where the introductory chapters are staged, but then he and his brother Victor leave for Florida and later finally end up in Haiti.

Body count:
6 (the first one is pretty funny - "You can't sneak up on a telepathic animal!")  + 9 (some pretty gory) in the final shoot-out + a suicide in the epilogue make a grand total of 16.

And I'm happy to report that Attar's brother Victor makes it:

After a week-long telepathic powwow, the consensus among the dolphins was that Victor be allowed to live. But he would be given no further information about dolphin intelligence until he had proven his trust-worthiness. Actually, the dolphins thought it was quite a joke that Grampus had considered a human life to be worth that much. It was forgivable because Grampus was not really a dolphin - and whatever he was, it was at least partly the dolphins' fault.

Object of desire:
See back cover.

The voodoo prayer in Chapter 11 is taken from the book "Haiti: Black Peasants and Their Religion" by Alfred Metraux.

None. Yes, you've read it right - there are no women mentioned in this asexual "men's adventure novel"!?!?

I think he almost faints when he gets trapped underwater. But not for lack of oxygen, of course; it's the coldness of the ocean that gets him.

Very accurate - it was a bloody war of nerves to finish this one.

Pocket Book #77989, March 1975

Partly accurate. See 'hero' and 'dames' sections.

Cool lines:
While Attar was trying to frame a sufficiently sarcastic reply, Victor snarled a suggestion to the youth that was both biologicaly improbable and illegal under Florida's sodomy statutes.[The Coolest!]


  1. As always, great review -- I love how you review these books. I liked this one more than the first volume, but I suspect if I were to read the first one again, I'd probably like it more. I read something by Haldeman once where he said he tried writing a third volume, but couldn't do it, and then even drafted a writing class he was teaching to help out, but none of them could do it either. They all wanted to be "literary" authors and were incapable of writing series fiction. Losers!

    1. Holy shit, writing class of aspiring authors!? Surely a joint or two would bring out all the muses needed to come up with stuff like this!

      I'm not stoned at all right now and after half a pint of Guinness can think of a great white shark genetically mutated (by some ex-Nazi doctor, obviously) with extremely venomous jellyfish practicing Buddhism that only retaliates when provoked or being threatened by a big bad ocean polluting corporation. And, needles to say, there would be SEX in it!

      Anyways, thanks for a comment!