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Slave Ship
by Frederik Pohl

Reviewed by Chris Exner
Posted January 20, 2003

Please note: this title is out of print, but you can search amazon.com for a used copy, and a purchase may still qualify us for a commision.

Science fiction doesn’t need space ships or androids. It doesn’t need 3-eyed aliens or fluorescent light-sabers either; and fifty years ago Frederik Pohl was well aware of that. In Slave Ship, Pohl seized an actual threat from the early 1950’s and used it as a backdrop for a plausible story where the American navy is communicating with animals and using them as spies; a 3-minute rapport to a loved one - via ESP - costs $11.95; and an enemy weapon called the “Glotch” is causing military and civilian persons to drop dead.

Frederik Pohl isn’t just a science fiction writer; he’s also a futurist. To those of you unfamiliar with the term (not to be confused with the art movement of the early twentieth century), the futurists [http://www.wfs.org/futurist.htm] are a group of folks who share a common interest of speculating on the futures of technology and civilization. Add this skill to the caché of a brilliant science fiction writer, and what results is a story that can be enjoyed for decades, perhaps centuries.

Lieutenant Logan Miller, the protagonist of Slave Ship, is a naval officer specializing in military computer systems. He has currently been removed from the fighting Spruance submarine and been reassigned to Project Mako in Florida. Project Mako, located on a dairy farm, is a classified project that has been convened to develop man’s understanding of how animals communicate with one another and how man can use those similar techniques to interact back. During his stay at Project Mako, Miller’s role in the project is unbeknownst to him. Not until Operation Gamma is his task unveiled. For Operation Gamma, Miller is assigned to the Monmouth, an undersea vessel assigned to deliver a unit of animals to Zanzibar, to spy on the enemy, the Caodais. The Caodais, (also referred to as “cow-dyes,”) are a “church militant” group that is wreaking havoc all across the globe, gaining willing recruits at an alarming rate.

Little is written in Slave Ship referring to the religion of the Caodais other than that their leader, Nguyen-Yat-Hugo, goes under the title “Pope.” The only connection here to the pontiff of Rome, Pohl writes, is that the titles are the same. My first assumption upon noticing the name “Hugo” was that Nguyen was named after Hugo Gernsback, but not so. Pohl mentions that one of the Caodais' saints is Victor Hugo (the 19th century writer, poet, and politician), forcing me to believe this is the man whose name Pohl bestowed at the end of Nguyen’s name. As to why the Caodais and the Americans are at odds with one another, Pohl doesn’t say, but does offer some hints pertaining to their organization.

"They were a religion, not a nation; they happened to be a religion with troops and battlewagons and fusion bombs, but a religion all the same. And how can you declare war against a religion?"

This section sounds eerily familiar, and it was portions like this that really grabbed my attention. Throughout, I wondered, what did Pohl see nearly 45 years ago that inspired him to create a menace that is so similar to the one we confront today? To answer that question I had to spin back to the early/mid 1950’s and examine the events of that time. To my surprise, I discovered that the Caodais threat was a real one.

In 1919, Ngo Van Chieu, a Chinese civil servant, began to receive messages from Duc Cao Dai, whom Chieu believed to be God. Chieu believed these messages were God’s third attempt to “reveal his truth to humanity.” In 1926, Chieu began collecting followers. By 1942, the Caodai began to receive persecution from French occupied Indochina, where nearly all of its adherents resided. To “ensure the survival of their movement,” the Caodai were assured protection by the Japanese in exchange for serving in the Japanese army. It was here where the Caodais began instruction in military warfare and intelligence. In 1945, the Caodais established their own army, fighting the communist north alongside the French until 1951. In 1951, the Eastern region commander, Trinh Minh The, defected to form his own army, taking many other Caodais with him. Vowing to fight both the French and the communists, Trinh Minh exercised many military techniques that were criticized as “terrorist outrages.” These included: car bombs, bicycle bombs (“bicycle frames with charges”), at least one kidnapping, and an assassination. It was The’s forces that eventually drove the French out of the country, forcing them to yield power back to the Vietnamese in 1955. Later that same year, after opposing South Viet Nam’s new president, Ngo Dien Diem, Trinh Minh The was shot in the back of the head by an unknown sniper. When his headquarters were destroyed soon afterward on Diem’s orders, his lieutenants fled to Cambodia.

It is possible that in 1957 Pohl hypothesized that the world had not seen the last of the Caodais, and that their threat, or a similar one, was a living breathing possibility. Since he does not go into detail on the specifics of the Caodais religion or what happened to ignite a feud with the U.N. - and added to the peaceful tone in which the novel ends - I do not believe Pohl held any personal spite toward them. What Pohl utilizes the Caodais to conjecture is that a religious group given military training might prove to be an elusive enemy and could create a whole new approach to fighting in both military means and propaganda. Although the Caodais army disbanded in 1955, Pohl speculates with haunting familiarity the position the U.N. takes on its campaign against them. Lieutenant Miller describes in his narrative that the fighting going on is not “country against country,” and asks, “How can you declare war against a religion?” These words ring very familiar to the news reports after the attacks on the World Trade Center, focusing on how difficult it could be to fight an enemy that drifts from country to country, and the sensitive affair of criticizing an army whose members unite their cause through a common religion. Miller further goes on to note that the U.N. is only administering, “police actions.” Does the term peace-keeping ring a bell?

While it was the Caodais that intrigued me the most in Slave Ship, this doesn’t seem to be Pohl’s intention. In the “A NOTE ABOUT THIS BOOK” section, Pohl provides summations on the massive amount of progress made at the time by the animal kingdom to communicate and use language with human beings. Pohl uses this information to assert that animals may be more human than we are willing to admit, and signs the article off with a definition of man that brazenly reveals where he stands:

"Man, the snobbish animal…who clings to evolution’s ladder one rung higher than the brute beneath and saws away, saws away at the ladder beneath in an attempt to sever the connection between himself and the soulless, brainless, speechless Beast…that does not, in fact, exist."

I believe a book should be able to stand on its own without the author having to tell you what its legs are made of. If Pohl was trying to convince me that it is rational for man to treat animals on an equal level, I believe Slave Ship falls short. Lieutenant Miller, from whose point-of-view the book is written, does not display any compassion for the animals in the novel. His roommate, Lieutenant Semyon Timiyazev, a bumbling Russian descendant of one of Pavlov’s colleagues, is the only character that shows them any empathy - usually accompanied by a comic tone. Added to his oafish demeanor, Timiyazev is often laughed at and mocked for his excessive sensitivity to his four-legged friends. In one instance, while Miller is hitting on a stripper at the Pleasure Pit (a domed dance club overlooking the ocean) Timiyazev’s unselfish chatter for his love of his furry friends generates only amusement from the opposite sex. Though Pohl does go into some detail concerning the science and technique behind the use and development of the communication between the animals, the compassion for them does not go any further than Timiyazev. Had the protagonist shown more concern and interest in the animals and Project Mako, Pohl’s argument may have been more convincing. The animal “language” theme is also overshadowed by the “Glotch,” the mysterious Caodais weapon the U.N believes is responsible for hundreds of thousands of casualties. As soon as Lieutenant Miller becomes one of the few survivors from a Glotch attack, the book directs nearly all of its attention on the weapon and eradicating it.

Though the characters could have been better developed (or rather, developed differently), I wasn’t particularly concerned with them as much as I was with how Pohl’s ideas were developing. Pohl leads the reader down an inventive maze of probabilities before he finally reveals the unusual origin of the Glotch. He also complements the setting of the book with several nicely twisted elements: urban offices established to transmit ESP messages; an underground network of fanatic pacifists out to destroy both the Americans and the Caodais; and legalized mood-altering/self-sobering pills that the protagonist prefers to “pop.” Added to the revealed cause of the Glotch, and the both futile and comic method in which the military attempts to defend itself against it, make Miller’s unpredictable excursions all the more enjoyable. Assemble these with the uncanny speculations, and Slave Ship becomes the most bizarre of Pohl’s books I’ve read yet.

The Caodais religion, at present, consists of five million followers and is the third largest religion in Viet Nam. In 1955, the army was disbanded, and since then, the Caodais have lived peacefully in Viet Nam. The Caodais religion is a blend of Christianity, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Hinduism, and Islam. Victor Hugo really is a Caodais saint, along with Joan of Arc, Descartes, Shakespeare, Louis Pasteur and Lenin. Their titles, including Pope, and Bishop, which are used in the novel, are also factual and were borrowed from the Catholic church.

Related Links:
Galen's Frederik Pohl article

All information on the Caodais was obtained from the following sources:


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