Time for another installment in the series of book reviews that I call "Books That are not Worth Reviewing" – This time, it's Operation Umanaq – a sci-fi spy novel written by John Rankine and published in 1973.
The web is a little light on information about John Rankine. In fact, although he has a Wikipedia page, it says "We know little of his life until 1966" at which point he was almost 50 years old. I think he's still alive incidentally. There is some information on this website, which I think is an ebook publisher run by his son. There's a few PDFs of articles and some details about his writing process, but no book reviews or anything like that.
Incidentally, this website is giving me serious flashbacks to 1999. It's crazy dated, AND YET IT HAS A QR CODE. That's savvy!
Rankine was a teacher and headmaster for many years, and he has written a bunch of novels. He apparently has some fame for writing a bunch of novelizations of the TV show Space: 1999, although I can't find any reviews of them.
Speaking of reviews, there's essentially no information about Operation Umanaq available online. I haven't found a single review, so I guess this will be the first – which basically makes it extremely qualified for the Books Not Worth Reviewing series.
There are a couple copies of the cover on Flickr, through which I discovered that people collect scifi pulp novels and post copies of their covers online. There's actually a little conflict on that Flickr page – a commenter claims that the book was illustrated by Dean Ellis. However, other sources list Vincent DiFate as the illustrator.
Here's the summary from the back of the book:
After near bisection at the delicate hand of his ex-girlfriend and an all-stations call from the head of his own security unit labelling him an outlaw, Mark Chevron was a two-time loser. And he had a tenuous line on the biggest operation ever mounted on the face of the Earth, with every man's hand turned against him.
Crossing two continents and reaching deep into the permafrost of the Polar Scientific Complex, he is thrown into the middle of a war waged with one of the strangest weapons in man's history - ICE!
Even though there aren't any reviews of his books to be found online, you can purchase some of them as ebooks, so you can actually buy a copy of Operation Umanaq and read it on your favorite device.
Not that anyone would even wonder before they read the book, but Uummannaq is in Greenland, north of the Arctic Circle. And here's an interesting fact:
In 1972, Uummannaq came to the world's attention when hunters found the best preserved human reamins ever discovered in North America. The "Greenland Mummies" were found at an abandoned settlement called Qilakitsoq, and have been dated to about A.D. 1475 ± 50 years. A six-month-old baby, a four-year-old boy and six women were found in a remarkable state of preservation, having been protected by an overhanging rock. They were mummified by the very dry, constantly sub-zero temperatures. Found with the bodies were 78 articles of clothing, most of them sewed from sealskin. The Intestines of one of the women contained meat, plant remains, and pollen (grasses, dwarf birch, white arctic bell-heather, crowberry, willow, mountain sorrel), plus some wood fragments, and lice.
Operation Umanaq was published in 1973, so perhaps the name had more value at the time.
This book is pulpy, full of typos, has a lot of weird obscure words, and is often formulaic, but at points I found myself really enjoying it.
I found my copy in Raven Books in Northampton, MA, after a week or so of rain. They had fans running everywhere, and it was pretty smelly. I was checking out the pulp books, mostly encased in plastic bags – a reminder that people collect and treasure these things, even if it has been completely forgotten by the rest of the world. This book caught my eye – mostly because of the word 'bisection' on the back cover.
Here's a quick synopsis of the setting: It's the 24th century. Earth is still locked in a Cold War, but the players have changed. The planet is divided into two general governments, simply referred to as the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Seemingly the Northern Hemisphere are the 'good guys', and the Southern, based out of Brazil, is evil. But there's really nothing to differentiate them in the book, and the characters aren't blind to this. There are some vague references to the North having more freedom – and maybe this is true – but it's not really a factor in the book, and is mentioned only in passing.
The conflict between the two powers has been quiet for years, and "there was even a standing conference on a total amalgamation which would unify the planet for the first time in its history."
One of the few areas where the two sides work together is on 'environmental control'. The Earth has a network of satellites orbiting over both hemispheres, monitoring the weather and temperature of the planet, in order to make things nice for everyone. However, Earth is no paradise – "Environmental control only made it possible for more human beings to live, under stress." And although things have likely improved over the centuries, they aren't perfect. "The good life was as illusionary as it had ever been. Man lechered after the unattainable. But then if he stopped doing that he would be nothing at all."
Apparently the main environmental concern in the 24th century is global cooling – there are two 'Polar Scientific Stations', one at each pole, with the job of checking ice levels, and making sure it doesn't get too high by releasing heat with their 'atomic generator plants'.
In the 1970s, people really did worry about global cooling, and plenty of people mention this now as a way to discredit people who worry about global warming. Today the thought of a world trapped in a cold war, and so worried about global cooling that they have nuclear reactors melting the ice caps seems quaint, and pretty hilarious.
As the story opens, Mark Chevron wakes up to an alarm on Satellite N5, a Northern Hemisphere weather satellite orbiting above the 5th parallel. We quickly learn pretty much everything there is to know about him in a few short paragraphs:
Also the bitter question mark was still there. As an assignment for a top rank operator, this mission did not jell. Somebody in the higher echelons had looked over the record of his last mission and judged he needed a rest. "What shall we do with Chevron, then? Post him to a satellite. Even a genius at it can't louse up anything in a satellite."
Facing the door, he was checked again by his own reflection on the inside of his plexiglass faceplate: high forehead, short-cropped brown hair, gray-flecked eyes, unsmiling – a hard, sardonic face when you got right down to it."
Chevron is a spy who bungled his last mission, and has been sent off to this satellite for some unknown reason. Later, we learn a little more about the betrayal at the core of his last mission:
Chevron felt the line of the fresh scar that crossed from his right shoulder to his left hip as though it had been drawn again with a hot knife. Maybe the department had a case. It had been a failure in concentration that had allowed the opposition to get so close. He had been sidetracked by a personal involvement that he should not have had… he could see the tableau as it had been, with the Iranian girl Paula kneeling by his open case… Mark Chevron, one of the half-dozen top operators in the department, had been taken for a ride by a smooth brown houri hardly out of high school…
She shoots him with a laser, and he would've died except another agent popped in and "bisected her forehead with a single clinical shot." One near-bisection and one actual bisection within moments! Ew. This sort of mistake is the kind that people in Chevron's profession aren't allowed to make. "God, he must have been simpleminded. It would not happen again. But then it should not have happened at all."
Incidentally, this book has a lot of odd word choices. Some of it is because Rankine is British, and uses the occasional odd Anglicism. But some of it is just bizarre. A lot of people are bisected, or nearly bisected, by lasers in this book. Get used to it.
The crew of the satellite is directed to meet for an important announcement, so Chevron puts on his spacesuit and floats over to the "operations globe" – somewhat hilariously, the station is apparently built like one of those California high schools where you have to go outside to do anything. IN SPACE.
The meeting is to inform everyone that crew member Lois Martinez has killed herself – and this is the second suicide in a month. Naturally, she was a beautiful woman, so Chevron is sad about it. The station manager is disturbed by the multiple deaths, and no one can really understand why it is happening, so he basically puts everyone on the suicide watch buddy system. Chevron is paired up with Jack Beukes, whom he finds annoying almost immediately. Beukes mentions to Chevron that he has been touring all of the weather satellites, and has noticed an extremely high number of suicides and accidental deaths.
After a little chit-chat, Chevron decides that he has had enough of Beukes, so he sneaks into the shower, pulls out his secret spy phone, and calls the home office to request a transfer. A couple hours later, he is on a rocket to Accra, but not without first sneakily obtaining the suicide victims diary so he can inspect it for clues later. Naturally he reads an entry about himself – "A solitary man. Stands back. But if he did let himself go, he'd be terrific."
Chevron spends some time surfing on the beach while he waits to meet with his local contact Poldano. Unfortunately, as he leaves the water, he sees some police carrying a stretcher – and the murdered body of Poldano is on it!
Chevron decides that the murder of his contact is a feint by the Southern Hemisphere to draw attention from some sort of devious plan they have. He wonders if they want to do something at the North Pole, but discards the idea, and decides to break into Poldano's house to see what's up. Once inside, he befriends Zakayo, Poldano's long-time servant. He tells Chevron that Poldano was concerned about the potential onset of another ice age, and that he had been researching the possibility.
Chevron searches the house to see if he can learn anything, and he disturbs an intruder in the process. But, as he captures the intruder he gets a bit of a surprise, and we get to read one of many points in the novel where someone's thought process is described as if their brain was a computer:
Data acquisition network went into overload. Fine silky hair was brushing his chin. SKin was marble smooth. Elasticity factors were all wrong for a male subject. The startled "oh" choked off by his hand was in the alto register. He had gotten himself a female and a taut and nubile one at that.
This is Anne Riley, co-worker and lover of Poldano. Chevron interrogates her, and is brutal – bluntly revealing that Poldano is dead (she had no idea). He knows that he is being awful – knowing that he did it just to hurt someone, and thinking of himself as "the louse of all time". The interrogation is brief however, as a trio of Southern Hemisphere agents sneaks into the house. They kidnap Anne, although Chevron and Zakayo manage to kill two of them.
Chevron quickly gives up on recovering Anne, but decides to check out the diving club in Accra, because Poldano was a member. This part of the book is straight out of a James Bond story. Chevron and Zakayo have a drink in the bar and watch the fancy boats in the nearby marina, crawling with scantily clad women.
Chevron realizes that the club is a perfect place to operate an evil enterprise – it's private and has decent security. Poldano was probably on the scent and that's why he was killed. He realizes that Anne is probably there, about the be interrogated, and when they are done "she could be towed out and dumped in the sea, where piranha would do an identity erasure job at no charge."
In the marina outside the club, he knocks someone out, steals their diving gear, and uses it to swim into the underwater entrance of the club. When he's inside, he just happens to find Anne Riley in her underwear, tied up and stashed in a locker.
Anne and Chevron escape back through the water (luckily Anne was a member of the club and has some diving gear, including a "virginal white" diving suit), and then the trio steal a boat. Anne is a little slow, so Chevron angrily tells her "This is no time to sit on your elegant can" – the first of many references to can-like posteriors in the book.
The escape is classic James Bond – they steal a boat, then leapfrog to a bigger and faster boat. Their pursuers are closing in! Luckily there's a channel that all the boats need to go through, and Chevron is able to close its gate and fuse it closed just in time.
They float aimlessly in the ocean for a while, plotting their next move. Chevron continues to be rude to Anne, and she throws a small statue – one that she had retrieved from Poldano's house – at his head. A secret recording starts playing! It's Poldano! Very Princess Leia – EXCEPT THIS BOOK WAS PUBLISHED IN 1973!!! YEARS BEFORE STAR WARS!
Anyway, the message is from Poldano for Anne, and it tells her that she should try and meet up with Chevron, and gives some hints for him to track down whatever mysterious issue he was researching. It mentions Beukes – the person Chevron dealt with in the beginning of the story. And then it blows up!
At this point, Chevron decides that they need to abandon the boat before someone comes looking for them. They get to shore in a raft – which is smart, because shortly after they get off the boat, a flotilla comes along and destroys it.
Rowing the boat to the shore takes all night, and they nearly drown coming ashore. Then they make their way to a cousin of Zakayo. The team borrows a hovercar from him, and just in time – as they are flying away, they see the police knocking on the door of every house in the neighborhood. So, they are definitely on the run. Not only are they being pursued by the Southern Hemisphere, but since Chevron has 'gone solo', he suspects that he is in trouble with the North too.
At this point we are introduced to Henry Wagener, who basically runs the Northern Hemisphere spy agency – so he is Chevron's boss. We also meet Raquel Cunliffe, who wriggles her "neat can" on her chair while she complains about how dour Wagener is to her coworker.
Wagener is worried that the South is up to something. He has Raquel reporting to him with all incoming meteorological reports - and they all report that temperatures are dropping. Also, twenty agents have been killed, and there have been a lot of mysterious deaths on the weather satellites. He's being outmaneuvered by his opponents and he knows it.
Meanwhile, Chevron and the gang are in Bathurst, and have been spotted by Cassidy, the local Northern agent, who contacts Wagener and is ordered to keep an eye on him – but mostly because Wagener assumes Chevron is tracking down a lead. Cassidy maneuvers them into a desert safari – this makes sense to Chevron, because it's a way to lay low for awhile. There's a classic "inform the reader" scene here, where we learn about the possibility of another ice age. They can't figure out why the South would do this, and they're basically right – it doesn't make a lot of sense, as the whole world would suffer from another ice age, even if it was worse in the North. There's some curious tension between Chevron and Anne as he reads an article about albedo:
Chevron felt an electrical tingle in the back of his head. For a brief spell, he had a clear picture of her face within centimeters of his left ear. A twist and a heave and he could bring her round across his knees… With an effort which gave an edge to his voice, he closed that avenue to one of many possible futures and said "I know what albedo is. I want to know what Poldano was interested." … (Anne verbally spars with him) … Chevron toyed with the idea that he might yet bring her across his lap and see how she reacted to having her neat can whacked.
Meanwhile, Wagener is kidnapped as he leaves his office and replaced with a body double! Not only that, but the security system is based on reading the brain's electrical patterns and 'physiometric patterns', but the Southern double of him has somehow trained to match his brain waves. Wagener is holed up in a nearby hospital, likely to be tortured and have his brain read by a special scanner, and his body double is running the show.
On the safari, Anne and Chevron observe Cassidy using his spy phone as he tries to contact Wagener – so they know that he is a spy, although Chevron doesn't know which side he is on. Of course Cassidy doesn't realize it, but he's talking to the body-double Wagener, who orders him to eliminate Chevron. Wagener II is pretty happy with how the operation is going – it will set the north back a millennium.
Cassidy convinces the trio to take a ride in one of the safari's hover cars to consider where they want to go next. They park the car and walk away to a shack for a bit, but that's a big mistake, because Cassidy has programmed it to take off and leave them there! Even worse, it is armed with guns, and once in the air, it starts shooting at them. They take cover, which is just as well because a giant sandstorm is coming in! They're left behind, stranded in the middle of the desert.
Back at Northern Hemisphere spy headquarters, Raquel can tell that there is something wrong with Wagener– even if the computers cannot. She complains about this to her flirtatious coworker Andy Stafford, who tells her to sit down and tell him everything, "if you can sit in that without making little dents in your alabaster can." She tells him that she is convinced that something is wrong with Wagener, and that it might not even be him. Stafford agrees to dig around a bit. Later, Wagener II calls Raquel into his office to ask about Stafford:
"We're just good friends." Wagener lifted his eyes from his desktop. She got a hard look, but it was no transparency maker, Whatever anybody said, there was something different about the man. Although Wagener had never made an overt pass on the sex side, she knew that he had been aware of her as an erotic object and that he knew she knew and that she knew he knew she knew.
THAT IS REALLY IN THE BOOK
Wagener I wakes up to listen in on some more details of the plan while his captors think he is sleeping. "In a few days now we shall be able to withdraw and nothing they can do will protect them from the greatest catastrophe any civilization has ever suffered, And without casualties on our side. It is a stroke of genius… Nothing can stop us now. I am expecting the signal any day that the polar station has been destroyed. Then we can pull out."
Against all odds, Chevron and pals survive a few days in the desert and manage to find a road, where they are rescued by an archaeological team. In the town of Ghat, they try and rent a car, and Chevron recognizes someone. "Chevron's computer punched out the identification. It was Jack Beukes and no other." Chevron captures him and confirms that he is a spy for Southern Hemisphere Intelligence, and the name of the South's evil plan is finally revealed: "Operation Umanaq". Chevron calls Wagener to fill him in on the details – obviously not knowing that he is talking to Wagener II – but Raquel listens in on the conversation, and warns him to be careful, and tells him basically that Wagener isn't trustworthy.
When Wagener II gets the call, he leaves the office immediately, and Stafford follows him, and he discovers Wagener I in the process – so Raquel was right!
The trio plan a trip to Greenland to visit the Polar Scientific Complex. They make it easily – almost too easy after everything that has happened. When they get there, they see the sign for Umanaq General Hospital, and since the bad guys seem to be working via the medical system, Chevron gets philosophical:
He said soberly, "That's it, then. The very heart of the enterprise. A brief stop at the hostel for maintenance and we'll take a look at it. Our boat swims freely in the stream and current of this affair."
And as it happens, they're told that they need to present themselves at the hospital for a quick checkup. Anne claims that the Doctor (with a great name – Fabiola Dent) is a 'biomech' – so sort of cybernetic human, with a partially mechanical body. Anne and Zakayo both have extremely brief visits with the doctor that involve getting vaccinations that they are pretty sure they don't need. Chevron is skeptical, so he manages to elude the vaccination by hiding a metal plaque under his shirt – the robotic doctor jabs him there and doesn't notice a thing.
And it's lucky for him, because the vaccination was actually some sort of drug that makes you suicidal! This is the drug that the Southern Hemisphere gave to anyone who detected their plans. Unfortunately, Zakayo stabs himself to death, but Chevron gets to Anne in time, and gives her a nice big kiss to help convince her to stay alive.
He dashes off to confront the head Southern spy. It's a classic spy novel deal. The spy is Dr. Franz Orman, medical director of the Polar Station, and he has a lavish office staffed by nurses in sexy outfits. They get into a fight almost immediately, and Orman has a cybernetic leg that gives him an advantage. They have the classic banter you usually see between villain and hero. Orman tells Chevron that it's too late, and reveals how they've managed things – the reactors that are supposed to keep the ice levels low aren't operating at full strength, because another spy has managed to set the dials off by twenty percent. So basically, there's going to be an ice age because no one bothered to double-check the thermometer.
Chevron breaks Orman's neck – but the leg has enough autonomy to move the body so it can keep fighting Chevron – eeps.
Then, he's off on a running fight through the complex, that involves several bisections of people by laser blast, a fight with a dead spy powered by his cybernetic leg, and a final standoff in the control room of the power station, where a rescued Wagener saves the day just in time by calling in a team of commandos. Chevron passes out (he was shot and injured at some point), and he wakes up in the hospital with Anne at his side. There's talk of him getting a medal for saving the day, and him and Anne are clearly in love.
However, it's not exactly a happy ending. First, it's possible that the North still might have an ice age, or at least some catastrophic weather. And even if it was stopped in time, the Southern Hemisphere was basically willing to make the world uninhabitable in order to 'win'. It's never made clear that their plan to freeze the North wouldn't plunge the entire world into an Ice Age. Basically, it's just a new and interesting form of Mutually Assured Destruction.
Furthermore, you'd have to imagine that after something like this, there would be an actual shooting war, and probably a bad one. The South displayed complete willingness to utterly destroy the Northern Hemisphere, all while pretending to negotiate a peace.
And the North has been completely infiltrated by Southern spies. What sort of security measures will need to be taken to clean them out, and what sort of paranoia will be left behind? And should we assume that the North has also infiltrated the South to the same extent?
There's a point in the middle of the book, while the trio are escaping Accra, where they witness a peaceful, idyllic courtyard. "There was an air of permanence and peace. It was a far remove from the frenetic activity that kept the two hemispheres in their delicate political balance." Anne sees this, and realizes that the Southern Hemisphere is probably much the same, and she wonders why there's any conflict at all. Mark answers her:
She got a reply which she could have given herself. "Aggression is a deep-seated urge. You don't have to be frustrated to have it. However much the historians and the political boys rationalize it with labels, causes one-to-five and all that cock, it's there all the time in the subconscious. If Northern and Southern Hem didn't exist, people would just invent something else. Maybe its healthier the way it is. They can go into a ritual dance every now and then and feel threatened. The only casualties are people like Poldano. So long as it stays that way I guess we have a useful function."
So while the immediate threat is seemingly defused, or at least minimized, and at least Anne and Mark are together, I wouldn't say that this book has a happy ending. In fact, from the point that Wagener commandos arrive to save the day, there's only about 100 words until the end of the book – so there's barely any ending at all. And the eternal conflict is nowhere close to ending.