Check out this rave (and then some) review for Arthur Byron Cover's brilliant Autumn Angels - out now in a brand new author-author-authorized new edition from Digital Parchment Services/Strange Particle Press - by Ivan Lerner, from Revolution SF
At one point during Autumn Angels, the lawyer, one of the novel's three main characters, says, "In a world where anything can happen, rest assured, it will." This, coupled with his "But what's the use in being alive if you can't mingle with people no good for you?" fundamentally sums up in a metaphorical nutshell this fantastic and unfortunately nearly forgotten work of satirical fantasy.
One of my favorite novels, Arthur Byron Cover's Autumn Angels is one of the wildest and weirdest books to be printed. One critic has referred to Cover as a "rock 'n' roll James Joyce," which is very nice, but an almost left-handed compliment. While definitely one of the "great works of Western Civilization," how many people have actually had the fortitude to finish Joyce's Ulysses, yet alone Finnegans Wake? Autumn Angels is a breeze and a hoot to read, and if you don't catch all of Cover's playful references (and there are many), don't worry. They all exist with a specific purpose in the novel itself; it doesn't matter if you don't know that the godlike man with no name is a allusion to Clint Eastwood's character in Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns, or that the insidious oriental doctor is Fu Manchu, or the talking blood-drinking flowers from the planet of the Ebony Kings are referring to the human-eating plant from The Little Shop of Horrors. There's even a reference to the old commercials of infamous L.A. car dealer Cal Worthington -- talk about obscure!
Of course, catching and recognizing these references is loads of fun, but some characters, like the aforementioned Ebony Kings, are solely creations of author Cover's fevered imagination. So I think it is beside the point to simply reducing this witty and marvelous book to the status of "just a game." Autumn Angels is not some joyless post-modern wankfest where the author is showing off his grad school degree and his ability to construct convoluted sentences that only exist to satisfy his perverse desire to torment an unfortunate audience. Autumn Angels is beautiful weirdness that needs to be read, written in a clean and direct style, that tells the almost-existential story of how three godlike miscreants try and re-introduce depression to the race of godlike men.
The following quote is from Harlan Ellison's almost frenzied introduction to the book's 1975 Pyramid Books paperback edition (the novel was the second in Pyramid's "Harlan Ellison Discover Series"). The fab Mr. Ellison wrote this about 26 years ago, but it still directly pinpoints the novel's positives: "It is a great many things, most of them silly and funny and memorable…"
It takes the materials of everyday entertainments-pulp heroes, movies, comics, detective stories-and transforms them. It melds them into a gestalt that is fresh and different and entirely meaningful… I take Autumn Angels and its brilliant young author very seriously… And despite the seeming silliness of the story, it is a profound and singular examination of some of the basic questions that confound us today: the meaning of our existence, the value of pain, the rationale for the search of individual destiny. And Autumn Angels speaks directly to the value of role-playing in our society; it says something lucid and fresh about the value of persona, the need to be other than what we seem, the need to seem to be other than what we are.
Nominated for a Nebula upon its initial release ("When I told my father it had been nominated for the best SF novel of the year, he said he'd have to read it again -- he was more a Louis Lamour fan," says Cover), the book takes place eons in the future, at some point long after the bems (who are eventually brought back to earth and the story) have granted godlike powers to the race of "mere man." People no longer identify themselves by name but by character (or persona or archetype, if you will): our three misfit protagonists are the lawyer, the demon and the fat man (who is, according to Ellison, modeled after Sydney Greenstreet's character in The Maltese Falcon).
The demon and the lawyer (who is the book's most fallible and "human" character, and a great audience surrogate) are fed up with the stagnation of the race of godlike man ("the routine of life was rarely broken," writes Cover), and are trying to convince the great mover-and-shaker, the fat man, to help them on their quest:
"Without depression, [asks the demon] what good is happiness? These days happiness is no longer a goal, but merely another state of being. As for myself, I find no joy in seeing other people happy. The race of godlike man has become lazy. The only ambition is for fame and glory. There is no striving for unobtainable goals. There are no adventures. And may I remind you that our very identities come from our past? Why shouldn't they come from our own culture, our own present? And what is our future?"
The fat man rubbed one of his chins. "I do not care for your goals. I, for one, am completely satisfied with things as they are."
"And for eons," said the lawyer, "you have been concerned with petty intrigues. Why, a man with your skills in the old days would have fought and schemed for a planet, for a solar system, for more! Your skills are wasted on this dreamless planet. With the return of depression will come the return of dreams, of hopes for better times. All godlike men will be searching for something, and then your skills will not be wasted. You will be at the top of a young and worthwhile race."
The fat man is convinced ("I like the way you two come right to the point," he chortles to his co-conspirators), and becomes the trio's de facto leader. However, even with his great powers (and the assistance of the shadowy gunsel, the fat man's henchman; based on Elisha Cook Jr.'s character in The Maltese Falcon -- remember him?), this crazy troika fails miserably, with an angered godlike mankind stripping them of their collective fame and glory.
Shamed and shunned, the friends eventually realize that this state of disgrace actually can be a boon: being out of the public's eye, now they can really do whatever it takes to bring back depression! Cover writes, "These three possessed a confidence alien to all other godlike men… despite their godlike powers, they resembled mere man in that they would let nothing stop them, even if it meant their doom."
Along the way, among a multiplicity of other oddities, we are treated to a day in the life of the duck (versus the cigar-smoking frogs), a wonderful and exciting basketball game between the lawyer and the fat man before the fuzzy ("yet boring," describes Cover) little balls of Sharkosh, the painful odyssey of the sad crawling bird, and a death duel between the godlike man with no name and the lonely hawkman where the loser ends up in the anti-matter universe. Despite its length (the Pyramid paperback is only 190 pages), Autumn Angels is a fantastically dense book.
Meanwhile, Cover is wonderful at supplying hints and traces of the growing friendship between his three godlike outcasts, especially with the in-jokes and playful teases of one to another. The demon and the fat man become roommates, and delight in teasing the lawyer about his obsession with pigs and his unrequited love for his never-seen girlfriend "Kitty" (which might be a sly jab at most males' pursuit of "pussy"). Soon the reader feels honored to be included in the shenanigans and strange logic of this insular trio, as if you were watching a good Marx Brothers' film.
He plunges us into a unique and original world, and has the faith that we'll keep up. Like one of the better magicians, the author works hard to give the audience the feeling that they're in on the gag, while using delightful sleight-of-hand to keep surprising them. Cover's dialog is witty and sharp, his descriptions are clear and imaginative, and his plotting is masterful. A fantasy for adults (rather than yet another adolescent power trip wish fulfillment testosterone fest), Autumn Angels evokes the smart playfulness of a Rudy Rucker, a Philip Jose Farmer or a Kurt Vonnegut. Fans of the work of comic book author Alan Moore (especially his Watchmen, Top Ten or The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen series) should really express an interest in Cover's work.
If I might appropriate Terry Southern's statement about Tom Wolfe, Arthur Byron Cover needs to be showered with money and other fine things. Attracted by the Pyramid paperback's beautiful Ron Cobb cover, I discovered this book back in the late-1970s in a used bookstore in the basically illiterate section of Brooklyn where I grew up. Since then, I've read Autumn Angels at least five times. I love this book so much that every time I'm in a used bookstore, if I find a copy of it, I buy it. I've found copies in used bookstores in Aspen, Colorado, Chicago and London, England. I'm not sure why I do this (either I'm trying to preserve copies for future generations or else this is one of the few times I'm willing to be transformed into pure collector scum), but I guard my copies jealously, only giving (as opposed to lending) one copy away so far.
The novel initially "began as a short story for an original anthology series that was cancelled," Cover told me recently, "but by then I was wondering what should happen next. I really had no idea how to write a short story, much less a novel, so I was faking it."
Cover states that the novel got published through "Nepotism. Harlan Ellison had made a deal with his publisher to edit a series of books. I was bothering him a lot in those days and he told me he would look at something. When he did, he figured it was okay and he would edit it. The second time he read it, with an eye toward what editorial work it needed, he thought it was the worst piece of dreck he'd ever suffered through… The charitable way of putting it is that he was unwilling to suspend his disbelief for it. Fortunately for us both, the third time around something clicked and his opinion became somewhat more favorable, which is sort of a quiet thing to call any feeling Harlan might have." (See Ellison's quote above.)
Unfortunately, critical and financial response to the novel was poor. "Except for a few who really didn't like it, it was pretty much ignored by what passed then for a literary science fiction establishment," says Cover. "The arts are a profoundly Darwinistic enterprise. When you look at what my then-contemporaries were writing, particularly those who have gone on to lucrative careers in writing commercial SF, you should thank Harlan for giving the work the benefit of the doubt when he doubted it the most."
Although a fabulous fantasist, Cover is quite earthbound when it come to the realities of the contemporary publishing industry. "I run a bookstore [Dangerous Visions in Southern California; www.readsf.com]. [Ordinary] SF books are a common product. Every literary trend that has ever existed now exists in the cultural matrix in some form or another, and even co-exists with artistic sensibilities once thought to be mutually exclusive. The trends of the past will be the trends of the future, but while the field [remains] dominated by middle-class writers and a middle-class audience (insiders as opposed to those who once believed themselves outsiders, whether or not they actually were), the era of dependable literary conceptual breakthroughs is history. You never know though. For years I've been saying the bottom will drop out of the Stephen King collectible market. Ten or twelve more decades, and I might be right."
A new print editions can be ordered right here on Amazon. Take a risk, order Autumn Angels today.