Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Psychedelic-40 - Louis Charbonneau

There were key clubs, private dance clubs, so-called entertainment clubs catering to almost any wish, in every American city of almost any size…An erotic response to PSI-40, usually coupled with a stripping away of inhibitions and restraints, occurred in perhaps one case out of six or seven. Just as the nature clubs and religious temples sprang up for those who enjoyed a mystical experience under the chemicals influence, so the sex clubs provided places where those who shared this specialized reaction could meet.

Bantam - January 1965
And that, my friends, is about as steamy as this novel gets. Still, that is one cool cover by Paul Lehr, which is pretty much the sole reason I picked up this novel and took it home with me.

Psychedelic-40 by Louis Charbonneau pretty much falls short of all the potential the blurbs hinted at on the back of my copy. Especially missing is any thought-provoking study on what may result from a society that chooses to pacified by designer drugs, instead of reality. Instead, what we get in the pages of this 1965 science fiction novel is mostly a "secret agent" yarn with elements of 1940s crime novels thrown in. By that, I mean the sort of crime novels where the detective pursues one direction but is sidelined by another conspiracy along the way, so that ultimately both conspiracies join into a tidy ending where the villain pulling the strings is revealed to by someone the detective is supposed to have trusted.

In this case, the detective, Jon Rand is an agent for The Mental Freedom Syndicate, run by a board of "Specials" which are old men with full ESP and mind-control powers. It's 1993, and the Specials use agents known as "Sensitives" to do their dirty-work, which basically is maintaining their agenda of control by promoting the mental wonder-drug PSI-40, by any means legal and illegal. Rand’s assignment is to find the leader of Mental Freedom Syndicate’s chief opposition, a rebel group known as the Antis. Between you and me, The Antis isn't a moniker that particularly strikes awe for a rebel group. Anyway, The Antis are headed up by a shadowy figure known as Killjoy. Killjoy is assumed to be Kemp Johnson, son of PSI-40’s inventor, and a natural Special. The previous two agents assigned to find Killjoy have disappeared and are presumed dead. Rand’s assignment is a diversion of sorts from an internal power struggle within the Mental Freedom Syndicate. The Syndicate’s chairman, Garth Taylor, is old and maintaining a feeble control on the Syndicate's rule. Rand’s superior, Loren Garrett, wants to be the new chairman of the Syndicate. Too bad for him, so do the other members of the Syndicate’s board.

Halfway into the novel, Rand is captured by black market “pirates” who want to steal the next supply of PSI-40 for their own nefarious means. Other than jacking the price of PSI-40, it’s not clear how this plan will work, considering PSI-40 is government endorsed and can be manufactured at the Syndicate’s direction. But this plot twist does provide a couple chapters of action for Rand and a mysterious woman named Taina Erickson who manages to appear at opportune moments. Of course, Taina becomes a love interest for Rand, but he can’t trust her. She could be an agent for Killjoy! Their coupling has about as much chemistry as a pairing between Gwyneth Paltrow and Keanu Reeves.

There is plenty of action, but not much sociological depth here. It's more of a caper, complete with goons and a femme fatale of sorts that would have been right at home in the pages of a pulp magazine. That's not a bad thing necessarily, but the novel lacks the hellzapoppin pace and drive of those old pulp yarns. Yes, it’s better written but still, it's been done before. 

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