Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Psychopath Plague by Stephen G. Spruill

These guys look like Pez dispensers to you?
Forty-Nine days to Doomsday—

The computer projections left no room for doubt- in seven weeks, so many of Earth's people would have gone murderously mad that civilization would collapse beyond any possibility of recovery. There was no known cause for the outbreak of insanity, and only dilettante Elias Kane had as much as a hunch about its origin. With his giant alien servant Pendrake, Kane was prepared to risk his life to solve the riddle of the plague of psychosis- but first he had to evade the madness of the planet he hoped to save!
-The Back Cover

Copyright 1978, published by Dell SF. $1.75 cover price.252 pages. 

The Psychopath Plague kicks off in an underwater casino as the novel's protagonist Elias Kane gambles with a recently received inheritance. After a year of living in a shack and brewing his own beer, Kane has relocated to a lavish suite. Within the first ten pages, he wins the services of Pendrake, whom he frees outright, after which Kane loses his fortune by  playing what seemed to be a futuristic version of Risk.

Pendrake is a Cephantine, a race known for its honesty, servility, and for possessing incredible strength, bizarrely coupled with an extreme distaste for violence. The Chirpones, a race of penguin-like aliens that are so instinctually fearful of predators that they often die of fear if a human being so much as touches them, have recently begun trading entertainment technology with Earth and are introduced a few pages later. Pendrake informs Elias about the Psychopath Plague, a disease that makes even the most reasonable person murderously violent at the smallest frustration, after the ex-slaves previous owner makes an attempt on their lives.

There are numerous galactic suspects, as most of the galaxy views humanity as a barbaric menace, but Kane focuses on two—the human colonies of the solar system detest Earthies' and think of them as soft and frivolous, but rely upon the foodstuffs they create for survival. The Chirpones, although seemingly innocent and benign, came into the galactic scene immediately before the plague began. Elias Kane is tasked with discovering who is behind the Psychopath Plague, if anyone, and finding a way to stop it if possible, which involves a lot of planet hopping and galactic intrigue. 

The Psychopath Plague is a decent little story, but its attempts at fusing mystery and science fiction are clumsy and full of tropes. Inside this short novel you will find vague space travel technology, numerous humanoid aliens with very human habits and desires, a red herring suspect, and worst of the entire last chapter: a 'parlor-room' scene where Elias lays out exactly how he unraveled the mystery.

This book was entertaining at times, frustrating at others, and fluff throughout. Nothing spectacular here, bring on the next book!

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