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Millennial Review XXI: Vertigo by Bob Shaw (1979)


By Bob Shaw 

4 Feb, 2000

Millennial Reviews


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Bob Shaw
Ace, 1979
236 pages

Synopsis: Rob Hasson is an air-cop, one of the much-disliked policemen whose job it is to police the sky now that contra-grav devices have put the power of flight into everyone’s hands. Prior to the book’s beginning he nearly died at the hands of an idiot teenager with mob connections. He lived but the teenager died, and Hasson’s superiors want him to finish his recovery well away from England to reduce the odds that he will be killed by vengeful relatives. To that end, Hassen is visiting a Canadian policeman named Al Werry.

One of Hasson’s problems is that trauma has left him mentally unable to fly using CG, so he must drive or use commercial mass flight to get anywhere, CG not working for large objects. OT, I think his near-death is detailed in a Bob Shaw short story, title forgotten.

Although transatlantic travel is more difficult than today because of careless and dead flyers clogging the flight lanes, he makes it to Alberta, now a semi-autonomous nation within a Canadian Federation. The town he is visiting is Tripletree, a small town populated almost entirely by bullies, wimps and rural morons of various ages. Werry is a wimp, his fiancée is a tramp, his future mother-in-law a bigoted harridan. The only potentially bright spot is Werry’s blind teenage son, who may at least be expected to grow out of being teenaged, assuming the deeply stupid risks the kids take while flying him don’t kill him first.

Not surprisingly, Hasson does not enjoy his first days in Tripletree. He manages to buy a TV and some tapes of British TV shows and meets the other non-odious person in Tripletree, Oliver who and I quote

[Oliver] was small and middle aged-of exactly the same size, build and coloration as millions of other Asians-and yet he had an individuality which impressed Hasson as being as durable as the bedrock of China itself.”

Oliver seems to be the only non-Caucasian in town, although arguably Hasson might not be able distinguish visually between Asian males. This 21st Century Canada seems to be even boringly white bread than in the 1970s. Oliver helps Hasson recover from his medication related vitamin deficiencies and Hasson begins improving mentally as well.

There is a conflict centering on the Chinook Hotel, a white elephant built by the father of a local rich man, Buck Morlacher. The local teens use the semi-constructed and abandoned Chinook as a rookery. Morlacher want the kids out, thinking that if he can get the government to event protected air routes up to Tripletree, the hotel might flourish, and he could recoup some of his father’s losses. Buck helped get Werry elected as Reeve before the Chinook affair started, needing an easily pushed around law man but now that he needs muscle, or thinks he does, Werry’s inability to act is angering him greatly. Up until now Buck has been content with bullying Werry verbally and letting his evil henchman Pridgeon bully Werry and his blind son in minor physical ways. Werry is a wimp and won’t protect either of them. Buck is getting more and more frustrated and even the affair he is having with Werry’s fiancée is not going to stop him from taking more direct action.

Matters come to a head when an explosion goes off in the Chinook. A boy is rescued, battered but not dead. Other kids are still inside. Werry discovers Buck has set many bombs in the building. Buck and Pridgeon are arrested [to be released within an hour courtesy of Buck’s lawyers] and when Werry and Hasson go to the now-fiercely burning Chinook, they discover that the policeman who attempted to go into the Chinook to look for more kids has been murdered by Barry Lutze, the local wild high-flying teenager, who is under the impression the explosion killed his cousin, the boy recovered earlier. Further Lutze has Werry’s son Theo as a hostage.

Werry tries to save his son and is murdered by Lutze, who has the dead cop’s gun. Hasson overcomes his fear of flying, goes into the hotel, kills Lutze in self defense and rescues Theo. At the end of the book Theo is preparing to put the town behind him and Hasson is preparing to fly away into the sunset.

Um. 20 years ago, Spider Robinson complained in a review how uniformly negatively Canadians are portrayed in Vertigo. On one hand, the POV is Hasson, a depressed man getting over serious physical injuries who may well have a biased view of his surroundings. As well, Hasson’s boss in the UK seems unlikable so it is not like Albertans are being singled out here. One might argue the negativity is largely generated by Hasson. On the other hand, based on the actions we see people take, one might make a strong case that as soon as Theo and Oliver are removed from Tripletree, there’s no compelling reason not to nuke the town and sow it with cobalt 60.

I wonder, had Shaw ever been out west? Some of the physical descriptions seem way off, and even granting we’re talking Albertans here, the cultural ones as well: where the heck were the RCMP or their successors? Electing law officers seems to me a more US thing to do. Of course, given even a half-competent police force, the book would be a lot shorter and Tripletree is fairly isolated. It would not particularly surprise me if neighboring towns dismantled the roads leading there or set up SAMs to contain the cancer which is Tripletree.

Aside from the characters, the book is well written enough. The tech seems to be written to justify the story, the 21st century is not so far advanced compared to the 1970s: they have CG [arguably not an advance at all], something like a VCR and 3d tv but no significant computer advances on-screen. The disintegration of nations is a theme seen in other Shaw novels from the 1970s. I wonder what he thought of the growth of transnational associations like NAFTA or the EU?

Not a wonderful book but a quick read. Worth loaning to touchy Canadians if one savours apoplexy.