Ben Bova’s 1976 The Multiple Man is a standalone near-future thriller.
Americo “Meric” Albano is a true believer in President James J. Halliday. Meric is proud to be press secretary to the first president in memory who will be able to do the job properly. After decades of inept and crooked administrations, he believes that the US desperately needs Halliday.
Meric is understandably upset when Halliday is found dead in an alley behind the building where the president gave a speech.
Except… the dead man is not Halliday. It’s simply some stranger who is identical to Halliday … right down to his finger prints.
The odds against a double dropping dead a few hundred feet from the president would seem to be quite large. Imagine Meric’s surprise when he discovers that this is not the first time this has happened. It is simply the first time that security was inept enough to let Meric learn about it.
A sequence of dead doppelgangers is alarming enough. The Administration’s reaction — or rather, the lack of reaction — is even more disquieting. Aside from wanting to suppress news of the event, Halliday and his inner circle do not appear particularly alarmed, nor are they curious about who the dead men were or how they died.
Meric’s alarm only escalates when the president’s security chief McMurtrie, as well as the president’s physician Dr. Klienerman, die in a helicopter crash. The official line is that the crash was a tragic accident. Meric cannot but wonder if in fact the pair stumbled across some dark secret and were silenced.
Someone apparently has the ability to produce exact doubles of Halliday. Who is to say the Halliday in the Oval Office is the same man who was elected? And if a double has somehow appropriated the Oval Office, what hope has the press secretary have of exposing him?
The reason I picked this book is because A: Ben Bova just died, and B: it is one of three SF novels I bought on a road trip to meet my maternal grandfather, who had up until that time been dead1. The others were Wolfing, which I have reviewed, and The Chaos Weapon, which I have not. Someday…
It’s a bit of a shame that some passages in this book can be pretty eye-brow-raising. A list of the Americans who are angry at the president include “The blacks in the cities who’re madder’n hell at being forced to work for their welfare checks…” There’s also the proud revelation that
Anyone — man, woman, or child — caught burglarizing, mugging, or otherwise trying to redress the difference between rich and poor through violence was shipped off to construction camps in the Far West.
In the book, this forced relocation program, which is well within traditional American norms — just ask the Cherokee or the Japanese — mainly attracts the ire of the nattering nabobs of negativity, not people on whom the text confers authority. Why, the program is all about moral and environmental remediation. The labour gangs are sent to tackle what in later days came to be known as superfund sites.
To be honest, this could be satire. One can never be sure that the author agrees with his characters. The text fails to rule out the possibility that Halliday is a terrible president with horrible policies … or the other possibility that Meric is an enabling idiot. Halliday was fairly elected, however, and Meric has a legitimate point that having the man who was elected secretly replaced by a double would be quite improper.
On the subject of unlikable people: the novel is first person so we spend a lot of time in Meric’s head. Meric spends a lot of his time quietly assessing those around him, almost always concluding they do not meet his standards. This won’t stop him from using them, in some cases fucking them, of course, but he thinks less of them while doing so.
It’s not much of a spoiler to say the plot involves clones. Unusually for SF novels involving clones, these are the boring sort who cannot be cranked out like Xeroxes before having their original’s memories decanted into them. Instead, they’re born and raised like any human (because aside from having been cloned, they are perfectly normal humans), which means that someone has been producing Halliday clones since he was an infant. Whatever is going on began long, long before Halliday was elected.
This book was billed as a thriller and it sticks to the model of the Disco-era thriller pretty closely. There’s the Big Secret and the naïve person who stumbles over it; the ensuing effort by Powerful People to prevent public revelation, and of course the exciting and violent resolution, perhaps involving guns or at least a long fall from a great height. Not to mention the very sexy sex that Meric has with alluring subordinate Vickie2, which not only gets Meric laid but places Vickie firmly in the crosshairs of Team Evil. Persons unfamiliar with the basic thriller elements will find them on display here.
It’s true that the only reason there is a risk that the Big Secret will be exposed is because the bad guys picked the loudest possible way to go about their super-secret scheme and the ensuing cover-up. The revealing cover-up is of course as traditional an element in thrillers as Big Plots and the Man Who Knew Too Much. Not to mention we do not currently live in an era that permits us the luxury of rejecting as unrealistic Bigly Dumb Schemes Carried Out Surprisingly Badly.
The Multiple Manis available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Book Depository) but if it is available from Chapters-Indigo, that is a well-concealed secret.
1: You may be wondering how someone who has been dead for decades recovers from that condition. Isn’t the real question why you can’t?
2: The term sexual harassment only predates the publication of this novel by a year or two. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued regulations concerning workplace sexual harassment four years after this novel was published.