Fritz Leiber’s 1969 A Specter is Haunting Texas is a standalone near-future satire. No sequels, for which I am grateful.
Clad in an exoskeleton of advanced design, actor Christopher Crockett La Cruz descends from the Sack — the Moon-orbiting habitat housing most of Circumlunar’s artistic community — to the Earth from which his ancestors came, long ago, before the Atomic War. Armed with information from his unworldly father, La Cruz is looking for lost family wealth that will surely save their theatre from financial calamity!
Two minor problems present themselves: firstly, that he was not delivered to Yellowknife, the location of the Lost Crazy-Russian Pitchblende Mine that La Cruz plans to regain, but rather Dallas, Texas. Secondly, that his father’s knowledge of modern North America is an event-filled century out of date.
Its government having been captured by a Texas-based cabal in the 1960s, the US built a disproportionate fraction of its nuclear war shelters in Texas. Following the Atomic War, Texans swarmed out of their shelters and conquered most of their continent from Central America to the North Pole (the main exception being the black-ruled Pacific Black Republic). Having crushed their neighbors, Texans created a society of bombastic, smugly ignorant, hormone-enhanced cowboy cosplayers, ruling over a brutally oppressed Mexican slave class.
La Cruz is mildly taken aback by the social conditions he finds — but only mildly. His focus is on the two thousand miles between him and the fantastic fortune that surely awaits him in Yellowknife (renamed Amarillo Cuchillo by its conquerors). That Texas is a brutal slave state is regrettable but also not his problem. Or so he believes.
The only distractions Texas has to offer him are two delectable women, 4’ 6” Rosa “La Cucaracha” Morales and 8’ 2” Rachel Lamar. Rosa’s administrative skills have elevated her to as lofty a position as a Mexican might attain, while well-born Rachel has thespian dreams. Although La Cruz has no way to know this, both women have dreams beyond being seduced by some gangly actor from the other side of the sky. Both are deeply involved in the impending revolution, an endeavour in which they are both allies and bitter rivals.
While Rosa and Rachel do return La Cruz’ romantic interest, their primary interest in him is his use as a figurehead for the Bent-Back Revolution. The exoskeleton La Cruz needs to move in Earth’s oppressive gravity makes him look like an ambulatory skeleton. That and his oratorical skills make him the perfect man to inspire the intensely superstitious Mexicans.
The odds that the revolution will prevail are poor, and the chances that La Cruz will survive perhaps even worse. However, both Rosa and Rachel are very attractive; La Cruz will not be the first man to embrace danger thanks to lust.
This book is very much of its time, down to the author’s views of who actually ran the government. Specter was originally serialized in Pohl’s Galaxy magazine in 1968, when LBJ was president. Leiber seems more influenced by the LBJ who sent kids off to Vietnam and not the LBJ who signed Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Civil Rights Act of 1968. By the time the novel came out, the president was Richard Nixon, who was many things but not Texan.
Specter hasn’t aged well, although the treatment of a certain segment of the Texan population as willfully ignorant bullies1 who, given the chance, would cheerfully enslave everyone around them while replacing history with absurd fable and polluting the world into uninhabitability seems fair and nuanced even now. Texas is of course the only state in the US to have rebelled twice in favour of slavery, and its current assault on civil liberties speaks for itself. Leiber seems to be pretty on target here.
Otherwise, the book falls short. Pretty much of all of the characters in the book are broad ethnic stereotypes that were probably pretty funny back in the olden times. Given what we see of the Pacific Black Republic (or Acificpay Ackblay Epublicray, as it is sometimes known), it is probably for the best that the book is mainly set in Texas. As well, the text is littered with what’s intended to be ironically amusing racism of the sort that would appeal to any Family Guy fan of today. If you have an allergy to the n‑word, this is not the late-1960s satire for you!
On top of the above, Leiber seems to have run out of ideas for the plot before he ran out of pages in the manuscript, even though by modern standards this is a short novel. The novel falls apart long before the final page arrives. There is no last-minute save.
One likes to end on up-notes but it’s hard to find any in a novel that might actually be worse than The Wanderer . But I’ll try.
- Some of the covers this book has had were not terrible.
- Whenever Leiber touches on theatrical matters, it’s clear that he has first hand knowledge (which suggests that when Leiber penned La Cruz’s ignorance, arrogance, and energetic horniness, he had real-world models in mind).
- Also, the book is short. Although not short enough.
A Specter is Haunting Texas is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo). It does not appear to be available through Book Depository.
1: Homicidal bullies. This novel shares with Piper’s A Planet for Texans the conviction that any proper political system should formally embrace assassination as a key part of regime change and that any politician who does not play along is a spoil sport. Although Leiber was being comedic, Piper appears to have been dead serious.