The worst science fiction novel ever written???

by Ken DeVries

I have learned to beware of superlatives. If I tell someone that The Devil With Hitler is the weirdest Hitler movie ever, and they have to tell me about Hitler, Dead or Alive, or They Saved Hitler's Brain, I just smile and nod, wishing I'd kept my mouth shut. I listen to people talk about the best restaurant in town or the ugliest baby on earth or the greatest rock band in the universe and say nothing. Ah, but what I am thinking... This is why, when I tell you that Galaxy 666 is the worst science fiction novel ever written I don't expect you to believe me.

Simply put, Galaxy 666 by Pel Torro does for literature what Plan 9 From Outer Space did for the cinema, and for the same reasons. In my religion we have a term for it: "bulldada." Bulldada means that the object in question was created in all sincerity as its creator's very best effort to do something truly good, yet because of an inherent judgmental flaw deep within the artist's nature it miscarries so wildly that it becomes transcendent in a whole new way. It tips the scales in such a strange direction that they fly up and strike you a bloody gash upon the brow. You can't fake bulldada -- it can be created only out of a heartbreaking ineptitude which reveals at once all the tragic flaws of human nature.

Science fiction itself is a hotbed of hackery and wrong conceptions -- possibly because it seems so easy to write. Any would-be author with a drum to beat can brew up a domed city or alien world to promote a personal socio-political fetish. I have read novels by one-time authors for or against any number of political, religious, social, moral and ethical systems from socialism to the fluoridation of water. There is no mystery here -- it's just poor writing by mediocre thinkers. Galaxy 666 is different.

Pel Torro is one of the many pen names used by a British hack writer named Lionel Fanthorpe. His work was not created for love of art or to promote a utopian conception, but out of need: to eat and pay the gas bill. His output was remarkable: two books every weekend, "written"--legend has it--by tape recorders placed all around his house as he wandered around babbling about spaceships and robots. In his later years he has branched out into the study of the bizarre historic conspiracy theory first revealed to the world by the bestselling Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which claims that living Frenchmen are blood descendents of Jesus Christ, all based on a paranoid manuscript found in the National Library of France. Silly as that may seem, it can't touch the absurdities penned in his glory days as Pel Torro, Mel Jay, and a dozen others; and nothing, no NOTHING can approach the majesty of Galaxy 666. Oh, there are contenders, there always are, in the form of The Clones by P. T. Olemy, the Killer Crabs series and so on, but Galaxy 666 stands unique and fearsome in the annals of literature.

I have been shopping used book stores for decades, and as a matter of habit invariably check under "T" just in case. I used to see it a lot -- too much in fact. Half a dozen at a time. But then I was more the connoisseur. I had mastered the art of judging a book by its cover and knew what to expect from a book with a wonderful abstract/surrealist John Powers painting on the cover; a psychedelic photo on a Tower or Belmont book; or one of the funky photos of a space-suited G.I. Joe which sometimes appear on a Curtis book with its little red Ben Franklin logo. I never could tell what to think of Galaxy 666.

A motion-blurred model of the Starship Enterprise from T.V's Star Trek, painted blue, with some extra junk glued on, plummets past lumpy papier mache meteors of terrible unrealism. "They had reached the very limits of space. Nothing lay ahead except the evil planet, waiting to destroy." I shudder, and return the book to its shelf, looking for a Simak novel or an Ace Double to cleanse my palate. It was only years later that I dared, out of apathy or resignation, to open the book and scan idly, only to receive the shock of my life.

Now that I am older I have read the greats and the classics, and my jaded tastes seek stronger sensation. The strongest of all sensations, the one which thrills me most, is that best expressible by "WHAT THE HELL???" Galaxy 666 contains this in spades, hearts and clubs. There's not much of a plot. Some guys have to take a spaceship to some weird planet or something. A planet known--don't ask why--as "Galaxy 666." That is only one of the ways this planet defies all reason or logic. They go there and weird stuff happens. They see monsters. They somehow manage to escape the inescapable planet in a way which is definitively unexplained. It's the way it's written that takes its toll upon the mind and soul of the reader:

Bion drew a deep breath and swallowed the last spoonful of oogonga sauce.

"Now," he said as he pushed his platter away with a satisfied smile, "this is the part you're not going to believe. I told how once before my capsule nearly went into the Warp - well, this time it did!"

"A capsule?" gasped Milka, unbelievingly.

"A capsule went into the Warp."

"By the seven green moons," said Milka

"And when I came out of the Warp, where do you think I was?"

Milka shook his head.

"I was back on Galaxy 665."

That sort of writing, in itself, seems merely stupid. But as the book progresses, stupidity multiplies on itself, reaching peak after peak. They reach the planet, Galaxy 666, which seems more and more to defy description. This does not prevent the author from trying to describe its indescribability:

...There were pinkish streaks among the rock, and it seemed that some of the chromatic tint from the atmosphere owed its origin to these. There were a number of white veins in the rock, which bore some kind of resemblance to marble, but the majority of it was grey. It gave an over-all impression of greyness streaked with pink and white, rather than an over-all impression of whiteness tinged with grey and pink, or an over-all impression of pink streaked with grey and white.

Greyness was the dominant background shade; neither black nor white, but something midway between the two. It was a light rather than a dark grey, yet could never have been so light that it might be mistaken for an off white.

Get the picture? Pink and grey. The book reaches its emotional pinnacle in its non-description of the indescribable alien residents of the indescribable planet:

The things were odd, weird, grotesque. There was something horribly uncustomary and unwonted about them. They were completely unfamiliar. Their appearance was outlandish and extraordinary. here was something quite phenomenal about them. They were supernormal; they were unparalleled; they were unexampled. The shape of the aliens was singular in every sense. They were curious, odd, queer, peculiar and fantastic, and yet when every adjective had been used on them, when every preternatural epithet had been applied to their aberrant and freakish appearance, when everything that could be said about such eccentric, exceptional, anomalous creatures had been said, they still remained indescribable in any concrete terms.

It isn't just the atrocious verbiage, or idiotic character names like Korzaak and Ischklah, Oski and Bronet, the constant references to "back in the 20th century" just the way you and I always refer to the Byzantine Era in our daily conversation, or the insulting cover illustration which make this book a transcendent mystery; it's the WHY of it all. Oh, someone knows. Some benighted soul right here in Portland Oregon has written a book of their own ABOUT Fanthorpe. But the unanswerable and incomprehensible mystery of why this was published--not just once but at least THREE times, originally in Britain and two editions in America--can never be cleared up. Was there such a drought of sci-fi in the late sixties, or such a voracious audience that virtually any piece of hack trash could see print? Was there such a fog of delusion clouding the minds of editors, readers, typesetters and proofreaders that not once was an eyebrow raised or a mouthful of coffee spewed across a desktop? It may be imagined that the publishers of the Sharpshooter (Sharpshooter #7 - HEADCRUSHER) and Lady from L.U.S.T. series would have questionable judgement in their choice of material, but THIS??? Like the "strange enigmatical nexus between Korzaak and Ischklah," this question remains "as enigmatical as ever."

Book Happy #4
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