The Men in the Jungle - Norman Spinrad (1967)

Norman Spinrad is one of the old school of science-fiction writers. Like Harlan Ellison, he wrote teleplays (the Star Trek episode "The Doomsday Machine" is his), movie scripts, songs, short stories and novels. His books are commentaries, as most good science fiction and indeed most good fiction is, about society, politics and even what it means to be human.

The Men in the Jungle is an early novel, Spinrad's third, written in 1967. It transforms elements of Vietnam, Bolivia, Che Guevara and more, with a dash of Heart of Darkness, into a science fiction story about fomenting revolution on a backward planet. It asks the age old question of how can you kill a monster without becoming a monster yourself? It doesn't give any easy answers to that question of any of the others.

This is a horrible book, by which I mean it contains horrors. It is not a "horror" book, though. The horrors it illustrates are all too human. The society he paints is frighteningly believable from it's specially bred human killing machines to the specially bred human food animals to the institutionalized sadism of the the rules, the "Brotherhood of Pain."

While lacking the sophistication of Spinrad's later work, the book packs a visceral punch that rarely appears in his later work either. It is a difficult book to read, unremitting in its depictions of the depths to which humanity will sink. It would be nice to imagine that this sort of thing is simply a fiction, that no actual person or people would perpetuate such acts on other humans. But the atrocities of Nazi Germany, the genocide in Rwanda, the janjaweed militias and the situation in Darfur all show that reality is much, much worse than any fiction can ever be.

Perhaps that is why good science fiction works so well. By setting events in a different time or on a distant planet or both, the author gives his readers a little distance from the subject, allowing them to consider the horrors with some dispassion. It is to be hoped that by coping with the themes and issues in the abstract, they are better able to address the real issues when they arise. Or perhaps that is merely hopeless optomism.

As I say, this is a difficult book to read, requiring the reader to gaze into, if you will permit the phrase, the heart of darkness. And, even, into his own heart to regard the darkness that lies within. This book is not for everyone.

Overall Grade: B

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