The Rithian Terror – Damon Knight (1965)
‘How do you find a space spy who substitutes perfectly for anyone in the universe?
THE SPY BENEATH THE SKIN
The fate of the Earth Empire hung in the balance – and Security Commissioner Spangler knew it was up to him to find the monster, the Rithian Terror, as some called it. Seven Rithians had landed on earth. Six had been disposed of. One was loose.
Surely, Spangler reasoned, the stereoptic fluoroscope would flush it out. ‘That’s one test the Rithian can’t meet, no matter how good his human disguise may be.’ Spangler explained to Pembun, the strange, little Colonial who had been sent to help find the monster.
But Pembun didn’t agree. ‘The trouble,’ he said, ‘is that the Rithi have no bones. Which would be indication enough under a fluoroscope, if it weren’t for the fact that it can easily swallow a skeleton.’
Blurb from the 1965 Ace Doubles M-113 Edition
Thorne Spangler, Earth’s Security Commissioner is on the hunt for a shape-shifting Rithian.
Seven Rithians came to Earth and only six returned, which means that a Rithian spy is at large disguised as a human. A Colonial, Mr Pembun, is called in to help but is looked down on because of his accent and his uncultured behaviour.
As the hunt goes on, we realise quite quickly that Spangler has underestimated Mr Pembun.
Spangler is the product of an Earth which is at the centre of a new Empire, a society which has evolved a language, ‘standard’ where every word has one and only one meaning.
Pembun turns out to be of immense help to Spangler. However, having realised that Pembun has outperformed and undermined his authority at every turn in ingenious and creative ways, Spangler is now determined to discredit him.
It’s a curious novel, fairly light-hearted and with its social attitudes locked into those of the Nineteen Sixties. Spangler’s relationship with his girlfriend is a case in point, since he treats her like a possession, and at one point employs physical violence. She forgives him of course and an enlightened Spangler reaffirms his love for her at the end of the novel.
The presence of the Rithian is, ultimately, irrelevant. The furry-tentacled impostor is merely a device to highlight the increasingly insane single-mindedness of Spangler who is bent on continuing his search for Rithians even though the alien has been found and destroyed. Indeed, even the need to kill the Rithian seems an over-reaction, since the people of Pembun’s homeworld trade with them and seem to be on very friendly terms with the beasties.
It’s tempting to see this novel as a metaphor for America’s relations with foreign powers. Certainly, the ‘aliens among us’ theme is an enduring concept, and Spangler’s paranoia and distrust of ‘foreigners’ is shown very clearly. Whether Knight intended such an interpretation is another matter.
Knight has long been a respected figure in the field and is perhaps better known as a critic, anthologist and short story writer, perhaps his most well-known piece being ‘To Serve Man’ which was dramatized as an episode of ‘The Twilight Zone’.
He could have clearly achieved great things as a novelist had he persevered, but perhaps he realised his talents were best employed elsewhere.
‘The Rithian Terror’ is, to be fair, cleverly written with some touches of wry wit and may have fared better if given some room to expand. The denouement is abrupt and somewhat confusing, but brings the odd duel that Spangler and Pembun have been waging to a conclusion.