My life in outer space

Wolfhead – Charles L Harness (1978)

Wolfhead

‘DAWN OF A NEW DOOMSDAY

It was in the light of the swift star ‘God’s Eye’ – said to have been thrown aloft by the Ancients before the Desolation – that Beatra was captured by raiders from under the Earth.
Armed with only a psi-kinetic sand-sword and a Dire Wolf’s eyes, Jeremy Wolfhead followed, and found a strange city ruled by the descendants of an ancient government that had escaped the Desolation – a city that was preparing to emerge and bring to Earth a second, even more horrible, Doomsday!’

Blurb from the 1978 Berkley paperback edition

Jeremy Wolfhead lives with his grandfather in a Post Apocalyptic America, three thousand years after an atomic war. Life is good for Jeremy. He lives in a large house with his grandfather and his beautiful wife, Beatra. One morning the couple rise early to see the Gods Eye which we realise is the light of a satellite which orbits the earth.
However, a group of pale-skinned strangers appear and Jeremy’s dog, Goro, is killed, his wife kidnapped and Jeremy himself knocked unconscious.
He awakens under the care of a quasi-scientific brotherhood, and is able to hear their thoughts. He can also, it is soon discovered, use the power of his mind to create vortices of whatever matter is available. Thus a whirling disc of dust can be used as a weapon to cut wood or slice a man’s throat.
The Brotherhood have not taught Jeremy this out of the kindness of their hearts. There is a prophecy that says that a man with a Wolf’s Head will go amongst the people who live underground and destroy the Gods Eye. The descendants of the US President’s emergency bunker have remained underground and learned to live in darkness. Rather like Wells’ Morlocks they have evolved pallid white skin and large eyes. It is they who have kidnapped Beatra in order to discover information about the people of the surface.
In order for Jeremy to see underground, the brothers have grafted part of his brain into the brain of the she dire wolf, Virgil, a creature whose species mutated due to the radiation and evolved infra-red vision.
And so, Jeremy sets off to the underground city of the President to destroy the Gods Eye and rescue his wife.
It lacks the verve and creative flourishes of Harness’s early work and invites comparison with similar novels such as Pangborn’s ‘Davy’, Galouye’s ‘Dark Universe’ and the brilliant ‘Riddley Walker’. These other books are richer in ideas and characterisation. There is little of the detailed and colourful societies of ‘the Ring of Ritornel’ and ‘the Paradox men’ or indeed, the complex plots and structure.
Comparisons also have to be drawn with Star Wars which premiered a couple of years before this book came out and which exhibits certain plot parallels.
Jeremy (like Luke Skywalker) is an orphan who meets a mentor in the form of a robed man (Father Arcrite) and is taught how to employ his mind powers before being sent off to face the President (Emperor) and rescue the princess (Beatra).
This book has a Gods Eye, Star wars has a Death Star. Jeremy’s father is also revealed to be still alive, while Jeremy thought he was dead.
Whether or not Harness was influenced by these films is not clear. It’s unlikely he can have been unaware of them, although it also has to be pointed out that by the time ‘Return of the Jedi’ was released, this book may have already been in print.
Another theory may be that Harness (presumably like George Lucas) was merely following the Campbell structure of narrative, of which films like ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Wizard of Oz’ are perfect examples. The hero is taken out of his/her environment and sent on a quest, facing challenges on the way, meeting allies and mentors, until eventually they must face the great enemy, be it Darth Vader, the Wicked Witch of the West or (in this case) the US President.
The hero then returns, having gained the prize, but more importantly, wisdom.
Harness has some interesting points to make about how some species have evolved to fit particular niches. The Dire Wolf, for instance, as has been said, has developed infra-red vision, while crocodiles and humans have adapted themselves to life underground.
Hallmarks of Harness’ work are the prophecy, and the final twist which didn’t come as a great surprise since most astute readers would have worked out that Jeremy’s father was the returner, sent back by the Undergrounders, although maybe not that he is also father Phaedrus.
It’s also a relief that that Harness did not opt for a sentimental ending, which is again typical of his work. One gets the impression that life is moving on, rather than being halted by the emotional full stop of a happy ending.

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