For a while I’ve been meaning to write an essay about the real ‘big three’ of the Silver Age. Arthur C. Clarke’s existence unredoubtable, I strongly question Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov’s positions in the triumvirate, however. If popularity is the stick of measure, then I have no argument. But if quality of prose, depth of concept, and underlying humanism are at stake, Algis Budrys and Robert Sheckley should be in the spotlight. While only a light example why, Sheckley’s 1978 Crompton Divided (aka The Alchemical Marriage of Alistair Crompton) nevertheless possesses qualities that engage deeper levels of the brain than the works of Heinie or Azzie.
Channeling dynamic, vibrant prose a la Alfred Bester with a twist of wit, Crompton Divided tells the life travails of one Alistair Crompton. His personality recognized as dangerous as a child, two pieces of his personality are cut out and distributed into android minds, leaving the real Crompton a cold, placid machine of a human. Growing up to become the top creator of psychosmells (odors that touch the lizard brain in unique, pleasurable ways) for the universe’s most successful corporation, he grows bored being the best, and one day decides to reintegrate his personality pieces. The doctor who performed the surgery when he was young unwilling to undo his work, nevertheless gives Crompton the names and locations of the androids who have his lost parts. Crompton’s quest is soon underway, but it ends sooner than he—and the reader—expect.
Crompton Divided fooled me—in a good way. For nearly the entire length of the novel I was telling myself: “There are some great one-liners—the best of Sheckley’s I’ve read, but the humor really undercuts the character study being attempted...” I won’t highlight where my assumptions went wrong, but suffice to say by the time I’d turned the last page I was smiling and wagging a finger at Sheckley, pleased with how he’d overturned the apple cart of my expectations. Another way of putting this is, The Alchemical Marriage of Alistair Crompton may be the better title.
In the end, Crompton Divided is a slyly humorous bit of satire. To say what it is satirical of would spoil the story, so I’m left with only hints. The subject being ridiculed a few years behind its time (I’m pretty sure Malzberg and others have uncovered how ridiculous the notion is), Sheckley’s view nevertheless has bite. The prose incisive, I can’t help but think writers like James Morrow or John Sladek may have picked up a thing or two from the novel, and become successful satirists in their own right.