Rodney Gallowglass is a spy whose job is to discover unknown planets that need to be brought into the fold of the enlightened democratic intergalactic system. When he lands on the backward planet of Gramayre in his spaceship disguised as an asteroid, Rod and his epileptic computer Fess discover a world of fantasy creatures — witches, ghosts, werewolves, dwarves and elves. Gramayre was originally settled by a group of humans who wanted to revert back to a feudal society. Now it’s a benevolent monarchy that’s threatened by anarchists, witches, and a man who wants to be dictator. Rod suspects that the agitators are being provoked and funded by an off-world interest. He decides that setting up a constitutional monarchy will be the best way to prepare Gramayre for moving on to a real democracy. Meanwhile, the people of Gramayre think Rod is a warlock because he’s got technology they can’t understand.
The Warlock in Spite of Himself, published in 1969, is a humorous science fantasy. I picked it up because I like science fantasy, I knew that Christopher Stasheff collaborated with L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt whose humorous HAROLD SHEA stories I enjoyed, and, lastly, an audiobook version of The Warlock in Spite of Himself has just been released by Wild Voices.
According to the publisher, The Warlock in Spite of Himself is “sword-and-sorcery with a witty, edgy, wry twist.” Though the story is fun and action-packed, I found that The Warlock in Spite of Himself, especially this audio version, didn’t live up to the publisher’s promise. It was often funny, but I wouldn’t call it “witty,” “edgy” or “wry.” There was nothing remarkable about the prose and I thought the humor was often juvenile and most likely to be enjoyed by teens (though The Warlock in Spite of Himself, because of the sexual content, is not marketed to teens).
Besides attempting to entertain us, Stasheff also uses his story as a platform to promote democracy and a representative government. I’m all for democracy and representation but, unfortunately, Stasheff’s treatment of different governmental systems is rather superficial and simplistic — democracy=good, Marxism=bad — without any serious discussion or explanation about what makes this so. This makes the story feel not only shallow, but also dated.
Another issue that makes The Warlock in Spite of Himself feel dated is Rod Gallowglass’s attitude toward women. For a future spaceman from an enlightened intergalactic confederation, it’s suspicious that his attitudes about women are congruent with those found in most 1950s American science fiction. He instantly falls in love with a woman just because she’s beautiful, laughs at the idea of asking a woman for help, thinks that men need to comfort women with lies about their relationship (“for a woman lives on love”), expects women to be weak and afraid, thinks they should be spanked when they misbehave and (if beautiful) “claimed” after a man proves his worth to himself.
The Warlock in Spite of Himself is over 40 years old, so I’m not asking it to fit my 21st century sensibilities (though plenty of old SFF does), but rather I’m explaining why the novel doesn’t hold up very well. I have no doubt, though, that it will be a fun and comfortable read for readers who originally encountered it and loved it a few decades ago, for readers who get nostalgic about old-fashioned science fiction, or for readers who occasionally (or always) enjoy a light, shallow, slightly silly adventure story.
The audio version of The Warlock in Spite of Himself was produced by Wild Voices and performed by a full cast. Unfortunately, this was not a good production and this may have contributed to my disappointment with the story. There are bad sound effects, inconsistent volume levels, and intrusive background music — all of these obscure the narration. The main narrator, Dennis F. Regan, was fine (though he pronounced “demesnes” like it looks), but some of the voices for the secondary characters were difficult to understand, sometimes because it felt like they were at the far end of a long tunnel. I couldn’t even hear some of what Fess the computer said, even with the volume on my Audible app turned all the way up. Needless to say, I won’t be trying any more Wild Voices productions. If you decide to read The Warlock in Spite of Himself, I suggest that you read the paperback or Kindle version.