Indefatigable paperbackist Pebblehead has yet another new book out this week. Planet Of The Cloth-Eared Bears is a sci-fi potboiler featuring heroic spaceman Captain Biffo Melvynbragg.
The story begins with the captainâ€™s spaceship forced to crashland on a remote planet, populated entirely by bears who are hard of hearing. Scorched beyond repair, the spaceshipâ€™s engines attract the attention of some of the bears, who communicate with each other by a complex system of paw manipulation. Captain Biffo, who has among his accomplishments a diploma in earth-bear behavioural studies, is beflummoxed when he realises he cannot fathom the space-bearsâ€™ lingua franca.
Using his space-spade, the captain digs a pit in the spectacularly gruesome soil of the planetâ€™s surface, hoping to trap at least one of the bears in it. But these are wily space-bears, and they wait for the captain to finish digging his pit before dissolving his space-spade using their exciting rayguns. Then they push Biffo himself into the pit.
Forty pages of the paperback are then taken up with the captainâ€™s musings about his predicament, which include passages of blatant plagiarism from writers such as W N P Barbellion, Stefan Zweig, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Prudence Foxglove. Pebblehead has either forgotten about the rest of the spaceshipâ€™s crew or wishes us to believe that Captain Biffo was flying a solo mission. The latter is highly unlikely, given the nature of interplanetary protocols at the time, described carefully and at length in a prolegomenon, the sort of thing Pebblehead can dash off as breezily as the rest of us would write a shopping list, if we still had shops to go to, in this wasteland.
Eventually, the cloth-eared space-bears haul Captain Biffo out of the pit with a winch, and subject him to a personality profile questionnaire. This is given in multiple choice format, which allows Pebblehead to play around, quite foolishly, with the conventions of multiple choice personality profile questionnaires. It transpires that Biffo is a â€œdrugged-up chaffinchâ€ type, the most dangerous personality profile as far as the space-bears are concerned. They put Biffo back in the pit and hold a bear-moot. Pebblehead has great fun with this, probably more so than his readers.
At the end of the moot, half of the planetâ€™s suns explode, for no apparent reason. Biffo exploits the resulting mayhem and confusion to clamber out of the pit and to sprint towards his hobbled spaceship. Just before he gets there, a cloth-eared space-bear zaps him with a different type of exciting raygun. Biffo does not dissolve, but instead is himself transformed into one of the space-bears. Somehow, his hearing is not impaired by this metamorphosis, and he becomes a valued member of the community, even though he never quite masters the paw manipulation technique.
In the final pages, Pebblehead describes with exquisite dullness the slow rusting and disintegration of the spaceship, over many planet-years, until not a trace of it remains. And then, just as we are thinking what a waste of time the whole book has been, Captain Biffo, or rather the space-bear he has become, goes into a kind of spasmodic fit, sheds his space-bear characteristics in a form of ecdysis, knocks together a brand new spaceship out of space-cardboard boxes and space-twigs and space-gum, weirdly transmogrifies the planetâ€™s atmosphere so the space-bears can hear properly, and blasts off into the boundless firmament, heading for his next adventure.
Word has it that Pebblehead has already written three-quarters of the sequel, but he is keeping under his hat whether it will be about Captain Biffo or about the no longer cloth-eared bears. If you want to know more about Pebbleheadâ€™s hat, and what else he keeps under it, you will soon be able to register for a newsletter, in paper form, delivered to your door by the postie once in a blue moon, or when the cows come home.