The Man with a Thousand Names by A. E. Van Vogt (1974) – I can’t say when I picked this up that I knew what to expect from a grand master like Mr. Van Vogt, but I was surprised by the original concept and the sheer audacity of his willingness to give us a rotter of a protagonist.
Steven Masters is horrible. He’s the son of a billionaire who learned early how to manipulate every person in his life and takes what he wants. He’s bored, handsome, a despicable cad, and considers himself hyper-intelligent and a semi-rapist (can there be such a thing?). He’s the worst protagonist (I refuse to say hero) with a string of people he’s caused to be fired or accused of some dastardly crime. He could almost be a Trump.
His story is pretty predictable until he boasts he could lead an expedition to a newly discovered planet and must make good his remark. As the first person to set foot on the mysterious world, he explores the nearby hills and discovers a naked human tribe. When one of them touches him, he switches bodies with a bar-back he caused to be fired when he was a child. The man, pudgy and poor, isn’t the body Steven Masters expects but he convinces his billionaire father that he is really his son. The father believes him because the bar-back is suddenly a whiny brat.
What a great opportunity for him to learn the errors of his ways and stop blaming everyone else in his life for his own faults, right? Wrong. He’s as much of a jerk as always. Someone hypnotizes the bar-back’s ex-girlfriend and she tries to stab him. Back in his posh apartment, he carries on with his hedonistic life as the bar-back, taking one of his regular women to bed without hardly remembering her name. This time, one of the party guests sneaks into his bedroom and shoots at him. Someone, besides me, wants this character dead, no matter whose body he’s wearing.
Steven has voices warning him, and he manages to escape. Meanwhile, on the newly discovered planet, the bar-back is captured by the naked humans and the expedition is wiped out. The second expedition captures one of the locals, and Steven switches with the bar-back to molest a naked local woman.
I thought it was interesting that these two men were swapping back and forth, but when Steven touches the woman, he’s switched back to Earth into a man he sued for almost running him down in the street in New York. Not only did he bankrupt the innocent man, but he slept with the man’s wife and his mistress (after introducing them). No character development or redemption arc for Steven.
He does spend a brief time in prison after the aliens who are fighting for his soul (Mother wants him to impregnate eight hundred perfect females so their children will have a chance of fighting off the animalistic Gi-Nts; the Gi-Nts like them for themselves.) return him to Earth but leave the bar-back and the innocent driver switched.
In prison, Steven has to lick boots and get beaten at every opportunity. Now he can see what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, right? Nope. He switches with the party girl from the first night back.
Then it gets really confusing. Aliens, some posing as the Department of Defense, attack. Steven and his fellow bodies shift, join, and resettle. Steven ends up the Chosen One and looking forward to bedding eight hundred perfect women.
I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone, but the concept had possibilities. Steven, however, doesn’t rise above his distasteful beginnings.