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(1933-1995) US case officer for the CIA 1958-1987, specializing in Asia and the Middle East (where much of the action in his novels takes place), and author whose first novel, Quin's Shanghai Circus (1974), serves as a rampageous, gonzo prelude (see Horror in SF) to the rest of his small oeuvre. Fairly clearly influenced by authors like Thomas Pynchon, and perhaps Richard Condon and Tim Powers, Whittemore clearly shares Pynchon's deep engagement in the transformative tragedy of World War Two, the sustained suicidal atrociousness of which seems to have evoked in both authors a need to create horrific explanatory versions of history (see History in SF), imaginative frameworks capable of characterizing and estranging us from the true story. But Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow (1973) never descends as terribly into atrocity as does Quin's Shanghai Circus in its depiction of the Japanese massacre of Chinese in the Rape of Nanking (1937-1938). The novel approaches this narrative centre via a backward spiral through family-romance grotesqueries (some comic), and through surreal turns of plot that, taken literally (as appropriate in Fantastika) almost create an Alternate History of the twentieth century: a set of stories sufficiently crazed to make that century conceivable.
Whittemore's most sustained work remains the Jerusalem Quartet – comprising Sinai Tapestry (1977), Jerusalem Poker (1978), Nile Shadows (1983) and Jericho Mosaic (1987) – which massively expands upon the earlier book's Paranoia-inducing invocations of a Secret History of the world; in this case, characters familiar to Genre SF – including a scallywag Secret Master with the secret of Immortality (see Roger Zelazny), and a seven foot seven inch tall Tarzan surrogate – complicatedly attempt to control the world to come (see Godgame) or, if that proves impossible, at least gain from it. The sequence reaches a first climax in World War Two, and a second in the Middle East during more recent decades. The Bible – which turns out to have been transcribed by an idiot – is properly counterfeited, to save us from the truth. Cities, as complex Underground as above, are haunted by the cast – Whittemore's influence on writers like Jeff VanderMeer seems clear – and serve as venues for the gaming of the protagonists. The last two volumes focus on espionage, but their storylines ride like froth on the underlying centuries-old conspiracy to shape history. There are incoherencies throughout Whittemore's work, and a lessening intensity in the last two novels he published; but the Jerusalem Quartet remains a significant attempt to dramatize the world. [JC]
born Manchester, New Hampshire: 26 May 1933
died New York: 3 August 1995
Entry from The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction edited by John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls and Graham Sleight.
Accessed 20:55 pm on 28 September 2020.