Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Birthday Review: Dreadful Sanctuary, Three to Conquer, and stories by Eric Frank Russell

Eric Frank Russell was a UK writer who was quite popular in SF from the appearance of his classic novel Sinister Barrier in Unknown in 1939 (supposedly one motivation for John Campbell starting that fantasy companion to Astounding was his desire to publish Sinister Barrier) until his retirement in 1965. He was born on January 6, 1905, and died in 1978. Here is a slightly belated birthday review, covering two of his novels that were Astounding serials, "Dreadful Sanctuary" and "Call Him Dead" aka Three to Conquer, and a couple of short stories as well.

Astounding, June, July, August 1948

(Cover by William Timmins)
Eric Frank Russell's "Dreadful Sanctuary" was serialized in Astounding in 1948. It's a surprisingly long book for a three-part serial: about 92,000 words. I read it in the serialized version, then a later, strangely revised, book version.

The story involves John Armstrong, an engineer and inventor involved with the 18th attempted moon shot. The previous 17 rockets have all blown up, mostly just as they were about to reach the moon. Armstrong decides that some organized opposition is sabotaging the rockets. One other scientist had similar ideas -- but when Armstrong talks to him he suddenly dies. Armstrong gets involved with the sister of this man, beautiful physicist Clair Mandle, and with her help, and that of a newspaperman and a PI, he starts to get close to the truth. He finds himself at a strange club, where he is kidnapped and asked "How do you know you are sane?" These guys tell him that Earth is a sort of prison planet, where all the insane people from the other planets (Mercury, Venus and Mars) are kept. These people are color coded (somewhat queasily): Mercurians are black, Venusians brown, the only native Earthmen are the "yellow" Asians, and Martians are white. (I think the rationale is closeness to the burning rays of the Sun.) But because of Earth's conditions, the other planets send all the nuts to Earth. However, some descendants of insane people might be sane -- and this club believes they can determine who the truly sane are. The insane need to be kept on Earth: hence the destruction of the spacecraft, at least until the "Nor-Mans" ("normal" or "sane" men) take over.

Our hero, however, is skeptical of the whole idea, as well as repelled, and he escapes, only to encounter another group of nuts ... Suffice it to say that the action and twists keep coming, and that Russell's resolution makes much more sense than the nuttiness I've outlined above. Still, it's not all that great a book -- a fun enough, fast enough read, but not really original enough in concept. It's also a bit marred by the attempt at American tough-guy banter, silly enough in itself, but further marred by the occasional Briticisms that EFR couldn't seem to keep out (though I think he got better at doing "American" later in his career).

Oddly, the book was reissued in revised form 1963 by Lancer Books. I also have that edition, and I took a quick look at it. It was cut somewhat, I think, but more strangely, the ending was completely changed. I'll put details at the end after the book cover pictures and a spoiler warning.*

Other Worlds, May 1950

This is a novelette by Eric Frank Russell, "Dear Devil", which is highly regarded in some quarters. It's OK, and original, but maybe a bit too implausible and a bit too overtly sentimental for my tastes. It concerns a Martian expedition sent to Earth shortly after a war has destroyed civilization. One Martian pushes to stay, by himself, on Earth to try to help the tattered remnants of humanity survive. He works to overcome instinctive revulsion, and over time influences the human children to create the beginnings of a new order, which in communion with the Martians may help the two peoples reach for the stars.

Astounding, January 1955

Eric Frank Russell's "Nothing New" is about humans visiting a planet suspected of having immortal residents. They find what seem to be rather long-lived people, but not very interesting people, then they leave. And we get a final twist revealing HOW long-lived the aliens are. I liked the story, though it is rather a trifle.

Astounding, August, September, October 1955

(Cover by Kelly Freas)
Eric Frank Russell was an Astounding regular, a British writer who adopted a rather American "voice" to sell to Campbell. Some of his novels remain fairly well-regarded, most notably perhaps Wasp, which I read some years ago when Del Rey reissued some of his best stuff. "Call Him Dead" is much less well known: it was serialized in Astounding in 1955, and published in book form the next year as Three to Conquer. It's about a secretly telepathic man who has on occasion used his abilities to help the police and the FBI solve crimes. One day he "hears" a man dying -- after going to try to help the man, a state trooper, unwillingly he again becomes involved in investigating a crime. It turns out that the criminals are something quite different -- for one thing, they can detect our hero when he "probes" their mind. The novel waits a while to reveal what they are, so I won't spoil it, but the working out of things isn't really terribly interesting. All in all it's pretty minor stuff. It winds up with a silly-ish coda about the telepathic man's loneliness -- and how it is resolved, an ending that is noticeably different from Poul Anderson's "Journeys End", which I imagine might have been written in direct response to this story.

(Cover by Ed Emswhiller)

(Cover by Ed Emshwiller)

SPOILERS for both versions of Dreadful Sanctuary follow:

In the original, Armstrong eventually learns that the "Nor-Men" are really nutters, albeit powerful and well-connected. They are Earth humans like everybody, but their leader has made them buy into this silly fantasy of being actually "sane" people from Mars. The hero and his friends discover the secret location of the 19th and 20th spaceships, and how they were to be sabotaged.  They gamble that they can fix the problems, or avoid them, and that when they reach the moon, that fait accompli will lead to the collapse of the "Nor-Man" club. Sinisterly, the "Nor-Men" are using their political power to try to start a World War, which will divert attention from space efforts -- but if Americans reach the moon, the War effort might collapse. Armstrong and a friend each take one spaceship -- Armstrong crashlands in the Pacific but is saved, and witnesses (in Clair's arms, we presume) his friend triumphantly reach the moon.

In the 1963 Lancer version, Armstrong continues into space while his friend crashes. The villains call him up, tell him that Clair and his other friends are in custody, and that his ship is damaged and won't be able to land on the moon. He goes hurtling into space, and his dying thoughts are "How do I know I'm sane?" Which is a neat last line, I have to admit.

Dave Langford claims that the Lancer editor pasted that unhappy ending on the book, and I suppose he might have had that direct from EFR. But I wouldn't be shocked if EFR had that idea himself, especially as he knew it would allow him a killer last line, but knew that the book would never sell to Campbell in that form.

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