Monday, March 15, 2021

Moon Zero Two

Moon Zero Two, by John Burke
February, 1970  Signet Book

If Moon Zero Two is remembered for anything today, it’s for being featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000 – bearing in mind, though, that it was on the mostly-lame first season (which is still better than the recent “reboot,” in which the new Millennial cast replaces comedic riffs with woke virtue-signaling). Otherwise I don’t know if Moon Zero Two resonated much on the cultural radar…I believe it was marketed as “the first space Western” when it was released, but for the most part people thought of it as a poor man’s 2001: A Space Odyssey

I personally like it, if for nothing more than the outre mod fashions – I mean, people wear DayGlo spacesuits in the movie! And there’s a weird dance club on the moon and funky-looking vehicles called “Moonbugs.” That’s the future I want. And to make it even worse, we learn here in this novelization courtesy John Burke that all this takes place in May 2020! I can’t remember if the movie also informs us of the date – the novel informs us courtesy a sign in the “Moon Hilton” – but man. The real May 2020 was mandatory lockdowns and quarantines and other assorted bullshit, so it’s safe to say that once again we’ve been screwed by reality. Lame or not, I’d much prefer the world of Moon Zero Two to the one we got. 

Well anyway, none of this has much to do with the novel at hand. As mentioned, it’s by John Burke, of whom I know absolutely nothing and am too lazy to research. His credit is “adapted by” rather than “written by,” and he takes the interesting approach of writing the novel in first-person. Personally I didn’t like this very much, as Burke writes the novel in a clipped, pessimistic tone, clearly going for a hardboiled vibe, which ultimately makes Moon Zero Two seem more like the novelization of some ‘50s sci-fi movie instead of the glorious modtastic technicolor one that came out in late ’69. And for that matter, the novel doesn’t capture any of the modtastic stuff, either; no description of the various-colored space suits nor of the wild “mod” fashions worn by the women throughout the film, and the dance club at the Moon Hilton is simply stated as having “garish” colors rather than the cheap but cool psychedelic look we got in the movie (complete with dancing girls in white leotards – and they don’t appear in the book, either!). 

The novel follows the film pretty closely; if there are any embellishments, it’s mostly via the cynical thoughts of our narrator, Captain Bill Kemp (as played by James Olson in the film – who in 1985 would appear as Schwarzenegger’s former commanding officer in Commando!). In the film Bill has an acidic temperament and a fondness for venomous barbs; Burke takes that and writes the entire novel in the same manner. So gone is the wide-eyed wonder you’d expect from a sci-fi yarn in a world with DayGlo spacesuits and Moonbuggies. Instead, narrator Bill Kemp hates everything, buzzkilling any vicarious thrill the reader might seek, sort of like how Gore Vidal buzzkilled any ancient world fantasies with his similarly-bitchy narrator in Creation

However, with his hardbitten attitude and gift for one-liners, Bill brings to mind the protagonist of a typical Leigh Brackett story. In fact Bill, who was the first man to land on Mars, yearns to continue exploring the depths of space but is prevented from it by a tyranical government that has banned deep space voyages, a setup Brackett herself delivered in Alpha Centauri Or Die. As we learn, once the Moon and Mars had been somewhat colonized, the “Corporation” (formerly just the “Company) shut down any further exploration and focused solely on exploiting these two new worlds. Bill has become so dispirited that he gave up his job with the company as a pilot – determined to never be just another pilot on one of their space liners – and now makes a meager living harvesting space junk in his antique spacecraft. 

This would be the titular Moon Zero Two, once a top of the line ship but now about to fall apart. Bill’s engineer is Dimitri, who as in the film contributes nothing to the plot, other than saving Bill’s hide in the finale. The novel opens same as the film, with Bill and Dimitri aboard Moon Zero Two and bringing in a faulty radio communications satellite in orbit around the Moon. Burke here lets us know what we’re in for: he will hardly describe anything, so locked is he in Kemp’s pessimistic viewpoint. Throughout the novel we’ll get threadbare descritpion of this or that – like the “domes” of the big main city on the Moon, or maybe that a set of rockets are “bell-shaped” – but otherwise the reader must do the heavy lifting of imagining what everything looks like, even the characters. He does at least mention some “green” and “red” spacesuits later in the book, with the caveat that the colors are there to differntiate the wearer from the rocky terrain of the Moon – no mention, then, of the outrageous mod fashion factor. 

But really, if you’ve seen the film then there’s nothing new in the book. Maybe a little more background on the relationship between Bill and Liz, the hotstuff police presence at Moon City. She’s a rep for the “Bureau,” and we learn in a few paragraphs of backstory that she met Bill the year before; Bill went off to a vacation spot on the M oon ordinarily set up for liner pilots (a luxury place with saunas and the like), and the Bureau questioned how a guy with his paycheck could afford such a vacation. Liz’s assignment was to get cozy with Bill, up to and including going to bed with him, with the ultimate outcome that she not only fell for him but also revealed to him who she truly was. Now it’s a year later and they seem to have an on-again, off-again thing going, with Bill still holding some resentment toward her. But really that’s about all the “new” stuff you’ll find in the novel. 

So then as in the film Bill runs into a pretty young lady newly arrived on the Moon who is looking for her brother; there’s a cool setup that “Farside,” aka the dark side of the moon, is sort of like Alaska during the Gold Rush, with various prospectors staking their claims. This young lady, who turns out to be named Clem (for Clementine), is the sister of one of these prospectors; she claims he “cabled” her that he’d struck it rich in his claim, but she hasn’t heard from him in many weeks. He was supposed to meet her here but hasn’t shown up. Since Bill just happens to be walking by, he’s asked to show her around. There’s also an uber-wealthy guy named Hubbard who has come in on the same space liner, and of course both plots will eventually merge. 

Hubbard, one of those typical supervillain types given his vast wealth and the cheap stooges he employs, offers to hire Bill to “nudge” an asteroid out of orbit so that it will crash on the Moon. This is highly illegal; Hubbard wants the asteroid, which was first discovered in 1998, as it turns out to be a massive ball of sapphire. We get a trip into space, playing out identically as in the film, where Hubbard and Dimitri fly out a few of Hubbard’s men to place rockets on the asteroid. We get slightly more backstory in the novel in that the four engines Bill uses to nudge the asteroid are taken from the ship he landed on Mars, years before – he buys them from a scrap junker on the Moon with the money Hubbard fronts him. 

A thing about novelizations is that goofy plot contrivances can’t be hidden by fancy editing or snappy scores. After doing the job Bill’s at the bar on the Moon and Clem approaches him again, wanting to hire him to fly her over to Farside to find her brother. But Hubbard’s goons come in and say Bill’s already been hired. This leads to a bar fight, hallmark of cheap films everywhere, with the added bonus that the Moon’s lower gravity causes people to fly around. Well, after the fight Bill’s arrested, by old flame Liz no less, and put in jail. He’s then freed by Dimitri and Clem…and then they all rush to Bill’s ship and head for Farside. I mean in the film this just happens and you take it at face value, but in the novel you can’t help but wonder why the sudden mad dash to Farside – does Bill think Liz and the Bureau will just forget he broke out of jail? 

This leads to the most memorable part of the story, both film and book, with Bill and Liz in a Moonbug, where they find that her brother, as expected, has met a grisly fate – and soon enough they’re being shot at by a trio of goons in colorful spacesuits. But even here it’s more like a hardboiled yarn, as Bill displays quick knowledge on how to even the odds on armed opponents, complete with even fooling them via the radio. The action scene is played out a bit more in the novel, mostly insofar as the dire conditions of the location go. As in the film this leads to Bill and Clem in a “Bugdozer,” a massive construction vehicle that isn’t designed for long-distance travel, but is the only vehicle available after the firefight. 

Here too the novel plays out the grueling overland journey a bit more; Bill and Clem only have several hours of oxygen left, and must get through the dark, freezing section of the Moon into the light section – and they’ll be traveling over it while temperatures are at the boiling point. Regardless of the bad situation, the two manage to talk a little more…not to mention engage in a little off-page Moon lovin’ once they park the Bugdozer in some shade. Burke also injects a vague subplot here about legendary “Moon women,” the story going that “housewives” back on Earth wonder why their husbands suddenly refuse to return to Earth after their work is done on the Moon. An urban myth has arisen that there are batches of “Moon women” up there to keep the men happy. This weird tidbit comes out of nowhere and is one of the few instances of Burke adding something new to the story; Bill muses over the lovely young lady beside him in the vehicle and thinks of those mythical Moon women. 

During the shootout Clem discovered a patch of rock with a vein of nickel in it, and it’s clear her brother was murdered because he did indeed strike something valuable in his claim. As mentioned the two main plots merge, as obviously rich villain Hubbard is involved. Speaking of whom, his character is the most memorabe in the book as well as the film, spitting out venomous lines to his underlings throughout…even when he’s on an asteroid headed for impact with the moon. But as with the film, Bill Kemp himself proves woefully inadequate in the finale, with Dimitri and Clem in Moon Zero Two coming to his rescue while he’s held at gunpoint on an asteroid. Dimitri even drops him a pistol and Bill manages to run out of bullets before he hits any of Hubbard’s goons! 

I’m not sure if there were ever plans for a sequel to Moon Zero Two, but the storyline resolves sufficiently, with Clem coming into a lot of money – money which she’ll use to fund new deep space explorations, with Bill as one of the pilots. That’s the setup for a future storyline, at least. Instead the novel – and movie – ends on a sex joke, with Bill in a “hurry” to get back to the Moon to check out Clem’s room at the Hilton! But still, the story loses something in the translation to novel…Bill’s narration is just too cynical and dour, and we miss out on the colorful stuff from the film. But at least it’s nice this tie-in was even published; too bad there wasn’t also a novelization of a superior ultramod “future ‘60s” sci-fi flick, Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun.


dfordoom said...

I liked the Moon Zero Two movie a lot. As you say it has that feel of the really cool future that we thought we were going to get but didn't. I kind of enjoyed the novel as well although again I agree with you that it's not as good as the movie.

And I agree entirely about Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun. A very nifty little sci-fi movie which was Gerry Anderson's first attempt at live-action sci-fi.

Matthew said...

You know I never heard of either the book or the movie.

Ystafell Gynghori said...

'Moon Zero Two' is indeed a strange movie. The animated opening titles suggest its going to be a wild and wacky comedy and, isn't. Its worth watching mainly for the lovely Catherine Schell. This would have the first and last 'space Western' until Peter Hyams made 'Outland' in 1981 staring Sean Connery.

Joe Kenney said...

Thanks for the comments, everyone!

Marty McKee said...

I would only buy this book if it plays the theme song when you open the cover.

Grant said...

Speaking of that "whacky" opening, my one problem with it is how along the way it makes the "good guy" so thoroughly ruthless. Which is something I wouldn't mind if he started out that way, and the story made him an all-out "badass" from the start. But instead, he starts out as a sort of "morose" main character, and along the way you get things like that scene where he tests out the poisoned oxygen tank by sticking it in the mouth of one of the villains (!), as opposed to maybe THREATENING to do that. Maybe I "overthink" this film, but that interferes with it for me.

Almost no one likes the original MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 more than I do, but almost no fan of it criticizes it more than I do either. And one of my complaints is that it sometimes has its own version of "virtue-signaling" type comedy. For one thing, any given time a film shows something like a high school from the ' 50s, you not only hear "entitled white people" jokes - which makes sense - but you hear the comedians really O.D. on that subject! ("Catalina Caper" is an episode I keep wanting to switch off for that reason.)

Tim Mayer said...

I thought it was a lot of fun.