Countdown, by Frank G. Slaughter
July, 1971 Pocket Books
Frank Slaughter was an incredibly prolific bestselling author, but he seems to be mostly forgotten today, at least by the general public, a la Harold Robbins and Burt Hirschfeld and the like. I don’t believe Slaughter was known for material as risque as either of those authors, especially Robbins, but this 1970 novel is certainly luridly melodramatic at times. In fact it’s a nearly perfect “beach read” novel and I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. It also seems to have done well in its day, scoring two mass market paperback editions after the original 1970 hardcover.
I came upon Countdown in my usual manner: hunting Google for a sex and drugs-filled novel about the Space Race. No, really. This is the sort of thing I usually do. I figured there just had to be a lurid cash-in on the Space Race or the moon landing, with uber-horny astronauts and their depraved wives and drug-fueled orgies between the rocket launches and space voyages…and something set in the future, but that “future 1960s” I prefer, ie the ‘60s projected out a few decades, with the Cold War still raging and the public still fully invested in keeping America at the top of the Space Race, and maybe even some LSD too. And folks, Countdown has all of that! Even the LSD!
While it’s certainly risque at times, I should clarify here at the start that it’s nowhere along the sleazy majesty of Robbins. Slaughter, despite his awesome last name, is slightly more reserved in that department, but then Robbins’s own novels didn’t get truly sleazy until later in the ‘70s. Actually speaking of Slaughter’s name, he was also a doctor, I mean “Doctor Slaughter:” sounds like it could be a James Bond villain or even a psychopath out of a grindhouse flick. If I’m not mistaken Slaughter was also known for Biblical themes or stories (I honestly haven’t researched him much), and fact is there’s a supporting character here who is a minister, so safe to say the sordid stuff, while present, is a bit conservative, and not of the Robbins-esque “full, upthrusting breasts” or “amyl nitrate-popping during the orgy” variety. That being said, the minister uses his role to scope out horny gals in his congregation, and the steamy stuff is slightly more explicit than what you’d find in Hirschfeld. Indeed the Pocket editors make an effort to hype up the sleaze on the back cover, calling out the “TV-monitored orgies” in this “bizarre world of driven men and restless women.”
So while the sleaze in’t to the level I would’ve preferred (but then is it ever??), Countdown is still one heck of an entertaining read. As I wrote above, it is the epitome of a “beach read,” even, like Fire Island, comprised of various characters going to the beach themselves. Slaughter fully brings to life the fictional town of Spaceport City, built near Cape Kennedy in Florida. A bustling town of “highly trained aerospace personnel…a sun-drenched community, dominated by giant launching pads.” (That Pocket back cover copy again.) Slaughter, likely writing in 1969, extrapolates on what must’ve seemed like the obvious future the country was heading toward: the Space Race is still running strong, and Spaceport City is the center of America’s efforts in that regard. He must’ve written early in ’69, though, as there’s no mention of the moon landing.
This brings up the question of when Countdown is set. An early reference to Thomas Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again indicates that it occurs in 1980 or thereabouts, a la Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s UFO. (Actually that show took place in 1984, as clearly stated in two separate episodes, but given that each episode opened with a flashing “1980” in the credits you can understand why most people would be confused.) We’re told that Wolfe’s novel was published “nearly half a century ago,” and since You Can’t Go Home Again was published in 1934, nearly fifty years later would be the early 1980s, or even the late ‘70s.
So then again, we have one of those wonderful “futures” that never happened, the 1960s projected out with the same societal setup, with “housewives” (many of whom pine for mink stoles) and the Cold War and “girls” in miniskirts, where people still smoke “breakfast cigarettes” and talk about Laugh-In and send telegrams. Even the drugs of the late ‘60s are present, to the point that you wonder why Countdown never made it onto the big screen, as it so captures the era in which it was written…I mean the Andersons could’ve produced it, with Robert Parrish directing and Derek Meddings handling the miniatures, Sylvia Anderson providing “Century 21 fashions,” and Roy Thinnes as the protagonist and Lynn Loring as one of the depraved housewives… Okay I admit, I’ve been watching Journey To The Far Side Of The Sun again.
Well anyway, it’s 1980 or so and we meet our hero, Dr. Michael Barnes, as he’s returning home to Merritt Island, Florida; Slaughter delivers an effective opening in which Barnes witnesses the massive changes to the area he knew as a boy. What was once mostly countryside has now been developed into a bustling city, one specifically catered to the aerospace industry. “Mike,” as Slaughter will refer to him throughout, is a former astronaut himself, and this is the first he’s been in Florida “in nearly eight years.” (A phrase that is curiously repeated several times in the narrative). Mike now works in “space medicine,” meaning he researches the effects of space travel on astronauts. But as we soon learn, he himself was almost killed “nearly eight years ago” when his rocket went haywire after a launch and he plunged into the ocean.
Mike was part of the “Hermes” program, which in this novel appears to have existed immediately after the Apollo program; characters often talk of how things “go back to the Hermes days.” Unless that is Slaughter is referring to the real-life Hermes program, which per Wikipedia was an Army project that ended in 1954. However that one seemed to be focused on unmanned rockets, and the Hermes program Mike was involved with was manned spacecraft. I think it’s just a creation of Slaughter’s, as Mike seems to be in his 30s here in the early ‘80s and thus not old enough to have taken part in any rocket launches in the 1950s.
Slaughter though has created an entire alternate reality space program. Here in this “future” space flights have become so routine that they’ve lost the “novelty” of the Mercury and Apollo days. While Slaughter can’t be blamed for assuming his future would become a reality, given the stalling of the space industry in the ‘70s Countdown now comes off more as a sad indication of what could have been. At any rate, NASA in the novel has recently moved on to the Pegasus program, the goal of which is to put a space station in orbit. Actually it’s now the “FSA” (ie the Federal Space Administration), given that in this future the military has taken over all NASA affairs. (Just like in I Dream Of Jeannie!) Mike has come to Spaceport City to act as an unofficial investigator, sent here by a Congressman pal: there have been several Pegasus launch snafus, and the Congressman is concerned and wants Mike to figure out what’s really going on there.
Mike’s gotten the gig because, some years before, he published in a science journal a study on the “aerospace syndrome,” with the finding that “a lot of men in high places in the rocket business divorce their wives when they’re in their fifties and marry much younger women.” The horror! But you can see already what I mean about the overall conservative tone of the novel – I mean this is actually such a “concern” that Mike’s made enemies due to the publication of the study. But more pointedly Mike was accused of foiling his Hermes launch himself and causing that crash eight years ago, to the extent that he was dubbed “space chicken.” (Which sounds like a disco song – and also disco doesn’t exist in this 1980!) The ship he crashed in was built by Taggar, the company that’s now building the spacecraft for the Pegasus program. All of which is to say that Mike’s return to the Cape isn’t a cause for celebration among several people in the aerospace industry. Regardless, his Congressman friend thinks the “aerospace syndrome” has gotten so bad that Pegasus is bound to fail, and wants Mike to give a ground report.
An interesting note is that when Slaughter wrote this novel “TGIF,” ie “Thank God it’s Friday,” was apparently such a new term that he has to tell us what it means a few times. We’re told this concept originated in the rocket industry, but Mike himself is unaware of it and it must be explained to him a few times. Essentially at 4:30 every Friday, everyone in the aerospace industry kicks off early and hits the bars and clubs, with frequent “TGIF” parties at the houses of the VIPs. These are swinger parties; married couples are not allowed to come together. We are supposed to see this as a sign of rot in the aerospace industry, one that is ultimately leading to the Pegasus launch failures – the people in the industry are too drunk, hungover, or hooked on illicit sex to deliver quality work.
Not that Mike has too much trouble with the “illicit sex” part. On his first day back at Spaceport City he manages to hook up with hotstuff redhead Jan Cooper, the piano-playing chanteuse of the Astronaut Inn, a now-“seedy” motel from the earliest days of Spaceport City. At the bar Mike’s invited to a TGIF party by a former astronaut pal and Jan says she’ll take him. At the party Mike sees his ex-wife Shirley (they divorced “nearly eight years ago”), who does a drunken strip-tease by the pool and nearly drowns, only to be saved by Mike – good real-world “medical stuff” from Dr. Slaughter here. After this Jan takes Mike back to his motel, where the two have a little “mangoes with brandy” and then move on to some hot lovin’. Slaughter as mentioned isn’t full-on risque, but we do get stuff like “high proud breasts” and “her body opened to his and the urgency of shared passion gripped them both once again.”
But speaking of Burt Hirschfeld, Mike Barnes is similar to Cindy Ashe of Cindy On Fire in that he literally runs from an orgy. The title of the novel turns out to be one of them fancy double-entendres; “countdown” in the aspect of rocket launches, but “countdown” also being the name of a game played by the astronauts and aeronautical elite. Mike finds this out when an old astronaut friend turned enemy named Hal Brennan invites him over to his pad for a little get together. Mike when he enters is handed a card with a number on it, and sees a bunch of people sitting around watching a big TV. Brennan calls out bets and people throw money in a ring, then the TV comes on and Mike sees a man and a woman lying on a bed on the screen: “Both were nude and they were making love.”
This is Countdown, a “game” invented by Brennan in which men and women are paired off by lot, randomly selected a la bingo, and then go into Brennan’s guest house to have sex while knowingly being recorded by an infrared movie camera! All for the enjoyment of the people watching in the living room, who take bets on how long it will take the couple to climax! Oh and also everyone at the party is ripped on “stingers” which are laced with amphetimines and possibly LSD. Mike learns all this in a great sequence in which he witnesses Countdown firsthand, but then he realizes the Stinger he just drank has drugged him. He rushes out of the place “before it’s too late” and hurriedly drives back to his motel before the drugs can kick in! What a loser! Especially given that he can’t make it and ends up stumbling into some lady’s house and puking his guts out all night. Slaughter’s definitely got a kinky imagination, which I appreciated, as next day Mike discovers that the number-card Hal Brennan gave him would’ve paired him up with Mike’s ex, Shirley – who happens to be Brennan’s mistress now.
This won’t be the first orgy our hero runs from. Later on he and Jan go to the beach and stay till nightfall, and while leaving they come upon a “nightmarish” scene on the darkened beach where a bunch of teenagers are having an actual glue-sniffing party. Complete with rock music on a “battery-powered radio” and bikini’d go-go dancing, with a little orgying off to the side. Mike and Jan freak out at the spectacle and run away, worried over what they should do to stop the shenanigans. When Jan later tells Mike that she recognized the Maserati there as being owned by Paul Taggar, the CEO of the company behind the Pegasus spacecraft, Mike calls the cops about the beach party – only to find out next morning that Taggar’s teen daughter has been found dead, her body washed ashore from drowning the night before. A victim of glue-sniffing!
So now Mike has his confirmation that the aerospace syndrome (also referred to as the “Lockheed syndrome,” which is how Mike “discovered” it – at a Lockheed plant) has run amok in Spaceport City. But Taggar and Brennan have a lockdown on the local scene, protected by their own Congressman – a political rival of Mike’s friend, and also the guy who labelled Mike “space chicken” years ago during a Congressional review of Mike’s Hermes crash. The cops are aware of all the drugs and partying and whatnot, but there’s nothing they can do about anything. Indeed Slaughter here creates this awesome alternate reality where there’s even a syndicated “Space Race gossip column” in the paper, and Mike finds himself spotlighted in the latest story, the gossiper detailing Mike’s involvement with Jan as well as some orgies, all in his first two days in Spaceport City! And all of it again a story planted by Hal Brennan, who clearly wants Mike out of Spaceport City asap.
Slaughter shows us the effect of the aerospace syndrome among a small group of supporting characters, and admittedly a lot of this stuff could be cut. I should clarify here that so far as Mike is concerned, the syndrome only affects “rocket men,” and usually not the “flyboys.” But the engineers and general contractors and such are known for either becoming so committed to their work that they ignore their wives – and the wives start sleeping around – or they work so hard that they get rip-roaring drunk and carouse all the time to let off steam. We see all of this in play, from a “nicely curved” Southern Belle of a housewife whose engineer husband continuously ignores her, so she starts up an affair with the local reverend(!), to a contractor who goes into work hungover and hides his shoddy work, to a gay engineer who is known for borrowing money from employees to give them revivifying shots of 95% alcohol. His is the most egregious of all subplots, involving as it does a long sequence of him finding out he has syphilis and going to complex ends to handle his own treatment.
Slaughter shows some prescience in many of the subplots. Mike discovers that there’s an almighty rush to get Pegasus off the ground and a space station in orbit. From the Space Race gossip columnist he learns the FSA’s purposes might not be altogether altruistic; it’s more than likely they have been inspired by a Soviet plan from the ‘60s to put an oribitting thermonuclear missile station in orbit, and thus Taggar is pushing to get the Pegasus spacecraft launched as soon as possible. Whoever has such a satellite could “control the world,” with the ability to drop nukes anywhere on the globe by just repositioning their location, all of which of course is a prefigure of the real-world “Star Wars” stuff in the ‘80s between the US and the USSR. There’s also a lot of political corruption afoot, as Mike further learns that the Congressman pushing for the Pegasus launch, the very same Congressman who dubbed Mike space chicken years ago, has a son who is an executive at Taggar, despite not having any experience – I mean how prescient can a 1970 book be to have a “Where’s Hunter?”-esque subplot?!
So then, it becomes more clear to Mike that he didn’t chicken out eight years ago. The Hermes spacecraft he crashed, built by Taggar, was faulty, and now it’s coming out that the evidence was buried. Worse yet, Taggar is using the very same spacecraft in the Pegasus Program, but all faults are being covered up by the fact that the Congressman behind it has a vested interest in Taggar stock. And also Hal Brennan, Mike’s former astronaut pal, is determined to become the next governor of Florida. Slaughter masterfully puts all these threads together with fast-moving narrative, Mike learning all this stuff not via exposition but by running afoul of various people and learning what their game is. This is particularly demonstrated by Hal Brennan’s frequent attempts to blackmail Mike in some fashion, even at one point sending him a photo of a fully-nude Jan – one which was clearly taken during a Countdown party, given the glassy and drugged look in her eyes. When Mike further learns that the evidence which would’ve exonerated him was buried years ago, he’s further committed to staying in Spaceport to see things through.
Slaughter also doles out an old-fashioned romance here, with Mike falling for Jan but things cooling off after their first-night tussles given the publication of that gossip column. (Which leads to Jan asking Mike to leave town, complete with the so stupid it’s great line, “You’ve had your orgy.”) But also Jan is in an open relationship with one of the Pegasus astronauts, leaving Mike the frustrated other man, uncertain how Jan feels for him. Not that he doesn’t have plentiful opportunities to score a whole bunch – everyone from a hotstuff reporter to Mike’s ex-wife to even that Southern Belle housewife with the “nice curves” all proposition Mike at some point in the novel. But Mike is a “Puritan” and a “prude,” and he’s a one-woman guy throughout, even telling Jan he’s in love with her before the novel’s halfway through. As I say, this is the big difference from a Robbins or even Hirschfeld novel – Mike would be much more amoral in the hands of either of those writers.
The final third loses its way a bit with those aforementioned subplots taking center stage, showing how the aerospace syndrome can lead to disaster through negligence at work. Slaughter does a good job of incorporating these subplots into the climax, which displays yet more prescience in its prediction of the Challenger disaster, but some of the stuff just gets in the way of what had been a very entertaining novel. For example, the hazards of glue-sniffing return when a young man who now has jaundice from his escapades wants to crack the lid open on Spaceport City’s juvenile drug problem, and Mike helps him out. There’s also a lot of “medical” stuff, with Mike driving around and checking on various patients. And also Mike himself comes off like a dewy-eyed chump here, having realized he’s in love with Jan almost ridiculously fast – imploring her with lines like, “Darling, why won’t you marry me?” and such. What makes it even more humorous is Jan’s increasingly distant nature toward him. And there’s a lot of stuff about him just going to eat various meals or glumly watching TV alone – even turning off Star Trek at one point because space stravel seems so easy on the show!
Slaughter also incorporates a paranoid thriller vibe in these final pages, as Mike learns that he’s so dangerous to the Pegasus launch that someone’s willing to kill him. We get a prefigure of the Moonraker film where he almost buys it in a centrifuge, lured there and trapped inside as it begins to spin to a force that would pulp him. It’s a tense scene, but somewhat undermined by Slaughter’s medical world know-how; rather than focus on the danger and the terror, we’re informed how Mike’s body reacts to the increasing gravity and what will happen to his arteries and heart and etc. In other words it just comes off more “cold” than it should. Also this conspiracy subplot is humorously rushed through in the finale, in which Slaughter loops all his threads: the Pegasus launch, the various aerospace syndrome subplots, the crazy preacher, the conspiracy to kill Mike, and even Mike’s love for Jan. It’s so busy that the revelation of who was trying to kill Mike almost comes off as an afterthought.
To be sure, don’t go into Countdown expecting a novel of space travel or astronauts in orbit and such. It’s more of a torrid melodrama along the lines of Hirschfeld and the other mainstream authors of the day, one that just happens to be set in the space industry. Slaughter’s clearly done his homework and brings to life the rigors and hazards of this industry very well. But really it’s more about the buildup to a spacelaunch, rather than the spacelaunch itself. In this regard the novel might not be as recommended to sci-fi readers, but definitely recommended to fans of this era’s “Big Sexy” fiction. I enjoyed it a lot, with the caveat that I found the final third a bit hard-going and the climax a bit underwhelming.
Here’s the cover of the 1976 Pocket edition, which misleadingly makes Countdown look like a romance novel!