Thursday, November 4, 2021

Four Came Back

Four Came Back, by Martin Caidin
February, 1970  Bantam Books

Another in the sequence of Space Race novels Martin Caidin published in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, Four Came Back almost comes off like a sequel to his later novel The Cape, even though there are no recurring characters. The Cape took place in 1972 and concerned the launch of a manned space station; Four Came Back also occurs in 1972 and concerns a group of astronauts trapped on a manned space station. And the reason they are trapped there is very resonant with our modern era: a mysterious virus has run amok, laying waste to half the crew. 

In fact, the title of the novel pretty much blows the suspense Caidin tries to develop over the 215+ pages. And speaking of which, take a look at the cover, which per the blurry signature (and the style itself) appears to be the work of Sandy Kossin, who later did the covers for the John Eagle Expeditor series: The Andromeda Strain is specifically referenced in the blurb, giving the impression that Four Came Back is a similar thriller, one with perhaps a military angle. There’s no mention of space anywhere, and Kossin does not feature any Saturn rockets or astronauts in his illustration. So clearly by this paperback’s February 1970 printing date, “space” was no longer considered much of a selling point, giving more indication of how quickly the public’s interest in the subject waned after Apollo 11 landed on the moon in July of 1969. 

But as with No Man’s World, Martin Caidin is writing a “near future” thriller here; the original hardcover was published in 1968, and Caidin was likely writing it in 1967. Certainly after the Apollo 1 disaster, which is referenced in the text. Otherwise he mostly sticks to detailing Gemini missions, and of course there’s no mention of the Apollo 11 crew. But then Caidin in his space race novels didn’t try to do roman a clefs, per se; he uses NASA and the general framework of Apollo-Saturn, but incorporates his own cast of characters. The shame of it is that it apparently never occurred to Caidin to feature recurring characters, making this into a loose sort of series; I mean he could’ve easily featured some of the astronauts from Four Came Back in The Cape, or for that matter even featured some of the characters from Marooned (original edition 1963, revised tie-in paperback 1969 – and the only one of Caidin’s space race sequence I haven’t read yet, though I’ve seen the movie…twice! And stayed awake both times!). 

The title isn’t the only thing that blows the suspense; for some curious reason Caidin opens the novel with a chapter written in first-person (in ugly italics), documenting the journal of the unnamed captain of the space station Epsilon. Here, over the course of a few pages, the captain tells us of how a strange virus broke loose two weeks before the crew was scheduled to return to Earth. Eight people were originally aboard Epsilon, and the captain tells us, incident by incident, how four of them grew sick and some of them died. So already in the first chapter we know that “four” will come back because the other four are dead or incapacitated, and we also know which of those four died and how! All so puzzling and unintentionally humorous, like starting off a murder mystery with a first chapter that tells you who the killer is, then backpedaling and trying to play out a mystery angle for the rest of the novel. 

After this opening we jump back three weeks and things go into third-person; the captain of Epsilon is your typical rugged Apollo astronaut type, former hotshot combat and test pilot Mike Harder, and we meet him as he goes about his usual captain duties on the orbiting station, meeting with the rest of the multinational crew. Why Caidin didn’t just start the novel here is a mystery. Harder, despite his rugged virility, is pretty much a buffoon, at least when it comes to the ladies. I mentioned that the station’s multinational; it’s also made up of both men and women, with NASA here even in the world of fiction getting bullied for only sending men into space. Race isn’t mentioned, though; an interesting perspective is that in Caidin’s era it was gender that whipped the SJWs into a lather. Thus, NASA has relented and sent up six men and two women, from all around the world…but they’re all still white. 

The crew has been up here some months, and as with the other novels of his I’ve read, Caidin tells the story via somewhat clunky backstory or exposition, usually at the expense of any forward momentum. And also without much in the way of structure; we’re not told Harder’s backstory, for example, until well into the novel, even though he’s the main character. Anyway I was mentioning that he’s a bit of a doofus with the ladies. Well, one of the crew is a hotstuff brunette babe from Norway named June Strond, “a raven-haired thirty-one-year-old woman scientist” with ample curves in all the right places. And, per Harder’s incessant navel-gazing introspective musing, them Norwegians treat sex like Americans treat kissing. Meaning it’s no big thing to them, and it’s clear June wants Harder to make a pass at her so they can get right down to it up here, four hundred miles above the Earth, in one-G gravity. 

But Harder, for inexplicable reasons, can’t bring himself to make the pass; he’s flummoxed and fears he might be in love with June, and doesn’t want to spoil anything. Or something like that. The entire premise is so lame, particularly given that Harder’s in his 30s, a vet, and, Caidin assures us (almost desperately), has had his fair share of women. Compounding the issue is that another of the crew is a French dandy named Henri Guy-Michel, a lothario who is known for his womanizing. Guy-Michel’s already gotten busy with Epsilon’s other female crewmember, blonde American beauty Page Allison. But the French louse also wants to add June to his scorecard, and in one of Caidin’s clunky bits of backstory (clunky because they come off like they’re occuring in the main narrative, but are really in the past) we see Guy-Michel make his move – and get punched by Harder. 

And really, this soap opera dynamic is what fuels the first half of Four Came Back, with Caidin gradually filling in the backstory of the crew. None of them make much of an impression, though. There’s Koelbe, the German, who hides a Nazi past, and a couple engineers and other assorted astronauts who might as well be wearing red shirts, if you get my drift. The main characters are really Harder and June, and Caidin spends a lot of the narrative on this lame “will they or won’t they” storyline, which gets to be as annoying as any such storylines can be. Too bad Guy-Michel wasn’t the star of the show; now there’s a guy who knows how to have some sordid fun in one-G, but sadly Caidin doesn’t feature the character as much, and only tells us of his plans to do randy things with Page. Once again I can only regret that Harold Robbins never wrote a novel about the space race. 

According to the copyright page, Four Came Back was originally published in hardcover in November 1968, and as mentioned I assume Caidin was writing it at least in 1967. Well before Apollo 11, which would become one of the definining moments of the 20th Century, not to mention one of the most watched events in TV history. And yet Caidin was already able to predict the dwindling interests in the space program. Notably, the moon landing is not mentioned in the text as having happened or about to happen, however Caidin still has it that the public has moved on from the whole “space” thing, and NASA drummed up this multinational space station idea to curry interest, even giving in to public pressure and finally allowing women to take part in it. This, Caidin informs us, went over so well with the country that the Epsilon space station became the biggest draw NASA ever ran, with millions of fans around the world avidly keeping up with events on the space station…for nearly a full year, now, and their interest has not waned. 

Per the times, the sexual angle is a big draw for the crowds on Earth, with everyone mulling over just what might happen with the four male astronauts and two female astronauts up there in space. In particular Guy-Michel’s exploits have garnered much rumor and speculation; as with Countdown, we have here an alternate reality in which the papers publish gossip material about the space industry. As the novel opens, Epsilon’s been in orbit for nearly a year, and the crew has maintained the public’s interest with regular TV broadcasts of them doing this or that scientific experiement, or reporting on their findings up in space. None of it sounds like anything that would keep up interest for a day, let alone a year; we learn that Page Allison has grown plants that are stories tall in the weightless environment, and we also have an overlong bit where Harder and another of the rugged astronaut dudes cavort in a water tank like “human fish” for an experiment. 

The plot promised on the back cover only arises well past the halfway point. And it intrudes right on that “will they or won’t they” subplot. After nearly a year of being skittish over June’s clear interest, Mike Harder finally decides to give her the goods, despite this being right after the two of them have endured a grueling EVA and are all grimy and sweaty and whatnot. But a call from Guy-Michel interrupts them pre-boink. The station is approaching a “dust cloud” and the scientists aboard want to study the hell out of it. Harder, after getting the details – and leaving a jilted June back in her quarters – gives them the go-ahead to study the cloud. But as it turns out, this cloud will contaminate Epsilon with a strange space sickness that fells half the crew in just a few days. 

There’s a vibe of Alien as the crew, one by one, starts to come down with a mysterious illness that initially has no explanation. And yes, the two redshirts are the first to suffer, with one of them sprouting a strange rash and then gradually going nuts, even trying to kill the others. Strangely enough it reminded me of the penultimate episode of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s UFO, in which a moon crystal or somesuch caused some people at SHADO to go nuts. But this novel predates even that. However Caidin doesn’t much exploit the horror potential. In fact he totally misses one such opportunity; early in the novel, during an EVA, Harder and June must wait for a fellow crew member to open the airlock door for them so they can enter Epsilon. Knowing the plot of the novel, I figured this was foreshadowing that, once the virus ran amok, someone would get stuck in space. However this never happens. 

Indeed, when the mysterious virus hits the crew, it’s treated so methodically as to be boring. Koelbe, the medical doctor, confines some to bed, puzzling over the illness, before he too is felled by it – the bit that reminded me of UFO, in fact, with Koelbe literally racing from his nightmares through the corridors of the space station. But other than the part where the one redshirt goes crazy and tries to attack people, there’s no real chaos, no real space horrors. In other words, there was a lot of potential here for a more thrilling read. Heck, even the sexual subplot is poorly handled; when Harder and June finally get to it…Caidin leaves it off page! The very act he spent the entire first half of the book setting up, and he feels it’s unworthy of actually being described. 

Caidin does unconsciously hit upon some prescience; when word gets to Earth of the space virus, the public goes insane, going to great lengths to protect itself from the threat. And yes, here too the media does its best to drum up the fear, with no attempt to face the threat with rationality. This leads to all sorts of insane reactions on Earth, yet even Caidin couldn’t think of the insanity of our real modern world. Regardless, the fictional space virus is pretty survivable: note that Harder, June, and Guy-Michel don’t even get any symptoms, and some of their crewmates die “with” the virus, not “of” the virus. But that doesn’t prevent any panic: the people on the ground are terrified that the returning crew will unleash an apocalyptic plague. This leads to nicely-rendered scenes of people going crazy and rioting in Houston, trying to destroy any further rocket launches – and destroying themselves by stupidly molotov-cocktailing the rocket fuel tanks. Caidin really enjoyed tearing this place up in print; there was a similarly apocalyptic Johnson Space Center incident in The Cape

Caidin fails in the airlock foreshadowing, but he does pay off on another bit of foreshadowing: midway through the book someone mentions Orson Welles’s The War Of The Worlds radio broadcast, and how it generated fear. Late in the book it’s mentioned again, and Wells’s source novel as well, in that the Martians were taken down by basic everyday germs. Thanks to Harder’s memory of a Gemini mission in which someone in Houston got sick after the crew’s return, it’s soon determined that germs are the culprit here, as well – though it’s the reverse of the Wells novel. Now it’s the absence of those germs, in the antiseptic world of space, that has caused the crew to get sick, when mixed with that space dust. Or something like that. At any rate it’s germs to the rescue at novel’s end. 

Of the three Caidin space novels I’ve read, Four Came Back is the one that most takes place in space, but perversely has the fewest scenes in space. The entire novel really occurs in the 90 foot tall, 13-story Epsilon station (built, as in the real-life Skylab of the real-life 1972, around a Saturn V rocket), with frequent and overly long flashbacks to the crew members’s lives on Earth. Despite the brevity the novel is pretty sluggish, and again that’s due to how Martin Caidin tells the tale; as with his other books, he constantly stalls forward momentum with awkwardly-placed flashbacks and never really gives his characters a chance to breathe. I also wanted more of the sleaze in space that Caidin promised in the opening pages!


russell1200 said...

So I guess someone could have told Emily St. John Mandel about how to title your novels. Her Station Eleven could have been "The Lights are Back On" LOL

Robert Deis (aka "SubtropicBob") said...

Yep, the cover art looks like Kossin to me.

Pork Chop Sandwich said...

I'm a little confused about what's so special about one-gee sex. Everyone on Earth has it. Did the author mean nil-gee sex?