Thursday, January 27, 2022


Colony, by Ben Bova
July, 1978  Pocket Books

As a science fiction-reading kid in the ‘80s, I knew Ben Bova’s name but never read any of his books; he was one of those wildly prolific authors and I had no idea where to start. Also it was my impression he was a “hard science” author, ie of the type who went more for technical minutiae than the world-building escapism I usually want from sci-fi. But then last year I came across this book on the clearance shelf of a Half Price Books store; the typically-awesome Boris Valejo cover grabbed my attention, and the back cover (below) only strengthened the hold. 

Indeed, here was sci-fi just as I love it: from the ‘70s, set in a future that is now in the past, filled with the space-faring, mind-expanding optimism of the era. I then checked the first-page preview, which proclaimed the novel “A bold, sweeping saga of one man against the world,” with the hero referred to as an “Adonis.” I thumbed through the book: thick as a doorstop, 470 pages of small, dense print. My quick appraisal was that it was along the lines of John Brunner’s Stand On Zanzibar, only with more of a “bestselling fiction” approach than an “experimental” one. In fact, I very much got the impression that what I had in my hands was what I had been long seeking: a science fiction novel told in that ‘70s “blockbuster” style I so love, with all the requisite sex and drugs the era demanded. And the suckers only wanted two bucks for it! This was another of those Cindy On Fire moments; I was on the way to the checkout line within two minutes of discovering the book. 

As usual though it took me a while to get around to actually reading it; despite my initial excitement I put the book aside and took almost a year to start it. But when on page 14 I came to a part where a British beauty with a “full, ripe kind of figure” was about to work herself over with a vibrator, on her first night on a massive space colony orbiting the Earth, I knew I’d found the “sci-fi meets trashy ‘70s popular fiction” novel I’d been seeking for years. Now to be clear, the vibrator in question was really a bathroom fixture that used “sonic vibrations” for cleaning, water conservation being important to the space colony, but why split hairs. I barrelled on through the novel and soon realized that it didn’t just capture that groovy ‘70s sci-fi vibe I so love (complete with jumpsuits and “contoured chairs” and all those other swank details), but that it was a great novel to boot, and that Ben Bova had clearly put his heart and soul into it. This was one of those instances like Boy Wonder, where I read the novel and couldn’t understand why it wasn’t a bestseller in its day, why it was consigned to oblivion. 

My only conclusion is that Colony was a paperback original, and this hampered its success. I personally prefer PBOs to hardcovers, but at the same I was puzzled why there was only a PBO for Colony. Bova has always seemed to me a “hardcover author,” and indeed it seems that the vast majority of his novels were published first in that format before getting paperback editions. And yet Colony was not. I can only assume that this was due to the energy crisis of the time; per Michael Newton in How To Write Action-Adventure Novels, publishers were very affected by the energy crisis, cancelling entire series and re-jiggering their publication schedules. I’m guessing, with absolutely no basis, that Colony would’ve come out in hardcover otherwise. And the hell of it is, without that hardcover edition and the ensuing industry coverage, Colony appears to have slipped through the cracks. Because as it turns out, Colony was one of the best books I’ve read in years, and certainly gave me everything I hoped for. 

That first page didn’t lie; this is indeed a sweeping saga, encompassing a huge cast of characters and occurring over several months of the “future year” of 2008. Now one thing the back cover didn’t mention, and which I only learned later, was that Colony was a sort-of sequel to an earlier Boval novel, Millennium (1976). Which itself was a sequel to Bova’s later Kinsman (1983, but comprised of short stories originally published in the ‘70s). I have not read either of those books, but at no point in Colony did I feel like I was missing out on anything. It appears that those two novels are more connected to each other than Colony is connected to either of them: Colony merely occurs in the same “world” as Millennium and Kinsman, with the only recurring characters being very minor ones in Colony. I wouldn’t even say that reading those two books would enrich the experience of reading Colony, as neither book is mentioned, and the only recurring bit here comes from Millennium, in that there’s a colony on the moon that’s now its own independent nation, and also that there’s a World Government that unites all the nations on the Earth. 

So yes, Colony takes place in a year that’s now 14 years past, but in no way does that detract from the reading experience. And besides, I’m not one who judges a sci-fi novel by what it got “right” or not. But to be clear, Colony is of a piece with other sci-fi novels of its day in that it is optimistic about the future of space exploration; wildly optimistic, in fact. I personally think it’s so cool that an author could publish a novel in 1978 that took place a mere thirty years in the future and fill it with moon colonies, space stations, orbiting colonies, and routine travel to and from all these places. Thirty years! But then, it only took ten years to get to the moon during the Space Race, so no doubt it only seemed logical at the time that expanded space travel would follow just as quickly. 

I’ve always looked at science fiction more as a reflection of the era in which it was written, and in that area too Colony is very ‘70s. Not just in its “bestselling fiction” approach, but also in the topics it focuses on. Overpopulation is a big one, as is weather control. But the space colony stuff is in-line with the speculations of the time. Many years ago I was really into the books of Robert Anton Wilson, and through him I learned about the “SMIILE” concept of Timothy Leary as well as the space colonies envisioned by Gerard O’Neil. In the mid to late ‘70s, it seemed to be commonly accepted among such visionairies that man would soon begin leaving the planet, to live in space. Leary’s stuff (for a project he never completed) in particular was about expanding consciousness as the next step on the path to outer space life. Back then the goal was leaving the Earth. Today it’s saving the Earth. 

So Bova, like a true sci-fi visionary of his day, projects a future that is really just the 1970s with a greatly expanded space program and a world government. The sentiments of the characters who live in this world are much more “1970s” than any people who lived in the actual 2008, and in this regard Colony is similar to another “future 70s” work, The Savage Report. But this isn’t a complaint. I much prefer these futures that didn’t happen to the one we actually got. I mean, if only the real 2008 had a space station where zero-g sex was one of the favorite activities of vacationers, not to mention an orbiting space colony filled with women in form-fitting jumpsuits. And Bova does get some stuff correct – he predicts video teleconferencing, which has become standard now in the era of Covid. Also the internet and quick digital transfers of money factor into the book, and are treated as commonly as such things are today. 

But Bova’s biggest miss is that in his projected future the left-leaning World Government is at odds with the multinational corporations. While the World Government wants global unification, a socialist utopia of equity in which world peace and harmony is maintained at the expense of independence, the multinationals want to practice pure capitalism, the poor and the planet itself be damned. This is pure Ayn Rand, of course, but how could Bova or Rand or any of the sci-fi visionaries of the day have predicted that in the real future the billionaires would be aligned with a leftist new world order? In the era of “get woke, go broke,” corporations no longer make a secret of their ideology. Even charity organizations have gone down the self-destructive path of wokeism. 

But this “World Government vs the multinationals” setup comprises the central plot of Colony. Certainly in Bova’s day it made sense; it would be easy to imagine the cigar-chomping billionaires of the 1970s united against the capital-diminishing aims of a socialist World Government. This though is just another indication of what I like about sci-fi; it takes contemporary reality and exposits on what the ensuing world might be like in a few years, decades, or centuries. And as mentioned Bova’s big concern is the growing population, per Stand On Zanzibar and so many other books of the era. Bova has the global population at near 8 billion in his 2008, which is pretty much where we are now. However he also has the black population of the US (or what was formerly the US) at 80%, just a tad off from the 13% of the actual 2008. 

I mention race because one of the many subplots Bova works into Colony is a race war, one that goes hand-in-hand with the people’s movement that is united against the World Government. That 80% figure is actually delivered by one of the black terrorists, a hulking mass of muscle named Leo who was once a pro footballer, but who now has carved out his own Escape From New York-esque fiefdom in Manhattan. Sadly, one of Bova’s biggest successes on the prediction front is that he envisions a 9/11 sort of attack on New York, late in the novel, but this one is carried out by an army of black terrorists who declare war on the “white asses.” One curious tidbit Bova introduces – one that would certainly trigger sensitive readers of today – is that the darker one’s skin is, the higher his authority is in the black resistance; Leo, we’re informed, regularly takes drugs to ensure his skin stays as dark as possible. He is in fact the only character who indulges in that ‘70s sci-fi mainstay: weird drugs. But Leo’s are some sort of super-steroids that affect his metabolism and keep him in hulking shape; without them, as we eventually learn, he’ll literally fall apart. 

But this too is more of a indication of Bova’s own time than our own; this 2008 is still run by men, however we are told that the US representative for the former US in the World Government is a black man, and obviously the World Government reps from the various former countries are not all white. But there are no women in positions of power, something that occurs to the otherwise-progressive head of the World Government, the 80-something year old De Paolo. One of the few characters returning from Millennium (which took place 9 years before this novel), De Paolo heads up the World Government from the HQ in Messina, Sicily(!), a loyal “Ethiopian” at his side. This bit, of the ancient leader of the world who confides solely in his Ethiopian aide, so mirrors the relationship of Premiere Vassily (the ancient ruler of his world) and Rahallah (Vassily’s Ethiopian aide) in the Doomsday Warrior series that I don’t think it could be a coincidence; I think Ryder Syvertsen certainly read Colony

So this is the world of Colony: The World Government controls the planet, while the independent nation of Selene is built beneath the surface of the moon (its formation chronicled in Millennium). Meanwhile there is Space Station Alpha, which acts as a waystation between the Earth and the moon, and most notably there is also Island One, a massive orbiting colony in which ten thousand people live. Bova clearly seems to be aligned with the World Government; his world is the one we seem to be lurching toward, in which gas-guzzling cars and other pollutants have been replaced, and all energy on the Earth is derived from solar energy beamed down by Island One. The colony is essential to the planet’s survival, but only the rich and the elite live up there in a green wonderland of open spaces with spectacular cosmic views from various massive windows; this much dismays the poor, starving people eking out a miserable existence on the overpopulated Earth. 

Things are becoming increasingly bad on Earth, with mass starvation and suffering and a huge disparity between the poor and the super-rich CEOs of the multinationals. Meanwhile the People’s Revolutionary Underground (PRU) is fighting against the World Government all across the globe; there’s also “El Liberator,” a Castro-esque revolutionary who is causing lots of trouble in Argentina. Curiously, all these revolutionary movements appear to be socialist, as is the World Government itself; I mean, socialists versus socialists – everyone’s a loser. Another interesting thing is that in Bova’s 2008 the Middle East has not been consumed by radical fundamentalism, and in fact Baghdad is what amounts to a tourist trap, where reps from the World Government work to recreate the wonders of the ancient world. The main terrorists of the PRU we meet in Colony are from the Middle East, however…and they’re a helluva lot less violent than the ones we got in reality. Several times Hamoud, or “Tiger,” the leader of the Iraqi section of the PRU, states that “suicide missions are stupid” and he and his fellow terrorists go out of their way not to get themselves killed…as well as not to kill any of their victims. 

Befitting the bestseller fiction approach, one man will be able to fix all the world’s problems: David Abrams, that “Adonis” mentioned on the first-page preview. David is a rather special character; apparently in his early to mid 20s, a good-looking blond-haired guy with a lean muscular build and etc. He is also the first “test tube baby,” grown and born on Island One, outside the legal domain of the Earth. This means that the Island One scientists, free to chase their every whim, made David a sort of super-being. He’s impervious to most all diseases, with an immune system that can quickly shake off viruses that would kill ordinary people. He’s also incredibly quick thinking and proficient at most forms of self-defense. In a bit that predicts cyberpunk, he also has a computer link wired into him, so that by tapping a molar with his tongue he can access computers and retrieve data which is “whispered” to him via “the microscopic receiver implanted behind his ear.” What I most appreciated though is that Bova shows us all this instead of just telling us about it; David’s gifts are demonstrated through his actions and quick thoughts, and Bova doesn’t beat us over the head reminding us that he was designed to be gifted. 

David Adams (note the Biblical connotations of the name) is the central character of Colony, and he’s a very memorable one. His origin is a bit of a mystery; his father is unknown, and his mother, one of the designers of Island One, died before David was born, and thus the fetus was removed and kept alive, those scientists going to work on all their genetic improvements. David has spent his entire life on Island One, and the crux of the novel concerns his learning of the plight of the Earth, and how Island One is central to the planet’s survival. I kept wondering why Bova titled the novel “Colony” instead of “Island One,” as the latter name is used much more often in the text. It is a massive space colony of the type envisioned by Gerard O’Neil in The High Frontier (1977), two “cylinders” that could easily hold at least a million people. But, as roving young British reporter Evelyn Hall soon learns, the second cylinder is completely empty: a flora-rich paradise that goes on as far as the eye can see, while people are running out of room down on Earth. 

The multinationals own Island One, though, in particular the few men who make up the Board. Chief among them is T. Hunter Garrison, Texas-based codger and all around old-fashioned billionaire type, of the kind seen in the trashy paperbacks of the day. Completely without conscience, devoted to money and power; Garrison is in his way one of the villains of the piece, particularly given how he is the main architect of the race war. As the novel progresses, we see that the Board intends to forment total civil war on the planet, secretly backing the PRU and other rebels in their war against the World Government. And while the planet is in flames, the Board will ride it out in that empty cylinder on Island One – which, of course, has been designed for them alone. Another of the board members is Sheihk Al-Hashimi of Iraq, who also secretly funds the PRU. 

What Al-Hashimi does not know (but the reader soon does) is that his beautiful daughter Bahjat is actually the infamous PRU leader Scheherazade. In fact, Bahjat is the true ruler of the Middle Eastern wing of the PRU, as Hamoud is devoted to her and does what she says, even though he pretends he alone is in power. Again though, we must not view Bahjat with modern eyes: she is not the suicidal and radical Islamic terrorist of the ISIS type. But then, neither is Hamoud and the others, though we are often told how “cruel” Hamoud is. These people rarely kill in their objectives, and Bahjat and Hamoud will carry out a few strikes in the course of Colony, either knocking out or merely holding their victims captive. In this regard they are much more comparable to the terrorists of Bova’s era than to the ones of today. The PRU indeed is presented as having a noble purpose; Bova is properly unbiased in his narrative, so that, when focusing on each group, he does not make them come off as good or bad. Even Garrison is given a bit of a heroic nature, late in the novel. Only Hamoud is presented as being truly evil, but again for the most part we are only told of this. 

This is a big novel, a sweeping epic, and like any epic there are many, many memorable sequences in it. What I really appreciated was how Bova had this large canvas of seemingly-unrelated characters, and then gradually brought them together. Being the star of the piece, David is usually the person who meets them, often in inventive ways. His meeting of Bahjat, for example – which we know is bound to happen given the first-page preview – is cleverly carried out in unexpected fashion. Through Beverly (whom David, per the trash fiction approach, beds early in the book) David learns of the dire plight of the Earth, and vows to get down there. However Dr. Cyrus Cobb, elderly founder and now head honcho of Island One (my assumption was he was based on Dr. Gerard O’Neil), refuses to let David go. After all, Cobb explains, David is technically owned by the Board of Directors. Cobb is another memorable character in a novel stuffed with them, a visionary in line with O’Neill and Leary and those other ‘70s visionaries, and he’s raised David as the son he never had. 

But as mentioned our hero is made of sterner stuff than common men, thus David concocts a scheme to get off Island One. This is a great sequence, involving David constructing a “womb” for himself to be placed on the hull of one of the ferries that go to the moon, with David in a self-induced sleep to conserve oxygen and heat. (The self-induced sleep is very ‘70s in vibe, involving a theta-level program David downloads via his comptuer linkup.) Bova doesn’t spend much time on the moon, but this part might be meaningful for those who read Millennium, at least in that we see how the colony of Selene has fared in the near-decade since that book. But ultimately David’s only on the moon for a few pages. There’s a sequence here that I found reminiscent of one in Moon Zero Two, where David commandeers a buggy and drives it solo across the harsh terrain, his oxygen levels running dangerously low. From the moon David heads to Space Station Alpha, where he awaits the next shuttle to Earth. Bova wonderfully caters to those ‘70s excesses when we are told – regretably without any detail – about the “zero-g orgy rooms” where David, off-friggin’ page, dallies with “several willing partners.” That’s right, folks: our virile hero does a bit of zero-g orgying and the author leaves it all off-page. 

Anyway, David excitedly boards the shuttle for Earth, and before entering the atmosphere the craft is hijacked – by Bahjat’s PRU cell. The way Bova combined these two plot threads really impressed me, and there are more instances throughout the novel. Bahjat’s people use a “knockout spray” on their victims, and in fact this is how Bahjat meets David. The PRU diverts the Shuttle to Argentina, where Bahjat hopes to win the confidence of El Liberator. Things will not go as she hopes for, though. We know, again per the first page, that David and Bahjat are destined for one another, but Bova also skillfully plays this out through the text, developing a very believable connection between the two. When meeting each other, both are in love with someone else: Bahjat still pining over a guy whose loss has set her on the terrorist path, and David here on Earth looking for Evelyn (who was most mysteriously spirited away from Island One; David is certain Cobb got rid of her). Instead David and Bahjat find each other, and this is almost a novel in itself. First David, who discovers that here on Earth he cannot access any computer linkups, abducts Bahjat so as to escape the PRU, and soon the two are stuck together in a cross-continent escape as they try to make their way to America, both of them on the run for separate reasons. 

A minor character nearly steals the novel here; David and Bahjat manage to get money from the PRU and pay for an illicit flight into Peru, as part of their escape plan to get into the US. The pilot of the small turbo-prop is a paunched, gray-haired local who gabs on about his days smuggling heroin in the ‘90s and how he’s been flying since he was a kid. He’s only in the book for a few pages but he’s the most colorful personality we meet. But then like any truly great novel, Colony has many such instances and characters that get stuck in your mind. Like The Right Stuff, this is a book I’d read in the morning while my kid was playing (the benefits of working from home!), and it took me so long to read that I almost felt as if I was experiencing something instead of just reading a book. I mean if you haven’t picked it up by now, I really enjoyed the novel. 

I especially dug how Bova gave us a piece of ‘70s blockbuster fiction with sci-fi trimmings; there are a lot of groovy details in the novel, with even the décor sounding at times like the swank interiors of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson’s UFO or Space: 1999. David Adams’s place on Island One is a literal space age bachelor’s pad, complete with a waterbed and “thick carpeting of reddish gold.” And in true ‘70s bestseller form, there’s a bit of sex in Colony. Nothing too egregious or explicit, but it’s certainly not tame in that regard. Befitting a ‘70s protagonist, David Abrams scores with both of the main female characters: Evelyn and Bahjat. Interestingly, so too does Hamoud, the villain. This is a curious subtext Bova leaves for the reader to notice, but in many ways Hamoud is presented as David’s dark reflection, and this is just another component of that. These sex scenes are usually over and done with in a few sentences, and Bova doesn’t much exploit the women. In other trashy touches there’s a part where T. Hunter Garrison dallies in a pool with a pair of Japanese girls who have been trained in underwater talents – talents which they also demonstrate for Garrison’s busty redheaded assistant-slash-bodyguard. The only “dirty” bit is the off-hand mention of Evelyn’s “anal” adventures with Hamoud. Good grief! 

While David proves to be instrumental not only in the solving of the novel’s central crisis but also the future of humanity itself, it’s to Bova’s credit that he gives full subplots for the majority of his characters, with storylines that pan out regardless of whether they’ve encountered David or not. What I mean to say is that these characters come off as very realized, with their own goals and plans. Colony features a large cast of characters, and Bova is for the most part pretty good in that he focuses on these characters individually, either via chapter breaks or white spaces. But at times he is guilty of terrible POV-hopping, by which I mean he’ll switch perspectives without warning the reader via a line or chapter break. Here is the worst example in the novel; note that this paragraph is part of a long sequence from the perspective of black terrorist Leo, but abruptly switches perspective to David – who Leo doesn’t even know yet at this point of the book! – without proper warning: 

Ironically Bova published a book titled The Craft Of Writing Fiction That Sells in 1994, in which he prided himself on how he handled perspective changes in Colony, even using similar excerpts as an example of how to do it! I was like, dude – no, it’s not! Give the reader a little white space or something before you switch perspective! But this is a minor quibble, and might not even bother most readers. I read Gary Provost’s Make Your Words Work (1990) a little over twenty years ago, and have never been able to ignore POV-hopping since. Otherwise Bova very skillfully juggles this large cast, and does such a good job of it that at no point was a I confused as to who was who. And the way he brought so many of them together really appealed to me. I’ve always been a fan of that sort of tesseract approach in fiction, where multiple storylines and characters converge in unexpected ways, and Colony featured a lot of that. 

The saga takes place over a few months, and David Adams certainly grows as a character, from the naïve young man on Island One to a visionary who orchestrates mankind’s next step in the stars. This journey encompasses so many memorable incidents, Bahjat at David’s side for many of them. There’s a great part where they get to Manhattan just as Leo and his soldiers start their war on “the white asses,” and Bahjat and David head underground to bypass the savagery above, navigating through rat-filled tunnels with a failing flashlight. Bova develops a sort of “enemies in love” setup; first David is Bahjat’s prisoner on the shuttle, and then he takes her prisoner when he escapes the PRU in Argentina. After this they become unlikely allies, Bahjat using her PRU contacts to fund their long travel by land up into the US, but once they get into PRU-controlled New York David is once again Bahjat’s prisoner. Not that this stops them, finally, from a bit of good lovin’, Bova delivering the long-awaited sequence more from a romantic perspective than a sleazy one. 

The various plot threads eventually tie around Island One, and Bova plays out the finale there. He brings the place to life; in particular I liked the bizarre aspect that, when looking up at the “sky,” you can actually see more houses and communities “above” you. This gives Evelyn the expected vertigo on her first night in Island One. David however is used to it, having grown up here, but there’s another nice character moment where, on his first night on the Earth later in the novel, he sits outside all night to watch the sun rise. Bova fills the novel with memorable sequences and touches. He also brings his various locales to life without the “hard science” technical detail I feared; Selene, Space Station Alpha, the World Government headquarters in Messina: all these places are captured with just a few effective sentences of word painting. And again I liked how we saw David’s superhuman makeup in action, rather than it being exposited to us; this superhuman makeup factors into David’s plot in the finale in a way that was very interesting in our Covid era. 

In fact, Bova strives for a sentimental finale along the lines of what Harold Robbins would regularly dole out for his characters, no matter how depraved they may be; even T. Hunter Garrison, who orchestrates a veritable holocaust in the US, is given a heroic makeover in the climax. I won’t spoil anything, but one issue I had with Colony was that there was little comeuppance for most of the villains in the finale. For example, Bahjat’s PRU cel manages to stop Island One’s solar energy from reaching the Earth, and we learn that over seven thousand people die as a result – areas that are in the midst of heavy snowstorms and such have no access to power, and many die. (On second thought these PRU terrorists are as bad as the real thing…) But the “love triumphs over all” finale Bova delivers undermines this atrocity. James Nicoll, in his review of Colony, scoffs not at this, but that Bahjat “becomes David’s reward at the end of the book, like a slave girl awarded to a victorious warrior.” He overlooks that Bahjat deserves much worse, given that she’s killed over seven thousand people. Modern reviewers are so hung up on identity politics that they ignore actual story elements.

This is indicative of the sea change that has occurred in Western society over just a few decades, and is another thing neither Bova nor any other sci-fi writer of his day could have predicted. And this is not intended as a slight against Nicoll, who is clearly knowledgeable about sci-fi. But his review title, “Soaked in 1970s-style sexism like a hopeful swinger reeking of Hai Karate,” is the epitome of what I’m talking about, as it gives a dismissive impression of a worthy book. (And also, you shouldn’t be surprised to know, his description sounds exactly like the type of novel I’d like to read!) Clearly readers of the actual era would not have seen things through the nauseating “woke” filter of today. I’ve only found one contemporary review of Colony: download Science Fiction Review #28 from November 1978, go to page 28, and there you will find a review of Colony by none other than Orson Scott Card. He raves about the novel and his only real complaint isn’t about the race or “women without agency” stuff, but that Bahjat falls in love after one night in the sack (with the man who sets her on the path to PRU activism). Card also sees that Bova was clearly going for the “science fiction meets bestseller” approach, and pointedly brings up Niven and Pournelle’s Lucifer’s Hammer, of the year before, as comparison. That book certainly did better than Colony, which seems to have been forgotten, so I’m curious if Bova attempted this blockbuster fiction approach in any further novels. 

The Stand On Zanzibar similarities I noticed when I first spotted Colony in the bookstore is that periodically the text is broken up with communiques, journal entries, or “tapes for an unauthorized biography” of Cyrus Cobb. This is Bova’s way of opening up his world while also advancing the narrative, but at the same time it occurred to me that it was another interesting comparison between Bova’s 2008 and the future we actually got. Because, despite the overbearing World Government, those news communiques are true, in that they reflect the actual “truth” of what is happening in the narrative. In other words, if there is rioting in Argentina or whatever, or people have been abucted on Island One, the communiques state that. What I mean to say is, there is no fake news in Colony, and it’s another indication of how Bova’s world is less complicated than ours.

As I mentioned above, Bova’s 2008 is basically the world we are lurching toward. In his projected future the carbon footprint has mostly been erased, with people driving electric bikes and etc. And all nations are united in a World Government which solely gets its power from solar energy. Bova, despite not playing sides in his fictional world, does clearly seem to think this is the way to go, yet he doesn’t seem to grasp that his novel makes the case that countries should not unite, and that it would be dangerous to put all your energy eggs in one basket, so to speak. I mean, those seven thousand who die when the Island One solar energy is stopped. Did the people in those countries no longer have access to gas-powered furnaces or the like? It seems ridiculous, but again it also seems like an indication of where we are going. Just over a year ago the United States was energy independent, gas was cheap and empty shelves at the grocery store wasn’t even a concern. Now, after a few policy changes by a new administration, gas prices have skyrocketed and global starvation looms on the horizon…all due to policies that are driven by a climate change agenda. Bova doesn’t dwell on the birth pangs his world would have gone through to become a solar energy-dependent new world order, but certainly we now in the present are going through something very similar to those birth pangs. 

This is a novel that took me on a journey, and it was the pure escapism that I wanted. And yet it clearly made me speculate about things in our own world, and I can think of no further indication of what makes for a great novel. Well, I can think of one other thing: I didn’t want Colony to end. I’m sure I will read it again someday. I’m also wondering if any of Bova’s other novels are along the same lines. Maybe someday I will read Kinsman or Millennium; Bova combined the two in 1988 as The Kinsman Saga, rewriting a portion of each novel so that they would flow more smoothly together as one story. But I’d more than likely read the originals, for fear that the ’88 edition might remove the swanky ‘70s details I demand. However so far as this sequence goes, Colony was the last novel; curiously though in 1985 Bova published Privateers, which concerns the mining of asteroids in our solar system. This is exactly what David Adams plans to do in the climax of Colony, however Privateers does not occur in the same world as Kinsman, Milennium, or Colony, featuring as it does a Soviet Union that’s still running in the early 21st century. 

So in conclusion I give Colony my highest recommendation, not just as a sci-fi novel but as a novel, and if any of you can suggest any other “sci-fi meets popular fiction” novels from the era I’d greatly appreciate it. Per above Orson Scott Card specifically compared Colony to Lucifer’s Hammer, but that one sounds like a post-nuke pulp with its apocalyptic setting – I’m looking for something more like mini-skirts on Mars or the like, with that “full ‘70s flavor” in space. Something that Colony delivers in spades. And finally here’s the back cover (the cover portrait of Bahjat is repeated on the spine of the book, by the way, and this was what initially captured my eye on the bookshelf when I first discovered the book):

Monday, January 24, 2022

The Terminator #1: Mercenary Kill

The Terminator #1: Mercenary Kill, by John Quinn
September, 1982  Pinnacle Books

Here’s another latter-era Pinnacle offering, one that amounted to five volumes. It’s also another series Marty McKee hooked me up with some years ago, and I’m only just getting around to it. The Terminator is credited to John Quinn, but the copyright page outs Dennis Rodriguez as the real name of the author. Per Brad Mengel’s Serial Vigilantes Of Paperback Fiction, Rodriguez “was editor of pornographic magazines for Pendulum Press where he worked with Ed Wood Jr.” However, also per Brad, “While director Ed Wood Jr. also used the John Quinn pen name, there is no evidence that he wrote any of the books in this series.” And to be sure there is little in the way of Wood-esque weirdness in The Terminator, at least judging from this first volume, which sticks to a clear-eyed “realism” throughout. 

As I read Mercenary Kill I kept having flashbacks to another late-era Pinnacle offering: The Force. It’s been ten years since I read the first volume of that also short-lived series, and I haven’t read another volume since, but something about Mercenary Kill kept reminding me of it. Maybe it was the writing style, or the fact that the main protagonist of The Force was a cynical vet of the spy game, same as Rod Gavin, the main character in The Terminator. The Force was credited to “Jake Decker” and came out the same time as The Terminator, so maybe it too was the work of Dennis Rodriguez. Again per Brad Mengel in Serial Vigilantes, The Force was “the only credit for Jake Decker,” lending further impression that “Decker” was a pseudonym. Whatever the case, I did enjoy Mercenary Kill more than I enjoyed the first Force novel. 

Oh and just to address the series title – obviously this series came out before the Schwarzenegger movie. But in the world of this book, “Terminators” are a special section of the CIA, sort of like the “00” agents in the Secret Service in James Bond. Agents who are sent out on kill assignments. Per the deal it’s eight and done, and Gavin when we meet him is on his eighth assignment, after which he intends to retire. Curiously we’re not given a description of Gavin, so Gil Cohen’s cover will have to suffice. It is implied he is 34, though, and also a ‘Nam vet. Mercenary Kill is clearly an ‘80s offering because, unlike the majority of the men’s adventure novels of the ‘70s, it is focused on world-building and scene setting. In effect it comes off as a standalone novel, and doesn’t really even set up the potential for more action-heroing in future volumes. Gavin is not presented as an Executioner-esque crime or terrorism fighter, I mean to say, and his actions throughout Mercenary Kill are all made in the name of self-preservation, not to save anyone else. 

The novel opens on the action, though, with Gavin in Miami, where he takes out three commie agents. Here we see that Rodriguez will have a bit more of a “literary” vibe to his prose than the genre standard; again, another similarity with The Force. While the novel is not spectacularly gory, we do get memorable descriptions, like “pink spray” blowing out of a guy’s head when Gavin shoots him with his .45. It’s a cool and memorable description, but at the same time it gives the impression that Gavin’s just shot a cartoon character. Rodriguez maintains a crisp style throughout, with lines like “[Gavin] brought his blood pressure to boil with a couple quickly-smoked cigarettes.” Oh and as a random note, I found it interesting that “flight attendant” was used in the novel instead of “stewardess,” so it must’ve been the late ‘70s or very early ‘80s when that earlier term, so championed in trashy paperbacks of the day, had fallen out of favor. 

Another thing unusual about Mercenary Kill is that there are a slew of minor characters to keep track of. And Rodriguez keeps hopping around them with little introduction or setup, leaving the reader out of sorts. Things move a lot more smoothly when he just focuses on Gavin, though. Our hero, who is pretty taciturn and cipher-like, has carved out an off-the-grid life for himself in Colorado, living in a rented apartment with no phone. He’s so off the grid that he doesn’t use banks; when he goes on a job he takes a big envelope of money to one of his few friends to safeguard while he’s gone. Gavin’s also in love with Kendall, the owner of the bookstore across from his apartment. While she doesn’t factor into the novel much, Kendall is often on Gavin’s mind, which also gives the novel a different vibe from the average; Rod Gavin is one of the few men’s adventure heroes who is in love. Not that this stops him from having a little extracurricular fun on the job. 

One of the many supporting characters in the novel is Barnes, Gavin’s boss at the Agency. The two have an antoginistic relationship that really reminded me of the one Butler had with his CIA boss in the Butler series by Len Levinson. But again this series is more serious in tone, thus Barnes comes off as more nefarious than satiric. He questions Gavin’s lack of commitment to the Agency, telling him he is “not a believer.” Regardless he gives Gavin his latest – and final – mission: go to the country of Costa Bella in Central America and terminate a soldier named De Leon. In one of those many subplots we’ve seen De Leon get in trouble: he’s inadvertently massacred a car load of nuns, at the order of sadistic commanding officer Rojas. This has set off an international incident, with De Leon, clearly framed, thrown in a Costa Bellan jail. They’re all involved with the US to some extent, with De Leon being working undercover for a State Dept guy named Duffy. 

My assumption is Duffy will factor into future volumes of The Terminator, as he becomes Gavin’s main accomplice in Mecenary Kill. In this volume the two meet; Gavin’s been sent to kill De Leon, and Duffy heads to Costa Bella because he’s heard the CIA is getting involved. Meanwhile other agents are afoot, including one minor character who is run down in Costa Bella; Rodriguez’s description of this guy’s death is an example of the dark sort of humor that runs throughout the narrative: “…a painless impact that he actually thought was kind of funny.” What’s weird though is Rodriguez throws in the curveball, one that’s barely explored, that Gavin knows De Leon. The two attended some sort of training a decade before. Rodriguez does little too exploit this, and just has Gavin (rather easily) carry out his job, after which the main plot kicks in – Gavin realizes that he himself has been framed, as Rojas, the man Barnes told him to connect with down here, now chases after him for the murder of De Leon. 

Throughout Rodriguez sticks to more of a realistic vibe, save for a bit midway through where Gavin runs into a group of Costa Bella guerrillas. Of course, their leader is a sexy chick named Maria Angela, and of course she ends up going to bed with Gavin. Rodriguez leaves it off-page, but at least we know that our hero isn’t too devoted on his girlfriend in Colorado. Maria also hooks Gavin up with a gun: a P-38, which he uses for the rest of the novel. Judging from Cohen’s portrait of Gavin that runs on each volume of The Terminator, I’m assuming this P-38 will become his trademark gun. Hopefully Bucher doesn’t mind! Maria isn’t the only helper Quinn encounters; as mentioned Duffy also meets up with him, and after a shaky start the two develop a sort of friendship, with Duffy providing Gavin a place to stay once Gavin’s made it back into the country. (Curiously, Rodriguez leaves Gavin’s escape from Costa Bella off-page; one would think it would almost be a story in itself.) 

There is more of a modern hardboiled vibe to The Mercenary Kill than the cover of Rod Gavin blasting an AK-47 would have you believe. And in fact, he doesn’t even blast away with an AK-47 in the novel, or at least he doesn’t that I can recall. Instead of a slam-bang finale, we have something more befitting a Gold Medal paperback as Gavin traces Rojas and Barnes to California, where the two are involved in a heroin ring. Barnes has been using his CIA role to run drugs, his biggest deal coming through and etc. He of course was behind the frame of Gavin, as well as of De Leon; we’ve also learned almost casually that Barnes is gay and has a fondness for young men. Ah, the days when being gay was just another “villain attribute” in pulp fiction. Simpler times. 

I have repeatedly mentioned that Rodriguez goes for realism, but this is not to say we have a totally believable situation. The finale features Gavin locking himself in the trunk of Rojas’s car, fortifying himself with a couple sandwhiches and a bottle of J&B scotch. He drinks half the bottle as he waits for Rojas to drive into the remote area where the drug-dealing’s going down. By this point Gavin is a little buzzed; we’re told he “feels good” and “relaxed.” He gets out of the trunk, does a few stretches – and then proceeds to do some quick shooting with his P-38. I just thought it was funny our hero got drunk for the finale, but Rodriguez doesn’t imply that this might slow him down at all. That being said, one guy does get eaten by a dog here, though it happens off-page. 

As also mentioned Mercenary Kill comes off a lot like a standalone novel. By the end Gavin’s gotten his revenge and he’s headed back to Colorado to reconnect with his beloved Kendall. There’s no indication that he’ll return in a future volume to see any action; indeed, we get the impression he’s done with the action and killing business. This makes me wonder if, a la The Revenger and other series openers that came off like standalones, Rodriguez wrote Mercenary Kill as a self-contained story, and then either he or Pinnacle decided to farm it out into a series. Overall I enjoyed Mercenary Kill, and eventually will get to the next ones. And once again a big thanks to Marty for hooking me up with the series.

Thursday, January 20, 2022


Eraser, by Robert Tine
June, 1996  Signet Books

I was always under the impression that Eraser was an unofficial sequel to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s earlier movie Commando (1985). And this was an immediate reaction; I saw Eraser in the theater on its opening night, with the Arnold-obsessed friend I mentioned in my Total Recall review. This guy was so obsessed that, every July 30th (ie Schwarzenegger’s birthday), he’d call people up and tell them, “Happy Arnold Day.” I think Eraser came out around this time, or maybe a little before – all I remember is I’d just graduated from college and was spending the summer in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, which is where I saw the movie. 

But it seemed clear that Eraser, which is likely considered a lesser movie in Schwarzenegger’s canon now, was at least somewhat of a tribute to Commando. It had the same sort of “comedy meets action” vibe, with Schwarzenegger playing a stone-cold badass who, despite his stone-cold badassery, had a gift for goofy one-liners. Also, Schwarzenegger played a “John” in both films: John Matrix in Commando and John Krueger in Eraser. Both films featured a black lead actress: Rae Dawn Chong in Commando and Vanessa Williams in Eraser. Schwarzenegger jumped out of an airplane in both films: before takeoff in Commando and before landing in Eraser. There was also a total callout to Commando in Eraser, with Schwarzenegger at one point wearing a jacket with “Let’s party!” written on it, this being one of his lines at the climax of Commando

What really set my friend and I to theorizing was that the end credits didn’t bill Schwarzenegger as having played “John Krueger;” instead, he was credited merely as “Eraser.” This gave the impression that Krueger wasn’t even the guy’s real name. And most importantly, “Eraser’s” job was creating new identities for people. It didn’t require a huge leap in deduction to figure that John Matrix could’ve changed his own name to John Krueger. Of course, all this is pointless, as the two films are clearly unrelated, but it was fun to think of Eraser as the Commando sequel we never got. But then, many years later I managed to get a copy of the never-produced Commando II script, dated February 1989 and written by Steven E. de Souza with revisions by Frank Darabont, and in it John Matrix goes up against a nefarious defense contractor…so similar to the plot of Eraser that I wondered if this was yet another connection between the two films. 

I recall at the time that I thought Eraser was fine, if fairly generic; it was clear even then that there was a huge difference between Schwarzenegger’s 80s films and his ‘90s films. His star power was still sufficient enough to make Eraser a hit, and it might’ve been his last non-franchise hit, I’m not sure. It was certainly better than the movies he made over the next few years, but I only saw it that one time in the theater. Then about a decade ago I got it on Blu Ray, and enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Still thought it was a bit generic, though, with none of the violence of those ‘80s movies and more of an attempt at being a “real” movie, with James Caan and James Coburn in supporting roles. Also, you knew for sure it was the ‘90s because suddenly Schwarzenegger was pecking away on a computer keyboard. And using a handgun – notice that in the ‘80s the action stars used machine guns, but they reverted to handguns in the ‘90s. Just kinder, gentler times overall. 

Well anyway, this tie-in novel courtesy prolific novelization author Robert Tine hews very closely to the film itself. And despite being 233 pages it’s a quick read; you could probably read it in the time it would take to watch the movie itself. It’s got some seriously big print, and looks very much like the average Gold Eagle paperback of the day. Tine also drops in the occasional weaponry detail, which gives it even more of a Gold Eagle vibe. There are no major differences from the film – this isn’t a Rambo III type novelization, that’s for sure – or at least none that jumped out at me. About the most I noticed was a bit more backstory for Krueger, who reveals that he got into witness protection years ago because a woman he knew was raped and he pushed her to testify, and she ended up getting killed because no one protected her. But then, this dialog might be in the film too, I can’t remember. 

Tine’s novel somewhat aids my “Commando sequel” theory: Krueger is referred to as “Eraser” in the narrative, same as Schwarzenegger was in the credits. He’s only called “Krueger” once or twice, and his WITSEC colleague Robert Deguerin (James Caan) refers to him as “John.” But then Deguerin himself is referred to as “Samaritan” in the novel. They are all US Marshals, part of an “elite Shadow Operation” by the name of WITSEC, and these are their code names. It lends the story more of a comic book vibe than the film actually had. This is somewhat present in the opening action scene, which sees Eraser, masked head to toe in black like a ninja, taking out several mobsters as they’re about to torture-kill an informant named Johnny C. This was another part my Arnold-obsessed friend and I got a kick out of, as Schwarzenegger first appears while hiding behind an opened refrigerator door. My “eccentric” friend liked to do the exact same thing; he was fond of “sneak attacking” people, usually appearing out of the shadows to throw a kick at your head or whatever. Hiding behind an opened fridge door was one of his favorites, and there his friggin’ hero was doing the very same thing on the big screen! 

This opening eventually paves the way for the main plot, which has Eraser taking on a defense contractor which is planning to sell off its high-tech experimental weaponry to the highest bidder. Ultimately the Russian mafia is involved, but this isn’t really elaborated on. Eraser’s main enemies are his fellow agents, rogue ones from WITSEC and the CIA. One of the problems with Eraser is that Samaritan is played by James Caan, and thus the producers give him a bit more personality and memorable lines. This movie’s over 25 years old and I’m sure the majority of you have seen it, so no spoiler alert but Samaritan turns out to be the bad guy. The thing is, because the producers gave him a personality he lacks the batshit craziness of previous villains in Schwarzenegger films – like the guy in Commando, or even Richter in Total Recall. Guys you spend the entire movie waiting to see get killed. 

And honestly, if you have seen the movie, you’re not going to get much new stuff out of Tine’s tie-in, or perhaps we should refer to it as a Tine-in? No, that would be stupid. But really, the book is almost a straight take on what’s seen in the film, and for the most part Tine doesn’t even add much inner stuff for the characters, to give perspective or depth. This actually could’ve helped the book in a major way. For example, the plot concerns Lee Cullen (Vanessa Williams), an executive at defense contractor Cyrex, who wants to turn in evidence on some illegal and traitorous actions involving newly-developed rail gun technology. While Tine displays some of Lee’s concerns and fears early in the novel, in later action scenes he skips all that and just tells us what she’s doing. Like the big action scene in the zoo; it’s all Lee aiming guns and firing, or even later in the book bashing some guy in the head and escaping, and it all just happens, with no internal turmoil from Lee, someone entirely new to this world of violence, as she prepares herself to attack someone. 

Otherwise the action follows almost identically to the film. The airplane sequence also plays out the same, with Eraser drugged by Samaritan and then managing to jump out of the plane after he wakes up. I recall the part where he parachuted into the auto junkard – asking the kids “Where is this?” and the kids replying “Earth – welcome!” – got a big laugh in the theater, probably the biggest laugh of the movie. But then, Schwarzenegger’s one-liners suffered too in the ‘90s; his “You’re luggage!” to a CGI-rendered alligator he shoots at the zoo was lame even then. Actually Caan is the one who gets the most comedic lines, his Samaritan almost having a grand old time of it as he goes bad. Also the violence has been toned down; Tine’s novelization might be more violent than the film, with occasional mentions of heads being blown off. I also appreciated his description of how the rail guns worked, in particular the “eerie glow” of the “X-ray scope” on the guns. 

Toward the climax Eraser and Lee infiltrate the Cyrex HQ, a scene which plays as much on comedy as action, featuring as it does Johnny C feigning a heart attack in what could almost be a skit from a comedy movie. From there we get into the action, with Eraser again blasting away with a sidearm as Samaritan and the CIA goons try to hunt him down. But it’s so far removed from the action spectacles of the ‘80s, with those damn computers once again central to the action as Lee hurriedly types away on a keyboard. I seem to recall the Commando II script also featured John Matrix infiltrating the high-tech HQ of a defense contractor (it’s been several years since I read it); Frank Darabont, who revised that unproduced script, also did some uncredited rewrites on Eraser, so this entire sequence could be yet another tangent in the “unofficial Commando sequel” theory. 

One area in which Tine’s novelization veers from the movie is the ending. I remember reading a magazine article years and years ago where Vanessa Williams stated that she and Schwarzenegger had originally kissed at the end of Eraser, but this “romantic” ending was changed because it “didn’t work.” Tine actually has that ending here in the novel. We see Eraser and Lee at an airport, deciding on where to go. He returns her St. George necklace, which he took from her earlier in the book as part of her “identity erasing.” The idea being that he is now her protector. They kiss and that’s that. I can’t even remember how the actual movie ended right now. Maybe I should get the Blu Ray out and watch it again. Really though, Tine’s novelization just reinforced the idea that Eraser is a bit generic, like one level above a direct-to-video release. Which makes it all the more sad that it was one of Schwarzenegger’s better ‘90s movies!

Monday, January 17, 2022

Jefferson Boone, Handyman #3: Murder Today, Money Tomorrow

Jefferson Boone, Handyman #3: Murder Today, Money Tomorrow, by Jon Messmann
August, 1973  Pyramid Books

The third volume of Jefferson Boone, Handyman is a little better than the previous two, because Jon Messmann backs off on the “international terrorist” angle and delivers a mystery plot that’s more in-line with his cerebral protagonist. It was kind of hard to buy the whole Jefferson “Handyman” Boone concept in the earlier books; as I wrote, he just came off a bit too much like “James Bond meets Frasier Crane” to be believable. Messmann also slightly tones down on the introspective musings, which is a help, but he also turns way up on the casual misogyny. 

Again, I don’t virtue-signal lightly (or ever, really), but in this case there’s no other word for it but misogyny. Messmann is kind of a creep in how he typically treats his female characters, as has been noted in reviews of his other novels (as well as in the comments sections). And I’m not talking about how he objectifies them, how he always mentions their breasts – I mean I encourage stuff like that from my men’s adventure authors; these books should come straight from the male id. What I mean is how many of his male protagonists are just total assholes to women. Constantly putting them down, snipping at them, mocking them, etc. Murder Today, Money Tomorrow goes further in this regard than any previous Messmann novel I’ve read, with the ultimate effect that Boone (or “Jeff,” as Messmann most often refers to him in the narrative) comes off as a dick, and the “taming of the shrew” angle ultimately makes no sense in the context of the book. 

There’s no pickup from previous volumes, and in fact Messmann gives a bit more background on Jeff this time. Not too much, but in dialog Jeff relates how he decided to become an international “handyman” after the murder of his diplomat father. In fact we’re told his dad was “killed right in front” of Jeff. This volume overall really ties into Jeff’s past; when we meet him he’s waiting in the dark in rural Virginia for a childhood friend named Roger Van Court, an eccentric guy Jeff never really liked. Jeff’s dad and Roger’s mom were apparently having a bit of a fling when the two boys were kids, and Jeff would spend every Christmas at the Van Court estate. And we’re really in the upper-crust world of the filthy rich; this series has always traded on the jet-set world, and Murder Today, Money Tomorrow makes it clear that Jefferson Boone grew up in the lap of luxury. This of course makes his current role as a total bad-ass a bit hard to buy, but whatever. 

That bad-assery is displayed posthaste, though; first Boone is approached by a “truculent” young blonde with an “elfin” build who appears to be with Roger. Jeff immediately dislikes her, for reasons Messmann never really makes believable. She’s protective of Roger, clearly, but Jeff suspects her of foul play or somesuch. Roger does appear, but only momentarily, as some guys with guns show up and start blasting at him. In the pitch dark Jeff manages to turn the tables, killing off the thugs with his pistol. Here Messmann introduces a new gimmick to the series: Jeff drops a “little gold toolbox” onto one of the corpses. In other words, the calling card of the “Handyman.” Meanwhile, both Roger and the girl have fled. Jeff goes back to DC for some good lovin’ with a chick he’s been checking out at cocktail parties over the past few years; Messmann develops this curious subplot where the girl, Fran, she of the “full-bosomed, long-legged loveliness,” wants to be Jeff’s steady, but the relationship is broken off within a few pages, due to jealousy. Fran calls Jeff up next morning and discovers another girl on the line. This is Cassie, the “elfin blonde” who was with Roger the night before; she’s lost Roger as well, and will hang out with Jeff for the duration to find him again. 

The funny thing about Money Today, Murder Tomorrow is that the back cover makes it clear that Roger Van Court, a geologist, has made a discovery that could lead to a new form of power. However, Jefferson Boone spends the entire novel not knowing what it is Roger’s discovered, nor why so many people are trying to kill him. Even more ridiculously, Cassie herself has no idea what Roger was up to, even though she’s spent the past year as his companion. The two had an “understanding,” one that Messmann plays out as a lame mystery for almost the entire novel. But it’s clear that she and Roger were close, and a recurring bit is that Jeff is just unable to see Roger being with this cute blonde with an elfin build…however, when Cassie comes over to Jeff’s pad and takes off her coat, Jeff sees that “the little elf had magnificently high, full breasts.” 

Poor Cassie can’t catch a break from Jeff or Roger. She goes around the world with Jeff, who treats her like shit the entire time. Putting her down, mocking her, disparaging her relationship with Roger. He’s constantly on the attack, too; I lost count of the number of times Messmann used the dialog modifier “tossed off” when Jeff spoke to Cassie. But then Roger was a dick to her, too, a condescending one at that. She’s from backwoods Tennessee (or maybe it’s West Virginia; Messmann can’t seem to make up his mind), and Roger met her while on one of his research trips. He took a cotton to her, took her under his wing; it was a podunk town and everyone always took Cassie for granted until Roger Van Court came along. But, we learn, he tried to give her culture, giving her books to read, teaching her how to act in “polite society,” etc, etc. Now that’s “mansplaining” folks. And of course done without any apology; indeed, Jeff is quite pleased with the progress Roger made on the otherwise rednecked Cassie! 

But see that’s the thing. Nowhere does Cassie act like a dumb hick, or do anything stupid, or do anything that would make Jeff dislike her. And yet Jeff does dislike or at least distrust her, and goes out of his way to attack her at all times. It makes him seem like a total asshole, and what’s weird is that you get the impression that Messman doesn’t think he is an asshole. I mean we aren’t talking like an anti-hero sort of deal here. Jeff is the hero, no questions asked. So he takes Cassie under his own wing and they follow the vague leads on where Roger could be holed up, and why. Given this, Cassie has a greater part in the narrative than previous female characters. But it’s a strange relationship for sure, and Jeff’s attitude toward Cassie would certainly get him canceled in today’s “believe all women” world. 

It soon becomes clear that Roger is into something deep and is hiding for a reason. Jeff is constantly followed; even when going to pick Cassie up, driving back into Virginia, he’s tailed by some goons, managing to lose them in some salt flats. It gets to be annoying, though, because every time Jeff gets close to Roger, the guy will either run away or send an emissary in his place, to the extent that it almost takes on the tone of a Monty Python skit. Roger’s sought out Jeff, though, because Jeff’s “Handyman” status has become legedary, and also even as a kid Jefferson Boone was known for his fortitude. The action is infrequent, but always handled in a realistic matter when it happens, however as usual Messmann never dwells on the gory details. After encountering a few random thugs, Jeff deduces that Portugal had something to do with whatever Roger was into, so he and Cassie head there. 

The jet-setting Eurotrash stuff is pretty thick, here; as I mentioned before, Jefferson Boone, Handyman is more akin to the trash fiction bestsellers of the day, a la Burt Hirschfeld and the like. Messmann shows restraint, though, in that Jeff does not conjugate with the ultra-hot, ultra-stacked beauty Maria De Vasquez, whom he first sees getting into a fancy vintage car outside of a restaurant. Through various plot developments, Jeff has settled on Maria’s wealthy uncle as someone who might know what Roger was up to. De Vasquez seems to have walked out of a Bond novel, a man of such wealth that he retains his own retinue of enforcers and who has a garage filled with priceless vintage cars. Even here though the battle of wills with Cassie is played out; De Vasquez invites Jeff and Cassie to a party at his villa, and Jeff keeps imploring Cassie not to go, telling her she’ll be “out of her league” and “make a fool of herself” in front of all the jet-setting Euroscum. Seriously, the guy’s a dick. 

But the “Pygmallion” stuff is only reinforced when Cassie, wouldja believe, comes out of her room ready for the party…and it’s as if she’s become an entirely different woman. She has just one dress – bought for her by Roger, of course, for when he took her to socialite parties! – and she’s gotten her hair done, and she of course manages to hold her own at the party. Indeed she holds it so well that Jeff finds himself ignoring super-stacked Maria to keep checking on Cassie! Now all along Cassie’s been telling Jeff there was “more to the story” so far as her relationship with Roger went, and that night she finally tells Jeff it all: due to a “childhood incident,” Roger was no longer able to, uh, rise to the occasion, thus he and Cassie had a sort of “student-teacher” relationship and nothing more. And folks you better believe she’s ready for some good lovin’. She and Jeff go at it in a fairly explicit scene that for once doesn’t play out with the Hirschfeld-esque metaphors and analogies of previous such scenes. 

And meanwhile, Jeff still ponders this unfathomable case, this “increasingly multifaceted rigadoon with death.” Yes, that’s actually a line in the book. I don’t think even prime-era William Shatner could’ve delivered that with a straight face. (Orson Welles probably could’ve…and then he’d take a thoughtful puff on his ever-present cigar.) Finally, on page 147, Jeff learns that Roger was in-line to a breakthrough in “thermal energy.” This he learns from his State Dept. contact Charley Hopkins. And, of course, De Vasquez and his minions are out for it. This leads to a nice action scene where Cassie gets in on it; a country girl, she’s more than familiar with handling a rifle, and uses one to blast apart some thugs they chase while Jeff handles the car. As I say, she’s a likable character, making Jeff’s treatment of her seem even worse…though of course by this point they’ve been to bed a few times together, so at least he’s nicer to her. 

This proves to be the action highlight of the novel. As befitting the mystery thriller Murder Today, Money Tomorrow really is, the actual climax plays out more on a suspense vibe. Jeff and Cassie return to Roger’s home, where they learn exactly why thugs were constantly popping out of the woodwork to tail them. In other words there was a traitor in Roger’s life, and this character is dealt with in an entertaining – if predictable – finale. And it’s also worth noting that Jeff pitchforks a guy in this climactic sequence. It’s also interesting that Cassie knows her fling with Jeff has a limited lifespan; at novel’s end she wants one more roll in the hay, then she’s off to live her life. 

But man, there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t even cover here…like the bit where Jeff and Cassie go back to Cassie’s home town and run into some rednecks there. And other stuff on Jeff’s highfalutin childhood and jet-setting life in DC. As ever Messmann packs a lot of prose into the small, dense print of the book, clearly trying to write a “real” novel instead of the third installment of an action series. And I have to say, I think he succeeded this time. It won’t float everyone’s boat, but Murder Today, Money Tomorrow was pretty entertaining…if you can put aside the main character’s rampant misogyny, that is.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

The Right Stuff: Illustrated

The Right Stuff: Illustrated, by Tom Wolfe
No month stated, 2004  Black Dog & Leventhal

Many years ago I was obsessed with “New Journalism,” ie that genre of journalism that brought elements of fiction to nonfiction. Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was my introduction; I picked up a paperback edition of it in 1998 and read it at work, and really enjoyed it. From there I picked up more of Wolfe’s books, including his The New Journalism anthology of other writers. And of course Hunter Thompson’s Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas was another of my favorites; I even sought out obscure stuff like Joe Ezsterhas’s Nark, culled like Thompson’s book from the pages of Rolling Stone, but not nearly as frenetic. 

Well anyway, despite my obsession I still never picked up The Right Stuff, which arguably was Wolfe’s most famous piece of New Journalism. Hell, I’d never even seen the movie. I was certainly aware of both the book and the film, though, but neither captured my interest because I knew the story concerned the earliest days of the Space Race. In fact, I was under the impression that the majority of The Right Stuff wasn’t even about space, but about the fighter jocks who preceded the entire space program. I’ve always been interested in space subjects, but I preferred something later, at least the Gemini era, so I just never sought out The Right Stuff

This of course has turned out to be my mistake, as the book is just as great as its legend would have you believe. And also, while it does focus on the early years of the Space Race, The Right Stuff only slightly focuses on the fighter jocks of the ‘40s and ‘50s. I finally got around to watching the film before I read the book, and the film is misleading in this regard; the film puts a lot more focus on Chuck Yeager and the test pilot program than the book itself does. As it turns out, the test pilot material is only at the beginning of the book, after which we get into the meat of the story: the training and eventual missions of the Mercury Seven, ie the seven military pilots who were ultimately chosen to be the first Americans in space. Yeager disappears throughout the majority of this, only to return in a gripping final chapter. 

Speaking of Rolling Stone, The Right Stuff started as an assignment Wolfe wrote for the magazine, which was published as “Post-Orbital Remorse.” You’ll often read that this piece was transformed into The Right Stuff, but now that I’ve read both I can tell you that hardly any of “Post-Orbital Remorse” is in The Right Stuff. For one, that earlier piece is written in an entirely different tone, with Wolfe himself the audience of the “collective voice of the astronauts,” and many of the stories concern Apollo missions. None of this is in The Right Stuff; Wolfe does not appear, and there is no collective astronaut voice. In fact it is told very much like a novel, only one with the typically hyperkinetic Tom Wolfe narrative style. And also there is absolutely no foreshadowing to the Apollo era; it is almost a real-time documentation of the period in which it is set, namely the late 1950s through the early 1960s. 

It's kind of suprising that The Right Stuff was such a hit. Maybe it’s because the book isn’t like your typical dry piece of nonfiction. Wolfe has clearly done his research, and met with many of the astronauts and their wives, but his usual tendency for exaggeration is in place, and there are no footnotes or anything to provide further details. But then those dry nonfiction books don’t feature grand setpieces like Wolfe delivers throughout the novel, many of which are courtesy his own gifted imagination. Take for example the flight of Ham, a chimp who was trained rigorously to handle a sub-orbital flight before an actual human (Alan Shepard) was sent up. This entire sequence of Ham being sent up is gripping and hilarious – and it’s entirely from the perspective of Ham himself. His thoughts and feelings and fears, up to the laugh out loud moment at the end where he’s taken out to the press pool to be photographed and thinks these photographers are more humans who are going to strap him up and put him through more grueling tests (“Fuck this!”). It’s some incredbile writing for sure, but obviously there’s no way anyone could know what Ham was thinking during the mission; it’s all Wolfe’s imagination, and it’s a lot of fun. Just one wonderful sequence in a book chock full of them. 

It’s my understanding that most of the astronauts themselves appreciated The Right Stuff (though hardly any of them liked the movie), save for one thing: Wolfe’s character assassination of Virgil “Gus” Grissom. In a sequence that still sets the purists off, Wolfe has it that Grissom “screwed the pooch” upon the return from his own suborbital flight, accidentally hitting the escape button and ultimately losing his own capsule, which sunk in the ocean. Wolfe builds up several charges in his case: Grissom was loaded down with coins and such that he wanted to take on his ride and sell later, and also he likely stood up to take the survival knife mounted inside the capsule as another souvenier – and it was mounted right beside the escape switch. Grissom died in the Apollo 1 disaster of 1967, so wasn’t around to defend his case when this book was published years later. However even in his own day he was exonerated: fellow Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra did in fact hit the escape switch, and it hurt like hell, leaving a bruise on his hand. There was no such bruising on Grissom. Wolfe doesn’t mention any of this; reading the book you get the impression that Gus Grissom was a screwup. 

I thought about this for a while, and finally I think I figured out what was going on. There was a reason, I felt, that Wolfe was overlooking all this and making Gus Grissom look like a bad guy. And that reason, I’m sure, is that Wolfe himself just didn’t like Gus. In the book Wolfe skillfully paints a portrait of each of the astronauts, and Grissom’s isn’t very flattering: he’s never home, he’s always ditching his wife and kids (even when they’re just a few miles away), and he’s kind of slow-witted. Wolfe also develops the theme that there is a rivalry within the Mercury Seven: on the one side there’s Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Deke Slayton, and Gordon Cooper, and on the other side there’s John Glenn and Scott Carpenter. The rivalry mostly begins over “cookies,” ie the groupies who would flock around the astronauts. While the other astronauts thought this was just a fun perk, Glenn and Carpenter were sort of against the idea. 

Now, a curious thing about The Right Stuff is that the tone in it is very pro-American, very much what one might today deem “reactionary.” This is very surprising, given that it’s courtesy a Rolling Stone contributor. It becomes clear that Wolfe himself is on the side of Glenn and Carpenter. This is most obviously demonstrated because he keeps referring to Carpenter as “Scott” in the narrative. Whereas the other astronauts are generally referred to by their last names – and Wolfe lacks consistency in this, which is kind of messy and should have been caught in the editing stage – Wolfe will usually just refer to Carpenter by his first name. This actually took me out of the narrative the first few times; I’d be reading about “Shepard” and “Glenn” and then I’d see “Scott,” and I’d have to pause and wonder, “Wait, which one was named Scott? Oh – Scott Carpenter! 

One of the people Wolfe talked to during his research was Rene Carpenter, Scott Carpenter’s wife; I know this because you hear a bit of their 1973 interview in the 2020 documentary The Real Right Stuff. Rene and Scott were divorced at the time of the interview, but I’m under the impression that Wolfe also talked to Scott Carpenter, and found himself liking the former couple. Thus, both Scott and Rene come off very well in The Right Stuff. Scott Carpenter in particular is presented as the “explorer of the new frontier” that none of the other Mercury astronauts were, using his mission to investigate and relate back on his findings, often ignoring his real objectives – even up to the point that he ran out of fuel and was nearly lost in the return to Earth. Due to this he so pissed off the higher ups at NASA that Scott Carpenter never went into space again. And, Wolfe implies, this “ban from space” was also courtesy the rival click of astronauts, who went out of their way to imply that Grissom’s mission, despite the loss of the friggin’ capsule, was a success and Carpenter’s was a failure. 

But Wolfe builds up the case that Scott Carpenter was actually a superior astronaut to Gus Grissom: his heart rate and blood pressure never skyrocketed, even during the shaky return to Earth. Meanwhile, Grissom’s was soaring in all the tense spots. But the Shepard-Grissom-Slayton-Schirra-Cooper click was against Carpenter and Glenn. They couldn’t do anything about Glenn, who’d driven them nuts with his goody-goody nature during training; his orbital flight made him a hero, second only to the President in the unofficial power structure. But Carpenter wasn’t as famous, and Wolfe makes it clear that he was the sacrificial lamb that made Grissom look good; while Carpenter was drummed out of the program, despite having all the “right stuff,” Grissom was allowed to stay on, despite losing his capsule and not displaying the right stuff (ie the racing heart rate and soaring blood pressure). All this of course might not be a reflection of reality; I’m just going into it all to offer an explanation on why Tom Wolfe made Gus Grissom look so bad in The Right Stuff. It’s because he liked Scott Carpenter, and resented that Carpenter suffered for a “failure” while Grissom didn’t. 

Regardless, this is a great book. It’s history made exciting. There are so many memorable moments, from the bizarre and hilarious training the pilots go through as part of the astronaut selection to the indidivual trips each takes into space. Alan Shepard, the first American in space, features in a bravura sequence where Wolfe, again in Shepard’s thoughts and feelings more so than “standard” nonfiction would dare to go, relates that it’s all sort of underwhelming…at least when compared to the training sequences! The John Glenn launch, orbit, and ensuing fanfare is also great, and the patriotism here, the love for the “single-combat warrior,” was so palpable that I felt myself almost getting as misty-eyed as the tough New York cops who wept openly during Glenn’s parade through the city. What’s interesting about the book is that it’s not hero-worship of the type Life doled out during the era itself…and yet it’s clear that Wolfe himself has immense respect for these men, and there’s none of the sting or satire he’d bring to previous subjects. Even Gus Grissom, all told, is presented in a fairly heroic lot, despite Wolfe’s clear intimation that he screwed the pooch. 

The story goes that Wolfe spent some years working on The Right Stuff; actually per an interview he did with Rolling Stone in 1980, Wolfe spent six years researching but only a few months writing, with more time taken to edit. His original goal was to cover the entire Space Race, from the era documented here in The Right Stuff all the way through the mid-‘70s Skylab missions. But, again so the story goes, by the time Wolfe finally finished The Right Stuff, his wife told him, “Congratulations, you’ve finished the book,” and Wolfe decided that he’d just let this be it and not spend more time on the rest of the program. You’d have to think, though, that at least at some point over the years Wolfe must’ve thought about returning to this topic. I mean The Right Stuff was published in 1979 and Wolfe died in 2018; that’s nearly 40 years in which he had the opportunity to revisit the subject and give us a sequel to The Right Stuff

Perhaps the book’s fame gave him pause; maybe he felt that whatever he wrote would always be considered in the shadow of The Right Stuff. Or maybe he just lost interest. Whatever the reason, it’s literature’s loss that Tom Wolfe never wrote the epic he originally envisioned. Who knows how great some multi-volume work might have been, with The Right Stuff merely the first installment. There are bits and pieces throughout that indicate Wolfe originally planned the book as just the first part of his chronicle; for example, the first lead character we meet is Pete Conrad, a test pilot with an awesome sense of humor who tries out for the program but ultimately isn’t chosen – no doubt due to that time he took his colostomy bag into the general’s office and complained about all the intrusive tests that were part of the selection process. Conrad then disappears from the book, only to appear again toward the very end, as one of the “New Nine” astronauts who have been chosen for the Gemini program. Conrad would’ve been a bigger character in ensuing volumes, as he commanded the Apollo 12 mission to the moon. None of this is even intimated in The Right Stuff, and it seems clear that it’s because Wolfe figured he’d document it in the next volume. 

Then there’s Alan Shepard, one of the main figures in The Right Stuff. We only learn toward the end that an ear issue takes him out of the program, but again there’s no intimation that within a few years he would return to the fold, and ultimately go to the moon himself. For that matter, Neil Armstrong is barely a presence in the book; first we have a random mention of a pilot seat at Edwards Air Force Base with “N. Amrstrong” on it, and then much later in the book he too is casually mentioned as one of the New Nine. And while Wolfe never states that Amrstrong will be the first on the moon, he does try to compare him unfavorably to Chuck Yeager. Personally I’d say Armstrong, with his war record and test pilot skills, had more of “the right stuff” than any of the other pilots in the book. But Wolfe details a sequence where Armstrong, who has a tendency to rely on data and thus represents “the new breed” of test pilot, comes off poorly compared to flying vet Yeager: Armstrong wants to do a trial run on a certain river bed, which per the reports should be dry enough to land on, but Yeager insists, through nothing more than his own experience, that the river bed won’t be dry enough. And sure enough he’s proven correct, with the two of them stuck in the mud. One can almost hear the goofy “wah-wah-waaaah” on the soundtrack. 

So then “Post-Orbital Remorse” is the sequel to The Right Stuff that we never got. It’s a heck of a lot shorter, and some of it is a retread of material mentioned in The Right Stuff, but it also features a lot of stuff on later Apollo missions, up to and even including Edgar Mitchell’s ESP experiments on Apollo 14. Mitchell isn’t even mentioned in The Right Stuff, yet in “Post-Orbital Remorse” we’re informed he has “the Rightest Stuff of all,” with a war and test pilot record that outdid anyone’s…despite which he turned out to be the most “unusual” of all the astronauts, performing ESP tests with collagues back on Earth. Mitchell isn’t in The Right Stuff, but given the focus on him in “Post-Orbital Remorse” one can only assume he would’ve had a bigger role in the sequel(s) Wolfe unfortunately never wrote. 

What’s curious is that “Post-Orbital Remorse” has never been reprinted. You’d think at least one of the innumerable editions of The Right Stuff would feature it as an appendix, but as far as I know none of them have. It hasn’t even appeared in a Wolfe anthology to my knowledge. But as I mentioned in the link above, you can actually download a PDF of the entire article here, and it’s highly recommended reading for anyone who enjoyed The Right Stuff. It covers some of the same Mercury Seven material (though not as elaborate or comprehensive), but it also dwells on the actual flights to the moon and the experiences the astronauts went through on the lunar surface and upon their return home. I’m of the opinion that Wolfe would’ve titled his sequel (or at least the Apollo volume, if he was indeed going to do a separate volume on Gemini) “Post-Orbital Remorse,” but that’s just my suspicion. Wolfe talked to several of the astronauts and other NASA people for his research, so who knows what other stories he had set aside for future volumes; given that Pete Conrad supplied him with so much of the early section of The Right Stuff, I can only imagine what other similarly-ribald stuff Conrad might’ve divulged about the Gemini and Apollo eras. 

Given the fame of The Right Stuff, I’ll end my usual overly-comprehensive rundown and focus instead on this particular edition. This summer I picked up Moonfire, a Taschen Books abridgement of Norman Mailer’s Of A Fire On The Moon that was, in typical Taschen style, stuffed to the gills with photography. I went on the hunt for something similar, and discovered this obscure “illustrated” edition of The Right Stuff. I say obscure because I could hardly find anything out about it; there are about a zillion reviews of The Right Stuff online, but none for this particular edition. I wanted something that would be a feast for the eyes as Moonfire had been, and thus finally decided to give The Right Stuff a read. Luckily this illustrated edition can be found relatively inexpensive online. 

In a nutshell, The Right Stuff: Illustrated is the reverse of Taschen’s Moonfire: the narrative is incredible but the photos are subpar. No disrespect to those at Black Dog & Leventhal who put this book together, but this illustrated edition is somewhat of a missed opportunity. Whreas Moonfire contains dazzling full-color photos, mostly taken from Life Magazine, The Right Stuff: Illustrated is mainly comrpised of black and white shots, hardly any of them displaying the artistic finesse of those Life shots. And for that matter, Life featured a ton of photos of the Mercury Seven astronauts and their training, the majority of them taken by gifted photographer Ralph Morse, and any number of them would’ve been perfect for this book. And yet, hardly any of them are here. Indeed, you will find better full-color photos of the Mercury Seven era in Moonfire, even though the Mercury Seven astronauts are not the focus of that book. On the other hand, the shots here do the job and provide photographic documentation of the people, places, and things discussed in the book. And also, at least the publishers didn’t put photos over two pages so that the spine would jack up the image, as Taschen did. 

So far as other production issues go with The Right Stuff: Illustrated, it’s worth mentioning that there are occasional typos in the book. Otherwise, the narrative is printed on double-columned pages; The Right Stuff is longer than I thought it would be, coming in at 304 pages of dense, double-columned print. I took my time reading the book; each morning I’d get up with my kid, give him his breakfast, and sit on the couch and read a few pages while he played. He’d come over and look at the book occasionally; he got a big kick out of the photo of Ham the astrochimp (below). That picture really cracked him up for some reason. I was sorry to see The Right Stuff come to an end, and wished someone out there had done a similar approach to the Gemini and/or Apollo eras, but it doesn’t look like anyone has. So in the end I decided on Andrew Chaikin’s well-regarded A Man On The Moon (1994) as my next Space Race book; it doesn’t appear to have the literary verve of The Right Stuff, but makes up for it by being a very comprehensive study of the Apollo missions. And, like Wolfe, Chaikin met with many (if not all) of the surviving Apollo astronauts as part of his research. 

Now, on to some photos – these are just random examples of what you’ll find in The Right Stuff: Illustrated. While the photos themselves are somewhat lacking, at least when compared to the ones in Moonfire, the book itself is one of the greatest things I’ve ever read.