It is said that dead men tell no tales; but don’t tell that to Fletcher Pratt, who has managed to publish a book four years after his death!
I must confess, I did a double-take when I recently saw Invaders from Rigel at the bookstore. The beloved Fletcher Pratt, one of the genre’s titans, and inventor of one of the first playable naval wargames, passed away in 1956. Yet, here was a brand-new book with Pratt’s name on the cover.
Well, not really. As I began to read the Avalon hardcover, I felt a pang of deja vu. Not only was I certain that I’d read the tale before, but the writing struck me as belonging to an earlier era—more Savage Pellucidar than Starship Troopers.
Sure enough, when I went through my voluminous collection, I found the story in the Winter 1932 Wonder Stories Quarterly, edited by the renowned Hugo Gernsback. It was originally titled Onslaught from Rigel, and surprisingly little modification was made for its novelization, which I suppose honors Pratt’s memory.
The story, in brief: It is 1962, and a mysterious comet has crashed into the North American continent. The virtual entirety of the populace and animals are converted to lifeless iron. A handful of folk find themselves transformed into metal parodies of human beings. They are now essentially invulnerable, require no food, air, or water—just an occasional dose of electric charging and lubrication. The first third of the book is a post-apocalyptic picking up of pieces story. The remainder details the struggle of these metal men and their blue-skinned allies from the Southern Hemisphere against the elephantoid Rigelians.
It is a ludicrous story written in the pulpiest fashion, and the “science” bits at the end are egregious. My readers know what a literary snob I am, so I must have hated the book, right?
Actually, I quite enjoyed it. Sure, it was silly in the extreme, and the battle scenes were a trifle overlong, but three things made the book a worthy read, though perhaps a guilty pleasure:
1) It is well-written and pleasantly rip-roaring.
2) It reads like a cross between Burroughs and a comic book, and I like Burroughs and comic books.
3) It quite intentionally, and rather subversively, has strong female characters. In both senses of the word “strong.” You see, with both men and women made of tough metal, there is no nonsense about the “weaker” sex. Instead, you’ve got the plucky Victoria, who is a better shot than any of the men and becomes the gunner/engineer on a rocket-plane. And you’ve got the quippy, tough Hungarian dancer, Marta Lami, who is not only fun to read, but an integral part of the struggle against the aliens.
After reading story upon story featuring nothing but male characters, with the existence of females usually only implied, Invaders from Rigel was a refreshing switch.
Now, because I had both versions of the story, I can tell you what editing was done. For the most part, it was confined to “updating” the science-y bits. For instance, the book mentions atomic weapons and jet planes. At one point, a helicopter is substituted for an autogiro. The original story took place in 1946.
On the other hand, the editing was not terribly consistent or rigorous. For instance, in 1962, the Dutch still own Batavia. Also, airplanes revert from jet to rocket power later in the book. The editors also took out some of the purpler bits of prose from the original. I’m still not decided on whether this is an improvement or not. There’s not much cutting, in any event.
Do I recommend picking up a copy of the book? That’s up to you. It’s a quick read, and I enjoyed it, but you may turn up your nose at it, and I wouldn’t blame you for it. Alternatively, you might pick up Judith Merril’s Out of Bounds or Agent of Vega, by James H. Schmitz; both are anthologies that came out this month.
Next up, a slew of exciting space news. Stay tuned!