Tag Archives: post-apocalyptic

[Nov. 15, 1962] Panic in Year One (the movie, This is not a Test)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Gideon Marcus

With nuclear bombers parked just 90 miles off the coast of Florida, and last month having seen the United States go to its highest military alert level since we were fighting the Japanese, its no wonder that The Bomb remains a popular cinematic topic.  In the last decade, most of the films that featured Our Enemy, the Atom starred horribly mutated monsters.  More recently, there has been a slew of films portraying a post-apocalyptic world, starting with On the Beach, including the excellent The World, The Flesh, and the Devil, and also the less than excellent The Last Woman on Earth.


This is a test… of your patience.

The most recent entry in this radioactive field is the Z-Movie This is not a Test.  Its “star” is Seamon Glass as Deputy Sheriff Colton, a lawman dispatched to establish a roadblock on a rural road at 4AM.  As the cars and trucks are detained, we learn that Colton is after a young murderer.  The manhunt is interrupted by a bulletin: A Yellow Alert; the nation is under attack, and missile impact is imminent.


Todd Stiles and Buzz Murdock as truck drivers…

After the first few minutes, the flood of vehicles abruptly stops, and we are left with our cast of characters.  There’s the estranged middle aged couple with a dog (the Young Traveler quickly dubbed it “Gertrude“).  There’s grandpa and his pretty, pious daughter.  There’s the rakish truck driver, in whose rig the murderer had been hitchhiking.  There’s the hip couple, just back from Vegas after having made it big.  Wrapping up the ensemble is the late-arriving young scooter driver with an intellectual mien and an amazing capacity for remembering all of his lines (and little else).


“Drink this, honey — it’ll help the movie go down.”

And so begins a sort of atomic 12 Angry Men, a one-set piece in which the interactions of the characters, such as they are, takes center stage.  Civilization breaks down in the sixty minutes prior to the Bomb’s fall.  The rake seduces the wife.  The milquetoast husband shoots himself rather than interfere.  The hipsters drink themselves silly.  The fugitive, clearly mentally challenged, makes a few languid ominous moves at the daughter…but mostly just wants his suitcase back.  The grandfather suddenly remembers the existence of an abandoned mineshaft and dispatches his daughter and the intellectual to it.


Our Kooky Kast.

The most interesting character is Colton, who is a moron and yet, by virtue of his position, in charge.  He orders the roadblocked travelers to give him their car keys, he smashes the liquour in the back of the truck (so as to keep people from drinking), and then directs the stranded civilians to empty the vehicle so that it can be used as a bomb shelter — though what good thin, above-ground metal walls will do is an open question.  Later, while panting in the hot bed of the truck, the Deputy decides to kill the puppy to conserve oxygen (yes, Gertrude dies in this film, too!)


This is the enemy.

At the film’s conclusion, looters show up and abscond with the wife.  The rest of the travelers close up the truck just before the bomb hits, leaving the criminal and the deputy out in the open.  Cue a bright flash and… The End.


And thus the movie ends as it began… with a whimper.

By any measure, This is not a Test is terrible, made on a shoestring, indifferently written, counterproductively acted.  Still, as bad as this movie clearly is, it does work.  Sort of.  It’s obvious within the first ten minutes that the only drama is that provided by the characters under increasing stress.  It’s strangely compelling and somehow keeps your interest from beginning to end.

Two stars.

And now for a view from the perspective of a teen: Young Traveler, take it away!


by Lorelei Marcus

You know what there aren’t enough of right now? Movies with people talking about what to do when a nuclear bomb hits! At least, that’s what the writers of This is Not a Test thought before writing this sorry excuse of a movie. That’s right, we’re back with another movie review, and this time the movie is really bad. Let’s start from the beginning.

This is Not a Test is about a group of people who get stranded on a mountain close to ‘ground zero’ just before the missiles hit. The entire movie is their discussion of how they will survive the blast. That’s it. Now this movie was made on a shoestring, so I can let some cheapness slide but the storytelling was just lazy! There was practically no plot! Sure there were a few conflicts here and there, but nothing I really cared about. “Oh no, that one guy’s wife is cheating on him. Oh no, that other girl’s dog died.” You’d think a movie about a nuclear bomb would manage to be a little bit thrilling, or even interesting, but I guess not.


“You think we’ll see the bomb?  Hear it?”  “Not on this budget…”

I think this movie is also made so much worse because we have an example of a really fantastic movie on this topic, also made on a low budget. Panic in Year Zero was an excellent film, made with little more than This is not a Test. It had a fascinating story, compelling characters, and thrilling conflicts. In fact, its as if someone saw Panic and said, “I want to make that… but worse!” It’s a bit uncanny how the events in Panic line up with the topics of discussion in Test so flawlessly. Hmm..


“Calling all cars.  Watch out for traffic jams and people pushing cars off roads.  We won’t show you, but you’ll hear about it.”

The plot wasn’t the worst part of the movie though. The entire movie had one set: an empty road on the side of some barren mountain. I’ve seen some very bad movies, but at least they gave me something to look at! For example, the movie Konga was one of the worst films I’ve seen, but at least it was awesome seeing the city getting destroyed by a giant ape! Instead, Test gives us a couple shots of a dirt hillside and some cars to look at for an hour and ten minutes.


“Kids, I just remembered that there’s an old mine nearby.  You might have to fight Ray Milland for it, though.”


A band of looters!  This isn’t anything like Panic in Year Zero

The acting was extremely dry, the story was unoriginal and terrible, and it was boring to look at too! The title might as well be This is Not a Film! I was thoroughly bored from beginning to end, and it was frankly a waste of (more than) an hour of my life. I give this movie 1 and a half stars.

This is The Young Traveler, signing off.




[July 21, 1962] The Human Soul In A Robot’s Hand (Movie Review: The Creation of the Humanoids)

[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]


by Rosemary Benton

The complex range of anger, fear, acceptance and love that characterize the relationship humans have with robotic life is hardly new ground for science fiction. You have stories that explore societies controlled by artificial intelligence like in Jack Williamson’s With Folded Hands, stories in which robotic life works in service to their human superiors in accordance with Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, and stories that span every possible combination.

The newest addition to the science fiction sub-genre dealing with the evolution of humanity and its integration with robots came out this month in the form of the movie The Creation of the Humanoids. Following its premier in Los Angeles on July 3rd, this intriguing film made its way into theaters across America, including the theater in my city. It suffers from several weaknesses, but more than makes up for them with solid dialogue, interesting characters and a plot that makes the audience think.

I first and foremost have to congratulate the screenplay writer, Jay Simms. The story he told was both philosophically intense and well paced with each scene effectively written to expand upon the post nuclear war world in which the film takes place. In the first series of short scenes the audience is made aware of the progression of robot technology, the concern some humans have with human-looking robots, as well as a robot led movement to advance artificial life to the point of near complete human replication. In short order we are told of a fellow by the name of Dr. Raven, a brilliant scientist who is responsible for the technology being used to replicate robotic versions of deceased humans and implanting them with the personality and memories of said humans. When his lab is discovered Dr. Raven orders the synthetic human he was working on to kill him, thus instigating the first instance of a robot murdering a human and showing that their prime directive can be overwritten.

From this point the story closely follows the work of Captain Kenneth Cragis, a high ranking member of the quasi-racist anti synthetic human organization: The Order of Flesh and Blood. We see him conversing with an assembly of the Order as they discuss the discovery of Dr. Raven’s highly advanced humanoid model, whereupon we learn that, when confronted with the fact that he is not physically human any longer, the model shut itself down. After the assembly Cragis pays a visit to his sister who serves as a representation of how accepting, or complacent in Cragis’ opinion, the human race has become living side by side or even in love with humanoids. He is then introduced to her friend Maxine who works at a news agency. Despite a rather awkward and fast romance the two of them fall in love that evening. They want to start a relationship, but Cragis expresses concern that he won’t be able to give Maxine any viable offspring due to the radiation left over from the war. Despite his concern Maxine persists, and we see that Cragis is beginning to consider it.

The final act of the film contains some of the best dialogue, but also suffers from the most issues. Two low level humanoids approach Maxine and Cragis as they are walking through the streets discussing their future together, and then suddenly the scene shifts to the city’s main recharge building for the humanoids, or “temple” as they call it. Maxine and Cragis are standing stock still in clear plastic tubes as they mechanically answer questions posed to them by the three humanoid we see at the beginning of the film. The change is so sudden and without explanation that it takes a while to understand what is happening. Maxine and Cragis, as it turns out, are relaying information that they have gathered in their other lives amongst the general population. Unbeknownst to them, they are deceased humans who have been brought back to life in advanced humanoid bodies curtesy of Dr. Raven.

Deciding that their usefulness as double agents has been used up, the humanoids tell Maxine and Cragis about their true origins – that Cragis died of a brain aneurism one night in his lab, and that Maxine was accidentally killed by a bomb which, ironically, Cragis and the Order planted at her work place to harm the humanoids working in the mail room. Dr. Raven, now inhabiting an advanced humanoid body himself, explains that their souls are as much a part of their new bodies as they were in their originals. Everything that made them themselves – their memories, experiences, motivations and emotions – are still present, but in a new vessel. With a few further modifications they will even be able to reproduce. Maxine and Cragis come to accept their situation and approve of the technology being spread to the rest of the dwindling human population. Annoyingly, the movie ends with Dr. Raven turning to the camera and breaking the fourth wall by saying, “Of course, the operation was a success…or you wouldn’t be here.”

The production of The Creation of the Humanoids is impressive given what most movies of this nature are given to work with. Beautiful matte paintings and well placed sleek yet simplistic furnishings really drove home the aesthetic of the world. The color of the film is bright and crisp and frankly a welcome change from the more common black and white color scheme. Seasoned makeup artist Jack Pierce, who perhaps most famously created Boris Karloff’s iconic monster design in the 1931 movie Frankenstein, did an incredible job on the application of the grease paint and bald masks worn by the actors playing low level humanoids. The metallic scleral contact lenses that he crafted for the humanoids are especially effective and creepy.

Another well known Hollywood name that I was surprised, yet delighted, to see on the credits was Academy Award winning cinematographer Hal Mohr. I wouldn’t go so far as to describe his work on The Creation of the Humanoids to be one of his more memorable projects, but you can pick out his characteristic style of framing especially in the first encounter the story has with Dr. Raven. I have no doubt that without Mohr’s contribution to the project The Creation of the Humanoids would have been a far more static movie, especially since so much of the script is dedicated to people sitting or standing around talking.

Aside from some issues with transitions between scenes, and a weak conclusion to what would otherwise have been a powerful message on the means to the end of human mortality, The Creation of the Humanoids was a very fun movie that managed to be engaging and enthralling. The characters are written to be multilayered and well informed on their individual philosophies, the world in which they walk was distinct and believable, and the moral conundrums that they faced were not handled in a ham fisted manner. I would highly recommend this movie, even if the execution was lacking at times. Happily I give it four stars for creativity. 

(P.S. Don’t miss the second Galactic Journey Tele-Conference, July 29th at 11 a.m.!  We’ll be talking Summer Blockbusters and you’ll have a chance to win a prize!)




[July 14, 1962] Cause for Alarm (Panic in Year Zero – a surprise summer hit film!)

[if you’re new to the Journey, reference this summary article to see what we’re all about.]


by Gideon Marcus

The specter of atomic destruction has been with us for more than a decade, ever since the Soviets detonated their first A-bomb in 1949.  Both the US and USSR have developed vast bomber squadrons and now missile and submarine fleets rendering every place on Earth vulnerable.  Not surprisingly, a new genre of fiction has been spawned – the post-apocalyptic story. Books like Alas, Babylon and movies such as On the Beach (originally a novel). 

The latest example is a tiny-budgeted film by schlockhouse American Independent Pictures, Panic in Year Zero.  The Young Traveler and I saw Panic at opening night, July 5.  There was a big promotional event headlined by Frankie Avalon, and I understand the picture made back its budget in just the evening L.A. showings!  The film has already generated some positive buzz, and I suspect it’ll be the surprise hit of the summer.

Produced by the master of the independents, Roger Corman, Panic opens with a literal bang: a typical Angelino family out on a drive toward a camping vacation sees a bright flash as their home town of Los Angeles is wiped out by Soviet bombs.  It soon becomes clear that the attack is widespread and civilization is about to deteriorate.  Our viewpoint family must brave its way to safety, securing adequate supplies and a defensible shelter, before the walls of society collapse.

The father, to all appearances a moral and decent man, has his principles rocked to the core.  After all, at what juncture is it right to abandon civilization and fight solely for your family?  When is that point of inflection where it is okay to abandon the sinking ship, at the same time hastening its capsize?  There are several points in the film where Milland undertakes actions that, while they ensure his survival, likely cause the death of countless others.  Compared to modern-day folk, his acts are evil.  But contrasted to the depravity they meet, they are the “good guys.”  It’s fascinating and effective.

Panic stars a pair of actors in the Autumn of their career: Ray Milland (who also directs) and Jean Hagen as the parents.  Teen idol Frankie Avalon is the son, while Joan Freeman, of whom I’d never heard, is the daughter.  Despite the utter lack of funds, or perhaps because of it, the acting, writing, and pacing are all tight and surprisingly realistic and gritty.  Les Baxter contributes an original score that consists largely of snappy jazz music.  It is at once appropriate and jarring.  All in all, it’s a solid movie, well worth your time – particularly if this genre is your bag.

Four stars.

[And now for the Young Traveler’s take…]


by Lorelei Marcus

Death is a scary topic for pretty much everyone. I think what’s scary about it is it’s so unexpected. You don’t know when you’re going to die. You could die tomorrow! Our chances of death seem to have increased since the Cold War began as well. All it takes is one push of a button and you and everything you love is obliterated in seconds. That’s a truly terrifying thought. However, what if you survived? What would living through the aftermath be like? Luckily, the new movie, Panic in Year Zero! has the answer!

Panic in Year Zero! is the latest summer blockbuster, taking the U.S. by storm. It goes into the life of a traditional suburban family trying to survive the aftermath of a mass bombing. All the major cities, as well as our allies have been nuked. The family, specifically the father and son, have to face harsh moral decisions centered around their family’s survival. It portrays beautifully the panic and breakdown of society, and how this family deals with that. When law and order falls, do you try and restore society, or survive?

I believe the acting was very good. The emotions felt real. The story was also fantastic. It managed to tackle very dark issues while also being entertaining and hopeful. The pacing was great as well; everything in the movie played in real-time in a convincing way. The events all felt very natural and beautifully laid out. This movie did a superb job considering its tiny budget, especially when it came to the special effects. It is thought-provoking, very well done, and a very good watch.

I give this movie 4.5 stars. I highly recommend you see this movie.

(P.S. Don’t miss the second Galactic Journey Tele-Conference, July 29th at 11 a.m.!  We’ll be talking Panic and other films!)

[July 4, 1962] Happy submersion (The Drowned World, by J.G. Ballard)


by Rosemary Benton

At last, the levity that I so desperately needed has been provided. Prior to reading The Drowned World I was only aware of J. G. Ballard as a name. He was well published, I knew, but ultimately a background figure to my science fiction library. That all changed on June 30th, however, when I went to the town bookstore and purchased The Drowned World. The bookseller said that it would take me no time at all to read. I found this to be true, although the time it took me to process the book was far longer than than I had expected.

J. G. Ballard’s The Drowned World is a post-apocalyptic ballad performed by a select cast, and encased in a small slice of Ballard’s much larger story of the evolution of Earth. The location of the story takes place in an entirely fictional future vision of Earth. Due to a sun which has become unstable, the Earth is rapidly heating. The remaining 5 million humans have fled to the Antarctic circle where the temperature is a tolerable 85 degrees. The Earth’s equator, by comparison, is close to 200 degrees on any given day. Bombarded by solar radiation and spurred on by the intolerable heat, flora and fauna have begun to mutate to prehistoric shapes and sizes. Enormous iguanas, crocodiles and snakes are now a common site in Berlin and London, whose streets and buildings are now submerged by upwards of 50 feet of water. Large bat-sized mosquitoes bash themselves relentlessly against the wire meshes and cages encircling the last human bastions in London, while dog-sized bats feast upon the oversized insects. The evolution of disease has kept pace with the changing environment; malaria becomes the most common affliction hitting the human population.

Much of Europe has been reduced to lagoons nestled between vast expanses of jungle and silt dunes. In one such lagoon, floating over the decaying architecture of London, sits the stage and players of the story. Central to the book are the biologists Dr. Robert Kerans and Dr. Bodkin, the emotionally distant heiress Beatrice Dahl and the villainous looter, Strangman. Surrounding them are the rest of the research team sent to monitor the changing landscape, and Strangman’s crew of tribalistic-minded followers.

On a small scale Ballard includes the traditional elements of science fiction and action-adventure. There is a hero, a villain, a love interest who is desired by both the villain and the hero, a climax to the tension between the battle of the hero and the goals of the villain, tied off nicely with a sacrificial confidant and companion to the hero. On a much larger scale The Drowned World offers a character study of a villain and a hero, both of whom are morally ambiguous, as they navigate a truly alien environment with totally different sets of rules for survival.

To best dissect The Drowned World I think it is necessary to take a look at the three major players to Ballard’s drama: Ms. Dahl, Strangman and finally Dr. Kerans. Ms. Dahl is perhaps one of the more developed characters of the story, and yet her journey is largely symbolic. A key element of Ballard’s world is that not only is the physical world around humanity devolving, but so is the unconscious mind of humanity. Plagued by memories of survival urges now unlocked after centuries of culture and socialization, humans by and large are subjected to nighttime visions of hot, fiery landscapes and looming reptilian danger. Ms. Dahl is one of the first characters who we see suffering from these apparitions.

We read about her trying to deal with them through alcohol and cool detachment. Her acceptance of the end of the human world is made all the more evident by her refusal early on in the book to leave the lagoon for the more tolerable temperature of the northern settlements. Despite the coming rains, the rise of the water, and the abandonment of the post by the well equipped scientific team, she shows little interest in leaving behind her home. Yet in the shifting pools of green, warm water with its surface disturbed by the movement of reptiles swimming in and out of the lower levels of the ruined buildings, she has managed to find an equilibrium in which she can live out her days, even as the prophetic nightmares of flooding rain and dense jungle encroachment press ever closer. She has given up fighting against nature and the universe’s larger plans for the planet, and instead finds her small pleasures in dining on the dwindling reserves of fine food, sunbathing, and keeping up a cultured outward physique.

Ms. Dahl’s personal journey is taking her along the same path as Dr. Kerans’. She is dreaming of an ancestral life and living it as best she can in the present. When confronted with a challenge to this backwards slide she recoils and withdraws within herself. She longs for the return to the encroachment of the water and reviles in the exposure of the land.  She is unable to deal with change that could draw her on a different path from the envelopment of Earth by the sea, and ultimately it destroys her relationship with her companions Dr. Kerans and Dr. Bodkin.

Enter Strangman on his ridiculous riverboat piled high with looted objet d’art, liquor and jewelry. Like Ms. Dahl, Strangman enters the story as someone who has given in to the changing world, although he has done so in a drastically different fashion. In keeping with salvage laws and the overall objective of land reclamation, Strangman drains the lagoon in order to gain favor with the loosely upheld government. At the same time he is able to continue with his passion of surrounding himself with items of beauty from the old world. Unlike our protagonists, Strangman is not regressing backwards to a state of piteous apathy, nor is he embracing the larger time scale that Ms. Dahl and Dr. Kerans have via their million year old primitive dreams. Even though he is aware of them via conversation with Dr. Kerans, and presumably experiences them himself, he is written as an opportunist. He takes risks in sending his crew, which he provides for and never once abuses, down into the sunken city. He takes chances by draining the lagoon in order to reclaim the land and thereby more easily take its sunken riches. He is progress in a backwards way because ultimately nothing he does will have any lasting impact, but he at least fights against the insignificance of his actions and his existence.

Along this line he is also upholding the pre-drowned world, and while he revels in the finer luxuries it provided, he doesn’t do so in the same way as Dr. Kerans or Ms. Dahl. While they are content with living out the lifespan of their delicious foods and luxury accommodations before the sea reclaims them, Strangman wants to make them last as long as possible. Even unnaturally so. He rejects the inevitable in favor of the possible when he drains the lagoon and likely plans to drain others in the area. He is even commended for his actions by Dr. Kerans’ team when they return to the area at the end of the book and see what he has accomplished.

At last we must examine Dr. Kerans. This man, who we meet standing on his balcony of the Ritz complete with air conditioning, fine clothes and even finer furnishings, is not shaken by the thought of nearly anything involving his future. Absorbed in the visceral feel of his present environment, Dr. Kerans is a man who lives entirely in the now with little thought to the future or concern for the past. Only later does he even begin to experience the dreams that have led most of the cast to a delayed madness. At the end of the book he even embraces a futile journey south and consequently a slow, painful suicide. Put concisely he is against everything that we, as modern humans and Americans, are taught to embrace as progress – the continuous struggle against nature, the need to suffer for progress, and the need to forge your own fate. In any other story he would be the villain trying to prevent the human race from fighting back against its aggressor. Interestingly, in this story he is the hero. But why is he the hero? Ultimately I believe this can be answered by Ballard’s writing style.

J. G. Ballard’s writing is like a good red wine. It has body, heft, and layered flavors that reveal themselves based on how you indulge in them. I read The Drowned World over the course of several days, taking my time to sink into the atmospheric environment that Ballard creates. In short sips the book takes the reader a long way. So many descriptive analogies, metaphors and adjectives are crammed into each page that one would think Ballard had gone overboard. Yet despite his verbose world building, nothing felt repetitive and frankly, I couldn’t get enough.

I lived for days on how Ballard would express his characters’ wonder at the world surrounding them, and how each as an individual would contribute to the progress of the story. It is this individual experience that I believe made Dr. Kerans the hero, Strangman the villain, and Ms. Dahl the figurative totem. When one reads Ballard’s dialogue it is abundantly secondary to the individual brazen actions taken by each character. This isolation, when a character acts of their own volition outside of what their companions would want or desire, is what Ballard revels in. The individual, whether walking forward or backwards in human evolution, is a lynchpin. What they see, how the environment congeals around them, and how their actions later influence others is paramount to Ballard’s The Drowned World.

Thus, Dr. Kerans was the hero because he was willing to press forward into that isolation of standing behind his scientific team, and in the end, the isolation of the journey south toward the epicenter of the heat. Strangman, on the other hand, was nothing without his crew, his treasures or his need to change the world for the benefit of the many. As such he was the villain. It is an interesting reversal, and one which I believe took a cunning mind to pen. I look forward to exploring more of Ballard’s works and retroactively swimming through his vast sea of published works. This book deserves a well-earned five out of five stars. 

(P.S. Don’t miss the second Galactic Journey Tele-Conference, July 29th at 11 a.m.!  If you can’t make it to Worldcon/Chicon III, this is YOUR chance to Vote for the 1962 Hugos!)

Approaching midnight (Alas, Babylon; 5-21-1959)

Two years ago, the Soviet Union demonstrated the ability to lob an H-bomb across the globe.  Overnight, it was clear that anywhere on the planet could be destroyed with just 15 minutes’ notice, if that.  This year, the United States will base Thor and Jupiter IRBMs in Europe within range of the Soviet Union, and the Russians will feel that same Sword of Damocles.  Never mind that America’s Strategic Air Command has more bombers now than ever, and one can be fairly certain that the Soviet counterpart is at a historical high, as well.

Civilization could all come crashing down at a moment’s notice.  It’s a reality we’ve lived with since that first artificial sun blossomed over the desert of New Mexico, but it’s never been closer, more tangible. 

An atomic holocaust has been the subject of numerous novels and short stories since the late 1940’s, but until this year, there had not been a grittily realistic portrayal of a nuclear exchange and the subsequent struggle for survival.

Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon was released just two months ago, and it has already caused a well-deserved stir.  It is, quite simply, sublime.  With its strong grasp of the technology of the nuclear war machine, its savvy of human interactions in a post-apocalyptic setting, and its unadorned yet somehow gentle depictions of the well-drawn characters, it is a one-sitting page turner.

In brief: Randy Bragg is a dilletante resident of the sleepy resort and fishing town of Fort Repose, Florida.  After an abortive flirtation with politics (his defeat attributable to his soft line on segregation), he lives a rather aimless life.  His brother, Mark, is a senior intelligence officer at America’s missile command center in Cheyenne Mountain.  The book opens on December 3, 1959, with the two world Superpowers on the brink of war.  Mark warns Randy that war is imminent and sends his family (wife, two children) to live in Fort Repose.

And not a moment too soon.  Within six hours of Helen, Ben Franklin, and Peyton’s arrival, Florida and the rest of the nation are hit with several bombs, knocking out first communications and then electricity.  Within a day, Fort Repose is reduced to a pre-Industrial oasis in a radioactive hell. 

Randy quickly becomes the leader of his local group, which includes not just him and his brother’s family, but his strong, liberated girlfriend, Elizabeth, her parents, Randy’s black gardener and maid, the maid’s husband, a young doctor, Dan Gunn, and a retired Admiral, Sam Hazzard.  Together, they become the hope of Fort Repose, assuring its shaky survival over the course of the year after the attack.

Pat Frank sets the stage with care and a nail-biting sense of inexorability; the bombs don’t fall until page 91, after we have become intimately familiar with most of the book’s protagonists.  The hurdles that the residents of Fort Repose must overcome are plausible.  The solutions are reasonable.  The ending is bittersweet, but tinged with a little hope, and perhaps the best that could be expected.

What impresses me the most about this book is its progressive character.  There are several strong woman characters (Helen; Elizabeth; Peyton; Randy’s ex-girlfriend, Rita; the town telegrapher, Florence; the town librarian, Alice; Missouri, the maid), and the book is a strong indictment of racial prejudice, along with the legal practices stemming therefrom.  It is a book about the triumph of human spirit, as exemplified by all of the species’ members.

Is that a strong-enough recommendation?  Run, don’t walk, to your nearest bookstand and get yourself a copy. 

(Confused?  Click here for an explanation as to what’s really going on)


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Fire from the Sky (March 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction; 3-10-1959)

Last time on this station, I informed all of you that Part 2 of this (last) month’s Fantasy & Science Fiction review would have to wait since I’d wanted to get through the Poul Anderson novelette before reporting.

Well, I’m glad I did.  Damn that Anderson, anyway.  How dare he write a good story!  Now I can’t justify skipping him.  But more on that later.

Of Time and Cats by Howard Fast, who normally doesn’t dip his toe in the science fiction pool, is a fun tale of the multiplicity that ensues when time travel is involved.  A slick, paradoxical story.

Algis Budrys has another winner with The Distant Sound of Engines about impending death and the urgent need to impart a lifetime’s accumulated wisdom before final departure.  Sad.  Good.

Avram Davidson’s The Certificate is dystopic in the extreme, and probably inspired by the recent Holocaust.  A subjugated humanity is reduced to bitter slave labor.  The only “gift” from their new overlords is perfect health.  How does one escape?

I liked Three Dimensional Valentine by Stuart Palmer (who had a story in the very first F&SF) quite a lot.  It is fun and frivolous and rather old-fashioned.  It is also unexpected.  The author has given me permission to distribute this one, but I haven’t quite received it in the mails yet.  I’ll let you know when I do.

And now to Poul Anderson’s The Sky People.  As you know, I always approach Anderson with trepidation.  Apart from the amazing Brainwave, his work is generally turgid, and I don’t like his manly men and absent women.

This one was different.  There is still plenty of swashbuckling in this post-apocalyptic tale, but it is done in the style and with the flaire of a good pirate movie like Black Swan.  It is set in old San Antone, in the heart of the decaying “Meycan” Empire, south of Tekas and north of S’america.  Their technology and mindset is mired in the 16th century.  The eponymous “Sky People” are dirigible-driving corsairs from the Kingdom of “Canyon.”  Though rapacious and ruthless, they possess a greater technology than their target–the Meycans.  Unfortunately for them, the timing of their attack proves to be inauspicious as it coincides with the arrival of a delegation from the Federation, successors to the Polynesian nations of Oceania. 

Told by three viewpoint characters, one Polynesian, one sky pirate, and one Meycan (a woman!), it is really quite good.  Not only has Anderson managed to convincingly portray a wide variety of cultures, he has done a fine job of projecting recovery from an atomic catastrophe in a world that has used up most of its natural resources.  I don’t know if Anderson has written other stories in this universe or if he intends to, but I would enjoy reading more.

The final story is Alfred Bester’s Will You Wait?.  The deal with the Devil story has been just about done to death, but this is an infernally cute story about how the modern way of business has made the process Hell on Earth.

Gosh, where does that leave us for the issue?  4 stars?  4 and a half?  Definitely a good read worth picking up–if there are any left on the stands, that is.

See you on the 12th!



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After midnight (43,000 Years Later; 1-11-1959)

It has been two minutes to midnight since 1953.

According to the Federation of Atomic Scientists, we have been teetering at the brink of nuclear destruction since the Soviets detonated their first H-Bomb.  Now that both East and West have demonstrated the ability to launch, without warning and without possibility of resistance, H-bomb-carrying missiles from one hemisphere to the other, I will not be surprised if the FAS ticks the clock one minute closer to midnight.

It is thus no surprise that post-apocalyptic fiction is a genre coming into full flower.  On the Beach, a pessimistic look at the aftermath set in Australia, came out in 1957, and it was a strong seller. 

One of last year’s crop was Horace Coon’s 43,000 Years After, which tells the tale of an alien archaeological expedition to Earth 43,000 years after humanity has exterminated itself and all vertebrate land life by nuclear hellfire.  Coon is not, by trade, a science fiction author.  He writes social how-to books and satirical social commentary.  It’s actually a good background for someone writing a book of this type.

The best satire holds a mirror to its subject to point up its absurdities.  Coon does this in 43,000 by letting humanity’s writings and edifices, most made for public consumption rather than posterity, be our race’s only method of communicating with the archaeologists, humanity having rendered itself otherwise quite mute.

And what did we leave behind?  Most of our cities have been smashed, and the remains have not aged well over 43 millennia.  It is clear to the future observers that we did have large transportation networks, that we did have knowledge of the H-bomb, and that such weapons were employed universally (though the aliens are somehow able to deduce which had been fired by the West and which by the East).  Some statues survive, and the aliens are aided by a limited sense of telepathy that enables to them to puzzle out mysteries that might otherwise be unsolvable (the last is a hand-wave, but scientific rigor is not the point of the book).

The real breakthrough comes when the expedition finds a time capsule buried in 1938 in conjunction with the World Expo.  The capsule provides a wealth of written and physical detail, particularly the Almanac and Sears Roebuck Catalogs.  The expedition also finds scattered records on stone and surviving microfilm, but they (conveniently) end in the 1950s, ten years before the determined date of the holocaust.

The findings of the archaeologists are conveyed through the personal musings of each of the three expedition directors: dogmatic and dictatorial Zolgus, thoughtful and scientific Yundi, philosophical and emotional Xia.  Each is heavily influenced by his/her prejudices.  Zolgus, for instance, cannot help but denigrate humanity for its failings: employing agriculture, failing to fix the planet’s axis, failing to embrace a world dictatorship, eschewing renewable energy sources.  Zolgus acknowledges briefly that his own race had its savage time, but he refuses to pardon Earth’s growing pains, describing us universally as “stupid.”  Unfair?  Perhaps, but an attitude that the richer nations of Earth frequently adopt toward the more “backward” nations of the world.  Or by the rich toward the poor (i.e. “I got mine; why ain’t you got yours yet?”)

Yundi is more respectful, but relying solely on empirical data, he has the most trouble understanding humanity’s self-destructive urges.  Xia is willing to be charitable.  She unabashedly falls in love with the Earth and its erstwhile inhabitants.  She recognizes and forgives our self-destructive urges, only lamenting that they came to such an unhappy fruition.

We do not learn much about the aliens except that which can be gleaned from their own reflections–they must be roughly humanoid, but they have no teeth and six digits on each appendage.  They do not crowd all of their sensory organs into their head.  They have a Communist-style dictatorship and vast technologies and access to energy.  They do not self-perpetuate or have families, but rather artificially grow their young so as to completely liberate both sexes.  Coming to Earth reinforces the wisdom of these practices for Zolgus, but creates doubts regarding them in the other two, especially Xia.

Ultimately, the questions the expedition asks are “why did humanity kill itself, and was it inevitable?”  In answering these questions, Coon tells the readers (through his characters) how to possibly avert the potential tragedy.  Coon also creates a secondary cautionary tale in the form of Zolgus, depicting in a negative light the phenomenon of technological dehumanization.

Of course, such a book runs the risk of being a colossal bore of philosophical posturing.  In fact, the book is rather short (just 143 pages), and quite well written.  The characters, while probably not alien enough, are engaging, and each have their own well-developed tone.  As a story, the plot could have been served better with more focus on the archaeological sleuthing; the archaeologists come to their conclusions a bit too quickly.  But, again, that’s not really the point. 

So give the book a read.  You may or may not come away with any profound shifts in your thinking, but you won’t have wasted the few hours it takes to complete the novel.

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