BEYOND THE MAD PLANET:
SF-pioneer Murray Leinster wrote a trilogy of novelettes set in a bizarre
future-world overrun by giant insects, where the remnants of humanity
struggle to survive. He was writing at a time when the genre was still
young enough to ignore the rules…
There are two perspectives on this phenomena. It can be argued that – yes, the literature evolved from its cruder simpler pulp forms, and sophisticated as it grew. But it also renews for every new initiate. It is forever new, at the point of its first discovery. That moment of ignition is the same now, as it was for readers of earlier decades. That teenage opening up of possibilities that flashes in your head like neon. But alternately, those first statements were unique, existing in a separate continuum. When EE ‘Doc’ Smith, or Isaac Asimov, or Robert Heinlein were first expanding the scope of SF out into the galaxy, it had never been done before. They were inventing it. Subsequent writers have benefitted by taking advantage of being able to dip and delve from their image-bank, mixing-and-matching from their pre-existing archive of ideas. Various reconfigurings of Hyper-Drive Starships, world-wrecking Planet-Killers, Galactic Empires ruled by corrupt and despotic Emperors, wars between worlds and clashes with alien cultures.
That was not always so. There is also the rough edges and rawness of first statements. When Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker was accelerating Jazz into BeBop, that sound had never before existed. When the Beatles recorded “Strawberry Fields Forever” nothing like it had happened before. Just as when the Dadaists upended the concepts of what art meant and could become, or when Jackson Pollock daubed his way into Abstract Expressionism. There is the shock of newness, as well as the reassurance of continuity. Those first few decades of Science Fiction had that same exploratory uniqueness. It was making itself up through each garish issue of those early newsstand magazines. It was inventing itself.
“The Runaway Skyscraper” novelette – shifting an office-block back in time from the Manhattan skyline to Native American pre-Columbian forests, made its spectacular lift-off into the third issue of ‘Amazing Stories’ – dated June 1926, alongside such heavy-weight names as HG Wells, Jules Verne, Otis Adelbert Kline and G Peyton Wertenbaker. ‘From that beginning, I went on and on – and still do’ he adds with wry humour. “The Mad Planet” followed in the eighth issue – November 1926 (although, as with “The Runaway Skyscraper”, it had been previewed in ‘Argosy’). It was a time when Science Fiction wasn’t even yet called Science Fiction. The story introduces Burl in his far-future world where vast evolutionary changes have transformed the Earth into a realm of giant insects and fungus forests. Where the devolved remnants of humanity have become the endangered species. Many years later Colin Wilson would write his ‘Spider World’ novel-series – commencing with ‘Spider World: The Tower’ (1987), taking a far more pedestrian glimpse into the evolutionary consequences of humans enslaved by monster arachnids.
Despite the self-admitted literary deficiencies and rule-breaking limitations of his story, Leinster’s vigorous energy manages to build up a complex biosphere, a fully interactive ecosystem crawling with nasty cannibalistic and vicious creatures. ‘The insects of the night – the great moths whose wings spread far and wide in the dimness, and the huge fireflies, four feet in length, whose beacons made the earth glow in their pale, weird light.’ It’s more in keeping with Brian Aldiss’s excellent ‘Hothouse’ (1962), with its detailed worlds-end given over to grotesque vegetable life-forms squirming into every available evolutionary niche. Yet, born in August 1925, young Brian Aldiss was scarcely yet around to take notice!
As Leinster readily points out, against the prescriptions of literary pundits – ‘the authorities in such matters’, there is no dialogue in “The Mad Planet”. Characterisation is minimal. The reader is carried along purely on the momentum of adventure, discovery, shock and amazement. Editor Walter Gillings of Britain’s pioneering magazine ‘Tales Of Wonder’ reprints “The Mad Planet”, making it the dramatic cover-story of no.6 – showing a crouching man armed only with a spear, menaced by a giant bee. Accompanied by line-illustrations supplied by Manchester artist Harry Turner, Gillings writes ‘one of the most popular stories we have published was “The Mad Planet”, which took us thirty-thousand years into the future to a fantastic world where giant insects thrived amid nightmare fungus growths, and man was an insignificant creature living a precarious existence.’ So that its sequel “Red Dust” (in no.9), is blurbed ‘to the primitive Burl and his tribe came a new peril, even greater than the hideous monsters of that mad planet.’
‘“The Mad Planet” and its sequel, “The Red Dust”, came out of my enthusiasm for the works of Jean-Henri Fabre on insects’ divulges Leinster. A French entomologist and naturalist (1823-1915) Fabre wrote populist books on the lives of insects. Leinster continues ‘while I was writing the first, it seemed to get out of balance, and when it was finished, I felt there was something lacking in a certain part of the story. So I sat down again and really let myself go, throwing all inhibitions overboard – and did the chapter about the burning of the purple hills, which I like better than anything else in the yarn.’
First he co-ordinates a revenge attack on the suspended hemispherical nest of a giant clotho spider which had devoured a man of the tribe. Then he leads his people, ‘at once brave and pathetic, venturing forth in a world of monstrous ferocity and incredible malignance,’ detouring around a war between ant-hill cities. Separated from his tribe by a crazy ride on the back of a huge meat-eating bug, he finds Saya just as she’s being interred by burying-beetles. They enter ‘The Forest Of Death’ and cross ‘The Fragrant Swamp’, then construct rafts from shelf-fungus which carry them down the river. They brave ‘four-inch mosquitoes, that were driven off by the tribesfolk with lusty blows, glittering beetles, and flies whose bodies shone with a metallic lustre, buzzed and flew above the water. Huge butterflies danced above the steaming, festering earth…’ Strengthened by the journey, ‘they knew the exhilaration of brave adventure’, they eventually reach a valley beyond the Red Dust threat, with cave-like burrows left by tunnelling hunting-wasp grubs to provide a safe refuge, leading off a plateau with fresh water and food sources.
‘One doesn’t often get a chance to write something just for the fun of it, without particular regard for the accepted rules of story-writing’ says Leinster. And the only dialogue in the story consists of a single paragraph in which Burl and Saya pledge to each other as leaders of the tribe. ‘Forty-thousand words of fiction in which the leading character keeps his mouth shut… and I hope you like it! If you don’t, I leave it to the individual to heave brickbats according to his personal taste.’
In that same issue of ‘Tales Of Wonder’ Alfred Gordon Bennett contributes an article concerning ‘an amazing forecast of the far-off future, when Earth may be ruled by monster insects of supreme intellect!’ Bennett had made his own fictional foray into such possibilities with his novel ‘The Demigods’ (1939) – with a hive-mind of giant ants emerging from an underground African realm, and it’s a subject that will recur throughout fantasy fiction. Although there are very sound scientific arguments against insect super-growth ‘on the grounds that the insects’ respiratory system is such as would prevent them obtaining sufficient oxygen from the air to sustain life,’ there’s nevertheless fossil evidence that, under altered environmental conditions, it has happened in the distant past. And it has proved irresistible to Sci-Fi, from the monster radioactive mutations of ‘Them!’ (1954) through to Earth’s implacable and convincingly alien Big Bug enemies in the ‘Starship Troopers’ (1997) movie. Editorially prompted by the inclusion of Leinster’s novelette Bennett speculates, declaring an intention to ‘dispose of all the romantic frillings with which the subject has been draped, and search for such factual evidence’ as he can. His conclusions admit the possibility that ‘with the lapse of astronomical and geological eons, the insect race may even become the lords of this planet.’
As one of the few early contributors to the garish pulps to efficiently navigate the changes John Campbell introduced through the ‘Astounding/ Analog’ period, his style sophisticated and he continued to appear as a respected author – the ‘Dean Of Science Fiction’, producing an impressive fiction output spanning decades. A rationalist, he sees a sense of basic logic underlying the apparent chaotic nature of the universe, as in “The Ethical Equations” which ‘gave mathematical proof that probabilities and ethics are interlinked, so that final admirable results cannot be expected from unethical beginnings,’ as in his May 1945 ‘Astounding SF’ tale of a ten-thousand-year-old alien derelict made of exotic particles that drifts into the solar system. The ends, he says, do not justify immoral means. It’s a theme reiterated in “Symbiosis” (‘Colliers’, January 1947), ‘the life of humanity is a symbiosis, a living-together, in all its stages. It begins with the symbiotic relationship of members of a family, each of whom helps and is helped by all the rest. But it rises to the symbiotic relationship of nations, of which each is an organism necessary to the others, and all are mutually helpful.’ At a time of international walls and disaffiliations, his fable of Kantolia invaded by, but outwitting its more massive neighbour, takes on new contemporary relevance.
At this point he was no longer the rebel. With SF growing away from its ‘Buck Rogers’-stuff trash reputation into a grudging acceptance, he was writing clever tales rich with character detail, modest original ideas and – yes, an interplay of well-observed dialogue.
William Fitzgerald Jenkins – aka ‘Murray Leinster’, died 8 June 1975, aged 78. Leaving a legacy of fine writing.
1934 – ‘THE MOLE PIRATE’ (Astounding Stories’, November 1934) Arthur C Clarke says ‘the story inspired one of Howard Brown’s most memorable covers showing what looks like the ghost of a submarine, half-in and half-out of a bank vault, while the frustrated guards attack it vainly with ineffectual weapons.’ A scientist invents a burrowing machine, slipping through the spaces between atoms, which he uses for criminal purposes
1945 – ‘PIPELINE TO PLUTO’ (‘Astounding SF’, August 1945) ‘the Pipeline was actually a two-billion-mile arrangement of specks of infinity. Each of the specks was a carrier. Each of the carriers was motorless and inert. Each was unlighted. Each was lifeless’ endlessly ferrying materials out to the Pluto mines, and carrying the metals back. Except there are stowaways, who don’t realise that ‘you’ll freeze so fast y’wont have time to die’. A resuscitated Hill returns, seeking revenge
1948 – ‘THE DEVIL OF EAST LUPTON’ (‘Thrilling Wonder Stories’, August 1948), as Mr Tedder runs away to escape vagrancy charges he discovers three objects, a sphere not more than ten-feet in diameter (a projectile from Jupiter carrying a life-form which snags its life-support on barbed-wire, and melts), a thing that resembles a gun, and a ‘pot’ which he places on his head for ease of carrying, but which becomes fixed irremovably by chin-straps. Subsequently, wherever he goes he finds unconscious people and animals, more confused than seeking criminal advantage, he tries to help the victims. Slow-witted he eventually realises the helmet is an alien weapon projecting a defensive zone, just as the army moves in and begin blanket-shelling the area. He drops the gun and the ‘pot’ down a well causing a massive explosion, ‘but Mr Tedder’s intellectual processes would never grasp such a thing’. Hospitalised, he ‘disappeared into the vast obscurity of the world of tramps, bums, blanket-stiff and itinerant workmen’ leaving the mystery unresolved
1956 – ‘SCRIMSHAW’ (‘Astounding SF’, February 1956), Pop Young lives in a dust-covered shack on the Moon’s dark side where he sketches attempts at recovering the lost memory of his murdered wife and children. His attacker – Sattell, works in the diamond mine in the Big Crack beneath him. Pop foils an attempted diamond-heist – by a red-headed man in league with Sattell, causing the ship to explode, then salvages a clear-white plastic stair-rail from the debris that he can carve into a ‘scrimshaw’ sculpture, ‘because that was the way to get back the missing portions of his life.’ There is no resolution, no reveal of his lost memories, no hint of what his revenge, or reaction, or reconciliation will be
1967 – ‘APPLIED SCIENCE FICTION’ (‘Analog’, November 1967), his last appearance in an SF magazine, an article on his own invention – Jenkins Systems, the front-projection backdrop technique which is now an accepted part of the TV and movie-making industry