Doc Reviews Manly Wade Wellman’s “The Dark Destroyers”

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Let’s get this out of the way right now.  Two things, really.  First, is Manly Wade Wellman the best name for a pulp science fiction author you’ve ever heard in your life?  I’ll save you the trouble of actually having to think:  Yes, it is.  Good lord, if you say it quickly enough, you bark out “manly-made well man!” and people stare at you for what seems like hours.

Second: Is this the most ridiculous cover of a pulp science fiction book you’ve ever seen?  Again, yes, yes it is.  Look closely.  What must be the protagonist appears to be under attack by a giant cartoon hen with steel-cable tentacles spraying out where the beak should be.  It’s nothing short of brilliant.  Who’s NOT going to want to grab this thing?

Image result for manly wade wellmanWith “The Dark Destroyers,” Manly Wade Wellman does everything he appears to set out to do.  Entertain the reader.  The story starts out with an explanation that the appropriately-nicknamed “Cold People” (they can only live in the extreme cold) invaded Earth some 50 years before the action in this novel.  No one seems to know why they came – no efforts were made to communicate with the inhabitants of the blue planet they set down on – but they appear hell-bent on exterminating all of humanity.  It was soon understood that these invaders could not withstand the temperatures of Earth’s hottest areas; soon, bands of survivors made their way closer to the equator in order to establish a semblance of rule, and try to determine a way to kill the Cold People and claim the Earth for Earthlings once again.

The “present day” of this novel begins with five chiefs of their own tribes around a council fire near the Orinoco river, investigating the possibility of creating an alliance from the other rogue tribes in hopes of consolidating smarts and weapons to crush the Cold People once and for all.  Sitting not far from the council fire is upstart Mark Darragh, who does his best to talk sense into the men before him.  Mark convinces the others that if they just give him enough time to study the creatures, he can gain an understanding of their weaknesses beyond the climate, and determine a way to intelligently defeat the enemy, rather than once again throwing manpower and steel at them, only to have all takers killed.

The book pushes ahead from there, finding Mark among the Cold People, eventually learning (through ridiculous happenstance) how they fly their aircraft.  Cocky Mark finds himself in peril after peril, eventually finding himself a prisoner of these creatures.  Rather than killing him, though, the aliens drop him among what appears to be a habitation of regular Earthlings who live in a type of zoo for the creatures to study.  Tending to his wounds is Brenda Thompson, the love interest of the story; the banter between these two is some of the corniest dialogue this side of a 1940s B-western.

Before Mark’s had a chance to fully heal from the wounds he’s suffered from his capture, he’s spotted the perfect Deus ex Machina in the village that will aid in not only his own escape, but give liberation to the others in this makeshift zoo.  The leader of the community, however, is Orrin Lyle, who’s had his own eye on Brenda for some time.  He argues that the community isn’t ready to act, that they have spent 50 years studying the aliens, and need more time before taking action.  Mark’s plan is foolproof, and time’s a-wasting.  Orrin’s just not having it; Mark’s facing a tough decision – override Orrin and run the risk of having untold numbers of community members try to take him down, or try to convince the entire community, Orrin be damned, that there is little time left to act.

The book is a ripping read; for all its weaknesses (there aren’t many), it is solidly written by the prolific Wellman, who has a nice turn of phrase for the era in which he wrote.  There are some eye-rolling moments, not least of which is the awkward scene in which Mark forces himself on Brenda in a manner that would get him arrested today, and perseveres in spite of her violent protests, only to find the tide turned almost immediately, because Brenda can’t say no to those boyish charms.  Still, knowing that we’ve seen the same sort of stuff in old black and white films and recent presidential campaigns, we can move on without giving it too much thought.

I found the ending to be about what I’d expect it to be, the sort that you can more or less figure out from about a mile away.  But that doesn’t make the book less satisfying.  A solid effort, breezy and quick, something to cleanse the palate between something a bit meatier.  On a scale of 1 to 10, Doc’s got to give this one a B-minus.

Project Gutenberg currently offers two of Wellman’s stories for free, and there’s a few handsome ones through Archive.org; however, “The Dark Destroyers” doesn’t seem to be available for free legally, so no links, but keep your eyes peeled.  It’s worth grabbinga  library copy, but I’m not sure I’d pay a lot of money for it.

Image result for russian film symposiumDon’t forget – Doc’s Cavalcade of Russian Film Reviews kicks off on May 1st as he attends the Russian Film Symposium.  He’ll be reviewing each of the four hundred or so films being screened that week in lovely Pittsburgh, PA.  Not quite four hundred films, but I’m padding now in order to allow the logo off to the right not look so lonesome by surrounding it with playful text.  But seriously – each movie will be reviewed.  Mark your calendars!  Watch this space!

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Snow? Opportunity.

Doc’s trapped (well, allowing himself to be trapped) in another blizzard in northern Virginia.  Stumbled upon this nice little graphic that speaks to Doc’s heart.  Not sure if I can actually accomplish the goal, but I’m willing to give it the old college effort.

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Good luck with your own version of The Blizzard of ’16, even if you’re tucked away in warmer climes.  We can get through this.  Keep the faith.

Doc’ll be back tomorrow, if the power stays on, with a new review.  See ya then.

Doc Reviews “Bridge of Spies” by Giles Whittell

ccPretty good book. Doc hasn’t seen the moving picture of the same name, with that Tom Hanks fella from “Big” and a handful of other pictures, but when I cracked this book open, I was expecting the Hanks character to have a hell of a bigger role, assuming the movie previews were any indication. Man, was I wrong. And that don’t matter a lick, I just thought it was worth tossing out there.

Bridge of Spies” is an excellent read about the events leading up to the first event that’s come to be known as “spy-swaps” between the US and the Soviet Union. Drawing heavily on the author’s personal interviews with some of the main players 50 years ago, as well as letters and memoirs of those no longer with us, the book walks us step-by-step through the circumstances that found the three men accused of espionage to begin with and who would become part of this swap meet. The Hanks character, James Donovan, doesn’t really make much of an appearance until the final chapter.

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Francis Gary Powers

The character we already know the most about, probably because of the amount of chatter he created this side of the Iron Curtain at the time of his capture, was Frances Gary Powers. Powers was a former Air Force pilot who signed on with the CIA to fly the Lockheed’s new U-2 high altitude photo reconnaissance plane under the aegis of collecting weather data. The only weather he was collecting was “weather” or not (heh heh) the Soviets had the number of intercontinental ballistic missiles Khrushchev was trying to frighten the West with at the time. Our analysts at the time surmised that, based on the Soviet leader’s statements and other information deduced, the Reds had probably targeted the US with anywhere from 200 to 400 missiles capable of flying that far to deliver destruction. Hindsight being a funny little thing, as it turns out, Khrushchev only had 4 such missiles. But it’s for purposes of collecting that ground truth that our U-2 pilots were asked to penetrate Soviet airspace and put their lives at risk.

Powers did just that, and for a number of reasons or as the result of curious circumstances, his U-2 was brought down in pieces. Whittell provides an outstanding retelling of Powers’s struggle to free himself from the U-2, which without its wings turned out to be as aerodynamic as a dumpster. Eventually he does free himself, where he is shortly met by friendly Russians whose eyes must have popped when they discover he’s an American. Shortly after his recovery, and being relieved of his handgun, he is whisked away by the Soviet authorities. In short order, Khrushchev uses him deftly as a pawn in his chess match with Eisenhower, who shortly after Powers was shot down, believes (along with almost everyone else in Washington) that the pilot had died in the crash. No pilot (so the line of thought went) could survive a fall from 70,000+ feet. Even so, had the pilot survived, the unwritten rule was that he would make use of the pin dipped in a deadly amount of curare, thus avoiding pesky interrogations and ungainly torture. And of course, to preclude any embarrassment to the US. Funny thing about unwritten rules, though – if they ain’t written down, they’re tough to know about, and even tougher to enforce.

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Rudolph Abel

Another player traveled through the book with about twelve names, the most famous of which was Rudolph Abel. Abel, born Willie Fisher, was a Soviet intelligence officer who, by all accounts (and it goes without saying, very much so in Whittell’s eyes), was as sloppy a spy as they come. Tom Hanks, who operates under the name James Donovan, elects to be Abel’s lawyer when he is arrested and charged with conspiracy. Donovan is an insurance lawyer at this point, but it would appear that he’s got some serious Washington DC connections. He’s not the greatest lawyer, but it can be argued that he kept Abel’s neck out of a noose when his espionage activities started to come to light. Because he was working for the USSR, and because this book is written primarily in English, Abel is the least sympathetic character in the book, just ahead of Ike.

 

The third of our choirboys is actually the least likely to have been an actual spy. Frederic Pryor had the poor fortune to be in Berlin when the first barbed wire genesis of the Berlin Wall appeared; stopped at the border, his car was found to be loaded with his economics notes – surely, as damning a block of evidence as you can find. As Whittell explains in the book, it’s not so much that Pryor was spying, as reading books (and taking notes from them) that he wasn’t given permission to access. He wasn’t prevented from it – they were simply available on a bookshelf that he wasn’t told he could use. As a result, he found himself a guest of the Stasi (East Germany’s State Security) in a cell where he began wasting away, wondering what the hell just happened.

Of all the people in this Cold War cocktail, it’s actually Powers’s cantankerous father, Oliver, who came up with the idea of swapping Abel for Powers – in fact, he wrote directly to Abel, asking what he would think of such an arrangement. The CIA felt peeved that Abel was being contacted out of the blue by the parent of a high-profile prisoner in the Soviet Union, and possibly a little out of sorts that they hadn’t thought of it first. Donovan, meanwhile, as Abel’s lawyer, caught wind of the letter, and tried to move things in that direction – not so much because he felt that what had happened to Powers was a travesty of justice, but (according to Whittell) had political aspirations, and felt this might be his foot in the door.

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Tom Hanks

In two shakes of a year and a half, the exchange is happening. Pryor was fortunate enough to be thrown in, since it would be considered a valuable and easy way to show that the US views East Germany as a legitimate government by negotiating with them at this level. Still, as an also-ran, Pryor suffered the indignity of being moved through Checkpoint Charlie, and not on Berlin’s Glienecke Bridge. Pity for him, because he never got to meet Tom Hanks.

Doc’s one of them folks who likes facts to be facts in his non-fiction.  Something happens in real life, and it’s being documented in a book that purports to be non-fiction, you’d sort of expect it to either be left out if it ain’t all that important, or to be rendered with some level of accuracy if it’s deemed worthy of inclusion.  In his Epilogue, Whittell talks about what happened to each of the main characters in this tale. I came to a screeching halt when I read that Powers died in a helicopter accident in 1975 – he actually died in 1977. How can such a rudimentary fact be erroneously written down? Wish I knew. And stuff like that tends to call other details into question. But I’m going to give Whittell the benefit of the doubt. He deftly juggles three storylines and a broad cast of characters not seen since the likes of ‘War and Peace’. I’ll spot him this one. But if I find out that Powers never actually did get released, Whittell’s going to have some serious damned explaining to do.

On a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the dog’s breakfast and 10 being dinner at the Ritz, Doc gives this gripping read a solid B+.

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