By BOB MADISON
This Island Earth has long been considered by many
(this writer included) to be the finest science fiction
film of the 1950s. Few films of the era better capture a
breathless sense of wonder -- of the promise of a super-science
tomorrow -- more than This Island Earth. Unlike most
films of the decade, human beings measure up fairly well
compared with "superior" alien intelligences, outer space
visitors have an agenda other than world domination, and,
rather than providing a warning against science, This
Island Earth celebrates the human capacity for experimentation
and thought. On top of that, it is beautifully photographed,
competently acted and the special effects are among the
best of any film of that period.
Surely a film with so much going for it has to be based
upon really good source material? Well ... think again.
The film This Island Earth was adapted from a novel
of the same name by Raymond F. Jones, serialized in three
parts in the pulp magazine Thrilling Wonder Stories.
Never really planned as a novel, This Island sort
of evolved as Jones was putting together a series of interconnected
stories in late 1949 - early 1950. The book has recently
been reprinted as a trade paperback by Pulpless with a new
introduction by science fiction "expert" Forrest J Ackerman
and it is, to put it politely, a total dog.
Raymond F. Jones (1915 - 1994) is a relatively obscure
writer from the Golden Age of science fiction, toiling mostly
under editor John W. Campbell. Like Campbell, he was pro-science,
anti-bureaucracy and a great believer in science fiction
as a socially redeeming force.
Jones was born in Salt Lake City, Utah, and was turned
onto the genre at an early age by reading Wells' War
of the Worlds. His first published story was Test
of the Gods, which appeared in the September 1941 issue
of Campbell's Astounding. Other stories, including
Noise Level, Black Market and Production Test,
Jones was an engineer by trade and, like most engineers,
he went where the work was. He was employed at various times
as an installer of telephone equipment for Western Electric,
a government meteorologist and as an aeronautics designer.
Like many Golden Age writers, Jones thought that science
fiction was a guide for our next collective move up the
evolutionary ladder. In latter years, Jones became more
and more disaffected with the genre, writing little after
the mid-1950s. A 1951 autobiographical sketch in Amazing
Stories reads: "I don't believe there is a storytelling
medium that can surpass science fiction. But somehow, I
think we're missing the boat."
Jones' star faded with Campbell. The governing aesthetic
of his work was often in agreement with Campbell's editorials,
while many other writers working under Campbell (Heinlein,
for example) made names for themselves by writing ideas
contrary to those of the celebrated editor. (Both Jones
and Campbell were early advocates of L. Ron Hubbard's Dianetics,
so we can't take their mental acumen too seriously.)
Jones' literary star has faded considerably since his
heyday, a victim of both a dated prose style and, perhaps,
poor agenting. He is completely forgotten by the general
public, little better than a footnote to science fiction
fans and is remembered chiefly by film buffs as the man
who wrote This Island Earth. Sadly for Jones, This
Island Earth is one of the few instances where the movie
improves immeasurably upon its source material.
The basic setup of This Island is the same for
both book and movie: engineer Cal Meacham receives a catalogue
and parts, through which he constructs a marvelous extraterrestrial
machine, the interocitor. He joins forces with the alien
intelligences behind this new technology and becomes embroiled
in an interplanetary war.
The resemblances end, however, with these broad strokes.
Characters in the novel are crudely drawn, with little or
no personality of their own. Joe Wilson in the novel is
an anonymous purchasing agent for Ryberg Instrument Corporation,
and not Meacham's friend and confidant, as in the film.
Meacham is at times a complete dunderhead, unable to believe
in an alien influence despite the evidence of his own eyes
or the suspicions of Ruth Adams, a psychologist here and
not the atomic scientist of the film. It is in this offhanded
sexism of Meacham (and Jones) that the book dates most disastrously.
Meacham notes that "It was utterly impossible to think of
an M.D. or Ph.D. in that dress. He didn't try." Worse still,
at one point Adams gets Meacham to spy on the late-night
goings-on at the plant where: "He felt a little ridiculous
- spying on his own shipping department." Moments later,
after she is proven right, Meacham takes charge: "He tugged
roughly at Ruth's sleeve. Obediently, she followed, slipping
through the darkness, stumbling once or twice on the iron
stairway leading to the roof."
Meacham, in the novel, is not sent to a well-appointed
resort in Georgia for atomic scientists, but, rather to
an industrial plant outside of Phoenix, Arizona. In the
course of the novel, he squashes a union strike(!), locates
alien saboteurs and marries Adams. He comes across his old
college friend, a "big Swede" Ole Swenberg, who turns out
to be an alien spy masquerading as human since their college
For film buffs who enjoyed the character of Exeter, don't
bother. Here, Meacham's mysterious employer is Jorgasnovara,
(say that twice!) who tells Meacham that the setup is really
a secret group called the Peace Engineers. Jorgasnovara
explains that the group dates back to the American Civil
War, and that it is composed of scientists banding together
to end war. Unlike the film, the literary Meacham is sap
enough to buy this outlandish folderol hook, line and stinker.
The whole thing falls apart soon after Meacham arrives in
Arizona. The Llannan people (Metalunans in the movie) are
using human beings to build interocitors much the way "civilized"
westerners used native labor to build roads during World
War II. (Hence the title.) However, people come and go around
the plant freely and no one ever seems to figure out what
it is they are building. At the height of intergalactic
conflict, not only do Meacham and Adams have time to marry,
but Jorgasnovara takes them on a round-the-world tour on
a honeymoon-cum-business trip. Swenberg goes alien, holds
Meacham and Adams at gun point, and the earth is doomed.
Worse still, killers from Gurran (Zahgon in the movie) have
infiltrated factory management(!) and Jorgasnovara kills
them with thought waves intensified by his interocitor --
a machine that can "read" minds. If that's the case, how
come he didn't know who was and who wasn't a traitor in
the first place?
Finally, Meacham and Adams are taken before the Llannan
council after it is decided that Earth is expendable. Meacham
manages to double-talk them into protecting our planet (I
only read it yesterday and I've already forgotten how) and
then the thing ends rather abruptly. No mutants. No exploding
planet. No Monitor. In fact, not much of anything. Unlike
the film, the novel This Island Earth goes in one
eye and out the other.
For years, I have been reading that Jones' novel was "intellectual,"
and that the film didn't have the "philosophical overtones"
that made the book so rewarding. Hogwash. This Island
Earth the novel is so trite, so filled with improbabilities
and inanities, that it's almost impossible to believe that
late 1940s readers didn't wrinkle their noses at it.
Which brings us to the recent Pulpless reprint. I ordered
the book with a great deal of anticipation and my disappointment
was mighty. Problems arise immediately with a totally witless
introduction by Forrest Ackerman. Ackerman was Jones' agent,
and nowhere does Ackerman offer a single tidbit on the writer,
his career or their working relationship. Ackerman's tenure
as editor of the kiddie magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland
was a chronicle of missed opportunities for historical citation,
and here Ackerman maintains his old standard. (The opener
for his introduction is -- I kid you not! - "Catalina Island
surrounded by water! All the buildings down town! Now that
I have your attention, on to This Island Earth.")
Worse still are the many, many typographical errors that
plague the book. Not a page (hardly a paragraph) goes by
without some maddening mix-up, leading me to believe that
the text was re-input by a drunken typist with a bad case
of dyslexia. Quote marks appear for no reason, paragraphs
break (or fail to) helter skelter, and punctuation is a
decorative motif. If enough This Island Earth fans
buy the book to warrant a second printing, here's hoping
that the editorial staff take a blue pencil to it first.
On second thought, save your $20 and buy This Island Earth
on tape or DVD. Then you will have the best version of the
Bob Madison is the editor of Dracula: The First Hundred
Years (1997, Midnight Marquee Press) and American
Horror Writers (1999, Enslow). Both are available through
He is currently writing a book about Buffalo Bill Cody.