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, followed.

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 years(!).

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 story.

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.

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