Dreadful Sanctuary

In honor of Megan’s review of Three to Conquer at From Couch to Moon, and to note my return from travels during which, I will add, only one book was purchased (though many magazines — think of it as an alcoholic dropping the bourbon for lager), I give you more hard-bitten Eric Frank Russell.

Dreadful Sanctuary

Raw Feed (2002): Dreadful Sanctuary, Eric Frank Russell, 1948, 1963.

I decided to read this book because, like Russell’s Sinister Barrier, it is inspired by Fortean ideas according to an article on Charles Fort and Erick Frank Russell by sf author and critic David Langford. The specific inspiration was, according to Langford, Fort’s lost manuscript (written prior to his Book of the Damned) X. (Oddly enough, Damon Knight, in his biography of Fort, doesn’t mention this connection though he talks about Russell’s memberships in the Fortean Society and Sinister Barrier and also about X).

The novel is written in sort of a not always successful, sometimes forced sounding, wise-cracking style of hardboiled detective stories. The basic premise — that Earth is literally an insane asylum for the dregs of the Solar System — certainly is Fortean. (The specifics are that each of the four inner planets of the Solar System evolved separate humanoid races roughly equal in development and intelligence. Blacks evolved from Mercury. Brown-skinned people evolved on Venus. Earth natives were Orientals, and whites evolved on Mars. This also sounds a little like Theosophy.) The Martians discover space travel first. All the non-Terran humanoids discover a way of proving definite sanity, and exile (humanely in their eyes) all their insane people, the ones stopping the development of further civilization, to Earth. Sanity is a dominant gene, and some people, members of the international conspiracy known as the Norman Club (dedicated to destroying rocket expeditions to Venus in order to keep the insane Earthmen from breaking out) know their extraterrestrial origins. Some religious figures were missionaries from other planets (except the native born Confucius).

The Norman Club is in occasional contact with the Martians. At least, this is the story big, quick shooting, quick punching protagonist (and inventor — Russell has lots of radio and electronic jargon in this story set in 1972 where videophones and tv delivered papers exist) John J. Armstrong uncovers at both ends of various interrogations. However, at the end, it is strongly hinted that Dr. Horowitz, who claims to be a Martian, is really just a clever, power-hungry scientist who has talked his way into the leadership of the deluded Norman Club. Langford claims that, in editions prior to this 1963 revision, Armstrong gets to Mars and proves no society of white Martians exist. In this edition, he fails in his mission to show a Venus journey is possible and dies in space. (Talk of creating a “new psychic factor” by making this journey is very typical of sf from the 40s and 50s — the date of this novel’s original composition — since it carries a implication of a true social science.) The cult of the Norman Club is triumphant. The exact rationale of making the desperate Venus voyage at novel’s end was lost on me. If the fuel supply has been sabotaged, the extra fuel for a test flight might make a journey to Venus possible, but, given the facts presented, it would seem the spaceship would still blow up on the return trip. I’m now curious to read an earlier version of the novel. All in all, while Russell kept the plot going with conspiracy (and the rather deus ex machina super lie detector called the “schizophraser”) and lots of action, I don’t think it worked as well, especially in its hurried ending, as Russell’s Sinister Barrier.

I also found the reference to a “short-wave therapy set” peculiar. Did Russell, in 1948, somehow think the quack radionics of Albert Abrams, thoroughly discredited in the 1920s, would really pan out? On the other hand, variations of Abrams’ ideas were being sold (and scientifically tested) in the late 40s and 50s.


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