Monday, September 1, 2014

Down to Earth by Louis Charbonneau

"I'm his father," Dave said with emotion.  "In every way that counts!"
My copy, front and back covers
Here we have another genius Paul Lehr cover.  But is this book, 1967's Down to Earth by Louis Charbonneau, which we are told is a "stunning science-fiction flight into the unearthly future" that is "fantastically realistic," more than just a pretty face?

The Perry family--father Dave, mother Alicia, teen daughter Kathy and adopted 11-year-old boy Jackie-- have been living alone for three years on a tiny planetoid covered in churning seas of dust.  They are manning what amounts to a lighthouse in outer space, an "emergency landing station."  This area of the solar system actually no longer has any regular traffic, so the family sits and monitors screens for months at a time during which nothing happens (the supply ships come twice a year.)

One day in 2135 the station's systems mysteriously start to malfunction, causing dangerous accidents.  The first 45 or so pages of Down to Earth read like a haunted house story: Why is this door open?  Who could have tampered with this intercom?  Then we learn that Jackie's natural father, Rakow of the space navy, who lost a custody battle to Dave and Alicia like ten years ago, has sneaked into the station and is sabotaging everything.  Am I watching one of those Lifetime movies?

(Nobody was monitoring the screens when Rakow's spaceship arrived, and the station, apparently, doesn't have any kind of automatic radar, nor any alarm when somebody opens the airlock.  You know, even my Toyota Corolla beeps to warn me when somebody has opened a door!)

Our Italian friends are right;
Killer on the Asteroid is a better title
It takes the family like 40 more pages to realize what is going on; for a while Dave thinks his adopted son is playing pranks or that his wife has gone batty.  Around page 100 Rakow tries to rape Kathy ("It's been a long time since I had an Earth girl...") but she escapes.  Dave calls for help from Earth, but it turns out that a few days ago Earth civilization was wiped out in an atomic war.  (Another thing that happened when the Perry family wasn't watching the screens.  Who hired them for this job?)  There's a scene in which Rakow proves he's racist against robots (they cause human unemployment) and a firefight on the dark planetoid surface between Dave and Rakow. Rakow drags Jackie around at the end of a line, like Long John Silver dragging around Jim Hawkins, for use as a hostage or human shield.  Then comes a long drawn out chase throughout the station, culminating in victory over Rakow, whom the Perrys allow to leave the planetoid in his space ship.  Mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent--don't the Perrys consider that Rakow may murder or rape someone else's family, or come back to seek revenge on them a second time?

The Perrys don't seem too upset that all their friends and family back on Earth are probably dead; in fact on the last page of the book, page 187, they seem excited by the possibility that Kathy, with her blonde hair, "narrow waist" and "small, high breasts" is now the sexiest girl alive!

This book has a multitude of problems.  The science is one problem.  Where is this planetoid?  At one point Jupiter appears "huge" in one screen, and later Kathy reports that "just the other night" Earth looked "so normal."  You'd think the planetoid would be too small to have much gravity or atmosphere, but there is that sea of dust, perpetually blown by the wind. There are several passages that suggest Louis C is confusing gravity with atmospheric pressure:
"With his weight only a fraction of what it would have been in Earth's heavy atmosphere, reduplicated inside the station, Dave did not plummet into the well of dust but dropped slowly like someone sinking in water."  
Another passage indicates that Louis C thinks radar uses sound waves, and I also suspect he thinks "galaxy" and "solar system" are synonyms.

I don't read these books to learn about science (sorry, Isaac), so a bigger problem for me is the novel's length and pacing.  The book feels long, with long scenes describing how the station is supposed to operate and filling us in on innumerable technical details.  (Again and again we hear about the holographic illusions that make the sterile station appear to be in the middle of a bustling city; this is supposed to prevent the Perrys from getting too homesick for the crowded Earth.)  We also listen in on all the characters' thoughts, learning all about their psychologies and emotional lives: Kathy wishes she was on Earth with friends and boys, Jackie worries that Alicia and Dave don't love him because he is not their biological son. We even get stream of consciousness from the station's robot.  Most memorable is Dave's jealousy of Alicia's first husband whose name ("Bob! Oh God Bob!") she has cried out during sex with Dave.  When Dave has to go out onto the planetoid's scary surface for the first time in like a year, Louis C gives us this passage:
"What would Jackie think if the boy saw him literally shaking in his boots?  And what of Alicia?  What would she think, remembering good old Bob, who laughed at the risks of space exploration, who reveled in naked space like a woman in a bubble bath--and who was a memorable performer in the narrow four-by-six space of a bed?"   
Our British friends called it
Antic Earth
One of the interesting things about the novel is the hostility it exhibits towards servicemen.  Both Rakow and Bob are astronauts who have been on dangerous space missions, and both are described as arrogant and unable to have mature healthy relationships.  Rakow has a career of rape and murder behind him, and when the Earth goes kaboom the space navy tries to set itself up as dictator of the universe.  It makes you wonder if a naval officer or fighter pilot stole Louis C's girlfriend during the Korean war or something.

As the quotes above perhaps hint, the style isn't great.  So there is not much good for me to say about Down to Earth.  The "About the Author" paragraph at the end of the book informs us that Louis C also wrote westerns and suspense novels, and it is true that the most competent parts of Down to Earth--the gunfight in the dark, the character of the alienated and evil murderer and rapist Rakow, and the triangle between Jackie, Dave and Rakow-- would have fit in perfectly in a novel about 19th frontier settlers and a debased cowboy, or 20th century suburbanites and some kind of gangster or crazed Vietnam vet.  If this book was half the length it is and focused on those elements maybe I would be giving it a mildly positive review.

As it is, though, thumbs down for Down to Earth.


Bound in the center of my copy of Down To Earth is a fun ad from the Science Fiction Book Club, promoting Isaac Asimov's Foundation trilogy.  For a mere ten cents you can receive a hardcover edition of this "famed epic" worth $10.50!  Just place a dime inside the "coin carrier" provided, fold it up origami style, and send it off to Garden City, New York, today!


  1. I thought this was crud as well.... Probably deserved a spot on my wall of shame. I've seen his other books in stores but never pick them up after suffering through this one.

    1. I would probably buy the 1963 paperback of The Sentinel Stars if I saw it for two or three bucks; I love the fashion forward cover, and it says the future it predicts is "hugely probable!"

    2. I'm sorry to hear that you guys suffered through this as well! I hope you don't mind me posting a link to my own rant on the book:

  2. The book may well deserve a firm thumbs down but you can' deny the fact this was indeed a very well dressed title. Beautiful covers.