Monday, September 7, 2015

The Space Egg by Russ Winterbotham

"What are you, Jack?" I said.  "You're not human any more!" 

Here's another one of my South Carolina finds, a water damaged copy of The Space Egg by Russ Winrerbotham, a paperback put out by Monarch in 1962.  The novel first appeared in 1958.  I love the Jack Schoenherr cover; look at the expression on that guy.  I feel like I make that expression all the time, but I don't know if I should call it my "That's Mom on the phone" face or my "Sure, we can listen to your Carpenters CDs, honey" face.

If you are wondering who Winterbotham is, the book's first page includes a biography which is terrific, in part because it predicts that men will walk on Mars in the early 1970s. Imagine how disappointed Space Egg readers must have been by the time 1975 had rolled around.

Be seein' ya soon, Tars Tarkas.
The Space Egg reminded me of an unambitious low budget black and white SF movie, and a little bit of Campbell's "Who Goes There?"  The entire story is set in a remote area of Kansas, at an old military base purchased by a businessman for use in developing a groundbreaking new aircraft.  Our first person narrator is Bob Reeve, a photographer there among the scientists, technicians, and flight crew; his job is to document their work on the XDW-49 rocket plane.

Our first scene is set in the control room, with all the eggheads and their radars and radios and control panels, as Jack the test pilot is high aloft, breaking altitude, acceleration, and speed records.  There is a mysterious mishap in the ionosphere, the cockpit of the rocket plane being broken in two places, but Jack brings the bird down safely.  But when he gets back to terra firma, Jack, formerly everybody's buddy, is a total jerk off who pushes everybody around, even physically assaulting a tech.  We soon learn that Jack has not only gained a bad attitude up there on the edge of space, but super strength, super healing abilities, and photosynthesis!

Bob discovers a mysterious item, a thing quite like a broken egg shell, in the cockpit of the rocket plane, and then a second one on the ground within the high security research base.  He hands these over to the research center's wise old physicist.  When the tech that Jack had that contretemps with turns up murdered, and Jack and Ruby, a sexy redheaded secretary, disappear, the physicist realizes that alien lifeforms have taken over Jack and Ruby's bodies. The local sheriff joins in the fun of searching the base for Jack and Ruby.

Note to self: Insert "scramble" joke here
Jack and Ruby are found up on the barracks roof by the water tank; because they have guns and water, near-immunity to small arms fire, and no need for food, they are basically impregnable up there. And we just can't say "live and let live" after Jack admits that the new type of hybrid life form he represents plans to take over the world!  Each of the still-human characters on the base has his own idea of how to deal with this alien menace.  The sheriff tries to just shoot them--no luck.  The businessman tries cutting a deal with them (Bob calls him Neville Chamberlain)--this doesn't work either.  The physicist builds an X-ray projector out of a big vacuum tube and Bob and we readers have to endure science lectures about electrons and radiation.  Sir William Crookes even gets a mention.

The X-ray device gets broken in the opening stages of the final showdown, but Bob saves the day by appealing to Jack's last vestiges of humanity and Ruby's feminine jealousy.  Jack was in love with Janet, a brunette secretary who is not quite as slutty as Ruby, and, when Bob reminds the hybrid creepos of this, a fight breaks out between Jack and Ruby.  This struggle ends with both weird entities being destroyed.

This story should have been shorter and more direct.  The character of Bob is not necessary; the novel should have been told from the point of view of the test pilot/alien, or the sheriff, or the businessman, or the physicist; any of whom might have had some interesting motivation, and difficult decisions and psychological stresses to face.  Bob the photographer is a bore--his main motivation is making the moves on Janet.  I don't really understand the logic of these stories in which the main character is more a spectator than a participant in the plot.  Again and again Bob watches other people do things, watches films, listens to other people describe what happened to them.  No Bob would mean no boring Bob-has-a-crush-on-Janet subplot, which would make a Janet-Jack-Ruby love triangle more exciting.  Whether Bob is around or not, we could definitely have done with fewer science lectures.  There's even a footnote on page 121 discussing whether or not Helium 5 exists!    

I have to give The Space Egg a thumbs down; there is very little fun or interesting about it.  Maybe a 21st century reader could squeeze some ironic enjoyment out of its potentially offensive treatment of the female characters (Janet is a ditzy damsel in distress and jealous slut Ruby spends the entire book in a skimpy bathing suit) and the way the fat bald character gets humiliated by everybody (he goes from yes-man to the businessman to yes-man to the aliens, and even Bob, our supposed hero, deposits him in a garbage can when they have a verbal disagreement) but I doubt it would balance out all the boring passages.     

Note to self: Options for ending this blog post:  
1) I guess Winterbotham really laid an egg this time!
2) Let's take a look at the scoreboard, folks: looks like Monarch books is going home with a goose egg this outing!
3) Just quietly move on to scans of the ads  

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Click to get an eyeful of what 30 cents could get the discerning reader in 1962
My copy of The Space Egg is full of ads for Monarch's most "famous" and "best-selling" books.  Monarch readers seem to love war stories both true and fictional (Bloody Beaches: Marines Die Hard and The Apache Wars), crime novels about sex (Make Mine Mavis and The Seducer) and biographies about disreputable celebrities (Lucky Luciano, The Dillinger Story and The Kennedy Cabinet.)

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