Saturday, August 13, 2022

Woman from Another Planet by Frank Belknap Long

"There is one supreme glory in life which men do not hold lightly.  That glory is unknown to you.  You will never understand it.  It turns night into day for us and transforms every aspect of reality.  If men and women could not love, they would be as crippled as Martians in body and mind, for what you call love is a hollow mockery."

On a recent trip to Washington D.C., the belly of the beast, I stopped at Second Story Books and among my purchases there was a copy of the 1960 Chariot paperback printing of Frank Belknap Long's Woman From Another Planet.  This book is a total wreck, many pages being torn and the spine coming undone, but the text is all there, and the fun cover, depicting a woman in some distress and a monster with a big thick head and long skinny limbs, is intact.  That cover is the work of Basil Gogos, well known for all those covers of Forrest J. Ackerman's Famous Monsters of Filmland.  (If you are at all interested in Universal horror pictures, old men's magazines, or Hammer Horror, you should take a few minutes to flip through Famous Monster Movie Art of Basil Gogos by Kerry Gammill and J. David Spurlock, which you can do at the world's greatest website, the internet archive.)   

In his long career, Frank Belknap Long produced some fiction so bad it has boggled my mind, but some pretty good things, too.  Let's see where on the spectrum Woman From Another Planet falls.

David Loring is living the good life!  A painter, he resides in Greenwich Village and just sold a painting and so has enough money to marry his hot girlfriend Janice Reece!  But this morning there is trouble in paradise!  Janice comes over and she is pretty shaken up.  Last night, some guy came into her apartment, saying he'd blundered into the wrong room because he'd been drinking at a party; this transgressor kissed her on the forehead and then left, leaving Janice shaken because this guy was the handsomest man she'd ever seen!  She was further shaken when, after he had left, she had a kind of hallucination of feeling his arms around her!  Then, when she went out for a walk to calm her nerves, in the corridor she had another uncanny experience, a vision of a hideous semi-human figure with a flat face and a bulbous nose and little horns!

Janice tells this crazy story in bits and pieces between having sex with David and having breakfast with him at a restaurant.  When he is finally in possession of the entire picture, David figures his fiancĂ© is the victim of some practical joker--the Village is full of artists and writers who play all sort of elaborate gags on people--and he vows to find this jerk and punch his lights out!  He heads to Janice's apartment to look for clues, leaving her in the safety of his own flat, and when he arrives at the scene of the crime he is confronted by the most beautiful woman he has ever seen!

Long leaves us on this cliffhanger and the scene switches to a Martian saucer flying over the countryside.  The vessel's commander, Tragor, is in command of the Martian campaign to conquer the Earth, but he is taking a little break from his primary mission to raid rural America for women!  Long is long-winded, and he describes in tedious detail an attack on some hikers and Tragor's feelings as he observes his subordinates, hairy brutes of the Martian warrior caste, shoot down the male hikers and seize the female hikers.  Woman From Another Planet is a sex novel, and there is a lot of talk of Tragor's powerful desire for one of the captives, his fear that he won't be able to perform once this woman is in his clutches, and his jealousy when one of the warriors gropes and kisses her as she impotently struggles.  Tragor shoots down this handsy warrior in a fit of rage, but he himself has no better luck enjoying the Earth beauty's favors--his worst fears are realized when he tries to woo her and finds she is disgusted by his alien body and abhors him for killing her husband and friends.  She tells him she would rather die than submit to his Martian caresses!  Tragor isn't interested in raping women--he wants an enthusiastic lover and finds himself broken hearted because he has fallen head over heels for this Earthwoman whose name he doesn't ever bother to learn!

After an unnecessarily long scene in which Tragor orders a speedboat and its six passengers destroyed with a ray cannon because they have spotted the saucer (I guess as a joke, while four of the people on the boat marvel at the saucer, one couple is so enjoying having sex they decide to ignore the UFO and continue fucking) we return to David, whose every move is being observed by the Martians.  Long spends page after page describing how hot the strange girl is, and how the sight of her affects David.  David grabs her and carries her to the bed...but then loses his ardor when he feels a piece of metal attached to her leg.  She admits that she is an artificial woman sent to Earth to test how easily seduced human men are; the Martians plan to send 1000 android women like her to Earth to seduce politicians, industrialists, soldiers, etc., to facilitate Mars's conquest of this big blue marble you and I call home.  (Janice's adventure of this morning was the Martians' test of the prototype of the male model intended to seduce 1000 important Earth women on the eve of invasion.)  Having failed, the female prototype is remotely crippled and shuffles pathetically away--a Martian soldier appears and captures David.

The failure of the androids to seduce David and Janice is a problem for Tragor, architect of this seduction scheme; Martian society is an authoritarian one in which government officials who bungle their assignments are regularly executed, and Tragor's second in command, Sull, is angling for Tragor's job.  Called before the chief executive of all Mars, Tragor manages to convince this potentate to spare his life and permit him to retain his command--his next move will be to conduct experiments on David and Janice on Mars.

But before we get to D and J, Long inflicts on us a scene with much in common with the superfluous speedboat scene, a sex and violence interlude that adds nothing to the plot and features characters we have not yet met and will never see again.  Two androids, close copies of an Earth married couple captured by the Martians some times ago and then returned to Earth with their memories , wake up in a sort of arena with energy pistols and a caged monster.  The monster is released, and the man kills it.  After the fight, the androids (who think themselves the people from whom they were copied) have sex--Tragor and Sull, watching, feel this experiment proves Tragor's theory that deadly danger is an aphrodisiac.  Tragor feels he can take advantage of this fact to salvage his seduction plan. 

D & J wake up in a room in a skyscraper in a Martian city, a city bigger than any Earth city made up of towers taller than any Earth building.  This metropolis, vaster than New York or London, appears to have been built not piecemeal over time, but constructed all at once to a unified plan--in fact, the city buildings form a sort of three-dimensional sculpture of the body of a woman on her back with her legs open.      

The Earth couple find the window of their prison is unlocked, and flee down a long of exterior steps to another level of the city, where a huge insect starts pursuing them.  At the same time the giant bug is chasing them, the Martians are transmitting into their brains dispiriting and distracting thoughts.  In the middle of the chase David and Janice stop to have sex--Janice wants to make sure she is carrying David's child, so she'll have someone to love should David be killed and she survive.  The giant insect doesn't pounce on them because, I guess, the Martians are not actually keen on killing them--it's all an experiment, after all.  The chase resumes, and when the insect finally catches up to them in a building full of fossils of Brobdingnagian monsters from Mars's prehistoric past, it goes through the motions of trying to kill Janice so that David can save her by killing the giant bug in a very unlikely and very unsatisfying way.  

After this preliminary experiment, David and Janice are put to sleep and wake up in a sort of Eden with a bunch of super gorgeous androids; the androids try to seduce D & J but the Earthlings again resist.  Seeing Tragor fail again, the ruler of Mars offers Tragor a pistol with which to commit suicide.  But Tragor is not as tradition-conscious and honor-bound as are most Martians--he snatches the gun and uses it to murder the chief executive!  But minutes later, as he is making his getaway, Tragor by chance encounters the human woman he fell in love with--she has escaped and acquired a pistol of her own and avenges her husband by gunning down Tragor.

Martian society apparently doesn't have a well-developed succession mechanism, because the government collapses into chaos and there follows famine and other crises.  Among the disasters, a squadron of saucers foolishly reveals itself to a USAF base.  Even though the book only has like 15 pages to go, Long introduces us to a new character, an Air Force colonel, and we learn all about his relationship with his wife and his war service.  In the same way that Long says the saucers are shot down in a "World War II-type bombing attack," he tells us this guy's early service was on a "twice almost-bombed out Flat Top;" one suspects that Long knew nothing about military matters and was just talking out of his ass and his editors didn't care enough about the product they were selling to revise these distracting passages.  

Back on Mars, Sull has become the ruler of the Red Planet, and the capture of these saucers and their surviving crew convinces him to call off the conquest of Earth.  He summons David and Janice and tells them he is sending them back to Earth as part of a prisoner exchange, and David gives a speech about how Earth people truly know love, giving us an advantage over the Martians, who only know lust.  (I'm not sure, but think we are supposed to consider that Tragor was a one-in-a-million Martian who defies such stereotypes.)

Earlier I called Woman From Another Planet a sex novel, but I suppose Long thought of it as a novel about love, and in the book he lays out some theories or beliefs about love and relations between the sexes.  I guess Long's central idea is that love is the center of life, and, without love, life is not worth living.  The nameless woman Tragor is in love with loses all desire to go on living after her husband is murdered by the Martians, and Janice echoes that woman's sentiments: when David strongly suggests she stay behind while he explores the Martian city, she insists on accompanying him, explaining "If anything happens to you I wouldn't want to go on living."  It is suggested that Earth may be a tough nut for the Martians to crack because Erth men will fight strenuously to protect their women.  Tragor demonstrates how he cares more about love than his career or Mars's military objectives, allowing his obsessive love for the human woman who detests him to distract him from his work.  

The issue of love looms large in Long's body of work.  His 1930s stories from Astounding which I liked, such as "The Last Men" and "Green Glory" were about men's love of women in dangerous circumstances, and his 1963 novel It Was the Day of the Robot is all about love and sex.  Long wrote a stack of "gothics" under his own name and the pen name "Lyda Belknap Long" and while I have not read any such books, it is my impression that dangerously obsessive love figures in them.       

Whatever Long's objectives, Woman from Another Planet is quite bad.  Long's apparent arguments are not very well presented (for example, David seems to resist the charms of the androids because he is distracted by some fortuitous exogenous factor, not because he is trying so hard to stay loyal to Janice.)  If Woman from Another Planet is intended to be an exploitation novel focused on sex and gore or an adventure novel focused on action and danger, it fails there as well, as the sex scenes and action scenes are long and slow and generate no excitement.  The action scenes in particular contain long conversations between characters on extraneous subjects that undermine the reader's belief that the characters are in any danger--instead of panicking or acting with urgency to escape or meet the threat facing them, the characters engage in long tedious discussions or actually have sex while the alien menace in close proximity.  Long's dialogue in the novel feels very unnatural and inauthentic, which might be OK for the Martians, who are aliens, but the human dialogue is, if anything, worse, rambling digressions and pointless debates.  (I saw these same problems in other bad Long novels--is long just trying to meet a page count, or does he think these discussions are actually interesting?)

In outline, the plot is good, but Long handles the narrative quite poorly.  Instead of focusing on the three potentially interesting characters--Tragor, the Martian who is different from other Martians, is broken-hearted over his rejection by an Earthwoman, and who deals with his subordinates tyrannically and in turn fears the arbitrary rule of his superiors; and David and Janice, a couple who are fiercely devoted to each other and have their fidelity tested by androids and psychic tampering--there are many chapters in which none of them figure, chapters that instead star people who appear in that chapter and are never seen again once the chapter is ended.  (It is easy to imagine our hero Barry N. Malzberg writing a hilarious short story based on Tragor's story arc--sexual dysfunction, difficult interviews between managers and their subordinates and organizations utterly failing to achieve their ostensible goals are Barry's bread and butter!)  

Not all of the problems with the book can be blamed on Long--the text is rife with irritating typos.  Shame on you, Chariot!    

Because this book is so weak, it is astounding to see that the only time it was reprinted was in 2013 in a "double novel" format, yoked with a novel by critical darling Judith Merril!  I have to assume Merril's fans already hate Long and would never think of reading Woman from Another Planet, and those who maybe had never heard of him and were not put off by the implied eroticism of the cover illo and title,  would be outraged by the novel's style and content.  Hilarious!

While not as bad as Survival World or Monster from Out of Time, I gotta give this Frank Belknap Long production a thumbs down.  But I do it more in sorrow than in anger.  I'm still on your side, Frank, and hope to enjoy some more of your short stories when I get back to a steady diet of 1930s magazines.

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