No Man an Island
A Review of 'This Island Earth' by Raymond F. Jones
"A lifetime of service in a vast effort of war, the whole of which he could never comprehend. He, who had sworn never again to so much as think of an instrument of war, who had hated the scheming and killing and the designing of scientists for better ways of killing more of their fellow men.
But he thought back to the vision of evil that Jorgasnovara had shown them and he knew there was only one answer." —Raymond F. Jones, This Island Earth (1949)
Recently, while suffering what Little Alex in A Clockwork Orange intoned were the "Tortures of the damned, sir. Tortures of the damned!" I had the distinct pleasure of ploughing through the longest short novel I have ever picked apart; paragraph by paragraph, right before passing out to dream of a world free of everything I find, personally, tormenting. That was the book upon which This Island Earth, the classic science fiction film from the Fabulous Fifties, the post-war years that saw the United States firmly settle into Cold War-era anti-communist paranoia, still baked in the Easy Glow oven ambience of Hiroshima and Nagasaki--was based. It was an era when two-fisted white guys that proved the model for Captain Kirk, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker were still, like, all the rage. Science Fiction's Greatest Hits consisted of reinforcing the image of the U.S. as an all-conquering dispenser of cosmic justice; truth, right-thinking, and the American Way.
And, really, the Eisenhower Years of the Baby Boom, was an era when the only real threat, beyond the ever-present Soviet menace across the sea, was the suspiciously oily visage of the James Dean-style "JD": a motorbike-riding, drag-racing menace to society in a black leather jacket, slicked-back hair and dirty jeans, his T-shirt a greasy, spatter of motor oil with an inevitable pack of Lucky Strikes rolled up in one sleeve. He grooved to the African-infused rhythms of Rockabilly and Rock N' Roll, a suspiciously BLACK form of entertainment his, uh, "kind" had, so-obviously, co-opted. (Or, maybe more appropriately, STOLEN.)
Other than those few savvy souls digging bomb shelters in the back yard, life was one continuous 24/7 sock hop. Dig those cats, they're real gone!
The pulp magazines, whose lurid covers hid unsavory literary thrills between their depictions of bug-eyed menaces and torrid women (who typically had breasts like the nose cones of so-many B52's), still existed, and it was here, in the pages of Thrilling Wonder Stories, in 1949 and 1950, that wordsmith Raymond F. Jones bequeathed his one and only lasting contribution to the world of belles lettres, in the form of a continuing, long but short novel, the three parts of which were titled, variously, "The Alien Machine," "The Shroud of Secrecy," and "The Greater Conflict." Later, they would be collected and published under the title This Island Earth. And, then, this would inspire the film.
This Island Earth, the novella, concerns Cal Meacham, who works for an electronics laboratory called Ryberg. After receiving a mysterious order of "condensers," which look like little strings of beads, he tests them out and is immediately blown away by their effectiveness. He orders a catalog from the manufacturers, and is thus introduced to a world of underground technology he was completely unaware of. Dumbfounded and astounded, he orders the required parts to construct something called an "interocitor," and establishes communication with...someone. I think it is "Jorgasnovara," the "Mr. Big" behind the whole mystery, but I now can't quite remember. At any rate, the same character, in the film, is referred to more simply as "Mr. Exeter."
Invited to come and get a first-hand glimpse of the inner workings of the underground society responsible for such technological miracles as the Interocitor, Cal takes a remote-controlled flight in a pilotless plane to an undisclosed location, wherein he meets Ruth, an old flame, and Ole, a scientist also working as a part of the super-secret "Peace Engineers." This is an interesting name in light of later developments.
It is here where the novel This Island Earth begins to depart from the later film. The "Peace Engineers" are a global underground it seems, with a network of factory complexes manufacturing push-button devices of a strange, otherworldly aspect. In the film, the "Peace Engineers" seem merely as if they are a gathering of the best and brightest scientific minds of research—in the novel, though, they seem much more as if they command a parallel society or nation, a more vast network of factories and workmen employed as part of the "mission." But what exactly IS that mission? It is thus to be revealed.
Cal and Ruth begin to suspect, after Ole flips out when meeting with Mr. Jorgasnovara, that something is amiss. To that end, they begin to investigate, finally finding that the Interocitors they've been constructing are being whisked off-world by floating saucers. Probably on behalf of the Illuminati.
Actually, not quite. It turns out the Interocitor device is psychical, and Jorgasnovara reveals the point of the mission to Ruth, Cal and Ole; namely, to execute the waging of an intergalactic war between the "Lanna" the presumable "Good Guys," and the "Guarra," who are said to look hideous and smell worse (and are, thus, "evil"). Again, remember the "Metaluna Mutant" from the film.
They take a trip to a facility on the Moon, at one point, also.
Jorgasnovara is killed in a psychic exchange while plugged into his own, personal Interocitor, and Cal and Ruth are kidnapped by Ole and his Guarra henchman, it being revealed that Ole is actually a double agent who has been spurring on Peace Engineers' labor force to revolt. Therein lies the Fifties undercurrent of good old-fashioned American Red Baiting; which, on the whole, seems the subtext of This Island Earth.
It is discovered by the end of the novel that the Llanna are going to abandon Earth to Guarran overlords, who are going to destroy us as easily as flicking a speck of dirt from the tip of your interstellar nose.
Horrified at this prospect, Cal and Ruth meet with the galactic war council, and convince them that abandoning "this island Earth" would be just what the Guarra invasion force would be expecting—would, thus, set back the interminable intergalactic war effort by a measurable and significant margin.
The Llannan Warlords decide not to do this. The novel ends with Cal and Ruth grasping hands—in hope.
Not so the film. In the film, Ruth and Cal and the Professor from Gilligan's Island all escape in a car from thePeace Engineers' secret compound. The Professor is vaporized by a floating saucer, and Cal and Ruth attempt to escape via an old prop plane. They are pulled into a hovering saucer by a green glow.
"Mr. Exeter" introduces himself again (he and his cohorts look a little like man-sized Oompa-Loompas), sympathizes with how both of them must HATE him (he's also ray-gunned the entire Peace Engineer facility, killing every one of the scientists residing there), and justifies his actions to them by siting the necessity of his barbarism.
Cal and Ruth find out about the intergalactic war. Also, the ship is attacked by weaponized meteorites, right before Cal and Ruth are hustled by Exeter into tube-like cells so they can withstand the change in G's coming from setting the ship down on Metaluna. The surface of Metaluna becomes a pock-marked, meteorite-riddled hellhole of war, as the planet is destroyed, and Cal and Ruth are informed the Metalunans are going to colonize Earth now that their own planet is pretty much kaput.
The ride back, Ruth is menaced by a Metalunan mutant, the big-brained bug-eyed monstrosity of iconic fame. They make it back to Earth, and for some reason, Exeter explodes the saucer over the ocean. (I'm going by memory here, people. Bear with me.)
As to what This Island Earth, the film and novel respectively, means, as far as the underlying message, the film (adapted by screenwriters George Coen and Edward G. O'Callaghan) departs from the central subtext of the novel, substituting a considerably more subversive message. Plainly, the film of This Island Earth is anti-war, anti-nationalistic, depicting a maddened Exeter staring with wide-eyed, destructive glee, at the bombed-out remains of his own home world. Here then, the film seems to be saying, is the final result of man's (or rather Metaluna's) mad rush toward self-destructive doom via wide and obliterating warfare. The rest of the story is about being used, in a sense; suckered, like some small Pacific Island population during the Second World War, into working for a shady, mysterious body whose ultimate agenda is hidden from the ones constructing the "pushbuttons." This is a subtle comment on the perceived Soviet communist menace just coming into play during this era of American history.
But the novel isn't anti-war at all, it seems; rather, it is purely anti-Red as a subtext, taking its sharpest aims at the "pushbutton" workers of the "Peace Engineers," who are spurred into open revolt by the wily double agent Ole. The theme centers around Earth as an "unwitting pawn" in a war we didn't start and have no stake in; as a matter of fact, one that could, quite possibly, bring about our own destruction. It points at communist subversion recruiting unwilling and clueless "agents" to do the dirty work it cannot do by itself, without ever making aware those same agents the ultimate goals of the alien agenda.
Exploitation and subversion are the two central ideas of This Island Earth: Namely, is it moral to exploit the unknowing for ends that are, ultimately, benevolent? Does self-justification along those lines constitute self-serving hypocrisy? Are we all unwitting pawns of a power structure that uses us for its own aims, while we remain, like those Pacific Islanders who helped, unwittingly, our own "war effort," essentially ignorant of what we have a hand in? And, what if it is for our ultimate benefit, or to our detriment? These are the troubling questions at the core of This Island Earth, the novel.
The novel ends affirming the positive and morally-correct paranoia that characterized the Cold War:
"The evil that Jorgasnovara had shown them was timeless. It was the concern of every being in all creation, thought Cal. As long as it existed there would be no absolute freedom for anyone. And his life would be well spent in working with the forces that Jorgasnovara represented.
" He took Ruth's hand and started along the walk. Let's go. It's getting late, and tomorrow we've got to make a lot of--pushbuttons."
This Island Earth, both film and book, are wonderful glimpses backward at a science fictional Future That Was. Political subtexts aside, I found both film and novel to be, respectively, engrossing viewing, as well as a very gripping read. Take them for a spin. Just watch out for the weaponized meteors. (You don't want to make the Mutant angry.)