Dreadful Sanctuary by Eric Frank Russell
As I have mentioned elsewhere, there are several writers who never seem to let me down, and in that elite group, English author Eric Frank Russell must surely be included. The Best of Eric Frank Russell (1978) was my initial exposure to this Golden Age great (reputedly, legendary editor John W. Campbell’s favorite contributor), and it was, for me, among the best of the 21 Best of… titles in the justly celebrated Ballantine series. I had also loved Men, Martians and Machines (1955), which can almost be seen as a warm-up for Star Trek; Wasp (1957), a thrilling tale of psychological warfare on the Sirian planet Jaimec; The Great Explosion (1962), one of the funniest sci-fi books that I’ve ever read (not for nothing did Brian Aldiss deem Russell “Campbell’s licensed jester”); and finally, The Mindwarpers (1964), an exciting spy caper with minimal sci-fi content.
Curious to see if Russellian lightning would strike for the sixth time, I was happy to lay my hands on his second novel (out of an eventual 10), Dreadful Sanctuary. This sophomore effort (not counting the 20 or so short stories he’d released at that point) from the British author originally appeared in Campbell’s Astounding Science-Fiction magazine as a three-part serial, in the June – August 1948 issues. The front covers of both the June and July issues featured artwork for Russell’s contribution by the famed illustrators William Timmins and Chesley Bonestell, respectively. Dreadful Sanctuary’s first book publication came three years later, in 1951, as a $2.75 Fantasy Press hardcover, with cover art by Edd Cartier. And my edition is the 1963 incarnation from Lancer, with cover art by the great Ed Emshwiller … and what turns out to be a significantly revised text by the author, featuring a vastly different ending than that which had appeared 15 years earlier. More on that in a moment.
Russell’s novel transpires at the very beginning of the futuristic year of, uh, 1972. The 17th rocket that mankind has launched toward the planet Venus has just blown up during its approach; 17 attempts, 17 catastrophic blowups in a row. Only this latest attempt had been a manned mission, only adding to the calamity. John J. Armstrong, a 34-year-old, 6’ 3”, 230-pound bruiser who has invented some novel photographic equipment that will be loaded onto rocket attempt #18, begins to wonder if all those previous mishaps might have been purposefully arranged, and begins to do a little amateur sleuthing on his own — just for fun, as it were. But subsequent events prove that he just might be on to something. A prominent space expert, Bob Mandle, dies in midsentence while conversing with Armstrong via televisor. Another scientist is soon found dead in Armstrong’s own living room, cause similarly unknown. Our hero decides to hire a private detective, Hansen, to look up facts pertaining to all government employees who had tried to retard the U.S. space program, and also enlists the aid of scientist Claire Mandle, the sister of the vanquished space expert.
Armstrong’s investigations lead him to the mysterious, international fraternal order known as the Norman Club, in which many of America’s senators are members. During a visit to the NYC branch of said club, Armstrong is held prisoner and subjected to an examination with a gizmo known as the “psychotron,” to determine whether or not he is “sane.” Armstrong passes the test and is vouchsafed some startling information by his captor, Senator Lindle: The Norman Club members believe themselves to be the descendants of the insane Mercurian, Venusian and Martian rejects who had been summarily dumped onto the Earth 120,000 years ago. They will do anything to prevent mankind from reaching those three worlds today. But, it seems, there is still another group causing trouble on our fair planet, consisting of the modern-day Martian criminally insane, who have recently been sent to Earth and will do anything to get back. Thus, before long, Armstrong finds himself very much an object of attention from both groups … as well as the cops and the F.B.I., as the body count around Armstrong continues to rise. And things grow from bad to worse as the Norman Club, with its international resources, begins operations that will result in WW3! No wonder why Eddie Drake, a pal of Armstrong’s, says to him at one point, “…We’re in to our necks and sinking to our ears. If you can find a way out of this muddle, boy, you’re good!”
Ultimately revealing itself as a triple mashup of the sci-fi, hard-boiled detective, and Cold War spy genres, Dreadful Sanctuary is a fairly gripping page-turner, but one that I, surprisingly, had some problems with. First, though, the good news: Armstrong himself makes for a tremendously sympathetic and likable leading man here. Though he’s undoubtedly the brainy sort, his hulking physique and facility with the mitts also make him a formidable adversary in rough-and-tumble melees … and a good thing, too, as things turn out. He comes equipped with some self-made gadgets that prove quite handy as he contends with his many adversaries: hidden cameras in both his NYC home and Connecticut laboratory; a cigarette lighter “bleeper” that enables his friends to track him; incendiary leaves hidden in his shoe heels; and mini glass bulbs filled with knockout gas. Russell fills his book with subtle futuristic touches, such as an answering machine called an “ipsophone”; televisions with 10-foot screens (pretty prescient, right?); that aforementioned televisor, here called a “visivox”; the final word on lie detectors, the so-called “schizophraser”; and that ingenious device that the Martians have been using to kill our rocket scientists (nope, I’m not going to say anything more about it).
The book is also filled with wonderful, slangy, tough-guy dialogue (no wonder so many Astounding readers thought that Russell was an American!), and although the humor content is kept to a minimum, it does pop up here and there, pleasingly. Thus, newspaper editor Bill Norton’s description of the eggheaded Claire Mandle: “Her hair has squared roots. If she condescends to listen to a wolf whistle, it’s solely to study the Doppler effect…” Russell’s novel is consistently clever, perhaps never more so than when the reader is given, by Senator Lindle, the “true” history of the various races on planet Earth. And the author also has a sure gift with a cleverly written sentence, as well, such as when he tells us “…The world turned below; the torn world, the worn world, a world split into ideological fragments by autocrats, bureaucrats, theocrats, technocrats and other authoritative kinds of rats…” The book contains any number of marvelously done scenes (the ones inside the Norman Club itself are both harrowing and freaky), while the final segment, which transpires at a hidden rocket base in the wilderness of Canada’s Northwest Territories, while the clock ticks down to WW3, is hugely suspenseful, indeed. Still, as I mentioned, there were some sticking points for me.
For one thing, there’s the name of the novel, one that I’m not quite sure I understand. Is the “dreadful sanctuary” of the title supposed to refer to Earth itself, as far as those marooned Martian defectives are concerned? I’m not sure. As I mentioned earlier, Russell rewrote his book for the 1963 edition, and I have a feeling that I may have been happier with his original concept, in which rockets were being aimed at the Moon, not Venus; the Norman Club members were revealed to be a bunch of fakes; and the forces of good prevailed by the book’s end. In his altered version, it is impossible to be sure if those Norman adherents really are Martian descendants, OR just a bunch of eccentric crackpots with lunatic notions. The novel is cleverly ambiguous on that score, and although this reader prefers the more far-out, fantastic explanation (as always!), there is simply no way to be sure. And then there is the 1963 edition’s wrap-up itself; one of the most shockingly downbeat endings that you will ever encounter in any Golden Age science fiction novel. Thus, readers who go into Dreadful Sanctuary expecting a happy ending, with all their questions answered and all ends tied up neatly, are bound to be a bit disappointed. Yes, it is a startlingly realistic ending, I suppose, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a satisfying one. It is one that leaves many matters unresolved … even the budding romantic relationship between Armstrong and Claire. Still, that’s the way life sometimes is, I guess: messy, unhappy, bleak and unfulfilled.
There were a few other minor tidbits that irritated me in Russell’s second novel also. For instance, when Lindle mentions that Eric the Red had discovered America … shouldn’t that rather be Eric’s son, Leif Ericsson? And then there’s the matter of phone numbers. Professor Mandle’s is said to be Tarrytown 1-1042; three paragraphs later, it’s said to be Tarrytown 3-1042! Armstrong’s number is given as Gramercy 2-5717; on the next page, it’s said to be Greenwich 2-5717! These kinds of things can drive a copy editor and proofreader such as myself bonkers! Fortunately, these are minor matters, if unusual for the typically meticulous Russell. The bottom line is that Dreadful Sanctuary is still another wonder-filled offering from a sci-fi great. Although it was surely not as wholly satisfying as those other Eric Frank titles mentioned up top, I can still honestly say that Russellian lightning has indeed struck for the sixth time now. Shall I go for seven? Stay tuned…