Gladiator by Philip Wylie
In a recent review here on FanLit, for J.D. Beresford’s seminal 1911 classic The Wonder, I mentioned that the novel was an early example of one of Radium Age sci-fi’s favorite themes, that of the “superman” or “wunderkind.” In that book, we had encountered a young British lad, Victor Stott, who was born with superhuman mental abilities that had made him an object of both fear and hatred among most of his fellows. Well, now I am here to share some thoughts on still another Radium Age wonder that tells the tale of a superman, but in this case our lead character’s marvelous abilities are physical ones rather than mental, and brought about by artificial means rather than being a mere freak of nature. And it seems that this man of remarkable physical attributes is believed by some to have been an influence on the creation of the character Superman himself! Fittingly entitled Gladiator, the book has revealed itself to this reader to be an absolutely marvelous and relevant entertainment, despite having been written almost a century ago.
Gladiator was first released in 1930 as a $2.50 hardcover by the American publisher Alfred A. Knopf, with a stunning illustration on its dust jacket by an artist only listed as Lowenchuno. Befitting its now-classic status, around a dozen other releases would follow; the one that I was fortunate enough to acquire is the 2004 edition from Bison Books. This was the fourth novel to be written by the Massachusetts-born author Philip Wylie, who was 28 years old when the book was released. Wylie would, by the time of his passing in 1971, at age 69, come out with no fewer than 27 novels, plus 16 books of short stories and six works of nonfiction. I have already written here of two of his best-known works, 1932’s When Worlds Collide and 1933’s After Worlds Collide, both of them written in collaboration with Edwin Balmer, but Gladiator, Wylie’s first work of speculative science fiction, may be even better than those two great classics. The author would go on to pen novels and stories covering a wide range of subject matter – mysteries, thrillers, sci-fi – as well as newspaper articles and books dealing with various social issues, but today, I would venture to say, he is best remembered for his science fiction, and Gladiator is a perfect example of just why that is. Highly involving, beautifully written, exciting, tragic and ultimately moving, it is a tale that just might leave modern-day readers stunned by its manifold fine qualities.
Gladiator, in essence, is the tale of Hugo Danner, who was born in the small (fictitious) town of Indian Creek, Colorado, sometime near the end of the 19th century. His father, Abednego Danner, was a henpecked biology professor who, before Hugo’s birth, had invented a revolutionary serum employing “alkaline radicals”; a serum that might, theoretically, give a human being the proportionate strength of an ant or a grasshopper. Some tadpole eggs treated with the serum result in tadpoles powerful enough to break free of their glass aquarium; a pregnant cat that is similarly treated gives birth to a kitten strong enough to run through walls and become the murderous scourge of a neighbor’s cattle! When Abednego’s shrewish and devout wife, Matilda, becomes pregnant (a development that does indeed startle the reader, considering the strained relationship between the two), the overzealous scientist gives her a drugged beverage to knock her out, and then inoculates his unconscious spouse with the serum unawares. (Just a wee bit unethical, no?) The result, nine months later, can be guessed. Hugo is born with such an unnatural strength that his crib has to be specially constructed of iron. At 6 years old, he comes close to killing a school bully in a fight, and, as events in his later life demonstrate, the strapping lad would eventually be able to jump 40 feet high, kick a 90-yard punt in a football game, and walk 40 mph while carrying a ton of supplies! He could hold his breath inordinately long underwater, and, perhaps most remarkable, had a skin so tough that it was practically impervious to bullets! While growing up, he is cautioned by his worried parents about using his abilities in front of others, and throughout his life, as we soon learn, Hugo’s main concern will be just how he can put his remarkable gifts to the best use. Unfortunately, practically every time Hugo endeavors to do good for others, it only serves to bring grief to himself.
Over the course of Gladiator, we witness the many episodes in Hugo’s checkered career. Thus, we see him become one of the most popular men at his college, only to bring about a calamitous tragedy on the football field. To make some money between terms, Hugo lowers himself to do a strongman act on the Coney Island boardwalk. Later, he becomes a ship hand, a pearl diver in the South Seas, and, in the book’s longest section, a French Foreign Legion volunteer in the WW1 trenches. After the Armistice is signed, a disillusioned Hugo, broke and desperate for work, becomes a steel factory employee, a bank clerk, a farmhand, a political influencer in D.C., a dabbler in radical politics, and finally, an assistant on an archeological expedition in the Yucatan. Along the way, he has relationships with four very different women: Anna Blake, his childhood sweetheart; Iris, the socialite cousin of his college buddy; a harlot named Charlotte, with whom he shacks up for a happy summer in Coney Island; and Roseanne Cane, the unhappy wife of his farmer employer. All four of these relationships, unfortunately, go sour, and poor Hugo finds that his remarkable abilities are in no wise a guarantee of fulfillment or happiness…
Now, as to the question of whether Gladiator was or was not an influence on writer Jerry Siegel and artist Joe Shuster when they teamed up to create Superman (whose first appearance was in Action Comics #1, in the spring of 1938), that answer has long been unproved and inconclusive. Sure, there are some similarities between Hugo and Supes: the super strength (although Superman is of course incalculably stronger), their childhood passed in rural settings, their bulletproof skin, and the fact that both men erect fortresses of solitude for themselves. (Hugo’s was constructed out of boulders in the Colorado forest when he was just a boy.) And the 10-year-old Hugo does at one point tell his father “…I can jump higher’n a house. I can run faster’n a train. I can pull up big trees an’ push ‘em over…” But that’s pretty much where it ends. Rather, I can see how Gladiator might have been an influence on the Doc Savage character, who would soon make his initial appearance in the Doc Savage Magazine’s March 1933 issue. Doc, like Hugo, was at least an Earthling, whose mind and body had been trained from birth by a team of scientists to achieve incredible things. It is Clark Savage, the Man of Bronze, with his so-called Fortress of Solitude in the North Pole, who I’ve always considered a direct influence on the creation of Clark Kent, the Man of Steel. Hugo surely seems to have more in common with Doc than with the flying, X-ray-vision-using, practically invincible alien from the planet Krypton. Unfortunately, Siegel and Shuster never did acknowledge either character as an influence on their most famous creation, so we will probably never know for sure. (I might add here that Wylie’s 1932 novel, The Savage Gentleman, supposedly has so many similarities with the later Doc Savage as to negate any possibility of coincidence.)
For the rest of it, Gladiator finds Wylie exhibiting a love affair with the English language, and his book really does feel as if it were aspiring to be placed in the pantheon of Great American Novels. Wylie’s patent love of language is akin to the great Mark Helprin’s today; this is one sci-fi novel that can truly be deemed great literature, as well. So many beautifully written passages practically cry out to be underlined or highlighted. Take, for example, this throwaway description of the ocean off the coast of Panama, as Hugo gazes at it:
…The sea. Blue, green, restless, ghost-ridden, driven into empty quarters by devils riding the wind, secretive, mysterious, making a last gigantic, primeval stand against the conquest of man, hemming and isolating the world, beautiful, horrible, dead god of ten thousand voices, universal incubator, universal grave…
The book truly is a stunning sci-fi debut, both in terms of subject matter and presentation. And the book is, surprisingly, sexually frank for its time; not for nothing did the 1949 Avon paperback edition of Gladiator sport the blurb “The Lusty Life of an Uninhibited Superman.” And as if this weren’t enough, Wylie’s work here also operates as an extremely effective antiwar novel, featuring scenes of unflinching carnage on the battlefield. At bottom, though, Gladiator comes off as something of a genuine tragedy, and if Hugo’s motto isn’t “No good deed goes unpunished,” it might as well be. The reader feels the plight of this supremely powerful man who only means to do well … if he can only figure out how best to apply his astounding physical strengths. And we sympathize with Hugo when the understandable urge sometimes strikes him to run amok. Wylie’s novel, as do the best of these superman affairs, is also a telling commentary on how society often misunderstands and distrusts – even abhors – its physically and/or mentally gifted, and how these exceptional outcasts must ultimately learn to cope … or perish.
In a book filled with any number of emotionally charged or flat-out exciting sequences, several manage to stand out, including Mrs. Danner’s discovery of what her husband had done to her, leading to a highly dramatic and physical confrontation; Hugo’s bout in the ring with an enormous Swedish wrestler, to win a much-needed $100; the college football game that ends in tragedy; Hugo battling with and overcoming a shark to rescue a sailor (offhand, I’d say that we would not be treated to such a spectacle again until the 1977 film The Spy Who Loved Me and the 1979 film Zombie); the sight of Hugo, having just witnessed a buddy blown to bits, committing absolute mayhem amongst the German soldiers in their trenches; Hugo rescuing a fellow bank employee who had gotten himself locked inside a 5-foot-thick safe; the horrible tortures that the police put Hugo through to extract information from him, and Hugo’s long-postponed punishment of them; the wonderful scene in which Hugo converses with his dying father; and finally, Hugo’s ultimate fate in the Mexican jungle. So, does Wylie allow his superman to enjoy a happy ending? Well, I would never dream of telling – and the answer to that question is indeed withheld till the very final paragraphs of the book – but if you’ve ever read some other of these vintage superman affairs, such as The Wonder, John Taine’s Seeds of Life (1931), Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1935), and Stanley G. Weinbaum’s The New Adam (1939), you’ll probably have a pretty good idea.
Actually, I have no quibbles whatsoever to lodge against Wylie’s practically perfect piece of work here. Sure, his novel can be justly accused of being a bit episodic, but isn’t that the way most lives are, with their various phases and settings? Still, I was more than pleased with how this classic sci-fi tale turned out, and the evenings that I spent with Hugo Danner in Gladiator were most enjoyable ones for me. Bison Books has another book by Philip Wylie that has been sitting on my shelf unread for ages now, namely 1951’s The Disappearance, and that is where I believe this reader will be heading next, Wylie-wise. Stay tuned…