Mars Is My Destination by Frank Belknap Long
Five years back, I shared some thoughts here regarding Frank Belknap Long’s famed horror anthology The Hounds of Tindalos (1946), which in later years was broken into two volumes, The Hounds of Tindalos and The Black Druid. It was a perfect introduction to this wonderful writer for me, and I’ve been, uh, longing to read some more Long ever since. But the NYC-born author, of course, was far from being just a creator of horror and dark fantasy. Although his first published story, “The Desert Lich,” did appear in Weird Tales magazine in 1924, and although Long soon established himself at that legendary pulp and became close personal friends with one of its most famous contributors, H. P. Lovecraft, by the mid-‘30s, he was writing sci-fi tales for Astounding Science Fiction. During the course of his lengthy career, the author would be responsible for three collections of poetry, write over 150 short stories and some 30 novels, become a comic book creator, and work as an editor; of those 30 novels, eight were in the field of the Gothic romance, written by Long starting in the late 1960s under the pen name Lyda Belknap Long (a combination of his own name and that of his wife, Lyda Arco). Anyway, with such a wealth of material from which to choose my next Long dose, this reader was feeling somewhat overwhelmed. Fortunately, kismet managed to step in when I noticed the book in question, Mars Is My Destination, selling at a low low price in one of NYC’s many used-book shops.
Mars Is My Destination was Long’s sixth full-length novel and was originally released in June 1962 – when Long had recently turned 61 – as a 40-cent Pyramid Books paperback, with somewhat generic cover art by John Schoenherr; it is the edition that I was happy to find, in pristine condition, in that bookshop. It would take almost a half century for the novel to see its next English-language incarnation, but that indeed came to pass in 2011, when Armchair Fiction added the book (with that same Schoenherr cover) to its currently massive catalog. So prospective readers today do not have to depend on fate to secure a copy of this terrific little science fiction tale, or prowl through the secondhand stores as I did. And that is a fortunate thing, because Long’s novel has just revealed itself to this reader to be a hugely entertaining, fast-moving affair that should surely please most sci-fi fans today.
The book is set in the futuristic year of, uh, 2020, when the Earth is beset not by a global pandemic, but rather by trouble of another sort. The Martian Colonization Board had recently begun accepting applications for men and women willing to relocate to the already thriving Red Planet, and as Long’s story begins, has been inundated with tens of thousands more requests than it can accommodate, resulting in worldwide jealousy and unrest. One of the lucky men who has recently been accepted is Ralph Graham, who lives in New Chicago; a man who would jump on the rocket tomorrow, if only he could convince his wife Joan to come along. But Joan soon shows herself to be amenable, and Ralph’s lot is only bettered when the head of the Colonization Board confers on him the silver hawk insignia, indicating that Graham himself, stunningly enough, will be in charge of all operations at the Martian colony! And Ralph soon learns of the major task that he will be facing once he arrives there: The two chief power suppliers at the colony, Wendel Atomics and Endicott Fuel, are in such a bitter rivalry that violence has broken out, the thuggish Wendel “police force” employing brutal tactics in furtherance of the company’s takeover plans. Even before Ralph’s departure for Mars, two assassination attempts are made on his life – one via a robotic snake in a nighttime, New Chicago park, and the other a botched stabbing in a crowded subway car – and while en route to Mars, a saboteur attempts to blow the ship into spacedust. But even worse events transpire to Mars’ new head honcho once that ship does touch down.
Even before Ralph and Joan can descend from the ship’s 30-story-high, corkscrewed landing frame, an assailant blows a poisoned dart – activated by a liquid propellant – into his back, causing the new Martian resident to have the first glimpses of his new home planet through the window of a speeding ambulance, and his first days there fighting for his life in a hospital. Clearly, Graham is a marked man, and when one of Wendel’s goons arrives at the hospital itself, the weak and convalescent commissioner sees little choice other than fleeing into the unknown terrain on foot. Then matters grow even worse, if possible, when it is learned that the Wendel thugs are actually sabotaging some of the Endicott Fuel containers and turning them into miniature A-bombs! And when one of those containers does indeed go off, decimating a goodly chunk of the colony with it, and it is discovered that still another container is ready to blow, we sense that Ralph Graham’s new job on Mars will not be an easy one, to say the least…
Now regarding that war between Wendel Atomics and Endicott Fuel that is threatening to tear the nascent Mars colony apart, let me just say that it is a nicely detailed and complex one – too complex, actually, to get into here – and Long does a good job at making it both realistic and credible. But then again, his entire book is highly convincing and unfailingly intelligent; a taut, compact and briskly paced affair that keeps the reader in its grip throughout. The New Chicago of 2020 is at once familiar yet futuristic, and its ultracomplex railway system is sure to elicit chuckles from readers who hail from that region. Meanwhile, the Martian colony also makes for a very convincing setting, with its widely scattered settlements, farmers working on the edge of a red desert, and the towering aerator system that blows breathable oxygen over the area. And quite realistically, Graham’s first reaction to actually being on Mars is one that should conjure up that elusive “sense of wonder” in the reader; as Ralph tells us, as he’s about to descend from the corkscrew gantry, “…when you’re standing on a dizzy height staring down at a new world forty million miles from Earth you’ve got to let the strangeness and bursting wonder of it … along with the dire forebodings … take firm hold of you…” Another highly credible aspect in Long’s book: Just as American society in 2020 was belabored by what is now known as the Big Lie (as pertains to that year’s presidential election), here, something known as the Big Lie is also being propagated, regarding the Colonization Board’s supposedly underhanded tactics. And just as our own Big Lie is proving to be difficult to stamp out, so too the one in Ralph’s world.
Mars Is My Destination (that title, of course, surely being an homage of sorts to Alfred Bester’s all-time classic of 1956, The Stars My Destination) regales the reader with any number of impressive and exciting sequences. Other than those four well-done assassination scenes, they must include the brutal fight that Ralph has with the Wendel goon in his hospital room, shortly after being poisoned; the scene in which one mini A-bomb (what would today be called a “tactical nuclear weapon,” I suppose) goes off while our heroes attempt to defuse another; and the final sequence, in which Graham walks into Wendel Atomics, accompanied only by a Martian farmer, for a final showdown. And the suspense quotient in all these sequences is ratcheted up even more by our narrator’s (that is to say, Ralph Graham’s) method of telling his story. The man is forever getting sidetracked by tangential thoughts that he shares with us in his rambling, loquacious manner. I can understand how this tactic of Long’s might prove annoying for some readers, but I found that it allows us to get to know Ralph all the better, while giving us some background information and, again, drawing out the tension. Thus, while on the lookout for a possible killer in the New Chicago Underground, Ralph gives us a history of that rail line; after having a poisoned dart shot into him and before being placed in an ambulance, he discusses how a person might have extraordinarily acute clarity of vision even when in extreme pain; while laid up in hospital and observing his doctor and nurse, he contemplates the ironies of the male-female dynamic; when being threatened by a Wendel goon with “Big-Image interrogation,” he gives us the history of this torture technique, in which drugs, and full-color films projected on giant screens, combine to produce agonizing and mind-destroying effects. (Personally, I get the feeling that Frank Long may have had an unpleasant experience at a movie shown on one of those wraparound Cinerama screens that debuted in the 1950s!)
So yes, Ralph does make for one interesting narrator, and he tells us his harrowing story in a manner that allows us to understand him better and that keeps us pretty well riveted. He is an intelligent man, obviously – he wouldn’t be quoting from Baudelaire if he weren’t, right? – and also a dryly humorous one; I love it when he keeps referring to himself as “Ralphie boy.” (I wonder if the new Martian commissioner is also a fan of TV’s The Honeymooners!) In addition, our narrator’s tough, hard-boiled exposition almost makes his story sound like a film noirish sci-fi mystery. On the other hand, his references to the Martian settlement seeming like America’s Old West, as well as his coming off like the new marshal arriving in town to do some cleaning up, tend to put the book in the cowboy science fiction camp. Is there a genre of literature that’s a noirish detective/Western/sci-fi mashup? If so, then this might be a perfect example of such.
Long’s book, at bottom, is a modest but eminently likeable affair, but some small sticking points do unfortunately manage to crop up. For one thing, we never learn anything regarding Ralph’s backstory, and why he has been chosen for this most difficult of positions. Sure, he’s obviously smart and capable – and, fortunately, good with his mitts – but what was he doing prior to 2020? We are never given a single clue. Long’s book also exhibits some instances of faulty grammar (“The New Chicago Spaceport has and always will attract sightseers”; “as if I was already dead and buried”; “neither the man nor the woman have to be attracted to each other”; “every one of the Wendel agents were rounded up”), although these are just as much the fault of Long’s editor as the author’s. And oh, one other thing: Is it really believable that Ralph, in a convalescent state, could walk eight miles, from his hospital to the Endicott facility, in just 30 minutes? I’d be hard put to do three miles in 30 minutes on my best day! Anyway, quibbles aside, Mars Is My Destination is ultimately a very pleasing and satisfying book, and I find myself looking forward now to my next Long dose. I see that Ramble House has, as part of its own enormous catalog, the author’s complete collection of John Carstairs stories from the 1940s, appropriately enough titled John Carstairs: Space Detective, and that is a book that I hope to be experiencing in the not-too-distant future. Stay tuned…