In the 1956 sci-fi “B movie” Indestructible Man, hardened criminal Butcher Benton, played by the always wonderful Lon Chaney, Jr., is put to death by the state, but is later revivified by a mad scientist using 300,000 volts of electricity. Benton becomes not only possessed of superhuman strength but is also, as events show, impervious to bullets. But if a certain novel of 25 years earlier can be believed, this was not the first time that a human being was subjected to a massive dose of juice, and with astonishing results. The book in question was Scottish-American author John Taine’s ninth novel, Seeds of Life, which features not only one scientist suffering from the side effects of a 2 million-volt exposure, but another who is changed radically in consequence of a 20 million-volt jolt! But more on this in a moment.
Seeds of Life made its initial appearance in the Fall 1931 issue of the 50-cent pulp magazine Amazing Stories Quarterly. For those 50 cents, readers got not only Taine’s complete novel, but also four short stories, two poems and a novelette by various others, in addition to interior artwork by H. W. Wesso for the Taine contribution. Quite a deal for half a buck, even in the depths of the Great Depression! Another 20 years would go by before Seeds of Life was reprinted as a hardcover book; this 1951 edition, a $2.75 bargain from Fantasy Press, featured a beautiful cover on its dust jacket by Ric Binkley and remains something of a collector’s item 70 years later. But the edition that I was fortunate enough to acquire was the 1966 paperback from Dover, which gives us Seeds of Life as well as John Taine’s seventh novel, 1930’s White Lily, complete in one volume.
Whereas White Lily is set pretty much exclusively in the isolated western region of China, and deals with crystalline life-forms that are making things very tough for us carbon-based critters here on Earth, Seeds of Life is set in the more familiar Seattle, and has as its concerns the unintended creation of a superman, manipulated evolution and devolution, and the business war between two major scientific groups. Happily, it is still another winner from the pen of John Taine.
Taine’s novel introduces us to electrical engineer Andrew Crane, a lanky, 27-year-old Texan who works at the Erickson Foundation for Electrical Research, in Seattle. When we first encounter him, he and his assistant, the alcoholic and perpetually bungling Neils Bork, are lugging a delicate bit of equipment into his lab: a six-foot-long glass tube for Crane’s new 2 million-volt X-ray device; a tube that Bork typically destroys by accident. Crane takes this setback with good grace, but the reader is soon made aware that Bork harbors a deep-seated grudge against his boss, a grudge so bitter that one night, in a drunken rage, he attempts to destroy not only Crane’s experimental X-ray unit, but himself as well. But his vandalism/suicide attempt does not go quite as planned. Passing a full 20 million volts into an X-ray machine designed for only 2 million, Bork destroys the entire lab and is rendered unconscious. He awakens with no memory of his past, and with his physical features completely altered. Plus, as he soon learns, his mentality has evolved by millennia, and the erstwhile drunken blunderer is now capable of reading pages of copy at a glance, and of achieving miracles of scientific creation with little effort.
With no memory of his Borkian identity, he renames himself Miguel De Soto and secures a position for himself at Erickson, where his new associates believe Bork to be deceased. De Soto quickly manages to make a fortune for the Erickson group, eventually becoming the company’s director, and thus his old nemesis Crane’s boss. The latter, for his part, instinctually distrusts his new supervisor, but has lots of other concerns to keep him busy. His skin, perhaps as a result of long-term X-ray exposure, has begun to itch like crazy, and the water in his bathtub turns a blood-red color when he exits it! Even worse, following the explosion in his lab, hundreds of dead black widow spiders are discovered strewn about it, each one four feet long! A toad that is brought into the rebuilt lab later turns into a six-foot giant; a hen that is exposed to De Soto’s latest gizmo lays eggs that hatch to reveal prehistoric lizard monstrosities; and 19-year-old Alice Kent — the daughter of Erickson’s previous director, who De Soto had infatuated and wed by dint of his newfound charm — becomes pregnant with something … not quite normal. And although De Soto’s abilities initially bend themselves to the betterment of mankind, another lab accident results in the diminution of his mental powers, as well as incipient madness, and a plan to destroy the human race using as his cat’s-paws Erickson and its primary competitor, and entailing the awesome utilization of cosmic rays to induce sterility … and devolution…
Seeds of Life, in retrospect, fits in very neatly with Taine’s other 15 novels, written during the period 1924 – ’54, at least as regards its thematic concerns. The subject of the transmutation of elements, which De Soto is shown toying with, is supposedly at the heart of the author’s third novel, Quayle’s Invention (’27); the epic battles between two scientific corporations are dealt with in his fourth, Green Fire (’28); devolution had figured prominently in his sixth, The Iron Star (’30); while a hard look at prehistoric life had been a concern of his fifth, The Greatest Adventure (’29), and would later be the centerpiece of his next and tenth novel, Before the Dawn (’34). Strangely enough, the leading ladies in Dover’s White Lily and Seeds of Life collection are both a mere 19 years of age, and both suffer tragic ends. The 1931 book’s showcasing of an ordinary man who is made into a genius and then begins to lose his newfound abilities is said by some to have been an inspiration for Daniel Keyes’ wonderfully touching sci-fi novel of 1959, Flowers for Algernon, and by extension the 1968 film Charly, although whether or not this is actually true, I cannot say.
John Taine, it should be remembered, was the pen name of the award-winning mathematician Eric Temple Bell, who wrote sci-fi as a sideline. Bell, by the way, also wrote numerous volumes in the field of mathematics, with such titles as The Cyclotomic Quinary Quintic (1912; OK, I confess that I have absolutely no idea what that book is about!), An Arithmetical Theory of Certain Numerical Functions (1915) and Algebraic Arithmetic (1927). And it seems to me that of the four Taine books that I have experienced so far, Seeds of Life is the one in which the love that Bell felt for his No. 1 vocation is most evident. Early on in the novel, as De Soto sits in a library reading at the rate of a page/second, we are given a glimpse as to just what fascinates Taine so much about math:
… as he worked his lightning way steadily through modern higher algebra, analytic geometry, the calculus, and the theory of functions of real and complex variables, he began to become interested. Here at last was the simple, adequate language of nature herself. It was terse and luminously expressive in a highly suggestive way — unlike the ton or so of solid prose he had already digested against his will. What the italicized theorems left unsaid frequently expressed more than they purported to tell …
But then, surprisingly, mathematician Bell shows De Soto becoming disillusioned:
… Gradually a strange, new light dawned on him. This beautiful language after all was but another shovelful of unnecessary dust thrown up by clumsy workers between themselves and nature. Why go to all this fuss to torture and disguise the obvious? Why not look ahead, and in one swift glance see the beginning and the end of every laborious, unnecessary demonstration, as but different aspects of one self-evident truth? All these imposing regiments of equations and diagrams, that marched and countermarched endlessly through book after book, were merely the fickle mercenaries of men too indolent to win their own battles. By a conscious exercise of its innate power the mind, if only it let itself go, might perceive nature itself and not this pale allegory of halting symbols. Did the writers of scientific books need all these lumbering aids to direct comprehension?
Thus thinks De Soto, the man with the cosmic ray-induced mentality of the far future. Whether or not they are indeed Bell’s sentiments as well is anybody’s guess.
Taine, it strikes the reader, was one of the very few writers of science fiction of the 1920s and ‘30s to actually include hard science in his tales, and Seeds of Life, dealing as it does with physics, biochemistry and evolution, is surely no exception. The author adds further scientific cachet to his novel by referencing such luminaries as English scientists Isaac Newton and Michael Faraday and Scottish scientists Peter Tait and James Clerk Maxwell, while numerous Biblical and Shakespearean quotes add an aura of decided literacy to the affair. Taine’s prose is wonderfully readable — what the blurb on the Fantasy Press hardcover termed a “smoothly entertaining style” … “realistic, gripping and informative” — and demonstrates an especial facility with beautifully rendered, realistic dialogue. His ninth novel, released when the author was 48, is consistently fascinating and colorful, with a raft of well-drawn secondary characters and smartly paced thrills. Personally, I could not put this intelligent, truly adult piece of vintage sci-fi down.
And yet, inevitably, there are some problems, I felt. For one thing, Taine’s story line keeps jumping backward and forward in time, a fact that tends to engender some slight confusion; perhaps this is why the N.Y. Times’ Basil Davenport complained, in his review of the Fantasy Press edition, of the book’s “lack of a single clear narrative line.” Adding to the confusion is the fact that De Soto’s motivations keep changing; as his mentality flows and later ebbs, so too do his plans vis-à-vis humanity, the Erickson group, and even Alice. It’s a little hard to keep track. And Taine, in an effort to maintain suspense, makes things deliberately obscure at times. When Crane and his good friend Dr. Brown discuss all the assorted conundrums in the book, Taine often pulls away, as if to say “Yes, our heroes know what’s going on, but we’ll clue all of you in later.” It can sometimes feel like reader manipulation. But what perhaps bothered me most is that we are never given the big moments that we have been expecting and hoping for: when De Soto remembers his past life and when Crane realizes that the man he instinctively detests is none other than his old assistant Bork. Events toward the book’s tragic finale indicate that De Soto had indeed remembered, but it would have been nice if we’d all been privy to that revelation. Still, these quibbles all pale into insignificance when stacked against the undeniable success that Seeds of Life undoubtedly is. Taine, who is now a very solid 4 for 4 with this reader, gives us, early on in his book, the image of Dr. Brown examining a drop of water under his microscope, and seeing “a titanic drama, never before imagined by the human mind.” Words that could equally well describe John Taine’s truly marvelous Seeds of Life …