Have you ever thought to yourself, while reading a particularly good book, “What a fantastic movie this novel would make!”? Of course you have … it’s a practically inevitable occurrence. And it is one that has just happened to me again, while reading Harl Vincent’s 1929 offering Venus Liberated. Indeed, featuring as it does space travel, a visit to two nearby worlds, weapons and assorted gadgets of superscience, romance, warfare, and some truly hissable and hideous aliens, the book would have been a natural, it seems to me, as the source of a 1950s sci-fi film … or, given the requisite $200 million budget, a blockbuster summer movie today. Some kind of ultimate pulp epic of the most colorful kind, this is a book that practically screams for the big-screen treatment.
And yet, the fact that it has not been given any cinematic consideration can be well understood. Venus Liberated was initially released in the Summer 1929 issue of Astounding Stories Quarterly (cover price: 50 cents), just a few months before the Stock Market crash precipitated the U.S. into the Great Depression. The novel would then go OOPs (out of prints) for 91 years, until the fine folks at Armchair Fiction chose to resurrect it for a new generation in 2020. Given the novel’s abundant fine qualities, its virtual neglect over the decades will strike most readers as a mystery. As for the book’s author, Vincent had been born in Buffalo, NY in 1893 (with the name Harold Vincent Schoepflin) and was thus going on 36 when this novel first saw the light of day. A mechanical engineer, Vincent was also a very popular author in the pulp magazines back when, and before his death in 1968, at age 74, he would come out with some 20 novels and 60+ short stories. Venus Liberated, it seems, besides being one of his longest novels (hardly a “novella,” as the Internet Speculative Fiction Database would have us believe), is deemed one of the author’s finest; a statement that this reader is very much inclined to believe!
Vincent’s book transpires in the futuristic setting of, um, the mid-1940s; an age in which automobiles have gone extinct and flying machines clog the air lanes. In it, we meet young department-store owner Ralph Prescott, who visits the renowned psychiatrist Dr. Ramon DePolac with a very pressing dilemma. Prescott, it seems, has been plagued with repeated nightly visions — “dreams” would hardly describe them — of a beautiful woman who claims to be Thalia, the queen of the planet Coris (which we here on “Tinus” call Venus). Thalia has been begging Ralph to enlist help for her beleaguered planet, which, for the past 200 years, has been suffering the attacks and raids of some grotesque aliens, whose planet the Corisians have been unable to locate. Utilizing his new invention, the electro-telepathoscope, DePolac is able to verify Prescott’s wild story by actually viewing one of his subsequent visions on the device’s screen.
Meanwhile, genius engineer Teddy Crowley goes to his boss at the Sorenson Aircraft Corp. with some astounding news of his own: He has just invented a means of effectively neutralizing gravity and would like permission to utilize the technique to construct an interplanetary craft. The dumbfounded Sorenson gives his consent, and Teddy hurries off to visit his old teacher, astronomer Professor Timken, for advice. In the book’s only instance of forced coincidence, DePolac and Ralph also soon show up at Timken’s observatory, seeking his advice, and eventually, the plans are set. Teddy’s new spacecraft, the Comet (a globular craft whose gravity-negating plates bring to mind the ship in H. G. Wells’ classic of 1900, The First Men in the Moon), will be used to carry himself, Ralph, the doctor and the professor to Venus to lend whatever assistance they can provide. In addition to this quartet, Ralph’s foreman, Steve Gillette, is invited to join the hardy crew, as is Capt. Gregory French, of the U.S. Ordnance Dept., who will bring along some recently concocted offensive weaponry. But that’s not all! Joining these six men at the last minute, after putting some pressure on Sorenson, are Margaret Sprague, Dr. DePolac’s secretary, and her best friend, Mary Holmes, a newspaper columnist who’s always primed, in Lois Lane fashion, for a scoop. And so, our crew of what-is-now eight sets off at last for Venus, the first explorers into space!
And once arrived, the team learns the precise nature of the Corisians’ quandary. Their enemies, who (for some unexplained reason) they’ve dubbed the Kellonians, have been paralyzing the peoples of the island continents of Venus, then either eating them whole or taking them back to their home world to be used as slaves. After an initial skirmish between the Comet and four of the Kellonian craft, it is decided to take the fight to the besiegers’ home world … if Prof. Timken can possibly locate it in space. In time, though, that world — a dark satellite of Coris itself — is indeed located, and our heroes journey there to end the menace of the Kellonians once and for all. Oh … did I neglect to mention that these Kellonians are 20-foot-wide, bloblike creatures, with around 50 gesticulating tentacles apiece, and are truly horrendous in disposition? Verily, our brave men of Tinus are going to have their work cut out for them, as they attempt to attack the Kellonians in their home … a full 300 miles beneath the dead moon’s surface…
In their regrettably brief entry on Harl Vincent in The Science Fiction Encyclopedia, the editors there refer to his work as “vigorous but crude,” and while I would agree that the author’s style certainly is vigorous, I feel that “crude” is doing the man a disservice. Rather, Vincent’s writing here strikes me as being utilitarian and economically descriptive; a reader-friendly manner of presentation that I personally found very ingratiating. To keep his readers riveted, Vincent here supplies them with any number of well-spaced action scenes and spectacular sequences, including the Comet’s initial voyage to Venus, replete with the seemingly unavoidable meteor hazards; our heroes’ arrival in Seritanis, Thalia’s capital city, and a viewing of the manifold marvels therein; that first encounter with the four Kellonian ships, with the tentacled monstrosities hurling (orange) paralyzing rays, (blue) heat rays, and hydrocyanic gas at the Comet; the capture and interrogation (via that electro-telepathoscope) of a Kellonian prisoner; the protracted, underground battle in the Kellonian home world, resulting in a surprisingly high body count (sadly enough, on both sides); and the Comet’s breakneck journey back to Coris after this battle, the air supply rapidly dwindling due to damages sustained. Readers of Radium Age and Golden Age sci-fi highly esteemed that elusive “sense of wonder,” as well as gizmos of superscience, in their stories, and here again, Vincent does not disappoint. The crew’s reactions to being the first humans in outer space are realistic and touching, as are their reactions to everything that follows. And oh, the marvels that author Vincent treats us to! Besides DePolac’s mind-scanning device and Teddy’s Comet, we’re given the superexplosives, cathode ray projectors, and explosive bullets that Capt. French supplies the crew with. On Coris, our heroes are made familiar with the residents’ use of telepathy, with the electrical panels that take the place of windows in all their buildings, and with the Tritu Leboru (a kind of telepathic news service). The Kellonians themselves are presented as some of the most disgusting and utterly detestable aliens ever, with nothing in the way of redeeming qualities; no moral ambiguity here, that’s for sure! So yes, for sheer action, spectacle, color and thrills, Venus Liberated really does deliver, in spades.
Of course, as might be expected, the book does come freighted with the inevitable problems. Where to begin? Let’s start with Vincent’s faulty (but admittedly highly amusing) predictions regarding Venus itself. In the novel, the atmosphere of the planet is said to be “pure and breathable,” whereas we now know it to be a highly unbreathable mixture, primarily consisting of carbon dioxide. The planet is said to have several moons, whereas it is actually one of the few planets (Mercury being the other) with none at all. And while Ralph and Teddy and the others seem to enjoy being outdoors while on Venus, we’re now very well aware that the surface temperature there is something on the order of 860 degrees Fahrenheit! Too, we are told that a light-year is equivalent to 6 million miles, whereas that figure should be more like 6 trillion! And then we are informed that the star cluster Messier 79 is 85,000 light-years away, while in actuality, it is a “mere” 42,000. Bottom line: Don’t be expecting scrupulous scientific accuracy here!
There are some other problems. While I appreciate the fact that Vincent provides his readers with two plucky Earthwomen in his book, they’re actually given very little to do when it comes down to the very tough business of fighting the Kellonians. Yes, it’s nice that Sorenson says “I appreciate that times are greatly different from what they were when I was a young man and that woman has entered man’s previously undisputed place in almost everything.” Still, that sentiment is undermined when all we see Margaret and Mary doing is cooking for the men in the ship’s galley, going shopping at a Corisian emporium, serving as love interests for Ralph and Teddy, and coming down with a Corisian illness! No Ellen Ripley, they! Vincent’s book is also problematic in that he fails to explain just why Ralph, a department-store owner, was the one Earthling to be contacted by Thalia. And a more in-depth history of the Corisians and especially the Kellonians would have been appreciated. Finally, to end this nitpicking, Vincent, at this early stage in his career (he’d only been a professional writer for one year at this point; his first published story, “The Golden Girl of Munan,” had appeared in Amazing Stories in June 1928), is guilty of some of the faults of a tyro author. Thus, we get an unfortunate line such as “He lighted a small, orange-tinted light,” and are told that one of the characters “laughed again,” when he’d never laughed once to begin with. Still, all of the book’s failings do tend to pale into insignificance when stacked up against the story’s great sweep and drive. Story triumphs over all other considerations here, and it really is a doozy. Personally, I would now love to get my hands on Vincent’s other novel featuring Prof. Timken, Faster Than Light, which would appear in the Fall/Winter 1932 issue of Amazing Stories Quarterly, to see what mishegas the elderly astronomer gets into next.
But getting back to my original thought, of what a terrifically fitting, 1950s sci-fi movie Venus Liberated would have made. I can already picture it in my mind’s eye, with Richard Denning playing the part of Ralph, maybe Grant Williams portraying Teddy, and with Faith Domergue as Margaret…