MASTER OF THE WORLD. American International Pictures, 1961. Vincent Price, Charles Bronson, Henry Hull, Mary Webster, David Frankham. Screenplay: Richard Matheson, based on the novels Robur, the Conqueror and Master of the World by Jules Verne. Director: William Witney.
For a film directed by serial and B-film maestro William Witney, Master of the World, the cinematic adaptation of two Jules Verne works, is a relatively tame, if not occasionally sedate, affair. There’s some action, to be sure. But it’s really not all that frenetic or fun. Instead, the viewer has to make do with a perfectly adequate script by Richard Matheson and some enjoyable scenery chewing from Vincent Price and some solid, if not particularly memorable, acting from Charles Bronson.
Price portrays Robur, a visionary genius and diabolical madman determined to wage war on the very concept of warfare itself. His plan is to traverse the globe in the Albatross, an airship straight out of the imagination of late nineteenth-century fiction, and bomb the heck out of the world’s armies. Along the way, he ends up capturing U.S. government agent Strock (Bronson) and three of Stock’s civilian companions with personalities as exciting as cardboard.
There’s a lot of dialogue, some of it incredibly tedious, about the morality of destroying the Albatross in order to thwart Robur’s designs. Likewise, the viewer is subject to similar speechifying from Robur. Fortunately, Price is such a unique screen presence that he makes the movie far more enjoyable than it would have been had another actor been cast in the role.
Master of the World isn’t a total loss. There are some occasionally lighthearted moments and Price seems to be thoroughly enjoying himself. It’s all just rather dated, I suppose. Perhaps it’s a movie than can only really be enjoyed on the big screen on a rainy Saturday afternoon where it’s escapist fun soon forgotten after leaving the theater.
MARTIN CAIDIN – The God Machine. E. P. Dutton, hardcover, 1968. Paperback reprints include: Bantam, 1969; Baen, 1989.
— Four Came Back. David McKay Co., hardcover, 1968. Paperback reprints include: Bantam 1970; Baen, 1988.
Martin Caidin, who wrote science fiction and adventure grounded in hard science and technology, and who is best remembered today for his novel Cyborg, which became the basis for the cult television series The Six Million Dollar Man, was never really part of the science fiction community his work most resembles. Most of his novels, like Cyborg, are thrillers using science fictional elements, and the writer he most resembles is Mickey Spillane in his narrative style and politics — which became increasingly bizarre (*) and dominant in his work later in his career.
But before that he wrote some entertaining adventure novels with a bit of hard science and technology in a blend of SF and thriller adventure novel that was unique to him.
The God Machine is the old supercomputer takes over the world trope. The hero, Steve Rand, works on Project 79, and as the book opens he is getting suspicious after an attempt on his life. He soon becomes convinced that it was the work of Project 79, a computer which may have achieved true AI (artificial intelligence).
Caidin was a top notch suspense novelist when he wanted to be, and Rand’s first person narration has an immediacy that will likely remind you favorably of Mickey Spillane, both in some fairly explicit (for the time) Spillane style sex scenes and the violence.
Rand manages to find a couple of allies in the project (one an attractive pneumatic fellow scientist) and in a suspenseful final down to the wire conflict must penetrate the near omniscient Project 79 and its lethal radioactive core in order to destroy the machine. It may not be as thoughtful as D. F. Jones’s Colossus: The Forbin Project of Charles Eric Maine’s B.E.A.S.T., but you can’t fault it as storytelling.
Four Came Back has an international group of eight astronauts sent to a space station in near-earth orbit contaminated by an alien virus accidentally brought on the ship. As the orbit deteriorates and the virus spreads they have to face that not only will they not be rescued, they may have no choice but to destroy themselves to keep from spreading the disease to Earth.
The crew is a mix of men and women, so there is a strong sexual element, kept in hand unlike some of Caidin’s later novels, and the narrative tension remains strong to the last page. It was a timely book when it first appeared, as NASA was seriously concerned they not bring anything back from space with the early Gemini missions, and it still works despite dating though Michael Crichton far surpassed it on all points with The Andromeda Strain. Four Came Back falls somewhere between Strain and Alistair MacLean’s The Satan Bug (published as by Ian Stuart).
The immediacy of Caidin’s best work shows here, and many of today’s thriller writers could learn something about narrative drive from reading these. Caidin delivered a maximum of suspense and drive in the books of this era, and many are still worth reading, even if the science and technology that were his selling point are out of date.
At his best, including Marooned (basis in an expanded version for the hit film with Gregory Peck), The Last Fathom, Cyborg, Whip, Almost Midnight, and Three Corners to Nowhere, Caidin wrote highly readable thrillers often with a strong basis in barely speculative day after tomorrow science and featuring strong narrative drive.
He was always at his best writing about flying. His years as a pilot and his love of flying was another thing he shared with Mickey Spillane, and in addition to his novels he wrote several good nonfiction works about flying and space as a reporter. He also penned novelizations of films such as The Final Countdown, the Six Million Dollar Man series, an updated Buck Rogers novel, and books in the Indiana Jones series of paperback originals for Bantam. His work roughly spans from 1956 to 1990 including non fiction and fiction, novels and short fiction.
I re-read the two reviewed here a few years ago, and while the science may not hold up and the technology has long since been surpassed, the narrative drive and Caidin’s convincing voice still shine through. These are solid entertaining and cinematic novels from his best period and are well worth a read, if you don’t mind your science well behind the contemporary norm and somewhat old fashioned pulpish writing.
(*) FOOTNOTE. In the Eighties Caidin hosted a Joe Pyne style talk show in which he confronted extremist groups and their leaders, then late in his career he became convinced he was possessed with PSI powers which was reflected in his novels often featuring amoral murderous supermen as protagonists. (I don’t think even Caidin would call them heroes.)
Some of his later books are disturbing reading for anyone who admired his earlier work, with some titles like Beamriders, Prison Ship, The Messiah Stone, and Dark Messiah just unreadable for me.
These later books combine the worst of the late works of Robert A. Heinlein with Randian extremism and almost Sadean scenes of sex and violence. Be warned, depending on your tolerance for this sort of thing. Whether it serves as a warning or as an enticement, most of those late works were published by Baen Books. In general I would avoid most of his work past 1981 save for the Indiana Jones books and TSR’s Buck Rogers: A Life in the Future (1995), but everyone will be their own guide.
TERROR BENEATH THE SEA. Toei Company, Japan, 1966. Original title: Kaitei daisensô. Sonny Chiba, Peggy Neal, Frank Gruber, Steve Queens, Andre Husse. Director: Hajime Satô.
Terror Beneath the Sea might not be a good movie per se, but it’s sure as heck an enjoyable one to watch. Directed by Hajime Sato, this alternatingly hip and schlocky 1960s movie features Sonny Chiba in an early screen role.
Chiba portrays a reporter who, along with his female colleague (Peggy Neal) happens upon a mad scientist’s plan to create a master race of aquatic cyborg men! There are not a lot of martial arts on display, but there are some bizarre creatures with spear guns. That’s got to count for something.
Comparable in visual style to both Edgar Ulmer’s Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) that I reviewed here, and Mario Bava’s Planet of the Vampires (1965), Sato’s movie works better as spectacle than as a story. Indeed, the plot doesn’t have all that much depth. But that’s easily forgotten when one sits back and appreciates the director’s skillful use of colors, lighting, and an electronic, jazzy score to heighten the atmospheric mood of a monster movie that isn’t so much frightening as it is entertaining.
THE COLLECTOR. Syndicated: Canada, A No Equal Entertainment Inc Production, 2004-2006. 40 episodes, 60 minutes each. Cast: Chris Kramer as Morgan Pym, Carly Pope (Season One and one episode of Season Two) Sonya Salomaa (Season Two and Three), Aidan Drummond as Gabe, Christine Chatelain as Taylor Slate, Ellen Dubin as Jeri Slate, Andrew Jackson as Danny Hullstrom and Ona Grauer as Katrina. Creators and Executive Producers: Jon Cooksey and Ali Marie Matheson. Executive Producer: Larry Sugar.
After several centuries of collecting souls for the Devil, Morgan Pym convinces The Devil to let him have 48 hours to help the client redeem their soul before the Devil takes them.
Most forgotten series are forgotten for a reason, but The Collector is one of those few that deserved a better fate. Apparently it did not make a deal with the Devil since the series lasted a too short three years instead of the standard Devil deal for ten years.
Morgan Pym was originally a 14th century monk who breaks his vows when he falls in love with Katrina, a woman in the village. When Katrina dies of the plague, Morgan sells his soul for her to return to life, only to see her die a second time ten years later. This time the Devil offers Morgan the chance to be his first collector of souls.
When Morgan would get a new client from the Devil, he would have forty-eight hours to help the client redeem his or her soul. Time limits are a good device to increase suspense and tension in a drama, but The Collector went further.
Morgan did not always win, some times he did not want to save the soul but to hurry the client to Hell for the sake of others, some times the Devil would distract him or trick him from his goal. All of this made for something rare in a weekly TV series — the viewers never knew how each episode would end.
Not only were the endings uncertain, the episodes varied from comedic to theological to tragic to mystic to historic to almost any type of drama. The Collector was less interested in religion and more about the human condition. The series focused on questions such as why the client sold his or her soul, how the Devil used the request to increase the suffering of others, and how can the client with Morgan’s help redeem themselves in less than 48 hours.
The acting and production values were generally average, with star Chris Kramer one of the weakest parts of the series. But the characters and the depth of each backstory were a major strength of The Collector.
For the most part, each episode told a separate and complete story featuring the client of the week. However, some stories took time out from the main story to explore a subplot involving a young, apparently autistic boy named Gabe.
The series takes place in modern day Vancouver. Morgan lives in a rundown apartment building and has a time traveling motorcycle in his room. Now a servant of the Devil, he has a very human like love/hate relationship with a God who let the love of his life die (twice).
His neighbor neurotic Maya is a junkie who falls for Morgan in Season One. Morgan tries to help her get her life together but still mourns for Katrina and resists a romantic relationship with Maya. In the first episode of Season Two there is a surprise dramatic twist that results in a new actress taking over the role. Maya and Morgan’s relationship would continue to grow more serious during the rest of the series.
Local reporter Jeri Slate becomes obsessed with discovering the true identity of Morgan to the point of neglecting her son Gabe. Despite the efforts of her sister Taylor who takes care of Gabe, Jeri falls deeper and deeper into her obsession until it consumes her.
Gabe is a sullen young boy (who turned ten in season three) with unknown powers. Withdrawn and refusing to talk Gabe can draw crude pictures of events before they happen, perhaps even causing them.
When we finally learn the fate of Gabe’s father Danny Hullstrom, it deepens the mystery of Gabe. Gabe begins to search for his role, his place in life. Gabe is the only one besides Morgan who can see through the Devil’s disguises. The Devil tries to influence Gabe as his pictures often ruin the Devil’s plans. The scenes with Gabe are separate from the main story. Gabe may control the events but Morgan and the clients are not aware of it.
The Devil is the series’ most fun character, especially when played by Colin Cunningham who does the opening narration in every episode and the actor to appear as The Devil the most. A variety of actors and actress would play the part as the series had fun with the ability of The Devil to appear anywhere and as anyone including characters from past episodes.
The series ended after Season Three and left many lose ends. Why was The Devil willing to let Morgan try to help redeem his clients just at the moment he could claim them? Who is Gabe and what was his role? What would happen to those Morgan saved, how would they handle the truth about The Devil and the World?
Whether you are religious or not (I’m not) I recommend you check out this series.
Our YouTube examples (for as long as they last) include one episode from each season. First is episode six, the first time we see Gabe in action.
“The Actuary.” Written by Frank Borg. Directed by Holly Dale. Guess Cast: Rob Labelle, Alex Diakun, David Ward and Ben Ayres as the Devil. *** Client of the week is Barrett Gimbel, an Actuary who works for the local mob. Barrett had sold his soul for a machine that tells how and when anyone dies. In this funny episode the mob boss learns that the machine has said he will die tomorrow and Barrett will kill him. In a mysterious sad counterpoint we meet reporter Jill’s neglected son Gabe.
In Season Two “The Mother” is an important episode in the Gabe storyline, but our example is the last episode of Season Two. This is one of the best episodes of the series as we watch Morgan learn on the job as the Devil assists him on his first collection.
“The Beginnings.” Written by Jon Cooksey and Ali Marie Matheson. Directed by J.B. Sugar. Guest Cast: Gabriel Hogan, Alan Peterson, Ona Grauer, and Colin Cunningham as the Devil. *** It is the 14th century and things look dark for humanity as the plague sweeps over the known world. Morgan and Katrina live and love. Katrina is burdened with guilt for having survived the plague while so many others have died. Morgan never tell her that he had sold his soul to save her. The ten years pass quickly and Katrina dies again. The Devil arrives and instead of Hell offers Morgan the chance to become his first collector of souls.
Finally, an example of the diversity of clients and type of stories this series told. Season Three, Episode Eleven is a good spy thriller. It is also a more typical episode as it is without the Gabe subplot. For those seeking the last episode of the Gabe subplot check out “The Media Baron.”
“The Spy.” Written by Jon Cooksey and Ali Marie Matheson. Directed by J.B. Sugar. Guest Cast: Joely Collins, Martin Cummins, Wanda Cannon and Alisen Down as the Devil. *** Kandyse Crown time ends in two days and she is still trying to finish the mission she sold her soul to complete. The Devil is a female Eastern European filmmaker who is famous for her films inspiring despair and depression – a nice jab at the era’s typical Eastern Europe film style.
The third season of The Collector third season has never been released on DVD, and the DVDs of the first two seasons are out of print.
YouTube offers (at this time) all fourteen episodes of Season One, and the thirteen episodes each of Season Two and Three.
FLIGHT TO MARS. Monogram Pictures, 1951. Marguerite Chapman, Cameron Mitchell, Arthur Franz, Virginia Huston, John Litel, Morris Ankrum. Director: Lesley Selander.
It’s difficult for me not to like movies with Cameron Mitchell in them. Sure, he did more than his fair share of lousy films, but the man’s got a unique presence and a wry, world-weary manner of speaking that’s difficult to explain: a sort of you-know—it-when-you-hear-it.
So when I learned of this science fiction B-film that stars not only Mitchell, but also Arthur Franz (another favorite of mine from that era and that genre), I had to check out Flight to Mars. The result: well, let’s just say that’s a clumsy, superficial film without much to recommend it except that the movie has these two actors in it and that it makes great use of Cinecolor.
The plot, evidently borrowed from the silent Soviet film, Aelita (1924), follows a group of American scientists, as well as newspaperman Steve Abbott (Mitchell), as they make their way to the red planet. When they arrive, they discover a highly advanced civilization led by a quasi-fascist regime led by the authoritarian Ikron (Morris Ankrum).
So everyone runs around a bit through the hallways of the Martians’ underground city, all wearing similar cheap looking uniforms (apparently the costume budget for this movie wasn’t all that elaborate), and then our friendly group of earthlings finally discover a means by which they can fix their rocket ship and head back home.
That’s really about it. It’s a shame, for merely adding a little green man or two to the mix would have really spiced things up a bit.
Still, I imagine that if you were a kid in the early 1950s and you saw this at a matinee, you would have thought it was all super neat. And you may not have been half wrong, either.
CHARLES ERIC MAINE – B.E.A.S.T. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, hardcover, 1966. Ballantine U6092, US, paperback, April 1967.
“Charles Eric Maine” was just one of the pen names used by David McIlwain, whose books formed the basis of several rather dull SF movies, including Spaceways, The Mind of Mr. Soames and The Electronic Monster. B.E.A.S.T., though, is remarkably readable.
Mark Harland, the first-person narrator, has a rather shadowy job in a rather shadowy department somewhere in MI5 or thereabouts, and as the story starts he’s ordered to infiltrate a top-secret research facility in the Defense Department and find out what the hell’s going on there.
I should add that this infiltration is does not involve a great deal of subterfuge; simply a matter of Harland filling in for the facility’s Security Officer for a few weeks, with all documentation supplied by MI5 and a knowing wink from the Security Officer himself as regards one Synove Raynor, the facility’s resident nymphomaniac.
This particular facility, known as RU8 has to do with genetic warfare—how to wage it, and how to see if someone’s waging it on us—and the facility’s central feature is one of those giant computers beloved of mid-1960s spy-and-sci-fi fiction, running on reel-to reel tapes and occupying several sub-basements, like the one in Alphaville (1965.)
But while the computer is supposed to be used for genetic research (“If only we could unravel the genetic code of DNA…”) it seems the absent-minded director of the facility, an unprepossessing sort named Howard Gilley, has been using it to run an experiment in applied evolution (Biological Evolutionary Animal Simulation Test) starting with theoretical single-cell organisms and compressing millions of years of development to produce a theoretical creature totally geared toward self-preservation.
Or is it still theoretical?
As Harland casually absorbs himself into the family, learns about some of the complex relationships there, and finally gets Dr. Gilley to open up a bit, he finds that the theoretical BEAST that communicates through the computer has been asking Dr. Gilley questions. And making demands.
Nowadays we just label this Artificial Intelligence and having labeled, dismiss it. But writing fifty years ago, Maine-as-Harland does a fine job of trying to wrap his mind around the notion: If the BEAST exists, where does it reside? In the computer? In the tapes running through it? Or is it just in the mind of Dr. Gilley, who begins to seem more and more unbalanced as Harland gets deeper into the whole thing.
I can relate to some of this. When you write fiction, something delightful happens every once in a while when one of the characters gets up and does something you weren’t expecting. So when Gilley tells Harland of his feelings when the BEAST started asking questions, I could feel for him, and I think Maine did too. But Harland has to figure out whether Gilley is going crackers or something even more sinister is coming on.
Oddly, the elements that make those movies so dull impart a bit of gritty and gripping reality to B.E.A.S.T. as Harland deals patiently with the personalities and possibilities involved and wonders how anyone will be able to explain something as complex as this to his higher-ups… or to an MP unlikely to comprehend any concept more sophisticated than a campaign slogan. And it gets stickier still when Harland finds empty Vodka bottles and pornographic pictures hidden away in the abstemious Gilley’s office and begins to suspect their bizarre implications.
I should add that B.E.A.S.T. proceeds to a fine spot of monster-on-the-loose that fits in perfectly with the Halloween season, and a thoughtful conclusion that will send me seeking out more of Maine’s work.
WILLIAM SAMBROT “Island of Fear.” Originally published in The Saturday Evening Post, 18 January 1958. Reprinted in Island of Fear and Other Science Fiction Stories (Pocket, paperback, May 1963).
William Sambrot (1920-2007) wrote and published over 50 science fiction stories. Many of them first appeared in the pages of The Saturday Evening Post, not the most traditional market for speculative fiction, but the place where he found a home. He also wrote for such publications as Playboy and Blue Book Magazine. Fourteen of his short stories were reprinted in Island of Fear and Other Science Fiction Stories.
The short story “Island of Fear,” is a suspenseful yarn about a man obsessed with a wall built on a Greek isle. He wants – no, he needs to know who built this wall and why. This is especially so given the fact that on the other side of this wall there appears to be a beautiful sculpture, one that has escaped the attention of the art books.
As a tale that is both atmospheric and suspenseful, “Island of Fear” isn’t so much a science fiction story as it is a horror story. It’s actually a pretty good read, yet because it’s a rather short, I’d be giving away too much if I tried to tell you too much more about the plot. Let’s just say the Greek setting is what propels the story forward, with rising tension, toward a horrific climax.
So as I ask you as readers of speculative fiction: have you ever read Sambrot’s work? Do you remember it when his fiction was first published in The Saturday Evening Post? Do you have a favorite story of his? If so, leave a comment below and let me know what you think.