Wednesday, October 15, 2014

When Elephants Rule the Earth... [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

Manly Wade Wellman won himself a place in Fantasy history as the author of the Silver John stories that first appeared in Fantasy and Science Fiction in the 1960s and later in novels. Before that he had a prolific career writing in the SF Pulps beginning in 1931 in the pages of Wonder Stories Quarterly. After that he appeared in practically every SF magazine until the 1950s including John W. Campbell's Astounding. As an SF writer he penned many tales under his own name (such as the Hok the Mighty series for Amazing Stories) as well as under pseudonyms like Gans T. Field (in Weird Tales) and Levi Crow (in Fantasy and SF), as well as under house names like Will Garth.

One of those times he used a nom de plume was when he wrote "Elephant Earth" as Gabriel Barclay for Astonishing Stories, February 1940. I am not sure why he chose to publish this story under a different name since he does not appear in the same issue under his own name, the usual reason for such changes. He did use the same pseudonym for "Hollow of the Moon" (Super Science Stories, May 1940) also edited by Fredrick Pohl, so he may have intended it as a name for Pohl publications alone.

No matter the by-line, "Elephant Earth" is an unusual and charming tale. It follows a man named Lillard who has been put into suspended animation, waking to find the human race destroyed by a mysterious plague, though a handful of humans may have escaped to Venus. The elephants, in Man's absence, have developed language and civilization. The elephants take Lillard to their leader so that he can decide what to do with him. Three factions vie for the last man on earth. The Medicals want to dissect him. The Mechanicals want to use him for delicate work that the elephants find impossible to do. And the last group, containing the Lillard's sole friend, Aarump, are space scientists who want to use him as a test pilot. While the chief of the elephants is deliberating on these choices, the scientists sneak him away and send him into space. Lillard lands on Venus, feeling even more lonely when he hears a female, human voice...

Wellman has great fun with this story, doing a good job of reversing the roles between man and animal. He allows us to see just how cruel humanity is in its attitudes towards beasts of burden. The majority of elephants have no concern for what Lillard wants any more than we would have for what a dog or a horse desires. Rod Serling captured this same disregard almost 30 years later in the film The Planet of the Apes (1968). Wellman has a few good chuckles like the Apes films, like when the elephants discover that the humans they admire most from ancient books, Tarzan, Sherlock Holmes and Robinson Crusoe, are all fictional characters.

And we could leave Wellman there easily enough, but circumstances would arise that Manly would get a second chance at his elephant story. In 1951, Wellman, along with other Pulpsters like Eando Binder (Earl and Otto Binder) had moved to writing comics as the Pulps began to fade. Wellman wrote for the DC comic Strange Adventures. In issue #11 (August 1951) Wellman produced "The Reign of the Elephants" (drawn by Jim Mooney and Frank Giacoia). This tale appeared alongside Pulp old-timer Edmond Hamilton's "Chris KL-99", loosely based on his Captain Future character, a character Wellman had written as well in the pages of Startling Stories. It must have felt like old times. But I digress.

This time around the elephant tale begins the same but very quickly changes. The elephants have no desire to dissect the man, now named Clay Parks. (He is given a thought translator to make conversation easier than in the Pulp story.) When invaders come from the stars, it is up to Parks to show the elephants the art of war. Clay meets one of the invaders and sees she is a beautiful woman, not a human fled from earth but a product of parallel evolution. The invaders try to sway the last man on earth to betray his planet but he uses the thought transmitter to set a trap. Once the invaders are in the elephants' control, it is easier to sue for peace. The story ends with Parks and Lylla, the beautiful space girl, in love, and men and elephants working together.

In the second version of the tale we get to see Wellman rework his original idea, going for more action. The thought translator could have been just a cheat but he is a pro and makes it the key to the story's resolution. The original story strikes me as a more powerful tale, while the comic elephants are more passive and less convincing. In "Elephant Earth," Wellman extrapolates things like elephant architecture and their mental outlook, which lacks the concept of luck. Ultimately this could be a matter of medium. A constraint of the comic book storytelling is that things must be shown while in a story the more esoteric stuff is limited only by the length of the tale. All that aside, it is intriguing to see how an author plays with the same idea in two different ways. And there are few authors more able and fascinating than Manly Wade Wellman.

GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.
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