Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Stranded on a Fearsome Planet: Two Novels of Survival [Guest Post]

By GW Thomas

There is something immediately appealing about a killer planet. Science fiction has used the idea on numerous occasions, but the idea remains simple and the same: this planet is deadly. Why? There is the usual bad weather: it may be freezing cold, or burning hot, or have frequently changing weather, or just as likely earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, you name it. Add to this jungles teeming with killer plants and animals, hostile locals, and sometimes, when we're lucky, a terrible secret or two to be discovered. People who come from such places, survivors, are always bad-ass whether they are the hero like Leigh Brackett's Eric John Stark, who grew up on Mercury, or the ranks of Sardaukar from the imperial prison planet Salusa Secundus in Frank Herbert's Dune, soldiers so tough their very name sends chills down your back. It's pulpy, but it's fun.

I want to look at two novels here. One I came across by accident and was charmed. The other I saw as a kid and always wanted to read it. Comparing these two books got me to see a few things about this theme.

The first book is called Space Prison (1960) by Tom Godwin, which is also known as The Survivors (1958). No matter which title you encounter it under doesn't matter. This book moves. The idea is that an evil race of space creatures called the Gerns strand a number of humans on the planet Ragnorak, expecting them to perish. The icy world is filled with nasty creatures, but the humans don't die off. They get stronger and stronger. Eventually, they even capture a spaceship and go after the Gerns for revenge. Godwin tells the story in segments about different characters. Since their individual life expectancy is not so good, he tells how the group survives, not just one character. (I love that he named them the Gerns, probably after Hugo Gernsback, the father of magazine science fiction. This plot of humans triumphing over alien invaders is a theme Hugo cultivated back in Amazing Stories in 1926.)

The second book is Syd Logsdon's Jandrax from 1975. I saw this book way back in my youth and wanted to read it. It looked like a good adventure in the Edgar Rice Burroughs mode. I'm glad I missed it, because the story is so much more complex and I would not have been able to grasp its full meaning. The book's theme is so much more than a mere adventure story. The plot concerns a group of religious exiles who are stranded on a cold, inhospitable planet (sound familiar?). Jan Andrax (later known as Jandrax) is a planetary scout and the first half of the novel concerns him and his helping the colonists to survive. The colony builds a stockade and stores up food for the long winter. Eventually, he and all the other religious outsiders are driven out, forming a second group of people simply known as the Others. Jandrax realizes that for them to survive they must become nomads, following the Melt, the short summer-like period, across the planet.

The second half of the book follows Jean Dubois, a colonist who is crippled by a rival for a girl named Chloe. Dubois becomes a gunsmith, then leaves the colony to explore. He finds an island filled with mysteries, explaining where the extinct elder race that lived on the planet had gone. He leaves the island, shaken by the mystical experience, and ends up with the Others. He returns to the colony to face his rival and take back the son he left behind. Later Jean will return to the island as the Others' prophet of a new religion, leaving behind his grown son. Logsdon doesn't wrap it up neatly, but leaves many questions for the reader to think about.

Comparing these two novels got me thinking about crucibles. That's a good term for hell planets that forge humans into something stronger. None of us would ever want to go to such a place, but we all love the hero who comes out of them: cool, deadly, and usually pretty buff. It's why we love Tarzan, John Rambo, Wolverine, Jason Bourne, etc. All these characters had to endure some horrific event in their lives. Even Robin Williams in Jumanji fills this category. The man who survived the insane jungle of the Jumanji world. We like to identify with characters of this sort. We think in the back of our minds: they survived and became something more; so could I. This is a very old way of thinking. It is no doubt where the idea of the hero comes from originally, in the days of caves and smilodons. Tales that helped people living in dangerous times to be brave; to keep fighting. You will survive. Stories of this sort ignore such realities as PTSD, but offer something else: Courage in the face of adversity. So whether you go to a hell planet or find some hell right here on earth, the hero walks away. We will survive...

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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