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Danger Planet

Danger Planet frontDanger Planet by Brett Sterling
Popular Library, 1945
Price: 75¢

One million years back in the swirling, shrouded past, evil ultra-beings ruled the Planet Roo. Suddenly, unbelievably, they are alive again, threatening the universe with total destruction.

Only one man dares challenge the Evil Ones. He is Captain Future, inter-galactic agent of justice, whose identity is top secret, whose strength is ultimate. He sets out alone to stop the deathless menace creeping ever closer…

I’ll be honest, I picked up this book based on the tagline more than anything else. Danger Planet, as a title, was pretty good, but a bit on the generic side. As soon as I saw the header ONE STRONG MAN BATTLING THE GALAXIES OF EVIL, though, I was sold, and so was the book.

The cover also touts the book as being the introduction of a character named “Captain Future” although something about that name makes me feel like I should turn my caps lock on. CAPTAIN FUTURE. CAAAAAAPTAAAAAIN FUUUUUUUTUUUUURE! Isn’t that better? It is a literary fact withheld by the universities that any name which naturally flows into all caps and extended vowels will rise to the annals of greatness.

KIIIIIIIIRK
LUUUUUUKE
AND CAAAAAAPTAAAAAAIN FUUUUUUTUUUUUUUURE

So the book kicks off by telling us that someone has tried to corner the Solar System’s supply of vitron. Vitron is (and the narrative breaks into an extended session of “as you know” exposition at this point) the most important thing in the universe times a million billion. It’s a life-extending drug that only comes from one planet in the known–wait a minute, was I reading Dune? No, apparently not. Danger Planet predates Dune by about twenty years, so my belief that Frank Herbert is getting shafted still only applies to Kevin J. Anderson, but still, the similarity is a bit eerie. I have to wonder if maybe Herbert found a copy of Danger Planet somewhere and picked up a bit of inspiration from it. The similarities end pretty much there, though.

Captain Future, of course, knows all about vitron. He knows about everything. He’s the greatest dude ever. Did I mention he discovered vitron? Also, he discovered the remarkable space drive that allows people to travel between planet Roo, where all the vitron comes from, and our Solar System? And that all this was predicated by his discovery of the race from Deneb that turned out to be the progenitor of all human life in the cosmos? If this guy were any more of an Übermensch he would resurrect Friedrich Nietzsche just to have another worshipper. As it is, everybody in the galaxy loves him so much that he doesn’t really feel the need to do so.

Anyway, having some guy with a monopoly on vitron would be bad news. After all, it would be in the guy’s best interests to just hold on to most of it, sell the rest for exorbitant prices only to the ultra-rich, and have the rest of humanity die off, wouldn’t it? I like that we naturally assume that monopolies are bad because the people who hold the monopolies are complete idiots with no business sense or ethics, despite the fact that they had the knowhow and wherewithal to get to that point in the first place. It shows a lot about how we naturally distrust anyone who wants to make large sums of money, while simultaneously wishing that we had some way of doing the same. I’m not coming out pro-monopoly here, but an ethical businessman is like a benevolent tyrant:  We’ll probably never see one in real life, but while we’re looking at science fiction, wouldn’t it be neat to imagine?

Captain Future has a plan to get to the bottom of this scheme, though. He and his Futuremen, who happen to be a floating brain, a big metal robot, and a small agile humanlike robot, simply have to get into the bad guy’s organization and root out the evil plan from the bottom up. Meanwhile, a few vitron scientists and a few members of the Planet Patrol will travel to planet Roo and find out what they can from the outside.

Captain Future’s plan for getting into the conspiracy is actually pretty good. One of the Futuremen, Otho, will disguise himself as Captain Future, while Captain Future himself will be disguised as a ne’er-do-well named “Rab Cain.” Fake Captain Future and “Rab Cain” will get into a gunfight on Venus where (gasp!) Captain Future loses! He’s in critical condition and the Futuremen can’t bear to leave his side! It looks like they won’t be investigating any kind of interstellar conspiracy for a long time! “Rab Cain,” on the other hand, will leverage his notoriety as The Man Who Shot Captain Future while he injects himself into the criminal organization that really just wants to make a few bucks.

Captain Future’s plan paves the way for two of the more infuriating elements of the book, though. It gives the author a chance to tell us how great Captain Future is in other characters’ words without actually breaking away from his point of view. Whenever somebody learns that “Rab Cain” took down Captain Future, they interject some exposition detailing some of Captain Future’s backstory, usually some great discovery, while Captain Future sits there and thinks things like “If only they knew that it was I, Captain Future, that did what they are talking about!” It’s a variety of “As You Know” exposition that is even more annoying because it’s even more obvious and contrived.

Secondly, it helps to reveal the great secret of how Captain Future is so amazing: everybody else in the galaxy is a complete moron. Once the fellow protagonists realize that the man named Rab Cain is actually Captain Future, they still don’t seem to quite get it. More than once, something similar to the following exchange takes place:

Rab Cain: All right, you go out and take care of the space-vehicle.  I’ll take care of these Planet Patrol ingrates.
[“Fellow” bad guy leaves the room.  Rab Cain reveals himself to be Captain Future.]
Planet Patrol: Captain Future!  How could you be working with these dastardly evil guys!  How could you threaten us like that and not just rescue us?
Captain Future: Because I’m in disguise.  If I didn’t do any of that stuff, they’d know I’m not legit!
Planet Patrol: Of course!  You’re such a genius, Captain Future!

This goes on, over and over, until Captain Future finally reveals to the bad guys that he’s not actually working for them and is in fact a dude in disguise. The bad guy actually says “I might have known!” at this point, as the entire audience thinks “Yes, and so might have everyone else.”

These annoyances aside, the plot that Captain Future uncovers is actually pretty decent. A group is trying to get planet Roo to secede from the System Government so they can privatize the vitron market and make heaping gobs of space money. In order to do that, they are agitating the colonial population of the planet, convincing them that the System Government isn’t concerned with their needs and won’t do anything to help them. In order to do that, they are agitating the native population of the planet, the Roons, by convincing them that having offworlders on the planet is offensive to the Old Ones, a group of unspeakably evil entities in hibernation on the planet somewhere, and if these people don’t leave the Old Ones will wake up and kill everything. So the Roons attack the colonists, the colonists don’t get any help from the government, the colonists decide they should run their own planet, and the bad guys win. I have to wonder how the colonists think things will get any better once they run the planet for themselves. I mean, yeah, the government isn’t helping them out here, but once they get rid of it, they should still be in pretty much the same straits, right? I guess the bad guys are just playing off the idea that everybody’s an idiot. Of course, they’re the ones spreading the idea that secession is the right way to go, because it’s in their own best interests. The fact that the colonists don’t realize that is kind of odd but pretty realistic, honestly. People don’t generally think these things through, especially if someone is pulling the strings.

It turns out that the leader of the bad guys, a Venusian named Lu Suur, is agitating the Roon population by making it look like the Temple of the Old Ones is falling apart at the seams and all hell is about to break loose. Captain Future, the Futuremen, the vitron scientists, and the Planetary Patrol all independently realize that the Temple of the Old Ones is on Roo’s moon, called simply Black Moon since it doesn’t reflect much light back onto the planet. Captain Future and his Futuremen race to Black Moon to stop the bad guys from inciting the Roons into a massive rebellion that will cause a lot of bloodshed and also cement the secession efforts of the colonists when, lo and behold, it turns out that the Roon superstition wasn’t all that much of a superstition at all. Looking at the temple and (naturally) knowing how to read the million-year-old letters on the side of it, Captain Future learns that it really is a hibernation place for the Old Ones, which the rest of the galaxy calls the Kangas, a horrible race that once ruled the whole galaxy until finally defeated by the Denebians, who later seeded the galaxy with what would become the humanoid races.

Oh my god, it just occurred to me that there are Kangas on Roo’s moon. I guess Piglet and Owl will drop in for some hunny later.

Captain Future then tries to appeal to Lu Suur’s self interest in the matter. Namely, his gobs of vitron money won’t be worth anything if the Kangas escape and destroy everything and everybody. Lu Suur dismisses this as hokey superstition and proceeds to blow the temple up. What follows is some of most anti-climactic reveal of unspeakable galactic horror this side of an H.P. Lovecraft story, wherein some horrible black things climb out of a metal temple, Captain Future faces off with them for a bit, and then they fall back in and someone throws in a bomb and they all die. I swear, this whole thing takes less than a page and a half. And then the book ends by celebrating the sacrifice of one of the minor characters I could barely remember.

The main thing I took away from this book is just how awesome Captain Future is supposed to be. He’s not a flawed character, and that makes him uninteresting. He’s always right, he knows everything, he’s done everything, he discovered most things. He isn’t riddled with self-doubt or any humanizing flaws. Even his backstory, which is only touched on a little bit, is utterly amazing. He was raised on Earth’s moon by a living brain and two robots. He keeps pets that are semi-mythical to the rest of humanity. He once saved Mercury by running off and inventing some kind of atmosphere refreshing device. Everybody loves and respects him except for bad guys. He’s boring.

The universe that Captain Future exists in is actually kind of interesting, though, in that Old Sci-Fi way. All of the planets, from Mercury to Pluto, are inhabited not by former Earthmen who colonized them, but by sentient human-like races of their own. Characters are often described by the planet they came from, with little-to-no description of what that actually entails. A receptionist might just be a “Martian lady” or a cop a “steely-eyed Neptunian.” Planetary origins are used in much the same way another genre might describe a character as “Japanese” or “Spanish.” Planet Roo, far outside the Solar System, also has its own humanoid race, the Roons. All of these races are descended from the Denebian people who ruled the galaxy a million years ago and spread their seed throughout the galaxy for their own inexplicable purposes.

Descriptions of the planets in the Solar System are often laughably inaccurate to a modern audience, but keep in mind that the book was written in 1945. One great bit that stands out is an explanation of why no planets in our Solar System could be used to produce vitron, as only Venus has the proper amount of sunlight and temperature, but there’s just not enough dry land there to support the amount of vitron needed to supply everybody. One might argue that in the future of Captain Future this might be the case (it’s never explicitly stated what the time frame is), I think it’s just as valid to think that we didn’t know any better when the book was written. It wasn’t until another fifteen or twenty years after this book was written that we knew exactly what was under the clouds of Venus, so there’s no reason to expect the world of Captain Future to depict the hot barren wasteland that it is rather than a world of swamps, forests, and the beautiful city of Venusopolis.

It’s also worth mentioning that the book’s jacket summary is just plain full of lies. I’m pretty sure that the only two things it got right are the fact that it stars Captain Future and that he goes to planet Roo. Other than that, it really emphasizes the return of the Evil Ones, which are never called that in the book, and how they want to destroy the universe, which they don’t. Also, nothing in the book suggests that Captain Future is “inter-galactic,” since he only goes between two solar systems. And he doesn’t set out alone to do anything, since he takes the Futuremen, a bunch of scientists, and some space cops with him. Book covers always lie.

In the end, I rather liked the book, and I don’t regret the seventy-five cents it ran me. It was predictable and it was laughably dumb in some places, but really it was a good look back into the origins of science fiction and the fact that certain ideas and tropes hadn’t really been worked out yet. The book was nominated for a Retro Hugo in 1996, an honor I think it deserves. A bit of web research also shows the book as being honored as a background poster in the apartment of one of the characters on The Big Bang Theory, but as I thoroughly dislike that show, I think the book (or rather the series of books) and Captain Future deserve a little more recognition these days.

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4 Comments

  1. Franz-Peter says:

    Captain Future?
    Oh dear, my childhood!
    It was actually adapted into a rather long running show, made in Japan, I watched it a lot.
    It’s kinda hard to find, I could only find the german version, and we Krauts censored and cut a lot. I would love to see it subbed.

    Like

  2. fromcouchtomoon says:

    Kanga and Roo, haha. Oh, and also, it has giant burrowing worms, so there’s another thing Frank Herbert might have borrowed.

    I just read this and I actually kind of enjoyed it! I felt bad for those “superstitious natives” who never get their planet back, but hey, you can’t beat a Lovecraftian battle on a black moon!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. antyphayes says:

    Lu Suur… Lu Suur… Seriously!?

    Liked by 1 person

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