All Right, Everybody Off the Planet! by Bob Ottum
Bantam Books, 1972
Price I paid: 90¢
What happens when an extraterrestrial made of plastic and passion meets a lusty, liberated earthling made of flesh and blood?
This book was supposed to be the special Valentine’s Day review, albeit a late one. Yet another exploration of sex and romance in science fiction, but with a humorous twist that would make the book a more entertaining read, if not a better one, than something like Genetic Bomb. I mean, look at that cover! A blond with legs and cleavage wearing a little nighty while a dude has lightning coming out of his navel? The back of the book, as you see, summarizes the book in much the same way, telling us that it’s all about an alien hooking up with a human. It’s even billed as the “lustiest s-f novel of the year,” and s-f can now apparently stand for sex-fantasy. So yeah, sexytimes all around, right?
Bob Ottum has a lot of reason to be really mad about the way his book was marketed. And so do we.
The plot itself is actually pretty intriguing. Our hero, Bing Walter, is an alien. He’s been given a human body, more or less, and he’s an advance scout for an alien…something. The book never quite settles on what exactly his alien cohorts are coming down to do, whether an invasion or a first contact meetup or coffee and sandwiches. Bing’s here, though, and his mission, whether he chooses to accept it or not, is to get a job with TIME Magazine. Once there, he is to insert a cover story detailing the forthcoming arrival of an alien spaceship.
See, I kind of like that. Bing’s job is to prepare the people of Earth for contact with aliens. Sort of ease them into it. Most aliens show up pretty unannounced, flashing lights and blowing up buildings without even ringing the doorbell. These guys have class.
The aliens tell Bing that he’ll need to conscript some help in his mission, and thus that he should make friends. He quickly chooses to make friends with a guy named J. Lew Trindle who also works at TIME. People keep going on about what an odd name he has, but really it’s no more odd than any of the other names in the book. The book suffers from something that I see a lot of times in other books that try for humor, but I’ve never really thought about it until now.
Comedy books so often try to establish the fact that they’re funny by giving people funny names. This book has the aforementioned Trindle, but we also get Sally Lou Oddly and a throwaway character later named Grover C. Grover (a highlight of this kind of comedy is having a character with the same first and last name). Whenever this crops up it always reeks of trying too hard, and it’s never realistic. I know complaining about realism in comedy (and especially comedy sci-fi) might seem pointless but hear me out on this one. Comedy is all about casting a weird slant on reality, right? Wacky situations and characters that have nothing to do with the real world just aren’t funny. Have you ever met a person with a funny name? The kind of person whose parents just weren’t thinking, so he or she would up as Justin Case or Summer Winter? Maybe I’m stereotyping a bit here, but that kind of person is never wacky. They are often dour and sarcastic, struggling with the daily strain of stupid people saying “Hey, did you know your name sounds like Just In Case? Hahahaha!”
I mentioned Sally Lou up there, and she shows up right around the time Mr. Trindle does. When she cropped up in the story, I immediately figured this was where all the wacky sexual alien hijinks were about to begin. She’s described in many of the same terms a video game reviewer would describe a girl from a Dead or Alive title. She’s half-naked all the time and she jiggles, even when she’s standing still. Yeah, this is where that plot starts, right?
Nope. They talk a bit. She’s a bimbo, as you might expect. Men constantly go ga-ga over her, and at one point she’s grateful to Bing because he doesn’t. She invites him over one night after work and they make out a bit and he doesn’t perform because he’s an alien and doesn’t know what he’s supposed to do. She chalks it up to being tired and drunk (neither of which he actually was, because he’s an alien) and leaves it at that. There’s a little kissyface action and then she goes to sleep.
Seriously, the marketing for this book was based entirely on one or two pages of complete non-action. Sally Lou shows up a few other times in the book, generally just sitting there jiggling, but there’s no more makeouts, no sexytimes, no anything.
Besides the completely offensive way that Bantam tried to sell us this book, the plot continues its tolerability. Bing’s home planet has started sending signals for humans to pick up. The humans are having a hard time of it, and so Bing decides to take a more direct approach in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. He heads to CalTech where signals are being received and tentatively being identified as possibly coming from an alien species. He starts talking with their computer, a big old UNIVAC that calls itself Rufus because, for some reason, it’s intelligent but only when it talks to Bing. Bing gives the computer some directions for helping the humans find the meaning of the signal and then heads back to New York.
There, he finds that Trindle has begun deciphering the alien message himself. Trindle is convinced that the message is a warning of imminent invasion. He’s got it all wrong, but he’s drunk and so sends off a memo to the editor of TIME that says the thing to do is publish this message along with a scratch-and-sniff spot on the page so that people can quickly and effectively commit suicide before the aliens get here. This gets him and Bing fired from the magazine because of realism.
Bing finally sits down with Trindle and leads him through the message itself. It’s so simple, he says, that the computer can’t break it. That’s one of those cliches that really bug me. “The code is too simple for the computer and the geniuses to break.” I get the idea, sure, and the first time I heard about it about twenty years ago I thought it was pretty amusing (I would have been ten). It’s just such a pervasive plot device that it deserves to die.
The code, apparently, is a binary signal that needs to be arranged on a five-by-five grid, like so.
It works better in the monospace font the book uses, but the gist of it is that that’s a W, because of the shape the Xs make. The whole message goes on in this kind of way, spelling out, in English, WE COME IN PEACE!
Bing has to come up with a convoluted plan to get the message into TIME on the front page so the whole world can see it. It turns out that mose of the higher-ups in the magazine are on vacation or other various things at the moment, so he and Trindle are able to mock up a quick story and then hack it into the system using the tried-and-true method of pretending to be other people. They get it in just under the wire and it goes to print. Bing’s mission is complete. The ships land pretty much the same day as the magazine hits newstands.
Bing decides he needs to get off the planet, but it turns out his single-man spacepod is missing. Trindle figures out that he’s not an Earthman and insists that he be taken along. Rufus, the computer, also wants to be taken along. Without the spaceship, though, nobody’s going anywhere.
Bing then meets, for the second time, a woman named Jewels, who works for Newsweek. She reveals that she took his spaceship because she’s also an undercover agent from Unnamed Planet. The book ends when Bing realizes that she’s pretty attractive.
Okay, the book was doing okay up until the ending. What kind of ending is that? We never even find out what the aliens are planning on doing once they get to Earth. Bing says that they never told him. And what’s up with the Jewels chick? She’s just there occasionally in the story and then we get a reveal like it’s supposed to be a big deal. I didn’t see it coming because I didn’t remember she was in the book.
Sci-fi comedy rests, usually, on one fundamental idea: let’s look at humanity from an alien perspective and point out just how wacky, nonsensical, and irrational it is. It’s a well-tested method. This book had a little of that, but it was hardly anything special, and while it was billed as “sublimely funny” I never once laughed at it. After a while one gets sick of observations like “Women wear skirts and men wear pants! How outlandish!”
Another reason this book seems to get billed as comedy is because of the language. The book has lots of cusses, I suppose. It never breaks out the F-bomb, but every other sentence contains a swear word. Everything is a “goddamn whatsit” or “some kind of bullshit.” Something about it reeks of false realism, of a teenager’s idea of how people actually talk. I suppose if I weren’t so jaded toward bad language, maybe I would have found it humorous, but between movies, books, television, music, and the Internet, there have been a lot of swear words floating around since 1972.
So as a comedy book, this one fails. What about as a sci-fi book? It’s not bad, I guess. The idea of an advance scout who can’t be exposed is a decent one. We don’t get much in the way of techno-babble, so there’s nothing to shout at there. Bing needs to come to Earth for his mission, so he just does. No messing about with space-warps or constant-acceleration engines or any of that. To him it’s the most natural thing in the world, so why would the narrative feel the need to explain it? I can dig that.
As a “sex-fantasy,” the book is an abysmal failure because it isn’t one. I’m still reeling about this. Everything screamed sexploitation at me when I picked up this book at the store. I bought it for pretty much that reason, and now I wish I could go back and find the lady at the checkout counter who gave me a pursed-lips kind of look, just so I could explain to her that the book wasn’t dirty after all and had, in fact, about as much adult content as network television.
It also just dawned on me that the title of this book had absolutely nothing to do with the plot.