There was trouble brewing on Mars—bad trouble. Two giant industrial empires fought for control there, and their struggle imperiled the whole Mars colony. Civil war—atomic civil war—could break out any second, leaving Earth’s only foothold in Space a mass of radioactive rubble.
But both antagonists were too politically powerful for the Colonization Board to take a direct hand. One man was needed to take charge—one man who could act fast and decisively, brutally if he had to.
Ralph Graham got the job.
And then people started dying around him…
Normally I make it a point not to look up an author before I read the book for the purposes of this blog. I’m generally afraid that it’ll taint my review in some way or another, leading me down a path that may not be as deserved as the Wikipedia article would have it. Maybe an author has three Hugos, for example, but if the book is just garbage anyway, I don’t want to lean toward “let’s give it another chance” if I don’t have to. It’s not fair to anybody.
I broke my rule this time and I’m wondering if it had any effect. Frank Belknap Long is pretty well-respected, it seems. He was a member of Lovecraft’s circle and wrote tons of books and has at least two awards for lifetime achievement. And Mars Is My Destination was a lot of fun to read. Would it have been as much fun if I didn’t have a preconceived notion of the author’s work beforehand? We’ll never know, I guess.
The book starts off with an interesting paradigm. The colonization of Mars is well under way, and any right-minded individual with a sense of adventure and the indominable human spirit wants to go. The number of people who can go, however, is pretty limited, and being chosen to head out there is a coveted thing—one worth killing and/or dying for. Our hero, Ralph Graham, has a spot all lined up for him, as well as a problem. His wife doesn’t want to go. He had a really big argument with her this morning and is having all sorts of emotions about that.
He meets a beautiful woman and has some martinis with her. She’s apparently one heck of a looker, but then again so are almost all of the women in this book. Ralph is going through some real conflicted emotions right now. He certainly loves his wife more than he can bear, and it’s tearing him up inside that she doesn’t want to go to Mars with him. He desperately wants to go to Mars, not just because of the sense of adventure and all that, but because the Colonization Board doesn’t pick somebody to go these days unless they have something important for them to do. Ralph doesn’t know what that important thing is quite yet, but he really wants to.
After coming really close to leaving his wife and asking this beautiful woman—whose name he doesn’t even know yet—to come to Mars with him, he finally decides not to do that and heads off to the Colonization Board building to see if he can buy some more time to convince his wife to come along with him.
Right off he bat we’ve got an interesting main character. He’s interesting because he’s displaying genuine human emotions, unlike so many pulp sci-fi heroes. A lot of other books might have had Ralph leaving his wife and hopping on the next rocket to Mars, mysterious gorgeous woman in tow, and having all sorts of adventures without a look back. Ralph, though, is actually a reasonable facsimile of a human being.
On his way to the Colonization Board building, Ralph gets attacked by some kind of assassination robot. The book doesn’t go into much detail about it, just that it happens and he’s a bit shaken by it. He manages to escape and gets to talk to some higher-up of the Colonization folks, who tells Ralph that the job he’s being sent to do is far too important to postpone. He’s not supposed to tell him about it, but what the hell, right?
The situation on Mars is grim. There are two companies that hold monopolies on certain parts of the colonization effort. There’s Wendel Atomics providing power and a lot of other stuff, and Endicott Fuel, who provides Wendel with the stuff it needs to provide power and other stuff. The problem with this situation is that Endicott is totally reliant on Wendel for all of its profits, whereas Wendel can just make money hand over fist. Problems have arisen now that Wendel has basically told Endicott that they’re going to pay half the price they were on fuel and there’s nothing Endicott can damn well do about it. Endicott has responded by selling its fuel supplies to the public, mainly to speculators and the like, who will in turn sell it to Wendel. Prices keep fluctuating wildly, folks are going from poor to rich to poorer to okay to broke and the whole thing’s about to come to a head. Enter Ralph, who will be taking over as the…something…and fix it all.
Here’s the thing, the book never tells us what position Ralph will hold once he gets to Mars. All we know is that he has a uniform and an insignia, some kind of silver hawk, and that it gives him a huge amount of power and influence. He’s something like the fifth person to hold this position, and his predecessors are all considered heroes. Somebody calls him “General” at some point but Ralph gives them a firm dressing-down for it, ending basically by saying that his official title is “Ralph.” So yeah.
Ralph goes home to tell the wife and finds her already packing her bags and apologizing for being so stubborn and of course she’ll go to Mars with him.
The flight to Mars has a few suspenseful moments and also robots. The robots are pretty cool. They’re huge and vaguely manlike and they fly the ship with little-to-no human input. It turns out that Mysterious Beautiful Woman has stowed away inside one of the robots, and one of the crewmembers has caught her and is on the verge of beating the everliving crap out of her when Ralph gives him the beatdown. Then somebody tries to blow up the ship but they manage to stop him. They arrive on Mars.
Moments after stepping foot on Mars, there’s another assassination attempt on Ralph, and this one nearly succeeds. They put him in the hospital for a while.
While Ralph is convalescing, the point of view switches from him to a third person narrator so that we can get a glimpse of the events Ralph is here to put a stop to. We meet this farmer guy who has bought some of the Endicott fuel on margin so he can sell it off later. A goon from Wendel comes along and does some stuff to it, turning it into what amounts to a small nuclear bomb. The only thing our farmer can do is get it to a disposal unit before it explodes and kills thousands of people. We’re firmly establishing the folks at Wendel to be the bad guys, to be sure.
Cut back to Ralph, who is waking up after some surgery. He’s surprised to see that as soon as he wakes up, he’s being watched. Somebody’s in the room with him, and they don’t look like a nurse. In an amazing feat of where-did-that-come-from, Ralph launches himself from the bed and beats the crap out of the guy (that seems to be Ralph’s go-to method for most things). He stands there wondering what to do with himself when a nurse comes in and establishes that the not-quite-dead guy is not only from Wendel Atomics, but is in fact Mr. Wendel himself, the head of the company. She helps Ralph escape from the hospital so he can do his job and finally put the screws to these guys.
On the way out, there’s an explosion. It’s fairly far away, but Ralph’s blood runs cold when he finds out that the explosion was near the spaceport, where his wife happens to be. He bums a ride back toward the spaceport to see if she’s still alive.
It’s a measure of how invested I was in this book that every time somebody had some lines of dialog I wanted to scream at them. Stop talking, you’re wasting time! At least talk and drive! This driver guy, I tell you, spent several paragraphs just detailing how he was planning on taking a shortcut back to the spaceport, and the whole time I was getting infuriated that something big was happening and Ralph wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.
It turned out that the driver was the head honcho of Endicott fuel, who was doing his best to get to the spaceport before the fuel/bomb went off. He’s got another one in his truck and he’s got to get it to a disposal unit fast.
He and Ralph, despite all the intervening exposition, manage to make it to the spaceport in time, and it turns out that Ralph’s wife is okay. The bomb’s about to go, though, and the only thing they can think to do is to shove it onto a spaceship and make it liftoff so it can explode harmlessly in space. They get it onboard and start the ignition sequence when, oh crap, there’s still somebody on the spaceship. It turns out to be Mysterious Beautiful Woman again.
The captain of the ship interrogates her before telling her how to get off the ship before it disintigrates in atomic fire. Ralph gets pretty ticked off at him about it, but they learn some valuable information. She was working for Wendel Atomics and she was behind one of the assassination attempts against Ralph. Wendel doesn’t want Ralph interfering, as you might have guessed. The crew member that almost beat the everliving crap out of her was also a spy who didn’t want her to fudge the mission. She was only working for Wendel becuase they had her brother and was threatening him and now would you please let me off this ship. The captain agrees and she manages to find a space suit and bail out before the worst can happen.
The book ends with Ralph waltzing into Wendel Atomics, silver hawk glistening on his shoulder, and arresting Mr. Wendel and shutting down his business for good.
And there you have it. I guess the actual plot of this book wasn’t especially engaging, but the way it was handled was. Something about Long’s writing really worked for me, and I don’t think there’s a way I could capture that in the summary. I’ll try here.
Certainly a part of the book’s success was in the way we’re presented with the character of Ralph. He’s conflicted but also really introspective, so we get a good view of what’s conflicting him and how he goes about it. He makes all these little internal comments about human nature and stuff like that that really put me in mind of a latter-day Heinlein novel. Ralph was a complex character, I think, but not so complex that he acted in ways that seemed completely random all the time. He was consistently complex.
In addition to that, the plot was interesting in that it wasn’t a typical science fiction plot. This wasn’t a book about aliens or any of that, it was about humans and human nature. Here you have two giant companies entering into a sort of business war over profits and a lot of innocent people being caught in the crossfire. The lust for profits is a motive you can throw into almost any narrative as a way of saying “These guys aren’t necessarily evil, they’re just greedy and dickish.” That’s a lot more believable than “I will rule the wooooooorld!” and a lot easier to feel contempt for. Faceless corporate greed is, sadly, a fact of real life, and I think most people would be able to get behind any hero that has to put a stop to it, mostly because the ability to put a stop to it is what makes it fiction.
Lastly, I think this book really worked because it felt modern. Yeah, it has its own supply of hilarious “future” technology like atomic guns and giant robots that run on magnetic tape, but at the same time it felt like Long got a pretty good handle on what a future society would be like: pretty much the same as his own, just more so. This book was written in 1962 and takes place somewhere around 2020. Yeah, we’re not going to make it to Mars by then, much less have a colony, but other things about the book seemed pretty accurate. At one point he cites the population of the United States as sitting at around 300 million. That’s pretty much right on the nose for today, and we’re only seven years out from his projection. He also talks about a massive train station in Chicago that came with a price tag of about $7 billion, and that seems like it could make sense. Back in 1962, of course, those were tremendously massive numbers, but Long managed to make those numbers massive but believeable. Maybe we can’t give him a lot of credit for that since so much has happened since that book came out—it was basically a lucky guess—but I was still really impressed.