Astronomers had observed the comet for some time, and had predicted its course. It would collide with Earth. There was no hysteria; scientists were apparently convinced that the results wouldn’t be dangerous to life.
But Murray Lee woke up with a feeling overpowering stiffness in every muscle. He turned over in bed and felt his left elbow, which seemed to be aching particularly—and received the shock of his life. The motion was attended by a creaking clang, and his elbow felt like a complex wheel.
Why—he was metal all over!
Well, this is certainly a new development. I’ve read books where the back cover got major elements of the plot wrong, but this one has done something I’ve never seen before. Folks, it got the main character wrong.
It’s kind of understandable, though. Murray Lee is in fact the first character that we meet in this book. He certainly seems to be the focus for, oh, about five pages. After that it turns into an ensemble cast full of flat, uninteresting characters who don’t seem to have any real traits apart from their jobs previous to the incident that set this whole book off.
Perhaps the main exception to this is Yoshio, described constantly as “the little Japanese.” At least he has a culture and a recognizable way of talking, even if those things are hilarious stereotypes that don’t make any sense, referring to himself as “this insignificant one” and being extremely polite and obsequious the entire time he’s in the book. I wonder if this caricature of the Japanese represents how Fletcher Pratt saw them at the time, or rather if that was the general consensus of racism for the early sixties at large. I sort of hope the latter is the case, because it’s an interesting study in how stereotypes change over time. The book did not mention tentacle monsters or used-panty vending machines, f’rinstance.
The book itself is a plodding journey across a postapocalyptic wasteland wherein nobody ever seems to express emotions that can be compared to dismay or shock or pain or anything like that. In fact, I’m not even sure if emotions make an appearance in this book at all. It’s all so…white. Sterile. Boring.
It kicks off rather quickly, though. The very first thing we see is Murray Lee waking up one morning to find that he’s made of metal. Bendy metal, at least, otherwise what would be the point? He can move around and think, so he figures everything’s okay. Not a trace of panic or fright or anything at all. I’d be simultaneously screaming with terror and exultation if I woke up one morning to discover that I was a robot.
Interestingly, the book uses the word robot exactly once that I saw, and it wasn’t in reference to any of the people who got metal-ized. It was about something else. So I guess people did not get turned into robots but rather into metal people. Even their hair gets turned into wires and stuff.
Being from the early sixties, the book does not go into detail about whether these metal people can reproduce, or even whether they can do the Horizontal Robot.
(I’m sure everybody knows what the Robot dance is, but I just wanted to show off that amazing video of James Brown doing the Robot. Did you know it was that old? I didn’t.)
Okay so Murray, being a shining example of a cool-headed American male, sets off to discover exactly what’s going on. He finds some other metal people, both men and women, and I actually started to think that maybe this book was sexually progressive, since both sexes ended up being equally competent. The women were even smart and funny, in a snarky way, so for a little while I was surprised.
It didn’t last.
At this point it became an ensemble cast of people whose names I didn’t even bother to try to remember. It would have been pointless. They were indistinguishable from one another anyway.
Oh, the book starts in New York City. It appears that everybody that didn’t get turned into a living metal person got turned into a dead metal person. The former is significantly more rare than the latter. It appears that the majority of the population has been killed, straight up.
So what do our people do? They don’t mourn the dead. They don’t think “oh no my family!” They don’t even toss around ideas of how to memorialize the human race or what constitutes ethics in this post-human society. Instead they argue about how they’re going to organize themselves politically. Somebody suggests that maybe that’s a waste of time since there are maybe thirty people in the group. The response is that anarchy just can’t work and they need to start reproducing a viable American democracy immediately.
The early sixties, ladies and gentlemen.
After a good bit of wandering in search of new people, two things start to happen. First, some really weird birds start attacking. They aren’t metal birds, although I spent a lot of the book thinking that they were. At least I think they turned out not to be metal, I’m still not sure. Either way they have four wings and instead of laying eggs they drop incendiary bombs. This gives our group a bit of trouble.
About the time this stuff starts to happen the group also discovers another group, this time on a ship. This ship is from the Royal Australian Navy and something has happened to its crew much in the same way as something has happened to our protagonists. This thing is different, though, and it’s an early glimpse into the ridiculous science that is going to dominate the rest of the book.
See, these guys have been turned not into robots, but into blue people. They’re regular old people, flesh and blood, but they’re also blue. Why are they blue? Well, that’s an easy answer. The comet that hit Earth about a year ago turned all the iron in their blood to cobalt!
Because that makes sense.
On the plus side, seeing some other people helps give us some exposition. It does turn out that the change from flesh to metal was not immediate and our metal protagonists missed out on some developments while they were being metamorphosed.
Everybody decides that the thing to do is to take the fight to these bird things, so they start heading inland. Bird things give way to land things that shoot lasers and cool stuff, but nobody really knows what’s going on or what’s behind all this.
Until about halfway through the book we find somebody that can be called a main character. For a while, anyway. A metal dude named Herbert Sherman shows up and starts to tell us his story. This story takes up the majority of the rest of the book.
He relates a story much like the beginning of the actual book: waking up to discover he’s metal and wondering what to do about it. Unlike our other non-protagonist, Sherman is a military guy, so he has things available to him that the other group did not. He’s able to grab an airplane and scout out the New York area. For a bit he recounts seeing things from the first half of the book that were being done by our other group of characters, but it breaks off eventually. He gets captured by something and relates to us exactly what’s going on.
The comet that hit was actually a spacecraft from a dying race, the Lassans. These Lassans look like elephants except spindly and bipedal. Really I guess the only thing about them that looks like elephants is that they have trunks, but the book keeps calling them elephants so that’s what I envision. They come from Rigel, making me glad that the title of the book actually makes sense, and they have all sorts of amazing technology that leads them to think that they are the most advanced race in the universe, thus it is their right to take it over.
They set Sherman doing some menial tasks that mainly involve sticking his metal finger into holes that light up. After a day of exciting the glory holes Sherman’s finger gets worn down and needs to be replaced, thus teaching us that the metal people are modular.
Apparently turning a large portion of an invaded population into metal is the chief modus operandi of the Lassans. We never exactly find out why, but at least we get a reason as to how.
These guys have managed to harness the power of “Pure Light,” which is also called the basic form of matter and the basis of life. Pure Light is usually stored deep within a planet’s core, so it has to be mined out. Apparently that’s the reason the Lassans enslave people.
The Lassans communicate with Sherman via a telepathic helmet. Sherman earns the respect of a Lassan representative and is allowed to ask questions of his own while he answers the questions of the Lassan masters. Apparently these aliens never learned about chemistry, which is why the humans have been doing such a good job of fighting them off. The Lassans never invented gunpowder, since all of their technology from lasers to bombs relies on the nature of Pure Light.
To be honest, the whole book up to this point has mainly been showing the humans winning, anyway. Sure, they don’t know what they’re doing, but on the whole they figure out how to destroy the aliens’ devices pretty quickly. Human ingenuity conquers all, I guess.
Sherman also meets a metal lady named Marta. She’s also pretty competent, thus allowing me to think for a little while longer that this author had a pretty good idea of women. It wasn’t until the end of the book that my hopes for such things were dashed.
After gathering a lot of information, Sherman escapes. He’s unable to take Marta with him but vows to come back and get her. It’s never stated that he’s in love with her, mainly because emotions are for ethnic people I guess, but he nonetheless seems to have found her quite attractive in a metal kind of way.
We jump back to the present and then the science in this book just goes completely bonkers.
Sherman uses what he learned from the Lassans to create what he calls a gravity beam. The way he describes its mechanism is just wonderfully dumb in its understanding of how science works.
Remember how Einstein demonstrated that magnetism and gravity are the same thing down underneath?
Umm, no, I don’t think that’s a real thing. Sure, Maxwell’s equations pointed out that gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear forces are the basic forces of the universe, but I don’t think—
And that some of the astronomers and physicists have said that both magnetism and light are the same thing?
Well, one of the things I picked up from the lads in this Lassan city was that light, matter, electricity, gravitation, magnetism and the whole works are the same thing in different forms.
Okay, some of those things are related. Namely electricity and magnetism. Electromagnetism. One can produce the other. And I guess light lies on the electromagnetic spectrum. So that’s a thing too. And matter and gravity are somehow related to each other in ways we’re not entirely certain about. So in a way we’ve got two separate groups of phenomena and we’re lumping them together as “forms of the same thing.”
Bear in mind that I’m not a scientist and I’m remembering things from a college physics class. In a way all this reminds me of some of the stuff I’ve read about Quantum mechanics, but A) that stuff is weird and I’m not brain enough to deal with it and B) there’s so much crap pseudoscience that cites “quantum physics” that I’m probably jumbling all this up in my head.
Anyway, using this insane mish-mash of physics Sherman and crew manage to create a weapon that can quickly and effectively kill Lassans and help save the day. They make a science beam and attach it to airplanes. The war begins to go really well.
Sherman decides to break into the place where he was earlier so he can rescue Marta. And this is where the sixties view of women kicks in.
For one, he and his crew of people get captured and put into cages again. Again, the women are competent in helping out, but there’s one specific call out that just made me flinch with a combination of dismay and hilarity.
To escape, Sherman asks one of the women, Gloria, if she has a pin or a needle so he can pick a lock, I guess. See, women, because of all the sewing they have to do, would always have something like that on hand. I’m just being snarky there. I’m sure there are plenty of good reasons to assume a woman has sewing implements.
Well, she has one. She tells Sherman to turn around and then proceeds to do something “mysterious” with her “undergarments.” She reveals a pin and Sherman tells her to throw it to him. And this is funny:
She swung with that underarm motion which is the nearest any woman can achieve to a throw.
Are you serious? Women can’t throw? That is easily verifiable, author. I personally have seen many women throw things. Often at me for expressing opinions a lot less sexist than this one.
They manage to save Marta and end up meeting another Lassan. This one tries to prove that the Lassans are predestined to conquer the universe, but Sherman explains to him that, in fact, his people are losing. This Lassan’s response is to just give up and go on a “Humans are special” sort of diatribe. He then states that this base’s stash of Pure Light is about to escape, and that if our heroes stand near it but don’t get hit by it, they’ll turn back into humans. How very convenient.
The book ends with Sherman and Marta and maybe a few others turning back into humans, although certain things are a little bit different. I think they have prehensile toes now, or something like that. Marta is just different enough that she states that her former career as a dancer is over, but that’s okay because she’s going to marry Sherman.
And the book ends with that little bit of sixties gender relations.
So as books go this one was mainly boring. I just couldn’t get behind it. Didn’t feel any sympathy for the characters, mainly on the grounds that they didn’t give me anything to feel sympathy for. They had absolutely no human responses to anything. Their only feelings were expressed as guno-ho let’s-solve-the-problem, which they would proceed to do. There was never any indecision, no angst, no mourning the lost humanity. Most of the characters seemed quite happy that several billion human beings were now gone forever. It solves the traffic problems, right?
One even called it a “golden age.”
So apart from advanced aliens there was never any problem in this plot. No tension. The characters never felt like there was a risk of failure.
It was like fan fiction where the Mary Sue is just…humanity.
It did have some things going for it, though. At times it was a bit humorous. At an early point the people figured they needed to make a fire. Someone asked what they should use to build it and another character suggested the Metropolitan Opera House. They proceeded to do so joyfully.
And there was a bit of exploration about these new metal bodies that was, if not entirely inspired, was at least a bit fun to read. Water hurts to drink, presumably because it rusts their insides. As a result, oil is the drink of choice. Castor oil comes up early on, and somebody said “I didn’t think anybody actually enjoys this stuff outside of magazine ads.” It turns out to be delightful to their new metallic bodies. Also they eat electricity. Just plug in and fill up.
Why were they so keen on giving that up, then? That’s what I want to know. I wouldn’t mind having a metal body. Of course I would use it for terrible things like jumping off high buildings just for the experience. Most of this book didn’t even focus on the fact that the characters were metal. It was actually quite easy to forget for long stretches, even though that was supposed to be the main point of the book. It didn’t make any difference. I got the feeling that not much would make any difference in the world of the early sixties, where women couldn’t throw and there weren’t any black people to be seen.
Man, a better story would have been some folks from the early sixties learning that racism is dumb because there was no color at all now. Or something like that. Instead, they just focused on, well, not much at all.