Killdozer! by Theodore Sturgeon
from The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction ed. Asimov, Waugh, Greenberg
Carroll & Graf, 1989
Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, November 1944
Price I paid: $3
During the 1940s, the great names emerged in an eruption of talent. They formed the mould for the next three decades of science fiction and their writing is as fresh today as it was then.
I don’t think it’s a secret that the reason I picked up this Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction in the first place was because it had Killdozer! in it. It’s a story that I’ve been meaning to read for an awful long time, almost as long as I’ve known about Theodore Sturgeon. And that’s a been a hot minute!
I don’t know how common this is, but my introduction to Sturgeon was through his eponymous Law: “Ninety percent of everything is crud.” He created the law—which he originally referred to as Sturgeon’s Revelation, his Law being “Nothing is always absolutely so”—in defense of the science fiction field. I’ll let him speak for himself:
It is in this vein that I repeat Sturgeon’s Revelation, which was wrung out of me after twenty years of wearying defense of science fiction against attacks of people who used the worst examples of the field for ammunition, and whose conclusion was that ninety percent of s f is crud. The Revelation:
Ninety percent of everything is crud.
Corollary 1: The existence of immense quantities of trash in science fiction is admitted and it is regrettable; but it is no more unnatural than the existence of trash anywhere.
Corollary 2: The best science fiction is as good as the best fiction in any field.Venture Science Fiction, Vol 2 #2, 1958
It’s a damn good rule of thumb, and here’s a little behind-the-curtain factoid: I almost named this blog “The Other 90%.” I decided against that because I figured that it was probably already taken and I have not checked on that. Second fun fact, though, I later learned that film critic Richard Roeper has a 2005 book named Schlock Value, so good job, past Thomas.
I should review that! Is that a good idea? Will it get me sued? I don’t know.
Anyway, Sturgeon’s Law, or Revelation, or whatever you want to call it, is very good.
Later I learned another bit of Sturgeon-ana, his critical-thinking credo of “Ask the next question,” which he represented by a Q with an arrow through it as part of his signature for a good while. Unfortunately, in this year of 2020, Qs have taken a sinister connotation, so I don’t think I’ll try to bring it back anytime soon.
And he wrote two of the best episodes of the original Star Trek! The franchise would be a very different thing without “Amok Time” giving us so much Vulcan backstory, including the very phrase “live long and prosper.”
I learned all of this before I ever read a Theodore Sturgeon story. Eventually I snagged a copy of The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vol 1, that glorious purple paperback that I’m sure you own too, and it had “Microcosmic God” in it. That story blew my mind and I swore to read everything he ever wrote. That was, um, fifteen or so years ago and I regret to say I haven’t made much progress.
I’ve got several compilations around here, The Stars are the Styx and E Pluribus Unicorn stand out as sitting right next to my desk. And I’ve got a few novels scattered here and there but the only one I’ve read was the posthumous Godbody, which I remember being very impressed by but I was very much that age where it didn’t take much. I wonder if it holds up.
I’ve also read the first five pages of More Than Human at least a couple of times.
So yeah, I’m a fake fanboy but I’m slowly working my way toward legitimacy. And here we are with what I’m told is a classic of the genre, Killdozer!
Classic or no, I just wasn’t all that impressed with it!
The thing is, the story is fine. It’s a perfectly serviceable horror story and I liked it on its own terms quite well. The problem might well be that I was expecting too much! I know I just said that I haven’t read as much Sturgeon as I’d like, but I’ve read enough to know that he’s got a certain style that I really appreciate. A lyricism, an ability to be creepy and mysterious and poetic and kinda spiritual and all those kinds of things, all while frequently throwing some Big Ideas our way.
Then again, this is a story called Killdozer!, so what did I expect? I thought I was going to get a creepy mysterious poetic kinda spiritual Big Ideas novella about a goddamn living bulldozer, that’s what! Is that too much to ask?
Killdozer! is the tale of a bulldozer that gets possessed by an energy being and goes crazy and tries to kill some people and mostly succeeding. We get a hint about what’s coming in the novella’s introduction. Once upon a time, long before humanity and in fact before the current phase of life as we know it on this planet existed, there was another highly-advanced species living on the Earth. We don’t get much description of them, but we do learn that they encountered another species, a species of energy beings, and they set to war. The war went poorly at first. Whatever weapons the precursors (my name for them, not Sturgeon’s) created, the energy beings would take over and turn against their creators. This went on for a while before it was discovered that the energy beings couldn’t interact with something called neutronium (because nothing can!), so they built a bunker out of it and then, inside there, built the ultimate weapon. The weapon, when detonated, eradicated the precursor species and turned the Earth into a ball of molten rock. It also wiped out all but one of the energy beings, who managed to find the bunker and survive in it until…
Cut to the present day! And by present day, I mean the forties. A group of men have just landed on an island, and they’re building an airfield there, I assume for the War Effort. They’re testing a new way of doing it as quickly as possible with as few men as possible, which is why they have some super-awesome dirt-moving equipment, including…A KILLDOZER!
It’s not really called that. It’s a hell of a bulldozer though. I know that because the guys in the story keep saying so. They use all sorts of technical terms to let me know just how damn cool this bulldozer is. I probably wouldn’t even believe a bulldozer could be as awesome as this one if I had any idea at all what these guys were talking about.
I see here on Wikipedia that during the War, Sturgeon worked in several construction jobs for the Army, including driving a bulldozer. So I’m assuming the guy knew what he was talking about, or at least how to fake it well enough. It bogged me down a bit because I don’t know the first thing about frikkin bulldozers or construction equipment or anything like that. This is barely science fiction. It’s engineering fiction and it bored the crap out of me.
Which isn’t to say it’s objectively bad! I’m sure engineers love reading this kind of thing even though it bores me. Just like I’d probably devour a novel that hinges on, I dunno, library cataloguing. It takes all kinds and all work has value.
I don’t remember all the characters, but the main one is Tom. He’s tough and capable and all-American and he runs the show. Other guys include Rivera, a young Puerto Rican who speaks in some cringey eye-dialect; Dennis, a guy who is racist against Rivera and generally crappy all-around; Peebles, who gets electrocuted and it is very sad; and Al, who I don’t think is specifically referred to as Black but oh boy does the eye dialect get thick on the ground with him, too.
One day, Tom and Rivera are taking the Killdozer out for a spin. They don’t call it that. Nobody ever calls it that. Instead, it’s at the beginning of the story that the machine is dubbed Daisy Etta. See, it’s actually called the D-7, and Rivera then calls it the de siete, which Tom mishears and the name sticks. All very wonderful and adorable.
The guys find some weird rocks and start to move them, when all of a sudden something shimmery flies out from the rocks and possesses Daisy Etta, who bucks Rivera off, breaking his back. Tom is able to do some damage to Daisy Etta, disabling her by pulling some valves and draining the gas tank and some other things that I was like okay I guess whatever.
Rivera later dies because it is longstanding tradition to kill People of Color across all times and genres. Another guy, Dennis, does the classic bit where he goes from hating Rivera for being a capable and likable Brown person to blaming Tom for his death, going so far as to accuse him of murder. He spends a good bit of the story trying to stir up trouble and getting everybody against Tom, who knows full well that the truth is pretty wacky so it’ll be hard to convince everybody of it.
Somebody decides that Daisy Etta is too important a piece of equipment to leave broken, so they repair it. It also seems that the machine is repairing itself somehow? It’s eventually put back together well enough that it goes on another rampage, killing several other people, including Dennis, which leads to more distrust of Tom from all the other fellas, who know that they didn’t like each other.
Finally it becomes abundantly clear that something extranormal is going on, and nobody can deny that Daisy Etta is driving herself around for the sole purpose of murder. Tom and a guy named Kelly spend most of the remainder of the novella fighting back. Another guy named Al, who I mentioned has a Black eye-dialect so bad it was like reading an 80s Stephen King novel, proves himself a coward who would desert a dying man, eventually going up to the Killdozer and trying to surrender to it, saying he’ll do anything it takes to be on her side.
Tom decides that electricity will probably save the day, so he mounts some kind of big electrical thing onto one of the other pieces of machinery, lures Daisy Etta into the ocean, let’s ‘er rip, and sure enough, it works. The Killdozer explodes when the diesel ignites and the day is saved.
The story ends with the Army dropping some missiles down onto the island while Tom, Kelly, and the now-insane Al watch. I’m…not at all sure what happened there? The narration says that the Army covered up the incident by saying that a missile went off course and landed on the island, which is all well and good, but since all the guys are either dead or still on the island, how did the Army find out? I feel like I missed something important.
Anyway, that’s Killdozer!, a story that did not feel like a very representative Ted Sturgeon story to me.
It had some real problems, mostly stemming from it being 1944 when it was written. There’s a revised version that Sturgeon put out in 1959, and I’d be interested in seeing what changed. There were some racial depictions that, while not overtly centered on hatred, still did not age well.
Most of my problems with the story were with sentences like
“Get behind it,” snapped Tom. “I’ll jamb the tierod with the shackle, and you see if you can’t bunt her up into that pocket between those two hummocks. Okay, take it easy—you don’t want to tear up that generator. Where’s Al?”pg 261
I know I’m telling on myself here, but the only things in that sentence I understood was generator and hummocks. There are a lot of technical terms in this book and they’re all referencing something I utterly failed at when I took the ASVAB in high school. I am an adult man and sometimes I have trouble remembering which one is the Phillips-head screwdriver.
(I’m exaggerating…a little.)
But the story had a good, consistent tone, even if it wasn’t the one I was expecting. This was a fine horror story about a machine gone mad. It’s got a standard moral of “how much can we trust technology” and was a decent slasher story where the real monster, at least at the beginning, is people and mistrust and self-interest and all that kind of thing.
One thing that felt off was the prologue about how the thing inhabiting Daisy Etta was an energy being from Beyond Prehistory. It was neat and imaginative enough, but I don’t know how necessary it was? Surely the story would have been better if we had been just as in the dark about it as the characters in the story? Generally speaking, I feel like a horror story works better when there’s no explanation for what’s going on. In this case, giving it a weird sci-fi explanation felt tacked on. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was? It’s certainly possible that Sturgeon wrote the story without the prologue and then sent it to John Campbell, who said that it wasn’t a science fiction story at all, so Sturgeon tacked that on and then Campbell bought it. This is only a guess, but it feels right.
The prologue-explanation was so convoluted, too. The energy beings were so powerful that they couldn’t be killed, except then Sturgeon goes out of his way to say that the particular one that survived was a mutant, and so it could be killed? Why do we need that level of detail? I feel like dude had to write himself in circles to make it work, and that hurt things.
I think an expected result of it was for us to think something like, “Oh wow, these beings almost wiped out some ancient and powerful precursor species to humans, so what chance would we have against them? None at all, right?” But then that was completely undone twice: once when Sturgeon decided to nerf this particular instance of the species, and then again when the humans succeeded in electrocuting it to death while establishing that once it took over a machine, it couldn’t move out of it again. For some reason.
I still love Theodore Sturgeon but I don’t think this story deserves a top place in the sf canon or in his personal one.
There is a made-for-TV film based on it from 1974 that I might watch. I’m curious, though, isn’t this whole thing also the plot of Stephen King’s 1986 movie Maximum Overdrive? Except that movie had an AC/DC soundtrack and was stupid enough to be funny. Also it had a truck with the Green Goblin’s face on it, and an ATM that calls a guy (Stephen King in a cameo) an asshole. I don’t know how the Killdozer! movie compares but I have a real soft spot for King’s first and last attempt at directing.
It appears that 1974 also gave us a Marvel Comics adaptation by Gerry Conway and Richard Ayers! I need to read it! It looks like a pretty faithful adaptation, from the few panels and reviews I’ve seen. Maybe having a visual element would help me follow the story a little better? I dunno. If I find it so I can read it, I’ll let you know.
You might also be familiar with the tragic tale of Marvin Heemeyer, who in 2004 covered a modified bulldozer with concrete and steel and demolished buildings in Granby, Colorado before committing suicide. It is a wild story and is often referred to as the Killdozer.