Monday, 23 October 2017

LOST SF: JOHN MANTLEY'S 'THE TWENTY-SEVENTH DAY'



EVE OF DESTRUCTION: 
JOHN MANTLEY’S 
 ‘THE TWENTY-SEVENTH DAY’ 

 First published in 1956, ‘The Twenty-Seventh Day’ 
was John Mantley’s only significant contribution 
to the Science Fiction genre, does it still 
stand up to re-reading, despite its flaws…?


 ‘The Twenty-Seventh Day’ opens precisely between four and five o’clock – Pacific Standard Time, on Thursday 18 July 1963. As the novel was first published in 1956, this still places the action a safe margin into the future, and John Mantley hazards a few minor global changes that have occurred between these two dates. The novel’s events naturally take the reader through the spread of the title’s twenty-seven days to Tuesday, the thirteenth of August. In real-historical time, this was the space when the audacious Great Train Robbery took place in England, and in international politics the Cold War thawed a little. Following President John F Kennedy’s ‘Ich bin ein Berliner’ speech in divided Germany, the Moscow Test Ban Treaty was signed by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in an attempt to limit nuclear weapons testing. 

Yet this is very much a Cold War novel, in which ‘we’re scared to death of the Russians, and they’re scared to death of us’. Only the astrophysics are dubious. ‘You must realize by now that we are not of your world’ explains the alien who has snatched five random humans from Earth. ‘We come not even from your universe, but from another sun in this Galaxy, from what the people of Earth call ‘the stars’.’ And the five people plucked by the aliens into their saucer, are direct from central casting. Literally in the case of square-jawed all-American hero Jonathan Clark – a ‘first-string reporter on the ‘Los Angeles Telegram’,’ appropriately played by the amiable Gene Barry in the 1957 movie version of the novel. He’d launched his film career with Sci-Fi shocker ‘The Atomic City’ (1952) following it as Dr Clayton Forrester in George Pal’s classic ‘The War Of The Worlds’ (1953), which led to a cameo in the 2005 remake. While, as TVs gunfighter ‘Bat Masterson’, his easy masculine charm captures Mantley’s character to perfection.


Eve Wingate is an impossibly pure English rose, snatched from the Torquay beach in her decorously brief two-piece bathing-suit (astutely targeting the imaginings of a young male readership). Their bantering attraction, with amusing Anglo-American misunderstandings thrown in to spice up the dialogue, adds the necessary romantic subplot. Professor Klaus Bochner, a ‘short, round-faced, rosy-cheeked man with a halo of white hair’ is the obvious Albert Einstein figure, there to provide cod-scientific explanations as required about what’s happening to the diverse group. Can faster-than-light travel set time into reverse, so their trip into space – and return to Earth, is literally instantaneous? Su Tan is a lightweight addition, from the brigand-ravaged Ho Chin foothills. At one point, faced with the bodies of her dead brother and father, she’s even described as ‘inscrutable’. The fifth abductee is Ivan Godofsky of the Soviet Red Army, stationed at a highly secret military installation in Vladivostok. Together the five forge ‘the world’s first pact among its simple peoples to preserve the dignity of man’.

Their courteous alien captors are an ancient race, faced by extinction brought about by their sun’s imminent nova. With admirable moral restraint, the Galactic Federation forbids them seizing another inhabited world, but should the warlike nature of the people of such a world cause them to destroy each other, then subsequent colonization would be judged blameless. And if the aliens accelerate that process by gifting five randomly-selected humans with instant armageddon-weapons…? So each of them is given three small capsules sealed into a black box which only they can open, and which will deactivate only after twenty-seven days. A test. A riddle. Once returned to Earth, Eve promptly dumps her capsules into the depths of the English channel, while Su Tan – little more than a cipher, kills herself, causing her capsules to dissolve into dust.


After all, ‘it didn’t seem so very difficult for five people to keep a secret for twenty-seven days.’ Until the aliens broadcast their names through every available 1950s media, making the five custodians of the ultra-powerful devices hunted targets.

The Four-Square paperback edition emerged in 1961. I bought a pre-owned copy during one of my frequent forays around Hull second-hand bookshops, probably attracted by the fluidly surreal cover-art painted by Josh Kirby. By then the superpower balance had become, if anything, even more incendiary, with the imposition of the Berlin Wall bringing international tensions to a precarious brink. Philosopher Bertrand Russell led sit-down CND demonstrations as he dourly predicts ‘the human race may well become extinct before the end of the century. Speaking as a mathematician, I should say the odds are about three to one against survival.’ All of which makes Mantley’s scenario even more vitally relevant. I was impressed. Radioactive fallout was in the air. We breathed it in. There was a constant awareness that ‘if the button is pushed, there’ll be no running away, there’ll be no-one to save, with the world in a grave’. The novel touched my existential fears. I’d already written my own future-fiction about Martian incursions following the nuclear war of 1966.


Born in Toronto, Ontario, John Truman Mantley (25 April 1920-14 January 2003) was a writer, actor and media activist. As a jobbing TV screenplay-writer on Westerns and Cop-shows, he worked with ‘The War Of The Worlds’ director Bryon Haskin, to script ‘The Outer Limits’ episode “Behold Eck!” (3 October 1964), in which a two-dimensional being runs amok in Los Angeles. His other genre-credits include a 1981 eleven-episode stint as executive producer on ‘Buck Rogers In The Twenty-Fifth Century’. He also tried out with a couple of short stories, welcomed by ‘Science Fantasy’ editor John Carnell as ‘a Canadian writer new to this medium’. The first of them – “Uncle Clem And Them Martians” (no.17, February 1956), is narrated as a humorous hillbilly tall tale about Clem whose ‘genius ain’t due to no sort of education nor nothin’ like that’, who nevertheless builds a perpetual-motion machine in his barn. There’s a walk-on part for Albert Einstein, then Clem dissolves some weirdie crystalline aliens after ensuring sandpaper in their shoes has rasped off their surface coating, so saving the world from their sinister intentions.


A second story, darker in intent – “The Black Crucible” (no.22, April 1957), is set in Freeland, a survivor enclave by the Great Slave Lake in northwestern Manitoba. With the world reduced to a radioactive wasteland in the wake of a forty-minute nuclear war, five people – obviously a significant number for Mantley, must reach the ‘Grail’-world of Venus. Enlivened by onboard romance, the young mixed-race crew die one-by-one from cosmic rays, until only Clayton Steele arrives to bury Carla in the ‘warm golden’ Venusian sand. Stilted and overwrought, it fails to show Mantley at his best. Although ‘The Twenty-Seventh Day’ was his debut full-length novel, he followed it with ‘The Snow Birch’, a tortured romance set in Canadian forests, it was adapted into the 1959 film ‘Woman Obsessed’ for Susan Hayward. His screenplay ‘My Blood Runs Cold’ was then filmed in 1965 with heartthrob Troy Donahue, as an escaped murderer who claims reincarnation links to a woman he meets following an autowreck.

Meanwhile, once the alien’s cross-channel announcement alerts the world that five humans from opposing nations each have an invincible weapon, the novel takes on elements of a political thriller, crossing Ian Fleming with John Buchan’s ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ (1915). Are the fugitives alien stooges, brainwashed into complicity as part of the monster’s take-over of the world? Amid panic and terrors of Martian invasion, Eve flies to California under an assumed name. Once there, she and Jonathan escape hysterical mobs and Los Angeles roadblocks to reach his mountain cabin where they enjoy an idyll long enough to establish their emotional involvement. Although they sleep chastely in separate bunks! For Dr Bochner, caught up on the New York lecture-circuit, things are not so clear-cut. He’s obsessed with using his research expertise to crack the alien code and tap into the immense energy resources that the capsules represent, to the extent of neglecting his health. He winds up hospitalized, where he’s first traced by the government, and then survives an assassination attempt by Russian agents.


In those pre-Guantanamo days there’s a touching belief that the US will not resort to extreme interrogation methods. Ivan Godofsky is less fortunate. Once identified, he’s flown to Moscow to meet the Great Leader – a tyrant who assumed absolute power following the post-Stalin thaw (maybe anticipating Putin?), and Ivan is subjected to misinformation, truth drugs, and psychological torture. Essentially idealistic and well-intentioned, he’s finally coerced into surrendering the capsules, enabling an unopposed Soviet expansion of power. Confirming all the worst 1950s paranoid fears of the global communist conspiracy.


As the countdown races towards the final moments of the twenty-seven days, again, there are false steps that don’t quite ring true. Despairing of ever deciphering the alien conundrum, Bochner hears the ‘still small voice from within’, with jarring religious implications quite at odds with his previous rationalism. This enables him to decipher the science, and see that the capsules are not simply weapons of mass-destruction, but reprogrammable tools. As John Brosnan points out in his review of the movie, it makes for ‘a finale which is chilling in a way that the makers did not intend, the capsules selectively kill ‘every enemy of human freedom’’ (in Peter Nicholls ‘The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’).

There’s a persuasive argument that the Cold War itself was an evolutionary test imposed on the human race, not by extraterrestrial intervention, but by its own ingenuity. As Professor Bochner generously concedes, ‘in spite of our record, the Aliens have not tried to judge us. They have merely shoved into bold relief the choice which had faced us since Enrico Fermi made the first atomic pile.’ With the world poised on the brink of thermo-nuclear mutual annihilation, it’s only through a mix of chance, political expediency, and maybe even a little wisdom, that our species managed to scrape through the test. In real-world time the Soviet Union collapsed and the Berlin Wall was ripped down as the century closed. In John Mantley’s novel that happens overnight as Bochner releases the modified power of the alien capsules, inaugurating a new age of global harmony.

In a brief epilogue, with Mantley struggling to portray genuine otherworldly strangeness, the aliens snatch five beings from an even more distant world called Glehl, and the test begins again.



FIVE PEOPLE WITH THE 
FATE OF THE WORLD 
IN THEIR HANDS…’ 

John Truman Mantley (25 April 1920-14 January 2003)

THE TWENTY-SEVENTH DAY (1956) Michael Joseph ‘Novels Of Tomorrow’ 12/6 with cover art by Peter Curl, also issued as the twenty-eight edition of its Science Fiction Book Club. Paperback Four Square Books (1961) 2/6p with cover art by Josh Kirby.
Reviewed by Leslie Flood in ‘New Worlds’ (no.53, November 1956), ‘full marks for originality, characterization and story-telling’

JOHN MANTLEY SHORT FICTION: 

Uncle Clem And Them Martians’ (Science Fantasy no.17, February 1956), ‘portraying science as a hound to be leashed and kept at heel’


The Black Crucible’ (Science Fantasy no.22, April 1957), ‘the voyage of the ‘Pilgrim’ to discover a new homeland planet for the survivors of a ravished Earth’

THE TWENTY-SEVENTH DAY (Romson Productions/ Columbia Pictures, July 1957) Producer: Helen Ainsworth. Director: William Asher. Screenplay by Robert M Fresco from the John Mantley novel. With Gene Barry (as Jonathan Clark), Valerie French (as Evelyn ‘Eve’ Wingate), George Voskovec (as Professor Klaus Bochner), Arnold Moss (as the Alien), Azemat Janti (as Ivan Godofsky), Marie Tsien (as Su Tan), Stefan Schnabel (as Soviet General), Paul Frees (as newscaster Ward Mason). Includes stock footage from ‘Earth Versus The Flying Saucers’ (1956). Music by Mischa Bakaleinikoff. 75-minutes. John Brosnan says ‘this SF morality tale (many of them found their way on o the screen during the 1950s) is more optimistic about mankind’s inherent goodness than most of the others’ (in Peter Nicholls ‘The Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction’)


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