In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.
I’ve long been a fan of the character Doc Savage, the famous pulp hero from the 1930s, and recently came across two books that stand out from his other adventures. The first, Murder Melody, is perhaps Doc’s most science-fictional adventure, and introduces a mysterious advanced race of humans who live in the center of the hollow Earth. The second, Escape From Loki, written by acclaimed science fiction author Philip José Farmer, looks back to how Doc first met his band of adventurers on the battlefields of the First World War. So let’s once again dip our toes into the always-entertaining world of one of fiction’s greatest doers of good deeds…
I am a member of a Facebook group called Retro Rockets, which largely consists of a bunch of older folks sharing pictures of rocket ships from 20th century science fiction. Recently someone posted an image of the Bantam paperback version of Doc Savage’s Murder Melody, a 1967 reprint of an adventure that first appeared in 1935. It was a perfect picture for Retro Rockets: while sleek rocket ships whiz past and men with antigravity belts float behind him, Doc Savage, who rarely appeared with a weapon, holds a ray gun that would have been more at home in the hands of Buck Rogers. I was surprised because, while they encountered the occasional lost civilization, surviving dinosaur, or mad scientist, Doc Savage’s adventures were generally more down-to-earth, and not terribly science fictional. I went to my basement, and sure enough, I had a copy of the book, and resolved to investigate this mystery.
A few days later, I was cleaning out a closet and found a box of old paperbacks that had gone astray. One of them was Escape From Loki, a prequel to the Doc Savage series written by Philip José Farmer in 1991 as part of a relaunch of the series. At the time, Bantam Books had reprinted all the original pulp adventures and were planning to release new adventures, written by Will Murray, using the old house pen name of Kenneth Robeson. And I realized, between these two short novels, I had the material I needed for the review you are now reading.
This isn’t the column’s first foray into the world of Doc Savage. I first discussed the hero here, a review which not only looks at the classic adventure The Sargasso Ogre, but also includes a biography of Lester Dent (the author who most often wrote as Kenneth Robeson), short biographical sketches of Doc and his band of adventurers, and a look at Doc’s adventures in other media. At that time, a film had been in early development that would have starred Dwayne Johnson, with Shane Black directing—unfortunately, it did not come to pass. Instead, Sony pictures recently announced they are looking at a TV version of Doc Savage, which might be an even better format for the episodic adventures of the character.
About the Authors
Lawrence Donovan (1885-1948) was an American pulp fiction writer. While author Lester Dent wrote most of the Doc Savage pulps appearing under the Kenneth Robeson name, various other authors used the pen name as well. One of these was Donovan, who wrote nine of the adventures between 1935 and 1937, of which Murder Melody was the first. In addition to the Doc Savage series, Donovan wrote for a wide range of magazines, primarily producing adventure and detective stories. In addition to his fiction writing, he worked as a newspaperman for many years and also had experience as a mariner. Donovan lived in Vancouver for a time, which explains the detailed descriptions of the area appearing in Murder Melody.
Philip José Farmer (1918-2009) was an acclaimed and prolific author of science fiction and fantasy. His first story appeared in 1946, although it was not until his novella “The Lovers” appeared in 1952 that he gained widespread attention. That story delved into the topic of sex, an area left largely unexplored in the prudish world of science fiction before that time, and Farmer’s later work frequently pushed the envelope on topics such as biology, religion, psychology, and sex. The success of “The Lovers” and other stories earned him a Hugo for Most Promising New Author, and encouraged him to become a full-time writer (although there were times when he had to resort to other work).
Throughout his career, Farmer frequently delved into the pulp roots of the genre, which set him apart from other authors who seemed determined to run away from what they considered the work of a more juvenile era. This included writing “biographies” of Tarzan and Doc Savage which treated the characters as real people who had inspired the fictional tales they appeared in. There were other works by Farmer that used familiar fictional characters or pastiches of those characters, and in some ways, he used science fiction the way author John Myers Myers used the larger world of literature and legend in his novel Silverlock. The Riverworld series, perhaps Farmer’s most well-known work, was set in a world where powerful beings had resurrected every member of the entire human race along the banks of a huge river. Farmer also had a humorous streak that showed in many of his works. In addition to the New Author award, Farmer also won Hugos for his short story “Riders of the Purple Wage” and his novel To Your Scattered Bodies Go. In recognition of his long and influential career, Farmer was awarded the SFWA Grand Master Award and the World Fantasy Award. A few early works by Farmer can be found on Project Gutenberg.
After re-reading this book, I did some research to find out why it was so different from Doc’s other adventures, and discovered that it was written by a different “Kenneth Robeson”—Laurence Donovan instead of Lester Dent. He did a good job echoing the prose style of Dent, presenting the characters in a similar manner and employing the same basic plot outline. But the science fiction element was much stronger, giving Doc access to new technologies far beyond what was available at the time, which would have transformed his subsequent adventures. I also discovered that the book is quite controversial among Doc Savage scholars for precisely that reason (…and was surprised to learn that there are scholars who study Doc Savage).
The book begins with a strange man writing a message just before he is murdered, succumbing to the effects of a mysterious melody (or perhaps it might be more accurate to call it a “murder melody”). Doc, Johnny Littlejohn, and Monk Mayfair are in Vancouver in response to a strange summons Doc received; while they are there, they are also looking into a series of mysterious earthquakes. They hear the odd melody and find the corpse of the strange man, who has glossy skin, odd clothes, and a peculiar flute in his belt. Three more strange men appear and attempt to play the murder melody again, and Doc counters with a bulb of his trademark anesthetic gas. Before the men collapse, however, they push buttons on their belts and float off into the air.
Now, before we proceed further, I feel a need to address the plausibility of murder melodies, with an incident from my own experience. A few decades ago, I was at a week-long Irish music festival, where I started each day at a class for beginning Irish tin whistle players. As you can imagine, twenty-five people learning a new instrument can produce quite a racket—especially a high-pitched instrument like the tin whistle. Our instructor was also spending his nights playing music with the other teachers, well into the wee hours of the morning. As the week wore on, he looked increasingly haggard, until it finally appeared as if just one more wrong note could put him into his grave. So while I can’t attest that music can kill someone, I can certainly say I’ve seen it come close…
So, Doc and company head out on their seaplane to follow the floating bodies, which disappear into the sea. Doc is taken into custody by the local police, who suspect he has something to do with these mysterious events. Johnny and Monk are then captured by more of the strange men, who lift them into the air with their antigravity belts.
Meanwhile, out near the Aleutian Islands, Doc’s other companions—Ham Brooks, Renny Renwick, and Long Tom Roberts—are searching for a lost seagoing expedition. While flying after Johnny and Monk, Doc receives a television message from a mysterious and beautiful woman, Lanta. She is being pursued by the strange men, and Doc attempts to help her, only to have her shoot him with one of his own guns full of mercy bullets; he falls unconscious. Doc’s other companions find their ship, but everyone is captured by the mysterious strangers. Before long, the whole crew ends up aboard mysterious transparent ships that take them on a journey through the crust of the Earth. Geologist Johnny is captivated by what he sees, while everyone else is mystified.
It turns out Lanta and the strange men come from an advanced civilization living inside the hollow Earth (for some information on that trope, you can click here to see my review of another subterranean adventure, Tarzan at the Earth’s Core). There are some key questions the book never addresses, like how these people came to be at the center of the Earth (Parallel evolution? Travelled down from the surface?), and how they developed their super science (which provides light to their dark world, raising the question of where the light came from before their inventions). Their mysterious flutes were developed by an evil genius among their number, Zoro, who sent his evil henchmen, the Zoromen, in the transparent “Uni-Ships” to the surface to steal powerful explosives, which he plans to use to conquer their peaceful civilization. Zoro also wants to make Lanta his queen. I kept wondering why the usually inventive Doc didn’t produce ear plugs to protect himself and his crew from the murder flutes, but I suppose that would have made for a much shorter book.
With all the elements in place, what ensues is a running battle between Doc’s crew and the evil Zoromen, with the fate of the subterranean world at stake. While there are more science fiction trappings than usual, the traditional elements of a Doc Savage adventure are there: supposed allies who turn out to be treacherous, Doc using disguises to gain the upper hand, companions to rescue, and a girl who is left broken-hearted by Doc’s vow of chastity. You know Doc will prevail, because he always does, but getting there is a fun ride, as it always is.
Escape From Loki
The Doc Savage series often mentions that Doc met his crew of adventurers in World War I, but never gave us any further details. This prequel takes us back to the days when 16-year-old Clark Savage, having lied about his age, secures a commission in the Army Air Service. Philip José Farmer obviously did his homework and evokes the World War I-era setting very realistically. I didn’t check every detail, but I’ve studied that era quite a bit over the years, and the only inaccuracy I caught was a detail involving insignia (American lieutenant colonels wear a silver oakleaf on their collars, not a silver eagle). The book opens with an exciting aerial combat sequence where Clark is flying as an exchange officer with the French, which ends with him crashing behind enemy lines. He briefly meets Ham Brooks and Monk Mayfair, and while Farmer is consistent with the characters as they are presented in the pulp adventures, the two somehow feel more real than they ever did in the pulp adventures. Clark Savage especially comes to life in Farmer’s hands, less capable and more emotional than the character portrayed in the pulps.
Clark is soon separated from Monk and Ham, and captured by forces led by the evil and mysterious Baron Von Hessel, and his beautiful mistress, Lili Bugov, the Russian Countess Idivzhopu. Young Clark has not yet made his vows of chastity, and is captivated by her. The Baron has read about Clark, and is fascinated by the fact that his father has been grooming him to be a kind of super-man. Clark soon escapes, and even attempts to get back across enemy lines by stealing a German bomber in another gripping aerial sequence, but eventually ends up in a prison for repeat escapees: the forbidding Camp Loki. Which just happens to be run by Baron Von Hessel, still accompanied by the beautiful Lili. Clark finds Monk and Ham there, and also meets Long Tom, Renny, and Johnny for the first time. The six form a strong bond as they seek ways to escape, and even though he is a lowly lieutenant, you can see Clark’s leadership abilities bringing him to the front of the group. The camp is full of mysteries as well as atrocities, with the Baron conducting experiments on the prisoners. Clark is seduced by Lili and tempted by offers from the Baron, but turns his back on them and does the right thing. The ending is thrilling, the accomplishments feel earned, and the bad guys get their just deserts.
The book is less formulaic than the pulp adventures were, and the prose is much improved. Again, the characters genuinely feel more real in Farmer’s hands, and Escape From Loki kept me engaged from beginning to end. The depiction of a younger Clark Savage is well thought out and compelling. The book left me wishing Farmer had written even more Doc Savage adventures, and determined to track down his fictional biography, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life.
Doc Savage adventures are predictable, but in a good way, like your favorite candy bar; it may not be nutritious, but it will always be tasty. Murder Melody puts a twist on the usual plot with its science-fictional setting, which keeps the reader guessing more as the story unfolds. And Escape From Loki is a delight, putting a favorite character in the hands of a master of genre fiction. I would recommend either of these books to folks who like pulp adventures.
And now, I eagerly await hearing any thoughts you may have on Doc Savage and pulp adventures in general, or these books in particular.
Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.