A couple of years ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing more than 75 vintage science-fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 66.
After some initial skepticism about Apple’s line of tiny, touchscreen electronic doodads, I caved last year and purchased an iPod Touch. (I would have gone for the full iPhone experience if I weren’t locked into a contract with another service.) I knew I’d make good use of its music and video functions, and had a suspicion I’d want to play a game or two. I never thought I’d be reading books on it. But thanks to Project Gutenberg and its rich library of free, public-domain reading material and the Kindle For iPhone app, my iPod has started to compete with paper books for my reading attention. Reading The Metal Monster felt like a turning point. Given the choice of reading the copy from the original Box Of Paperbacks or downloading it from Project Gutenberg, I went the eBook route.
I write that without pride. I’m fond of ink-and-paper books, and don’t want them to go away. But given the choice of reading my yellowed, Avon-published copy with its eight-point font, or opting for the commute-friendly version on my iPod, the decision was easy. And while I’m not averse to using this space to ramble off topic, I also bring it up for a reason: Every time I read an eBook, I feel like I’m standing on the cusp of a future I can’t yet see, kind of like the protagonists of Merritt’s book.
First published in 1920, The Metal Monster originally appeared in Argosy All-Story and served as a sort-of sequel to Merritt’s The Moon Pool, which featured the same protagonist, Dr. Godwin. Both fall, more or less, into the “lost world” genre of stories in which Western explorers discover previously unknown civilizations. The tradition dates back to (at least) the medieval legend of Prester John, and is still around today, most visibly in stuff inspired by the Indiana Jones movies. It reached its height between the late 19th century and the 1930s, a time that, not coincidentally, lines up with the height of European imperialism, the discovery of Troy, the unearthing of King Tut’s tomb, and other reminders of the ancient world.
The trend waned as the blank spots on the map got filled in and two World Wars started to make the globe seem smaller than it used to. Is it any mystery why readers with a taste for the fantastic started to look more frequently to the stars after World War II, which placed our soldiers in deserts, oceans, and jungles on both sides of the globe? Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake was presumably set in the 1930s out of reverence for the original, but that’s also pretty much the last decade when part of the Earth could seem as forbidding and fantastic as a distant planet.
The Metal Monster finds such a place in the midst of Central Asia, when Godwin, his traveling companion Dick Drake (a name that pretty much doomed him to be a pulp hero) and the brother/sister science team of Martin and Ruth Ventnor find a valley untouched by the passing centuries and ruled by Persian descendants of Xerxes whom Alexander The Great never conquered. For reasons the book never explains (assuming Merritt even considered such matters), their society has remained exactly the same as in Xerxes’ time, and is still ruled by his descendants. Also, they don’t much care for intruders.
But the Persians aren’t the greatest threat Godwin and his friends face. That arrives in the form of—spoiler?—a metal monster. But in spite of what the book’s (awesome) cover might suggest, this is no lab-created clinking, clanking robo-beast. Godwin’s party encounters a land ruled by animated metal. Specifically, it’s a place populated by creatures made of spheres, pyramids, and cubes that can arrange themselves into whatever form they want to take. Essentially, Merritt imagined a liquidy, CGI-friendly special effect years before technology made such things possible.
Would you like to know exactly what these metal intelligences look like? Because Merritt isn’t shy about providing details. Descriptive passages of exacting precision arrive in torrents of adjectives. In her review of the book at SF Site, Lisa DuMond nails it by comparing what Merritt does to the endless descriptions of avant-garde French novelist Alain Robbe-Grillet. A sample:
Now I could see that the ring was not continuous. Its broken circle was made of sharply edged cubes about an inch in height, separated from each other with mathematical exactness by another inch of space. I counted them—there were nineteen.
Almost touching them with their bases were an equal number of pyramids, of tetrahedrons, as sharply angled and of similar length. They lay on their sides with tips pointing starlike to six spheres clustered like a conventionalized five petaled primrose in the exact center. Five of these spheres—the petals—were, I roughly calculated, about an inch and a half in diameter, the ball they enclosed larger by almost an inch.
So orderly was their arrangement, so much like a geometrical design nicely done by some clever child that I hesitated to disturb it. I bent, and stiffened, the first touch of dread upon me.
It’s almost as if he were getting paid by the word. (Oh wait, he was getting paid by the word.)
The verbiage starts to weigh down the story pretty quickly, but I can’t say I minded The Metal Monster. Merritt likely doled out word after word partly for the paycheck, but he never seems bored with his story. (Though he does have a habit of repeating himself. The first time he describes a noise as sounding like the work of “ten thousand Thors,” it’s colorful; the same can’t be said of later appearances.) And in at least a couple of places, he uses his elaborative prowess to chilling effect, at least to these modern eyes.
Merritt conjured the wonder of a world in which metal takes on forms well outside the experience of his adventurer heroes. He also previewed some of the destructive potential to be unleashed by metal in the decades to follow, offering, to borrow his vague but evocative phrase, a “grotesque suggestion of a super-Futurism.”
Eventually, and inevitably, the metal beings turn on their Persian enemies. A slaughter results, and Merritt describes metal tearing into flesh, spreading death at a rate impossible even in an era that produced the horrors of World War I. Accompanying the beings into battle, Godwin gets caught up in the spirit of the moment:
Through this stole another thought—vague, unfamiliar, yet seemingly of truth’s own essence. Why, I wondered, had I never recognized this before? Why had I never known that these green forms called trees were but ugly, unsymmetrical excrescences? That these high projections of towers, these buildings were deformities?
That these four-pronged, moving little shapes that screamed and ran were—hideous?
They must be wiped out! All this misshapen, jumbled, inharmonious ugliness must be wiped out! It must be ground down to smooth unbroken planes, harmonious curvings, shapeliness—harmonies of arc and line and angle!
Something deep within me fought to speak—fought to tell me that this thought was not human thought, not my thought—that it was the reflected thought of the Metal Things!
Beneath the pulp frills, Merritt animates the book with a real—and justified— anxiety about the potential for humanity and nature to get ground down by machines, a future that applied no conscience in eliminating lives because they didn’t fit into some overarching agenda. The term “megadeath,” used to measure human casualties by the millions, wouldn’t be coined until after Hiroshima, but Merritt offers a glimpse of what’s to come here. Godwin never learns the origins of the Metal Things—the novel ends with the working theory that they come from the stars. I think they ultimately come from the same place as the Elder Things envisioned by Merritt fan H.P. Lovecraft: the dark heart of a new century still being born.
Naked To The Stars, by Gordon R. Dickson
“The voice, speaking out of the ancient blackness of the night on the third planet of Arcturus—under an alien tree, bent and crippled by the remorseless wind—paused, and cleared its throat.”
The Demon Of Cawnpore, by Jules Verne
“A reward of two thousand pounds will be paid to any one who will deliver up, dead or alive, one of the prime movers of the Sepoy revolt, at present known to be in the Bombay presidency, the Nabob Dandou Pant, commonly called…”