Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: The Million Cities by J.T. McIntosh (1958)
(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 22.)
I hereby nominate The Million Cities as the best cover we've had in this series so far. Soulless Roman statue-looking creatures cracking open a rocket ship like it was an egg? Amazing. (That the editors at Pyramid Books felt the need to clarify that it's "a science-fiction novel" may be even more amazing.) The cover comes from Virgil Finlay, a popular pulp illustrator who once inspired H.P. Lovecraft to compose a poem in his honor. After the pulps started to die in the '50s, Finlay found employment doing covers for astrology magazines and, apparently, the occasional paperback. Finlay died in 1971 then enjoyed a posthumous revival among SF fans in the 1970s. I just learned all this myself via this site, which features some more Finlay illustrations. There are a couple of more sites out there, too, but not enough and it looks like most of the Finlay collections have gone out of print. But his work is gorgeous, filled with delicate stippling effects, alluring women, and the promise of other worlds. Time for another revival Here's one that won't be done justice at this size:
You can find more here. I wish we could just keep talking about Finlay but I guess we should get around to talking about The Million Cities, a 1958 mediocrity by Scottish writer J.T. McIntosh (a.k.a. "J.T. M'Intosh, a.k.a. "James Murdoch MacGregor"). It's set on Earth in the not-too-distant future. The environment has been ruined. Only one patch of the surface, called "The Park," remains unspoiled. Everyone lives underground in areas connected by tubes. Air travel no longer exists. In fact, most people question whether it ever existed at all. A single government rules the whole planet, occasionally disrupted by an underground group called The Chartists, and much of the novel concerns various characters attempt to recruit for or join the group. I could get into the whys and wherefores of who's a Chartist, and who's not and why the government wants to crack down on them (echoes of Red Scares and Cold War paranoia) but it's ultimately a lot of fuss and bother leading up to a big twist. (I'll give that a spoiler warning when I get to it should anyone be driven to read the book.) It's all a lot of over-sketched characters sneaking around as The Chartists seek to build a rocket that will provide hope that humanity can someday leave their ruined planet for life elsewhere. Honestly, I don't think I can put it any better than frequent Amazon reviewer Mitchell Glodek, who reviewed the book in October of last year. (I suspect that we're the only two people to have read it in the last decade, but I could be wrong.) After declaring it "an elitist, anti-democratic and anti-humanist celebration of conspiracy and political violence," Glodek writes:
Something so bizarre might be interesting if well-written, but McIntosh's writing is quite poor; he employs an irritating omniscient narrator who describes to you the characters' personalities instead of having the characters demonstrate them. The novel also contains weird mistakes; on the first page of text (p 7) we are told that smoking has become taboo, and, in fact, that no tobacco has been grown for centuries. But in two later scenes (one is at p 22) characters smoke, and no explanation whatever is given; presumably McIntosh and his editor just screwed up. We are also told that the Earth's population continues to rise, despite a rigidly enforced policy of allowing each couple to give birth to only one child; does that make any sense mathematically?
Nope, it does not. But it does pave the way for the big twist. Spoiler: The Chartists aren't trying to escape Earth at all. They've intentionally set up the rocket to explode and kill millions to discourage interstellar travel. See, The Chartists are Earth people working to enforce the rules of the Galactic Patrol and the first rule of the Galactic Patrol is that every species has to stay on its own planet. Why? Because, it turns out, that every planet is populated and wiser minds than ours recognize that it's only right that every planet should belong to its natives. They're here to enforce the rules even if, metaphorically speaking, it requires cracking open a rocket ship and spilling out its contents.End Spoiler. I think Glodek is a little off in calling it "elitist, anti-democratic and anti-humanist" only because it attributes too coherent of a point of view to the book. Also, it's more a celebration of torture than anything else as a disproportionate number of pages are given over to women being brutally interrogated at the hands of the police. But I have to give it this: That stupid twist did allow for that amazing cover. One more bit of cover talk: The blurb on the back touts the book's "literally shattering climax," which prompted The A.V. Club's ever-quotable Tasha Robinson to ask if the book somehow fell apart in readers' hands when they reached the end. I can safely report that it does not.
Next: Smith Of Wooton Major & Farmer Giles Of Ham by J.R.R. Tolkien
Then: The Seedling Stars by James Blish