Dreadful Sanctuary by Eric Frank Russell

Four Square, 1967, 253 p. First published in 1953.

I remember fondly from my youth a novel by Russell titled Next of Kin, a light-hearted contact with aliens story where a human was captured and convinced his alien jailers that each human had an invisible companion called a Eustace, which had impressive powers. Not literature by any means but quite funny – a trait unusual in SF. Having now read this book I am reluctant ever to go back to that earlier one for fear of destroying those memories, because Dreadful Sanctuary is not very good.

The set-up is that each of a series of spaceships, all bound for Mars and built by various countries, has suffered a calamity. It seems as if someone – or something – is deliberately preventing a successful landing. Viewpoint character John Armstrong decides to find out who or what. (When reading his various adventures to that end I was reminded of the YA book Tom Swift and the Captive Planetoid which I also read recently.)

By videophone he contacts a Professor Mandle who has a theory about layers around Mars potentially causing the problem and has an idea to invetsigate this During the call Mandle appears to suffer a heart attack and dies. This later gives Armstrong the opportunity to meet and question Mandle’s sister Clair. She is as capable a person as her brother was but apart from sharing her ideas with Armstrong has no other agency in the book, beyond Armstong’s possible romantic interest in her.

Russell’s style here draws on US demotic speech and mannish wisecracks as in film noir. Though he also manages to insert a few classical and literary allusions by and large the prose is no more than workmanlike and contains frequent – not altogether approving – references to consumer products such as Vitalax (not to mention the advertisements for them) and a popular song titled “Skiddin’ with my shiver-kid.”

Armstrong’s researches take him to the Norman Club where he is asked a strange question, “How do you know you’re sane?” Armstrong doesn’t know, of course, but his interlocutor is sure of his own sanity since the club is in possession of a device known as a psychotron which can establish sanity beyond doubt. Armstrong’s subjection to the machine

Normans or Nor-mans claim to be normal men and not only sane but originated centuries ago from Mars and do indeed, in order to guard that history, wish to prevent other humans reaching there. There have been previous instances of implicit racism in the book – at one point Armstrong thinks of a stereotypical country named Bungo Bungo, at another he says, “‘That’s mighty white of you’” – but with the Normans it becomes explicit. According to them only white-skinned people came from Mars, yellow-skinned are the only true terrestrials, brown-skinned are Venusians, and black-skinned are Mercurians. The white people on Earth are descended from those banished from Mars because of their insanity. Earth is a prison for the insane, the dreadful sanctuary of the title. So much for the psychotron.

Only the spaceships and a handheld weapon which induces arterial blood clots make this in any way Science Fiction. The plot about a group of lunatics with aspirations to incite wars need not involve any fantastical speculation at all.

We also have the inherent difficulty of portraying the future and avoiding the unexamined assumptions of the time, assumptions all too apparent seventy years down the line. In Dreadful Sanctuary, despite habitual use of videophones, newspapers are still a main information source, accessed via recorder booths, and interpersonal calls are to devices still fixed in one place. Women, even the intellectually gifted ones such as Clair Mandle, are restricted to the domestic sphere or a job as a secretary. Then again, how will SF, or indeed any literature, written today stand up to posterity’s scrutiny?

Pedant’s corner:- Plus points for manœvre. Otherwise; queezy (queasy,) Lissajous’ patterns (only if Lissajous is plural, otherwise Lissajou’s,) Mississippi, Mississipi, “hung by the neck until dead” (hanged,) Papazoglous’ (only if Papazoglous is plural, otherwise Papazoglou’s,) “‘if only one makes safe return’” (makes a safe return,) sextette (sextet.) “The fellow laid flat” (lay flat,) sunk (sank,) “cock a snoot” (cock a snook,) “prone in the morgue” (that would be supine in the morgue,) gaget (gadget,) “rarely he occupied” (he rarely occupied,) “they’d accept him as a foe” (see him as a foe.) “His voice dropped back but was till clear” (still clear,) quartettes (quartets,) “titled back his head” (tilted,) dryly (drily,) “to both side” (to both sides,) Ploughkeepsie (Poughkeepsie,) “with a earlier” (an earlier.) “‘So out next step’” (our next step,) “he headed a a cohort” (only one ‘a’ needed,) “which the President has instructed him to prepare” (which the President had instructed him,) “even that the hydrogen bomb” (than the,) “for whom the bells tolls” (either ‘bells toll’, or, ‘bell tolls’,) “the saturine agent” (saturnine,) “one way of the other” (or the other.)

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