And Then I Read: THIS ISLAND EARTH by Raymond F. Jones

Some of you may recognize the title of the book above as a well-known science fiction film first released in 1955. The film is based on the novel, which I discovered this year in San Diego at Comic-Con, I hadn’t known of it before. I did know the author, though, as a favorite from my youth. More on that later. Note that I’m showing the title pages, as the cover is an ugly buckram library binding with no art.

Sadly, the book is long out of print, and apparently never released in paperback, so you aren’t likely to find it. It’s fascinating as a work of its time, but not great literature, or even great science fiction, so don’t feel too bad. I just read somewhere that the 1950s were epitomized by feelings of paranoia, and that certainly is a theme in this book. I’ll summarize, and if you’ve seen the movie, the beginning at least will be familiar.

Electrical engineer Cal Meacham is puzzled when an order of condensers for a radio project he’s building turn up very different from what he expected. The devices are tiny, but when tested far exceed the specs he wanted. He queries the shipper, and they send him an entire catalog of electrical parts that are equally far beyond anything known to then-current science. Cal orders the whole catalog, and soon finds they are a sort of puzzle, all pieces of some sort of machine, purpose unknown. He succeeds in building it, and it turns out to be a sort of wireless transmitter. He turns it on, and is contacted by a man who tells him he has passed an intelligence test, assembled something called an interociter, and is invited to join a team of top scientists at a secret factory to manufacture more of them.

Once there, Cal is soon involved with company psychologist Ruth Adams, and an old friend, fellow scientist Ole Swenberg. Eventually he meets the man in charge of the mysterious interociter factory, Mr. Jorgasnovara. Ruth has lots of strange theories about the operation, and she and Cal eventually discover that the machines they are building are being picked up late at night by some kind of space ship. They confront Jorgasnovara, and he reveals that they are making supplies for one side in a distant but massive war in space between two huge and powerful civilizations. The Llanna are portayed as the force for good, the Guarra as evil, intent on only destruction.

After a visit to the Llanna base on our moon for a full history of the situation, Cal agrees to take on running the interociter factory for the Llanna, and eventually other similar operations around our planet. But the plant is soon shut down by a labor dispute, and then all its manufacturing equipment is smashed in the night, in an act of sabotage. Cal and Ruth investigate, and Cal has a run-in with horrible aliens, and is badly hurt. Later, Mr. Jorgasnovara reveals his people have found out the enemy is now heading toward Earth, it’s in their path of destruction. Behind this and the sabotage is Cal’s old friend Ole, who is really an agent of the Guarra. Cal and Ruth confront Ole, and get themselves in and out of some trouble.

In the final section of the book, Cal and Ruth are taken by the Llanna to their homeworld, where they must make a case for saving and protecting Earth. This seems hopeless, but Cal eventually convinces the Llanna that humans have traits that can help them win the war: unpredictability for one. The Llanna depend on their war computers for all battle decisions, and Cal shows them how the Guarra know this, and can predict their every move. Earthmen can show them how to strike unexpectedly, and wage an unpredictable, and therefore more effective, war. As the book ends, Cal and Ruth are heading back toward Earth with an armada of Llanna to give this plan a try.

As you can see, if you remember the film, the latter soon veers off on it’s own path, but with some of the same themes. Several times in the book, Jones likens Earth to a small south-seas island, occupied by American forces in World War Two in a much larger struggle against Japan. The islanders can help in their own small way, but their fate is really out of their hands. Paranoia runs deep in the book, and there are echos of the Cold War, too. As for the finale, Robert Heinlein did it much better in his novel for young people, “Have Space Suit, Will Travel,” but this Jones novel isn’t bad, just not great.

When I was growing up, there weren’t many science fiction books aimed at younger readers. The Heinlein juveniles were by far the best. The “Lucky Starr” series by Paul French, a pseudonym of Isaac Asimov, was pretty good, too. And there was a third series published by the John C. Winston company, all with similar covers, often by one-time comics artist Alex Schomburg, and great science fiction endpapers by him, too. The spaceship and “science fiction” emblem on the spine drew me right away as a kid in the library, and I read all of them I could find. I’ve acquired at least half the line for my own library over the years, including three by Raymond F. Jones, which is why I knew his name. Here are the covers:

The second one, “Planet of Light” is a sequel to the first, “Son of the Stars,” and is my favorite of the three. It also features a family of Earthers on a distant planet who have to defend the right of Earth to join a galactic civilization. “Son of the Stars” is a story along the lines of the film “E-T”, except that the alien who is stranded on Earth looks like a human boy, and is taken in and befriended by an Earth family. “The Year Stardust Fell” tells of a comet tail that destroys all the machinery of Earth, turning it back to a very primitive civilization, a theme also explored in the “Changes” trilogy of writer Peter Dickinson. Again, these books are all long out of print, and now very hard to find, not to mention pretty expensive to buy. But if you should find any of them in a library (or used bookstore for a reasonable price), I’d certainly recommend giving them a try. Not great literature or even great science fiction, but good, thoughtful reading.

One thought on “And Then I Read: THIS ISLAND EARTH by Raymond F. Jones

  1. RAB

    I’ve always thought the opening premise of This Island Earth — an engineer receiving a mysterious catalog full of unfamiliar components — was one of the most imaginative and evocative ideas I’ve ever come across. I loved it in the movie and was glad to see it explored in greater detail in the novel.

    This made it all the more disappointing when the novel veered off to become a soapbox for the author’s hostility towards unions…presented solely as slick obstructionists who turn out to be the stooges of the real bad guys. (One character says the only reason people ever go on strike is to trumpet their own importance and make everyone else bow to them. No other imaginable reason. I realize this is still a widely held view — but had an unsafe mine never collapsed with miners inside when Jones wrote the novel? Did workers never strike for job safety, or to resist discrimination, or to get a living wage to support their families? What a management paradise it must have been.)

    It’s also unfortunate the ending undermines the central metaphor of the book — that Earth is an isolated outpost in a conflict it can’t possibly grasp — by having Cal propose a better solution to the war. It seems like a cheat.

    Apart from these complaints, I enjoyed the book a lot as well.

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