THE JUPITER PLAGUE

Since Gerry Donaghy was nice enough to send me not one but two books (I just received a copy of The Collaboration from him) I’ll spend Labor Day following through on my promise to compare The Jupiter Plague with Harry Harrison’s earlier version of the same story, Plague From Space.

Both are substantially similar: the earlier one is shorter (the Bantam copy Gerry sent me has 154 pages of story; while the Tor edition of the second book runs to 280 pages — though this is mainly caused by a bigger typeface and fewer words per page), and better. So, for Harrison enthusiasts, two questions arise: why did Harry rewrite his original novel, and what changes did he make? Let me attempt to answer these.

The Plague books are part of a sub-set of science fiction which I would guess is called Medical SF (just as The Forever War and Ender’s Game and Bill The Galactic Hero are apparently termed Military SF). The earliest examples of this that I can think of are C.M. Kornbluth’s Little Black Bag and Rick Raphael’s Code Three. Harry was a prolific writer and dealt with many SF sub-genres; space travel, time travel, alternate histories and universes, and in this case a First Contact story which is also a medical drama. Here the Jupiter probe returns to Earth with a devastating disease on board – prescient as always, Harry chose the plague to be a super-deadly form of avian flu!

Harry wrote quickly, and liked to consult experts on the subject matter of his books. Whatever it was – disease, or overpopulation, or dinosaurs – he would acquire pretty deep info from scientists and include a lot of it in the resulting book. Whether this is a good thing I am not sure: “hard” science fiction often gets bogged down with technical information of interest only to specialists in the field, and Bill is great precisely because Harry didn’t need to consult any experts — he had all the info he needed, first hand. Also, Bill took him several years to complete, whereas most of his books were written in a matter of months. The Galactic swear-word “bowb” appears once in both versions of Plague.

But, why did Harry write the same book twice? Therein lies the tale. In 1969, the up-and-coming author Michael Crichton published his first SF novel, The Andromeda Strain. This is the story of a probe which, having visited Mars, returns to earth bringing with it a deadly virus against which scientists and the military must join forces to fight. If this sounds almost exactly like the set-up of Plague From Space, well, it is. Harry certainly felt it was, and when Crichton’s book made the New York Times bestseller list and was turned into a big-budget, not-very-good Hollywood science fiction movie, Harry also felt that he lost out on a substantial revenue stream. So, realizing that times had changed and that “popular” books were bought on the basis of bulk rather than brevity, he decided to expand Plague From Space.

Harry was always technologically ahead of most people’s game, and I’m sure that when he embarked on the rewrite in 1981, he had both a computer and some form of writing/editing software. Did the original draft exist in some electronic form? Almost certainly not: computers in the 1960s were like HAL in 2001: half a city block long and buried in the basements of high-tech enterprises. So someone transcribed the original book to disk, and Harry, working in DOS or some even more arcane OS, set to work expanding it.

The book begins with the hero, Dr. Sam Bertoli, playing chess against a computer. in the revised version the computer speaks; the Bobby Fischer move Bertoli makes is updated, from 1973 to 1987 – and Fischer’s opponent’s name is changed from Botvinnik to Smyslov. I don’t see the need for any of these changes (except the date, to keep it in the future) but assume they meant something to Harry! The scene where the doctors arrive at JFK airport – where the returning Pericles has crash-landed, is expanded, yet – as in the original book – quite devoid of excitement. This is strange and I can’t understand why Harry – a writer of fluid and exciting action – didn’t beef up the airport disaster. In chapter 3 Harry adds a bit of back story, explaining that our hero became a medic thanks to the example of a Tamil army doctor (the military in this book is the UN Army, which may partially explain why the Esperanto-speaking author is so admiring of its officers and actions, as opposed to his view of the Troopers in Bill.) In chapter 5, the ambulance driver, Killer, goes into detail about a Safeway sacking on the East Side: Harry is never one to romanticize The Mob.

Near the end of chapter 6, Harry adds some dialogue for Dr. Nita, Dr. Bertoli’s squeeze, in which she speculates humankind may go extinct like the dinosaurs. In chapter 8, a “nightmare scene” occurs beneath the Koch Bridge on 23rd Street (previously the Wagner Bridge). And a few words are added to the start of chapter 10, where Nita and Bertoli discover she has contracted the plague. When Bertoli ducks into a bar to get a drink, in the rewrite we’re told he hands over “a five dollar bill.” In the original it as just “a bill”. Presumably this is to allow for inflation. Then, in the rewrite, Harry has Bertoli enter another bar, where he is menaced by junkies eager for the contents of his doctor’s bag. A scene of violent drug addicts being overcome in physical combat by an upright hero was probably de rigeur in New York tales, post Death Wish, and I imagine Harry was thinking of the movie rights when he wrote it.

A scene where Bertoli and a young UN Lieutenant share a pack of cigarettes is gone in the re-write. The flashback, where we learn what took place on the doomed Jupiter mission, is expanded into its own chapter, with scenes aboard the orbiting spacecraft.

The scenes aboard the Pericles on Earth are unchanged. This is a good thing, since their description of the hidden technological changes aboard the craft, and the revelation of what resides within, are splendid. The reader may not be surprised when the Plague books turn out to be a First Contact story; that aspect of the tale is handled very well indeed.

There’s a small addition as Bertoli returns to Bellvue Hospital, in which he beats his fist against the armrest and worries about his beloved (the love story is the least-good part of the tale, the infected heroine being out of action on a hospital bed for more than half of it). And there are interesting changes at the very end — one apparently in error (it seems that the software has got some dialogue in the wrong order, so that Killer is still conversing with Bertoli after he has bowed out) and one in anticipation of a return mission to Jupiter – to be undertaken by robot landers.

Were the changes worth it? Presumably, since the  book sold copies and added to a working writer’s revenue. On the other hand, none of the changes makes any real difference. As a big fan and a friend of Harry, I of course wish that he had concentrated more on writing original material rather than revisiting earlier books for sequels and re-works. But he knew what he was doing, and we are all guilty of this.

A couple of notes about the two volumes: Plague From Space, like all Bantam paperbacks from the 1960s, has a great cover which depicts exactly what the book is about — a plague-sore-raddled, dying spaceman against a field of red. No illustrator is credited, but I’d guess it was Jim Bama, who did the great covers for their Doc Savage series. This volume is also dedicated, to Hubert Prichard, “in memory of the many fine days since 117.” The Tor edition of The Jupiter Plague, on the other hand, has an indifferent cover, featuring a rocket-launching pad, and a huge red Jupiter in the sky, with a skull superimposed on it. The back cover gives the game away — it’s a continuation of the front, and the barcode is superimposed over a reclining figure, whose left leg emerges from it. in other words, it’s probably the cover of another book, recycled for this one! The Tor edition omits the dedication to Hubert Prichard; but above the title the cover reads “Jim Baen Presents: Harry Harrison.” I don’t know who Hubert was, but Baen was a SF publisher who apparently took the Lawrence Lessig approach to electronic publishing, when that came along – refusing to saddle books with DRM, and giving away .rtfs to promote hard copy sales.

Plague_Covers

THE PLAGUE FROM SPACE…

Within the same twelve month period (1965-66) Harry Harrison finished three science fiction novels. MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM! was his serious take on overpopulation, the only one of his books (so far) to have been filmed. BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO was something he’d been working on for several years — probably since he read STARSHIP TROOPERS and was so pissed off by it. And there was a third book, too: a short novel called THE PLAGUE FROM SPACE. A few years after PLAGUE was published, Michael Crighton published his own novel about a plague from space, which got made into a tedious major motion picture. This annoyed Harry since he felt that Crighton borrowed much of his plot and all of his research (it’s one of his books, like WEST OF EDEN, which came from a process of research and collaboration with gen-u-ine scientists — the way science fiction used to be). So Harry re-worked the book and republished it as THE JUPITER PLAGUE.

Last week, the used bookstores of Oregon yielded up two of Harry’s works – another copy of BILL (can’t have too many of them!) and THE JUPITER PLAGUE, which I had never read before. I haven’t yet found a copy of THE PLAGUE FROM SPACE so can’t comment on how different the two books are. What impresses me is the sheer hard work of which H.H. was capable: three novels in a year, at least one of them a masterpiece.

Yet it’s a puzzling book, as well — hard to believe it’s from the pen of the man who wrote BILL, since it’s heroes are hard-charging medics and army generals (in other words, the people who cause all the problems and stupidity in Harry’s anti-war tract). Thinking about it, all three books — written the same year — seem to contradict each other: BILL is entirely cynical and shows no respect for any authority, of any kind; the hero of MAKE ROOM! is an honest, if ineffectual, police detective; the protagonists of PLAGUE are all authority figures: doctors, cops, the military. All are good, entertaining reads. PLAGUE is the weakest of the three, though it comes back to life splendidly in its final pages when the presence of an incomprehensible alien being aboard the plague ship, managing the viral attacks, is revealed.

But what did Harry think? Are MAKE ROOM! and PLAGUE just “work novels” while BILL reveals the author’s true feelings? Or were there no true feelings — just books? Like most of his contemporaries, Harry wrote fast, aiming for first publication in science fiction magazines, and wrote for a living: that was how he and the family survived. And the market in the mid-sixties was still for “hard”, science-based science fiction (the fashion for imps and elves and dragons and Star Trek/Wars which has devastated the modern medium had not yet occurred) so books like MAKE ROOM! and PLAGUE were more likely to find a publisher. Remember that BILL was rejected by Harry’s regular publisher and it was only the enthusiasm of his dear wife Joan, who found it hilarious, that kept him working on it.

BILL is also unusual in that there is no hard science in it. The Bloater Drive, the dehydrator ray, the robot humans with lizards instead of brains, all is entertaining and full of meaning, but not the kind of meaning a DUNE fan would understand. I love Harry’s writing, but feel that in some books – like the EDEN trilogy and PLAGUE – he was shackled by his science fiction writer’s respect for hard science. He was an intelligent man and he wanted the science to be right – but often that stuff just gets in the way of the story, slowing the narrative pace as the author gets into the nitty-gritty of viruses or reptilian warm-bloodedness. Whereas in BILL, his own experiences were the story. Despite the insanity of it all, nothing was made up or needed to be “researched”. Everything that happens in BILL had happened, one way or another, to Harry Harrison. Many of those things have happened to you and me, too. There is truth in BILL of a greater depth than mere scientific accuracy or historical veracity. Which is why it will endure, I think. (Better make a good film of it, then!)

Revisiting these sixties science fiction books has led me to compile a short list of science fiction stories which may encourage us as we begin work on the film. I really compiled it for my students, but I’ll share it here, and add to it as I remember the titles which are currently eluding me… In no particular order, if you’re interested in reading some outstanding “hard” science fiction, I recommend:

Who Can Replace a Man?, by Brian Aldiss

Lot, by Ward Moore

The Only Thing We Can Learn, by C.M. Kornbluth

The Tunnel Under The World, by Frederic Pohl

Children of the Night, also by Frederic Pohl

Hell is the Absence of God, by Ted Chaing

Sound of Thunder, by Ray Bradbury

Poor Little Warrior, also by Brian Aldiss

(Oh, and here’s a plug for a written offering of my own. Please buy it at your local independent bookstore, or from the publishers!)