Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Forgotten Books: The Power

In the late 1950s the prominent publisher J.P. Lippincott decided to take advantage of the Sputnik-inspired science fiction boom by offering a line called "Novels of Menace." The line didn't last long but in its brief life it spawned three true classics: A Stir of Echoes by Richard Matheson; Time Out Of Joint by Philip K. Dick; and the book at hand, The Power by Frank M. Robinson.

At the time he wrote it Robinson had a two-track science fiction career going. He published regularly in the most sophisticated magazines of the day, Galaxy and Astounding; and he wrote action pulp for such magazines as Imagination and Imaginative Tales.

The Power managed to do something no other sf novel had ever done. Shortly after its publication it became the basis of a live production on the popular CBS anthology drama "Studio One."

In brief the story is this: Tanner is head of a university study testing the ability of man's endurance in stressful conditions. Why do some men (and women) survive and others perish? The study is done in conjunction with the US government with an arrogant Admiral overseeing everything. This was the time of the cold war and Russia's presence is felt throughout the book, the great Boogeyman.

But something has gone wrong. Olson, one of the professors working on the project seems to be having a mental breakdown. In the opening chapter he hints that he knows something that will astound the others in the group. He recently asked every member to fill out some questions that would profile their routines such as eating and sleeping. The profiles were to be left unsigned and then discussed among the group. But one of them-- He can't quite get the words out.

Tanner takes the profile and reads it out loud. Bemused he says that there seems to be a superman among them. The others laugh. Somebody was having fun with Olson. But Olson bursts out that profile is real. He's sure of it.

To prove there's no superman present Tanner puts a crushed piece of paper on the head of a pin. Given what the profile implies the person should be able to make the paper spin just by focusing on it. Everybody but Olson is intrigued but still laughing. One by one they try to make it spin. No luck. Then Tanner decides to have them try it as a group. The crushed paper spins wildly.

Olson says that the superman wouldn't make it spin when he was one his own but when he was able to hide in the group he decided to show off.

This is the set-up. There is a superman among them. And a nasty one. He begins to kill people in the group. As Tanner begins to realize who he is, the superman frames him for murder.

What Robinson has done is fuse Cornell Woolrich into a dark chase science fiction thriller. The novel is as claustrophobic as anything Woolrich ever wrote played against a paranoid realism (Chicago in the late `50s, carefully observed from jazz clubs to to college hangouts to midnight streets) as Tanner moves closer to the final showdown with the superman. As I mentioned, the cold war can be felt on every page. Robinson also takes some nice shots at professorial politics and the intrusion of the military into academia.

But what he does best of all is scare you. One dazzling suspense scene after another as Tanner is both hunter and hunted. Robinson went on to write several blockbuster bestsellers with his collaborator Thomas N. Scortia. After some time away from novels, he returned a decade ago with a half dozen major novels.

But for me The Power will always be his masterpiece.

(I should note here that the 1968 film version is excellent and well worth looking up.)


Todd Mason said...

The distance between "MADGE" and sober ASTOUNDING (except when it ran magnolious crap by L. Ron, bad imitation Vance-ish stuff by Everett B. Cole, and other trivia by others) and jazzy GALAXY (which also could run some trivial stuff, particularly in those latter '50s, as Gold's health problems led him to be even more offputting to the best writers than previously) is often overstated...I think it looked bigger then than revisiting issue by issue might suggest today (not, mind you, that I'm saying the Hamling magazines were as good). Robinson wasn't quite on the Hamling ROGUE, etc. payroll yet by that time, or was he?

As this week is Lost Films week, the George Pal or the STUDIO ONE versions of THE POWER fit in pretty well...perhaps any of the works by Frqnk, who was able to recline, at least somewhat, on his and Scortia's THE GLASS INFERNO money for being admixed with THE TOWER as the sources for THE TOWERING INFERNO, almost a lost film in its own right.

Hell, Frqnk and Scortia's disaster novels were also straightahead contemporary fiction, I guess with a bit of sf admixed in THE PROMETHEUS CRISIS...

pattinase (abbott) said...

Ed-I'm doing forgotten movies this week, but a couple people did books so I'll post the link to this if that's okay. Then I'm taking two weeks off, coming back on the 11th.

Anonymous said...

Ed, you've got to stop praising/recommending books! My to-be-read pile is tall enough already! ;)

Jeff P.

Wostry Ferenc said...

Here in Hungary, The Power was published in serialized form in the single one science fiction magazine of the country, Galaktika in the 80s. A great, great book, had a great impact on me when I was a kid. A very menacing novel.