Dani Zweig's Belated Reviews : archive

Belated Reviews #7: Philip Wylie

Philip Wylie's writing career spanned half a century, with his best-known books (he is as well known for his non-fiction as for his fiction) appearing in the thirties, forties, and fifties. His science fiction was aimed as much at mainstream audiences -- where it exerted a lasting influence -- as at science-fiction audiences. Wylie's novels tended to come with a fairly large pot of message stirred in. A problem with this is that the same message about the status of women, for example, or about atomic warfare might seem controversial in the fifties, old hat in the sixties and seventies, and slightly regressive in the eighties and nineties. His books include

The Disappearance (***). One day all the women in the world vanish, simultaneously. One day all the men in the world vanish, simultaneously. This novel follows the parallel stories of these two worlds. The men's world retains a functioning economy, but loses heart and disintegrates socially. In the women's world (1950) there aren't enough skilled peopleto keep the wheels turning.

Gladiator (**) is generally acknowledged to be one of the main inspirations for Superman -- not the later Superman who could fly faster than light and toss worlds out of his way, but the early Superman who could leap tall buildings and bend steel with his bare hands. The hero of this book is also more power than a locomotive and able to sneer at bullets, but he never finds much of a use for the ability. (There aren't many obvioususes for it in every-day life, and the notion of putting on long underwear and seeking out super-criminals doesn't seem to have occurred to him.)

Tomorrow (**+) is Wylie's story of two neighboring cities during a brief nuclear war. (If this sounds vaguely like a modern telefilm, I doubt that that's coincidental.) On the surface, it's an argument for civil defense: One of the cities is prepared and one is not, and the former fares better. Faring better, however, means that a little under a hundred-thousand lives are lost there, as opposed to a little over a hundred-thousand across the way. Wylie's main purpose was to paint a vivid picture of what nuclear warfare would entail. (It's easier to paint such a picture when you're thinking in terms of kilotons, rather than megatons. In the latter case, it makes more sense to describe the aftermath -- from the perspective of people who were nowhere near -- than the actual attack.)

When Worlds Collide (***), coauthored by Philip Wylie and Edwin Balmer, is the closest Wylie comes to 'standard' science fiction. Astronomers discover a rogue planet entering the solar system, and calculate that it will collide with the Earth. They also discover (though this remains a better-kept secret) that the rogue planet has an Earthlike companion which may survive and adopt a survivable orbit, and to which a few may escape. The book bears some of the stigmata of pre-golden-age science fiction, such as the tendency to equate Science with wisdom. Unlike most of its contemporaries, though, it focuses on people, in this case on how they react to an astronomical death sentence. The book spawned a competent sequel, "After Worlds Collide" (**-), and a disappointing movie.


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Dani Zweig
Should 'anal retentive' have a hyphen?
   -- unidentified passing t-shirt