Thursday, March 5, 2009

Rebels of Total Recall

Rebels of the Red Planet by Charles Fontenay- a review

It's pulp time again, so we should all know what to expect. I picked up this volume many years ago, in a now-defunct bookshop in Enniscorthy, Wexford, and it's one of my old favourites. It really shows that there is a difference between good and bad pulp fiction.

Trashy novels (back in the day, at least) sold based on what fantastic and sensational thrills the cover depicted. This cover shows a 'futuristic' city (complete with monorail, natch) and a forest of hands raised as if pledging their allegiance to some grand revolutionary cause. One of them appears to be holding a passport. Will any of this be relevant to the story within? Read on (surely with barely concealed anticipation).

In this tale, Mars is a newly-colonised world under the grip of the tyrannical Marscorp. They control all supplies from Earth, and in particular they control the supply of air to the people of Mars. Of course, a rebellion is brewing, under the control of an organisation called the Phoenix (sound familiar? More on that later). Spies and counter-spies ply their trade across the scattered cities. Amid all this political strife, a man returns to Mars City. He is Dark Kensington (!), former leader of the Phoenix, a man thought to have perished twenty years earlier. Where has he been? What is his connection to the mad and strangely-named scientist Goat Hennessy (maybe he's from the old country!) And what role will the misunderstood, dying race of Martians play in the proceedings? The stage is truly set for some pulp nonsense of the highest order.

The proceedings begin, uncharacteristically, with a fine piece of purple prose. See for yourself-

It is a sea, though they call it sand.
They call it sand because it is still and red and dense with grains. They call it sand because the thin wind whips and whirls its dusty skim away to the tight horizons of Mars.

But only a sea could so brood with the memory of aeons.

Only a sea, lying so silent beneath the high skies, could hint the mystery of life still behind its barren veil.

Now I don't know my Heaney from my Hemmingway, but that's fairly poetic stuff coming from a novel about ray-guns and space monsters. Doesn't it conjure the endless majesty and loneliness and barrenness of the Martian desert? Fantastic stuff. Tellingly, there's nothing else in the bok as good as it. Fontenay soon drops this kind of style and gets down to the business of telling a nice two-fisted adventure story. More power to him.

Anyway, Dark Kensington (Dark Kensington!) hooks up with his old intelligence buddies, and it turns out that the rebel base on Mars City is located in... a barber college. The book is truly chock full of strange details like this. Yep, up front it's a fully functional barber college, while out back there's secret rooms full of rebels being taught how to lift sticks of chalk and pour buckets of lambs blood using only their minds. You see, they aim to become independent from Marscorp by transporting all supplies using ESP. From Earth.

And of course since this is the future-as-imagined-from-the-sixties, everyone smokes. Big black cigars. In a confined colony on an airless world. (This bizarre cultural oversight, once commonplace, can still be noted as late at 1997, in Event Horizon. Watch for the scene where they all spark up. In space).

There's a memorable scene near enough to the beginning of the book where the college is raided by the authorities, and the rebel boss escapes in a helicopter(!) that punctures the dome of Mars City. Immediately, shutters close on all buildings to contain the atmosphere. This scene functions to establish early on the theme of the inhospitibility of Mars (sound familiar?) and the importance and scarcity of good quality O2 (except when you need a good smoke, of course).

There are several more great (and strange) scenes scattered throughout the book, including Goat Hennessy's disturbing attempts to create a human that will survive the martian atmosphere and a seductive spy's bungled attempt to arrest Kensington at a Martian holiday resort. The whole shebang climaxes with a showdown at a hydroponic plant, by which point Fontenay has amassed a rogues gallery of bizarre heroes and villains. Essentially, it's a silly tale well told.

I'd imagine that this book is fairly obscure. Pick it up if you see it in a charity shop (you are unlikely to see it anywhere else). Now, how likely do you think it is that this book graced the desk of someone in Hollywood during the late 80s? I mean, who reads this kind of stuff anyway? And yet, the similarities to Total Recall are numerous and unavoidable. If you don't know Total Recall, you've sure come to the wrong place (think Red Faction, another take on the same idea).

Both feature a rebellion on a frontier-like Mars. Both have shadowy rag-tag revolutionary organisations fighting against The Man. Both feature rebels with ESP powers. And in both cases, Mars is not an arbitrary setting, it is almost a central character. Both deal, as an ongoing theme as well as a climactic plot-device, with the problem of breathing on Mars, though they approach it from completely different angles. Many of these aspects are absent from We Can Remember It For You Wholesale, the story that Total Recall is based on. Strange.

There's something about Mars. It occupies a special place in our myths, our hopes and fears. Percival Lowell, H.G. Wells and John Carter have helped created a mystique about the place. Because of this, there's a certain responsibility to setting a story on Mars. It isn't interchangeable with any other planetary location. It must feel like Mars. Both Rebels of the Red Planet and Total Recall achieve this admirably.

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