Thursday, July 26, 2007

Night Slaves

I’ll give a spoiler alert here, though I seriously doubt that anyone would ever care much about it. The number of people who are going to go and read a 1965 novel by a relatively obscure author isn’t large.

Jerry Sohl was a not entirely unsuccessful science fiction writer; his books include The Haploids, Costigan's Needle, The Transcendent Man, The Altered Ego, The Mars Monopoly, and The Odious Ones. He largely gave up writing science fiction in the late 1950s, and moved on to become a not entirely unsuccessful scriptwriter, mostly for television, but with a few motion picture credits to his name, including one for “Frankenstein Conquers the World.” He also wrote a few Star Trek scripts, including “The Corbomite Maneuver” and “This Side of Paradise” (the “Enterprise Crew gets high on alien spores” episode).

He also wrote the TV movie adaptation of his novel Night Slaves, which is mostly faithful to the original, with one important difference. That’s the spoiler part.

Sohl published Night Slaves in 1965, several years after the next most recent SF he’d published, and after he had made the transition to television. The made-for-TV movie adaptation appeared in 1970.

The plot of Night Slaves is pretty familiar. The gimmick is the guy-with-a-metal-plate-in-his-head, one Clay Howard. He’s married to Marjorie, who is in love with another man, but doesn’t want to leave Clay while he’s recovering from the auto accident that put in the metal plate, and killed the woman in the oncoming car.

So Clay and Marjorie come to a small town for Clay to rest up. Then the fun begins. Clay wakes up in the middle of the night and the town is empty; everyone is gone. He stays up the next night and follows Marjorie, only to see the whole population of the town line up at midnight, climb into trucks, and leave.

Well, okay, long story short, they’re being used as workers by mind-controlling aliens, and Clay is immune because of the metal plate thing. One of the aliens is the beautiful Naillil, with whom Clay falls in love. Hurray for interstellar romance!

Clay tells Marjorie about this, but she is a bit skeptical. Pretty odd, she thinks, that the alien woman’s name just happens to be “Lillian” spelled backwards, and wasn’t that the name of the woman in the oncoming car? The one who died?

Fooey on you, says Clay. Naillil and I are soul mates. I’m running away with her. Which he does. In the book, he does this by slitting his wrists and dying.

Say what?

Yes, dear friends, the book version of Night Slaves ISN’T SCIENCE FICTION! Clay Howard is suffering from a paranoid delusion, induced by guilt over his having killed the woman, Lillian, in the automobile accident. Every single SF element in the story is the delusion of a sick mind.

Then, to cap the whole thing, when Sohl used it as the basis of a teleplay, he omitted the subversive ending and turned it into a standard SF story, rather like the edited for TV version of Brazil ended before you get to the part about the protagonist having retreated into fantasy under torture.

I have to say, my hat’s off to Jerry Sohl. As I note in my essay “Sleeping in Fritz Leiber’s Bed,” I’ve long been interested in stories that aren’t fantasy per se, but are rather about fantasy. Sohl’s Night Slaves was one of the first such stories I encountered, though I probably didn’t notice it as such at the time. You need several examples to generalize, after all.

It’s also interesting to consider the marketing of it. Night Slaves, the novel was sold as science fiction, and for good reason. Only SF readers would really understand its subversive aspects. On the other hand, most of us probably hated it, because it violates a basic rule of the genre: if you protagonist has a metal plate in his head, he’s the one who is right and everyone else is wrong.

Or something like that.


ChucklesTClown said...

Night Slaves should definitely be remade. In the made-for-TV movie, you couldn't really do or show much on TV in those days. Today, in the movie theater, you can have a town that isn't 90 percent male and where people don't sleep in their daytime clothes.

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