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WesternSFA


He Could Stop the World
Doc Savage #53
by Kenneth Robeson
Bantam, 140pp
Published: Original 1937, Bantam 1970

Wow, this one is quite something! 'He Could Stop the World' was the neatly titled Doc Savage novel for July 1937, the 53rd thus far and easily the most outrageous superscience story thus far. Nobody should be surprised to find that the author is Lawrence Donovan, but he really outdid himself here and the result is something that's frankly much closer to Buck Rogers than Doc Savage.

As awful as it is, and absolutely everything about its last few chapters is cheap, overblown and unexplained, not to mention utterly ridiculous, it's a mile a minute blitzkrieg of a novel that's hard not to like just because it gets our adrenaline pumping so damn well. It's not quite so overt a matinee cliffhanger serial as Harold A. Davis's previous novel, 'The Land of Fear', but it's even more jam-packed with action, frankly so much so that we skip over most of the blatant contradictions that render it all nonsense.

For instance, Doc is right there in chapter one tracking the flight of his friend Prof. Homer Randolph's Silver Cylinder as it makes a fifth trip into the stratosphere. Fifty miles up, it explodes, showering debris over Texas, with Randolph and the 42 (aha!) scientists and scholars also on board lost and presumed dead. That includes Johnny, who radios Doc from the ship with some sort of message that he's prohibited from delivering. However, somehow, without Doc and his technology even noticing, the rocket, on which Doc was a consultant, lands in Arizona and a completely different rocket that nobody including Doc knew about, heads up to explode in the stratosphere.

That's just chapter one. It makes no sense but it's wild and thrilling and it introduces a bunch of mysteries. Then chapter two escalates! Johnny finds himself brainwashed, as does Ann Garvin, a sociology professor who’s engaged to Randolph and literally changes her mind completely while speaking about a subject dear to her in public, after her dead husband's voice is conjured up from nowhere. Oh, and four people watching and a telescope are turned to ash by a blue cloud. These are busy chapters indeed!

What follows is so madcap that it ought to be filmed just so that we can see how insane it all is. Doc, for instance, seems to spend half the book going in and out of HQ and the other half going up and down Mount Shasta. There isn't any real guidance as to why anyone's where they are, but they do what they do over and over again, because their wills keep switching on and off. Ham and Monk, for instance, are in Salt Lake City for separate conventions, but they decide to fly to Seattle for no apparent reason and end up crashing onto the slopes of Mount Shasta where they cycle through being besieged by the local mountain men and escaping up the mountain, only to come back down the mountain to be besieged by the local mountain men.

While that's happening, Johnny's who-knows-where under the control of Prof. Randolph. Renny's in Japan apparently unaware of the story people threaten to bring him into but never do. Doc's in New York with Long Tom, who's been affected by the mysterious brainwashing too. "I'm tired of mixing up in the business of other people," he tells Doc and continues on gloriously:

"I don't intend to get myself mixed up in any more messes!" said Long Tom, still snappishly. "You've got us into all kinds of trouble! I've been wanting to take a vacation for a long time! I think I will spend a few months in Bermuda!"

Pat's brought in too, albeit just to keep Ann Garvin company, but that pair get the most pointless cycle to work through. Doc tells them to stay at HQ, so they don't. They leave with the first person to show up and suggest that he can take them to Randolph. But they get driven around, dropped somewhere for absolutely nothing to happen, so they waltz on back to HQ as if nothing was untoward.

I should point out at this point that things are about to get weird. Yeah, I know. Monk and Ham crash onto Mount Shasta because they've been trapped by a dense fog but can still see that the snow on the peaks is burning. They land in a flood because, naturally, the glacier is melting. It's already turned Afternoon Creek into a torrent that wipes out the town of the Shallops, the local clan of mountain men, who talk, in their hillbilly dialect, about the Valley of Giants.

Ah yes, the Valley of Giants, where someone is turning the slopes above the snowline into a garden full of giant corn, giant corn bugs, giant tomatoes, giant mountain men... Somehow, one of those makes it to New York, completely unseen, to appear in Doc's headquarters to attack him. he's Walrath Shallop, ten feet tall and seven hundred pounds. Like nobody noticed? He's actually able to beat Doc in a fight, though Doc does quickly outwit him and stays in charge.

To Denver! Why? We have no idea, but Randolph's men are about to steal two hundred million in gold from the Denver Mint by brainwashing the staff and local police into helping them. Doc just watches, knowing that he can't do anything about it, making the entire trip completely pointless. On to Mount Shasta where we can enjoy more run-ins with the mountain men, more attempts to climb up the mountain with the law, more trips back down again.

Frankly, as ridiculous as this all sounds, we're caught up in it because it runs so fast and wild. Donovan writes in short, snappy sentences throughout. We never stay anywhere for long. Everything feels acutely ADHD. We're here, so now we have to be there. And then over there. But then we have to be back again. At one point Doc walks through a dark room he knows contains bad guys so he can jump out of the window and, when they inevitably sever the thread, crash back into the building and come back up to HQ. Everything's active and dynamic and action-packed, as if to distract us from the lunacy.

Eventually, we get to Empire City, on the peak of Mount Shasta, built out of crystal and complete nonsense. I haven't mentioned the villain, who shows up out of the blue a couple of chapters from the end in a red hood and cape for no reason at all. Like it was ever going to be Doc's friend? Anyway, I left the villain out because he's the only other character in the novel so it's a surprise to nobody when he's unmasked.

I haven't mentioned the explanations for why all this superscience is viable either, mostly because there are none. How is Randolph growing everything to giant stature? How is he brainwashing people to suddenly believe the precise opposite of what they thought ten seconds ago? How is he turning people to ash? How is he able to block radio waves across the entire planet? And how is he doing most of these things absolutely anywhere he likes? Is that the sort of thing readers ought to know? Well, OK. Randolph used a cosmic wave he brought back from the stratosphere. That's it.

I feel robbed, because, as inconsistent, contradictory and completely insane as this novel is, it's so much fun. To get all the way to the finalé, as if we've survived the journey alongside Doc, and discover that Donovan can't be bothered to actually wrap up anything at all, is a real letdown. The final couple of paragraphs of the novel actually suggest that the giants that they free from slavery in Empire City just go back to their homes, where the fact that they're over ten feet tall means nothing and any stories that might be told about them will soon be forgotten. Huh?

I can see why so many Doc Savage fans look down on this one so vehemently. I kind of like the superscience stories, as long as they're explained, but the disdain of Lawrence Donovan on that front really spoils this one, as frankly does a bunch of other things that he does.

For instance, he introduces a few new details to the Doc mythos that I will guess right now may not ever show up again. Let's just say the one with the most validity is when Doc, inside his plane on the slopes of Mount Shasta, scares off a besieging party of Shallops by projecting a herd of elephants into the fog. Yeah, that's the most believable one. Compare that to all the gadgets he suddenly has outside headquarters.

Yeah, outside, as in between the elevators and the door where a half dozen bad guys every novel find themselves. Doc apparently has a visionator there, so that he can spy on what's happening inside HQ, with both audio and video feeds. Like that wouldn't be useful to the villains? Even better, pressing a knot in the woodwork releases anaesthetic gas from a birdcage inside HQ to knock out anyone there. How could that possibly go wrong?

I spent a glorious couple of hours enjoying the heck out of this book and I now want to shoot Lawrence Donovan for writing it. Wow.

Next up, Lester Dent returns with the first of four in a row. Thank goodness. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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