Thursday, July 2, 2015

Giant Spiders, Dinosaurs and Lizard Men--Oh, My!

"The Rocketeers have Shaggy Ears," by Keith Bennett, was published in the Spring 1950 issue of Planet Stories. It is an effective mixture of jungle warfare, jungle survival and science fiction.

Summarizing the story makes some elements of it sound cliched. The main character, for instance, is an untested junior officer who wonders if he really has what it takes to lead men in a dangerous situation. We've seen that a million times. His sergeant is the stoic veteran who is there whenever he's needed--the sort of non-com we've seen in  a zillion times.

But "Rocketeers" is an exciting and atmospheric story, in large part because the characters are well-written and seem real. Cliches often exist because they reflect something true, so are not automatically a bad thing. That tough, veteran sergeant, for instance? There's not a properly trained military in the world that doesn't have those guys in it--and any good officer would trade his left hand to have a top-kick like that in his unit.

The story is set on Venus. An exploration rocket has crashed 500 miles from their home base, with an unidentified interference that is common to the planet blocking radio and radar. So thirty men have to walk home through thick jungles and rain forests.

In this regard, the story parallels a jungle adventure set in Africa or Asia, but here lions, crocodiles and pygmies are replaced with giant spiders, dinosaurs and lizard-men. The men are military, equipped with small arms, a heavy machine gun and even a light tank, so the feel of some of the action parallels a military adventure.

The author builds on all this as the men spend months trekking through the jungle, battling various dangers and getting gradually whittled down by hungry fauna, fever and blowgun-armed lizard-men. The tension remains high, punctuated by sudden, violent action when a dinosaur or the lizard-men attack. We get to know some of the men personally, so that there is a real emotional impact when one of them is abruptly killed.

 At times, it seems as if there's no way they can make it home. The protagonist at one point bemoans their fate, noting that the Rocket Service is new and they don't have legends to inspire them.

To this his sergeant notes that they do have a legend--by making this march through a hellish environment, they are themselves becoming legendary.

This was a fun story to read--but also a fun story to analyze and appreciate how well-constructed it is. Take elements of three different genres and two cliched character templates, mix thoroughly and finish with a truly exciting and "realistic" adventure story.

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