Thursday, August 04, 2011

The Evil Light In Perkins’ Eyes

Today I don’t have much, but it’s something I’ve wanted to post for a long time. I’ve never been able to think of a larger context for this little post so I’m just going to do it by itself.

Here is a short excerpt from a reasonably famous science fiction book. It’s not a well-known book nowadays, but it is famous among hardcore fans and I’ll talk about that a little more after the quote.

The backstory isn’t really important, but as one might expect from a ‘classic’ piece of science fiction, this little bit of drama is happening on an experimental spacecraft that is hurtling away from Earth totally out-of-control. The characters are a supervillain named Marc DuQuesne, his henchman Perkins, and two young women they kidnapped before their spacecraft went out-of-control—one woman was investigating the suspicious death of her father and Perkins’ connection to the crime, and the other woman is the fiancée of the hero of the story. Her fiancée is the science wiz who invented the space-drive which Marc DuQuesne stole.

Anyway. Here’s the quote:

An evil light appeared in Perkins’ eyes. He took out a wicked-looking knife and began to strop it carefully on the leather of the seat, glaring at his victim the while.

Dorothy started to protest, but was silenced by a gesture from Margaret, who calmly took the pistol out of her pocket. She jerked the slide and held the weapon up on one finger.

“Don’t worry about his knife. He’s been sharpening it for my benefit for the last month. It doesn’t mean a thing. But you shouldn’t play with it so much, Perkins, you might be tempted to try to throw it. So drop it on the floor and kick it over here to me. Before I count three. One.” The heavy pistol steadied into line with his chest and her finger tightened on the trigger.

“Two.” Perkins obeyed and Margaret picked up the knife.

“Doctor!” Perkins appealed to DuQuesne, who had watched the scene unmoved, a faint smile upon his saturnine face. “Why don’t you shoot her? You won’t sit there and see me murdered!”

“Won’t I? It makes no difference to me which of you kills the other, or if you both do, or neither. You brought this on yourself. Anyone with any fraction of a brain doesn’t leave guns lying around loose. You should have seen Miss Vaneman take them—I did.”

“You saw her take them and didn’t warn me?” Perkins croaked.

“Certainly. If you can’t take care of yourself I’m not going to take care of you.”

Yeah. So, that was written back in 1928. Pretty cool stuff. That book is famous among fans because it was one of the first—maybe the very first—example of what came to be called “space opera” stories. Big sweeping stories and what are called larger-than-life characters. There were, and continue to be, endless copies of such stuff, but this novel and its sequels were either the very first to do it, or among the first, in science fiction.

Women were pretty tough in science fiction back then.

Some people think the whole genre of “tough women” in science fiction started with Ripley in Ridley Scott’s film “Alien,” but that’s nonsense.

And what’s remarkable about women in science fiction from the early part of the twentieth century—and as opposed to the modern world—is that the women who could take care of themselves in early science fiction were not abrasive loners or muscle-bound freaks or any of the other kind of unpleasant, one-dimensional caricatures modern entertainment presents.

In the early twentieth century, entertainment often featured women who were attractive, pleasant, reasonably well-rounded human beings and who, also, could take care of themselves and didn’t put up with grotesque nonsense from the people around them.

What a concept.

And it seems to be a good concept, too. Kind of makes you wonder: Why would the entertainment world abandon it?

When you think about it, it is as if the world before World War One, or, more certainly, before World War Two, were a completely different world than the world we live in today.

As if.

How did we get from that world to this world?

And what the hell kind of world is coming next?

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