17 October 2011

Aliens Murder Millions (and that's a good thing)

The 27th Day
John Mantley
New York: Crest, 1958

In the middle of The 27th Day, Eve Wingate and Jonathan Clark share a first, passionless kiss. Next thing you know, they decide to marry.

Different times.

Our young lovebirds are two of five people who have been abducted by aliens from a dying world. These "space people", coveting our planet, seek to speed up what they see as our natural inclination toward self-destruction by giving each of the five earthlings capsules containing "the power to wipe out every human being on earth!" After just twenty-seven days, the weapons will be rendered harmless. Please understand, the aliens aren't evil, just desperate. "We, too, find the proposition that any race would knowingly destroy itself untenable," says their spokesperson, "but our computers, fed on the records of your racial history, insist that there is a better than 50 per cent possibility of this weapon being used within twenty-seven days."

There are some fine passages in this book, but I'm going to be very unfair by skipping right to the end of the story, because it's here that a bland, if competent book becomes suddenly, surprisingly bad.

We're meant to believe that the five – Eve, Jonathan, Soviet soldier Ivan Godofsky, Chinese peasant girl Su Tan and absent-minded Professor Klaus Bochner – were chosen at random, but it just happens that the professor, perhaps the world's most famous scientist, becomes humankind's greatest hero. In true thriller style, he cracks a code with mere minutes to spare, thus unleashing a force that not only kills the villain, the Soviet Union's "Great Leader", but forever ensures the survival of his species.

Listen – or read – if you will, to the radio announcer who, "delirious with joy", relates news that "tyrants and evildoers in high places" have been struck dead by "invisible rays from outer space":
I know it's unbelievable, fantastic, but it is true that the rays killed every leader known to have been a confirmed enemy of human freedom. But they also stunned others without seeming regard for importance, position, or age of the individual. The most unlikely people have fallen victim to the epidemic – gossip columnists, thieves, preachers, psychiatrists, senators, plumbers, merchants; there have been attacks in every profession. And yet, it now appears that those who did not meet death in the first moments are destined to recover.
While it's true that those affected recover their health, their personalities are forever transformed. Jonathan himself experiences "a pain he had never known", but becomes a better person in the process.

To truly get a sense of this new world, let us turn again to our rambling radio announcer:
From every corner of the country, statistics are arriving which indicate that a great spiritual revolution has overtaken the nation. In Las Vegas, more than two thirds of the divorce applicants have expressed a desire to discontinue their cases...
How to explain this kind new world? Prof Bochner believes that "secretions" at fault for bad behaviour have been destroyed by "Alien power". Sadly, those with secretions high above the norm, like the Great Leader, had to die.

First published in 1956, set in 1963, narrated by a voice from the far off 1973, The 27th Day is very much a Cold War novel. A few have run with this, describing the work as anti-Communist, but things aren't nearly so clear-cut. The Soviet Union: bad. World federation: good. Competition: bad. Co-operation: good. You see what I mean.

In 1957, the novel was made into a black and white film that is... well, no more black and white. Mantley, who wrote the adaptation, published only one more novel, Snow Birch (1958), which he later turned into the Susan Hayward vehicle Woman Obsessed (1959). A Torontonian – Mary Pickford was a cousin – Mantley spent more than three decades writing for movies and television, but is best remembered as the longest serving producer of Gunsmoke.

Things were much more black and white on Gunsmoke. That Miss Kitty, she had a heart of gold.

Object and Access: Attractive enough, I suppose, my Crest copy is the first and only American paperback edition. Its cover image is generic no space station features in the novel, and we never get so much as a glimpse of any planet other than Earth. Though the last edition was published in 1964, used copies are plentiful. Good copies of the US first edition – Dutton (right) – begin at $15.00. The more attractive UK first – Michael Joseph (below) –is a touch more dear. Those who want nothing more than to read the darn thing will find used copies listed online for as little as one dollar. Canadian library patrons are limited to McMaster University and the ever reliable Toronto Public Library.

The novel is also out there in German (Der Siebenundzwanzigste Tag), Danish (Den syvogtyvende dag), Spanish (El 27° Dia) and Italian (Il 27° Giorno) translations.

Update: The ever eagle-eyed JRSM notes this in John Mantley's Encyclopedia of Science Fiction entry: "The novel was filmed – from the US version, which has a revised ending – as The 27TH DAY (1957)." If accurate, this may go some way in explaining the rather absurd conclusion in the edition I read. As if to add to the confusion, I note that the ending discussed by folks at IMDb doesn't quite match. While in the Crest paperback the aliens come to share the Earth, the film has it that the "dying planet" stuff was a ruse. You see, it was all just a test to see whether we were civilized enough to join 30,000-member "Galactic Council". Don't worry, we passed.


  1. I see that the US version got a different ending, which was used for the film: http://sf-encyclopedia.com/Entry/mantley_john

  2. My thanks for this. Duly noted... though now I'm becoming confused (as you'll see in the update).