This is the first installment of what will be an irregular feature here… similar to our other Greg’s The Unsung, but in this case, it’s old books, which is more my beat.
Here’s how it came about. Every so often, I suddenly remember something I used to really love and wonder if it’s still out there and as awesome as I remember. More often than not, that leads me down an internet rabbit hole where I end up finding not only the original item but other awesome things I never knew about… and almost inevitably, the nightstand Shelf of Shame acquires new books for the to-read pile. Usually there is some sort of theme to these bursts of collector enthusiasm and sometimes it’s odd enough and interesting enough to build a column around.
In this case, it was about a particular subgenre of SF and fantasy that I discovered was the hell of a lot wider and far-ranging than I thought: the adventures of people shrunk to tiny size and forced to contend with normal, everyday things like house cats and spiders that were suddenly dangerous menaces to someone an inch tall or less.
Given this crowd, you probably also know about things like The Micronauts comics and other assorted excursions into shrunken adventure.
But the thing that provoked the memory was a slightly deeper dive. I was reminiscing about the stuff I loved in this particular genre back in grade school and got to wondering if it was available out there.
It started with the Saturday morning cartoon version of Fantastic Voyage, which I adored as a youngster.
Every so often, I look to see if it’s out on home video. (So far, only on region 2 DVD, though you can find pirated stuff if you google around a bit.) But it got me thinking about two books I checked out from the school library twice a year– at least– once I discovered them around that same time. Haven’t thought of either one in over fifty years, but once they sprung to mind I instantly had the urge to see if I could find them used somewhere.
Evelyn Lampman’s City Under the Back Steps is the story of two kids who get shrunk to ant-size and find themselves caught in a conflict between the red ants and the black ants that live under their home, the narrative weaving cleverly between real facts about ant biology and a fantasy of sentient tribes of them on the verge of war. It was very strange and cool and I loved it.
Even more, I loved Jean Dulieu’s Paulus and the Acornmen. This was the story of Paulus, an amiable dwarf who falls afoul of a nasty old witch, who shrinks him to acorn-size. There he encounters a tribe of acorn-men, most of whom are brash and stupid; they don’t really gain wisdom until they die and are absorbed into the earth to be reborn as oaks. This book was breathtaking just as an artifact, because it was an oversize hardcover profusely illustrated by the author. Check out the witch.
And here’s Paulus and his acorn friends in trouble with a hungry forest creature.
Unfortunately, a lot of other people apparently loved those books too. Prowling all over the internet fror an hour or so, I still wasn’t able to find an edition of City for less than $200, and Paulus was only a little better– $50 for a beat-up hardcover with no dust jacket.
Way out of my budget for this sort of thing. So I made a mental note to add them to the bookscouting short-list. Maybe we’ll run across them out in the wild on one of our thrift-store excursions.
But that doesn’t mean I was left empty-handed. Because I found the Micronauts!
No, not from the comics. These tiny explorers have nothing to do with Hasbro or comics… in fact they pre-date the comics by a couple of years, and possibly the toys as well, though I’m not dead sure about that.
I’m talking about the paperbacks by Gordon Williams, starting with The Micronauts in 1977.
The premise is that in the not-too-distant future, pollution levels have risen to a point where farming is becoming impossible and famine is threatening to destroy the human race. A secret government project is being tested, with the idea that instead of somehow increasing the food supply, we should decrease humanity– not in population, but in size. On the theory that tiny people will only eat tiny portions, basically. But things go terribly wrong…. the leader of the project is a megalomaniac, with visions of ruling his own micro-kingdom, and finally he shrinks himself and disappears into the test garden. A team is assembled to be shrunk down and follow him, with the idea of finding out what the hell this crazy science dude is actually up to. But there are layers upon layers of intrigue here, and the team finds once they are shrunk and then launched into the experimental garden, that all is not as it seems– and if they can’t get ahead of the various mission sabotages and government schemes unfolding around them, they may be doomed to live out the rest of their lives as microscopic test subjects…
Much like the original Fantastic Voyage, basically, but turned up to eleven. I don’t know how the hell I missed this in 1977, considering that Asimov’s novelization of that movie was one of my favorite books ever (then and now.)
Moreover, ’77 was right in the middle of my peak collecting years in high school when I was blowing lawn-mowing money on books and comics at least twice a week. This would have leaped out at me from a spinner rack, if for no other reason than it looked a lot like the then-current Weird Heroes. High-concept science fiction adventure, plus a cover from fan favorite Boris Vallejo, who I mostly thought of as “the guy you got when Frank Frazetta was busy.”
That’s dismissive, I know, but in my defense I’m not the first one to say it. I am a little ashamed now, though. Because Boris also did a bunch of interior pen-and-ink illustrations (again reminiscent of a Byron Preiss joint) and they are terrific.
I love this kind of high-contrast, spot-black style of lighting things– in fact I shamelessly stole it from Jim Steranko when I would be tasked with doing illustrated posters for the speech team at school around that same time. I like these MUCH better than Mr. Vallejo’s paintings, which somehow always seem to me to be portraying people wearing way too much suntan lotion.
One more, just because.
Anyway, I loved this book, not quite as much as Asimov’s Fantastic Voyage or Matheson’s Shrinking Man, but I think it’s right up there with those in the tiny-people-trying-to-survive-ordinary-things collection I seem to be amassing here.
Gordon Williams must have liked it too– this was originally supposed to be a movie script for Harry Saltzman, but when that project stalled out he turned it into a novel instead, and followed it up with two more. The Microcolony….
(Also published as Micronaut World, but they are different editions of the same book, don’t be suckered.)
And the trilogy concludes with Revolt of the Micronauts.
Each of the three is a self-contained story but together they make a complete narrative arc, and all three have that irresistible combination of human-scale betrayals and intrigue coupled with balls-out adventure, with our heroes fighting for their lives against stray foxes and colonies of wasps and all sorts of nasty things. Hugely recommended, and certainly these are a worthy substitute for the books I started out looking for.
Back next week with something cool.
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