Forgotten Cool: Let’s Get Small

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.

Of course you all know the famous ones– Ant-Man, the Atom, Scott Carey in The Shrinking Man and so on.

And movies, as well. Fantastic Voyage, Honey I Shrunk the Kids, and the aforementioned Shrinking Man, among others.

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.

City Under the Back Steps and Paulus and the Acornmen.

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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22 Comments

  1. Jeff Nettleton

    Not exactly the same genre; but a cousin, are the stories of tiny people or creatures. favorite from the grade school days were the Littles series of books, with the family of tiny people sharing a house with bigger ones. There is also the UK series, the Borrowers, of similar fare. Then, there are things like EB White’s Stuart Little and Beverly Cleary’s Ralph Mouse stories (Mouse & the Motorcycle, etc). My teachers used to read us this stuff, when I was in elementary school and I loved the imaginative situations.

    Terry Pratchett has one, called The Carpet People, which he had written earlier; but got released late in his life. Then there are the Nac Mac Feegle, in his Discworld stories. They first turn up in one of the Witches books, Carpe Jugulum, then become regular supporting characters in his YA Tiffany Aching books. The Nac Mac Feegle, aka the Wee Free Men are 6 inch high blue-skinned creatures, with heavy Scottish accents and a love of drinking, fighting and thievery, not necessarily in that order. They are led by the fierce Rob Anybody and are sometimes called “pictsies.” Basically, imagine that the Smurfs are Scottish stereotypes who like to headbutt people, get drunk, and smash up the place. They are great fun and Pratchett pokes fun at stereotypes, especially as seen in movies, such as Highlander, Rob Roy and even Trainspotting (though that was more a character illustration, done in the style of the Trainspotting movie poster).

    I was under the impression that Fantastic Voyage gt a Region 1 dvd release; but, fell out of print when the Filmation properties were sold, though maybe I got that mixed up with another Filmation series. I have seen episodes on Youtube.

  2. humanbelly

    *sigh*
    John Nettleton, ya beat me by a daggone HALF HOUR in posting. . . well. . . EXACTLY the same comment I was fixin’ ta contribute! Specifically The Borrowers, The Carpet People, and the Nac Mac Feegle–! Right down the line, ya went. . . (ha!). . .

    The Borrowers were particularly dear to young HB– he re-read that first book a number of times, and was much enchanted by the sequels (Afield; Afloat; and Aloft, correct?). Their tangential significance is that they led me directly to reading my first couple of science fiction novels— Borrowers’ author Mary Norton was RIGHT NEXT TO Sci-fi author Andre Norton on the shelves of the “youth” section at our little town library– and I found myself lured to titles like “The Beast Master” and “The Last Planet”. . . I distinctly remember the transition, I do. . .

    HB

  3. Louis Bright-Raven

    Micronauts (the toys) originated in 1974 in Japan from Takara, and was brought over to the U.S. in 1976 by Mego. The Marvel comics line started in 1979. So the toys came before the Gordon Williams novels, but the comic was a couple years later.

    1. Alaric

      The original Japanese toys were the Micromen. When I was growing up (in New York City, on Bleecker Street) there was an antique toy store not far away called second Childhood. In adition to various antique toys, they sold the entire Micromen line, directly from Japan (there were many, many more Micromen figures than there ever were Micronauts), so I actually had Micromen before Mego started marketing some of them (and some toys the creating themselves) as the Micronauts. I loved my Micromen- it’s too bad I didn’t take very good care of them.

          1. Louis Bright-Raven

            Not at all. It’s fine Alaric. If anything it’s on me. I should have posted it more accurately / correctly to begin with.

  4. Le Messor

    HB, if it makes you feel any better, you both beat me to that comment! (I would’ve listed The Littles, The Borrowers, and The Carpet People, but not necessarily in that order.)

    Also, Land of the Giants, which kind of reverses it (the people haven’t shrunk, but they’re trapped on a planet of giants).

    I’ve read that Micronauts book! When I was a kid, but I still remember bits of it. I also remember the Micronaut World cover, but I don’t remember reading it.

  5. Edo Bosnar

    Wow, the illustrations from Paulus and the Acornmen are truly magnificent. I’d love a copy of that book, but – yeah, that’s way out of my price range.
    Otherwise, I see that if I don’t resist the temptation, the Hatcher effect will once more take its toll on my limited finances: the Micronauts books sound like they’re something I’d enjoy.
    By the way, your characterization of Vallejo’s painted work as “…somehow always seem to me to be portraying people wearing way too much suntan lotion” made me loudly say ‘ha!’ while I was reading. I agree that Vallejo’s cover/poster work always looks a bit too air-brushed and overdone (and pales in comparison to Frazetta’s work), but – as you’ve shown here – his illustration work is top-notch. I’ve also seen some of his illustrations of superheroes and SF characters done in the more traditional pencil-and-ink style of comic book artists, complete with the standard, ‘flat’ colors and they are quite nice. In fact, I think a Conan or Tarzan comic (b&w or color) illustrated in this manner by Vallejo would look absolutely glorious.

    1. humanbelly

      My 2nd college roommate was a big Vallejo fan and had several volumes of his works. And, IIRC, Boris tended to use himself and his wife as photographic models for a lot of his cover work—- with very good reason, as they were both ASTONISHING physical specimens. Pretty much the Idealized Human. . . only in real life (daggone ’em!).

      1. Edo Bosnar

        HB, you’re giving me a sense of deja vu, or something similar: just a few days ago over that the Classic Comics Forum I noted that Vallejo used/uses his body-builder wife Julie Bell (also an artist by the way) as the model for his female figures – just like Frazetta used his wife and, quite often, himself (the guy was insanely handsome and well-built) as models for his female and male figures.

  6. Remco

    I’ve been very lucky to have grown up with Paulus – he’s a bit of an institution in The Netherlands. Wonderful, wonderful artwork indeed! Look it up on the Internet – “Paulus de Boskabouter”… There were also puppet shows on tv – hand puppets which were so-so, and marionettes which were done by the author himself (he also did audio plays, all the voices by himself). Here’s a sample – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6tnsuXqTiD8

    If you’re into the Paulus book for the artwork, you may have to go for the Dutch version (via the US Ebay):
    https://www.ebay.com/sch/i.html?_from=R40&_trksid=m570.l1313&_nkw=paulus+eikelmannetjes&_sacat=0
    Or you can try whether one of these sellers will sell/ship to the USA (if you can work out the interface) :
    https://www.boekwinkeltjes.nl/su/?qt=eikelmannetjes&qs=&qo=&n=1&t=1&dist=0&zip=&img=0&oud=0&sort=prijs&order=0

    Oh, and if you’re interested in another great Dutch artist, not dissimilar to Dulieu – look for Rien Poortvliet, which you’ll probably know from the Gnomes books, but who has done many, many wonderful books on nature and history!

  7. Chris Schillig

    I love the entire “size-differential” genre — giant monsters vs. normal-sized people and people reduced to microscopic size. (Has anybody ever written a story about giant monsters vs. people of microscopic size?)

    The Incredible Shrinking Man is one of my favorites, both the novel and the film. For me, anything by Matheson is special. Even though he is widely lauded for his contributions to the horror and sci-fi genre, I believe he is still somewhat under-appreciated.

    Thanks for pointing me toward the Micronauts trilogy, a series I hadn’t heard of before.

  8. Two things that came to mind about this version of the Micronauts:

    The song “Shrink” by Dead Kennedys starts out with “If only people could shrink/ our world wouldn’t be so overcrowded”, goes on to mention bringing your poodle along so we won’t get eaten, but of course the powerful people won’t shrink, and will keep treating the poor like termites like they have been for years…. I haven’t listened to Bedtime For Democracy in ages, and that album is from ’86, so it’s well after the Micronauts.

    And then I was going to mention the Vonnegut novel Slapstick (which is from ’76 apparently, predating the Micronauts, and which makes me wonder if shrinking people was a thing in pop culture, like Chariots of the Gods stuff or something), where the Chinese have started shrinking themselves, and I came across Slapstick of Another Kind, a sort of adaptation of the book starring Jerry Lewis and Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahhn and looks like it’s the worst thing ever. Holy god, burn my eyes out!

  9. John King

    I believe I read that one of the original ideas when Doctor Who was conceived was a plot about peole being shrunk – not actually used until the second series in 1964.

    Avengers had a number of science fiction/fantasy episodes written by Philip Levene including Mission Highly Improbable in which Steed and Mrs Peel were shrunk

    Gerry Anderson’s the Secret Service concerned a shrinking ray

    I read about but never read “Cold War in a Country Garden” or it’s sequels which seem to fit the concept.

    I also remember a 1985 TV movie “The Galactic Garden” starring Andrew Sachs

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