As with LEVEL 7 by Mordecai Roshwald, Mark S. Geston’s LORD OF THE STARSHIP is a SF novel written by someone who isn’t very productive but who manages to write something substantial each time he takes on the SF genre. When a non-genre writer goes slumming he or she is met with skepticism, yet such visitors tend to shape the way the genre is viewed by the critical press. (Margaret Atwood seems to have defined the dystopia genre for everyone, damn her Canadian literary snob soul.)
LORD OF THE STARSHIP concerns a dying Earth where humanity is in a state of long-term depletion. Everything just kind of sucks here, so the powers-that-be of one battling nation decide to refurbish the ancient yards and build a giant starship. It’s a nightmarish stimulus project that will take centuries and more resources than the nation can afford. But hey, the people need a dream, so onward.
The novel is episodic, jumping ahead many years, often after the characters in the previous section have died. The unity of place/situation is what carries the story forward. Geston isn’t writing about Heinleinian heroes–he isn’t writing about heroes at all. He’s writing about how a government manipulates the people’s need for dreams. I suspect modern readers will staple their own politics to the idea, but coming out in 1967 makes me suspect the writer had Vietnam and especially the Space Race in mind. A nation’s people like a communal dream.
This is an Idea Novel supported by Geston’s fine descriptions of the beaten-down, washed-out world ruined by endless war. He visits the players over time as the starship construction goes on and on and on. The climax, in which it is being peopled with colonists to head for the stars and is put to use in a very different way, is a scene that is very much of its era. It’s a very anti-military, anti-government plot turn and sums up the book’s theme of the people needing a big event to distract them from the misery of their daily lives.
Mordecai Roshwald’s LEVEL 7 doesn’t get the love it deserves. Science fiction readers think it’s a ride they’ve taken already, mainstream readers seem to be unaware it exists.
It’s one of the very few end-of-the-world novels in which (SPOILER WARNING even though there’s already a huge spoiler warning over there) the world actually ends, as in no one survives. That alone makes it a winner. Or a loser. Or something.
In an effort to finish the book, here are some of the covers this depressing little gem has been graced by. None of them compare to my favorite cover image for a post-apocalypse book:
I have to confess, I don’t much care for these. Someone with artistic talent needs to read this and do the cover this baby deserves.
IT COMES AT NIGHT is a very pleasant surprise. It uses spare dialog and a smoothly-moving camera to tell the simple story of a family living in isolation in the woods after a virus has swept the planet. Without jump scares, we are dropped into the nightmares experienced by Trey, a 17-year-old boy whose only friend is his dog. Since dogs in post-apocalyptic movies are as safe as an unoccupied motorized scooter at Wal-Mart we know the dog’s death is guaranteed.
What happens when a looter shows up at the house is told from Try’s point of view. The recurring image of the camera moving toward the house’s only door, the only way out of the house, manages to set up the grim atmosphere for what turns out to be the major events of Trey’s life.
All of the acting here is perfectly convincing, but Kelvin Harrions, Jr.’s Trey connects with the viewer almost entirely through his facial expressions. There are no long speeches about what he has lost or how he feels; he’s like most teenagers who keep to themselves. The arrival of a woman in his world shocks Trey out of his bubble, but as with everything in ICAN it’s just there, not underlined for slow viewers. Kelvin Harrison, Jr.
The movie is an intimate apocalypse, like TESTAMENT or CARRIERS, about a few people living the way most of us would in this sort of world–not with cars and all the guns we want, but just hunkering down and trying to endure. It could be happening in the same world as THE ROAD. There are few scares, few special effects and no big-scale action scenes. It doesn’t need them: Regular people we’ve gotten to know trying to deal with insane shit like an elderly parent needing to be put out of his misery is more dramatic than a bunch of cars exploding.
The photography by Drew Daniels uses a gliding camera to create an elegiac feeling to the exteriors. The aspect ratio changes during the film to indicate the dream sequences, and then narrows during the climax. I didn’t know any of this until I looked at the extras, but I did notice when the image went to 3:1, because suddenly it was like looking through an actual mail slot.
I was not surprised to see this got high marks from critics, but very low ones from viewers. It’s completely gripping, and I’m afraid a Hollywood version would’ve had jump scares and action scenes every 20 minutes. This is closer in tone to something like THE WITCH which it resembles only in having a family in the woods being the focus. A slow but never boring character story, IT COMES AT NIGHT will gain a following over time like another box office failure, SESSION 9.