Tuesday, November 2, 2021

This Island Earth by Raymond F. Jones

This Island Earth is by far the best-known work of American science fiction author Raymond F. Jones (1915-1994). It was serialised in Thrilling Wonder Stories in 1949 and published in novel form in 1952.

Cal Meacham is an engineer with Ryberg Electronics. He’s ordered some condensers from one of their regular suppliers, a firm called Continental. Instead of the condensers he gets an odd letter from Electronic Service-Unit 16 and some tiny glass beads. He contacts Continental but they deny having sent either the letter or the beads. Nobody has ever heard of Electronic Service-Unit 16. Cal is annoyed but on a whim he decides to test the beads. It turns out they are condensers, they’re just much much smaller and much much more efficient than anything he’s ever seen before. And they have some odd properties.

Then Electronic Service-Unit 16 sends him a catalogue. One odd thing abut the catalogue is that it’s not printed on paper but on a substance he has never seen before. Among the many unfamiliar items in the catalogue are components for an interociter. Cal has never heard of an interociter but he decides that he’d like to see one. In fact he’d like to build one. So he orders all the components.

His idea is of course quite silly. To build an unknown device out of hundreds of components (the purpose of all of which are quite unknown to him) without having any knowledge of what the device is or is supposed to do is obviously quite impossible. The strange thing is, he succeeds. And the interociter works.

The successful completion of the interociter results in a job offer from a completely unknown outfit who call themselves Peace Engineers. They have a huge industrial complex near Phoenix. Cal finds himself in an engineer’s dream - he has unlimited resources at his disposal for the kinds of research projects that had only ever been impossible dreams for him.

At the Peace Engineers he meets an old friend named Ole, also an engineer. It seems that Peace Engineers has been head-hunting talent from all over the country. He also meets Dr Ruth Adams. Ruth is the staff psychiatrist at the Peace Engineers complex. She is beautiful and charming but there is one thing about her that is disturbing - the fear he sees in her eyes.

Ruth and Ole are suspicious of the setup at Peace Engineers. They’re convinced that there’s something they haven’t been told.

And then Cal makes two discoveries. The first is the spaceship. The second is that the interociter is more that it appears to be. He confronts the head of the project (a man known as the Engineer) and is told a fantastic story that he believes. Later he’ll be told a quite different story.

Cal and Ruth find out that they are caught up in a vast universe-spanning conflict but the nature of the conflict, their part (and humanity’s part) in that conflict and the potential consequences are perhaps beyond ordinary comprehension.

This novel starts exceptionally well. The first third, the rather low-key buildup to Cal’s initial discoveries is handled very cleverly. Both Cal and the reader are given tantalising hints of very strange things that could have all sorts of explanations. The second third, on a much more cosmic scale (although still with a very real human dimension) is excellent as well. Then it gets a bit side-tracked by politics for a while. But the ending redeems it, with some interesting ethical and intellectual dilemmas involving the nature and psychology of war, the fate of those caught up in wars they did not choose and the advantages and disadvantages of relying on technology.

Cal is an intriguing hero. He’s a mixture of intellectual boldness and naïvete, caught between cold logic and emotion.

This Island Earth is a pretty decent example of 1950s American science fiction that manages to maintain both an epic and a human scale. Recommended.

I’ve also reviewed the 1955 film adaptation.


  1. The 1955 movie was Universal-International's bid to capture the audience that would soon be seeing M-G-M's FORBIDDEN PLANET. The plot in the film version of THIS ISLAND EARTH gets really wobbly at times, and the FX were nowhere nearly as well done as that of the M-G-M flick. Moreover, the braininess manifest in Raymond Jones's original story seems to be mostly absent from the film. Still, as pure adventure THIS ISLAND EARTH, the movie, isn't all that bad.

    1. Yes, I'd agree. The movie is good mindless fun but the novel offers just a little bit more.