It Doesn't Have To Be Right…

… it just has to sound plausible

Super Sexed Up Sci-Fi


One of my favourite science fiction novels is AE van Vogt’s The Undercover Aliens, first published in 1950. There’s something about its mix of Californian noir and Thrilling Wonder Stories science fiction I find strangely appealing. The writing is no better and no worse than much of van Vogt’s output – and this is a writer who built his career on the advice given by a how-to-write book. The plot is much the same.

Allison Stephens, ex-GI, is the lawyer managing the Tannahill estate in Almirante, California, sometime shortly after World War II. The Tannahills are the richest and most powerful family in the town, but their family home, the Grand House, is currently empty. The previous occupant has just died, and Almirante is waiting for nephew Arthur Tannahill to arrive. He had apparently been in an accident back east, and is now suffering from amnesia. The story begins when Stephens rescues a woman from a group of Mexican cultists. She gives her name as Mistra Lanett, tells Stephens not to get involved, and disappears. Later that night, she appears at his house, having been shot by a “needle-beam”…

The Grand House is apparently thousands of years old and, as Stephens later learns, was built atop a crashed alien spaceship by early inhabitants of the region. They subsequently became immortal – and have controlled Almirante ever since, while hiding their true nature. Mistra Lanett is one of this group; as is Arthur Tannahill. A nuclear war is brewing between the US and Lorillia. Some of the immortals, led by Lanett, want to secretly attack Lorillia and scare it into backing down – the immortals have the technology to do this (where they get it from is never explained). The rest of the group want to move the Grand House to Mars, and sit out the holocaust. Lanett had caused Tannahill’s amnesia as a delaying tactic, and she uses Stephens to force a compromise solution.

There are clearly no aliens in The Undercover Aliens, undercover or otherwise. The novel was first published under the title The House That Stood Still, which may not be as catchy but is at least relevant to the plot. Recently, however, I discovered a third title for this book – The Mating Cry. Not only a different title, but apparently a “revised” version.

Compiling a bibliography for van Vogt is not an easy task. Many of his novels were fix-ups of short stories, some were republished under different titles, and revised versions of stories sometimes ended up as entirely new novels. Nevertheless, I did a little research on van Vogt and discovered that…

From 1950 to 1959, Galaxy magazine published a series of digest-sized reprint science fiction novels, offered as companions to the magazine. In 1959, they sold the series to Beacon Books, a company known for publishing novels with “mild sexual content”. Beacon subsequently published eleven sf novels, each accordingly “sexed up” and retitled. The Mating Cry is Beacon Book’s revised version of The Undercover Aliens.

I chanced across a copy of The Mating Cry on eBay a few months ago, and bought it. I wanted to see how it differed from the original. And, having read it, it’s… an odd experience. You wouldn’t have thought the addition of a couple of sex scenes could change a novel so much. And yet the character of Mistra Lanett changes completely. In The Undercover Aliens, she comes across as a maiden-in-distress, despite being clearly manipulative and determined to have her own way. But in The Mating Cry… The incident mentioned earlier where she turns up at Stephens’ house: after having her wound treated, she climbs into bed with the lawyer. In fact, every time they meet after that, they have sex. Yet she remains the Hitchcockian blonde of The Undercover Aliens. There’s nothing overly shocking about her behaviour in today’s climate, but the fact that these sex scenes have been slotted into the narrative makes Lanett appear callous and quick to use her body to twist Stephens into doing her bidding.

I’ve always thought The Undercover Aliens would make an excellent film. Perhaps you’d have to drop some of the sillier science-fictional aspects (the move to Mars, for example), but the house-of-immortals central premise would work really well. Allison Stephens is a good solid hero. And Mistra Lanett makes a classic femme fatale. You’d have to keep the story set in the years immediately following World War II, of course. That’s a big part of the story’s charm. But…

In The Undercover Aliens, you want the hero to get the girl. In The Mating Cry, you don’t.

4 thoughts on “Super Sexed Up Sci-Fi

  1. I could think of a few that would be improved by having the sex scenes deleted.

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  4. You have things mixed up. The House.. was indeed the original, and it was “sexed up”.. but by van Vogt himself (check out his REFLECTIONS autobiog). After being edited, most of the later editions (eg Paperback Library) of the book (under whichever title) utilise the “sexed up” text. Some (usually the British) tend to keep the older text, probably because we never knew it had been revised. I think the sexed up version is the better one; van Vogt occasionally slipped sexual content into his stories (eg, the references to Innelda taking a snake to bed in WEAPON, and the ending of The Star-Saint), and I think he does it well. As for other Beacon titles, I have the feeling that fewer were “sexed up” than is generally. George O Smith’s TROUBLED STAR is not, for example, more explicit than his hardboiled HELLFLOWER .

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