One night, beneath the streets of the city, four ingredients found their way into the same collector box in the underground sewer system. There these ingredients–muriatic acid; trisodium phosphate; a bit of meat; and a fleck of silica gel– combined in a warm, seething liquid and gave birth to a hideous, destructive force: the clone…
If you pay attention to any B-movie film analysis–which I don’t, so I assume it’s entered the realm of common knowledge ever since SF clickbait sites have gotten hold of it– you are likely aware that the sci-fi and horror B-movies of old have been interpreted as figurative embodiments of subconscious social fear, usually of communism, but sometimes of sex. The Blob (1958) is a classic example of this idea, where theorists have posited that the pulsating, slithering, red glob of taciturn goo from outer space is actually a metaphor for America’s uninformed terror at the spread of the Soviet state. The Blob is the embodiment of the Red Menace.
1965 is probably too soon to expect a seemingly ripped-off novelization about yet another gelatinous foe to provide much commentary on this more modern pop theory of film analysis, so it’s no surprise that Thomas and Wilhelm’s The Clone (1965) isn’t too aware of its own potential Cold War context. In fact, 1965 is the same year that the uber-critic Susan Sontag first linked SFnal metaphors with nuclear age anxieties, thereby opening B-movie film criticism to the inevitable “ant people” Cold War interpretation.
I say all this to explain that I spent the better part of my review-writing time during these past two weeks trying to make this book fit into the idea that Thomas and Wilhelm were ahead of their time by using this seemingly satirical work to illustrate this idea. While that is certainly a byproduct of their premise, a direct attack on American sensibilities during the Red Scare is probably not what they had in mind. Thomas and Wilhelm were on another mission.
Thomas, being a chemical engineer, yields to the science nerd impulse to realify the implausible Blob origin story as a giant alien snot globule, bringing it home with a mighty moral that our biggest dangers are actually our own creations–and following that, environmental collapse– and not some astral jelly on steroids. It’s a warning against our own carelessness with, and our own ignorance about, the products we use every day. The Clone begins with a janitor pouring muriatic acid down a drain and into the sewer system where it “neutralized the excess alkalinity there, and converted the fluid into something very much like amniotic fluid. The pool, the concrete pool, became a womb” (7). Another janitor– though here we call her a “scrubwoman”– pours trisodium phosphate which collects in the same sewer womb. This is followed by a burger joint dumping meat, and then a wayward floating particle of silica gel and Great Scott! We have a monster! All in the span of 18 minutes!
The real mystery, instead, is what the future critically-acclaimed author Kate Wilhelm contributed to this silly B-story iteration. Later known for her haunting award-winning works and creation of the famous Clarion workshops, Wilhelm’s signature rigor– even when writing disposable grocery shelf fiction– isn’t much apparent here, though it seems likely, given the book’s penchant for dry, pedantic phrasing, that Wilhelm sometimes aided in the punching up of bland prose. At times, the novel seems to go back-and-forth between styles, as if Thomas and Wilhelm are passing the baton in a relay race:
The water content of the human body is about 60 percent by weight. The clone tissue, on the other hand, contained only about 40 percent by weight of water. As the clone absorbed human tissue and converted it to its own kind, it was able to utilize only the amount of water it needed for itself. As a consequence, the line of demarcation that divided clone tissue from human was marked with a dripping line of water that poured to the floor. The line of demarcation advanced rapidly, so the excess water left both clone and human tissues soaking wet, saturating the clothing of the human being, the running down the body and accumulating on the floor. (13)
Mr. Bent went in and put a hand on Miss Shea’s shoulder. He said sharply, ‘Stop that screaming, woman.’
Miss Shea was not used to being addressed as “woman,” and the word penetrated her hysteria. (28)
Which leads to an inevitable carelessness or inevitable showy-ness, I’m not sure which, inevitably:
The inevitable moment came when one of the men reached forward with his foot and nudged the pulsing tissue. The inevitable struggle then took place, and the inevitable attempts to help him led only to the inevitable outpouring of water. (67)
This being early in Wilhelm’s long career and the middle of Thomas’ short career, one might assume that each writer saw something the other could lend to their respective bodies of work, though it’s not clear what. Readers who are more familiar with Wilhelm’s longer and more successful career will not see much in the way of her Masterwork Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang.
But back to the question at hand: what, if anything, were Thomas and Wilhelm trying to do with this seemingly ripped-off B-movie novelization? It’s clear that Thomas’ scientific mind wanted to illustrate the potential dangers of everyday US life, especially amid all the ramped up and unscientific paranoia of aliens, spies, and all other enemies, perceived or real, of mid-20th American life. As to whether this is Cold War-driven, consciously or subconsciously, or some sort of criticism of US containment policies, is doubtful. However, the conclusion of the tale, exemplified in the penultimate paragraph here, reveals a little of what this book could have been, had Thomas and Wilhelm thought about it a little more:
The city was flooded, ruined and burning. Watching the map with the belt of poison edging inward, ring after ring being penciled on the map, Mark could almost feel the death struggles of the city, and of the thing that had killed it. He felt Edie’s hand slip into his. The city died, but not man. Not yet. (143).
Either way, thank goodness we’ve moved past that sketchy time and no longer have to worry about an angry slimeball taking over the United States.