Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Radio: Vital Factor (Dimension X)

Here we have another adaptation of an extremely recent story, this time from the August 1951 issue of Esquire, which had probably left the newsstands a couple of weeks earlier.  I thought at first that Street & Smith, the sponsor of Dimension X, might be advertising one of their other magazines, the way they adapted "Courtesy" right out of the current Astounding Science Fiction.  But, looking it up on Wikipedia, it seems that Esquire was unrelated.  I guess the producers of Dimension X just read the story in the magazine, and quickly moved to get the rights to adapt it.

What follows may be considered spoilers, although I've tried hard not to reveal the details of the surprise ending.

I first encountered this story a few months ago via a DVD of its television adaptation on ABC's Tales of Tomorrow, which was broadcast only 71 days after NBC's radio adaptation here.  I knew nothing about it ahead of time, and it quickly seemed to me that I was watching sort of a loose adaptation of Robert A. Heinlein's "The Man Who Sold the Moon."

In case you haven't read it, "The Man Who Sold the Moon" is about a millionaire capitalist/industrialist who is determined to develop a Moon rocket.  Although he speaks of great riches to be made on the Moon, he knows it's mostly just an excuse, and he may bankrupt his company and himself trying to achieve his boyhood dream of being the first man on the Moon.  Keep this in mind as you listen.

Then came that twist ending, which was like nothing in Heinlein's story, and the end credit, stating it was based on a story by Nelson Bond.  I was amazed, but some time spent on Google left me none the wiser.

Last week, I listened to this radio version, and I suddenly wondered if "Vital Factor" was meant to be a satire on "The Man Who Sold the Moon," and possibly on Heinlein heroes in general.  The episode seems to take the least likable characteristics of Heinlein's D.D. Harriman, and turn them up to eleven in Wayne Crowder: he's high-handed, incredibly touchy, won't take "no" for an answer, and, well, is kind of an ass.  It takes Crowder up to the brink of victory, then slaps him upside the head with his comeuppance.  It's as though the episode were deliberately inverting Heinlein's message that money and determination, in sufficient quantity, can move science and change the world.  Here, it turns out that Crowder also requires help that money, in itself, can't buy-- and that it turns his dream into a nightmare.

I Googled the story again (now that I had its proper title), and again, no mentions of the similarities between Bond's story and Heinlein's.  So, still confused, I ordered a copy of the 1954 collection No Time Like the Future, which contains the actual story.  And while waiting for it, I re-read "The Man Who Sold the Moon."  I didn't like the character of Harriman any more than I did the first time, but it struck me that that may be the point: that the people with the power to make history aren't necessarily admirable on a personal level.  And even in Heinlein's story, the protagonist doesn't get the main thing he wants.  He gets his rocket, but he doesn't get to ride on it.  The story explicitly likens him to Moses, leading his people up to the Promised Land, but himself barred from entering.

When No Time Like the Future arrived, I quickly read Bond's story.  And you know what?  I'm still confused.  The story runs only seven pages in the book, and so Bond didn't have time (and/or maybe the inclination) to make Crowder one-tenth the jerk that radio scriptwriter Howard Rodman did.  But I don't think we're supposed to like him in the story, either.  In the end, it becomes something of a shaggy dog story.  Did you hear the one about the millionaire who was desperate to get into space?  Well, he did, and how.

The radio version keeps Bond's ending, with the explanation that the "vital factor" all of Crowder's money and determination couldn't buy was sentiment.  But it sounds a false note to me in both versions.  What was Crowder's Folly born of if not sentiment?  He may talk of the money to be made, of the power he'll have, of how he's a logical man, but what makes him so hell-bent on making the trip himself?  Like Harriman, pure sentiment.  Also Bond doesn't do himself any favors by telling a story set in a realistic barely-future world of businessmen and balance sheets, and then dropping that twist on us out of left field.  It ends up seeming even sillier than it had to.

I just re-watched the television version, and it wisely drops the whole issue of sentiment.  But out of the three, I think my favorite is the radio, because it has a definite point, setting Crowder up for a fall, and making him a character we can't wait to see (or hear) take that fall.

So I end the whole process almost as confused as before.  I think Bond was trying to make a point, but missed it.  I still don't know if he was aware of "The Man Who Sold the Moon," which was first published a year earlier.  But I'm most puzzled that no one-- like, say, Heinlein --seems ever to have made an issue over "Vital Factor" seeming something like a Reader's Digest condensed version with a new and inferior ending.  But at least all three (put together!) didn't make me spend as much time with their unlikable hero as Heinlein did.

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