The UpDated Rocket to the Morgue
Reviewed by James Nicoll
The UpDated Rocket to the Morgue, Anthony Boucher and Pauline Reage, as recompiled by Rick Michigan, Doom Books, 650 pages
It's a sad thing but many of the classic books of SF, which is to say the ones I read when I was 14, are no longer in print and utterly forgotten by the young folks reading SF today. I blame the lack of daily beatings in schools but have to admit that the fact the books are not in print is also a factor. How pleasant it is to find out Doom Books, the hard and military SF imprint run by Iago Doom, have gotten the rights to reprint Anthony Boucher's Rocket to the Morgue for their new line of UpDated SF Classics whose purpose is to take into account how much tastes have changed since the original works were published and update them for modern sensibilities. The original Rocket to the Morgue was written in 1942 and is pretty elderly so Doom got Richard Michigan to "recompile and update" this classic but dated book. Luckily, I happen to have both an old edition of RttM and the new one, so I could compare and contrast them.
The first thing I noticed was that the original book is rather short, 220 pages. Now, that is a lot less than today's market demands so Michigan took several other stories [The Fergus Obreen tales, The Complete Werewolf and one or two others like They Bite and Balaam] and folded them seemlessly together. There's also a deplorable lack of sex in the books so with the permission of Pauline Reage's estate, Michagan included about third of the text of The Story of O. I have to admit I raised my eyebrows when I read he was going to do this but it worked better than I expected, certainly better than the pouting sex kitten scene Doom put into Strom Thurmond's alternate history novel about FDR winning the 1932 election [Yes, I know, but Strom's getting on and nobody had the heart to tell him]. I think this merging worked a lot better than another publisher's scheme of putting one word per page, followed by a sixty page screed in fine print explaining why environmentalism is good.
Boucher, being connected to one of the artsy fartsy SF magazines, had no grasp of modern punctutation so all the ellipses have been changed to dashes, periods to ellipses, dashes to colons and semi-colons to a discussion of why gun control is bad. I'm pretty happy there were only two semi-colons in the book.
Another problem faced Michigan. Boucher had a lot of veiled references to authors who were famous in their day but who have been dead longer than many readers have been alive [Someone born when Heinlein died, for example, would just about be hitting the Golden Age of SF about now]. Michigan could have stooped to an afterword explaining the references but that might just bore modern readers. Instead, he took the daring route of replacing references to old timers like Heinlein, De Camp or Boucher with ones to well known authors like Kevin J. Anderson, Piers Anthony and Michael Chrichton and references to SF magazines with ones to classic SF movies like Independence Day and The Phantom Menace.
The plot was also a problem. Boucher was a Roman Catholic and put references to Catholicism in his mystery. Catholicism is kind of old, so Michigan has seamlessly removed the Catholicism, replacing it with references to esoterica of modern PCs [which would explain the 'Thanks to JEP' in the acknowledgements]. A few gunfights and car chases were added as well, Boucher being long on talk and short on action.
I was quite impressed at the final work, how Michigan took an old, which is to say obsolete, minor novel by some dead guy most readers have never heard of and turned it into a modern SF classic worthy of being penned by a Vanna Bonta or Dan Gallagher. Well worth the $10.99 CDN [$3.99 US] Doom Books is charging. The only minor quibble I have is with the cover artist. I think it is touching when children follow in their parents' footsteps but I am not sure the best choice for the cover of RttM was the art of little Billy Keane.
Copyright © 2000 by James Nicoll