Logan's Run by William F. Nolan & George Clayton Johnson - Sci-Fi Classic Review
The future is shiny
By the mid-sixties, overpopulation had become one of the most prominent environmental fears, with reputable scientists already warning that scarcity and famine would render the world virtually uninhabitable by the end of the century. While time has since proven these fears to be greatly exaggerated, futurist science-fiction in those days was fascinated with the subject. Overpopulation and all the foreseeable problems it entails were a staple of popular sci-fi well into the eighties. One of the most famous examples of this is Logan's Run, a short novel by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson popularized by a successful film adaptation from the seventies. I've seen the movie a few times, but I only recently managed to get my hands on a copy of the novel. While the novel has some hard-to-overlook flaws, it's honestly the better version of the overall story.
Only the most basic premise is the same: the world has come under the dominion of the young, and once people reach a certain age, they either willingly submit to euthanasia or they become hunted by an elite group of "Sandmen" who kill without remorse. One Sandman, Logan, hears rumors of a place called Sanctuary, where those fleeing their fate can go and live longer lives, and so he and a woman named Jessica go on the run in search of it, with one of Logan's former partners, Francis, in hot pursuit. Beyond that, however, the two versions of the story diverge pretty wildly, which I'll no doubt discuss in more detail next week, when I write about the film.
Before I get to what I love about the novel, let's first get to its problems. The most obvious is that it is far too short. While I have written at length about my respect for writers who can embrace minimalism, get across ideas quickly by trusting the reader's imagination, and be brisk with stories that are more adventure than philosophy, this book takes it much too far in that direction, racing so quickly from scene to scene that the reader never has the chance to breathe or descipher the details of the vast and complex world Nolan and Johnson have created. (Unlike the film, which mostly takes place inside a dome, the book is a globe-trotting affair that moves from city to city at break-neck speeds.) My copy of the book is only about a hundred and sixty pages long, and that's not nearly enough to convey all the big ideas on display.
The seventies are strong with this one
On the other hand, as this story is about ninety percent composed of a single, extended chase sequence, it makes sense that the writers would want to blaze through it. It is an action/adventure at heart, with the science-fiction elements behind it acting more as set dressing. Unfortunately, that mix really doesn't work, as readers aren't familiar with this world and don't have time to get a handle on how it works, where the tension is coming from, and what possibilities lie around the corner to help or impede the characters' progress. There are also times where things simply aren't explained at all, like when Logan enters a room in a nursery and somehow the room "embraces" him and puts him to sleep, though how and why is completely unexplained, nor is it addressed how he manages to escape a couple of paragraphs later.
This makes the book paradoxically exhausting, as it gets boring for one to read scenes that lack enough set-up to know what's actually happening aside from the vague, impressionistic view offered by a string of action verbs and undefined, jargony proper nouns. Whereas that kind of thing can work, stylistically, in something like cyberpunk (see my review of Neuromancer), it doesn't work here, instead being more frustratingly obtuse than brilliantly slick.
It also doesn't help the characters, who barely develop. For most of the novel, for example, it is unclear why Logan is running. He starts seeking out Sanctuary in order to burn it out from the inside, to go out in a blaze of glory as the greatest Sandman to ever live, but this gets muddled almost immediately. As his run takes on more urgency, it feels like he's fighting to survive, though it is never explicitly stated one way or another (since there's no time to pause the action). Then, during the climax, this lack of clarity makes things more confusing than they need to be, forcing a polar character turn that was never properly established earlier in the story. There's also no time for him to reflect or face the moral horror of spending years slaughtering people for doing precisely what he is doing, which makes one wonder why the protagonist had to be a Sandman to begin with. Similarly, the revelation that this woman he just happened to get caught in the run with--Jessica--has somehow found the time to fall in love with him, even though they've never had time to get to know anything about each other--comes completely out of nowhere.
My copy's fairly bland cover
If the story weren't so fascinating, though, these flaws wouldn't bother me as much as they do. There's a lot going on, and the underlying premise is filled with narrative potential and thematic depth. Sure, it's a parable about overpopulation, but it's also a tretise on youth counter-culture, written two years before the summer of love. As science-fiction, too, it has multiple concepts worth exploring, from near-instantaneous travel, cities built deep underwater, a cybernetic monster thriving in the frozen wastes of an Antarctic super-prison, a Mad-Max-style desert replete with futuristic hover-cycles and lunatic, barbarian outlaws, cool future weaponry, a Brave New World-style dystopia (it even borrows much of Huxley's work in the aforementioned nursery sequence), automated surgical tables that can change your physical body in just about any way imaginable, the new sexual morality that comes from having a population that never lives beyond the age of twenty-one, virtual reality memory cafés that let you relive parts of your life, and more. The world is so crammed full of this stuff that it's easy to imagine dozens of different stories being told within it.
And then there's the twist at the end, which I won't spoil (except to say it's very different from the film). It's masterfully done, and one of those narrative turns that ties the entire thing together in a neat little bow and ensures readers will want to flip back to page one to go through the whole thing again with a new perspective.
A brilliant story is put on top of a deep, vivid world and driven by a potent and fairly original concept, and the last few pages are jaw-dropping. If the writers had just taken a breath here and there, given the world more time to reveal itself and the characters to develop organically, this novel would deserve a spot among the greats of science-fiction literature. As it stands, though, it feels more like a draft outline or a rough treatment of the novel it could be. Nolan did write a couple of sequels in 1977 and 1980, which I hope to read soon, but on its own, Logan's Run is let down by its accelerated pace. It reveals the very folly of the future it envisions: without time to grow, mature, and properly experience the world in all its potential, greatness is impossible.
-e. magill 9/5/2019
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