Book Review: Dark Dominion, David Duncan (1954)

Screen shot 2012-12-22 at 9.06.53 PM(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1954 edition)

2.5/5 (Bad)

David Duncan, most famous for writing the screenplay to George Pal’s film The Time Machine (1960), produced a handful of genre and non-genre novels in the 1950s.  Bluntly put, the Dark Dominion (1954) was one of the more disappointing novels I’ve read this year.  It is worthwhile for one thing alone, Richard Powers’ gorgeous cover.  Duncan’s novel is characterized by an incredibly painful strain of melodrama even for the 50s, downright preposterous science (even for a science fiction fan who tends to gloss over the more technical content), and the most fantastically contrived plot devices.  By golly, it is impossible to refit an entire spaceship’s propulsion device in three hours!  It is simply impossible.  And you certainly can’t just install it in a few minutes by sliding “it beneath the ship and then up through the core to the base of the cone, where it sealed the cavity completely” (190).

For fans of Richard Powers’ early non-surrealist art only.  I would wager that most science fiction fans, besides those who crave poor 50s sci-fi melodrama, will be gravely disappointed.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)

Dark Dominion adheres closely to the time-tested plot that propels so many sub-par pulp novels: a group of scientists — with their wives and children — live and work on a top secret project (the setting), get jealous of each other and lust after one another in a 1950s prudish way (the melodrama), and accidentally discover a mysterious element that “magically” allows the project to succeed (the plot facilitating device).  Duncan couches this traditionalist narrative in an early Cold War setting.

Dr. Phil Ambert and his wife live at a top secret facility in Big Sur, California completely cut off from the surrounding world — along with hundreds of other families — called The Magellan Project.  Dr. Ambert, the project director, oversees the development and construction of the “The Black Planet” — a massive space station (of the revolving gravity creating sort) designed to be launched into orbit like a rocket.  Powers’ cover reproduces the squat nature of “The Black Planet” but not the revolving ring.  John Richards’ cover (below), although not as stylish or powerful as Powers’, reproduces the nature of the space station more accurately.

The purpose of the “space station was military.  Many of the staff liked to believe that the scientific value of the satellite would soon overshadow its military function” (7).  In space “The Black Planet” will serve as a launching pad for nuclear weapons.   Supposedly its launch will create peace, as in, a weapon that will force the Soviets to bow down to the West.  The astronauts on the station will “be all powerful with orders to remain that way.  Let nothing start that can challenge your supremacy.  A ship in the Pacific.  Destroy it.  Then the turn of a dial, the clocking of progress on the radar scree, the missile and target come together and the ship is gone.  A city, an army, a nation” (53).  Although Duncan points out that people are frustrated with the military purpose of the project, their consuming desire to see the station’s completion and fear of losing loved ones provides the majority of the mental tension.

One of the scientists on the project discovers a mysterious substance derived from Uranium calls Magellanium.  A large portion of the narrative follows the uncovering of the properties of the element — which, predictably, rescues the entire endeavor.  The most admirable aspect of the work is David Duncan’s attempt to focus on the mentality of the group of scientists and their families cut of from the rest of the world.  The military patrols the boundaries, schools inside the base educate the children, no contact is allowed with external world, and to prevent security breaches security guards “protect” the key scientists.  However, this often devolves into needless melodrama which overshadows any focused discussion of the real implications of such a military instillation.  Gail, a young single woman selected for her mathematically abilities, quickly falls in love with Adam, the head astronaut destined to pilot the station.  Because Adam might never return to Earth he can’t propose marriage so they spend the majority of the novel casting glances at each other.  Of course, a cantankerous Dr. Osborn, a specialist in propulsion systems, is desperate to get at Gail.  Dr. Ambert appears to be happily married to Susan but often completely forgets about his two kids — I often got the impression that this to be a case of authorial laziness rather than purposeful character trait.  Dr. Ambert and Susan plot to get some alone time. Duncan of course, due to 50s strictures, can’t mention the real reason for the couple sneaking into a cave in the middle of the night.

Eventually the Cold War tentions grow and the public is desperate to find out the nature of the project.  Magellanium rescues the day….

Final Thoughts

Duncan tries to examine the psychological state of the men and women who have devoted their lives to build the station.  However, the prudish 50s treatment of sexuality and family life means the psychological ruminations are incredibly simplistic.  Also, Duncan’s ignorance of the most basic scientific and technological concepts, prevents him from discussing the most basic aspects of the station.  And when he does the reader can only cringe… As a product of the early Cold War social and political environment, Dark Dominion might be an intriguing text for analysis.  The themes are present for a worthwhile Cold War novel: the extent to which an arms race could be prolonged, the rational for developing such a terrifying weapon, its effects on families, the interplay between science and the military, etc.  However, Dark Dominion‘s flaws will deter all but the most stalwart science fiction fans.

(John Richards’ cover for the 1961 edition)

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2 thoughts on “Book Review: Dark Dominion, David Duncan (1954)”

  1. Always a bit sad when a promising cover is wrapped around a disappointing novel. This is a great Powers cover. Not the usual work from him I’ve seen but you can see touches of his more surreal work there.

    I don’t generally mind 50’s mindsets when I read older fiction but the story still has to be good, otherwise those bits of nostalgia become glaringly annoying. Your example from page 190 is indeed cringe-worthy and with more like that present I can see why it ended up being one of your worst reads of the year.

    1. Well, in this case it isn’t really the 50s mindsets which rubbed me the wrong way 😉 I read plenty of 50s sci-fi and take it in stride. This one was particularly egregious in its endless melodrama and the rather hilariously contrived plot…

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