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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!

Sept. 18, 2005

Let's Blow this thing!: Self-Destruct Devices and Other Seminal Self-Immolations

Okay, first let me apologize for the title of this editorial.  If you know your movie quotes, you know that line was immortalized by Han Solo just seconds before the climax to the original Star Wars, right before Luke did precisely that, and blew up the Death Star real good.  And so you also know that it really had nothing to do with the topic of this essay, self-destruct devices, or even the more general category of self-immolations.  The Death Star blew up because of a design flaw exploited by a clever (and Jedi-enhanced) opponent.  There was nothing "self" about it.  Still, it made for a cool title, and you can never go wrong, when you start off with a reference to Star Wars.

Having gotten that off my chest...

Self-destruct devices.  Why (you may be asking) am I writing about self-destruct devices?  Well, every now and then, worldly events conspire in an almost eerily teleological way and an editor finds, as if by divine fiat, that absolutely perfect opportunity to discuss a topic he has long kept on the back burner.  In an instant, order arises out of chaos, sense from nonsense, and the editor knows -- he knows -- that such a perfect juxtaposition of confluent happenings will almost certainly never come his way again. 

This is not such a time.

There is no earthly reason why I should pick this moment to talk about self-destruct devices, except insofar as I can't come up with anything better.  And, besides, everyone likes to watch things blow up.  Myself more than the next man, I dare say.  So, onwards and upwards...

It would, I think, be safe to call the "self-destruct device" a "pulp staple".  It is one of those things which we just kind of imagine cropping up in countless adventure tales, even if we can't quite name those tales or fully picture them in our brains.  But, first, let's define our terms, shall we?  (And, no, I don't mean "brains".)  By "self-destruct device", we mean some sort of machine, possessed either by the hero or the villain, whose sole purpose is to be used when all other options have failed.  Usually activated with disquieting ease (sometimes a single pressed button will do -- What happened to the option to: Are you certain? Y or N?), your basic self-destruct device has the ability to effectively obliterate the main base of operations possessed by said hero or villain when everything else has pretty much gone south.  Its use is always pre-planned and usually vindictive.

That "base of operations" could be any structure of limited dimensions from the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek to the planet Altair IV in Forbidden Planet (1956) to the handy dandy personal model showcased on the predator's wrist in Predator (1987). Size doesn't really matter, but, the bigger the base, the bigger the boom.  I think Einstein said that.

I've long wondered who was the first to introduce the self-destruct device into fiction.  What was the earliest example of its use?  No idea?  Me neither.  What I do know is that, for me growing up, "self-destruct device" meant only one thing.  Star Trek!  And, indeed, I think a lot of people will tell you that Kirk and the boys seemed to order the self-destruction of their Starship Enterprise just about every other week.  And yet, looking back, a precise count reveals a mere three episodes which so much as mentioned the possibility. That's right -- three.

In "The Corbomite Maneuver", Captain Kirk pretends to possess a self-destruct device and threatens to use it (or rather, claims it will activate automatically) if the alien Balok attacks the Enterprise.  But that was just a bluff.  In "Let This Be Your Last Battlefield" (the one with the white-black aliens) and in "By Any Other Name" (the one where aliens from outside our galaxy turn a crewman into a sugar cube, then crush the cube -- yuck!) Kirk does indeed seriously threaten to blow up the ship with self-destruct devices.  Though, even here, "By Any Other Name" doesn't involve a self-destructive device so much as the chief engineer jury-rigging a way to make the Warp engines explode when certain conditions are met.  Only in "Let This Be Your Last Battlefield" do we see a true, honest to God, complete with countdown-in-case-you-want-to-abort-the-damn-thing self-destruct device -- a nifty device which cropped up once again (and for the last time, obviously) in the later Star Trek movie, Star Trek III:  The Search For Spock.

At the same time, Star Trek had competition in my young mind -- for, after Star Trek, when I heard the phrase "self-destruct device", I also tended to think of...James Bond!

I have seen all of the twenty or so Bond films, most more than once, and I couldn't tell you which plot went with which movie.  Like the Baldwins, after a while they all just blur together.  I don't know how many ended with the bad guy blowing up his secret base but I vividly remember the climax to You Only Live Twice (1967) where the late Donald Pleasence [who never turned in a mediocre performance in his life~Ed.] as the evil Blofeld has a secret rocket silo hidden beneath an  inactive Japanese volcano with a mechanical crater that slid open for rocket launches.  That underground rocket silo, it soon transpired, came equipped with its own self-destruct device which Blofeld activates as he, y'know, runs like a girl.  This is not to be confused with the (in technical parlance) "exploder button" which Bond himself uses to blow up one of the rockets while in orbit.  As I recall, there was none of the admittedly faint-hope safeguards which even Star Trek saw fit to give its device.  No special codes and authorizations and secondary authorizations for Ernst Stavro Blofeld.  No, for him there was just a key and a big friendly switch.

That's my kind of engineering.

If my idea of the self-destruct device was fostered by Star Trek and James Bond, it was given its purest shape by Ridley Scott's and Dan O'Bannon's sci-fi horror monsterpiece, Alien.  In the climax to that devastatingly effective movie, Sigourney Weaver decides to blow up the entire spaceship, eponymous alien included, while she escapes in a smaller craft.  Her ship, Nostromo, is apparently already set up to be turned into a giant piñata, with so many buttons and instructions and safe-guards, it takes her forever just to start the damn countdown counting down!  Then, when (donchaknowit?) she has second thoughts and tries to stop the countdown?  It takes her so long to work all those gizmos in reverse, she exceeds the time limit to abort detonation by mere seconds -- sort of like finding the key to the front door just as the telephone inside stops ringing.  Man, do I hate that!

It was actually while watching Alien many years ago that it first occurred to me what a ludicrous idea a self-destruct device is.  I mean, consider that movie.  The Nostromo was supposed to be a simple freight hauler, right?  Basically an outer space dump truck.  Do we routinely equip our dump trucks with explosives?  Or what about the starship Enterprise?  Do we equip our ocean-going battleships with small nukes to blow them to hell, crew included, when all else has failed?  Maybe, but I doubt it.  In the military that's known as "negative thinking".

So, why do we imagine that, in the future, every two-bit space taxi will have one?  In Alien, I don't know which worries me more: that a dump truck like Nostromo comes with a self-destruct device; or that they even went to the trouble of recording a voice to tell you when you have exceeded the time limit to terminate detonation, since, by that point, ipso facto, the listener is basically as good as dead.

Think about it.

(I have made the point before that the sequel Aliens (1986) by Jimmie Cameron was virtually a scene by scene remake of the original Alien (1979).  Both movies end with a nuclear blammo, but that doesn't mean they are both examples of self-destruct devices.  In Cameron's sequel, inadvertent gunfire striking the nuclear reactor's core causes the whole thing to meltdown and explode.  Not a self-destruct device so much as a "hey-sherlock-what-part-of-no-guns-didn't-you-understand" device.)

So far I've pushed the origin of the self-destruct device back to the original Star Trek series.  That was when I was a kid.  Years later, I got to see 1956's Forbidden Planet.  That was the one with Robby the Robot and Leslie Nielsen long before he made it big in comedy.  (Nielsen, not Robby.  Robby just wasn't that funny.)  Chances are, when I mentioned self-destruct devices, Forbidden Planet wasn't the first thing to leap to mind.  No one in that movie uses that phrase, but, if you think about it, that's what we're looking it in the climax, isn't it?

You'll recall, the planet Altair IV used to be inhabited by the super-technological alien race, the Krell.  The slightly off-kilter but nobly intentioned scientist, played by Walter Pigeon, discovers the Krell left behind a lot of machinery.  You may think you left a bunch of stuff behind during your last move but, believe me, that was nothing compared to the Krell.  The slightly off-kilter but nobly intentioned scientist learns that a little knowledge can be a very dangerous thing and decides it is best to keep the Krell's super-science out of human hands.  At the same time, since he is dying in the climax (a little knowledge being a very dangerous thing), he has to have Nielsen do the nasty deed for him.  But does he tell Nielsen what that button does?  Oh no.  As calm as you please, he asks Nielsen to push on that do-dad over there and Nielsen guilelessly crosses the room, pushes this long stick thing into the floor, and then, only once he has returned and it is too late to stop it, does Pigeon reveal that he has just activated a chain reaction in the reactor that will blow up the entire planet.  Only then.

What a bastard.

I know I said before that the whole idea of a self-destruct device was "ludicrous".  What I should have said was: I used to think it was ludicrous.  Since then I learned that NASA, during its shuttle launches, does indeed have a guy called a "Range Safety Officer" whose job is literally to press the button and blow up the shuttle, astronauts included, in the event it seems to be veering off course and headed for a collision with a population centre.  Why NASA and no one else?  As far as I know, regular passenger airliners don't come equipped with an "exploder button".  When you're taking the red eye into Pearson International, I don't think there's a sweating Range Safety Officer with his finger on the trigger, ready to blow you to atoms should you look like you're going to fall short of the runway.  Presumably, the difference lies in the fact that NASA was created out of the Air Force.  On test ranges, there is always a Range Safety Officer ready to blow up errant missiles.  NASA just inherited the practice.
Then there is the instance of the bloody pirate, Bartholomew Roberts, whose crew reportedly sailed with a constant cargo of gunpowder and standing orders to blow themselves up in the event they were about to be taken by an enemy.  When they finally were defeated and boarded, sure enough one man set fire to the powder but, alas, the explosion was less than was looked for, killing that man and injuring quite a few, but leaving the ship intact and the rest of the crew to perish of "hempen fever" -- the noose.

Similarly, faced with defeat, the Americans set fire to their own powder at Fort Erie, Niagara Frontier, during the War of 1812, blowing up the entire fort and killing men on both sides.  So, the self-destruct device isn't quite so "ludicrous" as I supposed.  Not very helpful, but not ludicrous either.

Returning to fiction, I'm sure there were countless examples of self-destruct devices in the Pulp magazines, but one of the most intriguing for my money wasn't a "device" exactly but it certainly fit all other criteria, in that it featured a villain destroying a base of operations in a vindictive and pre-planned way.  I am referring to the climax to the Robert E. Howard interplanetary romance, Almuric.

Almuric is unusual in many ways. Robert E. Howard is most famous for his brawny barbarian, Conan, but he was willing to try just about anything...once.  Almuric is his one and only attempt to write an interplanetary romance in the style of Edgar Rice Burroughs.  In fact, so much was this a departure, that sci-fi author David Drake theorized it wasn't written by Howard at all, but by Howard's literary agent Otis Adelbert Kline, who claimed to have just sort of found the manuscript after Howard's death.  [For more on that question and my own theories regarding the matter, check out this page at Cimmerian Collection. ~ Blair]

In Almuric, the brawny hero, Esau Cairn, does battle with a race of winged Yagas who live in a city perched high on a rock citadel, where they keep a meek race of Guras as their slaves and playthings..  In the climax, Cairn unites the fractious Guras and leads them to the top of the citadel via a secret passage where they bloodily throw off the yoke of oppression and, as for the Yagas, well, the yoke's on them.  (Do you want to drive?  No?  All right then...)

As the Guras make short work of her winged minions, the evil queen of the Yagas unleashes one last nasty gotcha.  In the middle of the city, a doomed roof splits open and out crawls -- the mother of all mealy bugs!

I might not consider that a legitimate example of a self-destruct device except that we are told the queen kept her pet for precisely that one purpose.  It was born and raised to bring doom to both herself and her enemies, which I guess sort of makes it a, heh, "Doom Buggy".  A role which it takes to with gusto:

It spread its writhing arms, and at their touch stone walls crashed to ruin and masonry burst apart.  It was brainless, sightless -- elemental force incorporated in the lowest form of animation -- power gone mad and run amuck in a senseless fury of destruction.

And so it goes. In a climax that would have been right at home in a James Bond movie, the bug gets pretty far in its program of urban renewal but Cairn discovers its achilles heel and saves the day.  You might say, the self-destruct device has an exploder button of its own.

Or you might not.

There's not much else to say about that (and not much that I did say, come to that), but here's a thought.  I began by asking who was the first to introduce the self-destruct device into fiction?  I'm sure you could come up with examples of your own, but I think I've got one that beats all comers.  Before Alien and before Star Trek, before Forbidden Planet and before the Pulp era.  Can you guess?

Click on the answer and find out if you were right.  And try not to get so excited you throw up.

I'll see you in a couple.

Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

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