"The Dagger in the Sky" eerily predicted the premise of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged," and argued against it. Seriously, Dagger in the Sky is so shockingly forward thinking in anticipating Libertarian fantasies, I wonder if Lester Dent had access to a time machine.
Who is Doc Savage?
In some ways, Atlas Shrugged and the Doc Savage books are very similar. One is about a unrealistic super-rich hero adored by women with a childishly impractical personal ethos. The other, of course, are the Doc Savage books.
Dagger in the Sky is about scrapper supreme Doc Savage vs. a collection of greedy, callous super rich captains of industry who create a war in order to seize power in a small Latin country. Their ultimate goal is to create their own idealized ultra-capitalist libertarian utopia, free from taxation, labor unions, and government regulation. They choose to do this by exploiting legends of an ancient Inca stone possessed by the evil god Kukulcan, known to create a giant dagger in the sky that heralds a mysterious murder where a person vanishes utterly. Since this is a Doc Savage novel, it's not exactly a shock to say the dagger story isn't related to the Inca god of death, but is actually malarkey that will be debunked down the line.
With Doc Savage's selfless ethos, proto-libertarian types are a natural opponent for him. They respond to his heroism with head-shaking disdain. Most people respond incredulously to Doc's vow to battle evil in these stories; instead of being awed, most people cynically suspect he's too good to be true. This is something people forget when they say Doc was a sterling example of irony-free heroism; he was never any such thing. He was a light in the darkness.
Doc Savage and Atlas Shrugged are both teenage boy fantasies, but Doc Savage is a daydream that's harmless, normal, and wholesome, whereas Atlas Shrugged is damaging to society as a whole because of the belief there's something moral about selfishness, about "opting out." Who the heck doesn't daydream about being big and strong, having cool vehicles, going on crazy globetrotting adventures, and being desired by women? Likewise, it's usual for a teenage boy to go through a phase of development where Ayn Rand really speaks to us: in our immaturity, we think of ourselves as supermen, held back by a faceless orthodoxy designed to prop up the mediocre. No wonder many teenage boys go through an Ayn Rand phase! It's like the formula for coca-cola in teenage male brains: add equal parts distaste for society with rampant egotism.
The incredible and hard to believe thing is that despite the fact Knight in the Sky is a dead-on satire and critique of Atlas Shrugged, the similarities to Atlas Shrugged are entirely unintentional, since Knife in the Sky came first, published in 1939.
"Knife in the Sky" even argues against Atlas Shrugged's basic idea (rules to protect us from the predatory power of the rich hold society back), with the Galtians shown as pretty much what everyone expects them to be: selfish "Mr. Burns" style robber barons longing to create in isolation with their wealth and power a dog-eat-dog world because they want the "freedom" to loot and prey. It's not hard to understand why the Mr. Potters of the world hate regulation and trade unions…for the same reason crooks don't like cops.
Here are the villains laying bare their own scheme to Doc:
“Our motives for doing this, you may or may not know, are – well, they are idealistic…” “Idealistic?”
B.A. Arthur cleared his throat. “The world today is a turbulent, war-ridden place. In no country, no nation on the face of the earth, are property rights unhampered by taxation. I am an American citizen, for instance, and when I die, the United States government plans to take over half my fortune in inheritance taxes – which means they will take some seven hundred million dollars, in spite of all my lawyers can do to the contrary. Granting, of course, their taxation had not made me a pauper before then.”
B.A. Arthur scowled before he continued. “Government meddling – you find it everywhere. Take the New York Stock Exchange, for example – what do you find? Government regulation everywhere you turn. The banks? Deposit insurance – eating up the banker’s legitimate profit. Utilities? Government competition forcing rates down until return on capital is cut to a measly seven or eight percent.”
Doc Savage looked around the table and said, “The point is that you fellows – you very wealthy men – don’t like the way the world is today. That it?”
“And you propose?”
“To take over the mountainous portion of Cristobal – a perfect place to live, if ever there was one on the face of this earth….”
“We will create a sanctuary for wealth,” B.A. Arthur said grimly. “There will be no income tax, no inheritance tax, no tax on any business enterprise of any size. There will be no regulations. Operating from such a country, we will soon make it the financial
center of the world.”
“What about the natives of Cristobal?”
“Oh, them? They will be shown their place.” B.A. Arthur suddenly pounded the table. “There will be none of this damned rights-of-labor stuff! No unions. The first time the fools go on strike, we’ll have them shot down. That’ll teach them!”
Doc Savage remained emotionless, asked, “And where do I come in?”
“We need brains. We might hire yours.”
“What makes you think I would work for you?”
“You’re one of those idiots who spends his time trying to make a better world, aren’t you? Well, we’re offering you the chance of your lifetime.”
Doc Savage shook his head.
“You won’t do it?” B.A. Arthur exploded. “But we’ve kept your friends alive solely in hopes of getting your good will in the end.”
“And why not, you idiot?”
Doc said, with no noticeable excitement in his voice, “This whole setup is rather hideous. It’s selfish and ugly. It is simply a case of rich men – men more wealthy than anyone has a right to be – trying to keep their money and get more.”
(Great example of Doc's almost Vulcan self-control and emotionlessness, incidentally.)
The ending of the story gives the captured Galtians an extra-ironic fate. Since it's possible for men of their wealth to escape regular trial, they're sent to Doc's "Crime College" to be retrained to be philanthropists and use their wealth for good deeds. Poetic justice...and a fate worse than death for any Randroid!
Maybe because Doc Savage started off as a medical doctor with a Hippocratic Oath, and also because he was the first hero with a humanitarian code against killing (one Superman borrowed, just like he borrowed the first name Clark and an arctic Fortress of Solitude), it shouldn't surprise us Dr. Clark Savage, Jr. had a more expansive, humanitarian view of his heroic mission than a lot of other heroes who exclusively focus on justice like the Shadow. Doc Savage was more about charity, and it's easy to think of him as a "bleedin' heart" type, especially in contrast to pulp peers like the scarily implacable Spider.
I try not to discuss politics, but if a work is political, you have to discuss politics. It reminds me of a weird conversation about the John Carter of Mars books where I was told not to bring religion into it. Bring religion into Barsoom? Are you kidding? As if that was something I had to add! These stories are defined by the conflict against not one, but two races of false gods, where, over and over, any religion turns out to be a scam that's laughable when revealed, and any priest turns out to be a cynical con-artist. This isn't "interjecting religion into the discussion." This is talking about what's there. If you want to talk about attitudes toward religion in Burroughs' Gods of Mars…just give an accurate summary of the plot!
Other than the startling indictment of what today we call Randianism, the story has one other thing going for it: this story sets out to disprove, possibly in response to letters page critiques, that Doc was way too remote. In a rare moment, we get access to Doc's private thoughts and we learn he's terrified of becoming an emotionless machine. "The scientists who trained him were afraid of him losing his human qualities. When a man's life is fantastic, he must guard against his own personality becoming strange." Good advice, a shame Michael Jackson never listened to it. Doc attempts to get a vacation to connect with the average male. He even tries...eating food that doctors say is bad for you!
At one point, Doc even finds himself captured…because he was distracted thinking about a beautiful girl, showing that he avoids women not because he is inhumanly cold but because he actually means it with that "concern for a woman's safety in his line of work" spiel.
This story takes pains to emphasize that the Republic of Cristobal and Hispaniola are a fictional stand ins for real countries, and that the real formula that could be used for evil had to be redacted from the text. It's thanks to details like this that the perception came among fans that the Doc Savage stories were just reporting on real events with names changed, an idea PJF in particular ran with to make his Doc Savage: an Apocryphal Life.
Weird Doc Savage Skill:
During a stopover in Trinidad, Doc stops a black porter and "speaks to him in his native language." What a feat of linguistic polyglot prowess that is! Even more impressive when you consider the official language of Trinidad and Tobago is…English!
Weird/Hilarious Sign This Was Written in the 1930s:
In response to hearing about the Cristobal/Hispaniola conflict, Monk says, "I thought all the wars were in Europe and Asia." Are they ever. There's a reference to how it's illegal for studiously neutral Americans to ship arms to warring countries except via "cash and carry."
As always, what dates this story in time is what it doesn't mention. The fact Europe is in a horrific, inevitable war is something this story tiptoes around very conspicuously. Much like how Jane Austen's novels were set during the Napoleonic wars, and were so terrified of the French war machine, the novels avoid mentioning the growing Second World War to the point it becomes delusionally pathological.
Gadget of the Day:
Criminals respond with awe when the Hidalgo Trading Company's doors open automatically in response to Doc's car. "Radio controlled doors!" They say. This must have really blown people's minds in a world without garage door openers.
Doc and the gang have short-wave radios inside their cars. This is the first time the five's private vehicles were mentioned since Long Tom's car in "Land of Fear."
Debunk of the Day (Spoilers):
Would I really shock you if I said the gigantic dagger shadow that appears in the sky isn't actually the work of an evil Incan death god, but is actually just a four-way dark smoke flare blasted into the sky? If I did shock you, congratulations on finishing your first-ever Doc Savage novel!
The mysterious disappearing black daggers were used as murder weapons, but were of a chemical that dissolves in air over time.
Finally, there was no Inca artifact or black rock at all; it was just a scheme by the Galt's Gulch gang to rattle the Indian-descended natives into revolt in order to seize power.
- One of the chapter titles of this book made me giggle: "The Queer Navy."
- Of all the Docs I've read before 1944, this is more like a traditional mystery and less filled with action and fistfights, possibly a prototype for the detective thrillers Doc would have after 1944.
- At the beginning of the book, the proto-libertarian crooks sneer at Doc's car for being an unimpressive little jalopy (at least on the outside). Goes to show an important characteristic of Doc lost in the showy, visual-obsessed comic and film adaptations: Doc emphasizes not attracting attention.
- Doc Savage definitely got more polished as it went on, and 1939 might just have been the high point. It's weird to read a rough early Doc novel and then read a later one. In the early issues, Doc is more likely to show emotions, and calls his allies "brothers" and "you birds."
- The story tells us Monk's reading of the newspaper only gets as far as the comics page. It's that kind of detail that makes Monk far and away my favorite of the aides: he's like a big kid.