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January 2006
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Planet Big Zero, by Franklin Hadley (1964)

RUSS Winterbotham, Jonathan Lethem. One wrote pot-boiler sf and comic books, the other is one of the most successful writers on the literary scene today. Is there a connection? I'll get to it, don't worry.

Planet Big Zero was a paperback original published by Monarch (the American International of paperback houses) in 1964, written by Winterbotham under the pseudonym Franklin Hadley. The delightfully named hero, Ted Narly, lieutenant in the Terran Defense Corps, is captured by the Deotions and taken to their titular headquarters, a black nebula with but a single entrance: a funnel with a curtain of fire at the end.

Now, it would be easy to make fun of this one, but I won't. It's absolutely enjoyable, and if Winterbotham/Hadley isn't Alfred Bester, so what? As space opera goes, it's not quite Doc Smith, but it certainly comes close to Hamiltonian standards. I recall enjoying it when I was a kid, and rereading it brought back warm memories of long bus rides home from school. It doesn't promise anything it doesn't deliver, unlike many of its contemporaries, and Winterbotham was nothing if not a professional writer. It pushes no envelopes and teeters not on the cutting edge, but any kid who won't put down his GameBoy to read this pulpy adventure of Lt. Narly in his fight againt the Deotions is missing some good fun.

And that connection between an old newspaper guy and his literary opposite? Well, Lethem used Winterbotham's title for his own terrific story (published in his latest collection, Men and Cartoons); it was just too good not to use again.

—Bud Webster

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