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June 2007
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The 27th Day, by John Mantley (1956)

ONE OF THE most common—and hackneyed—stfnal concepts of the 1950s was our headlong descent into nuclear destruction, and the efforts of our Big Space Brothers to prevent it, either from altruistic motives or the purely selfish.

In John Mantley's only sf novel, five very different people are kidnapped by an alien race and each given capsules which they are told contain enough explosive power to destroy all life on Earth. There's a gimmick, though, one that actually places this book above most of the others, regardless of how many salt-grains it takes to swallow: in twenty-seven days, the capsules will be harmless—assuming that none of the five have used theirs before then. The capsules are keyed to the individuals so that if they die, the explosive is rendered inert.

Not a bad little conceit, all things considered, because it elevates what would otherwise be yet another dreary ideological cautionary tale to a character-driven story that actually has some power behind it. Each of the characters—American, British, German, Russian, and Chinese—cope with their responsibility as best they can; some tragically, some heroically.

One of the characters, a scientist, figures out something very important about the golden capsules and uses this knowledge to bring about exactly the outcome that the aliens wanted in the first place.

Perhaps that outcome is, in retrospect, a bit obvious, but Mantley does it as well as any and better than most. He wrote for film and TV, and The 27th Day is certainly cinematic enough. Filmed in 1957, the movie is even more blatantly anti-Communist than the book, which is saying something.

—Bud Webster

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