The Secret Origin of Doc Savage, sort of: Escape From Loki

A number of Doc Savage novels have come out since the pulp magazine folded, but I’m not going to cover them. Not that there’s anything wrong with them — Will Murray’s books are all better than Land of Long JuJu — but 181 pulp reprints is enough. The two exceptions are The Red Spider (written but not published in the magazine, it first saw daylight as a Bantam paperback) and Philip José Farmer’s ESCAPE FROM LOKI.

I think I picked this one because a)it’s the only novel set between Doc’s childhood and Man of Bronze and as I’ve mentioned before, those uncharted years intrigue me. It’s based on an idea in Farmer’s Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, that Doc met his five friends in a WW I era prison camp, and that’s been treated as canon by several people (Lin Carter references it in the Zarkon series that started with Nemesis of Evil and Mike Barr used it in his 1980s DC Doc Savage comics.

Unfortunately Escape from Loki is a dreadful book I had too struggle to get through. The story starts well, with Doc — 16 years old but big enough to bluff his way into the military — engaging in a dog fight that takes out a couple of barrage balloons on the enemy side. He winds up crashing in German-held territory, gets caught, escapes and eventually ends up in Loki, a prison camp run by the sinister mad scientist Von Hessel, meeting Monk, Ham and the others along the way. The villain appears to be making germ warfare experiments on POWs, but he’s actually testing out improvements to a bacterial treatment  that has made him ageless. He offers this to Doc to convince him to switch sides, but fails. At the end, he escapes, presumably so that he could return in another book, mercifully unwritten.

What went wrong? Well Farmer’s style of adventure was always a little too slow and thoughtful to work for Doc Savage (The Mad Goblin for instance), and starting in the 1980s he just got slower and wordier. His character tend to go heavy on introspection, so his Doc (not yet a doctor of course) does too; it doesn’t feel like Doc to navel-gaze so much, and it weakens the character beyond that. Doc’s reaction to everything is to analyze it thoughtfully; having a teenage Doc react with some feeling would be better. Even when he’s aroused by Von Hessel’s mistress, the emphasis is on Doc analyzing his own arousal.

As an adventure it’s too mundane to show what Doc is capable of. It’s also dull, with none of the flash Lester Dent could deliver in a non-SF adventure like The Sea Magicians (the immortalist element is thrown in at the last minute). And Von Hessel’s mistress is a worse character than a typical Dent female, with no personality other than being sexy and decadent (nobody reads Farmer for feminism).

And farmer actually gets a key point wrong: he has Monk say that Ham cleared himself on a charge of pig-stealing when the Doc Savage pulps were clear Ham got his nickname because he was found guilty.

Perhaps if Farmer had written Escape From Loki a quarter-century earlier, he’d have delivered something good. The Mad Goblin is a much better book, though even there we get a long info-dump about an immortal supporting character. When it comes to Young Doc Savage, Farmer comes nowhere near scratching my itch. But I didn’t really think he would.

#SFWApro. Cover by Steve Assel, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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