Alexander Martin Pfleger
May 1st, 2005
On a sunny summer afternoon, Claire Fisher, a 24 years old woman, living in a farm house at the Sandy River near Alamosa, has a very nice walk with her boy friend Willie Thompson. It has been very pleasant for both, but Willie is unhappy about one detail: Claire hasn't agreed to be sexually intimate with him yet — it would have been the first time in her life. Coming home in the evening, she smokes a last cigarette, and falls asleep. But a few minutes later, a mysterious being comes into her bedroom. It looks like a huge lizard, the size of a human being. It puts a glinting object on her bedside table that soon begins to buzz. Then the lizard creature lies down beside her.
A few months pass, and it is now fall. Olivia Kelly, a young woman in Albuquerque, is going to work in the morning. She and other people are waiting for the hoverbus, but it's late and she's in a bad mood. When the hoverbus arrives, she notices that the place where she normally sits down is occupied by an unknown man. She is very annoyed by this and doesn't want to sit down in another free place. She remains standing and observes the back of the man's head. She notices that he is perspiring profusely although it isn't very warm — neither in the hoverbus nor outside — which strikes her as very odd. Suddenly, she notices a shocking detail: The hair on the back of his head begins to move, first very slow, then very fast, and finally the hair and the skin on his head and neck seem to be transformed into a tangle of throbbing curls. She cries out, and the other passengers ask what the trouble is. She tells them about the man and what she saw. At the next station, someone calls the City Safety Force, the CSF, which arrives promptly.
Olivia and the man are taken away by the CSF officers to their headquarters. On the way, one of the officers phones his chief, Alfred Simmons, and tells him what happened and that it might only be a simple case of hallucination. But Simmons replies that he thinks that it would be better to inform the CSF director, Forrest S. Samuelson. At that moment, the unknown man from the bus speaks up, saying he cannot believe that it will be really necessary to inform Samuelson, the "big boss". Arriving at the headquarters, Olivia and the man are put into a special room belonging to Section 27, where they will be interrogated by Simmons and the other officers.
Samuelson enters the room, and the interrogation begins. Olivia again tells them her complete story, and after she's done Samuelson speaks to the man — who says his name is Mr. Tuttle — and tells him that he is well known to the CSF. There have been several similar cases like the current one. Tuttle protests and insists that he has had just a lot of circulatory troubles and nothing else, but Samuelson doesn't believe him. He orders that he must remain under arrest in the headquarters for more detailed observation and inspections. Olivia is allowed to go home.
Samuelson wants very detailed investigations into Tuttle's case, as well as the similar cases on record. He telephones Simmons to develop their plans. After their discussion, Simmons goes to bed, but at 3.21 in the morning he gets a call from Malley, a young officer assigned to observe Tuttle in his cell during the night. Malley reports that a commando group of ten men had entered the rooms of Section 27, killed all the officers except himself, and then escaped with Tuttle. Only one of the commandoes was killed during the raid, by an officer now dead. Simmons drives down to Section 27 as quickly as possible. Everything is devastated, and corpses are everywhere — the bodies of the officers, and the single dead commando. The commando's corpse is not human — a formless mass of innards. Malley explains to Simmons that he only survived the attack because he was in the restroom at the time. Suddenly, Simmons hears a sound outside. He guesses that the commando group has returned to retrieve the body of their fallen comrade. Knowing that they wouldn't stand a chance against them, Simmons takes Malley and hides in the restroom, listening and waiting. After a while the raiders leave the building. Simmons and Malley come out of their concealment to discover that the dead commando has indeed been taken away.
The scene changes, as we see Claire Fisher visiting her gynecologist, Meg Klein. Claire tells Dr. Klein that she has felt very unpleasant since spending the afternoon with Willie — she isn't menstruating, and is experiencing other problems. Dr. Klein examines her and discovers that Claire is pregnant. Claire cannot believe this and exclaims that that's impossible. Dr. Klein asks her about the circumstances in which she lives, and learns that Claire has never had sexual relations with a man. She then presents Claire with two options — either to carry the baby through its gestation, or to have an abortion, though adding that she would not choose the abortion if she were in Claire's position. She concludes by saying that she will stay in contact with Claire. After Claire leaves, Dr. Klein phones Simmons, an old friend of hers. Although they are both married, they have remained good friends and have had several professional dealings with one another. They arrange to meet the next day in Albuquerque.
The next afternoon, Dr. Klein flies via her own helijet to Albuquerque and meets Simmons in a restaurant. She tells him about Claire and her mysterious pregnancy. Their conversation reveals that there have been cases like Claire's in the past. Simmons tells Dr. Klein about Tuttle's case and the recent happenings at the CSF headquarters. He tells her about a conference that is going to be held involving the directors of all the security agencies on Earth, to discuss extraordinary events such as these.
Their discussion also shows that they are both well informed about the backgrounds of these cases and others, revealing that Tuttle and his friends belong to an extraterrestrial race that wants to invade Earth. The members of this race are able to change their forms and appearance — they can look like human beings, but are not limited to that shape. But sometimes they have problems maintaining their human form, as demonstrated by Tuttle's shifting appearance on the hoverbus. A new decisive phase against these hidden invaders has begun. Several steps have to be taken before the next flight to the station on Mars that is scheduled for January 21st.
They then talk about personal things and are finishing their meeting. Simmons wants to be kept informed about Claire's and all similar cases, and Dr. Klein agrees. That evening Dan Daniels, a reporter from the Washington Post, visits Simmons at his office. Daniels asks him about Tuttle, Olivia and what happened in Section 27, and tells Simmons that he has contacted the families of the killed CSF officers. He has discovered that most of their bodies have been cremated, but those few that weren't cremated show no signs of injury. It is inexplicable why they died. Simmons doesn't answer Daniels' inquiries. He instead phones Hal Hisley, the chief editor of the Washington Post, who seems to be a good friend of Simmons. He tells Hisley that Daniels will have to stay for a while at the CSF offices, and Hisley offers no objections. Officers arrive and take away the protesting Daniels.
32 year old Bill Jenner is an astronaut living in Springfield, Massachusetts with his girlfriend Sally Evans who works for a special commission of the U.S. government. Bill is scheduled to fly to Mars on January 21st. He and Sally have their last dinner, and afterwards Bill wants to drive in his Turbomaster car to the 1,500-mile distant Space Station in Muskegon in Monument Valley. Bill wonders about some malfunctions present in the special emergency systems he invented and installed in his house and in his Turbomaster. For example, his garage door doesn't automatically shut after he leaves it. If he had not been setting out later than he should have, he would have gotten out and determined what the malfunction was. But Sally waves him away, making it clear through gestures that she'll take care of it.
But on the highway, near Buffalo New York, he looses control of his car and it begins to fill with a deadly gas. He is able to steer the car to the side of the road and jump out of the window right before the car explodes. By foot, he reaches an automatic checkpoint and phones to his chief, Amos Killian, and tells him what happened. Killian sends a few officers to him who bring him to Monument Valley.
At two o'clock in the morning Bill enters Killian's office, and describes in detail to his superior what happened to him on the highway. Killian then asks about the people Bill sees on a daily basis, and those he met only recently — neighbors, friends, the people in the restaurant where they had dinner before Bill began his trip to Monument Valley, and about Sally. Killian orders two officers to put all the people Bill listed under close observation and arrest those who arouse suspicion of being responsible for this mysterious attack, and to find out everything about it. Then he reveals to Bill that all of mankind is secretly at war against invaders from a planet of the sun Altair in the constellation Aurigae (Aquila). Bill is incredulous at first, believing that Killian is mocking him because he believes Bill was lying about the nature of the car accident, and considers Bill to be a bad astronaut.
But Killian ignores Bill's reaction and explains to him that this alien race is living on several planets, whose goal is to infiltrate the populations of the worlds where they have settled by changing their own appearance to blend in, and then to kill all the natives to gain complete control over the planet. This process takes a very long time. The first invaders came a few hundred years ago to Earth. At first they were undetectable, but now it seems that they have entered the next phase of the invasion — to gain total control of the planets inhabited by mankind! They are able to change their forms, and it is nearly impossible to kill them with energy weapons. They also possess the ability to kill in unconventional ways — for example, they can induce a heart attack through telepathy. But they have one weakness: in order to look like a human being, they must maintain constant control over their bodies. But when they loose control, like Tuttle did on the hoverbus, their appearance reverts to their original form and they can be wounded. Their agents hold high positions in economic and political circles, as well as the press, but there is also a very strong organization of humans that occupy a lot of such high positions that are aware of the invaders. And these humans have their own "special weapons" against the aliens — people like Bill Jenner. Bill doesn't understand, but Killian says that he will understand when he arrives on Mars.
They then both go to the autopsy laboratory — Killian got the news that the invader responsible for the attack against Bill is dead. They look at the corpse of the alien — a mass of vascular entanglements. Then Bill regards the rest of the clothes — it is a part of one of Sally's dresses. Bill is shocked. Sally was responsible for the attack against him. She is one of the invaders. They return to the office, where Killian shows Bill a copy of the latest issue of The New York Times, which contains an article about how Bill Jenner, the famous space pilot, died in an highway accident. Killian explains that this was necessary in order to deceive the invaders. Bill agrees and waits for his flight to Mars.
Dr. Klein visits Claire at her home. Claire is feeling very depressed and has consumed a great deal of alcohol. She is in a state of tremendous emotional turmoil. Dr. Klein tries to calm her down. She tells her about the possibility of parthenogenesis, and that Claire might become the mother of a kind of superhuman. It is not clear what Claire thinks about this, but Dr. Klein leaves her, sure that Claire will not have an abortion. She phones Simmons and informs him about the discussion. Simmons tells her about the flight which will arrive on Mars in a few hours. He thinks that the decisive phase of the conflict has now begun.
(This chapter contains the well-known story "Enchanted Village.")
The spaceship to Mars crash-landed somewhere in the wide sands (!) of Mars. The only survivor of the 6-man crew is Bill Jenner. Bill feels devastated because of the death of his friends, and of Sally's death. Although he now knows that she was an invader, he really loved her. He has no hope of reaching the far-off Mars station on foot, and he wanders aimlessly through the desert. He is hungry, thirsty, and the intense heat severely dehydrates him.
But suddenly he sees buildings — ruins perhaps. He knows that this must be a remnant village of the mysterious, now-extinct race who had lived on Mars in past ages. He enters the village, inspects the buildings and understands that the village is some kind of an intelligent being. The village must have analyzed the physical and chemical structure of his body, because it constructs some kind of food for him — not very tasty, but edible and nourishing. But soon Bill recognizes that there is a new problem — the village may be able to make food for him, but it is a very complicated process and every time it generates more food some of its parts break down — it puts too much of a strain on its aged mechanisms. Bill doesn't want the village to destroy itself in its attempt to help him, and he faces the unpleasant fact that he may will die sooner or later, regardless of how long the village continues trying to feed him. He falls asleep.
When he awakens, the situation seems to have changed. He feels better, the food tastes good, the temperature is more hospitable, and a dissonant noise he had heard in some parts of the village now seems to be a kind of melancholic, timeless music. He realizes that the village found a solution. He enters a room that he assumed must be a shower. When he enters, he is showered with a yellow, corrosive fluid that was painful before but now feels like pleasant cool water. Leaving the shower, he discovers exactly what the village's solution was — it has somehow transformed him into a huge lizard!
During the next few days Bill reflects on what happened to him. He begins to understand that in some complex, inexplicable way he has been transformed into the type of being that originally lived in the village, one of the ancient race native to Mars which was conquered by the same invaders from Altair and has since disappeared. He now understands what Killian meant when he said that people like Bill are the "special weapons" of mankind. He is a combination of two races — the contemplative, but resistant Martians and the not-so-resistant, but more aggressive mankind. Men and Martians needed to work together against the invaders, not alone.
One day, after awakening, he senses that he is not the only being in the village. He thinks, without any concrete reason, that he must go to a large tower nearby. He ascends to the top and meets there another Martian like himself. The Martian tells him that he is Bill's good old friend Eddy Benson. Bill is thrilled by this news. Eddy then describes to Bill the "Proteus Project", the deliberate synthesis between humans and Martians in order to create a new hybrid race containing the best attributes of both races: Mankind's aggressiveness and warlike nature, with the Martians' natural resistance to the elements and their more contemplative nature. This combination is achieved when Martian embryos are gestated in human women. This also creates many other good qualities — paranormal abilities like a special kind of telepathy, a thing that is typical for Martians, but much stronger than before in this new hybrid breed. For example, Bill's sensation that he was no longer alone is one such ability which comes from his Martian side. The village had to supervise the metamorphosis from man into Martian. Under the ground of Mars, there lived other Martians who worked against the invasion from Altair. The complete region could be described as a gigantic subterranean anthill. Eddy and Bill go underground in order to meet Fred Bilkins, the chief of the Mars Station, who is a Martian, too.
The scene changes to the wreck of Bill's spaceship. It's evening, two days after Bill left it. In the wreck, there are the corpses of the five other crew members. Suddenly, one of these corpses begins to move and to change his appearance — from a human into a formless mass with very complex, tubular extremities. An invader! The Altairian gets out of the wreck and walks through the desert, following Bill's footprints. He reflects on his situation and the situation of all the other invaders: the Altairans are well aware that the members of the "Proteus Project" aren't human beings but a combination of humans and members of the lost Martian race. After learning of this, the invaders had to change their invasion strategies and postpone it for several years. The Altairan from the ship had orders to kill Bill after arriving on Mars, because Bill is such a hybrid man and is very dangerous for the invaders. But due to the unforeseen accident the invader couldn't complete his assignment, and so he's forced to track down Bill on foot and kill him.
But suddenly, the invader is attacked by two flying spheroids. Although he tries to defend himself, he has no chance and dies. The spheroids land on a place where the sand becomes transparent, revealing the structure of a big icosahedron. They get into it, and then the icosahedron begins to rotate and disappears into the sky — all without disturbing the sand around it, as if it were an object from another dimension. After that, another Altairan who witnessed all this stands up from one of the dunes and speedily departs.
Bill and Eddy arrive at the Mars station. Eddy explains to Bill everything he wants to know and then takes him to Fred Bilkins and his secretary, Diane Collins. Bilkins informs Bill about other important things. He tells him that a few decades ago an Altairian spaceship crashed near a Martian city. The Martians recognized the hostile nature of the mortally wounded invaders and began to start the "Proteus Project", named after the ancient Greek god Proteus who had possessed the ability to change his appearance. The Martians of the "Proteus Project" who have been born by Earth women haven't only extraordinary capabilities, they also cannot be killed by the invaders' mental attack, whereas normal humans can (as seen when the Altairans raided the CSF offices in Chapter Four). But although they are able to change their appearance, they cannot do so as quickly or easily as the Altairians.
The final fight will be soon — in a few months or even weeks. The Martians found out that the headquarters of the Altairian invaders is on — or, rather, inside — a large asteroid in the asteroid belt beyond Mars. Bill gets the assignment to destroy this asteroid. After Bill has left, Diane Collins tells Bilkins that a special group inspected Bill's crashed spaceship. They found only three corpses — the bodies of Archie Schriver and Bruce Freeman were missing, but their suits of clothes remained. She and Bilkins talk for a short while, then she leaves. Now alone, Bilkins ruminates on this new information, and reflects strangely on his situation — he doesn't understand Martian psychology and that the hybrid humans are longing for the wide sands of Mars. He also thinks about how Bill will encounter a nasty surprise in the asteroid's belt. Bilkins also thinks on how it is better for himself to die on Mars than in space...
Bill arrives in the asteroid belt. He winds a cable around a little asteroid designated "B-612" in order to use it as a kind of hammer that will be punched against the big asteroid where the invaders are, hopefully destroying it. But when he approaches the invaders' asteroid, an Altairian spaceship arrives and destroys B-612. Bill tries to fly away, knowing that he has no chance of surviving a fight. But he cannot move his little spaceship — it is attracted by the big Altairian ship. His ship is drawn to a dock on the ship, and seeing no other options Bill enters the ship. A telepathic voice tells him that he can remove his helmet, and then it gives him directions to another part of the ship. Bill walks through gigantic, empty halls and labyrinthine levels. Suddenly, he comes upon the invader who spoke to him telepathically and realizes with a shock that this Altairan is none other than his old friend Archie Schriver who was a fellow crewman on the Mars flight!
Dr. Klein is called to a hospital. Claire has killed her unborn baby herself, and has taken so many pills that she will die within the next few minutes. Dr. Klein asks why she did this. Claire shows her articles from several newspapers. The articles are about women who became pregnant without reason and who gave birth to formless monsters with black-blueish tentacles, perhaps the children of extraterrestrial aggressors. After Claire's death, Dr. Klein is sad and angry — sad because Claire is dead and killed her child, and angry about the articles because they were either written by journalists who didn't knew the whole truth, or perhaps in reality they were Altairian invaders who wrote these half-truths as a particularly foul type of propaganda.
Archie Schriver tells Bill that the final stage of the invasion has now begun, and that several Altairian ships are on the way to Mars and Earth. He also informs Bill that he and Bruce Freeman were invaders and had orders to kill Bill after landing on Mars, but because of the unexpected accident they couldn't do so. He tells him that he followed Bruce's footprints (who in turn surely followed Bill's footprints), and that he saw the mysterious way in which Bruce was killed by the spheroids. He says that in his opinion Bill is responsible for Bruce's death. Bill tells him that he had nothing to do with it, but Archie doesn't believe him and tries to kill him, but Bill kills Archie. He is then able, after a few difficulties and fights with other Altairians, to escape in his little spaceship from the big Altairian ship and to fly towards Mars to warn Bilkins and the others.
More and more Altairian spaceships are arriving in the solar system and positioning themselves around Earth and Mars — but they don't land. With great difficulty Bill is able to fly back from the asteroids belt and return to Mars. In the Mars station again, he informs Fred Bilkins about what Archie Schriver told him about the strength of the invaders, and that the last and strongest Altairian attack will begin at any moment now. But Bilkins remains very cool. Bill cannot understand Bilkins' reaction, but then he has an idea — Bilkins must be an invader, too! Bilkins confirms this and tells Bill that he was ordered to infiltrate the “Proteus Project”. He is a very special kind of invader — he was given special psychological training to enable him to think and behave like either a human being or a Martian. Also, during the long period of time that he had to live on Earth and Mars, he began to feel a special kind of sympathy for the human beings and the Martians, although he still wants to fight for the success of the invasion. But he knows that he will have to die if the invasion is successful, and the only two places where he wants to die are in space or on Mars — the planet which he learned to love during his long years living there.
Then Bilkins makes a videophone call to the White House. When Bill sees the face of Wilbur Whitney, the President of the United States of America, on the screen, he tries to warn the president and screams that Bilkins is an Altairian. But the president doesn't react to this, and Bill realizes that Whitney is also an Altairian. Bilkins says that the Altairian fleet will now land, and President Whitney tells Bilkins that everything is going according to plan, and that he is sure that they will never see each other again. It is clear from this interchange that the two Altairan impostors are good friends. After finishing this call, Bilkins takes a little pill with his whiskey and breaks down. He has committed suicide, and falls over dead. Bill is at a loss and doesn't know what he should do next.
"Surely, if anything was proof that had to be it unless — it was a vague feeling — all this was part of an immense comedy, the script of which had been written on a long sheet of paper, folded many times; and every time it was unfolded it revealed another aspect of someone's strange sense of humor. Unfortunately, there was always the next fold, and then another, and another. What was at stake was so important that it now seemed as if everyone participating in the game was a professional with a background of generations of professionals — just as Bilkins had said.
...With only one amateur: himself —
And yet, even he — it seemed to Jenner — might presently be revealed to be not entirely Terrestrian, not even entirely Martian, but merely one more automaton carrying out a pre-determinated role in whatever game was being played here.
He tried to visualize the possibility that he, also, was an Altairan. If that were true, thousands of slimy blackblueish tentacles would spring out of his body; he would then, and only then, really be himself, and would at least understand why he had become a part of the comedy.
Was he just another fold in the script? Perhaps, the last fold."
—from manuscript page 288, book page 200
Then he calls for Diane Collins. She comes into the room and Bill tells her the facts. At first, she doesn't believe Bill, but then she remembers that in this room everything is recorded by audio and video tapes. After viewing these tapes, she realizes that Bill was telling her the truth. As they leave the room and are on their way to the station's central office, they hear very strange news from the other members of the “Proteus Project”: the Altairians began to land on Earth and Mars, but suddenly, all their ships crashed on the two planets. After a few hours, it is confirmed that the entire Altairian fleet in the solar system has been destroyed or inexplicably crashed. Then all of a sudden the Mars station receives a mysterious radio signal from somewhere in the Wide Sands of Mars. Bill, Diane, and two other Martians leave the station and follow the signal to its source.
Arriving there, they see the ground begin to shine in fantastic colors and contort into outlandish forms. And then, a big icosahedron materializes in the air (as it did in Chapter Twelve). Bill and the others hear an electronic-sounding, telepathic voice that is comprehensible in all human and Martian languages. The voice belongs to a being from a race of superintelligent entities from a higher dimension — in their scale, men and Martians are living on the first level, they themselves on the seventh level, and they are sure that there are those on higher levels and dimensions than themselves. The voice tells Bill that thousands of years on Earth are only seconds for them and that they have watched men, Martians and Altairians for a very long time. Normally they don't interfere in conflicts on the lower levels, but it was clear that the Altairians would have won the war, eliminating all the humans and Martians, and this would have had a negative influence on the superintelligent beings and their fight against other superintelligent beings on their own seventh level. So they had to help men and Martians and to kill all the Altairians. After a few moments the voice says goodbye, the icosahedron disappears, and Bill and the others are alone in the desert, again.
"Shortly, the four Martians left that enchanted place while, quite indifferent, colored whirlwinds continued their joke with the Wide Sands, a cosmic game they had been playing for millions of years."
—manuscript page 318, book page 219
Although van Vogt stated in the introduction that he corrected and improved Pestriniero's translation from his original Italian text, Mr. Fabry, the german translator, told me that the text he translated was full of stylistic and grammatical errors which were typical for a non-English speaking person writing in English, and that the manuscript Fabry used for his translation doesn't show any corrections by hand from van Vogt. I was sent a copy of this manuscript, and I saw that this is correct.
An interesting fact is that Mr. Fabry did not translate the introduction, only the text of the novel. He thinks that the introduction was translated by the editor of the Science Fiction series at Ullstein's, Mr. Ronald M. Hahn. Fabry also told me that he not only had to correct grammatical errors when translating it into German, in several cases he had to correct logical failures in the composition of some scenes — for example, in one scene someone comes from the right, but then the scene is described as if he had entered from a different direction. Perhaps it is right that van Vogt corrected Pestriniero's text, but this version was not the manuscript Mr. Fabry translated into German.
Mr. Fabry told me that his wife came up with the idea for the German title Metamorphosen. In my opinion this title is better than The People of the Wide Sands. Metamorphosen (German for "metamorphoses") is shorter, more expressive, and is more typical of van Vogt. It is a very subtle title — on the first level it means the metamorphosis (or transformation) from the human body to the lizard body of the Martians, and on a second level it means the metamorphosis from a normal human being to a kind of superhuman! So this short title has the subtle quality that Brian W. Aldiss admired with van Vogt's short story "The Storm" (1943) — on the one hand it means the galactic gas storm in the Magellanic Clouds, while on the other hand it refers the storm of feelings between Peter Maltby and Lady Gloria Laurr.
I don't know what it means, but... In Chapter Fourteen, Bill tries to destroy the asteroid where the Altairians have their headquarter by pushing the smaller asteroid B-612 into it. In the world-famous fairy-tale The Little Prince from 1943 by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900-1944), the little prince comes from a little planet named B-612. I am not sure if there is any deeper meaning, or if Pestriniero merely wanted to make a reference to Saint-Exupéry, but I wanted to point out this detail.
There are no illustrations in the text. The cover is painted by B. Barnard, which can be seen here on Olaf R. Spittel's website. It shows human astronauts in white spacesuits gazing at a strange-looking city in the red deserts of Mars — in the red deserts, mind you; not in the white sands, but rather in the wide, red sands of Mars!
The novel gives only an inexact description of technological development in the future. Apart from the items mentioned in the summary, I think it is necessary to mention the Neilson-Berry engine, which is in all the human and Martian spaceships in this novel. The Neilson-Berry engine enables ships to fly very fast — not faster than light, but fast enough to allow speedy travel within the solar system.
It is not exactly stated in what year or even century the story takes place, but I think we should assume that it's no later than the twenty-second century.