When having zero-gravity sex in a spacecraft crammed with sensitive equipment, astronauts should practice some form of emission control.
To learn why, you’ll have to spend a few days with Rick Moody’s comic, grim, tender and masterful novel, “The Four Fingers of Death.” It’s a sly science-fiction tale loosely sprung from the 1963 horror film “The Crawling Hand,” which is to say an astronaut’s murderous severed arm has more than a creep-on role.
Moody may be best known for “The Ice Storm” (1994), which was made into a 1997 movie directed by Ang Lee and starring Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver.
As the new book opens, the year is “2025 or thereabouts,” the place Rio Blanco, a town in southern Arizona that reflects the sharp economic decline of the U.S. Algae-based gasoline costs $35 a gallon. The national debt is in the trillions. Social Security is history. A popular music genre is “dead girlfriend.” Moody takes much of contemporary U.S. woes and worsens them without taxing plausibility.
A writer named Montese Crandall with a sideline in baseball cards plays a chess game with a movie novelizer named D. Tyrannosaurus who covets a rare card depicting Dave McClintock, a pitcher who replaced the arm he lost in a car accident with a bionic one.
Monty wins, however, and his prize is D.’s latest novelization contract, for a 2025 remake of “The Crawling Hand” titled “The Four Fingers of Death.”
That introduction and an afterword are just the frame, a mere 76 pages fore and aft, for the novelization, in which nine astronauts travel to Mars and only one returns -- that is, only part of one returns. Cue theremin music.
The voyage and time on the Red Planet, also 15 years from now, make for a suspenseful, sometimes harrowing tale, in which stress, rape, broken and severed extremities and murder take their toll on the Mars colony.
The astronauts are further divided over a secret side of the mission that gradually emerges. It involves mining silicon dioxide for the manufacture of microprocessors that will be combined with a deadly Martian pathogen called M. thanatobacillus to create “a new cybernetic life-form.” The ultimate goal is a commercial coup that will end the global dominance of the Sino-Indian Economic Compact.
Hailing Mr. Rogers
This section is narrated by the mission’s “official documentarian,” Colonel Jed Richards, whose often irreverent voice helps lighten the tone. As the first person to set foot on Mars, he discards his scripted speech and says “‘Houston, it is a beautiful day in the neighborhood.’” (The signature line from television’s Mr. Rogers goes well with a diarist who addresses his remarks to “Kids.”)
Jed heads back to Earth with a bad case of the highly contagious hemorrhagic, limb-disassembling condition produced by M. thanatobacillus. In the final throes of the disease, he destroys the re-entry vehicle but sends his arm falling to the desert outside Rio Blanco.
After the tension of outer space, Moody delivers a broadly satirical release on Earth. There’s a lot here I don’t want to spoil, but I can reveal that the hand, besides strangling a few people, gets into a juicy three-way with two teens, one of whom is the son of Woo Lee Koo, a Korean stem-cell specialist at the University of Rio Blanco who believes he can revive his dead and frozen wife with M. thanatobacillus, especially after the success he’s had injecting some of her brain into that of a chimp named Morton.
Moody opened his previous novel, “The Diviners” (2005), with an extended riff on the sun rising across the world the day after George W. Bush was elected in 2000. In the new book, he runs delightful riffs on, among other things, duct tape, jet packs, the stars over the desert and the ever-changing occupants of a campus house that eventually takes in the founder of an alternative-lifestyle group called omnium gatherum.
Then it’s back to Montese Crandall, who provides a facetious academic “Afterword: On the Crawling Hand” and a reminder, much-needed after 700 pages, that in the introduction, Monty’s wife, Tara, had wasted away after a double lung transplant, as Woo Lee Koo’s wife wasted away from Huntington’s chorea before the eyes of her helpless doctor-husband.
There are countless parallels like that, and they highlight Moody’s gift for being as thoughtful as he is entertaining.
“The Four Fingers of Death” is published by Little Brown (725 pages, $25.99). To order this book in North America, click here.
(Jeffrey Burke is an editor with Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)