Logan's Run: A Classic Dystopian Novel From William F Nolan And George Clayton Johnson

Jul 11, 2020
Logan's Run - 'New Wave SF' cover version
Logan's Run - 'New Wave SF' cover version
Some things in life may change, but as far back as I can remember, Logan’s Run has always been my favourite science fiction novel. Published in 1967 it’s an amphetamine rush of a story that takes place over the course of 24 hours (a narrative device that works well to maintain a sense of tension and impending doom – the reverse chapter numbers effectively become a countdown sequence) written at a galloping breakneck pace that takes the reader through a series of brilliant set pieces.

A lot of people have seen the film from the mid-seventies but don’t realise how much the novel differs from the cinematic treatment. Set sometime in the future following a critical mass point where the world’s population exceeded the planet’s ability to sustain it, and a profound shift in the demographic towards young people (as it happens, the exact opposite of what we now face in the 21st century), the novel postulates a society where euthanasia at the age of 21 is compulsory. During your short lifespan you can indulge yourself on the kind of hedonistic luxuries that the late sixties rock star lifestyle seemed to offer a select few, but once the life clock embedded in the palm of your hand begins to blink red/black you’re on your last 24 hours, after which it’s time to turn yourself in for deep sleep.

Most people are satisfied with their allowance of years but those who don’t take hope from the legends of ‘Sanctuary’, a mythical place where people are free to enjoy the three score and ten years of their ancestors. Society enforces its deep sleep policy by sending ‘Sandmen’ to hunt down these runners and terminate them. The Sanctuary line is organised by a legendary figure called Ballard (named after JG Ballard) who, according to the apocryphal stories, has lived well past his 21st birthday. No one knows what Ballard looks like, or where he lives, or whether he is even real. But to the Sandmen, he is some sort of bogeyman – their very own Osama Bin Laden.

Logan 3 is one of the most efficient Sandmen and, alongside his partner, Francis 7, he has a near perfect record. But at the start of the novel, Logan 3 is on ‘Lastday’ – his palm clock is blinking red/black and in 24 hours he will turn himself in.

But what to do on your last day?

Many people would binge on one last flurry of sex and drugs – all of which are easily and happily available - but not Logan, who decides he’s going to leave his ambitious mark on society by finding ‘Sanctuary’ and destroying it. His one clue to the Sanctuary ‘underground railroad’ is a girl, Jessica 6, who knows the first stage of the secret pipeline. Logan decides to take advantage of his blinking life clock, convince her that he too wants to run, and then use her to find Sanctuary and kill everyone associated with it. This differs considerably from the film version of Logan who is portrayed as a misguided victim of the society he supports. In the book, Logan is, from the outset, a faithful and determined member of the police force, intent on murdering society’s enemies.

Logan's Run - film cover version
Logan's Run - film cover version
The film made the mistake of switching the setting from the entire planet (therefore, by implication, there really is nowhere to run to, as the whole world wants you dead) to a single domed city. In doing so it misses out on many of the gripping set pieces found in the novel. Gone is the penal prison camp in the Arctic circle where convicts are dispatched on a one-way trip by mono-rail to be deposited in a frozen wilderness. This prison needs no guards or walls, because once you end up there, there is no way out and your life is lucky to be measured in months. Gone is the crumbling underwater city, long since abandoned by people, but still maintained as part of the secret route to Sanctuary. Gone are the packs of drug-crazed gypsy sky riders who raid the barren plains, and gone is the great complex built inside the Crazy Horse mountains. Some aspects of the book remain, such as the Cubs in Cathedral – young children addicted to the combat drug 'muscle' that speeds up the metabolism but runs the risk of killing any users over the age of 16 - but by and large Nolan’s vision of late sixties hope and hedonism gone bad is sanitised.

Gradually, as the book unwinds and Logan gets closer to his own personal Lastday, he begins to question his position as the formidable angel of death, and when the final chapters arrive, the dĂ©nouement of what Sanctuary is, and who Ballard is, are both very well executed and logical. But there is no corny ‘love conquers all’ sequence where he suddenly repents. Nolan treats the reader with a little more respect than that.

The book is a classic example of a multitude of fresh, exciting ideas packed into a short, tight narrative. Like many of the books published during the short lived ‘new wave of SF’ it is lean and experimental in form but also gripping and dynamic in its scope. The only other book, to my knowledge, from this period that has a similar pace and feel (if not concept) is Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley.

For a very long time it was out of print, and tracking down second hand copies was very difficult, which is strange because it sold well. It is tellingly significant that my own copy is battered and worn – a rare condition in my otherwise pristine book collection – but testament to the difficulty I’ve had in locating a cleaner copy. They just do not seem to exist whenever/wherever I look online.

Nolan later wrote two sequels, Logan’s World and Logan’s Search. The former is a great read, the latter less so.

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