Saturday, 18 April 2015

Damnation trolley

A spot of technical geekiness for a change: something struck me as very familiar about the "stair-climbing shopping trolley" on the cover of the Late Spring 2015 catalogue for Solutions World, a catalogue of labour-saving devices. It connects, maybe surprisingly, to a 1977 SF movie, and indirectly to a Roger Zelazny novel.

Tri Trolley detail
This documentary video discusses the Landmaster armoured personal carrier built for the 1977 post-apocalyptic SF movie Damnation Alley. It shares with the Stair-Climbing Tri Trolley"tri-star" wheel configuration: triple wheels in a triangle mounted on a central axle. The whole arrangement is designed to get over obstructions; if a wheel hits an obstacle, the whole assembly rotates.

The setup is pretty common in industrial/commercial applications, such as factory floor stairclimber trolleys, but it's unusual to see it in a mundane application like a shopping trolley. It's never caught on with larger vehicles, except as the occasional military gun carriage such as the M2A2 Terra-Star; the Landmaster built for the film is probably unique, and has an interesting history. Unlike the shopping trolley, it's amphibious, the rotating wheel assemblies acting as paddlewheels.

Landmaster - promotional image - Wikipedia
Low-res image reproduced as fair use for comment

The Landmaster does, by the way, make a brief appearance in one other film: as a refugee transport in the 1994 A.P.E.X (set in a world brought to post-apocalypse not by climate change, but by a time-travel experiment gone badly wrong). See the 2012 review post A.P.E.X.

Returning to Damnation Alley - it was a rather daft film whose silliness included unconvincing giant scorpions and a handy deus ex machina of the Earth's disrupted axial tilt spontaneously recovering. The Landmaster was probably the best thing about it. Roger Zelazny - who wrote the 1967 novel it was based on - disliked it, having approved an earlier script that was rewritten without his knowledge.

The novel is quite good, and rather darker than the film, which pits a largely sympatico group of travellers against implausible natural dangers. The book's focus is more on the cultural effects of the aftermath of a nuclear war, with climatic disruption, and America broken up into police-state enclaves of civilisation - including the nations of California, Salt Lake, and Boston - with badlands in between. The scene is set from the start, both for Tanner's character and also explaining why air travel is impossible in the novel ...
The gull swooped by, seemed to hover a moment on unmoving wings.
    Hell Tanner flipped his cigar butt at it and scored a lucky hit. The bird uttered a hoarse cry and beat suddenly at the air. It climbed about fifty feet, and whether it shrieked a second time, he would never know.
    It was gone.
    A single white feather rocked in the violent sky, drifted out over the edge of the cliff, and descended, swinging, toward the ocean. Tanner chuckled through his beard, against the steady roar of the wind and the pounding of the surf. Then he took his feet down from the handlebars, kicked up the stand, and gunned his bike to life.
Hell Tanner is the last surviving Hell's Angel and a very modern style of anti-hero protagonist, a multiple criminal, described (quite possibly unreliably) as ...
... the lowest, most reprehensible human being I have ever encountered. You have killed men and raped women. You once gouged out a man's eyes, just for fun. You've been indicted twice for pushing dope, and three times as a pimp. you're a drunk and a degenerate, and I don't think you've had a bath since the day you were born. You and your hoodlums terrorized decent people when they were trying to pull their lives together after the war. You stole from them and you assaulted them, and you extorted money and the necessaries of life with the threat of physical violence.
... who is offered parole in exchange for driving across ruined America - a route known as Damnation Alley - to deliver a plague vaccine. How often have we seen such 'criminal offered a deal' scenarios in movies, such as Escape from New York? But it was a relatively fresh device in a 1967 novel. By undertaking this journey, Tanner achieves redemption and even acclaim - and rejects it.
The following spring, on the day of its unveiling in Boston Common, when it was discovered that someone had scrawled obscene words on the statue of Hell Tanner, no one thought to ask the logical candidate why he had done it, and the next day it was too late, because he had cut out without leaving a forwarding address. Several cars were reported stolen that day, and one was never seen again in Boston.
    So they re-veiled his statue, bigger than life, astride a great bronze Harley, and they cleaned him up for hoped-for posterity. But coming upon the Common, the winds still break about him, and the heavens still throw garbage.
It's a variant on the American Monomyth proposed by Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence.

- Ray

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