Mel Oliver and Space Rover on Mars

William Morrison published only one book over a two-decade-long career in science fiction and it is this utterly forgotten juvenile. Mel Oliver and Space Rover on Mars, though it was supposed to be the first of a series for juveniles, vanished into immediate obscurity. It has never been reprinted in English or in hardback, not even as a nostalgia piece as many other 50s books have been recently. There were two Dutch editions and that’s it. Contrast that with Undersea Quest, its immediate predecessor, which went on to fill out a trilogy and see several paperback reprints. Although the reviews were generally good, the book failed.

That’s kept to make William Morrison virtually unknown, to the point where most people don’t realize that it is a pseudonym – even though his real name is mentioned right there on the back flap. He has a story and it’s a good one.

Joseph Samachson is another of the working scientists who hid his identity when writing science fiction, like Eric Temple Bell (John Taine) and John R. Pierce (J.J. Coupling). As a young prodigy, he started at the top, earning a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Yale at the age of 23. He held a series of prestigious positions through the 1930s, but abruptly left to enter the world of freelance writing, symbolically killing off his career with the 1937 Murder of a Professor. It couldn’t have been a major part of his income, but he inevitably gravitated toward writing some low-end science fiction for the pulps, even ghosting a couple of Captain Future stories under the house name of Brett Sterling. A smaller number of pulp mysteries also appeared.

Pulps were subordinate to another field also not associated with doctorates: comic books. He was a prized writer for DC Comics, a versatile and prolific penmanthey could throw at any title, from Batman, Superman, Aquaman, and Starman to the Boy Commandos, Stripsey and Wing, Two-Gun Percy, Liberty Belle, and Mike Gibbs, Guerilla. He’s also credited with creating Tomahawk, a Revolutionary War frontiersman, before he phased out of the field in 1951.

Samachson returned to writing science fiction in 1949, producing more than 50 stories over the next decade, mostly in the lower-end magazines but with appearances in Astounding, Galaxy, and F&SF. Mel Oliver is part of this burst of activity, no doubt a logical step in Samachson’s mind. Perhaps the failure of the novel is what drove him back to comics for a brief time in 1955 and 1956, when he co-created J’ohn J’onzz, Martian Manhunter.

Unlike so many others, Samachson had a successful third act. Not only did he return to academia, becoming Associate Clinical Professor of biochemistry at Loyola University, Chicago, but he wrote nearly a dozen nonfiction books, almost all of them with his wife, Dorothy. He died in 1980 at the age of 74.

Ellen Lewis Buell reviewed Mel Oliver for the New York Times Book Review, August 8, 1954:

Mr. Morrison’s fantastic creatures are not as brilliantly devised as Robert Heinlein’s flat cats and bouncers, and his mystery is pretty obvious.

Groff Conklin reviewed it in the November 1954 Galaxy:

I’d call the book a worthwhile item for the young and also for us older folk who are in search of vicarious escape.

Mel Oliver and Space Rover on Mars, by William Morrison (pseud. of Joseph Samachson), 1954, title #41, 191 pages, $2.50, 4000 copies printed.

Hardback, yellow boards with red printing. Jacket design by Emsh. Front boards contain drawings of Mel Oliver and Space Rover. “FIRST EDITION” stated on copyright page. Designed by Sidney Solomon. Printed in the U.S.A. by H. Wolff. Back cover: 31 titles. Gnome Press address given as 80 East 11th St., New York 3

Mel Oliver jacket coverMel Oliver jacket FlapsMel Oliver yellow cover