Nuclear War, Human Mind Control, and Cold War Biowarfare – The Other Books of Robert C. O’Brien

While his most famous work, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, addressed the ethics of animal testing, genetic engineering, and the dangers of materialism, Robert Conly (Robert C. O’Brien) didn’t limit his concerns to one book. He continued to address anxieties of the time in his three other books – two of them for children and one for adults. It would be difficult to describe them all in depth (even my thesis didn’t allow for the expression of the deep research of them), I will try to give an overview of the three books and the kinds of worries that he conveyed through his fiction.

The Silver Crown:
The Silver Crown was Conly’s first published work of fiction. The intended age group was about the same, if not perhaps a little lower, than Mrs. Frisby. The story is a fantasy story, but like so many other fantasy stories, the villains and other obstacles are representative of real world dangers. The primary dangers in The Silver Crown are those posed by mind control, systematization of education, and gun violence. In the novel, the mind control and malignant education is administered by something called the Hieronymus Machine. The dark king who has the machine is himself more a puppet of the machine than a villain with their own agency. The victims are children taken from the streets and other places where they were less likely to be reported missing. They were given numbers instead of names and taught subjects with names such as “Elementary Destruction” or participated in exercises in which they were encouraged to attack police officers. The minions of the dark king murder a man early in the tale, Conly directly describing the shooting and death of the victim.

This book is still print from Simon and Schuster:

Z for Zachariah:
Z for Zachariah, a book aimed at the young adult audience, quickly identifies itself as a book concerned with nuclear apocalypse, however, the book also addresses other issues. The antagonist is a scientist who has murdered his co-worker for the protective suit that allows him to walk into affected lands. Additionally, the antagonist quickly tries to dominate the female protagonist – a teenage girl who is the sole survivor of her family. When looked at in the context of the time it was written, it also points out the kinds of violent stances some people were taking in terms of defending their fallout shelters (one man who was interviewed for a August 18, 1961 Time magazine article called “Gun Thy Neighbor” proclaimed “”When I get my shelter finished, I’m going to mount a machine gun at the hatch to keep the neighbors out if the bomb falls. I’m deadly serious about this. If the stupid American public will not do what they have to to save themselves, I’m not going to run the risk of not being able to use the shelter I’ve taken the trouble to provide to save my own family.”) and portrays scenes in which the female protagonist becomes a target for rape. The girl leaves on her own, stealing the suit, and refusing to become submissive to the scientist. (Note: While this book was mostly written at the time of Conly’s death, his wife and daughter finished it for publication. In personally reviewing the available manuscripts at the University of Minnesota, I believe that most of Conly’s overall intentions were preserved. See my thesis for some additional details on these changes.)

This book is in print and available from Simon & Schuster:

A Report from Group 17:
A Report from Group 17 was Conly’s only book for adults. It returns to the issues of scientific testing ethics – this time including a human test subject. Even the names of the scientists are almost the same – Dr. Schultz vs. Dr. Schulz. A Cold War thriller, it also includes covert biowarfare, Nazi war criminals who have escaped prosecution, and sexual sadism. One gets the impression that Conly is saying things about unethical scientific practices that he could not address in his children’s works. It also seems likely that there is an allusion to Dr. Mengele in his antagonists. These antagonists are working on a drug that will make the victims passive toward those who control them. I feel it also subtly suggests (or at least leaves the option open) that these kinds of outlawed studies are going on even in the United States.

This books is no longer in print, but places like the fantastic may have used copies for sale.

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