“The Adaptive Ultimate,” a short story by Stanley G. Weinbaum, was first published in the November 1935 issue of Astounding Stories. A young biochemist, Dan Scott, researching fruit-fly adaptability, believes he has discovered a sort of cure-all serum. Itching to try it on a human subject, he pleads his case to the esteemed surgeon Dr. Herman Bach of Grand Mercy Hospital. Bach finds Scott a charity case, a woman named Kyra Zelas, who is mere hours from dying of tuberculosis. Injected with Scott’s adaptability serum, Zelas is cured. But that’s not all. The skinny woman from the streets becomes the glamorous title character, the “adaptive ultimate,” the most adaptable human being who ever lived. Her appearance changes, chameleon-like, depending on whether it’s day or night, whether she’s indoors or out; it changes, even, depending on whom she’s talking to, for Zelas aims to please. She’s virtually impervious to poisons or wounds, being so adaptable that she can heal herself immediately. And since one sign of human adaptability is the ability to change one’s environment, Zelas sets out to change her surroundings for maximum evolutionary benefit, stopping short of nothing to get her way. She lies, steals, even murders, and becomes one of the most powerful people in Washington, DC—the consort of a Cabinet secretary, John Callan—en route to her eventual goal of world domination. Meanwhile, Scott has fallen in love with her, perhaps for the usual reasons and perhaps because Zelas simply has adapted so well to his presence that he can’t help himself. Zelas claims to love him, too, but this might be the adaptability talking. At any rate, Scott can’t bring himself to kill Zelas, however world-threatening she may be. Instead, he and Bach put Zelas to sleep with carbon dioxide gas—since not even a highly adaptable creature, Scott explains, can live off its own waste products—and then Bach operates on her pineal gland to curtail her adaptive powers. The story ends with the operation an apparent success, as the unconscious Zelas, no longer glamorous, now looks as bedraggled as she did when brought to the hospital; to Scott, however, nothing has changed. “‘How beautiful she is!’ he whispered.... To his eyes, colored by love, she was still Kyra the magnificent” (Weinbaum 74).
This summary demonstrates, I hope, that “The Adaptive Ultimate” is an interesting story on many levels. It is characteristic of Weinbaum’s short fiction, first of all, in that it foregrounds a very interesting female character. In Mary Margaret O’Brien’s survey of what she calls “The Female Hero” in sf, she notes that Weinbaum “regularly wrote stories with strong women characters ... adventurous individuals, aware of their professional roles and responsibilities, but also willing to participate in private lives” (O’Brien 58). Examples she cites from Weinbaum are the biologist Patricia Burlingame in “Parasite Planet” (Astounding, 1935), the prospector Diane Vick in “Flight on Titan,” and the roguish thief Red Peri Maclane in “The Red Peri” (O’Brien 58–60). For O’Brien, the Red Peri, while in some respects the villain of the piece, is also “an independent and self-sufficient woman who has chosen her own course” (O’Brien 60). Though O’Brien doesn’t mention her, the same is true—and then some—of Kyra Zelas, who chooses her own course with a vengeance.
Kyra Zelas is also, of course, a splendid pulp-fiction example of the femme fatale, that sexy, devouring minx who has fueled male fantasies for millennia, a sister to all those sirens and succubi, Circes and Salomes, Pandoras and Helens and Eves, from Lady Macbeth to Ayesha, She-who-must-be-obeyed, from the brides of Dracula to Heather Locklear on Melrose Place. At one point Scott blurts: “She’s not an angel but a female demon, a—what were they called?—an incubus!” (Weinbaum 70). Weinbaum’s title might have been Keats’s: “La Belle Dame sans Merci.” Yet, as Brian Stableford points out, the Romantic femme fatale is never entirely villainous, however menacing (Stableford, “Femme” 348–49); Weinbaum’s portrait of Kyra Zelas is similarly ambiguous. “The impression that lingers,” Brian Attebery notes, “is of the amoral, unearthly siren that she has been. She is all the more memorable because she is essentially unreadable” (Attebery, “Wonder” 2–3). And after all, why shouldn’t Zelas behave as she does? “Since she has no stake in the masculine power structure,” Attebery notes, “she has no compunctions about defying it; none of its laws ... have any hold over her” (Attebery, “Wonder” 2).
If we do read Kyra Zelas through a Romantic lens, as a thinly disguised version of, say, Keats’s Lamia –
So rainbow-sided, touch’d with miseries,
She seem’d, at once, some penanced lady elf,
Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self
—then “The Adaptive Ultimate” becomes what John Clute and company might call a rationalized fantasy, one in which the fantasy element is explained away using sf tropes (Kaveney 801–02). Weinbaum tried to do something similar in another interesting story, “Pygmalion’s Spectacles” (Wonder Stories, 1935), a more hardware-intensive version of Fitz-James O’Brien’s 1858 fantasy classic “The Diamond Lens.” Moreover, Weinbaum’s attempt to graft his updated Lamia into a contemporary urban world of bread lines, tuberculosis wards, and New Deal politics anticipates the midcentury urban fantasies of Fritz Leiber, beginning with his landmark story “Smoke Ghost” six years later (Unknown, 1941). Had Weinbaum not died before its debut, he might have become one of the staple contributors to John W. Campbell Jr.’s Unknown, the classic updated-fantasy magazine of the pulp era.
In terms of science fiction, of course, “The Adaptive Ultimate” is a superman story—though in this case, surprisingly enough, the superman is a superwoman. With his customary wit, Brian Attebery has articulated pulp sf’s difficulty in depicting superwomen, as opposed to supermen:
The master evolutionary narrative which generates the notion of a super male offers no extrapolative path toward superwoman. Exaggerate the traits that the metanarrative associates with masculinity and you get the stronger, smarter, faster, more aggressive, more inventive superman of sf tradition. Exaggerate the feminine traits and you get someone who erases herself from the story. (Attebery, “Wonder” 1)
In its Romantic ambivalence toward the superbeing, “The Adaptive Ultimate” could be seen as marking a transition phase in American pulp sf, positioned as it is between the early superman-as-menace story, exemplified by John Russell Fearn’s The Intelligence Gigantic (Amazing, 1933), and the later superman-as-hero story, exemplified by A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan (Astounding, 1940). Crucial to this transition, of course, was Weinbaum’s own novel The New Adam, written before “The Adaptive Ultimate” but published posthumously in 1939, a year after the comic-book debut of Siegel and Shuster’s Superman made the subject more marketable. Weinbaum’s novel is a “pioneering work,” a “painstaking account of a superhuman growing up in the human world, treating the hypothesis objectively” (Stableford, “Superman” 1181).
Structurally, however, “The Adaptive Ultimate” maps most closely onto a classic that is neither sf nor fantasy, another story of a woman experimentally elevated from the gutter and placed in the highest reaches of society, with deeply problematic results: George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, which predates Weinbaum’s story by 20 years. Zelas is Eliza Doolittle, the elevated guttersnipe. Scott is Professor Henry Higgins, the social engineer undone by his engineering; Dr. Bach is Colonel Pickering, the social engineer’s avuncular, fretful sidekick; Cabinet officer John Callan is Freddy Eynsford-Hill, the suitable suitor of the newly elegant Eliza/Kyra. There are even complementary housekeepers, Shaw’s Mrs. Pearce and Weinbaum’s Mrs. Getz. Kyra, like Eliza, lives with the bachelor researchers for the duration of the experiment, thus raising eyebrows. Eliza makes a scandalous public debut before being acclaimed as royalty at the Embassy ball; Kyra, similarly, makes a scandalous public debut as a murder-trial defendant before being acclaimed as royalty by the Washington press corps, which likens her to Cleopatra. Kyra and Scott arguably come to care for each other in some tormented fashion, as, arguably, do Eliza and Higgins; and in each case, the outcome of the “romance” is highly ambiguous. A final parallel and the most important one: Eliza Doolittle’s transformation is ultimately a class transformation. So is Kyra Zelas’s. (Attebery cites Zelas’s rejection of “middle-class morality,” thus echoing Alfred P. Doolittle’s pet phrase in Shaw’s play. Doolittle, like Zelas an “outsider,” views middle-class morality as the bane of his existence [“Wonder” 3].) Scott’s fruit-fly serum serves the same function as the futuristic medical kit in a later, more famous sf story, Cyril Kornbluth’s “The Little Black Bag”: They’re both metaphorical engines of social mobility.
When brought into Bach’s hospital, Zelas is a sometime sweatshop employee suffering the final stages of tuberculosis with exactly two dollars and thirty-three cents to her name (Weinbaum 56). “Her name and her sweatshop job,” Attebery observes, “suggest that she is a recent immigrant. Poor, ignorant, foreign, and female: she could hardly be more strongly Other” (Attebery, “Wonder” 1). Readers in 1935 would immediately have recognized that this was a woman at the bottom of every American ladder—economic, social, even moral. In the mid-1930s, tuberculosis, or TB, was a nationwide epidemic. The United States had 600 tuberculosis sanitariums housing a total of 84,000 beds. But most TB sufferers were among the ranks of the poor and disadvantaged, so they did their coughing and dying at home or on the streets. Because it was widely seen as a poor person’s disease, many Americans viewed it as a stigma of the lower classes, even as a sign of moral failure resulting from immoral lifestyles—as cancer had been viewed earlier, and as AIDS would be later (Padilla).
From these bottom-most beginnings, Zelas ascends quickly, soon becoming so powerful in Washington that the newspapers call her “the tenth cabineteer” (Weinbaum 66). By story’s end, granted, Scott and Bach seem to have set things partially to rights by robbing Zelas of her powers, but poor Dr. Bach, once a renowned brain surgeon—“the Dr. Herman Bach of Grand Mercy Hospital,” he is described in the first paragraph (emphasis added) (Weinbaum 51)—has become in the process a prisoner in his own home, a closet vivisectionist, and an accomplice to murder, while the brilliant young Scott has become, arguably, a lust-ruined basket case. The last becomes first, the first becomes last. The shapeshifting Kyra Zelas is a pivot on which society turns upside down.
There are affinities here with one of the most influential short stories of the nineteenth century, Guy de Maupassant’s “Boule de Suif,” first published in 1880. The untranslatable title is the nickname of the prostitute who is the focus of the story; an English version might be any term of cloying endearment that reduces a woman to a foodstuff, as in “Sugar Dumpling.” Garry Wills summarizes de Maupassant’s story well:
Maupassant told the tale of an 1876 coach trip from Rouen to Le Havre, in which the passengers’ attitudes toward a prostitute on board alter their behavior from station to station.... This tale ... exactly reverses the characters’ rank in the course of the voyage. They enter by order of their social position. They exit in the order of their honor....
Nine of the ten travelers are initially united by their contempt for the whore. But when the coach is stalled, and it turns out that she alone has food, all nine (even the nuns) grow respectful toward her. They congratulate her when she patriotically rejects the sexual overtures of a Prussian officer at their first stop. But when they discover that the officer has power to hold them until she gives in, the company (even the nuns) persuade her that it is her duty to ease their journey onward. Once she has done this, of course, and the voyage is resumed, they revert to their earlier contempt for her—all but the dissolute radical, who despises the hypocrites and respects her honesty. The nuns now rank at the bottom of the human scale, along with the count and countess, who should have shown higher standards.
Maupassant’s tale is called radical, since he had clear class structures and the Church to castigate. (82–83)
Indeed, de Maupassant’s story, by design, created a sensation on first publication, in an original anthology that also featured stories by the reliably shocking Émile Zola and that future scandalous apostle of Decadence, Joris-Karl Huysmans. “The columns of the most popular newspapers were immediately opened to Maupassant, and practically overnight he became, with Zola, the highest-paid writer of the day” (Artinian ix–x). “The Adaptive Ultimate” caused no such stir, of course, 55 years later in the lowly, pulpy pages of Astounding. But note how it makes the same subversive move as de Maupassant, and on the same shapeshifting pivot. For de Maupassant’s protagonist is a shapeshifter, in a social sense; in the course of the coach ride, she is, by turns, a despised whore, a nurturing and nourishing mother figure, a heroic patriot, a despised whore once again, and finally, in the radical’s eyes, a fellow radical. She’s as adaptive as Kyra Zelas, who in Weinbaum’s story shapeshifts socially as well as literally; she is, by turns, a down-and-out sweatshop worker, a medical guinea pig, a housekeeper (or so Bach claims), a housewife (or so Scott would have her), an infamous murder defendant, a mistress of the powerful, and a power in her own right. Suffice to say that Kyra Zelas, like de Maupassant’s whore, gets around.
Weinbaum even has her muddle what was, in the 1930s, a far more rigidly defined boundary than class: race. Weinbaum works more subtly here, given his time period, his market, his audience, but he gives us some clues. During one of his lectures on adaptation, Scott specifically puts race onto the table: “Sunny regions produce dark-skinned, dark-haired people; northern lands produce blonds—and that’s adaptation again” (Weinbaum 59). When Zelas leaves the courthouse, the change is described thus:
In the broad light of noon, her complexion was no longer the white of alabaster; it was creamy tan, the skin of one exposed long hours to sunlight; her eyes were deep violet, and her hair ... was as black as the basalt columns of hell! (Weinbaum 58)
Elsewhere Zelas is described as a “weirdly beautiful creature of exotic coloring” (Weinbaum 57). The phrase “dusky wench” seems not far from the surface here. But just in case we’re tempted to read that “creamy tan” skin as merely the Heather Locklear sort, Scott leaves us no such option when he proclaims: “In sunlight, her hair and eyes are those of a tropical race” (Weinbaum 59). Kyra Zelas is so adaptable that she is virtually a mixed-race person, a mulatto who can “pass.”
Countless literary and cultural commentators have discussed the hierarchy-threatening role of the mulatto/mulatta. Diane Roberts writes: “If the nation legally and socially defines itself through the violent hierarchies of white and black, high and low, the mulatta is at best a mix of intolerables, a volatile hybrid” (Roberts 92). The nonwhite person who can “pass” as white underscores the truth articulated by Richard Dyer in his groundbreaking book titled simply White: White is a social distinction, forever in flux. Sometimes the Irish are white, sometimes not; sometimes the Jews are white, sometimes not; a white asphalt spreader isn’t as white as a white corporate lawyer; while “to be a lady is to be as white as it gets” (57). To Dyer, white as a skin color is thus an “unstable, unbounded” category, “and therein lies its strength. It enables whiteness to be presented as an apparently attainable, flexible, varied category while setting up an always movable criterion of inclusion, the ascribed whiteness of your skin” (ibid). In a racially polarized Depression-era America, Kyra Zelas is a “flexible, varied category” all her own, her skin color “an always movable criterion of inclusion.”
And no 1930s writer named Stanley Grauman Weinbaum could have failed to be aware of the widespread anti-Semitic belief that Jews were suspect aliens precisely because they seemed to be such racial chameleons. Sander Gilman in his 1991 book The Jew’s Body notes that eighteenth- and nineteenth-century racial theorists believed Jews were “the adaptive people par excellence” (Gilman 177). Gilman quotes one observer writing in 1787: “In Britain and Germany they are fair, brown in France and in Turkey, swarthy in Portugal and Spain, olive in Syria and Chaldea, tawny or copper-colored in Arabia and Egypt” (qtd. in Gilman 177). Well, that’s adaptation again, Weinbaum’s young Dr. Scott might say, thus alarming those in the audience who prefer their Jews safely ghettoized. “Adaptability,” Dyer writes, “could easily be viewed as the capacity to infiltrate, passing for gentile as a kind of corruption of whiteness” (Dyer 57).
Now, for all my turning “The Adaptive Ultimate” this way and that, to see how it shines in the light of class and the light of race, the attentive reader will note that I have yet to put it directly beneath the most obvious source of illumination, namely the heat lamp of sex. It must be said that “The Adaptive Ultimate” is a very sexy story, and if you’re in the right mood a very funny one—a dark-humored sex comedy about a struggle for dominance, played out mostly via innuendo.
There is a slight hint at the outset that Zelas has been a prostitute, or at least that Bach, anyway, believes her to have been a prostitute. “I hate to turn her out to the sort of life that brought her here,” Bach says. “Piece-work in some sweatshop, when she could work at all” (Weinbaum 54). What she did for bread between sweatshop engagements is left to the reader, but “piece-work” might be read as a bitter pun. If so, the rest of Bach’s speech takes on sexual overtones as well: “So it occurred to me that she could stay at my place. We could keep her under observation, you see, and she could help the housekeeper. I’m interested—damn interested” (Weinbaum 54). We find out later that Bach not only has given Zelas the run of his house but has assigned her his own bedroom. It’s appropriate that in the middle of Bach’s somewhat awkward recitation, “Scott gave him a strange look” (Weinbaum 54). On first reading, this is prompted solely by Bach’s comment, “She adapts quickly,” which reminds Scott of his research on adaptability in fruit flies, but on second reading we see larger reasons for Scott to eye Bach askance.
A similar double meaning is inherent later, in Scott’s breathless remark in the courtroom: “I’ve got to see her. There’s something I have to find” (57). But Scott has good reason to be breathless by then, as he has made an exciting discovery about Zelas’s newfound talents. Scott explains to Bach:
When she was faced with danger there in the courtroom, faced by a jury and judge who were men, she adapted to that! She met that danger, not only by changed appearance, but by a beauty so great that she couldn’t have been convicted! (59–60)
Scott is so addled by this made-to-order sexpot on the stand that he initially doesn’t recognize the effects of his own formula. In the courtroom, Scott asks Bach: “Do you mean you think she’s the same Kyra Zelas we had at the hospital?” (57). As if there are likely to be two women in the city named Kyra Zelas! In fact, Weinbaum himself, normally an attentive and efficient writer, seems temporarily befogged during the courtroom scene. As Scott leaves the courtroom, he buys a copy of a newspaper that features on the front page a photo of Zelas on the witness stand, a photo that could have been snapped only moments before! (58). Tabloid coverage was fast in the 1930s, but not that fast; Zelas’s beauty seems to have warped the very fabric of spacetime, or at least the proofreading skills of Weinbaum and the Astounding staff.
But now we return to Bach’s hothouse, home of two overintellectualized, pent-up, frustrated bachelors; an invisible housekeeper; and a seemingly endlessly adaptable living love doll—and the sex comedy shifts into high gear. Weinbaum gives us some delirious passages:
For Scott, it was sheer torture, for he realized only too well that the girl he loved was a freak, a biological sport, and worse than that, a cold murderess and a creature not exactly human. Yet for the next several days things went smoothly. Kyra slipped easily into the routine; she was ever a willing subject for their inquiries and investigations. (62–63)
Note that in calling Zelas a “biological sport,” Weinbaum is making a pun. Among geneticists, a sport is a freakish and often disturbing anomaly in the animal or plant kingdom, which Zelas certainly is. But in the vocabulary of sex, a sport, a sporting woman, one who sports, is someone much to be desired, which Zelas certainly is as well, at least for the besotted Scott. “For the first time in my life,” Bach tells him, “I’m glad I’m an old man,” which sounds, at this point, like sour grapes (63).
But eventually Scott and Bach tire of the game playing, decide Kyra Zelas is just too adaptable—too sexual?—and decide she must be stopped. (One wonders how many involuntary hysterectomies were performed at Mercy General.) Thinking they can surgically “return her to normal” (Weinbaum 63) by operating on Zelas’s pineal gland, Scott and Bach keep trying to render Zelas unconscious, to no avail. But again, their fumbled, yearning attempts have a strong sexual undertone. They’re determined to “overcome” this woman. Their frustration mounts. Zelas doesn’t even bother to lock her bedroom door, which is simultaneously exciting and insulting, so the guys creep in and out at will, their pitiful little weapons at the ready.1 At one point, awakened in her bed by yet another attempt on her integrity, Zelas stabs herself in the chest, or as Weinbaum says, in the “bosom,” to demonstrate dramatically the futility of their attempts: “A single spot of blood showed on her flesh, she wiped it away, and displayed her skin, pale, unscarred, beautiful. / ‘Go away,’ she said softly, and they departed” (64). In this moment, Zelas has become powerful enough to banish not one man but two from her bedroom with a word; one pictures them slinking away in silence from the bare-bosomed Kyra, thoroughly humiliated, two eunuchs who displeased the empress. After Zelas banishes the two men from her bedroom, the next sentence, in context, is very funny: “The next day she made no reference to the incident” (64). An attempt to chloroform and vivisect her while she slept has been reduced to a mere social faux pas.
These guys not only aren’t a threat; they aren’t any fun any more, either. They’re just embarrassing. Zelas decides, rightly, that it’s time to bail on these losers and find herself a worthy opponent, and she says so in no uncertain terms: “Tomorrow I go out of here to seek power” (Weinbaum 65). Like a threatened husband, Scott demands of Zelas that she stay put: “Promise me! Swear that you’ll not step beyond that door without me!” (65). What ensues reads like a parody of the romance fiction with which Weinbaum began his professional career:
Her silver eyes looked steadily into his from a face like that of a marble angel. “I swear it,” she murmured. “By anything you name, I swear it, Dan.”
And in the morning she was gone, taking what cash and bills had been in Scott’s wallet, and in Bach’s as well. And, they discovered later, in Mrs. Getz’s also....
“The lie as an adaptive mechanism,” said Bach, “deserves more attention than it has received.” (Weinbaum 65)
Given all the foregoing delirious sexual politics, the weakest part of the story is Kyra Zelas’s inexplicable decision, after becoming the toast of Washington, to come back for a visit, claiming that she loves Scott and wants him to rule the world at her side. Earlier, Scott had said: “Her adaptability can’t be infinite. She’s immune to drugs and immune to wounds, but she can’t be above the fundamental laws of biology” (68–69). Or, apparently, the fundamental laws of pulp fiction, which require that Zelas return to Bach’s house, back to the clutches of the only two people on Earth who know her powers and who are sworn to stop her. The guys make the most of their opportunity with a final intrusion into Zelas’s bedroom, this one successful. As Zelas succumbs, while Scott plays the voyeur outside the window, the climax is described in insistently sexual terms:
Surely—surely her breathing was quickening.
... her breast rose and fell in convulsive gasps.... Her bare legs flashed.... Her face was close to his.... her mouth and throat were straining violently for breath.... She raised her hand ... the blow landed, but weakly ... then her magnificent eyes misted and closed, she ... at last collapsed limply.... (72–73)
The first words spoken thereafter are Bach’s: “A goddess overcome. There is something sinful about our part in this” (73).
Shaw’s Pygmalion famously ends with Eliza sweeping forth to marry Freddy, while Higgins, abandoned, laughs hysterically; Shaw was vexed for decades by playgoers demanding to know what happened next. Weinbaum’s ending is just as ambiguous. Kyra lies there unconscious, looking as she did when we met her, her adaptability apparently gone. Has Kyra’s TB come back? Is she on her deathbed once more? (Kyra Zelas’s pulmonary disease may have had autobiographical resonance for Weinbaum, who himself would die of lung cancer in summer 1935, a month before “The Adaptive Ultimate” was published.) When she awakens, if she does, will she remember her exploits of the past few months, including the casual murders? If so, how will she deal with the knowledge? Moreover, will she still feel anything for Scott, or was her attraction to him merely a function of her adaptability? Granted, she claimed earlier that she felt something for him that she apparently didn’t feel for Bach or the Cabinet officer Callan, but how trustworthy is this? And what about Scott? By the story’s end, is he quite sane? Was he attracted at least partially to Kyra’s amoral cruelty, and has he learned from her example? The bondage-and-submission elements certainly escalated in the second half of the story; will Scott now be in any hurry to loosen those straps that bind her “slim bare legs” to the table? The more one ponders Weinbaum’s ending, the more rife with ramifications it becomes.
I hope I have demonstrated that “The Adaptive Ultimate” is a complicated story. It’s appropriate that its ending be complicated, too. Shaw’s belated epilogue to Pygmalion might help re-focus our attention on the larger concerns of Weinbaum’s tale:
The rest of the story need not be shewn in action, and indeed, would hardly need telling if our imaginations were not so enfeebled by their lazy dependence on the ready-mades and reach-me-downs of the ragshop in which Romance keeps its stock of “happy endings” to misfit all stories. Now, the history of Eliza Doolittle, though called a romance because the transfiguration it records seems exceedingly improbable, is common enough. Such transfigurations have been achieved by hundreds of resolutely ambitious young women since Nell Gwynne set them the example by playing queens and fascinating kings in the theatre in which she began by selling oranges. Nevertheless, people in all directions have assumed, for no other reason than that she became the heroine of a romance, that she must have married the hero of it. This is unbearable.... (134)
“The Adaptive Ultimate” itself has been adapted several times, at least once for radio (Escape, 1949), three times for television (Studio One, 1949; Tales of Tomorrow, 1952; Science Fiction Theatre, 1955), and once as a feature film (Kurt Neumann’s She Devil, 1957). Having experienced none of these, I will defer any conversation about them to others until I’ve closed the gaps in my knowledge. Note, however, that the most recent of these adaptations listed by Wikipedia is 60 years old, so a revisiting of the material is overdue. At one point, while I was in graduate school, Jan de Bont, the director of Speed, Twister, and the remake of The Haunting, was considering making a feature film of “The Adaptive Ultimate,” according to the Hollywood press; so, rather more encouragingly, was actor Nicole Kidman. My fear at the time was that Kyra Zelas would be forced to adapt yet again, to become something rather like Natasha Henstridge in the two Species movies, a leggy supermodel in a tight dress who sprouts talons and power tools at intimate moments, the better to rip her mates gorily asunder, so that she in turn can be gorily dispatched at the, uh, climax, enabling the predominantly male audience to go home satisfied on many levels. As I hope I have demonstrated, that would not at all be the story Weinbaum told. The feature film I envision would be a sardonic black comedy about sex and social climbing, perhaps starring Gal Gadot between Wonder Woman obligations. The story of Kyra Zelas, like Kyra Zelas herself, is plenty adaptable, if we’re willing to adapt ourselves to it.
Andy Duncan lives in Frostburg, Maryland.
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1. Another male attacker invades another superwoman’s boudoir in A.E. Van Vogt’s novel Slan, published five years after “The Adaptive Ultimate.” Van Vogt’s scene is likewise sexually charged, as Kathleen Layton telepathically senses the man’s “gathering excitement” and fears he will “pin her down under the blankets and have her at his mercy” (qtd. in Attebery, “Super” 64). The outcome, again, is the attacker’s humiliation, as Layton calls him a “silly fool” (Van Vogt 21).