Sunday, December 9, 2018

Three 1970s stories by Clifford Simak

Simak is back, here at MPorcius Fiction Log.  In our last episode we looked at three stories from the period 1954-1960 by the Grandmaster everybody calls "pastoral," three stories that all had the same basic plot.  Today we're talking about three stories by Simak from the 1970s; we'll see how many plots Simak exposes us to in this batch.

"To Walk a City's Street" (1972)

"To Walk a City's Street" was first published in Robert Hoskins's anthology Infinity Three--Simak gets top billing on the cover, his name appearing above the famous Robert Silverberg and MPorcius fave Barry Malzberg!  I own a copy of Infinty Three and that is where I am reading it; "To Walk a City's Street" was also selected by Donald Wollheim and Arthur Saha for DAW's 1973 Annual World's Best SF.

This is a brief story written in a spare straightforward style, consisting mostly of dialogue.  Ernie Foss is a man of low intelligence, a petty thief who was living hand to mouth in a slum four or five years ago when government researchers realized he has a strange gift--he emits an aura which cures people of illnesses and prevents disease.  The government scientists studied him and tried to figure out how his beneficial power, which was absolutely out of the dimwit's control, worked, but their efforts were in vain.  So they decided that the thing to do was to drive Ernie around the country, to compel him to walk around in slums all over the United States, helping improve the health of our nation's most vulnerable citizens.  This weird health campaign is kept a secret from the press and public.

We learn all this gradually as the story, which describes one night in Ernie's life, unfolds.  Ernie does not like travelling the country with government agents who tell him where to go and watch him ceaselessly, and he tries without success to escape.  One of the themes the story  brings up is to what extent each of us is responsible to everybody else, to what extent the government can abridge your freedom in its pursuit of the common good.

This story also has a twist ending ("To Walk a City's Street" is the kind of story that reminds me of TV's Twilight Zone.)  It seems that Ernie's aura kills germs and viruses, with the result that people in his vicinity don't get sick, but also plants the seeds of a deadly affliction that strikes five years after contact with Ernie--all the people from his old neighborhood are suddenly keeling over.  What will the four agents who are chaperoning Ernie do now, knowing that they are doomed and Ernie is a public menace and other government agents may soon be after them to make sure they don't blab to the world the government's horrible blunder?

I like it.

"The Ghost of a Model T" (1975)

Hardcover edition
This story first appeared in Epoch, an anthology of work meant to represent "The State of the Art of Science Fiction Now."  I own a paperback edition of Epoch, purchased at a Missouri flea market in 2013.  "The Ghost of a Model T" was selected by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America for inclusion in the Fantasy Hall of Fame, so I guess we can think of this story as a favorite of the pros.  But will it be a favorite of the staff of amateurs at MPorcius Fiction Log?

Hank is an old man, walking home from the bar, alone, never having married, his dog having died, only his lonely house awaiting him.  He is reminiscing about the good old days before all the taxes and regulations of today, when machines were simpler, like his Model T.  He can still hear the distinctive sound of that Model T....

A Model T pulls up next to him, one without a driver.  It drives itself, this machine, and it takes Hank all over the country of his youth, where he drinks moonshine and dances in a barn with the kind of youngsters he danced with in his own youth, then meets his old friend Virg, a man who, like Hank, failed to marry and amounted to little.  The Model T carries the two all over the country, to Chicago and New York and New Orleans, in a version of the USA where it is always 3:00 AM and Hank and Virg's bottle of moonshine never runs out and they need never stop to eat or sleep.  For Hank and Virg, this is Heaven.

In his afterword Simak admits that this is an exercise in nostalgia, that he considers the 1920s, in some ways at least, a better time than the decades that succeeded it, more innocent and simple, and the Model T a symbol of that age.*

This is a successful mood piece, marginally good, but no big deal.  It is easy to enumerate the many ways life was better in 1975 than 1925, but I find it just as easy to sympathize with Simak's nostalgia for the period of his youth (Simak was born in 1904 and so experienced the Twenties first hand as a young man)--every day I look back from my current situation (AKA "the living death") to my New York days and am not sure if I feel like those days were a beautiful dream and this the sterile reality or this suburban life a monotonous monochrome nightmare into which I fell the day I left the Upper East Side.

*I swear that it is mere coincidence that I read "The Ghost of a Model T" the same day the wife and I sold our 2006 Toyota Corolla and bought a 2019 Toyota Corolla and I realized with a groan that all the radar and camera safety features on the new car were not going to lower our insurance rates by rendering driving safer, as I had naively assumed, but increase them by complicating any potential repairs.

"Party Line" (1978)

"Party Line" made its debut in the first issue of Destinies, an odd artifact from James Baen and Ace, an attempt to produce something like a magazine in paperback form.  As we might expect from a magazine, there are quite a few ads (for new SF books from Ace like Gordon R. Dickson's Pro and Colin Kapp's The Ion War) and book reviews (by Spider Robinson) and illustrations (a large proportion of these celebrate the beauty of the female form, or try to: I like Stephen Fabian and Ernesto Maroto, but Alex Schomburg's work here feels amateurish.)  The format of Destinies, and that of many of the books advertised, suggest Ace in 1978 was trying to appeal to the comic book crowd, and to SF fans interested in illustration and graphic content: in an ad for Harry Harrison's Skyfall we are told that the book will be published with two different covers, a "science fiction theme" cover featuring a Soviet rocket and a "disaster novel" cover depicting scared people fleeing a burning city, and the ads for Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away and for Pro heavily promote that they are profusely illustrated, the former by Maroto (with Boris providing the cover) and the latter by James Odbert, whom we are told is Dickson's favorite artist.

"Party Line" is set in a future of video phones and an emerging population of telepaths who may well be the harbingers of a new human species.  A government program has these telepaths communicating with various races of intelligent aliens--it is the hope of the feds and the taxpayers that from these aliens we can learn how to build an FTL drive and other technologies that will improve our lives, but talking with the aliens is not that simple.  The program is twenty-five years old and a usable means of FTL travel is nowhere in sight, and the Congress is thinking of cutting funding.

This story is largely made up of conversations that reveal to us readers the high hopes and meager results of the project and the vague and frustrating communications of the telepaths with the aliens.  A primary theme of "Party Line" is the idea that extra terrestrials will be so alien that they will be close to inscrutable, and that they will find us equally difficult to fathom.  It is normal in SF for relationships between Earthpeople and aliens to be based on Earth history; the aliens may be oppressed victims of Earth colonizers meant to evoke North American or African natives, or dangerous ideological foes analogous to the Nazis or communists.  We also commonly see aliens who are like gurus eager to lead us to salvation.  In contrast, in stories like "Party Line," as well as "Dusty Zebra" and "The Golden Bugs," which we looked at in our last post, Simak makes the point that aliens will not just be "funny-looking humans" whom we will deal with the way the English dealt with the Iroquois or the Masai or the Germans, or even messiahs who can lead us fallen Earthlings to enlightenment--they will be so different from humans, their ways of thinking and living so foreign, that communication will face nigh insurmountable hurdles.

While human relationships with aliens in "Dusty Zebra" and "The Golden Bugs" are dead ends and those stories end on ironic notes, "Party Line" leaves its characters and readers with a strong sense of hope.  Some of the telepaths, by setting aside their fears and prejudices (and convincing the aliens to set aside some of theirs) begin to make progress in their interstellar cross-cultural discussions, and the head of the project has reason to believe that breakthroughs--new knowledge, including the key to an FTL drive--are forthcoming, giving him confidence that he can win continued funding from Congress.
     
Like "Ghost of a Model T" a successful, if not spectacular, story.  Since 1978 it has been reprinted in Simak collections with covers approximately as bland and boring as the one on the first issue of Destinies.  (My big gripe with Destinies is not the cover art but the font of all the interior text, which is too wide, so that the letters are distractingly squat and ugly.)


**********

These stories were all worth my time.  More Simak in the future, but first we'll dig through my magazines and anthologies and see what else of interest turns up.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Three stories by Clifford D. Simak: "Dusty Zebra," "How-2" and "The Golden Bugs"

It wasn't that long ago that we read Clifford Simak's space opera about a woman who spent one thousand years in suspended animation gaining the skills she needed to save the universe, and his short story about a guy in rural Wisconsin who can see into the prehistoric past and telepathically talk to aliens.  I was looking through my paperback anthologies this week and found within them six stories by Simak I've never read--let's check out a little more of what Simak had to offer over his long career.  We'll tackle three stories today from the period 1954-60.

"Dusty Zebra" (1954)

"Dusty Zebra" first appeared in Galaxy and has since appeared in Simak collections in multiple languages and in Robert Silverberg's 1978 Alpha 9, where I read it.

In old TV shows like Leave It To Beaver and old stories like R. Bretnor's "All the Tea in China" kids are always trading and swapping stuff.  As a kid I never traded things, I guess because my mother would have thrown a fit, but also because I was very familiar with the concept (if not the phrase) of buyer's remorse--I knew that if I traded some item that the lost item would, however irrationally, gain value in my eyes now that it was gone, leaving me hounded by regrets.  At most I would lend books to other kids, something I am reminded of whenever I look at my copy of Steve Jackson's The Seven Serpents, because that other kid spilled ink on it.  (Was a 13-year old in 1984 using a quill pen to play this beloved gamebook of mine?)  That was a case of lender's remorse, and not my last one.

Anyway, "Dusty Zebra" starts off with this idea of kids trading with each other.  Our narrator's son Bill is trading with other kids, and the narrator's nagging wife, Helen, as she sits watching TV, keeps telling the narrator to talk to Bill about the fact that he is outwitting all the other kids in the trades; Helen the nag fears her son is becoming "a con man."  Our narrator Joe thinks Bill is just learning early how to be a good businessman!

Joe starts getting involved in trades of his own when he finds a weird dot on his desk.  When he puts an item on the dot it disappears and is replaced by some other item, some strange thing whose purpose he has trouble discerning.  Joe is trading with people from another dimension!  (The little items Simak devises for his story reminded me of the little alien objects Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore came up with for some of their stories, like "Shock.")

This is a great little old-fashioned SF story in which people try to use the scientific method and business sense to figure out and profit from a strange--but logical, not magical--phenomenon.  Simak also includes human touches, like the nagging wife and an annoying but helpful neighbor, that make the story feel "real" on an emotional level and add some depth to the plot.  Thumbs up!

 
"How-2" (1954)

Another story from Galaxy.  I actually own this story in multiple formats; I was going to read it in my copy of 5 Tales From Tomorrow, which is literally (as the kids say) falling apart, but then I realized it was also included in my hardcover copy of Bodyguard and Four Other Short Novels from Galaxy.  While it lacks a jacket, this book is in robust condition, so I decided to give my long-suffering copy of 5 Tales a break and read "How-2" in hardcover.

Gordon Knight lives in a future in which, thanks to automation, the average workweek is a mere fifteen hours.  This leaves people time for elaborate hobbies, and most people engage in creative outlets like painting or gardening or throwing ceramics and/or make extensive use of "How-2" kits.  Many people build their own houses out of prefabricated parts, do their own dental work via cunningly prepared sets of mirrors purchased via catalog, even build their own "mechano-biologic" dogs from mail-order kits!  Knight orders just such a part-biological, part-robotic dog, but somebody at the How-2 corporation accidentally ships him a kit for a robot servant.  You or I would, of course, send back such a shipment, but Knight has always wanted to build a robot and was just reading very persuasive ads about how great it is to own your own robot....

The robot kit is not of a standard model, but a special experimental model, one of a kind, that the How-2 corporation never intended to market.  Once Knight has built it the robot, named Albert, begins building additional robots--soon Knight has an army of specialized robots, gardeners and landscapers and house builders and house painters.  When the government wants to tax all these additional robots and the How-2 corporation's lawyers want to sue Knight for fraudulently acquiring Albert, Albert builds a squad of robot lawyers to defend Knight, and to defend himself--Albert does  not want to be taken back into How-2's custody and destroyed.  Like the aforementioned dog, a small proportion of Albert's components are biological, and he fears death and yearns for freedom and loves his "children" (all those robots he built) just like a human being.

The court case becomes a cause celebre and results in robots being declared people with the same rights as humans.  Knight has won and is saved from any painful legal or financial consequences, but he realizes that now that there are no restrictions on the production or use of robots, that there will be no work for humans to do at all and no problems or challenges to face, and a world without work or challenge will perhaps be a world without purpose or satisfaction.  (We were just talking about stories like this in our recent Fred Pohl blog post!

Like "Dusty Zebra," this is a story in which a guy tries to profit from a unique, serendipitous event, and gets more than he bargained for; like "Dusty Zebra" it also incorporates some human relationships that make it a little more compelling.  Like a lot of Simak books I read long ago it also includes robots with feelings and addresses the relationship between robots and humans, with the robots self-evidently superior to humans (a minor character in "How-2" enumerates how robots are not only smarter and more resilient than homo sapiens, but lack such common human flaws as greed and a propensity to hate) but also steadfastly loyal and even worshipful of humans (after their court victory Albert embraces Knight and tells him he and his "family" will always faithfully serve him.)

A good story, but perhaps too long--the trial feels long, at least.  Not quite as novel and fun as "Dusty Zebra."  Among other places, "How-2" has appeared in two theme anthologies printed with Isaac Asimov's name on the cover, one on robots and one of mysteries.  I guess "How-2" is included in the mystery book because it has courtroom drama elements.

Of all the professional illustrators of whom I am aware, I think J. K. Potter is the worst.
There are plenty of illustrators whom I feel are lazy or incompetent, but Potter's work
 appears to be the product of a man who works hard at, and has achieved expertise in, producing
 illustrations that are appallingly and infuriatingly bad.
"The Golden Bugs" (1960)

I'm reading "The Golden Bugs" in my copy of Groff Conklin's Seven Come Infinity (we've already read Chad Oliver's story from this anthology.)  The story first appeared in F&SF, and would go on to be included in the collection So Bright the Vision as well as French and German collections. 

I was a little disappointed to find that this story follows the same plot structure as "Dusty Zebra" and "How-2."  A suburban guy with a nagging wife and a clever kid and somewhat troublesome but helpful neighbors finds that a huge boulder has landed in his backyard, and from it emerge little alien creatures, somewhat like over-sized ladybugs, somewhat like tiny turtles.  He considers ways to profit from this unusual circumstance--the boulder is the biggest agate ever discovered and is thus valuable, and the little creatures have the ability to clean up dust and dirt (like one of the devices from the other dimension in "Dusty Zebra") and perhaps could be marketed.  But things get quickly out of hand as the bugs start using their telekinetic powers to tear apart everything in sight in a search for metal (they disassemble wooden furniture to extract the nails, for example.)  The little monsters kill a dog that strays close to them, proving themselves a menace to life as well as property, and they are reproducing fast!  One of those irritating but erudite neighbors figures out a scientific way to destroy the bugs and save the day, and our narrator wonders if the decision to kill the aliens reflects some sad truth about the human race and the possibilities of peace among intelligent species.

This story is acceptable, but not as good as the other two stories we've talked about today.

The German title of the story spoils the fact that the bugs are a crystalline life form.
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Simak stories from the 1970s in our next episode!

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Four 1950s stories by Frederick Pohl about psychology

Here we see two adventurers about
to explore a mysterious alien city. 
The cover should probably
depict a psychotherapist's couch.  
We've been reading 1950s SF stories here at MPorcius Fiction Log, and I see no reason to stop.  On a recent trip to North Carolina I purchased a gorge copy of Frederick Pohl's 1976 collection In the Problem Pit.  It contains four stories with 1950s copyrights, so let's give them a try.

"Rafferty's Reasons" (1955)

Before the reforms of Mudgins, Rafferty was an artist.  But after Mudgins was elected a strict policy of full employment was instituted by the government.  To create more work the use of technology was severely limited--for example, the computers which controlled self-driving cars were made illegal to create jobs for taxi drivers.  Artist Rafferty was put to work as an accountant at a public works Project, and he has to do all the math for payroll and everything else by hand, like he's Bob Cratchit or something! 

Under the Mudgins regime people are actually compelled to work; working at the same office with Rafferty is a woman who would rather be a housewife and spend time with her kids.  It is even suggested that, to maintain full employment, that surplus workers ("willfully unemployed") are simply executed--by the thousands!  To maintain efficiency, now that computers are largely outlawed for productive use, computers are used to hypnotically train people like Rafferty; Rafferty is practically incapable of making a math mistake.  This training can have damaging psychological effects, and in fact, Rafferty is dangerously insane.

This picture of Rafferty's world is slowly unveiled as the story (about 13 pages) unfolds.  The plot concerns Rafferty's feverish desire and desperate plan to murder the head of the Project at which he is employed, an overweight man called John Girty.  Rafferty talks to himself, a lot, mostly saying "I'll kill you, Girty" and calling Girty a cow or a pig; these silent mutterings appear multiple times on nine or ten of thr stor's pages.  After work one Friday, Rafferty follows Girty to a Turkish bath and there tries to murder him, but what Rafferty thinks is a knife is an old cigar he found on the ground, so Girty survives the attack.

I'm not quite sure what Pohl is trying to tell us in this story; it feels like it is all over the place.  The prohibitions on the use of machines and the forcing people to work (oh yeah, and the mass murders) are the work of the government, but this story is no defense of the free market against government intervention in the economy--even if we didn't already know Pohl is a socialist, his hostility to the free market is actually center stage in this story.  The world depicted in "Rafferty's Reasons" has a two-tiered economy, in which people like Girty get paid in "real money" that can be used at "free market restaurants" and other private establishments (e.g., the Turkish bath), while people like Rafferty are paid in "Project-vouchers" that can only be used at places offering second-rate products, like government cafeterias.  Maybe the story is a plea for government handouts of no-strings-attached cash instead of food stamps and housing subsidies and the like, benefits that everybody would be eligible to receive, regardless of their willingness or ability to work?  A more interesting possibility relates to the productivity of machines--maybe Pohl thinks a world without work is possible with computers and machines, and is arguing here in "Rafferty's Reasons" that worries that such a world would lead to dangerous idleness or decadence are overblown and should not influence policymakers or voters.  (It is sort of a common theme in SF stories that the easy life is unsatisfying or even somehow disastrous, and maybe Pohl is pushing back against that.*)

Another possibility is that Pohl is trying to dramatize the distinction between the ordinary man and the creative man.  It seems like the Mudgins system is popular--it has won elections--so maybe Pohl is suggesting that ordinary people are fools, mere sheep who would embrace any crazy system, while superior people, sensitive creative people (like Pohl and the readers of Fantastic Universe, of course!) would crack under such a system. 

Further confusing the issue, the Mudgins regime has, apparently, outlawed religion, free speech, even love--these prohibitions are just mentioned in passing and it feels like Pohl is just throwing into the mix every crummy thing a government might do, kitchen sink style, perhaps in an effort to appeal to every demographic.  The anti-free market stuff might appeal to lefties, while having Mudgins crush religion and force housewives to work, and having Girty paraphrase a cliche associated with Stalin ("you can't make an omelette without breaking eggs") is maybe meant to appeal to conservatives?  But the more crimes Pohl attributes to the Mudgins government, the less believable it is--who would vote for an anti-love regime?

As my twitter followers know,
  I saw a copy of this recently 
The idea of the story is good--tyrannical reforms drive a guy insane and he goes on a quest for bloody revenge and we see all this from his own passionate, obsessive, point of view, and learn about his world as we follow his gruesome self-imposed mission.  But Pohl blows it.  The story feels long, with Rafferty's declarations that Girty is a fat beast whom he will kill getting repetitious to the point that Rafferty's passion becomes stale, and Pohl's satire (his "world-building," to use a phrase every critic of SF uses all the time) is unfocused and unconvincing.  Gotta give this one a (marginal) thumbs down. 

Pohl writes a little intro to each story in In the Problem Pit but the intro here doesn't help us decipher the story's meaning.  In fact the intro itself is sort of confusing, or at least witholds the sort of information we'd like to have.  It seems Pohl sent "Rafferty's Reasons" to his favorite editor (unnamed) along with a second story (unspecified), and the editor bought that second story but not "Rafferty's Reasons," even though Pohl thought "R's R" was the better of the two.  It was Leo Margulies, editor of Fantastic Universe, who bought "Rafferty's Reasons" and printed it; since then it has only reappeared in the Pohl collection Alternating Currents (1956) and this one. 

*In the past I have exhorted my readers to not just accept second hand verdicts about the SF field but to investigate the primary sources, so here is some SF we've read here at MPorcius Fiction Log that features the "world-without-work makes people batty" theme: "Home is the Hunter" and "Two-Handed Engine" by Kuttner and Moore, Tanith Lee's Don't Bite the Sun, "The Miracle of the Lily" by Clare Winger Harris, "The Fence" by Clifford Simak.  We also see the idea that mass unemployment leads to wacky and risky behavior in many Judge Dredd comic book stories.

"What To Do Until the Analyst Comes" (1956)

When it first appeared in Imagination this story was titled "Everybody's Happy But Me."  Unlike "Rafferty's Reasons," "What To Do Until the Analyst Comes" was a hit, and has appeared in many anthologies of SF stories about drug use and psychology.  In his intro to it here in In the Problem Pit, Pohl assures us he wrote it "quite a while before the hippies and the beats made dropping out a national conversational topic."

The narrator of the story works at an ad agency.  When the government issues a warning about the ill health effects of smoking, the agency fears that business from its biggest account, a tobacco company, may dry up, so they cast about for another popular product that has no health issues.  The narrator hires a chemist who comes up with a chewing gum that causes euphoria but isn't "habit-forming" or unhealthy.  This product becomes so popular the efficiency of the world economy suffers because everybody is high all the time--newspapers appear with illegibly smeared pages, there is a radical increase in auto accidents, etc.  The narrator sends out his secretary to get him coffee and she comes back with a Coke.  (That is what qualifies as a joke in this story.  The story's central joke is that the narrator can't chew the gum and be happy like everybody else--he's allergic due to overdosing in the testing phase.)

On the other hand, people are all so happy there is no more crime or mental illness (I guess in Pohl's 1956 story mental illness is not the result of chemical imbalances but "worry" and "hang ups") and a psychoanalyst tells the narrator that the gum has made the world a better place.  I theorized that "Rafferty's Reasons" was a suggestion that we stop worrying about a world without work, and I am now theorizing that "What To Do Until the Analyst Comes" is a suggestion that we stop worrying about a world in which everybody is high.  Together these stories seem to be an experiment in finding the limits of traditional morality--maybe it made sense to stigmatize idleness when almost everybody had to work hard or starve, and maybe it made sense to stigmatize drug use when drugs were poisonous and chemically addictive, but if we have machines to do the work and a drug that isn't poisonous or addictive, maybe those moral strictures need no longer apply, having outlived their usefulness.

"Conducting experiments in finding the limits of traditional morality" sounds like a worthwhile project, but unfortunately neither of these stories is a very good work of literature or entertainment; like "R's R," this story feels too long, and the jokes don't actually make you laugh.  Another (moderate) thumbs down.


"The Man Who Ate the World" (1956)

Pohl's intro to this one is the insipid anecdote of how in 1948 he knew a five-year-old girl who combined the names of President Truman and his opponent Tom Dewey into the single name "Trummie."  This is like the written equivalent of being forced to look at some grandmother's pictures of her grandkids.

"The Man Who Ate the World" is like 29 pages long and is split into seven little chapters.  In Chapter I we meet Sonny.  Sonny is eleven, and lives in a huge house where he is educated and looked after by robots.  One robot looks and talks just like Long John Silver, another is Tarzan, and another is "Davey Crockett."  (Maybe Pohl threw the extra "e" in there for legal reasons--about when this story was written Walt Disney had a popular Davy Crockett TV and merchandise thing going.)  One robot is an obese black woman, Mammy, who says stuff like "Dat's nice when chilluns loves each other lak you an' that lil baby."  Yes, Sonny has a little sister, Doris, and the point of this first chapter is that Sonny steals Doris's robot teddy bear!  The end of the chapter gives us a clue to the point of this story when Sonny's flesh and blood parents appear.  Sonny's family is low in status and are required by the Ration Board to consume tremendous resources--in this economy, which thanks to robots overproduces, low status families have an obligation to consume.  His parents punish Sonny for wanting to consume a small teddy bear robot instead of a much larger Tarzan robot because by throwing him an additional birthday party.

Chapter II is like twenty years later--the underconsumption problem has been licked; robots now not only handle all the producing, but the consuming as well.  (Are there people who enjoy these absurdist satires?  For 29 pages?)  We are introduced to a young "psychist," the futuristic word for "psychiatrist" or "psychoanalyst."  The psychist has been called in to treat a man (later revealed to be Sonny) who grew up during the consumption era of twenty years ago--he was scarred by his pro-consumption childhood and is now a "compulsive consumer."  Pohl is hitting us with not just one tired and boring fictional trope--the attack on consumerism--but a second one as well--the analyst who discovers the source of a character's mental problems in his childhood.

In Chapter III things get more absurd yet.  Sonny (real name: Anderson Trumie) is a 400-pound adult who overeats and, in childish tantrums, orders his Davey Crockett robot to shoot his other robots (he has hundreds of robots and hundreds more to repair the hundreds that get shot) and cries and so forth.  Chapters IV through VII describe in repetitious detail the psychist's investigation of Sonny's past, his journey to Sonny's island, where robots build model cities and play wargames, and his treatment of the compulsive consumer (he gets a girl to dress up as a teddy bear, which is what Sonny has always wanted!)

This story is quite bad.  The ideas are tired, and instead of just inflicting them on us for four or five pages and then setting us free, Pohl hammers away at us for 29 damn pages.  Fred, none of us is going to live forever!  To fill up all these pages he repeats things; again and again we hear that the psychist is only 24 and worried if he has what it takes to cure Sonny Trumie, and we get multiple descriptions of how fat Trumie is and how disgusting are his eating habits.  In Chapter II a minor character just says what Trumie's psychological problem is in a single paragraph, but then Chapter IV is devoted to laboriously and superfluously elaborating on Sonny's youth and compulsive consumption.

Beyond the first three (already weak) chapters, nothing in this story is interesting or amusing or entertaining.  This story stinks.

"The Man Who Ate The World" was first printed in Galaxy.  I guess people really did like it (who...are...these...people?), because it was the title story of a Pohl collection, included in an anthology edited by the wife of Pohl collaborator C. M. Kornbluth, and featured in a theme anthology with Asimov's name on it (the theme: sin.) 

       
"To See Another Mountain" (1959)

"To See Another Mountain" was the only one of today's four stories to be included in the 2005 "Best of" collection, Platinum Pohl, a volume endorsed by a TV channel!  (This same TV channel endorsed the nineteenth Dune novel, so you know they offer a seal of approval you can trust.)  Maybe there is a chance this blog post won't go zero for four, as the sports lovers might say.  The story first appeared in F&SF (in the same issue as "Flowers for Algernon," which showed up in one of my reading class textbooks in school) and soon after was printed in the collection Tomorrow Times Seven.

In his intro to the story Pohl tells us how much he loves Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, which he saw performed at Carnegie Hall by Fritz Kreisler.  He says he listened to David Oistrakh's LP of the Concerto repeatedly while he was writing "To See Another Mountain."

It is the middle of the 21st century.  The greatest scientist of the last hundred years is Noah Sidorenko--Pohl compares him to Einstein more than once and all the major technology of the day is based on his discoveries.  Today is his 95th birthday, and he is living in some kind of elaborate mental institution for geniuses, subject to screaming fits ("Stop!  Stop!" he shrieks when President O'Connor comes by to give a speech on how awesome Sidorenko is) and prescribed drugs that cloud his memory because some horrible thing happened in his past that nobody wants him to remember.

The story includes a group therapy session, followed by the climactic scene in which Sidorenko sneaks through the institution at night (remember when a guy sneaked through a nursing home at night in Philip Jose Farmer's "The Henry Miller Dawn Patrol?"--that was fucked up, wasn't it?) and discovers that the other people in the group therapy session, all the other patients at the institution, are not patients but additional shrinks acting a part!  He also learns what they have been keeping from him--he believes he has psychic powers!  The shrinks all scoff at the idea of psychic powers, and have been trying to cure him of this delusion so he can get his super brain back on track making new important discoveries.  Now that he realizes what is going on, Sidorenko is determined to escape the doctors' clutches and pursue the development of his mind reading and precognitive abilities--these super powers will be his true legacy!

This one has some real human feeling and a mystery that actually made me curious; I'm giving "To See Another Mountain" a mild recommendation, declaring it marginally good.



**********

All of these stories are about psychology; no doubt you'll remember that Pohl's greatest work, Gateway, also had lots of psychoanalysis in it, as did a story I thought was great, "The Fiend."  But while those works are very successful, of today's four stories only one of them succeeds in presenting an interesting character or human relationship or any kind of human drama or adventure, and two of them don't even try.  The three loser stories consist primarily of uninspired recitations of bottom of the barrel economic and psychological theories, and two of them are weighted down with painfully obvious and crappy jokes ("that dude is fat!...my secretary is high!...waka waka!")

In his introduction* to this volume, and a short essay at the end of it, Pohl provides us some possible clues as to why so many of these stories are so lame.  In the brief essay, "SF: The Game Playing Literature," he talks about how SF is great for propaganda purposes and also for analyzing possible futures and alternate worlds; the "game" is tinkering with the "rules" of the physical or social or political world, the way you might tinker with the rules of Risk or Parcheesi, and playing out how these rule changes affect people's behavior and society.  I agree with Pohl that this is a valuable aspect of SF, but if a writer focuses too much on this game-playing and not enough on traditional literary concerns he can end up producing some pretty boring or clumsy stories, which is, I suspect, what happened to three of today's four stories.

I think it will be a while before we read any more Fred Pohl here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

*This intro is dated "Red Bank, New Jersey, November 1974."  In my last blog post I responded to learning of the existence of an anthology of "Florida science fiction" by wondering if there was an anthology of New Jersey science fiction--we can add Pohl to the list of possible contributors which so far includes Barry Malzberg!



Sunday, December 2, 2018

1950s stories from Galaxy of Ghouls


Not long ago I purchased the 1955 paperback anthology Galaxy of Ghouls at Second Story Books on Dupont Circle in our nation's capital, intrigued by the raven-haired beauties on the cover and the name of Judith Merril, one of SF's most innovative and influential editors.  With her famous anthologies, including the dozen volumes of Year's Best S-F, Merril strove to expand the definition of what SF was and what it could be; England Swings SF in particular was a major impetus behind the developments and controversies in the SF field that came to be called "The New Wave."

While it is not all that clear from the somewhat confusing cover, which promises supernatural terrors but also includes a picture of heavily armed astronauts, Galaxy of Ghouls takes as its theme the way that, in the middle of the 20th century, SF writers updated for the space age such traditional horror tropes as the werewolf, the voodoo doll, and the vampire.  Text on the first page assures us, "The devil's brood inside these pages is strictly up-to-date--and often as not a step or two ahead of the times."  The fact that 1959 and 1961 editions of Galaxy of Ghouls were retitled Off the Beaten Orbit and adorned with "futuristic" covers by Richard Powers and John Schoenherr more typical for  paperback SF suggests that the boys down in marketing at Pyramid Books thought this first edition from Lion Library focused a little too much on the supernatural and not enough on the space age.

Let's check out five of the stories in Galaxy of Ghouls, all from the 1950s and all by authors we have talked about before here at MPorcius Fiction Log.


"The Ambassadors" by Anthony Boucher (1952)

In her intro to "The Ambassadors," which first appeared in Startling Stories, Merril tells us Boucher's work, in particular "Compleat Werewolf" (1942), has liberated the werewolf from the "medieval horror story" and that "The Ambassadors" is a follow up that brings lycanthropy to the future.

"The Ambassadors" is a joke story with "meta" elements.  As you know, here on Earth, intelligent life evolved from apes.  Well, on Mars, the first human explorers of the red planet discover, intelligent life evolved from wolves!  Upon his return to Earth, the biologist from that first Mars expedition issues a plea to the public for help--he thinks that werewolves are real, and he requests some werewolves come out of the closet and help build good relations with the Martians!  Most people think the man has gone crazy, but it turns our werewolves are real and this step inaugurates a new period of history for werewolves, one in which werewolves need no longer hide their true nature or suffer discrimination from prejudiced non-lycanthropes.  The joke at the end of the story is when a vampire hopes that some intelligent aliens who are descended from bats will be discovered so vampires too can achieve their civil rights.

Earlier this year I called Boucher's story "Transfer Point" "weak" and his tale "A Shape in Time" "lame," and today I am calling "The Ambassadors" barely acceptable filler.  I am not the audience for tepid joke stories.

I mentioned "meta" elements.  The story's big in-joke for SF fans is a passing reference to an expert on werewolves whose name is "Williamson," an allusion to Jack Williamson, whose werewolf novel Darker Than You Think is, according to Brian Aldiss, Williamson's best novel.

At four pages this qualifies as one of those short shorts that are so popular that anthologies of them get printed in mass quantities.  "The Ambassadors" would be included in Groff Conklin and Isaac Asimov's Fifty Short Science Fiction Tales which has gone through over 30 printings according to isfdb.


"The Night He Cried" by Fritz Leiber (1953)

Merril tells us this story is about an alien shape shifter with sex appeal!  "The Night He Cried" was first published in Fred Pohl's anthology Star Science Fiction Stories.  It would later be included in the 1974 collection The Best of Fritz Leiber (I own a 1979 paperback edition of The Best of Fritz Leiber, and so own multiple printings of this story.)

This is another joke story.  (One of the best humorous SF stories of all time is actually by Leiber, the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser classic "Lean Times in Lanhkmar.")  "The Night He Cried" is a totally over-the-top spoof of a Mickey Spillane-style detective writer and his work.  Our narrator is an alien agent from "Galaxy Center."  In its natural form this creature has seven tentacles, on Earth it disguises itself as a sexy woman, and two of the tentacles take on the role of "magnificently formed" breasts.  Leiber mentions the breasts again and again, using antiseptic euphemisms like "milk glands."  The alien has come to Earth to investigate Slickie Millane, author of the popular Spike Mallet books.  The alien wants to learn about sex on Earth, and is eager to interact with Millane because his books contain lots of smoldering male-female relationships, but the sex act is never consummated because Mallet always has to shoot the woman down before closing the deal, as it were.  (In the climax of the first Mike Hammer novel, I the Jury, Hammer shoots down a woman, the murderer of his friend, as she is trying to seduce and murder him.)  The alien suspects Millane has some kind of psychological issue with sex, and would like to help him if it can.  Millane's crazy relationships with women and the many permutations of the alien's shape shifting ability fill this story with absurd and bizarre images and events.

I guess "The Night He Cried" is acceptable; it holds the attention because it is so uninhibited and berserk--Leiber really lets himself go this time.  But are all the stories from Galaxy of Ghouls jokes?  As I say all the time on this blog, I have limited interest in joke stories.


"A Way of Thinking" by Theodore Sturgeon (1953)

Here's the 1965 paperback edition of
E Pluribus Unicorn
This tale, Merril tells us, is about sympathetic magic, of which she offers such examples as the voodoo doll.  "A Way of Thinking" apparently first appeared in the hardcover collection E Pluribus Unicorn, but that same year was also printed in Amazing.  This story seems to have been a hit, appearing in multiple anthologies with "Black Magic" or "Supernatural" in their titles, and being reprinted in Fantastic in 1967 and in Amazing in 1982.  Let us pray this is not a joke story, especially since it is like 28 pages long.

Sturgeon populates this tale with three endearing characters.  There is our narrator, a writer of SF stories with a long list of unusual jobs behind him.  There's a doctor, Milton.  And there's Kelley, a sailor with whom the narrator worked years ago on a "tankship" carrying oil between the Gulf Coast and the Northeast.  The narrator admires Kelley as an intelligent if uneducated man, and provides several examples of Kelley solving problems by looking at them from an unusual angle, we might say "thinking outside the box."  After not having seen him for years, the narrator meets Kelley again at Milton's doctor's office.  Kelley's brother Hal is dying of mysterious injuries, injuries perhaps psychosomatic.  Because Merril mentioned voodoo dolls in her little intro and the first page of the story in Amazing has a picture of a guy holding a doll on it, we are not surprised to learn, fourteen pages in, that Hal's bitter ex-girlfriend has a doll from Haiti, a gift from Hal.

The narrator and Kelley independently try to deal with this whole doll issue, the narrator in a sort of straightforward way and Kelley in his characteristic counter-intuitive way, and the story ends in shocking tragedy.  The ending actually was surprising, with Sturgeon coming up with a new way to look at voodoo dolls that isn't a goofy joke like Boucher's new way of looking at werewolves but something actually scary.  "A Way of Thinking" is quite good--I strongly recommend it.

Half the strength of this story is Sturgeon's success in depicting friendship and love between men in a way that is not sappy or maudlin but believable and even touching.  Life being how it is, it is nice to spend a little time in a fantasy world in which people are genuinely kind to each other and not just trying to exercise power over each other and squeeze money or sex out of each other.  (The thing Heinlein wrote about Sturgeon that appears in my edition of Godbody also gave me this warm pleasant feeling.) 

I quite enjoyed "A Way of Thinking;" it works as a story about people and as a black magic story, and Sturgeon's pacing and style and all that technical stuff are spot on.  But if I had to play progressive's advocate I'd say it depicts a world in which white men band together in a perpetual struggle against the inscrutable "other"--women and blacks--so let the 21st-century reader beware!

According to isfdb, Literature of the Supernatural was a textbook designed for high school use--
I went to the wrong high school!
"The Triflin' Man" by Walter Miller, Jr. (1955)

According to Merril, one of a witch's or warlock's most "enviable" powers is the ability to transform into a sexier version of her- or himself, and a character with just such an ability shows up here in Miller's story.

Lucey is an obese impoverished woman living in a shack in the swamp with her son, Doodie.  She only saw Doodie's father once, a large man who "made love like a machine."  Doodie is subject to spasms and fits, and as the story's dozen pages progress, we learn that Doodie's father was a scout from outer space who put on human guise in order to impregnate Lucey and so doing create a half-human intelligence asset on Earth!  Those fits of Doodie's are a side effect of Doodie exchanging telepathic messages with his father and with his half brothers across the world!  While Lucey cooks up a 'possum for dinner, Doodie arrogantly explains that his father will soon return with an alien military force to conquer the world!

The second half of the story details what happens when the alien deadbeat dad returns, and is equally effective as the first half.  This is a good one, solid SF that exploits the uneasiness (or worse) many of us feel over our sexual relations and our relations with our parents and/or children.  I might even go out on a limb and suggest it is a feminist story about a single mother who tries to do the right thing despite all the exploitation and abuse she suffers from all the men in her life.

"The Triflin' Man" is apparently this story's "deadname;" after first appearing in Fantastic Universe and here in G o' G under that name, it has been going by the name "You Triflin' Skunk!" in Walter Miller collections since 1965, though it does show up once as "A Triflin' Man" in a 1991 anthology of "Florida science fiction."  (Is there an anthology of New Jersey science fiction?  Barry Malzberg has been living in the greatest state in the union for decades!  I know there must be others!)


"Blood" by Fredric Brown (1955)

Remember when Anthony Boucher told us Fredric Brown was the master of the short short?  Well, here is another of Brown's short shorts (or as Brown calls them, "vignettes" or "vinnies.")  Brown keeps this story down to one page and Merril keeps her intro down to four lines that tell us Brown is "irrepressible" and this story is about vampires.

Mankind in the 22nd century finally realizes the vampire menace is real, and the blood-sucking fiends are hunted down and exterminated!  Only two of the parasitic monsters are left, and they hop in their time machine and travel to the far future, hoping to arrive at a time when their diabolical race has been forgotten and they can begin their depredations anew!  They use up the last of their time machine fuel, and emerge--unable to procure more fuel, they will be stuck in this time period forever.  To their dismay, animal life has died out and only vegetable life has endured--there are intelligent plants, but will a person descended from a turnip provide the blood a vampire needs?

Even at one page, a waste of time.  "Blood" first made the eyes of readers of F&SF roll, and has since appeared in many Brown collections and anthologies of vampire stories.


**********

Boucher and Leiber and Brown offered flat joke stories that inspired no feeling and no laughs, but Sturgeon and Miller made this excursion into Galaxy of Ghouls worthwhile.  I don't read these books looking for smartalecky jokes, I read them looking for human feeling and human relationships, for violence and excitement, and today it was Sturgeon and Miller who delivered.  Maybe copies of E Pluribis Unicorn and The View From the Stars are what I should be asking Santa for this year.

Friday, November 30, 2018

Three "Weird Mysteries" from the 1950s by Robert Bloch

As you know, I have been looking at a lot of early 1970s issues of Amazing.  In the September 1971 issue we find an ad for other magazines from Amazing's publisher, Ultimate Publishing Co.  Among this stable of weird and wonderful publications is something called Weird Mystery; a look at isfdb indicates that this was a reprint magazine which lasted only four issues, two published in '70 and two in '71.  Psycho scribe Robert Bloch's work is advertised on the cover of three of the four issues, and I decided to read these old Bloch pieces, 1950s stories which editor Sol Cohen thought fit to republish at the dawn of the "Me Decade."  There were four such stories, but unfortunately only three, were available at the internet archive.  The fourth, "Hungarian Rhapsody," will have to await a later date to receive the MPorcius treatment.

"The Dead Don't Die!" (1951)

Reprinted in the Summer 1971 issue of Weird Mystery, "The Dead Don't Die" first appeared in Fantastic Adventure with an illustration by Virgil Finlay that integrates an electric chair and a line of bikini girls.  Mind blown! 

Whoa, this story is long--over 40 pages!  That is what we lazy people call an investment!  I wouldn't bat an eye over tackling a forty-page story by a legitimately talented master of the English language like a Gene Wolfe or Jack Vance, or somebody who reliably offers compelling fast-paced adventures like a Leigh Brackett or Edmond Hamilton, or somebody who specializes mindboggling experiments hatched his own peculiar point of view like an A. E. van Vogt or Barry Malzberg.  But I think Robert Bloch is overrated and I was just going to read these things out of curiosity, as a kind of a lark.  Well, I'm still curious, so let's move forward and hope for the best!


Gadzooks!  The first sentence of the story is "This is a story that never ends."  Bloch is already yanking my chain!

The narrator of "The Dead Don't Die!" is a writer of horror fiction named Bob who has taken a job as a guard at a prison.  He makes friends with a guy on death row, Cono Colluri, a circus strongman whom Bob believes to be innocent.  The day after Cono is executed the real killer of Cono's wife confesses.  Oops!  Cono had no friends or relatives, so he left the eight thousand bucks he had saved up to Bob!  (In today's money that is like $75,000!)  Cono's "banker" was The Great Ahmed, a palmreader also attached to that travelling circus. The Great Ahmed has quit the circus and moved to Chicago, so Bob heads up there.  The first person he meets in Chi-town is a cool blue-eyed blonde (a natural blonde, even!) named Vera LaValle.

I found myself enjoying this story a lot more than I had expected to.  The narration was smooth and conversational, and the whole thing was very noirish, with the night time city streets, wet with rain, reflecting the neon signs of bars as the elevated train clack clack clacks overhead.  I even smiled at the obvious jokes:


Maybe I really was a Robert Bloch fan and I just hadn't seen his best work yet?

After a violent interlude in a tavern full of professional beggars who feign disability, the sexy blonde brings Bob to Nicolo Varek.  Varek introduces himself as a "man of science" and claims to "have perfected a means, a methodology, a therapy if you like, that defeats what men call death."  Unlike many men of science, he can back up his claims: Cono Corulli, alumnus of the electric chair, is on his feet, stiff and stumbling and with some nervous tics and a low low blood temperature, but alive!

Varek pressures Bob to become one of his henchmen, to act as his go-between in his business of discreetly selling immortality to millionaires.  Sensing that those who gain eternal life via Varek's method lose their souls, Bob refuses this job opportunity and has to fight his way to freedom, past the cold clutches of his former friend Cono, now Varek's obedient servant!  Bob hooks up with The Great Ahmed, who provides him shelter and promises to help him.  While Ahmed is away "investigating" Varek's organization, Vera LaValle levitates into the third story window of the guest room where Bob is sleeping and tries to murder our hero with a knife.  Bob overpowers her, and being struck brings the hypnotized blonde to her senses, and she relates to Bob the horrible truth about Varek and about herself!

Paris, 1794, the Terror!  Varek, a foreign alchemist!  Vera, the daughter of a wealthy merchant!  Vera's father feared for his daughter's life amidst the revolutionary chaos, and hoped to marry her to Varek, who, with his Russian passport, should be able to safely leave Paris, a city which trembled under the shadow of the guillotine!  When Varek met Vera he fell in love, she being so gorgeous, but he was way too creepy for Vera, what with his claims of having learned occult sciences in India and China, of being hundreds of years old and on the cusp of discovering the secret of raising the dead thanks to his experimenting on the copious supply of decapitated corpses mass produced by the guillotine--the mademoiselle rejected him with a laugh!  It is not long after that Vera and her father fell victim to the Terror, and Varek collected the blonde bombshell's body, sewed her tete back on, and brought her back to life!  A queer half life of cold flesh, flesh that need not eat nor sleep, a life subject to the hypnotic control of Varek the diabolical genius!  A living death she has endured for over one hundred fifty years!

"The Dead Don't Die!" is included in this
oft-reprinted anthology of zombie stories
By relating her story to Bob, Vera has betrayed her master, and Varek offhandedly destroys her via remote control.  Ahmed the Great returns from his detective work and Vera's eight pages of exposition are followed by two pages of exposition from this dude.  The entire world is menaced by Verak's army of living dead people, who lay in wait in cold storage in secret vaults under every major world city!  Fortunately, Ahmed has a plan to confront Varek and save the day.  Unfortunately, halfway to Verak's supposed lair, Bob realizes the plan is a trap--Ahmed is Verak in disguise!  Bob makes a break for it, and on his own finds one of Verak's laboratories, complete with a refrigerated room full of scores of dead people awaiting reanimation.  He is just about to blow the place up with some convenient explosives when Cono appears!  Will Cono do Varek's bidding and break Bob's neck, or can Bob break Varek's hypnotic hold on Cono and foil the evil scientist's plans for world domination?

("The Dead Don't Die!" is "a story that never ends" because Bob suspects there really are labs and cold storage units all over the world, carefully hidden, and perhaps even animated dead that walk among us, so the destruction of Varek's Chicago lair may not end the living dead menace.)

I liked the noirish beginning of this story, but things get a little bogged down with Vera's long description of Varek's career in the 18th and 19th centuries (in a section that nowadays might be called racist we learn about Verak's tenure in Haiti) and then all the details of how Varek's method really works--besides hypnotism and Satanism there is also lots of electrical and mechanical stuff going on (Bloch seriously overdoes the explanations, unnecessarily covering all the science fictional and supernatural bases.)  Bloch also seems to be trying to show off his knowledge, or to give us an education, piling on explicit references to Poe and Victor Hugo as well as all that revolutionary history and zombie and vampire folklore.  Oh, and there are also some superfluous dream sequences.

It is too long, but "The Dead Don't Die!" is entertaining enough.  We're marking this one moderately good.   

"A Lesson for the Teacher" (1958)

"A Lesson for the Teacher" was first published in Fantastic and reprinted in the Winter 1970 Weird Mystery.  Bloch doesn't get top billing this time, and the illustration his story receives is a total bore.  Ouch!


It is schoolteacher Ruth Bailey's thirty-seventh birthday.  Her fiance killed in the war fifteen years ago, with no family or friends, it is a lonely birthday.  But a knock at the door!  A tall handsome stranger!  A Frenchman from Martinique, he wants one-on-one instruction in colloquial American English!  Three nights a week, five bucks a night!  And of course Monsieur Clay needs to learn about American customs and culture in the field, and what better way than to take Ruth out on the town the other two nights of the week?

Bloch fills this story with puns (e.g., "the menopause that refreshes"), and, after a brief bit of conflict, gives it a happy ending.  Ruth falls in love with Clay, and gets jealous when Clay goes out with a younger woman.  But then that younger woman comes to Ruth's place to warn her that Clay is a weirdo!  The next time Ruth sees Clay he admits that he is no Frenchman, but something even weirder--a space alien, an anthropologist who has come to Earth to learn about our culture.  While here he has fallen in love with Ruth, and he teleports them to another star system to live happily ever after.

One of the noteworthy things about "A Lesson for the Teacher" is Ruth's denunciation of the 1950s youth culture of rebellion, drugs and rock and roll, which brought to mind Richard Mathesson's 1955 attack on the youth culture and decadence in America, "Dance of the Dead."  I'm no expert on Bloch, but there seems to be a thread of conservatism running through his work--"The Dead Don't Die" took the conservative line about revolution ("revolution always leads to dictatorship") and expressed sympathy for the bourgeoisie, and according to Wikipedia, 1982's Psycho II was "intended to critique Hollywood splatter films."

While of interest for historical and sociological reasons (the aforementioned attack on developments in American culture and the fact that we have here a man trying to write about a woman's psychological and relationship problems), "A Lesson for the Teacher" is only OK as a story; I'm putting this one in the "acceptable filler" slot that so many of these stories from magazines end up in.  It looks like "A Lesson for the Teacher" never appeared in any book, just these two magazines--not a big hit with editors, it seems.  I'm not even sure why Cohen included it in Weird Mystery--there is no horror or detective content.

"The Hungry Eye" (1959)

Bloch is back on the cover!  The first time SF fans had a chance to gaze into "The Hungry Eye" was when it was printed in Fantastic and heralded by a mesmerizing cover featuring a striking blonde and a ridiculous whirlwind-embedded eyeball.  Unfortunately, this issue of Fantastic is not at the internet archive; fortunately "The Hungry Eye" was reprinted in 1966 in Great Science Fiction (five years before its reappearance in the Spring '71 issue of Weird Mystery) and that issue is available at the internet archive.

Another Chicago story!  (I actually like Chicago; nice bookstores, nice museums.  I hear that people are massacring each other over there, but I doubt that the mayhem is taking pace in the neighborhood with the museums and the bookstores.)  The narrator of "The Hungry Eye" is Dave Larson, stand up comic!  This provides Bloch an opportunity to again play cultural critic, griping about how comics all have the same routines; for example, how "Today every comic talks about visiting his psychiatrist."  Mental illness is a major topic of the story and of Dave's act--the 20th-century world, the world of the gas chamber and the atomic bomb, is a world that is going crazy, a world full of "sick" people.  Dave provides us a half-joking list of all the sickos out there, a list that includes "necrophiles" and "zooerasts."  Among the sick are the audiences of his and other comedians' acts, the beatniks!  According to Dave, the beatniks are a bunch of self-consciously showy nonconformists who are really just as conformist as the squares they make fun of, a plague of would-be Jack Keroacs who romanticize their drug use and sexual promiscuity and expect other people to clean up the messes they make of their lives and others' lives.

Dave has a grudge against beatniks in part because his brother George is a beatnik!  George was nothing but trouble, trouble Dave was always trying to get him out of, until he vanished five years ago.  As this story begins, George is back in Dave's life, and he is in real trouble this time--the cops want him for murder!  While working as a security guard for the Art Institute he killed another guard, or so it is said; Dave doubts his brother capable of such violence.  But then Dave meets a researcher from the Institute who suggests that George became a killer because he came into contact with a jewel.  This jewel was made from a sentient alien meteorite that has the power to hypnotize people and turn them into serial killers!  At first Dave thinks this ridiculous, but it is not long before the bloody scene of George's own murder makes a believer out of him!  Dave snatches up the jewel with the plan of giving it to that academic, but the jewel, which has the shape of an eye, begins to work on him!


The Eye transmits to Dave's brain the story of its arrival on Earth centuries ago, when it landed near a naked virgin who had been left alone on a barren plain as a sacrifice to the wolves!  The Eye gave her the strength and bloodlust to return to her village and wreak a terrible vengeance on those who had selected her as the yearly sacrifice!  From then on, decade after decade, century after century, the Eye passed from hand to hand, inspiring each of its possessors to murder--such possessors included Jack the Ripper!  (Jack the Ripper is a recurring figure in Bloch's work.)  Through the medium of the eye, Dave can "remember" the sensations of all those killers as they committed their crimes, from that virgin all the way up to George and George's own killer...is Dave himself going to begin a career as a serial killer at the direction of the diabolical Eye from outer space?

"The Hungry Eye" is significantly better than the other two stories we've read today.  Unlike the innocuous "Lesson for the Teacher," it is an engaging horror story that isn't weighted down with distracting puns.  And it is far more economical than "The Dead Don't Die!", while its boldly drawn depictions of Chicago beatniks and an ancient tribe that practices human sacrifice are much more compelling than "The Dead Don't Die!"'s blah blah blah about Revolutionary France and Haiti.  "The Hungry Eye" is an effective horror story with some memorable horror images (and plenty of material about how much beatniks suck.)  Thumbs up!

"The Hungry Eye" has appeared in quite a few Bloch collections and SF anthologies.


**********

These three stories, especially "The Hungry Eye," are making me feel much more in tune with all the people who are always praising Bloch.  ("The Animal Fair," which I read early this year, had a similar effect, and now that my memory has been jogged I recall that 1971 story also contains complaints about drug use, rampant sexuality and the youth culture.)  Maybe I have been wrong to judge Bloch on such lame stories as "Mother of Serpents," and "The Hungry House."

More SF stories from the 1950s in our next episode--stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Three Amazing 1971 stories by Ted White


Working on my recent posts about Bob Shaw's 1973 collection Tomorrow Lies in Ambush I found myself looking through lots of 1971 issues of Amazing, then edited by Ted White.  I like White's work as an editor and as a writer, and so I decided to read the stories by White himself that he included in Amazing in the year of my birth.  (Editors including their own stories in the books and magazines they edit is one of those things that feels kind of sketchy, but it was a common practice and I guess we just have to accept it.)

"A Girl Like You"

Ted's editorial in the March 1971 issue of Amazing is about comics fandom and his role in XERO, a Hugo-winning fanzine that included lots of articles about comics, and All in Color For a Dime, the 1970 book edited by Richard Lupoff about comics.  Ted describes his (not very successful) attempts to promote the book and SF in general on a radio talk show and here in Amazing achieves a little revenge by getting in digs at Little Orphan Annie and "the Silent Majority."  The editorial finishes up with a brief discussion of an article by our pal Barry Malzberg about Scientology.  It seems Barry wrote about his personal experience with Scientology in the November 1970 issue of Amazing and was threatened by the Scientology people with a lawsuit for libel; the editorial finishes with a letter from Malzberg that is apparently intended to defuse the situation (or perhaps it is a joke...I haven't read the actual article so cannot be sure.)

In his little intro to his story "A Girl Like You" Ted tells us it is about a United States that has instituted an apartheid system--the little intros you find in old SF magazines are always full of spoilers.  Anyway, over the course of the eight-page story we follow the terrible history of Mari-Ellen Agnew (oh, brother.)  Her husband, David, foolishly decided to take their armored car out at night, and they were ambushed by blacks.  The car knocked out by an armor piercing shell, Mari-Ellen, David, and the four black servants accompanying them were forced to bail out, and only Mari-Ellen managed to escape with her life.  It is not long, however, before she is captured by one of the people who ambushed them.

Her captor interrogates Mari-Ellen and in a flashback we learn that David risked driving at night because he was fleeing retribution at the hands of the local authorities--David had found Mari-Ellen cheating on him with a major in the Internal Security Police and bloodied the cop's nose and had his black servants throw him, naked, out onto the street.  In the alternate universe Ted has constructed here, middle-class white women have easy lives, and get bored, and so fill their days with drugs and sexual shenanigans, competing to bed the most married men.  ("Status was achieved by the accumulation of a respectable score....")  After Mari-Ellen tells her tale of decadence she falls to the ground and begs for mercy--the black man shoots her to death.

This is sort of a crazy story.  Like Ed Bryant's 1970 story "In the Silent World," which we read in our last episode, you could say the story is white liberal "virtue signalling," a story in which the writer tells you our society is racist and assures you he is against racism but doesn't have the space or energy to actually say anything interesting about race relations or the African-American experience or anything like that.  (Feminists will wonder why both stories have women protagonists--are our male authors portraying white women as the primary perpetrators and/or victims of white racism against blacks?)  But while Bryant's story is bland, White here produces what feels like an exploitation piece full of gore and salacious sexual content.  We hear all about Mari-Ellen's injuries--the burns on her hands from climbing out of the burning car, her painfully sprained ankle, and the gunshots that end her life; the final sentences of the story feel like something written by Clive Barker as White describes the path of each of those three bullets through Mari-Ellen's body: "...cutting across a shoulder blade like a hot knife, then tearing into her spine where it fragmented."  As for sex, there is all the talk of promiscuity and infidelity, and then the description of David, having discovered her with the Major, smacking Mari-Ellen in the face and then putting her over his knee and spanking her--Mari-Ellen finds this punishment sexually arousing: "[the spanking] warmed her loins for her in a way she had previously never known."  Just before she is shot Mari-Ellen urinates on herself in fear.

It is hard not to think White wanted to write a fetishistic horror story about violence against women and used fashionable hatred of the Nixon administration and opposition to racism as a kind of fig leaf to justify his production of this gruesome piece of pornography.  Thumbs down, I'm afraid. 

Unsurprisingly, "A Girl Like You" has not appeared elsewhere.

"Growing Up Fast in the City"

The May 1971 issue is Amazing's 45th anniversary issue, and Ted's editorial gives a fun and opinionated history of the magazine and its place in SF history.  (Sample opinion: Ted says that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are "better writers than any sf has yet produced.")

"Growing Up Fast in the City" is a first-person narrative; our narrator is a sixteen-year-old boy who attends lots of "rallies" which end up being violently broken up by the police.  He comes to these rallies prepared with a drug that serves as an antidote to the nausea induced by the cop's "Sick Gas" as well as a crowbar, and generally leaves the events with a girl he has picked up--his practice is to have sex with these girls in a convenient alley.  Our hero doesn't confine himself to the ladies however; there are references to circle-jerks with other boys and a confession that one of his most enjoyable sexual experiences was receiving fellatio from another boy.

Our story begins at one of those rallies; Ted includes some slang I guess he made up (people over 18 are called "Voters" and adolescents are called "Intermediaries") to suggest this is the future or another universe or something.  Our narrator is cynical: it is not clear what the rally is for or against, and we are later told he goes to these rallies for "kicks," not out of some political conviction.  This rally was meant to be secret, but the police immediately show up and our narrator theorizes that the organizers of the rallies tip off the cops because all the violence maintains the high tensions that drive the organizers' own popularity.

Our narrator picks up a girl and they flee when the police move in to disperse the rally--he uses his crowbar to break into an emergency exit from the New York City subway, going in through the out door, as it were.  Back at her apartment they smoke "hash" and have sex and the girl, 14, explains that girls like to be romanced, that for a female to enjoy sex she needs to have some kind of feelings for the boy.  Throughout the story White suggests that our narrator is maturing, and in these apartment scenes hints that he is less interested in casual sex than he used to be and may actually be falling in love with this girl.  But the end of the story informs us that they never saw each other again; the narrator tried to find her, but she must have moved or maybe even been killed.  He has had sex with many girls since then, but he has never felt about any like he does about her.       

The sex in the story is, presumably, meant to be titillating (the girl also relates how a cop at an earlier rally tore her dress and tried to get her to perform oral sex on him) but Ted is also trying to pull the old heart strings here and say something about life.  I'll call this one acceptable.  "Growing Up Fast in the City" has never been reprinted.

"Junk Patrol"

White's editorial in the September 1971 issue is about the failure of the American SST program.  (One of my memories of New York in the '90s, cherished lo these many years of beige suburban existence, is unexpectedly spotting a Concorde parked at JFK from across the Bay from the Wildlife Refuge where I was on one of my birdwatching walks.)  Ted laments the defeat of the SST program in Congress, arguing that the development of faster transport would have been a boon to the human race and complaining that the environmentalist arguments against SST were disingenuous, while the spokespeople who supported the SST argued their case incompetently.

White finishes his editorial by griping that the publisher shortened his novel Trouble on Project Ceres by chopping off the first two chapters.  (It sounds liker poor Ted was having a tough month.)  Ted informs us that these two chapters will be published in the fanzine Granfalloon, and gets a small measure of revenge by subtly suggesting that we readers only make the effort to buy Trouble on Project Ceres after first seeking it at the local library!


After Ted's excursions into splatterpunk and sexual coming-of-age drama, I was pleased to find that "Junk Patrol," the cover story of this issue of Amazing, fits the traditional narrow definition of SF: this is a story about men donning space suits and risking their lives in orbit over the Moon!  I don't have any objection to SF stories that ask "What would it be like to be a murder victim?" or "What would it be like to have gay sex?" but I sort of got into SF because I was interested in questions like "What would it be like to live on a colony on the Moon?"  (People like Nabokov and Proust can handle all my impending death and homosexual relationship literary needs.)  I was further pleased to find that Ted has some pretty interesting SF ideas to impart to us in this one!

It is the 21st-century, and ingenious mankind has generated an atmosphere on the moon, and surrounded the entire moon with a thin plastic sheet that helps maintain atmospheric pressure.  On the surface are little towns and farms; our narrator, Sam Davies, is a farmer, and also a member of the "patrol."  In this story he and other patrolmen are ferried by a spaceship out of one of the entry/exit holes in the "pliofilm envelope which girds the Moon" into space, where they go on a spacewalk in order to collect giant conglomerations of twisted machinery that are approaching Luna--these hunks of junk are the mysterious evidence of a lost alien civilization.  Normally such artifacts are collected and taken to the lunar surface for study, but the pieces captured today are so huge, actually bigger than the spacecraft that brought the patrolmen out to them, that the men direct them towards Earth, where they will go into orbit and be studied in space.  Davies commits a blunder, cutting his suit and foot on a jagged piece of metal projecting from one of the colossal artifacts, and he and his comrades scramble to save his life.

White's fiction often contains "meta" elements and SF community in-jokes (you'll remember that there is a minor character named Terri Carr in White's By Furies Possessed) and in this one Davies refers to old pulp magazines and, more jarringly, the leader of his patrol is named "Jerome Podwill" (two "l"s.)  The real life Jerome Podwil (one "l") painted covers for many paperbacks, including some we've talked about here at MPorcius Fiction Log, like Raymond F. Jones's The Cybernetic Brains and Ray Cummings's Tama, Princess of Mercury.  Like two years ago I almost bought A. Bertram Chandler's Empress of Outer Space because I loved the Podwil cover, but I held back.

I love a good story about astronauts dealing with zero gravity and space suits and all that, and I'm relieved that I can unabashedly recommend one of today's stories.  Thumbs up for "Junk Patrol!"  Despite my approval, "Junk Patrol" would never again be published.  Shouldn't there be an anthology of stories about people who get holes in their space suits?

**********

These three stories, even though I think one is pretty good, all feel like White threw them together quickly in response to some emergency, like he lacked a story of just the right length or tone for the next issue and its deadline was breathing down his neck.  I hope he didn't rush them into production because he needed the money!  (I have heard that editors who publish their own stories in the anthologies or magazines they are editing get to pay themselves for the stories.)  "Junk Patrol," with its astronaut hardware, inscrutable extraterrestrial artifacts and little science lectures, is a perfect fit for a venerable, pioneering SF magazine and beyond reproach; the other two stories we read today are a little questionable, though I guess sex sells, and, unless you can get the taxpayer to foot the bill as Michael Moorcock was able to with New Worlds, an editor has to keep an eye on those circulation numbers.

In our next episode: more crazy stories from old magazines available at the internet archive!