Friday, June 24, 2022

Keith Laumer: "The Planet Wreckers," "The Body Builders," and "The Lawgiver"

In 1976, Pocket Books published The Best of Keith Laumer, a collection of nine stories with an intro by our beloved hero Barry Malzberg.  Dated "Teaneck, N.J., August 1975," Malzberg's introduction suggests that while the Retief stories are "fascinating" and "amazing" and enjoy a popularity which is "immense," they are not Laumer's most serious and important work, and there are no Retief stories in The Best of Keith Laumer.  Let's read from the 1980 printing  of The Best of Keith Laumer available at the internet archive and see how far we can agree with the sage of Teaneck when he says that Laumer is "serious and gifted" and that his work shows "range, versatility and technical sophistication." 

We've actually already read and discussed three of the stories in The Best of Keith Laumer, "Hybrid," "Cocoon" and "A Relic of War."  That leaves six, so let's wrestle down three today and leave three for next time.  Among today's selections are two stories Malzberg particularly recommends in his intro, "The Lawgiver" and "The Body Builders," but we start with the first story in the book, "The Planet Wreckers."   

"The Planet Wreckers" (1967)

"The Planet Wreckers" debuted in Frederik Pohl's Worlds of Tomorrow, in an issue with an article about Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey ("next year's sf super-movie") and an ad for a jigsaw puzzle map of the moon.  Based on my 30 seconds of research on ebay, I'm saying this puzzle looks a lot easier than the jigsaw puzzle of Frank Frazetta's The Silver Warriors which I have been grappling with for weeks.  

I face "The Planet Wreckers" with some trepidation because it was reprinted in Berkley Medallion's 1968 It's A Mad, Mad, Mad Galaxy and Baen's 2002 Keith Laumer: The Lighter Side, leading me to fear it is a joke story.  Generally, I find joke stories annoying.  But let's press on!  

Sure enough, this is a humor piece, 33 pages long.  A lock and safe salesman staying in an uncomfortable hotel in a small town gets mixed up in interstellar crime and espionage.  A bunch of alien filmmakers hope to trigger various natural calamities on Earth--an earthquake, a meteor strike, etc.--to record for their latest disaster movie.  A lone alien P.I. hired by the galactic game and wildlife service is on Earth to stop them, but she has been captured and chained up in this very hotel.  Our hero, using his professional skills, liberates her and then accompanies her--clad in his pyjamas--as she tries--and mostly fails--to stop the natural disasters.  He rides a flying saucer, participates in fire fights, witnesses the wrecking of San Francisco.  Thankfully, New York City is preserved by the salesman's quick thinking and good luck, and not only does our hero become a galactic movie star, but hooks up with the female detective--when she takes off her monstrous alien disguise she is revealed to be almost human and absolutely gorgeous!

Acceptable filler with lots of violence and death and lots of obvious jokes.  


"The Body Builders" (1966)

Here's another story that was reprinted in It's A Mad, Mad, Mad Galaxy and Keith Laumer: The Lighter Side.  Where's Keith Laumer: The Grimdark Side when you need it? 

The style of "The Body Builders" is a parody of hard boiled detective fiction.  Our narrator is a tough guy who is trying to avoid marrying some dame and being pushed around by other tough guys and says stuff like "The idea left me cold as an Eskimo's tombstone."  The setting of the story is the future, a time when a segment of the population, of which the narrator is a member, prefers to store their bodies safely in government facilities where they are kept alive by an IV drip and live life through a remote sensory hook up to a robot body.  Your brain inside your cold inert body controls the robot body remotely almost as if it is your own; if you have enough money you can get some sweet accessories for your robot body, like one that allows it to eat food and transmit the taste back to your brain.  Wealthy people have different bodies, entire fleets of them, each appropriate for a different occasion.

The robot bodies in the story are based on those of famous celebrities; Laumer just gives the last names of the models, so for us 21st-century readers "The Body Builders" serves as a kind of test of our knowledge of mid-century pop culture.  I figured the "Astaire" and "Arcano" models owned by the narrator must be Fred and Eddie, and that the "Liston" and "Wayne" bodies of some thugs were Sonny and John; a comic relief character's "Cantor" must be Eddie.  I had trouble with the lead villain's "Sullivan," but have settled on the theory that the reference is to pioneering boxer John L. Sullivan.  Women in the story own Dietrichs and Pickfords, no doubt Marlene and Mary.    

(Conservative types who reject using robot bodies and walk around in their real bodies are called "Organo-Republicans" or just "Orggies," and some of them use cosmetic surgery and appliances like contact lenses and toupees to improve their appearance.  Also, Bolos are mentioned, so I guess this story is in the same universe as Retief's Bolo tales.) 

The plot:  Our narrator is a successful gladiator.  (As we are well aware, SF is full of people fighting in the arena.)  A thug in a Sullivan picks a fight with him in a night club; duels between people in robot bodies are common in this milieu and the Sullivan wants one immediately.  Our hero is operating his Arcano body, which is too small to really fight head-to-head with a Sullivan, so he flees to get his Davy Crockett body, and there is a chase scene as the John Wayne-clad thug pursues him.  It turns out the brute in the Sullivan is a government official, so our hero, now in his Crockett, ends up in prison.  His career will collapse if he isn't at a fight scheduled for tonight versus Mysterious Marvin the Hooded Holocaust, so he jumps out a window--the Crockett is destroyed and the main character is in control of his real body again.  He leaves the government storage facility and goes to the arena to fight in his flesh and blood body!  Mysterious Marvin the Hooded Holocaust is of course in a powerful robot body, but unexpected advantages of a real human body lead to a triumph for the main character.  Not only has he beat the villain (Mysterious Marvin the Hooded Holocaust turns out to be that government swine who tried to swat him with his Sullivan), he swears off robot bodies forever after experiencing the excitement of interfacing with life directly, and sets a date to marry not the Dietrich-clad woman who was chasing him, but a nice Organo-Republican girl.  It is also suggested that his example is going to end the fad for using robot bodies and institute the kind of paradigm shift we often see in SF stories.

I'm skeptical of joke stories, but "Mysterious Marvin the Hooded Holocaust" is actually funny, the pace of the story is fast, and Laumer actually does a decent job of speculating about and dramatizing all the little ins and outs of the operation of the robot bodies, so I can "The Body Builders" a mild recommendation.  Presumably our pal Barry liked it in part because it depicts technology chipping away at our humanity, turning us into machines, one of his favored themes.   

"The Body Builders" made its debut in Galaxy, and has been translated into Italian, German and Dutch.


"The Lawgiver" (1970)

"The Lawgiver" first appeared in Harry Harrison's The Year 2000, an anthology of new stories set (you guessed it) in the year 2000.

In the hardcover edition of The Year 2000 available at the internet archive, Laumer's story is listed under the heading "Overpopulation," and, just like the Fred Saberhagen novel we just read, Love Conquers All, "The Lawgiver" is set in a world in which fears of overpopulation have lead the government to force menstruators into having abortions against their will. 

"The Lawgiver" is an extravagant melodrama, full of tragic ironies and dramatic coincidences.  It is the future of self-driving cars and videophones and towering skyscrapers.  Senator Eubanks has spent his career fighting for laws mandating abortions as a means of staving off overpopulation and associated famine and starvation.  Just recently he finally achieved success and saw his law passed--but only narrowly!  As the story begins he is on the videophone, arguing with a constituent who thinks a fetus is a live human being with a soul; Eubanks and this woman repeat the same arguments for and against abortion that you have heard a hundred times already and will likely hear a hundred times more in just the next week.  Then a second womb-carrier enters the story, busting into Eubank's apartment on the 76th floor and exclaiming that she is in labor with Senator Eubanks's grandson!  The baby could come any minute!

Will Senator Eubanks stick to his principles and have his own grandson destroyed mere moments before he is born?  Will this unhealthy uterus-owner survive the ordeal of childbirth in the Senator's apartment?  Where the hell is the baby's father, Ron Eubanks, and will this love 'em and leave 'em type have a change of heart and drive back to the capital so fast in hopes of reuniting with the mother of his son that his manually-operated car flies off the road and he suffers a life-threatening injury?

I'm judging "The Lawgiver" barely acceptable.  There is nothing innovative or surprising or exciting about it; it is soap-opera stuff you've already experienced married to arguments about abortion that aren't new, either.  

It feels like filler to me, but "The Lawgiver" has been reprinted in several Laumer collections as well as a 1976 anthology that looks like a textbook that was inflicted on students.


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These stories demonstrate that Keith Laumer is a competent writer, but they are no big deal.  Maybe we'll be more impressed by the other three stories in The Best of Keith Laumer?  Stay tuned to find out!

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Love Conquers All by Fred Saberhagen

"Killing?  How can you call it...if I dig up an acorn am I killing an oak tree?"  But it was no use.  He didn't want to argue with Ann, and anyway it would really be impossible.  She lived in a reality so far from the generally accepted one that Art could see no place to start.  At least he couldn't now, not after a day of strain and wife-chasing and rioting and Black Russians.

Advertising works!  At the end of my Ace paperback of Poul Anderson's Flandry of Terra we saw an ad for Fred Saberhagen's Love Conquers All, a novel first serialized in Galaxy at the end of 1974 and the start of 1975, then published by Ace in 1979.  The book was reprinted in 1985 by Baen with an absurdly generic and lackluster cover.  That Baen edition of Love Conquers All, which, according to the publication page, is "Newly revised," is available at the internet archive, and, thanks to the ability of advertising to reach across four decades, I just read it on this very computer screen.

It is the future of underground maglev trains that carry you from California to Illinois at supersonic speeds, of self-driving cars, of mass unemployment and universal guaranteed basic income and scads of other government handouts.  For close to a century mainstream society has embraced, and the government and other establishment institutions strongly encourage, sexual promiscuity.  The most popular religious institution is the Church of Eros, and reproductions of Caravaggio's Amor Vinicit Omnia are hanging all over the place.  Open marriages are the norm.  People walk around practically nude.  Government regulations make sure performers on TV shows don't show too little skin.  Women who conceal their breasts and make themselves sexually unavailable are considered to be selfish antisocial jerks.  Average people consider pregnancy an ailment to be got over, and it is illegal to have more than two children; third children are called "superfluous" and "unwanted" because, even if their parents want them, they are "unwanted by the world."

Behind all these pro-casual sex and anti-baby laws and social mores lies fear: fear of the neuroses believed to be the consequence of sexual repression and frustration, but more importantly the fear of the starvation and cannibalism that may result from overpopulation.  But, in the time period of the novel, culture is evolving, with a counterculture developing that is curious about chastity and monogamy, a growing network of Christian churches, and an underground that helps women who have become pregnant a third time escape mandatory abortion.

We might call Love Conquers All a sort of switcheroo story, seeing as it depicts social developments the reverse of those that took place over the course of Saberhagen's life.  At the start of the 20th century the people who set the tone for culture and society, the establishment or the elite or the mainstream or whatever you want to call them, were, at least rhetorically, against sexual promiscuity and abortion and supportive of monogamous marriage, and people who were sexually promiscuous, had or provided abortions, and were felt to have betrayed their families or had unconventional attitudes about sexual relationships, ran a real risk of social or legal sanction.  As the century ground on, through technological and political changes and horrendous wars and revolutions, attitudes about sexual promiscuity and abortion and the family changed, with more and more people and institutions tolerating or even celebrating sexual promiscuity, abortion and the loosening of traditional family ties and new forms of family structures.  In Saberhagen's novel here, for as long as anyone living can remember, the establishment has been enforcing sexual promiscuity and abortion as legal and social norms, but the attitude of ordinary people is changing, reflected in growing interest in sexual restraint and the popularity of TV shows about life in the Victorian era, while radical movements that consider a fetus a person grow in size and influence.

Love Conquers All has some wacky satire elements.  Men in this casual-sex-approving society grope and pinch women as a greeting or farewell, and people snap "chastity" or "triplets!" when in distress like a 20th-century person might utter "fuck," or "damn!"  Exposed to nudity and casual sex almost constantly and discouraged from restraining their sexual impulses, many people find concealing cloaks to be sexually arousing (mainstream mores condemn such opaque attire as obscene--clothes worn for warmth or protection are transparent) and fantasize about monogamous sexual relationships in which desire is held in check; hard core middle-class counter-culture types indulge in steady relationships with lovers they refuse to touch, finding restraint more thrilling than the casual sex with strangers that is the norm.  One minor character is a psychologist, and In a parody of Freudianism he is certain that human actions are driven by subconscious urges to be celibate, that everyone is tempted to not have sex, and that it would be healthy if people gave in to their socially unacceptable desires to avoid sex.  One scene is I guess a joke from Chicago-born Saberhagen for all you sports fans out there--unemployed people are paid per inning to go see the Cubs lose baseball games.  

While these broad satirical elements are present, Love Conquers All is written and structured like a mainstream novel, not like an exercise in humor or a genre adventure tale, and I think we are expected to take everybody's emotional tribulations seriously.

The plot--TLDR version:

A guy who more or less is OK with the current pro-sex anti-baby regime discovers his wife has gone on the lam because she is preggers with baby #3 and wants to keep it.  He chases after her, hoping to find her and convince her to do the right thing and have their child sucked out of her body piece by piece by a robot.  He meets lots of people and has lots of discussions and in the final scene ends up fighting the police to save their third child--it is not certain they will succeed, but we are given indications that escape from mandatory abortion is likely.

The plot--long spoilertastic version:

Art Rodney is an electronics expert living in Cali, now working in industry after a period teaching at a college; he is also a chess master (SF people love chess.)  He is married to Rita, and they have two kids.  Rita has some radical ideas--she is reluctant to have sex with other men, for example.  Her brother George lives in Chicago, and George's wife Ann is really out there, wearing clothes that cover her breasts, for example.  One day Art comes home to find a note--Rita is on the lam because she is pregnant with a third child and knows if the government finds out about her delicate condition she will be forced to have an abortion.  Art may be an ordinary guy who thinks of an abortion as a procedure no more remarkable than having a hangnail removed and considers it more kind to destroy his unborn child than to condemn it to a life of social stigma as a "superfluous" person, Rita is determined to keep the child.  

Hoping to track down Rita and talk some sense into her, Art takes the subterranean super train to Chicago to see George and Ann.  The train's journey is interrupted by a riot on the surface at a Christian monastery; a pro-abortion mob has attacked the monastery in response to rumors about what the Christians are doing in there.  The train is evacuated and the passengers join a group of people fleeing the violence, including a young woman named Rosamond; Art has sex with Rosamond to comfort her.

In Chicago, when a government agent, searching for Rita, whom the Feds know is carrying an illegal child, catches up with Art, our hero gets an inkling of what was going on in that monastery.  Pro-baby activists have come up with a means of removing quite young fetuses from pregnant women and preserving them for later birth in natural or artificial wombs.  Because the mandatory abortion law only allows the government to abort fetuses that are less than nine months old, if a fetus is frozen and hidden from the Feds long enough, it is accorded the rights of a citizen and cannot be casually destroyed, even if it is only a few months old biologically.

Rita has left the kids with George and Ann, who support Rita's bold and risky decision to keep her baby, and escaped into the pro-baby underground.  George, a karate instructor with a black belt, has contacts among the working and lower classes, and Saberhagen gives us detective fiction scenes in which George and Art travel to the seedier parts of town, and we get an idea of how much crime and social strife (the unemployed who live on the dole resent the employed, for example) the world faces.  We also get acquainted with Fred Lohmann, Ann's brother, a kid just out of high school.  Fred wants to work for George at George's dojo, but he's not a good enough a fighter yet, and probably won't become one, as he is sort of lazy and dishonest.  Through Fred's eyes we see what life and relationships are like for young people in Saberhagen's pro-easy sex, anti-procreation world; a flashback to the dawn of George and Ann's relationship serves a similar purpose, but while George has become a responsible small businessman and devoted family man, Fred becomes a dangerously violent criminal.

Art gets mixed up in a riot when counter-protestors from the Gay League, homosexuals and transsexuals who support the establishment, clash with a pro-chastity demonstration by a group called The Young Virgins.  Knocked unconscious, Art wakes up in a secret facility where the anti-abortion activists preserve fetuses; a doctor who is also a Christian priest patches up Art, and they have an argument about abortion after Art by chance stumbles onto a three-month old fetus floating in a life-sustaining chamber, which gives Saberhagen an opportunity to describe how the tiny little girl has very human hands but a head and "gills" that remind Art of a fish.

After he leaves the secret medical facility, Art is arrested because he's been seen with members of the anti-abortion/pro-monogamy underground.  He gets released when he mentions Rosamond to the cops--it turns out Rosamond's father is a bishop of the Church of Eros.  Art and this guy have a philosophical discussion, and then Rosamond, who sympathizes with the underground, takes Art to see the man she is having a chaste romantic relationship with, a psychologist, thinking he may be able to help Art find Rita.  This headshrinker Art to his father, a rich man whose tendrils extend into all sorts of underground and illegal enterprises.  When this rich guy learns about Art's hope that Rita will have an abortion to escape legal jeopardy, he pulls strings to help Art out, or so he thinks.  Due to tragic coincidences and and misunderstandings, Fred is hired to steal Rita's frozen baby from the cooler in which it is living in suspended animation.  George slays Fred's partner in crime in hand to hand combat, and Art, signifying an epiphany and act of redemption brought on by love for his wife, runs off with the cooler, knocking over the detective he met when he first hit Chicago, endeavoring to get to a facility that will protect his unborn son from the government.  While we don't see Art make it to the facility, and can't be positive that Rita, George and Art will escape conviction by a jury of their peers on the charges of illegal baby-making and thug-killing, Saberhagen offers clues that lead us to expect this welcome outcome is likely.  

***

While a few of the most critically acclaimed (I'm thinking of Gene Wolfe and R. A. Lafferty here) and most influential (like J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis) SF writers are committed Christians, most SF writers are religion-hating leftists or libertarians, so a SF book that takes seriously arguments against abortion is a rara avis.  Taking a different tack like this is a good idea, but unfortunately Saberhagen, whom wikipedia tells me was a practicing Catholic, is not as talented or innovative a writer as fellow Catholics Wolfe or Lafferty, and Love Conquers All is pretty mediocre when it comes to style and plotting.

The novel is too long.  Individual scenes are too long, and some long sections are pretty superfluous; for example, the flashback to George's first meeting with Ann, Fred's job interview with George, and a meeting between the head of the Chicago Family Planning department and the head of the Gay League.  Scenes with George featuring karate are, I guess, supposed to add violence and excitement to the story, and the scene of the homosexual activist's meeting with the government bureaucrat has an expository purpose (they talk about overpopulation) but since the early karate scenes don't involve Art or Rita, and we know George is not going to get killed or maimed, they don't really add any tension or thrills, and the exposition in the scene with the leader of the Gay League is redundant--we have already been subjected to exposition about overpopulation.  (The fight scene at the very end is admirably brief, the stakes are high, and Rita and Art are there, so that scene is a success.)  If Saberhagen was able to write these unnecessary scenes in such a way that they were funny or moving or included beautiful images or striking metaphors, we might not mind that they do not serve the plot and slow the pace of narrative, but Saberhagen's style is merely competent, not inherently enjoyable.  Saberhagen's ideas may have been better served in a shorter form--maybe the Galaxy version is substantially shorter?  

Another of my gripes with Love Conquers All is that Art is not a strong character--he is buffeted hither and thither by others and by luck.  We are told he is an electronics expert and a chess master but does this stuff ever matter to the story, does it ever add interest to the novel's 270 pages?  No, it does not.  It is Rita who should have been the main character, because it is Rita who experiences the big emotions and makes the big decisions and takes the big risks: she loves her unborn baby and so is determined to save it, but her efforts to do so put her at odds with her husband, whom she also loves, and put herself, her husband, and her kids at risk because she could wind up imprisoned by the government or even harmed by rioters or criminals.

(I recognize that the fact that Art sort of lamely goes along with his corrupt society and other people he knows until the very end when he makes a big decision and explodes into activity, risking it all to do the right thing, suits the story's Christian themes, but it doesn't make for an exciting extended narrative.)   

Merely acceptable.  Obviously you should read this if you are interested in portrayals of abortion in SF, SF by Christians, or specifically in Fred Saberhagen's career and thought, but I doubt it is the type of thing that conventional SF readers will be thrilled by. 

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The last eight pages of the 1985 edition of Love Conquers All available at the internet archive consist of a three-page excerpt from Poul Anderson's Game of Empire and four pages of ads.  One is for another  Saberhagen novel, one about a genetically engineered superior race; it seems this, like Love Conquers All, is a revised Baen edition of an earlier work of Saberhagen's.  The illustration suggests the superior race is of people who can fly, which I have to admit is a pretty clear sign of superiority.

One ad is for one of Keith Laumer's Retief novels.  Remember back in 2019 when I read the collection Nine by Laumer and its introduction by Harlan Ellison?  I should read more Laumer soon.        

The next ad is for John Willett's Aubade for Gamelon, which I guess is another superior race novel.  There is a rose on the cover, which, frankly, doesn't strike me as so superior--I mean, I have a rose bush in my own yard, and I am not exactly a superior specimen.  This novel is hilariously blurbed by Robert Bussard, whose bio on the ad is longer than the totally generic and uninformative blurb he provided.  Sad.

The last ad is for Killer by David Drake and Karl Edward Wagner, a book I can actually recommend, as I read it years ago and enjoyed it.  A good violent adventure/horror story set in ancient Rome.

 

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Thursday, June 16, 2022

Poul Anderson: "The Game of Glory," "A Message in Secret," and "The Plague of Masters"

Let's read my 1979 Ace copy of Flandry of Terra, a collection of three late-'50s/early-'60s Dominic Flandry stories by Poul Anderson with a good Michael Whelan cover featuring lots of guns, astronomical phenomena, and weird aliens, plus a mustache and a hot chick.  The three stories in the collection have proven enduringly popular, and been reprinted many times in numerous languages and under various titles.  Flandry of Terra first appeared as a hardcover in America in 1965, and first as a paperback in Britain in 1976.  There isn't any special introduction or afterword or anything, though in my printing there is a dedication to Jack and Norma Vance, and to a Johnny, presumably the Vances' son.  I like seeing these little evidences that writers can get along instead of being riven by professional jealousies and ideological rifts and all that, which seems, to me, to be the norm.  (The '76 British paperback, viewable at the internet archive, lacks this dedication.)

Like the Michael Whelan cover on my copy, the cover of the British 1976 paperback promises awesome militaristic adventure; well, let's see if the texts live up to these covers, or if, like the cover of our last paperback, Eric Frank Russell's earthbound chase thriller The Mindwarpers, which shows a space ship, these covers amount to false advertising.


"The Game of Glory" (1958)

"The Game of Glory" debuted in Venture, in the same issue as Algis Budrys's tale "The Edge of the Sea," which we just read in March.

The story begins with Captain Flandry in charge of intelligence operations on a formerly semi-autonomous planet that has just had its semi-autonomy violently revoked because its elite rejected a Terran demand for permission to set up a new space navy base.  The Terran military having conquered the place, Flandry is hunting down the anti-Terran elements among the elite so local collaborationists can be put in their place.  (In these Flandry stories, Anderson does not sugar coat the decadence and the ruthless realpolitik that characterizes the Terran Empire!)  One of the marines escorting Flandry, a black guy, is killed by a sniper, and his dying words provide Flandry a clue that suggests the soldier's  home world is seething with rebellion!  

Flandry, alone, flies to that black dude's home planet, a world covered in water whose "native" population is made up of ethnic Africans who colonized the place 500 years ago and are dedicated to fishing and other nautical pursuits; the planetary elite of whites and Asians who rule in Terra's name arrived some 100 years ago when the Terran Empire conquered the planet and form a sort of bourgeois class and live on a little island.  Landing on this island, Flandry finds that the Imperial representative has been murdered.  After an interview with the dead man's beautiful and decadent wife, Flandry accompanies a beautiful and heroic native lady aristocrat to her underwater city to continue his investigations.  

Flandry uses his charm as well as trickery to figure out who on this water planet is plotting a rebellion against Terra and to convince important people to side with him and Terra against the rebels and aid him in the fight against them and the hunt for the agent of Terra's rival space empire, the Merseians, who fomented the rebellion.  

This is a good story; the futuristic weapons and equipment and the enemy agent--a huge aquatic creature--are sold SF fun SF elements, Anderson offers vivid images of alien landscapes as well as decent fight scenes, and he also does a good job of integrating into the narrative his themes of cultural and political decline and decadence and the ambiguous nature of imperialism--the plot and setting and characters successfully illustrate those themes.  The story's racial politics would presumably invite comment from today's readers; the black people Flandry meets in the story are all more likable and admirable than all the white people he meets, so obviously Anderson means "The Game of Glory" to be an anti-racism story, but maybe some today would consider Anderson's depictions of black people to be an instance of cultural appropriation or to constitute examples of the use of the "magic Negro" (when they help Flandry) or the "white savior" (when Flandry helps them) cliches.

A less ambiguous no-no from the point of view of today's values is how Flandry uses homosexuality as a sort of emblem or synecdoche for degeneracy.  At the end of the story, after working with the vigorous and honorable black seafarers, people who fearlessly go head-to-head with sea monsters and storms, Flandry sums up how debased the Terran Empire is with a sarcastic reference to "our noble homosexual Emperor."                 

It is probably not nice to beat up on Russell again, but I think The Mindwarpers, the last subject laid out for dissection here at MPorcius Fiction Log, presents an illuminating contrast to "The Game of Glory."  Both stories are about a guy serving his powerful polity in a bipolar milieu in which it is at odds with another powerful empire and both stories chronicle how the guy travels from place to place to talk to people in an effort to discover and foil a plot of the opposing empire; both tales have a fight in the middle and a climactic fight at the end.  But while Anderson in his story makes sure all the places are vividly described and all the people and relationships in the story tell us something about what it is like to live in the hero's empire in a specific period of history, its culture and ethos and atmosphere, Russell signally fails to do any of that, not even providing names for the big cities the hero goes to or the opposing empire, and presenting almost no relationships whatsoever between his secondary characters.

So, thumbs up for "The Game of Glory."

LEFT: This 1999 special issue of a Japanese magazine features stories by Leigh Brackett,
Keith Laumer, and Fred Saberhagen as well as "The Game of Glory"
RIGHT: This French collection contains all three of today's stories, plus four other 1950s Flandry tales

"A Message in Secret" (1959)

"A Message in Secret" first appeared as the cover story of Fantastic, and its first book publication was as half of an Ace Double, where it was retitled Mayday Orbit.  

Planet Altai, far from the main space lanes, was colonized by humans from Central Asia like seven centuries ago, and Terra, center of a space empire of some four million stars, hasn't paid much attention to it since.  But in response to rumors that something is up there, Flandry is sent to Altai to investigate, travelling as the sole passenger on a merchant ship owned and crewed by non-humans, people from the independent system of Betelgeuse.  

Altai is an icy world of steppe and desert where most of the people live as motorized nomads--the planet has rings, as depicted by Michael Whelan on the cover of my copy of Flandry of Terra, and many of the tribespeople ride heavily armed motorcycles, as depicted on that British paperback edition.  Flandry quickly learns that the dominant of the planet's tribes, the tribe resident in the capital city, has a secret alliance with the Merseians and is even receiving high tech Merseian weapons.  Flandry hooks up with a female soldier of a pro-Terra tribe; her tribe was defeated by the pro-Merseia tribe and is being held captive as a member of the pro-Merseian khan's harem.  Mounted on stolen motorcycles, they fight their way out of the capital and make their way through the snowy wilderness to another pro-Terra tribe.  Significantly, this tribe has a different religion than most of the human tribes on Altai.  

Flandry and this dissident tribe's shaman consult the uncanny natives of Altai, weird little guys with psychic powers who have abandoned high tech civilization.  These jokers have domesticated herds of animals much like flying jellyfish, some as big as a passenger balloon, and Flandry figures out a way to use these airborne creatures to save his butt and Terran foreign policy.  

In the capital city is a two-kilometer high pagoda, a temple of the quasi-Islamic, quasi-Buddhist mainstream religion of the humans of Altai.  On a stormy night, carried in the tentacles of one of these Brobdingnagian flying jellyfish, Flandry spray paints in Roman letters visible from many miles away a message nobody on Altai understands, but any Terran will immediately recognize, "MAYDAY."  This sacrilege causes xenophobic riots, and the Betelgeusans flee the planet, carrying with them the news of the strife-triggering graffiti, news which quickly reaches the Terran authorities, who send a ship to investigate.  When Flandry, listening to radio traffic, knows the Terran ship is in the sky above, he has the pro-Terra tribesmen--expert cavalry men--ride in formations that form English words appraising the Terran spacers above of the Merseian-sympathizer threat on Altai.  Soon enough, a powerful Terran naval force arrives to kill a lot of people and set things to rights (from the Terran point of view, at least.)  

As we sort of expect from one of these vintage hard SF stories, the hero resolves the plot by using his wits and tricking other people.  But if that is not enough drama for you, in the weeks between the departure of the Betelgeusan merchants and the arrival of the Terran space fleet, Flandry gets involved in a love triangle as well as fights against Terran rats that have evolved over the centuries to the size of dogs and some of the pro-Merseia tribesmen.

A good story which shares the merits I saw in "The Game of Glory."  Thumbs up for "A Message in Secret."    


"The Plague of Masters" (1960)

This tale appeared in 1960 as part of an Ace Double under the title Earthman, Go Home! and was serialized across the December '60 and January '61 issues of Fantastic under the title "A Plague of Masters."  (Remember "A Plague of Lighthouse Keepers?"  That was really something, wasn't it?)  

Three hundred years ago, planet Unan Besar was colonized by people descended from the inhabitants of the Malay Peninsula, and they have had no direct contact with the rest of human civilization since.  Unan Besar's atmosphere contains a toxin that will kill a person after prolonged exposure, so everybody on the planet has to take a pill every thirty days.  The technicians of the government department that makes these pills--Biocontrol-- jealously guard the secrets to their manufacture and have made themselves dictators of the planet.  The first Biocontrol scientists may have been technocratic socialists who thought they could make this world of jungles and swamps a paradise by meticulously managing a planned economy, but, proving Flandry's assertion that scientific government never works, Biocontrol quickly evolved into a ruthless and corrupt oligarchy indifferent to the fate of those ruled.  Nowadays the Biocontrol technicians and their lackeys live in palaces and most people eke out an existence as peasants or as toilers or thieves in crime-ridden slums.

The Biocontrol oligarchs know that interstellar trade would upend the social structure of Unana Besar because the high tech planets of the Terran Empire could with trivial ease develop and manufacture the life-preserving pills at low cost (Anderson's free-trade/small government politics is more evident in "The Plague of Masters" than in the other two stores we are talking about today) and so they have scrupulously avoided any intercourse with other human planets, only conducting a very limited trade with Betelgeusean merchants who strictly quarantine while on the planet's surface.  When Flandry arrives to investigate this mysterious world he soon realizes Biocontrol won't let him off the planet alive and so he fights his way out of the palace quarter into the slums, where he hooks up with a courtesan and her colleague, a ruthless mugger of tremendous physical strength.  Via elaborate disguise and trickery, and a little bit of the old ultraviolence, the three swindle a chest of silver coins out of a powerful crime boss; thus booty finances a move to a city on the other side of the planet.

Regardless, the planet's top cop manages to track the three down and imprison them.  In custody, Flandry learns all about Unana Besar's ruling cabal, many of whom are fanatics and quite a few of whom are goofballs.  The top cop, a more level-headed character than the arrogant and wacky technicians he serves, tries to sign up Flandry as his assistant--Unana Besar's number one flatfoot recognizes that a highly experienced intelligence agent from the Terran Empire has much to teach him.  

A wealthy guy Flandry made friends with right before getting captured springs the mugger and the courtesan and those two cold-blooded killers rescue Flandry; many people are slain in the process.  (This scene of mayhem is brought to life on the cover of the Ace Double version of Earthman, Go Home!)  Flandry's benefactor is from a small and remote community of anti-Biocontrol conservatives who live in a beautiful forest.  Even though they recognize that contact with the rest of the galaxy will change the traditional way of life they love, they commit themselves to helping Flandry overthrow Biocontrol and opening Unana Besar to interstellar trade.  Flandry and friends accomplish this goal via trickery and by killing a bunch of people, setting in motion the process that will end the planet's oppressive social order and improve the lives of those who survive the upheaval.    

"The Plague of Masters" is as long as "The Game of Glory" and "A Message in Secret" put together.  I like it, but not as much as those other two stories.  Individual portions are well done--chases, fights, schemes of deception--but some of them end up seeming superfluous.  For example, over quite a few pages, Flandry gets in good with that major crime boss, and together they develop an elaborate business plan, but of course the plan is just a ruse and goes nowhere beyond providing Flandry and his two felonious allies a chance to rob the crime boss.  I also feel like the secondary and minor characters here, and their relationships with Flandry and with each other, are not quite as interesting as those in the previous two stories. 

Personally, I agree with the anti-government and pro-free trade speeches Anderson puts in "The Plague of Masters," but lefties and the kind of right-wingers who find themselves more in tune with the brand spanking new Compact magazine than with 60-odd-year-old National Review may find them irritating.  
           
A thumbs up for "The Plague of Masters," but not as enthusiastic a one as for "The Game of Glory" and "A Message in Secret."


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Three good stories.  They work as espionage adventure stories, but science fiction is the literature of ideas and Anderson has read a lot of books, so along with the plot we get plenty of science, talk about politics and economics, and a wealth of references direct and indirect to world history and culture; these stories are obviously influenced by the history of the Roman and British empires as well as the Cold War, and Anderson also alludes to culturally specific phenomena like (in "The Plague of Masters") "running amok."  I feel Anderson thus provides additional layers of interest to the stories, though I can see some finding it a waste of time, tendentious, or even somehow offensive.

I expect there are quite a few more Dominic Flandry adventures in our future.  For past Flandry content from MPorcius Fiction Log, check out my blog posts on The Rebel Worlds, "Tiger By the Tail," and "Honorable Enemies."  

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My copy of Flandry of Terra has five pages of ads in the back.  So, what books was Ace actively promoting in 1979?


Well, we've got two pages of ads for books by Anderson, appropriately enough.  There's a full page devoted to Ensign Flandry, a 1966 novel that Michael Whelan's cover suggests features a sexy cat lady.  SF people love cats.  


Ian Watson and Fred Saberhagen each get a full page for a single novel, the former a 1978 novel apparently about UFOs, Miracle Visitors, the latter the first publication in book form of Love Conquers All, a 1974 serial from Galaxy, about, it seems, overpopulation and sex.  Hubba hubba.

Finally, there is another full page ad for what I guess is an SF murder mystery by Randall Garrett, Murder and Magic.  isfdb is telling me this is an installment in a long-running series; it is odd that isn't mentioned in the ad.

The Watson and Garrett books hold no attraction for me, but I am of course interested in the Anderson volumes and I am certainly curious about the Saberhagen.  Maybe we'll be talking about it soon here at MPorcius Fiction Log!

Friday, June 10, 2022

The Mindwarpers by Eric Frank Russell

A few weeks ago he'd never have believed himself capable of taking sadistic pleasure in trying to strangle someone.  But that was what he was doing right now....

Let's read another thrift store find!  In late 2021, in a Cumberland, MD thrift store that smelled pretty terrible, I bought a 1975 printing of Englishman Eric Frank Russell's The Mindwarpers, a paperback with a cover by John Berkey.  Presumably the cover and the low low price were what enticed me, because I don't think it could have been my experience with Russell: a year earlier I had read Men, Martians and Machines, Russell's collection of stories about the crew of the starship Marathon, and found it to be "barely acceptable," and in 2016 I had read The Best of Eric Frank Russell and had a similar lukewarm reaction.  Or maybe I had just forgotten who Eric Frank Russell was, perhaps mixing him up with Raymond F. Jones or John Russell Fearn.  I am constantly mixing people up; all my life I have mixed up Brad Pitt and Val Kilmer, and it was only a few days ago that my wife told me that the woman I have for years been calling Vanessa Redgrave is in fact Maggie Smith.

The novel known here in America as The Mindwarpers was first published in hardcover in Britain in 1964 under the more literary title With a Strange Device.  The novel has been reprinted multiple times not only in the US and UK, but also in Germany and Italy, so I guess we can call it an international success.  But will it be a success here at MPorcius Fiction Log HQ?  That is what we are about to find out!

The Mindwarpers begins with a jocular description of the physical impregnability of a government research center--the people employed there call it "the defense plant"--in some unnamed US city: its thick walls, its three layers of checkpoints manned by very suspicious guards, its strictly enforced hierarchy based on staff member's clearance levels, etc.  But, Russell tells us, the fortress has a weakness!  The human element!  Via scenes of dialogue among various scientists and administrators we learn that over the past few years an increasing number of scientists have been unexpectedly quitting and then disappearing to remote areas of the country or even outside the United States.

From among the indistinguishable and personality-free cast one man, Rich Bransome, a metallurgist with a wife and kids who is on a team developing an anti-aircraft gun, emerges as our main character.  During his daily commute between the plant in town and his home in the suburbs, while waiting for his connecting train, Bransome overhears two men talking; one of them gossips about how the police have, by chance, found the bones of a woman.  Bransome is shaken--it is he who murdered that woman and buried her body twenty years ago! 

The rest of the novel consists of crime drama stuff.  Bransome is wracked by fears the cops are on his trail!  Bransome feels that somebody is following him!  Bransome alters his routines in hopes of throwing off possible pursuers, like sitting in a different train car than usual and walking past his house before doubling back to it!  Bransome's family and his colleagues at the plant notice how anxious he is and ask him why!  After a few days of all this tension, Bransome skips town, telling his bosses he has to visit a relative in trouble and telling his wife he has to go on a business trip; traveling around, he pores over old newspapers and slyly interrogates people, looking for clues, and gets the jump on a guy who is following him and ties him up!

Russell handles all this detective fiction stuff competently enough, but we know the American title of the novel, and the actual text includes sufficient hints besides, so we readers are pretty sure Bransome is not a murderer, that in fact somebody planted a false memory of being a murderer in his brain as a means of neutralizing him as an asset at the research center.  The real mystery is who did this.  Space aliens?  (There is a space ship on the cover of the book, after all.)  The commies?  (This is the logical answer.)  A mad scientist?  (Those of us who love mad scientists cherish the hope!)  

The police capture Bransome at the book's halfway point (this edition is 158 pages) and hand him over to a guy from Washington, a military counterintelligence officer.  Talking to this spook, Bransome realizes he is not being followed because state or local cops suspect him of a murder, but because the federal government suspects an unnamed foreign power is somehow getting at the American defense establishment's top scientists and pressuring them to leave their posts, and the feds hope to help Bransome escape such pressure and to put an end to this enemy campaign.

Bransome escapes from the counterspy and with the new clues he has gleaned from conversation with him pursues his personal amateur investigation on new lines; by page 100 or so he is quite convinced his memories of slaying a woman are fake and all the researchers who have abandoned their defense sector jobs recently have had similar fake memories forced upon them.  More detective work (stake outs, asking questions of people) leads him to the hideout of the gang that has been giving false memories to all these eggheads; impulsively he invades the enemy HQ all by himself, but the authorities, who have been following Bransome without alerting him of the fact, are right behind him and they capture the foreign gang; there follows a few pages in which we learn the memory-tampering techniques used by these enemy agents.  

The Mindwarpers, despite the space craft on the cover and the fact that Bransome is a scientist, is only just barely an SF story; it is a mainstream thriller that just uses high tech stuff to get the detective and chase plot rolling.  I'm going to call The Mindwarpers acceptable--while not bad, there is nothing in the book that grabs the reader, that inspires emotional or intellectual commitment.  The detective stuff more or less works on a mechanical level, but there is little suspense or excitement.  Bransome is not an interesting or attractive character whom we care about.  There is no sense of time or place--we never are told what states or cities the story takes place in, nor what country the enemies are working form, and locations are never described in any way; I guess this is in part because Russell is not familiar with the United States (he has the counterspy use the word "constitution" the way an Englishman would use it, as a lower case reference to the traditional political establishment, rather than as an American does, in uppercase, as a reference to a specific document that sets forth particular laws.)  This book would be much better if Russell had set it in England or some other place with which he was familiar and brought the setting to vivid life, and if the characters--Bransome and colleagues as well as the enemies--came from a specific cultural milieu or political ideology.  The Mindwarpers has almost no philosophical or ideological content; Russell doesn't try to say anything about bureaucracy or the scientific mind or the strengths and weaknesses of a free or a totalitarian society, even though the topic and plot provide a perfect canvas upon which to do such things.  As the epigraph I chose for this blog post suggests, he does offer a minor psychological/philosophical theme, the idea that the fear of death or a desire for revenge can motivate a person to do things he wouldn't normally do, but he could have done much more on this theme and on any number of others.

Lester del Rey's introduction to The Best of Eric Frank Russell and the wikipedia page on Russell indicate he has a high reputation and make him sound like a guy whose work I should really like, but in practice I find him somewhat underwhelming.

Monday, June 6, 2022

Backwoods Teaser by Gil Brewer

Harker wanted to say something, but he couldn't.  He was still carrying on a bitter battle within himself., knowing full well he would lose, but battling anyway.  He loved Zoe.  He knew this.  He didn't know what to do, because so far as he could figure it, he loved Tildy too, and how could you comfortably love two women living in the same house in this day and age without something awful happening?

Recently the wife and I went to Oakland, MD to visit the antique stores and thrift stores there and, perhaps infected by the zeitgeist, I spent a lot of money on stuff I can't really afford, like a reproduction of Demetre Chiparus's sculpture Thais and a gigundo 1977 children's puzzle depicting dinosaurs (rawr.)  One thing I bought that was actually within my means was a bedraggled copy of Gil Brewer's 1960 novel Backwoods Teaser that smells as bad as it looks.  Copies of this work, which features a cover by Robert McGinnis, are on Amazon and ebay for 70 or more dollars, but my copy, which is an absolute wreck, only cost me one buck.

Back when they first started coming out, I read some of those Hard Case Crime reprints, including Brewer's The Vengeful Virgin.  I liked The Vengeful Virgin well enough, so let's give this one a spin.  I fear this warped, brittle and dog-eared volume is going to fall apart as I read it, but, unlike The Vengeful Virgin, Backwoods Teaser is not at the internet archive.  

Harker Brauns, the owner of a general store in his mid-thirties, lives with his wife Zoe on a Florida riverbank in the now half-empty mansion his great-grandfather built.  The Brauns family has fallen pretty far in the world, but ownership of the big house and the store mean that Harker is still one of the most important people in this remote little town.

Zoe is attractive, but she isn't very interested in sex, it seems, perhaps thinking they can't afford any children, and generally repels the horny Harker's advances, no matter how ardent.  Harker spends quite a bit of time hanging around on the porch, looking at the river, recalling the beautiful girl in a blue bathing suit he saw playing down there five years ago; this girl brazenly showed off her body to him, and Harker has never forgotten her.  Big, strong and handsome, Brauns had a lot of women when he was young and lived as a drifter, wandering the country before his father died and left him the store and semi-decrepit mansion, and he hasn't exactly been faithful to Zoe, but he is haunted by the memory of this girl in the blue bathing suit, the sexiest woman he has ever seen.

Harker is drinking huge gulps of whiskey, trying to medicate his obsession with the girl in the blue bathing suit, when Zoe's 16-year-old niece Tildy arrives.  Tildy's mother murdered Tildy's good-for-nothing father with a shotgun, and so she'll be staying with Harker and Zoe for a while.  The first time Harker sees Tildy she is clad in a bikini, and she is so beautiful and so reminiscent of the girl in the blue bathing suit that Harker thinks he is dreaming and jumps up to chase her!  He blames the booze on his behavior after he comes to his senses.

Things proceed more or less as you would expect, with the curvaceous Tildy prancing around in tight clothes, driving the men of the town crazy and scandalizing the town women.  Harker lusts after her, unable to think of anything besides her body, and she eggs Harker on, thinking he has the money that can finance the big city life she covets--besides, she is pretty horny herself.  Immediately after they have sex the first time, Tildy starts insisting Harker divorce Zoe, sell the store and the old mansion, and travel the country with her, showing her all the big cities.  Harker is at wit's end, crazy with an insatiable desire for Tildy's body, guilt ridden over his betrayal of Zoe, and constitutionally unable to sever his ties with his family's mansion and store--he can't satisfy all three of these powerful and conflicting psychological drives, and feels he is plunging headlong into disaster.  Unable to resolve his conundrum, he seeks oblivion in whiskey and in feverish couplings with Tildy.  

Harker returns home from the store one day to find that Tildy has brought the issue to a crisis--she is covered in dirt and blood and says she has killed Zoe and buried the body in the swamp!

Tense hours follow as Harker and Tildy clean up the blood in the kitchen, hide the murder weapon and Tildy's bloody dress, and forge a note from Zoe explaining she was just going on a little vacation.  Then the tense days as people in the town start wondering where Zoe has gone and the corrupt and vulgar sheriff--who wants a piece of Tildy himself--starts investigating.  Tildy keeps badgering Harker to sell his property and run away with her, and introduces to him new pages from her erotic repertoire, performing a striptease for him (and eventually the sheriff!) and finally suggesting they go out into the swamp so he can fuck her while she lays on Zoe's shallow grave!

This particularly macabre suggestion breaks Harker's addiction to Tildy.  I was expecting some kind of explosive and tragic finale to follow, with Tildy slaying Harker or vice versa and then a suicide or maybe a deadly showdown with the police.  Instead, Brewer gives us a cop out of an ending--Zoe returns from vacation, safe and sound!  Zoe simply sneaked away because she knew Harker was banging Tildy and wanted to give her husband time to get his Tildy craving out of his system!  Tildy faked the murder and hid Zoe's note (and used it as the basis for the note she and Harker forged) in hopes it would spur Harker to sell his property and leave town with her in tow.  Zoe forgives Harker his adultery and they send Tildy to live with some other relative and commit themselves to revivifying their marriage, to having children and building a better life together.

I thought Backwoods Teaser was going to be a crime novel about how surrendering to your lusts and abandoning your duty to your wife will lead you to a cataclysm, and it feels that way for like 110 pages of its 20 pages, but then it turns out to be a wish fulfillment fantasy in which a guy has a hot wife who is reluctant to have sex, so has hot sex on the side with another hot chick (a sixteen-year-old at that!) and then his wife not only forgives him, but is more interested in sex than before!  Harker has his cake and eats it too, breaking all the rules (including the rules against being an accessory to murder!) to bang the girl of his dreams until he is satiated, which, instead of earning him a terrible punishment, puts him on the road to achieving the middle-class dream of owning a successful business and coming home every day to his loving wife and a big house full of kids! 

The ending of Backwoods Teaser is pretty disappointing and frustrating, but let's ignore the conclusion and assess the book based on those first 110 pages.  Brewer offers an effective depiction of sexual obsession and sexual frustration; the numerous long and salacious descriptions of women's bodies and the portrayals of Harker's frenzied psychological state--his lust, his guilt, his fear--are compelling and entertaining.  This is exploitation stuff (and every page is an affront to au courant 2022 sensibilities), but Brewer is an able writer and there is nothing shoddy or lazy about his work here, and he keeps the novel short--straightforward and direct, with no filler or fat, it doesn't get monotonous.  The ending is a major let down (you might even call the book a tease!), but if we just consider 90% of the text, it deserves a thumbs up.  As a whole, still acceptable.  

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The last page of my copy of Backwoods Teaser is an ad for other Gold Medal Books of a salacious nature, novels--and even a "collection of case histories"--about sexually active teenagers and corrupt professionals and businessmen.  One of them is by famous comic book creator Gardner F. Fox.  Maybe you recall that in 2015 we read his science fiction novel Escape Across the Cosmos and that in 2018 we read his sword and sorcery novel Kothar and the Wizard Slayer; it seems he also had a hand in the sleazy thriller game.  All you Gardner F. Fox completists out there don't have to wait until you stumble on a copy of Witness This Woman in a thrift store, as you can read a scan for free online at the Gardner Francis Fox Library at the link.     


 

Sunday, June 5, 2022

The Wailing Asteroid by Murray Leinster

"The question," observed Burke, "isn't whether it makes sense, but whether it's fact.  According to the last word from Earth, they're still insisting that the ship's drive is against all reason.  But we're here.  And speaking of reason, would the average person look at this place and say blandly, 'Ah, yes!  A fortress in space.  To be sure!'  Would they?  Is this place reasonable?"
I can't remember specifically purchasing Avon T-483, The Wailing Asteroid by Murray Leinster, and was actually sort of surprised when I came upon it while searching my shelves for my copy of The Best of Fritz Leiber.  I must have bought it because I liked the Richard Powers cover.  Avon actually put some effort into also making the back cover and the title page appealing, so I conceived the whim of rewarding their work by actually reading this book, printed in 1960 and reprinted in a variety of languages over the decades since.  

Joe Burke is a successful young engineer, the owner of his own R&D consulting firm.  But Joe has never felt quite right, never felt that he was like other people.  Since he was a kid he has had a recurring dream: a vision of a landscape with two moons accompanied by an unmelodic series of flute-like musical notes, a vision in which he carries a strange pistol and is on a mission to rescue a woman.  Are these dreams signs he is insane, or telepathic, or not fully human?  His uneasiness about himself and the identity of the woman in the dream has kept Joe from proposing to his childhood friend and sweetheart, Sandy Lund, but on the very day he decides to overcome his worries and pop the question he is interrupted by a news flash, the biggest news of the century!

A message has arrived from outer space!  The message is repeated, again and again, always the same, an unmelodic series of musical notes.  The message is played on the radio, and Joe recognizes it as the very same odd flutings he hears in his recurring dream!

While scientists the world over are scrambling to figure out where the message comes from, Joe is working feverishly around the clock in his lab; now that he knows the dream is not the result of some mental illness but must be information from some source external to himself, he puts his expertise to work trying to recreate the weapon from the dream.  He works out the atomic principles that power the weapon, scientific laws heretofore unknown to human science, and succeeds in producing a working prototype of the weapon!  Meanwhile, astronomers have pinpointed the asteroid from which the messages are being transmitted, and the governments of both the Soviet Union and the United States have announced their intentions to send manned expeditions to investigate, though the arrival of these missions at the target is months away.   

The Wailing Asteroid includes a lot science and engineering, and we get pretty detailed descriptions of Burke's inventive and investigatory endeavors.  That pistol operates by aligning the motion of atoms within a substance--these atoms are normally moving independently--thus converting heat energy into kinetic energy... at least that is what I think Leinster is saying.  Anyway, Burke scales up the mechanism of the pistol to create a space drive.  Holmes, a yacht builder, and Keller, an electronics whiz, help Burke build a space ship, while Sandy and her sister Pam handle all the clerical and financial aspects.  (21st-century readers will perhaps not like the way Leinster handles gender roles in this 1960 novel; the women are more concerned with their relationships--Sandy's with Joe Burke and Pam's with Holmes--than any science stuff, and while they do contribute to the achievements of the three engineers, they are also very emotional, scared or nervous or whatever.)  

Besides his hard science speculations, Leinster offers speculations on how the public and politicians might respond to the prospect of meeting aliens, and, as perhaps we expect from this sort of classic-style SF story, the man on the street and the people he has voted into office in Washington or who lord it over him from Moscow don't respond as admirably as do engineering types like Burke, Holmes and Keller.  The public panics, fearing contact with aliens will mean the subjugation or extermination of the human race, and there is hysterical fear over the possibility that alien spies already live among us.  The government investigates any person at all connected to anything to do with space, Burke among them, and halfway through the novel, to escape arrest, our five heroes have to take off in their not-quite-complete and quite untested space ship.  After dodging USAF anti-aircraft missiles, they head for the asteroid belt and the source of the undecipherable messages.

The second half of the book consists of our heroes exploring the asteroid, which is an abandoned space fortress, and learning the cosmic history of the human race, its current peril, and how to save our civilization--they also learn the source of Joe Burke's dream.  They discover all this in dribs and drabs, out of order, and then piece it together, but I'll just tell you spoiler-lovers out there the gist of it in logical, chronological, order.

In brief, millions of years ago humans had a space empire that would periodically suffer attack from mysterious aliens; thousands of years would pass between attacks, and each attack would feature different tactics and weapons systems.  This fortress on the periphery of the human empire was supplied and garrisoned via teleporter from some place many light years away.  In the centuries following the last attack, the empire grew decadent and stopped sending sufficient supplies to the fortress, so the garrison began sending parties via space boats to the Earth to hunt mammoths for food and so on; eventually the empire collapsed altogether or moved to another region of the galaxy, and the garrison deserted the fortress and moved to Earth permanently.  Before leaving they set up a computer system to watch for another alien attack and warn them if another was imminent--then they could return to the fort to resist the invasion.  Over the centuries these colonists, our ancestors, regressed into barbarism, totally forgetting their history.  But the computers on the fortress continued to work, and in the 20th century, when approaching aliens were detected, sent out the automatic alert to Earth.

For books, our space faring ancestors had little cubes that transmit info directly to your brain via a helmet interface, and Joe and company find many such cubes on the fortress that serve as histories and instruction manuals for the fortress's equipment and weapons.  These cubes are fragile and liable to leak radiation even when not in a helmet, and if you sleep near one the info will seep into your brain as a dream.  Burke had that dream as a kid because a relative acquired one of the cubes brought to Earth during the era of the mastodon and gave it to little Joey.  It is theorized that the cubes brought to Earth are entertainment cubes, fiction, but the way that Burke's dream essentially comes true makes me wonder if Leinster might have had some kind of time travel gag in mind.        

The Wailing Asteroid is a decent science-oriented SF novel, the type of SF tale in which you don't find yourself musing, "Hmm, is this a reference to T. S. Eliot?" but instead wondering, "Maybe I should go to wikipedia and find out what these 'busbars' they keep talking about really are."  Leinster's pace is deliberate rather than brisk, and the novel is blandly intellectually diverting rather than emotionally compelling.  There is little human feeling or excitement--Leinster spends very few pages on fighting and many many pages on figuring stuff out--but the text is never irritating and only rarely boring.  All the technology stuff, the drives and weapons and so forth, that Leinster comes up with are fun and feel sort of fresh--he doesn't just offer the rockets and laser beams we see all the time, but stuff like artificial gravity wells that can tear our planet apart and countermeasures that convert that gravity into radiation and direct it back at the source.  I was always curious about what was going to come next, even if I had no emotional investment in who got killed and who married who in the end.  I really wasn't sure if the heroes would stop the alien attack and save Earth or give up Earth as a lost cause (Leinster portrays governments and the common people in a negative enough light to make this palatable) and use the teleporter to explore the galaxy and maybe find the current civilization of the fortress's builders.  So, I'm giving The Wailing Asteroid a moderate recommendation.    

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In the last year and a half or so I've read several Murray Leinster stories from old SF magazines like Weird Tales and Astounding.  If you have a hankering for more MPorcius Fiction Log commentary that spoils the vast oeuvre of Murray Leinster, just consult the links below.