Sunday, August 12, 2018

Three science fiction tales by Ray Cummings from 1941


We’re still reading Ray Cummings stories purchased by Fred Pohl for inclusion in SF magazines, stories Pohl intimated (in his memoir The Way the Future Was) that he published even though he didn't like them. Today it’s three stories from 1941 issues of Astonishing and Super Science.  I read them all at the internet archive, and you can do the same--I don't think these pieces ever saw book publication, so the internet archive is probably your best option!

"Magnus' Disintegrator" 

The issue of Astonishing in which "Magnus' Disintegrator" appears carries an interesting editor's note (this department is called "Editoramblings.")  In it Pohl says that reader feedback has indicated that SF fans want longer stories, and so Astonishing's sister publication, Super Science Stories, is being rechristened Super Science Novels and will have more pages, a higher price, and feature longer works.  I'm not sure that I personally favor longer stories (I feel like I often, here at this blog, moan that a story is too long--in related news, when the wife and I are in a hotel room and one of those documentary shows about embezzlers or whatever comes on she has to endure my bitching that "they showed that clip already!" and "they told us this two minutes ago!" and "this show has 10 minutes of information and they are stretching it out to 45 minutes!") but if you go to the SF section of a big chain bookstore today and see how the shelves are full of books two inches thick and series that take up a foot because they consist of six or eight volumes, well, it is hard to disagree with Pohl's assessment of what the mass of customers want. 

"Magnus' Disintegrator" takes us to the New York City of the high tech future of the year 2000, where we meet a guy called Rance.  Wait, is this the synthetic food salesman from "Personality Plus," the best of the eight Cummings stories I've already written about this week?  Apparently not; this dude's first name is Peter, and he is a "private aircar operator," which I think is pronounced "chauffeur."  As the story begins our man Rance is in a lab out at Montauk with his employer, inventor and businessman John Magnus, and Magnus has a heat gun trained on poor Rance, and is saying he is going to blow up his experimental "disintegrator," a kind of reactor that can produce cheap energy, killing both of them.  It will all be worth it, however, because other eggheads will be able to study the recordings of the explosion and gain the knowledge needed to build a better reactor.

The bulk of the rest of the story consists of a flashback that explains why Magnus wants to die, and why he wants to murder Rance, during which it becomes clear I am supposed to sympathize with the businessman instead of his driver.  Magnus committed some business blunders that cost him much of his business empire and some engineering blunders with earlier versions of the reactor that got some peeps killed and got government regulators all up in his grill!  Magnus was just about to shoot himself with his heat gun when he learned that his sexy blonde daughter Carole wanted to marry Rance; Rance has a reputation as a womanizer and no doubt the main thing attracting him to Carole is her inheritance!  (Three of the five 1940 horror stories we read by Cummings just a few days ago had some jerk scheming to get an inheritance, and here Cummings is playing this tune yet again!)  Magnus would rather kill the chauffer than let him break his little princess's heart, so he concocted the plan of blowing Rance up along with himself by messing with the experimental reactor.  (For the reactor to operate, two people have to be at the controls, so he couldn't just blow himself up with it.)

The flashback brings us up to the present, to the lab out on the tip of Long Island.  Rance doesn't feel like sacrificing his life for science so he tackles Magnus and they wrestle over the heat gun.  The weapon goes off and hits the reactor in such a way that it emits poison gas that kills our horn dog chauffeur (the gas just makes the businessman/inventor pass out) and also somehow makes the reactor work smoothly so it doesn't blow up.  Magnus's daughter is safe from the womanizing Rance and the now perfected reactor will restore the finances of Magnus's company and slash energy prices and lead to worldwide economic growth.

Besides feeling contrived, "Magnus' Disintegrator" feels like it was constructed out of pieces plucked from the other Cummings stories we've been reading; it's like the Cummings of '40 and '41 has a limited number of Legos and each thing he builds out of them incorporates bricks we've seen already in somewhat different configurations.

The interesting facet of "Magnus' Disintegrator" is that the good guy is a big businessman and the villain is a working-class guy trying to get his mitts on the industrialist's daughter; I feel like most SF stories are written by pinkos who would side with a working-class dude against a magnate, or by libertarian types who would celebrate a young woman striking a blow for independence and fighting for the right to choose her own husband.  It is definitely weird that the penultimate paragraph of the story is about how great it is that Magnus will be able to guide his daughter's life--aren't most of the stories we read about individuals who (at least try to) forge their own destinies?

I like that Cummings is airing some unusual points of view in this story, but I wish it was better plotted; as it stands I cannot recommend it.

"Almost Human"

This issue of Super Science has a terrific cover--a man in a wifebeater T-shirt and a gorilla, both armed with elaborate modernistic dart launchers, are trying to rescue a gorgeous babe from the clutches of a giant baboon!  (Or is it a bear?)  This incredible tableau reminds me of the Schoenherr cover to my copy of A. E. van Vogt's The Battle of Forever, which introduced me to a hero whom I will always hold close to my heart, the rifle-toting HippoMan!

"Almost Human" is about a robot who develops a personality. Xor-2y4 is a robot pilot, an electronic brain which is interred in a stylized humanoid body which lacks the ability to walk; it is carried from one aircar or spacecraft to another when its duties change—and they have changed recently. You see, Xor was the personal aircar operator of Jon Dekain, famous robot maker and Xor's own creator, and spent a lot of time flying around with the doctor’s lovely daughter Barbara, known as Babs (yes, another Babs—Cummings reuses everything, including names.)  An alien from Asteroid 90, Sirrah Gerondli, was scheduled to meet with Dekain, and Xor was chauffeuring this xeno to the meeting and crashed the vehicle, killing the alien.  After this accident Xor was checked out (Dekain found nothing wrong) and transferred to the pilot’s seat of a space ship (yes, after killing one guy and wrecking a 100,000 dollar vehicle they gave Xor responsibility for dozens of people and a bazillion dollar vehicle. This is what we call failing upwards.)

As our story begins Xor is conning his first flight to Mars, and the passengers aboard include not only Dekain the engineer/businessman and his daughter Babs, but Sirrah Ahli, ambassador to Earth from Asteroid 90 and brother of crash victim Sirrah Gerondli!  

Xor has superhearing, and by listening in on conversations in the ship realizes the terrible position Babs and the entire solar system are in. The people of Asteroid 90 are aggressive and want to conquer Mars (evoking the image of Nazi Germany, it is said that the asteroid people "want living space, as they call it....")  In response to the burgeoning Asteroid 90 threat, the people of Mars have purchased military hardware from Dekain’s firm, and this very ship is carrying a load of “space-bomb sights” and “rangefinders for space-guns.” Ahli, who has managed to sneak aboard a squad of Asteroid 90 commando stowaways, is plotting to hijack the ship and take its valuable cargo (which includes sexy Babs--"A beautiful little thing--if you like Earthgirls, and I do") to Asteroid 90!

I've already told you Xor can't walk--well, he can't talk either!  (This is a serious plot hole—don’t pilots in real life have to communicate to crew and passengers all the time?  Who would build a robot that can take orders in English but can't talk back, if only to answer "how long til we get there?" and "does the vehicle require maintenance?" type questions?)  Xor can't walk, he can't talk, but he can feel, and he feels a fondness for Babs and even feels that he was created for the singular destiny of being Babs's protector!  So Xor takes matters into his own hands! The heroic robot accelerates the ship into the red zone—the asteroid people grew up in less gravity than did the Earthers, so the level of gravity that merely renders the humans unconscious crushes the bodies of the space Nazis, killing them.

When the humans wake up they almost deactivate and destroy Xor, but at the last moment uncover the dead imperialist stowaways and realize that Xor has saved them all.  In the last column of the tale we learn that Xor killed Gerondli because he had overheard that alien’s plan to kidnap Babs.

"Almost Human" is an acceptable classic SF story, you might call it a space opera, which addresses common SF topics (might a robot or computer become conscious, have emotions?) and employs traditional SF elements (robot and his inventor, hostile aliens, and the use of trickery and science knowledge to defeat the enemy and resolve the plot.)  This story is also in the long SF tradition of what we today might call “celebrating diversity;” Xor the robot is an "other" embraced by the flesh creatures and, while there are villainous aliens (Asteroid 90’s space Nazis), there are also good aliens (the Martians) who have treaties and conduct trade with Earth.

I never really got an answer on those cellophane pants.
"Aerita of the Light Country"

I'm always hearing how fiction needs to include strong female protagonists; well, if the cover of this issue of Super Science Novels is to be believed, Ray Cummings was working the strong female protagonist beat over 70 years ago!  Nothing says "strong female" like a woman blasting a  guy with a ray gun while he is testing out his new headphones, immersed in the delicate nuances and rococo intricacies of "The Firth of Fifth."

Among the Ray Cummings novels I recently received from Joachim Boaz are Tama of the Light Country and Tama, Princess of Mercury, novels originally serialized in Argosy magazine in 1930 and 1931.  Is the "Complete Book-Length Novel" under discussion today a sequel to those capers?  Is Aerita Tama's daughter or niece or something?  And what is up with the transparent bloomers?  Well, let's see.

The year is 2093, the place, a small town in upstate New York.  Alan Grant, 24, a towering hunk of an aircraft battery salesman who is just passing through, goes to a freak show to kill time and is entranced by a five-foot tall girl in her late teens with a beautiful face of mysterious ethnicity, silver hair and blue-feathered wings!  When he realizes she is being held captive by the freak show owner, he liberates her and she leads him to her space ship.  (Earth once had spacecraft, but no longer--there is a hint that Cummings's Tama books explain in greater detail why there are no human spacecraft in 2093.)  I guess being an airplane parts salesman is not as fun as it sounds, because Alan agrees to accompany the winged girl, Aerita, to Mercury.

On the flight Alan learns all about Mercury.  "The Light Country" is Mercury's twilight zone--it is bordered by the Fire Country on one side and the Dark Country on the other.  (When these old SF stories were written people thought Mercury was tidally locked to the Sun, with one permanently dark side and one perpetually roasted side; wikipedia is telling me that it was not until 1965 that radar revealed the truth about Mercury's rotation.)  Aerita is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Tama and an Earthman who traveled to Mercury long ago (or maybe the great-great-great-great-granddaughter.)  The hot little planet is going through a period of political crisis and change.  Mercurian men don't have wings, which gives them something of an inferiority complex, so, by law, when they get married, Mercurian women have their wings clipped so they can't fly anymore.  (Whoa, this is a real feminist story!)  Aerita is the head of a protest movement, leader of a thousand girls who have declared they will not marry until the law is changed and they will be permitted to keep their ability to fly after being wed.  These reformers have left the city and set up a camp in mountains only accessible by those who can fly.

Because of hi-tech wars in the past, studying science is forbidden on Mercury, but Aerita's grandfather Polter, like Aerita herself, is a freethinker!  He built the spaceship, the only one of its kind, that brought Aerita to Earth due to a malfunction.  Why did it malfunction?  Because another independent-minded scientist, Rahgg, not a kindly grandpapa but a dangerous criminal (Cummings hints that he is a rapist or pedophile; maybe he belongs on Planet Hollywood instead of Planet Mercury) who was exiled to the Dark Country, where he became leader of the savages there, hijacked the ship and kidnapped Aerita, and in the course of escaping his clutches Aerita accidentally directed the vessel into interplanetary space and couldn't figure out the controls until she was near our own big blue marble.

Alan quickly finds himself in the middle of all these political crises.  First he quells a working class riot (these incels want the government to force Aerita's adamant virgins to abandon their protest and get their wings clipped marry them) with his Earth ray gun.  Having the only firearm on the planet gives Alan a big advantage over the forces of evil, but then the gun-control crazy Mercurian government confiscates the pistol!  Doh!  So when a Light Country official who is colluding with Rahgg kidnaps Aerita and Alan joins a squad of flying girls in their effort to rescue her, he has to fight with a knife, just like the native Mercurians!  You'd think that 6' 4" Alan would be able to handle a bunch of Mercurian men (average height: 5' 6") in a knife fight, especially when his Earth muscles give him what amounts to super strength on Mercury, but things don't work out for our man--the winged girls get killed and Grant joins Aerita in captivity!  Doh!

Rahgg not only captures Aerita and Alan Grant, but captures the space ship again!  (Sometimes it feels like Rahgg is the only person in the story who can get things done!)  Directed by poor Alan, whom he gets to spill the beans on Earth by threatening to torture Aerita, Rahgg and company fly to Earth where they loot government munitions factories on the Hudson in upstate New York, including the ray artillery plant where Alan's brother Phil Grant, an eighteen-year-old scientist, is working.  Phil gets captured and taken back to Mercury along with all those ray pistols and ray cannons!

Alan may not know how to handle a knife, but he knows how to handle the ladies!  Among Rahgg's retinue of Dark Country savages is Zara, a sexy servant woman who brings everybody on the ship their meals.  (The people of the Dark Country are ethnically distinct from Aelita's people; among other differences, they lack wings.)  Zara is infatuated with big strong Alan, so she helps him move some of the Earth pistols onto a glider in the ship's hold; shortly after the ship enters Mercury's atmosphere Phil escapes on the glider and flies to the hideout of the protesting virgins.  When the ship lands at Rahgg's lair Zara helps Alan escape--much to Zara's displeasure Alan also springs her rival for Alan's affections, Aerita, leading to something of a cat fight.

Alan and Aerita are reunited with Phil and the 1000 flying virgins, and they attack Rahgg's army, which is marching on the Light Country's capital city.  A ray gun battle ensues, in which hundreds of people, including Phil, are killed or dismembered, but eventually the Earth brothers and the flying girls prevail.  Women having saved the Light Country, the working classes accept that they won't be clipping wives' wings anymore, and Alan and one-armed Phil set an example by marrying winged girls of their own.

"Aerita of the Light Country" is an entertaining Edgar Rice Burroughs/Edmond Hamilton/Leigh Brackett type of adventure story in which a modern Earther ends up making friends with people on another world and fighting in their wars; Cummings adds some interest to the story with all that gender conflict, class conflict, racial conflict, and luddism we've been talking about.  Brackett often electrifies her planetary romances with harsh violence and/or sexual energy, and Cummings does the same here; it seems Cummings didn't confine the topics of rape, torture and murderous love triangles to the fiction he produced for Horror Stories and Terror Tales, but integrated them into his more science-fictiony work.  It will be interesting to see if Cummings included this edge of sadism and eroticism in the two Tama novels, which appeared a decade before "Aerita."

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More Cummings soon, but first some more recent fiction from a book on the shelves of the Joachim Boaz Wing of the MPorcius Library!

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Three science fiction stories by Ray Cummings from 1940


In our last episode we read five tales of gore, female nudity and inheritance schemes penned by Ray Cummings, who in his youth worked with Thomas Edison and who wrote quite a few SF adventures like Brigands of the Moon, a novel full of energy guns and futuristic vehicles which has the MPorcius Seal of Approval.  In 1940 Frederik Pohl began editing Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories, and during his 20-month reign over these periodicals Pohl purchased numerous SF stories from Cummings.  In his fun memoir The Way the Future Was, which I recommend to anybody interested in classic SF, New York intellectual life in the 1930s and '40s, and what it is like to follow a career centered on the printed word, Pohl makes it clear that he thought all of the stories he bought from Cummings sucked--he bought them because he liked Cummings as a guy and wanted to do him a solid.  "[Cummings] was a personally engaging, roguish human being.  What he was not was a source of good stories."

When we think at all here at MPorcius Fiction Log, we think for ourselves, and I'm not going to just take Pohl's word for it that Cummings's 1940 and 1941 stories were bad.  So today we are reading three stories by Cummings that were printed in 1940 in magazines Pohl edited.  I read all of these at the internet archive, a treasure trove for all of us interested in the popular culture of the early 20th century. 

"Arton’s Metal" 

This piece appeared in Super Science Stories.  The cover of this issue is too cramped, crowded, confusing.

In 1939 James Blakinson stole Georg Arton’s wife! Our story is set forty years later, in the futuristic world of 1979, as Blakinson arrives at Arton’s laboratory, where Arton is said to be producing a new material of tremendous value!  Blakinson, who carries a cane and wears a cape, doesn’t just steal wives—he steals money, and has embezzled enough funds from the bank that employs him to end up in the "ghastly Polar Prisons of Antarctica" should the authorities uncover his crime.  So he needs cash, fast, and has come to see Arton for the first time in four decades in hopes of getting it!

After this set up, which has some dramatic potential, Cummings craps out on us. Arton demonstrates to Blakinson the process, which involves glowing electrodes, showers of sparks, and clouds of acerbic fumes, by which he creates or condenses, apparently out of the air or maybe from an almost invisibly thin wire, hunks of gold, platinum and radium. I couldn’t understand this whole system, and think Cummings did a poor job of explaining it, or just didn't bother to do so.  In any case, Arton, who, by the way, is in very poor health, uses his apparatus as a trap for Blakinson, as a means of revenge. Arton sets his machinery up to malfunction in such a way that both men are, I think, killed, perhaps totally annihilated, and the lab is destroyed in an explosion that produces lots of valuable metal.  The last part of the story has a chemist and a journalist examining the rubble; there are no human remains and the chemist suspects Arton’s apparatus led to "two material bodies...trying to occupy the same space art the same time," which of course causes an explosion.  (Cummings, I guess, is presenting this idea of "two bodies in the same space" as linked, poetically and metaphorically, to the way Blakinson had sex with or won the love of Arton's wife, this woman's body or affection being the space they were both trying to occupy.)

I didn’t understand what was going on with the apparatus, and I thought the "occupying the same space" poetic justice angle was weak, so I have to give this one a thumbs down.

"The Thought-Woman" 

Here's another story from Super Science, this one named on the cover.  This cover is better than the last one, with a dynamic and easy to "read" cover with more expressive and interesting faces and slightly less silly monsters.

At the center of "The Thought-Woman" is a strange conceit: that in another parallel dimension are stored all the ideas that people will ever have, put there by God Almighty, and that when an idea pops into our heads, we are withdrawing it from this idea warehouse.  (Cummings compares this to the realm of unborn children from Maurice Maeterlink's 1908 play, The Blue Bird, the basis of numerous movies.)

Stanley Durrant is a young inventor, wracking his brain to complete the big invention that will make his fortune. His childhood friend, Dorothy Livingston, is always hanging around—she has a crush on Stan, but he doesn’t see her as a woman, just a platonic buddy. She brings up the theory of the realm of unthought things, then goes home to pray or hope or something that Stan will receive the ideas he needs from that unearthly realm. And, wouldn’t you know it, after she has departed the inventor has a dream or vision of going to this place, giving Cummings an opportunity to bore us with a rapturous and sentimental (and tedious) celebration of technology and invention. Billions of empty shelves and galleries represent ideas that have already been thought up— Cummings refers to Edison, the Wright brothers, Fulton, blah blah blah. Some niches are filled with vague outlines of objects—inventions that have not yet been thought up, and Stan recognizes his own half conceived invention among them.

The realm of unthought things doesn’t just feature technological advances—a ghostly figure guides Stan among the galleries, and he eventually realizes it is the idea of Dorothy (or, as he calls her, "Dot") seen not merely as a platonic chum, but as a sexually mature, sexually attractive woman. When he wakes up and sees Dot again he immediately recognizes her nubility and embraces her, and we have every reason to expect they will live happily ever after.

A childish, boring, feckless (remember a few weeks ago when that was everybody’s favorite word?) fairy tale with no drama or surprises or compelling ideas, "The Thought-Woman" is no more than a sterile celebration of things (technological advance and erotic love) we all already think are good that gives short shrift to the challenges associated with these good things, which of course cripples the story because and it is those challenges that make good fiction!

"Personality Plus" 

"Personality Plus" appeared in Astonishing, behind a pretty bland cover.  Fortunately, here we have a legitimate SF story with a comedic edge.  There was science in "Arton's Metal," but all the fluorescing bulbs and calipers and sparks were just pointless window dressing, and in "The Thought-Woman" the science was mind-numbing romanticizing of inventors. "Personality Plus," on the other hand, not only addresses interesting science (the perennial nature vs nurture debate) but pokes fun at scientists. Also, the jokes are actually funny!

It is the year 2000 in New York City—I myself was living in NYC in 2000 (good times, good times...) though of course the Gotham of my salad says didn’t have slidewalks and aircars and criminals armed with heat guns.

Our narrator is Jack Rance, a synthetic food salesman. He gets mixed up in the work of Dr. Butterworth, whom I guess we would call a (research?) psychiatrist. Butterworth believes that your personality is determined by your experiences, and is bitterly opposed to the thinking of scientists who argue that personality is determined by genetic inheritance. Butterworth’s niece Dot (that's right, "Dot" again) has married a man Butterworth describes as a real jerk, George Trent, known to one and all as "Georgie," a man who, because of his superior intelligence and good looks, has become arrogant, selfish and totally unlikable.  Butterworth has invented an amnesia machine (Jack tells us it is a "gruesome apparatus" that looks like the “death chair at Sing Sing”) and tricked Georgie into sitting in it (Doc B told him it was a headache cure!) The machine erased Georgie’s memory of the past eight years, when he allegedly evolved into the jerk everyone detests, and fogged up earlier memories, leaving Georgie's character practically a blank slate! Butterworth says that Georgie will now be able to develop a whole new, more agreeable, personality, and asks Jack to observe this development.

In short order Georgie is acting like a dangerously selfish jerk, a man brimming with confidence who fears no personal risks and does not care if he puts others in jeopardy. He runs an insane scam, like something out of a Wodehouse novel or a Desilu production, and our narrator Jack is right there in the middle of it. Georgie, who doesn’t seem to take his marriage vows overly seriously, has attracted the adoration of an heiress who wants to be a famous actress in nude films. She isn’t very good-looking (“got a figure like an ironing board”) so she and Georgie plan a publicity stunt to jump start her career: Georgie is going to pretend to kidnap her, and a corrupt cop friend of his will then rescue her and allow him to escape. (Jack gets pulled into this dangerous ruse because Georgie needs a stooge to hold the ladder steady while he carries the aspiring actress down from the second story window of her suburban mansion.)

This stunt is a total disaster, and leads to the twist ending in which Dr. Butterworth reveals the true nature of his experimental treatment of Georgie!

It was a relief to read this entertaining story after those two inert clunkers "Arton's Metal" and "The Thought-Woman." Why can’t all of Cummings's stories be like this?  Maybe because Cummings needed to mass produce stories to pay the bills and thus didn't have time to carefully craft all of his stories.  Pohl theorizes that this is the case.

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In a letter to Super Science, printed in the February 1943 issue, Chad Oliver, the guy who writes all those SF stories about anthropologists going native among primitive aliens, grouses that Cummings includes a “female” in every story he writes, and it is true that all the Cummings horror stories we read in our last blog post included courtship and/or marriage as a plot element, and it is also true of all the SF stories we read today. I actually think sexual relationships are a very good topic for literature, but, unfortunately, in only one of today’s stories does Cummings do anything actually entertaining with this classic subject. One out of three is not good, but let’s give Cummings another chance—in our next episode we'll look at Cummings stories from Astonishing and Super Science issues printed in 1941!


Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Five horror stories from 1940 by Ray Cummings

A British edition
In his fascinating memoir, The Way The Future Was, writer, editor, literary agent, Bolshevist and high school dropout Frederik Pohl talks a little about Ray Cummings. Pohl tells us that Cummings, who was born in 1887 and had some success as an SF writer earlier in his career, in the late 1930s was making his living by selling mystery and horror stories to Popular Publications, printers of numerous (at one point, according to wikipedia, 42) pulp magazines.  "Horror stories," according to Pohl, "were the dregs of the pulp market, cheap thrill-and-sadism stuff to a precise formula...."  The formula Pohl describes will remind people my age of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!--what at first appears to be a supernatural menace turns out to be a hoax perpetrated by some mundane ne'er-do-well.  When Pohl came to work at Popular as editor of Astonishing Stories and Super Science Stories it was, he says, "a great day for Ray" because Pohl admired Cummings as a person and would buy actual SF stories from him, even if Pohl didn't care for them.  "...for months he would turn up regularly as clockwork and sell me a new story; I hated them all, and bought them all."

"Dregs?"  He "hated" them all?  Ouch!  Were these stories really so bad?  I liked Cummings's 1931 novel of piracy and firefights in the future, Brigands of the Moon, and was pleased to see several Cummings volumes among the 21 pounds of books donated to the MPorcius library recently by Joachim Boaz.  I don’t trust Pohl’s judgement when it comes to the proper role of the state in the economy, so why should I trust his judgement of Cummings's written work?  It’s not like I love every single thing Pohl has written (though I do think very highly of Gateway and "The Fiend," and The Way The Future Was is very readable.)  The only thing to do is to investigate first hand!  Trawling through the internet archive, I have picked out five horror stories by Cummings (some co-written with Gabrielle Cummings, whom I believe was Cumming’s wife) published in magazines in 1940. Let’s see what these stories--and the horror pulps--for which Pohl has such disdain are all about!  (In a later blog post I'll read some of the SF stories by Cummings which appeared in Astonishing and Super Science issues edited by Pohl.)

"Perfume of Dark Desire" (as by Ray King)

Our first three stories all appeared in the same issue of Horror Stories, one with a naked blonde on the cover about to suffer a quadruple dismemberment!  Yikes!

In "Perfume of Dark Desire" New York lawyer John Holden travels from the Big Apple to a tiny village in upstate New York to do some kind of real estate related business with a wealthy hermit guy, Robert Martin.  This of course reminds us of Johnathan Harker's trip to Transylvania in Dracula, one of the foundational texts of our modern culture of horror fiction.  Holden even receives a warning from a local before he reaches Martin's isolated house--the naked corpses of young ladies are being found in the woods around Martin's pad, and it is said they are the victims of some kind of creature that seduces them before murdering them.  Also, mysterious fires are associated with these heinous crimes.

Holden walks to Martin's house, where, through the window, he sees a beautiful brunette putting perfume all over her body--Holden actually saw this hot chick furtively purchasing that perfume back in the village's drug store!  This exhibitionist turns out to be Martin's niece, Barbara Jones, whom Martin calls "Babs."  Holden is pretty good-looking himself, and he and Babs are immediately consumed with lust for each other!

The monster, an apparition wreathed in smoke, murders another beautiful girl just outside Martin's house, and instead of calling the cops, Martin and Babs enlist Holden's aid in concealing the body in the coal bin down in the cellar!  There's also a strange scene in which a scared Babs drops an oil lamp, setting her clothes on fire so Holden has to rip her smoldering duds off and jump on top of her to quench the flames. 

At night Babs comes to Holden's room to strip and offer him her body if he will promise to keep the corpse in the cellar a secret!  She explains that her uncle Robert has a mental illness, a strange and compelling fetish--to him, smoke is a powerful aphrodisiac and if a girl smells of smoke he can hardly resist molesting her!  That is why she wears so much perfume, because the smell of perfume repels him!  One of Martin's enemies has learned of his perversion, and is blackmailing him--this villain has been running around the woods, setting piles of leaves on fire and murdering young women, then threatening to pin these atrocities on Martin if the old perv doesn't cough up the shekels.

Before Holden and Babs can consummate their relationship they hear a scream and rush off to find that the blackmailer has murdered Martin the pervert and put him in a smoke monster costume.  The blackmailer (revealed to be the drug store clerk who sells Babs that special perfume) knocks Holden unconcious, ties him up, and starts molesting Babs--he brags he will rape her and then murder her and the authorities will think Martin is to blame.  But Martin is still alive, just barely!  The old freak pulls the murder weapon, a knife, out of his own chest and uses it to free Holden, so Holden can kill the blackmailer.  After this good deed Babs's sex criminal uncle expires, and she goes on to marry the New York lawyer and they live happily ever after.

"Perfume of Dark Desire" is contrived and ridiculous, and appeals to people's fascination with violence and rough sex.  Again and again in the story people perform actions which are anti-social  but which gratify sexual desires, and are relieved of responsibility for these actions because unlikely circumstances have "forced" them to engage in them.  Ronald Martin's mental illness forces him to grope young women, the fire forces John Holden to rip off Barbara Jones's clothes and climb on top of her, fear of exposure to the police forces Babs to bare her body before Holden, etc.  The perfume the blackmailer invented and with which Babs covers herself (out of the blameless motive of protecting herself from her uncle's irrational lust) turns out to be a powerful aphrodisiac--thus Holden and Babs's animalistic desire for each other is not a reflection of their characters, not a sign they are "easy," but the work of the evil blackmailer!

Fiction allows people to vicariously participate in acts which are objectively pretty terrible and often elides any guilt the consumer might feel over deriving pleasure from such participation by providing in-story justifications for the actions.  Many people have fantasies of killing other people, and the first Star Wars movie and the first Indiana Jones movie--to provide two famous, popular, and critically acclaimed examples--allow people to indulge in fantasies of killing people by the dozens, and viewers never need feel guilty about their enjoyment because it is OK (more than OK--you get a medal for doing it!) to shoot down Nazis and space Nazis.  Similarly, many people have fantasies of denuding and groping young ladies or of disrobing and exciting the lust of strangers and "Perfume of Dark Desire" has characters who indulge in these more or less unacceptable behaviors "against their wills."

I can't call this story good, but it is crazy enough to be entertaining, and it isn't boring. 


"When the Werewolf Howls" (as by Emerson Graves)

Irma Lowe, a beautiful young woman, works at the mountain lodge owned by her blind grandfather (Irma’s parents are dead.) Also working at the lodge, managing the boats that take tourists off on excursions on the big nearby lake, is George Harvey. George and Irma have crushes on each other. Living in a cottage on the estate is another guy who has a crush on Irma, Lester Sands, a big ugly guy who has weird eyes. It is vaguely suggested that Lester is a refugee from "mid-Europe."  Irma is preparing steaks in the lodge kitchen when Lester starts pawing her; George appears and intervenes. On his way out Lester steals a raw bloody steak, and Irma sneaks to his cottage to look in the window--she sees Lester eating the uncooked slab of beef!

Grandpa has Lester thrown off the property. A few weeks later a big seeing-eye dog arrives at the lodge, accompanied by a note saying it is a gift from an old friend of Grandpa’s in Latvia. (Cumming’s choice of Latvia is an interesting one, as the year this story was published Latvia was conquered by the Soviet Union.) Grandpa is thrilled by this gift, but Irma and George don’t trust the beast—it has eyes just like Lester’s!  Eventually a message arrives from Latvia, indicating that Grandpa's old crony sent no such dog, but too late--Grandpa has already gone into the forest for a walk, guided by man’s best friend1 The dog returns to the lodge without him, and, Lassie-style, leads Irma into the woods; she hopes the service animal is taking her to Grandpa's side so she can help him, but instead the beast leads her into a pitch black cave! In the dark she hears Lester’s voice! Lester tells her he can see in the dark and has been watching her through her window every night as she stands naked in her unlit room, savoring the caressing touch of the cool night air on her supple young body! (Who does she think she is, Ben Franklin?)  Lester also lets her know he sent the dog and that Grandpa's little stroll ended with a fall from a cliff!

Lester molests Irma, even biting her neck, but before he can go all the way George and a posse arrive, and Lester takes to his heels. Cummings leaves ambiguous the question of whether Lester is a werewolf or just a nut who thinks he is a werewolf, and whether the seeing-eye dog is really a dog trained by Lester or in fact Lester in another form.

"When the Werewolf Howls" feels a little perfunctory, maybe because it is shorter than "Perfume of Dark Desire."  We have here another young woman living with an older male relative who ends up murdered, and another interrupted rape in the story's climax.  Keep your eyes open--we may see these elements again!

"Corpses from Canvas" (with Gabrielle Cummings, as by Gabriel Wilson)

When I was a kid I watched a lot of TV, partly because my mother, who loved mystery novels and TV detective shows, always had the TV on.  One of the reoccurring "tropes" I found silly and annoying, even as a child, was when a detective novelist's story appeared to be "coming true," with murders much like those in his or her book(s) taking place.  I'm also not crazy about all those cartoons and horror stories in which a guy's characters jump off the drawing board and interact with real people.  (Yes, I'm brimming over with pet peeves like these.)  So, the title of this story, which promises to be about a painter whose paintings "come to life," has me shaking my head before I even start it.

Jack Blake is a painter!  He unveils his latest work to a Robert P. Norton, a "slender, dandified little fellow, with sleek grey-black hair and an effeminate waxed mustache," who is a "publisher of art novelties."  The painting is a life-sized portrait of a degenerate criminal in the act of fleeing the scene of the crime, clutching the severed hand of his victim!  Cummings describes this painting in great detail, from the "pig eyes" and "low, retreating forehead" to the "twisted shoulder" and "club foot."  This sinister apparition is lacking one of his own hands, and presumably is collecting other people's hands as a means of achieving psychological compensation as well as revenge on the world.

Norton wants to mass market one-dollar color reproductions of this horrifying image; if they sell as well as he expects them to he and Blake will make a mint, and Blake will have enough money to marry his fiance Elsa Jarrod, a "dark-haired beautiful young girl."  The unveiling of the painting has taken place at the rambling old mansion of Elsa's grandfather, with whom she, and her cousin George, one of Norton's employees, live.  Blake and Norton spend the night in the mansion, and in the venerable edifice's dark halls and humid rooms a gruesome melodrama plays out!  George convinces Norton to dress up as the killer from the painting and scare people--this will be, he asserts, a genius publicity stunt!  But it is a trap!  George murders Grandfather Jarrod and even cuts Gramps's hand off!  George then stabs Norton and leaves him for dead--he hopes to blame Norton for Gramps's murder (this is all in service of a harebrained scheme to get not only Gramps's but also Norton's money.)  But before George can tell his lies to Elsa and Blake, the fatally injured Norton drags himself to the painter and his fiance and, with his dying breath, tells them the truth.  Exposed, George tries to kill Blake, but Blake outfights him, and when George makes a break for it he is panicked by an hallucination of the killer from the painting and goes over a balcony, breaking his neck.

With George gone, Elsa inherits Gramps's entire estate, and Norton's death does not prevent Blake from making money from the sales of reproductions of his macabre painting.  These two lovebirds get married, but sometimes the painting of the killer makes them shudder and Blake no longer paints horror subjects.

The descriptions of the painting and of Norton are good, but the plot is a contrived mess and the effort Cummings puts into portraying Norton as an exploitative, greedy, and effete fairy ends up feeling like a cheap trick; obviously he is setting us up to expect Norton to be the villain, but the actual villain, George, gets no interesting description at all!  Giving both Norton and George equally detailed (preferably equally distasteful) descriptions would have improved the story.

On a sort of "meta" level we have to wonder if Blake represents Cummings himself and Norton his employers at Popular Publications, and if "Corpses from Canvas" reflects Cummings' uneasiness about making his living by appealing to the lust for blood and sex of the public, bitterness at his paymasters, and perhaps a dream of striking it rich through his creative work and retiring from the sex and gore game.

"Forked Horror"

This one actually appeared under Cummings's own name.  Maybe "Forked Horror" is a story he was proud of?  This tale was published in an issue of Terror Tales, the cover of which depicts a blonde bound and confined to a coffin!  Unlike the woman on the cover of the May 1940 issue of Horror Stories, whose situation appears to be hopeless, this blonde has at least some reason to hold on to a glimmer of hope, as a man is reaching for an automatic pistol with which to perforate her tormentors, step one in effecting his rescue of her.  Of course, her savior is himself being perforated by a portcullis, but I'm an optimistic sort; I hope blondie is as well.

"Forked Horror" is a first-persona narrative written in the voice of a woman, Gloria Allen.  When she was 17, Gloria married Dr. Paul Levant, a scientist who was an expert on snakes and the medicinal use of their venom.  Paul's hobby was "oriental occultism," and he believed that the dead could possess the bodies of animals and "come back."  He told Gloria that, should he die, he would try to come back in the body of a snake!

In the very first year of their marriage, Paul was killed (it was believed) by one of his snakes, and Gloria proceeded to marry Paul's best friend, Tom Allen, just a few months later.  As our story begins, Gloria is in the woods taking a stroll and a little garter snake approaches her!  She picks it up and caresses it, calling it "Paul," and brings it home, secreting the reptile in a box where Tom won't see it.  But when Tom wakes up at night and finds his wife on the veranda cuddling with the snake, he kills it with a shoe!

Tom accuses Gloria of not loving him, of still being in love with the dead Paul, and their young marriage collapses.  Gloria is torn psychologically, unsure who she really loves--is her heart devoted to Paul or to Tom--and haunted both by a fear of snakes and an undeniable urge to be reunited with Paul, even if he has taken the form of a snake!  On the brink of madness, she wonders if Paul's shade is trying to drive her to suicide so they can be united in the afterlife--or maybe he will just come to her in the body of a poisonous serpent and murder her so they will be together in the grave! 

Gloria's memoir is a legitimately good horror story, incorporating some of my favorite themes--difficult sexual relationships, immortality, and the movement of minds/souls/consciousnesses between bodies.  Cummings includes psychological theories I guess we aren't supposed to believe today (that women act on their irrational emotions and don't even know their own minds) as well as references to Cleopatra's suicide.

Unfortunately, "Forked Terror" suffers grievously in its last two pages, which consist primarily of a journal written by Tom during his last moments in an asylum.  Tom explains how he murdered Paul, making it look like the scientist died from a snake bite, and then worked deceptions in an effort to drive Gloria insane so he could get her money. (Perhaps it is significant that Gaslight, the play that would hit Broadway in 1941 and be made into an Ingrid Bergman film in 1944, premiered in London in 1938.)  Tom’s writing features clues that lead the reader to believe that he himself is insane, and Tom admits he believes it possible that Paul really has come back in the body of a snake, his object being to kill Tom. The story ends with a brief third person section in which we learn Tom died in the asylum immediately after writing the journal; we are presented with evidence that Tom committed suicide, as well as contrary evidence that suggests he was killed by a snake!

"I Am the Tiger Girl!"  (with Gabrielle Cummings, as by Gabriel Wilson)

"I Am the Tiger Girl!" was published in Horror Stories.  The blonde on the cover of this magazine is rocking the latest in riveted steel haute couture, but it looks like some pitiless fashion critics do not appreciate her look and are mere moments from ripping her to shreds.

Our narrator for "I Am the Tiger Girl!" is Landa Maine, a refugee from “mid-Europe,” where her parents were executed as spies—Landa has grown up in America, raised by two legal guardians, unrelated to her, whom she calls "uncles."  Landa has always known she was different; her finger nails and toe nails grow with preternatural speed and are very hard and sharp, and she feels a close affinity with cats—her pet cat Fluff is her only friend! The sight of blood, especially blood drawn by her own nails, sexually arouses her. When she was 17 she was laying naked in bed with the window open, enjoying the feel of the breeze on her body (one of Cummings's recurring ideas, I guess, maybe one of his own turn-ons?), when a figure in a black hood climbed in through window to grope her and scratch her thigh. Nobody else saw him, and her uncles assured Landa it was just a vivid dream, during which she had scratched herself.  But after this event Landa suffered a constant feeling of being watched, hungrily, by a black cloaked figure that lurked in shadows.

The plot of "I Am the Tiger Girl!" involves Landa’s relationship with a man, Burt, who falls in love with her. Landa loves him in turn, but fears one day she will be overcome by her weird lusts and kill him with her nails; to be sure, the first time Landa and Burt kiss she scratches him and greedily licks the blood off her nails when he isn't looking!  Cummings also gives us a very gory dream sequence in which Landa claws out Burt’s eyes--blood oozes out of Burt's empty sockets and the eyes roll around the floor like marbles, following Landa with an accusatory gaze!  Landa and Burt do get married in the end, but only after the uncles' efforts to destroy them and get Landa’s inheritance (always with the inheritances) are foiled.

The meanie uncle, who outs himself as that black cloaked groper, murders the softie uncle and makes it look like Landa was the killer.  He then knocks Burt out and ties him up.  Burt must watch as the evil uncle subdues and strips Landa and then molests her—his plan, after he has had his fun with Landa’s body, is to murder Burt and Landa with a special glove made from the claws of a huge wild cat; it will thus appear that Landa clawed Burt to death and then committed suicide. Luckily, Fluff the cat comes to the rescue, killing the uncle and then disappearing forever so Burt and Landa can wed. The story’s last paragraph suggests that while her outre lusts are currently under control, one night Landa’s perversion will overwhelm her and she will murder her husband in his sleep with her bare hands.

This is one of the better of these five horror stories, because, as with "Forked Terror," it involves a person wracked by contradictory impulses, struggling with a bizarre mental illness and involved in a potentially disastrous erotic relationship, and like "Corpses from Canvas" has a disturbing vision of bodily mutilation.

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I don’t think these stories are quite as bad as Pohl seems to have thought them, but they definitely appeal to readers’ baser impulses, show signs of being hastily thrown together, and shamelessly recycle plot structures, plot elements, and salacious scenes.  As far as I can tell, nobody ever saw fit to print them in book form, even though Cummings had many books published over the decades, so I guess Pohl wasn't the only editor to look askance at them. 

Monday, July 30, 2018

Dark Dominion by David Duncan

The air was magnificently clear so that the project buildings and the surrounding hills all seemed to be drawn with knifelike precision, and in the valley the "Black Planet" so dwarfed the men and machines moving about its base that it gave the appearance of a lonely monolith.  If it should remain there, that's all it would ever be--a monument to man's imagination, a derisive reminder of his failure.
David Duncan wrote the screenplay to George Pal's Time Machine, the Raquel Welch/Donald Pleasance epic Fantastic Voyage, and the Willis O'Brien caper The Black Scorpion.  He also penned thriller/mystery novels like The Bramble Bush and The Madrone Tree.  isfdb lists three SF novels under his name, and today's subject, Dark Dominion, was the first, published in 1954.  Joachim Boaz recently shipped to me, along with like 99 other SF books, a paperback edition put out by Ballantine, who also published the hardcover edition.  If isfdb is to be believed, the book appeared in hard cover, paperback, and in a condensed serialized form over four issues of Collier's all in the same year.  (Over its long life Collier's published lots of genre fiction, like Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu stories and work by Zane Grey and Ray Bradbury.)  Dark Dominion would go on to be translated into Swedish, Italian, Japanese and Spanish.

All four issues of Collier's containing installments of the serialized version
of Dark Dominion were available on ebay when I looked; click to see a larger image
Our narrator for the novel's 206 pages is Philip Ambert, a scientist who is in charge of America's top secret space station project, Project Magellan!  The government has taken over 900 square miles of Big Sur, famed haunt of bohemian creative types, and built a scientific and construction complex there, and a comfortable town for ten thousand people.  These ten thousand people--scientists, engineers, soldiers, and their families--are not permitted to leave, and somehow the government has been fooling the outside world into thinking all these people are at an undisclosed location overseas.  Ambert has been in charge of this project for five years, and as our story begins the massive space station, designed to carry a supply of nuclear weapons with which to maintain order throughout the world, is only two months away from completion!  (There's a similar space station which watches over the Earth with nuclear bombs in Robert Heinlein's Space Cadet, but that is a station run by the UN or some sort of world government; the station here in Duncan's book is explicitly an all-American deal which, it is said, will allow the US to dominate the world.)

Much of Dark Dominion reads like a soap opera.  Slim-waisted Gail Tanager, who operates a "calculating machine" (her fingers "dance over the keys" as though she is "playing a musical instrument") is in love with the man who will command the station once it is in orbit keeping the peace, hunky naval officer Aaron Matthews.  These two can barely keep their hands off each other (we get scenes in which they almost succumb to their physical desires but step back from the brink) and are heartbroken that they will be parted while Matthews is on his long tour of duty out in space, watching for misbehaving commies to nuke--Gail sees the station, officially called Vittoria but known to everyone as "The Black Planet" (shouldn't it be "Black Moon" if it is going to orbit the Earth?) as a sort of rival.  These doomed lovebirds have other problems, like vain and selfish scientist Warren Osborn, a leader in the field of rockets and guided missiles who has the hots for Gail himself (we get a dramatic scene in which Matthews, in a crowded restaurant, punches Osborn.)  Osborn presents other problems for Ambert, as, his main task at Big Sur completed, he wants to bend the unbendable rules and leave the project early to take up a prestigious job back in New York.

There is also the philosophical/political stuff we might expect in a story about a military space station.  Many people on the project, including Gail and Osborn, are skeptical that the station should be under the control of the military and used as a means of achieving hegemony over the world--shouldn't scientists be in charge of it and use it to study the universe?  (Osborn's arguments in this vein are shown to be those of a two-faced hypocritical opportunist--before the start of the project he was an advocate for just such a project, even writing best-selling books urging America to conquer space so it could crush its enemies; presumably he made these arguments not out of patriotism but so he could sell his expertise.)  There's also talk of free will and the constant striving of life and of Man to do more, to reach further.  (It is probably just me, but the themes and even some individual phrases of Dark Dominion kept reminding me of Horace's third ode, from his first book of odes.)

We also get some serious science talk.  One of the boffins, Tom Hernandez, is bombarding uranium with positrons and creates a new superdense element (it weighs three and a half million pounds per cubic foot) that they call Magellanium.  We witness many experiments conducted on the Magellanium and learn all about its many strange properties.  The design of the space station is described, how it will support its crew and what they will see when they get up into space and so forth.  There's a subplot about exploring a system of caves full of bats, fossils, and geologic formations, including a phosphorescent subterranean pool where Ambert's wife Susan swims naked.

In the second half of the novel it becomes apparent that foreign intelligence has located the project and everybody scrambles to finish and launch Vittoria early, before the enemy can bomb it.  Due to a series of unfortunate coincidences (like the fact that Ambert has been sneaking off to explore that cave without telling his security detail--oops!), Ambert is accused of treason and tossed in jail!  Soon after he is cleared, Osborn's treachery--revenge for his wounded pride--and an enemy air attack destroy the station's fuel supplies.  Ambert, Osborn and Hernandez figure out how to launch the station into space using the Magellanium, and it lifts off with Matthews at the helm just as a second enemy attack is blowing up everything at the project site.  But Matthews--that sly devil--has contrived to leave the military personnel behind and take off instead with Gail and a bunch of women and children--including Susan and the Ambert kids!  The Magellanium is an inexhaustible source of propulsion, and Matthews and his harem are not going to orbit the Earth to ensure America's domination of the globe, but explore and colonize the universe!  (Treason and betrayal on a political as well as a personal level are recurring themes in the novel.)  Ambert, left behind, hides in his cave, waiting for the bombing of Big Sur to end and writing the memoir we have been reading. 

It looks like a Swedish dude just made a
condensed copy of Richard Powers's
cover of the American original edition
for the Swedish printing--brazen and weird!
Dark Dominion, in a way that is difficult for me to define, feels more like a mainstream thriller (I guess what they call a "technothriller") than an actual SF novel.  This isn't a criticism so much as an observation; in fact the book is not bad.  Duncan's writing is smooth and readable, the science stuff is more or less interesting, and while I thought Gail's romance with Matthews was kind of silly, the Osborn stuff was kind of entertaining.  The characters are pretty believable and Duncan deals with the various moral issues in a mature and ambiguous way--neither the military men nor the eggheads are portrayed as unquestionably good or evil.  One of the novel's virtues is that I was unsure what would happen--because every character and even apparently the author (the title of the book comes from a George Meredith poem that is reproduced as an epigraph to the novel, and its choice implies that the station is satanic) was skeptical of the space station and its mission, I had no confidence that it would succeed, but did not know to what extent or in what way it would fail.  I was kept wondering if Osborn's vanity would threaten or even ruin the project, or if he would rally round at the end and do the right thing by the team, and I was curious to see how the author would make use of the cave and the Magellanium in the resolution of the plot.

Mild recommendation. 

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In my last blog post I lamented that Joachim Boaz and I agreed about Damon Knight's Three Novels, because two guys agreeing is boring.  Luckily, this time around we've got some fireworks!  Back in 2012 Joachim wrote about Dark Dominion and denounced its "poor 1950s sci-fi melodrama," and its "downright preposterous science" and suggested the plot is predictable.  Ouch!  Check out Joachim's critical panning and then maybe you'll want to get a copy of Dark Dominion of your own at ebay in an effort to sort out our differences or take sides in this literary controversy!   

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At the end of Dark Dominion, Ballantine Books 56, are several pages of fun ads for Ballantine's many publications.  There's a full-page advertisement for the "Science-Fiction Preview Club," and then a long list of not just major SF works like Fahrenheit 451More Than Human, and Childhood's End, but also Western novels like Law Man ("twenty-four hours in a sheriff's life") and Silver Rock ("A granite-hard story of the West today") and The Canyon ("A story of a young Cheyenne in the days before the white man"), and mainstream literature like New Poems by American Poets (featuring W. H. Auden, Marianne Moore and William Carlos Williams), The Best American Short Stories 1953 (featuring Tennessee Williams and R. V. Cassill) and Charles Jackson's short stories.  Immerse yourself in this fascinating artifact of the paperback publishing world of 60 years ago by clicking the images below.  (I don't know why the list starts at number 22; maybe a page is missing from this book?)





Saturday, July 28, 2018

Three 1950s "novels" by Damon Knight

Ah, Damon Knight, famed editor, critic, and short story writer, for whom the SFWA (which Knight founded in 1965) renamed their Grand Master Award some 25 years after its inauguration.  I've had mixed feelings about Knight's criticism and fiction, which means I have no idea how I am going to react when I set out to read something by him.  Today we'll be taking just such a leap into the dark not once, not twice, but three times!  Before me I hold a Berkley Medallion 1969 paperback edition of Three Novels, a collection which first came out in hardcover in 1967.  I recently received this volume, with its quite effective Richard Powers cover, from internet science fiction gadfly extraordinaire Joachim Boaz, one of something like 100 SF books he sent me recently.  This copy, which a stamp on the inside cover is telling me somebody, maybe Mr. Boaz himself, maybe Chip or Joanna Gaines, maybe David Koresh--hey, you never know!-- purchased at "Book Rack" in a shopping mall in Waco, Texas for 97 cents, has only 184 pages of text, so maybe the three included works, all from the 1950s, should be classified as "novellas" or "novelettes" instead of novels, but, hey, who's counting?  I will be reading the "novels" in the order in which they appear in this book, which is not the order in which they were published.

Rule Golden (1954)

This is a gimmicky story that applies to the personal level the logic of Mutually Assured Destruction deterrence, something we talked about a lot in my history and poli sci classes at Rutgers in the late '80s and early '90s.  Rule Golden is set in the future of the early 1970s, when videophones are widely used, and is a first-person narrative; our narrator is Robert James Dahl, a Midwestern journalist who brags about how great his paper is and acts like a tough guy.  Knight practically tells us the story's gimmick on the first page of the story, and then he writes page after page (this thing is like 75 pages in this edition!) about Dahl investigating this strange phenomenon.  Rule Golden is like a boring detective story, with lots of mundane places and people for the detective to examine or outwit before resolving the mystery to his satisfaction.

In brief, Dahl discovers that the United States government has taken captive a lone space alien named Aza-Kra who has come to Earth to spread an airborne catalyst that changes your genetic code so that you suffer (psychosomatically) any damage you inflict on another creature.  For example, on the first page of Rule Golden an abusive husband kicks his wife in the ass, and suffers pain in his own ass! (Comedy!*)  Knight gives lots of examples of this, including prison staff and butchers feeling unhappy or ill as a result of their work--we eventually learn that the engineering works on animals higher than insects, so carnivores like lions and tigers are going to go extinct.  Dahl meets Aza-Kra in the army base, and the creature tells him he is from the Galactic Federation of peaceful civilizations and they want the Earth to join but right now we humans are too violent so he is here to genetically engineer us so we behave.  Dahl helps the E. T., which can read minds and instantly put people to sleep, to escape to Europe, the Middle East and Asia, where he spreads the catalyst.  (The substance has to be spread wide quickly, or there will be a period, before the catalyst has made its way to Moscow and Peking, during which North America and Western Europe won't be able to defend themselves from an attack by the commies.) 

Knight tries to add tension to the tale by having Dahl wracked by doubts--is Aza-Kra telling the truth or is he just trying to soften us up so the aliens can conquer us--and by describing how Dahl and his alien buddy evade the authorities in country after country.  This stuff serves to make the story longer (have I told you this thing is like 75 pages?) but does little to make it more compelling.

Because there is no way to enforce the law, and no way for private individuals to protect their property, the world falls into anarchy, with people stealing, vandalizing, trespassing, and crossing borders as they see fit.  (Aza-Kra's genetic engineering doesn't make people feel bad about burning down the crops I spent a season growing or the business I spent a lifetime building.)  The cities are deserted and famine develops, but a fleet of spaceships arrives to hand out food and to revive Aza-Kra, who was near death from eating inadequate Earth food.  Aza-Kra is revealed to be not a professional explorer or diplomat, but a sort of artisan ("I am ordinarily a maker of--you have not the word, it is like porcelain....") who volunteered to risk his life amongst us humans.  (I guess carpenter would have been too obvious.)

Rule Golden appeared first in Science Fiction Adventures, and in 1960 was included in Groff Conklin's Six Great Short Science Fiction Novels.  I'm afraid I cannot concur with Conklin's generous assessment!  This story is so long, and uses so many tired elements (like mind reading and a Galactic Federation pacifying us against our will) that the novelty of the newish idea can't carry it, especially since Knight reveals the gimmick on page one.  Knight also doesn't address the moral issues related to making people behave by crippling them, removing their ability to choose between good and evil, as Anthony Burgess does in A Clockwork Orange.

Weak!  Maybe this story should have been like 10 pages?

*This reminded me of the Corsican brothers from The Electric Company.  That was a good show, with Joan Rivers narrating Letterman and Morgan Freeman as Dracula and narrator of those Spiderman shorts that starred a version of Spidey who never talked!   

Natural State (1954)

I guess you could say that this one is about the urban-rural divide.  It is the year 2064, most cities have collapsed, with only a few of the biggest, like New York and Chicago still standing, totally shut off from the countryside.  The cities have what we would recognize as modern societies, with TV shows and hover cars and social hierarchies and people going off to work every day, but things are getting tough economically--most people work multiple jobs and the lack of contact with the world beyond the city limits means there is no supply of essential raw materials, like metal.  Soon even mighty New York may collapse!  Another problem: the urban population is waning, while the rural population, whom the urbanites think of as unsophisticated rubes, grows, and soon the people of the countryside will be able to militarily or culturally take over the world and urban culture will go extinct!

The rulers of New York propose a solution--trade with the rural population, who presumably will be eager to purchase motor vehicles and telephones and TVs and power tools.  This will provide a source of metal and other much-needed resources, and spread urban culture to the ignorant hicks, preserving the sophisticated way of life enjoyed by city people.  They send out into the countryside the most popular actor on NYC TV, Alvah Gustad, with a hovercar load of trade goods to open up trade with the country folk.

What Gustad discovers is that the 150 million people living in the rural landscape are not a bunch of ignorant rubes--they are living in utopia!  Most of their time is spent sitting around working on little hobbies like whittling and needlepoint or putting on theatricals and having dances!  The basis for this life of leisure is genetic engineering; they breed and grow everything they need, a gimmick we would see decades later in Harry Harrison's West of Eden and Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000.  The country people don't need cars and airplanes, because they ride beasts and giant birds around!  They don't need mines or factories or construction equipment because they have plants that grow knife blades, bulbs that grow into houses, and giant turtles whose shells grow in transparent layers that can be easily peeled off to act as a sheet of unbreakable glass!  They don't know how to read because they have bred talking birds that can recite entire books!  (This last is a little reminiscent of one of my favorite Gene Wolfe stories, "The Doctor of Death Island," in which people abandon reading because of the development of talking books.)

That's Gustad in his hover car,
trying to sell power tools to the
country folk
The country folk don't need or want what Gustad is selling, but their intellectual class is interested in examining him, and they employ a creature which cripples his hover car (by eating an element of its power pack) to strand the New Yorker 1,000 miles from Gotham.  The locals (including a pretty lady who can actually read!) want Gustad to join their happy society, and in the same way that Dahl in Rule Golden has to decide whether or not to cleave to the alien Aza-Kra, Gustad here in Natural State has to choose sides.  Fortunately for the reader, this story is better in every respect than Rule Golden--the characters and their relationships are more compelling, the technological stuff is more interesting, the jokes are more amusing.

When it looks like their idea of fostering trade has failed, the rulers of NYC try some serious skullduggery, what the kids call a false flag operation, in an effort to start a shooting war between the rural people and Chicago--the New Yorkers plan to steal all the metal from the Windy City after the country folk depopulate it!  This scheme fails, and instead of attacking Chi-town the country people turn on the city that never sleeps and liberate the citizens of the Big Apple from the tyranny of books, TV shows, and a steady work schedule.     

Competent!

Natural State first appeared in Galaxy, in an issue you can read at the internet archive, in which Knight's story is adorned with some pretty good illustrations by Emsh.  Natural State was included in anthologies edited by Martin Greenberg, Frederick Pohl and Georgess McHargue, and was even expanded into a longer novel, Masters of Evolution, which appeared as half of an Ace Double. 

I love the Emsh cover to All About the Future with its sexy spacesuits
and diagrams of a rocket ship and a heavy pistol --gorgeous!
The Dying Man (1957)

Dio is a planner living in a post-scarcity future in which people are immortal and invulnerable to wounds and disease--they also have the power to levitate, which is pretty good (I have long wanted to float everywhere like the fighters in DragonBall Z.)   Everybody has lived so long that most people have actually forgotten the concept of death!  To keep existence from getting boring, planners like Dio rebuild the cities in different styles every year.

Planners are members of the student class, the intellectuals and scientists who read and keep records and figure things out.  Most people, it appears, are "players," members of a frivolous unproductive leisure class.  Claire is just such a player, and she and Dio are having a love affair when it becomes apparent that Dio's body has somehow lost its invulnerability and immortality.  He falls ill, recovers with the help of an army of students who study him to figure out how to create and administer medicines that have not been needed for centuries.  He begins to grow old, his body changing in ways that the rest of humanity finds alarming.

The story, which at like 40 pages is considerably shorter than Rule Golden and Natural State, largely concerns Dio and Claire's reactions to Dio's body experiencing natural human aging and death.  Dio's creative work evolves, becoming more mature and sophisticated--in fact, too sophisticated for his contemporaries, with the result that the city he is responsible for designing is abandoned.  He also embraces ancient ways of doing things, working with his own hands instead of through machines--he carves a reproduction of Michelangelo's Dusk* from stone with a chisel, for example, and grows his own crops with which to bake his own bread.  (I know this guy's feels--I ground the beans for my wife's coffee yesterday.  Sure, sure, I used the Mr. Coffee 12-cup Electric Coffee Grinder with Multi-Settings--I didn't say I was a luddite!) 

The Dying Man is also considerably better than the "novels" with which it shares this collection.  I'm biased because I like stories about immortality and its effect on individuals and societies (the aforementioned Gene Wolfe story, "The Doctor of Death Island," is about immortality as much as it is about reading), but beyond that, The Dying Man has real human feeling, real human characters, engaging settings, and no goofy jokes.  The science behind immortality was also well done.  This is a piece I can really recommend.

The Dying Man first appeared under the title Dio in Infinity Science Fiction, where it is billed as "Damon Knight's Best Short Novel."  This issue of Infinity is available to read for free at the internet archive, and features not only numerous fetching illustrations by Emsh (these include a generous helping of Claire's chest!) but a story co-written by Harlan Ellison and Algis Budrys and, in the book review section, discussions by Knight of novels by Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, and Arthur C. Clarke.  This issue of Infinity is full to bursting with stuff by and about some of classic SF's biggest names!

Dio would go on to be reprinted numerous times, including in Groff Cronklin's 5 Unearthly Visions and Robert Silverberg's Alpha 4.  I actually own both 5 Unearthly Visions and Alpha 4 which means I own three copies of this story.


*Knight has Dio call it Evening, but my art books and Wikipedia are calling it Dusk.

**********

Back in 2014 Joachim Boaz read and wrote about this collection, presumably this very same copy.  (His post and the comments, in which people recommend their favorite Knight stories, are worth your time.)  I know it would be more fun to disagree with Joachim or to have my own off-the-wall idiosyncratic take on these stories, but I'm afraid Mr. Boaz and I are in basic agreement about the contents of Three Novels.  Maybe I am a little more forgiving about the two weak pieces?  I was definitely more forgiving than Joachim when I read Beyond the Barrier, a book Joachim thought so poor he dared me to read it! 

(I'm not always so kind to Knight!  I read a collection of five of his short stories entitled Off Center and declared most of them "Bad!," "Weak!" "Lame" or even worse!)

More 1950s SF from the Joachim Boaz wing of the MPorcius Library in our next episode!