Saturday, May 3, 2014

Sampling Brian Lumley's Screaming Science Fiction

I recently bought a signed copy of Brian Lumley’s Screaming Science Fiction: Horrors From Out of Space (copy 319 of 1500) for a dime at a library sale. Several of the book’s pages are blank; is there any chance that this is an homage to the famous black page of Tristram Shandy?

I doubt it. It seems more likely that some of Bob Eggleton’s art is missing due to printer error.  

I read three of the stories in Screaming Science Fiction this week, “The Strange Years,” which first appeared in Fantasy Tales in 1982, “No Way Home,” which first was printed in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1975, and “Feasibility Study,” a story new to this 2006 volume.

“The Strange Years”

“The Strange Years” is a quite poor story about how the natural world strikes back at humanity because of pollution. It’s not really even a story, just a long tedious list of silly disasters, like NASA bringing back a disease from Mars, “all the major volcanoes erupting in unison,” a plague of giant lice. Lumley seems to have just thrown in every crazy thing he could think of (mutant octopi, oil spills, “meteoric debris making holes in the ionosphere,”), and plot and character were two things he didn’t think of. Some of his disasters made me laugh, some of his lines, like how we shouldn’t have worried about Big Brother in 1984, “it was Big Sister—Ma Nature Herself…” whom we should have worried about, made me groan.

Pretty bad.

“No Way Home”

George is driving through the English countryside at night, and gets lost on the winding narrow roads. George is British, in fact he grew up in this part of England, but has been away for years, in Germany, and has just returned after the collapse of his marriage to a German woman, Greta. Lumley quickly clues us in to the fact that George is a jerk; he snarls “Damn all Krauts!” and, in reminiscences, reveals that Greta left him because he was cheap (or “mean,” as English people say.) He managed to screw Greta out of any share of their joint assets, and even wishes he could strangle her to death!

Often in horror stories we’ll be presented with unlikable characters, I guess so when they get chopped up or devoured we don’t feel bad, or so that the story has the patina of a morality tale, the story of a person getting their just deserts. Personally, I think this can undercut the horror of a story. I think one of the things which makes H. P. Lovecraft successful is the fact that in many of his stories it is revealed that the universe is uncaring, that the idea of justice is erroneous.

Anyway, “No Way Home” is a decent “Twilight Zone” style story. The area he is driving in has inexplicable and invisible doorways to other dimensions, and George blunders through them several times. He actually rescues a man who was trapped in our world, bringing him back to his loving wife in a parallel universe much like our own. But then, trying to return to our universe, George stumbles into a world very different than ours, one inhabited by tremendous carnivores where George is eaten alive.

After the weak “Snarker’s Son” and the bad “Strange Years,” I was relieved to find an entertaining story in Screaming Science Fiction. Lumley does a good job of describing the countryside of our own world and of the monster world, effectively setting a tone.  The pacing is also good, the story is the right length and moves at the right speed.

“Feasibility Study”

This story is told in the form of government documents from the early 25th century, among them the reports of astronauts describing their mysterious encounters with dangerous aliens.

This story isn’t particularly bad, but it is way way too long (40 pages!) for what it is, an environmentalist switcheroo story. In 2403 the Earth has been wrecked by pollution, genetic engineering, and overpopulation. Scientists are on an alien planet, assessing it as a potential place to colonize. On this planet is a plant that, when disturbed, makes a screaming noise and shoots thorn darts. Because the scientists want to experiment on the plant, seeing it as a possible food source, they keep getting shot by the darts. One of our first person narrators, a vegetarian woman, feels more sympathy for the plants than her fellow astronauts.  In an effort to save the plants, she suicide bombs her fellow astronauts, killing her comrades and setting back the project to rescue the human race.

Cover and first page of my copy
In 2407 some aliens investigate Earth, capture some astronauts, and do horrible experiments on them, experiments which Lumley describes in graphic detail in the last few pages of the story. Even though he waits until the end to give us the blood and guts, we know by the twelfth page what is going on, that Lumley is setting up a parallel between human experiments on plants and alien experiments on humans.  (One astronaut who survived the experiments says on the twelfth page, "They treated us like specimens!" after several pages of the vegetarian arguing that the plants on the prospective colony world are sentient.)

This story should have been ten pages, not forty.  Lumley belabors his point, with page after page about the evils man has committed to fish, frogs and strawberries, even a sex scene in which the vegetarian talks about ecology while a botanist is having intercourse with her.  The last two pages of the story are an alien government document which parallels the Earth government documents, describing Earth as a good place to colonize with a viable food source--us human beings!

Jerk off George got eaten by aliens in "No Way Home," and in “Feasibility Study” Lumley lets us know that the entire human race consists of jerk offs, so we all get eaten by aliens!

I thought this story was a drag, but maybe vegetarians and people who get all worked up over preservatives in food or genetic engineering will enjoy it; maybe if Al Gore or Prince Charles edits a collection of SF stories, he can include this.


So far, Screaming Science Fiction has been more like eye-rolling science fiction. It’s too bad, as I recall the first Necroscope book, some of Lumley’s Lovecraftian stories, and some of those wizard-haunted Primal Lands stories being fun. We’ll see if I come back to Screaming Science Fiction to take a chance on the five stories I haven’t read yet.

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