Friday, February 27, 2015

Four stories by William F. Nolan

William F. Nolan is a name I have been seeing on all these anthologies I have been reading, but who is William F. Nolan?  Over the last couple days I read four stories by Nolan in an effort to discover what he is all about.

"And Miles to Go Before I Sleep" (1965 revision of the 1958 story)

This one is for all you Robert Frost fans! "And Miles to Go Before I Sleep" also reminded me a bit of Ray Bradbury and of The Twilight Zone, which makes sense when you read about Nolan's life and career on Wikipedia; Nolan is an expert on, and was a friend of, Bradbury, and has done quite a bit of work for TV.

Ever since he was a kid Robert Murdock wanted to be a spaceman!  He was the only boy in his little Midwestern town to make it into the astronaut service, and at the age of 21 he blasted off.  Twenty years later he is finally heading back home.  Unfortunately, on an alien planet he contracted an incurable disease.  The doctors are able to predict to the hour when he will die, and there isn't enough time to get back to Earth to see his parents one more time.  So, he has a robot made to look exactly like him, and uploads his memories into the machine--his parents won't know the difference!

The twist ending: his parents died a while ago, but instead of letting Robert know they were sick they had robot replacements of themselves made!  As robot Robert embraces robot Mom and robot Dad, the onlooking townsfolk think they have tricked Robert in order to spare his feelings, just like the space service people think they have tricked the Earthers!

This story is OK, a little sappy for my taste (not that I am in any position to judge other people's sentimentalism, after Barry Malzberg's "Conversations at Lothar's" brought tears to my eyes.  I guess we all have our buttons, and this story just didn't push mine.)

I read "And Miles to Go Before I Sleep" in Man Against Tomorrow,  a 1965 anthology edited by Nolan.  The story originally appeared in Infinity Science Fiction, a magazine I don't remember having heard of before, but which, judging by the covers at isfdb and on google, published work by big name authors and tried to include a sexy dame on every cover of its twenty issues.  Nolan informs us that he revised "And Miles to Go Before I Sleep" for inclusion in Man Against Tomorrow.

"He Kilt it With a Stick" (1967)

I read "He Kilt it With a Stick" in my copy of the second volume of the paperback version of the Anthony Boucher memorial anthology Special Wonder.  My copy of Special Wonder: Volume 2 at one time was in the collection of Branch Library 5 at Fort Jackson, in South Carolina.

SF fans among serving and former United States Army personnel--we salute you!
William F. Nolan, who has won Lifetime Achievement-type awards from The International Horror Guild and the Horror Writers Association, is probably better known as a horror writer than as a writer of science fiction (narrowly defined to mean stuff about future or alternate technologies and societies.)  "He Kilt it With a Stick" reflects this fact; it is a realistic psychological horror story.

In six pages, "He Kilt it With a Stick" tells the tale of a guy who hates cats so much he goes out of his way to kill them.  The story details his most memorable kills, suggests why he hates felines (his mother told him that old myth about cats stealing a baby's breath, and a cat scratched him when he was seven) and relates how, in middle age, he dies of a heart attack when he has a hallucination of hundreds of cats overpowering him.  (I guess he never heard that "herding cats" cliche.)

This story is competent, but pedestrian.  Acceptable, but unremarkable.

"Gorf! Gorf! Gorf!" (1971)

As a kid, Gorf was one of my favorite arcade games.  I loved the "quark laser" concept, and the fact that the game had different levels which played differently, and the way the villain would talk to you (a feature I also loved in Berzerk.)

Anyway, "Gorf! Gorf! Gorf!" appears in Infinty Two, that anthology of all new stories edited by Robert Hoskins that I have been reading lately.

"Gorf! Gorf! Gorf!" is one of those absurd humor pieces, a parody of those movies about giant creatures attacking everybody.  In beautiful upstate New York a scientist with a beautiful niece is trying to increase food production and accidentally creates a bullfrog the size of an apartment building.  The thing starts eating people, and skinny and depressed Dave Merkle and fat and jolly Eldon Sash, who work at the Pentagon's "Office of Stateside Emergencies," head out to investigate.  The military employs various weapons on the monster, but it is impervious to all physical harm.  Finally, the niece uses a female frog to lure the colossal batrachian into quicksand.

Fourteen pages of feeble jokes.  Thumbs down.


"Starblood" (1972)  

This one is in Infinity Four, like Infinity Two, an anthology of original stories published by Lancer and edited by Robert Hoskins.

"Starblood" is a series of vignettes depicting a future (or maybe futures) in which people are all assholes, living in societies in which all our institutions are corrupt or decadent.  Most of the six vignettes portray a relationship which should be based on love but which in this case is not, and all end with someone getting killed.  There is a brief frame story in italics (this entire story, all seven parts, is just 13 pages) about alien beings who would like to bring love to the Earth, but are rejected.

The vignettes, each numbered and named after the person who gets murdered:

1) A baby boy's crying interferes with his parents' pastimes, so Mom throws baby out of a helicopter.

2) A pretty girl was part of a religious cult's harem, but got thrown out when she spoke up to one of the male masters.  Brokenhearted, she sees a hypno shrink; the only solution to her sadness is euthanasia.

3) A motorist is ambushed by teenage bandits; he survives the energy gun firefight, but his car is knocked out and he is killed by another pack while on foot.

4) A kid who is obsessed with death rents a robot doppelganger of William Faulkner at a bookstore, and gets run over by a car on the walk home.

5) A woman and her husband are drug smugglers; right before they make a big sale she poisons him in a restaurant so she can keep all the profits for herself.

6) A young woman is rich because her Dad is at the top of his lucrative profession. His job title is "assassin for hire."  He comes home one day and completes a contract--someone hired him to kill his daughter.

I guess you could call this a New Wave exercise; the vignettes are striking, and include all sorts of SF paraphernalia (robots, underwater cities, ray guns, telepathy, alternative sexual arrangements) but the story lacks any sort of character, feeling or plot.  The story isn't bad, but doesn't leave any sort of impression; like "And Miles to Go Before I Sleep" and "He Kilt it With a Stick," I'd say "Starblood" is acceptable, but forgettable.

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These are run-of-the-mill stories--they feel like filler.  They are professional, but lack anything that makes them feel special, there is no sense that we are experiencing a person's unique vision or singular voice.

These stories probably do not represent Nolan's best work.  I'm still interested in him, so I should probably poke around online and figure out what his most admired stories are and try to hunt them down.

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