Tuesday, May 5, 2015

From the Treasury of Great SF: stories by Richard Deming, George P. Elliott, & Joel Townsley Rogers

Among the famous names on the back cover of Volume 1 of Anthony Boucher's 1959 A Treasury of Great Science Fiction are to be found names of people I have never heard of before.  In the interests of exploring new frontiers and in hopes of uncovering buried gems, I read three stories by such people, one each by Richard Deming, George P. Elliott, and Joel Townsley Rogers.

"The Shape of Things that Came" by Richard Deming (1951)

Deming has only a few publications listed on isfdb, including a novel he ghost wrote as Ellery Queen and a novelization of a wacky-looking horror movie starring Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters.  He was born in Des Moines, where I have been spending a lot of time since my exile from The Big Apple.

"The Shape of Things that Came" first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and has appeared in a few places since then, including two foreign anthologies.

This story, a mere 5 pages, is a mere trifle; maybe it is supposed to be amusing.  A guy in 1900 travels forward in time to 1950, then, back in 1900, tells a guy how amazing 1950's technology is.  There is no plot to speak of, no conflict or risk or endeavor.  The point of the story seems to be that people take for granted the technology that is around them, not considering how remarkable technological change really is, and that 20th century people don't quite realize how the pace of technological change has accelerated since the industrial revolution.

This isn't an annoyingly bad story, and I can't argue with its banal "point;" I'd judge it acceptable.  But Boucher called his anthology A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, and this is certainly not "great"--it feels like filler.

"Sandra" by George P. Elliott (1957)

George Paul Elliott appears to have been a peripatetic academic who wrote in many genres and died in The Big Apple.  "Sandra" first saw publication in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction alongside stories by Fritz Leiber, Richard Matheson, and L. Sprague de Camp.

I liked "Sandra" from its first page, because it does the sorts of things I most enjoy in SF and in literature in general; it believably depicts a strange alien world, and not from the point of view of a 20th century Westerner, but from the point of view of one of the aliens, who does not find his world strange, and it tells the story of a difficult human relationship.

"Sandra" is a first person narrative set in an alternate 20th century California where slavery is common.  Our narrator is a bachelor, an engineer at a factory, and when he inherits a large house he buys a young and pretty white woman, Sandra, at a department store to keep his house, wash his feet, cook his meals, and have sex with him.  The plot of the novel follows their relationship, how it evolves as the narrator falls in love with Sandra, gives her her freedom, and then marries her.  The narrator discovers that Sandra was more attentive and easier to deal with as a slave than as a manumitted wife, and enslaves her again.  But that taste of freedom has made her rebellious, and he resorts to beating her with the whip that came with her when he bought her.

Elliott's style is smooth and even, understated and never manipulative.  He never breaks character; the narrator talks about Sandra the way a person in our world might talk about a difficult pet or high-maintenance automobile, with affection and regret that he didn't properly train the dog or maintain the sports car from the start.  As we see in Nabokov's Lolita, it is more challenging and exciting to learn about people with bizarre or perverted values from their own mouths than from a conventional point of view.

Elliott doesn't show all his cards, doesn't make clear what point he is trying to make--is this a satire of marriage? a meditation on the notion of freedom? a reminder that the customs of people from the past or foreign cultures may seem immoral to us but seem perfectly normal to them (and of course, that things we casually accept may be anathema to people of the future or from foreign cultures)? simply an effort to shock and titillate the reader?

Well-written, entertaining, and provocative--highly recommended.  

"Beyond Space and Time" by Joel Townsley Rogers (1938)

Rogers was an aviator and a prolific writer of genre fiction, praised by the likes of crime writers Ed Gorman and Bill Pronzini, and Edgar Rice Burroughs expert Richard Lupoff.  Recently Ramble House (check out their entertaining website) has made much of his work available to the 21st century public.  "Beyond Space and Time" was first published in All-American Fiction and was reprinted in Super Science Stories in 1950. 

It is the year 1968, and the world's greatest theoretical scientist, Hooker Hartley, and the world's greatest inventor, Helver Gunderson, have built a powerful rocket! Gunderson is our first person narrator, and he seems like a pretty enthusiastic, gung-ho kind of guy; check out this breathless sentence from the first paragraph of the story:
It was our purpose to explore outer space, to investigate the mystery of the cosmos, to solve the riddle of the fourth dimension, Time, and to reach that roof of heaven where, eighteen million light-years or more away, according to the best available data of mathematics, infinity curves and returns upon itself in a parabolic trajectory--to find the answer to the last question, in short, and the solution of the ultimate equation.
The entire story is like this--it is like the polar opposite of the elegant and sophisticated style employed by Elliott in "Sandra."

The plan is for Hartley, "the greatest scientific intelligence who ever lived!", to stay behind while Gunderson, who has Viking blood flowing through his veins (remember when that dude in that 1942 Henry Kuttner story had Viking blood flowing in his veins?), puts on his space helmet and flies to the very edge of the universe to "probe the final mystery!"

Before describing his trip, Gunderson reviews for us his life.  Born to abject poverty, by dint of intelligence and drive (remember that Viking blood!) he became a bazillionaire by inventing devices which revolutionized modern life (e.g., some kind of levitation device which means planes never crash, and a wrist TV.) He was befriended by suave upper-middle class genius Hartley, and got married to a gorgeous, haughty and intellectual Boston Brahmin named Nivea Saltonstall.  Gunderson worshipped Hartley and Nivea, and didn't realize that they only liked him for his money and were having an affair behind his back!

Gunderson's rocket blasts off at the speed of light, taking him to the edge of our universe, and beyond, to a universe which is a mirror image of our own, where time flows backward and Earth is called Thrae.  On Thrae he meets Mara, a woman who loves him for himself, and there he lives for fourteen years, making with Mara a happy family.  Then, in a way I couldn't understand, he looks back on Earth through a telescope ("which looks into the future, which is their past"), and sees Nivea cheating on him with Hartley.

Instead of just shrugging this off, seeing as he hasn't seen Nivea for fourteen years, has been unfaithful to her, and has a fulfilling life on Thrae, Gunderson flies back to Earth.  His flight back to Earth is also a flight back in time (I couldn't grok this part either), and he lands on Earth a millisecond after he took off, in the same exact spot. Hartley and Nivea think he hasn't left yet, and when Gunderson climbs out of the rocket, they ask if he has forgotten something.

Gunderson bashes open Hartley's skull with a wrench, crushing "the greatest brain that ever lived," and then strangles Nivea to death. When the cops come they don't believe Gunderson's story about going to another universe; they think he is off his rocker.  With Hartley dead, and Gunderson imprisoned and deemed insane, we are to believe that there will never be another interstellar rocket, and that the answer to the ultimate mystery will only ever be known to one broken-hearted man.

The science in this story is crazy and incredible, as is the way Gunderson behaves, but the over-the-top plot and style have a sort of garish charm.  Maybe this is what Ed Gorman is talking about when he says that Rogers delivers "the strong heady thrill of genuine pulp."  Numerous passages had me shaking my head or laughing as Rogers veered in and out of "so bad it is good" territory (or is it Gunderson veering in and out of "I'm a maniac" territory?)  Rogers's portrayal of how the decadent upper crust (Nivea and her father disdain work and have run out of money just before meeting Gunderson) and the conniving intelligentsia take advantage of a nouveau riche working-class striver is also interesting.

I'm going to slot "Beyond Space and Time" in the "entertaining curiosity" category and give it a thumbs up.


The Deming was basically a dud, but the Elliott was a mature piece of literature and the Rogers was a gonzo thrill ride.  Reading new authors paid off this time.  I'm planning on reading stories by authors unfamiliar to me in Volume 2 of A Treasury of Great Science Fiction in the near future.

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