Friday, May 8, 2015

From A Treasury of Great SF: stories by Malcolm Jameson, Nelson S. Bond and Mildred Clingerman

I had a good experience reading three stories by people I had never heard of in Volume 1 of Anthony Boucher's 1959 A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, so here are three stories from Volume 2 by authors with whom I was totally unfamiliar, Malcolm Jameson, Nelson S. Bond and Mildred Clingerman.

"Bullard Reflects" by Malcolm Jameson (1941)

The first line of this story is "'Whee! Yippee!  Yow!'"  The second sentence is "The crowd went crazy." This is a story about sports!  Despite the best efforts of my in-laws, I have no interest in sports and know nothing about sports, so when its topic was revealed to me I gave a little groan and checked to see how long this tale was.  Eleven pages.  As the kids would say, "Doable."

I was surprised at how contrived, gimmicky, and silly this story was.  It reads like a parody of SF written by somebody who has contempt for SF, and I am a little surprised it made it into this Treasury.

The first few pages describe the sport of Dazzle Dart, in which one team, whose quarterback has a "superflashlight," tries to illuminate the opposing team's goal.  All the players wear little mirrors on their wrists, heads, etc., and can thus reflect the beam away from their own goal and/or at the opposing goal.  The best Dazzle Dart team in the space navy is that of Captain Bullard's space ship Pollux.  Bullard is the star of a series of stories by Jameson which first saw light in Astounding and would later be collected in a volume edited by Andre Norton; a more complete collection appeared in 2013, published by Thunderchild Publishing, who are producing a whole line of classic SF reprints that classic SF fans should check out.

Right after its team wins the Dazzle Dart championship, the Pollux is sent off to capture some war criminals who have seized a weapons research base on Titania.  Their leader is Egon Ziffler ("the Torturer"), the former head of the secret police of the recently dismantled Jovian Empire, which I am guessing is a stand-in for Nazi Germany.  Soon after arriving at Titania, Bullard and his crew are outwitted and captured by Ziffler and his band of human rights abusers. Instead of just murdering and crucifying the Pollux's crew, like they did the techs and eggheads they found on Titania, Ziffler takes a page from "The Most Dangerous Game" and releases his captives.  Bullard and company have a 24-hour head start, after which Ziffler and his murderers will hunt them down.

Luckily, Bullard finds some fragments from a meteor with reflective properties.  His Dazzle Dart team straps the fragments to themselves, and when the Jovian fugitives catch up to them and try to massacre them with ray guns, Bullard's people reflect the rays back at them, slicing them to bits.

This is like a story a 12-year-old would write!  It even ends with a lame pun on the word "reflection!"

I'm going to have to give a thumbs down to "Bullard Reflects," though I think it qualifies for "so bad it is good" status, as it did make me laugh, and has an uneven tone that can take you by surprise as it careens up and down.  One moment it reads like something written for kids, and in the next we are reading about severed limbs and crucified innocents!

"Magic City" by Nelson S. Bond (1941)

This is one of those post-apocalyptic stories in which mankind, reduced to primitivism, lives among the ruins of technological society and has a bunch of superstitions based on misunderstandings of 20th century artifacts.  "Magic City" takes place in the year 3485 A.D., and its star is Meg, the leader of a matriarchal tribe. Bond wrote three stories about Meg that appeared in three different magazines in the period 1939-41; "Magic City" is the third.  (I am told that a fourth Meg story from '49 is a revision of the first.)  Passages in this story indicate that, in an earlier story, Meg caused a social revolution, convincing men and women to live together in the same village, and preaching that men are as good as women.  (Women triumphed over men in a civil war long ago that left women in charge of population centers while men lived as nomadic Wild Ones.)

Meg and her mate Daiv leave their tribe on a quest--to go to New York City (or as they, and I think some of my in-laws, call it, "the forbidden City of Death") to destroy the Evil One who causes young healthy people to die of disease (the germ theory of disease is long forgotten.)  In the ruins of Manhattan they encounter friendly tribes of women who live in subway stations, and Wild Ones, male bandits, who stalk the surface, looking for women to kidnap and rape.

Continuing today's theme of unexpected dismemberment, one of the Wild Ones has his fingers sliced off in a fight: "The edge bit deep, grotesque-angled fingers fell to the ground like bloodworms crawling, bright ribbons of blood spurted from severed palms."  Can I call "Magic City" proto-splatterpunk?

Meg and Daiv get the idea that Death is headquartered at St. Luke's hospital.  There they find medical books that will help them learn to conquer disease.  There they also run into the leaders of the Manhattan branch of the Wild Ones.  The Wild Ones worship the Statue of Liberty, and when they see Meg holding a book they think she is their goddess.  Her wish is their command!  She orders them to make peace and form one co-ed community with the women in the subway stations.  The End.

"Magic City" is full of garbled or corrupted English words, and I guess the reader is supposed to laugh at the obvious ones and enjoy figuring out the obscure ones.  The characters drink "cawfee" and eat "maters," follow a "creet" road, call steel "god-metal" and rust "water-hurt."  Zardoz-style, decrepit signs at the Holland Tunnel entrance in "Joysy" appear to read "O Left Tur" and "O Parki," St. Lukes hospital is "Slukes," and Pennsylvania Station is "Ylvania Stat." This is a gimmick that gets old fast, though sports fans may enjoy "Sinnaty, where once had ruled a great people known as the Reds."

Besides the prevalent wordplay, "Magic City," with its female protagonist, civilized matriarchal societies and violent male tribes, stands out as a candidate for status as a feminist work, a satire of sexism and sex stereotypes.  As Harry Harrison does in his Eden books about matriarchal reptile people, Bond pulls the old switcheroo on us, turning gender stereotypes on their heads:
Sometimes Meg grew a little impatient with Daiv.  He was, like all men, such a hard creature to convince.  He couldn't reason things out in the cold, clear logical fashion of a woman; he kept insisting that his 'masculine intuition' told him otherwise.
I think it is interesting to note that this story was the cover story of Astounding, edited by John W. Campbell, Jr., whom everybody is always denouncing as some kind of reactionary.  Likewise, the prominent publication of "Magic City" goes against the common assertion that SF before this or that date was sexist and only represented women as weaklings in need of rescuing.

The dozens of little word puzzles, and the feminist angle, are noteworthy, but "Magic City" is essentially a standard quest story in which some people travel some place to fight some other people.  I like a good quest story, but since Bond fails to generate any suspense, make me care about the characters, or imbue the action scenes with any feeling, "Magic City" is just a mediocre quest story.  The aforementioned gender stuff adds historical value, and shifts my assessment from "merely acceptable" to "marginally positive."

"Letters from Laura" by Mildred Clingerman (1954)

Boucher, in his introduction to A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, thanks Mildred Clingerman  for help with the anthology (along with a bunch of others, like Poul and Karen Anderson and John W. Campbell, Jr.), and adds parenthetically after Clingerman's name "chiefly just for existing."  This is the kind of slosh I used to say to girls I had crushes on in junior high...and high school...and in college...and while working at a New Jersey bookstore. This kind of goop never got me anywhere with a woman--not that I'm bitter or anything--but maybe it is more alluring in print.

"Letters from Laura" first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Boucher tells us it is "a charming, sexy, malicious caprice."  Does Mr. Clingerman know about all this?

"Letters from Laura" is a five-page long epistolary piece, meant to be amusing.  Isaac Asimov seems to have liked it; it has appeared in three anthologies with his name on the cover.  (Maybe it is Martin H. Greenberg who likes it.)


It is the future, and Laura is a boy-crazy young woman who has booked a time travel trip.  She flirts and (we learn in the last line of the story) has sex with the salesman at the time travel agency.  Then she is transported to ancient Crete where she meets the Minotaur in his labyrinth.  When the Minotaur chases her, she thinks it is because he wants to have sex with her, so she lets him catch her (she is on this trip in hopes of getting laid, and is wearing an outfit she made herself that bares her breasts).  But when he catches her he is not interested in her, saying, "I only gobble virgins."  Laura tries to seduce him, I guess not realizing that the Minotaur doesn't rape the women, but eats them.  When all the Minotaur wants to do with Laura is talk politics, Laura storms out, back to the future.  Back home she writes an angry letter to the time travel agency salesman, whom she blames for her failure to get laid on her trip.  In an effort to hurt his feelings she euphemistically asserts that he is a poor performer in bed and/or has a small penis (the last line of the story finishes "you, Mr. Barnes, are no Minotaur!")

I'm sure there were and are people who find this story hilarious; I am not one of them. I guess Boucher was one of them, and thought including a risque jocular piece in the Treasury added variety.  I suppose I'll grade this one "acceptable."

*************

Well, despite the title of the anthology, these ones were not so great.  I am always glad to have expanded my knowledge of the SF field, however, so, no regrets!

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