Saturday, August 22, 2015

1961 SF stories by Kaatje Hurlbut, Robert Beverly Hale, & Ward Moore

Another of my Davenport, Iowa finds was The Year's Best S-F: 7th Annual Edition, Dell 9773, printed in 1963.  I love the look of the thing--being shorter than most paperbacks, and utilizing bold wide fonts for much of the text on the cover, it has a sort of solidity and strength that is appealing.  This impression of power and seriousness is reinforced by the black background and the fact that the book is 400 pages!  The cover illustration is also fun, as is the echoing swirl on the title page.

Edited by Judith Merril of Tomorrow People fame, The Year's Best S-F is the science fiction anthology series which the critics go gaga for, and which always has listed on its cover writers I don't think of as science fiction authors.  (Lawrence Durrell?  Muriel Spark?) One of Merril's favorite topics appears to be the relationship between SF and the mainstream.  In an essay at the end of the book she talks about how, in the early '60s, "s-f" as she calls it, is being (re)absorbed into the mainstream, but without receiving the respect it deserves; The Saturday Evening Post prints a fantasy or science fiction story in just about every issue without labelling it as such, the tv show The Twilight Zone is not recognized as "s-f," and "much of the best science fiction published today is under wrappers and headings that either angrily disclaim the 'science-fiction' label, or ignore it completely."

I decided to pursue this idea, and so today after mowing the lawn (ah, the country life) I read three stories from The Year's Best S-F: 7th Annual Edition that originally appeared in magazines which did not specialize in science fiction, by writers I've never read before.

"A Passage from the Stars" by Kaatje Hurlbut

In her intro to this story Merril tells us this is Hurlbut's first SF story.  It is also the only title listed for Hurlbut at isfdb.  She seems to have had some well-received short stories published in the '50s and '60s, but then to have faded into obscurity.

"A Passage from the Stars" first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post.

Mr. Paradee has lived his life in the canyons between the skyscrapers of a big city, working as a bookkeeper at a button factory.  He has no family, and in retirement has moved to a tiny Atlantic coastal town where, with its big sky and ocean, and the friendly townspeople, he finally feels at home.  Another old single person lives in the town, Miss Pomeroy.  Pomeroy's ancestors settled the area, and their 17th century house still stands.  The Historical Society wants to turn this old cottage into a museum, but Pomeroy wishes it could become a home, a place of shelter and comfort for a living breathing family.

One of Paradee's hobbies is tinkering with a ham radio set, and one day he makes contact with space aliens, a family of refugees in a small ship that is about to run out of supplies.  The aliens are looking for a home, just like he was!  He overcomes fears that this alien family will use its technological superiority to conquer the Earth the way the British used their technological superiority to conquer North America and New Zealand (Cook is obliquely mentioned) and he and Pomeroy invite them to land in the tiny town and take up residence in the 1600s cottage.  The aliens, we learn, in the course of achieving the kind of civilization that can cross the interstellar void, have grown out of any desire to conquer people.  Humans haven't grown out of that yet, but maybe Paradee and Pomeroy are a sign that we are moving in that direction.

This story is alright, maybe a little sappy.
"Immediately Yours" by Robert Beverly Hale

Merril has her own definitions of words like "science fiction" and "s-f" which I am not sure I am grokking yet. The first lines of her intro to this story are "Now this one is not science fiction.   It is, very much, 'S-F.'  Mr. Hale was not concerned with how or why his strange events occurred, or with the logic of the situation--and neither am I."  I guess Merril thinks "science fiction" applies to fiction that includes some science or logic, while "s-f" includes fantasy and stories with strange new ideas that have no basis in reason or reality.

I was kind of excited to read "Immediately Yours," as Merril informs us that Hale is not only an accomplished poet and artist, but the curator of the American Painting and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in my old stomping grounds of New York City.  Followers of my twitter feed will know I am a big fan of the American sculpture there.  (I love St. Gaudens, French, MacMonnies, McCartan, Bitter, etc.)

This story appeared in Mademoiselle.  Hale has only this one credit for fiction at isfdb; he has another for a poem that appeared in F&SF after first appearing in The New Yorker.  Apparently he is most famous as a draughtsman and as a drawing instructor.

This is a somewhat surreal story about an artist (our narrator) who is hanging out in a barn on Long Island--the area is a sort of informal artists' colony--and he is out there trying to get some painting done.  The bulk of the story may well be the painter's dream.  When a poet steals his girlfriend the painter takes some peyote and comes into possession of a meteorite.  The meteorite comes to life as a shape shifting alien.  The alien takes on the appearance of the girl of our hero's dreams and is eager to have sex with him, but instead of enjoying this situation he has the girl transform herself into a Jackson Pollock painting which he sells to an art dealer.  The art dealer, however, realizes the Pollock is an alien being, and before paying our narrator takes advantage of the E.T.'s  shape changing powers himself, both to make money via forgery and to create his perfect woman.  The alien girl is quite fickle, and at a party drifts off to spend time with a Coast Guard officer.  

There's also a lobster who likes to play marbles.

This story is a trifle; it doesn't even have a banal message, like the Kaatje Hurlbut story does.  However, it is fun and interesting.  Little details here and there made it feel like an authentic depiction of the life and milieu of a 1950s-60s fine artist.  There are also a few successful jokes; for example, when the girl first transforms into a Pollock our hero finds that the canvas is too large to fit out the doorway of the room in which he is claiming to have stored the piece.

"It Becomes Necessary" by Ward Moore

Unlike the last two writers, Moore seems to have made a go at a career in science fiction.  (Admiral.Ironbombs talked about one of Moore's big novels back in 2013.) "It Becomes Necessary" did not first appear in a SF magazine, however, but in Gent, which I am told is a Playboy imitator with a focus on women with larger than average breasts.  The story was entitled "The Cold Peace" (or maybe "A Cold Peace"?) at that venue.

Merril, in her intro, waxes nostalgic about her high school years during the New Deal, when the intellectual class supported communism and lamented the lack of sex education in the public schools and the impossibility of world government.  She also argues that the political and social changes that took place between 1936 and 1961 were as momentous as the technological changes, but were not recognized quite so readily.

This story is chockablock with learned references, like it is overcompensating for being in a magazine dedicated to girls' boobs.  On the very first page we get Brancusi, Queen Nefertiti, Louis Napoleon, and "Paris is worth a Mass."  This is not just Moore showing off, though; these references make sense in the context of the story.

The world has split into three blocs: the United States, the Soviet Union, and the Third Force, which apparently includes every other country in the world, lead by the British and the French.  There has been a war between the US and USSR, and there has been a revolution in the United States that has put a racist and anti-Semitic regime in power; the revolutionaries maintain old forms, like voting and the Congress, but the President rules dictatorially via Executive Orders.  I'm not clear about cause and effect, if the creation of Third Force and the racist revolution in the US came before or after the war.

The entire story takes place at a Parisian sidewalk cafe.  Mrs. Fieldman is an American expatriate who fled to Europe after the revolutionaries in the US killed her husband. She is meeting a U.S. agent, who wants to purchase some information from her; in return for the addresses of other American expats, he offers her a pile of money and the right to return to America.  The agent says the other American expatriates won't be kidnapped or killed, that the current U.S. government wants to use them as intelligence assets inside the Third Force, which seeks to "police" the United States.

A French mob realizes the two are Americans, and, under a UN flag, menaces them. The American agent slips away, but Fieldman is forced to deal with them.  They demand she spit on a US flag in order to prove she is not a supporter of the current fascist regime in Washington, but she can't bring herself to do it, so they knock her down and kick the hell out of her.

The theme of the story seems to be that, while Fieldman deplores the current dictatorial U.S. government, she still has strong attachments to American culture and traditions.  Several times in the story she reflects that American food, booze, furniture and hygiene are so much more to her liking than that in Europe.  This brought to mind emigres from the French and Russian Revolutions, Vietnamese boatpeople and similar refugees from revolutions, who must miss the food and culture of their homelands, however much they hate and fear those of their countrymen who have put them to flight.

This story is pretty good; in fact, the more I think about it, the more I like it.


These three stories are unobjectionable if not spectacular; they all get a thumbs up.  "A Passage from the Stars" is a little precious, and the most conventional of the stories, with its innocuous characters and uncontroversial message.  "Immediately Yours," is a bit of whimsy, and while fun and full of interesting art history tidbits, like "A Passage from the Stars" it does not engage the emotions. "It Becomes Necessary" is probably the best story; it inspires real thought and feeling ("What would I do, how would I feel, if my home country was taken over by violent radicals?  Could I be happy in some hostile, foreign, land?") and has a portion of the melodrama, violence and sex that are among the raisons d'etre of genre fiction.

I paid 35 cents for my copy of The Year's Best S-F: 7th Annual Edition; I feel like it has been a good investment.*

*Zut alors!  People at Amazon and abebooks are asking over 20 bucks for this paperback!  I'll try not to spill Coke on it!

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