Sunday, October 4, 2015

1949 Stories from Kuttner & Moore and Edmond Hamilton

I recently found myself with time to kill before an appointment in Urbandale, Iowa, so I looked into the public library there.  On the science fiction shelves I saw a hardcover 1988 printing of one of the volumes of the Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Years of Science Fiction series edited by Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg, the volume covering 1949 and 1950.  I noticed on the contents page some stories I had yet to read by authors I am interested in, so the book found its way back to headquarters where it joined the pile of library books.  This weekend I read three stories that first appeared in science fiction magazines in 1949: two credited to "Lewis Padgett," one of the pen names used by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore; and a story by Edmond Hamilton.

"Private Eye" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore

The editors suggest that this story, which first appeared in Astounding, was probably written by Kuttner.  It seems to be universally loved; not only was it the cover story at Astounding, but it has been widely anthologized in such books as The Mirror of Infinity: A Critics' Anthology of Science Fiction and Astounding Stories: The 60th Anniversary Collection (Vol. 3).  On the negative side I now can't get that Hall and Oates song out of my head.

It is easy to see why this story would be popular with critics and editors.  There are hundreds or thousands of stories speculating about space travel, robots, time travel, nuclear power, and so forth, and "Private Eye" speculates about something that in 1949 maybe hadn't been done to death already, extensive government surveillance, but in the context of an individualistic market society with a limited government, more like early 20th-century America than the kind of totalitarian society we see in 1984 and so many other books.  According to the story, light waves and sound waves leave a semi-permanent impression on materials, impressions that can be translated into audio and video by a device employed by law enforcement.  Thus anything that has happened within sight of a wall or floor in the last fifty years has essentially been recorded for viewing by the government, making getting away with a major crime a difficult proposition!

The plot of the story follows Sam Clay, murderer.  Clay's girlfriend has been stolen by a more successful man, and Clay crafts and pursues an elaborate scheme over the course of 18 months, manipulating people and contriving situations so he can stab his rival to death in full view of the watching government and jury and get off on a plea of self-defense. As Golden Age SF fans probably already know, Kuttner was fascinated by psychology and studied the field in college, and "Private Eye" is full of psychological theories spouted by government scientists and descriptions of Clay's state of mind, a mind warped by childhood experiences, driven by a lust for revenge and oppressed by the knowledge that his every move is being recorded as if by cameras for viewing by law enforcement.  Over the course of the story we observe Clay's psychology, and to a certain extent that of other characters, evolve.

This is a good story, well paced and structured, achieving genuine tension and presenting interesting characters and situations.  Even the little throwaway details about life in the future (like a restaurant where a computer analyzes your face and lights your table to your best advantage like a Hollywood director) are good.  Maybe some 21st-century readers will be put off by the 1940s-era psychology theories and the less than flattering portrayal of women in the story, but to me that stuff just adds a layer of historical interest.        

"Prisoner in the Skull" by Kuttner and Moore

Each of the stories in Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Years of Science Fiction has two introductions, one by each of the editors.  In his intro to "Prisoner in the Skull" Greenberg thanks important SF writer, critic and historian, and Kuttner and Moore superfan, Barry Malzberg for pointing out this story to the editors.  Asimov takes the opportunity to sneer at "woman's romance" and "the typical Western," and suggest SF is superior to these genres.

A recurring element in Kuttner and Moore's work is artifacts or individuals from the future appearing and befuddling people.  We see this in some of Kuttner and Moore's most acclaimed work, like "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" and "Vintage Season," and we see it in "Prisoner in the Skull."  "Prisoner in the Skull," which also appeared in Astounding, also feels like a companion piece to "Private Eye," in that it is about the evolving psychologies of an unsympathetic main character and the less than admirable woman with whom he is obsessed.

John Fowler is a successful commercial artist.  He is courting a beautiful model, Veronica, a shallow and greedy woman.  One day a mysterious man, a man lacking will and individuality, a man with a "blank" face who is almost unable to talk, appears at Fowler's door.  Fowler takes this "blank man," whom he dubs "Norman," into his home, and discovers that he is easy to dominate, and has terrific mechanical and engineering ability.  At Fowler's direction, Norman improves various household items (like a light switch) and invents radical new consumer products, like a window upon which one can project images via telepathy.  (This story also includes the device I admired in "Private Eye," a system of artificial indoor lighting that can be calibrated to flatter individuals.)  By marketing these inventions, over the course of a few years Fowler becomes rich.

Having a virtual slave to dominate, and vast wealth, corrupts Fowler.  Kuttner and Moore describe the excuses and other psychological devices used by Fowler to justify his exploitation of Norman.  When Veronica marries a stock broker, Fowler bends his wealth and Norman's amazing abilities to the task of concocting and executing a complicated conspiracy to break up the model and the broker, and get Veronica back under his control.  As in "Private Eye," the female lead is not so easily outmaneuvered.  In the end it is revealed that Norman created himself by inventing a device that altered Fowler's brain; Norman thus turns Fowler into a proto-Norman and sends him (himself) back in time to meet his earlier self.

This is a good story, though I don't think it is as well put together as "Private Eye," and the time loop ending is not, to me, as satisfying as "Private Eye"'s resolution.  For one thing, I often find time loops and that sort of thing unsatisfying (my brain bridles at such explanations as "he became a genius inventor when his later self, a genius inventor, went back in time to make him a genius inventor.")  For another, the end of "Private Eye" is a conclusive one, with the immoral male and female leads suffering final, punishing fates.  In "Prisoner in the Skull" I felt like the stories of Fowler and Veronica weren't quite over, and I wasn't sure if they had been punished for their sins. What happens to Norman after he liberates himself from Fowler by sending Fowler (his earlier self) back in time?  Is he still obsessed with Veronica?  Is he still rich?  Is he still a genius inventor?

Leftist readers may appreciate what appears to be a Marxist subtext to the story. Fowler, I guess representing the capitalist, exploits Norman to become wealthy, but wealth corrupts him and Norman rises up against him, and it turns out Fowler was hurting himself by exploiting Norman.  An offhand comment about economics early in the story (it is suggested that in the future there is no shortage of raw materials, so businesses create artificial scarcities in order to make customers more willing to make purchases) is perhaps a clue that Kuttner and Moore want readers to view the story as some kind of allegory about economics.

"Alien Earth" by Edmond Hamilton

I've read quite a few stories by Hamilton during this blog's life.  The last time we encountered Hamilton was when I was praising his story "The Legion of Lazarus," which I read in a crumbling old magazine I found in an antique store.  As he does in the collection Before the Golden Age, in this volume of Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Years of Science Fiction Asimov expresses his admiration for Hamilton.  For his part Greenberg calls "Alien Earth" "a wonderful, moody story that is science fiction at its finest."  

Hugh Farris is an American in the teak business, travelling here and there through the jungles of French Indo-China searching for teak trees. (Apparently American wood isn't good enough for some people!  Do Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump know about this?  It may be time for a tariff on these foreign woods!)  In the forest Farris discovers a weird native cult of people who inject themselves with some green goop that slows them down so that they "live a hundred times slower."  Hamilton gives us numerous descriptions of how they breathe slower, walk slower, blink slower, etc.

You don't care what these goofy natives are up to?  Why doesn't Farris just leave them to their goofy drugs and religion and get back to collecting that teak which is putting perfectly good American oak and pine out of work?  A woman, of course!  In the jungle Farris meets Lys Berreau, a French blonde (ooh la la) whose brother Andre has gone native and is using the green drug so that he can spend weeks at a time living at a speed one hundredth of the speed most of us are living at.  The French girl begs Farris's help, and can we blame him for not refusing?

Under ordinary fictional circumstances, I'd expect an evil priest and/or evil god to be at fault, and for Farris to have to read a spell from an old book and/or hit some people with a sword to resolve the plot.  This is what I would expect in a Weird Tales-style story.  But "Alien Earth" is endorsed by Isaac Asimov, and we all know from Before the Golden Age that Asimov has contempt for the Weird Tales crowd.  The Asimov seal of approval means this story must be about science!  Farris carries the almost motionless Andre into a house and keeps him there for weeks until the green goop injection wears off.   When the Frenchie is back at normal speed he explains that he is a botanist and wanted to live at one percent speed because it helped him get in tune with the life of plants!

Farris and the mademoiselle try to get Andre to give up on his obsession with what he calls "a botanist's heaven" and get back to France, but he refuses to budge.  In fact, he drugs their food so Farris and Lys are tricked into entering the world of plants themselves!  Perfidious Gaul!        

So, what is so awesome about the world of plants?  As far as I can tell plants can't have sex or read books or go to art museums or listen to old Blondie albums, the kinds of things that make life as a human being barely tolerable.  Why is the botanist so keen to live out his life in that vegetative world?

Farris and Lys venture into the rain forest to find out!  Living at one hundredth normal speed, they experience the sun crossing the sky in like seven or eight minutes, while the growth of grass and the budding of leaves on trees moves at an apparent speed much like that of the stalking of animals.  Hamilton compares the engulfing of trees by vines and fungus as being much like the attacks of wolves on quadruped herbivores.

More significant is the revelation that plants have thoughts and emotions just like animals, and project these telepathically.  Moving at one hundredth normal speed our heroes can pick up these transmissions!  It turns out that the French botanist worships the oldest trees of the forest, whom he believes have great wisdom to impart!  So, even though this is a sciencey story, Hamilton manages to shoehorn in an evil priest and god.  When Andre orders the plants to kill Farris and his own sister(!), we even get something like a traditional Robert Howard hero-interrupting-virgin-sacrifice scene.  Farris even has a big bolo knife, a good stand in for a sword, that he and Lys use to chop away at the vines, which move like snakes when you are living at one hundredth speed!  

This story is pretty ridiculous.  It is hard to accept the idea that plants have thoughts, much less "wisdom."  The idea of thinking, breathing, and moving at one hundredth speed is also a little suspect.  Farris and Lys run at this speed, which would seem to be impossible--wouldn't you just lose balance and collapse when your second foot left the surface?  What about insects and germs--if you are in the middle of a damn jungle and you can't swat bugs and your white blood cells are moving at one hundredth normal speed, aren't you going to be devoured?

I'll grade "Alien Earth" acceptable, but Greenberg is really exaggerating when he suggests it represents "science fiction at its finest"--the sciency stuff is mediocre, and the story is not redeemed by being a good adventure with memorable images (like Hamilton's better work such as "The Legion of Lazarus") or by having traditional literary values like a good style or characters or the ability to evoke emotion in the reader.  I suspect Asimov and Greenberg thought Hamilton deserved to be included in their series, which he does, being a major writer of the Golden Age, and hit upon this one because it is sciency and not Weird Talesy, and because Hamilton published no other stories in 1949.  I do have to say it is a little odd that Asimov felt comfortable presenting a story in which the scientist is the villain and the violent businessman-adventurer is the hero.

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The Kuttner and Moore stories are solid; classic SF fans should definitely check them out.  I guess the Hamilton story is interesting if you are interested in Hamilton's long and productive career, or are trying to read every SF story about botany!

I'll probably read some more stories from this volume before it ends up back on the library shelves--stay tuned.

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