Thursday, December 3, 2015

Four more tales from the Sept '51 issue of Planet Stories

Let's read four more selections from the September 1951 issue of Planet Stories! Three are in the public domain and readily accessible at the PDF page at the SFFaudio website, while one I draw from a volume recently added to my personal collection!

"The Incubi of Parallel X" by Theodore Sturgeon

I don't think member of The Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame Theodore Sturgeon requires any introduction.  Just this week I bought, at Half Price Books, a 1978 paperback edition of the 1964 collection Sturgeon in Orbit, specifically to read this story, featured so prominently on the cover of Planet Stories' 1951 September issue.

In a little intro to the story the author himself says that the "The Incubi of Parallel X" is "the most horrible title ever to appear over my byline."  He uses the rest of the intro to say nice things about Ray Bradbury and editor Malcolm Reiss.

"The Incubi of Parallel X" is a complicated and goofy story, and has as a main topic Sturgeon's oft-addressed issues of love and sex.  There is also plenty of "sciency" stuff: gates to other dimensions, plenty of scientists, lots of talk of super strong materials and chemical interactions, some engineering, and the contempt for religion we often see in SF.  Today's socially conscious readers may be pleased by the way women characters solve intellectual problems and repeatedly physically rescue the hero from death.

The opening scenes are a complicated description of two guys, Garth Gesell and Bronze, using a super strong rope and an atlatl spear thrower to get into a sort of fortified house by a cliff.  Then we get the complicated backstory.  Twenty-two years ago, a portal from a parallel dimension opened in Hackensack, New Jersey.  (Yay, New Jersey!)  Out of the portal came little people, the Ffanx, clad in little space suits and flying little space ships.  The Ffanx spread over the entire world, and kidnapped and murdered women by the millions.

Feminist-style, Sturgeon tells us that there is very little physical difference between men and women, except that women produce a special chemical that men do not produce, extradiol.  The Ffanx can use extradiol beta-prime, a component of extradiol, to make an immortality drug.  Moral relativism-style, Sturgeon reminds us that if there was an animal that could produce an immortality drug for us, we'd mercilessly hunt it down, just like the Ffanx mercilessly hunted down our mothers, sisters, wives and daughters.  So don't get on your high horse, human!
      
The cover art accurately depicts something that
happens in Sturgeon's story 
Garth Gesell's father was the world's greatest scientist in these dark days of the Ffanx.  He developed his own gate to another dimension, a peaceful dimension, and many women fled our dimension for that one; Garth Senior gave women who were smart and sexy priority in the queue.  Then he developed a chemical weapon which he tossed through the Ffanx gate, rendering the entire atmosphere of the Ffanx version of Earth a deadly poison to the Ffanx.  Since the Ffanx couldn't breathe the air on our Earth, the Ffanx were exterminated.  Take that!

Unfortunately, one of the last shots of the Ffanx-human war was the shot that took out Garth Senior.

The Ffanx-human war left Earth in a total shambles, and, as happens so often in science fiction stories, humanity quickly reverted to a medieval or even Stone Age existence, with people walking instead of riding cars and hunting with spears instead of guns.  Even worse, 90% of women were gone, either turned into now useless immortality drug or fled to that other, pacific, dimension.  Even though nobody remembers how to maintain an internal combustion engine or a shotgun, lots of horny guys remember that there's a portal to a world of women at the old Gesell mansion. Unfortunately, Gesell set up a ray gun trap at his mansion, and so lots of horny guys get zapped to cinders trying to get to the portal.  Sad trombone sound effect.  :(

Gesell Junior and his hulking buddy Bronze are able to get past the defenses and into the mansion.  With the help of a clever educated young woman (she had access to one of Gesell Senior's hypnoteaching devices), halfway through the story they enter the dimension of women.  They find the Earth women, who are now 75 feet tall!  Every thing in this dimension is huge!  Hey, it's just like how the Ffanx were tiny compared to humans when they came to our dimension!  Sturgeon gives us a long explanation that went over my head as to why things in different dimensions are different sizes. Time also moves at different rates in different dimensions--the women aren't 22 years older, like Gesell Junior is, merely eight months older.  (The hot chicks that went through the gateway are still hot!)  Then comes the happy ending when Gesell Junior explains how to get the fugitive women back to Earth and at the appropriate size for having sex with.    

I often feel like Sturgeon stories are too long (this baby is 50 pages in the edition I own), and that they have lots of complex moving parts that don't actually help the machine accomplish anything.  I felt the same way about "The Incubi of Parallel X."  I don't regret reading it, as it is amusing in its wackiness, and I was curious about the content and character of Planet Stories September 1951 and so felt a need to read the cover story, but I don't really think I can recommend this thing to other people without all kinds of caveats.  Consider all those sentences above caveats.

"Lord of A Thousand Suns" by Poul Anderson

I don't think Grandmaster Poul Anderson needs any introduction.  Let's see what he was writing in the early 1950s.

A small portion of the Janyard fleet, en route to Earth
This story has a frame--two old space hands are shooting the shit, swapping stories of their adventures as space navy officers during the recent galactic civil war and as explorers, surveying the innumerable habitable planets of the universe.  The main story is a tale from Laird, the older and more reserved of the spacemen.  Oddly, it is written in the third person, even though the frame is written in the first person (from Laird's comrade's point of view.).

During the civil war--our main characters are "Solmen," adherents of the victorious conservative faction centered on Earth's solar system, and call the civil war the "Janyard revolt"-- Laird was doing archaeological work alone in pyramids on a planet that, a million years ago, was home to a highly advanced civilization, Vwyrdda.  He hopes to find technology that will help the Solar war effort.  But then Janyards, led by a female officer, land on the planet.  As they are about to capture him, Laird, following instructions in the form of pictographic hieroglyphs, puts on a million-year-old helmet and flips a switch.

The consciousness of a hero of the ancient civilization, Daryesh, enters Laird's brain!  The two wrestle for control, then work together--Daryesh can grok what Laird and the Solar Empire of Earth are going through, because a million years ago Vwyrdda's space empire was destroyed in a civil war of its own!  Or so he says!  Daryesh is attracted to that sexy Janyard naval officer, and acts like he is going to teach her how to use all the super weapons and super force fields from the pyramid.  He even gives the Janyards a little speech about how their vital frontier society should overthrow the boring conservative society based on Earth!  If the Janyards get Vwyrdda technology the Solar Empire is doomed!  Is Daryesh tricking Laird, the Janyards, or both?

Of course we already know that the Solar Empire wins the war, so the suspense in the story centers around how Laird got out of this mess and what became of Daryesh and the Janyard love interest.

This is a pretty fun space adventure.  I like stories in which guys wrestle over control of a brain; I guess I like anytime one guy's brain or consciousness gets moved to another body.  As a kid I loved when The Flintstones or Gilligan's Island used such gimmicks.        

"Sanctuary, Oh Ulla!" by J. T. MacIntosh

Years ago I was quoted in no less a publication than The Onion expressing my utter disdain for J. T. MacIntosh's novel The Million Cities.  Now, people who know me might tell you I am still bitter about the crimes of Philip and Alexander of Macedon, Julius Caesar and Napoleon Bonaparte, but the truth is I am a real forgive and forget kind of guy, always ready to let bygones be bygones, bury the hatchet, and give a guy another chance.  I even bought a novel by MacIntosh recently!  And it is in this spirit of reconciliation that I will read MacIntosh's story, "Sanctuary, Oh Ulla!"

My wife and I must look like this when we're tooling around in the Toyota Corolla and I spot a bald eagle
"Sanctuary, Oh Ulla!" is written in a jocular tone, but I guess we are supposed to take the plot more or less seriously.  The jokes aren't offensively bad, so I won't hold them against the story.

Al Gannett is an interstellar criminal who thinks he is smarter than he really is--this is where much of the comedy comes in.  As our story begins Al's stint as a captain of a space pirate ship has ended disastrously, and Al is all alone, fleeing the solar system in a tiny space ship, the Galactic Patrol on his tail.  He eludes the forces of justice, and heads for Ulla, a planet he chose essentially at random from a gazetteer.

Ulla has a large population and an impressive industrial base, and could be a mover and shaker in interstellar trade and politics if it threw off its isolationist policy.  So Al works to reshape that policy at the same time he is seducing an Ullan woman.  (The alien Ulla are close enough to human to excite his erotic desire.)  The Ullans study Al and his little ship, getting an understanding of human biology and technology, then build a battlefleet of one hundred thousand ships and set off to conquer Earth.  The Galactic Patrol routs this fleet, however; by basing their assumptions about Earth on inferior specimens--Al and his crummy little ship--the Ullans underestimated what the human race and Earth space navy were capable of.  Now the Earth is going to conquer Ulla.

At first the Ullans want to punish Al, but Al tells them being conquered by Earth need be no problem.  Closely administering the vast population (seven trillion) of Ulla will be more trouble than the Earthlings will want to take, and it won't be impossible to convince the humies to just open trade relations with Ulla.  As the only person familiar with both Earth and Ulla, Al is the perfect person to handle such negotiations.  The factories of Ulla are so productive (they just made 100,000 space warships in a year, after all) Ulla will be able to produce enough consumer goods for the Earth market to make them all rich!  

This story is not very good.  It is full of incongruities, red herrings and dead ends.  Is Al smart or stupid?  He keeps escaping the Galactic Patrol and outwitting the Ullans, so he must be smart, right?  But the plot requires that he be below average, to make the central gag about the Ullan space fleet's defeat work.  As for dead ends, MacIntosh spends quite a bit of time describing how Al plans an escape from Ulla, but then he doesn't need to escape at all.  MacIntosh's love story is also somewhat incoherent.

Obviously, the story of a criminal who betrays his people and falls in love with someone from another civilization could have all kinds of philosophical and psychological resonances and move the reader emotionally and intellectually, and, just as obviously, MacIntosh isn't even trying to do any of that.

Thumbs down!        

"Hospitality" by J. W. Groves

British writer Groves has two novels listed on isfdb, and a dozen stories.  He is quoted in Robert Reginald's Contemporary Science Fiction authors as saying "I've had no career.  Just jobs."  I kno your feels, bro!

Have you guys seen Dejah Thoris any where around here?
"Hospitality" is a filler story, three pages of text that tell an anemic gimmick story.

Like Al Gannett, Brent and Durgan are interstellar criminals on the run from the space patrol who choose a planet to hide out on from a gazetteer.  But where Al was lucky enough to choose a planet with some hot chicks, the firm of B & D sets up shop on a planet where the purple six-limbed Stone Age people look like the kind of freaks John Carter and Tars Tarkas would have to exterminate on their way to or from rescuing a princess.          

The natives, with whom B & D have no real way to communicate, consider visitors from the sky sacred and so are very friendly, providing food and so forth.  But whenever B & D try to sleep, the natives prod them awake.  This planet does not rotate on its axis, so there is no night in this part of the world, and the natives never sleep.  So when they see the humans losing consciousness they assume their sacred visitors are dying, and prod them awake.  This goes on long enough that B & D are driven to the edge of insanity from lack of sleep and use their radio to surrender to the space patrol.  At least in prison they will be able to sleep!

Lame.

**********

No real surprises here, Sturgeon, Anderson, and MacIntosh delivering the kind of stories I would expect from them, based on my earlier experiences with them.  The Anderson story is the most entertaining, while the Sturgeon is probably the most challenging and interesting, with its defiance of gender stereotypes, attacks on religion (which I didn't get into here, but which are front and center in the text) and mass of (pseudo?)scientific jargon about materials, chemicals, biology, and interdimensional physics.

Thanks to SFFaudio, for making this exploration of the illustrations as well as text of a very cool magazine from over 60 years ago possible.  As you probably know already, SFFaudio's site is worth the attention of any classic SF fan--if you haven't yet, check it out!  

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