Sunday, November 13, 2016

Three 1959 stories by Howard Fast

Internet SF maven Joachim Boaz recently reminded us of communist Howard Fast's birthday.  Besides winning the Stalin Peace Prize and authoring a huge pile of novels about American history, Fast contributed many stories to science fiction magazines. On the same fruitful expedition which yielded Theodore Sturgeon's Godbody, I purchased Bantam F3309, a "Bantam Fifty," entitled The Edge of Tomorrow, containing eight stories by Fast.  The book is copywritten 1961; my copy was apparently printed in 1966.

There is an unusual stamp on the first page of my copy of The Edge of Tomorrow, offering Christmas Greetings from Elisha Penniman of the Precision Tools company of Elmwood, CT.  Was this a gift to one of firm's customers?  Or was Penniman just using the Christmas stamp as a bookplate, perhaps accidentally?

Let's check out three stories by Fast which first appeared in The Magazine of  Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1959, by which time, wikipedia suggests, Fast had become disillusioned with the Communist Party and communist rule of the long-suffering people of Eastern Europe.

"Of Time and Cats"

This is one of those stories which is more or less straightforward but which the author tries to make more interesting by telling it somewhat out of chronological order, through dialogue and flashbacks.  Fast tells it in a matter-of-fact, deadpan style which, to me, came off as cold and flat.

At least these three F&SF covers
are awesome!
Two physicists in beautiful Manhattan build a machine ("a field deviator or something of that sort" says the wife of one of the boffins) that "ties a knot in time."  When one of the physicists (our narrator) "steps between the electrodes" he starts a process which repeatedly duplicates him; soon there are dozens of identical reproductions of him walking the New York streets.  He stops the process, and the duplicates disappear, causing a public sensation and a police investigation.  A similar accident has caused the second physicist's cat to be duplicated, and for some reason the cat duplicates cannot be made to disappear or even to cease appearing, raising the possibility that the world will be engulfed by an infinite number of cats.

I didn't quite get the science behind this one, nor understand why the reproduction cats couldn't be dealt with the same way as the reproduction college professors, and the story wasn't engaging enough for me to the sit down and furrow my brow and make a serious effort to figure it all out.  "Of Time and Cats" feels like filler; not particularly bad, but not special either, just acceptable.

"The Cold, Cold Box"

This is the story of Steve Kovac, bazillionaire!  Like "Of Time and Cats" it is told somewhat obliquely and out of order, I guess in an effort to add tension and surprise. The story reaches us in the form of a presentation to a Board of Directors (thrilling, right?) and portions of a doctor's diary.

Kovac was born into poverty, which turned him ruthless.  A genius, he became the richest man in America through building various businesses by any means necessary, and through his control of newspapers he was able to keep his wealth and power a secret from the general public.  At age 46 he was stricken by cancer, and hired the world's best doctor to treat him.  Doc froze him cryogenically, with the idea that he would be thawed when a cure for cancer was developed.  Kovac left his business concerns in the hands of a Board of Directors of 300 members; at the time of the story, this Board's members drawn from among all the people of the world, and half are men, half women.  The Board takes over the world peacefully through propaganda and bribery: "And above all, we bought control--control of every manufacturing, farming or mining unit of any consequence upon the face of the Earth."  Under the dictatorship of the Board the world finds unprecedented peace and prosperity, "deserts turned into gardens...poverty and crime a thing of the past."  Of course, when the cure for cancer arrives they don't thaw Kovac.

This is just the kind of fantasy you would expect a pinko to have.  A rich guy (who of course got rich by being an asshole, and was only an asshole because of the cruelties of capitalism) falls under the power of an elite multicultural cabal, and the cabal uses his wealth and cunning propaganda to seize the means of production and run the world as a beneficent dictatorship.  The story takes for granted that the common people are dolts easily manipulated by the lies of their betters and would be be better off if all their property was controlled by an unelected government of 300 people. This is like a version of 1984 in which Big Brother is the good guy!

Looking past the story's childish politics and economics, it is totally devoid of feeling or character, of tension or drama.  We are just told Kovac is a genius and a paranoid, none of this is demonstrated, there are no clues as to how he got rich and what crimes he committed or anything like that.  When Fast goes to the trouble of trying to manipulate the reader his efforts are risible: besides the Vietnamese Chairman, only one member of the Board is ever described, and in the three lines she is afforded we learn "She was a beautiful, sensitive woman in her middle thirties, a physicist of note and talent, and also an accomplished musician."  Wait, there's a hot chick on the Board?  Here, take all my stuff!

Lots of SF stories have unconvincing or objectionable political or economic ideas, but bring something else to the table that makes them fun or interesting.  But not "The Cold, Cold Box."


"The Martian Shop"

Both "Of Time and Cats" and "The Cold, Cold Box" are about a dozen pages long. Those two stories were so unappetizing that when I saw that "The Martian Shop" was twice as long I almost bailed on reading it.  But I had already downloaded from isfdb the cover image of the issue of F&SF in which it appeared (alongside the short version of Robert Heinlein's famous Starship Troopers) so I soldiered on.  Sunk costs, you know.

"The Martian Shop" is practically the same damned story as "The Cold, Cold Box!"  Good grief!  Well, it is actually a little better than "The Cold, Cold Box," but it has the same themes and ideas.

New stores open up in Manhattan, Tokyo's Ginza district, and Paris; these stores purport to sell high tech devices imported from Mars! These devices are so incredibly advanced that the world economy is shaken.  The governments of the world investigate the "Martians," and in response the Martians flee with all their wares.  A police detective discovers a tiny scrap of film left behind by the aliens, and top scientists decode its text--the Martians are going to attack the Earth! Led by the French ambassador to the US, the world unites under a single government to fight off the expected Martian invasion force!

In the last three or four pages we learn the truth about the "Martians."  A businessman who rose up from poverty to become a major tycoon who controls the newspapers assembled a secret multicultural Board of Directors and hired the world's best craftsmen and bribed the police detective and the French ambassador and the top scientists to perpetrate a hoax on the public.  This hoax, making everybody, including the governments of all the major powers, think a Martian invasion was imminent, has not only increased demand for the tycoon's spacecraft and other high tech equipment (everybody loves those government contracts!) but lead to world peace!

"The Martian Shop" is better than "The Cold, Cold Box" because the detailed descriptions of the shops and their merchandise are fun.  I would really like to see these shops and these devices!  So this one gets a grade of "acceptable," but the ideological basis of the thing is the same, as is the absolute lack of character or emotion.


1961 printing
The advertising blurbs on this collection call Fast "author of some of the most popular books of our time" and "one of the foremost literary figures of our century" but the style and plotting of these stories is pedestrian, and they lack compelling characters and human feeling.  What these stories have are ideas that will seem unusual to people unfamiliar with SF, but these ideas are little more than gimmicks, and don't serve as a background to an entertaining story or the springboard for exciting speculations, they just sit there, like a dead rodent brought to you by your cat.  Pussy doesn't try to sell you on the inert carcass, he just lays it there, sure you're gonna like it, like it's the kind of product that sells itself.  Fast's ideas do not sell themselves, but he doesn't bother to put any lipstick on these pigs.    

(These stories reminded me of the work of Chad Oliver and Mack Reynolds: repetitive polemics pushing tired and discredited ideas that lack literary or entertainment value.)

We'll see if I read any more stories by Howard Fast, but I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you!


  1. I was not very aware of his political leanings or much about him -- various commenters on my site indicated that he is definitely best known for his non-SF stuff... but, SF encyclopedia's entry was positive enough to compel me to pick up a volume... Sorry to have "inspired" you to read something crappy!

    1. No need to apologize; it is always good to explore new avenues. And for all I know I might like his later work or work in other genres.