Monday, May 1, 2017

Four stories by Mack Reynolds

May Day is a big holiday for the commies, commemorated with red banners, parading military hardware and menacing marches the world over. Because every time I read his work, it seems to be about socialist utopias or the Soviet Union (and because I don't have access to any military hardware of my own), here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are commemorating May 1st by reading some stories by Mack Reynolds, who once won the title of "World's Most Popular SF Author" in an election as fishy as any in Castro's Cuba.  I selected the following four stories to mark the day because I thought their titles indicated they might be attacks on our bourgeois society and its market economy.

All four of these stories I found in my copy of 1976's The Best of Mack Reynolds; I read them in the order they appear in the volume, Pocket Books 80403.

"Compounded Interest" (1956)

Barry Malzberg, in his introduction (quoted on the back cover of the collection with an embarrassing typo), tells us "Compounded Interest" is very "important" and very "terrible," but in a good way!  Let's see.


"Compounded Interest" is a story about how a tiny cabal of businessmen secretly owns the lion's share of the world's wealth and callously manipulates all of our lives! Yes, this is just the kind of Bolshie bollocks we are looking for on May Day!

A mid-20th century guy goes back in time to 1300 to make an investment with Italian merchants.  He gives them advice about upcoming historical events and trends that assure his investment (and the Italian firm) will grow.  He returns to give the firm's managers advice about the coming century every one hundred years, stuff like "invest in Cortez and Pizarro" and "drop Bonaparte in 1812."  Reynolds probably should have kept his Encyclopedia Britannica closer while writing this thing because he suggests that Robert Clive's adventures in India took place in the 19th century, when in fact Clive died in 1774. Oops.

After a few centuries the cabal includes eminence grise types from all over the West and is basically running the world in secret, starting wars and so forth to protect the interests of a guy most of them never see who has no ability whatsoever to enforce his wishes.  In 1960, breaking the one-hundred-year schedule, comes the final meeting, when we learn why the mysterious time traveler is accumulating all this money and power--so he can finance the construction and power the operation of the time machine which will allow him to start this whole time loop!  I guess the "point" of the story, reinforced in the last few lines, is that the people in charge of the world are callous and selfish.

This "story" is basically an idea, which the uncharitable might call a "gimmick," unaccompanied by any style or human feeling or even plot to make it an actually enjoyable story.  I'm grading this one "barely acceptable."  In 1946 C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner produced a story about callous time travelers, "Vintage Season," which is much more worth your time as it includes all the suspense, characterization and human drama that "Compounded Interest" lacks.

"Compounded Interest" first appeared in F&SF, and important people like Malzberg, Judith Merrill and the people at NESFA have been championing it for decades, so that it appears in numerous "Best" and "Greatest" anthologies and is the title story of a 1983 collection of Reynolds stories.

"The Business, As Usual" (1952)

This is another time travel story which has been reprinted a billion times, a four-page joke story.  A 20th-century guy travels to the 30th century where he is taken advantage of by one of the natives.  The story is totally contrived, with the time travel "rules" set up so the joke will work (you can travel to the future, but items and even memories you acquire in the future won't go back with you to your time of origin) but it is sort of amusing, and fits into the "SF stories about Jews" and "SF stories about language" categories, so has some sociological interest. So I can give this one a (marginal to moderate) thumbs up.

"The Business, As Usual," which nicely fits our May Day theme (exploitative business deal!), first appeared in F&SF.

"Your Soul Comes C.O.D." (1952)

This one has a title which sounds like it belongs on a teenage Marxist punk rocker's torn black T-shirt.  Let's see if it delivers the May Day goodness we crave!

A guy, driven by envy, collects the esoteric materials necessary to summon a demon--he wants to sell his soul so he can have "a few years of the good things of life that others enjoy."  Even before he has finished the ritual, a "spirit" appears and tells him he will "support" him for forty years in exchange for his soul.  The guy agrees, and, immediately upon the spirit's disappearance, the guy's estranged girlfriend is at the door saying she will marry him after all and, oh yeah, she just inherited an oil well.

So our hero has forty years of happiness, and then the spirit returns.  Our protagonist thinks he is bound for hell, but it turns out the spirit was not a demon after all but an angel, and the protagonist is going to heaven!  What?

Yes!  The perfect May Day cover!  
This is one of those surprise twist ending stories that I call "Twilight Zone stories."  I have to admit that I was surprised by the ending; surprised because it makes no sense! Does it make any sense that an angel would manipulate your ex-girlfriend and subterranean petroleum deposits because you were willing to sell your soul to the devil? Does it makes sense that an angel would schedule your death?  Or am I supposed to think the marriage and the oil and the date of death were all coming anyway, and the angel was just saving the guy from the sin of contacting the devil? To me, this story feels contrived and ridiculous, so gotta give it a thumbs down.  It's like those mystery stories where all the clues point to Mr. Green but then, at the very end, we are supposed to be amazed that it's Mr. Brown who is the killer.  Of course we're amazed, amazed that the writer would think we would enjoy such a lame trick.

"Your Soul Comes C.O.D.," which first bewildered the SF community from its perch in Fantastic, barely qualifies for our May Day theme because our hero expresses disgust at the stock market (commies hate the stock market), as if investing in a publicly-traded business is more questionable behavior than summoning a demon.

"Fad" (1965)

The pet rock!  Rubik's Cube!  Bell bottoms!  Wacky Wall Walkers!  So many crazy fads!  There was a brief moment there when some of us (the naive ones) thought that the planned economy and big government were fads whose days were over, but now it looks like it may be free trade and free speech that were mere passing fads!  Well, let's see what Reynolds has to say about fads.

"Fad" fits comfortably into our May Day theme because it is about two old con men with goofy nicknames ("The Funked Out Kid" and "Professor Doolittle") who, after parting ways fifteen years ago, went straight, each becoming head of a major concern, one a PR firm, the other a marketing research firm.  Commies hate advertising and all the related fields, thinking that the bourgeoisie trick the people into having unnatural desires so they can sell them stuff they don't need or which actually harm them.  At Rutgers I took a class on 19th-century Europe, and one of the things the prof told us that I still remember is that in the 19th century the capitalists convinced people that they smelled so that they could sell them soap--before then nobody noticed that dirty people (even Frenchmen!) smelled bad!  "Fad" also airs the leftist argument we sometimes hear that our society is wasting resources on consumer goods that should be spent on something more "important."  This story is full of pinko red meat!
"Well, that's what Irene [Frankle, a psychologist] says, sir.  Such organizations as Doolittle Research, the other MR outfits and the ad agencies manipulate human motivations and desires and develop a need for products with which the public has previously been unfamiliar, perhaps even undesirous of purchasing.  She thinks that's ultimately turning the country into a nation of idiots, besides wasting natural resources."
The Kid and the Professor reunite to manufacture a fad in order to make a lot of money.  The consumer fads I mentioned above were big in the '70s and '80s; Reynolds in this 1965 story mentions the Davy Crockett fad, the hula hoop, and "the Space Man fad."  The con men decide to inspire a Joan of Arc fad which will get women to spend money on trips to France, reproduction swords, Joan of Arc movies and books, fashions based on clothes of the Fifteenth Century, etc.  The women of America unite in their love of the Maid of Orleans, but Irene Frankle, a "do-gooder" headshrinker, hijacks the movement for her own purposes (a rebellion against advertising and the fashion industry) and women, armed with swords, take over the country by force.

This story of 28 pages consists almost entirely of conversations among the staff of Doolittle Research (Irene Frankle never appears "on screen"--we only learn about her second-hand) and has no human drama or feeling.  It rehashes criticisms of advertising you've already heard before, tosses in some facts about Joan of Arc and 20th-century fads, then gives you the twist ending that makes sense only as a joke. Gotta give this one a (marginal) thumbs down.  It appeared in the same issue of Analog as James Schmitz's "Goblin Night," which I praised back in 2013.    

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When the SF community was first exposed to these four cold and bloodless thought experiments and jokes masquerading as stories they probably seemed better than they did to me over 50 years later.  The SF fans of the '50s and '60s found each in a magazine, sandwiched between stories by other writers, so they could read the Reynolds piece, think "well, that is an interesting idea I guess," and then move on to a story with some emotional content or literary value, some sex or violence or stylish prose or deft characterization. They wouldn't encounter another Reynolds story for some weeks, during which time they could forget how lackluster in execution that last Reynolds piece was, leaving in their minds only the germ of the story, its somewhat interesting idea.  Reading these four gimmicky and sterile stories in one burst in one day, as I did, was rougher going, and it may be a few years before I embark on any further exploration of Reynolds' output.

(An indication of Reynolds' mediocrity is found at the start of The Best of Mack Reynolds--Malzberg's introduction to the volume, which is one of the least interesting things I have ever read by New Jersey's own winner of the John W. Campbell Award and author of the hilarious Underlay.  Instead of telling us anything specific about Reynold's work and why it is so great, Malzberg just inflicts upon us an extended and embarrassingly vague metaphor about how Reynolds' oeuvre is like a well-crafted house and each story is like a strong wall or a charming decoration or something.  A sad performance.  Why would Malzberg write such an intro?  As a favor to a nice guy with whose politics Malzberg sympathized?  Or because Malzberg saw in Reynolds, like himself a professional writer who had to resort again and again to writing sex novels and stories based around other people's plots and characters to make ends meet, a kindred spirit?)        

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There are three pages of ads in the back of Pocket Books' The Best of Mack Reynolds, none of them for SF books.  Perhaps appropriately, perhaps ironically, they purport to reveal the secrets of the stock market and bankruptcy.

Click to get the inside scoop on these Simon and Schuster bestsellers
Maybe this is where I should tell you that Mack Reynolds was thrown out of the Socialist Labor Party in 1958 (after a lifetime of service to the People's Cause!) for working on How to Retire Without Money!--the book was published under a pseudonym, but if there is anything those commies are good at, it is ferreting out dissidents. (They are also good at denouncing as traitors people who are in fact perfectly loyal, which may well have been the case for hapless Comrade Mack in this instance.)

I include a picture here of the 1960 second edition of How to Retire Without Money!, complete with resource-wasting superfluous exclamation point and a cover which is adorned with bourgeois retirees enjoying the good life fishing, golfing, and just laying back, absolutely oblivious to the suffering of the proletariat masses!  

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