Friday, June 16, 2017

Leigh Brackett's "The Tweener" and "The Queer Ones"

Abridged German edition
It's the last episode of our look at 1977's The Best of Leigh Brackett, a selection of the Science Fiction Book Club edited by Brackett's husband, Edmond Hamilton.  It has been a fun project, and Hamilton seems to have a good job choosing from his wife's body of work--I have a higher opinion today of Brackett's writing than I did before reading this volume.

Today's stories appeared originally in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and its short-lived sister publication Venture Science Fiction.  I think it is fair to say that conventional critics think more highly of F&SF than the magazines in which the other stories from The Best of Leigh Brackett first appeared--Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories and Startling Stories--so I am sort of wondering if these stories will be noticeably different in some way from those Brackett tales we've already read over the course of this series of posts.

"The Tweener" (1955)

"The Tweener" is actually a lot like "The Woman From Altair."  It starts as a sort of cozy story about an Earthman returning from space to a happy family, and quickly becomes a horror story about an alien victim of Earth imperialism trying to get its revenge on the family.

Matt has a nice suburban home, a wife and two kids.  His brother Fred is a psychologist with the expedition on Mars.  Fred comes Earthside for a visit, bringing with him a little Martian beastie that looks like a cross between (thus the name "tweener") a rabbit and a monkey. The tweeners are the highest lifeform on old and desolate Mars, "almost the sole surviving vertebrate," says Fred, but he assures everyone they are just dumb animals and totally harmless.

Fred goes to NYC for a conference, leaving the creature with his brother's family.  The kids love the thing, playing with it incessantly and naming it "John Carter."  This is a nice way for Brackett to honor the man, Edgar Rice Burroughs, who inspired her and so strongly influenced her career, but it is also an ironic, even subversive and/or sinister, name for the Martian.  While John Carter moved from Earth to Mars and made himself master of the red planet, the tweener was dragged from its home and brought to Earth a pet or a slave.  And while John Carter flourished on Mars because of Mars' lower gravity, the higher gravity of Earth is torture to the tweener.

Matt begins having terrible headaches and oppressive dreams of Mars, and his symptoms get worse and worse.  He begins to believe, due to the content of his dreams and from watching the tweener (it has opposable thumbs, for one thing!), that the tweeners are an intelligent race which, eons ago, as Mars' environment declined, abandoned their cities and technology but retained their intelligence and developed compensatory mental powers, a shocking truth the tweeners have kept a secret from the Earthmen.  Matt suspects that, doomed to death on Earth, "John Carter," fired by an enormous hatred of the human race, is trying to exact revenge by driving Matt insane, and, perhaps, manipulating his children in some fashion.  Before the alien can cause any more trouble, Matt kills him.  Instantly Matt's symptoms disappear, but a returning Fred assures him they were just psychosomatic, the result of a subconscious fear of the alien, and Fred should know--after all, he's the shrink who treats the multitude of astronauts on Mars who are always experiencing these very same symptoms!   (Don't all you softies out there worry that Matt's kids have been traumatized--Matt and Fred tell the brats that it was a loose dog (calot?) who killed "John Carter.")

This story isn't bad, but I'm a little surprised it is included here, because it is so similar to the also-included "The Woman from Altair."  I also have to say that "The Woman from Altair" is better than "The Tweener,"--the 1951 story not only has lots of sex and violence, but more clearly drawn, more interesting characters.  "The Tweener" feels like a toned down version of that story.  I was also a little disappointed that Brackett didn't do more with the kids; she hints that maybe this story will be like Ray Bradbury's 1947 "Zero Hour," in which aliens manipulate little Earth kids into helping them conquer the Earth--Matt's kids treat "John Carter" like a king, putting him on a throne and addressing him respectfully in what seems like an alien language--but Matt kills the tweener before anything can really get going.  (I personally find the ordeal of parents watching their children change, say, teenagers falling in with the wrong crowd and turning into drug addicts or thugs, or going to college and coming back as commies, to be a compelling theme, and would have welcomed something more in that direction.)

Unless you count French SF magazine Fiction, which had a deal to reprint stories from F&SF, "The Tweener" never appeared in a multi-author publication after its initial appearance, though, like Hamilton, Stephen Jones saw fit to include it in the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks volume of Brackett tales, Sea-Kings of Mars and Otherworldly Stories.  

"The Queer Ones" (1957)

This is a story about a hillbilly teenager and her interstellar one night stand.  Sally Tate lives in Possum Creek, an Appalachian community of shacks and trailers in the shadow of Buckhorn Mountain, with her son Billy.  Billy's father is a TV repairman who goes by the name Bill Jones; Sally only met him once, but she is still carrying a torch for him.  You see, Billy is no ordinary kid, and his father was no ordinary TV repairman: Billy, just like his deadbeat dad, has "grave, precociously wise" copper eyes, a narrow skull, red hair with silver undertones, and moves with grace, like "a gazelle among young goats."  The "goats" are Billy's "rangy and big boned" cousins, and Billy comes to the attention of Doc Callendar down at the county seat when they, envious and suspicious, beat the crap out of him.  When Doc x-rays Billy and takes a blood sample he finds he has an amazing discovery on his hands--Billy, he believes, is the first of a new race, maybe a new species, of human beings, one much superior to us normies!  Doc enlists our narrator, Hank Temple, who runs the local paper (he could be on the staff of the New York Times but prefers to live where he can fish and hunt when the mood strikes) to help him look into the mystery of Billy Tate--this discovery could make their careers!

"The Queer Ones" is a detective story, in which our narrator the newspaperman looks for clues, interviews people, wears an automatic in a shoulder holster, sneaks around the woods, gets knocked unconscious, etc.  Hank discovers that "Bill Jones" the TV repairman left elaborate listening devices in all the TVs he serviced, Hank meets a beautiful woman with Billy's same metallic grace, and in a violent finale Hank uncovers the truth: Billy is not a mutant, but an alien half-breed!  "Bill Jones" (real name: Arnek) is an extraterrestrial coyote, an alien working with that beautiful woman (his sister Vadi) and a human accomplice to smuggle immigrant aliens who can pass as human onto the Earth via a space boat that periodically descends from a larger star ship to the remote cloud-shrouded peak of Buckhorn mountain.  The newspaper man has a shoot out with the human accomplice and the aliens suspend their operations, blowing up their mountain base and burning up Doc's hospital to destroy the evidence.  Poor Doc gets killed by a ray gun blast, and Sally Tate, lovestruck by Arnek, leaves with the aliens--just like you might expect from a shiftless hillbilly, she leaves her half-human kid behind to be raised by Hank.  Brackett ends the story on a sad wistful note (Hank is hopelessly in love with the alien girl Vida, to whom no human woman can compare, and so is doomed to a life of sterile bachelorhood) and with a provocative mystery (Hank and we readers are left to wonder how many aliens posing as humans are walking the Earth and why they would leave their high tech civilization for our little ball of wax.)

This story is alright, no big deal, really.  Living in our age of affirmative consent, some of the sexual elements of the story jumped out at me--our narrator Hank offhandedly tells us how he has often kissed girls who didn't want to be kissed, as well as girls who didn't even like him.  These remarks are occasioned by Hank's kissing Vadi while he is wrestling with her after having stumbled upon her attempt to burn down his house. Vadi responds to his kiss not by slapping him in the face like others have done, but with cold indifference--while he finds the alien irresistibly attractive, she sees him as an inferior species.  (She denounces her brother Arnek, Sally's lover, as "corrupt.")

"The Queer Ones" was included in 1958's The Best Science Fiction Stories and Novels: 9th Series under an alternate title ("The Other People") and in a 1969 Belmont paperback entitled Gentle Invaders and that anthology's abridged German translation.


These stories deserve a passing grade, but compared to the extravagant and colorful tales we've been reading, like "The Enchantress of Venus" or "Shannach--The Last," stories which initially appeared in the pulpier magazines, "The Tweener" and "The Queer Ones" feel earthbound and drab, pale and a little pedestrian.  Was this Brackett responding to changing market conditions (the old pulps went out of business in 1955) or just evolving as a writer?   Whatever, the case, I cannot deny that I found these stories somewhat disappointing.

In our next episode, we finish up with The Best of Edmond Hamilton.

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