Saturday, August 26, 2017

Way Out stories from the early 1950s by Milton Lesser, H. B. Fyfe, Algis Budrys & John Berryman

I already have more books and magazines than I know what to do with, but there is a limit to how many slices of pizza I can eat at Whole Foods while waiting for my wife's hair appointment to finish up.  When that limit is reached, I walk a block or two to Half Price Books and sort through the spinner racks of vintage paperbacks and the shelves of 40-, 50-, and 60-year old hardcover SF books. On one such recent trip, I resisted a hardcover Orbit 10, and an anthology of stories about cavemen and dinosaurs, but on the spinner racks my eyes beheld a 2-dollar beauty I could not leave behind.  This find was a paperback whose cover was totally detached from its pages, a volume stained by water and bearing, like a badge of honor, a "CLOSE-OUT .35" sticker, Way Out, an anthology edited by Ivan Howard and put out in 1963 by our friends at Belmont, the people responsible for so many remarkable productions, my love for which I have unabashedly chronicled on this here blog.  I adore the weird Powers cover illo, its starker monochrome reproduction on the back cover, and the book's bold black and yellow spine.  The cover text's convoluted diction elicits a chuckle rather than a sneer.  Let's hope Way Out's seven stories, each "designed to appeal to the far out fiend" also merit my love! Today we'll tackle the first four stories in this charming artifact, the contributions from Milton Lesser, H. B. Fyfe, Algis Budrys and "William C. Bailey."  Just for fun, besides judging whether these stories are any good, like we always do, we'll assess how "way out" they are.

"Ennui" by Milton Lesser (1952)

The cover of this 1963 paperback promises us "seven new and frightful tales," and the first page of Way Out declares: "Seven Science Fiction Stories never before published." But if you know Belmont like I know Belmont, you won't be surprised to learn all the included stories first appeared in the early 1950s.  The surprise is that of the seven stories, six first appeared in Dynamic Science Fiction, and five of them all appeared in the same December 1952 issue of that magazine!   "Ennui" is one of those December 1952 Dynamic stories.

(You probably remember that we read a story from Dynamic's December 1952 issue, Lester Del Rey's "I Am Tomorrow," back in 2014 when we worked our way through Belmont's Novelets of Science Fiction.  It seems like that issue was the Belmont crew's very favorite SF magazine!  The magazine is actually available at the internet archive should you be interested in taking a look at the original texts and the numerous illustrations.)

"Ennui" is a sort of experimental story that is supposed to blow your mind, and it uses the words "quiddity"  and "solipsism" repeatedly in its nine pages, as well as mentioning David Hume.  Our unnamed narrator believes that he is the center of the universe, that the rest of the universe doesn't really exist, is merely a figment of his own imagination.  He finds he can make people and things vanish merely be willing them to do so.  However, he cannot create anything new.  Out of anger and boredom he begins willing everything out of existence, eventually making the solar system and his own body vanish, so he is a lone spirit floating in the void.  Searching for diversion he travels the galaxy, then other galaxies, but each new phenomenon he discovers eventually bores him and he reacts to this boredom by destroying it.  Finally, he erases the entire universe and, then, himself.

Ultimately sterile and gimmicky, perhaps, but not bad.  I wrote a little about Lesser back in 2015, when I read a story by him that reminded me of Games Workshop's classic game Space Hulk.

Is it good?  Marginally.                                            Is it Way Out?  Yes!

"Knowledge is Power" by H. B. Fyfe (1952)

I recognize Fyfe's name, but I don't think I've read anything by him before.  isfdb lists many stories by him, appearing in many magazines, including Astounding, Amazing, and F&SF. Fyfe was born in New Jersey, so I'm already rooting for him!  "Knowledge is Power" appeared in that December 1952 issue of Dynamic Science Fiction, and Fyfe's name appears on the cover.

"Knowledge is Power" stars Myru e Chib, an alien with four eyes and six limbs who lives in a sort of tyrannical medieval-type society.  A former captain in the army, Myru now lives a down-and-out existence as a thief because he complained when the local ruler stole his girlfriend (she has gorgeous scales!)  The despot also had two of our hero's four hands chopped off and two of his four eyes burned away!  When Earthmen--an advance survey team--land on the planet, Myru makes friends with them, helping them find specimens in return for trinkets and tools. Then he tricks them into helping him overthrow the despot and make himself ruler.  Myru then orders the humans executed, a move he (and Fyfe, more or less) justifies by suggesting the humans were going to exploit or enslave the natives after establishing a substantial colony.

A traditional SF story with elements we've often seen before: pre-industrial aliens, explorers from Earth, anti-imperialism, trickery.  But it is entertaining; Myru is a surprisingly well-developed character, and I wasn't sure who was going to outwit who until the end--Myru is not entirely sympathetic (he murders defenseless people of his own species throughout the story) and he commits some mistakes, so it seemed possible he was going to be hoist by his own petard or simply overwhelmed by the Earthmen's modern weapons.  It is often very easy to predict how an adventure story will turn out, so a genuinely unpredictable ending is welcome.  

Is it good?  Yes.                                            Is it Way Out?  Not really.

"Snail's Pace" by Algis Budrys (1953)

"Snail's Pace" was the cover story of the October 1953 issue of Dynamic Science Fiction.  You probably remember that we've already read a story from that October issue, Frank Belknap Long's "Night Fear," when we read Belmont's Novelets.

Budrys has a high reputation (Gene Wolfe is crazy about him) and seems like an interesting guy (check out the interview of him in Charles Platt's Dream Makers), but I think he is a bit overrated, as I have said before on this here blog.  Well, let's see what he is up to this time.

It is the 1960s (I think) and the United States is about to start building the first artificial satellite.  And the world is about to erupt in a Third World War!  The main character, General Post of the Air Force and the US space agency, uses all his influence to make sure the rocket with the parts for the space station takes off, despite the distractions of the coming war--the space station is essential to human progress!  He commands and pilots the flight himself, and leads the effort to build the space station.  When the war starts he even deactivates the communications equipment so none of the astronauts will be distracted by news that their homes and loved ones have been nuked!

After a few weeks the half-built station is running out of food and water, and the scheduled supply rockets from America have not been arriving.  Presumably the USA is kaput.  One of the astronauts mutinies, reactivating the communications equipment to contact the Earth and extort or beg supplies out of whoever won or just survived the war down there.  The mutineer thinks the station, as a symbol of progress or whatever, is more important than mere politics, and if the only help forthcoming is from the people who vaporized all the astronauts' friends and family, well, so be it.  Post, however, orders the evacuation of the station, saying that the radio message will just allow the enemy to target the station and blow it up.  Though the effort to construct the space station was a failure, Post is confident that mankind will eventually reach the stars.

I'm giving this one a thumbs down.  Budrys tries to convey to the reader the tremendous stress everybody is under by having them "shout," "bark" and "bellow" their dialogue and otherwise emote all the time.  On the third page of the story we are told that "Post raked the man's face with his eyes."  Three brief paragraphs later, on the very same page, Budrys writes, "Post bored into him with his eyes."  Give those eyes a rest, General Post!  The story thus comes off as overwrought, and there are lots of typos and weird grammatical constructions, as if the story was not edited.  (Shouldn't an editor have suggested Budrys delete one of those repetitive eye metaphors?)

"Snail's Pace" features too much boring and facile philosophizing about how history works in cycles or on a twisted path or whatever, an annoying reminder of silly Marxist and Whiggish theories that argue that history has an inevitable end point.  The plot is also unsatisfying, feeling like it goes nowhere--a guy works hard to get a thing built because he believes in progress, but he fails to build the thing, and then says it doesn't matter anyway because progress is inevitable.  A story in which a guy builds a thing is a story of triumph, which can be moving.  A story in which a guy tries and fails to build a thing is a tragedy, which can also be moving.  A story in which a guy tries to build a thing, fails to build it, then decides it doesn't matter if he built it or not is a drag.

Presumably the "real" plot of the story is how the hero learned something, how he built something spiritually or psychologically and how that is more important than building a physical thing--we've all heard those quotes about how the greatest conquest is over the self or whatever.  I could accept that if Budrys had made the General's intellectual or emotional journey interesting, but he didn't.  This story is weak, and it is not surprising that it was never printed again after its appearance in Way Out.        

Is it good?  No.                                            Is it Way Out?  No.

"'X' for 'Expendable'" by "William C. Bailey" (John Berryman) (1952)

John Berryman has quite a few stories listed at isfdb, most under the William C. Bailey or Walter Bupp pseudonyms.  Berryman is another son of the great state of New Jersey, so let's help he will make us Garden Staters proud--according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction he was an economist and business executive, so maybe he'll provide us a different perspective than those of the engineers, scientists, and professional genre writers we usually get our SF from.

So much for new perspectives--"'X' for 'Expendable'" is like a mash-up (the kids still say that, right?) of genre conventions.  Berryman writes his story, a first-person narrative, in the style of a hard-boiled detective tale.  Here's a para from the first page:
The cashier had a sharp, knifey eye, keen enough for a big-shot in the System's biggest bank.  He slashed a glance at my badge and at me.  "How much do you want?" he asked in a tone as cold as a frog's belly.
It is the post-nuclear war future, in which the surface of Manhattan, the center of my world and the setting of my nightly dreams, is a  "drab" and "glassy" "atomic slag" and the Earth has colonized the solar system.  Our hero is a detective working for the IPO, which I guess is like the future's FBI or CIA.  The current iteration of New York City is an underground "warren," and the narrator spends the first half of the 47-page story in subterranean nightclubs and offices, interrogating people involved in the black market sale of cadmium.  He isn't afraid to use a little muscle to get the info he needs, and when he gathers clues that direct him to the colonies on the Jovian moons he uses the IPO's authority to requisition a space navy vessel and blast off for Jupiter to look for the illegal nuclear reactor that is using that unregistered cadmium to develop nuclear weapons.

Out Jupiter way he and the local IPO guys figure out which moons to investigate, and our shamus of the future requisitions a "rocket-plane" armed with a "proton gun" to do the investigating.  The second half of the story is like a James Bond movie (though "'X' for 'Expendable'" was published before the first James Bond novel was released in 1953.)  The narrator is captured while investigating the criminals' base, escapes in one rocket plane and is pursued by another. The extended chase scene is where we get all the hard SF stuff--Berryman unleashes a lot of science and engineering on us during the chase, as the narrator calculates orbits and manipulates all the technical aspects of his rocket plane to keep ahead of his pursuers and send a message to IPO via unconventional means because his radio has been knocked out by enemy fire.

The writing style of the story was tiresome, and the detective stuff in the first half bored me, but I liked the violent adventure and space race business of the second half.  I guess I'm giving "'X' for 'Expendable'" a grade of "Acceptable."

"'X' for 'Expendable'" appeared in that December '52 issue of Dynamic.

Is it good?  Half of it is.                                           Is it Way Out?  No.


So far, so good, I guess.  In our next installment we finish up with Way Out.

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