Wednesday, February 28, 2018

The Future is Now part one: Young, "Anmar," Meredith, and Corwin

Our last three blog posts were about SF stories which first appeared (in America, at least) in our most pretentious skin rag, Playboy.  I read them in The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, published in 1966 by Playboy Press.  In the comments to the first installment of this three part series, SF fans George, marzaat and I talked a little about Playboy Press's SF line; when I revealed that I own 1970's The Future is Now, edited by William F. Nolan, marzaat expressed dissatisfaction with the volume.  This piqued my interest, and I decided to read the book myself.  Marzaat actually has a review of The Future is Now, but I am going to hold off on reading it until I have read the book's twelve stories and recorded my own thoughts about them over three blog posts.  In the final post, I'll talk about to what extent marzaat and I agree or disagree about the stories.

The Future is Now is not an anthology of stories from Playboy, which is what I thought it was when I bought it.  Rather, it is a collection of all new stories edited by Nolan and published by Sherbourne Press in hardcover in 1970.  The paperback Playboy Press edition I have was put out in 1971 and has a strange and unattractive cover that reminds me of that famous recalled Beatles record sleeve and perhaps is suggesting the stories therein are about overpopulation.  In his intro Nolan talks a little about the history of all-new SF anthologies, and the decline of the SF magazines, suggesting that the future of short form SF lies in books such as The Future is Now and not in magazines.     

"The Ogress" by Robert F. Young

I recognize Young's name, but for some reason I've never read anything by him.  The intro to the story lists Young's influences and the various blue collar jobs he's held over his life.

"The Ogress" is one of those SF stories which explains the scientific facts behind an ancient legend.  (Just recently we read Ray Russell's story about the truth behind the story of the Fall of the Rebel Angels, and last year we got a scientific explanation from Edmond Hamilton for Norse mythology.)  You see, Grendel was real, a "superbeing" created by the collective mental energy of the superstitious local peasantry.  (Yahweh and Zeus, we are told, were also real for a time, until their creators became more sophisticated and ceased to believe in them.)  Unsophisticated people across the galaxy occasionally create such gods and monsters, giant-sized raiders who murder people and destroy property, and to deal with them the institution known as Galactic Guidance sends out expert hunters, the Beowulfs, who are armed with powerful firearms called Dammerungs.  The plot of "The Ogress" follows the hunt of one such superbeing, a female monster, by one such Beowulf.  Interspersed with the account of the hunt for the ogress are flashbacks to earlier hunts.

This is a decent adventure story.   

"Jenny Among the Zeebs" by "Frank Anmar"

I don't recognize Anmar's name, but I have read things by him, because this is a story by Nolan using a pseudonym.  Tricksy!  The title makes me worry it is going to be a dumb parody story.  I don't want to endure another piece of junk like "Gorf! Gorf! Gorf!"

Well, it is not quite a parody, but it is a dumb joke story that pokes fun at rock music and modern art and has the kind of attitude about sex that nowadays would be considered evidence of "rape culture."  The plot is like that of an off-color sitcom with wacky schemes that fail and mistaken identity hi-jinks.

Our narrator, Hoff, is the Earthling PR man for the Red Dogs, a Martian rock group.  (Martians, called "zeebs," can interbreed with Earth humans, but are physically different from us; most importantly for this story, they have four buttocks instead of two.  These are the kinds of jokes Nolan offers us.)  Hoff uses lots of slang, which is a little annoying.

Hoff has launched a PR stunt--one of the four Red Dogs will marry the Earth girl who writes the best application essay.  While this stunt is underway, an artist, a pretty Earth girl, serendipitously shows up and provides Hoff an opportunity for another stunt.  This artist, Jenny, specializes in making plaster casts of people's asses, and she wants to make casts of the Red Dogs' asses; Hoff has the idea of using the casts to produce chairs to sell to the Red Dogs' fans.  The Red Dogs are shy, and only agree to let Jenny make their casts in a darkened bedroom, one at a time.

The main plot of this unfunny and nonsensical story revolves around the fact that in the darkened room one or more people had sex with Jenny, a virgin before she met Hoff and the band, and is now pregnant, and Hoff has to figure out how to deal with this potentially troublesome situation.  It doesn't make any sense that Jenny doesn't know who had sex with her, because she called the bandmembers into the dark room one at a time, and Nolan further cheats us readers by leading us to believe that only the Red Dogs got casts of their asses made, and then later revealing that Hoff and the band's manager also had casts made.  Why would Jenny want casts of the asses of the band's PR guy and their manager? 

Bad.

"Jenny Among the Zeebs" would be republished in two collections of stories by Nolan, 1974's Alien Horizons and 2005's Wild Galaxy.  I see that these collections also include "Gorf! Gorf! Gorf!" under its alias "The Day the Gorf Took Over."  Tricksy!

"Earthcoming" by Richard C. Meredith

I got interested in Richard C. Meredith when Joachim Boaz wrote about his novel We All Died at Breakway Station but I couldn't lay hands on that novel and so instead read the first two of Meredith's three Timeliner books, At the Narrow Passage and No Brother, No Friend.  For some reason I never got to the third one, but tarbandu read all three.  Like Nolan, Meredith has an association with Playboy, Playboy Press having put out an edition of the Timeliner books.  Nolan here tells us interesting little tidbits about Meredith's academic, business and writing careers.

Back cover of my copy
Nolan lists Astounding among Meredith's influences, and "Earthcoming" does have an Astounding feel to it.  There is lots of hard SF talk about orbits and astronomical distances and the chemistry of space drives and so forth, and the story integrates the point of view of a hostile alien seeking to infiltrate the Earth, like what A. E. van Vogt does in the classic "Black Destroyer" (1939) and "Asylum" (1942), both Astounding cover stories.  (I read the original magazine version of "Asylum" today to refresh my memory of it, and was amazed to find a hotel named "Constantine's" figures prominently in it, while Meredith's "Earthcoming" features a planet called "Constantine!"  Coincidence?  Well, the evil aliens in "Asylum" are the "dreegh" and the good aliens the "lennel," while the evil aliens in "Earthcoming" are the "druul" and the good aliens the "luntinasel."  Both stories include cargo ships, van Vogt's captained by a Hanardy and Meredith's captained by a Haledon.  Lots of coincidences, or sign that this is an homage to our favorite Canadian?)

Earth, allied with some friendly aliens, is at war with evil parasitic aliens, the druul.  Meredith's story takes place on a cargo ship bringing valuable fuel from beyond the solar system to Earth for our war fleet.  Unfortunately for us, one of the crew members of the cargo vessel has had his body invaded and taken over by one of the druul, and, if this druul can get to Earth, it can release a hundred spores which will in turn take over a hundred more humans!  In less than a year all of Earth could be under the control of the druul and the human race kaput!  "Earthcoming" is written in the third-person, but our main character is the alien, and we learn all of his inner thoughts and various doubts as he struggles to accomplish his mission and deal with aspects of the personality of the man whose body and mind he has hijacked.  Most of the text, it feels like, is devoted to the technical issues of steering the ship, but Meredith also describes in gory detail the many injuries suffered by the characters.  The story ends when the druul, in the battered body of the human, crash lands on Earth.  As he has touched ground in an uninhabited arctic wasteland and his host body is incapacitated, I think we are supposed to understand that his spores can reach no hosts and thus Earth is safe.

This story is actually pretty good.

"Belles Lettres, 2272" by Norman Corwin

Corwin is a famous and important broadcaster and Hollywood screenwriter of whom I had never heard; it seems he did a lot of work with government entities and the United Nations creating radio programs designed to "build world unity" and that kind of thing.  In the early 1980s he published a best-selling book attacking American culture.

"Belles Lettres, 2272" is a lame joke story.  I feel that Corwin is one of those men who was a giant in his day but will be quickly forgotten, in part because much of his work is in an obsolete medium, so it is perhaps appropriate that much of the humor of this story derives from the idea that people in the future won't remember much about the major figures or artistic productions of our time.  The form of the story is that of a letter written from one computer to another which includes extensive quotes from a third computer (a poem by said computer) and a fourth computer (an analysis of the poem.)  The story includes lots of pictographs or logograms that, I guess, we are to believe are commonly used in the written communication of the 23rd century:


The punchline of the story is the letter writer's complaint about obscurantism.

Only four pages, but still a waste of time.

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Well, we've got two duds so far, but also two decent traditional SF adventures full of sinister creatures, high technology and bloodshed.  We'll continue our look at The Future is Now in our next episode!

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Science Fiction and Fantasy from Playboy: Pohl, Sturgeon, Davidson and Ballard

Here's our third (and final) installment of our exploration of 1966's The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  Today's stories are all by authors about whose work I have mixed feelings, or, as I like to put it, authors whose work is uneven.  If pressed, I will admit my mixed feelings for some of these authors may be partly a result of my skepticism or hostility to their politics or philosophies.

"The Fiend" by Frederik Pohl (1964)

It has been years since I read any fiction by Frederik Pohl, largely because I read Drunkard's Walk in 2011 and it pushed all my buttons (and I don't mean the good buttons that LeRoy Neiman's male fantasy "the femlin" is trying to push) though I have read lots of stories from books or magazines he edited over the course of this blog's life.  In my youth I read many of Pohl's novels, though the only ones I really remember are the Heechee books (I love the first, the Hugo- and Nebula-winning Gateway) and Man Plus.  It is an odd feeling to look at the covers of Jem, Starburst, Black Star Rising, and The World at the End of Time on isfdb and vividly recall having library copies of them in my New Jersey bedroom and even carrying them around to Nana's house or high school (the feel of the protective plastic jackets on library hardcovers, and the annoying sounds they made, is very distinctive in my mind) and not recall anything about their contents.  Why do I read all these books if I don't remember anything about them?  Am I throwing my life away?

Let's put aside nostalgia and angst and read one of the two stories by Pohl that Ray Russell, anonymous editor of The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy, selected for inclusion, "The Fiend."  (I read the other one, "Punch," back in 2014.) 

I am happy to report that, to my tastes, "The Fiend" is a perfect little classic SF story.  It's about a space voyage, which is nice, because I'm getting a little tired of oppressive dystopias and post-apocalyptic scenarios.  "The Fiend" is also a bunch of speculations about the technology and society of the future, and develops characters and human drama.  And it has a surprise ending which works, because it makes sense and is foreshadowed but still came as a surprise.  The story is also "edgy" because of its hints of sexual mistreatment of a teenage girl and its not exactly flattering depiction of homosexuality.

A space ship carrying hundreds of frozen colonists is crossing the void!  A 16-year-old girl is unfrozen while the ship is only like halfway to its destination.  Angrily, she jumps out of the freezing capsule and starts yelling; she has been warned that the captains of these ships, who pilot them all alone for decades, will sometimes break the rules and unfreeze colonists for sex or companionship.  We readers, of course, expect the captain to rape her or seduce her or something of the kind, but he only watches her, and as the story unfolds we learn why: 1) he is a repressed homosexual and all his life he has dreamed of enslaving women--not to have sex with them, but to treat them as dolls, to, through them, vicariously live a life as a woman!  2) he is a disembodied brain, integrated with the ship and tasked with managing it as punishment for some crime!

Pohl does a fine job in only seven pages of constructing a compelling milieu and fascinating characters and setting up and detonating a surprise for the reader.  Very good.  Five out of five disembodied brains!

"The Nail and the Oracle" by Theodore Sturgeon (1965)

I like a good proportion of Sturgeon's work and think he is an interesting writer, though sometimes his elitist and collectivist attitudes, and the more tedious of his utopias, can get on my nerves.  "The Nail and the Oracle" doesn't have those problems, but is a little oblique and I found it a little hard to understand at first, and then when I did (I think) decipher it I was disappointed that it was, in the end, a kind of pun story aspiring to portentousness.

It is the future of 1970, and our setting is the Pentagon.  The supercomputer called ORACLE that helps guide so many Defense Department decisions is on the fritz, and our protagonist is Jones, the head of the team sent by the manufacturer to repair it.  The way this computer works is that you type out a question on a typewriter and then hold the paper in front of a camera so the 'puter can read it.  ORACLE has read a vast quantity of books and periodicals in many languages in just this fashion ("It's the greatest repository of human thought and thought-directed action the world has ever known") and it uses this base of knowledge to answer your question.

Anyway, our hero and his all-star team of nerds overhaul and test the computer and it seems to be working just fine.  But three very important men who have very important questions for ORACLE report that the machine still refuses to answer their queries.  These men are an admiral, a colonel and a famous and influential adviser who sits on the Presidential Cabinet; Sturgeon doesn't name them, but I thought of them as caricatures or amalgamations of people like Douglas MacArthur and Henry Kissinger, people of great influence and stature with supporters among both the elite and the general public.  It seems likely Sturgeon had specific people in mind, but I'm just not familiar enough with the world of 1965, the world of six years before my birth, to be able to puzzle out who.

Jones tells the three titans that maybe he can fix the computer if they tell him their questions.  They are reluctant to do so, but eventually they each individually and privately reveal their queries to the computer man.  Both military men have been asking a question that reveals they are considering murdering the President or somebody else in order to take power themselves, while the civilian adviser wants to know if throwing his support behind a radical demagogue who advocates disarmament and isolationism will ensure peace.  One of the things I found confusing about the story is the fact that the servicemen would admit to Jones their illegal and prima facie immoral plans--aren't they afraid Jones will immediately expose them to the FBI or White House?  Sturgeon seems to suggest that the admiral and/or the colonel sincerely love the United States and are only contemplating such extreme measures because they think only they can save the country from disaster, and are willing to risk their careers to make sure the essential computer is working.  Anyway, Jones asks ORACLE how to convince the admiral and colonel to refrain from launching their coups and how to convince the adviser to refrain from lending his support to the demagogue, and then follows the machine's advice, saving the USA from domestic strife.

But why didn't the computer answer the three questions when the admiral, colonel and cabinet member presented them?  Jones realizes that the field of view of ORACLE's camera takes in not only the papers people show it, but the wall beyond.  On the wall is a sign bearing the single word "THINK."  Such signs, apparently, were common in IBM offices for decades, "THINK" being a sort of IBM slogan.  It looks like Sturgeon's surprise ending is that the computer was following this exhortation to think as if it were one of its instructions, and couldn't answer the three questions because the result of the admiral, colonel or demagogue taking over the USA was unthinkable.

Image from ebay
This story feels kind of contrived and the ending is a bit of a letdown, and I even think it could have been structured a little better to explain the motivations of the three questioners and the demagogue.  Sturgeon doesn't set a tone of urgency in the beginning of the story, so the revelation that the three bigwigs are all considering such radical expedients seems to come out of left field, as sports fans say.  A few lines about riots or impending war in Europe or something in the beginning of the story, and a mention of the demagogue (who isn't brought up until the middle of the story) would have made the story more effective, in my opinion?  It feels like maybe Sturgeon is relying on the reader's knowledge of current events to set the tone, in the same way he seems to assume we all know about THINK signs, but this doesn't necessarily work on those of us reading the story fifty years later.

I'll call it acceptable.     

"The Sensible Man" by Avram Davidson (1959)

I read Davidson's Mutiny in Space and Rork! years ago and just kind of shrugged.  During this blog's life I have read a couple Davidson stories, including "The Singular Events Which Occurred in the Hovel on the Alley Off Eye Street" which I denounced as "horrible," and "The Sources of the Nile" which I judged "not bad."  I'm kind of planning to read the magazine version of Ursus of Ultima Thule as part of my exploration of Ted White's Fantastic, but I haven't gotten to it yet.  Anyway, "The Sensible Man" has a chance to really change my opinion of Avram Davidson, which is not yet fully formed.

An American scientist, an important member of the team developing the USA's first spacecraft, murders one of his fellow scientists and defects to the Soviet Union!  When the commies ask him if he is a sincere Leninist he tells them he is a practical, sensible man, that he is joining the socialist East because he thinks they have pulled ahead of the democratic West and he wants to be on the winning side!  The traitor is given all the resources he needs to develop the first manned spacecraft, a tiny satellite.  He succeeds, but the bolshies don't trust him.  When the Soviets build the satellite from his designs they leave out any means of the craft--and its one-man crew--returning safely to Earth; the Yankee traitor himself is impressed into service as this one-man crew and blasts off on a one-way trip into orbit!  The satellite will be his grave, and if he wants to prolong his existence a remote-controlled IV will provide him sustenance every time he radios a useful report on conditions up in space back to Moscow.

This is a very short story, but it is solid.  I not only appreciate its dim view of the USSR and of treachery, but also like a little noirish touch Davidson (who won an Edgar award for his work writing mystery stories as well a Hugo and a World Fantasy Award) includes: the traitor's final resting place in his satellite/tomb is much like that of his colleague whom he murdered and then put in the trunk of his car, which now lies at the bottom of a lake.

I like it!

"Souvenir" by J. G. Ballard (1964)

I thought Ballard's novel The Drowned World was too long and tedious and its basic conceit silly, and things like "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" a gimmicky waste of time, but I liked "Billenium" quite a lot and thought "The Garden of Time" to be very thought-provoking.  ("You : Coma : Marilyn Monroe" gave me a chance to put my favorite photo of Norma Jean Mortenson on the blog.)  My reactions to Ballard are all over the place, so let's see what happens with this one.

I really thought that all the stories in The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy first appeared in Playboy, but it seems that "Souvenir" first was published in the collection The Terminal Beach under the title "The Drowned Giant," in 1964.  I guess the appearance in Playboy was the tale's first US appearance.

Our narrator in "Souvenir" is a member of a team conducting research at a library when a dead giant's carcass washes up on a nearby pebbly beach.  He goes to look at the titanic corpse, and returns to the scene over several days, witnessing people's reaction to the tremendous carcass, its decay and dismembered by the locals until only a few monstrous bones remain. 

When I read "Garden of Time" I thought it was about the inability of modern people to appreciate the finest achievements of our civilization, their actual propensity to wreck such things, that Ballard was lamenting that in our age, the age of democracy, capitalism and socialism in which the common man calls the tune, high culture was dying.  I think we see the same theme in "Souvenir" as well.   Ballard repeatedly likens the dead giant to a Greek sculpture, in particular a Roman copy of a Praxiteles, and to an heroic Argonaut or one of the fallen warriors about whom Homer sang, while parts of the giant's body are often metaphorically labelled after elements of classical architecture, columns and the like.  The dead giant is (or was) something beautiful and noble, a bigger and better version of ourselves, but the common people show it no respect--they climb over it like "flies" and perch on it like a "flock of gulls" on a big dead fish; children play games on it, marking it with their dirty footprints.  In the middle of the process of decay someone builds a sand castle on the giant's chest (like a medieval fortification built on ancient Roman foundations?) and late in the process business enterprises ("a fertilizer company and a cattle-food manufacturer") cart away pieces of the giant in pursuit of profit; we later learn that people are using some of the giant's bones as architectural elements, as medievals might use stone blocks from classical ruins to build their own homes, and that parts of the giant's body are attractions at circuses and museums, like ancient art and artifacts.  Months later, when the giant's carcass has been taken apart and almost totally consumed, people have largely forgotten the giant ever existed, in the way most people know nothing of the West's classical heritage.

Another theme of "Souvenir," I believe, is our inability to really understand the world around us.  The narrator is, apparently, some kind of professional researcher, a person whose job is to figure things out, to acquire knowledge, but he is consistently deceived or befuddled by the giant.  The corpse looks no bigger than "a basking shark" when he first sees it from a distance, but when he gets closer he realizes it is the size of "the largest sperm whale."  In one scene he looks at the giant's palm in hopes of learning about his character via the lines, but this is impossible because of "the distention of the tissues."  Of course, palm reading is a scam under any circumstances--perhaps Ballard is hinting that the methods of respectable intellectuals are no more reliable than those of mercenary and mendacious soothsayers in trying to comprehend the world around us.  Scientists come to look at the corpse but we learn nothing of their conclusions.

A good story of the ruminative, surreal (the event is obviously very surreal, but Ballard writes about it in a very realistic, matter-of-fact manner) type.

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Nowadays our popular culture is suffused with sex and professionally photographed color pictures of topless women are trivially easy to come by, but this wasn't really the case in 1953 when Playboy debuted, and I think many of Playboy's fans and detractors would argue that Hugh Hefner's magazine played a major role in propelling America down the road to today's more open attitude about sex in general and in the media in particular.  Ray Russell similarly tries to put over the idea that Playboy revolutionized the SF world, giving SF writers more money and more freedom and, in return, getting the best possible SF stories.  I've read the eleven the stories in The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy by authors in whom I have a particular interest, and I have to admit that, taken as a group (especially if we leave out the one clunker) they are pretty good, and perhaps the topics they address were sort of pushing the envelope when they appeared in the 1950s and 1960s.


I also think quite a few of these stories may reflect the brand Playboy was developing for itself, one of sex and sophistication.  (Check out the covers of the various Playboy's Party Jokes volumes that foreground the secondary sexual characteristics of the "femlin" and claim that Playboy is "America's Most Sophisticated Magazine.")  Pohl's "The Fiend," Beaumont's "The Crooked Man," and Clarke's "I Remember Babylon"  incorporate or even revolve around sexual elements.  "I Remember Babylon" betrays a contempt for the ordinary masses (porn will trick the gullible dopes into becoming commies) while Bloch's "Word of Honor" and Sturgeon's "The Nail and Oracle" showcase a sort of sophisticate's cynicism about America's institutions and leaders as well as the common people, who need to be lied to and who will follow any demagogue who comes along.  Ballard's "Souvenir" is a monument to snobbery.  Perhaps most interestingly, the writers who take religion seriously, the Christian Bradbury in "The Vacation" and Talmudic scholar Avram Davidson in "The Sensible Man," subvert such misanthropic snobbery and cynical sophistication, showing them to be hollow and self-destructive.

I feel that my look at The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy has been a worthwhile enterprise.  More SF published by Playboy in our next episode!

Friday, February 23, 2018

Science Fiction and Fantasy from Playboy: Bradbury, Bloch and Brown

Let's continue our look at the 1966 collection The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  Today we'll be looking at stories by Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, and Fredric Brown that first appeared in Hugh Hefner's iconic magazine.

"The Vacation" by Ray Bradbury (1963)

Word on the street is that Ray Russell edited The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy (for whatever dumb reason the text just credits "the editors of Playboy.")  In his intro to "The Vacation," Russell pours the praise for his fellow Ray on incredibly thick, telling us "The name Ray Bradbury is synonymous with science fiction" and that Bradbury "singlehandedly" lifted SF "out of the shady demimonde of the pulps, into the respectable world of literature."  I think Bradbury is great and think he deserves most of the accolades he has received, but talk about debatable propositions!  (And again we see Russell's hostility to the genre magazines so many of us adore.  Maybe this is a reflection of the snobbery that was part of the Playboy brand?)

An unnamed man and his wife live in an unnamed city with their son Jim.  The father is a professional, every day putting on suit and tie and commuting to his office.  Mom and Dad are sick of city life, of keeping up with the Jonses, of their friends who aren't really friends, and the newspaper headlines reflect news so bad that they wonder if God is going to eliminate the human race and start over.  One evening the couple wish the human race would just disappear (except them and Jim, of course), and when they wake up the next morning their wish has come true!

The last family on Earth acquires a gasoline-powered handcar and the three of them happily set out exploring America by rail, but will they be happy with the world all to themselves, a world that presents no challenges or responsibilities, on what amounts to a thirty-year vacation?

Bradbury is a poetic sort of writer, and the story is full of brief but evocative descriptions of sounds and smells and sights, verse-like lists of cities and plants and animals, you know what I'm talking about:
They had awakened to the soft sounds of an earth that was now no more than a meadow, and the cities of the earth sinking back into seas of saber grass, marigold, marguerite and morning glory.
.... 
"No.  Let Jim be the last.  After he's grown and gone let the horses and cows and ground squirrels and garden spiders have the world."
Bradbury sets most of the story on a stretch of rail on a Pacific beach, giving himself a lot of sights and sounds to work with.

A good piece of work, but this is what we expect of Bradbury, there's nothing really eye-opening or surprising about it.

"Word of Honor" by Robert Bloch (1958)

The head of the University's School of Dentistry invents a truth gas and flies over the city, dumping the gas on the citizens so that everybody is compelled to be frank and truthful.  A journalist figures out why everything is going haywire--marriages are breaking up, politicians are resigning, a labor union leader has committed suicide, etc.--and is on hand when a storm brews up and the dentist's plane crashes.  The inventor is killed, but the journalist recovers all the guy's supplies and documents intact--the journo can, should he decide to, continue the inventor's work!  The reporter confides in his editor, telling him his plan to spray the gas over Washington and Moscow, arguing he can end war this way.  The editor discourages him, arguing that if people never lied and couldn't keep their true opinions to themselves chaos would result and our whole society would collapse.  The editor makes the journalist promise to forget the whole scheme, but the reporter's promise is a lie.

Acceptable.

"Puppet Show" by Fredric Brown (1962)

In his intro to this one Russell says that Brown composes his novels in his head while riding Greyhound buses cross country.  A cool story if true!

Strangers come out of the desert to the tiny town of Cherrybell, Arizona (pop. 42, says the sign), a man leading a burro and, on the burro, a bizarre figure, a "man" blue and red and skinny and nine feet tall.  Brown entertainingly describes these characters, the town and its citizens, and how they all interact.  You see, aliens have been watching Earth for a long time, and are now giving us a final test to see if we are qualified to join the Galactic Union.  The final test concerns the level of Earthly xenophobia--will Earth people be able to deal with aliens, or, like a few of the many intelligent species in the galaxy, will they suffer an irrational hatred or fear of the alien that renders them unable to get along with the other members of the Union?  The aliens' test, as the story's title hints, includes quite a bit of trickery.

I'm a little tired of trick ending stories, but this one isn't bad.  Judith Merril (whom Ray Russell praises in the microaggression-filled Preface to The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy as "a first-rate writer- anthologist," an "exception that proves the rule" that science fiction and fantasy are mostly written and enjoyed by men) included "Puppet Show" in the eighth volume of her famous Year's Best SF series of anthologies.  Merril and Brown both have names I commonly misspell, and Brown's name is actually misspelled on the cover of the British edition of The Year's Best SF 8, which is confusingly titled The Best of Sci-Fi 4.  See, we all make mistakes!


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I feel like there are too many "last man on Earth" stories, and too many "Earth on trial before Galactic Union" stories, but writers like Bradbury and Brown who can actually stick words together to make good sentences and stick sentences together to make good paragraphs can make me enjoy such old ideas and plots.  A good crop today.

More SF from Playboy by famous names in our next episode!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Science Fiction and Fantasy from Playboy: Beaumont and Clarke

In some of the introductory matter in A Sea of Stars, which I was looking over this recent weekend, editor William F. Nolan talks about how Ray Russell brought SF into Playboy.  So now seems an appropriate time to check out some SF from the world famous men's magazine via my copy of 1966's The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy.  I own the 1968 paperback edition, which is a little over 400 pages.

The Preface and editorial duties for The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy are credited to "the editors of Playboy," but according to isfdb it was Ray Russell who was responsible for putting the book together.  In the Preface Russell brags that Playboy changed the SF landscape by being the first "slick" to consistently publish SF, and because Playboy paid much higher rates than the genre magazines.  Russell really sticks it to the SF magazines, claiming they were too "solemn" and "sober" to publish light-hearted stories like "Blood Brother" by Charles Beaumont and too obsessed with realistic science to publish Ray Bradbury's "The Vacation."

Today we'll take a look at four stories from this anthology, two each from Charles Beaumont and Arthur C. Clarke.

"Blood Brother" by Charles Beaumont (1961)

Ugh, a five-page joke story about a vampire who goes to the psychiatrist.  And these are the kind of jokes we get:
"I've been meaning to ask you about that.  Why do you wear it?"
"You ever hear of a vampire without a cape?  It's part of the whole schmear, that's all.  I don't know why!"
It's barely a joke at all!  This dud is followed by complaints about the high price of coffins and replacing white shirts (the blood stains, you know) and then the twist ending in which the head shrinker kills the vampire with a wooden letter opener and then reveals that he too is a vampire.

Back in 2014 when I read Ramsey Campbell's "Sunshine Club" and Michael Bishop's "Gravid Babies" I issued my jeremiad against vampire psychiatrist and werewolf psychiatrist stories, horror joke stories in general, and humor based on references to pop culture.  My aversion to these excrescences has not eased in the years that have passed!  You know how the government compels Breyers to label those of its products that lack a certain amount of milk fat "Frozen Dairy Dessert" instead of "Ice Cream" so picky consumers can avoid them?  Well, I am slapping the "Tepid Derivative Genre Fiction" label on "Blood Brother" so picky readers can avoid it!

Bad!

"The Crooked Man" by Charles Beaumont (1955)

Russell writes a little intro to each story, and in the intro to this one brags that the (unnamed) top men's magazine before the arrival of Playboy refused to publish "The Crooked Man," but Playboy eagerly presented it to the world.

It is the 27th Century.  There are no families and no private homes...and everybody is born in a test tube and lives in a dorm...and everybody is a homosexual!  Well, almost everybody.  The tiny number of heterosexuals are pursued by the police, and if caught given surgery to alter their hormonal balances and brain functions so they cease feeling all those unnatural urges regarding the opposite sex!

This is a switcheroo story, centered on an idea meant to shock you or force you to think in a different way, though Beaumont does try to generate some human drama with a plot-based narrative and lots of verbiage about how scared and confused the main characters are.  The entire story takes place in a bar where men are all hitting on each other and hooking up--or rejecting men's advances, as is the case with our protagonist, Jesse, a straight man who has to pretend to be gay.  Jesse is at the bar to meet his girlfriend, Mina--sounds ridiculous, but  there is so much surveillance in this oppressive society that there is no place else to meet.  "There were no more parks, no country lanes.  There was no place to hide at all...."  Mina comes in disguised as a man, a disguise that is not very convincing.  By the tenth of the story's eleven pages Jesse and Mina are on their way to having their heterosexual brains repaired.

"The Crooked Man"  is the kind of story which was perhaps a big deal at the time it was written, but is now an historical artifact that feels gimmicky.  Just acceptable. 

"I Remember Babylon" by Arthur C. Clarke (1960)

"I Remember Babylon" begins like a memoir, with Clarke reminding us how he came up with the idea for the geostationary communications satellite in 1945.  (A few pages later he plugs his 1951 book The Exploration of Space and his undersea films.)  Clarke then describes his encounter with a man at an official reception at the Soviet Embassy in Colombo, Sri Lanka (Clarke moved to Sri Lanka in 1956 and spent the remainder of his life there.)  This guy, a failed US TV exec, is now in the employ of the Soviet Union and the People's Republic of China!  The commies are planning to put a TV satellite over the Pacific and transmit programming to Americans--they'll get American eyeballs by broadcasting pornography (using the Kinsey reports as market research!) and then slip in some propaganda material!  (As an example of the high-brow stuff that will protect the spaceborne network from moral opprobrium, the renegade broadcaster shows Clarke an expertly made film of the 13th-century erotic sculptures on the Konark Sun Temple.)

And that's it; this is more of an idea than a plot-driven story.  Even though it is over fifty years old some of the issues "I Remember Babylon" raises--the pervasiveness and effect on people of pornography and how much influence biased media and inaccurate reporting, particularly those generated by foreign entities, has on the political beliefs and activities of Americans--are at the center of public debate today  Smoothly written, brief, and thought-provoking, I thought this one worth my time.

"Dial 'F' For Frankenstein" by Arthur C. Clarke (1965)

Like "I Remember Babylon," "Dial 'F' For Frankenstein" is more about playing with a provocative idea than telling a story.  A bunch of engineers sit around and talk about the strange events that have been taking place since the new communications-satellite-based worldwide telephone network was switched on at midnight.  It seems that connecting enough computers and electronic devices together has generated a consciousness, and this artificial intelligence, like a newborn baby, is clumsily exploring its surroundings.  American guided missiles have been launched, traffic is snarled because of the erratic behavior of traffic lights, banks and factories have had to suspend operations because machinery and electronics records are going haywire.  Mankind is at the mercy of an amoral child it has unwittingly birthed!

This one feels like a trifle.

**********

Tossing the inimical "Blood Brother" aside, we see that the three other stories from Playboy we've looked at are more about showcasing ideas than portraying human drama or drawing compelling characters.  And so they feel pretty bland. Well, we'll sample some more of the offerings from The Playboy Book of Science Fiction and Fantasy in our next installment; maybe they will provide some excitement.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Space voyages with Oliver, Russell, Temple and Neville

Let's cast our net back into A Sea of Space and see what we can drag wriggling to the surface!  Today Chad Oliver (!), Ray Russell, William F. Temple and Kris Neville are our guides into "the vast space wilderness."


The 1980 British edition
of A Sea of Space
"The Wind Blows Free" by Chad Oliver (1957)

I'll always think of Chad Oliver as the guy who writes contrived utopian stories about spacefaring anthropologists who decide to abandon Earth to live among Stone Age people who are at one with nature, stories I think are ridiculous and boring.  In his intro to this story, however, editor William F. Nolan tells us "The Wind Blows Free" is about a "life ship" (what I think we usually call a "generation ship") and is one of Oliver's best.  I like generation ship stories, and confident that this isn't about an anthropologist who goes native among primitives, I am willing to tackle "The Wind Blows Free"'s 26 pages.

Sam is born on a generation ship of narrow catwalks, tiny apartments and stifling rules.  The rules may well be necessary to keep the cramped self-sufficient society of the ship (which it is said may well be the last hope of humanity, Earth having been ruined 400 years ago in a cataclysmic war) going, but Sam is an individualist and chafes under them.  Bigger and stronger than the other boys, he bullies them and has no luck making friends.  Sam is fascinated by the sex and violence in the stolen books he reads, but it is drummed into him that guns are bad and when he tries to get into a girl's pants he is confined to the family apartment for an entire year--in the closed environment of the ship population must be rigidly controlled.  Because of his troublemaking, the powers that be do not trust him and as an adult he is stuck at a maintenance job instead of graduating to the "Crew" along with his peer group.  One day comes the final straw, and Sam throws the rules totally out the window and starts exploring the forbidden areas of the ship.

When the Crew catches up to him, Sam kills a man in a fight.  Knowing that he now faces execution or a lobotomy, Sam takes the drastic final step of stepping out of one of the airlocks in the forbidden outer decks of the ship.  He is amazed to find that the ship is a vine and rust-encrusted relic on a green and beautiful world!  The ship must have landed decades or centuries ago, but the Crew, after a lifetime of regimentation, risk-aversion and "mankind ruined the Earth" guilt-trips, has been too scared to disembark, and kept the fact that they have reached their destination a secret!  Sam advances into the jungle and soon meets other men as big and brawny and adventurous as he is; a happy life lies ahead of him.

Oliver yet again gives us a "guy leaves modern society to thrive as a primitive" narrative, but this story is actually a good one.  Oliver brings the ship to life,  doing a good job describing its physical and social architecture and effectively and efficiently setting a tone, and the psychological stuff about Sam is also good.  I'm maybe a little disappointed that the ship wasn't actually in space, but the tradition of generation ship stories is that the passengers are ignorant of their circumstances (generally, they don't realize they are on a space ship) and Oliver manages to adhere to this tradition and at the same time advance his own agenda, so it is forgivable.  Oliver also subtly pays homage to Robert Heinlein's classic generation ship story "Universe," which was fun.

I'm actually recommending a Chad Oliver story here at MPorcius Fiction Log!  Now there is a real plot twist!  "The Wind Blows Free" first appeared in F&SF.   

"I Am Returning" by Ray Russell (1961)

I have read only one Ray Russell story before and I thought it a waste of time.  If you are wondering who Russell is, Nolan tells us in the intro here that Russell was an executive editor at Playboy and "brought quality science fiction to its pages."  Maybe this story will be worth my time?

Not really.  "I Am Returning" is a gimmick story, the tale of the fall of Satan explained or reimagined as the story of a winged alien with antenna, the loser of a civil war, crashlanding his ship on Earth in the Mesozoic era.  Too proud to admit defeat, Satan burrows to the Earth's core, and from there uses his telepathic powers to influence the evolution of the human race, pushing us to develop high technology and to construct a space navy with which to continue the civil war.  As the five-page story ends it is the close of the 21st Century and Lucifer is leading his Earth-built fleet out into space to fight Round Two of the War in Heaven.

Because it is brief I will give "I Am Returning" a grudging acceptable rating.  It first appeared, I believe, in Russell's collection Sardonicus and Other Stories.

"The Undiscovered Country" by William F. Temple (1958)

Last year the MPorcius staff examined a pile of Ace Doubles, including 76380, which presented Temple's Battle on Venus and The Three Suns of Amara.  I guess I was sort of lukewarm about them.  Nolan in his intro to this story here briefly describes Nolan's adventurous life (serving in the Eighth Army during the long Mediterranean campaigns of World War II and then in peacetime rooming with Arthur C. Clarke) and commends "The Undiscovered Country" itself as a "tense adventure."

"The Undiscovered Country" turns out to be the kind of story I was expecting (hoping) from a collection billed as being about "voyages in space."  Astronauts have discovered that living on the surface of Pluto are people whose metabolisms move at a rate one fortieth of our Earth metabolisms.  Unfortunately, everybody on the first two Earth expeditions to Pluto died because Pluto's acidic atmosphere can burn right through a conventional spaceship and cause catastrophic failure.  The third expedition, of which our narrator is a member, crews a ship specially built to withstand the Plutonian atmosphere, but can only do so for a short time!

This third Pluto research team snatches a beautiful young Plutonian woman (did I mention that these Plutonians are nudists?) and puts her on the Earth ship in a special tank full of Pluto air.  The hope is to study her, perhaps even keep her alive and learn to communicate with her.  But the Plutonian girl does not appreciate being kidnapped and put in a tiny cell, and uses her previously unsuspected telekinetic powers to sabotage the ship!  Who will live?  Who will die?  Will the ship get to Earth, or will the alien beauty seize control of the vessel and take it back to Pluto?

A good adventure story; I actually think it is too short, that there are lots of ideas in the story that are not explored as far as they might be.  How often do I say that?  Temple tosses in Shakespeare references and historical analogies along with all the science blah blah blah, so reading it really makes you feel like a smart guy!  "The Undiscovered Country" was first published in Nebula.

"Worship Night" by Kris Neville (1953)

A few years ago I read several Kris Neville stories, as chronicled here and here.  Taken together, I found the stories pretty thought-provoking, and a few of them were actually touching or exciting.  So I have hopes for "Worship Night!"

Like Robert Bloch's "The Old College Try" this is a story about colonialism that reminds me of Somerset Maugham, but whereas Bloch's story was a humorous horror story Neville's story is sad and realistic.

George, a college professor, and his wife Wilma are Earthlings who have lived on planet Cerl for twenty years.  Today is moving day; they are relocating from a big city (presumably built to human specifications, as the natives seem like primitives) to a house in the country, apparently to retire.  George is planning to write a book on Cerl and its people, and his wife urges him to do so, because interaction with humanity is radically changing Cerl society and later historians will lack George's familiarity with the traditional ways of the people of Cerl.

Neville makes clear that George and Wilma identify more with the natives than with their own kind--for example, the native employees at their apartment building assemble on the roof to bid them farewell as they board the aircar to their new place, but none of George's human colleagues of twenty years come to see them off--George suggests that their fellow Earthers feel he and Wilma have "gone native."  But, as humans, a vast gulf separates them from the Cerl people.  At their new place they are treated in a standoffish and surly manner by the locals, and they recall how it took them long years back in the city to make friends with the natives there.  (The reader has to wonder to what extent the natives who worked at their apartment building were really their "friends" and not merely obsequious service workers catering to their customers, hoping for tips and the like.)  No longer young, George and Wilma may die before they can establish any relationships in their new environs, and George wonders if he shouldn't have taken a job offer he had of a position back on Earth instead of buying a house on this alien world.  Having turned their backs on their own people, and unable to fully gain acceptance among the people of this planet, George and Wilma may have doomed themselves to an old age of loneliness and alienation.

Not bad; the style is good, Neville efficiently painting images and conveying the emotions of these lost souls.  "Worship Night" was first published in F&SF.

**********

With one exception, a good crop of stories.  Our voyage into space has been fruitful!

More anthologized SF in our next episode!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Stories by Simmons, Beaumont, Nolan and Bloch from across A Sea of Space

Welcome to Technicolor-Dreamcoat Land

We've been digging through our collection of classic SF paperback anthologies here at the MPorcius Library, and today we explore William F. Nolan's 1970 effort, A Sea of Space.  No doubt you'll recall that time we read Nolan's anthology 3 to the Highest Power.  You've probably forgotten that time I read four stories by Nolan; don't be embarrassed--I forget about them myself!  As I did, you can refresh your memory at the link.


I'm not groking A Sea of Space's cover; the picture of a woman in an extravagant outfit holding an over-sized eyeball (and, on the margins, three men's heads and a landed flying saucer projecting colorful rays) is pleasant enough, but I don't feel it conveys the book's announced theme of travels through space.  Maybe it illustrates a specific story?

Nolan's dedication is also mysterious.  It lists ten first names, all, I suspect, of women.  In contrast we have the table of contents, which lists fourteen names, all, I believe, of men.  Our 2018 sensibilities cry out, "That just ain't woke!"

Today we'll be looking at four of those fourteen stories, those written by Herbert A. Simmons, Charles Beaumont, Nolan himself, and Robert Bloch.

"One Night Stand" by Herbert A. Simmons (1963)

As Nolan tells us in the intro to the story, Simmons is the acclaimed African-American author of two novels about urban black life and jazz, Corner Boy and Man Walking on Eggshells.  "One Night Stand" is his only SF story, and first appeared in Gamma, a short-lived (5 issues) magazine for which Nolan served as managing editor.

"One Night Stand" is a first-person narrative in the voice of a jazz musician of the future, when the Earth is in contact with aliens, like the blue people of Mercury.  It is full of slang and metaphors, lots of sentences like these:
See, man, you start out trying to conquer a horn and because it's a bitch and hard to control, if you ain't careful that damn horn ends up conquering you.
Oh, we got hot man, we got wild.  Right from the beginning we were a burning bitch, and that's no jive, giving out like an old-time preacher on a Sunday morning, giving out so hard it was like no smoke, man, no smoke at all.
The story is only five and a half pages long, and I found this kind of writing in a dose of that size to be amusing.

One of the narrator's bandmates is Maury, perhaps the best trumpet player on Earth.  Maury is not happy.  For one thing, him being twenty years ahead of his time, very few people appreciate his genius trumpet playing.  For another, because he's not very good-looking and spends all his energy trying to tame his trumpet and none learning how to woo women, he can't get any "dames."  When Maury gets the idea that the blue people of Mercury may be capable of appreciating his playing, he insists the band accept the offer of a gig there.  While they are there he meets a native girl who loves him for his playing, and decides to stay.

"One Night Stand" is entertaining, largely because of its distinctive voice.  It is a fun change of pace from most SF stories, and Simmons has fun defying the expectations of SF readers: regarding the band's space flight to Mercury, the narrator tells us, "Now, man, if you're waiting for me to tell you about the moon and the stars and the milky way and all that jazz, that ain't what's happening....I'm a musician.  I ain't no astronaut."

"Elegy" by Charles Beaumont (1953)

Beaumont, like Nolan, was friends with Ray Bradbury, and Bradbury, we are told in Nolan's intro to the story, "worked over" "Elegy" in one of its early drafts.  We are also told that "Elegy" formed the basis of an episode of The Twilight Zone written by Beaumont (a quick look at Wikipedia indicates that this was Episode 20, also called "Elegy.")

The nations of Earth were about to embark on a cataclysmic war (one featuring the use of the "X-bomb") so a bunch of spacemen fled in their ship.  They went to Mars, but they didn't get along with the Martians.  So they searched the galaxy for a suitable place to settle.  Just as they were about to run out of fuel, by chance they came upon Asteroid K7.

K7, they learn, is a secret installation, offering services to the very rich!  When your loved one dies, you can have him preserved in a custom built setting, where he can (to outward appearances) enjoy his favorite activity for all eternity.  It's the galaxy's most elaborate cemetery!  A kid who loved rollerskating is frozen in his skates on a sidewalk.  A businessman who loved his work is frozen in a replica of his firm's office building, and kept company by artificial statues of all his colleagues!  And on and on (we get plenty of examples.)

The refugees are eager to settle on the cemetery asteroid, the soil and climate of which are suitable for agriculture.  But the cyborg caretaker of the cemetery has been given the mission of maintaining peace on K7, and human beings are so fractious that you can only be sure they will be peaceful if they are dead!  So the cyborg poisons the spacemen and preserves them at the controls of their now inert ship.

Merely acceptable.  "Elegy" first appeared in Imagination.

"Lap of the Primitive" by William F. Nolan (1958)

Many years ago, on my birthday, my wife (then my girlfriend) had me board a train with her, not telling me its destination.  We got off in New Haven and she guided me to the Peabody Museum of Natural History to look at dinosaurs and then the Yale Center for British Art to look at prints and paintings.  As "Lap of the Primitive" begins, Phineas Perchall is trying to give his new wife, Tildy, the same sort of surprise on their honeymoon; they are on a rocket she thinks is going to Luna, but is really bound for Venus!  But is Tildy as appreciative as I was back in my New York City days when my wife gave me an unexpected opportunity to deepen my relationship with Rudolph F. Zallinger and Sir Joshua Reynolds?  No!  In fact, as she sits in the passenger rocket she is lamenting that she got hitched to a man who is a bore with a long nose and a weak chin!  Why did Tildy marry a man whom she finds so unattractive?  Because she's a big fatso and doesn't think she could do any better!

I recently rewatched the 1975 TV movie Trilogy of Terror, on which Nolan worked and which features the famous adaptation of Richard Matheson's "Prey."  (You can still find illegally pirated movies on YouTube among all the videos from Russian bots providing advice on how to vote.)   Back in the very dawn of this blog's life I wrote that Matheson's "Prey" was a great horror story because it wasn't just about blood and violence but the everyday horrors of our human relationships.  When I started the story and saw it was about an unhappy marriage I thought that "Lap of the Primitive" would perhaps take this course.  Unfortunately, it is a goofy joke story taking, I suppose, Tarzan, King Kong and Ray Bradbury's "The Long Rain" as its inspiration.

Once on Venus, Phineas, inspired by his reading of books by an heroic anthropologist, wants to explore the jungles and uncover the truth about a "White God" who lives in the wilderness.  A safari is organized, with porters who carry stuff on their heads and a native guide and everything.  As they march through the jungle, Phineas, so excited about this trip earlier, finds the adventure fatiguing and even dangerous as he is stung by insects and blunders into pitfalls, while Tildy, at first scared of the jungle, begins to enjoy it.  She even begins losing weight thanks to the days of marching and eating native food.  The final twist joke is that the "White God" is the anthropologist Phineas admires, a big handsome blue-eyed blond, and he steals Tildy away from her husband, knowing that soon she will be thin and beautiful.  (The anthropologist and the native guide had this whole thing planned out when they first got wind that an Earth woman had landed on Venus.)

Weak.  This story first appeared in Fantastic Universe, and in his intro Nolan suggests that he is particularly proud of this one, that it is among his best works, in a way that left me bewildered.  For example, he talks about "Tildy's eventual triumph," when Tildy never does anything--she marries a guy she isn't attracted to, is tricked into going to Venus, is tricked into going on a safari she doesn't want to go on, and then submits to the desires of a man she does find attractive.  Tildy never makes any real decisions, she is subjected to the manipulation of others again and again.  Lame!

"The Old College Try" by Robert Bloch (1963)

It's Robert Bloch, he of Psycho fame!  Three years ago I read his 1989 novel about murder and voodoo in Los Angeles, Lori.  I think Bloch's reputation is a little inflated, but we'll see what he comes up with here.

"The Old College Try," which first appeared in Gamma, is about colonialism, and actually reminded me a little of the kinds of stories Somerset Maugham wrote about colonial administrators going native.  Bloch loves puns and jokes, and there is a certain amount of humor in this story, but the humor doesn't stop it from being a more or less realistic SF story--"The Old College Try" isn't an absurd parody like "Lap of the Primitive," thank heavens.

The Yorl of planet Yorla are violent savages with a stone-age level of technology.  These little blue-skinned hooligans enjoy fighting and are devoted to publicly displaying as trophies the heads of fallen opponents.  Yorla has valuable mineral resources, and humans are eager to trade with the natives for the minerals; as the Yorl are equally eager to acquire human trade goods there is no trouble convincing the Yorl to work in the mines.  Being too busy in the mines to fight their vicious wars, the Yorla have sublimated their lust for blood and craving for dangerous competition in a way that makes the mining operation more efficient--slackers who don't pull their weight in the mine or otherwise fail to meet their daily quota of ore are decapitated by their fellows!

The current colonial administrator, Raymond, has not made much effort in his five-year term on Yorla to civilize the natives.  In fact, he has a score of dutiful Yorl servants at his beck and call and spends most of the day drinking "Aspergin," a bit of wordplay from Bloch which I quite like.  (The first few lines of the story relate how a Yorl waits at Raymond's bedside every morning to hand him a glass of Aspergin as soon as he wakes up to alleviate his customary morning headache.)  Raymond's five years are up, and his replacement, Phillips, arrives.  Phillips is disgusted by Raymond's lax administration and the Yorls' taking and displaying of heads and other "exotic" customs, and, brushing aside Raymond's efforts to dissuade him, sets about trying to reform the Yorl.  This brief campaign ends in tragedy; unfortunately for this reader, the nature of the tragedy is a little too obvious and too easy to predict.

Despite the somewhat disappointing ending, I'll give this one a marginal positive vote; Bloch's style is smooth, and he structures and paces the story well, so it is enjoyable enough.

**********

For some reason I thought A Sea of Space would be full of stories about guys jettisoning cargo to escape gravity wells and calculating orbits while running low on oxygen, stuff like that.  Well, maybe those stories are in there; we'll keep our scanners tuned for them in our next episode.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Stories of Contact with aliens by Walton, Leiber, Brown and Phillips


As you can see from this receipt (the true historian knows that truth lies in the documentary evidence!) I purchased Contact, a 1963 anthology edited by Noel Keyes, on June 7 of 2016 at A-1 Bookstore for $1.50.  This book was 50% more expensive than Planet of Peril by John Christopher, which I read in August of 2017.  The vagaries of the market!  Contact is Noel Keyes's only credit at isfdb, and the know-it-alls there pour salt in Mr. Keyes's wounds by claiming that famous SF historian Sam Moskowitz actually did much of the work putting Contact together.  Keyes (real name: David Keightley) was probably too busy studying Chinese history and literature to devote his full attention to Contact.  Priorities, man!

Let's check out four stories from Contact, two from people we are familiar with, Fritz Leiber and Frederic Brown, and two from guys I know little or nothing of, Harry Walton and Peter Phillips.


"Intelligence Test" by Harry Walton (1953)

This is a sort of Twilight Zone-ish story in which, shortly after a UFO is spotted over Everytown, USA, a handful of people find themselves trapped by a forcefield in a roadside diner, the subjects of an alien test of human intelligence!  A journalist among those trapped figures out how to escape, despite the obstructions presented by the presence of two members of the decadent and corrupt bourgeoisie!

This is a good story of its type and I enjoyed it.  "Intelligence Test" originally appeared in Science Fiction Plus, and forty years later was translated into Russian and included in an anthology alongside Clifford Simak's Goblin Reservation and Horacio Quiroga's "Anaconda."

 

"What's He Doing in There?" by Fritz Leiber (1957)

Fritz, the man behind the much-beloved Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, has been showing up on the blog a lot lately, which is good, because he had an interesting career and I like much of his work.  Of course, he doesn't hit it out of the park every at-bat (as you sports fans might say.)  "What's He Doing in There?" is a tepid joke story.  I can't really object to Leiber writing joke stories, because he wrote one of the very best comedy SF/F stories, "Lean Times in Lankhmar," published in 1959, but this one feels like no more than competent filler.

The first Martian to come to Earth makes a beeline to an anthropologist who has a wife, a "coltish" teenage daughter and a "little son."  After a nice chat the alien utters a vague phrase that the humies interpret as a request to use the bathroom.  They direct him, and he locks himself in...for hour after hour.  What could the Martian be doing in there?  In the morning he finally emerges and it becomes apparent that Martians sleep underwater, and the alien took the tub for a comfortable bed.

An acceptable trifle.

First appearing in Galaxy, in 1982 "What's He Doing in There?" was translated into (I think) Croatian and appeared in the Yugoslavian SF magazine Sirius.


"Knock" by Fredric Brown (1949)

Hubba hubba!
Remember when we read a Fredric Brown novel about a homophobic boozer and a god-like rock?  Good times!  Let's hope this short story is equally fun and crazy.

Aliens hose down the Earth with rays that kill all animal (but not plant) life, saving only a few score specimens for their zoo, among them one man and one woman.  These aliens don't die of old age, though they can die by violence, and are dumbfounded and disappointed when their brand new Earth specimens start dying of natural causes.  These E.T.s are also cold-hearted, with no conception of love or affection, and the last man on earth tricks them; he tells them Earth creatures live longer if petted and caressed, and suggests they show such affection to their rattlesnake specimen.  The aliens start keeling over, and somehow don't realize they are dying from snakebites--they think that Earth is the planet of death and they have started dying of old age like Earth creatures do.  So, they leave.

There is also a sort of subplot about whether or not the last man and last woman on Earth will ever have sex; she does not find him attractive.

I can't tell you that this story is bad, but it is leaving me cold.  More filler.

After first appearing in an issue of Thrilling Wonder with a cover that is making my eyes dilate, "Knock" has been reprinted many times; according to isfdb, Sirius presented it twice, the second time as the cover story!  Weird!


"Lost Memory" by Peter Phillips (1952)

Phillips's career seems to have caused some confusion among SF scholars--not only are there multiple SF writers with this name, but it was also used as a pseudonym by Howard Browne.  The Phillips we are acquainting ourselves with today is mentioned by Barry Malzberg in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, Malzberg telling us that Phillips was the first person to write about a machine that facilitates and manipulates dreams.

"Lost Memory" is yet another story about emotional robots who have lost knowledge of who first constructed them, like "Robots Return" and "Orphans of the Void," both of which we read earlier this week.  These here robots reside on a lifeless rock of a planet and have a complex society complete with a division of labor--there are politician robots, for example, and our narrator is a journalist robot.  These individualistic robots feel pride and fear and have differences of opinion, and some make a practice of customizing themselves--one has replaced his legs with wheels, for example.  Another converted himself into an aircraft and tried to escape the planet's gravity, without success.

When what we readers realize is a rocket ship crash lands on the planet, the robots think it is a robot from another world who has successfully converted itself into a space ship.  The injured Earth astronaut in the ship, via radio, tries to explain to the assembled robot politicians and journalists that he needs medical attention, but these robots have no experience with living things and continue thinking it is the rocket itself talking.  (The rocket's airlock was jammed in the crash and there are no windows or anything like that.)  A robot technician cuts open the rocket to conduct repairs, and the heat caused by the friction burns the human to a crisp.  Phillips really pours on the horror elements, with the astronaut repeatedly screaming things like "Dear Jesus!" and "You're burning me alive!" and then with the description of the corpse, which the robots think some sort of insulation.  This is like proto-splatterpunk!

Not only is the astronaut killed by his would-be rescuers, but the robots lose an opportunity to learn from him the secret of their origins.  I'll give this hardcore tragedy a moderately positive vote.   

"Lost Memory" has been reprinted numerous times in anthologies of robot stories and horror stories and translated into several foreign languages, including Japanese.


**********

I don't feel like any of these was a waste of my time, so a successful mission.  More fifty-plus-year-old SF stories in our next episode when I explore another of my paperback SF anthologies.