|My copy of Selections from Adventures|
in Time and Space, discovered on the
outside carts at Second Story Books
The first three stories in this book are by famous heroes of early 20th-century SF, Robert Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt and "Lewis Padgett" (a pen name used by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore), but today we are going to read stories from the volume by somewhat less famous people: P. Schuyler Miller, Ross Rocklynne, Robert Moore Williams, and Harry Bates. I didn't plan it this way, but all these stories first appeared in Astounding when the famous John W. Campbell Jr. was editing the magazine.
"As Never Was" by P. Schuyler Miller (1944)
"As Never Was" appeared in 1944, and you can read the issue of Astounding in which it debuted for free at the internet archive. Robert Silverberg included it in his anthologies Alpha 5 in 1974 and The Arbor House Treasury of Science Fiction Masterpieces in 1983--I guess we can say the story has the endorsement of the SF community. Miller wrote a bunch of stories in the '30s and '40s and many essays and reviews for Astounding/Analog up to the '70s, but I don't know that I have ever read anything by him before.
This story is well-written, Miller injecting some melodrama and character stuff as well as ideas and images that keep it entertaining, and the central conceit is kind of mind-boggling, which makes it memorable. I like it, and see why anthologists like it, but can't deny that the impossibility of it all has left an uncomfortable, nagging, residue of frustration in my mind, analogous to the feeling I get looking at one of those impossible tuning fork drawings.
"Quietus" by Ross Rocklynne (1940)
Isaac Asimov (or Martin H. Greenberg acting under his aegis) included "Quietus" in the volume of his series The Great Science Fiction Stories that covers 1940. A year ago I read four stories by Rocklynne and found them to be a mixed bag.
Tommy is the last man on Earth! Extreme seismic activity, triggered by a meteor strike, has exterminated all life on Earth save for that in an area of about 100,000 square miles in North America, where Tommy lives, and that area didn't come through unscathed. The holocaust occurred during Tommy's childhood, when he had run away from home and was hiding in a cave. When he emerged from the cave everybody was dead. (That'll show you, Mom and Dad!) Since then he has lived by catching rabbits with his bare hands, his loneliness eased by his pet crow, Blacky, who repeats sentences Tommy says and sentences it heard before the cataclysm, phrases like "the price of wheat is going down" which mean nothing to Tommy.
Tommy is 21 now, and has a feeling of "hunger" for you know what! (Most of us got that feeling around 12 or 13, but Tommy is perhaps a late bloomer.) Luckily, he chances upon the last woman on Earth. Skittish, she flees, and he pursues. She is shy, but also curious, and never goes too far; in fact, when he hits his head on a log while swimming after her, she pulls Tommy's stunned form out of the water before taking flight anew.
Interspersed with this tale of boy meets girl is the story of married couple of alien explorers. This pair of bird people fly above the Earth's devastated surface, looking for intelligent life. When they see Blacky riding on Tommy's shoulder, the female bird person assumes that Blacky is intelligent and Tommy is his beast of burden. Her husband isn't so sure, and urges her to refrain from jumping to conclusions. The last woman on Earth is getting over her shyness and she and Tommy are about to properly meet when that chatterbox Blacky starts up with his damn squawking and scares her off. Tommy, who has never been exposed to all that "bros before hoes" propaganda, is enraged and throws stones at Blacky, and the female alien shoots down the last man on Earth, thinking she is rescuing the last intelligent creature on Earth. The last woman on Earth weeps over Tommy's body, and that is the end of the human race.
This story is OK, but feels contrived and is the weakest of the four items we are looking at today.
"Robot's Return" by Robert Moore Williams (1938)
I don't think I've read anything by Robert Moore Williams before; looking at isfdb, it seems he produced a lot of adventure novels with cool covers by people like Frazetta, Jones, Gaughan and St. John, stories of musclemen riding dinosaurs and astronauts fighting aliens with ray guns. Sounds like a fun guy. "Robot's Return" was first published in Astounding as "Robots Return;" you can read the original printing at the internet archive. I think the introduction of the apostrophe is a mistake, either an artistic or typographical one, as there is more than one robot in the story. I also like the 1938 illustration for the story by Charles Schneeman.
This tale is well-written, but there is really not much story to it--this one is trying to get by on sensawunda alone. "Robot's Return" actually reminds me of one of those Lovecraftian stories in which a seeker after knowledge discovers the secret origin of his family or race and is horrified, even psychologically damaged, by his discovery, but Williams here uses the same story structure to achieve the opposite effect. Instead of his protagonists being disillusioned and his readers disturbed by the revelation that human life is meaningless, Williams's robots are buoyed by the knowledge of their origins, and Williams seems to be trying to celebrate man's ambitions and abilities. Not bad.
"Farewell to the Master" by Harry Bates (1940)
Bates is another person whose work I am not familiar with. He edited Astounding and Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror in the early 1930s, and wrote a bunch of space operas starring the hero Hawk Carse that I have never heard of before. "Farewell to the Master" was published in Astounding after John W. Campbell Jr. had taken over, and was the basis of the film The Day the Earth Stood Still, one of those productions about how we should welcome alien imperialism because we humans are babies or savages who can't be trusted to behave without adult supervision backed by force. These kinds of stories usually get on my nerves. Well, let's see what the source material is like.
It is the future and mankind has colonized the solar system. Three months ago a time machine constructed of a mysterious green metal suddenly materialized in Washington, D.C. From out of the machine comes a dude with the face of an angel who radiates goodness and a giant green robot that looks like a naked muscleman with glowing red eyes. The deific man only has time to say "I am Klaatu and this is Gnut" before some mentally ill guy snipes him dead! Gnut stands still from that moment on, and a remorseful Earth builds a museum around the robot and the time machine and a tomb for Klaatu. (We're not so remorseful that we refrain from trying to break into Gnut and the time machine with every drill and ray gun and acid we can come up with, but nothing we do can even scratch that green metal.)
After some scenes of suspense and scenes of action, we learn that Gnut has been spending his nights in the time machine, working on an apparatus with which to reproduce Klaatu! The sound each living thing makes is distinctive, like a fingerprint or DNA, and, with a decent recording of an animal or person's voice, Gnut's new machine can recreate the creature! After some experiments (Gnut recreates an angry gorilla from a recording, and one of the action scenes is Gnut fighting the belligerent ape) and with some help from Cliff in getting the best possible recording of Klaatu's few words of greeting, Gnut has everything he needs and leaves in the time machine. The twist ending of the story is the revelation that, while everybody assumed Klaatu was in charge and Gnut was his bodyguard or something, in fact it was Gnut who was the master!
Unless my memory of the movie is very faulty, The Day the Earth Stood Still shares only the rudiments of its basic premise with "Farewell to the Master." "Farewell to the Master" is a good story, and I like it even if there is a big plot hole (there is a window in the museum through which Gnut and his glowing eyes are visible to those on the city streets outside, so it is impossible that he could have moved around at night unseen) and I don't quite get the real significance of the Gnut-is-the-master surprise ending--is it just a scary prophecy that in the future we will be subordinated to our machines? Also, why did Gnut come back in time to visit us in the first place?
Despite their various problems, these stories are all interesting and entertaining, in their own right and as historical artifacts of the world before 1945. A good purchase!
More 50¢ adventures in our next episode!