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.

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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.

4 comments:

  1. I always pick up copies of PLAYBOY PRESS books, but they are becoming scarce. Their Science Fiction collections were above average in quality.

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    1. I have a few more of them; maybe I'll read from them soon. Some are collections of reprinted stories, but it looks like Nolan's The Future is Now is a paperback edition of a hardcover of all new stories.

      https://twitter.com/hankbukowsi/status/754503674123194368/photo/1

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    2. I await the MPorcius take on the Nolan book. It did not please me: https://marzaat.wordpress.com/2014/06/08/the-future-is-now/

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  2. I wonder how many "we're gonna hook up this vast global network now" and see what happens stories there were in the 1960s.

    The setup to the stories in Roger Zelzanzy's Home Is the Hangman is that one such guy decides he's going to take his data out of the system before it's activated.

    And, of course, there's Frederic Brown's earlier short-short "Answer" where you get God when you hook the computers up.

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