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.

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