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.

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