Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Three stories by Mack Reynolds

Happy May Day, comrade!  As the bourgeois intellectuals at Wikipedia tell it, "The 1904 Sixth Conference of the Second International called on 'all Social Democratic Party organisations and trade unions of all countries to demonstrate energetically on the First of May for the legal establishment of the 8-hour day, for the class demands of the proletariat, and for universal peace.'"  Here at MPorcius Fiction Log on the First of May we talk about California-born Mack Reynolds, who was a star member of the Socialist Labor Party in the 1930s, '40s and '50s, until in 1958 he was excommunicated when the SLP's Executive Committee discovered that Reynolds had authored the book How to Retire Without Money.  (Check out last year's May Day commemoration of Reynolds, which includes a reproduction of the amusing cover of How to Retire Without Money.)

Reynolds didn't just write retirement guides and sex novels--he also wrote tons of SF.  Today we'll be looking at three Reynolds stories that appear in the 1976 volume The Best of Mack Reynolds, a copy of which I own.  These tales were first published in FantasticPlayboy, and Analog, magazines close to this blog's heart.  I chose these individual stories because I thought the titles interesting, and it is very possible that some or all of them have nothing to do with socialism or politics or economics.

"No Return From Elba" (1953)

I probably don't have to tell my erudite readership that Elba was the island to which the merciful forces of justice exiled the Corsican Ogre back in 1814.  But, as they say, mercy to the guilty is cruelty to the innocent, and it was from Elba that the little corporal escaped to once again terrorize mankind.

Each story in The Best of Mack Reynolds is accompanied by an introduction from the author, and, in the intro to "No Return From Elba," Reynolds brags that Fantastic editor Howard Browne paid "the unheard of, in those days, rate of four cents a word" for the tale.

This is a very brief, and rather lame, doublecross tale with a feeble twist ending.  A warmongering dictator (I guess from Venus) has been defeated by a coalition of other planets and his three closest lieutenants fly him to an asteroid to hide.  The plan is that after a few years the coalition will fall apart and the Venusian public will welcome the tyrant's return.  The three lieutenants leave, and a bomb they planted on the asteroid explodes, killing the dictator--these jokers plan to seize power for themselves and didn't want the dictator to interfere.  But what they don't know is that the dictator, to help keep his hiding place a secret, planted a bomb of his own on the ship and the would-be triumvirs will soon join the dictator in death.

A forgettable filler story.  There is no reason for this story to even be a SF story--it would make just as much sense if it was about a mob boss or a Third World caudillo or something.  Sirius, the Croatian SF magazine, included a translation of "No Return From Elba" in a 1978 issue whose theme was SF crime stories.

"Burnt Toast" (1955)

Originally appearing in Playboy, a year later "Burnt Toast," under the title "Martinis: 12 to 1," reappeared in F&SF, and in 1988 it was translated for inclusion in an Italian horror anthology that endeavoured to capitalize on the enduring fascination of readers with H. P. Lovecraft and girls' boobs.

"Burnt Toast" is one of those stories in which a guy has a wager with the Devil.  Mephistopheles presents the protagonist 13 cocktails--one is poison.  If the main character, a drunk found in the gutter, drinks the poison cocktail his soul as well as his life are forfeit.  But if he drinks one of the twelve safe cocktails he gets one hundred dollars.  The wagering need not end there--if the man takes a second drink and survives he gets $200, a third $400, and so on.  We follow the protagonist's progress as he wins money, leaves, then days or months or years later returns because he needs or wants more money and is willing to take the ultimate risk to get it.  Of course, the Devil has not necessarily been playing fairly....

This one is actually mildly entertaining and moves at a brisk pace, so I feel free to give it a passing grade.

"Survivor" (1966)

This one is more what I expect from Reynolds, a pacifistic utopian thing.  Here is another Reynolds story that after its first appearance ("Survivor" was first published in Analog) was picked up by the people at Sirius for translation.

When negotiations break down between the West and the commies, atomic war is expected any minute.  People flee New York City, on the way out fighting each other for vehicles, food, and weapons.  A small number of Manhattanites, thinking there is no hope or unwilling to do violence to their fellow citizens, remain in the Big Apple awaiting their destruction.

To the surprise of those who chose to stay, New York is spared.  While millions of people in the countryside are killing each other in competition for scarce resources, those in the city, the meek, inherit all the canned food and other goods the city has to offer.  Via ham radio they learn that neither side in the Cold War conflict launched any missiles--apparently, when it looked like war was inevitable, all the politicians and military men in Washington and Moscow fled instead of doing their duty and pushing the button.  All over the world the ruthless fled the cities to engage in a fruitless and ultimately suicidal red-in-tooth-and-claw struggle while the resigned stayed home and, paradoxically, survived.  Soon all the aggressive people will have starved or murdered each other, and the pacific softies in the cities can begin building a new and peaceful society.

This story is silly and gimmicky, but the gimmick is original and the story is competently written, so "Survivor" gets a pass.


Nothing really good, but nothing really dismal, either.  If this blog is yet afloat in one year's time, we'll check in again with Comrade Reynolds.


  1. Mack Reynolds was one of the few SF writers who explored the economics of the Future. He was also a pretty good action writer, too! I have a bunch of his novels in ACE Double format.

    1. Can you recommend in particular any of Reynolds's novels or action stories? Do you have a favorite of his Ace Doubles books? Joachim Boaz read Rolltown and called it "bad" and "preachy":


      And I read Commune 2000 A.D. and thought it "limp and tepid":


      Maybe we just read some of his weaker work and you can point us to things that are more exciting or interesting.

  2. I suggest a good place to start with Mack Reynolds is ACE Double 11650: CODE DUELLO on one side and COMPUTER WAR on the other. I prefer Mack Reynolds SF novels from the 1960s. His later work...not so much.

  3. There's also this recent review of Mack Reynolds: https://www.tor.com/2018/04/26/spies-soldiers-and-cold-war-cynicism-the-best-of-mack-reynolds/