Wednesday, August 29, 2018

1950s stories by Brian Aldiss, Fredric Brown, Arthur C. Clarke, and Avram Davidson


When I haphazardly reorganized my SF anthologies a few days ago I put aside five paperbacks containing stories by authors who interest me but which I didn't recall having read, so our next batch of posts will each tackle a selection of stories from one of those five books.  First up, a 1968 Avon paperback printing of the 1966 anthology An ABC of Science Fiction, edited by Tom Boardman, Jr.

An ABC of Science Fiction was constructed based on a goofy premise: it includes 26 stories, each by a different author, each writer the sole representative of those with his last initial.  To make this idea work somebody had to contribute something under the pseudonym "B. T. H. Xerxes" to fill in the "X" slot; "Xerxes" came up with half a page of limp limericks, and isfdb suggests it was likely Boardman himself who penned the ribald verses, or perhaps Brian Aldiss, who was already doing duty in the "A" stall.  Today we'll look at the stories by the delegates from the honorable letters A, B, C and D, Aldiss, Fredric Brown, Arthur C. Clarke, and Avram Davidson.

"Let's Be Frank" by Brian W. Aldiss (1957)

Aldiss's offering first appeared in an issue of Science Fantasy alongside stories by E. C. Tubb and J. G. Ballard, and has been beloved by editors ever since, appearing in ten different periodicals, anthologies and collections since then.

"Let's Be Frank" is a fresh take on the collective consciousness concept we see so often.  In Tudor England, Sir Frank Gladwebb's wife gives birth to an odd child, a boy who remains in a coma until he is nineteen.  At that age he awakens, looks into his father's eyes, and Sir Frank finds that his consciousness has expanded into his son's body--Sir Frank has control of both bodies as effortlessly as you or I have control of both our hands!  When Sir Frank's son Frank has a child of his own, Sir Frank finds that his consciousness expands to inhabit the body of his grandson and he now has control of three bodies.  As the decades and then centuries pass, the number of "Franks" increases, gender and ethnic differences proving to be no barrier!  Will the single consciousness of Frank spread to include every person on Earth, and then colonize the universe?

This is an idea story, and because the idea is new and compelling and Aldiss has a good writing style, I quite liked "Let's Be Frank."

"Pattern" by Fredric Brown (1954)

Fredric Brown has been on my mind recently after seeing an announcement that his autobiographical novel The Office is being reprinted by the good people at Makeshift Press.  You'll remember I enjoyed his novel Rogue in Space and his story "Puppet Show."  

It looks like "Pattern" first appeared in a hardcover collection entitled Angels and Spaceships.  When Angels and Spaceships was released in paperback it was retitled Star Shine and adorned with a beautiful Richard Powers cover featuring not only Powers's famous abstractions but a brilliant and expressive realistic male face and hand, as well as a slinky stylized female silhouette and a biplane.  Gorgeous! 

"Pattern" is a story that takes up one page, a piece of gimmicky filler.  Lots of people like this kind of thing, but I generally find these types of stories an irritating waste of time.  Anyway, in this one, mile-tall aliens land on Earth and a woman thinks they are harmless as they totally ignore us.  Then, while she is spraying insecticide on her garden, the aliens themselves start spraying something in the air high above--is the Earth the aliens' new garden and we humans mere pests minutes away from extinction?

A trifle.

"The Awakening" by Arthur C. Clarke (originally 1942, this version 1952)

isfdb is telling me that "The Awakening" appeared first in the fanzine Zenith in 1942, but then was published in a "somewhat different form...significantly revised," in Future Science Fiction Stories ten years later.  Zenith was the labor of love of British artist and SF fan Harry Turner; read all about Turner here and read all six issues of Zenith here.  I like Turner's art deco-style renderings of nudes, space craft, and Egyptian and Near Eastern bric-a-brac for Zenith and for other people's fanzines; his later work seems to consist largely of optical illusions and "impossible objects" that are reminding me of M.C. Escher.  (I find that kind of thing to be a sterile and lifeless drag, mere mathematical trickery.)

It is the future!  Mankind has conquered the solar system and built a Utopia!  But Utopia is a bore and many people are committing suicide!  Marlan declines to go the Kervorkian route, and instead does what Galos Gann did in Edmond Hamilton's 1936 story "At the World's Dusk," and Professor Jameson did in Neil R. Jones's 1931 story "The Jameson Satellite": put himself in suspended animation to be awakened in millions of years!  When Marlan wakes up we get our twist ending--man is gone and insect people have taken over the solar system!

This story is just OK, its surprise underwhelming.  I guess you could call it juvenilia.


"I Do Not Hear You, Sir" by Avram Davidson (1958)

The back cover of An ABC of Science Fiction
lists Sheckley (presumably Robert Sheckley)
 but in fact it is Clifford Simak who represents
the letter S in the text!
Davidson is something of a stylist, and he includes lots of cute names and jocular wordplay and reworked cliches in the 20th-century beginning of "I Do Not Hear You, Sir," which first appeared in F&SF.  The story begins like a crime story--Milo Anderson is a crook who is in debt to more powerful crooks ("the Syndicate") and needs money fast.  He recently swindled a collector of 18th-century objets d'art out of numerous pieces, and is scrambling to find something to sell among the stolen goods when he stumbles upon what appears to be a working circa 1770 telephone complete with a little telephone directory.  The directory is titled, "The Compendium of the Names, Residences, & Cyphers of the Honorable & Worthy Patrons of the Magnetickal Intelligence Engine;" the gag in the second half of "I Do Not Hear You, Sir" is Davidson's comedic reproduction of late 18th-century speech and writing and caricatures of War of Independence-era worthies like George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and Benedict Arnold, all of whom Milo calls on the phone, looking for help.  Nobody is interested in helping Milo, save Arnold, who transmits through time and space a little box to Milo--it contains pills with which to commit suicide.

"I Do Not Hear You, Sir," strikes me as quite similar to other Davidson short stories I have read; I guess this is a good example of what people who like Davidson like about him, the in-your-face wordsmithery and erudition and assumption of various distinctive voices.  Some people will find jokes which consist of the American Cincinnatus complaining about his false teeth and the author of Poor Richard's Almanac telemarketing Fanny Hill amusing, but while the style shows a lot of ambition, education and verve on the part of Davidson, the tale has no emotional content and the plot is contrived and nonsensical, so I didn't find it compelling or entertaining.  (I find it easier to admire this sort of thing than to actually enjoy it.)  Thumbs down, I'm afraid.

**********

We'll advance further in the alphabet in our next episode.  Aldiss is our star player so far, we'll see if anybody can unseat him.

Monday, August 27, 2018

A Brand New World by Ray Cummings

When father first arrived, they had respected him and listened to his advice.  But gradually the power of Graff's oratory, his sweeping personality, his incessant propaganda, had its effect.  As this evil genius rose in power, father and his influence waned.
Let's continue our examination of the work of Ray Cummings, recently heralded by Bill Christensen as a "giant of Golden Age scientificiation."  Today's subject: A Brand New World, a novel first serialized in the fall of 1928 in Argosy.  I own two paperback editions of A Brand New World, an Ace copy printed in 1976 as part of Ace's "Science Fiction from the Great Years" line, which I bought some time ago, and an Ace 1964 printing which I received from internet SF maven Joachim Boaz.  The cover on F-313 is embarrassingly amateurish--the composition makes no sense, the people's faces and bodies are lifeless and rudimentary, and the colors are uninspired.  Even the beautiful skyline of Manhattan, the center of the universe and the tomb of my decayed dreams, looks bad on this cover!  Did Donald Wollheim's barber do this?  Did Ace accidentally print Jack Gaughan's initial color sketch?  I don't get it!

The 1976 printing has a solid Vincent DiFate cover featuring an attractive woman with insect wings and rays coming out of her palms who seems to be standing on a pile of my old gaming computers.  This cover is not bad, but I have to say that the fact that neither of these covers includes a gun or a sword has my spider senses tingling.  If A Brand New World turns out to be a mind-numbing utopia I am going to be irritated.  I can take some comfort from the fact that A Brand New World seems to have been popular with editors and readers--not only did Ace publish it twice in paperback, but in 1942 it appeared a second time in magazine form, in Famous Fantastic Mysteries.  How bad can it be if they kept printing it?

Zetta doesn't actually have wings, nor does
she shoot rays from her many-jointed
fingers
Well, let's hit the text and see what this thing is all about.  I have chosen to read the 1976 edition, because the print is bigger (it's 205 pages versus the '64 edition's 158) and my eyes are old.  (This was perhaps a mistake, as the 1976 edition, it turns out, is full of typos.)

Our narrator for A Brand New World is Peter Vanderstufyt, a journalist in the future world of 1966.  (The narrator of the two Tama books we just read was also a journalist--the kind of journalist who engages in zero gravity hand-to-hand combat with aliens!)  He's had to leave New York City for the Middle West (I know your feels, Petey!) to cover a murder trial in Indiana.  While Petey's out there, his father, a famous astronomer, is observing the new planet which is hurtling towards our solar system.  (Remember how in all those Edmond Hamilton stories a star hurtling into our solar system presaged a tremendous space war?)  This new planet, dubbed Xenephrene, takes up an orbit between the Earth and Venus.  Its presence there is going to make a mess of the Earth's climate and weather--this big blue marble's axis shifts so that soon the northern and southern hemispheres will take turns enduring scorching days six months long followed by frigid six-month nights!

The world's governments and the international clerisy of eggheads keep the news of this catastrophe a secret from the masses, but lift their censorship the day Petey gets back to the East Coast (this way Petey can be the broadcaster who breaks the story!)  In one of those strange coincidences we just have to accept if our hobby is going to be reading fiction instead of something logical like gardening or hang gliding, the very same time the news of this world-altering cataclysm is being revealed, down in Puerto Rico, Petey's sister Hulda meets an emissary from Xenephrene, a young woman with white hair who has arrived in a silver sphere and whose name is "Zetta."

I think I played Vanilla Angband on
the one on the left, and Doom with my
brother on the one on the right
The authorities keep Zetta a secret--a leitmotif of this book is elites keeping the masses in the dark.  The US government sends Petey's Dad down to PR to study Zetta and try to communicate with her.  While Dad is spending time with the space girl, the world's governments and populations are making a beeline towards the equator--the American government is moved to Miami, the British and French governments to North Africa, etc.  London, Paris and New York are abandoned wastelands buried in snow.

Larger silver spheres land in New York and in Venezuela, where the multitudes of Latin America have been congregating.  These aliens are apparently hostile, and prove impervious to attack from Earth weapons (their defenses are quite like military equipment that appears in Cummings's Tama, Princess of Mercury--Cummings is a master recycler!)  Just as Petey's Dad is about to share with the government what he has learned from Zetta, the alien ships in New York and Venezuela fly away, and Dad, Zetta, and Hulda are carried off along with them when Zetta's little sphere is hijacked!

   
Four years pass without intercourse between Earth and its new neighbor, Xenephrene.  Petey misses his father and his sister, and he also misses Zetta, whom he fell in love with after meeting her for a few minutes right before her disappearance.  (Love is blind--Zetta's extra finger joints don't put him off!)  Then in 1970 a cylinder lands on Earth with a message from Dad!  (Both "Aerita of the Light Country" and Tama of the Light Country feature message cylinders landing on Earth, sent by Earthlings on Mercury.)  The message includes instructions on how to build a space ship so Petey and some minor characters can fly to Xenephrene.  This ship is powered by "Reet," "a force something like electricity...it was also the growing, life-giving essence of all vegetable and animal organisms."

The construction of the ship (done in secret, of course!) and its flight to Xenephrene, like 25 pages in the middle of the novel, is one of the better parts of the book, to my mind, at least.  Once on Xenephrene, Petey and we readers get a lecture on Xenephrene history and society from Dad.  The people of the mysterious wandering planet are ruled by a secretive guild of scientists (naturally, they recognize a comrade in Petey's Dad and so he is privy to their secrets.)  Thousands of years ago, the people of Xenephrene had a high tech civilization, but then the majority decided that the simple life was best, and they abandoned modernity to live in tree houses like god- damned Ewoks.  A small minority wanted to keep their high tech stuff, but a law was passed making it illegal to "preach modernity," and these rebels were exiled to another part of the planet, called Braun (the mainstream society is located in Garla) and over the centuries the two societies have developed separately.  Dad considers Garla to be a paradise, but this utopia of tree house living is threatened because the powers-that-be have been slacking in enforcing their speech codes!

Here we see Zetta, a minor character Hulda is dating,
and Hulda herself
You see, today, Braun, which Dad calls "despotic," is ruled by Graff, a brilliant scientist and orator who wants to conquer the Earth.  Braun and Garla conduct trade, and Graff has spent time in Garla, where he has managed to sway some Garlands into considering the reintroduction of technology and the conquest of Earth.  Graff has also fallen in love with the apparently irresistible Zetta; for her part, Zetta is willing to marry Graff (after all, Dad says Graff has "a magnificent physique") if the tyrant agrees to abandon his plans to conquer the Earth.

(I probably don't have to tell you that "graf" is the German equivalent of "count" or "earl" and that Braun is a common German name.  Is A Brand New World an early indictment of Nazism, or evidence of lingering resentment over German aggression in World War I?)

So, finally, after 140 pages, we have our war and love triangle plot set up, a plot very similar to those we saw in Cummings's Mercury books.  There is even a Braun woman, Brea, in love with Graff who wants to kill Zetta, the way Muta wanted to kill Rowena in Tama, Princess of Mercury and Zara wanted to kill Aerita in "Aerita of the Light Country."

There are some elements in A Brand New World that don't show up in the Mercury stories, like Reet.  More prominent than Reet is Cummings's notion of "the infrared world."  This (I think) is a parallel dimension inhabited by demons that may be the source of human evil.  Xenephrene is somehow connected to the infrared world so that the demons are always faintly evident as sinister red shapes that float around and murmuring, snickering voices.  Dad tells Petey that he'll get used to them!    Radiation from the small purple star that orbits Xenephrene like a moon* has kept the crimson demons in check for time immemorial, but when Xenephrene entered our solar system the demons became more pervasive and powerful, apparently strengthened by the radiation of our sun.  The Garland scientists have been dealing with this by manipulating two spheres kept in their secret lair, "the control globes," one red and one purple, keeping the infrared and ultraviolet forces in balance.

*I was amazed that Cummings waited until page 114 to mention this remarkable astronomical phenomenon.

Anyway, the day before Graff launches his invasion of Earth he and his Brauns steal the two spheres--with the red one Graff can drive everyone on Earth insane by unleashing the crimson demons, while with the purple one he keeps his own people safe.  Of course, if the control globes are removed from Xenephrene everybody on that planet will go insane.  The Brauns also seize our narrator Petey and his lady love Zetta, and these two are aboard Graff's flagship when the Braun fleet flies to Earth.

From Graff's beachhead in Brazil Petey witnesses the war on Earth.  (The war is one of the better parts of the book; it is perhaps noteworthy that Cummings here refrains from the sort of descriptions of horrific gore with which he spiced up the Mercury stories.)  Graff is on the verge of driving everyone on Earth outside his HQ insane when Brea helps Zetta and Petey escape--with Zetta gone she figures Graff will pay her more attention.  But Z & P don't just book it on out of there; they break the red control globe and steal the purple one--it is easy for Petey to kill all the guards because Brea gave him a suit of ray-proof armor and Xenephrene people are much weaker than Earthers (just like the Tama books' Mercurians are much weaker than Earthers.)

Dad and some minor characters arrive from Xenephrene with Xenephere weapons and equipment, so now Graff, lacking his control globes, is no match for Earth's much more numerous military forces.  The Xenephrene invaders are wiped out (including that dope Brea!), the purple control globe is returned to Xenephrene so the Garlands won't go infrared insane, and then Xenephrene unexpectedly breaks out of its new orbit and heads out of our system.  Zetta stays on Earth to bear Pete's half Earthling, half Xenephrene children; one wonders how many joints their digits will have and of they will be so physically weak that all the Earth kids will casually bully them. 

A theme of my blog post here has been that Cummings would reuse plot elements and ideas that appeared in A Brand New World in his later Mercury stories.  Those 1930, 1931 and 1941 Mercury stories were shorter, more focused on sex and violence, and more fun than 1928's A Brand New World, which is a little more thoughtful and tries to put across some arguments about politics and societal evolution, arguments that we here at MPorcius Fiction Log are not prepared to endorse.

A Brand New World exhibits the belief that is de rigeur in SF that ordinary people are mindless dolts and that their "betters," here primarily scientists but also journalists and to some extent even(!) politicians, have an obligation to lead the masses by the nose.  Cummings argues that a big part of the role of the elite is to control the flow of information, and I have pointed out numerous examples in the text of Earth and Garland elites withholding information from the people, allegedly for their own good.  But Cummings doesn't stop there--he suggests that the common people's judgement is so suspect that the rulers of society should keep from the hoi polloi's ears dangerous beliefs by silencing dissenters and making it illegal to express certain ideas.  Remember how at the start of the novel Petey was covering a murder in the Middle West?  A woman had massacred her husband and children, and, instead of being condemned by the public, this murderess hosts a radio talk show and becomes a celebrity:
She was a handsome woman, and a good talker.  She was taking full advantage of the new law regarding free speech, and every night from the jail she was broadcasting little talks to the public.
This murderess, of course, is a parallel to Graff, another good-looking smooth talker who should have been silenced by the establishment.  According to Cummings, some people shouldn't be permitted a platform to speak, and the voicing of some ideas must be legally forbidden; this is an attitude I personally find despicable.

We shouldn't be surprised, I suppose, that Cummings, a professional writer who also worked with Thomas Edison, should feel that scientists and writers should run the world and have a monopoly on information and power, but it is still hard to take.  More mature and interesting is the related attitude displayed by Cummings in the horror story "Corpses from Canvas," which foregrounds the reality that publishers and creative people are not selfless saints who should be given power and privileges but rather corruptible individuals out to make a buck like everybody else, and even hints that Cummings felt a little guilty about some of his more exploitative work.  (I say "related" because both attitudes show contempt for the credulous masses, portraying them as sheep who lack agency and don't know what is good for them.)

The episode of the Indiana murderess also lays the groundwork for Cummings's theme of societal change.  The common people fail to condemn the murderess, and the government fails to convict her--I think Cummings is using this crime story to signal to us that Earth society is decadent.  In the same vein, Petey later moans that Earth is not ready to face the threat posed by Graff because of "the apathy of the people."  But over the course of the book Earth society, guided by the eggheads and politicians, improves (at least in Petey's opinion) in response to adversity.  On page 80 our narrator talks about the worldwide response to the changes in climate:


The important word here, I believe, is "rational," a word which implies planning from above by scientists--the eggheads will be the fathers of the "one big family" that is the world, telling us children what to do.  Cummings (and/or Petey) reiterate this on the last page of the novel:
The Great Change brought all the nations, all the people of every race into a keen realization of values, an enforced community of interest.  Like brothers in a family sorely pressed, they fought united.... 
The final sentence of A Brand New World is "This Earth has become a good place on which to live."

I don't know about you, but I don't want to be treated as a child, forced into a community and told what my interests are.  And I am certainly not crazy about the government, especially a government of unelected "experts," deciding who gets to speak and what things we are allowed to say.

Alright, so am I giving A Brand New World the thumbs up or the thumbs down?  I suppose it is interesting that a guy would write a science fiction novel that argues against freedom of speech, but it is also distasteful.  Some of the space travel and war content here is good, but that stuff makes up but a small proportion of the text.  Cummings's innovative and weird science ideas, like the Reet life force (which of course reminds a 2018 reader of Star Wars) and the infrared dimension of demons (which reminded me a little of Lovecraft stories like "From Beyond" and "the warp" in Warhammer 40,000) are convoluted and poorly integrated into the rest of the material--'The Force" in Star Wars and the warp in WH40K are foundational to what goes on in those universes, while Reet and the infrared dimension feel tacked on to this novel.

A Brand New World is an important piece of the "Who is Ray Cummings and what is he all about?" puzzle, so I'm glad I read it--I am curious about the half-forgotten heroes of SF's early history and the controversial fringe members of the SF community (I think MPorcius Fiction Log faves A. E. van Vogt, Edmond Hamilton, and Barry Malzberg all fit into one or both of these somewhat arbitrary categories, and that Cummings does as well), but I can't quite recommend this novel on its own merits.         

Friday, August 24, 2018

Tama, Princess of Mercury by Ray Cummings

"I want Tama, that is all.  Your Earth does not interest me.  I never liked my father's plan to populate Mercury with your Earthwomen.  But the virgins of the Light Country are rebellious.  They fly off in revolt if one crosses them."
Less than a year after publishing Tama of the Light Country in late 1930, Argosy presented to its readers the sequel to Ray Cummings's tale of Mercurian winged girls and interplanetary kidnappers, Tama, Princess of Mercury.  There was no talk of Tama having royal blood in that earlier novel, and I actually thought that book afforded Tama less screen time than three or four other characters, so let's check out the 1966 Ace book printing of Tama, Princess of Mercury, and see if Tama is going to get some kind of promotion.  My copy of Ace F-406 was one of the five Ray Cummings books donated to the MPorcius Library recently by Joachim Boaz, and has an interior illo by Jack Gaughan and a cool cover by Jerome Podwil.  (I'm looking forward to seeing Tama fight that bizarre monster!)

Tama, Princess of Mercury picks up the Tama saga some months after the events of Tama of the Light Country.  Journalist Jack Dean and scientific assistant Rowena Palisse ("a very tall girl, with the regal aspect of a Nordic queen") have been married, and Tama of Mercury, leader of the rebellious winged girls of Mercury, and inventor Guy Palisse are engaged--they will be married on Mercury once the inferior conjunction arrives and Bolton Industries' Flying Cube whisks them thither.  Our cast of characters is hanging out in a cabin in the woods, looking forward to boarding the Cube in a week, when a Mercurian spacecraft ("a huge silver ball, thirty feet or so in diameter") appears and carries off Rowena and Tama!


Jack, Guy, and some minor characters rush to Bolton Industries in New Jersey (yay!), board the Cube and take off after the raiders.

In a two chapter flashback we learn that Roc, son of Croat, is in command of the silver ball, and he figured out where our heroes were relaxing by kidnapping Jimmy Turk and using a truth drug on him.  Jimmy is a federal cop and Jack's best friend--like most federal workers Jimmy spends much of his time leaking scoops to the media, in Jimmy's case, our hero and narrator, Jack.

The Cube catches up to the Mercurian space boat, but because Tama, Rowena, and Jimmy are aboard the sphere, the Earthlings can't just blast it out of the ether.  So Jack spacewalks over to negotiate, and finds himself in the middle of a tense situation!  You see, Roc is not the man his father was.  Croat built up an army of Cold Country savages to conquer his native Light Country, from which he had been exiled for his crimes.  Jack killed Croat in the last book, and Roc has taken up his dad's plans of conquest--his major modification to the plan involves making Tama, winged beauty and leading political activist of the Light Country, his queen--he has been in love with Tama for years.  However, the Cold Country peeps don't respect Roc, and Roc expects that the eight savages he has aboard the sphere are going to mutiny and kill him as soon as they get back home (the savages don't know how to operate the boat in outer space, so need Roc's technical expertise until they hit the atmosphere of Mercury.)  Roc allies with the Earthlings and Tama against the dangerous barbarians.  Adding additional complexity to this ticklish situation, the chieftain of the savage people of the Cold Country, Dorrek, is on the boat and has fallen in love with Rowena and this is driving Dorrek's Mercurian girlfriend, Muta, who is ugly like all Cold Country women, violent with a jealous rage.  (Readers of "Aerita of the Light Country" may remember that there was a similar love triangle on a space ship in that 1941 Mercurian story--Cummings was an early devotee of the cult of "reuse and recycle!")

This Italian omnibus edition 
includes both Tama books 
When the two spacecraft get to Mercury they find that the Cold Country barbarians, in the absence of Roc and Dorrek's leadership, have launched their invasion of the Light Country early.  A fight breaks out inside the sphere and Tama, Roc and Jimmy escape into a provincial city devastated by the murderous barbarians--Cummings really goes to town describing gruesome wounds and dead bodies and ruined buildings, and a fight between Tama and friends and one of the giant insects that accompanies the savages' army is quite gory.  Roc is knocked unconscious and Jimmy suffers a broken leg, but Guy and some minor characters from the Cube arrive just in time to help Tama overcome the huge beast.

Newlyweds Jack and Rowena are still on the sphere with Dorrek and Muta, which Dorrek directs into the eternal night of the Cold Country to prepare for the next phase of the barbarian invasion.  Rather than wait for the barbarians to march on them, the people of the Light Country, their force augmented by the Earthlings and their Flying Cube, attack Dorrek's camp.  Cummings does a decent job with the battle, which features interesting ray artillery and defensive countermeasures on both sides, the flying girls on the Light Country side and the giant earthbound bugs on the Cold Country side, and lots of sneaking around behind enemy lines on the parts of our heroes.  Jimmy even manages to fight despite his broken leg (we are told the low Mercurian gravity facilitiates this feat of heroism), and we witness the final fates of the duplicitous Roc and Muta.  Lots of Mercurians get killed; Cummings, like so many creators of fiction, seems to be appealing to people's fascination with blood and death at the same time he makes an anti-war statement. 

In the end the Cold Country army is wiped out and Guy and Tama get married.  Narrator Jack Dean suggests that a new era of interplanetary travel is about to begin, but we who have read "Aerita of the Light Country" know that this did not happen.

While it seems to be the same length as Tama of the Light Country, Tama, Princess of Mercury
 was serialized across four weekly issues of Argosy instead of three
Not a bad planetary adventure story, though not as good as Burroughs or Brackett or Hamilton--but better than Lin Carter.  There are too many bland characters; to my mind, this kind of material works better with a single remarkable character, like John Carter or Eric John Stark.  It is strange that Tama, the title character, is just one of three or five equally important characters, but I guess the titles of these Tama books are a marketing ploy, meant to remind readers of the first Barsoom book, A Princess of Mars, and such succeeding volumes as Thuvia, Maid of Mars.

**********

Ray Cummings fans rejoice--more Ray Cummings from Argosy in our next episode!

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Tama of the Light Country by Ray Cummings

"This girl--Rowena Palisse, is she not?  By your gods, a woman worthy of mastering Mercury.  They will say, 'Croat's mate chosen from all the Universe could be no better suited to him.'  I had no idea!"
Sadly, Tama never wields a saber in this novel
Here it is, the fifth of my reads from the Joachim Boaz wing of the MPorcius Library, the Ace 1965 printing of Tama of the Light Country, a novel by Ray Cummings that was serialized over three December issues of the weekly magazine Argosy in 1930.  I enjoyed "Aerita of the Light Country," a 1941 story set in the same universe as Cummings's Tama books that included not only space travel and gory ray gun fights but also feminism and class conflict, and have been looking forward to reading Cummings's earlier treatments of the theme of flying Mercurian girls.  This edition of Tama of the Light Country has a charming cover by Jerome Podwil, and a fun interior illustration by Jack Gaughan, as well as four pages of ads in the back that I will append to the bottom of this blog post in the interest of making widely available these fascinating primary sources of SF history.

Our narrator for the first 33 pages of Tama of the Light Country is Jack Dean, broadcast journalist!  A friend in the federal police force, Jimmy Turk, leaks to Jack that there is a big scoop up in Maine, so Jack hops in his private aircraft and flies up there from the New York studio from which he broadcasts the news of the day to Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea.  The scoop: five mysterious murders at a girls' summer camp, and the disappearance of ten girls presumably kidnapped by the assassins.  By page 17 of the 124-page book Jack has figured out what those of us who have seen the cover of the book have long known--the girls were kidnapped by honest-to-goodness space aliens!


Scientists figure out that the attack must have come from Mercury, and the world prepares for the next attack in a few months, when Mercury will again be at "inferior conjunction" (defined by Cummings as its closest approach to Earth.)  Fortunately, the Palisse family and the Bolton Society for Astronomical Research have been developing a means of space travel for years and are just about to launch their new cubical ship on its maiden voyage.  Our heroes Jack and Jimmy are aboard the Cube with "slender" and "regal" Rowena Palisse and a bunch of eggheads as it orbits the Earth for the first time and recovers a mysterious object.  This object turns out to be a small rocket bearing a message from Guy Palisse, Rowena's brother--Guy disappeared ten years ago while on the maiden voyage of space ship he invented!  The next 50 pages of Tama of the Light Country consist of the text of this message from Guy, who has been on Mercury all this time.

I was a little disappointed to find that some of the same plot elements from "Aerita of the Light Country" were prominent here in Tama of the Light Country.  I guess Cummings figured that, ten years later, people wouldn't notice or care, but for me it's only been ten days!

Wikipedia says that Argosy was the first of the pulps
Anyway, the females of the civilized people of the twilight zone of Mercury (known as the "Light Country") are born with wings and can fly, but, in order to assuage a male inferiority complex, upon marriage these Mercurian girls have their wings clipped.  Nine years into Guy's stay on Mercury the girls began refusing marriage in order to keep their wings--the leader of this movement was Tama.  Frustrated by this recalcitrance, and urged on by the commander of the Light Country military, an unscrupulous dude called Roc, the government passed a new law requiring that all girls have their wings clipped at the age of sixteen.  In response, Tama and hundreds of girls, accompanied by a small number of male supporters, Earthman Guy among them, fled to the barren countryside.

Both Tama of the Light Country and "Aerita of the Light Country" feature a title character who leads an anti-wing-clipping protest movement, and both stories feature as a villain a treacherous criminal scientist who leads an army of savages from the Cold Country; in the 1941 story this role was played by Rahgg, and here in Tama of the Light Country the evil scientist is Croat, Roc's father.  (That's right, the same establishment which sent Croat into exile for his crimes put their army under the command of Croat's kid.)  Croat has built a space ship of his own and some ray guns (in defiance of Mercury's strict gun control; Roc's own government troops are armed with knives and darts they project with something like a sling or sling shot.)

Roc and Croat's forces besieged the cave system where Tama's girls were hiding out, and we get the kind of fights and sneaking around we expect in an account of a siege.  It is always day in the Light Country, of course, but luckily a powerful storm rolled in that facilitated all the sneaking around behind enemy lines that are needed to move the plot forward.  (Another of the similarities between this 1930 Mercurian tale and the 1941 one I read last week is Cummings's long descriptions of the dramatic Mercurian weather.)  Tama and Guy eavesdropped on Croat and Roc, and learned of Croat's plan to fly to Earth to kidnap Guy's sister Rowena and some other wingless Earthgirls to be his and his minions' wives.  (The women of the Cold Country, it seems, are ugly.)  Guy, who had managed to smuggle his little messenger rocket out of the capital city, wrote this 50-page warning and launched it into Earth orbit in hopes Rowena and the Bolton Society for Astronomical Research would retrieve and read it.  They have, but, unfortunately, only after Croat's raid.

The Bolton people quickly load their Cube up with supplies and weapons and Rowena, Jack, Jimmy, and the Bolton scientists take off for Mercury to help Guy and attack Croat's ship before he can launch his second raid.  But Croat has outsmarted them!  Croat was left on Earth after the raid, and his ship has been hiding behind the moon!  Croat stowed away on the Cube before liftoff, and, near the orbit of the moon, he grabs Rowena as a hostage (and future bride!) and radios his ship!  The Mercurian vessel approaches and, in space suits, Croat and Rowena go out the Cube's airlock.
Parts 2 and 3 of the serialized version of Tama of the Light Country appeared behind these evocative covers
Croat's plans are scuppered when Jack puts on a space suit and jumps out after them and out-wrestles Croat (Earthmen are stronger than Mercurians.)  As for Croat's ship, it was carrying Guy and Tama captive after they stowed aboard on Mercury, and in the confusion they escape and kill the criminals and savages aboard it and wreck the ship; they then fly in its boat to join the Cube.

Tama of the Light Country is an acceptable adventure story but it has some "issues" that we might characterize as problems.  For one thing, there are too many characters, especially for a novel only 124 pages long, and only one of them is really interesting.  Tama, even though she is the title character, has a quite small part.  The Earthman hero role is divided between Guy and Jack, and neither one of them is a particularly interesting person.  I don't even know why Jimmy is in there.  If I was co-writing this novel I would have gotten rid of Jimmy, combined Guy and Jack, combined Croat and Roc, and made the human interest part of the story revolve around the hero's having to choose between Rowena, the smart Earthwoman who shares his love of science and his cultural background, and Tama, the exotic and bold beauty from another world.

The sole interesting person in the novel, of course, is Croat the evil scientist.  He's the one who makes big plans and takes big risks and his adventure on Earth--avoiding capture, familiarizing himself with our society, stealing an aircraft so he can travel from Maine to New Jersey to sneak aboard the Bolton Cube--is the most compelling part of the novel.  Cummings even makes a big deal about his cremation when his dead body burns up in the Earth's atmosphere.  This is a phenomena I regularly observe in genre fiction, that the bad guy is more fun than the hero.  If I was co-writing this novel I would have expanded Croat's part and had him try to seduce Rowena with a lot of talk about how she could be his partner in ruling a technocratic utopia based on science before he resorted to treating her like a Sabine

We'll be reading the second Tama book for our next blog post; maybe Tama will take center stage in that one!       

**********
 
The four pages at the end of Tama of the Light Country provide valuable insight into the extensive line of Ace books available in 1965 about hitting people with swords and shooting them with energy guns.  The perhaps-not-quite-legal Ace edition of Lord of the Rings gets a full page ad which includes gushing praise for the trilogy from Anthony Boucher.  Andre Norton also gets a full page of her own.

Squint or click to read 
There are also two pages listing "Classics of Great Science-Fiction" and "recent releases" from Ace.  I own and/or have read a few of these.  I own the very edition of Edmond Hamilton's Crashing Suns listed, and read about half the stories included therein.  I own the listed editions of Maza of the Moon and A Brand New World but have not read them yet.  I read a 1959 hardcover edition of Journey to the Centre of the Earth when I was a kid and just last week my brother was joking about how disappointed I was that there wasn't more dinosaur material.  (As a kid I thought all fiction should be like The Empire Strikes Back and Gamera vs Guiron, nonstop monsters and violence.)  I am a fan of Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore, but when I read The Well of the Worlds, The Dark World, and Earth's Last Citadel I wasn't crazy about them.  I own a Mayflower Dell edition of Behold the Stars and thought it one of Ken Bulmer's better books, with an interesting take on space travel and space warfare.  The Jack Vance Ace Double listed, Monsters in Orbit and The World Between, includes some very entertaining stories, including the brilliant "The Moon Moth" and "Abercrombie Station."   


If you have any opinions about the Ace 1965 line don't hesitate to share them in the comments!

Monday, August 20, 2018

1965 stories by John Baxter, E. C. Tubb, Ernest Hill, and John T. Phillifent

The rumors are true!  The staff of MPorcius Fiction Log have dragged themselves away from Space Hulk: Ascension and tiny jars of chocolate pudding long enough to read four more SF stories from 1965, the year Canada (you, like painter and novelist Wyndham Lewis, may know that country as "the hideous icebox") adopted its current flag.  These four tales constitute the remainder of New Writings in SF 6, which we started dissecting in our last offering to the interwebs.  As noted in that post, Joachim Boaz has already analyzed this artifact of the British Commonwealth's contribution to speculative fiction, and you can make your own judgments of its contents free of charge and without delay by reading one of its four editions at the internet archive.

"The Hands" by John Baxter

Baxter was born in Australia but has lived much of his life in Europe and America, producing a body of film criticism and several biographies of Hollywood figures like George Lucas, Woody Allen and Robert De Niro as well as a number of SF stories.  "The Hands" was reprinted in 2016 in Ann and Jeff Vandermeer's The Big Book of Science Fiction, a 1200-page book that seems to be designed for use by college professors as it appears to try to include a writer from every possible identity group while leaving out authors who might offend the sensibilities of an academic.  Maybe they needed an Australian and thought A. Bertram Chandler was too politically incorrect?

"The Hands" is a pretty good horror story about an alien invasion.  In a future in which the cities, after expanding, were then abandoned for the countryside, seven astronauts return to Earth from an exploratory mission to planet Huxley (perhaps named after Thomas Henry Huxley, "Darwin's Bulldog" and an expert anatomist.)  The natives of Huxley used their hypnotic powers to dominate the Earthmen and alter them in a shocking way--each astronaut has grown extra body parts.  One guy has a second head, one has a pair of hands sticking out of his chest, another has a bulging stomach where an additional set of intestines is growing, etc.  The punch line of this brief story is that the extra parts are going to achieve independence and wrest themselves from their Earthman hosts and then combine together to form a whole alien being, one which will, we are led to believe, commit dastardly deeds.

I liked it, but "The Hands" is really just an entertaining trifle.

"The Seekers" by E. C. Tubb

I quite like that prolific writer of adventure stories, E. C. Tubb, even if I haven't read much by him lately.  (Sadly, I have far too little time to read all the things I want to read.)  So I have been looking forward to this one.  Somehow or other Ann and Jeff Vandermeer overlooked the wordsmith behind the epic saga of Earl Dumarest, interstellar gladiator, when making selections for The Big Book of Science Fiction, but another Englishman left out of the Vandermeers' "Ultimate Collection," Brian Aldiss, saw fit to include "The Seekers" in a 1978 hardcover anthology called Perilous Planets, which appeared in paperback in 1980 with a garish and baroque wraparound cover by Alex Ebel.  Knowing it was endorsed by so august a critic and historian of SF as Aldiss has me looking forward to "The Seekers" even more fervently!


"The Seekers" is a competent, perhaps pedestrian, little story about the perils faced by those who cross the void between the stars, exploring the galaxy.  Tubb introduces us in turn to the five men crewing a spaceship, showing them engaged in their pastimes so we know each man's passion--one is an artist, one an engineer fascinated by machinery, another immerses himself in sex and violence escapist virtual reality dream games, a fourth an intellectual who wants to understand the workings of the universe.  Then there's the captain, who commits suicide and leaves the other four men without leadership so they devolve from a team into an undisciplined party of individuals who neglect the proscribed precautions and procedures.

The four astronauts land on a planet to investigate an intriguing alien building, but fall into its booby-trap, a defense mechanism which presents each man the beguiling illusion of the thing he most desires, a perfect work of art, for example, or a detailed model of the universe.  The explorers are mesmerized and forget all about the alien building and their own spaceship; presumably they will starve to death as they can't tear themselves away from contemplation of what, for each of them, is Heaven.

An acceptable entertainment with a conservative bent, stressing the importance of discipline and authority and the weaknesses of democracy and individualism.

"Atrophy" by Ernest Hill

Hill has three novels and 16 stories listed at isfdb.  His primary occupation was as advertising manager of Consulting Engineer, a technical journal.

This is one of those stories about how super-efficient production and high tech entertainment has resulted in people falling into decadence.  We follow a few weeks in the life of Elvin, who spends much of his time lying in bed watching TV or at the "Sensories," a cinema where you watch films and vis electronic devices can feel the oars in your hands and the water on your body as the hero is rowing a boat and feel the lips of the love interest on your own as she kisses the hero.  There is so little productive work needed, and so much seductive electronic entertainment, that the government has to take steps to keep people from "atrophying"--lapsing into a boredom-induced coma.  These steps include make-work jobs that exercise the mind (talking to a computer that awards you money if your conversation is logical) and compulsory sex sessions with your spouse at regular intervals (announced by a bell) that, it is hoped, will maintain some vestige of physical and emotional connection between live human beings.

The plot of "Atrophy" concerns Elvin's career and marriage; Elvin is a mere Worker, and his wife leaves him for a Thinker, which causes Elvin to feel real genuine emotions for the first time in a long time.  The shock of this personal tragedy actually pulls him away from the brink of atrophy and sets his mind in motion to actual creative thought!

Then, at the nuclear reactor where Elvin monitors sensors six hours a day, three days a week, there is a malfunction.  The Thinker in charge of his department is currently incapacitated by atrophy, so  Elvin shows initiative and steps into the breach, becoming a hero and getting a promotion from Worker to Thinker!  When his wife hears the news she returns to him, so entranced by the new Elvin that she is even willing to have sex before the bell has rung!

The point of the story, of course, is that facing real life challenges and dealing with real life people provides personal satisfaction and yields social rewards that cannot be matched by the mere passive consumption of entertainment.

Not bad.  It looks like "Atrophy" has never appeared elsewhere, however.

"Advantage" by John T. Phillifent (as by Arthur Rackham)

Way back in 2015 I read John T. Phillifent's Genius Unlimited and then shared my pain upon doing so with the SF community via this blog.  So I have not in any way been looking forward to reading "Advantage."  Genius Unlimited was so bad that I find Phillifent's career, which saw the publication of over 25 novels and over 50 stories, inexplicable.  They can't all be as bad as Genius Unlimited if  they kept selling, can they?  Maybe Phil was sick when he wrote Genius Unlimited?  Maybe Genius Unlimited was a manuscript written by his brother-in-law and Phillifent sent it in under his own name as a favor?  Well, here's our chance to give Phil another chance.  I actually own at least two more books by Phil, the Ace Double editions of Life With Lancelot (stabled with William Barton's philo-Semitic Hunting on Kunderer) and Treasure of Tau Ceti (printed dos-a-dos with Barry Malzberg's Final War and Other Fantasies.)  Is there any chance that "Advantage" is going to be so good that I am going to eagerly pull those volumes from the back of my shelves to devour the Phillifent contributions?

From the first page of the 1971
printing of
New Writings in SF 6
It is the future, and the human race is colonizing the galaxy.  Once a planet has been cleared for colonization, the settlers are preceded by specialist quasi-military units which prepare the settlement, building housing and roads and hospitals and so forth.  The commander of the finest of these units, the winner of awards for seven previous missions, is Colonel Jack Barclay.

What is the secret to the Colonel's success, you ask?  It's his assistant, Rikki Caddas!  Caddas, you see, is a psyker who can predict efficiency-sapping accidents at the work site, predict them early enough that they can be prevented and valuable lives, material and time saved.  And Caddas predicts these accidents the hard way, by experiencing the agony of those who will be injured if the accident is not prevented!  Because his crew has fewer injuries and accidents, Barclay's unit is the most efficient outfit in the service and Barclay is looking forward to a big promotion!  Barclay keeps Caddas's powers a secret, lest doctors or scientists cart the savant away for treatment or research.

I didn't expect it, but Phillifent here has produced a good story that actually feels fresh, and it is a story about human beings and human relationships as much as it is about colonies on alien worlds and psychic powers.  The ambitious Barclay; the slovenly and hypochondriacal Caddas; Barclay's second-in-command Major Dannard, who is jealous of the apparently useless Caddas's close relationship with the leader he admires; and Dahlia Honey, a former investigative journalist now working for the government who comes to the planet to inspect Barclay's unit, all have satisfying personalities and relationships with each other.  Oy, this may be my favorite story in this book!

The plot of "Advantage" concerns how the actions of Dannard and Honey threaten to separate Caddas from Barclay, and what this will mean for Barclay's career and the colonization effort.

Surprisingly good, I quite enjoyed it.  I really am going to have to reevaluate what I think of Phillifent now!  (Despite my satisfaction with it, "Advantage" has never been reprinted outside of New Writings in SF 6.)

But wait!  There's more!

As previously noted, Joachim Boaz gifted this book to me, and wrote about it himself in November of 2017.  Joachim and I have a severe disagreement about Phillifent's "Advantage," which he dismisses as "Bad" and awards 2.5 out of 5 possible stars.  Joachim's primary complaint seems to be that the story is about an unhealthy person (Caddas) being exploited (by Barclay) and that it has a female villain (Honey.)  Beyond saying that I think a story can be good even if it ain't "woke," I have a few points to make in defense of "Advantage" from Joachim's criticisms:

1) Phillifent is not celebrating without reservation Barclay's benefiting from Caddas's powers; in fact, Barclay is presented as a selfish careerist and he is defeated by Honey and Dannard in the end when Caddas leaves the planet with Honey.  You could argue that the story subtly portrays the protagonist as the villain and Honey, the antagonist, as the good guy.  One of the strengths of the story is that Phillifent draws nuanced characters who feel real and have both strengths and weaknesses.

2) Joachim seems to think Caddas is a minor, but in fact Caddas is an adult who just acts like a child (he is ineffectual, self-absorbed, prone to whining and eating sugary foods) and is thus treated like a child by people like Honey.  

3) While Barclay is certainly benefiting from his relationship with Caddas, he is employing Caddas's powers to save people's lives and protect the taxpayers' investment in the space colonization project-- to contribute to society.  The physically weak and emotionally immature Caddas seems unlikely to contribute to society without Barclay's guidance--you could argue that Barclay is enabling Caddas to lead a productive life while Honey is just infantilizing him.

**********

Not a bad anthology.  Another volume from the Joachim Boaz wing of the MPorcius Library in our next episode!

Saturday, August 18, 2018

1965 stories by Keith Roberts, William Spencer and Robert Presslie

My copy 
Here's the fourth book from the new Joachim Boaz wing of the MPorcius library that I'll be reading, New Writings in SF 6, edited by John Carnell.  This is a copy of the American 1971 Bantam printing; this anthology of all new stories first appeared in Britain in 1965 as a hardcover from Denis Dobson and was presented in paperback by Corgi in 1966 and again in 1971.

Today we'll talk about the first three stories in the book, and then tackle the remaining four in our next blog post.  If you want to read what Joachim had to say about New Writings in SF 6 before or after (or instead of 😢) reading my comments, check out his November 2017 post on the book.  If you are desperate to read the stories before getting spoiled by Joachim or me, or after hearing what we have to say, you need not wait--the 1966 Corgi edition of New Writings in SF 6 is actually available at the internet archive.

"The Inner Wheel" by Keith Roberts

I've never read any fiction by Roberts, though I read his article in Brian Ash's Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction four years ago and poked (gentle?) fun at it on this blog.  "The Inner Wheel" is by far the longest story in this anthology, and Carnell uses up the lion's share of his Foreword to this volume discussing it.  I guess this is an important and widely admired story--it has been published numerous times as the title story of a Roberts collection (sometimes advertised as a novel) which has appeared with various interesting covers.  [UPDATE 8/19/18: isfdb labels The Inner Wheel a collection, but in the comments below Paul Fraser agrees with the people at Playboy Press that the designation of "novel" is appropriate.]

"The Inner Wheel" comes across as a self-consciously literary work, with passages full of italics meant to represent a collective consciousness (or "gestalt mind," as Roberts puts it), lots of poetical repetition, a surreal dream sequence in which rust spreads from a decaying train to the surrounding town and people, and plenty of Dickensian names.  Jimmy Strong, an artist, is our main character.  His father James Strong was a scrap dealer who struck it rich by purchasing old World War II vehicles like Bren carriers and half-tracks and then renting them out to film productions.  After his father's funeral, flush with his inheritance, Jimmy goes to the town of Warwell-on-Starr, which people tell him again and again is "nice."

In the town odd things occur that suggest Jimmy's mind is being read and his unspoken desires responded to; when he feels in need of company some World War II vets appear who tell him stories about their service in the Eighth Army, or a dog, or a sexually available woman.  He also has strange dreams, some of which vaguely hint that a  "Wheel" is "driving this town."  Jimmy is determined to figure out the town's strange secret; in some ways "The Inner Wheel" is structured like a detective story or a Western in which the hero arrives at a corrupt small town and confronts its evil establishment, and Roberts includes what I take to be clues that we should think of the story in this way.

Jimmy meets another attractive woman, Anne Nielson, and he engages in a psychological and psionic struggle over her mind and allegiance with the mysterious psykers who rule Warwell and used their powers to attract Jimmy and Anne to the place in hopes of integrating them into their gestalt.  Jimmy (whom late in the story the omniscient narrator sometimes identifies as "Strong" instead of "Jimmy," reflecting one of "The Inner Wheel"'s themes, that of the maturation process, the growing into adulthood of Jimmy the individual and of the entire human race) discovers the weakness of the gestalt mind, that pain felt by one of the psykers is felt by all, and this discovery facilitates his and Anne's escape.  This escape is likely to only be temporary, but we can hope that, just as Jimmy has grown to be a more responsible, less selfish person, so will the psykers of the gestalt, in course of time, grow into their powers and use them more benignly. 

This story isn't bad, but I felt it too long and in spots tedious with too much description, while the characters of Jimmy and Anne are sort of flat and boring.  The story is vague and dreamlike, and I would have preferred something sharp and bold.  "The Inner Wheel" certainly didn't hold my attention like the two Second Story Books Clearance Cart finds I was reading at the time, James Taylor and Martin Davidson's Bomber Crew and Lyndall Gordon's T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life, so I perhaps didn't give "The Inner Wheel" the attention it deserves as I was reading it 5 or 10 pages at a time over a series of days.

"Horizontal Man" by William Spencer

Am I crazy, or does this look like
Darth Vader's helmet?
Spencer, who worked in advertising and as a college lecturer in English, has like 16 short stories on isfdb; most appeared in New Worlds during the period John Carnell was editing the magazine (before the editorship was taken up by Michael Moorcock and the magazine became the flagship of the New Wave.)

"Horizontal Man" is one of those stories about how in the future everybody will be immersed in virtual reality games and abandon the real world (remember Kuttner and Moore's 1955 story "Two-Handed Engine"?)  Timon (named perhaps for the skeptical philosopher and/or the Athenian misanthrope and hermit?), an artificial umbilical cord providing all the sustenance he needs, sits in a room before a control panel; he has apparently spent hundreds or thousands of years in that couch!  Via the control panel he can call up any of thousands of fantasies to be pumped into his brain via a cable, including affairs with over 900 different women, but he has experienced every fantasy hundreds and hundreds of times and is bored of them all.  Spencer describes a few of the fantasies--surfing, playing four-dimensional chess, and a date at a night club with a sexy chick.  The author compares the fantasies to recorded music--after a few hundred listens a recording of a song is too predictable and becomes tedious, likewise grow boring the 900 women and the multitudinous variations of a game of chess, once Timon is intimately familiar with their every idiosyncrasy.

This is one of those stories that is more of an idea than a plot-driven narrative.  I thought maybe Timon was going to launch a rebellion or commit suicide, but when Timon is on the brink of boredom-induced insanity a robot just comes along and replaces the memory bank so Timon will have new fantasies to occupy him.  Merely acceptable, on the very brink of too boring (ironic, eh?)

It looks like "Horizontal Man" only ever appeared here in New Writings in SF 6.

"The Day Before Never" by Robert Presslie

Am I crazy, or does this look like
a woman's crotch?
Here's another story which never appeared beyond the various printings of New Writings in SF 6.  Robert Presslie has 40 stories listed at isfdb, and most seem to have seen print in British SF magazines like Carnell's New Worlds and Authentic Science Fiction, which was edited in its last two years by our pal E. C. Tubb.  Blogger Andrew Darlington has an extensive blog post about Presslie if you are curious about this guy and his career.

"The Day Before Never" is set in a sort of post-apocalyptic future Earth which has suffered abominably at the hands of hostile space aliens known as "the Barbarians."  These malefactors bombarded the planet with their "glazer" weapon, which "melts" things, but also preserves them, so that people and buildings struck by this ray become an ooze and actually run together, I guess like if you heated two different crayons that were next to each other and then cooled them when they were half melted, creating a blob one third blue, one third yellow, and one third green.

Our narrator is driving across Eastern Europe in a Ferrari (these post-apocalyptic stories generally include an element of wish fulfillment, providing the characters a chance to create a new and better society or, as with this Ferrari, just the opportunity to enjoy luxuries that were out of their price range before the catastrophe) past all the spectacular and grotesque half-melted people and buildings that are littering the landscape.  In a passage made to order for feminist analysis he looks at the bared breasts of the headless corpse of a teenage girl which is half absorbed into a wall.

Our hero isn't just some car thief--he's a secret agent on a mission for the anti-Barbarian resistance!  After thousands of miles of driving, he meets his contact in Riga, a woman.  The alien Barbarians are able to mimic human beings, so to prove his humanity our hero has to have sex with this woman--the aliens cannot convincingly ape human sexual passion.  (Oh, brother.)  Our narrator and this woman are key participants in a complicated resistance operation which seeks to kill all the aliens by simultaneously detonating a number of explosives set in precisely determined locations all over the world.  This scheme is unconvincing and so is the twist ending to Presslie's story.

Presslie tries to use his tedious and crazy tale as a means of talking about human nature (to what extent will people submit to tyranny to survive and to what extent will they risk their lives to oppose tyranny, and to what extent do both the collaborator and the resister compromise their values in their response to tyranny) and attempts to put across a metaphor in which a society's resistance to invasion is like the human body's resistance to infection, but the plot and style of "The Day Before Never" are not good and render any such ambitions a failure.  I have to give the story a thumbs down.  The noteworthy thing about "The Day Before Never" is the sensational/exploitative elements: the weird sex, the violence against women, and the body horror stuff; unfortunately, none of those components of the tale are entertaining or disgusting enough for me to call this a successful horror or shock story.

**********

The back cover of my copy of New Writings in SF 6 has the incongruous heading "SERIOUS BUSINESS" and claims that the stories in the volume represent "fresh new thinking."  The ideas in these three pieces (homo superior in conflict with homo sapiens, hi-tech entertainment leading to decadence, alien invasion, and journeys across a post-apocalyptic landscape) do not feel fresh or new, though I guess they are "serious."  Maybe in our next episode, when we read the rest of the stories in New Writings in SF 6, we really will find some "fresh" ideas?

**********

Bound within this copy of New Writings in SF 6 is the exact same ad for the Science Fiction Book Club we saw in my 1971 copy of The Yngling, the one which includes a "special coin carrier" in which you send the club a dime to pay for a copy of Anthony Boucher's A Treasury of Great Science Fiction.  I own that two-volume anthology, something which I have bragged about on twitter more than once!



Sunday, August 12, 2018

Three science fiction tales by Ray Cummings from 1941


We’re still reading Ray Cummings stories purchased by Fred Pohl for inclusion in SF magazines, stories Pohl intimated (in his memoir The Way the Future Was) that he published even though he didn't like them. Today it’s three stories from 1941 issues of Astonishing and Super Science.  I read them all at the internet archive, and you can do the same--I don't think these pieces ever saw book publication, so the internet archive is probably your best option!

"Magnus' Disintegrator" 

The issue of Astonishing in which "Magnus' Disintegrator" appears carries an interesting editor's note (this department is called "Editoramblings.")  In it Pohl says that reader feedback has indicated that SF fans want longer stories, and so Astonishing's sister publication, Super Science Stories, is being rechristened Super Science Novels and will have more pages, a higher price, and feature longer works.  I'm not sure that I personally favor longer stories (I feel like I often, here at this blog, moan that a story is too long--in related news, when the wife and I are in a hotel room and one of those documentary shows about embezzlers or whatever comes on she has to endure my bitching that "they showed that clip already!" and "they told us this two minutes ago!" and "this show has 10 minutes of information and they are stretching it out to 45 minutes!") but if you go to the SF section of a big chain bookstore today and see how the shelves are full of books two inches thick and series that take up a foot because they consist of six or eight volumes, well, it is hard to disagree with Pohl's assessment of what the mass of customers want. 

"Magnus' Disintegrator" takes us to the New York City of the high tech future of the year 2000, where we meet a guy called Rance.  Wait, is this the synthetic food salesman from "Personality Plus," the best of the eight Cummings stories I've already written about this week?  Apparently not; this dude's first name is Peter, and he is a "private aircar operator," which I think is pronounced "chauffeur."  As the story begins our man Rance is in a lab out at Montauk with his employer, inventor and businessman John Magnus, and Magnus has a heat gun trained on poor Rance, and is saying he is going to blow up his experimental "disintegrator," a kind of reactor that can produce cheap energy, killing both of them.  It will all be worth it, however, because other eggheads will be able to study the recordings of the explosion and gain the knowledge needed to build a better reactor.

The bulk of the rest of the story consists of a flashback that explains why Magnus wants to die, and why he wants to murder Rance, during which it becomes clear I am supposed to sympathize with the businessman instead of his driver.  Magnus committed some business blunders that cost him much of his business empire and some engineering blunders with earlier versions of the reactor that got some peeps killed and got government regulators all up in his grill!  Magnus was just about to shoot himself with his heat gun when he learned that his sexy blonde daughter Carole wanted to marry Rance; Rance has a reputation as a womanizer and no doubt the main thing attracting him to Carole is her inheritance!  (Three of the five 1940 horror stories we read by Cummings just a few days ago had some jerk scheming to get an inheritance, and here Cummings is playing this tune yet again!)  Magnus would rather kill the chauffer than let him break his little princess's heart, so he concocted the plan of blowing Rance up along with himself by messing with the experimental reactor.  (For the reactor to operate, two people have to be at the controls, so he couldn't just blow himself up with it.)

The flashback brings us up to the present, to the lab out on the tip of Long Island.  Rance doesn't feel like sacrificing his life for science so he tackles Magnus and they wrestle over the heat gun.  The weapon goes off and hits the reactor in such a way that it emits poison gas that kills our horn dog chauffeur (the gas just makes the businessman/inventor pass out) and also somehow makes the reactor work smoothly so it doesn't blow up.  Magnus's daughter is safe from the womanizing Rance and the now perfected reactor will restore the finances of Magnus's company and slash energy prices and lead to worldwide economic growth.

Besides feeling contrived, "Magnus' Disintegrator" feels like it was constructed out of pieces plucked from the other Cummings stories we've been reading; it's like the Cummings of '40 and '41 has a limited number of Legos and each thing he builds out of them incorporates bricks we've seen already in somewhat different configurations.

The interesting facet of "Magnus' Disintegrator" is that the good guy is a big businessman and the villain is a working-class guy trying to get his mitts on the industrialist's daughter; I feel like most SF stories are written by pinkos who would side with a working-class dude against a magnate, or by libertarian types who would celebrate a young woman striking a blow for independence and fighting for the right to choose her own husband.  It is definitely weird that the penultimate paragraph of the story is about how great it is that Magnus will be able to guide his daughter's life--aren't most of the stories we read about individuals who (at least try to) forge their own destinies?

I like that Cummings is airing some unusual points of view in this story, but I wish it was better plotted; as it stands I cannot recommend it.

"Almost Human"

This issue of Super Science has a terrific cover--a man in a wifebeater T-shirt and a gorilla, both armed with elaborate modernistic dart launchers, are trying to rescue a gorgeous babe from the clutches of a giant baboon!  (Or is it a bear?)  This incredible tableau reminds me of the Schoenherr cover to my copy of A. E. van Vogt's The Battle of Forever, which introduced me to a hero whom I will always hold close to my heart, the rifle-toting HippoMan!

"Almost Human" is about a robot who develops a personality. Xor-2y4 is a robot pilot, an electronic brain which is interred in a stylized humanoid body which lacks the ability to walk; it is carried from one aircar or spacecraft to another when its duties change—and they have changed recently. You see, Xor was the personal aircar operator of Jon Dekain, famous robot maker and Xor's own creator, and spent a lot of time flying around with the doctor’s lovely daughter Barbara, known as Babs (yes, another Babs—Cummings reuses everything, including names.)  An alien from Asteroid 90, Sirrah Gerondli, was scheduled to meet with Dekain, and Xor was chauffeuring this xeno to the meeting and crashed the vehicle, killing the alien.  After this accident Xor was checked out (Dekain found nothing wrong) and transferred to the pilot’s seat of a space ship (yes, after killing one guy and wrecking a 100,000 dollar vehicle they gave Xor responsibility for dozens of people and a bazillion dollar vehicle. This is what we call failing upwards.)

As our story begins Xor is conning his first flight to Mars, and the passengers aboard include not only Dekain the engineer/businessman and his daughter Babs, but Sirrah Ahli, ambassador to Earth from Asteroid 90 and brother of crash victim Sirrah Gerondli!  

Xor has superhearing, and by listening in on conversations in the ship realizes the terrible position Babs and the entire solar system are in. The people of Asteroid 90 are aggressive and want to conquer Mars (evoking the image of Nazi Germany, it is said that the asteroid people "want living space, as they call it....")  In response to the burgeoning Asteroid 90 threat, the people of Mars have purchased military hardware from Dekain’s firm, and this very ship is carrying a load of “space-bomb sights” and “rangefinders for space-guns.” Ahli, who has managed to sneak aboard a squad of Asteroid 90 commando stowaways, is plotting to hijack the ship and take its valuable cargo (which includes sexy Babs--"A beautiful little thing--if you like Earthgirls, and I do") to Asteroid 90!

I've already told you Xor can't walk--well, he can't talk either!  (This is a serious plot hole—don’t pilots in real life have to communicate to crew and passengers all the time?  Who would build a robot that can take orders in English but can't talk back, if only to answer "how long til we get there?" and "does the vehicle require maintenance?" type questions?)  Xor can't walk, he can't talk, but he can feel, and he feels a fondness for Babs and even feels that he was created for the singular destiny of being Babs's protector!  So Xor takes matters into his own hands! The heroic robot accelerates the ship into the red zone—the asteroid people grew up in less gravity than did the Earthers, so the level of gravity that merely renders the humans unconscious crushes the bodies of the space Nazis, killing them.

When the humans wake up they almost deactivate and destroy Xor, but at the last moment uncover the dead imperialist stowaways and realize that Xor has saved them all.  In the last column of the tale we learn that Xor killed Gerondli because he had overheard that alien’s plan to kidnap Babs.

"Almost Human" is an acceptable classic SF story, you might call it a space opera, which addresses common SF topics (might a robot or computer become conscious, have emotions?) and employs traditional SF elements (robot and his inventor, hostile aliens, and the use of trickery and science knowledge to defeat the enemy and resolve the plot.)  This story is also in the long SF tradition of what we today might call “celebrating diversity;” Xor the robot is an "other" embraced by the flesh creatures and, while there are villainous aliens (Asteroid 90’s space Nazis), there are also good aliens (the Martians) who have treaties and conduct trade with Earth.

I never really got an answer on those cellophane pants.
"Aerita of the Light Country"

I'm always hearing how fiction needs to include strong female protagonists; well, if the cover of this issue of Super Science Novels is to be believed, Ray Cummings was working the strong female protagonist beat over 70 years ago!  Nothing says "strong female" like a woman blasting a  guy with a ray gun while he is testing out his new headphones, immersed in the delicate nuances and rococo intricacies of "The Firth of Fifth."

Among the Ray Cummings novels I recently received from Joachim Boaz are Tama of the Light Country and Tama, Princess of Mercury, novels originally serialized in Argosy magazine in 1930 and 1931.  Is the "Complete Book-Length Novel" under discussion today a sequel to those capers?  Is Aerita Tama's daughter or niece or something?  And what is up with the transparent bloomers?  Well, let's see.

The year is 2093, the place, a small town in upstate New York.  Alan Grant, 24, a towering hunk of an aircraft battery salesman who is just passing through, goes to a freak show to kill time and is entranced by a five-foot tall girl in her late teens with a beautiful face of mysterious ethnicity, silver hair and blue-feathered wings!  When he realizes she is being held captive by the freak show owner, he liberates her and she leads him to her space ship.  (Earth once had spacecraft, but no longer--there is a hint that Cummings's Tama books explain in greater detail why there are no human spacecraft in 2093.)  I guess being an airplane parts salesman is not as fun as it sounds, because Alan agrees to accompany the winged girl, Aerita, to Mercury.

On the flight Alan learns all about Mercury.  "The Light Country" is Mercury's twilight zone--it is bordered by the Fire Country on one side and the Dark Country on the other.  (When these old SF stories were written people thought Mercury was tidally locked to the Sun, with one permanently dark side and one perpetually roasted side; wikipedia is telling me that it was not until 1965 that radar revealed the truth about Mercury's rotation.)  Aerita is the great-great-great-granddaughter of Tama and an Earthman who traveled to Mercury long ago (or maybe the great-great-great-great-granddaughter.)  The hot little planet is going through a period of political crisis and change.  Mercurian men don't have wings, which gives them something of an inferiority complex, so, by law, when they get married, Mercurian women have their wings clipped so they can't fly anymore.  (Whoa, this is a real feminist story!)  Aerita is the head of a protest movement, leader of a thousand girls who have declared they will not marry until the law is changed and they will be permitted to keep their ability to fly after being wed.  These reformers have left the city and set up a camp in mountains only accessible by those who can fly.

Because of hi-tech wars in the past, studying science is forbidden on Mercury, but Aerita's grandfather Polter, like Aerita herself, is a freethinker!  He built the spaceship, the only one of its kind, that brought Aerita to Earth due to a malfunction.  Why did it malfunction?  Because another independent-minded scientist, Rahgg, not a kindly grandpapa but a dangerous criminal (Cummings hints that he is a rapist or pedophile; maybe he belongs on Planet Hollywood instead of Planet Mercury) who was exiled to the Dark Country, where he became leader of the savages there, hijacked the ship and kidnapped Aerita, and in the course of escaping his clutches Aerita accidentally directed the vessel into interplanetary space and couldn't figure out the controls until she was near our own big blue marble.

Alan quickly finds himself in the middle of all these political crises.  First he quells a working class riot (these incels want the government to force Aerita's adamant virgins to abandon their protest and get their wings clipped marry them) with his Earth ray gun.  Having the only firearm on the planet gives Alan a big advantage over the forces of evil, but then the gun-control crazy Mercurian government confiscates the pistol!  Doh!  So when a Light Country official who is colluding with Rahgg kidnaps Aerita and Alan joins a squad of flying girls in their effort to rescue her, he has to fight with a knife, just like the native Mercurians!  You'd think that 6' 4" Alan would be able to handle a bunch of Mercurian men (average height: 5' 6") in a knife fight, especially when his Earth muscles give him what amounts to super strength on Mercury, but things don't work out for our man--the winged girls get killed and Grant joins Aerita in captivity!  Doh!

Rahgg not only captures Aerita and Alan Grant, but captures the space ship again!  (Sometimes it feels like Rahgg is the only person in the story who can get things done!)  Directed by poor Alan, whom he gets to spill the beans on Earth by threatening to torture Aerita, Rahgg and company fly to Earth where they loot government munitions factories on the Hudson in upstate New York, including the ray artillery plant where Alan's brother Phil Grant, an eighteen-year-old scientist, is working.  Phil gets captured and taken back to Mercury along with all those ray pistols and ray cannons!

Alan may not know how to handle a knife, but he knows how to handle the ladies!  Among Rahgg's retinue of Dark Country savages is Zara, a sexy servant woman who brings everybody on the ship their meals.  (The people of the Dark Country are ethnically distinct from Aelita's people; among other differences, they lack wings.)  Zara is infatuated with big strong Alan, so she helps him move some of the Earth pistols onto a glider in the ship's hold; shortly after the ship enters Mercury's atmosphere Phil escapes on the glider and flies to the hideout of the protesting virgins.  When the ship lands at Rahgg's lair Zara helps Alan escape--much to Zara's displeasure Alan also springs her rival for Alan's affections, Aerita, leading to something of a cat fight.

Alan and Aerita are reunited with Phil and the 1000 flying virgins, and they attack Rahgg's army, which is marching on the Light Country's capital city.  A ray gun battle ensues, in which hundreds of people, including Phil, are killed or dismembered, but eventually the Earth brothers and the flying girls prevail.  Women having saved the Light Country, the working classes accept that they won't be clipping wives' wings anymore, and Alan and one-armed Phil set an example by marrying winged girls of their own.

"Aerita of the Light Country" is an entertaining Edgar Rice Burroughs/Edmond Hamilton/Leigh Brackett type of adventure story in which a modern Earther ends up making friends with people on another world and fighting in their wars; Cummings adds some interest to the story with all that gender conflict, class conflict, racial conflict, and luddism we've been talking about.  Brackett often electrifies her planetary romances with harsh violence and/or sexual energy, and Cummings does the same here; it seems Cummings didn't confine the topics of rape, torture and murderous love triangles to the fiction he produced for Horror Stories and Terror Tales, but integrated them into his more science-fictiony work.  It will be interesting to see if Cummings included this edge of sadism and eroticism in the two Tama novels, which appeared a decade before "Aerita."

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More Cummings soon, but first some more recent fiction from a book on the shelves of the Joachim Boaz Wing of the MPorcius Library!