Friday, November 30, 2018

Three "Weird Mysteries" from the 1950s by Robert Bloch

As you know, I have been looking at a lot of early 1970s issues of Amazing.  In the September 1971 issue we find an ad for other magazines from Amazing's publisher, Ultimate Publishing Co.  Among this stable of weird and wonderful publications is something called Weird Mystery; a look at isfdb indicates that this was a reprint magazine which lasted only four issues, two published in '70 and two in '71.  Psycho scribe Robert Bloch's work is advertised on the cover of three of the four issues, and I decided to read these old Bloch pieces, 1950s stories which editor Sol Cohen thought fit to republish at the dawn of the "Me Decade."  There were four such stories, but unfortunately only three, were available at the internet archive.  The fourth, "Hungarian Rhapsody," will have to await a later date to receive the MPorcius treatment.

"The Dead Don't Die!" (1951)

Reprinted in the Summer 1971 issue of Weird Mystery, "The Dead Don't Die" first appeared in Fantastic Adventure with an illustration by Virgil Finlay that integrates an electric chair and a line of bikini girls.  Mind blown! 

Whoa, this story is long--over 40 pages!  That is what we lazy people call an investment!  I wouldn't bat an eye over tackling a forty-page story by a legitimately talented master of the English language like a Gene Wolfe or Jack Vance, or somebody who reliably offers compelling fast-paced adventures like a Leigh Brackett or Edmond Hamilton, or somebody who specializes mindboggling experiments hatched his own peculiar point of view like an A. E. van Vogt or Barry Malzberg.  But I think Robert Bloch is overrated and I was just going to read these things out of curiosity, as a kind of a lark.  Well, I'm still curious, so let's move forward and hope for the best!


Gadzooks!  The first sentence of the story is "This is a story that never ends."  Bloch is already yanking my chain!

The narrator of "The Dead Don't Die!" is a writer of horror fiction named Bob who has taken a job as a guard at a prison.  He makes friends with a guy on death row, Cono Colluri, a circus strongman whom Bob believes to be innocent.  The day after Cono is executed the real killer of Cono's wife confesses.  Oops!  Cono had no friends or relatives, so he left the eight thousand bucks he had saved up to Bob!  (In today's money that is like $75,000!)  Cono's "banker" was The Great Ahmed, a palmreader also attached to that travelling circus. The Great Ahmed has quit the circus and moved to Chicago, so Bob heads up there.  The first person he meets in Chi-town is a cool blue-eyed blonde (a natural blonde, even!) named Vera LaValle.

I found myself enjoying this story a lot more than I had expected to.  The narration was smooth and conversational, and the whole thing was very noirish, with the night time city streets, wet with rain, reflecting the neon signs of bars as the elevated train clack clack clacks overhead.  I even smiled at the obvious jokes:


Maybe I really was a Robert Bloch fan and I just hadn't seen his best work yet?

After a violent interlude in a tavern full of professional beggars who feign disability, the sexy blonde brings Bob to Nicolo Varek.  Varek introduces himself as a "man of science" and claims to "have perfected a means, a methodology, a therapy if you like, that defeats what men call death."  Unlike many men of science, he can back up his claims: Cono Corulli, alumnus of the electric chair, is on his feet, stiff and stumbling and with some nervous tics and a low low blood temperature, but alive!

Varek pressures Bob to become one of his henchmen, to act as his go-between in his business of discreetly selling immortality to millionaires.  Sensing that those who gain eternal life via Varek's method lose their souls, Bob refuses this job opportunity and has to fight his way to freedom, past the cold clutches of his former friend Cono, now Varek's obedient servant!  Bob hooks up with The Great Ahmed, who provides him shelter and promises to help him.  While Ahmed is away "investigating" Varek's organization, Vera LaValle levitates into the third story window of the guest room where Bob is sleeping and tries to murder our hero with a knife.  Bob overpowers her, and being struck brings the hypnotized blonde to her senses, and she relates to Bob the horrible truth about Varek and about herself!

Paris, 1794, the Terror!  Varek, a foreign alchemist!  Vera, the daughter of a wealthy merchant!  Vera's father feared for his daughter's life amidst the revolutionary chaos, and hoped to marry her to Varek, who, with his Russian passport, should be able to safely leave Paris, a city which trembled under the shadow of the guillotine!  When Varek met Vera he fell in love, she being so gorgeous, but he was way too creepy for Vera, what with his claims of having learned occult sciences in India and China, of being hundreds of years old and on the cusp of discovering the secret of raising the dead thanks to his experimenting on the copious supply of decapitated corpses mass produced by the guillotine--the mademoiselle rejected him with a laugh!  It is not long after that Vera and her father fell victim to the Terror, and Varek collected the blonde bombshell's body, sewed her tete back on, and brought her back to life!  A queer half life of cold flesh, flesh that need not eat nor sleep, a life subject to the hypnotic control of Varek the diabolical genius!  A living death she has endured for over one hundred fifty years!

"The Dead Don't Die!" is included in this
oft-reprinted anthology of zombie stories
By relating her story to Bob, Vera has betrayed her master, and Varek offhandedly destroys her via remote control.  Ahmed the Great returns from his detective work and Vera's eight pages of exposition are followed by two pages of exposition from this dude.  The entire world is menaced by Verak's army of living dead people, who lay in wait in cold storage in secret vaults under every major world city!  Fortunately, Ahmed has a plan to confront Varek and save the day.  Unfortunately, halfway to Verak's supposed lair, Bob realizes the plan is a trap--Ahmed is Verak in disguise!  Bob makes a break for it, and on his own finds one of Verak's laboratories, complete with a refrigerated room full of scores of dead people awaiting reanimation.  He is just about to blow the place up with some convenient explosives when Cono appears!  Will Cono do Varek's bidding and break Bob's neck, or can Bob break Varek's hypnotic hold on Cono and foil the evil scientist's plans for world domination?

("The Dead Don't Die!" is "a story that never ends" because Bob suspects there really are labs and cold storage units all over the world, carefully hidden, and perhaps even animated dead that walk among us, so the destruction of Varek's Chicago lair may not end the living dead menace.)

I liked the noirish beginning of this story, but things get a little bogged down with Vera's long description of Varek's career in the 18th and 19th centuries (in a section that nowadays might be called racist we learn about Verak's tenure in Haiti) and then all the details of how Varek's method really works--besides hypnotism and Satanism there is also lots of electrical and mechanical stuff going on (Bloch seriously overdoes the explanations, unnecessarily covering all the science fictional and supernatural bases.)  Bloch also seems to be trying to show off his knowledge, or to give us an education, piling on explicit references to Poe and Victor Hugo as well as all that revolutionary history and zombie and vampire folklore.  Oh, and there are also some superfluous dream sequences.

It is too long, but "The Dead Don't Die!" is entertaining enough.  We're marking this one moderately good.   

"A Lesson for the Teacher" (1958)

"A Lesson for the Teacher" was first published in Fantastic and reprinted in the Winter 1970 Weird Mystery.  Bloch doesn't get top billing this time, and the illustration his story receives is a total bore.  Ouch!


It is schoolteacher Ruth Bailey's thirty-seventh birthday.  Her fiance killed in the war fifteen years ago, with no family or friends, it is a lonely birthday.  But a knock at the door!  A tall handsome stranger!  A Frenchman from Martinique, he wants one-on-one instruction in colloquial American English!  Three nights a week, five bucks a night!  And of course Monsieur Clay needs to learn about American customs and culture in the field, and what better way than to take Ruth out on the town the other two nights of the week?

Bloch fills this story with puns (e.g., "the menopause that refreshes"), and, after a brief bit of conflict, gives it a happy ending.  Ruth falls in love with Clay, and gets jealous when Clay goes out with a younger woman.  But then that younger woman comes to Ruth's place to warn her that Clay is a weirdo!  The next time Ruth sees Clay he admits that he is no Frenchman, but something even weirder--a space alien, an anthropologist who has come to Earth to learn about our culture.  While here he has fallen in love with Ruth, and he teleports them to another star system to live happily ever after.

One of the noteworthy things about "A Lesson for the Teacher" is Ruth's denunciation of the 1950s youth culture of rebellion, drugs and rock and roll, which brought to mind Richard Mathesson's 1955 attack on the youth culture and decadence in America, "Dance of the Dead."  I'm no expert on Bloch, but there seems to be a thread of conservatism running through his work--"The Dead Don't Die" took the conservative line about revolution ("revolution always leads to dictatorship") and expressed sympathy for the bourgeoisie, and according to Wikipedia, 1982's Psycho II was "intended to critique Hollywood splatter films."

While of interest for historical and sociological reasons (the aforementioned attack on developments in American culture and the fact that we have here a man trying to write about a woman's psychological and relationship problems), "A Lesson for the Teacher" is only OK as a story; I'm putting this one in the "acceptable filler" slot that so many of these stories from magazines end up in.  It looks like "A Lesson for the Teacher" never appeared in any book, just these two magazines--not a big hit with editors, it seems.  I'm not even sure why Cohen included it in Weird Mystery--there is no horror or detective content.

"The Hungry Eye" (1959)

Bloch is back on the cover!  The first time SF fans had a chance to gaze into "The Hungry Eye" was when it was printed in Fantastic and heralded by a mesmerizing cover featuring a striking blonde and a ridiculous whirlwind-embedded eyeball.  Unfortunately, this issue of Fantastic is not at the internet archive; fortunately "The Hungry Eye" was reprinted in 1966 in Great Science Fiction (five years before its reappearance in the Spring '71 issue of Weird Mystery) and that issue is available at the internet archive.

Another Chicago story!  (I actually like Chicago; nice bookstores, nice museums.  I hear that people are massacring each other over there, but I doubt that the mayhem is taking pace in the neighborhood with the museums and the bookstores.)  The narrator of "The Hungry Eye" is Dave Larson, stand up comic!  This provides Bloch an opportunity to again play cultural critic, griping about how comics all have the same routines; for example, how "Today every comic talks about visiting his psychiatrist."  Mental illness is a major topic of the story and of Dave's act--the 20th-century world, the world of the gas chamber and the atomic bomb, is a world that is going crazy, a world full of "sick" people.  Dave provides us a half-joking list of all the sickos out there, a list that includes "necrophiles" and "zooerasts."  Among the sick are the audiences of his and other comedians' acts, the beatniks!  According to Dave, the beatniks are a bunch of self-consciously showy nonconformists who are really just as conformist as the squares they make fun of, a plague of would-be Jack Keroacs who romanticize their drug use and sexual promiscuity and expect other people to clean up the messes they make of their lives and others' lives.

Dave has a grudge against beatniks in part because his brother George is a beatnik!  George was nothing but trouble, trouble Dave was always trying to get him out of, until he vanished five years ago.  As this story begins, George is back in Dave's life, and he is in real trouble this time--the cops want him for murder!  While working as a security guard for the Art Institute he killed another guard, or so it is said; Dave doubts his brother capable of such violence.  But then Dave meets a researcher from the Institute who suggests that George became a killer because he came into contact with a jewel.  This jewel was made from a sentient alien meteorite that has the power to hypnotize people and turn them into serial killers!  At first Dave thinks this ridiculous, but it is not long before the bloody scene of George's own murder makes a believer out of him!  Dave snatches up the jewel with the plan of giving it to that academic, but the jewel, which has the shape of an eye, begins to work on him!


The Eye transmits to Dave's brain the story of its arrival on Earth centuries ago, when it landed near a naked virgin who had been left alone on a barren plain as a sacrifice to the wolves!  The Eye gave her the strength and bloodlust to return to her village and wreak a terrible vengeance on those who had selected her as the yearly sacrifice!  From then on, decade after decade, century after century, the Eye passed from hand to hand, inspiring each of its possessors to murder--such possessors included Jack the Ripper!  (Jack the Ripper is a recurring figure in Bloch's work.)  Through the medium of the eye, Dave can "remember" the sensations of all those killers as they committed their crimes, from that virgin all the way up to George and George's own killer...is Dave himself going to begin a career as a serial killer at the direction of the diabolical Eye from outer space?

"The Hungry Eye" is significantly better than the other two stories we've read today.  Unlike the innocuous "Lesson for the Teacher," it is an engaging horror story that isn't weighted down with distracting puns.  And it is far more economical than "The Dead Don't Die!", while its boldly drawn depictions of Chicago beatniks and an ancient tribe that practices human sacrifice are much more compelling than "The Dead Don't Die!"'s blah blah blah about Revolutionary France and Haiti.  "The Hungry Eye" is an effective horror story with some memorable horror images (and plenty of material about how much beatniks suck.)  Thumbs up!

"The Hungry Eye" has appeared in quite a few Bloch collections and SF anthologies.


**********

These three stories, especially "The Hungry Eye," are making me feel much more in tune with all the people who are always praising Bloch.  ("The Animal Fair," which I read early this year, had a similar effect, and now that my memory has been jogged I recall that 1971 story also contains complaints about drug use, rampant sexuality and the youth culture.)  Maybe I have been wrong to judge Bloch on such lame stories as "Mother of Serpents," and "The Hungry House."

More SF stories from the 1950s in our next episode--stay tuned!

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Three Amazing 1971 stories by Ted White


Working on my recent posts about Bob Shaw's 1973 collection Tomorrow Lies in Ambush I found myself looking through lots of 1971 issues of Amazing, then edited by Ted White.  I like White's work as an editor and as a writer, and so I decided to read the stories by White himself that he included in Amazing in the year of my birth.  (Editors including their own stories in the books and magazines they edit is one of those things that feels kind of sketchy, but it was a common practice and I guess we just have to accept it.)

"A Girl Like You"

Ted's editorial in the March 1971 issue of Amazing is about comics fandom and his role in XERO, a Hugo-winning fanzine that included lots of articles about comics, and All in Color For a Dime, the 1970 book edited by Richard Lupoff about comics.  Ted describes his (not very successful) attempts to promote the book and SF in general on a radio talk show and here in Amazing achieves a little revenge by getting in digs at Little Orphan Annie and "the Silent Majority."  The editorial finishes up with a brief discussion of an article by our pal Barry Malzberg about Scientology.  It seems Barry wrote about his personal experience with Scientology in the November 1970 issue of Amazing and was threatened by the Scientology people with a lawsuit for libel; the editorial finishes with a letter from Malzberg that is apparently intended to defuse the situation (or perhaps it is a joke...I haven't read the actual article so cannot be sure.)

In his little intro to his story "A Girl Like You" Ted tells us it is about a United States that has instituted an apartheid system--the little intros you find in old SF magazines are always full of spoilers.  Anyway, over the course of the eight-page story we follow the terrible history of Mari-Ellen Agnew (oh, brother.)  Her husband, David, foolishly decided to take their armored car out at night, and they were ambushed by blacks.  The car knocked out by an armor piercing shell, Mari-Ellen, David, and the four black servants accompanying them were forced to bail out, and only Mari-Ellen managed to escape with her life.  It is not long, however, before she is captured by one of the people who ambushed them.

Her captor interrogates Mari-Ellen and in a flashback we learn that David risked driving at night because he was fleeing retribution at the hands of the local authorities--David had found Mari-Ellen cheating on him with a major in the Internal Security Police and bloodied the cop's nose and had his black servants throw him, naked, out onto the street.  In the alternate universe Ted has constructed here, middle-class white women have easy lives, and get bored, and so fill their days with drugs and sexual shenanigans, competing to bed the most married men.  ("Status was achieved by the accumulation of a respectable score....")  After Mari-Ellen tells her tale of decadence she falls to the ground and begs for mercy--the black man shoots her to death.

This is sort of a crazy story.  Like Ed Bryant's 1970 story "In the Silent World," which we read in our last episode, you could say the story is white liberal "virtue signalling," a story in which the writer tells you our society is racist and assures you he is against racism but doesn't have the space or energy to actually say anything interesting about race relations or the African-American experience or anything like that.  (Feminists will wonder why both stories have women protagonists--are our male authors portraying white women as the primary perpetrators and/or victims of white racism against blacks?)  But while Bryant's story is bland, White here produces what feels like an exploitation piece full of gore and salacious sexual content.  We hear all about Mari-Ellen's injuries--the burns on her hands from climbing out of the burning car, her painfully sprained ankle, and the gunshots that end her life; the final sentences of the story feel like something written by Clive Barker as White describes the path of each of those three bullets through Mari-Ellen's body: "...cutting across a shoulder blade like a hot knife, then tearing into her spine where it fragmented."  As for sex, there is all the talk of promiscuity and infidelity, and then the description of David, having discovered her with the Major, smacking Mari-Ellen in the face and then putting her over his knee and spanking her--Mari-Ellen finds this punishment sexually arousing: "[the spanking] warmed her loins for her in a way she had previously never known."  Just before she is shot Mari-Ellen urinates on herself in fear.

It is hard not to think White wanted to write a fetishistic horror story about violence against women and used fashionable hatred of the Nixon administration and opposition to racism as a kind of fig leaf to justify his production of this gruesome piece of pornography.  Thumbs down, I'm afraid. 

Unsurprisingly, "A Girl Like You" has not appeared elsewhere.

"Growing Up Fast in the City"

The May 1971 issue is Amazing's 45th anniversary issue, and Ted's editorial gives a fun and opinionated history of the magazine and its place in SF history.  (Sample opinion: Ted says that Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler are "better writers than any sf has yet produced.")

"Growing Up Fast in the City" is a first-person narrative; our narrator is a sixteen-year-old boy who attends lots of "rallies" which end up being violently broken up by the police.  He comes to these rallies prepared with a drug that serves as an antidote to the nausea induced by the cop's "Sick Gas" as well as a crowbar, and generally leaves the events with a girl he has picked up--his practice is to have sex with these girls in a convenient alley.  Our hero doesn't confine himself to the ladies however; there are references to circle-jerks with other boys and a confession that one of his most enjoyable sexual experiences was receiving fellatio from another boy.

Our story begins at one of those rallies; Ted includes some slang I guess he made up (people over 18 are called "Voters" and adolescents are called "Intermediaries") to suggest this is the future or another universe or something.  Our narrator is cynical: it is not clear what the rally is for or against, and we are later told he goes to these rallies for "kicks," not out of some political conviction.  This rally was meant to be secret, but the police immediately show up and our narrator theorizes that the organizers of the rallies tip off the cops because all the violence maintains the high tensions that drive the organizers' own popularity.

Our narrator picks up a girl and they flee when the police move in to disperse the rally--he uses his crowbar to break into an emergency exit from the New York City subway, going in through the out door, as it were.  Back at her apartment they smoke "hash" and have sex and the girl, 14, explains that girls like to be romanced, that for a female to enjoy sex she needs to have some kind of feelings for the boy.  Throughout the story White suggests that our narrator is maturing, and in these apartment scenes hints that he is less interested in casual sex than he used to be and may actually be falling in love with this girl.  But the end of the story informs us that they never saw each other again; the narrator tried to find her, but she must have moved or maybe even been killed.  He has had sex with many girls since then, but he has never felt about any like he does about her.       

The sex in the story is, presumably, meant to be titillating (the girl also relates how a cop at an earlier rally tore her dress and tried to get her to perform oral sex on him) but Ted is also trying to pull the old heart strings here and say something about life.  I'll call this one acceptable.  "Growing Up Fast in the City" has never been reprinted.

"Junk Patrol"

White's editorial in the September 1971 issue is about the failure of the American SST program.  (One of my memories of New York in the '90s, cherished lo these many years of beige suburban existence, is unexpectedly spotting a Concorde parked at JFK from across the Bay from the Wildlife Refuge where I was on one of my birdwatching walks.)  Ted laments the defeat of the SST program in Congress, arguing that the development of faster transport would have been a boon to the human race and complaining that the environmentalist arguments against SST were disingenuous, while the spokespeople who supported the SST argued their case incompetently.

White finishes his editorial by griping that the publisher shortened his novel Trouble on Project Ceres by chopping off the first two chapters.  (It sounds liker poor Ted was having a tough month.)  Ted informs us that these two chapters will be published in the fanzine Granfalloon, and gets a small measure of revenge by subtly suggesting that we readers only make the effort to buy Trouble on Project Ceres after first seeking it at the local library!


After Ted's excursions into splatterpunk and sexual coming-of-age drama, I was pleased to find that "Junk Patrol," the cover story of this issue of Amazing, fits the traditional narrow definition of SF: this is a story about men donning space suits and risking their lives in orbit over the Moon!  I don't have any objection to SF stories that ask "What would it be like to be a murder victim?" or "What would it be like to have gay sex?" but I sort of got into SF because I was interested in questions like "What would it be like to live on a colony on the Moon?"  (People like Nabokov and Proust can handle all my impending death and homosexual relationship literary needs.)  I was further pleased to find that Ted has some pretty interesting SF ideas to impart to us in this one!

It is the 21st-century, and ingenious mankind has generated an atmosphere on the moon, and surrounded the entire moon with a thin plastic sheet that helps maintain atmospheric pressure.  On the surface are little towns and farms; our narrator, Sam Davies, is a farmer, and also a member of the "patrol."  In this story he and other patrolmen are ferried by a spaceship out of one of the entry/exit holes in the "pliofilm envelope which girds the Moon" into space, where they go on a spacewalk in order to collect giant conglomerations of twisted machinery that are approaching Luna--these hunks of junk are the mysterious evidence of a lost alien civilization.  Normally such artifacts are collected and taken to the lunar surface for study, but the pieces captured today are so huge, actually bigger than the spacecraft that brought the patrolmen out to them, that the men direct them towards Earth, where they will go into orbit and be studied in space.  Davies commits a blunder, cutting his suit and foot on a jagged piece of metal projecting from one of the colossal artifacts, and he and his comrades scramble to save his life.

White's fiction often contains "meta" elements and SF community in-jokes (you'll remember that there is a minor character named Terri Carr in White's By Furies Possessed) and in this one Davies refers to old pulp magazines and, more jarringly, the leader of his patrol is named "Jerome Podwill" (two "l"s.)  The real life Jerome Podwil (one "l") painted covers for many paperbacks, including some we've talked about here at MPorcius Fiction Log, like Raymond F. Jones's The Cybernetic Brains and Ray Cummings's Tama, Princess of Mercury.  Like two years ago I almost bought A. Bertram Chandler's Empress of Outer Space because I loved the Podwil cover, but I held back.

I love a good story about astronauts dealing with zero gravity and space suits and all that, and I'm relieved that I can unabashedly recommend one of today's stories.  Thumbs up for "Junk Patrol!"  Despite my approval, "Junk Patrol" would never again be published.  Shouldn't there be an anthology of stories about people who get holes in their space suits?

**********

These three stories, even though I think one is pretty good, all feel like White threw them together quickly in response to some emergency, like he lacked a story of just the right length or tone for the next issue and its deadline was breathing down his neck.  I hope he didn't rush them into production because he needed the money!  (I have heard that editors who publish their own stories in the anthologies or magazines they are editing get to pay themselves for the stories.)  "Junk Patrol," with its astronaut hardware, inscrutable extraterrestrial artifacts and little science lectures, is a perfect fit for a venerable, pioneering SF magazine and beyond reproach; the other two stories we read today are a little questionable, though I guess sex sells, and, unless you can get the taxpayer to foot the bill as Michael Moorcock was able to with New Worlds, an editor has to keep an eye on those circulation numbers.

In our next episode: more crazy stories from old magazines available at the internet archive!

Monday, November 26, 2018

1970 stories by Clifford Simak, Ed Bryant, and George Zebrowski & Jack Dann

While working on my blog posts about Bob Shaw's 1973 collection of short stories Tomorrow Lies in Ambush, I flipped through the March 1970 issue of If and became intrigued by a story by Clifford Simak, "The Thing in the Stone," because it was accompanied by a moody illustration of a bipedal dinosaur.  Like everybody, I love dinosaurs.  So today we are looking at this story and two others in that issue of If, which also features debate about race and IQ in the letters column and an ad in which Tony Curtis offers you a button reading "IQ" (which stands for "I Quit") if you quit smoking cigarettes.

"The Thing in the Stone" by Clifford Simak

"The Thing in the Stone" was apparently a hit with readers, coming in second to Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser story "Ill Met in Lankhmar" in the voting for the 1971 Hugo for Best Novella.  It was included in Wollheim and Carr's World's Best Science Fiction 1971 and has appeared in many anthologies and collections and been translated into six foreign languages.

This is one of those pastoral stories about country folk in the Wisconsin hulls who sit on porches and look at the hills and gossip about foxes and chickens and moonshining.  Wallace Daniels has lived in the area only three years as the story begins.  We learn that he likes climbing the hills and looking for fossils, but he sees more than fossils on these daily outings--he sees prehistoric plants and animals in the flesh!  In a flashback we learn that he developed the ability to see the past after a car accident (which wiped out his family) injured his head and "rearranged" something in his brain.  As he hikes, this ability will kick in and shut down at random intervals, enabling him to walk the countryside some apparently randomly determined time in the distant past, but not really interact with it; photographs taken in the past do not develop, he can't bring samples back to the 20th-century, and the dinosaurs and other prehistoric fauna can't see or smell him.

That car accident gave Daniels still more powers--he can listen in on the telepathic communications of aliens!  In a cave in a cliff face, accessible by climbing a tree, Daniels senses an alien intelligence embedded deep inside the rock which he suspects to be the crew of a space ship which crashed tens or hundreds of millions of years ago and was buried in the mud that this stone then was.  When an envious neighbor traps Daniels in the cave our hero tries to communicate with the alien and succeeds in holding a conversation with making a friend of not the actual space traveller trapped in the stone but a lesser creature loyal to it, a creature of pure energy that plays a role in alien society similar to that of a dog in human society.  This space hound has an intelligence similar to that of a human, but is a "lowly" creature in the  hierarchy of super smart alien society--it has been waiting here for the alien to somehow achieve freedom for millions of years.

Daniels escapes the cave when his power kicks in and he finds himself at a time before the cliff and cave had formed (luckily, his power always materializes him at ground level, not up in the air even if the ancient landscape was at a lower elevation than it will be in the 1900s.)  He is on the shore of an ancient ocean, at the time of the dawn of land-based life, there are no trees or grass, just slime and little amphibious creatures Simak doesn't describe.  An alien space ship appears, and drops a sphere into the shallows of the prehistoric sea; Daniels can "hear" the alien authorities bidding a farewell to an alien criminal who is being left imprisoned on the primitive Earth ("beyond the farthest track of galactic intercourse") for unspeakably horrible crimes--this is the alien entombed alive in the Wisconsin stone, beloved of the space hound despite its evil.

I guess the fact that the trapped alien is some kind of interstellar Mengele is our twist ending.  Our happy ending is provided by the fact that the space hound is going to be Daniels's bosom buddy--both lost their loved ones to some kind of tragedy but neither need ever be lonely again.

The big theme of this story seems to be the unity of all life, and the responsibility of living things for each other, even across borders of species and regardless of considerations of justice and worthiness.  Daniels feels a sense of duty regarding his cows and hogs, who rely on him for food and shelter, and when he is in the cave, in danger of dying of cold or thirst, he is thinking about the poor trapped alien and his own poor unfed livestock as much as he is about his own skin.  (The space hound notes the similarity of this devotion to his own devotion to the trapped alien.)  Daniels, who has no interest in hunting and doesn't own a gun, refuses to try to kill the fox who steals his chickens, and doesn't report to the cops the life-threatening trick his jerk of a neighbor played on him.  Like the aliens who don't execute a perpetrator of unfathomable atrocities and the space dog who loves his master despite his crimes, Daniels forgives those who trespass against him.

This story is not bad, though the conversations and descriptions feel a little long-winded at times and of course the powers Daniels has are pretty nonsensical.  "The Thing in the Stone" is a good example of the "pastoralism" for which Simak is famous, and it lacks the sort of bitter complaints we sometimes get from Simak about city life and human shortcomings that can get on my nerves.


"In the Silent World" by Ed Bryant

"In the Silent World" doesn't appear to have been a hit; besides If, it has only ever appeared as a bonus story in an Italian collection of Sterling Lanier stories.

Julie is a nineteen-year old college girl from a small town in Georgia and a telepath who can read minds.  She is lonely because she has never met another telepath.  One day during a lecture on Baudelaire she receives a mental message--another telepath, a young man named Ted, has found her!  After class she walks across campus to meet him, already thinking of what their married life will be like--who else could she fall in love with and marry besides the only other telepath in the world?  Especially since with her mind reading power she knows how selfish and horny all other men are!  But when she meets Ted she sees an obstacle to her new found happiness--Ted is black!

This is more of an idea than a story--it doesn't have anything to say about racism or interracial relationships or the black experience in America or anything like that, it just points out that people are racist as a twist ending--but it is acceptable filler, I guess.

"Traps" by George Zebrowski and Jack Dann

The galactic government is almost ready to OK colonization of an as yet unnamed planet, but they need a specimen of all the planet's land animals first, and one beast has so far eluded captured--the greycat!  Rysling is hired to capture one of these elusive beasts, and after landing on the planet sends out his remote controlled robot cage to snag the feline.  (Remember when J. Jonah Jameson remotly guided a robot designed to catch Spider-Man?  That was really something, wasn't it?)

The cat, it turns out, has psychic powers and somehow part of its soul enters Rysling's body and part of Rysling's soul enters the cat's body.  Not realizing the limitations of a human body, the cat psyche in Rysling's body tries to jump off a cliff, breaking the human's neck.  Meanwhile, the surviving portion of Rysling's psyche enjoys being in a cat body and quickly forgets its former human life altogether.

(Science fiction people love cats!)

OK, I guess.

"Traps" would later be translated into Italian and French (it appeared in the French edition of Galaxy) and was included in a 21st-century collection of Zebrowski and Dann collaborations titled Decimated


**********

These stories are a little underwhelming, but not actually bad.  (I'd have read the Poul Anderson story in this issue of If but the Poul Anderson estate requested that it be excluded from the file at the internet archive.) 

In our next episode, stories from SF magazines published in 1971.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Finishing up Tomorrow Lies in Ambush

British first edition of 11 stories
Here it is, the third and final installment of our look at the US edition of Bob Shaw's collection of short stories from the late 1960s and early 1970s, Tomorrow Lies in Ambush.

"The Weapons of Isher II" (1971)

The title of this one announces that it was inspired by one of the most famous works of Canada's finest export, A. E. van Vogt!  In the 1942 short story "The Weapon Shop,"  (which formed a component of the 1951 novel The Weapon Shops of Isher) the title weapons are energy pistols that are devised so that they can only be used in self defense--they won't fire if you are trying to rob or murder some poor bastard.  Shaw takes this idea and builds a middling joke story around it.

The protagonist of "The Weapons of Isher II" is Tilton, a journalist on planet Isher II, a rainy and muddy planet where the main industry is agriculture.  A popular spectator sport of the people of the space empire of which Isher II is a part is televised duels organized like heavyweight prizefighting is today (I guess; I don't really know anything about sports.)  These duels are formalized gunfights with pistols that strongly favor having a "quick draw," much like the showdowns seen in 20th-century Western movies.  Some planets, including Isher II, forbid dueling--all guns on Tilton's planet include a device which prevents them from firing at a person unless it is in self defense.  Two galaxy-famous duellists (the current champ and the #2 gun fighter) come incognito to Isher II, which Tilton discovers when one of them accidentally shoots down the robotic duck built by his eccentric relative, Grandpa Vogt!

In van Vogt stories the protagonist often discovers some crazy secret about society's elites, and in this story Tilton learns that the famous duels followed by so many sports fans are not nearly as deadly as they appear--most duellists who are "killed" are speedily revived by high tech medicine and then retire into obscurity.  (This is a secret because it is the high stakes--life or death--which make the sport popular.)  The climax of the story involves the two duellists fighting a duel on Isher II and trying to game the system that enforces the rule that you can only shoot a person in self defense--maybe under such conditions the gunfighter with the slower draw has an advantage?

This story is just acceptable--the references to van Vogt are cute but not actually funny, and the plot (which concerns Tilton's professional rivalry with another journalist as much as it does the rivalry of the two visiting gunslingers) is just OK.  One of the pitfalls "The Weapons of Isher II" risks falling into is that it reminds you of van Vogt's famous story, which is a complicated and ambitious piece of work that addresses major philosophical themes (the right to self defense, and the questions of what form of government is just and how a people might such a government) and Shaw's story here is just a silly trifle.  Van Vogt has many detractors, and I thought Shaw might appeal to them here by attacking van Vogt's idiosyncratic style or ideas, which would give the story an edge and invite debate about literary technique or philosophy, but Shaw doesn't do that--the story just kind of sits there inoffensively, a sort of kindly homage to van Vogt.  (A true homage to van Vogt should emulate van Vogt's work, and be challenging, surprising, difficult, crazy, peculiar and even offensive.)       

"The Weapons of Isher II" first appeared in the 45th anniversary issue of Amazing with an illustration by MPorcius fave Jeff Jones (who also did the cover of the issue.)  The story was later translated into Croatian and Dutch.


"Pilot Plant" (1966) 

This is a long one--like 60 pages!  It first appeared in New Worlds, I guess early in the third year of Michael Moorcock's tenure as editor, and has only ever been reprinted in the various editions of Tomorrow Lies in Ambush.

It is the 1980s, a future world of videophones, permanent moon bases and radical advances in aircraft design.  Aeronautical engineer and expert on cybernetics Tony Garnett owns and manages a firm that is designing and manufacturing a fighter plane with an "ion-augmented" jet and wings that consist of a force field--the immaterial wings can change size, growing smaller at high speeds to reduce drag.  Garnett is watching a test flight of this aircraft when it crashes right next to him and he is injured.  The moment before the injury he hears a mysterious voice for which their is no obvious source say, "Get me out of this, Xoanon."  Garnett has never heard of Xoanon before.

There is plenty of psychology in this story.  Garnett is short, and Shaw tells us several times about how his height affects Garnett's feelings and decisions; Garnett has a temper, which we see him display; while recuperating in the hospital Garnett meets a dietitian with a lazy eye or amblyopia or something (Shaw says she has a "a slight cast in one eye" which he also describes as "a slight in-turning"), Janice Wheeler, and we hear all about how she affects his mind as they go on a few dates.

Immediately after returning to work Garnett orders a project (a civilian version of the force field wing) cancelled, but months later, by chance, sees a photograph suggesting that some segment of the company (of eight thousand employees) is still working on this project.  Weird things begin happening as he investigates this secret "parasite" organization within his own organization--the clue in the photograph disappears, for example, and the first person he seeks to interrogate suddenly falls into a coma a second before Garnett asks his first question.   

Maybe I've got van Vogt on the brain, but this story also reminds me of the work of the Canadian mastermind!  There's all that psychology, there's an esoteric way of thinking (Garnett's cybernetic thinking reminded me of van Vogt's Nexialism and interest in non-Aristotelian logic), there's the weirdness with Wheeler's eye, and the uncovering of a secret organization.  In the later stages of the story, like in so many van Vogt tales, our hero must confront space aliens and unexpected truths about himself and our world, and the story concludes with a (admittedly more modest than that at the end of The Weapon Makers) sensawunda we-will-now-explore-the-universe ending.

Whatever "Pilot Plant" owes to van Vogt, it is a fun "thriller" full of cool technological and mental SF stuff.  Thumbs up!  (The worst part is the unattractive title, which I assumed referred to vegetation, though it makes sense if we consider "plant" as meaning "factory" and "something or someone placed somewhere deceptively.")

"Telemart Three" (1970)

"Telemart Three" was printed in If, "The Magazine of Alternatives," and the same year was included in a French publication of Philip Jose Farmer's third Tiers book, A Private Cosmos.

This is a brief humor piece (10 pages of text here) about wives who spend too much and husbands who respond by murdering them.  Or trying to--in this story the husband fails and the wife lives (albeit crippled) to spend again.  The SF content of this story consists mainly in the introduction of a holographic TV that broadcasts lots of commercials, and has an integrated teleporter that can send to your home the items being advertised should your dainty feminine finger press the purchase button on the remote.  The teleporter can also instantly send a security guard to your home if you press the emergency button, as the murderous husband realizes too late.

Acceptable filler to me, perhaps misogynistic hate speech to those born more recently?

(I assure you it is a coincidence that I read this story on "Black Friday.")


"Invasion of Privacy" (1970)

"Invasion of Privacy" debuted in Amazing and has achieved success, being chosen by such editors as Terry Carr, Martin H. Greenberg and R. Chetwynd-Hynes for inclusion in anthologies as well as translated into numerous languages.  Maybe we are ending this collection with a bang!

Middle-class suburbanite George Ferguson's mother-in-law has been dead for two weeks, but his son Sammy claims to have seen her earlier in the day--in the old abandoned house down the street!  That evening Sammy becomes terribly sick, and is rushed to the hospital.  Back home, anxiously awaiting news with his wife, who is beside herself with grief and fear, George goes for a walk--somehow his feet lead him to that weird old house.  He peers in a window and finds things are just as his son described--his dead mother-in-law is sitting in the decrepit house along with a bunch of other people he thought dead, reading a magazine!

George busts into the old house to investigate, and then confronts the family doctor who has been tending to George's mother-in-law, wife and son, and he learns the astonishing truth--the psyches of alien refugees have been fleeing to Earth to take up residence in duplicates of the bodies of Earth people who are terminally ill!  The alien scheme is a complicated one.  1) The local representative of the aliens, ideally a medical professional, becomes aware that some poor human is about to die.  2) This doomed Earthling is taken to a secret location and his body duplicated by a big computer in some kind of vat.  3) An alien psyche inhabits the duplicate body, and when the original human dies the dead body is disposed of and the dupe is returned to his family with the news that he is cured--the duplicate brain holds all the memories the dead person had, so impersonating him is not difficult for the alien.  The reason George's mother-in-law's duplicate is hiding in the abandoned house along with the duplication apparatus is that there was a scheduling problem--Sammy's grandmother died earlier than expected, at home instead of in the hospital, so there was no way for the E.T.s to hide the corpse and substitute their healthy duplicate.  (At least this is how the aliens describe their practice to George--it seems possible they are bending the truth a little and they are just murdering people, not actually waiting for terminally ill people to show up.) 

George has to decide if he should expose this invasion to the world, go on a one-man crusade against the invaders, or just passively accept the invasion--he has reason to believe that the Sammy now living with him and his wife is a duplicate inhabited by an alien personality, but he is not sure if the aliens murdered the real Sammy or if the real Sammy died of natural causes, and either way his sensitive wife might go insane or commit suicide if she learns that the real Sammy is dead.  One of the themes of the story is that George is a weak-willed character who always takes the easy way out, compromising and accepting circumstances instead of standing up for himself and boldly authoring his own fate, so we are not surprised by the course he chooses.

This story isn't bad, but the alien invasion process seems overly convoluted (in contrast with the straightforward raw emotions of the human characters confronted by the death of their loved ones) with the result that the moving parts of the story don't mesh together smoothly.  I have to judge "Invasion of Privacy" as just OK.   

 
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Let's sum up our reaction to the thirteen stories in Tomorrow Lies in Ambush, ranking the stories and separating them into three categories.


GOOD
"Call Me Dumbo"
"Pilot Plant"
"The Happiest Day of Your Life"
"Cosmic Cocktail Party"
"...And Isles Where Good Men Lie"

ACCEPTABLE
"Invasion of Privacy"
"Weapons of Isher II"
"Repeat Performance"
"Telemart Three"
"What Time Do You Call This?"
"Stormseeker"

NOT GOOD 
"Communication"
"Element of Chance"

In our first installment of this look at Tomorrow Lies in Ambush I pointed out that a couple of years ago a review of the collection appeared at the Potpourri of Science Fiction blog.  Now that I have finished the book it is time to see if I have any major disagreements with the writer of that review, Mykobia AA.

Mykobia AA and I must have very different tastes, because the story I thought the worst, "Element of Chance," he thought the best, awarding it a score of 4 out of 5!  (He thought "Invasion of Privacy" the worst, and scored it a 1.5.)  My second fave, "Pilot Plant," gets the second worse score he assigned, 2.5 out of 5--he also gives "Weapons of Isher II" and "Stormseeker" a 2.5.  (Mykobia AA seems to have a distaste for the style and themes of Golden Age SF, and also laments the portrayal of women in Shaw's stories, which may explain some of our differences in opinion.)

**********

Tomorrow Lies in Ambush didn't blow me away, but it was worthwhile.  I own a pile of Bob Shaw books I haven't read yet, so Shaw will be showing up again here at MPorcius Fiction Log, but our next few episodes will look at early '70s short stories by other SF authors.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Five more stories from Bob Shaw's 1973 collection, Tomorrow Lies in Ambush

German edition, which apparently includes
fewer stories than the US and UK printings
In our second episode on the US edition of 1973's Tomorrow Lies in Ambush we look at five more science fiction stories from the late '60s and early '70s by Bob Shaw, whose novels Orbitsville, Night Walk, Fire Pattern and One Million Tomorrows I have enjoyed.  We are reading the stories in the order in which they appear in the book, not chronological order.

"What Time Do You Call This?" (1971)

"What Time Do You Call This?" made its debut in Amazing, in the same issue as the conclusion of the serialized version of Robert Silverberg's The Second Trip, which I consider one of the best of Silverberg's novels.  (Check out Joachim Boaz's blog post on The Second Trip.)  In 1971 Amazing was being edited by Ted White.  For years now I have been recommending to people White's story about his friend Harlan Ellison, "The Bet," and with Ellison's recent death White has produced another such memoir of his friend, available at the Falls Church News-Press website.  (The Falls Church News-Press is, it appears, a tiny free newspaper based in Northern Virginia, but this essay of White's deserves a wide audience--entertaining and insightful, I recommend it to all those interested in 20th-century SF and one of its most colorful and controversial characters.)

OK, back to Shaw.  "What Time Do You Call This?" is a humor story and its first line is a masturbation joke.  But its real theme and inspiration is not self abuse but that genre of SF story about alternate time streams in which characters hop from one time stream to another that includes Richard C. Meredith's At the Narrow Passage and Sam Merwin's House of Many Worlds and a multitude of others.  In this seven-page piece a scientist from another time stream appears in the apartment of a criminal.  After the mouthy scientist explains how his dimension hopping device (a belt) operates, the crook steals it.  This creep robs a bank, and when confronted by an armed guard he activates the belt.  To his dismay he reappears in a very similar time stream, right next to this dimension's version of himself and the armed guard, who captures both of the thieves--the media and the authorities suppose that these two bandits must be identical twins.

Acceptable filler.  "What Time Do You Call This?" would be reprinted in a German anthology with a fun cover illustration depicting a SF fan and his collection of magazines and tchotchkes, including a charming therapod (and a Hugo for best fanzine!)         

It is a lot of fun looking through these old magazines.  The September 1971 issue of Amazing also includes a letter by Bob Shaw, in which Shaw talks a little about his relationship with Damon Knight and responds to charges in a letter from a David Stever appearing in the March issue that his novel One Million Tomorrows was based on C. C. MacApp's 1968 story "When the Subbs Go" and J. T. McIntosh's 1965 story "The Man Who Killed Immortals."   

.
"Communication" (1970)

This one appeared in Ted White's Fantastic"Communication" is about Riley, the worst computer salesman in Canada; in fact, he is in the running for worst computer salesman in the world!  After two years of total failure, out of the blue one Friday evening Parr, a man purporting to be a scientist (a sociologist no less--that's the worst kind of scientist!), comes to Riley's home to buy a computer--with cash!  (We are talking about a computer that costs $60,000 here!)  Parr wants it to keep a record of personal data and current location of everybody in the town of Red Deer, pop. 200,000*, and he has come to Riley's office, a lonely one-man operation, in order to keep public knowledge of his research project a secret ("you know, uncertainty principle," he explains.)

Riley deposits the cash in the company account and hands over the computer, but then on the weekend decides to play detective.  He figures out Parr's home address and drives up to Red Deer to snoop on him.  It turns out Parr is a con man, a bogus seer who conducts seances.  He plans to use the computer database of info about Red Deer's citizens to help him fool gullible people into thinking he has the power to communicate with the dead.  (By typing a client's name on a hidden keyboard he can instantly learn such data as the names of dead relatives and their occupations--Parr has hooked up his crystal ball to the computer's printout.)  The lame twist ending of the story comes when it turns out that, while Parr may be a fake, the dead really can communicate with the living, and ghosts appear.  Nonsensically, these ghosts want to use Parr's database to learn how things are going for their living relatives.  (If they were able to learn about Parr from "the other side," why can't they also learn about their own relatives?)  Parr is afraid of the ghosts, opening up an opportunity for Riley to work with them and start a lucrative career as a high tech "spiritualist." 

I'm guessing Shaw sets his story in Alberta to lend it an air of remoteness, but this setting also opens the door for an interesting (to me, and perhaps only me) element of the story: a passing reference to Social Credit, the notoriously incomprehensible economic theory enthusiastically adopted and promoted by expatriate American poet and crackpot Ezra Pound.  I have been trying to get a grasp of Social Credit for a while, as I have been reading the work of, and biographies and criticism of, those three leading modernists, Pound, T. S. Eliot and Wyndham Lewis.  So far as I can gather, the moral basis of Social Credit is the claim that all citizens have a right to a share of the wealth that is derived from their society's cultural inheritance (by which is meant ideas and information); the political program of Social Credit is to make sure that the public has purchasing power that matches the level of production—Social Creditors think that production that is not purchased is the root cause of social problems like wars and poverty.  The Social Creditor’s policy is carefully calibrated government handouts and price controls that aim to make sure consumption equals production. Social Credit theory achieved its greatest political success in Alberta, where a Social Credit party dominated provincial politics from 1945 to 1971.  Social Credit theory is closely associated with Christianity, and in fact the Albertan Social Credit Party quickly evolved in such a way that it largely abandoned Social Credit's bewildering economic theories and became a more traditional conservative party, supportive of business and religion and hostile to socialism.  Shaw here in "Communication" exploits this fact for a joke: Riley’s boss is an active member of the Social Credit party and "has a strong Puritanical streak," and Riley foolishly makes a sex joke in his hearing.
 
Like all of the stories in this book so far, "Communication" is well put together and well-written, but the resolution of the plot is so disappointing I have to give this one a marginal thumbs down.  "Communication," after its magazine appearance, has only ever been reprinted in Shaw collections, including an Italian one.

*Wikipedia suggests that this is like double or more the real population of Red Deer, but maybe this dude is also cataloging people in the surrounding suburbs?

"The Cosmic Cocktail Party" (1970)

The German edition of Tomorrow Lies in Ambush takes its title from this story, which first appeared in the anthology Science Against Man, where it was titled "Harold Wilson at the Cosmic Cocktail Party." As all you Beatles fans know, Harold Wilson was prime minister of the United Kingdom in the periods 1964-1970 and 1974-1976. 

This is one of those stories in which people's brains can be scanned and their knowledge and personalities uploaded into a computer so people can still talk to "them" (in fact, simulations of them) after they are dead. Simulating every single neuron and synapse of a human brain takes a lot of memory and computing power, so the company that provides this (very expensive) service, Biosyn, has come up with an economy of scale that can help control costs--they have one huge computer ("the tank") that stores multiple personalities, instead of a bunch of individual computers devoted to single personalities.  This has proven to be penny wise and pound foolish.  The personalities have figured out how to interact with each other, and the strong personality of a Colonel Crowley, an adventurer who administered a colony in Africa, has begun dominating the milquetoast college professor types who make up most of the simulated personalities.  Crowley has created a fantasy world of dragons and barbaric hunts in which he is the hero and all those weak-willed intellectuals are his subordinates and enemies (victims.)  The personalities, thus occupied, have stopped communicating with the outside world, defeating the whole purpose of simulating them at such great cost and putting Biosyn's business model in jeopardy.

When an African politician comes to England to talk to Colonel Crowley in hopes of persuading the adventurer to campaign for him in an upcoming election in the country which Crowley once governed, the Biosyn staff have to come up with a way to lure Crowley back into contact with meatspace.  Their solution is to convince Crowley that the real world needs him to lead the resistance against socialist space aliens who are endeavoring to take over the Earth via hypnotism (to which Crowley, as a computer sim, is immune) and a simulacrum of a relatively benign socialist, one not associated with gulags and mass murder like Stalin or Mao--Harold Wilson.

"The Cosmic Cocktail Party" has some interesting science and the characters and their dilemmas hold your attention, even if it is sort of silly and the cocktail party theme feels forced; I'm judging this one marginally good.

"The Happiest Day of Your Life" (1970)

This is one of those short shorts, and has been reprinted many times in anthologies of short shorts.  These anthologies get printed again and again all over the world, so there must be a lot of people out there who like short shorts.  (Jerry Seinfeld voice: "Who are these people?")  Personally, I am a short short skeptic.  "The Happiest Day of Your Life" was first printed in Analog.

I guess the idea that your schooldays are the happiest days of your life is a sort of truism or cliche.  The joke title of this story is a reference to the future depicted in the story, when the cognitive and economic elite will, through hypnosis, drugs and surgery, get all their education in one day!  This results in eight-year-old attorneys and executives, and heartbreak for the mother in the story, who loses the opportunity to watch her boys mature naturally--they leave in the morning acting like eight-year-olds and come back in the afternoon acting like 22-year-old professionals!  To make matters worse, while her kids have IQs over 140, hers is closer to the mean, and so she has to suffer the indignity of not being able to converse on an equal footing with her kids, who are not even teenagers yet but condescend to her, treat her like a child. 

This one works.


"Element of Chance" (1969)

This eight-page piece first appeared in Galaxy, and stars Cytheron, a member of a race with super psychic powers--he can teleport, make himself invisible, see into the infrared and ultraviolet spectra, etc.  These aliens have apparently evolved beyond having to eat or breathe as well.  Cytheron has seen his thousandth birthday, and the elders of his race want him to mature--to join the "group-mind."  Unwilling to surrender his individuality, Cytheron tries to escape the adults, teleporting from one heavenly body to another, eventually getting trapped in a quasar which is in the process of becoming a black hole.  The gravity of this body is so great no particle can escape it, so Cytheron can't teleport out of it.  The elders break him out of this predicament by causing the quasar to explode as a supernova.  Cytheron is worried that the explosion might damage any life nearby, but is assured that there are no planets with life within range of the blast wave, though the wave will cause one planet that will eventually host intelligent life to have some unusually heavy elements.  This planet, the clues indicate to us readers, is Earth, and those heavy elements will be gold and uranium.  The weak joke of the story is that the wise aliens feel there is no reason to believe that the presence of gold and uranium will have any effect on the development of intelligent beings.

The twist ending of "Element of Chance" is lame, and the story is weighed down by all kinds of lyrical, metaphorical, descriptions of landscapes, "amethyst rain," amethyst snow, a horizon of "shattered silver daggers," and so on, stuff that numbed my poor mind instead of stimulating it.  Gotta give this one a thumbs down.  Since its debut it has appeared in the French edition of Galaxy and Shaw collections, including Cosmic Kaleidoscope.


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I had to give two of these stories a down vote, but the others are successful or at least acceptable.  Hopefully the final four stories in Tomorrow Lies in Ambush, which we will dissect in our next episode, will blow us away.       

Monday, November 19, 2018

Four stories by Bob Shaw


Back in early 2017 I declared my intention to read my copy of the 1973 collection of Bob Shaw stories entitled Tomorrow Lies in Ambush, a volume which once was sold in now-defunct retail outlet Woolco.  And today I begin to make good on that intention!  I think we'll read Tomorrow Lies in Ambush's 13 stories over three blog posts.  I'll read them in the order they appear in this book instead of in chronological order--maybe they are in the order they are in for some artistic reason?

If you are in a hurry to read about Tomorrow Lies in Ambush, check out the 2016 review at Potpourri of Science Fiction Literature.  (I don't think the good people there like Shaw as much as I do, so it will be interesting to compare notes when I finish up this book myself.)


isfdb does not list it, but my Ace edition of Tomorrow Lies in Ambush includes a pleasant if generic interior illustration by a Waldman.  Who is this Waldman?  isfdb actually lists multiple Waldmans (Waldmen?) as illustrators, so it is something of a mystery.

"Call Me Dumbo" (1966)

"Call Me Dumbo" first appeared in If, edited by Fred Pohl.  Shaw's story is illustrated by Virgil Finlay, which is pretty cool.  On the page facing the first page of Shaw's story is an ad for Music from Mathematics, "music composed on computers and transducers...."  You can listen to this music at youtube...I dare you to listen to all 26 minutes.

"Call Me Dumbo" is a decent SF horror story of a type that might not get written today because it suggests gender roles are based on biology and exploits people's disgust at homosexuality and transgenderism.  As the story begins we are introduced to a sort of dimwitted woman who lives in a cottage in the countryside with her grumpy husband Carl and their three boys.  Carl calls the woman "Dumbo" and talks to her in a callous way and makes her take medicine regularly, but she doesn't really mind--she wants to be a good wife and works hard at the cooking and cleaning.

One day "Dumbo" starts feeling different, mentally, and most of the 23-page story consists of Dumbo unraveling the mystery of her life and identity.  The hallucinatory, euphoric medicine she has been taking has spoiled, and no longer effects her, which means she begins to see unvarnished reality--she isn't living in a wooden cottage, but a house made of repurposed sheets of metal!  Following her husband reveals that Carl doesn't go to a nearby village to buy supplies, but salvages them from a crash-landed space ship!  As "Dumbo's" memory improves and then as Carl, who finds her snooping, bitterly explains what's what, we learn the horrible truth!

Carl was a medical man, a surgeon in the space navy, and he and his assistant blasted off in their space ship to give succor to some sector that had been attacked by the enemy.  En route, an enemy special weapon (a "warp scrambler") hit Carl's ship, teleporting it to a random spot in the universe--they were lucky to find a planet suitable for human habitation, and had no chance of ever getting home, being, in all likelihood, a bazillion light years from the Milky Way galaxy.

For some reason Shaw's and van Vogt's
names are not on the cover--I guess
they are not marketing this thing to me!
Carl wanted to have children and start a colony on the planet, but his assistant, Victor, was a man.  Solution: he forced Victor to have a sex change operation (their ship had a well stocked organ bank as well as plenty of small arms and grenades) and artificially inseminated him (now her) over the years to produce three boys with three different fathers.  Carl himself refuses to have sex with "the freak."  The drugs have kept her ignorant of her true position, notonly deadening any memory of her past but making their makeshift house and alien landscape look like a charming cottage in the English countryside!

Because Dumbo has all those female glands and organs she likes being a woman and doing housework and raising kids and all that.  She also wants something else (hint hint), something Carl doesn't want to give her.  But when she gets the upper hand over Carl, knocking him out with a blow from a rifle butt, she uses those grenades to blow up the organ bank.  Now if he wants to create more children--and he wants at least one girl so the human race can continue on this planet--he will have only one way to impregnate Dumbo.

This is a good story, well-structured and well-paced and surprising.  In 1977 it appeared in Michael Stapleton's anthology The Best Science Fiction Stories alongside such works as A. E. van Vogt's "Process" and "The First Martian," some of Van's most accessible, least convoluted, material. 

"Stormseeker" (1972)

According to isfdb, the British edition of Tomorrow Lies in Ambush only had 11 stories; "Stormseeker" is one of the two additional stories included in the US edition.  It first appeared in Galaxy, and, besides in Shaw collections like this one, would be reprinted in a German anthology in 1982.

"Stormseeker" is six pages long, a first person narrative that is a little literary and a little opaque.  The first paragraph flings "volant," "crenels" and "corbels" at you, as well as various metaphors and a reference to Debussy preludes.  The narrator is a mutant in a future (post-limited nuclear war) world; he can sense electrical activity and direct it.  A physicist friend of his has had his government funding cut, so he can't afford to pay the power bill for his atom smasher.  The narrator flies some sort of hover sled or something into nearby thunderstorms and directs the lightning to the boffin's lab.  Shaw explains how lightning works: protons, electrons, etc.  The narrator invites his girlfriend to come with him, but when she sees how much he enjoys interacting with the electricity (the word "orgasm" is used), she becomes jealous and breaks up with him.   

Acceptable.


"Repeat Performance" (1971)

"Repeat Performance" was first printed in the same issue of F&SF as the first installment of Jack Vance's Durdane novels.  I'd like to reread the Durdane novels, which I have read only once (I've read the Cugel novels and Kirth Gersen novels twice) but in a fit of generosity like fifteen years ago I gave them away.  "Repeat Performance" would reappear in an Italian collection of Shaw stories in 1980.

This is a competent but minor joke story; it sort of put me in the mind of The Twilight Zone.  A theater owner in the Midwest who shows old movies witnesses odd occurrences at his establishment, and various clues and booze-fueled speculations lead him to believe that a shape-shifting space alien is coming into his theater every Wednesday night and leaving in the form of one of the actors on the screen.  He contrives to capture the creature with the help of the police and we get a not-quite-believable twist ending.

Shaw is a skilled scribbler and the style and pacing and structure and all that are good, but the central premise and plot just don't excite me.  This is acceptable as filler.

"....And Isles Where Good Men Lie" (1965)

"....And Isles Where Good Men Lie" shared an issue of New Worlds with the final installment of the serialized version of Harry Harrison's broad spoof of space opera and military SF Bill, The Galactic Hero

"....And Isles Where Good Men Lie" is about a scientist and some military men, a communist spy and some dangerous aliens.  It is the 1980s.  An apparently endless caravan of alien space craft has been entering the solar system, and every day for the last five years one of them has landed someplace on Earth and disgorged a horde of fifteen-foot long insects that exude deadly bacteria.  Scientists have come to realize that these aliens are not hostile invaders, but descendants of refugees from another world, passengers on robotic generation ships.  There is no way to communicate with these alien immigrants, and the ships land them automatically and have forcefields that cannot be penetrated by Earth weapons, so the only solution has been to kill the innocent but catastrophically infectious aliens when they emerge from the ships.  Cold War conflict has been put on the back burner while the nations of Earth work together to keep these uninvited guests from unwittingly spreading a plague that can kill all humanity. 

Our protagonist is Colonel John Fortune, commander of the force defending Iceland, a hero for having figured out how to kill the heavily armored aliens when they first appeared years ago.  He feels guilty about massacring all these innocent aliens, and has been working, on the side without government authorization and in concert with a civilian scientist, on a way to stop the robotic alien ships from landing on Earth at all.  This guy also has personal problems--his wife married him when he was a svelte war hero, and now that he is overweight and war weary she has been cheating on him.  Her latest lover is an agent for some Warsaw Pact nation--this commie has ferreted out that the Colonel has a freelance scheme to redirect the alien ships to some other solar system, and just when the Colonel is about to put the plan into operation, this blasted Red tries to foil his efforts.  Will the Colonel's plan succeed?  What lengths will he have to go to to see it through--will he jeopardize his career, even risk jail time?  Will he and his faithless wife patch things up in the interest of their child, or will she leave him for this Bolshie spook?

This story is moderately good; there is plenty of science stuff and plenty of character stuff--the Colonel, his wife, and the scientist all have interesting little back stories.  This story has only had limited success, however, only ever appearing in New Worlds and here in Tomorrow Lies in Ambush.

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So far, so good.  We've put 86 pages of this 281-page collection behind us, and so far nothing boring or irritating has cropped up.  Four more tales in our next episode!