Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Eight stories from the June 1957 issue of Fantastic Universe

If my calculations are correct, I paid $2.50 for my rapidly deteriorating copy of Fantastic Universe's June 1957 issue.  In our last episode we read the stories in this magazine by people I knew something about already.  Well, let's really get our money's worth and read the stories (eight of them!) by people about whom I know just about zilch.

"Holiday" by Marcia Kamien

In the little intro to this story the editor of Fantastic Universe tells us Kamien is a copywriter at a New York ad agency, is interested in Egyptian and Etruscan antiquities, and hates cats!  Whoa, is this chick single?  That is one sweet dating profile!

Four kids who have personal aircraft (just like 20th-century American kids had bicycles) tinker with the wires of their flying machines so they can go into "overdrive."  When they are up in the stratosphere and activate the overdrive they warp into another dimension, one that horrifies them.  This is when we realize these are alien kids--the crazy world they have arrived in has green grass and only one sun; it is our own world.  The kids manage to warp back to their own dimension, and we readers are told that it is these sorts of childish hi-jinks that are the cause of UFO sightings on our Earth. 

An acceptable four-page filler story.  Kamien has three stories listed at isfdb, and "Holiday" is the last one.  Maybe the cats got her?

"Day of Reckoning" by Morton Klass

isfdb tells us that Morton Klass is the younger brother of William Tenn (whose birth name is Philip Klass) and here in Fantastic Universe we learn he served in the Merchant Marine and is an anthropologist.  Morton has a dozen credits at isfdb.

In 1966 the alien Rogg conquered the Earth!  There were not very many of them, but the Rogg cunningly exploited the divisions among Earthmen and made us their slaves!

Forty-seven years have passed, and over the course of those long years of oppression the human race has cast aside its political and ethnic differences--finally, all men see each other as brothers!  The Rogg are ejected from Earth, and a bright future of peace and unity awaits us!

I guess this is the kind of story you'd expect an anthropologist to write, utopianism with no foundation in reality or even logic.  Acceptable filler, told in a series of flashbacks by the leader of the Earth rebellion as he presides over the Rogg surrender ceremony.

"First Landing" by Roger Dee

Roger Dee has a long list of story credits, and even a novel, at isfdb.  I actually read a 1951 story by Dee, "The Watchers," back in 2015 and forgot all about it until this moment!  I gave a thumbs down to that one, but maybe I'll like this one?

"First Landing" is a pretty traditional SF story about an astronaut who is sent to Venus to explore.  The Earth is united under a singe government because a war broke out between the West and the commies and the commies got wiped out, and the remaining states united to pick up the pieces of a ravaged world.  Our hero is on Venus looking for evidence of mineral resources the Earth sorely needs.

The astronaut encounters people on Venus he takes to be natives, naked bearded men who stand two-and-a-half feet tall and carry spears.  He crashes his hover car in the Venusian fog and loses his weapons and it looks like he is at the mercy of these perhaps belligerent aliens, but the story has a happy ending--the "natives" are in fact Soviet cosmonauts who were secretly sent to Venus just before the war erupted that destroyed the USSR--the Reds manned their ship with people whom Dee calls "midgets" in order to save on food and fuel.

Even if the ending is a little disappointing I like all the stuff about Venusian ecology and orbits and calculating how much fuel is needed to get back to Earth and all that.  Not bad.   

"God of the Mist" by Evelyn Goldstein

This one has the kind of title you might see on a Conan or Grey Mouser story, and it reads a little like a violent and noirish Brackett planetary romance.  (The MPorcius staff considers those good things.)

Venus has been colonized by the Earth; the primitive natives are like small beautiful children, and more or less at the mercy of the ruthless colonizers.  Seven-foot tall Kohler is a human criminal, a murderer, on the run from the human police.  When a tiny Venusian sees this huge slab of man meat he thinks it must be a god--Kohler looks just like the natural rock formation at his village which represents their god, Zanthu!  Kohler makes his way to the village, looking forward to living the easy life of a local deity among his worshippers.  He makes himself dictator of the village, callously killing those who question him.  But his reign is not a long one--his own hubris and cruelty serve to guide the police to him and he suffers a rough justice.  I was a little surprised that it was other Earthers who overthrew Kohler and not the natives--the Venusians in this story are pathetic victims, impotent to control their own destiny in the face of Earthmen's modern technology and organization and sheer size.

An OK story featuring surprisingly brutal violence against defenseless people.  The editor's intro to "God of the Mist" informs us that Goldstein is a Brooklyn housewife, and isfdb lists nine stories by her--they all have adventurous sort of titles.

"Versus" by Edward D. Hoch

I recognize Hoch's name, but I don't think I have ever read anything by him.  Wikipedia tells me that Hoch is a big wheel in the detective fiction game, but he produced enough SF stories to fill a 2015 collection entitled The Future is Ours. "Versus" appears in that collection, making "Versus" the only story we are reading today that was ever reprinted.

Unfortunately "Versus" is a sterile and gimmicky story with a gimmick so lame it barely qualifies as a gimmick.  Al Zadig is an interstellar organized crime boss who manages illegal gambling operations as well as space piracy all over the galaxy.  He bribes all the politicians and police authorities so his operations are not interfered with.  Suddenly, one day, the government changes its policy and starts seizing Zadig's interstellar casino liners and shutting down his planet-based operations.  A Mr. Snow comes calling; Snow explains that he is an even richer businessman than Zadig, and that after one of Zadig's pirate ships attacked the "space taxi" he was in, killing his wife, Snow devoted his fortune to destroying Zadig's crime empire.  Snow's simple strategy has been to give bigger bribes to all the politicos and cops than Zadig has.  If you were wondering what sort business Snow was in that he got so rich, he tells Zadig that "mine is an empire of good, of schools and hospitals and churches."

The anemic joke ending of this story is that when Zadig, driven to a desperate act of revenge, pulls a gun on Snow, the gun doesn't fire because Snow bribed Zadig's secretary to remove the rounds from the pistol's magazine.

Bewilderingly lame, like something a kid would write but without the gusto a kid might bring to a story about crime and revenge.  Can it be that the most commercially successful writer I am reading today has written the worst story?

"Snakes Alive" by Henry D. Billings

This is Billings's sole credit at isfdb.  This story consists mainly of radio transmissions between Dan Ellerman, best astrogater on the Galaxy Spaceways payroll, and ground control.  Dan is the sole crewman aboard a ship ferrying a cargo of cobras from "space station one" to Luna.  When Dan has to dodge an asteroid, the crate carrying the cobras falls over and breaks open and the motherfucking snakes are loose on the motherfucking rocket ship.  The snakes were stowed in the compartment closest the cockpit, and lies between the cockpit and the compartment with rocket ship's firearms and medical kit.  Not to fear--ground control transmits ultrasonic sound patterns which duplicate the effect of "the weird music" of "ancient Indian fakirs" and this pacifies the cobras so Dan can land safely on the Moon.

A waste of time. 

"Rock and Roll on Pluto" by Hans Stefan Santesson (as by Stephen Bond)

This is one page of text and is not even a story, just a plotless anecdote.  The colony on Pluto bans dancing and pop music, but some people go to the top of a mountain and play music and dance anyway.

This "story" was written by the editor of Fantastic Universe under a pseudonym.  I guess he had a blank page and needed to fill it with something and found himself unable to sell or donate the it as ad space, and so produced this non sequitur.

(Hoch is off the hook--this is the worst story in the magazine.)

"My Martian Cousin" by Mark Reinsberg

Reinsberg has ten stories listed at isfdb and was the book reviewer at Imagination for a little less than a year.  He seems to have been an earnest reviewer--in the December 1953 issue of Imagination he gushes with unabashed love about The Space Merchants and also points out some shady practices of super-editor Donald Wollheim's.  (I think Wollheim is great, but he certainly provides one opportunities to say "tsk, tsk.")

As its title might have led readers to expect, "My Martian Cousin" starts off as a sort of a comedy--I found it reminiscent of a TV sitcom.  Our narrator is Kathy, an attractive Earth-born woman living in one of the domed colonies on Venus with her husband of nine years, Mike, one of the first humans to actually be born on Venus.  Reinsberg, exploring the mysterious depths of female sexuality, has Kathy tell us she likes the way Mike's muscles ripple with energy when he is angry, and the story provides plenty of opportunities for Mike to get angry.  As our narrative begins, the happy couple is at the spaceport waiting for Kathy's cousin, college girl Gerda, to get out of customs.  It is taking forever because Martian-born Gerda, who invited herself like Edwige Fenech did in Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, brought along her pet Martian monster and the beast needs to be thoroughly decontaminated!  Mike snarls that she should have just left the monster in quarantine--she is only going to be on Venus for three days!  But when Mike sees Gerda for the first time (Kathy herself hasn't seen her for twelve years) she is, like Fenech's character in Sergio Martino's fourth giallo, unexpectedly gorgeous, and Kathy's irritable hubby changes his tune!

But not for long!  Gerda is a hardcore Mars patriot who lives in a city of millions back on the Red Planet, and to her this tiny Venusian domed city is provincial, boring, primitive, and unsanitary.  Everything on Mars, she assures everybody she meets, is better!  (Gerda sounds like me when I moved from New York to Iowa!)  Mike, a local big wig (he has one of city's eight aircar licenses and is an atmosphere scientist responsible for the air in the dome, the air that Greda insists is unhygenic), has to stand up for his home town and home planet, of course.  Kathy is not much use at keeping the peace--Mars is currently at war with Earth, and Gerda's complaints of Earth tyranny (and the Martian dump that Gerda's pet monster takes on the carpet!) create just as much tension between the unwanted houseguest and the lady of the house.     

All that stuff is amusing, but things get real (as the kids say) when the monster scratches one of Kathy and Mike's kids, it is discovered that somebody has sabotaged the dome (now who could that be?), and a drunken Gerda lets slip rumors about a Martian secret weapon that could exterminate life on Earth!  How will Kathy and Mike respond to these crises?

This is a good story; the speculations about human life adapting to other planets and how human societies on different planets might interact are interesting, the humor stuff was actually humorous, and the way Kathy resolves the politics and war plot was clever--and it is all believable, the people feel like real people, not caricatures in an over-the-top satire or cartoonish superheroes in an action extravaganza.  The story also includes tons of stuff for you feminists to pick over, with a female hero at odds with a female villain ("Short Essay: To what extent do Kathy and Gerda fulfill or defy stereotypes of women?") and lots about the narrator's relationship with her husband, her kids, and her larger society.  "My Martian Cousin" reminded me of Heinlein's "The Menace From Earth," another 1957 story which combined descriptions of an extraterrestrial colony with a human interest drama (as with the Brackett comparison, we here consider that a compliment.)


We've suffered through some lame pieces today in Fantastic Universe, but found a solidly good one in the Reinsberg story, while Dee and Goldstein also offer entertaining tales.  I'm judging this exploration of one of SF's lesser periodicals to have been worthwhile.

1 comment:

  1. Ed Hoch went on to become a legend in Mystery Land. For decades he had a story in every issue of ELLERY QUEEN'S MYSTERY MAGAZINE. Hoch specialized in impossible crimes and locked room puzzles.