|For once the magazine cover is more|
spoily than my plot summary
George and Chuck are an outer space odd couple, the two-man crew of a space ship searching the galaxy for mineral deposits who don't really get along. George is an intellectual, a sort of cultural reactionary who wants money to start his own Walden beyond Pluto where he can write 19th-century style poetry (his literary heroes, it is hinted, are Tennyson, Coleridge and Scott, and he references T. S. Eliot by name and dismisses the most important versifier of the 20th century as "a minor poet") and conduct research on recordings of folk songs. Chuck is a grizzled spacehound, a crude "frontiersman" who never stops swearing and wants money for booze and girls. Though George is a sort of 19th-century Romantic, Bloch's story is cynical and anti-romantic: Bloch stresses that men don't go on adventures for noble reasons but to make money with which to get chicks--"All spaceships were really powered with sex-drive...to satisfy the libido required money...Libidough." (These are better Bloch puns than usual.)
On an asteroid, George and Chuck discover colossal sculpted heads with huge jewels for eyes. (This is a cherished genre fiction cliche--consider one of the best Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories, "The Seven Black Priests," and the cover of the first edition of the AD&D Player's Handbook.) The plot of the story consists of the men discovering the true nature of these heads and suffering a horrible fate!
This is an entertaining astronauts-in-trouble SF horror story, to which an additional layer is added by Bloch's thinly veiled references to Romantic poets and to H. P. Lovecraft and his direct references to modernist poets and Arthur Machen. The pacing and style are well-suited to the type of story it is, and the jokes and literary references feel integral instead of intrusive. Thumbs up!
After first appearing in Amazing, "The Bald-Headed Mirage" has been reprinted a number of times, including in other magazines, in anthologies, and in Bloch collections.
In Bloch's "The Funnel of God" the young protagonist was profoundly influenced by a Walt Disney cartoon, his first exposure to the cinema, and in "Talent" a kid is influenced by a Marx Brothers movie, his first experience of film. (I am one of the few people who doesn't like the Marx brothers and finds the much-lauded Groucho to be tiresome, as I explained at mind-numbing length back in September.)
"Talent" is a sort of report on the mysterious Andrew Benson, a foundling left at an orphanage. After seeing a Marx Brothers film at the orphanage, little Andrew is found to be an excellent mimic--he not only moves and sounds like Groucho and Chico, he somehow contrives to look like them! At the orphanage the nuns only show more or less wholesome movies, but when a twelve-year-old Andrew is adopted he begins seeing gangster movies and monster movies, and people in his orbit start turning up dead! At eighteen it is his adoptive parents who meet an untimely, unexpected and spectacular demise in what appears to be an accident! Things get more spectacular still in the somewhat absurd punchline climax.
"Talent" is a fun SF horror piece, like "Bald-Headed Mirage" economical, well-structured and entertaining, with jokes and cultural references that enhance the experience rather than distracting the reader. Thumbs up!
"Talent" has been reprinted in several magazines and anthologies, including one edited by beloved actor and genre fiction fan Christopher Lee, as well as in Bloch collections.
In the editorial to the issue of Fantastic in which "The World Timer" appears, Editorial Director Norman Lobsenz warns us that in Bloch's story "there is a good deal of talk of what's wrong with this world." Then Lobsenz claims that people don't dream of a better world anymore, don't construct utopias anymore. He tells us his dream world, and it is a remarkably childish and selfish fantasy of a huge yacht with a huge library and submissive friends who will come when he asks and leave when he asks.
The first full page of "The World Timer" gives us the impression that this is one of Bloch's absurd joke-filled stories. There is a pun or gag in every column, practically every paragraph, for the story's first fourteen pages. Our protagonist is Morton Placebo, M. D., Republican and psychiatrist, a man who is both terribly cheap and addicted to conducting experiments. As Bloch tells it, psychiatrists get lots of free samples from drug salesmen, and Dr. Placebo snaps these up and experiments on his patients with them.
One odd salesman leaves Dr. Placebo a free sample of three pills labelled "Time Capsules." Placebo gives one to a patient named Cookie Jarr, a nymphomaniac stripper. After taking the pill she vanishes, and then her agent recklessly takes one himself, and also disappears. Placebo, thinking he has no choice because he cannot explain to the cops where these two sketchy characters have gone, takes the final pill and joins the stripper and agent in a "parallel time vector" where there is no money, no crime, no competition, no rivalry, no police, no automobiles, no telephone, no advertising, no pollution, etc. If you ever had a moment's stress in your life, whatever caused it does not exist in this world.
Bloch turns off the joke machine and we get a deadly serious airing of a theory that the institution of the family is the cause of all our problems. In this utopia there is no marriage and children are raised by the government; people have a carefully scheduled array of sexual relationships, some for the purposes of pleasure, some for the purposes of reproduction. The government also controls the economy, assigning you a job and determining what property you have.
In addition to a long and absolutely unconvincing utopian tract, Bloch favors us with a tedious interlude in which Placebo learns about a bunch of other alternate time streams by gazing into a woman's eyes: we get a list of worlds, one where the Persians beat Alexander, one where the Aztecs conquered Europe, one where Bonaparte beat Wellington, etc.
A bunch of bad jokes and then a bunch of superficial alternate history goop topped off by lame propaganda for authoritarian social engineering for a total of twenty-four (24) pointless pages. Bad!
"The World Timer" may have been condemned by the mighty blog of one MPorcius, but somehow it was still included in a magazine titled The Most Thrilling Science Fiction Ever Told and both the American and German editions of The Best of Robert Bloch. Make way for cognitive dissonance!
I have to admit that "The Bald-Headed Mirage" and "Talent" are exactly what I was hoping to find when I started reading Bloch stories from old SF magazines, fun horror stories resting on SF foundations that are just the right length and tone. Bloch puts across his complaints about how the human race sucks and our entertainment nowadays is depraved, and he tells his little jokes, but he doesn't belabor his points (like in "The Funnel of God") or drown us in silliness (as in "Beep No More, My Lady") so the stories are still tight.
As for "The World-Timer," it combines the worst aspects of the didactic social criticism story and of the goofy joke story, and doesn't even mesh them together--the story's tone changes radically with the move from juvenile joke section to simple-minded utopia section--or try to camouflage them in a Trojan Horse of adventure plot or engaging characters. It's like some kind of speculative fiction Marianas Trench, a nadir in my SF reading career.