Saturday, July 20, 2024

SF Classics selected by T Carr: Rocklynne, Brackett, Kuttner & Moore, and Wollheim

When last we met, we noted that Terry Carr (remember when we read his novel Cirque?) included Lester del Rey's odd story "The Smallest God" in his 1978 anthology Classic Science Fiction: The First Golden Age.  Let's check out some other stories Carr reprinted in that book, after of course pointing out that we have already blogged about some of his selections: A. E. van Vogt's "The Vault of the Beast,"  Eric Frank Russell and Maurice G. Hugi's "The Mechanical Mice," and Robert A. Heinlein's "--And He Built a Crooked House--."  (And that, before this blog was conjured up from the black labyrinth of my mind and began to lurk the intertubes, I read still more of them, like Theodore Sturgeon's "Microcosmic God" and Heinlein's "By His Bootstraps.")

"Into Darkness" by Ross Rocklynne (1940)

I have a poor memory, and so I wasn't sure if I had read "Into Darkness" before or not, so I dug through the archives to make certain and uncovered sobering evidence of how bad my memory really is--in 2018 I read and blogged about Rocklynne's story "Quietus," and then in 2023 I read and blogged about "Quietus" again, having totally forgotten I'd read it five years earlier.  Embarrassing!  (Is Nancy Pelosi going to engineer a campaign to have me deposed as head of this blog?)

Well, I'm pretty confident I haven't read Rocklynne's "Into Darkness" before (no, really), even though I own it in the collection Sun Destroyers (which is the other half of the Ace Double that reprinted Edmond Hamilton's A Yank at Valhalla), so let's have at it.  "Into Darkness" first saw print in Astonishing, edited by Fred Pohl.  I am reading the story, like all of today's stories, in the internet archive's scan of Classic Science Fiction: The First Golden Age, though of course I took a quick look at the magazine to see the (below average for him) Hannes Bok illo for "Into Darkness."

In his intro to the story, Carr suggests "Into Darkness" is "far out," and it definitely is an effort to blow your mind and inspire the famous "sense of wonder."  The universe is inhabited by creatures of pure energy, creatures millions of miles across, creatures that live for billions of years, creatures that absorb energy from stars, move planets about for fun, and can shift between any of the forty-seven different levels of hyperspace, each of which obeys different laws of physics.  Rocklynne's story is a sort of biography of one such creature, and we witness its early millennia, its adolescence and its growth to maturity.  Named "Darkness" by its mother, Sparkle, our main character is different than its fellows--smarter, more inquisitive, abandoning childish play earlier than others in its cohort and seeking to fulfill some purpose in its life.  (Presumably the kinds of smart kids who are thought to be the audience for science fiction, kids who love science and want to learn about the world around them and to accomplish something with their lives, are expected to identify with Darkness.)  Darkness yearns to resolve the riddle of what constitutes the meaning of life, to learn what is beyond the edge of the universe, and is not discouraged when one of the oldest of the energy beings, known as Oldster, warns such investigations lead to sadness and death! 

Darkness was named by Sparkle after the darkness at the edge of the universe, and insists on living up to its name and exploring that mysterious void.  Darkness devours a star bigger than any star it has ever seen, and with that energy breaches the edge of the universe and travels through the emptiness for millions of years.  Finally, Darkness comes to another universe much like the one it left.  There it meets another energy creature, but whereas Darkness has a purple core, this being has a green core.  Darkness falls in love, and proposes passing a life of exploration with its new acquaintance, but this creature would rather lead Darkness to a forty-eighth level of hyperspace Darkness has never heard about before and there take possession of our hero's purple core.  Darkness learns that the purpose of life is to create more life, which green-core energy creatures do by accepting into themselves purple cores...of course, without their cores, purple-core energy creatures wither and die.  (Woah, is this a story about how women will steal your life force and you should avoid having sex with them?)  Before it expires, Darkness creates a planet and seeds it with life-giving protoplasm, which I guess we are supposed to think is Earth.

I sort of expected Darkness to create the human race, but the revelation that these energy creatures reproduce sexually and that the male can only do the deed once--and that it is fatal!--was a surprise.  I'm not sure it is a good surprise, though, as the fact that they reproduce through sex makes the aliens in this story less alien and thus less mind-blowing.

"Into Darkness" is just alright; besides the somewhat disappointing ending, it feels a little long and repetitive, as we hear again and again that Darkness lives for millions of years and is millions of miles across and travels millions of miles and so on--stuff that is supposed to fill you with wonder ceases to be mind blowing with familiarity.  More conventional sense-of-wonder stories start out more or less mundane and then grow steadily more strange until the final page tries to blow you away with the idea that the universe is open to exploration and contains infinite adventure; "Into Darkness" starts out strange and by depicting life on an epic scale and actually becomes more mundane at the end (just like so many ordinary guys. the alien creature loses his heart to a girl.) 

"Into Darkness" has been reprinted in a few anthologies besides Carr's here, and was followed by three sequels, all of which can be found in that Ace Double collection I mentioned, The Sun Destroyers.

"Child of the Green Light" by Leigh Brackett (1942)

We've read a lot of science fiction and crime fiction by Leigh Brackett, wife of Edmond Hamilton and crony of Bogie and The Duke, but I don't think we've read this one before.  "Child of the Green Light" made its debut in Super Science Stories (this issue also has illustrations by Bok, images more characteristic of his work that are worth checking out) and was reprinted in a 1951 ish of Super Science and in a book I have owned since 2013, Martian Quest.  (Why do you buy these books if you don't read them?, asks my financial advisor.)   

"Child of the Green Light" is a somewhat confusing story as it depicts a crazy scenario that Brackett sketches out in a pithy style and doesn't really explain until the end, leaving me struggling at times to visualize what is going on.  Of course, the real meat of the story isn't its questionable science but themes of loyalty and sacrifice and one's relationship to his people--do you owe something to people you haven't met just because you share their blood or culture?  

A young man, naked, is living in or on a conglomeration of wrecked space ships (in Warhammer 40,000 we'd call this a "space hulk"), somehow surviving in the vacuum of space!  The space hulk is in the form of a disk or wheel, with a green light at its center.  The young man, who goes by the name of Son, is in communication telepathically with a being he calls Aona, who lives on the other side of a "Veil" with a capital "V," which is growing thinner all the time; I guess the Veil and the light are one and the same or closely related.  Aona is a female being whom he loves; though she calls him "Son" and could be said to have raised him, I guess their relationship has an erotic character or erotic potential, and they look forward to the time the Veil falls and they can be together.

Another ship appears and lands on the hulk, and from it emerges a multicultural expedition of men in space suits; some of them are Earth humans, other hail from Mars or one of the moons of Saturn. Through their dialogue we learn that that green light passed through the Solar System, attracting to it and carrying off space ships as it went and finally settling here near Mercury.  The green light is bathing the System in radiation that is radically accelerating the aging process in humans--soon civilization will collapse because nobody lives long enough to learn the science and engineering required to maintain a modern high-tech society.  This team, among whom is the last living physicist, constitutes humanity's last hope of destroying the green light before it is too late.

Son and Aona want to preserve the light, so Son stops the physicist from approaching it, killing the man in the process.  The ray guns of the humans have no effect on Son, but they are able to tie him up, however.  Through more dialogue we learn that Son is the only survivor among the passengers and crew of all the many ships brought here by the green light; he has an adult body now, but he was just a baby when his parents' ship was captured and his parents were killed five years ago.

Aona then explains more of what is going on.  She is native to another universe, where people are immortal.  Her universe suffered a cosmic cataclysm, and the resultant explosion destroyed most of her universe and threw a tiny surviving sliver of it (a sliver still big enough to include multiple planets) through the dark barrier between universes so it intersected with our universe.  Son has become a superman because his atoms are changing, starting to vibrate at the frequency of Aona's universe--currently, a fraction of his atoms are still in our dimension, while most are vibrating at the frequency of Aona's dimension.  Eventually he will join Aona's universe, I guess when all his atoms are vibrating on Aona's frequency, or maybe because the Veil has finally eroded.  This story is a bit confusing, as I said; sometimes I think we are meant to visualize universes are physically distinct with dark empty space--the "Between" with a capital "B"--separating them, like they are raisins in a cake, but other times it is suggested the different universe are parallel, inhabiting the same space but at different vibrations.

To save human civilization, the green light must be destroyed, which will separate the two universes.  The only way to destroy the green light is for Son to enter the light before he has fully transformed; the presence of alien atoms will cause the green light to expire and the universes to be separated; Son will, however, fall into the Between, forever barred from entering either our or Aona's universes.  Son, only now realizing that other living things beside he and Aona exist, and that he is the product (the "son") of a race and civilization distinct from Aona's, has to decide if he is going to destroy himself to save his people (about whom he knows almost nothing), or allow his people to expire so he can live in eternal bliss with Aona.

There is also a subplot about how a member of the expedition tries to murder all his comrades, become a superman, destroy the green light, and then become dictator of the Solar System.

"Child of the Green Light" features many themes we've seen before in Brackett's work and that of her husband--many Hamilton stories are about a planet or star whose people suffered a cosmic catastrophe and so they are moving their heavenly body into some other system, and many Hamilton stories depict radiation changing people, and I think that Brackett's novel The Big Jump, which I read before founding this blog, involved a guy stabbing people on his expedition in the back so he could bathe himself in radiation and become a superman.

This story is not bad, but I found it a little challenging to follow--Brackett provides a minimum of information, so I had to really pay attention to get what was going on, and I still am not sure it all makes sense.

"The Twonky" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore (1942/1975)

I've read stacks of stuff by married couple Kuttner and Moore, things they produced individually as well as collaborations, but I haven't read this one; I kind of think I have been avoiding it because its title makes it sound like a joke story, and Kuttner's (many) humor pieces generally fall flat with me (sample MPorcius pans of Kuttner humor pieces: "Or Else," "The Ego Machine," and "See You Later.")  But let's give "The Twonky" a shot today.  

The publication history of "The Twonky," at least as described by Carr in his intro to the story here and by isfdb, presents a few mysteries.  Carr says "The Twonky" has always been attributed to Kuttner, but isfdb credits both Kuttner and Moore.  Carr points out that here in his book a line obliquely referring to World War II that has been left out of reprintings of the story in Kuttner collections has been restored, but isfdb lists the version here as a 1975 version first seen in the American book The Best of Henry Kuttner.  (The British book The Best of Kuttner 2, according to isfdb, reprints the 1942 version.)  I'm just going to read the version here in Classic Science Fiction: The First Golden Age and leave these mysteries to other investigators.

People in Kuttner and Moore stories are always popping in and out of different times and universes, and the first section of "The Twonky" finds us at a factory in our world that manufactures "console radio-phonograph combinations" and introduces us to a factory worker from the future who has somehow been transported to it.  Disoriented and suffering from amnesia, the man goes to a workbench and, using advanced techniques he knows instinctively, he builds a device from his native time, "The Twonky," but camouflages it so it looks exactly like the other radio-phonographs being pumped out of this mid-20th century factory.  When his mind is fully clear and he realizes how he got here, the workman travels back to the future.

A lot of Kuttner and Moore stories depict people interacting with the technology of a more advanced civilization (e. g., "Juke-Box," and "Shock,") and the second part of "The Twonky" is about a college professor who has just had a new radio-record player console delivered and is alone with it because his wife is off visiting relatives.  The console is a robot that, after scanning the prof and assessing his psychology, performs as a perfect servant, walking around the house washing dishes and lighting the prof's cigarettes and so forth.  But Carr in his intro told us that "The Twonky" is a warning about dictatorship, and, as those of us who follow the Cato Institute on Twitter are aware, a powerful entity which seems eager to help you can quickly become a tyrannical master, and the robot uses physical force to forbid the prof from listening to music or reading books or consuming food and drink of which it does not approve--the Twonky is the embodiment of the Nanny State!  And worse--it begins tinkering with people's minds so that they behave, and, if they try to dismantle it, killing them with a death ray!  

Thumbs up for "The Twonky."  The murders at the climax are a chilling surprise--because most of the story comes off as light-hearted and the characters are all likable, you don't expect them to be massacred but to have the plot resolved for them peacefully.  A good horror story.

When it first appeared in Astounding, "The Twonky" was printed under the penname often used by Kuttner and Moore, Lewis Padgett, and among the many collections and anthologies in which it has been reprinted is the 1954 Padgett collection Line to Tomorrow, which has a great Mitchell Hooks cover.


"Storm Warning" by Donald A. Wollheim (1942)

"Storm Warning," by major SF editor Donald A. Wollheim (who made a recent appearance on my twitter feed), made its first appearance in Future Fantasy and Science Fiction, where it was illustrated by another important SF editor, Damon Knight.  Editors seem to have liked the story--Groff Conklin and Robert Silverberg both included it in invasion-themed anthologies.

Today I am not on board with all these editors; "Storm Warning" is a kind of boring story full of descriptions of air movements and the movements of clouds and odd smells and temperatures.  Have to give this one a thumbs down.

Our narrator is a meteorologist living in Wyoming.  A meteor is seen landing a few miles away in the desert.  He and a fellow weatherman ride horses into the desert to see if they can find the meteorites.  The temperatures they encounter and the smells they experience feel a little off.  Also, an unusual storm seems to be brewing.  They find some hollow crystalline spheres taller than a man; no doubt that are the meteorites, and they are cracked open.  The storm hits, and the men witness what appears to be bodies of air pressing violently against each other, as if they were alive and fighting.  The meteorologists surmise that in Earth's atmosphere live invisible creatures whose bodies are akin to water vapor, and that somewhat similar alien creatures arrived on Earth in the glass globes, and that the native air creatures are fighting the invaders, who seek to remake our home planet's atmosphere in their own image.

I've told you many times that I don't like stories in which the characters are spectators instead of participants, and today I am telling you that I am not interested in descriptions of weather, either.  Another knock against "Storm Warning" is that it is repetitive--we hear about the smells and get descriptions of clouds again and again.  A weak choice from Carr; though Conklin and Silverberg disagree with me.


**********

The Kuttner and Moore story is the stand out, with Brackett in second place; these stories are about human beings and human relationships and the life choices we have to make, the way we have to balance our desires with our responsibilities.  Rocklynne's story is OK, but Wollheim's is like a filler story that lacks the sex and violence or twist ending that might make a filler story entertaining.  

Classic Science Fiction: The First Golden Age seems like a pretty good book.  Each story is preceded by an introduction of five or six pages which includes a list of references and not only covers biographical info on the author of the following story but tries to put his or her work in some kind of historical context and includes anecdotes about important SF people whose stories are not reproduced here, like John W. Campbell, Jr. and Hugo Gernsback; taken together these intros are like a history of SF in the period covered.  Pretty cool.

Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Lester del Rey: "The Smallest God," "The Stars Look Down," "Doubled in Brass," and "Reincarnate"

In the last episode of MPorcius Fiction Log we read four stories from the important pulp magazine edited by Edwin Baird and Farnsworth Wright, Weird Tales, stories about guys having crazy revelatory dreams and people trying to make contact with other universes and with alien monster gods.  Today we'll read four stories from two important pulp magazines edited by John W. Campbell, Jr., three from what was long the top science fiction magazine, Astounding, a magazine associated with serious science and speculations about the future, and one from what many critics consider the finest of all fantasy magazines, Unknown.  All four of today's stories were written by Lester del Rey and appeared in 1940, and I am reading them in the 1975 collection Early del Rey, which includes lots of autobiographical material between the stories from del Rey himself.  Fort paperback publication, the book was split into two volumes with pretty effective cover illos by the Brothers Hildebrandt and retitled The Early del Rey.

(We've already read the first four stories in The Early Del Rey; today's stories are the fifth through eighth.)

"The Smallest God" (1940)

"The Smallest God" is the title story of the Spanish translation of The Early Del Rey: Volume 1.  It is a somewhat silly story about artificial life and academic rivalries that includes a large cadre of comic relief minor characters, among them a foreigner with a goofy accent, a vapid boy-chasing teenage girl, an Irish cop and a superstitious drunken Irishwoman.  Ay, begorrah!

Two rival scientists at the University are working on creating artificial life.  The biochemist has created in a tank a perfect adult human male body, but it lacks life.  A physicist resents the biochemist, because he and the biochemist are always competing over funds, and scoffs at the biochemist's attempt to create an artificial man--he knows that the secret of life is radioactive potassium.  He has artificially created some radioactive potassium himself, and is confident that if this material was added to the lifeless body that it would spring to life, though he jealously keeps this a secret from the biochemist.

There's another radioactive substance the physicist has come up with, the product of a failed experiment, a kind of thick rigid tar; the physicist considers this gunk useless and doesn't even know the exact proportions of its ingredients.  Among the detritus of this guy's cluttered and disorderly lab is a rubber cast of a six-inch-tall statue of Hermes he bought for his daughter but decided not to give her--hollow, this statue is quite light and keeps falling over.  To give it some heft so it will sit still when he is banging on the table or whatever, the physicist softens that useless tar with alcohol and fills the hollow Hermes with the now pliable substance.

Now that it has been softened by alcohol, the goop comes to life!  The tar is very intelligent, and telepathic--it can read the minds of others and even into them words and images!  Perhaps the best parts of this story are del Rey's descriptions of the minds of a cat and of a dog as perceived by this artificial creature.

(In the autobiographical section following "The Smallest God," del Rey suggests that he made the cat in this story too selfish and cold, that nowadays he is aware of how affectionate cats can be.)

A lot of stuff in this story beggars belief--would a real scientist take some weird substance he cooked up and just use it as ballast in a decoration?  Even more incredibly, the artificial substance (which has no eyes but can see by detecting "vibrations"--these vibrations include infrared and UV light) sees the physicist's daughter and falls in love with her.  Would a sexless blob fall in love with a human woman?  It is bad enough when in SF stories Terrans fall in love with cat people or whatever, but at least both humans and felines have gonads--this thing is just a uniform handful of goo!  Incomprehensible.

The artificial creature has numerous adventures as it seeks out more alcohol, gets tossed in the garbage when its efforts to communicate with the physicist give the scientist the heebie-jeebies, learns to move and makes the flexible rubber statue walk around and even manipulate objects with its hands as if it were a real (six-inch tall) person, is perceived as one of the "the Little Folk" by the aforementioned inebriated Irishwoman, and stalks the physicist's sexy teenaged daughter.  This chick has seven dates a week with four different guys, and all four of them are six feet or taller; the blob in the rubber Hermes statue becomes determined to somehow grow tall enough to meet her stringent height requirements.

The unliving artificial body in the biochemist's lab disappears, and the biochemist accuses the physicist of stealing it--innocent, the physicist accuses the biochemist of trying to frame him.  The creature in the Hermes statue saves the day, revealing itself to the feuding scientists and explaining that it can read their minds and knows both are innocent.  Having paved the way for them to reconcile, the weird creature then finds the synthetic body, which was stolen and is being held for ransom by the biochemist's scoundrel of a nephew, who was one of the physicist's daughter's four boyfriends.

The two scientists are now friends, and collaborate, finding that radioactive potassium does indeed bring the synthetic man to life, but only to unthinking life, a sort of vegetative state--the perfect male body's heart pumps and lungs breathe, but it doesn't think or make voluntary movements.  As we readers have sort of been expecting, the heroic blob gets himself installed in the brain of the perfect man and entertains hopes he will win the favor of the physicist's daughter.  The operation works, the blob is now practically human, but, alas, that girl has just got married to a more reputable tall guy than that felonious nephew!  But don't worry about the telepathic blob in the perfect male body--the physicist has another daughter, and she may only be eight years old, but the blob is willing to wait ten years before having his way with her.

This story is kind of ridiculous, and its treatment of women is pretty dismissive, but I like artificial life stories and unrequited love stories and "The Smallest God" is never boring, so I'm going to say it is acceptable.  Terry Carr included this odd piece of work in his 1978 anthology Classic Science Fiction: The First Golden Age, but otherwise it has only ever reappeared in del Rey collections.

(Early del Rey seems to consist of stories by del Rey which didn't exactly set the world on fire; they were all collected for the first time in this volume, and there doesn't seem to be any overlap between the contents of this book and 1978's The Best of Lester del Rey.  If reading Early del Rey continues to be a worthwhile experience maybe I'll read The Best of Lester del Rey.  Anyway, I bring this up because I want to note that none of the three remaining stories we are reading today have ever been anthologized, as far as I can tell.) 

"The Stars Look Down" (1940)

Here we have an Astounding cover story whose title and the  cover illo with which it is associated have got me looking forward to some space adventure with space suits and all that sort of thing.  In his autobiographical remarks before "The Stars Look Down," del Rey promises action scenes, his somewhat petulant response to editor Campbell's telling him his real ability lay in characters, not action scenes and gimmicks.

More rivalry between top scientists!  Edwin Morse was born into a wealthy family.  Gregory Stewart is a child of the streets who didn't know where his next meal was coming from!  But both dream of conquering space!  They met in college, where they became frenemies whose tempestuous relationship is characterized by their many disagreements.  For one thing, they were both after the same girl.  For another, each has his own theory on how to escape Earth's gravity.  Morse believes that nuclear power and ion engines are the path to the stars.  Stewart puts his confidence in refinements of conventional explosives and rocket fuels.

Today, as businessowners in late middle-age, each has purchased an island off the Atlantic coast and been competing to construct Mankind's first space ship.  Stewart has grown fantastically rich and acquired considerable political influence by selling munitions to the government during the war torn middle of the 20th century, and in his race for space with Morse he doesn't play by Marquess of Queensbury rules.  He engages in lawfare--even getting Morse convicted of negligent homicide and imprisoned for four years over the death of Morse's son in an accident (Morse should have got Alec Baldwin's lawyers!)--and in sabotage--even hiring thugs to firebomb Morse's facilities from an aircraft (lucky those blueprints were in fireproof filing cabinets!)

Much of that stuff is described in exposition, as the narrative begins as sixty-year-old Morse gets out of prison and finds his employees are on the brink of success, having just sent a small remote-controlled rocket to photograph the far side of the moon and then successfully landed it back on the island.  The Morse team--which includes Stewart's estranged son--finishes a full-sized nuclear-powered ship, overcoming Stewart's legislative efforts to ground it and then an actual paramilitary assault led by Stewart's right hand man Russell, who is killed in the fighting.  Morse pushes himself hard, working long days and keeping a secret from everybody that he has a weak heart and is putting his health in danger in pursuit of mankind's destiny in space (and of course beating the unscrupulous Stewart.)

Morse in his nuclear-powered ship and Stewart in his fueled rocket blast off on their maiden voyages at the same time.  Morse reaches space and then brings his vessel back safely, having a heart attack just as he lands, but don't worry--he recovers, though the sawbones forbid him to ever fly again.  Stewart's fueled rocket fails, but he is one of the survivors of the crash.  In a dramatic scene of reconciliation, Morse and Stewart, in front of a bunch of reporters, realize Mankind has only one working space ship and one pilot healthy enough to fly, and join forces--Stewart will fly the nuclear ship so Man's quest for the stars need not be delayed long enough to train new pilots.

"The Stars Look Down" isn't very good.  It includes all the plot elements of melodrama--the love triangle, class conflict, bitter competition between onetime friends, conflict between father and son, death in the family, over-the-top demonstrations of loyalty, prodigies of self-sacrifice, betrayal, redemption, bloody violence.  But del Rey doesn't wring much entertainment or emotion out of any of these elements, failing to provide enough room for them and granting enough attention to them for them to have any effect on the reader.  Instead of picking one or two or three melodramatic elements and developing them as major themes, he includes like ten of them and deals with each one in a cursory fashion.  There are lots of characters but they are almost interchangeable, even though del Rey tries to give each a defining character trait--one guy is fat, one guy is skinny, one guy is Chinese and has a wacky accent, etc.  (I think all four of today's stories have characters with allegedly funny dialects.  Yoicks!)  The fight scene del Rey brigs attention to in his preamble is neither very believable nor thrilling, even though del Rey in the autobiographical material brags that he has been more deeply involved in sports and participated in more fights than most SF writers.  "The Stars Look Down" also lacks a structure that builds to a climax, instead being just a series, almost a list, of events, of obstacles that quickly pop up out of nowhere and are just as quickly overcome and forgotten.

"The Stars Look Down" is quite mediocre, but it wasn't boring or offensively bad, so I'll say it is barely acceptable.  In the autobiographical material after the story, del Rey admits there are a lot of things wrong with the story and focuses on the caricatured way the Chinese characters are presented and on some science errors he made and Campbell didn't catch.  (Science fiction writers in the 1930s and '40s really thought part of their job was teaching science to people, or at least getting people excited about science, something easy to forget when the most popular SF of the post-war period has been Star Wars type adventure stories, twist-ending social commentary like The Twilight Zone, or a combination of the two like Star Trek.)

In the quite entertaining autobiographical passages, del Rey also praises Virgil Finlay and tells an interesting story about Finlay's cover for the August 1939 Astounding; brags about how great a photographer he is (at least technically, at judging distances and light levels by eye so he can produce clear sharp photos--del Rey admits he can't compose compelling pictures); and tells us he made a pile of money writing confession stories, which he reports are easier to write and pay more than does SF.  

"The Stars Look Down" was included in the 1948 del Rey collection ...And Some Were Human.     

"Doubled in Brass" (1940)

In this collection's autobiographical matter, del Rey tells us repeatedly that he really likes writing fantasy, and here we have one of his fantasy stories, a sequel to a story that appeared in Unknown's September '39 ish, "Coppersmith."  (I'll read "Coppersmith" if I ever read The Best of Lester del Rey.)  

"Doubled in Brass" isn't one of those fantasies in which a sexy princess helps a barbarian escape from a dungeon so he can fight an evil wizard, but one of those fantasies in which a three-foot-tall elf who wears bells on his shoes talks to rabbits and disguises himself as a midget so he can get a job in a 20th-century human town repairing car parts with his magic brazier and offer sage advice to the humies.  The plot of "Doubled in Brass" is like a Bertie Wooster sort of thing.  The elf's boss at the car mechanic shop has a son.  Son is in love with a girl.  (Le sigh, it happens to the best of us.)  But girl's family is in financial trouble so she is dating an overweight rich jerk.  The elf uses his magic to make sure the kids marry each other and have enough money and that the fat rich guy gets humiliated.  Good grief.

Maybe this story is supposed to be light-hearted and cute and distract you from the current world crisis or something, and I suppose it is competent, but it is not what I want to read by any means.  Gotta give "Doubled in Brass" a thumbs down.

"Reincarnate" (1940)

Boyd is a young scientist, working on an experimental nuclear reactor with an older established scientist.  He's also got a pretty girlfriend, Joan, who loves science.  One day something needs to be investigated, so Boyd and his mentor suit up and go into the reactor--Joan also wants to come, but of course Boyd insists she not.  There's an explosion and Boyd's body is totally wrecked--however, his brain and spine are more or less intact!  A German scientist is able to implant Boyd's nervous system into a robotic body, and over many months Boyd learns to use this body, and finds it is in many ways superior to the 100% natural organic body he was born with--he's stronger, his reflexes are faster, he has telescopic and microscopic vision, he's immune to disease, he need never sleep, etc.  (Looks like sex and children are out the window, though.)

"Reincarnate" actually begins when Boyd wakes up after the explosion, and we learn how he was maimed through what amounts to a flashback.  Del Rey spends quite a bit of time describing how the new robot body works and how Boyd has to be trained to use it.  I find the idea of having my brain put into a robot body fascinating, and enjoyed all this material; del Rey succeeds in making it all pretty interesting and even emotionally affecting.  Once he is able to walk around and get back to work on the reactor, Boyd has to face the fact that he is one of a kind, all alone in the world, perhaps unable to have any kind of comradely human relationship with his fellow scientists and engineers, he now being so different than they.

"Reincarnate," however, has a happy ending that del Rey in the autobiographical material that follows the story admits is kind of corny.  For one thing, Boyd succeeds in building healthy relationships with his fellow workers.  But more important is the twist ending.  Boyd has to go back into the reactor to solve the problem that got him blown to pieces in the first place--with his new armored body with super reflexes, probably he can resolve the issue.  But the people who own the project (as in "The Stars Look Down," the history-making operation at the center of the story is managed by private enterprise, not big government) send somebody into the danger zone with him to help him--another disembodied brain in a robot body!  Boyd assumes it is his mentor--he was told that guy had died, and Boyd thinks they must have just been keeping this second medical miracle a secret from him!  The two cyborg-Americans fix the reactor, and then robot person number 2 drops a bombshell--she is Joan, Boyd's girlfriend!  Boyd thought she was avoiding him all this time because how could a flesh and blood woman and a sexless robot man make a life together?  You see, Joan sneaked into the reactor on the black day of the explosion and she was also blasted to pieces and then installed into a superior mechanical body!  The two of them can now spend their (very very long) lives together, pursuing their mutual passion for science and engineering side by side, the two toughest and fastest eggheads in the world.

Del Rey does a good job of describing what it might be like to have your brain installed in a mechanical body, and the ending is a little sappy but still kinda heart-warming; "Reincarnate" is a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy for those who fear death, dream of superpowers and of having a love relationship that is based on such elevated sentiments as intellectual compatibility and enduring shared interest instead of base and perhaps short-lived mutual physical lust.  "Reincarnate" is the best of the four stories we are reading today whether we are judging by style, content, structure or ideas.  Thumbs up!

"Reincarnate" debuted in the same issue of Astounding as the first installment of the L. Ron Hubbard novel Final Blackout, which we read back in 2014, and A. E. van Vogt's "Repetition," AKA "The Gryb," a story I read before I started this blog and should reread someday in its various magazine, fix-up, anthology and collection versions.  

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If we put aside the fairy-tale romcom of "Doubled in Brass," we've got three stories that address endlessly compelling classic science fiction themes--artificial life, the heroic quest to conquer space, immortality, disembodied brains and the intersection of man and machine.  Now, it is true that in "The Smallest God" and "The Stars Look Down" that del Rey makes mistakes when it comes to storytelling, but he doesn't make the biggest mistake a fiction writer can make--that of boring the reader.  And "Reincarnate" actually works.  So, over all, not a bad batch of stories from Campbell's famous magazines published early in World War II.  Expect to hear me talking about three or four more stories from Early del Rey soon.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Weird Tales, June-July 1939: C A Smith, H B Cave and H P Lovecraft

Weird Tales only published 11 issues in 1939, and the one we look at today is dated June-July 1939 on its contents page.  This issue has quite a lot of reprints in it, and the stories we'll be reading by Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft appeared earlier in WT or in other venues, but we'll also tackle a piece by Hugh B. Cave which debuted here in this issue of Farnsworth Wright's unique magazine.

"The Willow Landscape" by Clark Ashton Smith (1931)

isfdb tells us that Clark Ashton Smith's "The Willow Landscape" first saw print in Philippine Magazine, and then was included in the 1933 small press collection The Double Shadow.  After its inclusion in Weird Tales in 1939, here it was promoted as an "ingenious Chinese fantasy" on the contents page, it would resurface in several Smith collections.  If you are scoring at home, be aware I am reading the Weird Tales version.

"The Willow Landscape" is a creditable little fantasy, one with a happy ending, something we don't necessarily expect from California's chief weirdie, who kills off protagonists at a pretty alarming rate.

Shih Liang is a lonely man, a scholar with a clerical job at the imperial court, but no friends or family save his younger brother, who is studying to become a scholar himself.  His ancestors left Shih Liang a bunch of art treasures but also a pile of debts, and most of Shih Liang's salary goes to paying off these debts and financing his little brother's education.  The man's only real recreation is staring at his favorite painting, which depicts a beautiful landscape with willows and a bamboo bridge, and, on the bridge, a pretty young woman.  Admiring this painting refreshes Shih Liang as would a walk in the country.

Disaster strikes!  Thanks to the maneuvers of some jerk off at the imperial court, Shih Liang loses his job!  Disgraced, no other job is open to him.  To survive, and to complete payment on his brother's schooling, Shih Liang has to start selling the art collection.  He leaves his favorite painting until last.  As he takes one final look at the painting, he is magically transported to the world of the painting, where he lives happily ever after with the young woman--in the last line of the story Smith hints that if anybody watched the painting carefully they'd notice Shih Liang having sex with her.  Cheeky!

Not bad, though you can see the ending (entering the painting) a mile away (the sex joke is a surprise, at least.)  

"The Death Watch" by Hugh B. Cave (1939)

Here we have a quite good Lovecraftian story written in a more direct and accessible style than that which we associate with Lovecraft himself.  Thumbs up!

Our narrator, Harry Crandall, works at a radio station, but the station doesn't broadcast the 1939 equivalents of Led Zeppelin, Rush Limbaugh, U2 and Howard Stern--this station sends and receives important business and safety messages for ships and their owners and that sort of thing.  Our story is set in Florida, and there are lots of references to spiders and swamps and insects as well as what those so inclined might consider opportunities for "Florida Man" jokes.  

An attractive young woman of Harry's acquaintance, Elaine, was very close with her brother, Mark, and they lived together in a big house set far from any other building, on the edge of a swamp.  Elaine moved out when she married Peter, a writer who, like so many of us nowadays, works at home.  Mark died recently--Harry was at his bedside as he expired.  Elaine and Mark have moved into Mark's big house, and Peter often comes to hang out with Harry at night at the radio station, when Harry is on watch at the radio set--Peter seems pretty interested in radio and learns a lot during his time at the station.  While hanging out there, Peter reports on the horrible effect Mark's death has had on Elaine--she has started reading occult books and has hired a Seminole Indian to work at the big house and she spends a lot of time with this taciturn, creepy drunk and barely talks to Peter.  Most disturbing of all is how Elaine keeps saying Mark told her he would come back to her from the grave, and how she actually seems to believe he will.

Harry suggests that Peter read some of Elaine's crazy books so he can better refute their stupidities and convince his wife to abandon the insane idea her brother can return from the dead.  Peter stops coming by the radio station, and a curious Harry goes to visit the big house on the swamp.  These visits offer Harry some disturbing revelations: Elaine and that Indian, in furtherance of their quest to bring Mark back from the grave, are trying to contact alien gods Nyarlathotep and Hastur via traditional black sorcery means, while Peter--who has read Elaine's books and found them not stupid but pretty damn persuasive--has set up an elaborate radio apparatus in an upstairs room and is himself trying to communicate with N and H via cutting-edge 20th-century means.  Peter has let Elaine think he is doing his writing up there--he wants to the good news to be a surprise to her should he actually ever get through to the other side and summon back her beloved brother.  Imagine her surprise when it turns out Mark wanted to return from the grave not because he loved Elaine but because he felt Elaine betrayed him by marrying Peter and wanted to exact on her a gruesome vengeance!

I really like "The Death Watch"--the love triangle aspect, the use of modern technology, the Native American element, the critter-haunted swamp, all of it works, and Cave's style here is effective.  Recommended to all Yog-Sothery aficionados!  In 1977 "The Death Watch" was reprinted in the Cave collection Murgunstrumm and Others and in 1994 it appeared in the Chaosium volume Cthulhu's Heirs alongside a bunch of brand new Mythos fiction.

"Celephais" by H. P. Lovecraft (1922)

"Celephais" first appeared in The Rainbow, the elaborate and professional-looking fanzine of H. P. Lovecraft's wife, Sonia Greene.  (Lovecraft was Greene's second husband, and after their marriage collapsed she married a third time, erroneously thinking Lovecraft had finalized their divorce--oops.)  "Celephais" was printed a second time in another fanzine, Marvel Tales, a dozen years after its debut in The Rainbow and five years before its posthumous appearance in Weird Tales.  Of course, it has been reprinted a gazillion times since then.  I'm reading "Celephais" in my copy of Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (the corrected Ninth Printing.) 

"Celephais" bears considerable similarities to Smith's "The Willow Landscape," but is more dreamy, long-winded, bitter and sad, in part because it is set not in some vague fantasy version of the Mysterious Orient but rather in something like real life in the West.

An Englishman's once-wealthy family has decayed and he is the last of his line, living a lonely life in a London garret, the country estate where he grew up lost.  He has abandoned his writing because anyone who saw it considered it ridiculous, and the comfort and joy of his existence is to be found in his dreams in which he travels to other universes where different laws of physics apply and to other lands, among them the valley of Oorth-Nargai, where people do not grow old and where ships can fly from the city of minarets Celephais up into the clouds to other cities stranger still.  Once having visited Celephais, the Englishman strives to return to it, taking drugs he hopes will facilitate sleep until he runs out of money and is thrown out of his garret.  The final lines of the story indicate that the failed writer dies after falling off a seaside cliff and bitterly suggest a fat businessman now lives in his ancestral home, but before we get that we hear all about how the writer meets a party of knights who carry him off to Oorth-Nargai, where he reigns as a god over the people whom he created in his dreams.  I guess we can choose to think the writer's soul really is enjoying life in a better world, or that he was just a nut, .

I don't have to tell you that the young Englishman in the story is based on Anglophile Lovecraft himself, also a writer who, during his life, was little appreciated and also a man who came from a formerly wealthy line then in financial decline but who didn't quite feel up to getting a regular job and earning a respectable income, and that "Celephais" is part bitter plaint and part wish-fulfillment.  "Celephais" is OK; the long passages describing the worlds the Englishman sees, and where he actually does very little, can feel a little tedious, and a story in which a guy doesn't do anything but is just acted upon by others, for good or for ill, is sort of a hard sell.  

"Imprisoned with the Pharaohs" AKA "Under the Pyramids" by H. P. Lovecraft and Harry Houdini (1924)  

The "Weird Story Reprint" in this issue is "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs," which was attributed to Harry Houdini when it first appeared in WT in 1924, during the time of Edwin Baird's editorship.  This 1939 reprinting of the story is prefaced by a notice that while Houdini provided the "facts" of the narrative and "O.K.'d" the "printer's proofs," the "actual writing" was done by Lovecraft.  I am reading the tale in my aforementioned copy of Dagon and Other Macabre Tales, where it appears under the title "Under the Pyramids."

This is a pretty long story, and much of the start of it is like a travelogue, our narrator Houdini describing his trip with his wife across Europe to Egypt, en route to Australia.  We get his opinions of various sights in Port Said, Cairo and Giza, and trivia on who is said to have built which pyramid, how tall this pyramid is, etc.  This is sort of entertaining, I guess.  I am always of mixed mind whether this sort of realistic material is a waste of the reader's time or is useful for making the alien and weird aspects later in the story stand out in sharper relief.  

Houdini hires a guide and this joker gets into a fight with some other local, and the two solemnly declare their intention to duel atop the Great Pyramid after midnight.  Houdini is eager to witness this bit of local color, and he accompanies the duelists and their two dozen seconds up to the peak of the pyramid only to find it is all a trap--the Arabs tie Houdini up and gag and blindfold him and then lower him by rope down a stone shaft into a cavern deep below the surface; the sides of the narrow shaft tear his clothes and draw blood from many small wounds, and Houdini loses consciousness and has wild dreams that hint that his treacherous guide is the descendant or reincarnation of the pharaoh who built one of the pyramids and is a sort of representation of Ancient Egypt, a land of evil and sorcery, a civilization preoccupied by death.

Houdini escapes his bonds and starts crawling around the stygian black cavern--he can see nothing, as there is no light, but can smell something horrible, and then he hears something horrible--the sound of a marching party, the footsteps of many types, as if animals are walking in time with men.  Houdini connects these queer sounds with the rumors he has heard that the ancient Egyptians constructed composite mummies--mummies part human and part animal--and with the Egyptian belief that the life force of a dead person might fly around and sometimes enter the body of a dead creature and animate it.

The members of the hideous and disgusting procession of half-human and half-animal mummies, and of half-eaten and half-torn corpses, carry torches, and so provide the hiding Houdini light with which to spot the staircase out of this prehistoric subterranean temple dedicated to a god of death.  The magician escapes, but not before getting a mind-reeling eyeful--the evil priests and their congregation of living dead freaks and cripples offering worship and sacrifices to the giant multi-headed monster god that  emerges from a huge aperture.  

"Under the Pyramids" is a pretty good Lovecraftian story, even though the behavior of the monster-worshipers may not make much sense--they go to a lot of trouble to capture Houdini and lower him down to the evil temple, but then they leave him alone?  Didn't they capture him in order to feed him to their monster god?  Isn't Houdini, as a European-American magician whose "magic" is like a mockery of their legit sorcery and whose ethnicity and civilization constitute their age-old enemies, an extremely important captive to them?  Houdini sees the treacherous guide among the leaders of the worshipers--why didn't this villain go to the place to which he had lowered Houdini and have his crocodile-headed and hippo-bodied congregants seize the American and lug him over to the orifice from which the monster emerges?  And if the guide walked down a set of stairs to the underground temple, why didn't the Arabs just carry Houdini down the stairs with him?  There's also the idea that a small monster was pecking away at Houdini while he was unconscious, a mystery which is never really resolved.

I like "Under the Pyramids," but there are problems, as you can see.  Besides in the pages of many of the component volumes of the vast mountain of available Lovecraft collections, you can find the story in a handful of anthologies with an ancient Egyptian theme, including a tie-in to a British TV series that explores the cultural impact of the discovery of the tomb of Tutankhamen.

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None of these stories is bad, which is nice; here we have a comfortable leg of our long journey through the 1930s issues of Weird Tales.  A leg which offers an interesting surprise: the best of the stories we have read today is by Hugh B. Cave and not the iconic H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith who doth bestride the weird world like cyclopean colossi.  Maybe I'm a simple-minded man, but I prefer stories about tangible things in which people set goals and pursue them to stories about dreams in which the characters are buffeted by forces beyond comprehension.

More short stories await us in the next exciting episode of MPorcius Fiction Log. 

Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Fredric Brown: "It Didn't Happen," "Pi in the Sky" and "The Geezenstacks"

Let's pull up 1977's Best of Fredric Brown (edited by Robert Bloch!) from the world's greatest website, the internet archive, and check out three stories from among the 30 it reprints.  I'll skip the first, "'Arena'," which has those annoying quote marks like David Bowie's 1977 album, because I've read it multiple times, albeit before my private notes scribbled in now lost notebooks and reviews on my Amazon account metastasized and formed the excrescence that is this blog.  And we don't need to read "Star Mouse" or "Etaoin Shrdlu" because I read them in 2020, nor "The End," which we read in 2018 under its alternate title "Nightmare in Time," nor "Puppet Show," "Answer" and "Knock," three more 2018 reads.  But that leaves many more stories we have yet to grapple with; today let's pore over three of them that look like full-sized SF stories and not vinnies or what isfdb calls "non-genre."  

"It Didn't Happen" (1963)

This is a sort of Twilight Zone-type fantasy story in which we learn the world is not at all what we believe it to be; "It Didn't Happen" also includes topics we have seen in other of Brown's works, like a murder and amnesia.

A wealthy man of leisure type guy fancies a stripper and bribes his way backstage to visit her and suggest she have sex with him for money.  She is so offended she hits him hard in the face and he whips out a gun and shoots her down.

The cops catch up to him and in his cell he tells his lawyer a crazy story about how one day he ran over a bicyclist and her body vanished, leading him to take an intellectual journey which concluded with him coming to believe that only he was real, that the rest of the universe was just his imagination, that other people simply did not exist, but were the creation of his own mind.  This diminished his inhibition against killing people, and when the stripper struck him he just reflexively destroyed her.  Today he has to admit that some people besides himself are real, as the stripper turned out to be.  

At night in his cell, the murderer has a dream in which the real people who run the world have a file card corresponding to each person, and the cards of real people are kept in one drawer and those who are just imaginary in another drawer, and if a card is moved from one drawer to another, the status of the person to which the card applies will change.

This dream turns out to be a reflection of a reality of which the murderer's subconscious mind is aware.  The murderer's lawyer and psychiatrist are real people who figure out that the murderer is also real, but years ago received a blow to the head while playing polo and suffers amnesia; one of the things the murderer has forgotten is all this business about there being both real and imaginary people and how he is supposed to not let the imaginary people in on the secret.  The lawyer contacts the people who manage the local files and has the murderer's card removed from the "real" drawer so he can kill the murderer; the imprisoned man's body disappears and along with it disappear all memories of him in the minds of other imaginary people, including the cops and officers of the court familiar with his case.

If you spend any time thinking about it, this story doesn't make a lot of sense and it doesn't have much by way of human feeling, either--it is meant to entertain by blowing you away with its crazy scenario.  I'll generously call it acceptable.  

"It Didn't Happen" debuted in Playboy and was later included in an anthology of SF from Hugh Hefner's magazine and various Brown collections.

"Pi in the Sky" (1945)

Here we have a satire that uses the same gag we have seen three or four times; the examples that are coming to mind are Robert A. Heinlein's 1950 "The Man Who Sold the Moon," Arthur C. Clarke's 1956  "Watch This Space" and Arthur Porges' 1956 "Masterpiece," but I swear there are more stories in which the sky becomes a canvas for advertising.  Congrats to Brown for getting their first.  Besides satirizing the ubiquity of advertising and the susceptibility of people to it, the story pokes fun at scientists, suggesting many of them talk a lot of rot to fool people into thinking them smarter than they are, as well as suggesting that ordinary people often have more common sense than scientists.  "Pi in the Sky" is over twenty pages long, and Brown integrates into its length a shaggy dog story (a guy goes through many adventures trying to get to Washington, D.C. but ends up in Washington state), accents that are supposed to be funny, and a bunch of jokes about how guys are horny and women are manipulative.  And that old perennial, jokes about how people act differently when they have been drinking.  

"Pi in the Sky" has a chummy colloquial narrator, a guy I guess living in the distant future, who relates to us the story of something that happened in the near future of the 1980s.  Brown's tale features a bunch of different characters who don't interact with each other much if at all--"Pi in the Sky" is a series of connected (sometimes loosely) comic anecdotes, each one more outlandish than the one before it--the first anecdote is almost a straight SF tale.

One night, a few hundred of the brightest stars start moving independently across the dark sky, to the  astonishment and confusion of astronomers.  We witness the international crew (here is where we get the comic accents) of a ship whose radio has broken flummoxed by how they cannot navigate by astrolabe anymore.  We witness the frenzied reactions of various scientists.  One scientist figures out the truth and does the goodest job he can to get to the White House to enlist the President's aid in saving the world from a terrible fate, but as already noted he ends up on the wrong side of the country and accomplishing nothing after many trials.

The terrible fate is revealed to be the work of a reclusive business tycoon who is also an amateur engineer of remarkable ability.  This genius has invented a device that by transmission of energy waves can bend light.  He has set up a battery of hundreds of these devices in the mansion in which he resides under a false name, to refract the light of prominent stars in a precise way, making them appear to move across the sky.  After a few days the mobile stars converge at their final destinations and stop--they are seen to spell out a simple advertising slogan that prods people to buy the soap manufactured by the genius's company.  This magnate may be a genius engineer and a talented entrepreneur, but he spelled his own name wrong (btw, the story is full of joke names like Sniveley and Phlutter) and dies of a stroke upon realizing his error.  Two months later the electric company cuts off the juice to the (pseudonymously-owned) mansion and the stars snap back into place.  The experiment may be considered a success, however--the last line of Brown's story reports that, while the ad was in the sky, sales of the soap in question increased "915%."

People who think they are smart hate advertising and have contempt for the common people upon whom advertising is said to work, and here we have another story in which these tired and boring attitudes are expressed, mixed up in a stew that includes a ton of additional jokes on topics related and unrelated to this central tent pole satire of our society.  "Pi in the Sky" is too long and is not funny; way too much of it just goes nowhere; the only likable or compelling character is the villain, and the only human feeling it inspires (in this reader, at least) is sympathy for the brilliant amateur inventor whom Brown chooses to humiliate.  Am I supposed to be glad a genius inventor who sells soap dies after committing a typo--providing soap to people is a good deed!

(As both an undergrad and a grad student I met left-wing professors who thought people don't really need soap, that the capitalists had tricked the vulnerable populace into thinking they smelled bad, but, come on, guys.)  

Thumbs down, I'm afraid.  A lot of people seem to like "Pi in the Sky," though, and, since its premiere in Thrilling Wonder alongside stories by Murray Leinster and Frank Belknap Long, it has been reprinted many times in multiple foreign languages as well as in English.                

"The Geezenstacks" (1943)

This story debuted in Weird Tales during the editorship of Dorothy McIlwraith, alongside stories by Robert Bloch, August Derleth, and Ralph Milne Farley and an illustration by Hannes Bok that I can't get out of my head.  "The Geezenstacks" would go on to be one of the title stories of a 1961 Brown collection which would be reprinted in many languages over the decades.

This is the best story of today's three, one which enjoys internal consistency and a welcome lack of dumb jokes or banal social commentary, and even offers the reader real human feeling.  

A man and woman have a little girl.  The wife's brother often comes to visit and is practically one of the family, regularly going out to dinner and the movies and whatever with them.  This uncle brings to the little girl a gift one day--a box of four wax dolls he acquired by mysterious happenstance.  There is a little girl doll, an adult woman doll, and two adult male dolls...just like this family group.

The girl dubs them "the Geezenstacks" and plays with them earnestly.  Dad pays more attention to daughter's play than does Mom, and notices a series of eerie coincidences: the little stories his daughter acts out with the Geezenstacks seem to presage similar events in real life.  If Mr. Geezenstack skips work because of illness, it isn't long before the father feels ill and has to stay home.  If Mrs. Geezenstack goes shopping for a new coat, soon enough Mother decides she needs a new coat and goes out to buy one.

Mom and Uncle don't notice these coincidences, but they do notice Dad seems worn out and is acting weird, as if he is obsessed with his daughter's dolls.  Should they urge him to see a shrink?  Or maybe they should somehow get rid of the dolls when Dad isn't looking?  Will the family manage to get through this episode of the dolls and resume normal life, or will a horrendous fate befall them?

A good solid black magic story.  The pacing and structure of the story are admirable--there is no fat, no extraneous distractions, which makes "The Geezenstacks" a smooth read, while the behavior and dialogue of the characters is perfectly believable, making it easy to identify with all four of them.  I also admit to a weakness for voodoo doll stories.  So, thumbs up!  


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Brown's body of work, like Bloch's, contains way too many pun stories and lame satires and dopey joke stories, but among the mass one can find some real effective fantasy horror stories, and "The Geezenstacks" is one of them.  I plan to keep looking for them, so we will probably return to The Best of Fredric Brown here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

Monday, July 8, 2024

Lester del Rey: "The Faithful," "Anything" and "Habit"

In the infancy of this blog of mine I read the version of Lester del Rey's "Nerves" found in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and was not impressed by it and so put del Rey on the back burner.  But recently, while pursuing my quest to read at least one story from each issue of Weird Tales published in the 1930s, I was impressed by del Rey's 1939 contribution to the unique magazine, "Cross of Fire," as well as the autobiographical matter that accompanied that story's appearance in the 1975 collection Early del Rey.  So I have decided to read more from Early del Rey; today we check out the first, third and fourth stories in the volume, "Cross of Fire" being the second.

"The Faithful" (1938)

The Early del Rey begins with a charming account from del Rey about his youth and his early exposure to literature and how he came to start submitting stories to SF magazines.  Del Rey makes somewhat slighting references to Manly Wade Wellman and Sam Moskowitz in this introductory matter; in contrast, John W. Campbell, Jr., fares well in this book; Early del Rey is dedicated to him, the man who bought del Rey's first published story, "The Faithful," for Astounding and then, as we learn in the autobiographical material that comes after "The Faithful," requested more work from del Rey. 

"The Faithful" is more like the description of a setting or a bit of history from a fictional world than a conventional story with character and plot.  Our narrator is a dog living several thousand years in the future.  For centuries, the human race eugenically bred and genetically modified dogs until man's best friend could talk and use tools; dogs even developed their own culture, a society parallel but intimately linked to that of the human beings they adored.  Then a war erupted between two human nations, a world war in which dogs fought beside man, and in which the narrator flew an attack aircraft and bombed the enemy.  This war involved the use of atomic, chemical, and biological weapons, and after the war was finally over a Plague swept across the globe and killed all (or almost all!) of humanity.  The narrator became a leader of the dogs, guiding them in their ultimately successful efforts to survive and eventually thrive in the post-apocalyptic landscape.

After the dogs have restarted Chicago's nuclear reactors and food machines and got the lights working a man appears--the last man on Earth!  He recognizes the narrator--this guy was a scientist before the war who was experimenting with immortality treatments, and the narrator was one of his guinea pigs.  This scientist is the only human survivor of the plague because he also used himself as a guinea pig and the longevity treatments provided him some resistance to the deadly plague.

The scientist provides aid to the new dog civilization.  The dogs have two big problems.  For one thing, they lack hands and so many machines are impossible for them to operate.  For another, they miss humanity--since caveman days, human and dog have lived side by side, supporting each other, and the dogs are sad that they have to go it alone.  The scientist points out that the solution to these problems lies in Africa!  Before the war, mankind was working on the great apes, increasing their intelligence as they had with doggies.  The apes are not as smart as the dogs yet, but they can follow instructions.  The dogs travel to Africa, find some intelligent apes who survived the war, and as the story ends we have every reason to believe that the apes will operate the machinery in Chicago under the direction of the dogs, and the dogs will selectively breed and mutate the apes into a second human race that like the first will serve as a senior partner to dogkind and then undertake the conquest of the stars!

An engaging little diversion that indulges in both apocalyptic laments about the dark side of science and technology and human nature and sense-of-wonder optimism about the promise of man's ability to manipulate the universe.  "The Faithful" has been anthologized many times by big name editors like Damon Knight, James Gunn, Frederik Pohl, and the team of Asimov, Waugh and Greenberg.      


"Anything" (1939)

The autobiographical material following "Cross of Fire" talks about how Campbell was a very creative editor who often fed ideas to his writers--del Rey estimates that something like half of the stories in Astounding were based on ideas Campbell came up with.  Del Rey also tells us that he has always preferred "real fantasy" to horror, the weird and science fiction, and was excited to submit to Campbell's fantasy magazine, Unknown.  "Anything" is one of del Rey's stories that appeared in Unknown; Campbell liked it so much he included it in the 1948 anthology of stories from Unknown, From Unknown Worlds.

It is pretty common for 20th-century speculative fiction creators to take a well-known supernatural creature or villain--for example, the vampire, the witch, or the gremlin--and update it so it either makes more scientific sense or better fits into the time period in which the artist is living and working, or both.  In "Anything," del Rey updates the brownie.  In this story, at least, brownies, of which one character says, "You might call them [brownies] Scotch elves," are short little guys who earnestly perform work for people--out of their sight and at an incredible pace and efficiency--and request as payment not money, but food (no meat!) and lodging.  If a brownie is annoyed, however, it can wreak havoc on human communities.

Del Rey plops a brownie down in small town Midwestern America, of which del Rey paints a pretty sneering portrait.  Our narrator is a journalist, managing the two-man operation that is the local newspaper of a tiny little town where all the people are jerks--the women are gossipy closed-minded busybodies, the men are pettily greedy and selfish small-scale businessmen.  A strange man clad in brown clothes drifts into town and offers to do work of any kind in return for milk, bread, and a place to sleep.  Everyone in town wonders where he is from and what his name is and so on, but some mysterious force prevents them from asking these questions.  The stranger excels at every kind of skilled or unskilled labor, proving capable of doing anything from fixing a roof to curing a sickened farm animal to writing, copyediting and typesetting the newspaper better than can the narrator, and he performs these jobs with amazing speed--all out of sight of anybody, mind you.

Eventually the suspicious and small-mined women of the town turn on this mysterious benefactor.  The leader of the women tries to trip him up, disprove his claim that he can do "anything," by posing him an impossible task--she is fat and asks if he can make her thin.  In the flash of an eye she is rendered scrawny, triggering a panic among the women of the town who suspect the stranger is a witch or agent of Satan.  The narrator is associated with the stranger and the mob of women direct their ire at him as well as at the brownie, forcing him to flee town--thankfully, the brownie uses his magic to get our hero a job at a Chicago paper, fulfilling the narrator's dream of leaving this crummy little town and working in the big city.  As he is leaving he realizes how dirty and decrepit the small town is, and how wretched are its inhabitants--or maybe the brownie is just using his magic to damage the town before he too leaves.

This story is pretty mediocre.  The brownie just explains up front early in the story what he is, rather than making us or the narrator figure it out; his feats of labor are not very exciting; and let's face it--a brownie is not as thrilling an entity as a vampire, a witch or even a gremlin.  Del Rey's depictions of greedy men and fat narrow-minded gossipy women is, I guess, meant to be funny, but comes off as urban elite snobbery; popular fiction is generally wish-fulfillment fantasy, and "Anything" is the fantasy of a person with intellectual pretensions who is stuck in a small town, a dramatization of his dream of having his superiority to everybody in town recognized by a powerful person who then whisks him away to a better life among better people in the big city.  We're calling this one merely acceptable.

"Habit" (1939)

Here in "Habit" we have a traditional science fiction story which attempts to portray in realistic fashion the technology of the future--in this case space flight--and which features a protagonist who exploits his science knowledge and thinks outside the box to overcome the obstacles presented by the plot.  The story illustrates the assertion made in its first paragraph, that mankind has made a habit of developing and refining labor-saving devices, and that the accumulation of these devices is the basic stuff of civilization.  We also have a comic relief character and a sort of celebration of male relationships--sons who are proud of their fathers and seek to emulate them, as well as gentlemanly competition among men who are engaging in a risky sport and pushing the envelope of what science and technology can do.

Our narrator, Masters, is following in his father's footsteps and participating in a rocket race!  This will be the longest rocket race yet, a trip expected to take over eight days!  Masters' Dad, who was killed participating in a recent rocket race, developed a new fuel additive and gave the formula not to his son (whom he didn't want risking his life as a rocket racer) but to a professional gambler, Jimmy Shark, who seeks to get rich by betting on the winner of this latest race.  Jimmy's professed goal in attaining wealth is to become a generous philanthropist; Jimmy is also the aforementioned comic-relief figure and we hear his catchphrase, variations on "it's become a habit to," many times.  To this end, Jimmy has given the fuel additive formula to another racer, Olson, pilot of Tar Baby (oh, boy) and bet all his money on Olson.

The race is from Mars to a beacon part of the way straight towards Jupiter and then back.  Contestants have a lot of leeway on how their craft are constructed and what fuel they use and what course they take.  One of the favorites, McIntyre in Bouncing Betty takes the risk of flying close to the asteroid belt and is forced to abandon the race because his rocket is damaged by a "meteoroid."  Our hero Masters is in second place behind Olson when he has an idea--instead of starting to decelerate halfway to the beacon he will accelerate right past the beacon and fly around Jupiter, letting its massive gravity alter his course and direct him back at Mars; if his calculations are correct, Masters' Umatilla will pass Olson's Tar Baby on their way back to Mars and he will won the race.  (My math is bad, but I guess this works because Olson has to accelerate and decelerate twice, but Masters only once, so his average speed for the entire course is considerably higher, higher enough that he still gets back first even though his path is several million miles longer.)  Back on Mars, winner Masters tells losing gambler Jimmy that sometimes habits have to be broken--for example, the belief that the quickest path between two points is the shortest.  Don't worry about Jimmy, though--he can get rich by selling the formula.

In the biographical material after "Habit," del Rey admits that there is a crippling science error in the story--Jupiter would only turn your ship around if you were going less than 100,000 mph, and Masters was going over seven million mph.)  Oh, well.  Del Rey also talks about reasons why a magazine editor might alter a story for magazine publication (cutting a few sentences so it fits the right number of pages, for example) and says that Campbell made fewer changes to writers' copy than did most other editors.  "Habit" had a few lines pruned for inclusion in Astounding, and del Rey tells us they have been restored for this book printing.

This story is pretty entertaining, and of course I'd never have noticed that science error myself.  After its debut in Astounding, "Habit" was included in Carol and Fred Pohl's 1973 anthology Jupiter.

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These are not bad stories, and the material between them about the life of a SF writer and del Rey's relationship with people like Campbell is quite interesting, so we'll keep reading Early del Rey.  We'll be reading some other guy's SF short stories in our next episode, however.