Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Astounding, March 1935: Murray Leinster, H. L. Gold and Raymond Z. Gallun

Next up, the March 1935 issue of Astounding, from which we'll read the cover story, which is billed as a novel, by Murray Leinster and two short stories, one by future editor of Galaxy H. L. Gold and one by Raymond Z. Gallun. 

We've already read a story from this issue, John W. Campbell's "Blindness." Campbell not only has two pieces of fiction in the issue, one under a pseudonym, but a letter as well, under a different pseudonym.  His letter is part of an incomprehensible argument with another letter writer about orbital velocities (I think) and includes brain-breaking math.  It seems like Astounding readers really knew about science and really cared about science!  Wilson Tucker has one of his joke letters printed, in which he refers to Robert Lowndes; the letters columns in these 1930s SF magazines make the SF community of the day feel like an intimate, if sometimes contentious, family.  When you flip through them you'll sometimes find people saying the letters column is the best part of the magazine and judging an issue almost as much on whether their favorite letter writers are represented as on the quality of the fiction.    

When I was a kid everybody talked about the 1950s as a time of prudish repression of sexual expression, but woah, check out this Hannes Bok cover!  Zowie!  I guess nowadays
we can use this cover as evidence the 1950s was an era steeped in rape culture!

"Proxima Centauri" by Murray Leinster

isfdb calls "Proxima Centauri" a novella.  Whatever it is, "Proxima Centauri" was reprinted in the 1950 Leinster collection Sidewise in Time, and after that quite a few collections and anthologies, including Isaac Asimov's Before the Golden Age, which I own in hardcover, and James Gunn's From Wells to Heinlein.

The Adastra is a spherical spaceship five thousand feet in diameter, mankind's first interstellar craft.  She is propelled by a complex drive that disintegrates things--this disintegration effect must be carefully dampened by supersonic vibrators lest the entire ship, and anything nearby, also be disintegrated.  The vessel is on its maiden voyage, a mission of exploration bound for Proxima Centauri, the star system closest to our own.  The huge ship was crewed with families, rather than individuals, and Leinster likens the ship to an apartment building.  But this is a building that nobody can leave, where nothing changes, and there is very little work to do, and the monotony and boredom of the seven-year trip to Proxima Centauri has proved too much for many of the crew, leading to broken marriages, murder, and mutiny.  Just a few years into the voyage the officers disarmed the enlisted men and barricaded themselves in one section of the vessel, and for years the opposing groups have been separated; occasionally the officers have had to force the crew, at gunpoint, to accomplish some work task or other.

As our story begins the Adastra is finally approaching its destination.  The captain had signals sent ahead to announce their arrival to any potential modern civilization in the Centauri system, and, sure enough, the Adastra has been receiving replies even less comprehensible than one of John W. Campbell's mathematical formulas.  As luck would have it, the best communications operator aboard the Adastra is not from an officer class family, but is the son of two enlisted class parents.  Of necessity, this young man, Jack Gary, has been raised to the officer class.  Romeo and Juliet-like, he and the captain's daughter, biologist Helen Bradley, are in love--Leinster gives his story that old dramatic standby, the love triangle, by having the ship's second-in-command, Alstair, also in love with Miss Bradley, but this middle-aged guy has no chance.

Jack Gary figures out via technical stuff I won't go into here that the alien signals are no longer coming from a planet but from an approaching spaceship, and that spaceship is trying to conceal its movements, as if it is going to attack the Adastra.  Bradley's father, an old geezer, is not up to the task of commanding the ship during this crisis so Alstair takes command.  The alien ship, which has greater acceleration and maneuverability than our Earth ship, comes up and sprays the Adastra with deadly radiation--the Earth vessel's hull absorbs the rays, so the humans survive the bombardment, but the Adastra has no heavy weapons with which to retaliate  So, the humans play possum, luring aboard an alien boarding party which the Earthers ambush with stun ray guns.  Study and interrogation of the captured Centaurians reveals that they are basically mobile plants, and that they treasure animal flesh--like our own!--as a delicacy.  Eating animal tissues drives them to ecstasy, and so they have killed almost all animal life in their system, and are thrilled to find in the Adastra a new source of delicious animal protein.  They even enjoy eating strands of some guy's wool sweater!   

A squadron of alien ships joins the scout and they begin slowly burning away the Adastra's hull with some different kind of rays.  By now Gary has figured out how to communicate with the Centaurians, giving the Earthers a chance to surrender.  The aliens take over the ship, murdering all the crew members, leaving only the officers.  Two officers are selected, along with a bunch of livestock and books and sample devices, to be sent to a fertile but unpopulated planet owned by the monarch of the Centaurians.  Jack and Helen are chosen, and shipped to this prison planet on an automatic ship (the king of the Centarians can't trust any of his subjects who might accompany the delicious humans to resist the urge to eat them.)  The rest of the humans are killed and eaten, except for Alstair.  Alstair has figured out a way to transmit messages to Jack and Helen so that the love birds get to hear him go insane from the horror of seeing his comrades murdered and out of jealous unrequited love for Helen.

The aliens make Alstair land the Adastra on their planet.  The Centaurians' rocket drives make their ships faster and more maneuverable than the Adastra over short distances, but to get all the way to Earth, which they are eager to conquer because to them the whole planet looks like the meat department at Wegmans, they need to learn how to make the kind of disintegration drive the Adastra has, and they want Alstair to show them.  Alstair activates the engine without switching on the supersonic vibration dampeners, disintegrating not only Earth's first interstellar craft, but the entire planet and the entire Centaurian race.  Jack and Helen can see the flash from their prison planet as Alstair saves humanity from becoming the plant people's main course.  Take that, veggies!  Jack and Helen are sitting pretty, all alone on this prison planet until the arrival of humanity's second interstellar ship, which is due in four years.

"Proxima Centauri" is an entertaining enough spacecraft and spacesuit adventure, with plenty of science (e.g., detailed descriptions of the effects of rays and heat on the ship's hull) and engineering (e.g., Gary goes on a spacewalk to install new improved antennas and modifies machines to create a translation device) as well as lots of melodramatic horror elements--murder, torture, insanity, suicide, etc.  The story could have stood some editing for length and repetition, as a bunch of technical descriptions at the beginning get repeated redundantly, and the style is mediocre, but I judge it acceptable.

It is interesting to see another story about how space travel is going to drive people insane, but I'm afraid all that business about the ship being populated with families who get involved in a class war after going bonkers from boredom is sort of superfluous.  Once the main thrust of the story, the struggle with the man-eating plant men of Proxima Centauri, gets going all that stuff about families and class war is forgotten, and all the named characters are officers.  I suppose Leinster introduced the class distinctions jazz as a way to give his love-triangle subplot more oomph, but Bradley and Alstair only ever mention Gary's class origins in the very start of the story, so it doesn't add much of anything.  The fact that the people on the Adastra had psychological problems also casts a shadow on the happy ending of the story--Jack Gary and Helen Bradley are expecting the second Earth interstellar ship to arrive in four years, but if that ship's crew suffers the same psychological issues the Adastra crew did, then maybe they won't make it!  Even if they do make it, the fact that they might be miserable diminishes the relief the story's ending is supposed to give the reader after all the horror business with the planet people.

I enjoyed "Proxima Centauri," and judge to to be a borderline case between acceptable and mildly good.


"No Medals" by H. L. Gold

In his memoir The Way the Future Was, Frederik Pohl describes working with his friend Horace L. Gold, editor of Galaxy in the 1950s; besides selling stories to Gold ("In that decade I was Galaxy's most prolific contributor," Pohl tells us), Pohl acted as Gold's assistant, at times doing just about all the work of editing the magazine, of which he was eventually officially named editor.  Gold had psychological problems (he almost never left his apartment) and Pohl characterizes Gold's editing practices as "Horace's battle to substitute his own conception of a story for the writer's;" nevertheless, Pohl insists that "while Horace was in full swing, Galaxy was where the action was."  Barry Malzberg has said similar things, calling Gold "perhaps the greatest editor in the history of all fields for the first half of his tenure" in his essay "Down Here in the Dream Quarter."

Maybe some day I'll sit down and look through a bunch of issues of Galaxy and try to figure out why exactly Pohl and Malzberg think that 1950-1955 Galaxy is the bee's knees.  But today I'm just going to read this early story by Gold, which has been reprinted once, in 2011's Fighting the Future War: An Anthology of Science Fiction War Stories, 1914-1945.

Pohl, of course, was a leftist who wrote plenty of anti-capitalism satires, and "No Medals" provides us reason to suspect why he and Gold got along like two peas in a pod: the story's mad scientist, Patrick Finch, is a genius at making medical devices "but never could understand the workings of a business deal" and is driven to fits of nerves at the thought of "commercial bickering and haggling, the possibility of being cheated;" this poor bastard is forced by poverty to live on bread and milk!  He has sunk every penny into his masterwork, a project he has toiled at for 23 years!  But today is the day, today his project is complete and he day dreams about being hailed by his countrymen as a national hero!

That masterwork is the invention of a technique of turning dead bodies into remote-controlled drone infantrymen by stuffing them full of electronics!  Before him stands just such a remote controlled zombie, and it works!  Gold spends a considerable portion of this brief piece describing the science of electricity in the body and then how Finch has replaced some of a dead body's nerves with wires.  And then we get an extended fantasy of the mad scientist, his vision of an irresistible assault carried out by the flesh robots, who, having no fear and feeling no pain, will triumph even though they receive no medals.  But the scientist's day dreams get the best of him--as he is imagining all the accolades he will receive for his invention he gets so excited he accidentally moves a lever on the remote control that causes his prototype drone to stab him to death with a bayonet (as depicted in the super spoily illustration to "No Medals.")  Finch won't be getting any medals, either!

This is one of those stories that is just an idea with a scaffolding of mediocre plot and character constructed around it to hold it up, but the idea is good and the scaffolding is adequate.  This is also one of those stories you could analyze to death.  It is an anti-war story, of course--there is no suggestion that the war Patrick Finch's unnamed country is embroiled in is a just one, or that Finch's motives are patriotic instead of selfish.  We might also see the story as being about how new technologies can destroy their creators, how science and/or the modern state have abandoned any belief in the soul or respect for the dignity of human life and thus recognize no limits, how governments treat their citizens like expendable cogs, how soldiers are (or are thought to be) zombies, etc.

Acceptable.

"Telepathic Piracy" by Raymond Z. Gallun

"Telepathic Piracy" would be reprinted in the 88th issue of the American edition of Perry Rhodan, which was edited by Forrest J. Ackerman (Ackerman's German-born wife "Wendayne" did many of the translations from the German.)    

This story comes to us as a document written in 1959, describing an event that took place in 1949, taking as one of its primary sources the diary of an inventor, Roland Voss; the story includes many excerpts from Voss's diary.

One day a neighbor brings Voss a meteorite, in which is embedded a square, apparently manufactured, piece of metal with a jewel mounted upon it.  When Voss holds this alien artifact to his head to listen to it, in case it is ticking like a watch or something, it gives him the power to read people's--and animals!--minds!

I liked how Gallun described the experience of being able to read minds--Voss can see through others' eyes, hear through their ears, etc., as well as know what they are thinking.  Gallun also does a good job of narrating the evolution of Voss's character as he experiments with and begins exploiting the possibilities of the device he calls "the telepathon."  The device has a quite long range--he can read the minds of people all over the Earth.  As a scientist and engineer he is interested in reading the minds of other science brainiacs, but he also ends up reading the minds of people living in poverty and misery.  Feeling their agony galvanizes him--he will use the telepathon to help them!  But we know where that road which is paved with good intentions leads!  

First, Voss "just" steals ideas from other inventors and makes oodles of money marketing "his" inventions and uses the money to give stuff to the poor.  Of course, this doesn't actually eliminate poverty, so Voss figures what the world needs is a dictator who will run the global economy and solve all our problems for us, and hey, who would be a better dictator than one Roland Voss?  To become dictator Voss figures all he needs is a super weapon, something atomic, with which to threaten everybody into submitting to his will.  Now, in real life, by 1949, plenty of people knew the principles behind the making of nuclear weapons and reactors, but in this story nobody has cracked the atomic code yet, so Voss can't just steal that know-how from somebody's noggin.  Or can he?  Voss realizes that, within the moon, there lives a high tech subterranean (er, sublunar) civilization!  And these loonies have all kinds of nuclear power!         

By picking the brains of the moon people, Voss is able to design and then build a nuclear-powered rocket plane armed with powerful ray projectors.  Via radio he broadcasts his demand that the governments of the world surrender to him, and when they are reluctant to do so, he starts shooting his rays from above, devastating sparsely populated areas, to demonstrate his power.  When he is attacked by military aircraft he effortlessly shoots them down, and to show he really means business he sinks a battleship.  His attacks fill the people of the world with rage, and when Voss puts the telepathon to his head to research public opinion the power of all that rage kills him!  When his nuclear-powered aircraft is recovered it provides the key to revolutionary technological development and economic growth--progress which does not require a dictator.

I like Gallun's optimism, his confidence that ordinary people want freedom and wouldn't sell their liberty to the government in exchange for handouts, and his confidence that technological development leads to a better society.  Unfortunately, the resolution of the plot is weak--Gallun described the workings of the telepathon in some detail and never offered any clue that people's anger or hate could harm the user through it.  He should have come up with some other way to neutralize Voss.   

Despite the weak ending, "Telepathic Piracy" is the best of the three stories I'm reading from this issue of Astounding.  It is better written than Leinster's story, and there is more meat--more plot and character--than there is in Gold's story.  I think it rises above the broad realm of the acceptable and into the "good" band.

**********            

These stories all have their virtues and all accomplish what I take to be their authors' goals and are all worth reading.  And it is nice that they are so diverse--this issue of Astounding offers up some doom and gloom about human nature and psychology and the effects of technology, and some hopefulness and optimism as well.  As the crew of the Adastra can tell you, monotony is unhealthy, so bravo to editor F. Orlin Tremaine for offering us some variety.          

Monday, December 6, 2021

An Eye for an Eye by Leigh Brackett

As you know, Bob, many SF writers published fiction in other genres, like the mystery or pornography, either out of a passion for those genres or a need for money.  Leigh Brackett, besides selling stories to magazines like Planet Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories and writing screenplays for directors like Howard Hawks, also wrote a bunch of crime novels.  As a change of pace from the science lectures and engineering extravaganzas of 1930s Astounding and the vampires and alien gods of 1930s Weird Tales, let's read a 1957 suspense novel by Brackett, An Eye for an Eye.  I borrowed a first edition hard cover copy via interlibrary loan that was "published for the Crime Club by Doubleday & Company." The book's first page, where it has the plot synopsis come-on, has a little picture of a clock that I guess is The Crime Club's icon for the suspense subcategory, and also says "Scene: Ohio;" I found it amusing that the publisher thought there might be a sufficient number of mystery fans out there for whom a story set in Ohio would be particularly enticing or particularly off-putting to render it advisable to let everybody know this piece of info up front, like a trigger warning or something.

(Presumably the novel takes place in Ohio because California-born Brackett and her husband Edmond Hamilton lived in Ohio, Hamilton's native state, from the time of their marriage in 1946, facilitating getting all the local color right, like the fact that in Ohio the DMV is called the BMV.)  

Ben Forbes is a lawyer in the city of Woodley, OH, a town of 60,000 people.  He and wife Carolyn only have one car, and they live in the suburbs so she needs the car to get anywhere, so she drives him in to work downtown every morning and picks him up every afternoon.  But today she is late...in fact, she never arrives!  Carolyn has vanished!  In the fourth of An Eye for an Eye's 26 chapters the novel's perspective changes so that the main character to whose thoughts we are privy is Al Guthrie, a working-class brute, and we learn what happened to Carolyn.

Guthrie is a wife beater who is always getting into trouble with landlords and neighbors, and his wife, a good-looking dope named Lorene, finally got fed up with him and filed for divorce.  Ben Forbes was Lorene's lawyer.  Guthrie, who drinks a lot and has a terrible temper and resents middle-class people, blames Forbes for the loss of Lorene, and came up with the insane scheme of kidnapping Carolyn (Forbes took his wife, so he figures it's fair that he take Forbes's wife, you know, an eye for an eye) and using Mrs. Forbes as a hostage to force Mr. Forbes to convince Lorene to return to Guthrie.  An Eye for an Eye is written in the third person, but each chapter more or less takes the point of view of one particular character; Chapter Four relates the kidnapping from Al Guthrie's point of view, and Chapters Five and Six describe the ordeal from Carolyn's point of view.  Later on we get chapters for Lorene and police detective Ernie MacGrath as well as Ben Forbes, Carolyn Forbes and Al Guthrie.

Like 24 hours after Carolyn's disappearance, Guthrie calls Forbes and makes his crazy demand, giving the lawyer five days to bring Lorene back to him, saying that he (Guthrie) has no fear of death, having nothing to live for if Lorene is gone, and if Forbes call the cops Guthrie will kill Carolyn out of hand and then kill more people until the police get him.  Forbes, even though his childhood friend Ernie MacGrath is already on the case of Carolyn's disappearance, decides not to tell the police about his call from Guthrie and try to rescue Carolyn himself. 

Brackett focuses on the psychology of the characters--for example, Ben Forbes's agony of worry over his wife and the way his mental health deteriorates and his character changes as he takes up the quixotic role of amateur detective, running all over town trying to interrogate people and follow clues without letting McGrath or Guthrie find out what he is up to.  We also get Carolyn and Lorene's terror (and how they overcome their fear) and MacGrath's bewilderment over his friend's behavior and disillusionment as the detective begins to suspect Forbes is cheating on Carolyn and has perhaps murdered her.

And of course we learn all about Al Guthrie and his own extreme personality.  Brackett succeeds in presenting Guthrie as a villain who is committed to a course that is morally atrocious and ridiculously counterproductive and self-destructive, but keeping him believable and even understandable; he is neither a moron nor a schizophrenic, he more or less understands the world but has a cock-eyed take on it.  For example, he says stuff that ordinary people who are perhaps bitter or cynical might say say, like 

Justice, hell.  A man like him was a sap if he expected it.  Justice was for the fat-asses who could pa for it, not for the working-man.

Guthrie also says stuff like "A man's wife belongs to him" and that cooking is a woman's job, making me wonder if Brackett was playing up to a feminist audience.  But the novel also offers a quite unflattering portrait of Lorene, an empty-headed and childish woman who uses her body to manipulate men and, it is implied, liked Al Guthrie because he was good in the sack; it is strongly suggested that Lorene--selfish, amoral, flighty--needs a strong man to keep her under control. 

Besides gender issues the novel is chockful of class issues, as we see in the quote above.  Guthrie vents his spleen against "rich bitches" and people with book-learning, while middle-class Forbes is forced by his frantic search for Carolyn to spend a lot of time in places he does not belong among the working classes and lower classes.  In a bar in the working-class part of town where Forbes is looking for clues, for example, we are told "He [Forbes] was the only one there in store clothes."  

Brackett does a good job of creating tension, as Forbes risks getting beat up by the people he is bothering and getting arrested by his friend MacGrath and as, under greater and greater stress as time ticks away, he acts more and more desperately.

Almost two-thirds of the way through the novel Ben Forbes's manic detective work causes a crisis that draws the attention of the police; Ben is forced to tell Ernie the truth about what he knows about Guthrie's kidnapping of Carolyn.  This is a sort of cathartic climax moment, as we no longer have to worry about the police arresting Ben, or Lorene's new boyfriend beating him up, but of course Carolyn is still in the hands of the kidnapper and there are still like 70 pages to go in the 186-page book.  The authorities take over the investigation, and over those seventy-odd pages we see this pursuit from the point of view of the quarry, Guthrie and Carolyn, as well as from that of the cops.  

One of the interesting aspects of An Eye for an Eye is its endorsement of the police.  In Alpha Centauri or Die! Brackett (besides seeming to support traditional gender roles) presented the government as the villain and celebrated people breaking free of its constraints and pursuing their own courses, but here in this novel Ben tries to solve his own problem and just screws everything up, and we are made to see that he should have trusted the government to help him all along.  (The vapid and emotional Lorene follows a similar narrative arc, trying to solve her problems herself before being basically forced to subordinate herself to the police for her own good.)  

This is a diverting, straightforward thriller (there is no twist ending or crazy surprise at the end like those Fredric Brown novels we read a while ago.)  I liked it.       

Weird Tales Project: 1935


Life is full of terrifying challenges, even for those of us not brave enough to become soldiers or sailors or explorers or violent criminals.  You are having a dispute with your spouse, or your parents, or your kids, or that special someone that you maybe want to be your spouse, or who wants you to be his or her spouse.  Your boss is making demands, or your clients are making demands, or your employees are making demands, or your competitors are seducing away your clients and employees.  The government is stealing your money via the tax code or via a robot that recorded you driving 46mph in a 30mph zone.  (God damn you, Montgomery County!)  And then there are the big questions, about the difference between right and wrong, about whether life has meaning. 

In mainstream literature authors explore these challenges directly, charting the love affairs, family life and professional careers of men and women and depicting their inner, psychological lives.  In Weird Tales these challenges are explored allegorically and metaphorically, in stories about barbarians fighting wizards, space travelers being preyed upon by aliens, and vampires, werewolves and ghouls terrorizing the countryside.  

To add a little purpose to my own life I have taken up the quest of reading at least one story from each issue of Weird Tales printed in the 1930s.  And today I can report progress!  Below find a list of every issue of the unique magazine edited by Farnsworth Wright in the year 1935, accompanied by links to my blog posts expounding my perhaps idiosyncratic, perhaps utterly banal, cogitations about those stories which I chose to read.   

If I happen to return to a 1935 issue and blog about an additional story from it, I will it to the list with a parenthetical note.

Lastly before the actual list, here are links to the other posts cataloging the course of this journey, one for each year from 1930 to 1939.

1930  1931 1932 1933  1934  ----  1936  1937  1938  1939  


January

Clark Ashton Smith:        "The Dark Eidolon"
Robert Bloch:                   "The Feast in the Abbey" 








February 

Robert E. Howard:          "The Grisly Horror"
Frank Belknap Long:      "The Body-Masters"
Edmond Hamilton:          "Murder in the Grave"







March 

C. L. Moore:                  "Julhi"
Bram Stoker:                 "The Judge's House"






April

Hazel Heald and H. P. Lovecraft: "Out of the Aeons"
Howard Wandrei:                          "The Hand of the O'Mecca"
Clark Ashton Smith:                      "The Last Hieroglyph"







May

Clark Ashton Smith:       "The Flower-Women"
Robert Bloch:                 "The Secret in the Tomb"








June

Donald Wandrei:           "The Destroying Horde"
Robert Bloch:                "The Suicide in the Study"








July

Edmond Hamilton:    "The Avenger from Atlantis"
C. L. Moore:              "Jirel Meets Magic"








August

Clark Ashton Smith:       "The Treader of the Dust"









September

Clark Ashton Smith:         "Vulthoom"
Edmond Hamilton:           "The Monster-God of Mamurth"








October

Edmond Hamilton:        "The Six Sleepers"
C. L. Moore:                  "The Cold Gray God"








November










December

Robert E. Howard:           "The Hour of the Dragon"
Clark Ashton Smith:         "The Chain of Aforgomon"
Edmond Hamilton:          "The Great Brain of Kaldar"

Saturday, December 4, 2021

C. L. Moore: "The Cold Gray God," "Yvala," and "Lost Paradise"

Weird Tales readers were crazy for C. L. Moore's Northwest Smith.  Of the first five Smith stories, four were voted best in the issue by WT readers, as was the eighth, "Yvala."  (My source: Sam Moskowitz's article "The Most Popular Stories in Weird Tales: 1924 to 1940, with Statistics and Analytical Commentary.")  Let's read the seventh, eighth, and ninth of Moore's Smith tales today and see what all the fuss is about.  (We've already tackled the first six.)  I am reading these stories in my copy of 2002's Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams, published by Gollancz, which means dialogue is in single inverted commas instead of double quotation marks (but I'm still glancing at the old magazines--due diligence!)  

"The Cold Gray God" (1935)

Righa, pole city of Mars, a snow-covered city of thieves!  Northwest Smith is accosted by a woman on the street, a woman whose form is hidden in deep furs.  Though something about her is repulsive to Smith, he follows her to her richly appointed house.  When she removes her coat he sees his hostess is Judai, a spectacularly beautiful Venusian woman, a singer who was famous across the solar system a few years ago, but then disappeared.  Well, the "milk-white" skin, "voluptuously slim" body and "flawlessly lovely" face are unmistakably Judai's, but there is something else about her that seems off--her mannerisms are not that of a Venusian, for example--and while her physical beauty thrills Smith,  something undefinable beneath the surface disturbs, even disgusts, him.

Judai tells Smith that she requires a man of Smith's caliber for a mission, a theft, and she is willing to pay him a princely sum if he can get the job done.  Some guy in Righa has a little ivory box, you see, and Judai needs what is in the box.  Smith agrees to take the job, and, with the help of a friend with influence and connections here in Righa, he quickly gets the box.

Back at Judai's place we learn the real, all too horrible truth!  Millions of years ago, a monstrous gray god whose name cannot be comprehended by sane minds was worshipped by the people of Mars.  This diabolical deity was forced to retreat to its own universe, but it had plans to return to the Red Planet and made extensive preparations to do so.  All Martian houses have particular decorations painted or inscribed on their interior walls, in accordance with inviolable tradition.  It is the nameless alien god who founded those traditions, and those are no mere decorations!  They are words in a long forgotten tongue, magical runes that under the appropriate circumstances can serve as a door to the nameless god's universe!

A messenger from that alien universe is inhabiting poor Judai's body, and has been searching for a body for its nameless gray master to inhabit!  Northwest Smith, a capable man of adventure, has the perfect body to house the monstrous deity!  The creature living within Judai's body hypnotizes Smith and forces Smith's soul out of his body!  The messenger seizes control over Smith's body, and with Smith's own fingers takes from the ivory box a piece of metal in the form of a hieroglyph identical to one of the ubiquitous traditional wall designs.  With this unholy artifact the monster operating Smith's body conducts a ritual in which Judai's body is consumed and the ancient symbols on the wall are activated, opening a door across the dimensions through which comes a sort of smoke or mist which begins infiltrating Smith's body!

Amazingly, Smith's soul ("a bodiless awareness drifting through voids") has not gone far--the disembodied consciousness of Smith is floating about the room, observing the ritual!  Smith realizes the smoke is the ancient alien god, and if it takes over his body it will destroy civilization throughout the solar system.  So Smith fights to return to his body before the nameless alien god can gain mastery over it.  They struggle, and then Smith's local friend bursts in and shoots his ray pistol at the design on the wall, closing the door and saving our universe.

This is a good story, but I have to say that it is basically a reconstruction of elements we have seen in several other Smith stories.  The seductive but repulsive sexy non-Earthborn lady; the god/monster from another dimension; the wall writing that can transport you; the out of body experience; the psychic struggle; the friend who comes just in time to save Smith with a ray pistol. 

It doesn't look like "The Cold Gray God" has ever been anthologized, though of course it has been included in many Moore collections.  

"Yvala" (1936)

Smith and his Venusian buddy Yarol have come upon hard times!  Yarol's holster is empty, and Moore tells us of Smith: "One might have guessed by the shabbiness of his clothing that his pockets were empty, the charge in his ray-gun low."  Moore even tells us Smith tightens his belt a notch, he is getting so thin!

Yarol has lined them up a meeting with a potential employer here in a spaceport on Mars, and when the guy, a fat Irishman, shows up, it turns out he works for an infamous slave-trading ring, the Willards!  Rumors have been circulating that in the jungles of an unnamed moon of Jupiter lives a bunch of beautiful women.  The Willards want somebody to investigate these rumors to see if there is any foundation to their hopes that this moon offers a lucrative new source of sex slaves, and Smith and Yarol take the job.

A spaceship crewed by three sinister men brings Smith and Yarol to the moon, which is covered in a jungle of lashing and snapping carnivorous plants.  Luckily our heroes find a broad road which the ravenous serpentine vegetation scrupulously avoids.  They follow this road and soon meet a bunch of identical women, women amazingly beautiful--Smith thinks they are redheads with a peachy complexion, while his Venusian pal thinks they have the whitest skin and blackest hair he has ever seen.

These Northwest Smith stories often draw upon Greek mythology, and internally rationalize this inspiration by suggesting that the monsters in Greek literature are the product of fragments of memories of the encounters with aliens of a forgotten spacefaring human civilization that rose and fell before recorded history.  This time around Moore bases the perils that threaten Smith on the sirens and the witch Circe featured in The Odyssey.  Not only were Smith and Yarol initially drawn by the sound of the women's laughter, but when the ladies lead our heroes to a clearing, on its periphery Smith spots mundane animals, like deer and boars, who look at him with sad eyes--they seem to be trying to warn him! 

The women lead Smith and Yarol to a shrine and disappear.  Standing before them now is a woman even more beautiful than were those she tells them were merely her shadows.  The sight of this woman, who calls herself "Yvala," sends Smith into the kind of out of body experience I guess he should be used to having by now, and he must engage in a psychic struggle to maintain his humanity--Yvala is sucking his humanity from him, feeding upon it, reducing him to an animal.  Appropriately enough for an interplanetary criminal, Smith is being reduced to the level of a wolf, his mind filled with memories of devouring raw flesh.

The three men from the Willard ship arrive in the clearing, and Yvala is distracted by the prospect of devouring the humanity of three men, so much so that the psyche of Smith, a man of powerful will, is able to fight its way back to humanity; having thrown off Yvala's power, he can now see Yvala is not the perfect woman, but an alien composed solely of light, "a formless flame" that fashions its appearance from the deepest desires of those who look upon it. 

Yvala devours the humanity of the three slave ship crew members--their bodies collapse and their souls slink off as beasts--and the alien retreats into its self to digest this meal.  Smith wakes up Yarol and the Venusian's soul, visible as the shadowy form of a panther, slinks back from the woods to merge with his body again; it seems Smith's comrade is able to get his humanity back from Yvala because he is very animalistic, has so little humanity that Yvala doesn't notice losing it now that she has the three slavers' humanity.  Our heroes return to the ship.     

"Yvala" starts off promisingly--I like how Smith is totally down and out and in order to make ends meet is willing to commit the moral outrage of becoming a cog in the machine of the slave trade--I guess today we would call him a "human trafficker."  I like that Moore doesn't whitewash the fact that Smith and Yarol are reprobates. I also like the deathworld aspects of the moon.  But with the arrival of Yvala we are confronted with yet another long-winded description of an out of body experience and a psychic struggle.  Moore enjoys writing this stuff, apparently.    

There is an odd element in "Yvala"'s publication history.  Back in September we read a Northwest Smith story Moore co-wrote with Forrest J. Ackerman, and it seems possible that Ackerman also had some input on at least some versions of "Yvala."  Moore is solely credited for the story at Weird Tales and in my Gollamncz Fantasy Masterworks volume, Black Gods and Scarlet Dreams, but in two books edited by Ackerman, Expanded Science Fiction Worlds of Forrest J Ackerman & Friends Plus and Womanthology, Ackerman is listed as a co-author under a transparent pen name.  

Besides in those Ackerman volumes, "Yvala" has not been anthologized.


"Lost Paradise" (1936)

Moore gets me on her side immediately by setting "Lost Paradise" in New York City, my lost paradise!  Smith and Yarol are sitting at a table at a sidewalk cafe, a thousand feet above the street, watching the crowds walk by on all the sky bridges that crisscross the air between the innumerable skyscrapers.  Sounds beautiful!  The crowds are full of people from other planets.  Yarol sees a weird little guy, a skinny shorty with white hair, points him out to Smith.  Yarol tells Smith that this guy is actually from a race of people that originated on Earth, a little known ethnic group from Asia that is not genetically related to other Asians (or as Moore puts it in 1936, "Mongolians.")  This race, the "Seles," is known to have a "Secret" which they keep from outsiders and they are rarely seen outside of their little country, venturing forth only when on some important mission.  This little guy, sure enough, is carrying a package with great care.

(The name of the race immediately gives the game away, which was OK for Weird Tales readers, because the editor's intro to "Lost Paradise" there in Farnsworth Wright's magazine of the bizarre and unusual already gave the game away: "A tremendous story of the Vampire Three that watched over the destiny of the Moon.")

As they watch, the little Sele is robbed of his box.  The Sele spots Smith and Yarol, and, as they are evidently tough customers, what with their "space leathers," he runs to them and asks them to retrieve his box, offering them a huge reward, anything they care to name.  The resourceful Yarol dashes off and soon returns with the box.  The three men sit together, and Yarol names as his reward the Secret.  So the Sele tells him and Smith the Secret: the priests of the Sele can cast their minds back in time and inhabit the minds of people in the past--oh brother, this again!  (If you have been reading MPorcius Fiction Log you know that in the pages of Weird Tales we have already seen many examples of people casting their minds back into the brains of their predecessors so they can experience first hand life in the distant past.  WT writers--and readers I guess--love this idea.)  The Sele doesn't just tell this to Smith and Yarol, he demonstrates it by bringing Smith's mind along for the ride as he casts his mind back, back, back, back a million years, so that they inhabit the mind of a Luna-dwelling man during the pivotal moment of Sele history!

Moore expends a lot of ink on romantic passages describing how beautiful the moon city was and how beautiful the Earth in the sky was back then, a million years ago, and also describing the emotional life of the guy in whose brain Smith and the Sele priest's souls are stowaways.  But I will limit my synopsis here to two salient points about life on our favorite satellite back in its glory days.  Firstly, the Seles a million years ago were sending ships to Earth to colonize the region in our time known as Tibet.  Secondly, the Moon had a breathable atmosphere only thanks to the efforts of three alien gods, the Three Who Are One.  These gods were vampiric, and in return for making life on the Moon possible, they demanded a regular sacrifice.  Periodically they would choose some member of the Sele population and he or she must come to them so they could suck out his or her life force.  Each sacrifice must come willingly; if he or she evinced any reluctance to having his or her life force sucked out, the Three Who Are One would consider this an abrogation of the contract and they would cease maintaining Luna's atmosphere.

You can maybe guess where this is going.  The guy whose skull Smith and the priest are riding around in has been called to be a sacrifice.  He goes, of course, but Smith is scared that if his consciousness is in this Sele's body when he has his life force sucked out that Smith might also die.  The Three Who Are One sense this reluctance, and let the Moon's atmosphere float out into space, killing all life on the Moon.

Smith and the Sele return to their bodies in New York.  The Sele picks up the box and is about to beat Smith with it but Yarol guns the priest down with his ray pistol.  (I guess at some point New York's strict gun control measures were repealed.)  Then Yarol and Smith run for it.  They never learn what is in that box.

In the same way that I liked that Smith was a slaver in "Yvala," I kind of like that here Smith is responsible, or partly responsible, for a negligent genocide--I admire Moore for choosing to write about a criminal and sticking with it, not pulling her punches and making the criminal good on the inside or a victim of society or some wishy washy crap like that, an honorable thief or a Robin Hood type or whatever.  On the other hand, the gushy moon stuff is too long.  One of the recurring issues I have with Moore's Northwest Smith stories is that individual sentences are good but Moore uses two or three good sentences--describing how beautiful a woman or a place is, describing the feeling of having an out of body experience or being enraptured or participating in a psychic struggle--when one good sentence would have been sufficient. 

Acceptable.

John Betancourt and Robert Weinberg included "Lost Paradise" in their 1997 anthology Weird Tales: Seven Decades of Terror.          

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Two stories that remind you that beautiful women who want your body are likely to also want your liberty and your humanity, and a third that suggests you shouldn't share your secrets with the criminals you meet on the streets of New York.  We'll be spending time with another famous female SF figure in our next blog post and we'll see if she also has some ancient wisdom to impart to us.

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Frank Belknap Long: "The Last Men," "Green Glory," and "The Great Cold"

Let's take a gander at the Astounding of the mid-1930s and read three stories by Frank Belknap Long that isfdb is grouping together as "The Mini-Men" series.  All three would appear in Arkham House's 1972 Long collection The Rim of the Unknown and its 1978 paperback printing, which, if you've got a hundred bucks laying around, are readily available on ebay.  As you have come to expect, I'm reading them from scans of Astounding at the internet archive. 

"The Last Men" (1934)

We might call "The Last Men" a switcheroo story--you know how people collect butterflies and beetles, pinning them to boards and displaying them in shadow boxes?  Well, fifty million years from now the tables may be turned!

In the Year 50,001,934 or thereabouts, insects the size of a PBY Catalina rule the world, and the humans are their slave race and play thing.  Humans are grown in "homoriums," men grown separately from women.  The insects' technology--drugs that affect the glands as well as nourishing rays--allow humans to grow to maturity in a year or so.    

Maljoc, a human male, has reached maturity and is allowed to go to a homorium where live females to choose a mate.  He has never seen a woman in the flesh before, just videos!  He is warned not to choose a pretty wife, as when humans leave their homoriums they are fair game for collectors, and particularly beautiful men and women are plucked up and impaled and used to decorate insects' homes.

In the women's homorium the assembled females compete for Maljoc's attention.  Maljoc ends up doing just the thing he was told not to do, choosing the most lovely of all the women.  Mere moments after he leaves the building with this beauty in his arms one of the masters dives down and seizes her for his collection.  Maljoc, full of love and an atavistic pride in his race, which he knows once lorded it over the six-legged species, resists, but he and his mate are doomed.  He perhaps achieves some kind of symbolic victory when he and his mate escape the flying master's grasp and fall a mile to their deaths--no doubt Maljoc's mate will be too splattered to serve as a decoration for an insect's wall.

Not bad--Long keeps the story brief and to the point.

People seem to have liked "The Last Men;" it is illustrated on the cover of both editions of The Rim of the Unknown, and Damon Knight chose it for his anthology Science Fiction of the Thirties, while Stefan Dziemianowicz, Martin H. Greenburg and Robert Weinberg selected it for 100 Astounding Little Alien Stories, even though Maljoc's masters are native-born Earthers--tsk tsk.  


"Green Glory" (1935)

"Green Glory" takes place in a universe similar to that in "The Last Men," or maybe the same universe but a different time period.  Mankind is this time around the slave race of ants bigger than elephants, and we and our formican masters are at war with giant bees!

Our protagonist is Atasmas, the most loyal to the ants of all the human slaves.  He loves Big Queen!  Atasmas is taken to see the Queen, an ant that towers one hundred feet high!  In recognition of his loyalty, she has selected him for a kamikaze mission to the very heart of the bee hive, where he is to deploy a biological weapon which should wipe out the bees, but just might wipe out all life on Earth!  The Queen also reveals to Atasmas one of the shocking truths about the world that has been kept from him, and us readers.  All the human slaves in the ant colonies are men, reproduced by "laboratory techniques."  But all the human slaves in the bee hives are women!  Women, the creatures Atasmas dreams about every night with an agony of longing, are not just a figment of his imagination--they are real!  

The Queen warns Atasmas to stay loyal to her and the dream of ant conquest of the world and accomplish his mission, the mission which must destroy him, the bees, and the women!  We follow Atasmas on his mission and watch as he has to choose what to do when he meets that most mysterious of creatures, a human woman!  

A good story; the many images of colonies, hives, and gigundo insects are effective, and I really was not sure what Atasmas would do once he got to the bee hive and met a woman.

Super-editor Donald Wollheim put "Green Glory" in the first issue of Avon Science Fiction Reader, but otherwise it has not been anthologized.

For paperback publication in Great Britain, Worlds of Tomorrow was split into 
two volumes; Long's "The Great Cold" appears in the second volume, New Worlds for Old

"The Great Cold" (1935)

If you thought that being ruled by intelligent giant bees or ants was strange, consider me this: the far future humans in "The Great Cold" are ruled and genetically engineered by ginormous intelligent barnacles!  And it gets worse: these are feminist barnacles!  Female barnacles (in this story, at least) are big and intelligent, while the male barnacles are small and contemptible, and the female rulers of the barnacle polity are engineering humans to mirror this--to their barnacle lady minds, meet and just--relationship.  In fact, early in the story, a laboratory slave tells our hero, Clulan, a food gatherer, that soon the male humans will all be given a treatment that will shrivel them.  Clulan worries that his beloved wife won't want to be with a shriveled version of himself.

The human slaves of the barnacles have been engineered to have webbed feet, and the first scene of the story follows Clulan and other slaves as they swim out to a cultivated patch of "spongy shellfish" to harvest them with blades attached to their heels; they bring the food--in their mouths--to the homes under the cliff shore of the hundred-foot tall female barnacles and their five-foot tall moronic male mates.  

Like the ant society in "Green Glory," the barnacles are imperialistic and seek to conquer the world, but in contrast to the regimented and collectivist totalitarianism of the ants, barnacle society is individualistic and decadent, the mentally unstable barnacles driven by malice and a lust for pleasure.  Sometimes a female barnacles will go insane and present a danger, threatening her fellow barnacles and killing humans by the score with her thrashing tentacles.  In such a case one of the human slaves is given poison to put on his heel blades and sent on the dangerous mission of slaying the berserk barnacle.  Clulan is sent on just such a mission in the middle section of the story, and succeeds. 

His fellow humans hail Clulan as a hero, but he feels hollow inside, because he knows the human slaves are soon to have the only pleasure and comfort in their toilsome lives--their marriages--ruined by the shriveling of the men.  When he was getting his heel blades envenomed in the lab he saw the barnacle superweapon, The Great Cold, which has the potential to freeze oceans the world over.  Clulan uses his recently won notoriety to lead a mob of humans to the vat holding this doomsday chemical and they overturn it, killing themselves, the barnacles, and I guess every other marine creature on Earth.  That'll teach you barnacles to try to screw with our sex lives!

A solidly structured piece with crazy ideas and wild images--I like it.

August Derleth included "The Great Cold" in his 1953 anthology Worlds of Tomorrow, and it was also reprinted in a French anthology of SF disaster stories in 1985.

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Again and again I have denounced Frank Belknap Long's later work, but these three stories from F. Orlin Tremaine's Astounding are interesting and entertaining--it is OK that they are all variations on the same theme of a far future man inspired to a suicidal act of rebellion against an oppressive arthropod regime by desire for some woman because that is a good theme and Long does a good job with the ancillary elements of each story.  Oh Frank, what happened to you?

Well, I am glad I have given these early science fiction tales of Long's a try.  No doubt there will be more early Long, and more 1930s Astounding, in our future.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Henry Kuttner: "The Secret of Kralitz," "I, the Vampire," and "The Jest of Droom-Avista"

It is time to check in with Henry Kuttner, whom H. P. Lovecraft said, in letters to Wilson Shepherd, "seems an extremely brilliant young man" (Sept. 5, 1936) and "is among the brightest & most promising of the newcomers" (Feb 17, 1937.)  Kuttner was also something of a comedian who wrote many joke stories in his career and, it appears from that February 17, 1937 letter, tried to trick Shepherd, an associate of Donald Wollheim's who worked with Wollheim putting out the fanzines The Phantagraph and Fanciful Tales, into believing that Abdul Alhazred and The Necronomicon were real.  Today's topic is three early Kuttner stories that appeared in Weird Tales in 1936 and 1937 that I hope are not jokes but sincere expeditions into the realm of horror.  These stories all appear in Haffner Press's Terror in the House but, as usual, I am reading them in scans of the original magazines at the internet archive.

"The Secret of Kralitz" (1936)

Of the October 1936 issue of Weird Tales, in which "The Secret of Kralitz" appeared, H. P. Lovecraft wrote to August Derleth in an October 24, 1936 letter, "The Esbach story ["Isle of the Undead"] is hopeless tripe, but Bloch ["The Opener of the Way"] and Kuttner do pretty well."  Let's see.

Our narrator is a German baron, Franz Kralitz, who lives in a castle.  Franz knows that his family bears a curse; the very first Baron of Kralitz, centuries ago, murdered all the monks in a monastery because a woman he desired had taken refuge there--the abbot cursed the Kralitz family as he died.  Franz doesn't know the nature of the curse, but on his deathbed his father told him he would eventually learn it; Kuttner's story describes the night Franz finally acquires this knowledge.

One night Franz awakes to find two mysterious figures at his bedside.  They lead him down a secret passage and a long stairway, to a vast subterranean cavern with a dark lake--monsters of various types slither and stalk about the cavern, fly in the air above, and swim in the lake, and at a table sit twenty odd looking men, men scarred and gaunt.  It turns out these are the twenty earlier Barons, Franz's ancestors, who have been damned to an eternal existence as the undead.  Though cursed to never die, they seem to be enjoying themselves.  They hold a big feast, served by monsters (a thing like a skinned child fills Franz's goblet), and are in communication with Yuggoth and know all about Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, and other Lovecraftian secrets.  I guess the cavern is in another dimension or linked to another planet or something.  They drink, eat, sing songs, and laugh and laugh.  Sounds like a hell of a party! 

After the feast the living dead Barons retreat to their tombs--the shock end of the story is that Franz is undead himself, I guess he died in his sleep, and instead of being permitted to return to life up in the castle, he has to lay down in a newly prepared tomb with his name on it.

This is mostly a mood piece--there is very little plot.  What plot there is makes little sense: the fate of the Barons Kralitz--to live forever and gain esoteric knowledge and have truck with the fungi people of Yuggoth and with the followers of Yog-Sothoth (who, we are told, are acquainted with "strange pleasures") doesn't sound like a curse you inflict on rapists and murderers, it sounds like the end goal towards which many a wizard toils for decades.    

Merely acceptable.  Robert M. Price included "The Secret of Kralitz" in a special Kuttner issue of Crypt of Cthulhu in 1986 and in 1995 it appeared in a Finnish anthology of Lovecraftian stories; since then it has been reprinted in various Kuttner collections, among them The Book of Iod.    


"I, the Vampire" (1937)

Earlier this year we read Kuttner's 1938 story about Hollywood, "The Shadow on the Screen," and here's an earlier take from Kuttner on the same setting.  You'll be happy to know Kuttner sticks with tradition and depicts America's Dream Factory as a place where everybody is abusing alcohol and drugs and mixed up in all kinds of questionable behavior.

Our narrator, assistant director Mart Prescott, returns to La La Land from filming in the desert to find all his Tinseltown cronies in disarray.  Sandra Colter, the actress wife of one of Hollywood's biggest stars, Hess Deming, has died, and Hess is totally broken up over it, hitting the sauce so hard he's probably going to ruin his looks and his career.  Hess tells Mart that Sandra died of what the doctors called anemia, getting all white and feeble before expiring and insisting shortly before death that her body be cremated.  Then Mart runs into the director he works with--this guy used to be robustly stocky and ruddy, now he's unhealthily skinny and pale, and wears a scarf around his neck!  He introduces Mart to the man who is going to star as the vampire in their next picture, Red Thirst, Frenchman Pierre Futaine, whom he just brought over on "the steamer."

The melodrama that follows includes stuff we kind of expect--Futaine doesn't show up on film!--or have seen before--Mart's girlfriend Jean Hubbard looks just like Futaine's beloved of centuries ago and this Gallic ghoul becomes determined to possess her!--but Kuttner tries to mix up the formula a little and adds some interesting bits--Sandra, for example, wakes up in the crematorium, shrieking and pounding the glass as she burns to death.  After Futaine locks himself and Jean in the vault in which lies his coffin, Mart hires a former stage magician and safe cracker to try to bust into it, but no dice, the vault is impregnable.  When the vampire and a hypnotized Jean emerge at sunset, Mart attacks with a knife but Futaine is able to use his hypnotic power to stay Mart's hand.  

Then comes our big twist.  Futaine was in love with the woman he says Jean resembles while they were both still mortal; a vampire turned him into a vampire, and he turned his beloved into a vampire in turn so they could be together forever.  But he regretted doing this evil to her, especially after a priest found her coffin and destroyed her.  Jean being so beautiful, and reminding him of his own experience of love as a mortal, he can't bring himself to do to her what he did to that girl centuries ago; he decides his reign of terror must end.  Futaine gives Mart the key to his vault and then returns to his coffin so Mart can come kill him, freeing the hypnotized Jean, who has not yet been fully vampirized.

An acceptable vampire story.  "I, the Vampire," has been anthologized quite a few times, in translation as well as in English.

"The Jest of Droom-Avista" (1937)

This is a brief joke story written in a dreamy poetic style, kind of like a fairy tale, maybe kind of like Lovecraft's "Cats of Ulthar."

In a beautiful city in a fantasy world a bunch of wizard-priests seeks "the Elixir," AKA "The Philosopher's Stone," AKA "that strange power which would enable them to transmute all things into the rarest of metals."  Frustrated after many years of research which has yielded only failure, one wizard takes the ultimate step, calling upon Droom-Avista, the scariest of deities, the Dweller Beyond who is also known as The Jester.  This dark shining god gives the wizard a recipe and the critical ingredient, and the wizard casts the indicated spell.  The first part of the joke is that, instead of giving the wizard the means of turning stuff into the rarest of metals, the spell just turns the entire city, people included, into the lifeless metal.  The second part of the joke is that on this planet gold, silver and jewels are common--the rarest metal on this planet is iron.

I'm not crazy about dreamy fairy tale stories in the first place, and the jokes in this one are like the jokes an 8-year-old makes.  The story is only like two pages, though, so I guess I can cut Kuttner some slack.  Barely acceptable.

(In case you are wondering, "barely acceptable" is worse than "merely acceptable," while "acceptable" is better than both.  I liked "I, the Vampire" somewhat more than "The Secret of Kralitz," and quite a bit more than "The Jest of Droom-Avista."  I have always resisted employing the kind of points or stars system that tarbandu and Joachim Boaz use, but I guess by coming up with a list of fine gradations of "acceptable" I am basically doing what they do, but without their transparency--I gotta preserve plausible deniability and accommodate my essential wishywashiness!)

"The Jest of Droom-Avista" has reappeared in Kuttner collections like 1995's The Book of Iod and 2010's Terror in the House: The Early Kuttner, Volume One.  In 2018 it was included in a volume edited by Robert M. Price entitled Lin Carter's Simrana Cycle.  A look at Celaeno Press's website suggests that this book is a collection of dreamy stories by Lord Dunsany and stories in the same vein by Lin Carter and others, among them Kuttner, Price, Adrian Cole and Darrell Schweitzer.

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Another day, another batch of weird stories from Farnsworth Wright's magazine of the bizarre and unusual under my belt.  Expect to hear me discuss stories from 1930s issues of Weird Tales by Henry Kuttner's famous wife soon, here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

John W. Campbell, Jr.: "The Machine," "The Invaders," & "Rebellion"

I've been looking through 1935 issues of Astounding at the internet archive because I have developed an interest in the drawings of Elliot Dold, Jr. and Mark Marchioni.  These issues of Astounding are full of stories by future Astounding editor John W. Campbell, Jr., some under his real name and others under his Don A. Stuart pseudonym.  Let's check out three Don A. Stuart stories, the components of what isfdb calls "The Machine" series.  These stories would be reprinted together in 1952 in the Campbell collection The Cloak of Aesir, the 1976 collection The Best of John W. Campbell, and the 2003 collection A New Dawn, but I am experiencing them as SF fans did in 1935, in scans of the original magazines.  (Though I did take a look at the scan of the paperback printing of The Best of John W. Campbell also available at the internet archive.)  

"The Machine"

This is one of those stories about how a utopia in which the government and/or machines do all the work and provide you whatever you want is actually an unhealthy and/or unhappy place--to thrive man needs challenge and adversity!  We have seen lots of these over the years here at the blog--the ones coming to mind at once are Raymond F. Jones's "Rat Race" (because some surface elements of it are similar to "The Machine" here) and Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore's Fury and "Two-Handed Engine."  Maybe Campbell's story helped inspire those later stories?  In his intro to The Best of John W. Campbell, Lester del Rey suggests that when this story was published the idea was not the commonplace that it seems to me, but counterintuitive novelty.  "Every science-fiction reader," says del Rey, "wished for a day when machines would make everything easy for everybody."
  
"The Machine" is also one of those SF stories that glorifies the scientist and the engineer, portrays religion as irrational stupidity and suggests the common people are a mob of sheep one step from hysteria and self-destruction should no superior people be around to guide them.  

It is the early 22nd century.  The Machine has provided all the food and kept the weather warm and so forth since the 1950s, so almost everybody spends his or her time lounging naked or playing games half-naked.  A life with no challenge, no struggle, no goals, is not very satisfying, and a small number of people have taken up as a hobby doing stuff that people did before the arrival of the Machine, like growing food in the dirt or reading old books and plans and building a propeller plane, even refining fuel to power its engine, even though the Machine forbids flying in this dangerous thing--after all, the Machine provides perfectly safe automatic air cars for everybody!  Tal Mason is one of these hobbyists, and he just finished constructing a 1940s airplane and refining the "decane" needed to fuel it, and is our main character.

After we readers are introduced to the milieu and characters we get the paradigm shift that drives the plot.  All over the world the air cars and automatic food dispensers and televisors--all the mechanical devices that make life possible--suddenly stop working.  The Machine announces that it is leaving, and tells its wild story.  

Thousands and thousands of years ago, on a distant world, aliens much like Earth humans built the Machine and give it the command to improve life for people.  So it took over government and the economy and all the work and so forth, making life easy for everybody.  With no need to run their own lives or solve their own problems, the people over many generations became superstitious ignoramuses, worshipping the Machine as a god.  Eventually the Machine realized that giving people stuff and solving all their problems for them wasn't really improving their lives (especially if you consider the "life of the race" and not the lives of individuals) and so it abandoned them for outer space so they would have to relearn how to run their own lives and make their own way.  (In my day we called that "tough love!")

In the 1950s the Machine came to Earth and solved all our problems, eradicating disease and vermin as well as running the government and economy for us.  But now that it sees we too are becoming ignoramuses thanks to all its help it is leaving us.  Before it goes it gives us what it thinks is an encouraging speech about how the race will survive even if lots of individuals die and points out that we shouldn't worry because plenty of those hobbyists know how to grow food.  Then it departs to look for some other planet's people to help.  (And good luck to them!)  

When for the first time in their lives there is no free food and it gets cold at night, most people go psycho, becoming savages who resort to cannibalism, but Tal Mason and a minority of clever self-educated people flee to a city to the north that was abandoned in the 20th century after the Machine arrived.  There they scavenge and repair some 20th-century technology and build a community that can fend for itself and fight off attacks from the savages who come up from the south looking for women to rape and/or eat.  

Somewhat to my surprise, Campbell ends the story on a pessimistic note that overturns his "triumph of the smart people" themes in favor of his "people will be lazy if given the chance and then the race will degenerate culturally and genetically" theme.  After a few generations, the savages to the south have  mostly died out, and the descendants of the hardy settlers that followed Tal Mason and built an agricultural society in the north migrate south to where life is easier, where wild food can just be plucked off the trees.  They lose the drive to work and think and begin worshipping the memory of the long lost Machine, which they start referring to as "Gaht."

Ending the story on that equivocal note struck me as odd--was the intelligence and industry of Tal Mason all for naught?  Was Campbell trying to transmit to us the tragic sweep of real history, in which people make great efforts and do great things but their works decay and their labors are forgotten?  Did he expect to write a sequel and, as the show biz adage has it, mean to "leave 'em wanting more?"  

"The Machine" would be reprinted all on its lonesome in 1946 by Groff Conklin in his oft-reissued anthology Best of Science Fiction and in 1973 in Roger Elwood and Vic Ghidalia's Androids, Time Machines and Blue Giraffes.

"The Invaders"    

A little italicized intro (which a cursory glance indicates does not appear in the version of the story in The Best of John W. Campbell) at the head of "The Invaders" tells us it is three thousand years after the Machine abandoned Earth, and our world is a garden where no one ever worries.  

Until today, that is!  Two lovers, Jan and Meg, are relaxing next to a stream when an alien space ship lands and they, along with a bunch of other Earth people are seized by the aliens.  We got violence-against-women cannibalism and human sacrifice scenes in "The Machine," and we get a violence-against-women horror scene early in "The Invaders" when Jan watches as the three-eyed aliens dissect Meg.    

The aliens enslave everybody, and selectively breed them--Jan is a dolt, but tall and strong, and he is paired with one of the few smart humans, Wan.  It would be typical for a writer to portray aliens who dissect a human, enslave the human race and use drugs to trick humans into having sex with partners in whom they have little interest, as horrendous villains, but throughout his life and career Campbell would take counterintuitive or controversial stands, say outrageous things and play devil's advocate, if only to spark a livelier debate and generate what we might now call "outside the box" thinking.  (According to Barry Malzberg's essay in The Engines of the Night, "John W. Campbell: June 8, 1910 to July 11, 1971," Campbell characterized this as "shaking 'em up.") 

And so the aliens are presented as heroes who are helping the human race, which has degenerated over the centuries because life was too easy.  These aliens see that mankind was once great, and by making us work hard and through eugenic breeding they are putting us back on track for greatness--Campbell uses the metaphor of finding disassembled pieces and putting them back together again.  After dramatizing all this from the point of view of the humans in Chapter I of "The Invaders," in Chapter II, presented as a report written by the leader of the alien expedition, Campbell makes all this explicit.  The brief Chapter III pushes Campbell's uncomfortable argument to the limit when he portrays the aliens euthanizing Jan when he is too old to work and breed!   

The last few, quite short, chapters of the story cover several centuries of life on Earth after the alien conquest, and like "The Machine," "The Invaders" ends on an equivocal rather than climactic or conclusive note.  When the head eugenicist who landed in the space ship and who had a soft spot for us humans gets old and dies his replacement enacts more radical and invasive methods of genetic engineering.  The aliens become adept at breeding just the classes of humans they want, strong ones to act as labor and security, for example, and smart ones to conduct research.  When one of the strains of humans bred for intelligence shows signs of independence the alien head of the eugenicist agency orders the strain discontinued and its current representatives killed.  Campbell just told us that these aliens were helping us and now he's portraying them as a bunch of tyrannical jerks!  Maybe Campbell is offering a nuanced view of imperialism, presenting a diverse cast of imperialists with varied motives, and/or portraying the way political and cultural shifts can have a host of unpredictable effects, intended and unintended, both good and bad.

"The Invaders" was the cover story of the June issue of Astounding--right there on the cover you can see Jan respond as the aliens begin dissecting Meg.  Yikes!  I don't think this one was ever published all by itself without "The Machine" and "Rebellion" flanking it.  

"Rebellion"

Three thousand years have passed since the aliens arrived on Earth.  The humans have been bred into many different types, each type fitted for a particular job, but all types are honest and obedient--insubordination and deception are unknown!  But then the development that was nipped in the bud in the end of "The Invaders" (we are told that was fifty years ago) recurs--a human bred for intelligence develops initiative.  But this time the aliens don't find out about it!  

Bar-73-R32 is the human managing director of the eugenics department.  The aliens allow humans high positions like this because our kind have been bred for centuries to never keep secrets and never lie.  Bar-73-R32 is strongly considering trying to breed smarter people capable of more original thought, and when looking at the records sees somebody tried this fifty years ago and the new independent strain was quickly destroyed by the alien authorities.  Bar-73-R32 wants to pursue the project anyway and "invents" deception, becoming the first human in thirty centuries to withhold information and feed falsities to his alien masters!  He begins breeding humans for initiative and independence, and teaching them these values, keeping all of it from the aliens.  He trains and handpicks his successor, who is even smarter and more inventive than was Bar-73-R32, and who continues the project right under the oblivious metaphorical noses (they don't have actual noses as you can see in all the illustrations of them) of the aliens.  Bar-73-R32 accepted the social order into which he was born, and only wanted to breed humans with initiative in order to aid Earth's economic and technological growth, but the independent-minded humans whose development he fostered are more independent-minded still--they want to become their own masters and kick the aliens off Earth!

In just a few generations careful breeding has produced a small elite minority of humans with super intelligence--they have photographic memories and even have psychic powers that can hypnotize, stun, or kill--and that kind of intelligence has powered research that has recovered invaluable knowledge about the human race and its history and technology, as well as about the aliens.  Campbell describes in some detail how these rebels reproduce and improve alien ray projectors and construct a secret base under a city, where it takes them just three years or so to puzzle out the scientific principles of anti-gravity used by the Machine and develop a forcefield that will make them invulnerable to the aliens' ray guns.  The aliens discover the rebel base, try to crush the rebellion, but fail utterly.  In the face of humanity's superior intelligence, the aliens have no choice but to surrender and accept exile to Venus.

Like "The Machine," "Rebellion' has stood on its own in some anthologies, being reprinted in 1974 in both a US anthology, Alden Norton's Futures Unlimited, and the German Science Fiction Stories 43, which reuses one of the relatively few Richard Powers covers that prominently features the human face, which we saw on Edmond Hamilton's The Star of Life back in 2018.

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While these three stories feature scenes of violence and horror, they aren't really adventure stories--they are stories about ideas that offer a theory about how technology, political and economic conditions, and biology interact and that romanticize the engineer and the scientist who use know-how to get things done, manipulating atoms, materials, and most alarmingly human beings to get results that, in the long run, are good for human society.  Campbell's ideas are deliberately provocative--his characters are people living in a totally different environment than our own and so their values are totally different than our own and Campbell doesn't condemn them, but presents them to us for our consideration.

Campbell's "The Machine" stories are definitely interesting from an historical perspective, and I found them pretty entertaining on their merits; no doubt we'll be returning to 1930s Astounding and Campbell's Don A. Stuart stories.  But first, it's back to Farnsworth Wright's Weird Tales in our next episode!