Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Lesser known 1950s stories: W. Guin, G. C. Edmondson, & Lion Miller

Like some kind of genre fiction Schliemann, yesterday I dug into Groff Conklin's 13 Great Stories of Science-Fiction in hopes of uncovering lost treasures, reading stories by three authors I had never even heard of.  I will allow the reader to judge whether the fact that I was unfamiliar with Wyman Guin, G. C. Edmondson, and Lion Miller reflects these writers' obscurity or my own lamentable ignorance.

"Volpla" by Wyman Guin (1952)

This is a first-person narrative with an unsympathetic narrator.  Our protagonist is what we would now call a genetic engineer, living in sight of the Pacific Ocean with his family.  His wife and kids have little idea what he is doing in his lab, which he keeps locked at all times.  At the start of the story he has just created a new life form, two foot tall people with pterosaur-like wings.

How unsympathetic is this guy?  Well, he's not a murderer or anything, but he's a callous self-absorbed prankster who is always making jokes at others' expense.  His generous wife calls him "eccentric," and at one point his son requests "Can it, will you?  You're always gagging around." The things that will likely leap out at your 21st century eyes are how the scientist calls his little girl "wench" the way guys on old TV shows call their daughters "pumpkin" or "princess," and how he pinches the maid's ass in front of his wife and the wife treats it like a joke. Maybe these things would seem innocuous in 1952?  Maybe "wench" was not as eroticized as it is nowadays?

The scientist pulls some other stunts that show his anti-social nature.  Most importantly, his big idea of what to do with the little flying people (he calls them "volplas") he has created is to fool them into thinking their race came to Earth from outer space centuries ago and then secretly set them loose in the wild.  Then he will follow their discovery by humankind in the newspapers.  The narrator thinks it will be hilarious watching journalists, scientists and the government trying to figure out the origin of the volplas and what to do about them.  He figures that, once linguists have learned the artificial language he will make up and teach the volplas, that some of the goofier of his fellow Californians will build a cult around volpla wisdom.

The joke goes awry, and at the end of the story the volplas, over one hundred strong, hijack the first unmanned rocket probe to Venus and leave Earth behind.  Our narrator has, perhaps, learned a little humility and sympathy for others.

This story is pretty good; a little different, never boring or irritating.  I was genuinely curious about what would happen next, and about the odd main character.  "Volpla" first appeared in Galaxy and has been anthologized several times.

While I had never heard of him, the SFE praises Guin's work as "brilliant" and "powerful," and in 2013 the Cordwainer Smith Rediscovery Award, which aims to bring attention to SF writers whom the judges feel are unjustly forgotten, went to Guin.

"Technological Retreat" by G. C. Edmondson

This story first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction; this is its only book publication.

Two aliens that look like fish land in the woods in the United States, where they encounter a businessman who is fishing.  They set up a trade deal with the businessman; they provide him a supply of pen-like devices that can project two rays.  One ray softens metal so it can be safely shaped like clay, while the second ray hardens the metal up again.  With this device an ordinary person can quickly repair an automobile fender or engine or any other metal item.  In return the aliens accept sea food from a deli, which they consider a delicacy and believe they can sell back home.

The businessman expects to get rich selling the "plasticizers" for a thousand bucks each, but within two days the feds seize all his stock, and then it becomes clear that the aliens are trading plasticizers to people all over the world, flooding the market and reducing prices to less than a dollar.  Like the silencing device in the Arthur C. Clarke story we talked about in our last episode, the plasticizer is soon used for mischief; kids dissolve train tracks and limousines, for example.  Over in Russia the Communist Party, we learn, is losing its ability to maintain its power because people can just melt down their firearms.

The fish aliens have lifespans of thousands of years, and assume humans do as well, and return to Earth a century later, expecting to drop off another shipment of platicizers and pick up a shipment of caviar and anchovy paste.  They are surprised to find that not only are their business contacts dead, but that human civilization has collapsed to the level of the stone age, due to the destabilizing nature of the plasticizer.

I guess this is a satire of businesspeople, government, and the way technology can change society, but it is neither funny nor insightful.  For my taste it is too broad, too exaggerated; obviously a device like the plasticizer would change society, like the wheel, steel, the telephone, the computer, etc., but throw us back to the stone age?  I am disappointed that Edmondson spent so much time on long-winded jokes about the Elks Lodge and government bureaucracy, and on one liners ("'I'll have to call Washington,' Simpson said....'Don't tell me he slept here too...'"), and so little exploring the idea of how the plasticizer would change society; he doesn't describe the societal collapse, just presents us with it as a punchline.        

It wouldn't be fair of me to fail a story because the author intended it to be a light series of jokes, while I wish it was a serious story that speculated about technology and society (like, say, Gene Wolfe's "The Doctor of Death Island.")  So I guess this one gets a borderline passing grade.

"The Available Data on the Worp Reaction" by Lion Miller (1953)

This dude's first name is "Lion;" that's pretty cool, right?  King of the jungle and all that!

Lion Miller only has one credit on isfdb, for this story, which first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and was anthologized numerous times, including in an anthology of "Science Fiction Humor," Laughing Space.

Is there any chance this is a pen name for a more famous author? "Lion" does sound like "lyin'," after all.

This story is only 4 pages long, and it is not funny.  Perhaps it would be considered a "shaggy dog" story.  A retarded young man, Aldous Worp, from age six to age 26, collects rusty old junk from the city dump.  At age 27 (with no training or tools) he builds it into a vehicle that can levitate.  The world is amazed, and scientists and military men hope to discover the secret of the device.  But Worp never learned to talk, and when people start snooping around his machine he dismantles it.  The End.

What can I say about such a story?  It did remind me of the "Tower Power" episode of Sanford & Son, which, as a kid, fascinated me.

This is one of those stories for whom I am not the target audience.   I only rarely find science fiction humor stories to be amusing, and would never crack open a volume like Laughing Space.  (In my opinion even the great Gene Wolfe stumbled, painfully, with his humor piece, "How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion.") I certainly didn't foresee 13 Great Stories of Science-Fiction including a high proportion of humor pieces; the epithet "great" led me to expect "serious" stories with some kind of emotional power or technological or sociological speculation.


The Guin was a worthwhile read, the Edmondson wasn't painful, and the Miller was brief. And it is always good to explore new authors and titles, I suppose.

There are still stories in Conklin's 13 Great Stories of Science-Fiction by big name authors like Poul Anderson and John Wyndham, as well as by authors with whom I am not familiar, so I will be back.


  1. I'm intrigued by the Guin story... His collection Living Way Out (variant title: Beyond Bedlam) has been on my list for a while.

    Would it be worth acquiring on the basis of "Volpla" alone? I think "Beyond Bedlam" (1951) is considered his best story.

  2. I wouldn't hunt the collection down, but I'd probably buy it if I saw it.