Monday, December 21, 2015

Three public domain stories by Raymond A. Palmer

In 1964 Ted Sturgeon wrote that Raymond A. Palmer was "one of the most courageous human beings who ever lived."  This caught my attention!  Palmer edited various magazines, including the famous and important Amazing Stories (from 1938 to 1949), other SF magazines, and magazines about Fortean and paranormal phenomena; several of these periodicals were put out by Palmer's own publishing house.  Palmer also has over three dozen short fiction credits at isfdb.  I clicked over to, the Internet Archive, and SFFaudio to sample Palmer's short SF.

"Diagnosis" (1953)

This one appeared in Other Worlds, in an issue that has an awesome front cover depicting a guy hunting a dinosaurian monster (the work of Robert Gibson Jones), and an awesome back cover depicting a guy conjuring up a naked woman with a computer bank (by Hannes Bok).  Are these paintings, or a representation of aggregated NSA scans of typical 13-year-old boys' dreams?

Well I should ask!  The monster hunting cover is in fact a guy's dream!  "Diagnosis" is about two scientists, Don Jenson and Mary Mason, working on a device that will read your brain and project your thoughts on a screen.  They plan to use it to help cure people of psychological problems (Mason has degrees in psychology, psychiatry and biology.)  Jenson and Mason spend a lot of time flirting, but Mason won't go out with Jenson.  

When they get the machine finally running after three years of R&D it malfunctions, and while they lay unconscious it projects both their thoughts on the screen.  In a fantasy world Jenson is a hero and Mason a High Priestess; they are in love, but the priests oppose their love.  The lovers try to escape the City, but the priests use their hypno ray to direct their giant monster after them.  Luckily the hero has invented a rifle and shoots the beast to pieces (Palmer includes lots of gore in this story, brains erupting out of shattered skulls and the like.)  Then the priests attack the couple, and during the gory battle the renegade priestess jumps in front of the hero to take a crossbow bolt in the chest and save the hero's life!  This horrible moment is actually illustrated by Harold W. McCauley--check out the illo at!  

When Jenson and Mason come out from under the machine, and watch the recording of the film that exposes their subconscious desires, they realize they truly love each other (she was just playing hard to get in refusing to date him!) and decide to get married.  Awwwww....

This story is a little silly, but entertaining.  We might even suspect Palmer is going meta on us, critiquing (much of) science fiction and fantasy as childish wish fulfillment--Mason tells Jensen that his dreams are like a "comic book" and follow a tired dragon-slayer-wins-maiden template.  I don't follow the evolutions of feminism closely enough to know whether I am supposed to admire the heroism of a woman who sacrifices herself for her beloved or denounce her as a sell-out to the patriarchy, but maybe feminists will like that she has three science degrees?  (We're still pretending psychology is a science, right?)  

Marginal to moderate recommendation.

"The Hell Ship" (1952)

"The Hell Ship" was published in If, alongside stories by Theodore Sturgeon and another person Sturgeon praised in Sturgeon in Orbit, Howard Browne.  I loved the advertising blurb for the story:
The passengers rocketed through space in luxury. But they never went below decks because rumor had it that Satan himself manned the controls of The Hell Ship.
and hoped that it could somehow live up to this terrific, evocative premise.

Space travel is often depicted as something wonderful and exciting, but every so often we get a story in which space travel is a horrible nightmare with drastically negative effects on the space crew.  Murray Leinster did this in The Other Side of Nowhere, for example, and Palmer follows this tack in "The Hell Ship."

"The Hell Ship" is the story of journalist Gene O'Neil.  Even though space ships routinely fly hither and thither throughout the solar system, the details of space travel are kept from the public.  "No one in all the nation had ever talked with a spaceman," Palmer tells us.  So O'Neil's boss gives him the job of investigating a space port.  When he starts asking questions at the bar near the blasting pad, O'Neil is beaten on the head and wakes up inside a space ship already blasting its way to Io.  (We get a clue as to how good a journalist O'Neil is when he admits he hasn't even heard of Io before.)  O'Neil quickly learns that all space men are shanghaied this way, and that they never leave a ship once they board it, because the radiation from the engines of a space ship causes deformities and mutations both physical ("the man had fingernails growing on his chin where his whiskers should have been") and mental ("The radiations deadened the mind, gave one the feeling of numbness, so that nothing mattered but the next meal....")

O'Neil bonds with sexy fellow Irish-American Ann O'Donnell, who was also recently shanghaied.  (Palmer joins Leigh Brackett and Henry Kuttner in their romanticizing of the sons and daughters of the Emerald Isle, aye bagorah.) O'Neil's job on the ship is to lubricate the nuclear reactor that is altering all of their cells--this type of reactor is totally illegal, but the Company makes so much money they have been able to bribe all the government officials responsible for enforcing the safety regulations.  O'Donnell's job on the ship is to keep the crew contented; how she does this isn't spelled out for the reader, but when another female crew member says "Why worry? We're all sterile from the radioactivity anyway...." I think we get the picture!  O'Neil and O'Donnell resolve to try to get off the ship before the radiation screws them up too much, but nobody has ever escaped a ship before!

With the help of luck, and a huge muscular Swede (there was a huge muscular Norwegian in Alistair MacLean's H.M.S. Ulysses--is this some stereotype about Scandinavians I don't know about?), O'Neil and O'Donnell lead a mutiny and head the ship back to Earth.  A meteor hits the ship, causing many fatalities, and then a Company ship pursues them, but with the help of a self-sacrificing Scottish engineer (I know about the Scottish engineer stereotype) who turns the reactor into a bomb and blows up himself and the Company ship while the rest of the crew escapes in the lifeboat, O'Neil and O'Donnell lead the mutineers back to Earth.  The horrible truth of space travel revealed, the President of the United States promises to spend the taxpayer's money to develop safer ships and makes O'Neil head of the federal agency that oversees space travel.  O'Neil marries O'Donnell and everybody (who survived that punishing space flight) lives happily ever after.

A decent space adventure with meteors, space suits, people coping with a low gravity environment, fist fights and atomic explosions, all that cool stuff.

"Test Tube Girl" (1942)

Palmer's "Test Tube Girl" (no doubt soon to be bowdlerized into "Test Tube Woman" for its second edition after this blog post sparks a Raymond A. Palmer revival) appeared in Amazing under a pseudonym, Frank Patton.  I like the magazine's cover; I guess constructing a woman to his own specifications is a common male fantasy--think of Pygmalion, Weird Science, and all those Japanese hentai games that (I've heard) are so difficult to get up and running on an American computer.  Green skin and purple hair?  Hey, why not?

"Test Tube Girl" was apparently written before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and includes an alternate history of World War II.  Hitler ordered the use of ray cannons on the British and Communist forces as they closed in, and while this didn't win the war for Germany, it had an unexpected secondary effect.  The cannons sent unusual short wave radiation all over the world that had the effect of sterilizing every woman alive--the generation that lived during the war was doomed to be the last generation of humanity!  Unable to face a world without the pitter patter of little feet, thousands of people committed suicide or went insane!  

As the story begins a team of scientists in a 90-story New York skyscraper are trying to get us out of this mess.  The city below has been reduced to 50,000 inhabitants thanks to rampant suicide and crime.  While three hero biologists experiment on the last healthy pregnant women and embryos in the world, a brutish former army sergeant by the name of Matt Welch (amusingly enough) is pacifying the town and trying to make himself dictator!  When an old munitions plant explodes and spreads a deadly poison gas through town, Welch and the biologists have to flee to Pittsburgh.  In their immobile incubator on the 70th floor they leave the human race's last hope, a female fetus whose blood has been mixed with chlorophyll. The heavier than air poison gas won't reach the incubator, and will dissipate in a few months, so the boffins plan to return then and see if their efforts to engineer a fertile woman have been successful.

When Welch and the eggheads return the fetus has grown into a healthy green 16-year-old, the chlorophyll in her makeup having accelerated her growth!  They lift her out of the incubator and spank her to get her started breathing.  At first she is as helpless as a normal baby, but in two months she speaks fluent English and is worried about the vast responsibility weighing on her slim green shoulders--she is to be the Eve of a new human race!  Another problem: in the spring and summer the sunlight gives her strength, but as fall approaches her golden hair turns red and brown, and the scientists worry she, like a flower, will expire in the winter!  

Like "Diagnosis" and "The Hell Ship," one theme of "Test Tube Girl" is self-sacrifice. One of the biologists falls in love with the green girl (named Fleurette) and, thinking they can't have a relationship while being so different, he injects himself with chlorophyll, shortening his life radically, (or so he believes) so they can be together. (Isn't this like those mermaid stories?)  When Welch, who has founded an empire in Pittsburgh, comes to kidnap Fleurette to make her his queen so he can found a dynasty, Fleurette allows herself to be taken in hopes of sparing the eggheads from Welch's wrath (which we have witnessed in scenes in which Palmer includes gory details of breaking bones.)

Two of the biologists are killed in the struggle with Welch and his minions, but the boffin who turned himself green out of love for Fleurette crosses the desolate landscape of New Jersey and Pennsylvania to find her.  She has killed Welch, stabbing him in the back by surprise after their marriage ceremony.  Fleurette and the scientist embrace as the first snow begins to fall and they realize they are not like flowers who will die in the winter, but evergreens who will endure to found a new race of plant humans.  They hope that the race of vegetation-Americans they will give birth to will be better custodians of the Earth than their predecessors, who made such a mess of things with their wars.

This story is entertaining; fans of Virgil Finlay can check out his illustrations for it at SFFaudio.


These stories were better than I had expected them to be--I don't recall seeing Palmer's name in any of the many anthologies of SF I have purchased or borrowed from libraries, and isfdb doesn't list any collections of his stories, so it seems his work is not respected by the SF establishment and lacks a market among readers.  I enjoyed these three stories and think they are comparable to the space operas and adventure tales of people like Henry Kuttner, Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton, who are quite well-respected and have been anthologized and collected many times.  It seems likely that Palmer pissed people off by pretending to believe in all kinds of paranormal nonsense like the "Shaver Mystery," and thus stunted his SF career.
Or maybe most people think these stories stink and I'm just a softie with a taste for these kinds of capers.  Capers full of violence, more or less sublimated sex, wacky science fiction ideas like projecting your thoughts on a screen, nuclear reactors that alter your cells, and a world of infertile women which can only be saved by turning people into plants, and melodramatic lines like:
Sometimes he would wake up screaming from a nightmare only to find reality more horrible.  --"The Hell Ship"
Love had gone out of the world.  The sacred institution of the family, the basis of civilization, was gone.  In its place reigned despair, hate, madness, suicide, and rampant crime.  --"Test Tube Girl"  
Whatever the case, old Ted Sturgeon didn't steer me wrong by bringing up Palmer's name in his own collection.  I suggest fans of pulp SF give Palmer a try, which is easy to do at SFFaudio, Internet Archive, and  

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