Monday, January 18, 2016

Three public domain stories by Donald Wollheim

Recently I have been reading fiction by important science-fiction editor Donald A. Wollheim.  Suggesting I am part of some classic genre fiction zeitgeist, SFFaudio took to twitter recently to promote tales by Wollheim available on its terrific PDF page of public domain fiction.  This weekend I checked three of them out, which you too can do, for the low, low, price of zero!

"Blind Flight" (1942)

Wollheim edited all four issues of the short-lived pulp magazine Stirring Science Stories.  According to wikipedia he had no budget for fiction (!) and so he asked his friends to write stories for the magazine for free, and contributed stories himself under pen names.  "Blind Flight" was credited to Millard Verne Gordon.

This is a pretty sciency story. Wollheim posits that interplanetary space is full of cosmic rays that can kill you in seconds (the Earth's atmosphere protects those of us stuck on this dirt ball from these deadly rays) and so man's first space ship, a sphere 100 feet in diameter, has no windows! Earth's first astronaut, a dude name of Sedgwick, sits on a revolving chair in a tiny cockpit in the center of the sphere, surrounded by dials and meters.

Sedgwick, over the course of a few days, flies to within six million miles of Mars, where his ship's automatic sensors record lots of data about the red planet. On the way back to Earth his instruments indicate that something is pursuing him--it can only be an alien space craft!  The bogey is faster than the Earth ship, so Sedgwick cannot escape.  Luckily the Commission on Space Flight had the foresight to install a battery of rapid fire naval artillery on mankind's first spacecraft!

This is a pretty fun story; Wollheim supplies an intriguing premise and does a good job of conveying the experience of being a traveler on a ship with no direct view of the universe beyond the vessel's hull.   Be sure to click on over to SFFaudio and check out Hannes Bok's charming illustrations for "Blind Flight."

"The Unfinished City" (1942)

As you can see indicated on the cover and contents page, Stirring Science Stories has two sections, a SF section and a fantasy section; the fantasy section is apparently meant to be in the Weird Tales vein.  "The Unfinished City" appeared in the same issue of the magazine as "Blind Flight," in the fantasy section, under the Martin Pearson pseudonym, and is adorned with a Bok illustration, a study in lithe male musculature.

This is an atmospheric story that reminds me of something Clark Ashton Smith might do, or an episode from Jack Vance's Dying Earth. Woth is a thief who worships Swish, God of Darkness and comes from a society in which stealing is more or less encouraged (as we are told it was in Sparta).  Woth comes to the city of Oo,which lies in a jungle.  The people of Oo worship the god Noom, who is considered perfect. To acknowledge Noom's unique perfection the people of Oo leave a portion of everything they produce, from their buildings to their attire, conspicuously unfinished.

Woth finds that the giant statue of Zoon in the god's temple is covered in invaluable jewels, and as we've seen adventurers do in numerous sword and sorcery tales (Fritz Leiber's "Seven Black Priests" comes to mind) Woth steals one of the jewels from the idol and must face the deity's supernatural vengeance.

This story is OK; the setting is better than the plot.  I didn't feel like the resolution of the plot really jived with the theme of unfinished imperfection as I had expected it to.

"Last Stand of a Space Grenadier" (1954)

Like Wollheim's 1957 novel Across Time, this story was published under the David Grinnell pseudonym.  It appeared in Science Fiction Quarterly, edited by Robert Lowndes.

"Last Stand of a Space Grenadier," set in 20th century America, could easily be an episode of The Twilight Zone or some similar tv program. It is structured as a mystery, with the first person narrator, a newspaper reporter, investigating odd doings among teenage boys who are SF fans--these unusual activities include being hospitalized for mental illness and sudden death!

The journalist discovers that a SF TV show is somehow subconsciously hypnotizing the kids so that their psyches are enlisted by aliens to fight in a space war in some other star system. The boys' souls or whatever you want to call them are used to pilot kamikaze nuclear warhead torpedoes against enemy shipping and planets. This stressful experience is what is causing the kids' mental breakdowns.

This story is just OK. Perhaps it is most valuable for its historical interest, the insight it provides us 21st-century readers into 1950s life and attitudes.  There are its references to SF fan clubs and the Japanese suicide pilots of the Pacific War, and how it expresses fears of the relatively new entertainment technology of television. Skepticism of TV is a theme we see in a number of SF works; we just read an anti-television novel in Frederic Brown's Rogue in Space, and of course two of the SF novels most embraced by the mainstream literary world, George Orwell's 1984 and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, portray television in a quite negative light.


These stories are not spectacular, but they are entertaining.  There is definitely more Wollheim fiction in my future.  

No comments:

Post a Comment