Wednesday, April 27, 2016

1971 stories by Larry Niven, Joanna Russ and Stephen Tall

I recently purchased a coffee-stained copy of the hardcover edition of Donald Wollheim's The 1972 Annual World's Best SF.  This Book Club Edition has a Frazetta cover with a weird color scheme that celebrates the beauty of the human body, exudes confidence, and includes a wacky robot in the background.  Let's check out some stories first published in the year of my birth!

"The Fourth Profession" by Larry Niven (1971)

This story first appeared in Quark/4, which I also purchased recently. Wollheim, in his intro to "The Fourth Profession," calls Quark "probably the farthest out of the 'New Wave' original collections."

As Wollheim hints, "The Fourth Profession" isn't really very New Wavey.  It is a very good traditional SF story, with aliens, science, a guy developing super mental powers, and a "humanity is on the brink of exploring the stars" sense of wonder ending.  I really enjoyed it.  Niven writes it in an economical style, without any extraneous distractions, but still manages to include clues and foreshadowing and interesting astronomy, chemistry, psychology, and religion, as well as speculation on how interstellar merchants might behave.

"The Fourth Profession" has a sort of detective story structure, beginning in medias res, the morning after a bartender, our first person narrator, served an alien at his bar. Through flashbacks and an interview of the bartender conducted by a Secret Service agent curious about the extraterrestrial, we gradually learn what happened last night at the bar.  The aliens are purveyors of pills that alter the brain chemistry of those who eat them, giving them memories--by eating the correct pill you can, almost instantly, become an expert in a complicated topic like a foreign language or the history of a civilization, or learn a complex skill, like how to pilot a spaceship or how to build a fusion reactor.  The pills can also alter your personality.  The alien fed the narrator and the bar's waitress some pills, and the three main characters, bartender, waitress and government agent, scramble to figure out what the pills did to them and what the alien's purpose in giving them out was.  They begin to suspect the aliens are absolutely merciless (considering civilizations like our own that have not achieved interstellar flight to be no better than animals) and that the human race is in grave danger!  In the final part of the story the bar is again visited by an alien, and our narrator uses his wits and the abilities he has gained from those earlier pills to save the day and set the human race on the course to an heroic future.  

The story I read before this one shook my faith in the written word, as I chronicled in my last blog post.  But Larry Niven has restored that faith!  "The Fourth Profession" is a very entertaining, well-structured and well-executed tale--Wollheim (and Samuel Delany and Marilyn Hacker, editors of Quark) were wise to publish it!  

"Gleepsite" by Joanna Russ (1971)

I've spent way too much time (in what the kids call "meatspace") with leftist college professors to relish reading fiction by one.  But when I took a chance on Joanna Russ's Hugo-winning "Souls," I found it was actually a pretty good story!  Let's see if lightning strikes twice.  "Gleepsite" first appeared in Orbit 9, and in his intro Wollheim suggests we read it multiple times.

This five-page story is a little opaque, but let's try to figure it out.  (I did read it twice!)

The setting: a future Earth in which the air is a deadly acid poison, and people now live in buildings retrofitted to be airtight.  Ninety-seven percent of the population is female because the authorities deemed men to be "inefficient."

The characters: Two middle-aged women, twins, who work in a travel office on the 31st floor of a skyscraper, and our narrator, some kind of shape-shifting creature who can breathe the poison air.

The plot:  Our narrator, at night when few people are in the skyscraper, accosts the twins and tries to sell them a device.  This device, consisting of a ring and a necklace, allows you to experience preprogrammed daydreams and even (I think) transmit your own daydreams to others; in practice the device seems to conjure up vivid and realistic illusions.  The narrator convinces the women to purchase the device, and then opens an airtight window and, sprouting bat wings, flies out into the deadly atmosphere.

"Gleepsite" is all about illusion and deception and how forms and identities are malleable and names are changeable, are arbitrary.  (As Wollheim indicates in his intro to the piece, there is no clue what "gleepsite" means.)  The narrator creates illusions and peddles an illusion-generating device, deceives and manipulates her customers, and starts calling them by names that are not their own, but which she thinks appropriate.  Thanks to the narrator, the twins will soon be creating illusions of their own and themselves acting deceptively (breaking the law in their use of the device.)

The narrator seems to have a lot in common with traditional depictions of the Devil: her bat wings, her shape-shifting nature, her seductive and dishonest bargaining, the way she corrupts the twins, and the use of the word "hell" to describe the post-apocalyptic Earth.  If we accept the fire and brimstone apocalypse at face value, it certainly makes sense for the Devil to be there, right?

But in a story about illusion, deception, and daydreams, does it make sense to accept the setting (or anything?) at face value?  Especially when we remember that one of Russ's most famous stories, "The Zanzibar Cat," is a nonsensical story in which the story itself is a fabrication of one of its characters?  I am boldly going to suggest that the setting and plot of "Gleepsite" are the daydream of a person who might find a world with almost no men congenial.  Russ herself may be such a person-- consider that (Wikipedia is telling me) she was a lesbian and anti-pornography activist, and that in "Souls" she portrays men as creeps and heterosexual sex as something disgusting. The text of "Gleepsite" itself paints men in a pretty negative light, not only suggesting they are "inefficient" but, by referring to how women in pre-apocalyptic days would dance on tables for the pleasure of male viewers and engage in prostitution, portraying the typical man as an exploiter of women.  A clue that suggests to me that the setting is not "real" but a fictional construct conceived by the narrator for her own gratification is that parts of it read like an incomplete draft of a story, with dates and minor characters' names yet to be filled in ("In the year blank-blank, when the great neurosurgical genius, Blank, working with Blank and Blank, discovered in the human forebrain....")

"Gleepsite," appears to be, in whole or in part, an insoluble puzzle.  It is hard for me to recommend it based on conventional criteria; I can't tell you it is fun or entertaining or beautiful or anything like that.  But as an unusual, mysterious, dense and thought-provoking piece, I think reading it has been a worthwhile experience.

"The Bear With the Knot on His Tail" by Stephen Tall (1971)

I didn't recognize Tall's name; isfdb indicates he published something like 20 stories and a single novel. ("Stephen Tall" was the pen name of biology professor Compton Crook.) "The Bear With the Knot on His Tail" is one of Tall's series of stories about the exploration ship Stardust.  One collection of Stardust tales, The Stardust Voyages, has the phrase "In the great tradition of Star Trek" emblazoned on its cover.  Even though I had never heard of its author, "The Bear With the Knot on His Tail" was a cover story for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and this wasn't the only time Tall's name would appear on the cover of a magazine like F&SF or Worlds of If.  I guess editors considered him a draw.

I wanted to like this traditional first contact story, and the plot is fine, but I found the story poorly structured.  There are too many boring scenes of people sitting around having boring conversations, and too much time is spent introducing these characters and setting the scene.  The beginning feels like the start of a novel.  It makes sense to spend a dozen pages introducing us to characters and setting in a full-length novel, but this story is less than forty pages, so those 12 pages feel like too big of an investment, especially since there is really no payoff--the characters' personalities don't have any real impact on the plot and they don't change over the course of the story.

Speaking of personality, the characters feel a little silly, too flat, too stock, too obvious.  There's the sophisticated English gentleman who has impeccable taste in clothes and always keeps a stiff upper lip; the gruff and cynical guy who lost a leg on an earlier mission; the sexy wife of the narrator who is a talented musician as well as a scientist; and the eccentric artist who has a "sixth sense" which provides her with uncanny insights.  The Stardust is staffed with the best scientists in the galaxy, and we hear again and again how each member of the crew is the best in his or her field--every character in this story is a genius!

The plot: Stardust is in orbit near Luna, listening to a mysterious and untraceable transmission of alien music.  None of the ship's technology can figure out where the transmission is coming from, but the crazy painter has an intuition that she expresses in her latest painting, a canvas depicting the constellations.  The evocative music is, she senses, coming from the direction of Ursa Major's tail, so thither flies the Stardust. The transmission turns out to be the swan song, dirge and S.O.S. of an alien civilization whose sun is about to go nova--the Stardust arrives just 33 hours before this intelligent species is about to be exterminated!  The narrator's sexy wife communicates with the aliens via the universal language of music (she is a guitarist) and the Stardust takes aboard the recorded history and culture of the doomed aliens, and a box full of tiny larval aliens, to be planted on a suitable planet so this noble race will not truly expire, but be reborn on a new world.

This story isn't exactly bad, but it stretches 15 or 20 ages of material to double that length--there are no villains or challenges for the geniuses to use their genius to overcome, so we end up with an  idea/mood story whose idea/mood is "how would you act if your civilization was doomed?" with lots of superfluous character descriptions appended to it.  (This story would work at least as well if the Stardust was a one-man rocket.)  Maybe the story works better as part of a body of linked stories?  I sure hope every single Stardust story doesn't spend the amount of time introducing the characters and the ship that this one does!

"The Bear With the Knot on His Tail" reminded me a little of something Heinlein or Anderson might do (supercompetent people, themes of nobility in the face of adversity, a sense of the tragic, a "liberated" attitude about sex) but lacks any style or intellectual or ideological commitment: Heinlein and Anderson usually use a story to speculate about the future, give you advice on how to run your life, and/or express their beliefs about society, economy, religion, or the government.  Tall's story doesn't do anything like that.

Acceptable, but I don't think it belongs in this book of "Best" stories alongside the well-crafted Niven or the challenging Russ.  Maybe Wollheim thought he needed a space ship story to balance the volume's more experimental content?


None of these stories is actually bad, and the Niven is a gem, so we have a good start to The 1972 Annual World's Best SF.  Three more selections from the volume (by Michael Coney, Poul Anderson and Christopher Priest) in our next episode!

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Poul Anderson, Harlan Ellison, and Virginia Kidd tackle The Future Now

Are you ready for some weapons-grade pessimism?  Well, that is what the cover of the 1977 anthology, The Future Now, edited by Robert Hoskins, promises.  Let's crack open the brilliant Richard Powers cover and see if Hugo and Nebula winners Poul Anderson and Harlan Ellison, and literary agent to the stars Virginia Kidd, can deliver the gloom and doom our black hearts crave!

"Home" by Poul Anderson (1966)

This story originally appeared in 1966 in the first of Damon Knight's Orbit volumes, under the title "The Disinherited."  Joachim Boaz wrote about the story last year when he read the entirety of Orbit 1.  I think he liked the story more than I did.

Dutch edition
Each piece of fiction in The Future Now has a new introduction by its author.  Anderson's intro to "Home" is mature, calm, even optimistic.  Sure we got problems, our buddy Poul admits, but people have always had problems.  And people have also always had love, beauty, even heroism, even as we do today.  Poul, this is not the pessimism we are looking for!

The story, however, is suitably pessimistic.  In the future mankind has achieved the ability to travel to alien planets and deploy long-term scientific teams on them.  After a century or so of exploration the Earth suffers from overpopulation and a stifling government, and the interstellar program is shut down.  The story chronicles the reaction of a colony of scientists on the planet Mithras when an expeditionary force arrives from Earth intent on taking them back.  The colonists, having lived on Mithras for three or four generations, have almost no emotional connection to Earth and refuse to leave.  The leader of the force from Earth argues that the boffins must return to Earth, because if they stay on Mithras and multiply they will abuse the native Mithrans, who, though friendly, have a radically different culture than the humans', making conflict inevitable.  The mission commander employs force to get the human colonists to comply with the order to return to Earth.

This story is acceptable, but no big deal.  The plot and characters primarily serve to get across two of Anderson's ideas: that it would be a false economy to cancel a space exploration program, and that different cultures inevitably come to blows.  To make his latter point Anderson piles on all kinds of historical examples: European colonization of the New World, European imperialism in Africa, the long history of Jews living as minorities among other cultures, etc.  While Anderson's arguments are generally persuasive, the story is bland; there is no excitement and I didn't really care what happened to the opposing factions of humans or the unambitious natives who have no concepts of money or property.  

(An aside: "The Disinherited" seems like a better title to me than "Home."  The human race is being disinherited because the space program is cancelled--we deserve to learn all about the universe, that knowledge is our legitimate inheritance.  The humans born on Mithras lost touch with Earth culture; they were disinherited of the many achievements of their race.  They were also disinherited when they had to leave the planet they grew up on, Mithras, and abandon their friendships with the natives.  And if they had stayed their descendents would have disinherited the Mithrans when the inevitable war broke out, a war the more aggressive and efficient humans would be sure to win.)      

"Silent in Gehenna" by Harlan Ellison (1971)

I currently reside in Ohio, where, it turns out, Ellison was born and spent much of his youth.  Near Columbus is a town called Gahanna, which never ceases to amaze me; apparently "Gahanna" is an Indian word for the confluence of three rivers, but you'd think the founders of the town would have shied away from a name which sounds so much like a word used as a synonym for Hell and which was first applied to a place of human sacrifice.

(Perhaps appropriately, my dentist's office is in Gehenna, I mean Gahanna.)

In his intro to the story Ellison praises Robert Heinlein and brags that he (Ellison) was spied upon by the Johnson and Nixon administrations ("I put my body on the line") for his commitment to social change.  He warns that if we pay too much attention to the common people (they are "frightened masses" who have a "beast mentality") that dissenters will be burned at the stake.  He laments that the 1970s are a period of "Fifties-style apathy."  Now this is the elitist pessimism we are looking for!

"Silent in Gehenna," which first appeared in The Many Worlds of Science Fiction, an anthology edited by Ben Bova, is a sort of polemical fable with jokes and a few experimental literary techniques.  I'm not crazy about fables and satires.  I like a story which has some kind of emotional resonance, and I am rarely moved by a story which is full of absurd exaggerations and surreal nonsense, a story which makes no effort to create a believable world.  I'm the only person who doesn't like Ellison's universally beloved "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman"--besides being a silly and extravagant fable, it is based on a weak and solipsistic premise, that premise being that Harlan Ellison is too important to have to meet deadlines.  I have a similar attitude about "Silent in Gehenna."  The premise of this one is that nobody really listens to Harlan Ellison as he points out the world's injustices; if they did, maybe they would do something about those injustices!  I think "Silent in Gehenna" is a little more sophisticated than "'Repent, Harlequin'" because it integrates the criticism of welfare state liberalism you hear from hardcore leftists, that efforts to ameliorate the problems of the downtrodden of society (with food stamps and housing vouchers, say) make it harder to radically change society (e.g., by nationalizing and collectivizing farms and real estate) and solve the downtroddens' problems once and for all.  (I don't agree with this view, but I find it thought-provoking.)

In the dystopian future college campuses are like POW camps in which the students are held behind electrified fences, watched over by armed guards, trained only to serve the evil corporations!  One-man guerilla army Joe Bob Hickey sneaks into college campuses and blows up buildings and tries to inspire the students to revolt. But do people want to revolt?  No, the foolish masses do not want to revolt, they are suffering from false consciousness, blinded by patriotic propaganda and a timid desire for law and order!

In the crazy symbolical ending Joe Bob is spirited away by aliens, conscripted to act as the conscience of this alien society, in which one race of creatures lords it over a smaller and weaker worker race.  When the strong abuse the weak, Joe Bob yells at them.  Joe Bob's yelling does nothing to change the iniquitous society; in fact, Joe Bob may merely be helping the oppressors assuage their guilt, unwittingly buttressing the immoral society by relieving the pressure that might lead to radical change!          

Joachim wrote about "Silent in Gehenna" in 2013 when he read the Ellison collection Approaching Oblivion.  I'm sure he liked it a lot more than I did!

"Flowering Season" by Virginia Kidd (1966)

Kidd served as literary agent to some of the most critically acclaimed SF writers, including Ursula K. Le Guin, R. A. Lafferty, and Gene Wolfe, writers who have received accolades beyond the SF ghetto.  This story first appeared under the title "Kangaroo Court" in the first Orbit; Joachim reviewed it when he discussed that volume.   (It seems like I'm stalking Mr. Boaz today, doesn't it? I assure you, and the authorities, that this is purely a coincidence!)

British edition
Joachim and I agree on this one--it is bad. Long (45 pages!) and tedious, poorly structured and paced, full of extraneous gunk but no interesting characters or compelling events, it is a real waste of time.  I try on this blog to make a distinction between stories that are not for me, either because they are not to my taste or offend my sensibilities in some way, and stories which are just incompetent. "Flowering Season" is the latter, a poor piece of work with almost nothing to recommend it to anybody.

In the future the Earth has a world government and a class-bound society; this arrangement has brought universal peace, but there is little or no competition or ambition and civilization is sterile, static, stagnant.  Aliens that look like kangaroos arrive, and negotiate with the Earth government.  Kidd's story is, in part, about office politics, and a government official who suspects the aliens are inimical and must be destroyed keeps all data about the aliens from the official who is supposed to negotiate with the ETs; negotiator guy is just coming off a six-month vacation studying Eastern mysticism.  (Talk about Eastern mysticism is some of the extraneous gunk I mentioned earlier.)  I guess it is supposed to be funny when the negotiator bungles his meeting with the visitors, and I guess the six pages of intelligence reports we read along with him are also supposed to be funny.  None of this is funny.  The negotiator gets his act together and we readers endure page after page of human-space kangaroo dialogue that is so boring I wonder how Kidd kept awake at her typewriter while writing it.

We get what amounts to a happy ending when the kangaroo aliens capture the single belligerent human and leave with him, and we are assured that the encounter with the aliens will inspire human civilization to again embrace risk and the adventure of exploring the universe.

"Flowering Season" is a strong contender for the worst story I have read during the period I have been writing this blog.  It is not bad in a funny or spectacular way, it is bad in a way that deadens the soul and makes you consider abandoning the written word entirely and embracing the idiot box as your sole source of entertainment.  I don't know why Hoskins thought it worth including; it only barely meets the volume's "the future is going to suck!" theme.

Kidd's intro isn't bad.  She laments that Earth's space programs were prodded not by pure motives but Cold War competition, and predicts that they will be abandoned in the future due to considerations of cost and safety.  Kidd also lays on us some of the elitist attitudes we saw in the Ellison selection: "The pollster's man in the street cannot see any point in space exploration...."  This introduction provides no warning of how dreadful the story is going to be.


These three stories are about ideas more than they are about people.  I am able to enjoy an "idea story" which lacks good characters and plot if the idea is new and exciting, but the ideas in these stories (space exploration is good, different cultures don't get along, people are apathetic) feel sort of obvious, even tired.  Anderson tries to give us touching characters and human emotion and just reaches the finish line (in fact, compared to the broad allegorical caricatures in Ellison's story and the flat zeros in Kidd's, Anderson's people, which I thought bland, look deep and rich.)  Ellison gives us literary fireworks, but, in my opinion, doesn't quite make it.  Kidd never leaves the starting gate.  I have to admit that I haven't enjoyed The Future Now as much as I had expected.

Among its stories The Future Now also includes Edward Bryant's "Shark," which I read in 2014 and liked, and Barry Malzberg's "Final War," which I remember finding limp when I read it long ago.  Bryant's intro to "Shark" in this book is quite fun; he talks about the genesis of this story, about the prevalence of nice dolphins in SF, and derides Peter Benchley, author of Jaws.  Malzberg's introduction to his story is also worth reading; he talks a little about the conditions under which the story, which was pivotal for his career, was written, and about its reception.  "I remain grateful for the sale and the career it made me," he tells us.


Finally, let's take a look at one of the ads in the back of The Future Now, a page which has a fun graphic, promises "The Universe of Science Fiction" and lists twelve books, several of which seem worthy of comment.

Aurora: Beyond Equality, is a feminist anthology; the text on the cover, "Amazing Tales of the Ultimate Sexual Revolution," it seems to me, hopes to seduce potential purchasers with a promise of erotic content.

Joachim warned us against Cloned Lives back in late 2013.

I own Vonda McIntyre's The Exile Waiting but have not read it yet.  I think Joachim owns this, but I don't think he has written about it.

I thought Stochastic Man was a weak Silverberg and said so at Amazon in 2007.

Ghosts, Castles and Victims is a huge (over 500 pages) anthology of excerpts from classics that fit into the "gothic" category (including Walpole, Poe, Dickens, Blackwood, Stoker) plus short stories stories by H. P. Lovecraft and Edmond Hamilton and essays about the gothic by the editors.  I'd probably buy this if I saw it at a store for the prices I usually pay for old paperbacks (2 bucks or less.)

The Late Great Future is another anthology about how the future is going to suck--it has bigger "name" writers than does The Future Now, like Ray Bradbury, Daniel Keyes, C. S. Lewis, John D. McDonald and Roald Dahl.  I'd probably pay a buck or two for this.

And of course I have fond memories of H. G. Wells' Time Machine and War of the Worlds--I believe this Fawcett omnibus edition of the novels has an intro by Isaac Asimov and a cool red cover by Paul Lehr.

As always, readers who have read any of the advertised books, or anything out of The Future Now, are invited to share their insights in the comments!

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Pincher Martin by William Golding

"So long as I can want these things without finding the absence of them unendurable; so long as I can tell myself that I am alone on a rock in the middle of the Atlantic and that I have to fight to survive--then I can manage." 
One of Martin's hallucinations is that his hands are lobsters
We all read Lord of the Flies in school, didn't we?  Ah, those days when the best possible joke was to say "Sucks to your assmar!" to a fellow student.  Reading Lord of the Flies was maybe the first occasion when I really understood what the teacher was going on about when she talked to us about "symbolism."

Well, here is another novel by British writer William Golding, 1956's Pincher Martin. I found this Capricorn edition (CAP 66) at Half Price Books among their ever-fascinating selection of old paperbacks.  Lord of the Flies was about shipwrecked kids, you will recall--well this baby is about a shipwrecked naval officer!  (Golding served in the Royal Navy during the Second World War, and much of his fiction involves the sea.)

Pincher Martin is no easy read!  Most of it feels long and slow, as Golding describes in detail every single thought and every smallest action of the protagonist, Lieutenant Christopher Martin, the only survivor of a torpedoed destroyer that was on convoy duty.  In the first three chapters Martin, dazed and exhausted, drifts on the waves, then is washed ashore onto a small rock island and drags himself out of the surf onto dry ground.  Golding devotes many words, paragraphs and pages to each sight, sound and sensation of our poor sailor: the pebbles crushed to his face, the cry of a gull overhead, the tide lapping at his legs, and on and on.  Here's a taste from page 32:
As the eyes watched, a wave went clear over the outer rock so that they could see the brown weed inside the water.  The green dance beyond the pebbles was troubled.  A line of foam broke and hissed up the pebbles to his feet.  The foam sank away and the pebbles chattered like teeth.  He watched, wave after wave as bursts of foam swallowed more and more of the pebbles and left fewer visible when they went back. 
Golding chronicles each agonizing inch of Martin's progress, which gets kind of tedious after a while.  Things get a little more engaging around page 50, in chapter 4, as Martin regains much of his faculties and does things more interesting than crawling. He hunts the island for water and food, and we hear all about his foraging efforts-- there is no real vegetation on the island, nor are there any land animals, so Martin has to resort to eating things like raw mussels and poisonous anemones.  Yuck!  He piles up rocks to act as a beacon, and we read all about each stone he adds to his man-like cairn, which he calls "the Dwarf" because it is only three feet tall.  He even tries to make, in hopes of alerting aircraft to his location, a giant "X" out of seaweed.  Most alarming are the scenes in which Martin, who says to himself, "I haven't had a crap in a week," contrives a way with the scanty equipment he has available to give himself an enema.  Yuck again!

Relieving the monotony here and there are Martin's unbidden thoughts of his past life, which he thinks of as "film-trailers."  These manifest themselves, for us readers, as brief flashbacks to his Royal Navy service and his civilian career and relationships. The Martin we learn about is not an attractive character!  Before the war he was a mediocre stage actor and an unsuccessful writer, as well as a total jerk off!  A womanizer, he slept with his friends' and colleagues' wives, and used threats to get women to succumb to his lust.  Hypocritically, he was violently jealous when a friend married a woman who had rejected him.  Ruthless and callous, Martin was not above putting his friends in physical danger to achieve his petty desires (like winning a cycle race) or even plotting the murder of that guy who married the girl he had an unrequited crush on!

On this blog I have expressed my interest in naval warfare and my preference for literature about human relationships, so you won't be surprised to hear that my favorite parts of Pincher Martin are these flashbacks; the protagonist's service on a warship, difficult sexual relationships and remarkably caddish behavior are a lot more interesting than his efforts to collect molluscs or push rocks up an incline.

In the last quarter or so of the book Martin loses his struggle for sanity and is overwhelmed by hallucinations.  He comes to think the Dwarf is an old woman and/or a reflection of himself, and he has a spirited dialogue with this apparition; this oblique and opaque conversation seems to be about free will, religion and the afterlife:
"You gave me the power to choose and all my life you led me carefully to this suffering because my choice was my own.  Oh yes!  I understand the pattern.  All my life, whatever I had done I should have found myself on that same bridge, at that same time, giving that same order...."
The final chapter, chapter 14, reveals that there was never any island, never any mussels and anemone diet, never any MacGyver enema (if only I could forget it!) Martin, we learn, died almost immediately after his ship was hit by that German torpedo.  Those two hundred pages we just read were all a split-second dream (like in "An Occurance at Owl Creek Bridge"), or perhaps Martin's experience of cleansing in Purgatory or punishment in Hell.  "Because of what I did I am an outsider and alone" Martin realizes on page 181.

As you can see, the back cover of my edition of Pincher Martin is covered in accolades from respected individuals and institutions.  Dare I disagree with these august judges?

Most of the books I talk about on this here blog I am eager to read.  When I'm washing the dishes or driving the Toyota Corolla or watching the TV with the wife I am wishing I was, or am at least looking forward to, reading my current book.  But reading Pincher Martin felt like a chore, a task to be put behind me.  (U. of Sheffield students, I feel your pain!)  I don't feel like I can really recommend a book which I saw more as an obligation than a pleasure.

But let's look on the bright side: the book is obviously a well-crafted piece of art, a sort of machine made up of components that work closely and smoothly with each other, and numerous of these components are interesting and memorable.

I liked how Golding addressed the mind-body problem.  Note, in the quotation from page 32 above, the odd locution "the eyes watched...," as if his eyes have a separate, discrete existence apart from Martin.  When Martin talks to himself we get lines like "His mouth quacked" and "The mouth went frantic."  From the beginning of the book Golding stresses the distinction between a person and his body, again and again describing Martin's movements in such a way that we think of his body as a sort of vehicle*:
There was a noise by his left arm and water scattered across the look-out. He made the exterior face turn into the wind and the air pushed against the cheeks.
*Vehicles are a theme of the novel, and Martin commits all his worst sins while steering a vehicle, be it an automobile, a cycle, or one of His Majesty's destroyers. 

The "true" Martin is an entity, sometimes called "the centre," that lives inside his skull and looks out at the world through the "windows" of his eyes or the "arches" of his eye sockets.  Near the end of the book (page 176 of the 208 pages of text in this edition), this body-mind distinction is made explicit: "I was always two things, mind and body.  Nothing has altered.  Only I did not realize it before so clearly."  This strong distinction between the soul (though Golding never uses that word) and the body, a distinction that is customarily made by religion and dismissed by science, bolsters the theory that the island is Martin's Hell or Purgatory.

Also memorable is an extended metaphor involving a creepy bit of cuisine attributed to the Chinese.  The Chinese chef is said to bury a fish in a box; the fish is devoured by maggots, and when the fish is gone the maggots eat each other until only one huge maggot is left.  In this metaphor for our lives on Earth, Martin sees himself as one of the last maggots, a way of justifying his crimes.  

Maybe I can recommend Pincher Martin to all you hardcore modern literature types. This is a novel ripe for dissection by grad students in the humanities.  You could contrast it with the optimistic Robinson Crusoe, in which Western man with his ingenuity masters the natural world.  (In the afterword to this edition E. L. Epstein argues that the novel is about Nature overcoming Man.)  You could do a psychological analysis of Martin (there are vague hints of something that happened to him in his childhood, maybe in a basement.)  I've already mentioned the religious and philosophical angles.  There are also women's studies and queer studies angles--we learn about Martin's character largely through how he treats women, and there is a passage in which the phallus is described as a sword which made me wonder if Martin had been exposed to or had participated in some kind of homosexual abuse--the theatre and the Royal Navy are famously associated with buggery, aren't they?

I'd be exaggerating if I said I enjoyed reading Pincher Martin, but reading it and ruminating on it is an experience I do not regret embarking upon, and the more I think about it, the more I like it.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet by Eleanor Cameron

An adventure and a chance to do a good deed await the boys who build the best space ship.  Please bring your ship as soon as possible to Mr. Tyco M. Bass, 5 Thallo Street, Pacific Grove, California.

Back on March 23, internet science fiction gadfly Joachim Boaz alerted us to the fact that it was Eleanor Cameron's birthday. Cameron wrote the 1954 juvenile novel The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet, which I borrowed from the library as a child over 30 years ago. When I told Joachim that I have long thought about rereading the book, he enthusiastically urged me to do so. So, I braved the dangerous roads of Central Ohio (every damn day I see some dramatic automobile accident here, the kinds of accidents I would see only a few times a year in Iowa or northern New Jersey) and borrowed a library copy of a recent hardcover edition (cover by Peter Sis.) I would have preferred the edition I read as a kid, a 1950s hardcover with Robert Henneberger illustrations, but this one will have to do. Hopefully Cameron's novel hasn't been bowdlerized like all those Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books have been over the decades.

(Check out some of the Henneberger illustrations for the first edition of The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet at the fun blog to be found here.)

David Topman is a prepubescent middle-class California boy who reads science fiction stories (Cameron mentions Doctor Dolittle in the Moon in the first sentence of this book) and who, at night, lays in bed fantasizing about being a space pilot.  In the novel's first chapter he declares "I'd like to find a planet just my that you could explore in a day or two."  Over the course of this novel his dreams come true!

Responding to a mysterious newspaper ad announcing a contest for boys (ages eight to eleven), David and his pal Chuck Masterson build a rocket ship out of wood and aluminum they find in Chuck's grandfather's boathouse, then bring it to the contest's judge, a Mr. Tyco Bass.  Bass is a strange-looking character, short and slightly green, who sells mushrooms for a living but is also an inventor of uncanny ability.  Bass enthusiastically welcomes the kids and reveals that he is not an Earthman, but instead the descendent of immigrants from a tiny, hidden moon of Earth which he has discovered with a one-of-a-kind lens he has invented.  Via some kind of psychic empathy, he senses that his fellows back on the little moon are in some unspecified, but dire, trouble!

Bass installs a rocket motor, oxygen supply and electronics of his own devise into David and Chuck's wooden space ship and assigns them the mission of flying to the mushroom planet to save his people!  Blast off is at the stroke of midnight, ETA on the Mushroom Planet is 2:00 AM!  Chuck is enjoined to keep an eye on his watch--he and David will have only two hours on the Mushroom Planet in which to solve the mushroom people's problems because if they don't leave the satellite at exactly 4:00 AM California time they will miss their launch window and likely be lost in space to die a lonely death!

On the satellite David and Chuck meet the low tech natives and solve their problem (mass illness due to climate change which has led to a poor harvest) in record time by donating to the mushroom people a chicken and the grain seed they fortuitously brought along.

We often see classic SF promoting science, and Cameron does her part in the effort to turn America's kids into a legion of Isaac Newtons and Albert Einsteins.  Over the course of The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet we get descriptions of the various planets of the solar system, an explanation of what it is like to travel faster than sound, and speculations on what things like the stars and Earth look like from space.  And it is not just astronomy--we get a little chemistry as well.  The mushroom peeps require a diet high in sulphur, and the eggs from David's hen, Mrs. Pennyfeather, will supply this essential element during the famine.  (There is a case to be made that Mrs. Pennyfeather, whom David conscripts to live on the satellite where she will never see her family again, is the real hero of this story!)

Perhaps more important than including assorted scientific facts is how Cameron promotes the very idea of science and its practices.  The boys explain the scientific method to the mushroom people, who seem to be mired in (a parody of) medieval scholasticism.
"But haven't your Wise Men ever made experiments to solve puzzles?"
"Experiments?  What is this word?....We think and think.  My Wise Men put down what they think  in the Rolls of Wisdom, then read aloud what they have written.  And we talk about these writings."  
I haven't read about medieval scholasticism in years, maybe since the 1980s!  I didn't expect a children's book to have me wracking my brain trying to remember stuff from my undergraduate days on the banks of the old Raritan!

We also often see SF used as a vehicle to criticize our society by presenting an alternative culture without greed or war or racism or whatever it is that is pissing the author off that day, and Cameron also takes this tack, though mildly. While the mushroom satellite is no utopia (the Earth kids have to dissuade the king from summarily executing the aforementioned Wise Men for their failure to solve the agricultural crisis), David and Chuck agree to keep the tiny moon secret so Earthlings won't ruin it with "geological expeditions...sight-seeing dog stands...pop bottles and paper bags thrown around."  Chuck and David are like those pinkos worried the workers' paradise of Cuba is about to be ruined by having a McDonald's and Starbucks open up on every block!

CUNY, whose grad school I dropped out of,
recently put on a musical based on
The Wonderful Flight
 to the Mushroom Planet

While promoting science, The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet is also full of magical elements and has a quite dreamlike atmosphere.  Chuck and David build their ship almost as if "some strange power took hold of the hands of the two boys" and, as they drag the vessel to Bass's house, it seems to grow larger of its own accord.  Why do David's parents and Chuck's grandpa blithely let the boys risk their lives serving as Earth's first astronauts? How are Chuck and David able to speak the high-pitched language of the mushroom people?  It is sort of implied that Bass is hypnotizing and otherwise manipulating people and events, but these illogical occurrences, which Cameron does not hide but actually highlights, also suggest this is all David's dream. Further encouraging the reader to suspect this is all a dream is how Chuck and David fall asleep several times during their adventure.

In the third and final part of the book (32 of this edition's 195 pages) Chuck and David fly back to Earth, landing on the beach during a terrific storm.  This storm washes away the space ship and even carries Bass away into the air, apparently into outer space!  All evidence of David and Chuck's adventure is lost, and I began to think that it all really was a dream, or at least that David and Chuck's relatives would think the kids were making it all up!  To my relief, Bass left the boys a note, a last will and testament which leaves his library and observatory to them and encourages them to start a club for young scientists.  Then Chuck succeeds in finding the jewels the king of the mushroom people awarded them, proving conclusively that their adventure was real.

The Wonderful Flight to the Mushroom Planet is a pleasant read.   A novel for children, it is very upbeat and positive.  There are no villains and no violence and Cameron encourages the reader to trust people, to be confident, and to pursue his or her dreams.  Bass's insistent advice is "You must have no doubt...You must never doubt!"  I also thought the jokes worked; my favorite was how the boys, in preparation for a six-hour expedition, gather sacks of food so heavy they can barely lift them; Cameron, in deadpan fashion, lists all the food David appropriates from the family pantry and fridge.  The sciency stuff is interesting, and the mystery over whether the journey was real or just a dream adds the kind of tension that maintains the reader's attention.  I feel that the time I took to relive this piece of my childhood was well spent.  

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Three Eric Frank Russell stories from the late '50s

Here it is, the fourth and final installment of our examination of The Best of Eric Frank Russell, published in 1978 by Del Rey.  These last three stories all appeared in Astounding.

1980s editions

"Allamagoosa" (1955)

This is a joke story; you might call it a "service comedy." I guess we should consider it a satire of bureaucracy and/or the military mind.  (In his intro to the volume Alan Dean Foster tells us that Russell's favorite targets are "big government" and "bureaucracy.")  Due to a typographical error in the list of ship's stores, the captain of a space warship and one of his officers think a mysterious piece of equipment is missing and they are about to get in trouble during a surprise inspection.  They conspire to defraud the inspector and the entire Earth Space Navy apparatus, and end up in even more trouble.

This story is very popular (it won a Hugo!) but I tend to think such stories are a waste of my time.

"Into Your Tent I'll Creep" (1957)

Eric Frank Russell loves animals!  (Isn't "English people love animals" one of those ethnic stereotypes we aren't supposed to believe in any more, like "French people eat snails and frogs and don't wash" and "Germans are obedient and efficient and don't know how to mind their own business?")  Elevated ants, telepathic camels, dead cats, we've had them all in the stories we've been reading in The Best of Eric Frank Russell.  "Allamagoosa'''s plot centered around a canine, and--woof!--"Into Your Tent I'll Creep" is also about dogs!

This story's "idea" is basically the same as that of "Homo Saps," in which telepathic aliens learn that camels are an intelligent race superior to humans.  In "Into Your Tent I'll Creep" some friendly aliens come to Earth and set up some kind of alliance with the Earthlings.  One of the aliens, somehow, has the ability to read the minds of Earth dogs.  (None of the other aliens have this power.) He realizes that dogs are running the world, that humans, who think they are the masters, are in fact dominated by canines!  The alien tries to prevent a breeding pair of dogs (ostensibly a gift from the humans, but in fact the vanguard of a canine attempt to take over this alien civilization) from accompanying the aliens home, but the dogs murder him and make it look like an accident.

This is a banal and boring joke based on the fact that so many people dote on their pets to an absurd extent.  (We didn't have a dog growing up, and my mother would say, when we saw somebody walking his or her dog, "There goes a dog walking its human.")  Not only is this joke not funny, but it only makes sense to a Anglophonic audience--according to Wikipedia 25 million dogs a year are eaten by humans!  This story would make about as much sense if it suggested cows (sacred to Hindus) or pigs (forbidden to many Muslims and Jews) ran the world.

"Study in Still Life" (1959)

"Alamagoosa" was about naval officers who, faced with onerous paperwork, defrauded the government bureaucrats. "Study in Still Life" is about colonial administrators who, faced with onerous paperwork, defraud the government bureaucrats.  Yes, another satire of big government and bureaucracy.  Now, I'm as skeptical/hostile to big government and bureaucracy as the next guy who follows Nick Gillespie on twitter and reads the blog every day.  I've worked in the public sector and know how inefficient and corrupt it is.  But these kinds of jokes (and this one is over twenty pages long!) just are not very funny or interesting.

(Maybe one of the reasons I recoil from these kinds of stories is that I suspect that, rather than alerting the voters and taxpayers to a serious issue and energizing them to do something about it, they make light of the problem of wasteful and corrupt government, encouraging people to accept government inefficiency and malfeasance with a chuckle and knowing shake of the head.)  

Anyway, the colonial administrators order a piece of equipment in fraudulent fashion (with the best of motives) and we follow the request as it travels through a myriad of offices staffed by unlikable public employees, each trying to avoid responsibility while doing an absolute minimum of work.


It is too bad that this collection, which includes some creditable work, ends with three joke stories that I didn't care for.  I am not the market for long joke stories, even if the joke is in line with my ideological beliefs.  (An exception would be Jack Vance's two amoral Cugel books and his satire of socialism, Wyst; those three volumes are legitimately funny as well as successful in terms of their literary style and adventure plots.)

I certainly don't regret reading The Best of Eric Frank Russell.  "Hobbyist" is very good, "Fast Falls the Eventide" has an original and intriguing idea, and several of the other stories in the volume are entertaining.  Perhaps most importantly, I feel like I now have a better grasp on what a somewhat important (he won that Hugo, as well as a place in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame and a posthumous Prometheus Award, after all) classic-era SF writer is all about.  I aspire to a breadth of first-hand knowledge of 20th-century science fiction literature, and reading this collection has added a piece to that puzzle.  

Monday, April 11, 2016

Three early '50s stories by Eric Frank Russell

Here's the third installment of our exhaustive look at the 1978 collection The Best of Eric Frank Russell, part of Del Rey's "Critically Acclaimed Series of Classic Science Fiction."  Today's three tales all appeared in Astounding (remember when Alan Dean Foster told us Russell was Astounding editor John W. Campbell's favorite SF writer?)

Del Rey's Critically Acclaimed Series of Classic Science Fiction,
available at a second-hand store near you!
"Fast Falls the Eventide" (1952)

All you Christians already know that "fast falls the eventide" is a phrase from the famous hymn "Abide with Me," written in 1847 by a Scotsman dying of TB.  Russell is going for a sort of sad but hopeful mood here, the mood a religious person, confident of God's love and a just afterlife, might have while facing his own or a friend's death.

Everybody loves A. E. Housman 
The setting of "Fast Falls the Eventide" is reminiscent of Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories and Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun.  A million or more years in the future Sol is growing dim (Earthlings can see the stars during the day) and the human population on Earth is down to a paltry one million.  Soon Earth will be uninhabitable. As the plot, which follows a young woman, Melisande, to a sort of job placement interview at her college and then to a planet inhabited by crocodilian aliens where she takes a position as a teacher, unfolds, we gradually learn the truth of humanity's subtle strategy to achieve racial immortality!

Mankind has evolved to the point that people live thousands of years and many have telepathic powers.  Many Earthlings, like Melisande, go to college for centuries (!) to absorb the tremendous store of knowledge which the human race has compiled over its own long history and through interaction with innumerable alien species. These students are then hired by aliens to act as educators; so knowledgeable are Earth's academics that human tutors are the most sought after in the galaxy, and every alien civilization demands far more than can be supplied.  Retaining a human tutor is a major status symbol!  Spread far and wide throughout the galaxy, and coveted and admired by all intelligent species, humanity faces no risk of extermination from local catastrophes or alien hostility.  And, in a touch all you teachers out there will love, Russell suggests that students leave school fundamentally changed by their teachers: "Each arrived as an utter stranger, departed like a child of his very own [Melisande's professor muses] taking some of his essential essence with them."

(If you are keeping score at home, this story also features aliens who do not vocalize, like the Martians in "Homo Saps" and the very different Martians in "Dear Devil," and an explicit don't- judge-people-by-their-looks / embrace-diversity message.  The crocodile aliens smell bad, but Melisande is sophisticated enough to ignore it, and Russell reflects, "How boring the universe would be if all creatures were identically the same!")

"Fast Falls the Eventide" is more about a mood and an idea than about plot or character.  The beginning feels a little too precious, the effort to be poetical a little too labored.  But once we get past the scene setting and to our heroine, Russell does a good job of holding the reader's interest by revealing the truth of what is going on slowly, and keeps us from getting bored by employing various SF images and props.  I liked it, even if at times it smells a little like teachers' union propaganda.

"I Am Nothing" (1952)

In "Late Night Final," you may recall, we had a ruthless imperialist commander who was reformed (in part) by exposure to an innocent young female member of the society he was trying to forcibly incorporate into his empire.  Well, here in "I Am Nothing" we have a similar plot.  Luckily, this story is a little more sophisticated and interesting.

David Korman is the autocratic ruler of planet Morcine.  (Are we supposed to think "corpsman" and "porcine?")  As the story begins he launches an invasion of peaceful planet Lani; for PR purposes, his own son is serving aboard the first ship that lands on Lani.

While "Late Night Final" was full of repetitive satire and included a vaguely realized and unconvincing utopia, in "I Am Nothing" Russell tries to produce a psychological portrait of a man who is obsessed with strength and who, because his parents were jerks, is unable to develop healthy human relationships, and instead tries to win respect by inspiring fear in all with whom he deals.  We witness Korman's cold and unsatisfying relationships with his wife, his son and his subordinates.  The crisis of the story comes when the tyrant's son sends back to Morcine a refugee from Lani, the only survivor of a village razed in the fighting, an eight-year-old girl mentally scarred by her ordeal.

The little girl, Tatiana, a psychologist discovers, feels she is nothing because she has no one, even her cat having been killed (the internet weeps!) during the fighting. Korman identifies with the child--he also has no one.  An opportunity to open peace negotiations fortuitously comes out of the blue, and Korman, transformed by his budding relationship with Tatiana, seizes it.  We are led to believe that the war will end and that Korman will become a foster father to Tatiana and each will make whole the other's broken psyche.

This story is sentimental and sappy, but I think it works.  It is also psychological and philosophical, delving into why oppressive individuals commit their crimes against others, and arguing that the greatest victory a man can win is not over outside enemies, but is the victory over one's own base nature.      

"Weak Spot" (1954)

This is one of those stories that is just an idea, with zero plot, character or feeling.  "Fast Falls the Eventide" was also a story constructed around an idea, but that tale had an interesting, even surprising, idea, and Russell kept his idea in the shadows until the end and enlivened that story with a mood and with arresting images.  "Weak Spot" lacks any feeling, and its idea is pretty obvious and pretty boring.

A vast and powerful human space Empire (6000+ planets) has, on one of its borders, a tiny empire (8 planets) of belligerent reptilian aliens.  Periodically the warlike reptilians raid or conquer a human planet, and there follows a limited punitive expedition and a prisoner exchange.  The point of the story is that the Empire's rulers don't wipe out the much weaker civilization of alien troublemakers because this external threat stabilizes the Empire.  Raids by the lizard men keep the Imperial populace distracted from other problems and united, preventing civil war and independence movements.  The reptilian menace also gives hotheaded and adventurous Imperial citizens something heroic to do beyond the Empire's borders so they aren't within the Empire, destabilizing human civilization with their atavistic antics.

I don't appreciate it when a guy spins his paragraph-sized idea into a limp ten-page story.  Life is too short!  Thumbs down!


You can see Russell working hard to achieve literary value and engage the reader's emotions with "Fast Falls the Eventide" and "I Am Nothing;" in those essentially sad but also hopeful stories civilizations and peoples interact with each other and change.  "Weak Spot," on the other hand, is cold and gimmicky, a sort of filler story.

Just three more stories from The Best of Eric Frank Russell to go.  Catch them in our next episode!

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Four postwar stories by Eric Frank Russell

Let's read four more stories from The Best of Eric Frank Russell; these were first published in the period 1946-1950, the first three in Astounding, the fourth in Other Worlds.

"Metamorphosite" (1946)

Our hero is Harold Harold-Myra, native of an independent planet just beyond the frontier of a vast space empire of some four thousand worlds. He is kidnapped by agents of the Empire and brought to the Empire's capitol planet for study and interrogation--the Imperialists want to know if Harold's planet can safely be incorporated into the Empire.  If Harold's people prove to be dangerous, his planet and race will be eliminated with planet-buster bombs.

This is a longish story, over 60 pages in this edition.  Russell details Harold's interrogation, escape, and then his final negotiations with the ruler of the Empire during which he must convince the Imperialists not to unleash the planet-wrecker bombs.  At the start of the story we know nothing about Harold, not even his name, but as the story progresses we learn, in dribs and drabs when it is appropriate to what is going on, all about his superior race and superior culture.  Harold's people have the ability to read minds and hypnotize people, photographic memories, no need to sleep, and the power to consciously control bodily functions like blood pressure and heart rate.  He also builds a sophisticated receiver transmitter from parts he steals (via fraud) from a store.  Is there anything he can't do?  Harold's civilization is old, and has evolved beyond the use of violence and money.  (Russell seems to hate money--the whole point of what is perhaps Russell's most famous story, "...And Then There Were None," is to present a utopian society that has no money.  I suspect Russell was also a chess player--chess plays a role in the plot of this story, as it did in "Jay Score.")

At the final negotiation we learn the amazing truth about Harold, his planet, and the Empire.  Harold's world is our Earth, thousands of years in the future; he and his fellows have all those powers because ages ago there was a nuclear war and the resulting radiation accelerated evolution among the survivors.  The Empire's population consists of descendents of colonists who left Earth just before the nuclear war and, over the course of their own civilizational collapses and rebirths, forgot the location of their home world.  On the final "sensawunda" page of the story Harold drops his humanoid disguise and shows the Imperial rulers his true form: the future inhabitants of Earth, our inheritors, will be pure pulsating energy, like miniature suns!  The Empire is no match for such power, and peaceful coexistence is assured.

"Metamorphite" reminded me a little of a Van Vogt story: there's the gradual reveal of esoteric abilities until the protagonist is finally shown to be of god-like power, for example, and the radical paradigm shift at the end.  The plot is not very tight--because Harold ends up back in the hands of the Imperial authorities, the middle portion of the story, when he is escaping and hiding out, feels a little like an unnecessary shaggy dog story.  In Russell's defense, this middle portion includes entertaining SF elements like odd aliens that menace or befriend Harold, high tech devices, and opportunities for Harold to use his many superpowers, and Russell explains that Harold needs to be on the lam for nine days so other Earthlings (using their hypnosis powers) have time to infiltrate the Imperial government and space navy and create a stalemate situation in which the ruler of the Empire can't trust his own planet-buster bomb ships.

I'll give this one a mild to moderate recommendation.

"Hobbyist" (1947)

This is a really good one.  I recognized it as I was reading it; I must have read it as a teenager in some anthology or other.  "Hobbyist" has been widely anthologized; in fact, it appears in three different books I own.

Astronaut Steve Ander's one-man probe ship is thrown off course by a cosmic storm, and he ends up shipwrecked on an uncharted planet without enough fuel to get back home.  Exploring this mysterious world, he notices something odd about its flora and fauna--every organism seems to be one of a kind, the sole example of its species.  Late one night he spots in the distance a weird apparition, a cyclopean being of light.  Investigating this being's path by daylight, Steve discovers a vast building, and inside innumerable transparent cases housing inert living organisms, and then machinery which actually builds plants, fungi and animals, atom by atom.  Steve also finds the radioactive material he needs to power his probe ship, and escapes the planet, carrying with him the mind-blowing knowledge that most or all species of life in the universe were designed, constructed and planted by that eerie luminous giant--Steve met his maker and lived to tell the tale!

Russell paces this one well, including enough detail to bring the whole caper to vivid life and just the right amount of clues and foreshadowing to allow the thoughtful reader to figure out what is going on before Steve does, but without making Steve look like a dope.  All the astronaut stuff--how the ship works, the standard operating procedures followed by a probe pilot, and so forth--is fun.  The scene in which Steve first sees the god-like hobbyist is quite effective.  Russell also includes a sort of comic relief character; all probe pilots have a parrot to keep them company and taste test alien food.  Comic relief characters can often be distracting, but I thought Laura the Macaw was a pleasant addition to the tale.

Here we have a bona fide classic.

"Late Night Final" (1948)

This is a sort of satire of the military mind and of the kind of people who like to "go by the book," and a utopia about people who have eschewed the use of money.  In many ways its plot is similar to Russell's 1951 story "...And Then There Were None," which was included in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.  I have a low tolerance for satires and utopias; I rarely find being preached at, or somebody trying to make his point by ridiculing somebody else, to be very entertaining or very persuasive.

A flotilla of space warships of the Huld Empire, whose flag is red, black and gold, lands on a pleasant planet.  The commander of the force, Cruin, claims the world for the Huld and keeps consulting his manuals to figure out what to do next.  These manuals include step-by-step instructions for assessing how suitable a planetis for conquest, detailed rules on how to deploy the force's ships in a defensive posture, and so forth.  Russell mentions the manuals on almost every page, to make sure we get the point/joke.

In "Metamorphosite" the Empire's standard practice was to take specimens for study and interrogation to determine the suitability of a planet for absorption into the Empire.  Cruin's manuals prescribe the same kind of procedure, and a bunch of locals are quickly seized and taught the language of Huld so interrogation can take place.  One of the major plot elements of "...And Then There Were None" was how the spaceship crew found the people on the planet so friendly and their way of life so preferable to shipboard life that everybody started deserting.  The same thing happens in "Late Night Final."  The men all desert, and take up life among the happy natives who somehow have an efficient modern economy (TV, aircraft, bountiful food) with no money.  Cruin redeems himself by spending three years apart from the other men (as a forest hermit or something) and then returning to charm a pretty native girl.

Cardboard characters, feeble jokes, an obvious plot with no surprises and ideas based on wishful thinking--"Late Night Final" is the worst of the first seven stories in the book.  Thumbs down!

"Dear Devil" (1950)

This is a sentimental story about how we should all help each other and love each other even if we look different and have different ideas.  It has been widely anthologized, and, in fact, the illustration on the cover of the 1988 edition of Isaac Asimov Presents the Golden Age of Science Fiction: Sixth Series illustrates this very story.

A spherical ship crewed by blue, slithering, tentacled Martians lands on Earth.  The Martians, peaceful vegetarians, are looking for friends (Mars is in some kind of vaguely defined trouble), but find the Earth is practically a wasteland after a cataclysmic world war which saw the use of nuclear and biological weapons.  The captain of the Martian ship and most of its crew, scientific and engineering types, want to hurry away to Venus to see if there is a civilization there, but the romantic on board, a poet, wants to remain on our devastated Earth--he saw something beautiful (which Russell doesn't disclose at first) and wants to continue exploring.

Left alone with an air car and supplies, the poet, Fander, uses his ray gun to carve out a comfy cave for himself, and then makes friends with some human kids and a single adult who are living a parlous existence in the ruins of a fallout shelter.  From the adult he learns the dim outlines of the war that destroyed human civilization two or three generations ago.  (The main cause was overpopulation, exacerbated by ethnic and ideological strife.)

"Dear Devil" is full of sappy moments meant to pull the old heart-strings--the alien makes friends with Earthlings by playing music on his little electric harp, carves wooden dolls for the little girls, and has to explain what flowers are to the Earthlings because we killed all the flowers in our big war.  (The war also exterminated all cats--the internet weeps!)   The Martians in this story, like those in "Homo Saps," can't talk, and instead communicate via telepathy.  This is a special telepathy, though--Fander has to touch people with his special telepathy tentacle to read and transmit thoughts. (Whoa, does this remind you of 1982's E.T.?)  Presumably demonstrating that we should try to get along with the commies despite their unconscionable crimes in Eastern Europe and elsewhere (the coup in Czechoslovakia, blockade of Berlin, and Maoist takeover of mainland China all took place in the two years before the publication of this story), Fander loves the Earthers even though their carnivorous ways disgust him.  (This parallels the way the humans love Fander even though he looks like a hideous monster--"devil" is the first word that comes to mind when humans see him.)

Fander acts as a surrogate father and mother to the kids, and then a spiritual leader of a movement to rejuvenate the human race and rebuild human civilization.  The air car is used to gather together little bands of all different ethnic backgrounds from all over the world, while the smartest young Earthlings study the Martian vehicle and figure out how to duplicate it.  In less than twenty years a new city has been built along with a fleet of aircraft--above the city towers the "thing of beauty" which spurred Fander to stay, a statue of a grieving woman.

When things are looking just ducky Fander suddenly reveals that Martians typically go into hibernation for several months or years in the middle of their lives, and his period of hibernation is beginning.  Sometimes a Martian does not wake up from this period of repose, Fander warns the citizens.  He asks to be interred in the cave he dug for shelter when he first arrived on Earth.  He is in the cave so long that people begin to suspect he has died, but at the end of "Dear Devil," to much rejoicing, Fander emerges, alive.  (Whoa, does this remind you of the first century AD's New Testament?)

The first half or two-thirds of the story, in which Fander opts to stay on Earth and befriends the first group of humans, focus on character interactions and emotions and are not bad.  The later sections, which briskly describe the development of the city and air car fleet over several years, read like a dry history lesson and are not very convincing.  (Uneducated Earth kids mass produce Martian antigrav motors without mines, refineries, factories, etc?)  The Christ-like hibernation business seems goofy and unnecessary, like Russell tacked it on so his story would end with an emotional bang.

Still, I think "Dear Devil" deserves a mild recommendation.  


"Hobbyist" is the stand out here, a real gem.  "Late Night Final" is a clunker, but, while they could be tightened up a bit, "Metamorphite" and "Dear Devil" are both worthwhile.  With seven of the collection's thirteen stories behind me, I have a high degree of confidence the lion's share of the remaining stories will be acceptable.  I do hope we get new ideas and themes; Russell does appear to have a few topics he returns to repeatedly.