reminded us of communist Howard Fast's birthday. Besides winning the Stalin Peace Prize and authoring a huge pile of novels about American history, Fast contributed many stories to science fiction magazines. On the same fruitful expedition which yielded Theodore Sturgeon's Godbody, I purchased Bantam F3309, a "Bantam Fifty," entitled The Edge of Tomorrow, containing eight stories by Fast. The book is copywritten 1961; my copy was apparently printed in 1966.
There is an unusual stamp on the first page of my copy of The Edge of Tomorrow, offering Christmas Greetings from Elisha Penniman of the Precision Tools company of Elmwood, CT. Was this a gift to one of firm's customers? Or was Penniman just using the Christmas stamp as a bookplate, perhaps accidentally?
Let's check out three stories by Fast which first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1959, by which time, wikipedia suggests, Fast had become disillusioned with the Communist Party and communist rule of the long-suffering people of Eastern Europe.
"Of Time and Cats"
This is one of those stories which is more or less straightforward but which the author tries to make more interesting by telling it somewhat out of chronological order, through dialogue and flashbacks. Fast tells it in a matter-of-fact, deadpan style which, to me, came off as cold and flat.
|At least these three F&SF covers|
I didn't quite get the science behind this one, nor understand why the reproduction cats couldn't be dealt with the same way as the reproduction college professors, and the story wasn't engaging enough for me to the sit down and furrow my brow and make a serious effort to figure it all out. "Of Time and Cats" feels like filler; not particularly bad, but not special either, just acceptable.
"The Cold, Cold Box"
This is the story of Steve Kovac, bazillionaire! Like "Of Time and Cats" it is told somewhat obliquely and out of order, I guess in an effort to add tension and surprise. The story reaches us in the form of a presentation to a Board of Directors (thrilling, right?) and portions of a doctor's diary.
This is just the kind of fantasy you would expect a pinko to have. A rich guy (who of course got rich by being an asshole, and was only an asshole because of the cruelties of capitalism) falls under the power of an elite multicultural cabal, and the cabal uses his wealth and cunning propaganda to seize the means of production and run the world as a beneficent dictatorship. The story takes for granted that the common people are dolts easily manipulated by the lies of their betters and would be be better off if all their property was controlled by an unelected government of 300 people. This is like a version of 1984 in which Big Brother is the good guy!
Looking past the story's childish politics and economics, it is totally devoid of feeling or character, of tension or drama. We are just told Kovac is a genius and a paranoid, none of this is demonstrated, there are no clues as to how he got rich and what crimes he committed or anything like that. When Fast goes to the trouble of trying to manipulate the reader his efforts are risible: besides the Vietnamese Chairman, only one member of the Board is ever described, and in the three lines she is afforded we learn "She was a beautiful, sensitive woman in her middle thirties, a physicist of note and talent, and also an accomplished musician." Wait, there's a hot chick on the Board? Here, take all my stuff!
Lots of SF stories have unconvincing or objectionable political or economic ideas, but bring something else to the table that makes them fun or interesting. But not "The Cold, Cold Box."
"The Martian Shop"
Both "Of Time and Cats" and "The Cold, Cold Box" are about a dozen pages long. Those two stories were so unappetizing that when I saw that "The Martian Shop" was twice as long I almost bailed on reading it. But I had already downloaded from isfdb the cover image of the issue of F&SF in which it appeared (alongside the short version of Robert Heinlein's famous Starship Troopers) so I soldiered on. Sunk costs, you know.
New stores open up in Manhattan, Tokyo's Ginza district, and Paris; these stores purport to sell high tech devices imported from Mars! These devices are so incredibly advanced that the world economy is shaken. The governments of the world investigate the "Martians," and in response the Martians flee with all their wares. A police detective discovers a tiny scrap of film left behind by the aliens, and top scientists decode its text--the Martians are going to attack the Earth! Led by the French ambassador to the US, the world unites under a single government to fight off the expected Martian invasion force!
In the last three or four pages we learn the truth about the "Martians." A businessman who rose up from poverty to become a major tycoon who controls the newspapers assembled a secret multicultural Board of Directors and hired the world's best craftsmen and bribed the police detective and the French ambassador and the top scientists to perpetrate a hoax on the public. This hoax, making everybody, including the governments of all the major powers, think a Martian invasion was imminent, has not only increased demand for the tycoon's spacecraft and other high tech equipment (everybody loves those government contracts!) but lead to world peace!
"The Martian Shop" is better than "The Cold, Cold Box" because the detailed descriptions of the shops and their merchandise are fun. I would really like to see these shops and these devices! So this one gets a grade of "acceptable," but the ideological basis of the thing is the same, as is the absolute lack of character or emotion.
(These stories reminded me of the work of Chad Oliver and Mack Reynolds: repetitive polemics pushing tired and discredited ideas that lack literary or entertainment value.)
We'll see if I read any more stories by Howard Fast, but I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you!