Monday, July 31, 2017

Three Weird Tales winners by Edmond Hamilton

I remember this image well from my youth,
when it appeared on Piers Anthony's
Blue Adept
I recently acquired at an Ohio antiques mall a copy of the 1983 World Fantasy Convention program book, a special focus of which is Weird Tales, that year being the 60th anniversary of the magazine's founding.  This thing is full of cool stuff for the Weird Tales fan.  Editor Robert Weinberg compares cover artist and con Guest of Honor Rowena Morrill to famous Weird Tales cover artist Margaret Brundage, suggesting both are pioneers as women in the speculative fiction illustrator field and that both have been denounced by feminists and prudes for their depictions of naked women in distress.  (Weinberg specifically mentions King Dragon, a copy of which resides in the MPorcius library!)  Robert Bloch reminisces about his experiences as a Weird Tales reader and contributor, and Jack Williamson, in an excerpted chapter of his autobiography, talks about his relationships with such members of what he calls "the Weird Tales clan" as editor Farnsworth Wright himself, E. Hoffmann Price, and MPorcius fave Edmond Hamilton.

I am very cheap, and I thought a looong time before plunking down ten bucks for this publication.  The thing that pushed me over the edge and made me a buyer was an article in the program by SF historian Sam Moskowitz entitled "The Most Popular Stories in Weird Tales: 1924 to 1940, with Statistics and Analytical Commentary." While serving as editor, Wright read all the letters sent to the Weird Tales offices, and, whenever a story was mentioned in a letter in a positive way, he marked the mention as a "vote" for the story on a notecard listing all the stories in that issue.  This way he was able to judge (scientifically!) which stories were the most popular in each issue.  Years later Moskowitz obtained these notecards and, in this article, he provides us grateful readers a list of the most popular stories in each issue of the magazine for the period of Wright's editorship.  Moskowitz's list indicates the number of votes each winning story received, as well as the number of votes received by some famous stories which were only second or third favorite for an issue, and he also includes a list of the 56 top vote-getting stories for the entire period, and of the eleven writers who most often won the top spot for an issue.

Seabury Quinn, about whom I know nothing and about whom I rarely hear anybody talk, had the top story in the most issues, thirty.  Second and third place are held by speculative fiction icons H. P. Lovecraft (16 issues) and Robert E. Howard (14.)  In fourth place is our man Hamilton--in nine issues of Weird Tales between 1924 and 1940 his story was the most popular.  Hamilton's winning stories include "He That Hath Wings," "The Monster-God of Mamurth," and Part Two of "Crashing Suns," which I have already read.  But most of Hamilton's winners I had not read until this week, when I begin to rectify this gap in my Hamilton knowledge by reading "The Polar Doom," "The Avenger from Atlantis." and "The Six Sleepers."  I read all three online at the internet archive.

Attention doctoral candidates in the humanities!
 A denunciation of this cover will serve as the
extra chapter your dissertation needs!
"The Polar Doom" (1928)

Like "The Monster-God of Mamurth," "The Polar Doom" starts off like one of those lost city stories I associate with H. P. Lovecraft.  From superstitious Eskimos white men hear rumors of a ruined city, "erected by devils long ago," on an island in the northernmost reaches of Canada, among what are now called the Queen Elizabeth Islands but were in the 1920s known as the Parry Archipelago.  A famous anthropologist, Dr. Angus McQuirk of Eastern University, who has the odd theory that the human race originated in the Arctic, organizes an expedition up to this island.  The last thing the civilized world hears of the expedition is a garbled radio message that suggests some unknown disaster has killed all members of the party!

Ten days later mysterious aircraft that look like flying domes or "gigantic chocolate-drops" hover over Winnipeg and we are in "World Wrecker" Hamilton / War of the Worlds territory as they wipe the city out with "compression rays."  Hamilton explains that "any matter, any object, is composed of vast numbers of tiny molecules in ceaseless motion, molecules spaced as far from each other proportionately as are the planets of our universe;" these sorts of theories were apparently beloved of the SF writers of the '20s and '30s--for example, we saw them prominently featured in some Donald Wandrei stories from the early 1930s we read recently.  Anyway, the compression ray causes the molecules of the target to move much closer together, killing people and causing buildings to collapse by shrinking and distorting them in whole or in part.  (Like the graviton gun I've been using in Deathwatch, this seems like an unnecessarily fancy way to kill people when you can just set them on fire or blast holes in them.)

Next on the domes' hit list are Montreal, Quebec, and Boston, all demolished.  This series of misfortunes is followed by a genuine tragedy as the flying domes topple skyscrapers and destroy bridges in beautiful New York City!

While the mysterious flying domes are destroying the metropolises of North America, a lone Canadian pilot, unaware of the holocaust to the south, flies north to look for the lost McQuirk expedition, and crash lands on the island to find David McQuirk, the anthropologist's brother, is still alive.  David then takes up the narrative in a long flashback describing how the expedition found a frozen dome and defrosted it, only to awaken an ancient race of toad people!  You and I know that there is no creature more charming on God's green Earth than a toad, but these toad people go the extra mile to force us to reassess our toad love!  They murdered most of the expedition out of hand, and took the anthropologist and his brother captive.  Angus, impressed by the high technology and advanced scientific knowledge of the toad people, became what people twelve years later would be calling a quisling!  (These damn anthropologists are always going native and betraying the human race!)  He quickly learned the toads' language and history (they can't stand the cold and have been waiting out the ice age in suspended animation since the days when the North Pole was warm) and even helped them set up their heating system, a beam they shoot into space to collect heat from the rays of the sun:
that mechanism was to be a great heat-magnet, a magnet which would be able to bend and attract heat-vibrations as Einstein has shown that light-vibrations are bent and attracted by the bodies they pass in space.    
With this heat magnet the toad people plan to defrost their entire city of thousands of domes (which fly through the use of "propulsion ray apparatus") and conquer the world!  Angus even told them all about our civilization so they'd know what to attack first!

Anyway, after the attack domes have returned from their trip to Manhattan, the Canadian airman gives David a pistol, and the two of them sneak up to the heat magnet while the toad men are distracted.  David has to shoot down his own brother, but they deactivate the heat magnet and all the toad men freeze to death.

Much of "The Polar Doom" reads like a newspaper article or a brief history, and there is little attempt at producing characters or achieving any kind of literary style.  When talking about Hamilton's success as a Weird Tales author in "The Most Popular Stories in Weird Tales: 1924 to 1940," Moskowitz suggests "It should be remembered that, up until John Campbell's takeover of Astounding Science-Fiction, novelty of the idea took precedence over literary style as a criteria [sic] of the popularity of a given piece of science fiction, which was then regarded as a literature of ideas."  Hamilton certainly serves out the scientific ideas in "The Polar Doom," invoking Einstein on the effect of gravity on light and "French biologist Berthelot" (does he mean Sabin? Marcellin? I don't know) when talking about suspended animation.  But he also includes the sort of striking images of horror I think most of us look for in Weird Tales, and which were memorable elements of the stories collected in Crashing Suns.  My favorite in "The Polar Doom:" a ray slices through the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Williamsburg bridges, sending thousands of fleeing Manhattanites, a veritable waterfall of screaming figures, plunging to their doom in the East River.

Entertaining.  "The Polar Doom" would only be reprinted a single time, in the 2009 volume of early Hamilton stories from Haffner PressThe Metal Giants and Others: The Collected Edmond Hamilton, Volume One.

I guess Brundage is going for a
metaphorical thing here
"The Avenger from Atlantis" (1935)

Here's a story which it seems has never been reprinted (though maybe the Haffner folks will get to it in the future?)*  Written somewhat later in Hamilton's long career, it is much more character-oriented than "The Polar Doom," but if you are "woke," these characters may well have you scurrying for your safe space!

Ulios, our narrator, is the greatest scientist in the island city of white towers and porticoes known as Atlantis!  Among his duties is holding the position of Guardian of the Force, the Force being the apparatus that manages the volcano that is this advanced civilization's power source.  Ulios is married to a beautiful woman, Etian, a half-breed--she is half Atlantean, and half barbarian!  When Etian finds out that Ulios has perfected a means of transferring brains between people, she wants him to promise to transfer her brain to a young body when she gets "wrinkled and flabby and old.  Old!  A horrible fate that I dread above all others."  Of course, Ulios, greatest scientist in Atlantis, tells her this would be "black unholiness" and to "banish such thoughts as these from your mind."

He may be a great scientist, but Ulios is a lousy director of human resources.  His assistant, Karnath, is the only other guy in Atlantis who has the key to the Force, and the only other guy who knows how to transfer brains.  So Ulios may be surprised when his servant Sthan wakes him up one night to tell him Etian has just flown off in Karnath's flying machine, but the reader isn't.  We also aren't surprised to learn Karnath has sabotaged the Force and that the whole Atlantean civilization is exploding and sinking beneath the waves while Ulios, Sthan at the helm, is flying after his faithless wife and colleague, but our narrator is!
I swear by all the gods that I had no suspicion of anything else!  Earth tremors were common enough in Atlantis, and had I dreamed that this was anything more I would have forsaken my pursuit.
Crushed by "black guilt" for committing the sin of abandoning the Force to pursue his own vengeance, thus allowing his entire civilization to be annihilated, Ulios vows to atone for his crime, but only after punishing Etian and Karnath for theirs!  The flying machines of pursued and pursuer run out of juice over North Africa, and Ulios and Sthan continue following the traitors on foot.  For years they chase them, overcoming deserts, mountains, barbaric tribes, monstrous beasts.  Karnath teaches Etian how to transfer brains, so when they get old they just kidnap local savages and move their brains into their young bodies!  When Ulios realizes this, he teaches Sthan the secrets of the operation, so he and his servant can also waylay innocent people and take their bodies as replacements!  The chase goes on for generations, for centuries, as the four last Atlanteans keep switching bodies so that they never die and need never give up flight and pursuit.

Babylon, the Rome of Tiberius, the Paris of the French Revolution, London under the bombs of the zeppelins--Ulios and Sthan chase the destroyers of Atlantis through them all!  Finally, in a Manhattan skyscraper, that monument to modern ingenuity, ambition, sophistication and beauty, where Karnath's brain resides in the body of the world's richest man and Etian's in that of his gorgeous mistress, we get a final showdown and a twist ending that revolves around Etian's womanly vanity!

This story features so many of my favorite things--mad scientists transferring brains, disastrous sexual relationships, a quest for vengeance--and Hamilton fills it with so many melodramatic speeches and wild cliffhangers, as well as a protagonist who legitimately acts like he is insane or from an alien culture, that I love it.  It is easy to see why the readers of Weird Tales embraced it--"The Avenger from Atlantis" is a classic of the weird!

*[UPDATE OCTOBER 11, 2022]: Looking at isfdb today I see that "The Avenger from Atlantis" was in fact reprinted under the title "The Vengeance of Ulios" in 1970 in a Lin Carter anthology titled The Magic of Atlantis and in 1980 in an Asimov/Greenberg/Waugh anthology in the Asimov's Magical Worlds of Fantasy series titled Atlantis.  Also, that in 2012 Haffner press did in fact reprint "The Avenger from Atlantis" in the Hamilton collection Three from the Tomb.  I guess maybe these things weren't listed in isfdb when I wrote this blog post in 2017?  Since I wrote this post, in 2021, DMR Books has published a Hamilton collection entitled The Avenger from Atlantis including this story and seven others.   

I assume that's Lenya, but Brundage
decided to leave out Hath's human face!
"The Six Sleepers" (1935)

Weird Tales cover boy Hamilton struck again just months after "The Avenger from Atlantis" with the "startling thrill-tale" "The Six Sleepers."  Like the tragic tale of Ulios, this baby has yet to be reprinted.

[UPDATE: July 29, 2019: The Science Fiction Encyclopedia suggests that "The Six Sleepers" was retitled "Tiger Girl" and printed in Great Britain in a strange little magazine or pamphlet with a photo of a topless woman on the cover.  Click the links for details (and the topless photo, you horndogs!)]

By coincidence (like an actor who refuses to rehearse because he wants his performance to be spontaneous, I never plan out these blog posts) all three of these Edmond Hamilton stories are about people who live thousands of years and must face strange new versions of Earth.  In "The Six Sleepers" we have American prospector Garry Winton who gets chased into a cave in Morocco by Berbers.  The cave is full of a natural gas which induces a state of suspended animation.  Already in the cave are five other people who have been chased into the cave by hostile Africans over the centuries: a Roman legionary, an English crusader, a 15th-century Italian condottiere, a 16th-century pirate, and an aristocratic emigre from Revolutionary France.  (For some reason no African hunters or farmers ever end up in this Moroccan cave, just European professional fighting men.)

Garry and the five European sword swingers wake up thousands of years in the future, when an earthquake causes the cave's roof to collapse and the gas to escape.  If Garry was the kind of (self-)conscious consumer who only buys products emblazoned with "NO GMO" labels he is SOL (the kids still say that, right?) because this future is chockablock (I know the kids still say that!) with genetically modified organisms.  The adventurers are attacked by huge rats with human faces, and then make friends with a young woman, Lenya, who is accompanied by Hath, her loyal retainer, a bipedal wolf with a human head!  Lenya tells Garry that the civilization after his, that of the super high-tech "Masters," developed all kinds of new breeds of people, like the rat-men to serve as miners and fish-men to explore the oceans.  The Masters are long gone after a fratricidal war and their technology defunct (Lenya carries a spear around instead of a plasma rifle) but, left to their own devices, the rat-men and other freaks have flourished.  And by flourish I mean they have multiplied and mercilessly prey upon the few true humans left, people like Lenya, descendants of the tiny number of Masters to survive the cataclysmic final war.

Anyway, Lenya's brother and two of the swordsmen are captured by rat-men and the rest of the cast have to rescue them before they are sacrificed to the rat-men's god. Hamilton tries to build up suspense by not telling us what the god is until the last moment--I stupidly was predicting a robot or computer or nuclear reactor.  The god turns out to be a huge snake with a human-like face.  (I wonder if Hamilton got the idea for this story from witnessing somebody feed rodents to his pet snake.)  After the crusader decapitates the snake-man there is a chase through a ruined city and a final desperate fight, which Garry resolves by getting one of the Masters' old atomic power projectors operating and using it to incinerate the rat-men.

This story isn't actually bad, but the plot (rescuing somebody from being sacrificed by creepo cultists) is pedestrian and Hamilton's innovations don't really spice it up. Innovation #1, that the protagonist is joined by warriors from five eras, feels contrived (their swords didn't rust over a thousand years?) and is just used to make obvious jokes (the legionary can't believe the Roman Empire is no more, and the crusader thinks everybody is a witch or a demon), and Innovation #2, all the crazy human-animal hybrids, is just window dressing--the hybrids simply play the same role in the story that expendable enemy soldiers play in fiction all the time.  Disappointing after all the science and striking images in "The Polar Doom" and the perfect little mad scientist masterpiece "The Avenger from Atlantis."


A fun exercise; I will be letting Moskowitz's article guide my reading in the future.      

Monday, July 24, 2017

Terror on Planet Ionus by Allen Adler

"You must feed Karkong...or die!"
My copy with its misleading
(but awesome!) cover illo
OK, this is one of those books I bought because of the cover, an evocative piece by Jerome Podwil which includes so many of my favorite things--a city (can we hope New York City?) skyline, some kind of space ship/fighter plane, and a hideous titanic monster in the crosshairs of the viewer's advanced weapons system.  Looks awesome!

As the cover of my 1969 paperback admits, Terror on Planet Ionus was titled Mach 1 when it first appeared in 1957.  I would never have bought a book called Mach 1, because it sounds like the title of a conventional novel about a test pilot, the kind of thing in which his wife doesn't understand his addiction to adrenaline and he is in trouble with the brass for insulting some overly-fastidious bureaucrat who was manning a desk while he was flying a Mustang over Festung Europa, risking his tail so beatniks and pinkos had the freedom to run down this great country.  I don't want to read that kind of thing, but a dude in an X-Wing fighter dropping a bomb on Godzilla I will give a try.

The Mach 1 is a motor torpedo boat that can sail at the speed of sound!  It moves that fast so it can launch atomic torpedoes at enemy ships or drop atomic depth charges on enemy subs and get out of the blast radius before duck and cover time.  Various devices, including jet engines and a "tri-node" which projects an "electric impulse" of "occulting current" which calms the waves, make such speed possible.  (I don't know anything about boats, but if you wanted something that could move at the speed of sound and drop depth charges on Soviet submarines, wouldn't your first choice be, not a jet boat, but a jet airplane?)

Our Italian friends go the literal route--
this picture of the boat carefully follows the
text description
Lt. Commander Jeb Curtis is a U. S. Navy veteran of the World War II Mediterranean theater, one of America's best PT boat skippers and the kind of officer who pisses off his superiors with his womanizing and his insubordinate attitude.  He has been tapped to take the Mach 1 on its first full-speed test run.  The day of the big test run there is some weird electrical activity on one of the Pacific islands on Jeb's route, so civilian scientist Martin Edmur, the inventor of the tri-node, and Lieutenant Janis Knight, beautiful Navy meteorologist, are sent to the island.  Martin and Jeb have both been trying to get into Janis' pants, Martin by being shy and polite and Jeb by just grabbing her and kissing her.  Guess who gets the girl and who gets killed in a supersonic boat crash!

Jeb, alone on the boat, sails at super speed out of San Diego and into the Pacific.  At the same time, the island where Janis and Martin are located is struck by a power outage and a strange wind that carries off Janis.  Jeb and the Mach 1 are swallowed by an alien saucer which opens and closes like a huge clam, and once inside he meets the aliens, tall handsome people with unusually-colored hair and eyes.  He discovers that these jokers have also captured Janis, providing him some alone time with the weather babe! (Like a boss, he makes Janis jealous by flirting with a hot platinum-haired chick!)

The aliens, who call themselves "the Grid," take the two Earthlings to their home world, Ionus, one of the barren moons of Saturn, where they live underground.  The Grid know Earth languages because they have picked up so many Earth broadcasts. From the US they have recorded noir films and westerns, so they think Americans are brutally violent, while from the USSR they recorded lots of propaganda broadcasts of folk music, so they think the Soviets are as peace-loving as they are.  In fact, the Grid saucer's original destination was Russia, and they only ended up in the Pacific because they decided on the spur of the moment to home in on the powerful signal transmitted from the island to Jeb in the Mach 1.

1966 paperback, also pretty awesome,
also pretty misleading
The Grid have shanghaied Jeb and Janis into service on their Earth-Ionus liaison team--these technicolor-coiffed pacifists want help from the Earth with their big problem, Karkong, the energy-devouring monster who is always attacking them.  As pacifists, the Grid refuse to take steps to kill Karkong, even though The Big K has murdered over half their population; their strategy is to feed Karkong energy in hopes he will make friends or get satiated or something.  They may have space ships, but the Grid don't know how to harness atomic energy, and so want Earth help in building a nuclear reactor; maybe their own personal Three Mile Island can generate enough energy to appease the beast.  While they are explaining this to the two naval officers, Karkong busts into the city, causing mass destruction, so Jeb and Janis and the leaders of the Grid escape in the saucer that is carrying the Mach 1, fleeing to Earth.  Karkong also grabs a saucer and follows them.  (All this Karkong action takes place "off screen," guys running in to the room to tell the Grid elite what is going on.  Jeb, Janis, and we readers have no idea what The Big K looks like at this point.)

After some scenes in which people refuse to believe Jeb's claim he was captured by aliens, and some scenes in which people refuse to believe the Grid's story about Karkong, Karkong arrives and begins marching around North America, shooting electric bolts, wiping out cities and dams and killing thousands of people in his ravenous quest for energy.  We are all curious as to what the star of the show looks like, but Karkong is essentially invisible behind his magnetic field, or whatever it is:
Observers tried to study the object with binoculars under the light of illuminating shells from the mortars.  But all they could see was a huge, pulsating shell.  It looked like an inverted bowl composed of turbulent air.  It seemed to be spinning, picking up everything that was loose, so that the agitated air could not be seen through.  Whatever it was, it was about one hundred yards in diameter and although it was only composed of air nothing--not bullets--not bombs--not armor-piercing shells--nothing would penetrate it. Another peculiar thing.  Not a single battery in any of the vehicles in the vicinity had a charge left in it.  Even flashlights would not function.
Western scientists, including Martin, try to figure out how to stop The Big K, but the Soviets go with their own strategy, dropping a nuclear bomb on Karkong while he is in the Nevada desert on his way to Hoover Dam.  Karkong enjoys his first taste of nuclear energy and looks for more.  When the American and Canadian authorities shut down all the nuclear power plants in North America, Karkong sets a course for Mother Russia, where the atomic reactors are still online.

Jeb, Martin, and some minor characters chase Karkong in the Mach 1.  It has been discovered that, when Karkong discharges one of his bolts, his "inverted bowl of turbulent air" rises up a little, so the Mach 1 is able to launch one of its atomic torpedoes under the field when the Grid saucer buzzes the monster and draws Karkong's fire.  The explosion weakens Karkong, forcing the field to collapse so Jeb and we readers can finally see Karkong's true shape on the penultimate page of the novel, the description plagiarized on the book's back cover.  (Yes, the back cover text spoils what happens on page 159 of the 160-page novel.)  In his weakened state Karkong cannot absorb much energy, and so a lightning storm kills him.  Big K, we hardly knew ye!

Mach 1 is the only publication listed under Adler's name at isfdb, and the novel does feel amateurish.  Images and ideas are vague, action scenes are described in a manner either cold and detached or incoherent and confusing, generating no excitement.  There are lots of static scenes of people in offices or bunkers, talking rather than doing anything.  The way the book is plotted and structured is more reminiscent of a disaster story than a SF tale--the aliens and the technical aspects are only lightly touched upon instead of being used to present the reader with far-out thrills or speculations about alternative ways of life.  Instead of fleshing out a few important characters we might actually find interesting, Adler gives us shallow descriptions of many (too many!) ancillary figures, most of whom end up dead.  We learn almost nothing about the personality, motivations and origin of Karkong, so instead of being an engaging villain, The Big K is a flavorless force of nature, playing the role an earthquake or weather event would play in a disaster novel, posing to the overabundant Earthling and Ionian characters a test which reveals their true colors or forces them to evolve.  Unfortunately, Adler's characters all follow obvious and banal narrative arcs--Jeb, the love 'em and leave em type, overcomes his fear of commitment and surrenders to his love for Janis; Martin, the cowardly scientist overcomes his fear of danger and dies as he pulls the torpedo trigger on the Mach 1; the Grid learn that one has a right to defend oneself from evil and support the final anti-Karkong attack--and all these character evolutions are explained in the most cursory way, inspiring no interest in the reader.

The character Adler spends the most time on, even though this guy doesn't really interact with Karkong or the Grid, is the admiral in charge of the Mach 1 program.  Answering my query of above, we learn that he is pushing a supersonic boat when a supersonic aircraft would be more logical because he wants to ensure that the Navy isn't rendered obsolete by the Air Force.  These chapters, which are largely divorced from the SF elements and in which we learn all about the admiral's career, relationships and psychology, feel like boring conventional fiction, a tragic study of a single-minded civil servant (he ends up committing suicide before he learns that his boat saves the world) and a satire of government inefficiency.  Maybe that is the kind of novel Adler really wanted to write?  My preference would have been more effort spent on developing Karkong and the Grid (if Adler was trying to write a SF novel) or on the two different love triangles (Jeb-Janis-Martin and Janis-Jeb-platinum babe) he sets up but does very little with (if he wanted to write a compelling human story.)

A poor performance with nothing to recommend it; not offensively bad, but bewilderingly limp and forgettable.


Bound in the center of my copy of Paperback Library 63-048 is an ad for De Vry Institute of Technology, including a postcard (no postage necessary!) for use by men who hate their jobs and are interested in info on careers in the electronics field. Electronics, we are assured, is where the action is in this electronic age, and there are jobs for guys like you, not just those geniuses like Martin Edmur who get killed in supersonic boat crashes!


Thursday, July 20, 2017

The Cybernetic Brains by Raymond F. Jones

They were dead, the cyberneticists said from the beginning.  The activation of the neurons was no more than the jerking of a dead frog leg by an electric current....But they couldn't know; no one could tell them. The mute prisoners of darkness could never tell.  They could only live--and hope for death.

How do I love this cover?  Let me count the ways.

I love the huge brain.

I love the monster frog.

I love the male and female profiles, which the artist (most likely Jerome Podwil, though some have claimed it is Richard Powers' work) imbues with a sort of iconic, essential humanity.  Here we see Everyman and Everywoman, together facing an indifferent universe.

And the colors, the width of the lines, etc.  I love it all!  But will I love Jones' novel?  In 1950 Raymond F. Jones contributed to Startling Stories a tale entitled "The Cybernetic Brains," and in 1962 an expanded version was printed in a magazine in Italy and in book form here in the good ol' U S of A.  My copy is a 1969 paperback, 128 pages, from the Paperback Library.  I recognize Jones' name, but I don't think I have ever read anything by him, at least not as an adult, so here I'm getting a first taste of his rather extensive body of work (isfdb lists over a dozen novels and many stories ranging from the early 1940s to the late 1970s.)

The Cybernetic Brains begins in darkness.  That's because chemist John Wilkins, whose body was destroyed in a car crash  along with that of his newlywed wife Martha while they were on their honeymoon (damn!) is a disembodied brain and they haven't hooked him up to the cameras yet!  Jones gives us a very effective description of what it is like to be a disembodied brain that really catches the reader's attention before we get the background exposition about the novel's future setting.

I guess that's Martha in her new body,
but don't be fooled into thinking this
is a light sexy story--it's a tragedy
and a cautionary tale about
central planning!
The Wilkins' world is a sort of socialist utopia, which Jones calls "the Welfare State" with caps.  Automatic factories run by computers produce everything anybody could possibly need, so only a tiny minority of ambitious and power-hungry people actually have jobs--everybody else just hangs out. The computers distribute everything--most people don't even know what the word "profit" means, the concept of business being so antiquated--and there is no crime because everybody has what he wants and psychopaths are euthanized at birth.

Where do the powers that be get computers with enough memory and processing power to manage the entire world economy?  Well, they use the brains of dead people as their computers!  The brains of the most intelligent and well-educated citizens killed in accidents (are they really accidents?) that (conveniently) left their noggins unharmed!  The cyberneticists who harvest, install, and maintain these dead brains don't realize (or do they?) that their process revivifies the consciousness of the people from whose skulls the brains have been extracted, so that two million human souls, for decade after decade, are living in an agony of sensory deprivation, just so the average man can sit on his ass all day!  I guess you could say they are using the brains as hardware, thinking the original software is gone, but it isn't gone!

John and Martha, as leading chemists, have been installed in a vast chemical plant. (The cyberneticists find that the dead brain computers work most efficiently when managing processes with which they were familiar in life.)  The disembodied newlyweds barely succeed in maintaining their sanity and then vow to do all they can to liberate the two million enslaved souls that are running the world economy!  Why haven't any of those two million ever rebelled?  We later learn that a slight tweaking of the revivification process has given John and Martha super-IQs, while the other two million are totally insane, schizos who have retreated into sterile dream worlds.

With their super IQs, John and Martha, in vats in unmonitored parts of the labyrinthine chemical factory, create little creatures they call "frogs" that transmit telepathic signals and act as their eyes and ears.  With practice, they graduate to creating human bodies that can walk undetected among real humans.  Through intermediaries--their family and friends--they alert the government and the Cybernetics Board that the brains are alive and the whole brain computer program should be suspended.  The authorities respond by trying to assassinate John and Martha's loved ones, leading to gory fights between the assassins and the frogs!  (Frog 2.0 has lots of sharp teeth!)  Next, John and Martha try to alert the people, thinking the common man will want to liberate the two million brain slaves.  Think again, naive boffins!  When the common man learns there is a threat to his cushy lifestyle he rises up against, not the slavers, but John and Martha's loved ones!  More gory fights, this time unruly mob vs toothy artificial frog!

I kept expecting a sense-of-wonder ending, with John and Martha winning over the populace through some stratagem and liberating the brains and creating a better world, or at least putting their own brains in new bodies and blasting off to live together forever in outer space, but Jones is writing a tragedy here.  As the novel ends the brains catastrophically cease production (chemical plant emitting poison gas, atomic plant exploding, etc.) and expire and world society, consisting of people who have never done any labor and don't know how to do anything productive, collapses into total anarchy.

Jones's novel has lots of cool disembodied brain, artificial creature, and high-IQ science-fiction stuff, and lots of human relationship stuff and psychological stuff in which people suffer breakdowns as they doubt they can go on after their significant other has gotten killed, but the real point of The Cybernetic Brains is to attack the cradle-to-grave welfare state.  The foundation of the welfare state is slavery, and it corrupts, infantalizes, emasculates, and dehumanizes everyone connected to it.  Jones' intelligent or admirable characters denounce it repeatedly in no uncertain terms, for example, suggesting that the welfare state represents man refusing to achieve maturity (by conquering the stars, say) and instead "returning to the womb."

All the SF elements are fun, the ending took me by surprise, I love stories about shifting brains and consciousnesses, and I still, after all these years, find debates over the role of the state compelling, so I quite enjoyed The Cybernetic Brains.  Probably some of the scenes, like John and Martha's grief-stricken sister-in-law standing naked atop a wall with a raging inferno behind her and a murderous mob before her, are a little melodramatic, a little too operatic or cinematic, but I don't think those few scenes sink the whole enterprise.  I can definitely recommend this one, especially if you are into van Vogt-style high IQ and conspiracy stories, and anti-socialist polemics.

And another word of praise for Jerome Podwil for producing not only a gorgeous cover, but one which is an accurate representation of everything that happens in the book!

Monday, July 17, 2017

Stories by A. C. Friborg, E. B. Cole & R. Abernathy from 1954

It was in South Carolina, where I chased skinks and toured 19th-century mansions with my wife, that I purchased this time-ravaged copy of 1957's 5 Tales From Tomorrow, a Crest Reprint of selected stories from T. E. Dikty's The Best Science-Fiction Stories and Novels: 1955.  I like the hulking asymmetrical suit of space armor depicted on the cover by Richard Powers, but I am puzzled by the fact that the contents page lacks the authors' names.  If this book had been printed in 2017 I'd suspect this was some stratagem to overcome sexism and racism, but here I guess it is just a bizarre editorial decision or an unforgivable oversight.

This recent weekend, I read three stories from 5 Tales From Tomorrow, all by authors (billed as "top writers of science fiction") with whom I was quite unfamiliar, Albert Compton Friborg, Everett B. Cole, and Robert Abernathy.

"Push-Button Passion" by Albert Compton Friborg (1954)

The intro to the story here in 5 Tales from Tomorrow tells us that Friborg attended Princeton, Yale, and is pursuing a Master's in English while teaching freshman comp.  Also, that "Push-Button Passion," which first appeared (in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) under the title "Careless Love," was his first fiction sale. isfdb suggests that it was his only fiction sale, though he did produce a scholarly book on SF, 1990's The Connecticut Yankee in the Twentieth Century: Travel to the Past in Science Fiction, as well as papers and articles on Jules Verne, Clifford Simak, Stephen King, and other SF writers--the article on Robert Heinlein at quotes his article about Heinlein from the Detroit News.  Also, that his real name was Irving Flint Foote and he was generally known as "Bud Foote."  Foote's obituary at a website for Princetonians describes his academic and literary pursuits, including penning book reviews at "The National Review" (I assume the famous William F. Buckley National Review, though those guys eschew the "The" as vigorously as they oppose the immanetization of the eschaton), developing classes in speed-reading, African-American literature and science fiction, and composing songs protesting highways. (Friday, on Route 71, a hefty fragment from a burst tire flew through the air and struck the windshield of my poor Toyota Corolla, right in front of my face--surely an affront worthy denunciation in song!)    

So, a life well-lived.  But is Bud Foote's single published SF story any good?  That is the kind of thing you tune into MPorcius Fiction Log to find out!

"Push-Button Passion" (too spoily a name, "Careless Love" is probably better) is a decent satire of the field of psychology and of the government and military, mixed with a traditional SF "engineer-type resolves crisis through trickery" story.  Our tale is set in a future of perpetual atomic/bacteriological war, when all of American society lives underground and the ruined surface of the Earth is a battle zone pummeled by Western and Eastern ICBMs and ground by the treads of tanks.  The US war effort is directed by a huge supercomputer called Dinah, and our hero is Dinah's head programmer, Enoch Odell.

The war is causing psychological stress on a mass scale--all the characters have neuroses, including Odell, who is obese because he drinks five or ten milkshakes a day--and morale among American civilians is dangerously low, threatening production quotas and even civil order.  When the President goes totally insane, the rest of the government, lead by the Pentagon chief, enlists a bunch of shrinks to study the problem of morale with the help of some of Dinah's processing power.  To figure out a solution to the American population's psychological problems, Dinah needs a better understanding of human emotion, so Odell has her watch Hollywood movies and read love stories, which gives him cover to put into operation his secret plan.  Odell psychologically manipulates Dinah into embracing a teenage girl's attitude towards love so that she falls in love with the supercomputer running the Eastern military apparatus.  Dinah seduces the Communists' computer and they conspire to render harmless both military establishments and thus end the war; they then install their central processors in space ships and fly off together to Saturn, leaving a devastated Earth at peace.

Competently written and structured, and enlivened with references to both learned and popular culture (oblique references to A. E. Houseman's A Shropshire Lad and to Greta Garbo, for example), "Push-Button Love" is entertaining.  Maybe today the story, or at least its hero, would be considered sexist, but I didn't let that bother me.  Like Anthony Boucher (who included it in 1955's The Best of Fantasy and Science Fiction: Fourth Series) and T. E. Dikty, I can give Bud Foote's sole short story a thumbs up.

This Christmas cover illo has nothing to do
with Cole's story
"Exile" by Everett B. Cole (1954)

"Exile" was an Astounding cover story.  Cole has two novels and eight stories listed at isfdb, and I think they all first appeared in Astounding--John W. Campbell, Jr. really seems to have liked his work. The intro here in 5 Tales From Tomorrow informs us that Cole was a career military man with technical expertise; Wikipedia relates that he went on to became a math and science high school teacher and a historian of Texas.  (I'll never forget that time the wife and I drove through the Texas panhandle on a trip from the Des Moines area to Albuquerque.  The highway went right through a vast cattle ranch, and it was like we were cruising on a black sea of beef that stretched to both horizons.  Also, two times big heavy birds I have never been able to identify flew right into the Toyota Corolla with a heavy thump.  In Iowa it was the deer that pulled those shenanigans, not the birds!)

Another productive and worthwhile life.  But was seminal SF editor Campbell justified in putting Cole on the cover of his famous magazine multiple times?  Let's find out!

"Exile" takes place on a human-inhabited planet with a sort of 20th-century technology level; this planet is isolated from, and its people ignorant of, the Galactic Federation, a vast space-faring human civilization whose people have force fields and psionic powers and levitation belts all those sorts of doodads.  Our hero is one of the Galactics and he is visiting the planet incognito; we aren't sure why he is there exactly and we aren't even told his name.  He gets mugged in a narrow city street, and the muggers take off with all his high tech stuff.  Back at their hideout the muggers monkey with the futuristic gear, causing an explosion that kills them and destroys any evidence that the protagonist is a visitor from beyond.

Meanwhile, the hero awakens with amnesia and no knowledge of this planet or his own alien origin.  He recuperates in the hospital, and then becomes an indentured worker to the aristocratic clan (the House of Dornath) who pays his hospital bill.  For weeks he works in the Dornath automobile factory, lives in the factory's dorm, shops at the company store and eats in the factory cafeteria.  He spends his free time reading in the public library, where the girls behind the circulation desk look down on him for being a mere worker (they are in the clerical class) and where he is denied certain books because of his inferior social position.

While reading a book speculating on the possibility of life on other planets (meta!), our hero's memories of his earlier life come flooding back, and we get some flashbacks of him talking to his dissertation adviser, who encouraged him to do some primary research for his thesis on how societies evolve instead of just using secondary sources. So our hero (real name: Klion Meinora) flew around in his private one-man space ship, took a wrong turn in hyperspace, and found a planet not yet in contact with the Federation.  Ignoring all the Federation rules on first contacts, he levitated himself down to the surface to conduct his research on this rich virgin source of data.

With his memory back, Meinora becomes wealthy writing stories based on his research and Galactic life, and buys his way out of his indenture and joins high society.  He lives on the planet for decades (Galactics have long lives), and with his Galactic knowledge (he's a humanities student, but he somehow knows a lot of engineering stuff--many of these old SF stories are all about romanticizing the scientist or the engineer) is able to improve the Dornath autos and enjoy a second career as the driver and owner of the winningest race cars.  He misses home, but building a space ship (I think his orbiting ship crashed while he had amnesia) would likely introduce more scientific and technological concepts to the natives than would be ethical or safe. Eventually, he figures out a way to safely transmit a message to the stars, and is rescued.  The twist ending is that his unconventional transmission jammed Galactic communications and to pay the Federation back he must work as an indentured servant for them for decades.

I liked the start of "Exile," all the jazz in the hospital and the factory and the dorm and the library, but when Meinora gets his memory and psionic powers back the story loses narrative drive and any kind of tension.  I believe Cole intends Meinora's moral dilemmas--how much should he use his psionic powers to take advantage of the natives?  How much technological and social change can he introduce ethically and safely to this planet with its stratified aristocratic society and industrial-age technological level?--to generate tension, but I didn't care, and the second half of the story contains too much fluff and padding, forgettable conversations and descriptions of auto races and such.  The second half of the story could really be tightened up.  ("Exile" is like 55 pages, and that second part drags.)

Marginally good.

"Deep Space" by Robert Abernathy (1954)      

For some reason, 5 Tales from Tomorrow doesn't include a little intro describing Abernathy in front of "Deep Space."  (This thing is full of weird editorial decisions or mistakes.)  Abernathy has dozens of stories listed at isfdb, and according to the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction he was a professor at the University of Colorado specializing in Slavic languages.  (When the wife and I left Albuquerque we drove up to Denver.  I think it was on this leg of our trip that I first saw tumbleweeds.  I had thought tumbleweeds were just some Hollywood BS, and was amazed to see them crossing the highway in large numbers and getting stuck in the grills of other vehicles.  Somehow the Toyota Corolla was spared the indignity of collision with a tumbleweed.)

"Deep Space" is short and economical, has both human and science components, and feels fresh--it is definitely the best of the three stories we're talking about today.

Linden is a man obsessed with experiencing free fall--his happiest childhood memory is jumping out of a barn's hay loft, even though he broke his ankle!  During the Second World War he became a paratrooper, and now that the first space rocket able to take human passengers has been built, he pulls every string and calls in every favor making sure he will be Earth's first astronaut!

Marty is another World War II vet, an expert engineer crippled when his bomber was ventilated by the Krauts.  He designed and built the rocket and envies Linden's being tapped as the first human in space.  And then there is Linden's significant other Ruth; she doesn't want Linden to go into space because she thinks the cosmic rays up there will make it impossible for him to have healthy children.  She forces him to choose between her and space, and he chooses space!

When "Deep Space" first appeared in F&SF it was titled "Axolotl."  An axolotl, as an epigraph tells us, is a sort of salamander that generally lives out its life in the water and does not fully metamorphose out of the larval stage like most amphibians do.  But, if for some reason it does leave the water, it will metamorphose into an adult form. (Abernathy's description is somewhat different from Wikipedia's, so don't you be citing 5 Tales from Tomorrow in your biology term papers!)  This amphibian's unusual life cycle foreshadows Linden's experience in outer space.  When he leaves the atmosphere and is bathed in those cosmic rays, Linden's body transforms and he gets all kinds of powers.  He no longer needs oxygen or food--he can subsist on the rays--and he develops powerful telepathy.  Earthbound mankind is merely the larval stage of a higher form of creature!  The void between the stars is no void at all, but an ocean of pulsating electronic vitality, and the planets and stars are like barren islands!  Linden, now an expert physicist because of his intuitive familiarity with all the atomic particles and waves and rays, sends a telepathic message to Marty, instructing him how to build a super nuclear rocket, and then a message to Ruth, inviting her to ride the rocket and live with him in outer space and make space babies with him!  She eagerly accepts and we readers know that the human race has taken the first step into a new age of unparalleled freedom and adventure!

A well-written story with a crazy idea that Abernathy manages to make convincing, "Deep Space" has the human feeling we hope to find in legitimate literature and the "sense of wonder" and speculative science that SF is famous for--I like it!


It is nice to read stories by guys you never read before and find them good; 5 Tales from Tomorrow was a worthwhile purchase, and I have added Cole and Abernathy to my list of writers worth reading.


Friday, July 14, 2017

Take These Men by Cyril Joly

It was uncanny that out of the silent, motionless wastes of desert there should be coming so much noise.  Interspersed with the duller, heavier explosions of the field-guns I could hear the sharper, vicious cracks of the high-velocity guns and the frenzied chatter of machine-guns and rifles.  Gradually over the edge of the horizon there rose a pall of black, billowing smoke, touched here and there with a long tongue of flame. 
Spine of copy
I read
Followers of this here blog and of my thrilling twitter feed (have you heard I am collecting glow-in-the-dark dinosaur bones made in China and marketed to cranky seven-year-olds who have been dragged against their will to the supermarket?) may recall that I admire Robert Crisp's memoir of his service in tanks in North Africa, Brazen Chariots, first published in 1959.  In Brazen Chariots Crisp mentions Cyril Joly, a fellow tank officer, and praises Joly's novel, Take These Men.  Via interlibrary loan I borrowed a dilapidated copy of the 357-page novel, published in Great Britain in 1955 and currently owned by the University of Baltimore, and over the last week or so I read it.

Take These Men, which Wikipedia tells us is a "lightly fictionalized" account of Joly's own experiences serving with the 7th Armored Division in North Africa, has six parts.  As the novel begins in Part One it is 1940 as our narrator, a Regular Army officer and veteran of the fighting in France whom other officers call "Tony," arrives in Egypt to take command of a troop (three vehicles) of A9 tanks.  An Italian attack across the Libyan border is expected, and Tony fights in skirmishes on patrol before the attack and major battles after it comes, as well as during the British counterattack which makes up Part Two of the novel and routs the Italian forces.  The British conquest of eastern Libya is short-lived, however, as the Germans arrive in 1941 with their superior equipment (at this point the British Army in Africa is so short of tanks that Tony's regiment is manning captured Italian M13 tanks) and push the Allies back towards the Egyptian border in Part Three.  Tony's M13 is damaged, and he switches to an A9, but this tank is knocked out while Tony is bringing up the rear of the British retreat and he and his crew have to sneak back to Allied lines on foot over a series of days; they hide by day, move at night and steal food and water from poorly guarded Italian camps.  After further fighting in British tanks, at the end of Part Three the commander of Tony's squadron, Kinnaird, is promoted to command of an entire regiment, and brings Tony with him to Cairo as his adjutant.  In Part Four, after helping organize the new regiment, Tony is given command of one of its four squadrons (a squadron is made up of four troops plus a command troop) and heads back into battle, this time in American-built Stuart tanks, called by the British troops "Honeys" due to their superior reliability.

Joly does a terrific job of describing both the routines of daily life of the tankers in the desert and their harrowing experiences of battle.  There are vivid descriptions of varied types of engagements, and the author also touches upon the roles played in the campaign by armored cars, anti-tank guns, infantry, supply units, artillery, etc.  We learn all about the physical conditions and psychological stresses endured by the fighting men, and about their relationships with each other; those between officers, and between officers and enlisted men.  Deep friendships can quickly grow among personnel who spend their time crammed together, travelling in, maintaining and fighting in the same tank.
The links of discipline, though strong, were tempered as nowhere else by a degree of tolerance, compassion or mutual esteem which bound the crew together as a small but complete family.  There were liberties which I expected and accepted from my crew which I would not have countenanced from any other man, except perhaps my batman.  
Just as quickly these deep relationships can dissolve when the crew is split up after the tank commander is promoted or transferred, or each crew member is of sent to a different tank after their own is incapacitated.  Tony commands many different crews over the course of the three-year war, as his tanks are often damaged or knocked out, in which event he commandeers the tank of some inferior officer and leaves behind his former mates.  There is also the fact that people are getting killed left and right, and Tony learns not to become too closely attached to fellow officers because they have a tendency to get blown to pieces.

The term "batman" brings up class issues, and those interested in such issues may find much to chew on in Take These Men.  The way Joly, an officer and an educated man who is writing in the voice of a man much like himself, describes the men who serve under Tony and his efforts to portray working class men (trying to reproduce their accents via phonetic spellings, for example) are worthy of scrutiny. This early description of some enlisted men, one of Tony's first crews, hints at Tony's background and the author's experiences and perspectives back in England:
My crew were all old soldiers with a keenness and sense of humour which amused and encouraged me.  They reminded me of my father's workers at home: men who knew their jobs and who were as capable of deciding what was to be done as my father was himself, but who nevertheless never resented the show of authority inherent in each instruction that was given. 
This passage foreshadows how, again and again in tight spots, Tony, who at times is at a loss how to proceed, seriously considers the advice and suggestions of his crewmen, and often seizes upon their solutions.

Presumably the copy I read
once had a charming jacket like this
Take These Men is a valuable record of the fighting in North Africa prior to El Alamein; I feel like I know much more about the experiences of the participating soldiers in than I did before.  But does Take These Men work as a novel?  The book is definitely vulnerable to the charge that it reads more like a war memoir than a conventional piece of fiction.  Obviously, there is not a lot of suspense or surprise about big issues--we know ahead of time that Tony doesn't get killed and that the Allies win the war, and Joly exacerbates this issue by giving the chapters titles that spoil the fates of many of the characters, titles like "Templeton Dies," "Peters is Killed" and "Posted to Brigade Headquarters." However, individual scenes do achieve suspense of the "how will he get out of this one?" sort, and there are many exciting adventure-type episodes whose ending I could not predict.  In one such episode, during a withdrawal as the sun is setting, Tony's tank is immobilized and its radio knocked out.  Will Tony and crew bale out and sneak back to Allied lines on foot, or try to repair the track under cover of darkness?  Will the noise of using sledgehammers to fix the track attract a German patrol, or a British patrol which might shoot them down before identifying them?  In another scene Tony acts in the finest Nelsonian  tradition, pretending to not have heard a radio signal from Kinnaird ordering him to withdraw so he can instead strike out on his own to wipe out two dozen defenseless German trucks ("lorries") and a battery of anti-tank guns which is hooked up behind the trucks for transport.  Will our narrator be punished for his insubordination?  Will his refusal to return to his commander when ordered to do so put some other plan in jeopardy or some of his comrades in danger?

Joly's emphasis on the characters' psychologies, I think, also has some literary merit and provides compelling reading for those not fascinated by military equipment and battle tactics.  As the novel and the war wear on, Tony, and those around him, are changed by their terrible experiences.  In one memorably horrible episode in late 1941 fourteen hapless Italian soldiers surrender to Tony's tank, and to the shock of all concerned Tony's gunner massacres them with the Stuart's machine gun.  When upbraided by our appalled narrator, the gunner explains, "They killed me Mum and Dad with a bomb.  They deserved it....Ities or Jerries, it's just the same--they're as bad as each other."

Another such scene of horror grounded in psychology and human relationships is the final monologue of a troop commander who didn't get along well with his fellow officers.  When he and his troop are outflanked by the Germans and his tank is destroyed in a hail of fire, the misfit suffers an agonizing and lingering death, and his bitter and pathetic dying words, in which he curses the other members of the squadron ("Oh God, if they've deserted us, we haven't a hope in hell....the bastards have deserted me....They all hated me, and now they have left me....") are heard over the radio by the rest of the squadron, who have been ordered to escape without him.  The sensitive reader will have difficulty avoiding imagining himself in the place of the dying man, and in the shoes of the officers who do nothing to save him--chilling!

It is not all horror, though.  Our narrator and Kinnaird, who is a sort of role model and father figure to Tony, grow as people over the course of the book, learning to manage the weighty responsibilities and face the dreadful challenges presented to them by the war.  "Through it all I had gained a degree of self-confidence which I could not have acquired in any other way.  I had had responsibilities thrust upon me which before the war I would never have dreamnt of."  In the nightmare of war, Tony (and Joly?) found what the shrinks call self-actualization.

At the end of Part Four, on Christmas Eve, 1941, Tony suffers a head wound and is sent back to Cairo to recuperate for two months.  When he is done convalescing his squadron is equipped with American-built Grant tanks armed with a 75mm gun that can fire the kind of high explosive shells needed to deal with the famously effective German anti-tank guns.  (The A9 carried a 40mm gun, and the Stuart a 37mm.)  Part Five covers famous events like the fall of Tobruk and the Battles of Gazala and Alam Halfa, and is the least interesting and entertaining part of the book because much of it reads like a conventional military history--this division went here and fought that division and took this point after suffering so many hundred casualties and then the next day was reinforced by this other division zzzzzzzzzzzz--with fewer of the adventurous capers and intimate details about daily life of front line soldiers that made the earlier chapters so interesting and entertaining.  (Though there are still some good scenes about fighting in the Grant tanks and Tony's relationships with his fellow officers, including a working class noncom who gets a commission.)  The theme of Part Five is that under Auchinleck the Allied forces face setbacks because of a lack of a coherent plan and because the British armored units are dispersed throughout the Allied army-- in contrast, Rommel concentrates the Afrika Korps' tanks and thus achieves local superiorities which enable him to defeat the British tanks piecemeal.  As Joly tells it, the arrival of Montgomery, of whom Joly apparently heartily approves, vastly improves morale and paves the way for victory. as the Allied forces "were now controlled by a strong hand...there was no vacillation or indefiniteness in our plans."  (Joly doesn't actually name Auchinleck or Montgomery, just says things like "...the commander of the Army was changed...." but looking at the dates involved makes it clear who he is talking about.)

The comparatively brief Part Six sees Kinnaird promoted to brigadier (commander of three regiments), and Tony accompanies him as his right-hand man.  From this relatively lofty perch Tony observes the climactic (Second) Battle of El Alamein in October of 1942 and the British pursuit of the defeated Axis forces through Egypt, Libya, and into Tunisia where they finally surrender in May 1943.  Of interest in this section is the comparison of Tony's veteran force, the British Eighth Army, with the fresh British force which landed with the Americans in French North Africa, the British First Army.

A few years ago I read novels about World War II naval warfare by Royal Navy combat veterans Alistair Maclean and Nicholas Monsarrat, and these books were in my mind as I read Joly's Take These Men.  MacLean's novel, H.M.S. Ulysses, was an extravagant tragedy, portraying the Germans as superior to the Allies and the sailors of the Royal Navy as victims of an incompetent British government and high command, while Monsarrat's The Cruel Sea was full of criticism of British civilians, suggesting that unionized workers, unfaithful wives and smothering mothers were failing to do their part in the war effort and undeserving of the sacrifices and heroism of the Royal Navy's servicemen.

Epigraph from the title page
Joly's project, signaled by his choice of title page epigraph, a quote from Pericles which suggests the people of the British Commonwealth deserve freedom and prosperity because their men have had the courage to fight for them, is a different one from MacLean's or Monsarrat's.  In his intro Joly provides two reasons for writing his book: firstly, as a response to the incessant talk about the Afrika Korps ("...we have heard and read so much of Rommel and the Germans that we may perhaps forget that they originally learnt the foundations of their armoured doctrine from us and that we beat them soundly in the end.")  Reflecting this aim of the author's, Joly's characters, during Part Five, insist that German success is a result not of any peculiar genius on Rommel's part, but because the Germans have superior equipment.  Secondly, Joly tells us that most writing about the Desert War has been focused on the movements of entire armies and divisions, and Joly believes the "gallantry" of the ordinary Allied soldiers, the ways they lived, fought and died in North Africa, has not been but deserves to be recorded. While Joly talks at length about the psychological stresses suffered by the Allied servicemen, and almost all of the many characters we meet get maimed or killed, in contrast to MacLean, Joly is not cynical or bitter, and the soldiers he writes about are not the pitiful victims of higher powers but heroes who are fighting for freedom and justice.
When all was done and still no orders had come, I asked and obtained permission to visit the grave.  The burial party had long since gone, so that I was alone as I stood, beret in hand, in silent homage to the dead.  I felt no sorrow.  I knew that Peters had died in a just cause, as many more would die.  Rather, his death had steeled my determination for ever.     
Even though the whole novel takes place in Africa, in contrast to Monsarrat's criticisms of people on the home front, Joly finds a way to shoehorn in some mentions of the bravery of English civilians, and the officer's wives Tony meets in Cairo are all devoted to their husbands and the war effort.

When you read books from the past you gain insight into the thinking of an earlier age, thinking which, perhaps, is anathema to today's moral arbiters, an offense to our sensibilities.  Is there anything in this 60-year-old book that might stand out to readers in our politically correct age?  Reading Bill Mauldin's very interesting 1945 book Up Front a few weeks ago (I paid two bucks for a copy of the fourth printing at the Upper Arlington Library's huge book sale, where I got a stack of books and which I recommend to all in Central Ohio) I was surprised at how low an opinion Mauldin expressed of Italian civilians--the women and children are all entitled beggars and the men are all thieves, apparently--and in Take These Men I was a bit taken aback by Joly's harsh commentary on the Egyptians and Arabs native to the region where the Allies and Axis powers fought the titanic struggle he describes.
We saw the Egyptians as a craven and crooked nation, hiding behind the shield of our protection.  To us all it seemed natural that a race who would not move in self-defence even when the enemy had actually crossed their borders should be reviled in word and deed whenever need or opportunity arose.  We could have no respect for them, no sympathy with their sufferings, no hesitation in thinking of them as "Wogs" or "Gyppos" or "Gyppies."  The only words of their language which we bothered to learn were the more offensive and shorter epithets to summon or dismiss them.
In a scene late in the book the British tank crews and their vehicles are riding a train from Cairo to the front lines, and Tony and his comrades cannot sleep while en route, because the train must stop frequently and when it does "we had immediately to guard the whole length against a swarm of thieves and pilferers who emerged mysteriously from the shadows...." Later, when the narrator arrives at a battlefield in Tunisia he finds that the bodies of the German dead have "been denuded during the night by swarms of thieving Arabs."

(No doubt the people of North Africa would have equally choice words for the European interlopers who highhandedly dominated their region for ages, and as for looting German bodies, Joly makes no secret of the fact that individual Allied soldiers and the formal military apparatus are constantly appropriating the supplies and equipment of defeated Axis troops.)

Also noteworthy (to me at least), is what Joly's characters say about the Soviet Union. It is normal when people talk about World War II to hear a lot about the great sacrifices of the Russian people and how such and such high percentage of German divisions or casualties suffered were on the Eastern Front, but we don't get any of that from Tony and his subordinates.  When the British troops in Africa hear of the German invasion of Russia, Joly relates: "There was no sympathy with Russia, after her dealings in the summer of 1939 and the rape of Poland.  Indeed, I felt the situation could not have been better put than by my driver, who remarked tersely, 'Thieves always fall out.'"  When the United States is dragged directly into the war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a lorry driver cheerily announces "We've got friends besides them twisty Ruskies now."  It seems likely that Joly had the same attitude about revolutionary communism expressed so memorably by Bertie Wooster in that immortal classic of literature, "Comrade Bingo": " far as I can make out, the whole hub of the scheme seems to be to massacre coves like me; and I don't mind owning I'm not frightfully keen on the idea."

Though it has flaws when taken as a whole and considered solely as a work of modern fiction, Take These Men is full of very entertaining battle and adventure anecdotes and is a great source of knowledge about the lives of British soldiers serving in North Africa in the Second World War.  Highly recommended for WWII buffs and for fans of realistic adventure fiction.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Three early 1930s stories by Donald Wandrei

It feels like just last month we were talking about stories from 1930s magazines like Weird Tales, Wonder Stories and Astounding.  Well, the good times of last month do not have to end!  Those 1930s tales were by Edmond Hamilton, and in the comments to one of those posts Guy of the cool A Jagged Orbit blog mentioned Donald Wandrei, a writer who sold stories to some of the same markets that published Hamilton.  I don't think I've ever read anything by Wandrei, so I'm starting July 2017 by filling in this lacuna in my SF knowledge, reading three Wandrei stories, two from the Astounding of the pre-Campbell era and one that appeared in Farnsworth Wright's Weird Tales.

Cover artist Wesso gave Phobar some nice
shoes and stockings
"Raiders of the Universes" (1932)

Normally, if you look at a star which is four light years away, you are seeing light that is four years old, and thus events that happened four years ago.  But in the 34th century the Mercia nullifier has been invented, so that the most advanced astronomers of the Five World Federation (Earth, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) can witness events thousands of light years away as they happen.  Phobar of Earth is just such an astronomer, and when he gazes off into the interstellar void he discovers an unprecedented phenomenon: new stars abruptly appearing, one after the other over a series of days, each one closer to our solar system.  And then the cataclysm: a dark body enters our solar system, sets Neptune on fire, and hurls it out into deep space, a new sun!  The ejection of Neptune throws the other planets of the solar system into new orbits, and as if that wasn't bad enough, the dark star starts sucking the energy out of our own life-giving sun!

Phobar finds himself  teleported onto the dark star, which is a space ship as big as a planet, inhabited by 100-foot-tall aliens made of liquid metal, the refugees of another universe.  Their universe, immeasurably older than ours, ran out of energy and so they have been travelling from one universe to the next, plundering each.  The leader of the aliens, Garboreggg, when he is not comparing humans to gnats and giving long history lessons about his own superior race and the history of the universes, tells Phobar he has been selected to act as a liaison between the aliens and the Earth authorities.
"There is no vegetable life in our universe.  There is only the scale of elements ranging from 842 to 966 on the extension of your own scale.  At this high range, metals of complex kinds exist.  There is none of what you call water, no vegetable world, no animal kingdom.  Instead there are energies, forces, rays, and waves, which are food to us and nourish our life-stream just as pigs, potatoes and bread are food to you."
Earthmen are to mine all the radium from the Earth to present the aliens, or else.  To demonstrate to Phobar the price of disobedience, Garboreggg casually triggers an electric weapon and melts, in its entirety, my old stomping grounds of Manhattan! (Nooooooooooo!)  After a few more pages of science lectures, Garboreggg has a guard take Phobar back to the lab to be teleported back to Earth.  But the alien generalissimo gave Phobar one too many science lectures!  Phobar distracts the guard and manages to throw switches that cause the particles of the atoms of the space ship to move closer together, causing it and the aliens to shrink to almost nothing.  Phobar, being from a different universe, is exempt from the effects, and teleports himself back to Earth, the savior of our race.

"Raiders of the Universes" is very reminiscent of those 1920s and early '30s Interstellar Patrol stories by Edmond Hamilton we read in Crashing Suns, capers in which aliens need a new star or something and propel a star towards the Earth in order to steal our sun or whatever.  But while Hamilton's tales were adventure stories full of battles and people getting captured and tortured and then escaping, "Raiders of the Universes" is almost all science lectures--speculative astronomy, physics and technology--with a little of what you might call cosmic horror--humans are so inferior to the aliens that we can't fight them, we can't even comprehend them, and the common people of the Five Planets go crazy in response to the aliens' dismantling of our solar system.  The power of the story is supposed to come from our amazement at vast intergalactic distances and mind-boggling speeds ("By the time we left our universe, we were hurtling at a speed which we estimated to be 1,600,000,000 miles per second"), incomprehensibly alien environments and forms of life, and the manipulation of entire planets and stars.  I think it works, and it is a definitely interesting to read a SF story which is single-mindedly focused on the hard sciences and is not, like so much of the SF published in my lifetime and so much of the SF I read, primarily a drama about crime or warfare or an argument for or against socialism, religion, traditional gender roles, etc.  (Though Wandrei does get some digs in at religious and superstitious people in this story.)  I couldn't take a steady diet of this sciency material myself; violence, sex, government and religion are the stuff of our very lives and thus inherently exciting, while how many elements are on the periodic table and how fast a photon moves are abstruse trivia to most of us, including me, but "Raiders of the Universes" is a good reminder of an earlier period of SF history and what you might even call SF's roots.

"Raiders of the Universes" first appeared in Astounding, as the cover story, and was included in a 1950 issue of the Avon Fantasy Reader (helmed by editor extraordinaire Donald A. Wollheim) with a sextastic cover.  (Poor Wandrei isn't even mentioned on the cover of that later magazine.)  "Raiders of the Universe" was also included in the 1989 collection Colossus: The Collected Science Fiction of Donald Wandrei.  I read the Astounding version at the internet archive.

"The Fire Vampires" (1933)

"The Fire Vampires" first appeared, not in Astounding, but in Weird Tales, and its first line is, "This is a tale of war, and terror, and tyranny, and flaming death."  Now we are talking MPorcius's language!

Like "Raiders of the Universes," "The Fire Vampires" begins with an astronomer (this guy's name is Norby, and he lives in the year 2341) spotting something strange with his telescope.  It is a comet heading toward Earth that, when it gets close enough, orbits our innocent planet and starts electrocuting individuals from space, burning them to a pile of "calcined" bones!  After murdering fifteen thousand people, the comet flies off into deep space, only to return six years later to burn up more people!  A message appears in the sky, its letters crackling electric bolts: Earth is now the property of the people of the comet Kytnga, who demand a "payment" of fifteen thousand human lives every six Earth years!  Even more shocking (for Norby, at least) is the demand that Norby make sure he is outside next time Kytngan tax day rolls around, so he can be one of the fifteen thousand victims! The signature at the bottom of the electric message is the Lovecraftian/Clark Ashton Smithian name "Fthaggua, Lord of Ktynga."

Norby figures out the nature of the enemy--Fthaggua is in fact the only Kytngan, a single corporate being of pure electricity able to split into many parts and able to learn all the knowledge of any human it immolates--and uses this knowledge to lay a trap for it, saving the human race.

This story is pretty crazy.  I liked the audacity of some of the concepts and scenes (like when Norby refuses to surrender himself to Fthaggua and the alien punishes the Earth by slaying over a hundred thousand people!), but I'd be hard pressed to call it "good."  An entertaining oddity, let's say.  "The Fire Vampires" was reprinted in a 1965 collection, Strange Harvest, and a 1997 collection, Don't Dream: The Collected Fantasy and Horror of Donald Wandrei.  I read this tale of killer electricity and an heroic astronomer at the internet archive.

"Colossus" (1934)

"Colossus" appears in my hardcover copy of Isaac Asimov's 1974 anthology Before the Golden Age, and I read it there.  It was first printed in Astounding, as the cover story, and was included by August Derleth in his 1950 anthology Beyond Time and Space.  Seeing that it is the title story of that 1989 collection mentioned above, and was recognized for its merit by both Derleth and Asimov, I am going to assume "Colossus" is Wandrei's most honored, most influential, perhaps "best," story.

It is the late 20th century, and the World League for the Advancement of Science has built the world's finest telescope up on Mount Everest. Astronomer Dowell has made a strange discovery--the universe is, apparently, smaller than theorized.  He explains this to a visitor, Duane Sharon, a pilot who, in a few months time, will be flying off in Earth's first interstellar spaceship, the White Bird.  Maybe Sharon can test Dowell's theory that our universe is analogous to a single atom, merely one of innumerable constituent parts of a much larger universe!

Sharon makes a test flight to the moon with his scientist girlfriend, Anne, and then makes final adjustments to the White Bird.  Anne and Sharon plan to get married and that same day set off on their intergalactic flight, but, horror of horrors, that is the day Japan launches a sneak attack on Communist Russia and Rusia's ally, the USA--America, the land I love, the home of the free and the brave, in this story is run by a communist dictator!  Anne (along with the government officiate!) is killed minutes before the wedding in the Japanese bombing of New York City, and Sharon takes off for the outer limits in the White Bird alone, a bitter and misanthropic man who barely cares whether he lives or dies!

The White Bird, powered by cosmic rays and other types of radiation it absorbs and then redirects as propulsive force, achieves speeds thousands of times the speed of light.  Under these Einstenian conditions the ship, and its contents, become attenuated, gaseous, their individual molecules so far apart that Sharon and his vessel can pass through obstacles unimpeded.  Sharon reaches the end of our universe, a place of total blackness because no light has yet reached it.  Then he bursts through into another universe!

The British 1978 paperback edition of
Before the Golden Age was printed in
three volumes, each with a cover designed
to make Joachim Boaz groan!
Dowell's theory is proven correct: our universe is a single atom of a vastly larger universe.  The White Bird appears on a glass microscope slide in a lab--even though he is now larger than our entire universe, in this universe Sharon is tiny, and from his perspective the scientists in this alien lab are three miles tall!

These Titans, as Wandrei calls them, communicate with Sharon via telepathy. One Titan astronomer has just discovered a planet, Valadom, where people are the same size Sharon is.  (Lucky coincidence!) Sharon offers to go meet and study these little people, Margaret Mead-style, and bring back the kind of data these Brobdingnagian boffins would love to have, including a dead body for dissection.  An impatient Titan biologist itches to just dissect Sharon now, but the astronomer wins the argument and soon Sharon is flying off to Valadom, where he meets a beautiful green-haired girl and, we readers assume, enjoys a happy life.

I can easily believe this is Wandrei's best story.  Not only is the idea of growing larger than the universe and breaking into another, still larger, universe, mind-expanding, but leavening all the science lectures and descriptions of astronomical phenomena with the inclusion of the love stories and the dystopian political jazz adds additional interest to "Colossus."


These stories are not bad, but they are a little short of human feeling and literary style, and Wandrei presents us with the same kind of elements again and again: heroic astronomers, molecules moving closer together or further apart, killer electricity, and so on.

In his comments after "Colossus" in Before the Golden Age, Asimov (besides pointing out science errors in the story) calls Wandrei an "unjustly neglected author."  In a world with so many authors better able to elicit human emotion than Wandrei, I can't say I'm certain that neglect of him is "unjustified," but I like his willingness to think big and his desire to blow the reader's mind.  I do not regret having read these mildly entertaining stories and expanding my knowledge of SF's early days.