Saturday, December 15, 2018

1957 stories by Harry Harrison, Robert Bloch, Harlan Ellison, and Robert F. Young

I own eight or nine crumbling issues of Fantastic Universe, a magazine published from 1953 to 1959 by King-Size Publications and then for an additional year or so by Great American Publications.  These SF artifacts were in lots I purchased that consisted mostly of the Ziff-Davis magazines Fantastic Adventures (published from 1939 to 1953) and Fantastic (published from 1952 to 1980); when I bought these lots I didn't realize Fantastic Universe had nothing to do with the Ziff-Davis magazines, partly because over the decades of its life the cover title of Fantastic would evolve back and forth between such variations as Fantastic Stories, Fantastic Science Fiction Stories, Fantastic Stories of Imagination, etc.  I don't feel like this was a regrettable blunder or that I got ripped off or anything (even though the Wikipedia article on Fantastic Universe suggests critics think the magazine a piece of junk)--these magazines have art by people like Virgil Finlay and Emsh and stories by people whose work interests me, like Harry Harrison and Harlan Ellison and Robert Bloch.

Speaking of Finlay, Harrison, Ellison, and Bloch, let's start looking at my copies of Fantastic Universe with the June 1957 issue, which has a Finlay cover featuring an infantile-looking alien who has, apparently, just crashed his flying saucer in small town America.  Is that his mother lying dead by the ship?  Damn, this picture tells a tale of terrible tragedy!

Perhaps one reason the critics are so unfriendly to Fantastic Universe is that (if this issue is representative) it lacks editorials and a letters column; Ted White holds that a magazine should have a personality, a character, and a strong editorial voice and opinionated letters can develop such a personality, as well as creating a sense of community among magazine readers and the pros who put the magazine together.  I have certainly enjoyed the editorials and letters in White's Fantastic.  Well, with no such non-fiction material, let's get right to the stories in the June 1957 Fantastic Universe penned by the four authors whose work I already have at least a little experience with, the "short novels" by Harry Harrison and Robert Bloch, and stories by Harlan Ellison and Robert F. Young.

"World in the Balance" by Harry Harrison

Harrison of course is famous for a number of series (Stainless Steel Rat, Deathworld, Bill the Galactic Hero, and Eden are the ones I have some familiarity with) and influential individual works, like the source material for the Charlton Heston/Edward G. Robinson film Soylent Green.  Harrison's work is diverse in tone and topic, so I can't predict what "World in the Balance" might be like or how I will respond to it.  The fact that, according to isfdb, "World in the Balance" has never been reprinted is not what anybody would call a good sign, however.

Italian-American John Baroni is a grad student in physics at a New England university, and a veteran of house-to-house infantry combat in Italy in World War II.  He and his Japanese-American girlfriend Lucy Kawai and their professor, Dr. Steingrumer, are in the lab conducting experiments on a device that makes things disappear when aliens invade the Earth!  (I'm guessing Harrison deliberately chose the ethnicities of all the characters with an eye to undermining any prejudices readers might have related to WWII.)  John snatches up a bolt-action rifle from the ROTC supply and uses the skills he learned in Italy to sneak into town and see what the hell is going on!

The hideous crustacean-faced aliens are using captured Earth weapons to exterminate police and military personnel (as well as any civilians who resist) and John uncovers why the invaders are able to so effectively achieve surprise on G.I. Joe and the boys in blue--the aliens are masters of cosmetic surgery and have, over the past few years, been replacing people in authority in government with alien impostors!  The chief of police in the town by the school, an alien in disguise, lines up "his" men for a briefing and then mows them down with an automatic weapon!  The Earth has had it, because the aliens have taken control of the world's stockpiles of nuclear weapons before we even knew we were in a fight and they nuke Washington, D.C. and anywhere else human leadership might organize a cohesive defense!

But wait!  All is not (quite) lost!  John realizes that the doohickey he and his fellow physicists are working on is a device that can send you back in time to another time line!  He goes back in time a few weeks and sneaks around the Washington, D.C. area using gruesome means to figure out who in authority is a damned ET and who is a red-blooded Earther and then helps legit government officials to organize a spoiling attack that catches the aliens before they are ready to spring their own surprise attacks.  The Earth in that time line is saved!  Ad for our time line...well, that's the way the cookie crumbles, I guess.

A competent SF adventure story that delivers standard SF fare like malevolent aliens and time-traveling eggheads who get us out of a jam with technology and logical reasoning with a large serving of gore on the side.  You can call it pedestrian, but it went down easy and I liked it.

"Terror Over Hollywood" by Robert Bloch

Psycho-scribe Bloch's story here would be reprinted in the 1965 collection Tales in a Jugular Vein.  The cover of the 1970 British edition of this collection seems to be the culmination of a series of regrettable artistic choices.

According to Wikipedia, Bloch's 1982 novel Psycho II was a harsh critique of Hollywood, and this 1957 story suggests that Bloch's hostility to Hollywood is of long standing.  From the first page of "Terror Over Hollywood" Bloch hammers at the theme that being in Hollywood has a powerfully negative effect on people's morals, that the inhabitants of tinsel town are fake phony frauds, heroin addicts and homosexuals who commit suicide at epidemic rates.  (Makes me glad I have been spending most of my life in such bastions of decorum, decency and mental health as New York City and Washington D.C.!)

Kay Kennedy is determined to be a star, and has been so determined since the age of six!  She convinced her parents to move to California and to work themselves to death financing her acting lessons, and since their demise she has (it is implied) been selling her body to important Hollywood types to advance her career.  She has noticed that the very acme of Hollywood luminaries, the top ten or twelve actors and producers and directors who seem to call the shots in La La Land, don't seem to lose their looks or stamina as they age, and she tries to wheedle the answer out of our narrator, independent producer Ed Stern.  As the story unfolds the tenacious Kennedy discovers the truth--Stern is a founding member of that tiny elite, the first beneficiary of the genius of a German scientist who can build a mechanical replica of a person's body that is almost indistinguishable from the original and then surgically remove that person's brain from its natural body and install it in the robot!  Will Kennedy welcome a chance to sit at the top of the charts for twenty or thirty years and then enjoy a retirement that will last centuries, or react with horror at the prospect of never again sleeping, eating, drinking, or having sex?

This story is OK.  I like that the narrator is the villain and his villainy is only hinted at for much of the story, and I like the brain-transplanting German mad scientist angle, but Bloch needlessly complicates things with a lot of talk of how the robot bodies need to go offline periodically and so during those periods Stern has to blackmail criminals who look like the stars into impersonating them, blah blah blah.  (You'll remember that I also thought Bloch needlessly complicated the process of giving people eternal life in his 1951 story "The Dead Don't Die.")  Bloch should have ditched the impersonation angle and focused on the Frankenstein stuff--ofttimes less is more, Robert, less is more.   

"Commuter's Problem" by Harlan Ellison

I've done a lot of commuting in my life!  (Maybe you have, too?)  Thousands of rides on the New York City subway between the Upper East Side and Midtown, and before my apotheosis and after my exile, thousands of miles in automobiles between suburbs and universities and downtowns and shopping malls.  The commute is one of the defining features of 20th-century middle-class life, the subject of song and story.  And here is one of those stories.

Narrator John Weiler (I guess we're supposed to think "wheels?") uses cliches to describe himself and his life: "I'm a commuter--a man in the grey flannel suit, if you would....We keep up with the Jonses, without too much trouble."  Every weekday, and some Saturdays and Sundays, too, he rides the train into Manhattan from Westchester County to work at his office.  "There's something cold and impersonal about a nine-to-five job and a ride home with total strangers," he tells us.  Then one morning he is walking through Grand Central Terminal, his face buried in a report, and he looks up to find he is lost.  He's never seen this part of Grand Central before!  Not only that, but the posters are in a weird foreign language and when he asks people for directions they speak in a weird foreign language!  He gets caught up in a crowd and ends up on a subway car where he sees his odd neighbor Da Campo, the guy who doesn't watch TV and has a bizarre tentacled plant in his garden.   Da Campo is amazed to see Weiler, and vaguely explains that this subway car goes to another planet!

Weiler gets the inside skinny once they arrive at Da Campo's home world of Drexwill twenty minutes and 60,000 light years later.  Drexwill is an overcrowded urban conglomeration that many find uncomfortable, so middle class professionals like Da Campo (real name: Helgorth Labbula) commute to work in Drexwill and live incognito on less crowded planets like Earth.  (The Drexwillians look just like Earth humans.)  With bitter resignation Helgorth takes Weiler to the authorities, where Helgorth himself gets a stern talking to, as has lazy habits and flouting of rules (like the prohibition on cultivating Drexwillian vegetation on Earth) have played some role in Weiler's accidental one-way trip from Earth.  Yes, one-way; the Drexwill government won't let Weiler go back to Earth!  After talking his hosts out of executing him, Weiler finds a job on Drexwill; he realizes he would rather be on Drexwill than on Earth with his nagging wife and stressful job.

This story is just OK, a piece of filler that feels like something Ellison pounded out and submitted without much planning beforehand or revising after pulling that first draft out of the typewriter.  Ellison neither put much thought into the whole system of aliens commuting between Earth and Drexwill, nor put much effort into setting up Weiler's abandonment of Earth--for example, Weiler's wife and job don't seem really that annoying, and in the beginning of the story Weiler doesn't really complain about them.  Instead of writing a story exploring or explaining or dramatizing how suburban life and commuting suck, Ellison just takes this attitude for granted (note the use of tired cliches as a cheap means of telling the audience what to think) and pretends it is the backbone of his pedestrian story about a guy who inexplicably finds himself in another world.  (Bloch in "Terror Over Hollywood" makes an effort to show us how bad life in Hollywood is, here Ellison just tells us how bad life is in suburbiua.)  The story's tone is uneven; the first half of "Commuter's Problem" focuses on Weiler's suspicion and fear of the Da Campo family inspired by their odd habits and creepy garden and feels like a horror story, but all the horror stuff is jettisoned in the second half, which is a nonsensical fantasy that feels like a wacky humor story, albeit one without any jokes or laughs.

Barely acceptable.  I am totally into stories in which guys hate their wives and jobs (I love Henry Miller's exhilarating Sexus, for example) and SF stories in which a guy struggles to survive in an alien milieu, but Ellison just gestures towards writing those sorts of stories here.

However mediocre I may have found it, "Commuter's Problem" was included in the oft-reprinted collection Ellison Wonderland, AKA Earthman, Go Home!

"Ape's Eye View" by Robert F. Young

In the tiny little intro the editor provides for this story we learn that the cover of this issue was inspired by "Ape's Eye View."  Alright, let's learn what that Virgil Finlay illustration is all about!

"Ape's Eye View" is an explicit homage to Edgar Rice Burroughs's immortal creation, Tarzan.  One day a meteor lands in a small rural town; apparently coincidentally, a local childless couple takes in a foundling soon after.  This kid looks odd and is a terrible student and wretched athlete, and is bullied by the other kids and, as a teen, is disgusted instead of intrigued by the opposite sex.  Shortly after achieving adulthood he vanishes when a large "entity" appears out of the sky and, eye witnesses report, consumes him.  Our narrator, a schoolmate of the weird foundling, his thought processes triggered by coming across a copy of Tarzan of the Apes, surmises that this kid was a shipwrecked alien and that mysterious "entity" was a rescue ship come to bring the kid back to his home planet.

This is a modest but successful story that looks at the Mowgli archetype from a different point of view.  Of the four stories I am talking about today it is the most original and the one that feels least like filler rushed out the door to make a buck.  I like it.  It looks like it was never published elsewhere, however.


While not great, these stories aren't all that bad.  We'll explore more of Fantastic Universe in the next installment of MPorcius Fiction Log. 

1 comment:

  1. The Market for SF stories in the 1950s was large. There were plenty of SF magazines to sell to so this was a halcyon time for writers. Of course, with such an open Market, lots of substandard work got published. These magazines didn't play much so volume was the key to success for writers who pumped out these stories. I would predict you'll read some Good, but not Great stories in this sample.