Sunday, April 5, 2020
Four Fredric Brown SF Stories from 1942 and '43
Let's check out four stories by Mickey Spillane's all-time favorite author, Fredric Brown, that first appeared in beautiful pulp magazines in 1942 and 1943, magazines that you can read at the universally beloved internet archive for free.
"Etaoin Shrdlu" (1942)
"Etaoin Shrdlu" made its debut in Unknown Worlds in 1942. The cover of Unknown may be boring, but the interior illustrations are quite fine, those by Frank Kramer for L. Sprague de Camp's "The Undesired Princess" in particular.
A lot of old SF stories, the kind that Isaac Asimov liked, try to teach you something about science or technology, and valorize or romanticize intelligence--the hero resolves the plot successfully via the use of superior knowledge or quick thinking or an ability to think outside the box. "Etaoin Shrdlu" is just this kind of story, and an entertaining one.
The narrator of the tale is a retired linotype operator (Brown himself worked as a linotype operator, Barry Malzberg tells us in his introduction to the 2001 collection From These Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown.) An odd character who looks vaguely "Asiatic" despite his blonde hair wants to rent the use of a linotype machine, and approaches the narrator, who sends him to a friend who edits a little country newspaper and would be willing to, for a fee, let the man at his linotype. This weirdo, apparently a time traveller or alien of some sort, uses the machine to create type of the words to a magic spell that grants "pseudo life" to machines--this spell is used by his people--whoever they are--on their robots.
The setting of the type for the spell actually casts the spell on the linotype machine, bringing it to life. As a living, adaptable creature, the machine becomes super efficient, lubricating its own moving parts, reading text from its clipboard and unerringly setting type itself without the intervention of an operator, generating its own electricity, etc. At first this thrills the newspaper editor, as he can not only save time producing his biweekly newspaper, but get lucrative contracts from New York publishers. But then disaster strikes. The intelligent machine sets type for some socialist books, and begins demanding a shorter work schedule. It sets type for pulp romance magazines and begins demanding that the editor buy a second linotype machine to be its girlfriend! The editor becomes the machine's servant instead of the other way around when it achieves the ability to move and to fight, so that the editor cannot deactivate it or escape from it.
The retired linotype operator figures out how to neutralize the machine--he has the machine set type for books on Buddhism, inspiring it to achieve Nirvana; the linotype has become so pacific it allows the two men to disassemble it and bury the parts.
This story is good, and I found it especially interesting because I had never read or even thought about linotype machines before. A noteworthy little element of the story, considered in the context of Brown's larger body of work, is that the two main characters are so flummoxed, so agitated, to find themselves locked in a struggle with a living machine that they drink copious amounts of alcohol--the retired linotype operator hits the sauce so hard he actually ends up in the hospital! Brown's characters (see The Far Cry and "The Night the World Ended") do a lot of drinking!
Both "Etaoin Shrdlu" (similar to "qwerty," "etaoin shrdlu" is the nonsense word created when one reads down two of the rows of a linotype's keyboard) and "Star Mouse" were included in 1977's The Best of Fredric Brown, which was edited by Robert Bloch.
"Star Mouse" (1942)
"Star Mouse" first appeared in Planet Stories behind one of those damsel-in-distress covers we are expected to deplore nowadays and alongside stories by Leigh Brackett and Ray Cummings I have not read yet.
"Star Mouse" is supposed to be funny and cute. A German scientist, living alone in Connecticut after fleeing the Hitler regime, talks to himself as he builds a little test rocket only three and a half feet long. Brown writes out all his monologue phonetically: "'Vell, vell,' said the Professor, 'vot haff ve here?'" (He talks to himself in English, you know, to practice!) Living in Herr Doktor's poorly-maintained house is a mouse, whom he captures in a humane trap. He decides to name the mouse "Mitkey" after "Valt Dissney"'s famous creation, and (this is the inhumane part) to send little Mitkey up with the rocket; the rocket is headed for the moon, but if it fails and crashes to Earth the mouse will help indicate if there are deadly cosmic rays in the ionosphere or whatever.
The Professor loses track of the rocket in his telescope and assumes it is lost. In fact, it has been captured by the tractor beam of a million-year old civilization of people half-an-inch tall living on an asteroid less than half a mile wide. These aliens capture Mitkey and use a ray to increase Mitkey's intelligence to human level so it can talk and tell them about Earth. When Mitkey tells them how humans treat mice, they agree to give him a device to increase all mice to human intelligence level so they can protect themselves and negotiate with the humans--the aliens figure this will lead to destructive warfare that will delay human development of space travel and push back the day they themselves will have to confront us gigantic and belligerent humans.
When the talking mouse returns to Earth it provides Brown the opportunity for various jokes (e. g., the mouse talks to a drunk); Brown also gives us a complicated plot explanation for how the aliens' plan to provide the human race an equally-intelligent competitor goes awry.
This story is OK; I'm not really the target audience for these kinds of jokey stories. "Star Mouse" has been a hit, however, and has been widely anthologized, including in books purporting to present the best or greatest in SF stories. isfdb indicates that in 1950 Brown penned a sequel to "Star Mouse," "Mitkey Rides Again," which I will get around to reading eventually, I suppose.
"The Angelic Angleworm" (1943)
"The Angelic Angleworm" but A. E. van Vogt's "The Witch," a story about one of my favorite topics, people who try to achieve immortality by serially putting their old brains or souls into the hot young bodies innocent victims, that I read in June of last year, a story by E. Mayne Hull (van Vogt's wife) I haven't read yet, a story by Henry Kuttner I haven't read yet, a poem by Hannes Bok about a ka, one of Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser stories, and another story by Fredric Brown appearing under a pseudonym. This issue is chock full of enticing pieces!
Charlie Wills is assistant production manager at Hopworth Printing Company, and life is looking good--in ten days he gets married to his beautiful fiance Jane Pemberton. But then a series of bizarre events threaten his mental stability. He is digging up worms with which to go fishing and one of them suddenly sprouts wings and a halo and flies off. He is yelling at a teamster for whipping his stubborn old horse too energetically and he suddenly falls unconscious, later waking up in the hospital with an impossible sunburn all over his body, even though he was fully clothed and it was raining when he was yelling at his social inferior. (A witness tells everybody about the beating of the horse, so the teamster loses his job, in case you were wondering.) Then Charlie is in a museum and a duck suddenly appears in a glass case full of Chinese coins.
There are a few more weird events, including another which causes Charlie to fall unconscious--the poor bastard wakees up in the hospital on the day of his wedding! He realizes all the crazy events that have afflicted him happened exactly fifty-one hours and ten minutes apart, and another is due in half an hour! He decides to commit suicide rather than face this next oddity, and searches the hospital for a means of destroying himself. He finds a container marked "LYE" but when he pours its contents into his mouth those contents turn out to be a Rumanian coin.
Charlie decides not to kill himself after all. He figures out what is happening to him--the linotype machine in heaven that is setting the type of his life has a problem with the letter "e"--the crazy stuff that is happening to him is the result of typos in his life. For example, the angleworm became an "angelworm," and his "hate" for cruelty to animals became "heat." (A Chinese tael became a teal, the Romanian coin was a ley, though it looks like nowadays we spell it leu or lei.) Charlie heads to the town of Haveen, and steps across the border at the right time, so that a typo has him in Heaven, where he talks to God's head compositor and gets the errors fixed. (Just like the dude in "Etaoin Shrdlu," Chuck here figures out the unorthodox "rules" of the insane situation he is in and uses this knowledge to solve the crisis.)
This story is quite long--19 pages in Unknown's tiny print, 36 in From These Ashes's larger type--and quite boring. The wacky phenomena are just silly, not interesting or scary or exciting, and the gimmicky explanation for them is eye-rollingly precious, like something from a brief skit from a PBS kid's show. At times I thought the story was supposed to be funny, but a working-class guy losing his job because he was caught beating a horse and the protagonist trying to kill himself by ingesting lye are not exactly humorous episodes. Extraneous details about Charlie's life--like an outing with his friends that gets him so drunk he has to flee the police, and a whole thing about how annoying Jane Pemberton's little sister is--add to the length of the story without making it more interesting or entertaining. Oy.
"The Angelic Angleworm" would be reprinted in the 1968 Brown collection Daymares and a 1988 anthology of stories from Unknown, among other places. I guess there are people out there who like it!
Caquer gets a brief glimpse of the body before it is tossed into the incinerator; it looks like someone cleft the bookseller's skull in twain with a sword. But when Caquer talks to the cop who found the body, he says he saw a bullet wound in the chest! And when he talks to the doctor who did the (very brief!) autopsy, he says Deem was shot with a blaster! When Caquer catches up with the two men who threw the corpse into the incinerator, both say the victim was decapitated, one claiming the cut was clean, as if made with a disintegrator beam, while the other says the cut was ragged, as if it was the work of multiple axe blows.
More crazy stuff happens, like when a guy falls dead out of a second-story window and everybody identifies the body as that of Deem, the bookseller we all thought had already died! Caquer follows up on some clues, for example, the allegation that Deem was renting and selling forbidden books on political theories and other verboten topics; nine men who have been arrested for giving political speeches are also interrogated. (This is one hell of a future we have to look forward to--no right to bear arms, no freedom of the press, no freedom of speech, cripes.)
Just like the hero of "The Angelic Angleworm," the hero of "Daymare" is in love with some chick named Jane. This Jane's father is a college professor. The Professor suggests that the craziness related to the bookseller's murder might be the work of mass hypnotism! Caquer has never heard of hypnotism, because the government has banned all books on hypnotism, but the Professor was one of Deem's illegal book customers! He explains that several hundred years ago, before colonization of Callisto, a hypnosis device was invented that could allow one intelligent man to control entire legions of people; its use resulted in a terribly destructive war on Earth, and since the end of that war the government has worked to suppress knowledge of the hypno device and of the war it was used in.
The rest of "Daymare" consists of Caquer running around the city trying to figure out who has the hypnodevice as the villain uses it to foment war between Sector Three and the other Sectors by hypnotizing everybody, turning them into racist warmongers. The copper uses a device of his own to protect himself from the hypnotism and kills the culprit, who turns out to be the bookseller Deem; Deem learned how to make the hypnodevice from one of the forbidden books and started this story by murdering the head of the Sector Three government and hypnotizing everybody into thinking he (Deem) was the victim, while disguising himself as the chief executive.
Having saved the solar system, Jane, who has been resisting Charlie's marriage proposals for so long he has taken to calling her "Icicle," finally decides he is worthy of her hand.
This one is a little shorter than "The Angelic Angleworm," and a little less boring, so I'll call it acceptable, but it is a close one. After first appearing in Thrilling Wonder Stories, two years later in 1945 "Daymare" was reprinted in a mystery anthology alongside other tales of "impossible" crimes by our friends Frank Belknap Long and Henry Kuttner in The Saint's Choice of Impossible Crime edited by Leslie Charteris, and would go on to be included in Brown collections and several anthologies.
Brown's construction of these intricate plots shows impressive intelligence and admirable conscientiousness, but these stories are lacking in human feeling and excitement, so if they are long, they become a drag. Who cares if the boring hero ends up marrying boring Jane? Brown has the ability to move the reader emotionally, as we saw in The Far Cry and "Each Night He Died," but he's not doing it much here, a minor exception being in "Etaoin Shrdlu," when we see a man become controlled by his machine.
Sticking to the World War II era, in our next episode we'll read 1944 stories by Henry Kuttner.