Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Stories by H Ellison, F Brown and J Bixby from midcentury men's magazines

At the internet archive you can browse literally thousands of 20th-century magazines whose raison d'etre was to print photographs of topless young women.  Many of these magazines also published fiction, and a significant proportion of this fiction was produced by people whose names will be familiar to the science fiction fan.  Today let's check out four such stories, two by Harlan Ellison and one each by Fredric Brown and Jerome Bixby. 

"The Hungry One" by Harlan Ellison (1957)

When it was revised for the 1975 collection No Doors, No Windows, "The Hungry One" was retitled "Nedra at f:5.6."  That's right, this is a story for all you photography nerds!  And even better, a story about New York City!

Our narrator is a photographer who has taken pictures of such luminaries as Anita Ekberg and Bettie Page--hubba hubba!  This October day he is walking around Central Park, taking photos, and he sees the sexiest woman he has ever seen, a redhead not only beautiful but who exudes a desire, radiates a hunger, for sex!  Ellison uses up a lot of ink describing this woman, who is perfect in every way, perfect eyes, perfect voice, perfect body, etc.

Anyway, ensorcelled, the photog addresses her and she immediately takes charge of their relationship, volunteering to pose for him in the park and then in his studio.  Ellison tries to throw in real life New York references, but I have to admit I don't remember a statue of Pulaski in Central Park; maybe Ellison is thinking of the monument to King Jagiello that was made for the Polish pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair; maybe to Ellison all Poles look alike.  This is a painful microaggression that is really diminishing my ability as a Polish-American to enjoy this story!  (Ha, ha.)

The forward beauty, whose name is Nedra, strips on her own initiative in the narrator's studio so he can photograph her naked and then have sex with her.  Ellison goes into great detail about the process of Nedra removing her duds and about her perfect body and about their kisses (her tongue is "like an electric eel") and their rough sexual intercourse.  When I was a thirteen-year old with no access to pornography this story probably would have blown my mind.  As a jaded 49-year-old all the sex stuff feels too long. 

Anyway, all the clues that the girl is a vampire that Ellison has been giving us turn out to be legitimate; when the narrator develops the film Nedra does not show up in any of the exposures, and then she, presumably, kills him.

Out of curiosity I looked at the 1975 revision of the story, which has the subtitle "An Hommage to Fritz Leiber."  Ellison actually rewrote a lot of the text, updating the list of women the narrator has photographed (Rita Moreno is out, Ann-Margaret is in), changing the photographer's age, for example.  In 1957 the narrator shoots two rolls of film of Nedra in the park; in 1975 he takes ten rolls of color film.  The 1975 version also has fewer clues that Nedra is a vampire, though the plot and climax are essentially the same.

Competent, I guess acceptable--or maybe mildly good if you are horny.  Interestingly, the isfdb lists "Nedra at f:5.6" as "non-genre."  This is obviously a vampire story (I mean, the girl's unusual name is an anagram of "drane," means "underground," and includes "dra," as in "Dracula," people!) so I would judge this an isfdb mistake.

If we set aside all the photos of half-naked women, the other thing in the magazine besides the Ellison story worth looking at is an article about Salvador Dali's elaborate art installation at the 1939 New York World's Fair, The Dream of Venus--like Ellison's story, Dali's installation, which featured topless women swimming in a pool with a glass wall, one of them painted to look like a piano keyboard, mixed prurience and a desire to push the envelope with traditional artistic values and skills. 

"Trace" by Jerome Bixby (1961)

"Trace" appeared in the fourth issue of Showcase, an issue with multiple SF connections.  The magazine's editorial includes book reviews, and the editor savages Harlan Ellison's collection The Juvies, saying the stories are "garish, hokey, and adolescently intense" and making fun of Ellison's vocabulary.  There is a tedious article by by Forrest J. Ackerman, full of anemic jokes, about actresses who appeared in horror movies.  There is also an article about William Rotsler, who would later write quite a few SF movie and TV tie-ins and illustrate many small press SF publications like Locus and Science Fiction Review.  The article on Rotsler here in Showcase focuses on his nude photography, which, we are told, is meant to not only be sexy and artistic, but funny.

Bixby of course is famous for the story "It's A Good Life."  His story here in Showcase is one page long--one page too long, I say.  The narrator gets lost on the road in an isolated part of Massachusetts, his car fails, and he uses the telephone of a guy living in this remote area--this guy is obviously the Devil, though the narrator doesn't realize it.  They have a conversation, then the tow truck arrives and the story ends.  There is no real plot, climax, or resolution to the story.  I guess there are jokes of the feeblest kind.  The most noteworthy element of the story is the fact that in the second column it is hinted that the Devil is God's (or maybe Christ's) brother, after in the first column we were reminded that Satan is a fallen angel.  How can he be both?  This kind of internal incoherence is annoying.

Thumbs down for this irritating waste of time.  Despite my bitter condemnation of it, "Trace" would be reprinted numerous times!  What is wrong with this world?

Interestingly, the isfdb says that "Trace"'s "first place of publication is unknown."  Now I'm rubbing my hands together like a movie villain, feeling like a person in possession of esoteric information.  How many people out there over the years have read "Trace" in a book and said to themselves "This story is so bad, I wonder who had the temerity to first publish this piece of rubbish..." and turned to the publication page only to find no clues to the identity of the first ground into which this bad seed set down roots.  Well, I know something they do not know!  And now, so do you!  I'll keep this forbidden knowledge to myself, but readers of this blog should feel free to alert the good people at isfdb that the first place of publication of "Trace" has been uncovered by a doughty adventurer who is content to remain anonymous!  (Feel free to tell them about "Nedra at f:5.6," as well.)  



"Tale of the Flesh Monger" by Fredric Brown (1963)

All these girlie magazines were competing with the king of the hill, Hugh Hefner's Playboy, which famously had fiction by the most prestigious authors and interviews with major cultural figures.  This issue of Gent isn't content to challenge Playboy's dominance with contributions from big guns like respected author Fredric Brown and Cassius Clay, one of the world's most prominent athletes, plus articles spotlighting beloved actors Roddy McDowell and Tony Randall; no, in this issue, Gent actually publishes an article making fun of Hefner's "The Playboy Philosophy" column.  From hell's heart I stab at thee, Hef!

The narrator of Brown's story, "Tale of the Flesh Monger," is on death row.  Don't shed any tears for him--he hastens to tell us he wants to die.  Then he relates the tale of how he came to this horrible pass.

Bill (that's his name) was a failed actor flipping burgers in La La Land when he found a lost wallet.  Instead of turning the wallet in to the police, he decided to use the credit cards to enjoy himself.  Amazingly, at the expensive restaurant at which he chose to start his night on the town, he meets the owner of the wallet, a dude named Roscoe!  This joker blackmails Bill in a bizarre way--he insists that Bill accept him as his agent, promising Bill that he will have a successful career in Hollywood if he assents to Roscoe's management and pays him ten percent of everything he makes.

A series of lucky breaks and odd coincidences leads to Bill becoming a movie star!  Also odd: Roscoe doesn't just take ten percent of Bill's pay, but ten percent of his winnings when Bill gets lucky at the craps table, and when Bill marries a woman as a publicity stunt Roscoe has sex with her one time for every ten times Bill does!  

After the marriage of convenience ends in an amicable divorce, Bill falls in love with a sweet girl, Bessie, but is afraid to marry her because he knows Roscoe will take a one-tenth slice of her sweet lovin'!  So he tries to kill Roscoe, but accidentally shoots down Bessie and ends up convicted of her murder.  The kicker at the end of the story is that Roscoe must be the Devil, and Bill wonders what form Roscoe's confiscation of ten percent of his death will take.

Cripes, another lame Devil story.  Who likes these?  This one is better than Bixby's abortion, but the gimmick is dumb and I'm giving it a thumbs down.  

"Tale of the Flesh Monger" would go on to be reprinted in some Brown collections under the title "Ten Percenter."  


"The Late, Great Arnie Draper"
by Harlan Ellison (1967)

We have come full circle...we started with Harlan and now we end with Harlan, and, I have to say, so far today Harlan is blowing away the competition with his sexy vampire story, which actually makes sense and shows some level of ambition and attention, unlike Bixby's and Brown's dumb Devil stories, which don't seem to make much sense and betray little effort.

It looks like "The Late, Great Arnie Draper" made its debut in the 1961 book Gentleman Junkie and Other Stories of the Hung-Up Generation and was reprinted in this issue of Adam, where it takes up a single page.  The lead story of this issue is a cowboys and Indians adventure by Gary Paulsen, who would go on to become famous for writing young adult novels like Hatchet.  Paulsen's story here is favored with a drawing of a naked young woman being held captive by Native Americans who have bound her wrists, so, fetishists, take note!  There is also a lame five-page spoof comic of Batman and Robin called "Fatman and Bobbin."  Oy.

"The Late, Great Arnie Draper" is an acceptable mainstream literary story with a little twist ending that you might call cynical or a device for deflating people's pretensions and artificiality.  At a university, a smart, popular, successful student who apparently was a hard worker who was nice to everybody is killed in a car wreck.  The students who knew him well, his roommates, former girlfriends, etc., gather in the malt shop to tell stories about how awesome he was.  They all agree about how he was a genius and a gentleman and a kind person and so forth.  Finally, a girl who is just on the fringe of the group, a girl whom the others have seen around but whose name they don't know, says that Arnie "was a lousy bastard," and they all agree to that, too.

Why do they agree?  Were they all envious of Arnie?  Did Arnie have a second life that was a sort of open secret in which he fucked this nameless girl and broke her heart?  Maybe Arnie was a jerk who screwed over everybody but only this nameless woman had the balls to admit it today?  Are these people just sheep who act in a crowd, just agreeing with whatever some assertive person says?  Is the point of the story that Arnie was corrupt and artificial, that these kids are corrupt and artificial, or that everybody is corrupt and artificial, that love is a scam and our lives are just one lie after another? 

A trifle, but not bad.

**********

Ellison' stories aren't great, but they are successful: Ellison has a goal, and he achieves it, and along the way presents phrases and effects that indicate he is a dedicated craftsman with some skill and produce some kind of worthwhile intellectual or emotional response in the reader.  Bixby and Brown have done good work elsewhere, but their stories discussed here are just bad--they lack a goal or aim at a goal that is not worth achieving and don't even reach it, and the journey they take the reader on, no matter how short, is tedious and irritating.  

In conclusion, let me say that looking at these old magazines is always fun, and enlightening, as they serve as a window into a different world, a world with different values and interests and preoccupations than our own, but which actually produced our own.  As always, the internet archive and its contributors are to be commended for making this fascinating and entertaining material accessible.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Henry Kuttner: "Crypt-City of the Deathless One," "The Eyes of Thar" and "What Hath Me?"

I took a little break from fiction to reread the first volume of Casanova's memoirs* (trans. Willard R. Trask) and some R. Crumb comics†, but today we're back to Planet Stories, which as we have seen over the last few episodes of MPorcius Fiction Log provided a venue for important SF writers like Poul Anderson, Ray Bradbury, and Leigh Brackett.  Today we'll look at three stories by Henry Kuttner that debuted in Planet Stories in the 1940s and later appeared in Haffner Press's 2011 Kuttner collection, Thunder in the Void.

"Crypt-City of the Deathless One" (1943)

"Crypt-City of the Deathless One" is a longish story, presented in eight chapters that take up like 70 pages in Thunder in the Void and half that many in the issue of Planet Stories in which it made its original appearance.  In Chapter I we meet Ed Garth, a broken man, a derelict and a bum who spends most of his time drowning his sorrows in booze.  When six years ago he came to Ganymede, a largely-unexplored world of blue-skinned natives, mysterious ruins, hideous swamps and forests teeming with camouflaged monsters, Garth was a bright-eyed young intern, a junior scientist working as assistant to Dr. Jem Willard.  Willard had come to Ganymede seeking the solution to one of Earth's big problems--the Silver Plague, a deadly virus that was sweeping over our big blue marble, killing human and animal alike!  The ruins of Ganymede are full of evidence that the moon was once home to an advanced civilization with science and technology far surpassing anything that Earthmen had yet achieved, so Willard had hopes of finding a cure in those ruins--after all, half-comprehensible inscriptions suggest that the Ancients of Ganymede in their day faced and overcame the Silver Plague.  Garth put the kibosh on Willard's hopes of being the next Jonas Salk when, in a high altitude DUI incident, he crashed their aircraft in the deadly Black Forest while ferrying the soft-hearted Willard to the home of some native who needed medical attention.  Garth staggered out of the Forest alone, babbling some alien language, almost all memories of his time in the monster-haunted Forest lost to poison-induced amnesia.  Garth returned to the Black Forest repeatedly to look for Willard, but without success.  Then a year after Willard's disappearance, Garth got bad news from Earth--his fiancé Moira had died of the Silver Plague!  No wonder he's been letting himself go!      

As the story begins, five years after these catastrophes, Garth is getting on the last nerve of Tomolo, the native owner of the bar where the failed scientist spends most of his time--as if the small businessman in today's world doesn't face enough obstacles already, Garth has been running up one Jupiter-sized tab and shows no signs of paying up.  But today is Tomolo's lucky day--from Earth have come two adventurer types who are looking for a guide to help them explore the Black Forest, saying they have a partial map to some unspecified treasure.  (It turns out that they are looking for the solution to Earth's other big problem--we have dug up almost all the oil and coal on Terra, and haven't invented atomic power plants yet, so we are about to face a planet-wide black out.)  Garth knows more about the Black Forest than anybody, and can also speak the language of the Ancients (though he doesn't remember how he learned it), so he is certainly the man for the job.  Being physically out of shape and depressed besides, Garth exhibits some reluctance about returning to the Forest, but Tomolo threatens to have him thrown into the Ganymedean equivalent of a debtor's prison--"hard labor, in the swamps"--and since no human can long survive the rigors of working in a Ganymedean swamp, Garth accepts the job offer and pays off some of his bar tab with his advance.

Those two unscrupulous Earthers haven't been able to get financing for an expedition into the prohibitively dangerous Black Forest (people in the story keep calling the Forest "impenetrable" and stuff like "the worst death trap in the System"), so they have infiltrated an expedition to some other part of Ganymede, seeding among its sixty members ten tough and experienced men loyal to them.  Chapters II and III follow this group of a dozen adventurers as they hijack some of the expedition's equipment and, guided by Garth, leave the main expedition behind and strike out for the Black Forest.  Pursued by the main expedition, they march for miles through an underground Ancient city and then, in the hellish Forest, navigate a river on crude rafts.  Chapter IV sees them marching through the Black Forest on foot, fighting off a multitude of ambushes from sneaky monsters, like carnivorous moss that looks like dirt and a huge insect that looks like a rock until you sit on it.  In Chapter V it becomes apparent that the prophylactic drugs Garth has given everybody to ward off Forest poison are beginning to lose effect.  The poison starts turning the other characters into nearly mindless zombies whom Garth (who developed immunity during his own multiple trips to the Forest) must carefully guide through the innumerable dangers of the Forest.  In Chapter VI everybody is captured by the Zarno, a silicon-based race of barbarians who are invulnerable to physical attack.  Once ruled over by the now extinct Ancients, these stony people speak the language of their long lost rulers and revere their memory.  Religious fanatics, the Zarno plan to sacrifice the thirteen Earthers to their gods, but in Chapter VII Garth leads the party out of their cell and they stumble upon Dr. Willard, who is still alive and hiding in the Ancients' Library; the Library is inaccessible to the Zarno and includes Ancient machines that synthesize food and water.

(One of the little problems of the story, more of a plot dent than a plot hole, is that most of the Ancient machines don't work or at least can't be figured out by Terrans, unless the plot requires them to do so-- then they are in running order and easy to operate despite two or three thousand years of neglect.) 

Willard fills in those gaps in Garth's memory, and shares the info he has learned while studying in this library for five years, like the history of the Ancients.  More importantly, Doc Willard from those centuries-old records has learned how to cure the Silver Plague and also how to harness atomic power!  If Willard can get back to Earth he can solve both of our pressing problems! 

In Chapter VIII Garth uses the Zarnos' religious fervor against them in a way we see happen in adventure stories with some frequency.  He hides in the throne under a twelve-foot high robot body that the Zarno consider to be the avatar of their gods, and speaks through it, distracting them so Willard and the rest of the humans can get to the hangar where are stored the Ancients' (still operational after all these years) aircraft.  The secret panel into the throne gets stuck, rendering Garth's hiding place air tight, and Kuttner's story turns melodramatic on us as Garth begins to asphyxiate.  Lack of oxygen causes Garth to have the delusion that his fiancé Moira is there with him and then he begins spouting Bible verses at the Zarno.  Kuttner also unleashes the old sense of wonder as a dying Garth envisions the peaceful and heroic future the human race will enjoy thanks to the technology Willard will bring to Earth, thanks in turn to Garth's sacrifice--after the Silver Plague is cured and the energy crisis averted, humanity will be able to venture forth from the Solar System and explore the stars.

"Crypt-City of the Deathless One" is just OK.  The monsters and plot structure are good.  However, the characters and their relationships are bland.  One of the two Terrans who hires Garth is a woman archaeologist who reminds Garth of Moira, but Kuttner doesn't expend enough energy giving her a personality or developing any kind of sexual tension or emotional connection between her and Garth (or between anybody else) so she ends up being an extraneous character who contributes little to the plot and atmosphere.  The fact that the adventurers have to hijack equipment from the main expedition also ends up adding length but little interest to the narrative.  Maybe this is a reflection of my own concerns and attitudes, but it seemed to me that the most interesting character in the story was Tomolo, the long-suffering blue-skinned small businessman who did a favor for a down-and-out foreigner by extending him credit and then had to come up with a way to get back the money he was owed.

This blandness extends to the action and horror scenes, which Kuttner doesn't give enough pizzazz--they don't surprise or thrill the reader, or generate any tension.  The over-the-top melodrama of the final chapter, with Garth reciting long Bible verses and having messianic delusions, is written in a totally different tone than the other seven chapters, which are kind of flat.  A related issue is the pacing; the final scenes in the throne room are too long, and there are too many scenes in which the Earthers are mindless automatons--they are zombies for so long that the idea loses its novelty and it gets increasingly difficult for the reader to believe that they can survive in the deadly forest in such a state, and yet they all do survive.  For some reason Kuttner doesn't let any of the twelve people from the expedition get killed; maybe their number, twelve, has some kind of symbolic significance (if Garth is a self-sacrificing messiah, maybe they are his apostles?)

If I can indulge in some wild speculation here, and if the internet isn't for wild speculation I don't know what it is for, I will suggest that maybe Kuttner, in "Crypt-City of the Deathless One," was trying to get away from the sex and gore he employed to enliven some of his early work, but didn't have anything to comfortably fill in the resulting gap; his later work, much of it with his wife C. L. Moore, would include lots of interesting psychology stuff and speculations about future society, and we do see some dim glimpses of that here.

"The Eyes of Thar" (1944)

This is a story about how a man's love--or sexual desire--for a woman will make him do crazy things, and how this fact can be exploited by others.  "The Eyes of Thar" is also another story by Kuttner and/or his wife C. L. Moore about how people or artifacts come to our universe or time period through a portal and wreak havoc; famous examples include "Mimsy Were the Borogroves" and "Vintage Season," less famous ones Moore's "Doorway Into Time," and the collaborations "Prisoner in the Skull," "The Ego Machine" and "When the Bough Breaks."

Samuel Danton is an Earthman who joined a tribe of Martians, the primitive descendants of a once great race who had advanced technology.  From a shaman Danton learned the language of the tribe's ancient ancestors; he also fell in love with a Martian girl.  One day a rival tribe of primitives attacked and the girl was killed.  Danton left Mars to become some kind of ruthless space criminal who travels from planet to planet making his living through murder and thievery.  Periodically he returns to Mars to assassinate members of that tribe who slew his red planet sweetheart.

Our story begins as Danton, the serial killer, is in the Martian desert, pursued by his enemies--on this trip to Mars he made a mistake and members of that enemy tribe got between him and his air car when he didn't have any weapons with him!  They are hot on his heels and things are looking bleak.  Danton by sheer luck finds a secret door, and a passage to a long lost chamber built centuries ago by his adoptive tribe's hi-tech ancestors.  In it is a device that can communicate with other universes.  Through the device, a woman who looks just like his dead Martian girlfriend implores Danton's aid.  So he goes to the other universe after donning some special armor and helps her fight her enemy.  In her universe the laws of physics are all different--the armor protects him from the radiation that would otherwise kill him at once, which also obscures his vision so everything (except the girl) looks hazy and vague.  

The alien woman then comes to Mars and returns the favor, killing Danton's pursuers with casual ease.  Danton doesn't quite realize that this beautiful woman is in fact a weird alien who has simply read his mind and donned the appearance of somebody for whom he'd be willing to risk his life, and he stupidly falls in love with her and implores her to stay, but of course she returns to her universe.

This story is just OK.  I for one don't very much appreciate psychedelic and surrealistic prose, so Kuttner's efforts to describe the experience of encountering a universe where the laws of physics are different ("suddenly, every cell of his body was an eye....floods of color that were not color, sounds that were not sound...") tried my patience.  I also thought Kuttner missed a chance to do something more with the psychological and moral implications of his two main characters' actions and personalities--both of them are victims who go on to exploit others, after all.  Oh, well. 

"The Eyes of Thar" is like a third as long as "Crypt-City of the Deathless One," and in 1987 Robert M. Price saw fit to reprint it in the second issue of his saddle-stapled magazine Astro-Adventures.

"What Hath Me?" (1946)

"What Hath Me?" is also about the trouble you can get into if you fall for some hot chick, and about superior beings manipulating you.  (That's the MPorcius interpretation, anyway!) 

For a thousand years the Solar System has been ruled by the mysterious Aesir from their artificial planetoid Asgard, which follows the same orbit around Sol as Mars.  (SF writers love Norse mythology--check out Fritz Leiber's "Adept's Gambit," Edmond Hamilton's A Yank at Valhalla, and Kuttner's own "We Guard the Black Planet!")  Rumor has it that the Aesir were once ordinary humans, but they got their hands on a machine that stimulated their bodies to evolve into the form our species will take in a million years--they are now beings of pure energy who can manipulate matter, change their form at will, and read your mind!  (These old SF stories often ignore natural selection and present evolution as a path you are destined to follow and not the result of a bunch of random mutations interacting with the environment.)  Only the Aesirs' priests, who every month carry human sacrifices to the planetoid, ever arrive at or depart from Asgard of their own free will, so when Derek Stuart wakes up on Asgard after a night of drinking in New Boston he knows he is in trouble.  But for some reason, Stuart finds, he has forgotten much of his own recent life, and is buoyed with an unnatural level of self-confidence, and eager to investigate the mystery of the Aesir, even though he has every reason to believe meeting them will mean certain death.  

After fighting a monster he marches to the Aesir's castle where he finds the rulers of the Solar System have taken on the form of giants a hundred feet tall, clad in mail.  They test Stuart's courage by making him relive scary events from his youth that they glean from his mind, as well as confront a giant snake and a giant spider (maybe they gleaned those from Robert Howard stories.)  Stuart's courage surprises everybody.  

The Aesir disappear and Stuart searches a little, meeting Kari, the most beautiful woman he has ever encountered.  She tricks him into thinking she is a fellow prisoner and his friend, but in fact she is working for the Aesir.  Kari traps him and the truth of Stuart's arrival on Asgard is revealed when his lost memories are returned.  Stuart wasn't brought here by priests to be sacrificed--he was sent here by beings equivalent in power to the Aesir who want to liberate mankind, beings known as the Protectors.  As the bravest human in the System, the Protectors chose Stuart to serve as a conduit, a vessel, for their power.  (They gave him amnesia to hide their operations from the mind-reading Aesir.)  But now that that femme fatale Kari has put a sentient cloak on Stuart that blocks most of the power the Aesir can transmit into him, things are looking pretty bleak.  But Stuart finds the inner resources to rip the cloak monster off his skin, tearing his own flesh, so the Protectors can fight the Aesir though his body.  

The battle is a tedious abstract thing of pulsing lightning and streams of fire and so forth.  We are lead to believe that Stuart will die because the Protectors' power will burn out his mortal body, and that Kari will die if the Aesir are extinguished because she is living off their energy, but after the Protectors win the battle Kuttner cops out.  The Protectors (who turn out to have been human colleagues of the Aesir from a thousand years ago who also evolved into energy creatures but didn't turn evil) give their energy to Stuart and Kari (who was only evil because the Aesir's power was in her) so those two can live, fall in love, and become mankind's leaders in a post-Aesir Solar System.  Stuart and Kari sacrificing their lives and chance at love to save humanity would obviously have been a better ending than the happily ever after deus ex machina ending we end up with.  (When John Carter and Dejah Thoris get a happily ever after ending they have earned it by making decisions and fighting a bunch of enemies--Stuart and Kari are pawns controlled by others--they don't earn their happy ending and so the ending is not satisfying.)

I think I have to give "What Hath Me?" a borderline negative vote; whereas "Crypt-City of the Deathless One" and "The Eyes of Thar" have their good points and so are acceptably entertaining filler, "What Hath Me?" felt like a waste of my time and as I was reading it I was anxious to put it behind me.  In the first place I tend to like neither stories about god-like beings who can read your mind and make things appear and disappear, nor stories in which the characters' own decisions and abilities don't drive the plot.  Beyond that, the pacing is slow, with fights that are tedious and repetitive (and I will add that the monsters and villains are totally uninspired.)  I also didn't like the structure of the story, the way Kuttner only revealed information important to the plot at the very moment it mattered instead of establishing such info earlier or somehow foreshadowing it.  I guess Stuart's amnesia justifies the way basic information about the story's milieu is withheld from us until the last second before it becomes pivotal, but it left me feeling like Kuttner was making the story up as he went along.   

Our baguette-loving buddies over in Gaul printed a translation of "What Hath Me?" in a 1975 anthology of pieces from Planet Stories, and Robert M. Price included the story in the fourth issue of Astro-Adventures, which appeared in 1988.


**********

Like Price, I am a Kuttner fan, but these three stories are lesser examples of Kuttner's work--they lack the thrills and raw power of stories full of violence and/or sex like "The Graveyard Rats" or "The Time Trap" and they lack the fascinating ideas of stories co-written with Moore like "Private Eye" or "Two- Handed Engine."  No hard feelings, though--looking back at my blog posts about "The Time Trap" and "Two-Handed Engine" they sound so awesome I am itching to reread them; no minor missteps could put Kuttner on my bad side.

**********

*Volume 1 of History of My Life by Giacomo Casanova features these exciting adventures:

  • Little Giacomo frames his brother Francesco for some mischief he himself committed, earning Francesco's undying enmity
  • As the smartest student in the class, young Giacomo is made proctor and given the job of correcting and grading papers, giving him a chance to become a tyrant who demands bribes from his schoolmates 
  • A young woman fakes a series of berserk seizures, leading medical men and men of the cloth to debate whether she is insane or possessed by demons
  • As a college student Casanova takes up arms in a student uprising against the police force of Padua; the corrupt government sides with the students and to appease them hangs an innocent constable
  • Teenaged Casanova, studying to join the priesthood, is considered by one priest to have an inappropriately fashionable coiffure, so the clergyman sneaks into Casanova's room to trim his hair while he sleeps
  • And many more!

†Works like "Honeybunch Kaminski, the Drug-Crazed Runaway" and "R. Crumb versus The Sisterhood" have to be seen to be believed and could very well inflict "trauma" on 2021 readers that will send them fleeing to their "safe spaces."

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Leigh Brackett: "Outpost on Io," "Child of the Sun," "The Blue Behemoth" and "Thralls of the Endless Night"

We're not done with Planet Stories yet!  Let's check out a quartet of 1940s tales from Planet Stories by the woman whose prolific and varied career saw her work with John Wayne, Humphrey Bogart, William Faulkner, Howard Hawks, Ray Bradbury, George Lucas and her husband Edmond Hamilton--Leigh Brackett.  We've already looked at many of the more famous Leigh Brackett stories here at MPorcius Fiction Log; today's selections are not quite so well known or widely available.

"Outpost on Io" (1942)

The issue of Planet Stories that features "Outpost on Io" also includes a one-column autobiographical sketch by Brackett.  The creator of Eric John Stark and author of Sword of Rhiannon tells us she loves the beach and loves to swim, and hopes to travel the world when the war is over.  She also loves to act, and, of course, to read and write.  This is a very "up" girl, a fun person with a positive attitude who loves everything!  But then at the very end of the column comes the dig that will furrow the brow of many dedicated SF readers.  After telling us that she thinks SF deserves serious consideration as an art form (hear hear), Leigh Brackett says she believes SF should be "entertainment," not "propaganda," and that most authors with "Messages" give her a "large galloping pain."  Take that, Futurians!*

*It is fun to take a swipe at the bolshie Futurians, but of course pro-technology and pro-market libertarian SF figures like John W. Campbell, Jr. and Robert Heinlein and Poul Anderson were just as dedicated as the commies to using SF to push an agenda and influence people's thinking and change the world.  Even Edmond Hamilton used SF to put forward anti-imperialism and anti-big government messages in stories like 1932's "Conquest of Two Worlds" and 1933's "Island of Unreason," and we have to question how serious Brackett's anti-message commitment was when we realize she, as editor, included those two stories in The Best of Edmond Hamilton   

The Solar System is at war, the peoples of Venus, Earth and Mars against the people of Jupiter and her moons.  And the war isn't going too well for us!  The Jovians have a super weapon that interacts with the atomic structure of metal and makes it explode, which gives them an advantage, a perhaps insuperable one, over the Inner Planet nations because we short-sightedly built all our space ships out of metal!   

We learn all this bad news from the dialogue between one Christopher Rory MacVickers, whose "gaunt Celtic head had a grim beauty" and the other characters right after an opening scene in which space captain MacVickers is tossed into a prison/slave labor camp on Io full of Inner Planet war prisoners.  These poor bastards explain to MacVickers that he will soon be joining them in working machines that process a weird blue mud practically unique to Io; this strange mud emits a radiation that slowly kills those without protection by gradually turning them to crystal!  This horrifying process takes about three months, and among the prisoners are guys who are approaching that limit and are already covered in a sheathe of what looks like blue glass and is almost unbreakable.  And there's more news about this mud: the prisoners suspect that the factory they are slaving away in is extracting from the radioactive gunk the very element that powers the enemy superweapon!

Brackett really works overtime developing the atmosphere of misery and dread experienced by the prisoners in the factory, telling us all about the temperature, the humidity, and the smells, all about the looks of hopelessness on their faces and the postures of despair assumed by their naked bodies; and then there are the guards, tentacled Europans, who torture them with electricity from behind radiation shielding.

There is a whole homoerotic subtext to this nightmare vision of a mechanical alien hell.  The biggest and toughest prisoner, Birek the Venusian, who has been held in the factory a long time, is mentally unbalanced, and forces the others to bow down and grovel to him.  MacVickers resists, but finds that fighting the huge Birek is useless, as the man's crystallized skin feels no pain and punching him only breaks the skin of MacVicker's own fists, drawing blood.  When the Europans electrify the room the prisoners are in to torture them, Birkin lays down on top of the fallen MacVickers to absorb some of the electricity coursing through our hero and thus spare MacVickers some pain.  Why?  
Birek smiled.  "The current doesn't hurt much anymore.  And I want you for myself--to break."
As for the plot, MacVickers figures out some engineering stuff that gives him a chance to kill the Europans.  Then he convinces the other prisoners to help him blow up Io, sacrificing themselves but depriving the Jovians of their superweapon and, presumably, winning the war for the Inner Planets as well as rendering all our maps of the Jovian moons obsolete.

Dark and brutal, a short and successful thriller.  "Outpost on Io" has never been anthologized, but was included in Haffner Press's 2002 Martian Quest: The Early Brackett, a badly battered library copy of which I bought for 25¢ some years ago.

"Child of the Sun" (1942)

Like "Outpost on Io," "Child of the Sun" starts out with a sort of action/horror scene but we quickly get the background via dialogue.  That background is that thirty years ago a genius named Gantry Hilton (did Brackett name this dude after Elmer Gantry?) invented a machine that can not only read your mind, which is bad enough, but can also manipulate its contents--erasing your memories, giving you false memories, changing your personality, etc.  People flocked to Gantry for treatment that would make them happy, and the inventor eventually managed to make himself dictator of the Earth, ruler over a society of simple-minded and obedient, but very happy, people, a utopia of conformism where everybody gets along and lives a life bereft of danger or challenge or struggle.  

The SF stories I read are always against these kinds of utopias, and "Child of the Sun" is no different.  A small number of people, the "Unregenerates," who don't want their brains messed with and prefer a life of risk and individualism are hiding from the Hilton government on various inhospitable asteroids and space hulks and other uncomfortable places beyond Earth.  The Unregenerates can't endure in these refuges indefinitely--Brackett, who never shies away from presenting us with dreadful images, conjures up pictures of Unregenerate babies dying of the cold on freezing asteroids. 

The leader of the Unregenerates is Eric Falken.  As the story begins, Falken and two recent recruits to the Unregenerates, a skinny impoverished young woman called Shelia Moore and an egghead named Paul Avery, are in a spaceship, flying towards Mercury, Hilton's space navy hot on their trail.  Somehow, Falken can't shake his pursuers--they seem to always know where he is.  Finally, he decides to fly closer to the Sun than any space ship yet has in history, hoping the solar radiation will foil the Hiltonian detection equipment.

Not only do our three characters escape, but they discover a tiny new planet in very close orbit to the Sun!  Nobody has ever noticed it before because the sun's radiation is blinding to eyes and instruments at this range.  On the planet the three are confronted by surreal and nightmarish phenomena, like a castle that appears and disappears, in which they become lost in a maze of doors.

SF is full of stories about god-like beings who can instantaneously create or destroy things by manipulating matter with their minds and who like to toy with humans.  If memory serves, the original Star Trek TV show had many episodes with such beings and the new Star Trek actually had a recurring character who played this sort of role again and again and again.  Anyway, on this new little planet Falken, Moore and Avery meet just such a being, a floating ball of flame who says he was born when the Sun and a wandering star had a close encounter in the time before the planets were formed.  This creature created all the vanishing castle and all the other crazy phenomena to entertain himself by tormenting our heroes.  

The plot of "Child of the Sun" involves Falken trying to trick or persuade the fiery superbeing into creating a hospitable planet for the Unregenerates.  It is revealed that Avery is a Hiltonite spy, a mole among the Unregenerates--in fact he is Hilton's son, Miner!  Hilton gave Miner psychic powers and Miner, until they got too close to the Sun, had been transmitting their location to the Hiltonite navy, which explains why Falken had such trouble getting away this time.  Falken of course considers immediately killing the spy, but Miner has fallen in love with Sheila and come to admire Falken and the Unregenerates' idea of a society of diversity in which people run their own lives.  So he renounces his father and with his psychic powers and technical know how he helps Falken and Sheila in their efforts to get a new homeworld for the Unregenerates from the Child of the Sun.

Not bad.  In the early 1960s, "Child of the Sun" would reappear in Donald Wollheim's More Adventures on Other Planets and in a Spanish anthology alongside a French novel.


"The Blue Behemoth" (1943)

This is a gritty crime story about rough down-and-out people struggling to make their way in the solar system and corrupt wealthy people trying to make a quick buck; it starts out with a humorous tone but becomes serious and gory.

Our heroes are Bucky Shannon and narrator Jig Bentley, owners and operators of a circus, two fun guys who like to crack jokes, get drunk and get into fist fights.  These guys have a creaky old space ship full of freaks (like a scaly Venusian woman who can generate electricity with her body) and monsters (like a Mercurian cave cat) and fly around the system putting on a show.  Their crummy circus can only barely break even, and Bucky and Jig are always on the brink of bankruptcy, barely able to pay for the fuel the space ship needs and the food the monsters need, their creditors often at the door demanding payment of bills that are past due.  

The first half or so of the plot is a little like a noirish detective thing.  The circus's biggest draw is Gertrude the cansin, a beast like a dinosaur with hands from the swamps of Venus.  Cansins are what we would call an endangered species--very few have ever been found, and a male cansin has never been seen.  One of Shannon and Bentley's many current problems is that Gertrude is sick--according to the monster's handler, Gertrude is in heat but there are no male cansins around, so she is inconsolable and may even die of misery.

A rich guy, Beamish, comes by to hire the circus--he says that, out of charity, he wants to provide entertainment to people in small rural settlements on Venus.  There follows the voyage to Venus and then interactions on the swampy second planet from the Sun; this section of the narrative features Beamish and his less than trustworthy partners in crime attempting to (and sometimes succeeding in) double crossing and murdering both fellow criminals and relatively decent people.  (Nobody in this milieu of sophisticated criminals, Terran imperialists, Venusian savages, and unsavory businesses that make their bones by exploiting animals is really innocent.)  It becomes clear that Beamish and his thuggish partners got wind that some hunter finally discovered a male cansin and want to use Gertrude to find and capture the elusive monster, and they don't want to share the valuable catch with that hunter or with Gertrude's owners, our boys Bucky and Jig.

Things fall apart as the cansins take the initiative.  It turns out four female cansins "mate" with a single male cansin, who has a totally different physical form and mental acuity than the female of the species--the male has psychic powers and unites the five monsters via a "community brain."  The now unified monster goes on a rampage in a rural Venusian town, even liberating the other monsters on Bucky Shannon and Jig Bentley's ship and enlisting them in their war of revenge on the intelligent bipeds who have been taking advantage of them all these years.  Many people are gruesomely killed--Brackett doesn't stint on the gore and violence, nor on descriptions of men sweating, shaking and vomiting in fear.  Bucky gets injured and withdrawn from the fight, but Jig organizes several of the circus freaks, all of whom have esoteric powers, and together they drive off the cansins and recapture the other animals, breaking their strike and putting those alien monsters back to work making money for the Man where they belong. 

Brackett's non-human intelligent races and monsters are all fun and interesting, and she describes them economically, in a few quick strokes; she gives the reader a sense of complex multicultural societies and weird alien ecosystems without making you wade through too much of fluff.  "The Blue Behemoth" is pretty good, but it would not be reprinted until 2007, in Haffner Press's Brackett collection, Lorelei of the Red Mist: Planetary Romances.

"Thralls of the Endless Night" (1943)  

Here's another story that wasn't reprinted until it was included in the 2007 Haffner Press volume.  "Thralls of the Endless Night" gets top promotion on the cover of the issue of Planet Stories in which it appears, along with a striking cover that reflects the undercurrent of rough-and-not-necessarily-consensual sex we see in "Thralls of the Endless Night" as in so many of Brackett's stories.

Another recurring theme of Brackett's body of work we have seen today is class conflict, which is a sort of minor note in "Child of the Sun" and "The Blue Behemoth."  But in "Thralls of the Endless Night" class conflict is front and center.

Generations ago, a space ship crashed on this planet.  The descendants of the surviving crew have reverted to primitivism, hunting and fighting with spears and living in huts.  More interesting to the reader is the fact that they continue to live in the sort of stratified hierarchy which obtained aboard their ancestors' space-going vessel.  The people called "Hans" live in the crappiest huts, furthest from the wreck of the space ship, while a small middle class of "Engineers" lives in somewhat bigger huts halfway to the crash site, and then clustered around the ship are the finest huts, those of the officers.  Sitting right next to the ship up on the hill is the Captain's hut, the most comfy hut of all.  Catching the attention of those of us more interested in sex than class is the fact that the Captain has a sexy "yellow" daughter.  "All yellow from head to foot and beautiful pink lids to her eyes."  Brackett doesn't come out and say it, but we can tell from such hints that these people are furry that they are mutants!  

Wes Kirk is one of the Hans, a man old enough to join the battle line when the "piruts" attack but not old enough yet to accompany the hunters.  He hates the Engineers and Officers, assuming they have access to better food or heat sources or something in the ship--as in "Child of the Sun," Brackett uses the image of a baby shivering in the cold as a symbol of privation, and all the Hans' babies are cold all the time.

Wes's father is out hunting when a pirut attack occurs, and papa Kirk is killed--according to Wes, the Officers are to blame for his father's tragic death.  Wes's best friend dies in the same attack.  These disasters radicalize Wes and he begins airing his revolutionary theories, and so is tortured by being subjected for a defined period to the non-lethal but painful attentions of a blood-sucking carnivorous plant!  The yellow-maned daughter of the Captain, she of the "small sharp breasts," thinks Wes doesn't deserved to be punished so severely, and sneaks into the torture hut and liberates him.  Instead of being grateful, Wes the angry young man starts delivering one of his diatribes against the Officers, angering the girl; and Brackett cuts right to some titillating but troubling truths about sex and politics that maybe we don't always want to admit: 
She was angry now, and perhaps a little scared.  He enjoyed making her angry and scared.  He enjoyed the thick hot feeling of power it gave him.
Wes kidnaps the yellow girl, a process which entails hitting her repeatedly then lugging her around, pressing her body to his in a way that thrills him.  But she doesn't go quietly, cutting him with her knife at one point and hitting him with a rock at another.  She also tells him the sort of stuff anti-revolutionaries always say about the Caesars, Robespierres, Lenins and Maos of the world: "You don't care how many people you hurt, do you, as long as you can be a big man...."  Good one, yellow girl!

(I'll note here that Brackett never gives the Captain's daughter a name, which may be an oversight or perhaps some kind of comment on gender and class politics among these mutants.)

Wes takes the young lady out into the wilderness where they have to work together in a fight for their lives against monsters.  They get captured by piruts who find the yellow girl as sexy as Wes does and threaten to rape her (using euphemisms.)  Brackett really pushes the eroticized violence in "Thralls of the Endless Night"--the  pirut leader pulls the yellow girl's hair, smacks her, etc.  Wes is surprised by all the ways the the piruts are like the Hans--their cave is full of shivering babies just like the Han huts, and they think the Officers near the ship are living an easy life, just like Wes does.

Wes makes common cause with the piruts, and leads them up a poorly guarded secret path and they easily take the Ship by storm.  But in the ship they don't find any treasure, and there is no evidence the Officers have been leading an easy life with more heat or more food.  The Officers have been keeping others away from the ship because their ancestors, generation after generation, have been passing down a fragmentary legend of ancient times that emphatically states that it is the duty of Officers to make sure nobody under any circumstances opens a particular barred door.  When the piruts are told this, they rush to bust open the barred door.                 

Inside the forbidden compartment is a bunch of documents the illiterate mutants cannot read, but which Brackett lets us readers glimpse--this glimpse reveals to us a terrible tragedy!  Centuries ago during a period of interplanetary crisis the Earth tried to make an alliance with the Union of Jovian moons--one of the documents is the treaty that would have sealed the alliance if it had made it to the orbit of Jupiter.  Other documents indicate that the failure of the treaty to be signed very likely lead to a devastating war, to the benefit of the aggressive Martian-Venusian Alliance, who had hired pirates to intercept the ship transporting the treaty.  The ensuing battle lead to both the treaty-bearing ship and the pirate ship crashing on this asteroid or moon or whatever it is, where the piruts and their descendants kept attacking the treaty ship and its crews' descendants, even though nobody quite remembered why.

Also in the long-sealed compartment is a box of explosive.  I figured that the piruts would detonate the explosive and kill everybody, demonstrating to us the futility of class conflict and revolution and giving us a double whammy of tragedy.  But Brackett cops out.  The piruts set off the explosive alright, but instead of exterminating all these muties the blast opens a crack in the ground that allows more radiation to come up from the planet core, changing the climate for the better so babies won't be cold anymore and agriculture can be more productive--now life will be easier for everybody!  There is no more reason for class distinctions or inter-mutant conflict, and the Captain's daughter even surrenders to Wes's rough caresses and we are led to believe they are going to live happily ever after as a loving couple!

I found this deus ex machina happy ending to be pretty disappointing--I wonder if some editor forced a happy ending on Brackett, or she was working on a more palatable happy ending in which the Officers, Hans and piruts did the hard work of resolving their differences but she came up on a deadline and had to go with the gimmicky resolution.  The first ninety-something percent of "Thralls of the Endless Night," with its cool premise, class politics, sex and violence and monsters, though, is pretty good.

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All four of these stories are entertaining and have some noteworthy idiosyncratic angle or element; I can recommend them to all fans of pre-1950 space opera and planetary romance, especially fans of hard-bitten adventure stories in which there are no real heroes and we are reminded that our societies are corrupt and we are all fallen creatures.

Monday, April 19, 2021

Ray Bradbury: "The Monster Maker," "Morgue Ship," "Lazarus Come Forth" and "Defense Mech"


I think Planet Stories sometimes gets a bad rap, for being "lurid" and "garish" or whatever, but the magazine also has a vigorous defender in no less a figure than Michael Moorcock.  Not only does Moorcock (in the essay "Queen of the Martian Mysteries: An Appreciation of Leigh Brackett") argue that Planet Stories, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Startling Stories published fiction that was "more vivid and often more lasting" and featured "more idiosyncratic writing [and] more stylish innovation," than the work to be found in Astounding and F&SF, but, less tendentiously, he points out that a long list of major SF writers had their work printed in these pulps.  One such writer is Poul Anderson, three of whose tales from Planet Stories we blogged about last time.  Another is Ray Bradbury.  Today let's read four stories by Bradbury from 1940s issues of Planet Stories, stories which have rarely been reprinted and so might be new to many fans of Bradbury's work.  I am reading all of them from scans of these seventy-odd-year-old magazines available at the internet archive.

"The Monster Maker" (1944)   

The issue of Planet Stories which includes "The Monster Maker" is one we have looked at before, when we read Leigh Brackett's "The Jewel of Bas," and Damon Knight's "The Avenger."  Also noteworthy is the cover by famous horror comics artist Graham Ingels, who did little SF illustration, and an autobiographical sketch by Chad Oliver, at this time of his life a very active SF fan who often showed up in Planet Stories's letters columns.  Oliver here says that SF, for him, is a faith in a better future, and that after the current war is over SF fans must work to create that future.  If the stories of Chad's that I have read over the course of this blog's life are any indication, he gave up on the future and decided the good life was obtainable by abandoning technology and the city and living as a Plains Indian or some other hunter gatherer society.    

Ray Bradbury's "The Monster Maker" is a silly adventure story full of obvious joke dialogue, though a more or less serious plot in which, in classic SF fashion, the heroes use high technology and trickery to overcome their enemies and make the solar system a better place.

Two men search an asteroid for a den of space pirates; one is a huge hulking Irish space cop who says stuff like "Me father taught me; keep laughing and you'll have Irish luck," and the other is a cameraman obsessed with movie making--when he fears he is about to die in a space ship crash he asks the Irishman, "Is this where the Big Producer yells CUT!?"  

A horde of monsters appears and chases the two men, who take refuge in a cave; when the monsters don't show up on the photographer's quick-developing film, they realize the creatures are just illusions.  They sneak into the pirate's base, get control of the machine that generates the illusions, and trick the pirates into thinking an entire army of Irish space cops has arrived.

An acceptable trifle.  "The Monster Maker" has only ever seen print again in Kent State University's The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury: A Critical Edition: Volume I: 1938-1943, published in 2011.     

"Morgue Ship" (1944)

Ray is on the cover of this issue alongside his friend Leigh Brackett.  (We read Brackett's story "Terror Out of Space" in 2014.)   

For years war has raged across the Solar System between the space navies of Earth and Venus.  Our two protagonists are the crew of an unarmed Purple Cross morgue rocket--they travel back and forth across the system, picking up the floating corpses and bits and pieces of dead spacemen for return to Earth.  On each trip they collect one hundred remains, and today 97 berths are filled; only three to go.

They spot their 98th cold passenger, or so they think.  It's a Venusian, and when they bring him into the ship they are amazed to find, first, that this guy is the famous righthand man of the Venusian dictator, and, second, he was playing possum and is still alive!  The vessel in which he and the dictator were travelling suffered a catastrophic failure and they have been hoping to trick their way onto just such a working ship as this one.  Gun in hand, the alien orders the unarmed Earthmen to find and pick up the dictator, who is floating nearby.  Will the humans give in or resist--is there a chance they can end the war by capturing the dictator?

This is a good story, with a great premise, a horror/noirish plot and tone, a psychologically interesting main character, good images, and metaphors that work.  "The Monster Maker" was a pedestrian piece of fluff, but "Morgue Ship" is more characteristically Bradburian and a sign of what Bradbury is capable of.  Thumbs up!  

I recommend it, but for some reason "Morgue Ship," like "The Monster Maker," has only ever been reprinted in 2011's The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury: Volume I.

"Lazarus Come Forth" (1944)

"Lazarus Come Forth" was reprinted in the 1970s in a French anthology and in the 1980s in a Croat magazine, but not in English until 2014 in the second volume of Kent State University's The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury.  The issue of Planet Stories in which the story made its debut also includes fiction by Damon Knight and Frederick Pohl, both pieces appearing under pseudonyms.

Imagine my surprise when it turns out "Lazarus Come Forth" is also about two guys in a morgue ship crisscrossing the solar system in the wake of an interplanetary naval war, picking up the remains of lost spacemen!  Except this time Earth is at war with Mars!  Why do all these alien freaks make it so hard for us to get along with them?

A more important difference than which extra-terrestrial troublemakers are having their wings clipped by our fly boys this time out is that the two men on this morgue ship do not get along.  At all!  They even come to blows at the start of the story!  Boys!  Boys!  Save it for those red planet rapscallions, why don't ya?  

The plot of the story concerns an astonishing coincidence.  The morgue ship finds a body floating out in space, but this one isn't like the scores of others they are always collecting--from its attire it is clear that this corpse died like three centuries ago, and the protagonists can even approximate who this guy was--a member of the secretive coterie of super scientists who had reportedly developed a super weapon but were prevented from mass producing it by a sudden Martian attack.  The body is perfectly preserved, and with the miracles of 25th-century medicine at their disposal, the crew of the morgue ship bring this genius back to life!

One of the men wants to do the obvious thing: ferry this resurrected egghead back to Earth so he can build the super weapon and finish the war with Mars once and for all.  But his comrade is a bigger jerk than any of us ever expected!  He holds his patriotic shipmate at gun point and radios the Martians to sell them the recently revived inventor!  Unbelievable!

Will the sale go through despite the good spaceman's efforts?  Is the Earth doomed?  Will the crooked Earther double cross the Martians, or himself be double crossed? 

"Lazarus Come Forth" is like a variation on the themes and elements of "Morgue Ship," and like "Morgue Ship" it is a well-written horror/noir space adventure with a cool premise and an interesting bit of psychology at its center.  Thumbs up!  


"Defense Mech"
(1946)

Holy crap! "Defense Mech" is like a Barry Malzberg story, written in the first-person present tense, our narrator a guy stressed out to the point of mental illness, a guy who doesn't get along with his superiors and who can't take the pressure of space travel.  The very first sentence of the story is "Oh my God, do you realize how far from Earth we are?"  Before that paragraph is over he is saying stuff like "Give me sedatives or hold my hand or run call mama," and before the first page (of this approximately six-page story) is over he has enraged the captain and driven the expedition's psychiatrist to extreme measures.

Our poor narrator is on a fourteen-man mission to Mars.  The captain needs every man to pull his weight on the red planet to get the job done, but our boy is going berserk with fear as the rocket approaches Mars, so the expedition's shrink hypnotizes him into thinking they are returning to Earth.  It is a Malzbergian moment when the psychiatrist admits that lying to a patient goes "against all the known ethics of my profession" but blithely does it anyway.  Once on the Martian surface Bradbury unleashes a stream of pretty good jokes on us; for example, the narrator is convinced that his space suit is his baseball uniform, and when a carnivorous Martian worm with teeth like a shark's attacks him he thinks it is his old dog Shep gone rabid.  Bradbury keeps this up all the way through, with hostile natives attacking and capturing the astronauts and throwing them into the arena, from which the narrator extricates them, the whole time thinking he's in New York, dodging automobiles and fighting police and street punks.

Plenty of fun--thumbs up!  "Defense Mech" appears in an issue of Planet Stories which features stories by MPorcius fave Henry Kuttner and DC comics stalwart Gardner Fox, and has only ever been reprinted in the third volume of Kent State University Press's The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury

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It is hardly breaking news that Ray Bradbury is a superior writer, but I can do nothing else but report the dog-bites-man story that these four 1940s stories by the 1989 SFWA Grand Master are worth your time.  I can strongly recommend "Morgue Ship," "Lazarus Come Forth," and "Defense Mech" to space opera and adventure SF fans as fun and exciting unjustly neglected gems of outer space fear and violence.  If you have money, invest in the The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury, and if you don't have money, join me at the internet archive where you can enjoy these tales of death and insanity-laden rocket ships.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Poul Anderson: "Tiger by the Tail," "Sargasso of Lost Starships" and "The Star Plunderer"

Having read three stories by 1996 Grand Master A. E. van Vogt in our last episode, let's read three stories by 1998 Grand Master Poul Anderson today.  I find Anderson's bibliography a little confusing (though not as confusing as van Vogt's, of course) but I am pretty sure these three stories are all set in the same universe as that inhabited by overweight space merchant Nicholas van Rijn, van Rijn's protégé David Falkayn, and agent of the decadent empire which succeeded the vigorous growing civilization of which van Rijn and Falkayn were exemplars, Dominic Flandry. All three first appeared in Planet Stories in the 1950s; I am reading them in scans of the old magazines available for free at the world's greatest website, the internet archive. 

"Tiger by the Tail" (1951)

If you recognize the brunette with the blingy coif on the cover of the issue of Planet Stories in which "Tiger by the Tail" first appeared, maybe it's because back in 2018 we read the other Poul Anderson story that was printed in this issue, "Witch of the Demon Seas," which appeared under a pseudonym. 

Captain Dominic Flandry of the intelligence service wakes up after a night spent drinking in the demimonde of planet Lynathawyr building up contacts for his current mission to find he has been kidnapped and is aboard a space ship crewed by barbarians; they wear kilts and from their belts hang the scalps of their enemies as well as blasters.  These jokers, the Scothani, have seized Flandry to pump him for information about the Terran Empire and in hopes he will turn against the decadent and corrupt government of the human race and join them in their conquests.  In Flandry's conversations with the barbarians, Anderson presents his themes of how an overly sophisticated empire preoccupied with petty internal squabbles and populated by selfish pleasure-seekers is vulnerable to attack from honest and vigorous barbarians who lack polish and culture but have energy and ambition and are eager to embrace risk and take one for the team.

As well as a respectable space fleet, the Scothani have built up an empire of scores of systems and alliances with other species of spacefaring barbarians, and plan to invade the Terran Empire in a year or two.  The Terran Empire is so poorly led and its people so soft that the Scothani and friends have a real chance of doing some real damage.  Fortunately, over the months, the charismatic Flandry worms his way into a position of confidence with several barbarian nobles and gives them advice that turns them against each other.  Flandry also seduces the young and beautiful queen of the Scothani, whose marriage to the old and neglectful king is a purely political one--she is from a rival ethnic group from the south that doesn't really care to be under the thumb of the king's northern people.  (The Scothani are not human, with their pointy ears and little horns, but they are sexually compatible with humans, and Flandry follows in the footsteps of John Carter who was getting it on, as the kids say, with an egg-laying Martian princess, though Carter was a gentleman who married Dejah Thorus of Helium while Flandry is strictly the love 'em and leave 'em type.)  Thanks to Flandry, the Scothani fall out with their allies and their empire erupts into civil war, short circuiting their invasion of Terran territory.  

In the story's climax the Queen is having mixed feelings about starting a civil war among her people out of love for an alien, and she pulls a gun on Flandry and forces him to swordfight with the Scothani prince who first captured him, her stepson, I guess in hopes the Terran agent will prove himself a real man and not just a conniving spook.  Fortunately Flandry has studied fencing and boxing scientifically and outfights the barbarian in single combat.

An acceptable entertainment with a space battle, a sword fight, and a tragic love story that straightforwardly presents the historical and sociological theories that Anderson presumably based on his reading about the Roman Empire, plus denunciations of racism and a celebration of free trade--Anderson covers all the bases in this one, like he's trying to brew up a microcosm of his entire career.  "Tiger by the Tail" was included by Donald Wollheim in an anthology in 1963 and by Valentino de Carlo in another in 1967, but since then has appeared almost exclusively in collections of Flandry stories. 

"Sargasso of Lost Starships" (1952)

The cover of this issue of Planet Stories features a blonde fighting for her life against some horrendous alien.  Good luck young lady, we are pulling for you!  Inside we find a letter from Chad Oliver in which old Chad tells fellow SF fans that he is finishing up his MA in anthropology--Chad also performs an act of magnanimity towards a former antagonist.  And of course the story that brought us here, Poul Anderson's "Sargasso of Lost Starships."  This story doesn't seem to have set the SF world afire--it wasn't reprinted until the 21st century!

Planet Ansa, an independent colony of humans with an aristocratic culture of landed nobles and a peasantry tied to the land, recently was conquered by the Terran Empire--the town the story starts in is still in ruins and the streets are patrolled by Terran soldiers.  Ansa's most adventurous space captain, Basil Donovan, the Earl of Lanstead, survived the war.  An arrogant aristocrat as well as a skilled naval officer, he considers the Terrans who have conquered his planet to be mere peasants.  Donovan is summoned to the ship of Captain Helena Jansky of the Terran space navy.  Jansky has been given the job of exploring the mysterious Black Nebula; superstitious spacefarers think the nebula is haunted and those planet-bound barbarians whose systems lie in sight of the nebula worship it as an evil god.  The Terran intelligence apparatus has determined that Donovan knows more than anybody about this creepy light-year-wide cloud of dust, so, when Jansky's ship blasts off, Donovan and his alien slave Wocha, a big muscular brute like a rhinoceros centaur, are aboard.

Donovan is reluctant to tell Janksy about his adventure in the Black Nebula, but as the ship approaches the ball of dust the truth becomes clear to us readers.  Inside the nebula lies the planet Arzun, which is inhabited by a decadent alien race of immortal psychopaths who look like humans but have god-like powers--they can teleport between planets, for example, and manipulate matter with their minds.  Among other high crimes and misdemeanors, they use these powers to drive human space travelers insane; as Jansky's ship enters the region of the nebula the ship's lights turn on and off, the men hear scary voices, they see things that make them draw their weapons and accidentally shoot themselves, etc.  When Donovan came to the nebula as captain of an Ansan ship before the war with Terra, many members of his crew died or lost their minds, but he met a gorgeous Arzunian woman, Valduma, and fell stupidly in love with this evil creature.

The psychic aliens cause Janksy's ship to crash on Arzun, killing half the crew.  The survivors march across the bleak planet for weeks, fighting monsters as they go.  Donovan and Janksy become an item, as the kids say, and Donovan has to choose between the essentially decent Terran captain and the goddess-like but evil Valduma, who can provide him sexual pleasures no human can.  Valduma offers her erotic talents in return for Donovan's help capturing the Terrans--the few remaining Arzunians, who are like ten thousand years old, want to leave the Black Nebula and conquer the Terran Empire, but their teleporting powers don't operate more than a light year or so from the Nebula and they need to kidnap the Terran spacemen and make them operate a ship for them.  (Because they are decadent and never developed technology beyond swords and mail, they can't figure out how to crew the spaceships they have captured over the decades themselves.) 

Donovan chooses to side with his fellow humans instead of becoming valduma's boy toy, and there follows a long, perhaps too long, series of scenes of hand-to-hand battle; the aliens may have their psychic powers, but the humans are disciplined fighting men and have the aid of Donovan's hulking slave, who is as strong as several men; eventually the Terrans triumph over the selfish and ill-disciplined psykers.  

"Sargasso of Lost Starships" is a decent space opera/planetary romance kind of thing with a love triangle involving an evil femme fatale and plenty of monsters and aliens.  And again we have Anderson's themes of clashes between different sorts of societies, societies in a state of radical change, and a celebration of cultures in which people work together across borders of class and biological identity.  Some might claim the Arzunians' abilities are inconsistent and contrived, that the psykers switch between being surprisingly powerful or surprisingly weak depending on what Anderson wants to do with the plot or what atmosphere Anderson is trying to create, and I think there are too many repetitive scenes of people fighting with swords and spears, but otherwise "Sargasso of Lost Starships" works.     


"The Star Plunderer"
(1952)

I recognized "The Star Plunderer" immediately as I began reading it; I must have read it as an adult but before I started this blog in my copy of 1986's The Stars at War, edited by John F, Carr and Jerry Pournelle, which I have had since I was a kid.  For the purposes of this blog post I read the magazine version.

"The Star Plunderer" is a first-person narrative, part of an unpublished book written during the founding of the Terran Empire and discovered by archaeologists centuries later.  After a little intro by an archaeologist, the narrative starts with Mother Earth at her lowest point--our big blue marble is being sacked by six-limbed aliens with super strength!  

I guess the conventional wisdom is that SF before some date or other was irredeemably sexist, but here in "The Star Plunderer," as in "Sargasso of Lost Spaceships," we have a woman who fights the enemies of Terra with a gun and when her gun stops working she fights the aliens hand to hand.  In the first section of the story our narrator, John Reeves, and his fiance, Kathryn O'Donnell, are overwhelmed by the Gorzuni raiders after killing many of them and enslaved.  

The Gorzuni are one species among those that make up the Baldic League, an alliance of barbarians (humans who have betrayed Terra among them) who have defeated the decadent Terran Commonwealth's space fleet and have been looting the Solar System for years.  These barbarians can use modern equipment like space ships and firearms, but they aren't too good at building or repairing them, so John and Kathryn, trained engineers, are plucked from among the scores of human slaves packed into the hold of a rundown Gorzuni star ship to become the assistants to the senior human slave who is responsible for maintaining the captured human-built vessel.  That senior slave's name is Manuel Argos, and readers of "Sargasso of Lost Starships" (which takes place a century or two after "The Star Plunderer") will recognize that name as that of the first Emperor of Terra!  He may be a slave now, but he is brave, ambitious, a keen judge of character and a master manipulator, and he is determined to take over this ship and then lead humanity to victory over the barbarians, and he wants John and Kathryn to be his right hand man and woman!

The second half or so of the story follows Manuel, John and Kathryn's plotting, successful mutiny, liberation of the three hundred slaves on the ship, and then their development of the ship into an efficient machine and the slaves into a skilled space crew with which they raid the Gorzuni home system.  While all this happens Kathryn is falling in love with the larger-than-life hero Manuel, leaving the oblivious John in the lurch!  In the final scene, back on Earth, she tells John she is leaving him for Manuel and our heartbroken narrator bitterly tells us that he knew then that Manuel and Kathryn would succeed in setting up a space empire and a dynasty, but he didn't give a damn!   

"The Star Plunderer" is the best of the three stories we are talking about today.  It covers much of the same territory philosophically, comparing aristocracy with democracy and monarchy with republicanism and decadence with youthful vitality, and like Flandry in "Tiger by the Tail," Manuel gives an anti-racism speech.  And yet again we've got a guy getting captured and winning a position of influence among his captors, and yet again we've got a love triangle.  But the decrepit space ship is a more interesting setting than those of the earlier stories, the fight scenes are more exciting and the machinations of the hero more believable, and the love triangle story more powerful.  I can recommend this one without reservation.

Besides all the Poul Anderson collections it has appeared in, "The Star Plunderer" has been reprinted in three anthologies: the aforementioned The Stars at War, Brian Aldiss's Galactic Empires, and Martin H. Greenberg and Charles Waugh's Commando Brigade 3000.  

   

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All three of these stories are entertaining, but they all do follow a similar template: a guy gets captured by people who are, in his opinion at least, culturally inferior, and this gives Anderson a chance to compare and contrast different societies.  They all include love triangles that betray a sort of cynicism about sex, and contrive situations in which people in a milieu full of nuclear weapons and firearms kill other people with swords.  To avoid any chance of getting sick of Anderson's early work, I'll take a break from reading him for a while, but I think you can expect to hear more about Planet Stories in our next episode.