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.


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"

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


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"

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.  



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.    

Sunday, April 11, 2021

"Not Only Dead Men," "The Rulers" & "The Harmonizer" by A. E. van Vogt

In the last installment of MPorcius Fiction Log we read a novel and a short story by A. E. van Vogt I'd never read before.  Looking over the catalog of the Canadian madman's prodigious body of work over at isfdb, a number of titles came to my attention that I have not read since this blog was brought forth upon this continent, conceived in error and dedicated to the dubious proposition that I should keep track of the fiction I read and record my opinions of it.  Let's read three of them that first appeared in Astounding in the 1940s.

"Not Only Dead Men" (1942)

This is a pretty straightforward old-fashioned SF tale with aliens, violence, trickery, engineering, and a sense of wonder ending.

A whaling ship is cruising the Northern Pacific when the crew spots what at first is believed to be an Axis submarine but which turns out to be an alien space ship!  When reptilian aliens with six libs emerge, the whalers shoot at them with the weapons they have been issued by the US government, a three-inch deck gun and several machine guns.  The aliens are impervious to this fire, and luckily they are not hostile, though they do act mysteriously, repeatedly boarding the whaler and then leaving hastily.

The first part of "Not Only Dead Men" is written essentially from the whalers' point of view, but in a brief second part we watch the aliens and all is explained.  This alien ship was attacked by a space monster, and in the fight the ship and the monster were both crippled and forced to splash down on Earth.  The monster is no doubt homing in on the ship, and the space crew won't have the vessel's high tech energy weapons repaired in time to fight it off.  When they took a look at the Terran whaler the stranded spacefarers realized they could quickly replicate its harpoon gun, and even upgrade the one on the Earth whaler and manipulate the humans into helping them fight off the hundred-foot long space monster.  

The lizard people's scheme is a success; fighting together, human and alien vanquish the huge monster.  Then comes the twist and sense-of-wonder ending.  Galactic law states that planetary civilizations as primitive as ours cannot be allowed to learn of Galactic civilization.  So the crew of the whaler are put to sleep with gas and brought aboard the space ship to be settled in the Wodesk system.  Human beings are actually not native to Earth--we are the descendants of a lost Wodesk colony, so the whalers will be comfortable in the Wodesk system, and because (as we learned early in the story) the whalers have little connection to ordinary society ashore, this trip across the galaxy to an alien world is not going to be a sad exile but a tremendous adventure and an improvement in their lives.

A pleasant little story.  "Not Only Dead Men" has been reprinted in several anthologies as well as in the van Vogt collection Monsters, which has been reissued many times in several languages. 

"The Rulers" (1944)

"The Rulers" has not been anthologized in English, it appears, but was included in some foreign publications and in the many printings of the van Vogt collection Destination Universe!  For this blog post I read the story in my crumbling paperback edition of Destination: Universe!, Berkley Medallion N2814, which has a price tag of 95¢ and a black and red cover by Richard Powers.

Writing during World War II, van Vogt depicts a postwar world of high technology (air cars, public video phones) and amazing scientific techniques.  "The Rulers" has a frame story that takes place at a Washington D.C. dinner party, at which Dr. Latham, a "psychomedician," tells the story of a recent adventure in which he foiled an international cabal that had taken over an American city by feeding an hypnotic drug into the water supply.

As a top psychomedician with excellent eyesight, Dr. Latham can discern an individual's changing moods and feelings just by observing the way the muscles in his face move and the subtle changes of color in his skin--Latham can practically read your mind just by looking at you!  These skills are one reason he was chosen by Congress and the president to participate in an investigation of rumors that U. S. hospitals that cater to international patients were being used by hostile foreign agents as a base for some major operation.  Latham was given the task of investigating a hospital in some unnamed American city.

The main text of "The Rulers" describes Latham's ordeal as he, and his beautiful blonde assistant, whom he later married, are pursued and then captured by the thirteen men of the aforementioned cabal, a tale featuring air car chases, ruthless hand to hand combat, and demonstrations of Latham's "mind-reading" abilities as well as the cabal's ability to control the mind of almost everybody in the city.  While I mentioned the cabal and the hypnosis drug in the very start of my summary, van Vogt endeavors to disorient and surprise the reader by showing the effects of this terrible reality first and then gradually revealing the truth to readers.

An acceptable entertainment, with characteristic van Vogtian themes of psychology and intellectual/mental powers.  Perhaps noteworthy is how patriotic the story is, the good things it says and implies about the people and governments of the United States and Great Britain, I suppose a reflection of wartime attitudes.  For example, the mind-blowing ending of the story has Latham's captors telling him that their cabal has existed since 3417 B.C. (that's B. C. E. to all you kids out there) and that for centuries all the big political developments and wars and so forth were the result of their manipulations.  But since the 18th century Great Britain and then the United States have been independent of them and stood in the way of their plans, and this is why the cabal has targeted this American city and now hopes to hypnotize Latham so that when he gets back to D. C. he will inject federal officials with the drug and render them, and all the U.S. government, pawns of the cabal.  

"The Harmonizer"

"The Harmonizer" made its debut in the same issue of Astounding that saw first publication of Theodore Sturgeon's "Killdozer" and Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore's "When the Bough Breaks," classic stories I wrote about when this blog was just knee-high to a grasshopper.  I particularly recommend "When the Bough Breaks," which addresses favorite MPorcius themes, like difficult and demeaning family relationships and how people with superior abilities tend to use those abilities to exploit and oppress others.  

In 1950 van Vogt published "Process," a story about an alien plant.  Well, "The Harmonizer" is another story about an alien plant; it is also one of those stories in which, despairing of the human race and its propensity for violence, a SF author fantasizes about extraterrestrial interventions that will make us behave.  

The opening section of the story describes how a plant in the garden of a soldier who is leaving for the front tomorrow first sends shoots above the surface.  Van Vogt describes the growth of the psychic intelligent plant, which can mimic other plants in order to escape notice.

Then, flashback to the age of dinosaurs!  An alien space ship, a mile long, crashes on the Earth.  All the people on the ship die, but some of the plants on it survive and thrive in the Cretaceous soil.  They grow and multiply.  Then one day a Tyrannosaurus Rex kills a brontosaur nearby.  The plants hate violence, and van Vogt dwells on the brontosaur's agony and wounds and on how the psychic plants are affected by the "blasts" of powerful "thought waves" of "palpable lust" emanating from the brain of the carnivore.  (Van Vogt not quite convincingly suggests that the plants don't mind snakes eating fish or lizards eating bugs because these tiny creatures don't have as complex minds or feelings as sauropods and therapods.)  In response to this dinosaur-on-dinosaur violence, the plants send out spores that, when breathed in by the tyrannosaur, cause it to eschew violence and starve to death.

Thousands of years pass, and another alien ship arrives to retrieve the wreckage of the crashed liner and remove all the alien plants.  However, one plant has been covered up by seismic activity and is left behind by the aliens.

In the last brief section of the story we find the soldier returning home from the front to find his house has been bombed--it's revealed he is a German and he curses the Americans who wrecked his home.  The plant detects his blood lust and releases the pacifying spores, and--sense of wonder ending--we are told soon the entire human race will become peaceful thanks to the spreading of the spores throughout the world.

While I was reading "The Harmonizer" I found the descriptions of plant biology in action a bit tedious, but the aliens and the dino violence are fun (like so much ostensibly anti-war or anti-violence fiction from Homer to this day, "The Harmonizer" revels in entertaining depictions of bloody fighting) and looking back on it the whole idea of the thing is pretty audacious and memorable.  Mildly good, and perhaps of special interest to students of depictions of dinosaurs in popular culture.  (After eating the brontosaur, Tyrannosaurus Rex goes to sleep in a mudhole and farts and shits while it sleeps, which I found a surprising detail for our man Van to throw in there, I guess part of his project of making us feel some of the disgust with the violent carnivore felt by the alien plant.) 

"The Harmonizer" was included in Away and Beyond, a van Vogt collection I do not own, but has not been widely anthologized--the only reprinting listed at isfdb apart from those in van Vogt collections is in a 1966 German magazine.  Did the editor of Die galaktische Prüfung und andere SF-Storys gravitate to "The Harmonizer" because of the Germano-centric twist ending? 


Three decent stories from our favorite Canadian that reflect in interesting way their composition during the Second World War and include all kinds of traditional SF elements: aliens, dinosaurs, sentient plants, conspiracies, terrible fighting and paradigm shifts that change utterly and almost unimaginably the lives of individuals or the entire human race.  Worth the time of the Golden Age SF fan.

Friday, April 9, 2021

The Mind Cage by A. E. van Vogt (and "The Great Judge")

A week or so ago, at Wonder Book in Hagerstown, MD (a store I recommend to all classic SF fans), I found myself in the presence of four different editions of A. E. van Vogt's The Mind Cage.  Spurred by this encounter, I decided to read the 1957 novel, an expansion of a 1948 story, "The Great Judge," but I had no need to buy any of the copies I saw there in Hagerstown, because I already owned yet a different edition of the oft-reprinted book, the 1965 printing by Tower.

The year is 2140, a little over twenty years after the Third Atomic War.  That devastating world-wide conflagration swept away existing political entities, and in their place arose a bewildering array of 1000 states.  The most powerful of these states is that ruled by Ivan Prokov, the man known as the Great Judge, and his government has been steadily conquering the smaller and weaker countries, ostensibly to create a one-world government which will render war impossible; in the current year only a hundred of the lesser nations survive.  The protagonist of The Mind Cage has played a leading role in the absorption of all those small countries; he is General David Marin, veteran of many battles and much intrigue, the head of the Great Judge's military forces, a diplomat and member of the ruling council.  For years he has been in command of the operations that have expanded the Great Judge's empire, and Marin is a master not only of military tactics and strategy but of exploiting divisions within nations, of empowering local pro-Great Judge rebels and fomenting revolutions that deliver states right into the Great Judge's hands.

The Great Judge's society is organized under an ideology that "combines group living with free enterprise."  One of van Vogt's narrative strategies is keeping us readers in the dark and then successively springing new information on us; sometimes we share Marin's surprise as he learns something new about his associates or the history of the Great Judge's carefully crafted authoritarian society, but other times van Vogt casually informs us of things that are common knowledge in Marin's world but which have been kept from us, forcing us to revaluate our view of what is going on and what kind of people the characters are and why they are doing what they do.

So, when we first hear the phrase "the group-free-enterprise idea" we have little notion of what this means, but as the novel progresses additional puzzle pieces fall into place and we get a picture of this strange and terrible society, in which the traditional family, purportedly for feminist and eugenic reasons, is being stamped out and replaced with a system in which only the thirty percent of men who can excel in athletic competitions ("the mating games") have the right to procreative sex, and fathers never again see their mates or their children, who are raised partly by their mothers and partly during periods of mandatory attendance in government facilities.

The capital city of the Great Judge's empire is an symmetrical ultramodern series of blocks, each block an outer ring of skyscrapers surrounding a green park, designed to contain a nuclear blast within it should another atomic war erupt.  Each block is home to a self-contained "Group" with its own little ruling council.  Beyond this model of urban efficiency and beauty sprawl the smoky suburbs where reside and toil this society's working class, the mutants who are forbidden, on pain of death, from leaving their reservations.  Reflecting the novel's themes of hidden pasts, unknown origins and mysterious identities, the mutants bear physical resemblance to more primitive lifeforms, like scaly skin or animal life faces, and have dream-like racial memories of prehistoric life.  The mutants have a reputation for violence and treachery, but the Great Judge himself lives among them in a mansion in these suburbs, with a personal bodyguard and staff of servants made up entirely of mutants. 

One source of interest and tension in the narrative is the fact that Marin is a loyal supporter of the Great Judge and his policies and goals; Marin has no compunction about murdering and torturing people for the government and van Vogt describes the revolutionary changes wrought and the atrocious crimes committed by the Great Judge's government in a way that is matter of fact rather than a condemnatory or broadly satirical, while at the same time providing plenty of examples of the corruption and hypocrisy of the ruling council and of human nature recoiling at the way the Great Judge's social policy destroys what mid-century English language readers would consider ordinary family life.  Rather than telling readers what to think or simply endorsing their preconceived ideas, van Vogt seems to be challenging readers to consider how many of their traditional liberties they would be willing to sacrifice in return for a guarantee of safety from international war in a nuclear-armed world.

The plot of The Mind Cage follows the many twists and turns in Marin's life over the course of a week as events unfold that shake the Great Judge's empire to its core, revealing its true origins and nature and introducing a radical paradigm shift.  The ball gets rolling when leading scientist Wade Trask, whose inventions have been very useful to the government and Marin's campaigns of conquest in particular, has been found to have uttered seditious statements and is sentenced to death.  (One of the first things we learn about the Great Judge's society is that there is no respect for free speech!)  When Marin counsels leniency. he arouses the suspicions of the Great Judge and his colleagues on the ruling council.  And when he goes to see Trask to give him the bad news, Trask pulls a fast one on Marin, using his latest, secret invention to swap bodies with the general.  Now it is Marin who has only a week to live!

All citizens of the Great Judge's empire have a "pain circuit" imbedded in their flesh.  At the security service's HQ is a transmitter so the secret police can just dial up your circuit and inflict upon you a pain that will gradually increase/  Convicted political criminals like Trask are free to move about the city to say their good-byes and settle their affairs for one week (in fact, Trask's Group leaders send over a prostitute to comfort him in his last days), but after that week, if a condemned man hasn't shown up to the executioner as scheduled, the pain will start and get steadily worse.  So Marin, in Trask's body, only has a week to sort things out.

For most of the novel's 245 pages Marin is running to and fro, living out both his own life (a high-tech disguise allows Trask's body to pass for Marin's) and Trask's life (after Trask in Marin's body gets temporarily incapacitated.)  He pursues his own duties as leader of the Great Judge's diplomatic and military efforts to take over the Kingdom of Jorgia (the successor state to the Soviet Socialist Republic of Georgia and the birthplace of the Great Judge, I suppose van Vogt urging us to think of the Great Judge as Stalin) and in his off-time tries to figure out how to get back in his own body or at least avoid execution.  In the process he learns about the rumored supercomputer known as "the Brain" that may or may not have been destroyed during the Third Atomic War, a machine which, if it indeed survived the war, may be the Great Judge's harried enemy, hiding in the vast fallout shelters beneath the city, or actually the grey eminence behind the Great Judge and the true architect and ruler of his totalitarian empire.  

What with all the body-switching, disguises, people alienated from their origins or concealing their origins, people under the control of others and people pretending to serve one master but in fact serving another, a major theme of The Mind Cage is identity and the roles we play--how we present ourselves to others, what place we have in our community and whether we choose to embrace that role, sullenly inhabit it, or rebel against it.  All the characters are inauthentic in one or more ways--deceiving others, deceived by others, stifling their true feelings--and are denied the opportunity, by the government or by themselves, to be themselves or even know who they really are.

Military aircraft do figure briefly in The Mind Cage, but Karel Thole on the 
later Urania printing of the novel does a better job capturing the book's
tone and themes when he depicts newly-minted citizen of the Great Judge's empire,
the Queen of Jorgia, having her pain circuit installed.

I liked the way van Vogt handled all the themes I've been talking about, and there are lots of high tech devices and weird images and wacky theories (for example, we again find van Vogt expounding alternative theories about poor eyesight, as we saw in "The Chronicler" AKA "Siege of the Unseen" AKA "Three Eyes of Evil") that I found entertaining.  So I am giving The Mind Cage a thumbs up.  But I have to warn you normies out there that The Mind Cage has many of the characteristics of van Vogt's body of work, and perhaps of classic SF in general, that people find off-putting.  The meat of the book is ideas, not characters you can identify with or even like, values you can comfortably endorse, emotional catharsis or skillful wordsmithing; the plot can be confusing, and the protagonist resolves it via trickery and technology.  There is lots of psychology stuff and several action scenes, but it is all related in a detached, clinical, bland fashion, not in a way that will move or thrill a reader.  The Mind Cage is not for everybody, but if you are a van Vogt fan, as I am, this is a decent one.                   


At the back of my copy of The Mind Cage (Tower 43-503, 60¢) are two pages of ads, but they are not for SF books; instead they are for a sex book, The Wandering Husband by Dr. Hyman Spotnitz and a men's magazine, Cavalcade.  You'll be happy to hear that you can read both The Wandering Husband and four or five different (NSFW) 1960s issues of Cavalcade at the internet archive.  Hubba hubba.


Curious, I read the 1948 short story that was the basis for The Mind Cage, "The Great Judge," which first appeared in Fantasy Book.  Just four pages, it is a fun vignette that addresses none of the issues of the novel and is instead focused on conventional thrills.  A scientist is going to be executed for expressing mild criticism of the Great Judge's rule, but he uses his new mind-switching device to shift his consciousness from his own body to that of an investigator that comes by, and then switches his mind from that investigator to the body of the Great Judge himself.  As Great Judge the scientist plans to, with deliberate speed, reform this police state into a free state.  The final paragraphs pf the story amusingly describe the efforts of the great Judge, now in the scientist's body, to escape execution.  A fun little story.   

"The Great Judge" would be reprinted numerous times, including in the van Vogt collection Away and Beyond and multiple anthologies with Isaac Asimov's name on the cover above those of such people as Groff Conklin, Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander.