"The Clinic" by Theodore Sturgeon
"The Clinic" got on my nerves immediately, because Sturgeon's first person narrator is (apparently) a man who has such a severe case of amnesia that he had to relearn how to button clothes and how to eat (!) and also how to speak, a process still underway, and so the text is written with atrocious grammar, missing articles, unusual word choices, and lame pun jokes. One of the ways I have made money in my life is copyediting and proofreading the writing of grad students to whom English is a second language, and Sturgeon's text here resembles such students' writing, and so reading it feels like work, which is no fun.
Our (ostensibly) amnesiac narrator is Nemo, who is being treated at a clinic by a Dr. de la Torre. De la Torre figures out Nemo's brain is different from the typical human brain, he thinks in concepts or gestalts, many related ideas at once, not just individual ideas one at a time like the rest of us. De la Torre offers an analogy--we normies think like violins, one note at a time, while Nemo is like a guitar, thinking in chords. I don't know enough about music to understand this analogy really, but maybe my readers do?
Anyway, at the clinic is a recovering drug addict, a woman. This woman befriends Nemo and there is a long scene in which she tells Nemo that she is all alone in the world, that hanging around the clinic she has learned how deaf people get together and form a community of the deaf and other people with other disabilities form supportive communities but there is no such community for her. This drug addict in the past met a man who, like Nemo, (apparently) had amnesia and she fell in love with him, and then he left her and she is brokenhearted over him.
The big surprise ending of the story is that Nemo is not a Earthman with amnesia; that is a trick. He is a space alien with a handicap--his race is telepathic, but he lacks telepathy. People from his planet who are thusly handicapped come to Earth to learn to speak from Earthlings so they can form their own communities of people who can communicate with each other, exactly in parallel to how deaf people on Earth get together and learn how to use sign language to communicate with each other. The drug addict's lover was one of Nemo's fellow non-telepathic aliens and Nemo is able to tell this guy that the drug addict loves him and he is overjoyed and the two are reunited. Nemo expects that, like his comrade, he will also meet somebody on Earth to love. Nemo has a good attitude!
Sturgeon's big theme across all his career is the importance and power of love and "The Clinic" thus fits right into his body of work. It is competent, no big deal. Three years after it debuted in Star Science Fiction Stories No. 2, editor John Carnell included it in the British SF magazine New Worlds, and since then it has appeared in Sturgeon collections.
"The Congruent People" by Algis Budrys
This is a gimmicky story the main purpose of which, I guess, is to point out a curious fact about the way our brains or minds or whatever you want to call them work.
The main character is Dexter, a guy who takes public transportation to work every day, and every day buys a newspaper at a newsstand. One day he notices that a newsstand customer, instead of handing over a nickel and getting a copy of The New York Times, drops off a newspaper and is given a nickel. Dexter gets this paper and finds it odd, with punctuation conventions and a writing style different than the conventional Times--in fact, he notices on the front page that this paper is not The New York Times but A New York Times.
There are other examples of Dexter spotting backwards things like the newspaper gag, but that is basically the entire story: Dexter discovers and joins the secret group--there is nothing about what might be the group's motives and program or about moral dilemmas caused by their manipulations of others or threats to the group or anything like that. The secret cabal stuff is just a frame on which Budrys hangs this theory about typical people's lazy thinking. The story has a weak twist ending--Dexter was worried about having to tell his wife about the cabal or hide it from her, and it turns out Dexter's wife is already a member and he has even seen her in the cabal leader's HQ, but she was in disguise. Budrys also includes a SF in-joke referencing E. E. Smith: when she is in disguise Dexter's wife's superiors refer to her as "Boskone."
"The Congruent People" feels like a waste of time... I think it may slip off the edge of the "barely acceptable" category and fall into the realm of "poor."
"The Congruent People" has only ever been printed outside of Star Science Fiction Stories No. 2 in a German anthology, Titan-4; I believe the Titan series was a repackaging auf deutsch of selected stories from the Star Science Fiction Stories series.
"F Y I" by James Blish"Shiver and Shake" out of my head.)
The wealthy Britons in the club, knights and peers and so forth, are listening to the radio ("the wireless.") The news broadcast is all about an international crisis centered on India that threatens to cause nuclear war at any moment. One member of the club, its most eccentric, is a world class mathematician and a student of the occult and he isn't listening to the broadcast--he is talking the narrator's ear off about some abstruse mathematics. Blish expends a lot of ink on these mathematics, which involve "transfinite" numbers that can describe nothing in our universe and behave in an unusual way:
"Transfinite numbers don't work like finite ones. They don't add, subtract, multiply or divide in any normal sense. As a matter of fact, the only way to change one is to involute it--to raise it to its own power."
The mathematician combines his insights about transfinite numbers with a psychic message received by a medium he knows (a semi-literate charwoman who talks to people's dead relatives as a part-time side gig) to conclude that the gods are real, and are watching over some mortal race, and will soon expand the universe so that their charges can move to the next level of existence. But he isn't sure if we are the mortal race so blessed or perhaps it is some alien race on another planet, and what connection if any this impending transformation of the universe might have with the impending nuclear war.
This is a shaggy dog story that goes nowhere, a story in which nothing happens--the characters just talk and at the end of the story you are in the same place you were in at the beginning. The conversations that full up the space between Point A and Point A are not interesting or amusing; they are largely gibberish. Thumbs down!
"F Y I" would reappear in Blish collections and a few anthologies, including an installment of the aforementioned Titan series and a book of stories and poems about math(!)
"Conquest" by Anthony BoucherMembers of the SF community love cats and there is a surfeit of cat people and magical cats and so forth in SF, and a remarkable proportion of this story consists of people caressing and playing with a cat, watching a cat chase a bug, and even--call up those furries you saw on TikTok--acting like cats themselves!
Our cast of characters is the three-human, one-feline crew of a scout ship scouring the galaxy for habitable planets, which are quite rare--in fact none have ever been found. Our heroes are the narrator (the astrogator), the head of the mission (the xenobiologist and BLAM--Biology, Linguistics, Anthropology and Math--expert), and the crew co-ordinator, a woman skilled in empathy and providing psychological support who helps the team function smoothly. Boucher calls the woman a specialist in "trine symbiosis" and she seems to be a jocular reference to Theodore Sturgeon stories about love--we are told that a colloquial name for her position is "neuro-sturgeon." She has none of the scientific or technical or military skills you might think would be useful on a dangerous space mission, and I wonder if maybe part of the joke is that we are supposed to see her as a glorified geisha, courtesan or whore, someone whose real job on the ship is to relieve the men's stress.
The cat is just a normal cat; the xenobiologist has been permitted by the authorities to bring his cat because he is reckoned the Earth's best xenobiologist and the eccentricities of such a star are indulged.
This is a joke story, remember, so the male characters are bad at their jobs and the whole story casts doubt on the ability of scientists and technology to overcome obstacles. When the crew finds the first ever habitable extrasolar planet the astrogator crashes into it. The astronauts spot intelligent aliens, people more or less human with a city and clothes, but few machines and no weapons; these people are twelve feet tall. The giants are friendly, and the xenobiologist tries to communicate with one of them, endeavoring to prove that he is an intelligent spacefarer and not just a dumb animal the way a character in a hard SF story might, like by demonstrating that he knows pi and the Pythagorean theorem. The big punchline of the story is that the giant treats the BLAM expert the way a human treats a cat--the native doesn't want to talk about math, he wants to caress the human and make him chase a string or a thrown rock. Enraged, the xenobiologist becomes violent, and almost starts an interstellar war, but the trine symbiosis specialist realizes what is happening and strips off her clothes and runs up to the alien to rub her bare body against his leg the way a cat rubs itself on the leg of a human when it wants to be petted.
Acceptable; people into "meta" stories and SF in-jokes, and people who love love looove cats might like it more than I did.
"Conquest" has only ever been reprinted in a French anthology and The Compleat Boucher.
My interest in joke stories and spoofs is very limited, so this batch of stories is a disappointment to me. The Blish is a total waste of time, and the Budrys not much better. Of this four I probably enjoyed the Sturgeon the most (I know I said "no big deal" when I wrote about it above, but it is up against some weak competition here), as it was sincere, tried to exhibit and elicit from the reader real human emotion, and had the sort of speculation that we sort of hope to see in "serious" science fiction, applying notions about disability to beings who have different abilities than we do. But the Boucher perhaps is the most successful of the four stories we're talking about today in achieving its goal (of spoofing serious first contact stories and serious SF in general) so maybe it is, in some objective way, the best of these pieces.
More stories from the paperback anthology shelves of the MPorcius Library in our next episode; I don't know about you but I am hoping to find some sincere adventure, human drama, or speculation stories, and no gimmick or joke stories.