Tuesday, August 31, 2021

Star SF Stories 2: T Sturgeon, A J Budrys, J Blish and A Boucher

I recently read six stories by Jack Williamson (five out of six of which were warnings that technology will not bring you happiness--tell that to your friends on TikTok!) and one of them was in my copy of Star Science Fiction Stories No. 2, an anthology of brand new stories edited by Frederik Pohl, printed in 1953, and purchased by me in 2016 in Columbus, Ohio.  I blogged the hell out of that story of sadism and the white lies space aliens will tell you, but I feel Star Science Fiction Stories No. 2 has still more to offer us!  Fellow space cowboys, let's wrangle us four more stories from Ballantine 55, tales by Ted Sturgeon, Algis Budrys, James Blish and Anthony Boucher.

"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.

The next day Dexter sees the man who dropped off the queer paper and follows him and in the course of the story learns that there is a parallel society of people of superior intellect living secretly within our society, manipulating it behind the scenes.  These people control the weather, for example.  Dexter has been selected by this secret group for recruitment--his ability to spot a man buying a nickel for a paper instead of buying a paper for a nickel constituted passing a requirement test for membership in the cabal--you see, most people's brains think in gestalts, taking in partial information and then making assumptions and filling in blanks, even ignoring evidence that contradicts expectations; when an ordinary person sees a guy at a newsstand he expects to see him buy a paper and so that is what he sees, even if that is not really what is happening.  A superior person is more perceptive and is not fooled by his own expectations and sees things as they are. 

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    

In his little intro to the story, Fred Pohl suggests "F Y I" is like a P. G. Wodehouse story, and it is about silly rich Englishmen hanging out in a club, and I guess it is meant to be funny, and like a Lord Dunsany story, and there is a supernatural element and I guess it is supposed to be scary.  I found "F Y I" a waste of time, however.  (If I keep typing "waste of time" I am never going to get "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 Boucher

This is a joke story that is a spoof of hard SF first contact stories and has at its center a cat.  Members 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.

The final joke is that the three Earthers are shipwrecked on this planet and have to live out their lives there and do so as pampered pets, hanging around their alien masters naked, being stroked and fed.  (Remember that nudism is a theme of influential SF authors like Robert A. Heinlein.)  They have children, and the children similarly live as pampered pets, as do the children's children, etc., and the narrator characterizes humans being waited on by the natives as having conquered the planet, an extension of the cliched joke that cats act like they are the masters of the families who own them.

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.

Sunday, August 29, 2021

SF: Author's Choice: Brian Aldiss, Poul Anderson, & Fritz Leiber

Recently I read L. Sprague de Camp's "Proposal" in my copy of Harry Harrison's 1968 anthology SF: Author's ChoiceSF: Author's Choice, which was published the same year in Britain in hardcover with the title Backdrop of Stars, consists of 13 stories, selected by their authors as ones they were pleased with and had written for some particular reason, though there were length restrictions and the stories were required to be unanthologized to that date, and Harrison had veto power over the authors' choices.  Harrison also expected the writers to pen a little essay or "personal statement" about their stories.  Today let's read the contributions by Grandmasters Brian Aldiss, Poul Anderson, and Fritz Leiber.  

"Judas Danced" by Brian Aldiss (1958)

"Judas Danced" first appeared as "Judas Dancing" in Fred Pohl's magazine Star Science Fiction, which lasted one issue.  The success of the Star Science Fiction Stories books Pohl edited apparently impressed Ballantine so much they decided to have Pohl do the thing he was doing in magazine form, but the mag didn't sell so Ballantine went back to putting out the anthologies.  You can see the sole issue of Star Science Fiction at the internet archive, and I recommend that fans of Richard Powers do so, as the magazine's pages offer like a dozen black and white decorations and illustrations by Powers in his distinctive and  evocative style.

"Judas Danced" is a sort of challenging literary story with an unreliable first-person narrator that is full of "word play" and wacky jokes and references to history and literature.  It depicts the strange world of several hundred years in the future, but not in a straightforward way--you have to be patient and wait for the end and work a little to figure everything out.  

In brief, our narrator is mentally ill, and one of the ways his insanity manifests itself is that he injures other people and has killed twice; crime is a rarity in the future depicted because of punishments that in one way are harsh, but another way quite lenient.  As the story progresses we learn that the society Aldiss has concocted for the story is the product of illiteracy and time travel.  Illiteracy is the result of the ubiquity of TV, computers and scanners; reading became a skill with little utility, so people stopped learning to read.  As the narrator theorizes (in fiction, insane people are often full of wisdom), Man needs Myth.  For many centuries, religion provided these myths.  Then, in the 19th century, when science crippled religion, Man's source of Myth was literature.  If people in the 23rd or 24th century can no longer read, where will they get their myths from?  This is where time travel comes in.

Time travel to the future is impossible, but time travel to the recent past, like the last week, is feasible, though so expensive only governments with access to the wallets of the taxpayers can swing it.  However, everybody can look back in time as far as around 2700 years ago, so you can observe the lives of Julius Caesar and Jesus Christ and William Shakespeare and so forth on a TV screen called a "timescreen."  Man finds his Myths in history now, in observable reality.

Time travel has also changed the justice system.  Because the government can send agents back in time a week they can generally rescue murder victims by going back in time and helping them avoid a murderer's assault.  They can also execute a murderer and then go back in time and save him from execution.  One of the nonsensical paradoxes Aldiss allows himself in this story is that if you get killed and then get rescued by time travelers you still remember the horrifying and painful experience of being killed in the original time line.  (Like in ancient Rome, the standard method of execution is strangulation.)  So, execution is a punishment which, physically, might leave a condemned felon unscathed, but scar him so deeply psychologically that he will never commit crime again.

Our narrator, the nut, is so crazy he was undeterred by being executed and has killed--the same guy!--a second time, and is about to be executed a second time.  He is so scary that his companions (who at the end of the story are revealed to be his parents), as he discovers late in the story, are petitioning the government to neglect to "resurrect" him after this second execution.

The other crazy thing about the future of this story has to do with dancing.  In the future depicted, people express themselves and work out their psychological problems via the dancing--dancing has taken on the role that sports, drama, and reading and writing had in the 20th century.  There are professional dancers, but everybody dances and the dances consist of people interpreting the history they have seen on the timescreens, playing the roles of people with whom they identify or whom fascinate them.  But our narrator cannot dance because he was born with a club foot.  And the role he wishes he could play, the person he in fact believes himself to be an incarnation of (as the spoily back cover of SF: Author's Choice tells us) is Jesus Christ, while his twin brother, who is the person the narrator keeps murdering, is one of the finest of dancers, a professional who dances as Judas. 

"Judas Danced" is the kind of story which isn't exactly fun when you are wrestling with it but which you admire for its daring originality and elaborate structure when you are done with it.  It is easy to recommend to fans of literary SF but people who read to relax or be entertained maybe will find it a chore or a bore.  Maybe I need to add "respectable" to the menu of words I use to rate these stories.

In his commentary Aldiss writes about how important the writing of "Judas Danced," and how important its acceptance by Pohl, were for his career, and gives some interesting analysis on the course of the SF field.  Aldiss comes across as being a little full of himself, but not too badly.    

"Judas Danced" has been reprinted in numerous Aldiss collections and Robert Silverberg included it in two anthologies, one of which, Alpha 4, I own.   


"The Last of the Deliverers" by Poul Anderson (1958)

In "The Last of the Deliverers" Anderson paints a picture of what looks like a future utopia of small town individualism.  In America, the development of cheap solar energy collectors and batteries that can be owned and maintained by a single individual or family, as well as efficient small scale agriculture, allowed people to live quite independently and flee the crushing taxation and regulation of the cities.  People lost interest in fashionable trends and mass produced consumer items, wearing the same clothes and driving the same vehicles year after year, causing a collapse of big business and big labor, and when people didn't need high incomes to keep up with the Joneses, the tax base also collapsed, leading to a shrinking of the government.  The same technological changes led to the demise of the communist government in the Soviet Union.  The 20th century of big institutions and intrusive national governments, of radical change and horrendous tyranny and monstrous war has been followed by a 21st century of small independent towns in which everybody gets along and does romantic small town stuff like hunting rabbits and making their own furniture, a time period in which nothing changes.

Two old men meet in one of these idyllic towns in Ohio.  One is the last Republican, the town crank, who misses the days of big business and economic growth and big national projects and refuses to forget that his father died in the Korean War when he was a baby.  The other shuffling geezer is a Communist, the last resident of Pittsburgh, whose mother's heart was broken by the fall of the USSR and who, having left Pittsburgh after the death of his wife, travels the countryside preaching the Marxist faith to deaf ears.  These two old timers have arguments the people of the town, who have been enjoying this static peaceful small town existence their entire lives, can't even understand.  The two old men comes to blows and kill each other when their impotent wrestling leads them to fall in a river.

The twist ending is that this 21st century world in which people don't understand the ideological struggles of the 20th century is about to be embroiled in a war over ideological differences we 20th century readers can't understand.

This is one of those stories that is more about ideas than character or drama, though the twist ending, which is subtly but effectively foreshadowed, does inject some drama at the end by casting a new and unflattering light on what came before that undercuts much of the utopian feeling of the bulk of the story.  The caricatured political speeches and lectures about fictional history get a little boring while you are reading them, though.

Acceptable.

In his personal statement Anderson stresses that we must remember our ideological opponents are human, and complains that too much of the politics in SF is simple and naïve and doesn't reflect the fact that all systems represent trade offs and are vulnerable to the reality of fallible human nature, and he admits that he himself is not exempt from such criticism.  He also points out that the future is truly unknowable.

"The Last of the Deliverers" first appeared in F&SF and would go on to be recognized by Martin H. Greenberg as representative of the better stories of the 1950s in two different anthologies, one he did with Joseph Olander and another with Isaac Asimov.  The story was also included in The Best of Poul Anderson, which I see has an introduction by our beloved Barry N. Malzberg!  I am intrigued by what Malzberg could possibly have to say about Anderson--aren't these two dudes who are on totally different wavelengths?  (Of course, I would have thought the same of Malzberg and David Drake, but in 2015 Malzberg wrote that Drake was one of his closest friends.) I am feeling the need to rush out to try to find this 1976 collection at the local used bookstores to see what our pal Barry has to say about Anderson's (pre-1976) career.  

1) They must have really thought Malzberg's name was a draw to put it on the cover, even though
he just contributes a 4-page essay
2) The covers of these books entice customers with promises of high-tech mechanized warfare, but how
many of the stories in them are actually about fighting or dangerous adventure?

"Myths My Great-Granddaughter Taught Me" by Fritz Leiber (1963)

A lot of classic SF writers love Norse Mythology and incorporate that love into their writings.  (I've always preferred Greek and Roman literature myself--I mean, c'mon man, the Greeks and Romans had a sophisticated, artistic, sensitive urban civilization; weren't the Vikings just a bunch of barbarians who lived in dirt huts or something?)  Leiber is one of those guys, and "Myths My Great-Granddaughter Taught Me," which weighs in at six pages here in SF: Author's Choice, is simply an expression of fascination with the tales of Thor, Odin, Ragnarok, and all that, conjoined with people's fear of nuclear war with the Soviet Union.

An old man is interrogated by his clever great-granddaughter; she wants him to explain elements of Norse myth to her.  Everything he rattles off she suggests has an analogue in modern life, the Aesir and their territories represent the United States, the Frost Giants represent the USSR, etc.  She implies that Norse myth is a prophecy that predicts a coming cataclysmic war between the liberal West and the communist East, and if they can figure out who Loki is in our world then maybe the world can be preserved.  The text hints that the old man or his great-granddaughter, or both, may be time travelers from the future who wrote Norse myth to serve as a warning to the people of the 20th century but their mission is in jeopardy because they have forgotten key details or something.  Then all this business with the old man and the great-granddaughter is revealed to be a dream, so who the hell knows?

To me this is a gimmicky trifle that relies on readers being as enthralled with Norse myth as Leiber is and on people finding the relationship of an old man with his precocious great-granddaughter charming.  Barely acceptable. 

In his personal statement Leiber describes his infatuation with Norse myth, saying it strikes a chord with him that "harsh, sand-blown biblical stories" and "the bright, limited perfection and lush sexuality of classical legend" do not.  He also describes in some detail the inspirations behind, and entire process of conceiving, "Myths My Great-Granddaughter Taught Me."   

"Myths My Great-Granddaughter Taught Me" is another piece that made its initial appearance in F&SF.  It would reappear in the Leiber collection The Worlds of Fritz Leiber and some foreign anthologies.

**********

When I blogged about de Camp's "Proposal," I expressed surprise that he and Harrison had chosen a silly joke story to represent his work, and I have to admit I feel that Anderson and Leiber's choices are comparably odd, and to me disappointing.  Both stories offer banal observations (fanatical ideological commitments can blind us to our common humanity and nuclear war would be bad) and tired reader-friendly "hooks" (idyllic small town life and precocious kiddies) as their main attractions.  Anderson takes a stab at speculations about how technological developments might affect our lives and at introducing drama with his effective twist ending, and so "Last of the Deliverers" has a leg up on "Myths My Great-Granddaughter Taught Me," which is nothing but gimmicks and has a twist ending which adds nothing to the story.  Neither Anderson's nor Leiber's story is fun or exciting or enlightening, and neither of them is representative of what makes its author's work worth engaging with.

In contrast, it is obvious why Aldiss chose "Judas Danced" for the anthology.  It is complex on a literary level and full of well thought out but quite original and quite crazy speculations--Aldiss worked hard on this ambitious thing and he came up with something surprising, and there is nothing cozy or cliched or tired about it, he doesn't use any shortcuts to win over or comfort readers, instead he challenges readers.  And it really represents something important about Aldiss's career, his willingness to take risks and do things that are new, to experiment. 

We may return to SF: Author's Choice, and I am sort of curious about later books in the series which include stories and commentaries by writers we are interested in here at MPorcius Fiction Log like A. E. van Vogt, James H. Schmitz, Larry Niven, Barry Malzberg, Jack Vance, Thomas Disch, and the list goes on.  Also, it seems that Aldiss some how managed to get a story in each volume, and I would want to check that out.  (Books to add to my shopping lost?)  But next time I'll be sampling a different anthology.  Stay tuned!       

  

Saturday, August 28, 2021

Jack Williamson: "The Moon Era," "With Folded Hands...," and "The Firefly Tree"

Greetings, and welcome to another exciting installment of MPorcius Fiction Log.  In our last episode I sifted through a pile of old paperback anthologies with awesome covers to read stories by Jack Williamson, and today we read Williamson stories from anthologies which are not quite so old and whose covers are maybe not quite so awesome.

"The Moon Era" (1932) 

"The Moon Era" debuted in the same issue of Wonder Stories, edited by Hugo Gernsback, as did Edmond Hamilton's story "Conquest of Two Worlds," which we read a few years ago.  I am reading "The Moon Era" in my 1974 hardcover edition of Isaac Asimov's Before the Golden Age, which is so huge (over 900 pages) it was also available as three paperbacks by one publisher and four paperbacks by another.  "The Moon Era" is a long story, like 45 pages in Before the Golden Age.  It is kind of like a slightly more realistic version of an Edgar Rice Burroughs story in which a guy unexpectedly finds himself in a strange jungle, fights a monster, meets a princess, and fights the princess's war for her.  (Part of the realism of "The Moon Ear" is that the guy loses the war and the "princess" gets killed.)

Stephen Conway, our narrator, is a school teacher who hates being a school teacher.  (More realism!)  He is also a pretty healthy bloke--he played football in college!--so his rich uncle recruits him for a special mission: to test fly, to the moon no less, the one-man space ship he just finished building!  Just like in the real life 2020s, in this fictional 1930s, it is private enterprise taking the lead in space exploration!  Stephen's reward for being the first man in space and the first man on the moon (as if that wasn't reward enough!) is to be made heir to unk's 3.5 million dollar fortune!  And unk will start paying Stephen $50,000 a year to tide him over until he dies!

The elder Conway's space vessel isn't propelled by anything so crude as rocket, but instead a technique that renders objects opaque to gravity; you run an electric current of particular specifications through two copper disks, and things between the disks, and the disks themselves, are shielded partly or entirely from gravity.  Unk's space ship is a pair of these disks, each like 20 feet across, with a living capsule/cockpit between them--the ship looks like a half empty spool.  You steer this thing by varying how much you let sources of gravity affect you.  (This is kind of like in H. G. Wells's Cavorite ship in First Men in the Moon.)

When Stephen takes off in this thing an unexpected side effect becomes apparent--the ship is not only shielded from the effects of gravity, but travels back in time.  So when Stephen gets to Luna it is millions, maybe billions, of years in the past and the moon has an atmosphere and is covered in jungle!

Williamson describes this jungle in great detail, perhaps too much detail, all the descriptions of different plants not necessarily building up images and a mood so much as a wearisome pile of words.  But then an animal attacks and injures Stephen, and it is a pretty cool monster and a good scene, so Williamson is back in our good graces.

A native of Luna, a sort of furred telepathic snake-woman, comes along and heals up Stephen with her mental powers.  She tells him she is the last of her people; like a queen of ants or bees on Earth, she was mother of an entire tribe, and in fact calls her self "Mother."  She relates how long ago the people of the Moon had a technological society with cities and machines.  Lunar civilization split into two factions, a back-to-nature faction that realized machines and city life made you weak and abandoned modern life, and a pro-technology faction that kept building more and better machines and atrophied until they were nearly bodiless brains; they installed their gray matter in robot bodies to become what we might call cyborgs.  The machine-lovers of today have physically degenerated to the point that they can no longer reproduce, and so tried to kidnap the queens of the snake-people living at one with nature in the jungle, but the queens committed suicide rather than give birth to new members of the cyborg civilization.  Mother is the only survivor of the ensuing war, and is on the run.  If she can get across the ocean she can start a new in-touch-with-nature civilization with the hundreds of eggs in her eel-like body.

Stephen keeps telling us that Mother, the alien furry snake with doodads like a crest and wing-like membranes sticking out of her vermiform body, is beautiful and there are many instances of her touching him, to facilitate telepathic communication or to heal him or whatever--"The Moon Era," like some kind of proto-New Wave story, is a story of (unconsummated) interspecies love.  In the same way in a conventional story the lovestruck narrator might keep talking about a woman's eyes or hair or breasts--their shape and color, the way they move--in "The Moon Era" Stephen talks again and again about this alien's blue crest and the shifting color of her membranes and the muscles moving under the skin of her serpentine body.  It is really something.

The interspecies couple is chased for page after page, gets captured, escapes from the city, and in a final battle in which Stephen's Earth muscles give him the power to triumph over his robotic enemies, Mother is mortally wounded.  Stephen buries her and gets into the space ship to return to Earth, leaving behind a Luna that will soon be bereft of intelligent life.  I guess we are to assume that on the return trip the ship somehow goes forward in time back to the 20th century?  Williamson, not wanting to distract from his tragic ending, I suppose, doesn't address this issue.

This story feels kind of long, and I am generally unimpressed by anti-technology stories that advocate pursuing some kind of stone-age lifestyle, but the monsters and the machine people are good and the whole relationship between Stephen and Mother is so remarkable that the story has to be counted a success.     

In 1941 "The Moon Era" was reprinted in a British magazine, Tales of Wonder and Super-Science, and it was also selected by Sam Moskowitz for an anthology that appeared in numerous editions under various titles, including Three Stories, A Sense of Wonder, and The Moon Era.

"With Folded Hands..." (1947)

This is a pretty famous story; it was included in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume Two A, and in 2018 the Libertarian Futurist Society recognized it with the Prometheus Hall of Fame Award.  It debuted in Astounding and I am reading it in Isaac Asimov Presents The Golden Years of Science Fiction: Fifth Series, which is a 1985 hardcover omnibus edition of the two volumes of Isaac Asimov Presents the Great SF Stories that covered 1947 and 1948.

Mr. Underhill lives in a small town in the spacefaring future in which many planets have been colonized by Earth people.  When he was young he wanted to be an engineer and build fission power plants, but then he met Aurora, with the beautiful red hair.  He married her and then found that he had to take over the robot store ("mechanicals agency") Aurora's drunk and lazy father had been driving into the ground.  Now the Underhills have two kids and money troubles because the robot market is saturated and the robots Underhill sells aren't materially superior to all the other firms' robots.

The day the story begins Underhiull gets one piece of distressing news after another.  A new robot store, selling "Humanoids," has sprung up out of nowhere.  (Much the way the store in A. E. van Vogt's "The Weapon Shop" just suddenly appeared.)  The Humanoids, imported from another planet, are so much better than any robot manufactured on Earth Underhill knows his firm is doomed.  And Aurora has found a new lodger for the room over the garage.  In the past Aurora's lodgers have refused to pay the rent and turned out to have been criminals, and at first this new one, an old man named Sledge, doesn't seem like he's going to be much better.

As the story proceeds it becomes clear that the Humanoids constitute a benevolent dictatorship come to run the lives of everybody on the planet; humans need not work--the Humanoids will do all the work, and do it more safely and efficiently than humans can.  The Humanoids do not take no for an answer, but use irresistible sales tactics in pursuit of their mission of securing human safety.  Soon everybody is unemployed and every person has a Humanoid minder who drives for him, cooks for him, even opens doors for him and shaves him, because all those activities run a risk of injury when done by mere humans.  Obviously people aren't permitted to cook or throw darts or play football or anything dangerous like that, and even reading novels soon falls under the category of the forbidden.  

The lodger Sledge turns out to be a refugee from the planet on which the Humanoids originated.  In fact, this old codger invented the Humanoids and a bunch of other stuff, like the human race's first FTL drive and a wireless energy transmitter and so on, stuff that has made the Humanoids possible.  He tells Underhill the long and sad story of his career, how his early inventions led to mass war on his home planet and how he then invented the Humanoids to serve as protectors, as a prophylactic against human violence ("I was determined to build better mechanicals, immune to human imperfections, able to save men from themselves") and how that didn't work out well, either.  The Humanoids, massed produced on the inventor's home planet, have been spreading throughout the galaxy, taking over one planet after another--because they have the FTL drive they can outrun warnings about them.  Only Sledge in his own FTL vessel can keep ahead of them.

Readers of Williamson's Legion of Space books will recall that the series featured a tiny superweapon that could blow up a whole planet.  Well, Sledge, with the help of Underhill, builds a tiny superweapon that can blow up his home planet and thus deprive the Humanoids of their power source and central computer.  But our heroes fail--the super-efficient Humanoids have predicted just such an attack and put up the appropriate shield against the super weapon.  Sledge is taken by the Humanoids to the hospital and his brain is altered surgically so that he loves the Humanoids' rule; Underhill starts pretending to share that love so as to avoid a similar fate. 

We've read quite a few stories here at MPorcius Fiction Log arguing that Utopia is a nightmare and to be happy people need challenge and goals and risks*, and here's another one.  It is easy to see why the Libertarian Futurist Society would like "With Folded Hands...," with its theme that too much government intervention into your life is bad, even if it is ostensibly for your own good, and even if the government isn't run by a bloodthirsty monster or a senile goofball, but entities benign and flawless.  

It feels kind of long (it's like 45 pages in Isaac Asimov Presents The Golden Years of Science Fiction: Fifth Series) but "With Folded Hands..." is not bad.  Readers will perhaps be reminded of Isaac Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics by the Humanoids' "Prime Directive" of "To Serve and Obey, And Guard Men from Harm," and of course the ending is reminiscent of George Orwell's 1984.

"With Folded Hands..." was a big success, and has been printed in many collections and anthologies in many languages, and was followed by a novel-length sequel serialized over three issues of Astounding in 1948 under the title "...And Searching Mind." 

*A sample from just 2021 and 2020: Leigh Brackett, "Child of the Sun (1942), Raymond F. Jones, "Rat Race" (1966), Henry Kuttner, "The Land of Time to Come" and "Remember Tomorrow" (both 1941), Ray Bradbury, "Pillar of Fire" (1948).

On the cover of Der Pandora Effekt we can see Sledge and Underhill working 
on their superweapon
"The Firefly Tree" (1997)

Wow, two downer endings in a row!  And two anti-technology stories in a row!  Will "The Firefly Tree" make it a trifecta?  One thing I know, it won't make three overly long stories in a row, because "The Firefly Tree" is only five pages in the place I am reading it, David Hartwell's Year's Best SF 3.  "The Firefly Tree" first appeared in Science Fiction Age, a magazine that ran from 1992 to 2000.

Behold downer number three!  Our protagonist is a little boy from the city; he and his birthing person and her life partner had to leave the city and his friends to move to a farm so remote there isn't even a public school for him to attend, all so Dad could grow marijuana.  This kid finds a strange plant and feels a strong attachment to it.  Dad thinks it's the kind of weed he doesn't want to cultivate and goes to pull it out of the ground, but the kid protects the plant and cares for it, watering it when it doesn't rain, for example.  

The plant grows into a little tree with lovely flowers.  The kid dreams that at night he goes to the tree and talks to little flying people he calls "fireflies," who tell him his beloved tree is from space and out there is a galactic federation of thousands of peaceful intelligent species who all get along; these happy people sent the tree to Earth to invite the human race to join their peaceful civilization.

When the kid tells his parents this stuff they fear he is mentally ill and Mom takes him to the doctor.  When the kid and Mom get back from the doctor's office they find the police have put Dad in their squad car and are in the process of burning the marijuana...and in a case of mistaken identity as tragic as the one in The Rolling Stones' "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)" the tree from space is also being burnt up!  Mom and the kid go back to the city, but the kid is not interested in hooking up with his old friends, he just grieves for the fireflies, his father, and "all that might have been."  

This is well written, but it is a sappy story, and feels like something written for children.  Merely acceptable.  

I am lukewarm about it, but the SF community seems to have embraced "The Firefly Tree."  Fred Pohl included it in The SFWA Grand Masters Volume 1 and it also appeared in a 1000-page textbook on 20th-century SF edited by Leigh Ronald Grossman.       


**********

I didn't expect all these stories to be tragedies in which intelligent life on a planet goes extinct, or mankind loses any semblance of freedom, or a kid is scarred for life by a glimpse at limitless possibilities which are snatched away.  But I like to be surprised, and it is certainly nice to know a guy can write viable entertaining stories across a period of seven decades!

More from my collection of paperback anthologies in our next episode! 

Thursday, August 26, 2021

Jack Williamson: "Hindsight," "The Happiest Creature" and "Guinevere for Everybody"

A few days ago we read Jack Williamson's 1934 tale of a half-Chinese mad scientist who wanted to create a super race, "Wizard's Isle."  Earlier in the week when I was digging through the pile of SF anthologies here in the MPorcius Library in search of stories by L. Sprague de Camp I took note of some stories by Williamson; today let's spend some time exploring (a tiny portion of) the body of work of the second recipient of the title of SFWA Grand Master.

Click for a larger reproduction so you can really drink in the 
Powers cover and the praise for John W. Campbell, Jr.!

"Hindsight" (1940)

Let's start with my crumbling copy of 1957's Astounding Tales of Space and Time, Berkley G-47, a collection of stories selected by towering editor John W. Campbell, Jr. from the pages of his magazine, Astounding.  Isaac Asimov and David Drake would later include "Hindsight" in anthologies of their own.

It is the future!  Mankind has colonized the solar system.  Those who peopled the asteroids became space pirates and robber barons, seizing a monopoly on interplanetary transport, extorting tremendous wealth, and from there gradually expanding their power over the independent planets.

William Webster, Earthman, is one of the system's greatest scientists.  Twenty years ago he and his best buddy, fellow scientist Tony Grimm, were in love with the same girl, Martian-born Elora Ronee.  When Ronee chose Grimm over him, Webster decided to take up a job offer from the dictator of the asteroids--this tyrant would pay ten times what any Earth employer could pay.  Webster changed his name to Brek Veronar, and designed for the asteroid creeps a high tech system for piloting space craft and directing weapons fire, a system whose startling efficiency is the result of its ability to look a short distance into the past and future!

Over those two decades the asteroid tyranny has been strengthening its grip, manipulating and infiltrating the weak and corrupt Earth government so that the citizens of Earth groan under crushing taxes and regulations that benefit the asteroid monopolies!  Tony Grimm is a leader of the underground resistance, and has built an illegal space navy of six ships.  The dictator of the asteroids has found out about this squadron, and a fleet of thirty of his warships speeds to Earth; aboard the flagship is the dictator and his right-hand man and Grimm's former pal "Brek Veronar," Veronar is in charge of that navigation and gunlaying computer system he built.  

The asteroid fleet suffers a crushing defeat--Grimm has designed a computer system even better than that of his old friend!  Aboard the crippled flagship, Veronar retools his computer system in an attempt to change the past, to alter a minor factor from their time together so that his computer system will be better than Grimm's, with the idea that the asteroid fleet will then win the battle.  But his effort is futile: the big events of history are set in stone and changing a small factor cannot alter significant outcomes; in this new history the Earth fleet of Grimm lacks a superior computer system, but wins anyway, because,  at the last second Veronar suddenly realizes betraying Earth was a mistake and turns off the asteroid forces' computer, leaving them helpless before the Earthers' gunfire.

A decent story about space navies (all the technological and military stuff is fun) and the nature of time and history; whereas the famous adage "for want of a nail" and Ray Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" try to tell us tiny little factors can radically change history, Williamson here argues, or at least portrays, the opposite.  

"The Happiest Creature" (1953)   

Next up, Frederick Pohl's anthology of all-new stories, Star Science Fiction Stories No. 2, featuring another Richard Powers cover.  My copy's cover is a little blurry due to some printing misalignment or something.  Oh, well.  

The galaxy is full of quite human spacefaring civilizations, but we 20th-century Earthers know nothing about it because galactic regulations prevent any interference with our development and so the extraterrestrials have kept their existence a secret from us.  Galactic anthropologists and biologists live among us, able to use all their technology to hide their presence from us.  But one day a hardened criminal and sadist--a thief and murderer--escapes prison and while fleeing the cops, by mere chance, hides in an alien space ship!  He is not discovered until the space ship has taken off.

The galactics who have unwittingly taken this bloodthirsty thug off Earth are in a pickle.  It is illegal to take Earthlings off planet, so they have to get rid of him, but they can't just return him to Earth because 1) he would expose the existence of aliens to Earth people and 2) back home he has killed repeatedly and plans to kill again and so will be executed if caught by the cops, and the galactics cannot allow themselves to be responsible for the death of a human (it seems this sort of attitude is enforced via brain treatments.)  So they tell the killer that they will return him to Earth but will use their powers to make sure he is absolved of his crimes and his dream girl (who hates him, in part because he killed her father) will love him, so he'll have no need to kill anyone.

Back home on "Earth" in a small Southwestern town in the desert the murderer finds he truly has been absolved of his crimes, and then his dream girl rushes to embrace him.  He is disappointed that she is so eager to be his lover, because he enjoys beating women and wanted to use force to make her submit.  When he shoots down a defenseless man against whom he holds a grudge he finds the man is a robot!  The aliens built a replica of the desert town and populated it with facsimile people, hoping the murderer would thus be placated--in fact, they sort of expected him to be the happiest Earthling in the galaxy!  Instead the killer is enraged and, it is implied, commits suicide or dies trying to batter his way out of his gilded prison.

I enjoyed all the scenes with the galactics; their conversations with each other and their efforts to understand and deal with the Earthling sadist are good, but the end was a little bit of a let down in a way I am having trouble defining; maybe I've just been exposed to too many "Oh my goodness I just realized I'm living in an artificial Truman matrix world" stories.  Obviously I can't blame Williamson, who published this story in 1953, for that. 

I often groan at pacific-aliens-as-foils-that-shame-us-violent-Earthlings stories, but Williamson doesn't push that theme too hard here: the galactics don't act like paragons--they use a lot of trickery and deception and one of them is always trying to bend the rules--and the killer Earthman doesn't come off as a representative Everyman, but a horrible aberration.      

"The Happiest Creature" would reappear quite often, including in The Best of Jack Williamson, which was adorned with good covers by Ralph McQuarrie (American edition) and Karel Thole (Italian edition) and Star of Stars, an anthology collecting what Fred Pohl thought the best stories of the six Star Science Fiction Stories volumes that has a great Powers space-suit-and-domed-city cover.  


"Guinevere for Everybody" (1955)  

Williamson's story for Star Science Fiction Stories No. 3, "Guinevere for Everybody," also turned up in The Best of Jack Williamson, as well as a bunch of other places, like Fred Pohl's Yesterday's Tomorrows.   I actually own two copies of Star Science Fiction Stories No. 3, the 1962 printing (Powers cover) and the 1972 printing (John Berkey cover.)  I'll be reading the '72 copy as it is not falling apart as badly as its predecessor.

It is the future!  Many large commercial enterprises are now run by computers, and cybernetics engineer Pip Chimberley, a man who likes machines better than people, is a troubleshooter for the manufacturer of these electronic CEOs.  He gets an emergency call from his superiors--the computer that runs Solar Chemistics, Inc., Athena Sue, has started marketing synthetic humans and Pip's bosses don't like this one bit!  Pip flies from New York State to the Southwest to take a look at Athena Sue, and in the airport he sees one of Solar Chemistics's new vending machines.  Inside it is a gorgeous blonde with blue eyes by the name of Guinevere and she is using all her feminine charms to try to convince people (and by "people" I mean "men") walking by to purchase her!  Her attentions throw Pip, a virgin, for a loop, but he buys her as part of his research into what is going on with Athena Sue.

The two sit in a restaurant and when the beautiful synthetic woman isn't hawking other Solar Chemistics products she answers Pip's queries, describing how she was designed and produced.  Then they head to the Solar Chemistics plant, where water and solar energy are transformed into consumer goods, including, beginning yesterday, girls just like Guinevere.  The entrance to the plant is wrecked--people are angry about the new product and earlier rioted.  Pip's investigation of Athena Sue's files reveals that the management computer was programmed to market a product that would lead to her own destruction and the wholesale discrediting of computer management!  Who would program Athena Sue to commit suicide in this way?  The man she replaced as director, who was demoted to night watchman as soon as she was turned on!  The negative public reaction to the Guinevere product leads to deactivation for Athena Sue and the manager getting his job back.

Pip feels defeated; he likes machines more than people and feels he has let down Athena Sue.  But at least he still has his Guinevere!  Oh no he doesn't!  Following a strategy of planned obsolescence, Athena Sue built each Guinevere with only a 24-hour period of youth; her business plan envisaged customers trading in their Guineveres for a discount on a fresh one each day.  When Pip gets back to the hotel from the plant, Guinevere is already a hideous old crone.

I think Williamson sort of elides the reason for the riots against the Guinevere product (of course business executives don't want to be replaced by Athena Sues, but it is not clear why large enough numbers of men might resent the Guineveres enough after only one day to resort to violence) but the story isn't bad, and I guess it is sort of a joke story that one shouldn't expect to make perfect sense.  It is a perfect story for commies who relish anti-consumerist stories (Fred Pohl obviously ate it up) and maybe feminists who think men view women as objects, though the men in this story (puzzlingly, to me) don't jump at the chance to own a woman with supermodel looks whom you can trade in when she gets long in the tooth.


 **********

All three of these stories are pretty good, with thought provoking technological business (that argues technology can't make you happy!) and the disastrous sexual relationships I like to see in the fiction I read.  More Jack Williamson in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log!

Monday, August 23, 2021

L. Sprague de Camp: "Proposal," "Judgment Day," and "The Lamp from Atlantis"

In El Paso, Illinois, I recently picked up a 1978 issue of Galileo, a magazine that ran for 15 issues between 1976 and 1980. I seized this one, #9, because of its great Jeff Jones cover.  On the last page of the magazine is a brief article about L. Sprague de Camp's productivity, and the inside back cover is a full page photo of the man.  I haven't read much de Camp since I started this blog, though in my New York days I read a bunch of his Viagens Interplanetarias stories and novels, which I found sort of mediocre.  Spurred by this photo, I dug through my anthologies and found three de Camp stories--and a poem!-- and now set out to read them.

"Proposal" (1952)

On the same road trip on which I purchased Galileo #9, I also bought six SF paperbacks in an Ohio antiques mall.  Among these six is Harry Harrison's SF: Author's Choice from 1968.  (This anthology appeared in Britain in hardcover as Backdrop of Stars.)  SF: Author's Choice consists of stories which their authors were proud of and which Harrison liked but had not been anthologized before, and also includes personal reflections on the stories.

De Camp in his intro to "Proposal," which made its debut in Startling, talks about the theory of humor (a joke must contain surprise and incongruity or irrationality, but will not be funny to those who hold dear something the joke exposes to scorn or ridicule) and says that this story was inspired by the experience of sitting through his nine-year-old son's school play, a performance of Engelbert Humperdink's Hansel and Gretel

"Proposal" is like a sitcom episode.  Alice Wernecke is a twenty-something school teacher in suburban Pennsylvania, a virgin who is looking for Mr. Right.  Men--including a jerk who tries to use his superior position in the public school hierarchy to get her to succumb to his desires--pursue her, but she fends them off, preserving herself for a man she really wants to marry.  Alice diets so she too won't get fat like her roommate, fellow schoolteacher Inez Rogell, a woman no man wants to date, and Alice also has an immigrant mother with an accent who gives advice on how to get a man. 

Friendly space aliens land in Africa and seek to learn all about the human race.  Individual aliens go to different parts of the world to live among us natives and learn our ways.  One alien, Kstaho (Alice pronounces it "Stanko") is chaperoned by a young State Department employee, Byron Matthews, around the Philadelphia area.  Matthews is friends with the family of one of Alice's students, and Alice thus meets the diplomat and the alien.  Alice and the attractive Byron hit it off and want to start dating, but Stanko, as an anthropologist, wants not only to sit in on Alice's classes and Inez's Rogell's students' performance of Hansel and Gretel, but to accompany Alice and Byron on their dates!  This guy is in the way of their budding love connection, but Alice and Byron can't give this creature from the stars the brush off because his race is very sensitive and likely to commit suicide if insulted.  Stanko even starts dating Alice himself, and then, not realizing the realities of human sex and reproduction, offers Alice a proposal of marriage!

When sexual reproduction among humans is explained to him, Stanko is embarrassed and begins the process of committing suicide.  Inez Rogell, who has given up all hope of a sex life, and, like Alice, does not actually enjoy being a teacher, saves the day when she offers to marry Stanko.  A sexless life seeing new things in outer space is preferable to her than a sexless life as a school teacher in PA.  Byron proposes to Alice, she accepts, and then he tells her he is getting a promotion and they will soon be moving to Stanko's planet!  

"Proposal" is merely acceptable in my opinion, though I expect today's woke audiences may be offended by it, as much of its humor (which doesn't actually make you laugh, but maybe smile a little) relies on stereotypes about women and African-Americans (there is a "colored" kid in Inez Rogell's class who is so scared of Stanko he can't sing his part of Hansel and Gretel) and a blasé attitude about what today we would consider career-as-governor-and-senior-citizen-exterminator-ending sexual harassment.

It is interesting that de Camp took the opportunity of SF: Author's Choice to highlight a story full of sitcom jokes instead of one that taught science or offered adventure thrills or had something to say about the human condition, but maybe "Proposal" does have something to say about the human condition--that no matter the circumstances, people will pursue love and sex.  People in Europe in the early 1940s, living under the threat of having the Luftwaffe or RAF drop a bomb on their heads or being drafted into a rifle squad or thrown into a death camp, people surrounded by death and destruction and conscious that their whole way of life was threatened, fell in love and pursued their sexual desires, so why wouldn't suburban Pennsylvanians do the same in the presence of a friendly alien?  Life goes on!

"Judgment Day" (1955)

I'm reading "Judgment Day" in my hardcover edition of Damon Knight's A Science Fiction Argosy, which I purchased at an Iowa library sale in 2015.  The story first appeared in Astounding, and has been well-received, getting reprinted in such volumes as Tony Licata's Great Science Fiction, Dennis Etchison's Masters of Darkness III, and multiple de Camp collections.   

"Judgment Day" is barely a science fiction story; mostly it is a mainstream literary story, the autobiography of an alienated misanthrope, an intelligent man who has no social skills and is a failure with women (a significant proportion of SF fans have viewed themselves this way, and wikipedia is telling me this story is semi-autobiographical.)

Wade Ormont describes in some detail how, as a child, he was very smart but lacking in tact, and also thin, weak and clumsy.  We get page after page relating how the other boys bullied him; because he was too feeble to fight them, and because reporting them to the adults or crying only invited more torment, he learned to just endure the abuse heaped upon him, resisting in no way and showing no emotion.  Years of this lead to an inability to express any feelings, to "put himself out there," and so he didn't date any women until his thirties, after he had become a respected physicist and had even worked on the Manhattan Project.  His incapacity to display any human warmth lead to the collapse of his brief marriage.  

What makes this a science fiction story is the fact that, at age 53, Dr. Ormont has discovered a relatively simple way to cause a chain reaction that can blow up the Earth; any nation with access to nuclear material can accomplish it.  Ormont assumes that if he writes up this discovery it will eventually leak to communist and third world dictatorships and within a few years some psycho will, perhaps after trying to blackmail the world and setting off a cataclysmic war, trigger the chain reaction and exterminate the human race.  Ormont has spent some days considering whether to write up a report or to destroy his findings and keep his discovery a secret, but last night was Mischief Night (like Bon Jovi, a lamentable New Jersey phenomena some of my readers may not be familiar with) and the neighborhood boys vandalized his home and automobile, so he decides to write the report.

A competent story, maybe marginally good?   

"The Lamp from Atlantis" (1975)

This story originally appeared as "The Lamp" in F&SF; I am reading it in Lin Carter's The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 2.  Both Ed Ferman's intro in F&SF and Carter's intro here point out that de Camp got the idea of a lamp from Atlantis from Lovecraft, who toyed with the idea but didn't ever write a story based on it, and that de Camp takes the idea in a direction Lovecraft would not have.

Alfred Ten Eyck is a loser.  He had to leave Princeton and return home to the Adirondacks of upstate New York when his father died.  His father left him some land, including an island with a sort of resort camp for summer visitors, but he can't seem to make it profitable.  When America entered WW2 he volunteered but caught TB in training camp.  He married a woman who quickly left him when it became apparent he couldn't satisfy her sexually.  The people in the village consider him a wealthy outsider and dislike him, and his money is running out as all his business ventures, a bowling alley among them, fail.

Alfred's friend and our narrator, W. Wilson Newbury, was in Europe during and just after the war, and Alfred contacted him, asking him to bring across the Atlantic to him an ancient oil lamp he had bought via wire in Paris.  The seller claims it is from fabled Atlantis.  While bringing it over from the Old World, Newbury had crazy dreams, and after he is in possession of it Alfred has the same dreams, of a tentacled monster on a throne.  The monster, a sort of monster-god, requests a sacrifice, and tells Alfred  it will turn him from a loser into a winner in return for the sacrifice.  Alfred is willing to make a sacrifice, but bad weather keeps him from leaving the island to buy a pig or something else suitable, and his efforts to capture a snapping turtle comically fail.  Then the island sinks (just like Atlantis, right?) and Alfred is drowned.  Newbury escapes, however.

I guess this is supposed to be funny, but it is only faintly amusing, and the jocular tone short circuits any thrills or chills we might get from the weird elements.  Merely acceptable.

(The more I think about this story the worse it seems.  Why does Alfred, who is low on funds, invest in an ancient lamp?  Does he know it will put him in touch with a monster god who can change his luck?  And why is it a lamp?  Why isn't it a dagger or an incense burner or a cup that catches blood or something, something that is linked to a sacrifice?  A lamp is something you use to light your way--shouldn't a Lovecraftian story about an ancient lamp be about using the lamp to help you see into other dimensions or see the future or something like that?  Also, Alfred never puts oil in the lamp or uses it as a light source--any Atlantean object would have served the purpose the lamp serves in this story.  Lazy!)  

"The Lamp" was the first published of a series of stories about W. Wilson Newbury which would be collected in 1980 in The Purple Pterodactyls.  I wonder if all these stories involve Newbury's friends getting killed--sounds like a laugh riot!  

**********

Looking back I see a theme running through all these stories: life is a nightmare because it is so hard to engineer a fulfilling career and a fulfilling sex life.  I did not expect reading these stories to be so depressing!  

Our final de Camp item today is a poem I am reading from my copy of The Best from Fantasy and Science Fiction: Fifth Series, edited by Anthony Boucher, published in 1956, previously owned by Private Charles E. Harris.  (We read stories from this book by Damon Knight, Avram Davidson and Fredric Brown back in 2018.)  This poem, "Lament by a Maker," is also about career and social failure! 

"Lament by a Maker" is written in the voice of a hack SF author whose published stories are denounced by letter writers.  The poem is in three stanzas, and each is a parody of a type of SF story; the narrator has tried his hand successively at each as it came into vogue, but never achieved popularity.  The first stanza is about planetary romance like the Mars stories of Edgar Rice Burroughs or Leigh Brackett, the second gadget-heavy space operas like those of Edmond Hamilton or E. E. Smith, the third SF stories about psychology and mental powers, like those of A. E. van Vogt and Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore.  I guess this verse is a fun in-joke for people knowledgeable about the history of SF before the end of the Second World War, but it is not a particularly good poem.  For one thing there is no climax or resolution; through all three stanzas the writer says he doesn't know why readers claim his tales are boring, and the poem would be improved if in a fourth stanza he seized on an answer (perhaps a comically wrong one) of why his work was frowned upon or came up with a new tack to try, like switching to westerns or confession-type stories or something.  

These four items are all OK, but no big deal.  De Camp seems like a capable professional writer, but nothing here is inspired or excellent.  Maybe these pieces are useful as reflections of the SF community, and the wider world, of their day, with the World War II and Cold War references and the depictions of (what a man supposes about) women's yearnings and so on.

**********

More short stories by a Golden Age SF writer pulled from my anthology shelves in our next episode!  

MPoricus Library: Paperback SF anthologies
   
MPorcius Library: Hardcover SF anthologies

Sunday, August 22, 2021

From the June 1934 Weird Tales: J Williamson, R E Howard, C A Smith and A Derleth & M Schorer

In our last episode, we read mid-1930s stories from Amazing full of robotics, ray guns and aliens both malignant and beneficent.  Let's stick with the mid-Thirties, but shift gears to the weird!  Today's subject: the June 1934 issue of Weird Tales, which includes numerous stories by important figures in the history of speculative fiction. Let's check out four, stories by Jack Williamson, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and August Derleth in collaboration with Mark Schorer.

"Wizard's Isle" by Jack Williamson 

I haven't read much Williamson since this blog wriggled out from under the overturned rock of my mind, but in the years prior I read many Williamson novels, among them The Legion of Space, The Cometeers, One Against the Legion, Seetee Ship, The Reefs of Space (with Frederik Pohl), The Power of Blackness, Star Bridge (with James E. Gunn), The Black Sun, and Life Burst.  All those were science fiction stories featuring space travel, and I tend to think of Williamson as a pioneer of space opera and hard science fiction concepts like terraforming and antimatter, but The Black Sun has Lovecraftian elements and The Legion of Space has some serious horror elements and Williamson also wrote a famous novel about witches and werewolves--Darker Than You Think--which I have not read, so it seems he was far from averse to handling fantasy and horror themes.  Let's check out "Wizard's Isle," a Weird Tales cover story, and see to what extent it sticks to the hard sciences and how much it explores supernatural material.  

Jason Wade is a Yale man!  He has spent two years in China, "working a tin concession," or, as a college professor might put it, exploiting the labor of the developing world and stealing natural resources from the global south.  While there, he got word that his fiancé back in New York, Tonia Hope, had disappeared!  He hired a Big Apple private dick by wire and got to Gotham as fast as he could--"as fast as he could" adds up to two months!  As the story begins Jason is in the P. I.'s office, learning that Tonia was probably seized by some mysterious weirdo called "Mr. Alexander," an Asian ("Oriental" is what they say in this 1934 story) also known as "Iskandar the Wizard of Life."  Iskandar has been buying millions of dollars worth of scientific equipment and is rumored to have spent millions more on some mysterious construction in the Arabian Sea which has since vanished.  Iskandar is also suspected in the kidnapping of biologist Jerry Travers, a fellow Yalie!

Jason begins his own investigation, and is almost immediately kidnapped and taken by plane to a huge ship, an artificial floating island somewhere on the ocean, to be dragged before Iskandar himself, a man half-Oriental, half-Occidental, with almond eyes, ivory skin, and feminine red lips.  The man is a genius and a sadist who used drugs and radiation to transform Jerry Travers's body into that of a giant scorpion, while keeping the man's human head and brain intact so Jerry knows the horror that has befallen him!  Jerry's wife was forced to watch this weeks-long transformation, which drove her insane before she died of misery.

You might say that Williamson is trying to exploit our fear of and disgust at things which live on both sides of boundaries, things that violate borders and do not stay within the sharply defined categories with which we are comfortable.  Is Iskandar white or Asian?  Is he male or female?  Is Jerry Travers a human or an arachnid?  The fact that Iskandar is both Western and Eastern, and a man with some feminine characteristics, and that Travers is part human and part scorpion, is meant to disturb us, to excite our horror and disgust.

Iskandar shares his plans with Jason, as evil geniuses in fiction are wont to do.  Like his namesake and ancestor Alexander of Macedon, Iskandar is going to remake the world!  The Wizard of Life is going to create a new race of supermen who will conquer and enslave homo sapiens, and beautiful blond and blue-eyed Tonia Hope, after her body is suitably altered via drugs and radiation, will be the mother of this new super race!  

Among his army of Asians, Iskandar has two Caucasian-American thugs who represent his interests in the USA--it is these jokers who captured Jason in NYC.  Iskandar orders them to throw Jason into the ocean, and as they drag him to the edge of the artificial island Jason implores them to think of themselves as white men, to help him avenge their fellow whites Mr. and Mrs. Travers and protect white woman Tonia Hope from a fate worse than death.  They scoff, saying Iskandar pays them a thousand bucks a week!  These race traitors throw Jason into the ocean, but luckily he is a strong swimmer and finds his way to a drainage outlet and crawls back into the floating island.

Right into a giant terrarium thing, a dense jungle under a huge dome.  The jungle is bathed in radiation that causes the jungle life to mutate in mind-boggling ways!  Jason is confronted by such sights as maggots two or three feet long boring into gigantic mushrooms covered in monstrous vines, and even worse nightmare visions.  Iskandar with two Chinese riflemen comes down into this mad house of evolution run wild to destroy a giant centipede which is out of control and Jason ambushes them, but after a tough fight Jason ends up captured again.

Jason is to be turned into a half-man, half-scorpion like Jerry Travers was, but when he is dragged to the radiation cell in which Travers is held the biologist recognizes Jason and attacks the Chinese soldiers.  Jerry and Jason run through the corridors of the ship's superstructure, killing Chinese soldiers, the American thugs, and finally Iskandar.  Jerry the scorpion man succumbs to the grisly gunshot wounds he suffered during the fighting, but Jason and Tonia, after shooting it out with some more Chinese, escape in the plane in which he was brought.  (Jason can fly planes as well as swim and shoot like a champ--these Yale men are well-rounded!)  Right before he died, Iskandar rotated the control that scuttled his floating island, so his experiments and the remnants of his army are lost forever beneath the waves.

An entertaining Yellow peril/mad scientist story with lots of horror and gore content that also reflects Williamson's hard science interests (Williamson was, according to wikipedia, one of the first people to write about genetic engineering and apparently coined that term.)  This is a competent weird story much akin to something our pal Edmond Hamilton might write--Hamilton and Williamson lack the sort of distinctive literary style that top shelf weirdies like H. P. Lovecraft, Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard bring to their work, but the boys from Ohio and Arizona have an interest in the sciences that distinguishes their productions from those worthies. 

"Wizard's Isle" was reprinted in England in 1945 under the title "Lady in Danger" in a sort of pamphlet with a photo of a nude woman on its cover.  It is also the title story of the third volume in Haffner Press's eight-volume series The Collected Stories of Jack Williamson

"The Haunter of the Ring" by Robert E. Howard

Speak of the devil, on the next page of Weird Tales's June '34 issue we see the title of Robert Howard's contribution to the issue and a somewhat crude drawing of a topless woman.  "The Haunter of the Ring" has of course been reprinted many times, including in the 1968 issue of Robert A. Lowndes's magazine Startling Mystery Stories (which reproduces not only the text of the tale but the drawing of the topless woman.)  

James Gordon is the great-grandson of Sir Richard Gordon of Argyle.  Sir Richard is famous for being a cruel jerk and for murdering his wife in a jealous fit.  Well, as the story opens, Jim Gordon tells his buddies, our narrator Michael O'Donnell and some Irish adventurer type named Kirowan, that he thinks he is the reincarnation of his nefarious ancestor, and his wife Evelyn is Sir Richard's reincarnated wife, Lady Elizabeth, because over the last few days Evelyn has tried to murder him three times!

Our narrator quickly links this bizarre turn of events to Joseph Roelocke, a rich guy who reads lots of books and looks like a foreigner, maybe an "Oriental."  Roelocke dated Evelyn before she married Gordon, and recently sent Evelyn a ring in the shape of a snake biting its tail as a sort of belated wedding gift.  O'Donnell and Kirowan join the Gordons at home to have a look at this ring, which Evelyn says is stuck so tight to her finger she can't get it off.  Then two more characters appear (for a story of this length there are a lot of characters), Doctor Donnelly and Bill Bain, old friends of Evelyn's family.

During their confab Evelyn gets hold of a pistol and shoots her husband, proving the truth of Gordon's incredible story of being targeted for death by his wife, but not all that reincarnation bunk.  While Donnelly and Bain tend to Gordon's wound, Kirowan and O'Donnell jump in the car and drive over to Roelocke's.  It turns out Kirowan and Roelocke, whose real name is Yosef Vrolok, studied the occult together in Hungary, but their friendship ended when Vrolok embraced the dark side!  Vrolok used his black magic to steal Kirowan's girlfriend, whom he then "debauched;" Kirowan tried to kill Vrolok, but the guy's sorcery preserved him.

Now the two foes meet again, and Kirowan exposes the truth of the curse suffered by Evelyn.  Vrolok has summoned a demon to possess Evelyn so she will murder her husband; in return Vrolok promised the demon a soul, intending the soul to be Evelyn or James Gordon's.  Kirowan works a psychological trick on Vrolok, making the wizard doubt his ability to control the demon, and this moment of weakness gives the demon a chance to kill Vrolok and carry off his soul with it to a place "outside the human universe."

(Don't worry, Gordon only suffered a graze and he and Evelyn live happily ever after.)

This story is OK.  I have to admit that it was a little disappointing that all that reincarnation business turned out to be a red herring.  Another noteworthy and perhaps disappointing thing about "The Haunter of the Ring" is how everybody in it is so passionate--all the characters are constantly yelling or weeping or threatening to beat each other up; maybe this is Howard depicting the idea that Celtic people--Irishmen and Scots--are loud and boisterous.  But after raising the temperature of the story to a fever pitch there is no cathartic violence to release all that pressure.  Instead of one of these excitable Irishmen resolving the plot through physical activity, the demon, who has no dialogue or personality, just carries off Vrolok's soul and the sorcerer collapses. 

(I can't pin this on Howard, of course, but it is also odd and something of a let down that the illustration features a woman whose breast is bared but there is no sex in the story.  The illo suggests the demon is going to try to seduce or molest or rape Evelyn, but nothing like this happens in the text.)

We also might consider this, like Williamson's "The Wizard's Isle," a yellow peril story, as Vrolok is strongly associated with the mysterious East--he is wearing a Chinese silk dressing gown with a dragon pattern on it when Kirowan and O'Donnell burst in on him, for example.

Acceptable, but not one of Howard's better works, in my opinion.    

"The Colossus of Ylourgne" by Clark Ashton Smith

"The Colossus of Ylourgne," which is one of Smith's stories of Averoigne, the French province in which all manner of supernatural events take place, is actually illustrated by Smith himself, which is fun.  This story seems to have really struck a chord with practitioners of the weird, as there have been two sequels to it written by other authors, one by Brian McNaughton in 1995 and another by Peter Rawlik in 2014.

In 1281, six years after moving to the cathedral city of Vyone, the squat little wizard Nathaire and his pupils disappear from that town, nobody is sure why or how.  Later in the year, the corpses of recently dead young men begin busting out of tombs and cemeteries all over Averoigne and marching to the abandoned castle Ylourgne in the hilly eastern reaches of Averoigne.  Two brave monks investigate the diabolical goings on at the ruined castle, and find Nathaire directing some tremendous undertaking by his pupils and a veritable army of demons and familiars.  The monks are detected by the dwarfish Nathaire and humiliatingly ejected from Ylourgne by two corpses that are possessed and animated by demons. 

One of Nathaire's former students, Gaspard du Nord, investigates the castle himself, and discovers the horrific, almost unbelievable truth!  Nathaire and his satanic followers are processing the dead bodies of young men, separating the bones from the flesh and, somehow, reconstituting the bones into gigantic bones and then clothing the titanic bones with the flesh of the dead.  Nathaire is creating a man a hundred feet tall!  After Gaspard is captured and dragged before the little wizard, Nathaire explains how this colossal figure will be animated--old and ill, Nathaire will soon die, and his soul, thanks to spells cast by his pupils, will inhabit the gargantuan body, in which Nathaire will wreak havoc upon Averoigne!

Gaspard is thrown into a dungeon full of bones and snakes, but manages to sneak out through the drainage system and witness the animation of the giant.  He flees home to Vyone as, behind him, the giant, shouting obscenities, devastates the countryside and inflicts a long list of atrocities upon the people of Averoigne.  Finally, in the cathedral town, Gaspard is able to muster enough sorcery to neutralize the giant.    

This is a terrific story about necromancy, full of grotesque and gruesome images and Smith's extravagant metaphors and esoteric verbiage:

Gaspard, returning from his plunge into Lethean emptiness, found himself gazing into the eyes of Nathaire: those eyes of liquid night and ebony, in which swam the chill, malignant fires of stars that had gone down to irremeable perdition.

Very good!  A weird classic!          

"The Colossus of Ylourgne" was the favorite story of readers of this issue of Weird Tales, and has been reprinted not only in the expected Smith collections (I read it in an electronic library copy of A Vintage from Atlantis: Volume Three of the Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith) but various anthologies.

For the record, in Before the Golden Age (on page 729) Asimov says that the stories
in Weird Tales were "fearfully overwritten" and that the style of H. P. Lovecraft,  
 "the author most typical of Weird Tales," "revolted" him.

"Colonel Markesan" by August Derleth and Mark Schorer

In February I read three stories from Colonel Markesan and Less Pleasant People, a collection of tales cowritten by Derleth and Schorer, and declared them "discouraging."  Yet here I am reading another one.  Dogged persistence, my boy, dogged persistence.

The structure and pacing and style of this story are acceptable, but it has a fatal flaw.  Our narrator is a former school teacher who, for no apparent reason, decides to take the job of live-in caretaker at some old geezer's estate near Cambridge, Mass.  The geezer, Colonel Markesan, says he has returned to this estate, which has been in his family over a century, after living in Virginia for some time.  Markesan insists the narrator remain in his room all night, and actually locks the new caretaker into his quarters after he retires.

After a week and a half or so the narrator figures out how to sneak out of the room at night and discovers that something crazy is going on, and some research at the library completes the picture.  Colonel Markesan is no colonel; rather, he is a college professor.  (The horror!)  Professor Markesan was thrown off the Harvard faculty years ago because he kept claiming there were ways to communicate with and even control the dead.  (I guess there are limits to tenure protections after all.)  He went to Virginia where he disguised himself not by changing his name, but by affecting a different title.  (Whatevs.)  Markesan died in Virginia and was buried, but rose from the grave and came to his family estate in New England in order to achieve revenge!  His revenge is to, every night, go to the graveyard where the Harvard profs who hounded him out of academia are buried, summon up there souls and make them come to the estate with him, where he berates them for being wrong about his theories about controlling the dead.

This plot is OK, but Derleth and Schorer screw it all up by not being consistent about whether Markesan and his victims are immaterial spirits or animated corpses.  Sometimes they pass through doors and walk without touching the ground, like ghosts.  Other times they can lock doors and wrestle with living humans and be damaged by edged weapons.  When the narrator and a comrade fight Markesan, Markesan's victims, who floated through the walls of their tombs when summoned by Markesan and are now assembled in the house to be humbled, suddenly become half-decayed dead bodies.

Another issue with the story is the fact that there is no reason for the undead Markesan to hire a living person to mow the lawn of his estate.  He should have just made the dead Harvard profs do it--imagine the humiliation these Brahmins would suffer from being compelled to perform manual labor!

Gotta give this one a thumbs down.  With a little more care and thought, it could have worked, but Derleth and Schorer were sloppy.  Despite my attacks on the story, it was included in the 2009 collection Who Shall I Say Is Calling? and Other Stories.

**********

The June 1934 issue of Weird Tales prints a bunch of reader letters praising C. L. Moore, including one by Donald A. Wollheim of New York City.  The future super editor not only praises Moore (whom he thinks is a man) to the skies, but expresses disappointment in Edmond Hamilton's "Corsairs of the Cosmos," saying he enjoyed the earlier Interstellar Patrol stories, but found this one the worst thing Hamilton ever committed to paper, even claiming it was "hard to read!"  Ouch!  When as an editor at Ace in 1965 Wollheim would publish a collection of Hamilton's Interstellar Patrol stories, "Corsairs of the Cosmos" was one of those left out.