Wednesday, September 22, 2021

1958 stories by F Leiber, B Aldiss, E C Tubb, and T Sturgeon hand picked by J Merril

Let's take a look at my paperback copy of Judith Merril's SF: The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy: 4th Annual Volume, published in 1959.  One of Merril's practices in her famous series of anthologies is to include stories by mainstream writers you never heard of like Gerald Kersh, Daniel Lang and Richard Gehman as well as writers they told you to read in school like John Steinbeck.  I guess this is a strategy that aims to attract positive reviews for her anthologies in particular and more respect for SF in general and to provide evidence for Merril's belief that SF and the mainstream are not so different, really, that SF can have literary merit and mainstream lit often employs devices and explores themes we often associate with SF.

Today, however, we'll be reading stories from this volume by people firmly embedded in the SF world: Fritz Leiber, Brian Aldiss, E. C. Tubb, and Theodore Sturgeon.  Nota bene: SF: The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy: 4th Annual Volume showcases another story by a genre writer of interest to the staff here at MPoricus Fiction Log, "Or All the Seas with Oysters" by Avram Davidson, which I read in a different book and blogged about back in 2018.   

"Space-Time for Springers" by Fritz Leiber

SF people love cats.  And here we have another piece of evidence in support of this self-evident statement, a story which includes a surfeit of jokes on the themes that cats think they are as good as or better than humans and react in an adorable fashion to mirrors and things they see out the window.

Gummitch the cat is our main character.  As a tiny kitten Gummitch was sickly and abandoned, and a family adopted him and nursed him back to health.  Gummitch, however, thinks that he is the offspring of the man who heads the household, and that, while in a kitten body today, like a butterfly emerging from a cocoon he will soon become a human being.  He also thinks he could transfer his soul into other creatures' bodies, inspired in a roundabout way by seeing his reflection in mirrors and windows.

For the most part "Space-Time for Springers" is a cutesy sweet story full of episodes designed to melt the hearts of cat lovers, but the actual plot of "Space-Time for Springers" is like a psychological horror story.  The family's human members, besides the adult man and his wife, are a young girl and a baby boy.  The girl has mental problems; not only is she unable to talk, long after she was expected to be able to do so, but she is a sadist.  In the climactic scene of the story Gummitch intervenes as the girl is methodically scratching the face of her baby brother with a hat pin.  Gummitch's attack not only saves the baby from being grievously injured, but shocks the girl out of her mental deficiencies--she quickly learns to talk and abandons all that sadism to become a nice person.  Gummitch credits the little girl's transformation to his having given her his noble feline soul.

This story is better written and better constructed than many of the stories I read, but I'm not really the audience for cat stories.  My biased judgement is that it is just acceptable, though probably it is good based on objective criteria.   

"Space-Time for Springers" first appeared in Fred Pohl's anthology Star Science Fiction No. 4, and since then has been anthologized many times in volumes of cat stories and books of "masterpieces" and "classics."  This story is very popular!  Isfdb is telling me there are two more Gummitch stories out there for me to stumble on if I continue to devote my precious few years on this Earth to reading old SF magazines and anthologies.  

"Ten-Story Jigsaw" by Brian Aldiss

It is the war torn future!  Nine years ago war broke out, apparently started by the dictator of Australia!  (Who would have thought the government of Australia would become dictatorial?)  The dictator of Australia disappeared early in the war when a bomb hit his bunker, but this didn't end the war, and for years all the major cities of the world have been under aerial attack.  

Our narrator is a salvage man in Sydney.  Every day he and his partner, an amnesiac bomb victim who turned up at the narrator's house early in the war, take off in their futuristic helicopter to hover over the ruin of a building hit during last night's bombing and recover valuable items.  The war has wrecked the world economy, making every usable appliance and even raw materials from damaged household items quite valuable.  One member of the two-man team descends into the ruin to explore and find valuables, to which he attaches a block and tackle system so they can be hauled up to the roomy salvage chopper.  Of course, exploring a building that has been damaged by a bomb and may further collapse at any moment is physically dangerous, and seeing the wrecked property and sometimes the torn bodies of ordinary people is psychologically wearing.

The plot of the story follows one such salvage mission.  The narrator's partner goes down into a bombed apartment building to salvage the apartments of middle-class city residents, and Aldiss does a compelling job of describing the operation.  There is a twist ending which I kind of think is unnecessary.  During the salvage operation today the amnesiac sees something shocking that brings back his memory--he is the dictator who was believed killed at the start of the war, the war he started!  When he realizes his true identity, he commits suicide.

A good story, even if I think the melodramatic ending is overkill that doesn't quite jive with the realistic sections (I don't mean the suicide business--I like that--I mean the revelation that the amnesiac is the dictator.)  "Ten-Story Jigsaw" first appeared in the magazine Nebula (as "Ten-Storey Jigsaw") which also features a film review column by Forrest J. Ackerman in which the controversial superfan brags he saw The Amazing Colossal Man with Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett.  I liked "Ten-Story Jigsaw" more than Leiber's widely anthologized "Space-Time for Springers" but I guess Merril and I are outliers in promoting it; Aldiss's tale of an amnesia-addled Australian tyrant committing suicide would not be reprinted again until the 21st-century in the Aldiss collection The Complete Short Stories: The 1950s.

"Fresh Guy" by E. C. Tubb

It feels like just two minutes go I was saying I was on the same page with Judith Merril in promoting Aldiss's "Ten-Story Jigsaw."  Well, now I am wondering why she thought it fitting to include this lame joke story--I have to assume there were many SF stories printed in 1958 better than this one.

Seven or eight years ago a nuclear war killed almost everybody and drove the survivors into underground cities.  But the ghouls, werewolves and vampires didn't follow humanity down there; they are living a parlous existence on the surface, waiting impatiently for the mainstream of the human race to return so they can resume their parasitic lifestyle.  

The narrative of this story concerns a ghoul, a werewolf and two vampires, one centuries-old, the other newly risen from his grave (the "Fresh Guy" of the title), hanging around the entrance to one of the underground bunker-cities, seeking signs their victims will emerge soon.  There is a lot of background exposition as the old hands describe to the newbie the story's setting and explain to him the rules of vampires in this story (many vampire stories expend a lot of ink explaining to us readers which of the traditional powers and vulnerabilities of vampires we see in such canonical sources as Dracula apply in this story, and science fictiony vampire stories in particular have to take time to tell you which Christian elements of vampire lore are stupid superstitions and detail convoluted justifications for the others) and then we finally get the plot in the last few pages as the old vampire and the ghoul plot against the new vampire, whom they suspect will league with the normal humans against them.  

Why did Merril print this boring and silly piece of pedestrian filler?  Maybe Tubb's weak Econ 101 jokes referring to private enterprise and supply and demand appealed to her leftist politics? (Wikipedia says she was a Marxist and a Trotskyist, at least in her teens.)  Maybe she wanted to include another non-American author?  (Over her entire life Merril exhibited an interest in internationalism and an allegiance to foreign countries as well as a lack of sympathy for the United States.)  Maybe she just likes joke stories and stories about vampires and werewolves and ghouls? (Remember when we read five stories from Merril's anthology called Galaxy of Ghouls?

Whatever the case, this story is poor and serves primarily to remind me of two things: 1) I am apparently never going to stop being angry about the commies and the pinkos and 2) I am apparently never going to stop being angry about lame joke stories.

I may think it is a waste of time, but "Fresh Guy" has been a success for E. C. Tubb; after its initial appearance in Science Fantasy it reappeared in several horror and vampire anthologies. (I actually like Tubb, having enjoyed the Dumarest books I have read and having thought his interview with Charles Platt in Dream Makers was fun, so I don't really begrudge him making a buck by pulling the wool over the eyes of all those editors.) 

"The Comedian's Children" by Theodore Sturgeon

"The Comedian's Children" is kind of long; in fact, it is longer than "Space-Time for Springers," "Ten-Story Jigsaw" and "Fresh Guy" put together--reading it is going to constitute a real investment!  We'll have to trust Merril that this investment is a wise one...and if you can't trust a Trotskyist, who can you trust?

It is the early 21st century!  Iapetus, a moon of Saturn, has a strange characteristic: it is bright on one side and dark on the other.  A space ship is sent to Iapetus to investigate--this is only the twelfth manned space mission that will land on another planetary body.  Communication with the ship is lost, but the ship returns; unfortunately it crashes in Arkansas--it seems the computer systems were down and the captain tried, without success, to land manually.  Soon after the crash, children begin suffering a strange disease.  The main symptom of this disease is that the kids' skin turns black on one side and white on the other, strictly observing a sharp borderline right down the middle of their bodies.  In response, the government forbids any travel beyond Earth orbit until they can figure out what is going on.

The world's top comedian, Heri Gonza, spends a ton of money setting up special hospitals for these kids and a research team of the top scientists to study this disease, and he puts on a regularly scheduled telethon to raise awareness and gather support.  (I guess this is based on Jerry Lewis's telethons.)  A public feud develops between Gonza and one of those top scientists, Dr. George Rehoboth Horowitz, who thinks the comedian is just using the sick kids to get publicity and has set up the hospitals and research facility as a tax shelter.  Horowitz, whom the public passionately turns against, starts his own one-man research effort in a secret location.

Like 400 kids have this crazy disease, and one of them is the little brother of leading physicist, Iris Barran.  Barran just won the Nobel Prize in Physics and wants to donate the money to Gonza.  Gonza rejects the donation, so she offers the money to Horowitz.  While she is meeting Horowitz, Gonza the comedian crashes the party, explaining that he had to reject Barran's donation to keep his finances secret--he has been secretly modifying a space ship so that it will be able to illegally travel to Iapetus.  Gonza wants Horowitz to go to Iapetus to research the virus in its natural habitat and he wants Barran to act as astrogater on this secret illegal voyage.        

Sturgeon makes the surprising decision to relate the space flight to Iapetus and back through the medium of the screenplay for a TV documentary about the voyage; reading this part of this long story is like reading a play, complete with the stage directions in italics.  The ship was sabotaged to murder the crew but by luck the cyanide bomb didn't work.  Iapetus turns out to be totally lifeless--there is no way the disease originated there--and Horowitz and Barran figure out that Gonza is giving the kids the nonlethal synthetic virus, and they will be cured as soon as they get out of the hospitals where he injects the disease into them when he comes by to perform for them.  

Back on Earth, Horowitz and Barran team up with the TV network to expose Gonza in dramatic fashion by producing and broadcasting the documentary whose screenplay Sturgeon just had us read.  Even though Gonza tried to murder them with cyanide, Horowitz and Gonza don't want him prosecuted, figuring that the ruin of his career is punishment enough.  

This story is too long and too silly.  It is also anti-climactic--you don't get much payoff for wading through all those boring conversations and descriptions of TV shows, what with the boring solutions to the mysteries of Iapetus's variable reflectance and the origins of and cure for the virus.  I also don't think Gonza's motives are clearly enough explained--are we supposed to think he is a pedophile?--or maybe they are just not explained in an interesting enough way for me to remember; could this whole crazy scheme really just be a tax dodge and a way to increase his exposure?  Boring!  

Gonza is a potentially interesting character--the world's greatest comedian who for some reason pulls a crazy scheme that sickens kids and leads to him trying to murder people in an elaborate way--but we spend more time with the personality-free scientists Horowitz and Barran.  If our hero Barry Malzberg had written this story it would be shorter and it would focus on Gonza's demented psychology, his insecurities and anxieties, his reasons for pulling this ridiculous scam and his fears of being caught, and it might be funny and at least it would not be dull.

Gotta give "The Comedian's Children" a thumbs down.  Why did Merril select this thing for her anthology of "the year's greatest" SF and impose this painful opportunity cost on me?  Maybe she hated Jerry Lewis and his telethons?                 

"The Comedian's Children," which first appeared in Venture, would reappear in other anthologies as well as plenty of Sturgeon collections.


This has not been a great experience, but I am going to get my money's worth out of this anthology and read more stories from SF: The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy: 4th Annual Volume in our next episode!  Am I just a glutton for punishment who is about to be punished again?  Tune in and see!

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