Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Yet more Merril-approved 1960 stories: Matheson, Pohl, Reynolds

At the back of the sixth volume of Judith Merril's famous series of Year's Best S-F anthologies you will find a long list of "Honorable Mentions," stories published in 1960 that did not get reprinted in Merril's book but I guess whose merit she wanted to recognize.  We here at MPorcius Fiction Log (M.F.L. if you are in a rush) are going through this list alphabetical list, cherry-picking stories by figures who interest us.  We've already looked at 10 such stories over two blog posts (one, two) and we've got three more stories today, a tale from the guy who wrote Vincent Price's best movie and Steven Spielberg's best movie, and entries from two men who were hardcore left-wing activists in their youth and never quite got over it.

"First Anniversary" by Richard Matheson

This is a bland filler story, a single idea drawn out to several pages.  Our dude suddenly notices his wife tastes bad when he kisses her.  Soon he can't taste her at all.  Over a period of days he notices she smells like garbage, then that he can't smell her at all, then she feels strange ("pulpy") and then her footsteps sound odd.  Visits to doctors offer no succor.  In the end his wife has to admit that she has been using her psychic or magical or whatever powers to hide her true nature from him, but he has begun, after a year of marriage, to penetrate her supernatural disguise.  She then reveals her true form--she is an animated corpse.

Merely acceptable.

"First Anniversary" first appeared in Playboy, and would be reprinted in Matheson collections, The Playboy Book of Horror and the Supernatural, and Peter Haining's The Vampire Omnibus

"The Day the Icicle Works Closed Down" by Frederik Pohl

Oy, this is a 28-page story from Galaxy about how if people commit crimes, it is only their legitimate response to the machinations of the capitalists.  You know from the first paragraph the thing is a satire, because the main character is named after Clodius, one of Julius Caesar's thugs, and Milo, Clodius's nemesis.

(I'm reading this in the 2005 collection Platinum Pohl because the scans of the appropriate issue of Galaxy I could find online are all missing pages.)

The human race has colonized the galaxy, but starships are slow--it takes decades to travel between human-inhabited planets.  Altair 9 had a thriving export business selling native antibiotics (colloquially called "Icicles") to every other planet in human civilization, but then word came a year ago that a process had been developed to synthetically create functionally identical antibiotics, destroying Altair 9's economy and throwing most of the population out of work.  Our hero, Milo Pulcher, formerly a staff lawyer at the Icicle Works, became a public defender, and as the story begins he is assigned to defend some other former Icicle Works employees and some unemployed teens from a charge of kidnapping the son of the mayor for ransom.  The accused are all guilty, but Pohl wants you to think the kidnapping was justified because the mayor is rich and the kidnappers treated the boy real nice and, oh yeah, the kidnappers like really really needed the money.

Now that they aren't shipping the medicine, the capitalists of Altair 9 have resorted to a new scheme to exploit the bodies of the workers--body renting tourism!  A ship may take a century to get to Altair 9 from Earth, but rich people can afford to have their consciousnesses transmitted instantaneously from their home planets into the bodies of a person on another planet.  There is good hunting on Altair 9, so wealthy people on other planets (Pohl implies they are all fatsos!) have their minds installed into the bodies of healthy young Altairians so they can blast the local wildlife.  Of course, there are rumors that thrill seekers and decadents and perverts use the rented bodies to have weird sex--sometimes men illegally inhabit women's bodies, or vice versa!--experiment with dangerous drugs or perform risky stunts.

One of the defendants is Milo Pulcher's former girlfriend, Madeline.  Maddy was married to a painter, but this dauber didn't think his career could take off on Altair 9 so he got Maddy to sign a contract providing her comely young body to the tourism agency and then he used the money to buy a ticket to another planet.  Maddy got involved in the kidnapping scheme in order to make enough money to buy herself out of the contract.  Milo decides he can maybe win her case by discovering some illegality about the operations of the body rental agency, so he himself signs a 24-hour contract, renting out his own body.  While some stranger is using his body, Milo's consciousness is beamed to another planet to operate a mining robot.  Operating a mining robot is physically painful and psychologically debilitating.  (Pohl also did this thing where the establishment forces your mind to run a machine in his 1964 story "The Fiend."

The diabolical exploiters of the working man keep Milo's consciousness in that mining robot for six days instead of one, and Milo's clients have to face a legal hearing without him.  The kidnappers are sentenced to ten years in prison, which Pohl suggests is a very harsh sentence for committing the minor infraction of kidnapping a child for the purposes of extracting money from his or her parents.

Milo figures out that a small cabal of powerful people (which does not include the mayor) has been lying to everybody.  1) there is no synthetic antibiotic, there is still the same demand out in the galaxy for the icicles as ever.  2) there are no tourists beaming their consciousnesses to Altair 9 to hunt; it is the members of the cabal who are occupying those young sexy bodies and using them to participate in immoral indulgences (the lead villain likes TV wrestling and it is implied he occupied Milo's body to engage in that sort of violence).  The cabal has cut Altair 9 off from the rest of the galaxy (though the ship that took the painter still came and left, I guess) because by temporarily making the Icicle Works unprofitable they were able to buy up more shares of on the cheap.  They will make a killing when they reveal there is still demand for the drugs and start shipping it out again.

At a political dinner Milo, working with another lawyer, the only honest member of the Altair 9 establishment, exposes this scam to the assembled people and saves the day.

This is a satire, so I guess we can't expect it to make any sense, just to push an agenda and make emotional appeals to the supposed resentments of readers, but I feel like this story doesn't really add up.  For one thing, we are given the impression that many people are renting out their bodies for long periods, so there has to be an equivalent number of cabal members occupying the bodies, and we are given the idea that there are quite few cabal members.  Also, while using the young bodies, the old cabal members must be out of the public eye, and wouldn't people notice if a bunch of top politicians were repeatedly missing for five or six days at a stretch?  And then there is the fact that if the rest of the galaxy wants that medicine, aren't they going to investigate why Altair 9 was out of communication for a year or two and then back in communication, which will expose the lies of the cabal?  

The idea of transmitting your consciousness or implanting your brain into other bodies or into machines is one of my favorite themes, as regular readers of MPorcius Fiction Log know, and the mining scenes aren't bad, and I'm trying to keep my lack of sympathy with Pohl's socialist ideology from biasing my judgement here as I strive to determine if this story is merely mediocre or actually bad.  So I am coming down on the side of "barely acceptable."  Guiding my ruling is the fact that in our last episode I graded Murray Leinster's joke story about crime "The Ambulance Made Two Trips" just marginally bad, and "The Day the Icicle Works Closed Down" is a tick less irritating than that one (on a literary level, not an ideological level, where Leinster's tale of vigilante justice in the face of government corruption is more palatable.)     

It may not be winning any awards from the M.F.L. staff, but the editor of Platinum Pohl suggests that "The Day the Icicle Works Closed Down" is evidence that Pohl was an expert on politics, economics and the criminal justice system and this story, which I guess is a good representation of what Young Communist League alum Fred Pohl's body of work is all about, has been reprinted in many Pohl collections. 

In an interview you can read in 1978's Speaking of Science Fiction,
Pohl reports that Amis changed his mind

"Combat" by Mack Reynolds

Another long story from a pinko--"Combat" take up over 30 pages of AnalogAy caramba!  And unlike Pohl's story, which has been reprinted a million times because people love it, it looks like "Combat" was a dud that would not be reprinted until 2013 when it appeared in a collection of Reynolds' work put out by Spastic Cat Press.  Sacre bleu.  Well, here we go....

Mack Reynolds' defining characteristic, his competitive advantage (at least according to his supporters) is that he is one of the few SF writers to speculate about political economy.  And sure enough, the first full page of "Combat" is all about prices and the allocation of resources.  The West is losing the Cold War to the Soviet Union and Maoist China because the commies are able to sell the world affordable automobiles, petroleum products, and consumer goods.  We are told this is because in the communist nations everybody fucking loves science and kids aspire to be top scientists and inventors, while over here in the decadent West the kids all want to be singers or movie stars!    

Our protagonist is Hank Kuran, an American whose father was a Russian and who speaks the language fluently.  Kuran is a US government employee working in Latin America, trying to sell Made in America equipment, without success because of the superiority of Eastern Bloc products.  Suddenly, Uncle Sam summons him to Washington where an advisor to the president himself drops a bombshell on Hank--aliens have landed in Moscow and seem to think the commies are the dominant polity on Earth!  It looks like the visitors will share their technology with Ivan and then the free world will be doomed!

Kuran is sent to Europe to try to convince E.T. to give the West a look see before handing the Bolshies control of this big blue marble.  He goes in disguise as a tourist--in this future world of Reynolds', Moscow is a top tourist destination!  

I had initial expectations that this story would be better than Pohl's, as it 1) was about ideas and not just a bunch of emotionally manipulative BS that sought to appeal to readers' envy and class resentment, all that goop about like how little Johnny has to become a kidnapper because the capitalists closed the factory and poor Milo Pulcher has holes in his shoes and 2) I had no idea where it was going, unlike Pohl's story which follows tried and true detective/conspiracy story templates--what would the aliens be like?     

But my hopes were dashed when it turned out the story was literally going nowhere, that the plot was just a vehicle for Reynolds, a travel writer as well as a left-wing activist, to type up a lame travelogue and some boring superficial denunciations of the United States and get paid for this typing by John W. Campbell, Jr.  While Pohl tries to emotionally manipulate you to put across his ideological agenda, Reynolds just has his characters say straight out without any persuasive evidence or theoretical explanation that Soviet products are better than American products and Russian cities are more beautiful than Western cities and Russian kids aren't delinquents like American kids and the Soviet Union isn't an aggressive military power like the United States is. 

In London Kuran joins a Soviet tour group that rides a high tech ship to Leningrad and then a high tech train to Moscow.  Reynolds stresses how clean and efficient and advanced and comfortable everything is in the USSR--the food is tasty, everybody seems in good spirits, people all love to read, industry has more automation and thus can manufacture goods at prices lower than can American firms.  On the tour Kuran spends time with a beautiful American woman--the most beautiful woman he has ever seen!--and an Argentine womanizer and an African prince.  They have banal arguments, Kuran standing up for the US and the market economy and the others saying what about the Indians and what about Harlem and what about how Americans watch all that TV and never go to the legitimate theatre and so on.  

In Moscow Hank hooks up with the the anti-Soviet underground, who stress to him they want to overthrow the Communist Party but don't want to be like the United States.  One visit on the tour is the museum in the Kremlin, not far from where the aliens have their quarters.  The African prince turns out to be a British spy and he and Hank both make their way to the aliens.  The aliens explain that they landed in Moscow because the Soviet Union is the most advanced nation in the world, but they are not going to restrict their dealings to them.  In a few weeks they'll visit the number 2 power, Red China, and then they'll come over to talk to power number 3, the USA, and finally power number 4, Great Britain.  Hank's mission has been a total waste of time, just like our reading of this story!

The aliens also offer some advice.  You see, the USSR and Communist China surpassed the West because they focused not on trying to diminish or conquer others, but on improving themselves.  The Western nations on the other hand were aggressive, expending energy on combatting the socialist states that they should have devoted to emulating them and trying to excel them--by opposing Stalin and Mao and slowing down communist technological advances, the United States and its allies were only retarding the advance of Earth civilization.  Tsk, tsk.

After this speech Hank realizes the future is bright, that with the aliens around the US will be friends with the Soviet Union, that beacon of progress, and life will be awesome!  

The idea that the USSR was more peaceful and more technologically advanced and more economically productive that the United States is outlandish, and what is worse, Reynolds doesn't even use this fantastical conceit as a springboard for thought-provoking "what-if" speculations or a thrilling adventure plot--the story has no speculations and no plot!  The main character doesn't make any decisions or overcome any obstacles, he just learns to love Big Brother.  

"Combat" is truly pointless and totally lame.  Thumbs down! 

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This has been a rough patch.  But we still have one more batch of Merril-approved stories to look at.  Stay tuned if you dare, comrade!

Monday, February 27, 2023

Still More Merril-approved 1960 stories: Clarke, Kapp, Knight, Lafferty, Leinster

Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are reading short stories published in 1960 which Judith Merril included in her list of Honorable Mentions at the end of 6th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-FLast time we read stories by Poul Anderson, J. G. Ballard, James Blish and Algis Budrys; today we've got stories from five more writers we are in interested here at the blog: Arthur C. Clarke, Colin Kapp, Damon Knight, R. A. Lafferty and Murray Leinster.

"Inside the Comet" AKA "Into the Comet" by Arthur C. Clarke

"Inside the Comet" was first printed in the same issue of F&SF as the James Blish story we read in our last episode, "The Oath," as well as Richard Matheson's salacious black magic story "From Shadowed Places," which we read in November.  "Inside the Comet" would go on to be reprinted many times in numerous Clarke collections, generally as "Into the Comet."  I am reading it in a scan of that issue of F&SF.

This is a brief standard issue hard science fiction story, complete with science lectures, scientists risking their lives to expand knowledge, and then using technology and ingenuity to escape death.

In the 21st century a spaceship with like fifty scientists aboard is sent to explore a spectacular comet.  While in the comet the ship's computer breaks down, and the ship is considered doomed--they can't navigate through space what with all the overlapping gravity fields without a computer to do all the calculations, and they are too far from Earth to exchange data with a computer back home.  Luckily a journalist aboard has experience using an abacus.  He trains everybody on the ship to use an abacus so they can manually perform a sufficient quantity of calculations to thrust the ship within communications range of Earth. 

The pace is brisk, and the story is just the right length--I like this one.  

"Enigma" by Colin Kapp

Way back in 2016 we read Kapp's novel Patterns of Chaos and we haven't dealt with him since.  Well, here's our chance to get reacquainted with Kapp.  "Enigma," a novelette, was printed in New Worlds by editor John Carnell, who was in charge of the British magazine for like seventeen years before Michael Moorcock famously took over.  

Europe is engulfed in a sort of low-intensity nuclear war!  The British and their enemies on the Continent don't want to detonate too many atomic weapons, because nuclear detonations destroy valuable infrastructure that a conqueror will want and increase the level of unhealthy radiation across the Earth.  So the combatants lay siege to each other, trying to wear each other down by damaging each others' productivity.  One way the enemy tries to diminish British productivity is to launch into an industrial area a missile or bomb that instead of detonating on impact, lies dormant, acting as a mine or trap--factories and housing from miles around must be abandoned, radically diminishing productivity but leaving valuable industrial plant intact and desirable real estate unirradiated.  The counter to such an attack is an expert bomb squad that can deactivate the bomb, and by the time this story takes place the British have a highly experienced crew of engineers who have deactivated many bombs while the enemy has developed many ways of rendering bombs extremely dangerous to them, equipping their bombs with radar and a battery of other sensors that can detonate a bomb if efforts to neutralize it are detected.

"Enigma" follows a British team of engineers and technicians as they strive to defuse a brand new type of bomb sitting in a sector essential to the United Kingdom's productive capacity.  Kapp's story is laden with technical jargon, with pivotal passages that sound like this one: 

"The bomb transmitters are on automatic gain control.  By keeping the sound level unreasonably high we force the gain, and thus the sensitivity, right down low and we can crawl up real close without detection."

Kapp also tries to offer human drama, depicting manly men sweating, cursing, and making wise cracks as they face death, the constant pressure putting them forever on the brink of a mental breakdown.  Here's another representative passage: 

Sandor therefore sweated it out quietly, manually inserting octave filters into a haywire circuit at seven second intervals, and slowly losing his nerve as he heard Gruman's anguished battle relayed by the pickups on the bomb. 
As far as I understand it, the bomb in the story has super-powerful microphones, and technicians back in Germany are listening for signs that their bomb is being defused.  After efforts to jam the bomb's transmissions fail, the British surround the bomb with loudspeakers playing extremely loud and annoying radio jingles mixed with a high pitched whistle--this noise will drown out the sounds of the bomb squad's approach and fatigue the Germans listening, dulling their minds and maybe even forcing them to take a break from listening so the engineers can get to the bomb and start dismantling it.  Of course, the horrible noise also fatigues the bomb squad, and its members suffer ear damage and even more severe psychological injury in the course of neutralizing the bomb.

A curious thing about the story is that Kapp doesn't refer to "Russia" or "the USSR" or "the communists" or "the Warsaw Pact;" when the text is specific it refers to the enemy as "the Germans" and the two German cities which are receiving transmissions from the bomb are Kiel and Bremen, which I think were in West Germany.  The international political situation in the story must be very different from the real one at the time it was different, I guess Kapp seeking to exploit reader antipathy towards Germany rather than relying entirely on Cold War tensions for drama.  

I'll call this one acceptable.  Judith Merril may be this story's biggest fan--she included it in her Honorable Mentions list, but it looks like it has never actually been reprinted.

"Time Enough" by Damon Knight

Here is a tale by the famous editor of such anthologies as the Orbit series and writer of overrated "sardonic" stories.  "Time Enough" first appeared in Amazing and was never anthologized, but would be reprinted in multiple Knight collections, including The Best of Damon Knight.  I've got my fingers crossed that this isn't a joke story.

To my relief, "Time Enough" isn't a joke story, but is sort of trifling.  I guess the story is about how we have to accept that what's done is done and move on, and maybe that, without risk, there is no real accomplishment.  

Jimmy is a thirty-year-old man traumatized by a childhood incident.  He was the youngest of a group of friends who went into the woods to swim in an old quarry; to get to the water you had to walk along a fallen tree that hung over the abyss.  Last in line, Jimmy was too scared to follow his friends along the narrow trunk and had to turn back, humiliated.  This episode, apparently, has psychologically scarred him for life.

Luckily (?) Jimmy lives in the future of 1978 and Dr. Vogel, a shrink, has a device that allows you to cast your mind back in time and relive moments of your life when you screwed up so that this time, with all your experience and the benefit of hindsight, you can make a better decision.  You'd think people would use this to prevent the Russian Revolution or tighten up safety procedures at the Wuhan Institute of Virology or something, but it seems instead people use it to get over childhood embarrassments and to give voice to comebacks they hadn't come up with until it was too late (the famous l'esprit d'escalier.)  Anyway, Jimmy's family pays Vogel a thousand bucks and the machine sends Jimmy back in his childhood body at the crucial moment, about to walk across that fallen tree.  But he finds he still can't bring himself to cross this obstacle, and returns to 1978 frustrated.  He is, however, assured he can try again tomorrow.  It seems he can just keep going back in time and trying again and again until success is finally achieved.

Vogel, it appears, has lost faith in the value of this sort of therapy, admitting to himself that it almost never works.  He gently, and without success, suggests to Jimmy that he just "forget the past" and endeavor to deal with his problems "in the present."  I thought I detected implications that Vogel himself keeps going back in time to this very date to try to help Jimmy again and again, equally in vain; I am even entertaining the possibility that Vogel is Jimmy, thirty or so years older, but can't argue that conclusively.  There must be some kind of twist or trick about the ending, because otherwise "Time Enough" is pretty bland and flat.

Acceptable.

"McGonigal's Worm" by R. A. Lafferty

This is a charming little story written in Lafferty's fun colloquial folksy style, chock full of anecdotes, jokes and comments that will make you smile.  I guess it is something of a shaggy dog story--the catastrophe that is the foundation of the plot is not caused by anybody, and the solution to the crisis is equally an act of God for which nobody can take credit, and the events in between the beginning and end of the story are inconsequential to the bigger picture.  While the story depicts human fecklessness and futility, with people acting irrationally or self-importantly in response to the crisis, and nothing anybody does making any difference, the tale is light-hearted and told with good humor.

All of a sudden, nearly all the world's chordates (on the first page of the story Lafferty uses a bunch of biology terms you rarely see in the wild) are found to be unable to reproduce.  Lafferty relates a bunch of amusing and absurd anecdotes about the human response to this civilization-threatening natural disaster over the next few decades.  For example, a massive testing regime discovers only two people, a prudish woman with an ironclad dedication to the rights of the individual and an "Arabian black" who is a thief and a drunk, still capable of producing offspring.  The authorities try to force this odd couple to mate, but the woman resists on principle and the man, upon seeing a photo of the woman, risks--and loses!--his life in his desperation to escape coupling with her.  People place bets on who will be the last child born, and then on who will be the last human alive.  A certain type of worm--McGonigal's Worm, AKA M.W.--is discovered to have retained the ability to reproduce, and a crash program is launched to study this worm for clues to human salvation--maybe the intelligence of the worm can be increased to the point that it could preserve memory of humanity's intellectual accomplishments!  The economy having crashed, there are few jobs available, and a young woman--one of the youngest people in the world at this point, she being in her thirties--has to take a job at the M.W. Institute, even though she finds worms repulsive, and when M.W.I. staff try to indoctrinate her in the wonders of M.W. ("You must learn to think of M.W. as the hope of the world") all she can say in response is "oog." 

In the end, people and other chordates just start reproducing again.  It turns out that (in a way that reminds us of Poul Anderson's 1953 serial/1954 novel Brain Wave) the Earth was just passing through a field of radiation for thirty-five years and now that we are beyond it everything is hunky dory. 

So many of the anecdotes in "McGonigal's Worm" are about scientists, academics and authorities acting in ways that are bootless and ridiculous, we might see the story as a satire of all the SF stories in which ultracompetent leaders and genius polymath scientists save the day against all odds.  (The story may also cut against the pervasive elitism of so much SF by depicting both the common masses and educated people acting absurdly and by suggesting that the educated man's clinging to a faith in science in the face of disaster is little different from the hoi polloi's seeking comfort in superstition.)  We might also suspect Lafferty, a committed Christian, means to remind us that "Man proposes, but God disposes"--however smart we may be (or think ourselves to be), what happens on this Earth is up to God.

Thumbs up!  This entertaining diversion debuted in H. L. Gold and Fred Pohl's If, and can also be found in two Lafferty collections I believe are somewhat rare.

"The Ambulance Made Two Trips" by Murray Leinster

Here we have a story that dramatizes how, should the government fail to keep crime under control, vigilantes will take justice and the maintenance of order into their own hands.  Also, a story featuring a device that alters the laws of probability.  Plus, a reminder that women are greedy, acquisitive, manipulative, and have no sense of honor or community spirit.  Don't get too excited, though--"The Ambulance Made Two Trips" is primarily a specimen of that bugbear of MPorcius's mind, the not in the least bit funny joke story. 

Organized crime is taking over the town!  Big Jake Connors starts a cab company and a juke box company and a beer distributorship and any of the businesses in town that don't want to partner up with Big Jake's firms are suddenly afflicted with "accidents" that make doing business impossible.  Big Jake protects himself from interference from the cops by "anonymously" giving expensive gifts of perfume and minks and other luxuries to the wives of all the police officers in town, who pressure their husbands to look the other way when it comes to Big Jake's infractions.

Our main character is Detective Serjeant Fitzgerald, one of the few boys in blue still committed to bringing down Big Jake.  Some of Big Jake's hoods run into accidents themselves, and Fitzgerald tracks the source of these mishaps to a dry cleaner who has refused to give in to the threats of the mob boss, and also declines to report Big Jake's threats to the police.  This dry cleaner, it turns out, has a device that creates good luck charms that disrupt the laws of probability in their vicinity as they relate to acts of violence.  If someone tries to harm a person bearing one of these charms their efforts will backfire in extravagantly slapstick fashion.  

This is a pedestrian filler story, written in a light-hearted tone and meant to be funny rather than to make your blood boil about injustice or make you shiver in fear of the paranormal or lead you to consider what deference we citizens of a republic owe to the law and the authority of the executive branch if the government fails to fulfill its obligation to defend our property and persons.  Every scene is overly long and the whole production is irritatingly repetitive; Leinster describes four different protection racket schemes when he could have just described one representative one, and he describes too many instances of the hoods' efforts to harm the dry cleaner and in mountainously superfluous detail.  None of this is amusing or surprising--it is tedious.  

I have a reservoir of good will towards Leinster after reading all those 1930s and '40s stories by him, but I have to sadly condemn this 1960 work as marginally below an acceptable rating.  (Leave the jokes to Lafferty!)  

"The Ambulance Made Two Trips" would be included in a German Leinster collection and in the anthology Never in This World.


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It is sad to see Leinster stumble but we have a commitment to the truth here at MPorcius Fiction Log.  Clarke and Lafferty's stories are solid successful efforts that showcase what we life about those guys.  Kapp works hard to make his story exciting and it isn't bad, while the Knight feels undercooked, like there should be more to it, but it is not a failure.

More stories from 1960 await us in the next episode of MPoricus Fiction Log.  Stay tuned!

Friday, February 24, 2023

More Merril-approved 1960 stories: Anderson, Ballard, Blish and Budrys

In the last thrilling episode of MPorcius Fiction Log we read seven stories from Judith Merril's 6th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F, a 384-page anthology of 1960-related stories, cartoons, essays and commentary (and only really liked two of them, selections by tragically-short-lived American Rosel George Brown and major British literary figure Kingsley Amis.)  The last three pages of 6th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F are a list of stories published in 1960 under the heading "Honorable Mentions," presumably stories Merril admired but didn't think quite reached the level of excellence of the forty items printed in the book, or could not be included for practical reasons.  Let's read five of these Honorable Mentions by people we care about, Poul Anderson, J. G. Ballard, James Blish and Algis Budrys.  (The HM list is in alphabetical order by author and I'm starting at the top.)  Maybe we'll like these stories more than those from last time which Merril actually printed.

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But first, let's take note of the 6th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F Honorable Mentions we've already read and offer links to my blog posts that discuss them.

Poul Anderson's "The Burning Bridge": I didn't actually read this, but it is one of the stories upon which Anderson based his novel Orbit Unlimited, which I blogged about in 2018.

Robert Bloch's "The Funnel of God": This epic (or tedious, you know, opinions will differ) attack on our society was subjected to an MPorcius analysis in 2019. 

Algis Budrys's "Rogue Moon": I haven't actually read this short version, but I read the famous novel that goes by this name and delivered a skeptical take on it in 2007 which I reprinted on this blog some years later.

Keith Laumer's "Combat Unit": I read this good story (also known as "Dinochrome") about a robot tank in 2019.

Fritz Leiber's "Night of the Long Knives": Back in 2022, after reading the version that appears in the collection The Night of the Wolf under the title "The Wolf Pair," I offered a moderate recommendation for this at times silly post-apocalyptic story about how we are all addicted to murder and should join Murderers Anonymous.  Like Leiber's very good "The Button Molder," "Night of the Long Knives" feels like a story that  offers insight into Leiber's life and thought and techniques; even though I have a lot of reservations about "Night of the Long Knives" as a work of art/entertainment, it has value for understanding who Leiber was and what he was all about and I strongly recommend it to those curious about Leiber the man and his career.    

Mack Reynolds's "Revolution": This one I read in 2015 in my copy of The Best of Mack Reynolds

Cordwainer Smith's "The Lady Who Sailed the Soul":  Back in 2019 I read this very good piece, which I considered a moving love story and an exemplar of the SF that tells you conquering space will be a bitch but it will be worth it, in the Smith collection You Will Never Be the Same.

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"The Martyr" by Poul Anderson 

It is the spacefaring future!  Mankind (currently operating under some kind of authoritarian imperial government with a monarch at its head) has colonized multiple planets, and met multiple intelligent alien species.  Fifty years ago the human race first encountered the Cibarrans, a race of beings with terrific psychic powers.  These jokers can communicate across intergalactic distances via telepathy, travel across similarly vast distances via teleportation, and employ telekinesis.  They have knowledge and power we poor humans can only dream of!  The Cibarrans are very friendly and helpful to other, less psychically adept, races, but they refuse to aid other civilizations in the development of their own psychic powers.  The human race begins to feel confined--one human character thinks "Isn't the Cibarran silence keeping our whole race trapped in our own skulls?"--and to suffer an inferiority complex, seeing the Cibarrans as gods that are keeping from us the key to godhood.  So the authorities take desperate, morally suspect, measures to squeeze the info out of the unwilling Cibarrans!

This story, like 16 pages in F&SF where it first appeared, describes how an arm of the human government seizes some Cibarrans and holds them prisoner (no easy task considering the Cibarrans' ability to teleport and call for aid telepathically) and experiments on them.  "Martyr" is a science-heavy story, Anderson coming up with a whole theory of how psychic powers operate.  (You know what people mean when they say "standing wave," "phase velocity," and "constants of propagation," right?)  The story is also about ethics--what acts are justified, and what acts are wise, in the pursuit of knowledge and power, and what sorts of responsibilities do those with knowledge and power have to those who are lacking?    

The shock ending is that the Cibarrans have endeavored to keep the truth about psychic powers from us and other intelligent beings to spare us a heartbreak that could wreck our societies--the Cibarrans have immortal souls but other races, including us humans, do not!

All the science and philosophy stuff is interesting, and the surprise ending is pretty good.  Thumbs up for "The Martyr."

Numerous editors, including Edmund Crispin, Robert P. Mills, and Anthony Boucher, have included "The Martyr" in anthologies, and, to commemorate Anderson's award of the title of Grand Master by the SFWA in 1998, Connie Willis included "Martyr" in the 1999 Nebula Awards anthology.  

"The Last World of Mr Goddard" by J. G. Ballard

I'm reading this in a scan of the 2009 edition of The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard as I can't find a scan of the issue of Science Fantasy in which it first appeared.  

Old man Mr Goddard is a department manager at a big department store.  We learn that he has at home an elaborate scale model of the town in which he lives--this model is a sort of exact analog of the town, and is in fact inhabited by hundreds of tiny people who go about their business every day.  The people in the model are analogs of the real people Goddard works with, and by studying the model every evening he gleans information he can use to his advantage during the workday, though mostly he uses this info to help people.

One day some people seem to realize they are living in a circumscribed world and try to escape, but die accidentally in the attempt.  It also turns out that Goddard had made an assumption about somebody based on his observation of the model that has turned out to be wrong, severely damaging his relationship with the people of the town.  These dismaying events, and others, foreshadow a cataclysm--in the evening Goddard accidentally knocks over the model during a moment of physical weakness and, before he can recover, his pet cat devours all the townspeople, leaving himself the only survivor in an empty town.

"The Last World of Mr Goddard" is well-written and engaging; Ballard's descriptions of Goddard's daily routines are particularly sharp and vivid.  One might complain that the story is gimmicky, that upon reflection it makes no sense and is merely a well-turned out fa├žade with little substance, but it is enjoyable nonetheless.  So, thumbs up.

"The Last World of Mr Goddard" can be found in many Ballard collections.

"The Voices of Time" by J. G. Ballard

I read "The Voices of Time" in that 2009 US edition of The Complete Stories of J. G. Ballard mentioned above, where it is 26 pages long, and I read it twice in an effort to really figure it out.  This is a dense story in which a lot of stuff going on, a story that is a little oblique and opaque, Ballard waiting until the middle of the story to present us with critical information about the characters that the characters themselves have been aware of the entire time, for example.  All the individual components of "The Voices of Tuime," the images and ideas, and all the individual sentences and paragraphs, are good, but as a while the story is sort of challenging.

I'm saying that the main theme of "The Voices of Time" is that everything comes with an expiration date--from individual creatures to entire species and ecosystems, to civilizations and the universe as a whole. 

Our main character is Powers, a scientist and neurosurgeon who is haphazardly continuing the work of a colleague who committed suicide, a biologist who irradiated animals and plants in order to change their DNA and induce changes in their forms.  Radiation from nuclear weapons tests and/or an atomic war similarly seem to have caused mutations among wild animals and vegetation; the mutations seem largely to be adaptations to a more radioactive environment, animals growing lead carapaces, for example, or developing the ability to "see" via detecting gamma radiation.  I got the impression that, in the milieu of the story, evolution and mutation are not random, but preprogrammed into the DNA of living things; each living thing carries within it a racial memory clock that measures time by absorbing radiation, and when a certain amount of solar radiation has been absorbed by a species, it changes its form according to schedule.  (Clocks and watches and countdowns, measurements of time, are a recurring theme of the story.)  The use of nuclear weapons has increased the amount of radiation in the environment, and advanced the clocks of Earth's species so they are changing prematurely, going disastrously haywire.  The human race is not immune to this effect, and more and more people are developing a disease called narcoma--they sleep more and more hours a day until finally sleeping all day, never waking.  (Those who cease waking up are called "terminals.")  It is suggested that the entire human race might succumb to this malady.  Powers himself suffers this disease, and as the story progresses he sleeps longer and longer each day--it is predicted that in three months he will go totally comatose.  

Powers is also responsible for a radical medical experiment; he performed brain surgery on a mathematician, Kaldren, that rendered him unable to sleep.  Sleepless Kaldren follows the main character around, and, when he isn't haunting Powers, he resides in a bizarre labyrinthine seven-story tall modern architecture building that is a 3D representation of the square root of negative one which houses his collection of artifacts related to the end of the human race and of the universe ("terminal documents," he calls them.)  Among the collection are some chattering ticker tape machines that with a regular periodicity print out numbers with 14 or more digits; each printed number is lower than its predecessor.  Kaldren writes one, 96,668,365,498,721, in the dust on Powers's unwashed car at the start of the story, and a week or so later Powers finds K has scrawled "96,668,365,498,702" on his garden gate.  These numbers are, apparently, transmissions from outer space, a clock broadcast by an alien civilization, a countdown to the end of the universe.

Kaldren is in a relationship with a pretty and slim young woman, I guess a psychology student, whom he calls "Coma" and whom other people call "the girl from Mars."  Her role in the story is to offer Powers someone to explain his research to, facilitating the story's exposition and description of its speculative science.

There is a lot of other stuff in the story I haven't mentioned, most importantly the possibility that Powers, like his suicidal colleague before him, is triggered by instructions written into his DNA into semi-consciously constructing a large mathematical diagram or mandala, a circular ideogram representing a giant clock that can't help but remind readers of the pentagrams common in stories of black magic and sorcery, and transmitting his soul out of his body and into space by committing suicide at the mandala's center.

A story that is a little difficult, but worth the effort of puzzling out.  I wasn't crazy about Ballard's nocvel The Drowned World when I read it long ago, and I have not particularly enjoyed Ballard's experimental items like "The Assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy Considered as a Downhill Motor Race" and "You : Coma : Marilyn Monroe", but I quite enjoy Ballard stories like "Billenium" and today's two stories that have something like a traditional plot and skillfully employ more conventional techniques.  

"The Voices of Time" debuted in New Worlds and would be widely reprinted in Ballard collections and in anthologies.


"The Oath" by James Blish

Here's another tale that debuted in F&SF.  "The Oath" would go on to be included in several Blish collections and in the anthology Beyond Tomorrow.  

It is the post-apocalyptic future!  Dr. Tucci is a member of the largest and most organized group trying to rebuild civilization, a bunch of people who live in a big storage vault with filtered air and a nuclear reactor, and they are recruiting other survivors, in particular skilled people like doctors and technicians, from miles around.  Tucci, an experienced medical man, rides up to the house of a guy, Gottlieb, rumored to be a doctor, but who before the atomic war was a published poet.  The story mostly follows their conversation as Tucci tries to convince this versifier turned amateur sawbones to join the vaulties 200 miles away.  "The Oath"'s content is mostly psychological and philosophical--what might attract Gottlieb to vault life, why might he want to remain in his current community, and what techniques and arguments can Tucci employ to convince the former poet to sign up?

This story is a little boring, and I found I didn't care whether Gottlieb joined the organization or not.  Rather than trying to entertain you, Blish seems to be using the story to raise questions about the relationship of the individual to the collective, and about sacrifice and responsibility.  What responsibility does the individual have to the collective?  How far should a man sacrifice his own ambitions in furtherance of the good of the community?  What rights does the collective have to use trickery or force against individuals who are deemed a drag on the collective?  How far can those in power go in sacrificing individuals for the benefit of the community?

Tucci, it seems, routinely uses trickery to recruit specialists to the vault's civilization restoration project.  For his part, Gottlieb acts like a god over his little community, running roughshod over people's privacy and facilitating the death of people who have genetic disorders (like diabetes) so their inferior genes won't be passed down to future generations and thus weaken the human race in its hour of crisis.  (A lot of classic SF is quite elitist, what with Asimov's Foundation and Heinlein's lunar rebels manipulating people, and tons of other examples, and "The Oath" is another slice of this elitism, putting forward the idea that doctors--members of the cognitive elite--should not be bound by such conventions as the Hippocratic Oath.)  Gottlieb seems to enjoy being a big fish in a small pond, and is reluctant to move to the vault, where he will be subordinate toothers and, as an amateur, in the shadow and under the direction of the trained medical personnel there; on the other hand, in the vault he will also be in a position to do more good for more people.

Acceptable.

"The Price" by Algis Budrys

This is a brief (two and a half pages) self-consciously literary allegorical story about how to survive an ordeal you may have to become a monster, or how war turns you ugly, or war is the devil's work, or evil never dies, or something; I have to admit I'm not sure I'm getting it.

Three men sit at a table, interviewing a hideous hunchback who initially refuses to give a name but then offers "Rumpelstiltskin."  We learn that Hunch has lived over a hundred years, been a prisoner and the subject of study in Czarist Russia, the Soviet Union, and East Germany, but never given up any information.  Hunch made it to Switzerland in the late Sixties and then spent some decades sheltered by monks during a seventy-year-long war, presumably between the West and the Warsaw Pact.

Dramatically the curtains are opened and it is revealed that the world outside has been transformed by war into a sea of fire!  Somehow, Hunch has made it here (presumably the United States) from Europe.  The three men want to know how he survived the fiery holocaust, and express a reluctant willingness to become like him if that is necessary to survive.  Hunch then ecstatically celebrates, dancing around.

"The Price" is a pretentious waste of time, an arty exercise or experiment.  Budrys uses up a lot of ink describing in detail the idiosyncratic way the hunchback, who I guess is the devil, smokes cigarettes, for example.  Long passages describing people manipulating matches and cigarette cases and cigarettes is one of my pet peeves, and another is stories in which the devil tries to trick somebody into making a deal, so Budrys is doing everything to get on my bad side here.  Of course, those are just my prejudices.  Another of my opinions: maybe a story about how you think war is bad is supposed to be provocative or groundbreaking or whatever, but in fact it is banal--everybody says war is bad--and often hypocritical--many people who loudly remonstrate against a war today will in a few years be just as loudly urging support for some other war.  Blish's story, "The Oath," is a useful contrast to Budrys's "The Price."  While I essentially agree with Budrys that war is terrible, his broad and over-the-top denunciation of war is boring and unproductive, while Blish's argument, which appears to be that the cognitive educated elite should be able to run our lives for us, is far more interesting and useful, even though I disagree with it, because Blish's case is based on specific examples and evidence and is in fact truly rebellious in its thinking, not a mere rebellious pose.   

Thumbs down!           

"The Price" first saw print in the same issue of F&SF that included Ward Moore's "The Fellow Who Married the Maxill Girl," one of the stories Merril reprinted in 6th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F which we read in our last episode.  "The Price" would reappear in the Budrys collection Blood and Burning and a number of American and European anthologies, including James Sallis's The War Book and a German anthology of stories from F&SF.

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Of today's batch of stories, the Ballard pieces are the most accomplished when it comes to traditional literary values, offering striking images and good writing and a compelling narrative.  Anderson's story is solid traditional SF with aliens and science, plus a moral dilemma and a somewhat surprising cosmic horror ending instead of (or in addition to) a sense of wonder ending--the universe is full of endless possibilities, but not for us humans!  (The ultimate in social inequality!)  Blish's story is talky and a little boring, but at least it competently makes a rational argument worth engaging with.  The Budrys is just bogus self-indulgent pseudo-arty goop, like a dreadful off-off-Broadway play.

Today's stories are perhaps united by a bleakness and even misanthropy; our next blog post will cover more 1960 stories recommended by Trotskyist Judith Merril and it will be interesting to see if they are a little cheerier.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Merril-approved 1960 stories by W Moore, J Brunner, H Fast, F Brown, R Bretnor, R G Brown & K Amis

I love the cover of my copy of Dell's 1962 paperback edition of Judith Merril's 1961 6th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F, which features a yellow sphere created by John Van Zwienen.  Often in life we will find it easy to love exteriors, only to be disappointed with what lies beyond them.  But let's crack open this baby with hope in our hearts and read seven (lucky!) stories by people with whom we already have some familiarity--though not necessarily a fond familiarity!

(First, we'll note that we have already blogged about two stories that appear in 6th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F.  I liked Arthur C. Clarke's "I Remember Babylon" and I didn't like "Old Hundredth" by Brian Aldiss.  Also, I'll point out that the Lester Del Rey contribution is a half-page poem, a parody of the 23rd Psalm that takes as its topic the dangers of nuclear weapons; that the Ray Bradbury contribution is an essay I haven't read; and that the Walt Kelly contribution is a lame two-page comic strip while the Shel Silverstein contribution is a four-page comic strip depicting a TV that eats people.  Part of Merril's editorial project is expanding the definition of what constitutes SF as well as expanding recognition of SF in media other than traditional prose.)

"The Fellow Who Married the Maxill Girl" by Ward Moore (1960)   

Years ago I read Ward Moore's "It Becomes Necessary" AKA "The Cold Peace," which Merril included in her seventh Best S-F volume.  I liked that story, so I have some hopes for "The Fellow Who Married the Maxill Girl," which is the longest story we are reading today, taking up 28 pages of 6th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F.

This is a sappy story about how a poor rural family during the Depression takes in an alien and their lives are enriched by this E.T.'s miraculous powers to heal people's skin disorders, double or triple the hens' production of eggs and the cows' production of milk, and on and on; this guy has lots and lots of powers.  The alien can't speak English upon arrival, but his alien speech sounds like music that makes everybody "stronger, kinder, more loving."  "The Fellow Who Married the Maxill Girl" is also one of those misanthropic SF stories that offer us a goody goody alien as a means of throwing human evil into stark relief.  The alien doesn't eat meat or other animal products, and he hates machinery.  He doesn't feel anger or hate, and doesn't even understand those concepts.  He has no interest in possessions--he refuses to sully himself by touching money--or power--he never tries to sway anybody or assert his independence from the patriarch of the family, Malcolm Maxill, an incompetent moonshiner and bootlegger, who exploits his abilities to get rich.  

Maxill's daughter, Nan, who falls in love with the extraterrestrial, endeavors to hide his powers from the outside world, as she knows they will excite the greed and envy of our horrible human race.  Nan marries the alien and they have a child, and she knows she will have to conceal E. T. Jr.'s superpowers as well.  Luckily, Dad then dies in a car wreck so Nan and her husband are free of him.  

After married life of some twenty years, during which Nan's husband does not age, hubby has to return to his people to help them through a crisis.  I guess we are expected to believe he never returns but he has made Nan a better person so it was all worthwhile.    

I generally don't like sappy stories, and I generally don't like stories in which the author creates a super being or super society to dramatize his banal and boring criticisms of America or the white man or capitalism or humanity or whatever.  And I don't like "The Fellow Who Married the Maxill Girl."       

"The Fellow Who Married the Maxill Girl" made its debut as the cover story of F&SF, and, after Merril reprinted it in book form, Robert P. Mills, editor of F&SF, and Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg followed suit.  People apparently like this kind of thing.  


"Report on the Nature of the Lunar Surface" by John Brunner (1960)

I've actually never blogged about anything by the famous and prolific John Brunner.  The things I hear about his famous works make me suspect they would irritate me, and when, in my pre-blog days, I read two of his minor works, Maze of Stars and one of the Traveller in Black books, they were not entertaining enough to inspire in me a desire to read anything else by Brunner.  Regardless, I decided to read "Report on the Nature of the Lunar Surface" because it is only two pages long and it made its debut in John W. Campbell Jr.'s Astounding and Astounding and Campbell's career interest me.

This is a joke story, a report from the first men to land on the moon that informs the authorities that the moon is made of green cheese; you see, some time ago a careless person dropped a sandwich into an unmanned reconnaissance rocket, which subsequently crashed on the moon--the lunar surface has proven to be an ideal medium for the propagation of the sandwich's cheese.  (Is that how cheese works?)  

Waste...of...time.

I have to admit that I am taken aback that serious people like Campbell and Merril would print such a thing, and it is not just them: "Report on the Nature of the Lunar Surface" would be reprinted in at least four later books, including one edited by Robert Hoskins and another by Hal Clement. smh


"The Large Ant" by Howard Fast (1960)

Back in 2016, when we were young, I read three stories by Stalin Peace Prize recipient Howard Fast and said they were "repetitive polemics pushing tired and discredited ideas that lack literary or entertainment value."  (Hmm, nowadays I would say they were "repetitive polemics that push tired and discredited ideas and lack literary or entertainment value."  Oh, well.)  Despite that denunciation, here I am reading another Fast production.

I must report that this is another lame lump of junk.  In "The Large Ant," Fast, whom Merril presents as some kind of mastermind in her little intro, just rehashes in a limp way SF concepts we've already read many times.  There is the noble alien who knows nothing of murder and is used to show, by contrast, how monstrous are human beings.  Fast also throws in the ideas of collective consciousness and  of aliens sitting in judgment of the human race.  Three SF cliches with which "America's foremost chronicler of historical rebellion," as Merril calls him, does absolutely nothing new or fresh.  And it is not like Fast unleashes some brilliant literary style on us in this story--the style is totally ordinary. 

A New York writer is taking a little vacation in the country, fishing and practicing his putting.  While reclining he suddenly sees an ant over a foot long right by him--reflexively he smashes it with a putting iron.  When he takes the dead specimen to a scientist he learns that these oversized ants are popping up all over, and whenever a man sees one he responds by instantly destroying it.  But these aren't ants--they are intelligent aliens, as evidenced by the little tools they carry in camouflaged pouches.  The fact that every single encounter with these aliens results in an immediate instinctive act of murder proves how evil we humans are.  It is assumed by the scientist and his colleagues that these aliens enjoy a collective consciousness, are peace lovers who can't conceive of murder, and may destroy the human race after judging our behavior.

After first appearing in Fantastic Universe, "The Large Ant" would reappear in a host of anthologies, including ones edited by Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison and Kingsley Amis and Robert Conquest.  Did editors reprint this dross because they hoped that some of the prestige of Fast would rub off on the SF ghetto?  Or did they love its message, that we are all a bunch of irredeemable jerks and deserve to be killed and wouldn't it be better if we enjoyed collective consciousness instead of individual autonomy.  (Stalin Peace Prize, indeed.)

Sheesh.


"Abominable" by Fredric Brown (1960)
    
Remember back in 2018 when we read Anthony Boucher's praise of Fredric Brown's short-short stories, a form which Brown calls "the vinny?"  "Abominable" is one of three Brown "vinnies" that appeared together in The Dude.  The "magazine devoted to pleasure" misspelled Brown's name on its cover, a goof also committed by the people at Dell on the contents page of 6th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F.  Sad.
 
A famous film star, an Italian sex symbol, has been captured by the yeti.  The world has given her up for lost.  But a British adventurer who is the sex symbol's biggest fan has not abandoned hope.  He ascends the Himalayan mountain where she disappeared.  When he sees a yeti he shoots it down.  But a second yeti captures him and explains the secret of the yeti.  These beings are humans transformed into monsters by drinking a chemical.  The tribe of yeti periodically captures people to turn into yetis to help maintain the yeti population, and the yeti the Englishman just killed was the Italian actress!  And now he too will be forced to become a yeti--the yeti who captured him is a female and she already has the hots for him.

Barely acceptable filler.  "Abominable" has been included in many Brown collections.


"The Man on Top" by Reginald Bretnor (1951)

Merril wanted to include multiple stories about the Himalayas in her anthology because the abominable snowman had been in the news a lot in 1960, and she came up with three; this is the third.  "The Man on Top" was actually first published in 1951, in Esquire, but Merril considered it eligible for publication in 6th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F because it was reprinted in F&SF in 1960.  I think it is fair to wonder if, in an effort to be cute or funny, Merril wasn't drifting away from her book's stated purpose of showcasing the best fantasy and science fiction published in 1960.

"The Man on Top" is a story that contrasts the terrible arrogance and inhuman technology of the white man with the serene wisdom of the East, and has a twist ending that is cheap and lame.  Instead of demonstrating the alleged superiority of the East, it just asserts it in an unconvincing manner.  Maybe I am exaggerating the ambition of the story, though--maybe "The Man on Top" is just supposed to be a light joke story. 

Barbank is a rich jerk who wants to be the first man to reach the summit of the world's highest mountain.  He has contempt for the Sherpas, thinking he doesn't need their aid, that he can use superior equipment and techniques that he himself has designed to get to the top of the mountain.  He launches the expedition with ten other white men, including the narrator.  You might call the narrator a nice liberal; he always has nice things to say about the Sherpas and he is so turned off by Barbank's arrogance that he decides to sabotage Barbank's ambitions, to make sure Barbank does not succeed in becoming the first man to reach the peak of the world's tallest mountain.

Before the expedition departs, they go visit a local Holy Man, a guy in a loin cloth who has a beautiful face and serene affect and imparts words of wisdom, etc.  The Holy Man tells Barbank that Barbank cannot achieve his heart's desire without the Holy Man's help; Barbank scoffs.

The march up the freezing cold mountain is challenging, but Barbank's plans work and he and the narrator approach the summit.  The narrator proves that he is the stronger, and could race ahead and become himself the first man to get to the top of the world, but decides to let Barbank pass him, to humiliate the arrogant jerk by patronizing him.  On the peak the climbers find the Holy Man, naked and serene as ever, sitting in a little circle of warmth apparently created by his magic powers.  It is not made clear how he got there, flew or teleported, I guess.  Anyway, the joke ending of the story is that the Holy Man asks Barbank how he got up the mountain and acts surprised to hear a man would walk all this way. 

Bretnor's story is up to the standard of acceptable filler until the end, but the climax/punchline is lame and annoying.  Maybe "The Man on Top" is meant to be a shaggy dog story, but the emphasis on the contrast between the West and the East and the contrast between the jerk Barbank and the sensitive goody goody narrator suggests the story has some kind of tendentious social message to convey and is not merely meant as a joke.    

"The Man on Top" would be reprinted again in an anthology of ESP stories, and by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg and Joseph D. Olander in their collection of short shorts, which I read from way back in the infancy of this blog in 2014.


"David's Daddy" by Rosel George Brown (1960)

We just recently read two novels by Rosel George Brown, Sibyl Sue Blue, the tale of a cigar-smoking sexually promiscuous lady cop of the future, and its sequel, The Waters of Centaurus.  Here's our chance to sample another of Brown's productions, a story that first appeared in Fantastic and in 2003 was revived by Ellen Datlow for her internet magazine.

Like the Sibyl Sue Blue novels, "David's Daddy" is about a heroic female public employee.  It is also a grim sad story about how horrible life is!

Our narrator is a young school teacher.  Amid all the stuff in the first part of the story about how hard it is to be a teacher and how awesome teachers are there is a clue that one of the kids in the school is telepathic, can read minds and transmit his thoughts to other minds.  The second part of the story is about how a creepy guy comes to the school to ask to bring his son home.  The son is embarrassed by his father, a disgusting drunk and a loser who has been pushed around by others all his life.  Our narrator employs the psychological tricks she uses to keep the students under control to manipulate the scary father, whom she fears has planted a bomb in the school.  Then she recruits the telepath kid to read the bomber's mind and help her find and deactivate the bomb.  (They put the bomb in a tub of water.  Does that really work?)

The end of the story highlights how the bomber's son is ashamed ("So many things were worse than death") and how the telepathic kid must know how horrible and unreliable are people and the world because he can read minds.

This is the best story we have read yet today because it has real human feeling and on a mechanical level the plot and pacing work well--it is not a lame joke like several of the stories described above and it is not too long like Moore's story and it feels sort of fresh, not tired, like Fast's story.  And yet all those stories have been reprinted more often than Brown's--the world and people really are unreliable!   

"Hemingway in Space" by Kingsley Amis (1960)

Amis was seen as a major mainstream literary figure and when his New Maps of Hell, described in cover blurbs as "A Survey of Science Fiction" and "The Book That Made Science Fiction Grow Up," was published it received a lot of attention from the SF community.  Anthony Boucher contributes a three-page essay to 6th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F entitled "S-F Books: 1960" and devotes a paragraph to New Maps of Hell, which he calls "the most controversial book of the year," and notes that Merril was in violent disagreement with it.  In a 1970s interview* he conducted via mail with Paul Walker, Frederik Pohl notes that in New Maps of Hell Amis praised Pohl to the skies.  But...
A few years later, Kingsley changed his wife and his politics and came to the conclusion I was no damn good at all.

"Hemingway in Space" is a five-page parody; I'm probably not familiar enough with Hemingway to really get the nuances of this thing.  I am actually more familiar with Amis's work than Hemingway's; I read Lucky Jim and Jake's Thing in 2019 and plan to read another Amis mainstream novel soon.

A big game hunter and his native guide, a two-headed Martian, are taking a couple out hunting a powerful and dangerous whale-sized beast that lives in the vacuum of space.  The husband is a college professor or something, and his wife is a loud, annoying, petulant, self-important nag.  The hunter thinks the prof should get rid of the "bitch" but isn't brave enough to do so.

The party comes upon their quarry, and something goes wrong and the Martian dies, sacrificing himself to save the humans.  The wife is more or less to blame for the catastrophe, and the prof grows the stones to put her in her place (he sends her to the galley to cook) and divorce her.  

This is a pretty gentle satire--it almost reads like a sincere SF adventure story with blasters and space suits and air locks and like a straight masculine tale of how women are obstacles to an authentic life and freedom is the most important value and indigenous people are noble and the natural world is beautiful and all that.  Where the parody becomes obvious is when Amis uses repetition to make those themes seem ridiculous; the hunter doesn't just call the woman a bitch once but again and again, the contrast of the blackness of the void and the brightness of the stars isn't just mentioned once but restated again and again in a single paragraph, and so forth.  But "Hemingway in Space" doesn't feel like an effort to dismiss the commonplaces of science fiction or undermine those masculine values, but rather a mock-up of a mediocre effort to employ those tropes and promote those values--Amis doesn't so much ridicule the conquest of space and the pursuit of the authentic life in the wilderness as he does writers who incompetently work with these ideas.

I found this an engaging, even provocative story, as I wondered to what extent Amis was goofing on adventure SF and Hemingway, and to what extent he was emulating or celebrating them, perhaps esoterically.  Amis's "Hemingway in Space" is the only competition faced by Rosel George Brown's "David's Daddy" for the title of best story we've read today.

"Hemingway in Space" debuted in Punch, has appeared in Russian and Italian anthologies (the Italian volume is adorned with a terrific repurposed Karel Thole illo) and was chosen by Brian Aldiss and Harry Harrison for their anthology of representative 1960s SF stories.  

*You can read it in Walker's Speaking of Science Fiction      


**********

So we read seven stories from 6th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F today, and only two of them were good (luckily they were the last two, so I can walk away from this blog post with a smile on my face instead of a scowl.)  It seems I am not on the same wavelength as Judith Merril and the legions of people who are always extravagantly singing her praises (see contemporary extravagant praise below.)

The first two quotes are from the back cover of 
6th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F;
the four quotes that follow are from the first page of 
the anthology

More science fiction short stories in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log!