Friday, March 31, 2023

Saul Bellow: "Zetland: By a Character Witness," "Leaving the Yellow House" and "What Kind of Day Did You Have?"

It is time to read some serious mainstream literature!  Let's attack three stories from the middle of the 2001 hardcover edition of Collected Stories by Saul Bellow that I bought at the book sale at the Central Branch of the Public Library of Des Moines many years ago.

"Zetland: By a Character Witness" (1974)

This is a 14-page biography of a sickly Jewish genius, born in the Chicago of the early Twenties, the son of a poor man who moved his way up to become a buyer at a department store.  Zet the genius reads all the hard books and has opinions about all the avant garde artists and is intimately familiar with all the major composers, even as a little kid.  He studies philosophy in college and marries a sexy Macedonian girl whom his father detests and he gets a fellowship at Columbia and they move to New York but there he suffers a recurrence of his childhood illness and loses interest in philosophy, drops out of Columbia and starts hanging out in Greenwich Village.  The story ends without telling us what happens to this guy other than that he wants to join up during World War II and has a son born during the war; it is not even clear if he ever joins the military (seems unlikely--he is quite unhealthy) or ever gets a real job or just lives off his wife's earnings as an office worker--it is made clear that Zet himself is unsuited to office work.  It seems possible he becomes a novelist, as during his illness he becomes smitten by Moby Dick.    

At times the story, which I guess is primarily meant to be a vivid reconstruction of American Jewish life before 1945, seems like a celebration of Jewish intelligence and affinity for the life of the mind, what with how we are told again and again how Zet and his father know all about art, literature and music, and how Zet is fun and kind and generous to everybody, but at the end you have to suspect it is a tragedy--Dad doesn't like the girl his son is so crazy about and Zet is apparently too sick (or maybe too scatterbrained and unfocused?) to really do anything much productive with his superbrain.  There is also the issue of Zet's politics--as a young man he is a commie, but the behavior of the Soviet Union in 1939 seems to disillusion him.  And then there is the title, with its reference to the unobtrusive narrator, who knew Zet when they were teens--is he a "character witness" because during or after the war Zet got in trouble with the law?

The story sort of lacks a climax and resolution, but it is dense with detail.  Some of these details seem to suggest Zet is a romantic poseur, almost a goofball (he relishes living in crappy apartments, for example), and others are surprising, perhaps meant to shock.  Zet's household growing up included two maiden aunts, and we are told they notice a smell like herring coming from Zet's wife--they have never had sex themselves, and assume this smell is a sign of disease, when in fact Bellow tells us it is just the normal smell of a woman who has had sex.

After first appearing in 1974 in the scholarly journal Modern Occasions, "Zetland: By a Character Witness" would be reprinted in the 1984 collection Him With His Foot In His Mouth and Other Stories.

"Leaving the Yellow House" (1958)

I'm not Jewish and I'm not very smart, but I can identify with a guy who likes books and moves to New York City to attend grad school and then disappoints his parent by dropping out and marrying a woman parent does not approve of.  "Leaving the Yellow House" is more challenging for me to inhabit, as it is about an old woman who likes to drink and lives in the desert in the South West.  

Hattie is something of a loser, a septuagenarian divorcee who likes nothing more than to drink booze and smoke cigarettes.  From a middle-class East Coast family, she suffered a severe decline in her fortunes and has had jobs and relationships she found demeaning, and has done things for which she is ashamed, like publicly accusing a neighbor of killing her dog when it was she herself who had to kill the aggressive beast when it attacked her.  Her last job was to be the live-in companion of a more sophisticated woman whom she was supposed to discourage from drinking--Hattie instead became her eager drinking companion.  When this woman died she left Hattie her yellow house with the beautiful view of the lake and mountains.  This story is largely about Hattie's determination to keep this yellow house even as she declines and people keep telling her she should sell it or rent it out and move because she can no longer look after it or herself--this house to her represents her greatest triumph, it being the only thing she has ever really owned, and she does not want to give it up.  Bellow creates tension in the story as he gives us so many reasons to see Hattie as irresponsible, selfish, and a troublemaker, but also a figure of pity who has suffered--can we excuse her foolishness and her disregard for the safety of others because she herself has had a tough time of it?  

"Leaving the Yellow House" was included in Mosby's Memoirs and Other Stories after its initial appearance in an issue of Esquire the cover of which is reminding me of the work of Yayoi Kusama, whose current exhibition at the Hirshhorn my sister dragged me* to a few days ago--that woman loves dots!  (I'm going to level with my fellow philistines and tell you that I thought Kusama's work banal gimmickry and her poem about coronavirus highlighted at the Hirshhorn exhibition like something a child would write; I like this Esquire cover much better--maybe it belongs in the government museum!)

"What Kind of Day Did You Have?" (1984)

Clocking in at some 70 pages, "What Kind of Day Did You Have" is almost three times as long as "Leaving the Yellow House," which I have to admit felt sort of lengthy. This one has a big cast of characters.  The central figure is Katrina Goliger, mother of two little kids.  Her husband Alfred was a jewelry and antiques dealer who travelled around the world all the time and cheated on Katrina, she in turn cheated on him, so now they are divorced and in a custody fight over the kids.  Katrina for over a year has been in an affair with a famous 70-something intellectual, Victor Wulpy, a guy who gives lectures all over the place on modern poetry and painting and philosophy and has written articles about E. E. Cummings (Wulpy capitalizes it), Karl Marx and Paul Valery.  Wulpy has a wife and is a serial adulterer, and Katrina is his favorite mistress, the one who can really get him going, really get his septuagenarian penis erect.  A somewhat mysterious police officer, a Lieutenant Krieggstein, is also courting Katrina.  Krieggstein, as his name perhaps reflects, carries with him at all time three pistols, so is always ready to fight, but he is losing the competition for Katrina, stuck in what the kids call "the friend zone":  Krieggstein is always doing favors for Katrina, like walking her dog and looking after the kids and helping her with the custody fight, but he never makes any progress with Katrina--it is the famous Wulpy who treats her like a sexual plaything whom Katrina desires; nice guy Krieggstein finishes last.  Katrina has a sister, Dorothea, whose husband, head of a plastics company, died, so that now Dorothea is trying to run the business herself; Dorothea is envious of her sister, now that she is having sex with a world class intellectual and meeting famous brainiacs and celebs like Buckminster Fuller, Willem de Kooning and Jackie O.  There's also the black woman who was nanny to Katrina and Dorothea and is now nanny to Katrina's own kids, Ysole, who may or may not be on the side of Katrina's husband in the custody fight.

"What Kind of Day Did You Have?" is about how life, especially the effort to build human relationships, is essentially futile.  It is impossible to make connections with other people; love is always a one-way street, a yearning that will not be requited.  The people who theoretically should love you--your parents, your children, the nanny who actually raised you, the people you have sex with--are opponents you combat or exploiters to whom you submit.  Across the lines of sex and race and age, connections are impossible--Bellow describes many marital relationships, parental relationships, and business relationships in the story, and presents all of them as humiliating and painful. 

The plot.  Wulpy is in Buffalo on his way to Chicago and wants company so he calls up Katrina, who lives in Evanston, Ill., and gets her to meet him at the airport in Buffalo so she can fly with him back to Chi-town.  Katrina loves being with Wulpy so accedes to his request, even though she will miss a court hearing and may be putting her right to custody of her kids (whom she doesn't seem to get along too well with anyway) in jeopardy.  At the airport in the Empire State, Wulpy tells Katrina all about the talk he just gave in Buffalo--set up by his daughter, a student at the college where he spoke, it was on how the insights of Marx's famous The Eighteenth Brumaire can be applied to 1970s America--and a talk he must give tomorrow to some business executives in Chicago.  Then appears an old acquaintance of Wulpy's, Larry Wrangel, an attendee of this Buffalo lecture.  Wrangel was a philosophy student at NYU and a writer for Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers comic books when Wulpy first knew him, now he is a Hollywood director who has made a blockbuster science fiction movie that the characters keep comparing to Star Wars.  (I recall there being SF references in Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet and Herzog, which I read years ago.)  These two rich creatives discuss whether an analysis of America that relies on European class categories is of any actual value, and the related idea that Americans create themselves, are deracinated self-made men left adrift, unmoored.  Well, at least I think that is what these guys are talking about:

"Well," said Wrangel, "I have a friend who says that the created souls of people, of the Americans, have been removed.  The created soul has been replaced by an artificial one, so there's nothing real that human beings can refer to when they try to judge any matter for themselves.  They live mainly by rationales.  They have made-up guidance systems." 
Wrangel admires Wulpy, sees him as a great man, even compares him to FDR (whose vast temple I  traversed on Sunday while attending with my sister the cherry blossom festival in the capitol of our empire of artificial-souled rationale followers) but Wulpy treats him shabbily, in part because Wrangel doesn't slavishly follow Wulpy's thinking, but challenges it--he seems to suggest that ideas--to which Wulpy has devoted his life--do not really drive life and history.  Wulpy has gotten rich and famous and has been able to have sex with lots of women because of his facility with ideas, but his work doesn't really matter in the long run.

Wulpy and Katrina catch their flight to Chicago, but snow over the Windy City diverts it to Detroit, where they meet Wrangel again for more wrangling over ideas.  There is a dearth of flights to Chicago.  Will Wulpy miss his speech to the executives?  Will Katrina's lie to her kids and her black nanny about what she is really up to be exposed?  Wulpy contacts the executives, and they send a private jet to pick him and Katrina up and bring them to Chicago.  As they wait in a Detroit hotel room, Katrina calls the nanny, who accuses her of lying about where she is, and humiliates her by saying she always lied as a child, leading Katrina to reflect that black people hate white people:
They hate us, said Trina to herself, after Ysole had hung up.  They hate us terribly.
and on what it is she admires about Wulpy:
Katrina again felt: Everybody has power over me.  Alfred, punishing me, the judge, the lawyers, the psychiatrist, Dotey--even the kids.  They all apply standards nobody has any use for, except to stick you with.  That's what drew me to Victor, that he wouldn't let anybody set conditions for him. Let others make the concessions.  That's how I'd like to be.  Except that I haven't got his kind of ego, which is a whole mountain of ego.  Now it's Ysole's turn.     
(No doubt feminists, Marxists, BLM activists and every other species of liberal or leftist could write reams about this scene in which a duplicitous white middle-class woman who hobnobs with celebrities whines that her "Negro" servant has power over her!)   

In the hotel room Katrina and Wulpy have sex, and Katrina indulges in memories of earlier pivotal moments in the history of their relationship, providing insight into how Wulpy manipulates her as well as his wife, and suggesting that he doesn't really love either of them, though Katrina speculates that perhaps he manipulates her for (his conception of) her own good.  For example, Wulpy insisted Katrina read Celine's Journey to the End of the Night, a book that she interprets as debunking the very idea of love--is this just callousness, or some kind of test, or an effort by Wulpy, who is much older than Katrina and nearly died a year ago, to prepare Katrina to accept Wulpy's death?--the solipsistic Wulpy may not love Katrina, but he can easily believe that his own death will break her heart.  

The private plane picks Katrina and Wulpy up, and, caught in severe turbulence, they fear they will crash and die.  Katrina tries to get Wulpy to tell her he loves her, and he dismissively refuses.  Back in Chicago, Katrina is reunited with her kids and with Krieggstein, who has been using his resources to help her in her custody fight.  Her overtures to the kids are rebuffed--her own children ignore her--and it looks like despite his efforts on her behalf Krieggstein's love for Katrina is going to remain unrequited for the foreseeable future.       

"What Kind of Day Did You Have" is a dense story, with lots of stuff going on, but there are so many striking little details and so little fat and no tedious repetition that it doesn't feel slow or long; Bellow also doesn't actually tell you what you are expected to think about the characters or their actions, he just throws a bunch of evidence at you and lets you make up your own mind, which keeps you engaged.

Among the odd details, we have, as in "Zetland," a surprising reference to female sexual smells ("the woman-slime odor--that swamp-smell") and in response I came up with a theory that Bellows says this sort of stuff because he is trying to be the kind of audacious mountain of ego who ignores social conventions and refuses to make concessions that he portrays Victor Wulpy as.  

An interesting piece of symbolism comes in the form of a violin.  Wulpy's daughter in Buffalo hands her expensive violin (which Wulpy bought her and the resale value of which he monitors as if he really thinks of it as an investment) to him to take to Chicago to have worked upon by experts.  Wulpy, as a rhetorician, promotes art, argues that one of America's problems is we don't take art seriously, that asserts that art should be treated as something as vital as oxygen and food, and by carrying around this valuable violin he is physically embodying the role of protector of fine art.  All of Bellow's mentions of how Wulpy (and then Katrina) are carrying it and where they are putting it add suspense to the story, as the reader expects it to get crushed or lost at any moment.

The references to popular culture in the story are amusing, in particular how Katrina caused a crisis in her relationship with Victor by dragging him to see the film M*A*S*H*, which she had already seen and felt deserved a strong recommendation; he detested the movie and lost respect for her taste.  Katrina, after reflecting that her own children are alien to her, suggests that Victor told her that "Star Wars flicks corrupted everybody, implanted mistrust of your own flesh and blood."  I thought this was wild, in part because early in the week my sister dragged me* to a loud, garish and horrendous Smithsonian exhibit celebrating how TV, cinema and sports advanced diversity and other au currant values and the opinion the government museum espoused about Star Wars was that it renewed America's spirit after the USA had made the humiliating blunder of opposing communism in South East Asia.    

It seems a version of "What Kind of Day Did You Have?" appeared in Vanity Fair on the cover of which Bellow's tale was promoted as "an extraordinary love story" inside a heart scrawled by Keith Haring (having slagged the work of Yayoi Kusama as childish and gimmicky, you can perhaps guess how I feel about Haring's work.)

*So you don't think this was a totally one-sided phenomenon, I'll own that I dragged my sister to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Gallery of Art to see sculptures by Paul Manship and Augustus Saint-Gaudens and paintings by Abbot Handerson Thayer.  


These are good stories, "What Kind of Day Did You Have?" probably the best, as it has so many economically interwoven characters and themes, though "Zetland: By a Character Witness" is probably my fave because it builds a vivid portrait of a past world in which I am interested and offers plenty of sharp images.  

It is undeniably worthwhile to spend a week reading "real" 20th-century American literature and marching hither and thither through Washington, D.C. attending festivals and visiting monuments and bookstores and museums and eating for lunch braised lamb at Cava three out of four days, but I am looking forward to hunkering down in MPorcius Fiction Log's rural HQ next week and getting back to my usual diet of SF stories and inexpensive groceries.  See you soon!

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Merril-approved 1956 stories: J Barrow, C Beaumont & J Blish

At the end of the 1957 volume of her famous Best of series of anthologies, Judith Merril included a list of 1956 stories that didn't quite make it into the book.  We at MPorcius Fiction Log are proceeding through this alphabetical list, reading stories that spark our interest for one reason or another.  It is a long list-- this is the third installment of this series, and we are still in the "B"s. 

Links to episodes 1 and 2 of this series:
Abernathy and Aldiss
Anderson, Allen and Banks

"The Little Giant" by Jackson Barrow

The last episode of MPoricus Fiction Log was all about a 1953 issue of Robert W. Lowndes's Dynamic Science Fiction; well, here we dip into another magazine edited by Lowndes, Science Fiction Quarterly.  Lowndes pens an article commemorating the recently dead Fletcher Pratt, as well as a long editorial responding to an article by Robert Bloch in a fanzine on the question of whether or not bad SF movies and TV shows (Bloch and Lowndes, like Judith Merril, really really hate 1951's The Thing From Another World) have hurt the reputation of SF and the circulation of magazines like Science Fiction Quarterly.

These old debates about the SF biz are fun, but we are here to read Jackson Barrow's "The Little Giant."  Barrow only has two credits at isfdb, and this is the earlier one.  It looks like "The Little Giant" has never been reprinted.  I have to assume few people currently drawing breath have read this one--soon I will join their exclusive ranks!  

"The Little Giant" is kind of like a weird tale, maybe like something Clark Ashton Smith might come up with.  Some time ago, the political map of the world was scrambled by an atomic war, with new nations rising up among the ruins of the old and waging ceaseless war upon each other.  Then a man of unknown origins, a short broad-shouldered guy, arose to take over the world.  He made himself master of the Earth not by leading armies of conquest, but through diplomacy and the sheer force of his personality.  Everyone who comes to meet him is psychologically overwhelmed by him and pledges allegiance to him.  The Little Giant today has control over almost every aspect of human life, a micromanager who works long hours and offloads almost no decisions to others.

Our narrator was selected from among the population of Earth to be the Little Giant's bodyguard--he is the fifth man to hold this job.  Barrow expends a lot of ink having the narrator describe his own psychological state--the stresses of being the dictator's bodyguard, of a monotonous daily schedule (the apparently tireless Little Giant never takes a day off!), of total isolation from all other human beings, of having a fearsome master who almost never talks to you.  The final pages of the story reveal the true nature of the Little Giant and of the narrator's relationship to him: after fourteen months the narrator becomes the next Little Giant as, psychically directed by the supermind of the dictator, his fresh body absorbs the consciousness of the Little Giant, leaving the ruler's exhausted body a sort of robotic husk subject to programming by the new Little Giant.  The narrator's brain now includes the consciousnesses, the memories, of all his predecessors, and his body changes so that he has the same short broad appearance as theirs had--the population of Earth will have no idea he is not the same man.  Now he will select a new bodyguard to be his successor, and conduct the true business of the Little Giant--preparing the Earth for conquest by the aliens whose agent he is, aliens who feed on intelligence!  The end of all the Little Giant's meticulous policy-making is the eugenic breeding of a human race of superior intelligence to serve as food!

This is actually a pretty good story, a solid choice by Merril.

"Traumerei" by Charles Beaumont

Merril included two stories by Beaumont in her list of honorable mentions for 1956; one, "The Dark Music," I have blogged about already.  I called that story "lazy and malicious" and "like a caricature of exactly the kind of story you would expect to find in Playboy."  It seems opinions will differ.  Well, maybe I'll agree with Merril that "Traumerei" is worthy of attention.

"Traumerei" is something of a horror story, with a seriously creepy illustration I can heartily recommend to all you horror fans credited to a Remington--it is Remington's only credit at isfdb.  "Traumerei" is also one of those nature-of-reality stories, like Robert Heinlein's 1941 "They" in which a guy discovers the entire world is a set built to deceive him and Richard Matheson's 1954 "The Man Who Made the World" in which the entire world is the product of an alien's imagination and can be extinguished in a moment.  I guess "Traumerei" also tries to exploit the sympathies of anti-capital punishment liberals.

A newspaperman who decries the bloodlust of the populace who clamor to see a convicted murderer and rapist fry in the chair has visited the killer, and was told by the doomed man that, should he be executed, the world will vanish because the world is just his dream, a dream inflicted on him by the authorities of the real world for some crime he committed in real life. 

The main narrative of "Traumerei" consists of the journalo and the killer's lawyer nervously watching the clock as the time of the murderer's execution approaches, discussing the possibility that the killer is telling the truth and they will vanish upon his execution.  Then the scene shifts to an alien world where we see some alien being executed by the expedient of being fed to monsters--he tells his executioners that this is all a dream.  Presumably this alien criminal suffers a multitude of different dreams in different horrifying artificial locales.  

An acceptable gimmick story.  Beaumont apparently adapted "Traumerei" into the Twilight Zone script "Shadow Play," leaving out the exotic aliens and monsters ending and instead having the criminal dream of an Earth-type trial and execution again and again.  "Traumerei" can be found in the Beaumont collections Yonder and Perchance to Dream.

"Traumerei" debuted in the second issue of Infinity, which is where I read it.  We'll probably come back to this issue someday because it includes stories by Harlan Ellison and Damon Knight I am curious about.  Knight also has a letter in the magazine, praising Arthur C. Clarke's story "The Star," which appeared in Infinity's first issue. and sarcastically attacking Robert Bloch; correspondence from Forrest J. Ackermann is also reprinted--he offers even more extravagant encomiums for Clarke and "The Star."  Maybe I'll also have to look at that first issue of Infinity, which has a cover that gender studies majors have probably written theses about.

"Time to Survive" by James Blish

Merril anointed two Blish stories with membership on her Honorable Mention list, and I haven't read either.  First up, "Time To Survive," which debuted in F&SF, where it was a cover story and appeared alongside Damon Knight's famous "Country of the Kind" and a Beaumont collaboration with Chad Oliver that I will probably read at some point.

"Time to Survive" is pretty long (isfdb calls it a "novelette") but it never drags; it is a good classic-type SF story, full of traditional, almost stereotypical, science fiction elements--space ships, space suits, airlocks, a protagonist who doesn't really know his identity and has to decide whether to side with the government or with the secret rebels, plenty of talk about astronomy, chemistry and biology and a future history based on speculative economics, and a sense of wonder ending in which mankind sets out to conquer the stars.  Blish does a good job deploying all these components as well as giving the characters motivations and personalities that make sense.   

Donald Leverault Sweeney (is this a T. S. Eliot reference?) is a test tube baby, the product of genetic engineering.  His body is totally unsuitable for life on Earth--it was designed to survive comfortably--without a space suit!--on the surface of Ganymede!  Why was he created in that lab on Luna?  To serve the government by infiltrating a colony of renegades, men and women similarly fashioned to live on Ganymede, and capturing their leader, Dr. Jacob Rullman.  Like Pinocchio, Sweeney wants to be a real human, and the government dangles in front of him the hope that they can make him a real man if he accomplishes his mission on Ganymede.

On Ganymede we have a sort of detective/espionage story as Sweeney fears the colonists will figure out he is a government spy who is there under false pretenses, and tries himself to figure out why the government is so hostile to the Ganymedean colonists.  Complications include a storm caused by a conjunction of a spike in sunspot activity and Jupiter's perihelion with the Sun and Sweeney's falling in love with a woman who is technically his niece, she having been grown from cells from one of his mother's siblings--old SF writers don't just shovel a bunch of hard science facts at you, they encourage you to be skeptical and apply logic and the scientific method to even the most settled of beliefs, and one of the standard issue beliefs that Ted Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein and it seems James Blish as well like to poke with a sharp stick to see if it can stand up to scrutiny is the incest taboo.          

Our guy Sweeney was constructed in a lab, with very little contact with newspapers or real books (we are told he has never read fiction) and so he has little grasp of Earth history when he arrives on Ganymede.  There on Jupiter's moon he learns that the Earth in the 20th century was taken over by a league of semi-independent government agencies modeled on the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey; this consortium gradually took control away from the elected government by mastering the issue of traffic, dominating the transportation sector and charging lots of fees.  This world-bestriding colossus of a Port Authority is opposed to the manipulation of the human genome to custom fashion people able to live on other planets because they favor terraforming as the means to colonize other worlds--terraforming is the kind of big public works project by which they make their money.  The Port Authority is thus determined to make sure the colony on Ganymede fails--if building humans to suit alien planets is a success, the terraforming industry won't take off.    

The Ganymedeans also reveal to Sweeney that the Port Authority actually has a stardrive that they have been keeping secret; Rullman himself has one of these stardrives as well as data about extrasolar planets explored by suppressed interstellar expeditions.  With this data he can bioengineer people suited to live in those other star systems, and with the stardrive he can get people to them--if the Earth authorities are kept away from Ganymede long enough for his starship to get away.  Sweeney figures out how to trick the Port Authority ships into abandoning Ganymede orbit for a sufficient period and into losing interest in the Ganymede colony; having ensured the human race (in altered form!) will colonize the galaxy, he and his "niece," now his wife, settle down to a quiet life together as Ganymedean farmers.

Thumbs up for this successful bit of classic SF.  "Time to Survive" is one of several stories in Blish's "Pantropy" series ("pantropy" is the name of the science of creating bioengineered humans in a lab.)  Under the title "Seeding Program," "Time to Survive" would be included in the oft-reprinted collection of the Pantropy stories, The Seedling Stars.

German translations of The Seedling Stars; check out 
R5-D4 on the 1981 Austrian printing

"The Writing of the Rat" by James Blish

"The Writing of the Rat" appears in an issue of Galaxy that also includes Theodore Sturgeon's "Skills of Xanadu," a collectivist utopia story which I said was "like a three page essay on what Ted thinks the perfect society would be stretched out to 26 pages" when I read it some years ago.  Let's hope Blish's tale is more interesting.

"The Writing of the Rat" is one of those stories in which goody goody aliens make humans look like scum, and, similar to a Lovecraftian tale or one of Edmond Hamilton's 1930s stories like "Devolution" or "Accursed Galaxy," a story that reveals the depressing true origin of humanity.  But it ends hopefully--the human race, despite its evil origins, can be redeemed if we do what the goody goodies tell us to do!  

Unlike "Time To Survive," which had a good plot and decent characters, "The Writing of the Rat" is mostly an idea story; the background is interesting but the actual plot is negligible and the characters are just there to push the ideas.  Twenty-first century readers will appreciate that Blish uses his characters to promote diversity--the good guy human is named "Singh" and has a "lean brown face," while the villain is named Matthews.  Blish includes some linguistics theory in the story, and also refers to poetry a bit.  The title of the story is from the poem Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind by Carl Sandburg, but somehow here in Galaxy the poem is misattributed to Ezra Pound.  I checked the internet archive's scan of the Blish collection Anywhen, in which "The Writing of the Rat" is reprinted, and I can report that for book publication the attribution was corrected.

The human race is exploring the galaxy, and has discovered many habitable planets.  But on each one are found intelligent inhabitants, muscular rodent people between six and seven feet tall.  These rat people demonstrate a bewildering cultural diversity; on some planets they live like barbarians, on others they have high tech cities with more advanced technology than Earth has.  The rat people all speak the same language, but each planet has its own distinct way of representing this language on paper.

The human race wants to expand, but every single colonizable planet is occupied by these apparently superior rat people.  Trying to learn about them, the space navy when able captures one-rat scout ships and their pilots are interrogated, but thus far the aliens tight-lipped.  The rat people also take human prisoners; our protagonist, Captain Jahnke, was held captive for two years by the aliens, and then released.  He found the aliens noble and dignified and so on, and is better acquainted with their language than just about any Earther.

When a new prisoner is brought to Earth, Jahnke acts as interpreter as a Major Matthews tortures the alien to death.  Then another prisoner arrives; this one is in the custody of Jahnke's human friend, a Colonel Singh.  Jahnke commits mutiny to make sure Matthews doesn't get his mitts on this latest rat prisoner, and he and Singh treat with the rat man, a particularly big and impressive one, who turns out to be a diplomat who wanted to be taken so he could tell the Earth people the amazing, astounding, fantastic and weird truth about the galaxy.

The rat people have been exploring the galaxy for many centuries.  Everywhere they go they find civilizations that have been abandoned.  Archaeological evidence indicates that these hundreds of planets have been attacked by slavers who seized the entire populations of the planets and carried them off towards the center of the galaxy, not bothering to occupy the planets or raze their victims' buildings or steal their treasures.  In order to preserve these civilizations, rat people move into the abandoned villages and cities and LARP--for generation after generation!--as the kidnapped peoples; the hope is that some day the rat people will liberate the slaves and the freed peoples can return to their planets and take up the traditions of their long dead ancestors.

The rat people are following the millennias-old trail of the slavers toward the center of the galaxy.  The Earth, they discovered, was an outpost of the slavers--the human race is descended from the slavers!  That is why we are all such jerks!  The rat people, however, see we have made progress, and are not all as jerky as, say, Alexander of Macedon, Napoleon Bonaparte, Genghis Khan, Adolf Hitler, or Joseph Stalin, all of whom appear on a list intoned by the alien diplomat.  At the end of the list here in Galaxy is the name "MacHinery;" for book publication this was changed to "McCarthy."  The rat people considered exterminating us, as they plan to exterminate the slavers if they ever catch up to them, but the diplomat offers to spare us if we join the anti-slaver crusade.  Singh and Jahnke of course express an eagerness to commit the human race to a close partnership with the rat people.

"The Writing of the Rat" has lots of weaknesses from a literary point of view, but it also has lots of wild ideas, so it is entertaining.  I can moderately recommend it.

The back cover of this British edition spoils much of the story


I can't fault Merril for any of these choices.  We can only hope we are on a roll and the next time we look at stories from Merril's Honorable Mention list we have as good an experience as we did this time.

Sunday, March 19, 2023

Dynamic Science Fiction, June 1953: R Z Gallun, R E Banks and C M Kornbluth & D A Wollheim

Bopping hither and tither at isfdb and the internet archive, one will often discover little gems.  My latest uncovered treasure is the June 1953 issue of Robert W. Lowndes' Dynamic Science Fiction.  The issue has a terrific red cover, a montage of classic SF elements like a man in a spacesuit, a satellite, a rocket ship ready for launch, an atomic bomb blowing up your town...and a naked woman in chains!  Wow!   

Inside, we find the magazine is full of beautiful little sex and violence spot illustrations and chapter headings that probably have nothing to do with the stories in which they appear.  There's a naked woman expressing dismay with heavy machinery, a naked woman reclining high in the atmosphere, multiple crashed rockets (stop texting while driving, guys!), a man in a space helmet brandishing his ray pistol, a woman using her pistol to disintegrate a man (you've come a long way, baby!), a variety of futuristic artillery and armored vehicles, and on and on.

So this magazine looks gorgeous.  But anybody can just look at an old magazine.  Not everybody will actually read a 70-year-old magazine!  Now, I'm not suggesting that I myself am going to read this magazine from cover to cover, either, but I will read three stories and skim the editorial by Lowndes and letters from Robert Silverberg and James Blish.

Both Lowndes in his editorial and Silberberg in his letter talk at some length about the labels affixed to pieces of magazine fiction to indicate their length; the general idea is that, for advertising purposes, texts bearing such appellations as "novellas," "novelets" and "novels" are getting shorter and shorter, so that what might have been labelled a "short story" back in the Thirties might today be called a "novella" or "novelet."  Silverberg is excited that Dynamic is going to have trimmed edges, complains at length about the typeface on the cover of the last issue of the magazine, and indicates that he hates present-tense narration.  Blish in his letter says he is glad that the covers of Dynamic have been portraying "situations from science-fiction, rather than the burlesque runway" (I wonder what he thought of this June cover) and then complains about the practice of editors commissioning stories from authors based on cover paintings; he suggests Judith Merril once wrote a story based on a cover illustration and instead of writing up a scene based on the painting just had the painting appear in the story as a canvas on a wall--Lowndes corrects him, suggesting the mention of the painting was added to the story after it was written.  (Is that better?)  Dynamic is a new magazine, this June issue being the third, and Blish offers a long list of advice for going forward, including getting rid of the spot illos I was just praising, and by all means keeping Dynamic's pages free of cartoons ("seldom funny, usually painful"), a personals section, gossip, and reviews of fanzines.      

Alright, now the stories, tales by Raymond Z. Gallun, Raymond E. Banks, and C. M. Kornbluth and Donald A. Wollheim writing under the pen name "Wallace Baird Halleck."

"Double Identity" by Raymond Z. Gallun 

If isfdb is to be believed, this story, Dynamic's cover story, was reprinted in an Australian magazine in 1954, and then faded into oblivion, never to be printed again.  I tend to like Gallun's work (most recently "Bluff Play," "Brother Worlds" and "Saturn's Ringmaster" in Thrilling Wonder) so I am not going to let that discourage me.

Unfortunately, "Double Identity" is not very well written, with clunky dialogue and somewhat intrusive exposition.  The plot and themes are OK, but not particularly fresh.

The Verden brothers are young self-educated intelligent farmers in rural Missouri.  One of them is affianced to Mary Koven, the daughter of the farmer whose property abuts theirs.  The brothers have always been interested in astronomy and space travel, avidly watching via the newspapers the career of rich businessman and adventurer Frank Cramm, who is on the brink of launching private space ships to the moon.  So, when a meteor lands near the farm, the three countryfolk go investigate it, only to find it is a small missile from the moon!

Contact with the missile starts changing the nearby landscape, turning Earth plants into the kind of plants that live in a valley on the far side of Luna, a deep valley which has retained an atmosphere and still supports life.  The Verdens and Mary Koven also start changing, growing fur and undergoing many other changes that make them look like monsters!  Eventually their very minds begin to change--they develop memories, and see visions, of a lunar landscape, even a lunar civilization!  

Just as some ignorant locals are hunting them down because they are scary, the consciousnesses of the three farmers shift into the bodies of moon people strapped onto operating tables in the lab of a lunar scientist.  The rest of the plot consists of the three Earthlings trying to act as ambassadors between the human race of Earth and the dying race of lunar people, who have technology superior to our own but number only three hundred.  The big theme of "Double Identity" is that people suffer a fear of the unknown and an inability to identify with what we now call "the other."  In theory, Earth peeps and loonies could through friendship help each other tremendously, but in practice each finds the other scary and is likely to shoot first and ask questions later, and for much of the story it looks like Frank Cramm's space ships, working in coordination with the USAF, are going to nuke the hidden valley.  The Verdens wonder if the natural aggression of the human race towards aliens, which is probably shared by other intelligent races throughout the galaxy, means that space travel will inevitably mean war and imperialism, that peaceful relations between civilizations are impossible.  But the three farmers, and the lunar scientist, through trickery and bold action, manage to forestall a Terra-Luna war and convince Frank Cramm to deal peaceably with the loonies.  So we have a happy ending in which it is proven that different civilizations can peacefully coexist and undertake mutually beneficial relations.

The ending gets even happier when it becomes clear that in a year or so the Verdens and Mary Koven's lunar bodies are going to change into human bodies under the influence of their human consciousnesses.  This, I thought, was sort of a cop out--if the three farmers had to live the rest of their lives in alien bodies it would have better suited the story's themes of getting along with "the other," that beauty is only skin deep, and space exploration is a risky plunge into the unknown but ultimately worthwhile.  It would also be easier to swallow scientifically.

For much of "Double Identity"'s twenty five pages I expected to give it a thumbs down because the writing was irritatingly poor, but either I got used to it or the later parts of the story aren't so bad, so having read the whole thing I guess it deserves a grade of barely acceptable.       

"Never Trust an Intellectual" by Raymond E. Banks

We just read Banks's story about a guild of robot programmers who took extreme measures to defend their monopoly, "The Instigators."  It looks like "Never Trust an Intellectual" was Banks's first science fiction story sale (Lowndes tells us that Banks has already been published in Esquire and has also written a stage drama and radio-plays) and has never been reprinted.  Not a good sign, especially since I couldn't bring myself to recommend "The Instigators."  But let's give it a chance!

"Never Trust an Intellectual" is a joke story about a future in which reading books is frowned upon--everybody gets information and entertainment from electronic devices, and private individuals don't own books--those who like to read go to "bookbars" where the licensed proprietor has permitted books up on a shelf for you to rent on the premises by the hour.  We are subjected to dopey jokes that liken reading to drinking alcohol--the narrator brags he can read anybody "under the table," there is talk of people being "bookdrunk," a college kid who sits at the bar reading a comic book is said to be "underage" and so on.  

This is the "Era of Happiness," the time of the new morality of sexual licentiousness and government-imposed limits to access to information that might make you sad or anxious.  "...reading books is anti-social.  It leads to withdrawal, conflicting ideas and permanent memories."  People are strongly discouraged from reading (signs don't even have words on them, menus have pictures of bills and coins to denote prices instead of numerals) and from refusing sexual advances.  People who follow the old morality of sexual modesty or monogamy are suspected of being intellectuals who read books.    

Our narrator edits a video magazine, a little metal box that can fit in your pocket; you plug it in and it projects TV shows on the wall--no text, just video and narration.  (The sample story from his magazine, Listeners' Digest, that we learn about is a saccharine report on a community which banded together to help a blind canine.)  Our hero is also a bootlegger of books.  A pretty woman catches him trying to move 1,500 copies of John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress; is she one of the Happiness Police, or a rival seller of illegal books trying to crush a competitor?  We get lame humorous chase scenes and fight scenes as another woman, the head of the Anti-Book squad of the local Happiness Police, enters the fray, and then the story ends abruptly without what I would consider a proper climax.         

"Never Trust an Intellectual" has a lot in common with "The Instigators," in that both take a facet from history--in "The Instigators" the fight of guilds and unions against progress, here the battle of bootleggers against revenuers--and use it as the basis for a future conflict.  Also, neither is very good.  "Never Trust an Intellectual" is the worse of the two, lacking a satisfying build up and conclusion--it is more of an idea upon which are hung some jokes than a narrative with a satisfying beginning, middle and end.

If we are being generous we might say Banks's story prefigures our own era of trigger warnings, cancel culture and political correctness, in which there are social and even legal sanctions for using words that might allegedly hurt other people's feelings, words like that H-bomb of words, the "n-word," or strings like "Bruce Jenner is a man."  But Ray Bradbury had already trod this ground by the time "Never Trust an Intellectual" appeared.

Thumbs down!

"Go Fast on Interplane" by C. M. Kornbluth and Donald A. Wollheim 

I generally avoid Kornbluth because I have a patience for left-wing satires in which ad execs or insurance salesmen or whoever take over the world that was never great and has severely diminished over the years (as you've seen, I don't even have much patience for satires attacking guilds and censorship, even though I am against guilds and censorship.  As a kid I enjoyed irony and parody and satire, but I have had it up to here with that stuff and now seek authenticity and sincerity.)  But I find Wollheim an interesting figure and thought this blog post should probably address three stories as well as slobber over pictures of naked girls and space tanks like I was still thirteen.

"Go Fast on Interplane" is a competent filler story.  The plot is totally ordinary, but the style of the prose is actually good, and the pacing and structure are good, making it superior to today's questionable Gallun and Banks pieces.

A guy who loves to drive and has a top-of-the-line automobile discovers a highway that leads to other dimensions, parallel Earths.  He talks to the natives, who welcome him as a foreign tourist, eats lunch.  Then he returns to our Earth.  When he tries to get back to the alternate world he finds the road he took there has been dismantled.  Following the newspapers, he discovers clues that suggest a power struggle among our nation's elite--some want to have a relationship with the alternate Earths, others do not.  He wants to further explore the alternate worlds, and when he stumbles upon an indication that access may again be possible, he hastens to seek the right highway.


Translated into Italian, "Go Fast on Interplane" would appear in the 1965 anthology of SF about cars Il grande Dio Auto.  isfdb has a note about Il grande Dio Auto, but no entry for it; those interested can see a contents list at Under the title "Interplane Express," "Go Fast on Interplane" would be reprinted in the 1988 Wollheim collection Up There and Other Strange Directions.   


Not a brill selection, but we gotta take the rough with the smooth in the reading old magazines at random game.  Our selection will be a little less random next time, when we read stories recommended by Kornbluth and Wollheim's comrade Judith Merril.      

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Elephantasm by Tanith Lee

She hated him yet wanted to touch him.

As Natalie Merchant tells you in that song you'll hear in department stores, and as Ray Davies tells you in that song you'll hear here at MPorcius Headquarters, what people want in their entertainment is sex and violence.  And we here at MPoricus Fiction Log are no different!  Recently we went seeking our S&V fix in Dana Reed's 1988 Demon Within, but found the book quite unsatisfying.  So today we turn to one of the speculative fiction world's most adept wordsmiths, one of our favorites, the great Tanith Lee, and a book I recently bought at Wonder Book in Frederick, the 1996 paperback edition of 1993's Elephantasm

Well, Elephantasm certainly features some nasty blood-, urine- and vomit-spiced sex, sex that is ugly and quasi-incestuous, plus gruesome scenes of injury and death.  But instead of seeing it as primarily a sex and violence exploitation novel, I feel it is more accurate to think of Lee's novel as a woke social justice revenge fantasy (not that people were necessarily using those terms back in '93.)  Men mistreat women, the rich mistreat the poor, English people mistreat Indian people, and humans mistreat animals, and then the abused achieve a horrifying supernatural revenge!

I don't think Elephantasm is as fun or as beautifully written as those Flat Earth books I read last year; it is more grim, and less emphasis is placed on metaphors and images, and the climactic sequence is perhaps a little too long.  However, Elephantasm is certainly well-written and constructed, and full of little nods to Dickens, Conrad and Kipling that people will likely find engaging, so is easy to recommend.

Elephantasm up like 330 pages of text, and consists of five parts.  Part One takes place in Victorian London amid Dickensian squalor.

Teenaged Annie and her sister Rose were born among the middle classes, but their parents died and they now live with Rose's husband in a slum near the river and a homeless encampment.  Rose's husband, the physically beautiful but morally repulsive Innocent, lays around the flat all day reading the paper while Rose and Alice prepare his tea and, to make ends meet, take in mending and sew rag dolls; Rose also prostitutes herself, her posh accent has proven an asset in attracting gentlemen.  Innocent often spends all night out drinking, and that is when Rose breaks out her secret ouija board!  (Lee doesn't use the word "ouija," which I guess was coined in the period after that in which our story takes place.)

One day Annie is out on an errand for Innocent, and when propositioned on the street flees into an alley and finds herself in a shop full of exotic goods.  The proprietor, some kind of foreigner she comes to think of as a prince from India, insists she buy for a penny what he calls an amulet, a tiny ivory figure of an elephant--young uneducated Annie doesn't even know if elephants are real like horses or a fantasy like unicorns.  That night the ouija board seems to tell the girls, in vague terms, that they are soon going on a trip--maybe to India! 

After a night of drinking with his buddies, the Joyless Bugger, the Badger and Earbone, Innocent starts beating Rose; when he finds the elephant amulet it looks like he will start beating Annie, and Rose scratches her husband's eyes out and then kills him with a knife.  The fallen amulet floats on a stream of Innocent's blood back to Annie.

In scenes in court that feminists will relish, Rose is convicted of murder amidst dialogue from the fat and oily lawyers about how women are not trustworthy and perhaps need to be beaten to keep them in line.  Rose is hanged and Annie is taken under the protection of a female merchant who in the past purchased the rag dolls Rose fashioned.  This businesswoman hooks Annie up with a position--ostensibly as a scullery maid and seamstress--in the distant country house of the Smoltes.  In Part Two we are introduced to this house and its denizens and learn what Annie's real job is going to be.

Sir Hampton Smolte made his fortune in India.  He has a fascination with India, a mixture of love and hate--for him India is like a woman of great beauty and terrible evil whose charms he cannot resist.  Sir Hampton has a personal cook who learned to make curries while serving with him in India, and when he returned from the East like eighteen years ago he had the country house to which Annie arrives built in the style of an Indian palace; its interior and its grounds abound with paintings depicting Indian scenes and statues of Hindu deities.  Sir Hampton's wife, Flower, a former showgirl, blonde and voluptuous, now getting fat, spent some years abroad with her husband; she detested India's heat and food and smells and resents today the smell of her husband's curries and has had her private rooms decorated as far as possible in English style.  The Smoltes have three children whom Flower does not like.  The youngest at eighteen is cruel feline daughter Elizabeth--in keeping with the novel's Indian themes the idea is suggested that she was a cat in an earlier life.  (In one of several such creepy scenes, Elizabeth, after voyeuristically watching two members of the staff making out, notes how their kisses resemble her cat's devouring of a shrew it has presented her, and ventures to taste the raw mangled beastie herself.)  Elizabeth's older brothers are brutish Urquhart, who acts like a pig but has succeeded in making friends with local aristocrats and gentlemen, and sensitive, sickly and beautiful Rupert, the oldest, who when he isn't coughing acts like a too-cool-for-school hipster jerk, complaining about everything, including England--he'd prefer to be back in India.  We also meet many of the servants, each with his or her personality and quirks.

Annie washes dishes and sweeps for a while, but is soon elevated from the kitchen and given more pleasant quarters and more exalted duties; putatively, her job is to sew for Elizabeth.  (Beyond mundane work on Elizabeth's dresses, Annie is also commissioned by Elizabeth to sew on to undergarments the bones of the small animals her black cat brings her.)  But after Rupert, spying on Annie as she bathes, registers his approval of her young body, Annie takes up her main duties at the Smolte house--serving as the histrionic eldest son's sexual plaything.  As Rose was of Innocent, and Sir Hampton is of India, Annie is both drawn and repulsed by the beautiful, sensual, dangerous and cruel Rupert; a virgin, she is initially excited to be ushered into the world of sex.  But instead of a world of joy, Rupert inaugurates her into a world of pain, fear and disgust; Part Two climaxes with some quite gross BDSM sex as Rupert indulges the perversions that stem from his childhood relationship with his nanny ("ayah") back in India.  

Part Three starts with a flashback to India, to the time of Sir Hampton's first trip to the subcontinent, when he was still Captain Smolte, a scoundrel of a soldier in his early twenties sent on a disagreeable mission as a sort of punishment for his misdemeanors.  At the head of a dozen soldiers, he escorts an eccentric and corrupt government official, Withers, "into the green hell of the rukh" to an almost forgotten station near the palace of a Muslim raja..  At this age Smolte doesn't like Indian food or Indian women, but Withers assures him that curries, and maybe other delicacies India has to offer, can prove addictive:

"That's how it is with India.  You loathe it; then you take to it.  Then you can't get enough."

Chapter 1 of Part Three chronicles how Smolte becomes smitten by Indian food and an Indian woman, the Hindu sister of that raja, as he and Withers bring the abandoned British station near the raja's palace back into operation.  

The rest of Part Three is back at the Smolte house, where Lee expands upon her themes of revenge and of the inadequacy of the riches Smolte wrested from India to satisfy him.  Annie, perhaps animated by Indian spirits (she wears her ivory elephant around her neck, a mixed-race servant the Smoltes brought back with them from India having put it on a chain for her) turns the tables on Rupert, sexually dominating him, making him worship her.  Annie dastardly poisons one of her fellow servants, a girl who robbed her.  We see how the other gentry and aristocrats in the area look down on Sir Hampton as a nouveau riche who won his money in a disreputable way (they call him a "jumped-up knave;" "parvenu") and shun his house.  Flower Smolte, starved for society, hears of a performer who has a troupe of trained Indian monkeys, and hires him to serve as the main attraction to a big party she holds.  The monkeys initially behave, performing their elaborate tricks, but eventually get out of control and cause havoc; as with Annie, it is suggested they are possessed by some Indian spirit out for revenge on the Smoltes.

In Part Four, a flashback to Smolte's second trip to India, we get the inside skinny on why these spirits might want vengeance on Sir Hampton.  Smolte was drawn back to the subcontinent from England by letters from Withers promising tremendous wealth should he enter the service of the raja, who felt the need of a guard of British soldiers.  Smolte's new wife Flower joined him for this second Indian sojourn, and it is in India, at the remote station, that Rupert and Urqhuart were born and spent their early childhoods.  (Elizabeth was conceived there, but born in England.)  

Smolte gathers together and commands a company of white deserters and criminals with which to maintain order in the domain of the raja, and we see the origin stories of various members of the Smolte household (there are a bunch of characters in the novel whom I have not mentioned) and witness Smolte's crimes and learn the source of his wealth.  He and Withers loot forgotten temples in the jungle, with (it appears, at least) the tacit permission of the raja, but Smolte goes too far when he rapes the raja's beautiful virginal sister--the sneaky raja has (it seems, at least) been using the promise of his sister to manipulate Smolte, a promise that is just a tease and was never to be fulfilled.  The pious Hindu woman commits suicide by starving herself, and over a month after she is raped she dies and is cremated in an elaborate ceremony; a supernatural event at the cremation inspires the raja's people to rise up against Smolte, his family and his motley company of ne'er-do-wells and scum.  Smolte and his troops wipe out the raja's entire community, sparing neither woman nor child; Smolte himself shoots down the raja.

In Part Five a cataclysm strikes the Smolte household through Annie and the ivory amulet.  It starts with the amulet coming to life, slipping away from Annie and harassing Elizabeth, her black cat and the kitchen staff, an elephant small and nimble as a mouse.  The weather turns hot, the English woods become infested with Indian animals, a monsoon strikes--the estate is overgrown in Indian jungle, the house is destroyed, and a multitude of white people are killed in various ways.  Animal rights activists will cheer as the aristocratic and middle-class men leading a fox hunt fall prey to a tiger.  The Smoltes go insane and most of them die in agony; the ivory elephant, absorbing all the ivory in the house, grows to colossal size and plays a role in the death of Sir Hampton.

The ghost of Rose appears and informs Annie she is only her half-sister--Annie's father was what Rose calls a demon and Annie suspects was a supernatural Indian creature (it is hinted it was a rakshasha) disguised as an Englishman.  (Like in a Lovecraftian story, Annie has been of the alien "other" all along!)  Has Annie's entire life been directed by supernatural forces from the mysterious East, has she always been merely a pawn in a transnational anti-imperialist plot of revenge?       

The rukh, apparently miles deep, has surrounded the Smolte estate.  The only truly healthy and sympathetic character in the book (he loves animals! he comforts the dying! he spouts the wisdom of the East!) leads Annie and the rest of the handful of survivors out of the jungle and back into mundane England.  It seems that Annie and this one decent man, who is old enough to be her father, are going to become lovers and live happily ever after.

A solid novel about how the Victorians were a bunch of meanies full of well-done exotic supernatural horror business and a helping of gore and twisted sickening sex.  Thumbs up for Elephantasm.


It is back to 1950s science fiction short stories in out next episode; see you then!

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

Merril-approved 1956 stories: P Anderson, S Allen & R E Banks

Here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are taking an alphabetical trip through the SF world of 1956, cherry-picking stories from the list of honorable mentions at the back of the 1957 volume of Judith Merril's famous Best of series of anthologies. Our journey began in our last blog post with Robert Abernathy and Brian W. Aldiss, and today we break out of the "A"s and get started on the "B"s, reading one story each by science fiction Grand Master Poul Anderson, comedian, songwriter and anti-obscenity crusader Steve Allen, and the guy who wrote 1978's Lust in Space, reprinted in 1980 by Hustler Paperbacks as The Moon Rapers, Raymond E. Banks.  

(I know I just read an exploitation novel and was taken aback by how bad it was, but I have to admit I am pretty curious about what a book with a title like The Moon Rapers is all about.)

"The Live Coward" by Poul Anderson

Merril included two stories by Anderson on her Honorable Mention list, "The Man Who Came Early," which we read a year ago, and this one, which appeared in Astounding alongside Thomas N. Scortia's "Sea Change," which we read in 2019.  I actually own two books which reprint "The Live Coward," Groff Conklin's 1966 anthology Another Part of the Galaxy which has a lazy photo cover (sad!) and the 1991 Anderson collection Kinship with the Stars which has an OK cover that is a little busy and hard to read (why is the vehicle the same color as the snow?)  Despite having those two printings in my custody, I'm still reading "The Live Coward" on my computer screen in a scan at the internet archive of the June 1956 issue of John W. Campbell's magazine, where it is illustrated in light-hearted vein by Frank Kelly Freas.

The gimmick of "The Live Coward" is that the human race is the dominant member of a Galactic Empire and maintains order by threatening troublemakers with its space navy but the human government has a secret Prime Directive forbidding the killing of any person, even in self defense.  Varris, a war mongering dictator, has fled the Galactic Patrol and is in hiding on a world with a medieval technology and society--kings, knights, priests whose symbol is an "X," and so forth.  When Patrol operative Wing Alek and his assistant, a sort of caterpillar man (he smokes from a water pipe, I guess a Lewis Carroll reference), finally arrive on this planet to arrest him, Varris has forged a close relationship with one of the native monarchs and is under that king's steadfast protection.  Wing Alek can't seize Varris with modern weapons because to do so would risk getting into a life-threatening fight with the king's many professional fighting men, so how to arrest the fugitive?

Wing Alak uses his knowledge of every aspect of the planet's culture (hypnoed into his brain by a machine) to figure out how build an alliance with the church and manipulate Varris out from under the protection of the monarchy and into the clutches of the church, leaving the fugitive war monger no choice but to return to Galactic civilization, where he will have his brain rewired to obey Galactic law.

Competent filler, acceptable but no big deal.

"The Secret" by Steve Allen

You've heard a million times that Merril thought genre boundaries were bogus and tried to break them down or reach across them, and here is another instance of her practices in this regard, her promotion of a story written by TV personality Steve Allen which appeared in the mainstream magazine Collier's.  I tried to find a scan online of the specific issue of Collier's in which "The Secret" appears, but without luck.  Fortunately the story was reprinted in J. N. Williamson's 1991 anthology Masques IV (as well as the Masques omnibus from 2002, Darker Masques) which is easily available at the internet archive.

"The Secret" is a story about the afterlife, and, I guess, angels.  The narrator describes how he had an out of body experience after falling asleep following a day of exercise his doctors had advised against.  As a ghost, he looks at his inert body and realizes he has died!  His wife finds his body, calls the doctor, and the narrator watches as medical professionals struggle to revive him.  None of these living people can see or hear the narrator, but two men appear who can talk with the narrator.  They ask if he really wants to once again be counted among the living, and the narrator tells them he wants to spend more time with his family.  Apparently because his desire to live (for others!) is deemed worthy, the doctors succeed in reviving the narrator.  The story ends with the narrator telling us he no longer fears death.

This is competent filler; maybe "The Secret" offers additional interest because Allen was an atheist?

"The Instigators" by Raymond E. Banks

We read a story back in 2018 by Banks, a story I called a waste of time, but let's give the author of 1978's Lust of the Swampman (reprinted in 1980 as a Hustler Double Novel with Merlin Kaye's Penetrators of Time under the title The Savage Princess) a second chance.

The "Instigators" of the title are what today we might call programmers.  It is the future in which many people own household robots, and for each task you want your robot to perform, you know, mow the lawn or whatever, you have to buy a unique hand cut punchcard made to suit the exact specifications of the job, like the size and shape of your lawn.  The setting of Banks's story is the neighborhood where are clustered the stores that sell robots and where live the working-class men who fashion the custom punchcards by hand.  

The hero of the piece is a 20-something kid, a college graduate  who is good at making the punchcards but envisions modernizing the instigation process.  College boy has developed a camera that films a human performing the desired action and records the vital statistics on tape--this  tape can then be installed in the robots in place of the punchcards.  This tape system is also able to program robots to perform fluid and complex activities, like dancing, that the punchcard system is too clunky to handle.

This camera system will put the Instigators out of business, as robot owners would just buy one of these cameras and make their own tapes.  The Instigators Guild obviously doesn't like this idea, and in the past they have gotten away with murdering people who stand in their way by programming their robots for violence--there are robots everywhere, a ready made guerilla army that can blackmail the government into not looking into Instigator Guild crimes.  And the head of the Instigators Guild has an additional, personal, reason to want to get rid of the kid--not only is the kid threatening the entire Instigating profession, but the 40-something Guild leader's 30-something girlfriend has a crush on the kid!  

While it may sound like "The Instigators" might be a serious comment on the pros and cons of technological and economic change and organized labor, or a thrilling adventure story or a tense love triangle story, rest assured that this is in fact a joke story in which every male character has a goofy nickname and which features slapstick scenes like when an Instigator programs robots to put misbehaving adults over their knees and spank them.  The ending is tragic rather than comic, however.  The Guild programs a robot to murder the kid, and the Guild leader's girlfriend sacrifices her own life to save him; as the story ends it is clear that the Instigators are doomed to be thrown out of work by the kid's new programming system.  

I think I'm issuing a borderline negative judgement on this one; Banks seems to have put some real work into coming up with a whole culture for the world of robots and Instigators, with novel lingo and rituals and traditions, and I admire this ambition, but I don't feel he quite makes it over the line into "acceptable" territory.   
"The Instigators" debuted in Science Fiction Stories in an issue in which Damon Knight complains that there is too much action and adventure in science fiction, offering as one example John Wyndham's Re-Birth, which he says is one of the best postapocalyptic stories of all time until the chase scene at the end ruins it, and, as another, Isaac Asimov's "The Martian Way," which he praises for depicting a space voyage that suffers no mutinies or malfunctions, focusing instead on the beauty of space and Saturn.  Knight also writes about books by  J. T. McIntosh and Jerry Sohl and puts so much energy into making fun of them--or just flat out insulting them!--that I kind of felt bad for McIntosh and Sohl, even though I have not liked their work either.  I guess this is what the lefties call "punching down."

"The Instigators" would be translated into French for a 1959 magazine.


I didn't love these stories, but I think Merril's promotion of them is justified by the fact that they are all legitimately speculative and put meat on the bones of the claim that SF is the literature of ideas--Anderson speculates on a government which maintains order while scrupulously avoiding killing people, Allen wonders what death might be like, and Banks considers the ways robots might operate and might change our society.  

We have many 1956-centric blog posts ahead of us, but first, we read a relatively recent novel--well, recent by the standards of MPorcius Fiction Log, anyway.