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.

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