Saturday, April 29, 2023

Fredric Brown: "Cry Silence," "I'll Cut Your Throat Again, Kathleen," "A Little White Lye," & "The Joke"

In our last blog post I invoked the names of Beaver Creek Antiques and Fredric Brown, and I do so again today.  On a recent trip to the BCA, I purchased a 725-page paperback collection edited by Jonathan Eeds, Miss Darkness: The Great Short Crime Fiction of Fredric Brown.  I bought it because I thought I might not be able to find the stories easily on line, and it didn't hurt that on the publication page we find thanks to our hero Barry N. Malzberg (as well as to Stephen Haffner.)

There are 31 stories in Miss Darkness, separated into titled sections.  Let's read four 1940s stories from the "Tinglers" section, on the basis of my theory that "tinglers" are stories that are scary or creepy or yucky.  All four of today's stories would be reprinted in the 1985 Brown collection Carnival of Crime, which, in fact, is at the internet archive, so if you want to read old crime stories heartily recommended by the Sage of Teaneck, they are just a click away.

"Cry Silence" (1948)

Here we have a story that first appeared in Black Mask and would be reprinted in multiple magazines, among them the British Suspense, and multiple anthologies, including The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask stories.  

This is a good story, quick and legitimately creepy.  The narrator is waiting at the train station next to a big strong guy who ignores him, apparently because he is deaf.  Meanwhile, a railroad employee and another guy are having the tired old argument about whether a tree falling unwitnessed in a forest makes a sound.  When the narrator chimes in on the argument, he hears a tale of murder, trickery, and suicide!  

The big strong guy is a farmer who, not long ago, was diagnosed as deaf.  Recently, he padlocked the only exit to a building on his farm--while his wife and her alleged lover were inside!  The farmer reported them as missing, but they died of thirst before anybody found them.  The farmer has escaped any sort of punishment; after all, if he is deaf, how could he hear their cries for help?  The railroad employee is certain the farmer is faking his hearing loss and is a murderer, and whenever the farmer is at the train station he talks to whoever might be around about the alleged killings, obliquely or just directly like today, endeavoring to, by reminding the farmer of his crime, to drive him to suicide.

Good.

"I'll Cut Your Throat Again, Kathleen" (1948)   

This one debuted in an issue of Mystery Book featuring on its cover a sweater girl, a skeleton and a boxer (something for everybody!) and would be reprinted nine years later in Mystery Digest.

Too long, not particularly disturbing, and with a plot that is convoluted and not quite convincing, "I'll Cut Your Throat Again, Kathleen" is inferior to "Cry Silence," though acceptable.

Our narrator, a successful musician, wakes up in a mad house with scars on his wrists and very little memory of how he ended up in this unhappy condition.  He doesn't even remember what the men in his orchestra, or even his wife, look like.  He is told that he went bonkers and tried to slash his wife's throat and then tried to kill himself, but wifey, who had only suffered a flesh wound, staunched the flow of blood from his wrists and saved his life. 

One of the few things the narrator can remember is the joy of creating music, and he is miserable over the fact that, his tendons being permanently damaged, he will never play saxophone or clarinet again.  Brown spends a lot of time describing the musician's life and career and he lays on us some of those florid descriptions of the powerful effect good music has on a sensitive sophisticated listener that we periodically have to endure from writers who love music, though Brown's efforts in this genre are not as extravagant as Harlan Ellison's.

When the narrator gets out of the loony bin and meets his wife there are clues and other things that jog his memory and he figures out what really happened the night his wife's neck and his own wrists got cut and he then exacts a terrible revenge on the party responsible.

The stuff in this story that is compelling--a nagging controlling manipulative woman and the norm-defying men of low morals who suffer under her reign and then snap and take radical steps to achieve their freedom or at least vengeance--takes up too little space and the stuff that is kind of boring--a guy really loves music and is a critically-acclaimed musician--too much, and the mechanisms of the woman's diabolical scheme and those behind the principal characters' physical and psychological injuries are too complicated to be really believable.

Merely acceptable.

"A Little White Lye" (1942)    

"A Little White Lye" is a competent suspense thriller story, more smoothly told than "I'll Cut Your Throat Again, Kathleen," but less transgressive and surprising.  It may make the skin of feminists crawl, however, as its female lead sees as the focus of her life being a good housewife and when she doubts her husband she is making a big blunder.

Ginny and Dirk met just a month ago and are already married!  Shortly after the honeymoon, Dirk finds them a nice house at a bargain basement price!  Why is it so cheap?  Because the last residents were a married couple, a young man and an older widow with a lot of money, whose marriage ended abruptly when the man murdered the woman and tried to dissolve her body in the bath tub with lye.  The killer has yet to be captured, and the whole neighborhood is wondering if he found the money the widow is said to have hidden someplace within the house, and, if he didn't, when he'll be back to look for it!  Much of the suspense of the story revolves around the suspicions of Ginny and we readers that Dirk is the killer in disguise--after all, we hear that the killer was an actor and we all know those actors are adept at using make up.

"A Little White Lye" debuted in Ten Detective Aces

"The Joke" (1948)

"The Joke" first saw print as a cover story of Detective Tales under the title "If Looks Could Kill!" and seems to have been a big hit, reprinted many times in at least six languages, mostly in collections of Brown SF stories.

Like "I'll Cut Your Throat Again, Kathleen," this one is satisfyingly gruesome but is undermined by an overly long set up that describes its protagonist and a plot that is a sort of Rube Goldberg contraption that relies on a series of unlikely coincidences.  Just OK.

Jim Greeley is a travelling salesman.  A big practical joker, he works for a manufacturer of practical jokes and his sample case is full to bursting with fake bugs, hand buzzers, and other gags, and Brown expends a lot of ink describing the different tricks and getting across the idea that Jim is a total jerk who loves to put things over on people.  Jim has a wife and kids back home, but he also has girlfriends in the various towns in his territory.  He calls up one of these girlfriends, a beautiful and faithless married woman, on the phone to make a date; in this convo we learn that the woman has a bad heart and any sudden shock could kill her.  (Are people this frail really the sort who cheat on their spouses on the regular?)  

Jim goes to a barber to get a shave before his date with the married woman.  He tells the barber all about the practical joke he is going to play on his date--when he picks her up he plans to be wearing a new form of super-realistic mask; he shows the barber how convincing the mask is (I guess the mask is the SF component of the story).  Jim is a real blabbermouth, and tells the barber the woman's full name and her job (she is the landlady of a boarding house--her husband works outside the home, doing what, Jim doesn't know.)  The barber gives Jim a facial massage and Jim falls asleep.  When he wakes up the barber tells him he has done him a favor by affixing the mask on him--Jim's joke is going to work like a charm!

When the faithless wife opens the door she doesn't recognize her date; the philanderer takes off the mask and she drops dead of shock.  Jim goes back to the barber shop, and in the reflection of the store window sees that the barber (who we learned earlier participates in amateur theatricals) has made up Jim's face so he looks like a corpse!  Through the window Jim can see the barber has hanged himself, and he also notices the sign in the window giving the barber's name--this guy, of course, is Jim's lover's husband.

**********

Three OK stories and one good one; not a bad record.  We'll read more Fredric Brown "tinglers" from Miss Darkness soon.

Friday, April 28, 2023

Super Science Stories Nov '49: F B Long, M Leinster, R Bradbury & J D MacDonald

At Beaver Creek Antiques in Hagerstown, MD, a great stop for the vintage SF and comic book fan, I spotted an alluring copy of Super Science Stories, the November 1949 issue, whose cover depicts comely young ladies escaping four-armed aliens via the medium of transparent bubbles.  This magazine is full of stories by people we read here at MPorcius Fiction Log, so I was moved to look it up at the internet archive and read a bunch of stories from it.  Two major stories that we are skipping are Fredric Brown's "Gateway to Darkness" and Neil R. Jones' "Parasite Planet," the former because it was rewritten to form half of the novel Rogue in Space, which we read in 2016, the latter because it is one of Jones' later Professor Jameson stories and we tentatively plan to try to read them in order (we've already read six of those which were published in the 1930s--"Into the Hydrosphere," "Time's Mausoleum" and "The Sunless World" in 2015, and "Zora of the Zoromes," "Space War" and "Labyrinth" in 2021.)  That still leaves a lot of stories in this issue for us to grapple with, as well as Fred Pohl's book review column, in which he praises L. Ron Hubbard's Triton and dismisses George Orwell's Animal Farm and 1984 as mere "political tracts," albeit "powerfully effective" ones, that "have no meaning and no substance of [their] own" and don't really qualify as "art," but just "politics."  Is Pohl irritated that a non-SF personage has produced in 1984 one of the most popular and influential SF works of all time, or, that a fellow leftist has unleashed upon the world two extremally popular attacks on socialism and the USSR? 

"The Timeless Man" by Frank Belknap Long

It looks like this story by one of H. P. Lovecraft's closest associates has never been reprinted.  "The Timeless Man" is a paean to the power of art and a sort of wish-fulfillment fantasy for creative people; the science fiction gimmick at its center bears some similarity to that in A. E. van Vogt's "The Monster" (AKA "Resurrection,") which appeared in Astounding in August of 1948.

Holden is a painter who loves life, loves doing his work, loves seeing the beauty of the world around him.  A nuclear was has broken out, and even as the deadly radiation is penetrating his flesh, killing him, he is painting his final canvas.

When aliens arrive on Earth, Holden's dedication to his art receives extreme vindication--he put so much of himself into his last painting that the aliens are able to deduce his entire psyche and physical form from the canvas and construct a duplicate of him.  I guess because it is necessary for the plot, the aliens don't stick around until Holden II wakes up, ostensibly because the radiation still enshrouding the Earth is unhealthy for them, which is ridiculous, because if they have a starship they must have some kind of radiation shield technology.  Anyway, the duplicate Holden wakes up and sees their ship receding into the sky, and then his own skeleton, identifiable by the ring on its finger.

Holden II manages to survive in post-atomic war America, finding that breeding populations of fruits and birds and small animals have endured.  The story's climax is when he meets a small tribe of humans--savages, cave people.  The tribe accepts him, and he resumes his career as an artist, using paints he makes from berries and dirt.  

I like this one--Long's argument that art is essential, eternal, and can be a source of joy in any circumstance is a little na├»ve, self-serving, and saccharine, but I appreciate the sincerity he brings to the story and I can sympathize with, even identify with, his vision.  

"This Star Shall Be Free" by Murray Leinster

More cave people!  The place: Northwest Europe. The time: Over thirty thousand years ago.  The man: Tork.

Tork is a subordinate male in a small tribe of people who have fire and pointed sticks, but no stone or flint blades yet.  One day aquatic aliens--their reflective silver starship and their spacesuits are filled with water--arrive.  These Antareans are telepathic and also have a machine, a box, that sends out hypnotic waves--those close to the box focus their thoughts on a certain type of creature, and that creature is irresistibly attracted to the machine.  With this attractor box they draw Tork to their ship.  As an experiment in ecology, they give Tork stone knives, spears with stone points, a bow, and arrows with flint heads; they also give him the attractor box and explain how to use it.  They even supply him with pictures of local animals to help him use the device to attract animals--it is easier to concentrate your thoughts on an animal if you have a picture of it to look at.  The aliens, who are callous jerks who have overpopulated their own world and are looking for other watery planets to colonize, think that with the weapons and the attractor box the Earthers will exterminate the local wildlife and then starve themselves.  

Tork, using these tools, makes himself chief of the tribe, and earns the envy of many other tribes; people start stealing the weapons.  So Tork figures out how to use the attractor box to attract the Antareans, in hopes the aliens will replenish his weapon supply.  To concentrate strongly enough about the aliens to compel them to come, the cave people draw images of the Antareans--the aliens have not only inspired man to begin using complex tools, but to begin making representational art.  The humans are such a nuisance with their use of the attractor box that the Antareans abandon Earth before seeing how their experiment in ecology works out.  In their absence, the people of Earth learn how to make their own weapons and create increasingly more sophisticated art.

When the Antareans return 30,000 or so years later to colonize Earth they find the humans have a heavily armed interplanetary space fleet.  The Antareans are outfought and the Terran space navy captures a specimen of their interstellar drive--foolishly, the Antareans have twice spurred technological and cultural growth among humans, enabling them to conquer the galaxy.

An acceptable entertainment.  isfdb lists three anthologies in which "This Star Shall Be Free" has been reprinted: Groff Conklin's Invaders of Earth, which saw quite a few editions, Michael Sissons' Asleep in Armageddon, and Thomas E. Sanders' Speculations, which looks like a 600-page textbook that mixes people like James Dickey, W. H. Auden and Graham Greene in among SF Grand Masters like Robert Heinlein, A. E. van Vogt and Fritz Leiber.      


"Impossible" by Ray Bradbury

"Impossible," isfdb tells us, was included in The Martian Chronicles (printed in Britain as The Silver Locusts) under the title "The Martian."  It is an effective story of grief and loss.

Two older people have retired to Mars, to a homestead near a canal; they lack indoor plumbing and bring water in buckets from the canal.  Their son died as a teenager on Earth long ago, but, amazingly, he suddenly shows up, still fourteen years old.  The husband realizes this must be a Martian shape shifter who has read in their minds their memories of their son, but the wife is more susceptible to the weird native's hypnotism.  The Martian seems friendly, to want to be loved as much as the settlers want to love, so maybe it will be OK.

Tragedy strikes!  The wife recalls how much their son enjoyed going into town back on Earth, so she insists they take their boat down the canal to the nearby town.  The "son" is very reluctant to go, but she overcomes his resistance.  In the town, other humans see the shape shifter as some dead person from their own past, and everybody fights over the alien, who can't take the pressure on his not-exactly-voluntary shape-shifting ability and expires.  Sad!

Quite good.

"Appointment for Tomorrow" by John D. MacDonald

Here we have a story by famous detective novelist MacDonald.  We here at MPorcius Fiction Log (feel free to call it "The MFL" for short) have read MacDonald's SF novel Wine of the Dreamers and six of his SF short stories: "Ring Around the Redhead," "A Child is Crying,"  "Flaw," "Spectator Sport," and "A Condition of Beauty."  Here comes lucky seven, which, if isfdb is to be believed, was never reprinted.

You can see why this one wasn't included in anthologies and collections like some other of MacDonald SF stories we have read: the main gimmick is kind of weak and the human story simple and sappy.  Reminding us of Robert Heinlein's "Lifeline" (Astounding, 1939) and Isaac Asimov's sprawling Foundation series (the first of which appeared in Astounding in 1942), in the future the government can use statistics to figure out what day you will (probably) die.  Six months ago, 40-something widower and big business president Samuel Larkin got a notice from the "Future Bureau" that his day was approaching if he didn't make radical changes in his life.  Larkin felt he couldn't leave his job, there being thousands of people relying on him, and so today the feds have come to his office to warn him that tomorrow is the day he will die!  This doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense to the reader, seeing as Larkin is perfectly healthy, but all the characters have trust in the science and believe the Future Bureau's calculations implicitly.

Larkin says farewell to everybody and writes memos to his successor on how to handle all the current projects and otherwise straightens up his affairs.  His gorgeous secretary, 20-something Martha Hood, admits she has been in love with him for seven years.  Then Larkin takes a long walk through the night city (we are to believe he is going to buy the farm tomorrow but he is hale and hearty enough to walk from dusk till dawn), drinking in the atmosphere of the city for the last time.        

The text has been hinting at some "alternative," and the twist ending that greets readers is that the government offers a way to radically change your life so you can beat the statistics and survive.  The most radical change you can make to your life is flying to another planet, right?  So, people who are predicted to die can "volunteer" to join the space colonization effort, a very unpleasant and dangerous enterprise, but better than death while you are still healthy, right?  After his long walk, Larkin boards the star ship and is strapped in.  At the last moment Martha Hood hurries on to the ship, one of the vanishingly small number of people who sign up for these horrifying space missions even though the government stats suggest they have many years to live.  Her love overcame her fear of space, and Larkin can now look forward to the future with hope.

The idea that statisticians can predict a healthy person will die of an accident on a specific day is very hard to take, at least for me.  I am seriously considering that the Future Bureau is a government scam to trick capable people into colonizing space, but MacDonald doesn't seem to leave much room for this interpretation, which would make more sense in a totalitarian society in which the government keeps a tight rein on information and punishes dissent, not the liberal market society he depicts here.   

Weak filler.   

"The Sleepers" by John D. MacDonald

MacDonald gets a second bite at the apple today because he has two stories in this issue of "The Big Book of Science Fiction," this one appearing under the pen name John Wade Farrell.  Maybe "8" is the lucky number today.

In fact, "The Sleepers" is another filler story, but it is more internally consistent and believable than "Appointment for Tomorrow," and its themes, you might say its ethos, are more amenable to my own sensibilities, so I'm judging it as solidly acceptable.

It is the future.  For like 1,300 years the vast majority of the human race, generation after generation, has lived in a sort of induced coma, stacked up in niches in a uniform city of hundreds of identical buildings, fed intravenously, their waste products sucked away by tubes.  People are conceived in a machine, moved to a cold niche where their hearts beat just ten times an hour, then, after a century or so of life, they die and are put in the furnace.

The population of over a billion sleepers are tended to by 8,000 workers.  Workers are men (and only men) who are woken from sleep, indoctrinated hypnotically by machines, and then serve a twenty-year tour of duty at such tasks as handling the conception and birth of new people, maintaining the machines that keep the sleepers alive, and trundling them off to the furnace when they expire.  The indoctrination not only teaches them to speak and read and to fulfill their duties, but stifles all desire for sex or freedom or friendship, deadens all curiosity about the past and about the world beyond the monotonous city of the sleepers.  The workers also can't remember the dreams they had while sleeping, but are told their dreams are wonderful, are of a life in paradise, and so are generally eager to return to sleep after twenty years of service.

Due to various factors, indoctrination is not perfectly reliable in all cases, and sometimes workers in their second decades of service begin to become curious or horny or even to remember the dreams they had while sleeping.  The plot of "The Sleepers" concerns two such men.  One of these men, by chance, is the head of the whole city!  The other is a rank and file worker who found some old books about life before the era of the sleepers, and who has fallen in love with a sleeping woman of great beauty.  This guy remembers the dreams he had before he was awakened to work.  Maybe the first generation of sleepers had wonderful dreams of a paradise, because they went to sleep with brains full of memories of a life of sex and family and food and work and hobbies, but later generations, because they have never had lives, have dreams of absolute sterile blackness!  

These two guys, because one of them can order the workers around and manipulate work schedules and so forth, are able to thaw and wake some people, teach them how to talk and so forth in the old fashioned way, and then lead this small band in a break out from the city of sleep and into the wilderness.

The setting is interesting and I like the theme of people fighting tyranny in pursuit of love and freedom, so "The Sleepers" is an acceptable if not remarkable entertainment.

**********

A tolerable crop of stories.  The best of them, the Bradbury has real human feeling, and the Long and the "Farrell" express sentiments about life I can get behind, while Leinster's story is an interesting bit of "what if" speculation that ends on a sense-of-wonder note.  Only the story that appears under MacDonald's real name has so many problems that it is rendered annoying instead of entertaining.  

More short stories from magazines published before you were born in the next episode of MPorcius Fiction Log.

Thursday, April 27, 2023

The Running of Beasts by Bill Pronzini and Barry N. Malzberg

"The whole point of the crimes is to attract attention, to convince himself of his own reality.  Since he hasn't been caught yet, he'll keep on doing it until he is, until he's discovered, and in the process discovers himself, finds out who he is."

Hey, blood fans, let's read a "superb suspense thriller" that has an ending that the Albany newspaper called "a smasher" and was written by our hero Barry N. Malzberg in collaboration with his pal, critically-acclaimed detective novelist Bill Pronzini.  At the internet archive we find a scan of a 1976 paperback edition of The Running of Beasts with a red woman-in-peril cover painting by Jerome Podwil; that is what I'll be reading today, but all you collectors out there can pick up one of the numerous paperback copes for sale on e-bay--if Jerome Podwil ain't your cup of meat, there is a 2012 edition with a skull on it and a 1988 Black Lizard printing whose cover illo highlights the role of newspapers in the story.  

Barry and Bill start off their 300-page novel cleverly, with a typescript draft of a newspaper story about the three recent murders of women in the decaying Adirondack town of Bloodstone, NY.  Written by Jack Cross in a bizarrely  unjournalistic and solipsistic style, the draft is covered in handwritten corrections and notes from Cross's editor, Henry Plummer, owner of the local weekly paper, so not only fills us readers in on the background of the murder spree but on Cross's immature personality, parlous career and unhappy relationship with his colleagues.  This is followed by a police report and then a letter from young up-and-coming New York City journalist Valerie Broome to a magazine editor, proposing she write a story on the Bloodstone murders.  She tells the editor that she is specially equipped to handle the story because 1) she grew up in Bloodstone, a town she says has a resident population of less than 500 people--people who are small-minded bigots who hate outsiders, the poor, blacks, and homosexuals, and 2) she knows a headshrinker, Dr. James Ferrara, who has a theory about the killer--that the killer is insane and doesn't even know he is the killer, but commits the murders while in a sort of trance or "amnesiac fugue."

Broome and Ferrara leave New York City and head up to Bloodstone where we get to know the various characters.  We got Cross the young journalist who collects Superman comics, doesn't get along with his mother (who is sleeping with his boss, Plummer), and hopes to write a book on the murders that will make him rich and famous.  There's Constable Alex Keller, the only cop in town, a veteran of the Chicago police force with whom he lost his job for beating up a '68 convention protester.  There's former actor and recovering alcoholic Steven Hook, who has been making his living for six years betting on the horses.  Rounding out our four lead male characters is State Police Lieutenant Daniel Smith, who is in charge of the murder investigation, has some kind of stomach ailment, and shares with Plummer a love of baseball trivia.

Over the first half of the novel we learn these four guys'  histories, idiosyncrasies and neuroses, and observe as they each inch closer to personal breakdowns.  Hook's system of betting on the horses is failing and he is losing money instead of making it, and considers turning back to drink to ease his anxiety.  Cross is a premature ejaculator who is so obsessed with Superman that he calls his girlfriend "Lois" while he is fucking her and yet she still nags him to marry her.  Keller is obsessed with finding the killer and so he can't leave town to patronize a prostitute, which means he is getting uncomfortably horny.  Smith's stomach problem (probably an ulcer) is getting worse and he can't talk to his fat wife about this or any other of his problems and he can't get along with Keller either.  All four of these guys are alienated, have sexual performance issues, have suffered blackouts or delusions or fits of violent rage in the past, and each has the feeling that some woman has damaged his life, making them all--in the eyes of the reader--suspects.

We also learn all about Valerie Broome's personality and background; she is the most sympathetic and admirable character in the novel; as a sensitive and and good-looking woman who has achieved success in her field of journalism, she is the one lead character who doesn't feel like a villain or a loser.  Broome seems to represent the authors' attitudes, to voice their concerns--an educated big city resident who is concerned about all the isms and looks down on small town America, she sees Bloodstone as a 

microcosm...of what is going on in America today...assassinations, mass murders, public freakouts, private collapses, television spectaculars, grand funerals, small griefs, dead politicians, living politicians who are dead...a pressure point where modern technology and alienated man are forced at last to meet each other.

Hook discovers the body of the fourth victim, and is shaken, and Broome starts an affair with him; it is suggested in part because she feels sorry for him--as a sensitive soul, Hook's suffering melts her heart.  Hook is probably the character second most sympathetic and second most like the authors; for one thing, his theater background offers Bill and Barry opportunities to talk about Shakespeare and Victor Hugo and James Agee ("the running of beasts" is apparently a quote from Agee's corpus.)  Keller is the most openly villainous character; an obsessive man who is hostile to everybody and in particular complains about liberals and homosexuals, he competes with the state police effort to the catch the killer instead of cooperating with it, and suspects Hook and relentlessly pursues him, to the point of illegally harassing him, even though he lacks any real evidence.  As for Smith, the authors use him to illustrate the human struggle to believe that the universe is orderly and logic and reason can describe it when everything feels chaotic and seems inexplicable.

He could, would, overcome all of these obstacles with patience and absolute confidence in the ordered universe--but how long would it take?  And how many more obstacles would there be before methodology finally took him to the truth?

In the middle of the book, Cross's mother Florence reports that she has been attacked, and then Cross's girlfriend, Paula the schoolteacher, informs him she is pregnant and demands he marry her--Cross wants her to have an abortion ("Everything's legal in New York now") but she refuses:

"No.  Abortion's a sin, it's murder.  I won't murder a helpless infant."

"Embryo," Cross said.  "Fetus."  

"I won't do it," she said flatly.

One of the reasons we read old books is because they offer insight into life and thought in the past.  This passage in which James Cross and Paula Eaton discuss abortion is interesting because we all know how good liberals like Malzberg are required to feel about abortion nowadays, but almost fifty years ago he and Pronzini are putting the "it's just a clump of cells" rationalizations into the mouth of a character who is irresponsible and delusional and deploying the abortion issue as a strategy of hinting to the reader that Cross might be the murderer because he is quite comfortable with killing the weak and innocent.  From the perspective of 2023, this somewhat ambiguous, perhaps hostile, view of abortion sits uncomfortably with all the complaints that rural white people are violent racists and homophobes that are sprinkled throughout the book. 

Speaking of dim views of rural white, the townspeople become angry at the authorities for their failure to stop the killings, and there is some talk among them of setting up a vigilante patrol; Broome compares some raucous attendees of a town meeting to a lynch mob, and, when an ordinary citizen tries to catch the killer himself he only causes more trouble for everybody.    

The last third or so of the book starts with a good chase scene set during a night thunderstorm which starts with poor Paula being murdered and then sees Keller and Smith independently chasing down Hook; Smith has a life-threatening ulcer attack during this caper and it is Keller who arrests Hook, but he has to hand him over to the state police and so can't fulfill his dream of confining him in his own local jail.  Cross, following Keller in his role of investigative reporter, witnesses Smith's collapse and Hook's arrest--this scene, which brings all four of our suspects together, foreshadows the novel's climactic scene in which they will be reunited in even more dangerous circumstances.

An interesting theme that dominates the portion of the novel between this chase scene and the climactic chase concerns parallel psychological crises suffered by Florence Cross and Valerie Broome.  Florence wrestles with her belief that her son James is the killer, while Broome struggles with her own suspicion Steven Hook, her new boyfriend, is the killer--each finds the idea that a murderer of women was inside her--as a baby in the Cross case and as a sex partner in Valerie's case--morbidly fascinating and so horrifying they strive to refuse to believe it.  Also adding to the tension in this stretch is the evolution of Smith, who previously has been the most normal, the most reliable, of our four male leads.  Gradually he begins to act recklessly and erratically, to, under the pressure of his ulcer and his desperation to catch the killer, take on some of the unhealthy character traits of Cross (whereas Cross sometimes wonders how Clark Kent would handle a situation, Smith begins using baseball analogies to guide his decision-making) and Keller (like the Constable, Smith becomes determined to solve the case himself without the help of other cops.)  

In the novel's climax, after a chase involving boats as well as cars, Valerie, Hook, Smith, Keller and Cross all end up in a sort of amusement park slash museum fashioned to look like a colonial fort and village and full of mannequins in 18th-century garb--Pronzini and Malzberg's novel is about how terrible (rural) America is, and so the final explosion is set in a sort of caricatured archetypal (frontier) American setting.  The action climax in this ersatz fort stresses how similar the four men are, how each of them might have been the killer--the novel is also about how everybody (at least every man) is terrible.  One of our four suspects, totally insane, declares himself to be the killer and commits suicide in the fort.  In the epilogue that follows the other three experience dreadful fates--one goes insane, one dies, and one--the real killer--murders Valerie Broome.

As you probably already know if you are reading my blog, Barry Malzberg was a science fiction fan who aspired to be a serious mainstream literary writer like John Updike or Saul Bellow or Vladimir Nabokov but couldn't achieve his career goals in the shrinking mainstream literary market and so sold stories and novels to the SF market about abnormal psychology, sexual dysfunction, and the social dysfunction of post-JFK America by setting them in an SF context, this context sometimes being a pretty thin veneer.  In The Running of Beasts we see Malzberg working out his typical themes in a different genre framework, the serial killer thriller mold, describing four different male characters who are alienated and sexually dysfunctional and share or illustrate interests of Malzberg's--betting on the horses, struggling to succeed as a writer, a fascination with political violence, and a commitment to literature and the fine arts.  

The Running of Beasts succeeds as a Malzberg novel, and I am giving it a thumbs up--James Cross in particular, the talentless confessional writer who never stops thinking of Superman, has delusions he is going to win a Pulitzer Prize and get lots of chicks, can't satisfy his girlfriend in bed and treats her like crap out of bed, and has a creepy relationship with his mother, is a classic Malzberg protagonist whom Barry's fans will appreciate.

But does The Running of Beasts succeed as a horror novel or a detective novel?  Malzberg's work often employs experimental techniques and often lacks traditional literary and entertainment values like vivid descriptions or a strong plot that moves logically from point A to point B, and thus much of Malzberg's work can be hard to follow, but, probably because of Pronzini's involvement, The Running of Beasts is very clear and straightforward in its descriptions and in the way its narrative operates; the characters' personalities and motives all are easily discernible and the plot functions conventionally, with a beginning, middle, climax, resolution, and then twist ending that clues you in unambiguously as to what was really going on.  The two chase scenes are good.  On those bases the novel has to be counted a success as a mainstream popular entertainment.  However, gorehounds should be forewarned that the novel features less blood and guts (though far more gastrointestinal distress) than I expected, and mystery fans should know there was less detection jazz than I expected, and the detective stuff that is present is a debunking of the idea that the detective can, via logic and intelligence, figure out whodunit and achieve justice--any clues anybody discovers they discover by accident, the authorities and sympathetic characters never figure out who the criminal is and never catch him, and the sympathetic characters all get killed or driven bonkers.  Smith, a man committed to police techniques and methodologies, learns to his dismay that the world is not orderly and man cannot master it--our lives are chaos, our goals are beyond our grasp, and we are likely to suffer death or madness at any moment.

As for weaknesses, some people might find the passages that consist of 1930s baseball trivia or of a detailed description of horse betting strategy too long, and I admit they were mostly Greek to me.  Another issue is the fact that the way Ferrara accurately diagnoses the killer's neuroses from reading newspaper reports is hard to believe, and undermines the novel's theme that the universe is inexplicable chaos that experts cannot penetrate any more deeply than can ordinary schlubs.  These are minor issues, though.

A satisfying entry in the Malzberg oeuvre, and one that (probably because of Pronzini's contributions) presents Malzberg's customary themes in an easy-to-read form.  A Malzberg book that it is easy to recommend to all genre fiction fans.  

Monday, April 24, 2023

Merril-approved 1956 stories: de Camp, deFord, Dickson and Doyle

I love the spires (or whatever they are) that appear in Richard Powers' illustrations
for the front and back covers of 
SF: The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy: Second Annual Volume

As you know, Bob, here at MPorcius Fiction Log we are exploring 1956 speculative fiction by going through the list headed "Honorable Mention" at the back of famed anthologist Judith Merril's 1957 volume SF: The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy: Second Annual Volume and reading in scans of old magazines stories recommended by Merril whose authors or titles strike our fancy.  Today we'll read stories by "D" authors Merril anointed with her approval to the number of four.  But first I will point out that I read and wrote about the Avram Davidson story Merril included on her '56 Honorable Mention list, "King's Evil," about a year ago, and present a list of links to the A, B and C stories on Merril's list which we've already discussed.

            Abernathy and Aldiss
            Anderson, Allen and Banks 
            Barrow, Beaumont and Blish
            Bradbury, Bretnor, Budrys and Butler    
            Carter, Clarke and Clifton

"Internal Combustion" by L. Sprague de Camp 

I read quite a few de Camp things before starting this blog and my reaction to them was lukewarm, so I haven't read a lot of his work since MPorcius Fiction Log slouched onto the scene.  But let's give "Internal Combustion," which debuted in the same issue of Infinity Science Fiction that included Charles Beaumont's "Traumerai," which we read just a month ago, a shot.

"Internal Combustion" is a sort of misanthropic black humor story that portrays (middle-class) people as violent racists who oppress the less fortunate, so we can guess why leftist Merril liked it.  It is actually pretty well-written; some of the jokes, based on character and personality and not puns (thank heavens), are good and the plot is alright, so I can give it a moderate recommendation.

The main cast of the story consists of a bunch of robots who are wearing out and have been abandoned by their owners, the MacDonalds.  Old MacDonald got rich publishing a xenophobic newspaper, but his offspring had no interest in living in his mansion so they abandoned it and its staff of robots.  Over the years these robots, receiving no maintenance, have fallen into disrepair; one symptom of this neglect is the fact that they have lost many of their inhibitions against harming human beings.  In fact, their leader, nuclear-powered Napoleon, after poring over the "N" volume of the encyclopedia, has decided to emulate his namesake and launch a merciless scheme to make himself ruler of the world.  Napoleon can't leave the mansion because of a malfunctioning leg and so has come up with the idea of kidnapping a human and grooming him to become the figurehead of his robot dictatorship.  The opening scene of the story clues us in to how dark "Internal Combustion" is--one of Napoleon's subordinate robots, Hercules, has kidnapped a homeless person to serve as this figurehead, but accidentally slain him, so Napoleon instructs his mechanical minions to hide the body.  He then directs them to try to kidnap a child whom Napoleon can raise into a world conqueror.

There is a lot of comedy around how the subordinate robots are powered by liquid fuel and prefer gasoline because it makes them drunk, and a lot of business with the child the robots kidnap, a kid who loves violence and acts like a terrible brat, and that kid's father, who is a portrait of middle-class angst, a guy who feels unfulfilled because he inherited wealth and doesn't have to work and his nagging wife won't let him pursue his hobbies or take the kind of working-class job he might enjoy because it is low status; this guy is an irresponsible father, lazy, and has a therapist.  There is also quite a bit of talk (from the robots, which we perhaps are not meant to take seriously) about how the robots are just as deserving of love and civil rights as the humans, but are treated shabbily by their creators.  (The misbehavior of the robots is clearly shown to be the fault of humans--when they are drunk or violent the robots are emulating their neglectful creators and sinful masters.)    

The story's hero is the one robot among the decaying MacDonald crew whose "serve humans" programming is still largely intact.  Named Homer, this robot has also been programmed to recite poetry, and in his voice de Camp unleashes plenty of popular verses from such poets as Dorothy Parker ("Resume"), Omar Khayyam ("The Rubaiyat") and Oliver Wendell Holmes ("One-Hoss Shay.")  Homer works odd jobs to get money to buy fuel--the other robots steal--and when a disaster occurs Homer sacrifices his own mechanical life to save the child kidnapped by Napoleon.

"Internal Combustion" is like 16 pages of text that move at a brisk pace and are always engaging--a respectable choice by Merril, and a better story than I had expected it to be.  Among other places, "Internal Combustion" can be found in the oft-reprinted de Camp collection A Gun for Dinosaur and Other Imaginative Tales and Mike Ashley's robot-themed anthology Souls in Metal.   


"The Margenes" by Miriam Allen deFord 

I don't think I've ever read anything by deFord, whose name sometimes appears as "de Ford," as it does in connection to this story, which first saw print in If and was included in an If anthology published a year later, as well as the 1971 deFord collection Elsewhere, Elsewhen, Elsehow and the 1978 Helen Hoke anthology Demons Within and Other Disturbing Tales.

"The Margenes" is a twist-ending idea story with no real characters and precious little plot, one of those stories that is presented as a popular history written in the far future.  DeFord's tale is almost 100% speculation, and its field is political economy; it reminds me a little of Edmond Hamilton's early work depicting scientific disasters that befall the Earth (see "The Truth Gas," "The Life-Masters" and "The Death Lord") and Mack Reynolds' 1960s stories that speculate on economics and Cold War "what ifs" (like "Freedom," "Revolution" and "Subversive,") but those guys generally include in those stories horror and adventure elements (in Hamilton's case) or detective or spy shenanigans (Reynolds) in an effort to pad the page count and/or up the entertainment value; deFord's story is brief and its human element is a sort of cursory portrait of a couple that dramatizes the vacuity of relationships under industrial capitalism. 

All of a sudden strange little creatures, in the millions, start washing up on the beaches of California.  Neither animal nor plant, but packed with healthy proteins and every nutrient imaginable, these things are the perfect food, and they are breathtakingly abundant!  These creatures are named "margenes" because the first people to see them bore the first names Marge and Gene.  

The human race is suffering widespread hunger due to overpopulation, so the government moves quickly to subsidize the exploitation of this new resource and distribute the superfood around the world.  Beautiful California beaches and forests quickly become industrial eyesores, but the world economy is buoyed and relations between the liberal West and the communist East improve markedly.  But nine years later the supply of margenes suddenly runs out and the economy tanks and world war erupts and the human race is almost wiped out.

(Marge and Gene serve as archetypes of the futility of middle-class life--they abandon their dreams of fulfilling intellectual careers and take soulless office jobs pushing margene, get married, get divorced, then separately get killed in the wars that erupt after the supply of margenes runs out.)

The twist ending is that the margenes were members of a race of extraterrestrials who have overpopulated their own planet and have been spreading throughout the galaxy, planet to planet, seeking living space.  After expending all her imagination on describing the economic and political effects of a cheap and abundant food source, deFord does not bother to explain how there aliens got into the Pacific Ocean without being seen falling from the sky or something and why they have no visible culture or technology and didn't resist being eaten, just handwaving away all details of margene life as incomprehensible to the human mind.  Coming out of nowhere and making little sense, the twist ending of "The Margenes" sort of undermines the plausibility of the story as a whole.

Merely acceptable.  Presumably Merril appreciated the story's focus on overpopulation, criticisms of industrialism, economic explanations for social phenomena like war, and the "meta" gag at the end in which the future author says science fiction writers wrote many stories speculating about what first contact with aliens might be like but never guessed that it would consist of us eating the delicious aliens.


"Flat Tiger" by Gordon R. Dickson

Here's another famous guy whose work I have only found OK upon my early introduction to it and so have not really sought out since.  But I liked the de Camp from '56 that Merril chose, so maybe I'll like Gordon Dickson's "Flat Tiger," which first came under the eyes of SF fans in an issue of Galaxy that also features de Camp's famous "A Gun for Dinosaur" and the first episode of Frederik Pohl's "Slave Ship."

Ugh, this is a joke story based on puns and childish fantasies that tried my patience.  The Galactic civilization of thousands of distinct intelligent species is holding a race and the speed star ship of one of the contestants breaks down because one of the tigers that manages one of its four warp engines runs out of the essential gas it has to inhale to perform its function.  (This is the kind of wordplay that Dickson founds his story on, the fact that "gas" is short for "gasoline" and "tiger" sounds like "tire."  Oy.)  This fanged and tentacled contestant, named Captain Bligh, lands on the lawn of the White House in mid-century America to ask the President for help getting more of the gas required to fill his flat tiger.  We learn that, secretly, within the White House, lives a guy who is the president's special adviser--this is an hereditary position occupied by thr same family since the days of George Washington, and it has analogs in the offices of other great powers, among them the Soviet Union.  These secret eminence grises are the real masters of the world.  A conference is held in the White House that gathers Captain Bligh and the chief executives of the top four nations of the world--the US, USSR, Great Britain and France (those were the days!) and the Earthers open negotiations with Captain Blight on a deal to allow Earth membership in the Galactic Federation.  Should we join, the aliens will cure all our diseases, set up a teleporter so we can explore the universe, install clean energy sources, etc.  In return, we need only offer the aliens our love--in the post-scarcity society of the Galactic civilization, the only thing of real value is love. 

The twist ending is that members of the Galactic Federation must be physically reengineered to live directly off energy--humans won't be permitted to eat animals or plants or even drink water, as the Federation members love all living things, even the microorganisms we humans kill by the billions in the process of preparing drinking water.  So the representatives of the four leading nations agree to forgo membership in the Galactic Federation, and the Earth becomes united in peace behind a shared love of food and drink and opposition to the aliens who would take our food and drink from us.

Thumbs down for this dopey waste of time.  Maybe Merril liked its irreverent attitude towards the Cold War and American pretensions to being a democracy, and the idea it floats that people so covet the sensual pleasure of eating and drinking that they would pass up a chance to end all illness and poverty and lift all limits to human knowledge in order to keep on chowing down. 

"Flat Tiger" would be reprinted in the Dickson collection Danger--Human, the paperback edition of which bears the title The Book of Gordon R. Dickson


"The Lover of the Coral Glades" by Adrian Conan Doyle

As you have probably guessed if you didn't already know, Adrian Conan Doyle is one of the sons of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of Sherlock Holmes fame.  "The Lover of the Coral Glades" appeared in the same issue of Playboy as Richard Matheson's "A Flourish of Strumpets," which we read pretty recently.  

"The Lover of the Coral Glades" is the story of the tragic love affair of a 200-year old sperm whale.  Never has this bull whale met a cow whale he could truly love, though he has of course impregnated some and then abandoned them.  (This is Playboy you are reading, remember.)  But finally he meets her, his dream cow!  They fall deeply in love, and spend months together, swimming all over the world eating squid.  One day when the she-whale is pregnant and they are in a part of the ocean with few squid near the surface the male whale ventures alone to the darkest deep to kill a giant squid and bring back a chunk of it to feed his bride.  But, alas, his wife has been mortally wounded by thresher sharks working in concert with a swordfish--there is also a whaling ship stalking her!  (I read this section multiple times, the idea of thresher sharks and a swordfish teaming up to murder a whale with their tails and bill being so outlandish that I thought maybe I was misunderstanding what was going on.)  The pregnant whale expires and sinks, and then the crew of the whaling ship kills the grieving male whale with one shot from their harpoon gun; the beast immediately sinks so they can't harvest its sperm and blubber.  The whalers figure a merciful God made sure the whale would sink so it need not suffer further indignities in its time of sorrow and can lie forever on the bottom of the ocean besides its wife and the mass of cells it thinks of as its unborn child.

This story is histrionic and boring when it isn't being eye-poppingly ridiculous; it begs to be taken super seriously, but everything that happens in it is absurd.  Thumbs down.  I think here Merril fell victim to her desire to expand the definition of SF to include mainstream fiction that appeared in mainstream outlets but engaged in what we might in a generous mood call "speculation."

"The Lover of the Coral Glades" would be reprinted in the Doyle collection Tales of Love and Hate.

**********

There is a tradition in SF of stories that glorify and romanticize science and technology and their ability to make human life better as well as the scientist and the man of intelligence who solves problems by quick thinking and knowledge of logic and scietific laws.  Today's four stories are not in that tradition.  Today's stories are examples of the tradition of misanthropic elitism in SF and stories that employ non-human characters to illustrate human pettiness, callousness, short-sightedness and propensity for violence.  The de Camp is a good example, as it offers characters with personality and an entertaining narrative.  The deFord is not terrible, but it lacks human feeling and the gimmicky ending is a little hard to take.  Dickson's story is based on irritatingly childish jokes, and the Doyle story is embarrassingly melodramatic slosh that is also full of elements that beggar belief.  

So, today Merril served up to us a heaping plate of downer stories.  Stay tuned to MPorcius Fiction Log to see how many more of Merril's favorite 1956 stories are designed to make you hate the human race.

Sunday, April 23, 2023

A. E. van Vogt: "All the Loving Androids," "Laugh, Clone, Laugh," "Research Alpha" and "Him"

British paperback editions of More Than Superhuman;
the 1980 printing (right) illustrates "The Reflected Men," which we talked about
last time

Today we read the second half of my 1971 Dell printing of the A. E. van Vogt collection More Than Superhuman, striding into the arena to wrestle with four more stories by the Canadian madman, two of them collaborations!  In this tag team match will Forrest J. Ackerman and James Schmitz be on our side, aiding our efforts to grab a hold of our man Van's at times slippery or prickly prose and pin down his unforgettable nova concepts, or will they instead just compound the difficulties faced by those of us bold enough to thrown down with the Slan Man?

"All the Loving Androids" (1971)

It looks like this approximately 35-page story was original to this collection.  "All the Loving Androids" would go on to be included in some European van Vogt collections.

Dan Thaler is a physicist working for the government in the future of visi-phones, aircars, and human-like androids.  He is currently on a secret assignment--the government suspects something odd is going on with the androids, and Dan is discreetly investigating.  As "All the Loving Androids" begins, an opportunity to learn about the cutting edge in grey-market androids falls right into Dan's lap.  Dan's sister Anita is married to busy businessman Peter Copeland, and according to this dude Anita is "the worst neurotic of all time and space"; she calls him up at the office multiple times a day, gives him long lists of errands to run, and if he should hesitate to bow to her every whim, threatens to kill herself.  So, Peter acquired two androids that looked exactly like him to occupy Anita, one running all those errands and the other answering the phone so he had time to get his work done and conduct an extramarital affair.  When Anita takes an overdose of sleeping pills, the cops and Dan meet Peter's android stand-ins and they are amazed by their high quality--most androids are immediately recognizable as robots thanks to their not-quite-lifelike movements, but these two can successfully pass for human!

Dan the man, with the help of a cop, figures out that at the bottom of all this is a conspiracy that reaches into the government bureaucracy and the highest level of the professions--the Establishment is riddled with people who support android civil rights and some of them are willing to commit murder to win equality for androids or even go so far as to actually make the androids our masters!  One such ally of the androids is Anita's shrink--this joker hypnotized Anita into being a terrible wife so the android liberation people could sell three of the new super androids to Peter!  That's right, three androids--the "woman" Peter is conducting an extramarital affair with is a physical duplicate of Anita who is a conscientious homemaker and an eager sex partner!  All proceeds of such superandroid sales go to financing the android uprising!  

Dan gets captured by the android liberation organization; they hypnotize him and he briefly lives an android-like existence, slavishly obedient and unable to do anything for which he has not been programmed.  Luckily the police rescue him and capture the diabolical android-boosting psychiatrist.

The climax of "All the Loving Androids" is not what I expected--I had expected all the androids to be wiped out and humans being forced to get along without them, or, some kind of negotiations which would improve the position of androids in society.  Instead, Van concludes the story with a sort of joke that is perhaps commentary on sexual relationships.  The real Anita, freed from the hypnosis that made her so impossible to get along with, takes the place of the Anita android and has the Anita robot put in the loony bin in her place.  She insists that Dan not tell Peter about the substitutions; presumably Peter and Anita live happily ever after, Anita being such a helpful wife that Peter does not realize she is the human he married and not the robot he recently purchased.  The final punchline is the reflections of the cop who helped Dan--he envies Peter for having an accommodating, even robotic wife because his own wife is such a pain in the neck.  Whether Van's joke is supposed to make a feminist or anti-feminist point here is not clear.  

"All the Loving Androids" is an acceptable filler story, no big deal.  The plot sort of reminds me of the plots we see in Jack Vance stories, but of course van Vogt can't match Vance's superior writing style, which makes Vance's stories founded on such plots so entertaining.

"Laugh, Clone, Laugh" (1969) with Forrest J. Ackerman

Back in late 2021 I read Forrest J. Ackerman's collaboration with C. L. Moore, "Nymph of Darkness," and was astonished and actually angered by how poor it was.  So my hopes of finding "Laugh, Clone, Laugh" palatable are not high.  

This story, five pages, is a sterile waste of time, a lame sort of fairy story punctuated with weak jokes that culminates in a bad pun.  Thumbs down.  It is better than "Nymph of Darkness," because, whereas "Nymph of Darkness" failed to achieve its goals, "Laugh, Clone, Laugh" accomplishes its purpose, having set its sights very very low.

This pointless exercise first saw print in the collection Science Fiction Worlds of Forrest J Ackerman & Friends.  There is a lot of evidence that many members of the SF community found Ackerman to be a fun guy and he seems to have had a boundless enthusiasm for speculative fiction, but in my experience his actual writing is shallow at best, and often quite irritating.

"Research Alpha" (1965) with James H. Schmitz

Schmitz is actually good at writing SF adventure stories with interesting aliens,* so I have been looking forward to reading this one.  "Research Alpha" first appeared in If, and appeared in translation within a year in two different European magazines, including Urania, the Karel Thole cover of which illustrates the opening scene of the story.

Tall and slim Barbara Ellington recently started working as a typist at Research Alpha, one of the world's most important scientific institutions.  She is dating Vincent Strather, a technician in the photo lab, though she seems to have a crush on John Hammond, president of Research Alpha.  Barbara has also caught the eye of the head of the biology department, Dr. Henry Gloge, who selects Barbara and Vincent to be the subjects of his latest experiment!  

My understanding of evolution (and I am admittedly an ignoramus) is that it is an unpredictable process driven by random mutations that, should they not cripple the ability to produce offspring, are passed on to an individual's descendants and will become widespread should they confer some advantage in the struggle to reproduce; over many generations, new species emerge from this process.  But often in SF stories we see evolution portrayed as a predictable process, as if what your descendants will look like is already mapped out in your genes, and if we bathe you in radiation or shoot you full of drugs you can graduate early, skipping a hundred or a thousand or a million generations and taking on an advanced form.†  "Research Alpha" is one of these stories.  Dr. Gloge has been injecting the giant salamanders known as "hellbenders" with a drug that advances their evolution by hundreds of thousands of years, so that they grow armor and better eyesight and so forth.  He wants to figure out what will happen if he uses the drug on human beings, and so he injects Barbara and Vincent--absolutely without their consent or even knowledge, or that of his boss, president Hammond--and rigs up surveillance in their private off-campus apartments so he can keep tabs on them.

A three-sided conflict featuring shifting alliances and a whole panoply of superpowers and high tech equipment ensues among Barbara, who, as we expect of a van Vogt protagonist, gradually acquires and masters mind-boggling mental abilities; the ruthless Dr. Gloge; and Hammond, who, unsurprisingly to us VV fans, is an extraterrestrial, one of those here on Earth pulling strings behind the scenes to manipulate human civilization.  Will Barbara use her superpowers to become leader of Earth, give all of us superpowers, and throw off the influence of the aliens?  Or will she recognize the wisdom of the aliens and leave Earth behind to join the god-like galactics who are Hammond's superiors?

This is a pretty good thriller with a sense-of-wonder ending as Barbara achieves "Point Omega:" "when man becomes one with the ultimate."  I like it.    

*Here are links to my comments on some Schmitz productions I liked: "Planet of Forgetting," "Greenface," "Grandpa," and The Demon Breed.

†My go-to example is Edmond Hamilton's "The Man Who Evolved," but see also Henry Kuttner's "What Hath Me?"  

"Him" (1969)

"Research Alpha" takes up like 60 pages, but "Him" is a short one, just five pages of text.  It debuted in Spaceway, a magazine that, at that time, consisted mostly of reprints of 1950s material; among this issue's new material is a long wordplay-filled letter from Forrest J. Ackerman in which he, among other things, suggests if a movie were to be made of Sibyl Sue Blue, which we read back in November, the lead role should go to Nancy Sinatra.            

"Him" is a merely acceptable filler story.  Most of the Earth is under the control of dictator Josiah Him, but considerable portions of Western North America resist his rule, even repelling a full scale invasion.  One of Him's screwy policies is to have educated people--college professors, scientists, and the like--ground up and fed to students; this is called the "planarian education plan," it being ostensibly based on that famous(ly controversial) scientific finding that planarian worms can acquire memories of their fellows whom they eat.  The plot of this story follows the dictator's top brewer as he is chosen to be ground up and fed to aspiring brewers, and discovers that his death sentence is in fact part of a rebel plot to overthrow Him.

Slight; an unfortunate way to conclude the collection.

"Him" would reappear in the program book of the 1992 MagiCon held in Orlando.

**********

Another adventure successfully concluded.  Stay tuned for more explorations of mid-century SF here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

Thursday, April 20, 2023

A. E. van Vogt: "Humans, Go Home!" and "The Reflected Men"

Let's take a break from reading scans of old magazines found at the internet archive off a screen and read an actual physical book that can be found on one of the overstuffed shelves of the MPorcius Library.  The topic of this and the next transmission from MPorcius HQ will be the 1971 Dell paperback printing of A. E. van Vogt's More Than Superhuman, a collection of five reprinted 1960s stories and one new story.  My copy has an awesome moody cover featuring an heroic muscleman--no doubt a symbol of man's ability to contend with anything the universe can throw at him--over whom looms a more mysterious and abstract figure, one whose face strongly resembles a Pre-Columbian Mexican mask.  (What savant fashioned this terrific illustration is also a mystery.)  More Than Superhuman is a little over 200 pages long, and today we'll handle its first two pieces, novellas from Galaxy which together occupy half the book.

"Humans, Go Home!" (1969)

A. E. van Vogt's bibliography is a labyrinth full of confusion.  Many of his stories have been published under multiple names, many have been revised for integration into novels, and some of those altered versions have then seen reprint as if they are independent stories.  The odd bibliographic fact about "Humans, Go Home!" is that when it debuted in Galaxy it was accompanied by a sort of appendix or introduction that in plain English explained the background and setting of the story, but this valuable text was not included in More Than Superhuman, making the book publication of  "Humans, Go Home!" somewhat harder to understand than the magazine printing.  (It is not as easy as I thought it would be to take a break from reading scans of old magazines.)

That background text (it takes up one page of Galaxy) tells us that four centuries ago the inhabitants of planet Jana consisted of many primitive warring tribes, and then two humans, husband Dav and wife Miliss, arrived and set about civilizing these natives.  Today the Janae have a single world government with an hereditary monarch and a civilization at a more or less 20th-century technological level (we see widespread use of helicopters, motorcycles, and electronics.)  Dav and Miliss's miraculous feat of benignant imperialism is made possible by the fact that by the time of the story mankind has achieved what amounts to immortality through drugs and also mastered puissant mental powers--the Symbols.  How exactly these Symbols work is not clear to me, but it seems that Symbols represent abstract ideas--a prominent example in the main text of the story is the idea of constitutional monarchy--and as these ideas are more widely accepted, the Symbol grows in power, to the point that people are reluctant to oppose the idea, and those who support the idea are protected from its opponents as if by a forcefield.   

The text of the story, about 38 pages in Galaxy, covers a wide array of topics--sexual dimorphism and sexual relationships, gender roles, imperialism, social class, the passage of civilization from a feudal era characterized by the violent and arbitrary rule of men to a period of bourgeois liberalism characterized by the rule of law.  An underlying plot element, as in so many van Vogt stories, is the revelation that superior people are secretly behind the scenes manipulating society.  

As the story begins, Miliss becomes determined to leave Dav, her husband of hundreds and hundreds of years.  Dav believes that this is just her female hormones acting up, but he can't convince Miliss to take the drugs necessary to put her back on an even keel.  The galactic human civilization in the story seems to have drugs as its foundation, and this civilization is, apparently, teetering on the brink of extinction--Dav and Miliss understand that most humans have stopped taking their immortality drugs and started dying; this death wish is contagious, and those who try to help those suffering it catch it themselves, so that only humans who are contemptuous of the sick seem likely to be able to survive the crisis.  So, when, Dav comes to believe that Miliss has caught the death wish, instead of badgering her into taking her drugs, he avoids her. 

Perhaps even more bizarre is native Jana culture.  Jana women are cold and callous, and have no interest in love, sex or children, and for the Jana race to endure, Jana females have to be dominated by men, essentially forced to procreate and raise children.  For their part, Jana men, at least the aristocrats who run society, are arrogant and relish danger and violence--we witness them riding their motorcycles around recklessly and gambling with each other for the right to execute criminals by beheading them with swords.  Jana law is very class-conscious, with nobles able to get away with all manner of crimes if inflicted on inferiors, and the middle classes ranked so that a top engineer can legally murder a working-class person but might suffer a fine for murdering a fellow engineer, the fine scaled to how many more advanced degrees he had than his victim--murdering an engineer of the same academic accomplishment will be punished by death.

The plot of "Humans, Go Home!" involves the current king of the planet and the second most preeminent of the natives.  The king has been away on some mysterious mission for about a year, and when Miliss leaves Dav, native Number 2 seizes her, charging her with being an alien spy who is dominating his race; this charge is more or less the truth, and has been open knowledge for centuries--all social, political and technological developments on Jana have been the work of Dav and Miliss slowly doling out information to the natives of the planet.  Number 2 is easily able to whip up hostility among the common people against their benefactors, who have been treating the Janae as inferiors and refusing to give to the Janae the full benefit of human knowledge on the theory that they are not ready for it yet.  One of the ambiguities of the plot is the extent to which Number 2 is doing all this because he seeks power--to become king himself, or, in a new system of constitutional monarchy, prime minister--and to what extent he just wants to have Miliss in his custody so he can rape her.    

The legitimate king returns, and as the plot proceeds he is in conflict with Number 2 over the fate of the planet, as well that of Miliss and then Dav; clues begin to pile up that during his absence the king was being programmed by other humans, and he gradually learns the nature and extent of the powers he has been given by those humans (van Vogt stories often feature a person who gains mastery over amazing mental powers over the course of the tale.)  Dav seems to catch the death wish he fears his wife is suffering from, Miliss accuses Dav of becoming as arrogant and sexist as the native males and, parallel to our learning about the king's programming, it becomes evident that Dav and Miliss themselves were hypnotically programmed 400 years ago to perform certain duties and believe certain things which may not be true--maybe the human race really isn't nearly extinct because of a death wish!

We expect van Vogt stories to be strange and to fail to provide--to not even try to provide--ordinary literary and entertainment values like well-drawn characters and a strong plot that travels clearly from point A to point B in an easily digestible way, and "Humans, Go Home!" lives up to those expectations.  The story is full of crazy ideas and surprises and by the end of it you have to doubt half the stuff that has been presented to you.  "Humans, Go Home!" is one of numerous pieces by our favorite Canadian that I personally am glad to have wrestled with but which I don't feel comfortable recommending to people who aren't already on Team VV. 

In Galaxy, "Humans, Go Home!" is illustrated by Jack Gaughan, who provides six drawings.  The faces and attire of the Janoe people seem to be based upon Pre-Columbian art, which perhaps explains why the cover illo of my paperback edition prominently features that Mexican mask.

Besides the various printings of More Than Superhuman, "Humans, Go Home!" can be found in the collection The Gryb and some collections in European translation.

"The Reflected Men" (1971)   

Another long piece from Galaxy--45 pages in the magazine.  There are actually multiple books in the MPorcius Library that contain this story, my two copies of More Than Superhuman (I bought a second copy one day because the cover painting was more clearly printed) and my copy of 1974's The Worlds of A. E. van Vogt, a paperback of over 300 pages with a wraparound cover by Bart Forbes.  You can also find "The Reflected Men" in Futures Past: The Best Short Fiction of A. E. van Vogt, a 1999 collection with an introduction by Harlan Ellison; Ellison was a vigorous champion of van Vogt's, which is significant because so many members of the SF community, apparently following the lead of the powerful Damon Knight, were so down on van Vogt.  (Knight may have been right about The Tomorrow People, but he was not infallible!)

"The Reflected Men" is much better and I believe holds more appeal for normies than "Humans, Go Home!," with more human feeling, a triumphant ending, and slightly more conventional SF concepts.

Twenty-five years ago the public library of a small resort town on a lake within driving distance of New York City invited the local kids to donate interesting rocks they found for display in the library's little museum.  Twelve-year-olds Seth Mitchell and Billy Bingham found a particularly impressive specimen, and on a cliff over the lake the boys wrestled over the brilliant crystal, contesting who would have the honor of donating it--Billy vanished, presumably falling off the cliff into the lake, but his body was never found.  Today, twenty-five years later, sad unmarried librarian Edith Price, a woman who left the Big Apple after sort of botching her life by screwing up her relationships (dumping a dependable boyfriend and getting involved with a guy who didn't want to marry her, all the result of her coming under the influence of student radicals who declared that God was dead and all rules and traditions were to be jettisoned), is approached by a man claiming to be Seth Mitchell and asking for the crystal back.  The museum is under renovation, so she can't give it to him, but then on a whim she takes the now dull and drab crystal herself with the idea of mailing it to Mitchell.  

Over the course of the story we learn that the crystal is an artifact from the future, a device of astonishing power that has been dormant in the museum, but which Edith Price unwittingly reactivates.  The device becomes "oriented" on her, giving her access to mind-boggling powers she only slowly begins to understand.  One of these powers is the ability to duplicate people to whom the crystal is oriented--rather than exact duplicates, the copies are variants or alternatives, versions of the oriented person who have slightly different personality traits or have made different life decisions. When the crystal was oriented to 12-year-old Seth he accidentally triggered the creation of scores of alternative Seths, and today all over the world live Seth Mitchells who are pursuing different courses of life--among these Seths are a poor farmer, a tax accountant, a big businessman worth 10 million bucks, and a private detective (this is genre fiction, after all.)  Similarly, Edith, to whom the crystal is now oriented, when she considers all the different things she could have done with her life, unintentionally creates a bunch of alternate versions of herself.  Neither Seth, Edith, nor us readers realize what is happening while it is happening; instead we all have to figure it out after the fact--"The Reflected Men" is one of those stories in which we learn what is going on all out of chronological order, van Vogt offering us lots of twists and surprises as he reveals things.

"The Reflected Men" is also one of those stories in which a bunch of people are all chasing after the same item, and the story has many of the elements of detective fiction--rooms are ransacked, people conduct stakeouts, people are murdered, people are held at gunpoint and made to do things they don't want to do, etc.  A criminal scientist from the future comes to the 20th century to try to seize the crystal so he can become the dictator of the 35th century, and then a super scientist from further in the future appears and explains why the crystal was sent to the 1900s from his own time--the 93rd century--and pursues his own people's goals, at the expense of the Ediths, Seths, and their loved ones.  Edith and Seth, however, prove equal to the challenge of the cold sexless super brains, figuring out how ways to use the crystal and how to take advantage of blind spots in the knowledge of the asexually reproduced men of the 93rd century.  Not only does Edith secure for herself a happy ending (she marries the rich Seth and they start a family, which is what Edith really wanted all along) but provides solutions to all the other characters who deserve a decent life, including little Billy whom Seth accidentally "uncreated" all those years ago and even the scientists of the year 92-whatever.

There is plenty of psychology and human drama in "The Reflected Men," van Vogt depicting people experiencing profound grief, guilt and regret, and exploring people's views of themselves (offering an alternative meaning for the title, at one point Edith looks in the mirror and is disappointed in what she sees) and anxious speculations on how they might better themselves.  The super scientists of the 93rd century are suffering a physical degradation, perhaps because they are not natural beings but carefully crafted artificial men, and so they sent the crystal back in time with the idea it would create ideal 100%-all-natural human specimens for study--the crystal has been creating so many versions of Seth Mitchell and Edith Price in order to develop a "best possible" man and woman, but how do we judge what personality and what life-course is "the best?"  Edith strives to become a better person, and wrestles with the question of what behaviors a good person engages in, and how she should define what a good person is, and how the crystal might define such a person.  (It is a fun scene when Edith, who has been trying to become the "best-possible Edith" out of fear that the inferior Ediths will be "uncreated," suddenly realizes that the best-possible Edith is going to be a guinea pig for cold-hearted scientists.)  Van Vogt also speculates on the role of God--or at least the idea of God--in society and in the universe.

(I don't have to tell you how feminists will respond to the fact that Edith, after achieving god-like power, uses it to get married and start a family!)

I like it, and I think I can recommend "The Reflected Men" to normies, not just to those like myself who have already signed up for lifetime passes on the sevagram steam train.


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Next time we'll read the second half of More Than Superhuman, four shorter stories, including two collaborations.  Stick around!