Thursday, February 29, 2024

Weird Tales September 1938: A Blackwood, R E Howard & F T Torbett and M W Wellman & G Gordon

Can't stop, won't stop!  The MPorcius Fiction Log's  quest to read at least one story from every issue of Weird Tales with a 1930s date on its cover continues.  Today, the September 1938 issue falls before our manic glazzies.  We've already read the Robert Bloch story from this issue, "The Mandarin's Canaries," but there are three more stories I'm interested in.

"The Magic Mirror" by Algernon Blackwood

Blackwood is a guy one often hears being called one of the best of the writers of the weird, or even the actual best.  So I guess it is about time I read something by him.  "The Magic Mirror" is apparently something of a forgotten Blackwood story--at least isfdb suggests it was only collected once, as the title story of a 1989 volume with the subtitle "Lost Supernatural and Mystery Stories," and only anthologized once, in Peter Haining's 1986 Tales of Dungeons and Dragons.  

"The Magic Mirror" is one of those stories which has a frame story.  Our narrator is on a cruise ship, and while hanging around at the bar he hears a fat guy ("Fatty") tell his two friends ("Baldy" and "Jimmy") the story of how in Monte Carlo he met a 100-year-old man who knew how to win at gambling--by leveraging the dangerous magic item he acquired in Tibet from a lama.  Said item was a magic mirror--the old geez told Fatty he would be able to read in the mirror the number to play on a roulette wheel, but that he couldn't take advantage of the mirror's powers by himself, that he needed a partner.  Fatty became the man's partner, and the two sat together at the roulette table where the old timer read the winning number in the mirror and Fatty placed the bets and and collected the inevitable winnings.  They won time and again, making lots of money, but the old guy kept getting paler and sicker looking until he finally died right there at the roulette table.  As he died the mirror broke into a thousand pieces.

This story is solid--well written and paced--but no big deal; moderately good is our judgement.

"A Thunder of Trumpets" by Robert E. Howard and Frank Thurston Torbett    

"A Thunder of Trumpets" is the only story credited to Torbett at isfdb--he also has three letters to Weird Tales listed.  Its debut appearance here in Weird Tales is supported by a dream-like Virgil Finlay nude, and "A Thunder of Trumpets" has been reprinted in numerous Howard collections behind fun covers by people like Stephen Fabian, Ken Kelly and Neal Adams; for one such collection it even serves as the title story.  While the title might invoke the image of a cavalry charge, if you are expecting high excitement from the story you are perhaps going to be disappointed.

"A Thunder of Trumpets" takes Howard's characteristic pro-barbarism, anti-civilization theme and marries it to the argument that what women want is a strong man to master them.  Perhaps the most interesting thing about the story is watching Howard, who we conventionally think of as a racist who portrays black people in a terrible light, in this story exalt Hindu ("Hindoo") and Muslim ("Muhammadan") Indians over Americans and Englishmen, and suggest that Indians who deal too closely with Westerners, getting educated in England or serving in British military units, for example, are polluted and corrupted.  Unfortunately, the story is sort of boring; instead of Howard's theories about sexual relations, race relations, and the relative merits of citified scholars, businessmen and priests on the one hand and animals, barbarians and savages who live close to nature being embedded in a thrilling adventure or horror plot, as is usually the case with Howard, here the creator of Conan just presents his theories again and again in a plot that seems like that of a weak imitation of Somerset Maugham full of passages like you might expect to see in a woman's romance novel--"A Thunder of Trumpets" is all about a white woman who is enamored with a nonwhite man and bored with white men and their dull ways.

A bit obtuse, as Anglo-Saxons are likely to be in matters not concerning business, he did not notice her abstraction.  He had other things to worry him, and with an Englishman or American, business must always come before love. 

Bernice Andover is riding her horse alone in the Indian jungle and is thrown; as she lies stunned on the ground, a man-eating tiger appears and menaces her, giving Howard a chance to sarcastically mock man's assumption that he is superior to the beasts.  A tall and supple native man with "Aryan" features rescues Bernice by staring the great cat down, and Bernice can't help but contrast this handsome man who is in touch with the natural world with her fiancé, who is too polite and doesn't know how she wishes he would sweep her off her feet and tell her what to do.  Bernice's brief glimpse of what life is like in the jungle brings home to her how lame civilized life is, how British people--and the Indians employed by the British who have taken up British habits--stifle their emotions, repress their natural instincts.  

Back in the palace of an Anglicized Hindu prince with whom her fiancé is conducting business, Bernice learns that the man who saved her is considered a yogi by the local people, is respected by Hindu and Muslim alike, and believed to have lived for centuries and to have power over animals.  For weeks, while her fiancé is trying to swing deals with the recalcitrant and/or hard-bargaining locals, Bernice is going on long walks with this yogi, falling in love with him.  The yogi is a chaste guy and never does anything untoward, but finally, one day, the yogi breaks down--for centuries he has pursued higher aspirations, quested after cosmic wisdom, but Bernice is so beautiful he can't resist her, against his better judgement he has fallen in love!  He is going to abandon the long road that leads to The Truth That Is All to marry Bernice!

Bernice goes to tell her boring English businessman fiancé that their wedding is off.  But seconds before she can break the news to him, an anti-white riot breaks out and the fiancé is knocked unconscious defending Bernice.  The yogi appears out of nowhere to wield his magic powers to drive off the rioters and heal the fiancé's wounds.  This demonstration of the gulf that lies between the yogi and the mortal woman convinces them that a relationship between them is impossible--to put a period on it, the yogi gives Bernice a glimpse of what he really looks like--a bent and wrinkled, toothless and  bald old geezer!  The yogi returns to the pursuit of The Truth That Is All, and Bernice, presumably, marries her fiancé, who minutes before the riot had inked a deal, assuring them a comfortable future.

Though perhaps interesting as a piece of insight into Howard's (and broader Western society's) views on relations between the sexes and the races, "A Thunder of Trumpets" is not very entertaining.  I'm a Howard fan, and a fan of stories about love triangles, but this one gets a thumbs down; Howard it appears is not equipped to portray a love triangle effectively, and what he is good at, depicting action, adventure and horror material, he doesn't even try to do here.

'The Cavern" by Gertrude Gordon and Manly Wade Wellman 

Like Frank Thurston Torbett, Gertrude Gordon has only one fiction credit at isfdb, plus a handful of letters to SF magazines, in her case Fantastic Novels* as well as WT.  "The Cavern" would be reprinted in the Wellman collection The Devil is Not Mocked and a few anthologies edited by Robert Weinberg.

*Gordon's letter appears in the issue of Fantastic Novels with a Virgil Finlay cover that took my breath away in an antique store back in August.

"The Cavern" is a fun little filler story, slight but entertaining.

The narrator and his friend Stoll are accosted by a fortune-teller.  After the fortune-teller has left, the narrator wonders why she picked them out of the crowd, and Stoll says she could tell he was a believer, and then explains why he believes.

Years ago Stoll was in Africa and met a young man on his first day in Africa by the name of Quade, a guy who is strong and brave and all that.  The night of his first day on the Dark Continent, a fortune teller warns Quade that his death will be in a cavern, and Stoll will witness this tragedy.  Quade goes to another fortune teller to get a second opinion, but fortune teller number 2 offers the same prediction, as does #3.  (Africa is full of fortune tellers.)

Quade leaves Stoll's party, as it is going to explore a tomb, which to Quade sounds uncomfortably like a cavern.  Quade has an exciting career ten-year career in Africa, fighting in wars, hunting big game, gambling for high stakes, trading with native tribes, etc.  He takes tremendous risks, he suffers illness, but he always survives.  He also scrupulously avoids caves, caverns, and holes, even refuses to sleep in a house or a hut, always sleeping outside on the ground.  A decade after their first meeting, he hooks up with Stoll again.  The two go hunting hippos together, and on a river we get the twist ending we expected the moment hippos were mentioned.

Minor, but successful.


We are making good progress in our weird journey through the 1930s.  Today we passed judgement on  stories by some pretty big name weird authors, and more big names await us at the next station on the weird way, October, 1938.  In the interim, you can check out MPorcius posts on Weird Tales from earlier in the 1930s at the links below.

1930  1931 1932 1933  1934  1935  1936  1937 

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Unearthly Visions from W M Miller, R Z Gallun and C D Simak

In our last episode we read the 1956 version of Eric Frank Russell's story "Legwork."  "Legwork" would be reprinted in 1965 in the Groff Conklin anthology 5 Unearthly Visions, a copy of which I acquired down in Lexington, Kentucky in April of 20165 Unearthly Visions also reprints Damon Knight's "Dio," a story I read in a Knight collection back in 2018 under the title "The Dying Man."  So, two unearthly visions down, three to go--let's finish out the anthology by spending the day reading the included visions by Walter M. Miller, Jr., Raymond Z. Gallun, and Clifford D. Simak.

Fellow SF fan "Petie," we salute you.

"Conditionally Human" by Walter M. Miller, Jr. (1952/1980)

Already my plan to read from my paperback copy of 5 Unearthly Visions is going off the rails.  isfdb indicates that the version of "Conditionally Human" in Conklin's 1965 anthology is substantially different from versions in other volumes, including Everett Bleiler and T. E. Dikty's Year's Best Science Fiction Novels: 1953, which purports to print texts speciallh revised by the authors.  I can't find a scan of the Bleiler and Dikty book, so I am going to read the version of "Conditionally Human" in an internet archive scan of 1980's The Best of Walter Miller, Jr., which I can see from the first line deviates from the text of the 1965 Conklin version.

It is the 2060s, the socialistic future in which the government gives you a test and tells you what job you get.  Our hero, Terry Norris, has been assigned a job his new wife Anne finds abhorrent, a job which he describes as being that of an "up-to-date dog catcher."  You see, the government, because of overpopulation concerns, also gives you a test to see if you are worthy of reproducing, and only the most impressive specimens are permitted to have a biological child.  Some of those denied parenthood by the government are permitted to own a genetically engineered artificial life form in a ploy to satisfy their desire to be parents, to experience a simulacrum of the love shared between parents and children.  For example, there are cat-things and dog-things that have the intelligence of a human baby and can understand and speak simple words of baby-talk English.

The most advanced of these artificial creatures are the "neutroids;" as their name suggests, these are sexless beings that look almost like a real human child.  A neutroids' physical development ceases before it reaches what in a sexed being would be puberty; depending on what model you can afford and have a license for, your neutroid might top out at three or five or whatever, with the limit at about ten years of age.  (As for intelligence, the neutroids are what I as a kid would have called "retarded" but now call "developmentally disabled.")  Couples who do well enough on the tests to merit neutroid ownership get special treatment--government doctors shoot the female member of the couple up with drugs to give her some of the experience of being pregnant, like odd cravings, weight gain, and lactation.  One of the story's little jokes is that before a couple receives delivery of their neutroid the wife goes to a hospital and the husband is expected to pretend to be nervous, to smoke cigarettes and pace back and forth in the maternity ward waiting room.  

Norris's job is to manage all these artificial creatures that inhabit his 200-mile-square sector of suburban housing; his most onerous duty is catching and destroying any of the artificial creatures that prove defective or somehow become ownerless.  Because the neutroids have something like an immature human's intelligence and personality, and, except for a little tail and lack of gonads, look kinda like human children, Anne thinks of her new husband, who has to toss neutroids into the handy gas chamber (complete with attached crematorium) in his back yard, not as a dog catcher but a baby-killer!

The various interwoven plot threads of "Conditionally Human" demonstrate the terrible psychological and sociological costs of the severe government limitations on childbirth and pubic policies that aim to fulfill women's maternal desires via Frankensteinian means.  A batch of neutroids is suspected of being defective, and Norris has to wrest them from the arms of their loving "parents," and some put up a fight.  Anne decides she wants to have a real child with Norris even though they are just class C, and doing so would risk separation and demotion to laborer status.  When Anne becomes acquainted with one of the defective neurtroids--its "defect" is that it is almost a normal human girl, with intelligence within typical human parameters and a body with gonads that will go through puberty and be able to bear children--she becomes attached to it and determined to make sure it is not destroyed.  (This story probably deserves a feminist analysis--women are its moral core, but they pursue traditional goals like wanting to care for and give birth to children.)

One theme Miller addresses is complicity.  In one subplot, Norris goes along with a corrupt superior's rule-breaking, and when this misbehavior leads to a broken-hearted woman committing murder, Norris recognizes that he is partly to blame for the carnage and regrets going against the rules.  But Norris also recognizes that he bears guilt for following the rules of the immoral government of which he is an agent.  In the climax of the story Norris tries to sabotage the system, taking a risky first step that he hopes will set off a chain of events that will result in the end of the government's intrusive and oppressive reproductive policies.

Religion is another of Miller's themes, as it often is in his work, and a clergyman plays a role in the story in the end, and in the closing pages of the story Anne reads from the Bible.

Miller is a good writer, and tackles serious, compelling topics in "Conditionally Human," as he did in other stories of his I liked, like "Crucifixius Etiam," "Death of a Spaceman," "I Made You" and "No Moon for Me."  Miller's work feels mature in part because it is ambiguous, it doesn't offer easy answers and doesn't feel like propaganda.  "Crucifixius Etiam" and "Death of a Spaceman" tell you that conquering space is a worthwhile goal, but fully admit it is going to entail horrendous sacrifice.  "Conditionally Human" portrays the government's population control measures as bad, but in Miller's story the population problem is real, not an illusion pushed by goofball activists or exploited as an excuse by government tyrants in their pursuit of greater power.  

Thumbs up, then for "Conditionally Human," another success from a consistently good writer.  I do have some criticisms of the story's structure and length, though.  It does feel a little long, and the climax at the end, when Norris decides to rebel and murders a fellow government employee, is less shocking and less climactic than the murder in the middle of the story.  I have to wonder if maybe the other versions of the story, in Galaxy and/or in 5 Unearthly Visions, might be tighter.

"Stamped Caution" by Raymond Z. Gallun (1953)

"Stamped Caution" debuted in Galaxy, in an issue with a cover story by MPorcius punching bag J. T. McIntosh.  In the lore of MPorcius Fiction Log, Gallun is the opposite of McIntosh (AKA M'Intosh AKA MacIntosh); Gallun is a guy whose work I almost always like.  (See a list of links to Gallun-related blog posts here.)  So I embark on reading "Stamped Caution" with a spring in my step.

"Stamped Caution" is a well-written effort to construct a realistic account of Earth people's reaction to the first landing of Martians here on Earth, and then reaction of Martians to the first landing of Earthers on the Red Planet.  Gallun strives to be optimistic as well as realistic, and perhaps to ignore or subvert some of the commonplaces of adventure fiction--people do get captured and do escape, but both humans and the aliens are trying to avoid war and build a relationship based on trade and friendship rather than conquest, and they actually succeed!

In brief, a Martian ship crashes on Earth and all the crew die except for an egg.  The narrator is given the job of incubating the egg and studying the creature that emerges from it, which turns out to be a tentacled thing with eyestalks, not a mere animal but an intelligent being able to use tools and learn English.  Gallun's descriptions of the alien's form and behavior and the human efforts to study it and educate it are entertaining.

By the time the Martian is an adult the people of Earth have built their own ship capable of going to Mars and the narrator and the Martian he raised form part of the crew that go there.  The humans of the crew are captured by the Martians and their experience is somewhat parallel to that of their Martian friend--they are studied and tested and, eventually, the people of Earth and Mars take some first steps on the road to a mutually profitable relationship characterized by peace.

I like it.  Gallun's good record here at MPorcius Fiction Log endures.        

The Swedish translation of 5 Unearthly Visions, Spionen utifran, contains only the three
stories "Legwork," "Stamped Caution" and "Shadow World."

"Shadow World" by Clifford D. Simak (1957)

Simak seems like a good guy and he's a good writer, but sometimes his sentimentality can get too sappy, and sometimes his anti-urban, anti-modern schtick gets on my nerves, though he's not as bad as Chad Oliver.  So I never know when I start a Simak story if I am going to like it.  Let's roll the dice again, peeps.

Looks like we rolled a 4 or 5*--"Shadow World" is a long and unsatisfying twist-ending joke story.  It has as minor themes imperialism, colonialism and exploitation of the environment, but its major theme is the danger of addictive entertainment.

*We might say 6, 7 and 8 would represent the various ranges of "acceptable;"  9 or more would be good or better, with 11 and 12 Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance, Thomas Disch and Tanith Lee territory.

Earth is sort of overcrowded, and so men have been searching the galaxy for Earth-like worlds to colonize.  One such world is Stella IV.  The survey team that discovered it found no evidence of native intelligent life, just some mysterious "cones" that could only be seen from a distance.

The narrator is a member of the outfit building the colony on Stella IV.  He tells us that mankind has learned its lesson and Stella IV will have a carefully planned economy, that there won't be individuals taking risks as they try to strike it rich on a frontier, but rather a systematic and orderly progression that won't waste natural resources.  I couldn't tell if Simak was seriously advocating a planned economy or if he was being sarcastic, employing an unreliable narrator strategy here, i part because this political economy/environmentalist stuff was incidental to the plot. 

When the team of which the narrator is a member arrived on Stella IV they were immediately met by what they took to be native life forms, forms of an inexplicable, even supernatural, type they dubbed "shadows."  Each man found he had a particular shadow who kept close to him at all times.  These beings are humanoids who lack any facial features save for a single eye, have no sexual characteristics, and no clothes save a harness that holds a large jewel on its wearer's chest and a bag near the waist--the bag jingles like it is full of small hard objects.  The shadows do not talk, or breathe, or eat.  If you try to touch a shadow's jewel the creature simply vanishes and returns later.

The shadows do not seem hostile or dangerous, but it appears that, in a mysterious and oblique way, they are slowing down the building of the colony.  Every morning the bulldozers and cranes and things the human engineers and technicians need to build the colony are found to be "gummed up," and they have to be disassembled and cleaned before they can be put to use.  The men are thus able to only put in a half day of productive work each day, slowing progress severely, and there is panic when the colony builders receive a message warning them an inspector is on his way to Stella IV.  If the inspector finds they are behind schedule and have no idea how to resolve the problem caused by the shadows they are all likely to be fired!

The narrator figures out what is going on by employing an illicit device.  Simak portrays some of the men among the builders as jerks, and one of the jerks is the cook, who goes by the name "Greasy."  Greasy has an illegal device called a peeper.  As I said, Simak is a good writer and he uses various clever strategies in constructing "Shadow World" that make it mysterious, generating suspense and conveying a sense of strangeness.  One of these strategies is mentioning peepers on the story's opening page and then not explaining clearly what a peeper is until like page 19.  A peeper is what we might call a virtual reality device that looks like a pair of binoculars that you can strap to your face; it has 39 knobs that can each be set from zero to 39--each knob sets a parameter for the fantasy world in which you can live through the device.  The peeper is extremely addictive, and is illegal.

The shadows are very inquisitive--it appears they are sabotaging the machines at night in some undetectable way to provide themselves an opportunity of observing their disassembly and repair.  The narrator, the only person who knows about Greasy's peeper, steals the contraband device and risks addiction himself to figure out how to set the peeper so that it will take a viewer on such a horrible trip that it will knock him unconscious.  As he expected, his shadow looks into the peeper at the first opportunity and duly collapses.  The shadow then decomposes in short order, leaving behind only a cone--the base of which was its eye--and the jewel and the bag of items.  The jewels are a sort of 3D camera and they have been producing little miniature models of the Earthmen's equipment; these models represent, in exhaustive and precise detail, both the surface and the inner workings of the men's machines and tools.  Among the little models of his equipment in his expired shadow's bag the narrator discovers a little model of himself.

It turns out that the shadows are just mobile platforms for the two super high tech cameras, the cones that transmit  video and sound to the hidden lair of their owners and the jewels that create perfect models.  The hidden masters appear soon after the narrator solves the mystery of the cones and shadows.  These highly advanced aliens are addicted to entertainment, and have been enjoying watching the humans through the cones.  They want to pay for the fascinating show the humans have unwittingly been putting on for them, and offer as payment perfect full-sized working duplicates of the Earthmen's machines and supplies those little miniature models serve as blueprints for the aliens' duplicating machines.  It seems these aliens can also duplicate raw materials like steel, which will make building the colony a snap.  But when the humans realize the aliens have also created living duplicates of themselves they are outraged and horrified, and the narrator scrambles to acquire 500 peepers from Earth--it is not clear if he intends to use these as weapons against the aliens or as a radical psychiatric palliative treatment for the stress of living in a maddening new world of duplicate humans.

Simak's writing style is smooth and "Shadow World" is well-structured as a mystery story.  Unfortunately, the story isn't actually fun and doesn't generate human feeling in the reader, and I don't care for mystery stories that are merely a puzzle and lack any human drama or emotion.  "Shadow World" doesn't really work for me as a science fiction story, either, as it lacks compelling ideas--the alien cones and duplicating machines and the human peepers are simply not believable; they are props for use in a satire, not elements of a sincere speculation about life in the future or an alternative milieu; as for the satire and the jokes--I guess about being addicted to TV--they are not insightful or funny.  Marginal thumbs down for "Shadow World," I am afraid, though I can see other people liking it because it is well-put together on a technical level.

"Shadow World" was first printed in Galaxy, where it was illustrated by the Dillons.  (Here's a note for all you fans of Diane and Leo who don't follow me on twitter: recently I stumbled upon a text book with a cover by the Dillons at an antique store.)  "Shadow World" would be reprinted in a few Simak collections, including some British and French ones, and a 21st-century Baen anthology edited by Hank Davis of stories depicting unfortunate first contacts titled Worst Contact.

Off-Planet's cover depicts one of the shadows from "Shadow World"


The last page of my copy of 5 Unearthly Visions is an ad for Monsters Galore, a paperback anthology of stories about monsters edited by Bernhardt J. Hurwood, a man with a varied career that included not only editing books of horror stories but penning TV and movie tie-ins, non-fiction books about torture and unexplained phenomena, and sex manuals.  The ad claims Monsters Galore is illustrated, but the one review of the book on Amazon casts doubt on this assertion.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Merril-approved 1956 stories: Roberts, Russell and St. Clair

Our curated tour of 1956 SF stories continues.  Who is doing the curating?  Judith Merril, who included in her 1957 anthology SF: The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy: Second Annual Volume a long alphabetical list of "honorable mention" stories printed in 1956, and your humble blogger, who has been selecting stories from this list.  I have been skipping many authors I already know I don't like, but giving some new to me a shot, a strategy which paid off in our last episode, when I enjoyed two stories by Frank Riley.  Today we've got two stories by people--women, in fact!--I don't think I've read before, and two by a guy we have read a lot, Eric Frank Russell.

(See the bottom of this post for a list of links to previous posts on Merril-approved 1956 stories that sparked my interest.)

"When Jack Smith Fought Old Satan" by Mary-Carter Roberts

Mary-Carter Roberts has four credits art isfdb.  "When Jack Smith Fought Old Satan" first appeared in Collier's, but I am reading the version that appeared in F&SF in 1957, as it is easier to find.  I generally find tiresome stories in which some mortal cuts a deal with the devil, so I am sort of inclined to skip this one (especially since it is like 22 pages long), but let's give it a try anyway.

"When Jack Smith Fought Old Satan" isn't really one of those deal-with-the-devil stories, but a sort of tall tale that incidentally or obliquely dramatizes a sort of generalized left-wing anti-establishment/anti-rich/anti-law-and-order attitude.

Her story is set in Delaware in 1769, and as Roberts starts it she hints that she should be considered an unreliable narrator and foreshadows that her tale will be essentially incredible by telling us the story has been passed down by word of mouth generation after generation, and by asserting in what feels like a sarcastic way that it must be true because all who have told it before her were "godly folk."  Roberts also introduces the theme that people from Delaware are "exclusive," though I'm not 100% sure what that means or what it really has to do with the story and to what extent she is being ironic.  (Frank Riley in "Project Hi-Psi" suggests some of the behavior of that  story's main character reflects his New England heritage and upbringing, and maybe what Jack Smith does in this story is supposed to reflect the characteristic personality of people from Delaware in a way that I am not getting because Delaware is one of those states I don't know much of anything about, like Maryland--oh, wait, having lived in Maryland I now know they put that stupid seasoning on everything.)  

Jack Smith is a big strong farmer, a twenty-year-old orphan who has served in the wars against the Indians and is a free thinker, an atheist who refuses to show respect to his social superiors or acknowledge the truth of the Christian religion.  As a result he is ridiculed by the community when he comes into the village to drink at the tavern.  Unnoticed by Smith, the "bound girl" Oma, a fellow orphan who works at the tavern, has fallen in love with him.

The villagers have just finished building the area's first church, but are dismayed to find someone they can never catch has been vandalizing the church physically and supernaturally--not only do the parishioners often find the furniture in disorder, but the bell refuses to ring.

The people figure Satan himself must be to blame--the Devil must be hiding out in the nearby dark woods.  This accords with the old story that the "baronet" who owned the woods in the 17th century refused to donate some portions of the woods upon which to build a school for the poor, saying that he'd rather the Devil had the land than the poor--Satan must have finally taken that mean old rich guy up on his offer a hundred years later.  One guy suggests that Satan's strength comes from the evil of the people of the community, and to drive Satan off they have to punish malefactors more severely--he brings up the case of a bound girl (a different one than Oma) who was caught stealing sugar and who received only a mere six lashes.

Jack Smith the atheist scoffs at the idea that the Devil exists at all, much less is terrorizing the community--he suspects the culprit it is some bound man (lots of bound people in Delaware, apparently) venting his rage against the hypocritical religious person to whom he is bound.  Jack Smith the champion of the poor, after considering catching this hypothetical vengeful bound man in order to disprove the Devil theory, decides against doing so because if caught the bound man will suffer some harsh punishment for his crimes.  Smith also criticizes the idea of punishing criminals more severely.

One thing leads to another and Smith ends up vowing to walk through the woods that very night and fight the Devil if he should encounter him.  Sure enough, on the dark lonely trail, Smith meets Satan and Roberts provides a long and tedious and quite gory description of their fight.  (This story is full of graphic violence.)  In the end, of course, the Devil proves to be essentially unkillable--he only allowed the fight to go on so long because he was testing how tough a guy Smith was.  Impressed by Smith's strength and determination, he tries to recruit Smith to his diabolical cause.  Smith realizes that if Satan is real, so must God be, begs God for aid, acquires the strength to pull the biggest tree in the woods, a 500-year-old oak, out of the earth, and uses it to strike Satan and drive him back to Hell, liberating the community.  Smith marries Oma and when a grateful populace gives them some money they use it to free from bondage that sugar thief.

(I wonder if we are supposed to think that Smith found the vandal and convinced him or her to knock it off and then made up the devil story to tell the gullible Christians when he got back to the tavern.) 

This story isn't bad, and Roberts' writing style is pretty good, but "When Jack Smith Fought Old Satan" is kind of long and it doesn't present any interesting ideas (we've all heard a million times that religion is a scam and that you shouldn't punish criminals) and because it is so unbelievable what happens to the characters doesn't have any effect on the reader's emotions.  I'll call it acceptable.

isfdb doesn't list any appearances for this story besides Collier's and F&SF.  

"Legwork" by Eric Frank Russell

Merril includes two stories by Russell on her honorable mention list, both of them printed in Astounding.  (Alan Dean Foster told us that Russell was Astounding editor John W. Campbell, Jr.'s favorite author, you'll remember.)  "Legwork" was a publishing success, getting reprinted in multiple Russell collections, a 1965 anthology by Groff Conklin which I actually own, 5 Unearthly Visions, a recent British anthology about crime in the future, and two different Italian publications with Karel Thole covers.  (NB: I am reading "Legwork" in a scan of the April 1956 Astounding, not my copy of 5 Unearthly Visions.)

We encounter quite a few SF stories that use aliens as foils for humans in an effort to point out how humans suck--peaceful aliens who are a contrast to violent Earthers, communistic aliens with a collective consciousness that highlight the selfish individualism of humans, aliens who are at one with nature in contrast to us humans who bend the natural world to our will.  You'll be glad to hear that here in "Legwork" Russell uses an alien foil to say something nice about human beings.  

Russell's big theme is that the galaxy is full of intelligent races, and most advance through what he calls "flashes of inspiration" or "touches of genius."  But Earth and the human race are outliers--sure, humans have had those unpredictable "flashes," but our civilizations also advance by simple determined hard work, what we today might call "grinding" and what Russell calls "slogging along," and "plain, lousy legwork."

The Andromedans have conquered many planets, defeated and enslaved scores of intelligent species.  The first step in taking over some new planet is recon, and Andromedan Harasha Vanash is a scout who has investigated fifty planets which the Andromedans have subsequently taken over.  Vanash has tremendous hypnotic powers, and with these powers he can almost perfectly camouflage himself, by projecting into your mind what he wants you to see and remember.  This way he can walk among the natives of a planet, appearing to be one of them, interacting with them and collecting all the info about their culture and capacities required to make conquering them a snap.

The first part of "Legwork" follows Vanash as he lands in the USA and begins his reconnaissance.  Russell makes of Vanash a compelling character and it is entertaining to watch him go about his business.  The next part of the story has as its focus a big fat GF-man, a detective from the Treasury Department, sent to a small town to investigate a bank robbery we readers know Vanash pulled using his hypnotic powers.  This part of the story is very much like a police procedural, with the obese fed Eddie Rider and local police captain Harrison talking about clues and hashing out theories and directing underlings and so forth--dozens of men around the country talk to people and follow possible leads and hunt through files, doing the exhaustive and exhausting legwork of the story's title.  Russell actually makes all this detective stuff sort of interesting, and his style is smooth enough that it goes down easy; even though this story is 40 pages, it never feels long.

When it becomes apparent that an alien being with the ability to masquerade as any man is the culprit, the entire apparatus of the Federal government, including the armed forces, gets involved.  In the end mankind triumphs, and not only is Vanash vanquished, but we get a sense of wonder ending that promises that the human race has taken its first step to seizing the stars and laying low those Andromedans!               

Solid classic SF--thumbs up!

The Urania cover illustrates "Legwork"

"Top Secret" by Eric Frank Russell

After enjoying "Legwork" so much, "Top Secret" is a real letdown, a gimmicky joke story based on puns that tries to get on your good side by appealing to your perfectly natural distaste for government bureaucrats.  (Russell often lampoons government and bureaucrats so maybe "Legwork," in which government people at all levels work hard and do a good job and receive eager support from the populace, is an outlier in his body of work.) 

The Terran space empire and the Zeng space empire are on good terms and have been for ages, but the Terran officer in charge of defending the sector where they are adjacent still worries about how he and his men must act should there be a Zeng sneak attack.  So he sends a message to the commander of forces at planet Motan offering direction on priorities should war break out.  The way interstellar communications technology works in this story, people have to read messages aloud into machines, and because the message has to pass through many stations, eighteen different guys from all different cultures with all different accents have to listen to it and repeat it to pass it on, so that, like in the game of telephone,* the message received by Motan is nonsense.  This gag isn't the springboard for the story's plot--the entire story is just a succession of such jokes as Terran HQ and the Motan base transmit messages back and forth multiple times seeking clarity, only to receive nonsensical messages that only add to the confusion.

Waste of time, thumbs down.  

My denunciation comes too late to prevent Ace and The Dial Press from reprinting "Top Secret" in a 1958 Russell collection (Six Worlds Yonder) and a 1984 anthology (From Mind to Mind.) 

*Today I learned that British people call this "Chinese whispers," which is funnier than this story.

"Horrer Howce" by Margaret St. Clair

St. Clair produced a lot of stories under her real name and under the pen name Idris Seabright, but I have avoided her work because I had the impression she wrote joke stories.  The title of this story leads me to suspect it is a joke story, but I'm giving it a shot anyway in a duplicitous effort to make people think I am open-minded.  

"Horrer Howce" made its debut in the same issue of Galaxy as Theodore Sturgeon's "Skills of Xanadu," which I penned a negative review of back in 2014 ("like a three page essay on what Ted thinks the perfect society would be stretched out to 26 pages....")  People love "Horrer Howce;" it was included in multiple anthologies of stories from Galaxy as well as books edited by Peter Haining and Isaac Asimov and Martin H. Greenberg.  Could I be one of those people?  Could I love "Horrer Howce?"

My heart sank when I turned away from the Virgil Finlay illustrations to "Skills of Xanadu" (I'd never seen them before, having read Ted's utopian tedium in the paperback anthology 13 Great Stories of Science-Fiction) and saw the editor's intro to "Horrer Howce" on the first page of St. Clair's story:

Oh no, was this another pun story?

Luckily, St. Clair's story has more to it than bad spelling.  We have two characters, a guy who builds equipment for amusement park haunted houses--mechanical monsters and the like--and a guy who buys such equipment for a national chain of amusement facilities.  After some foreshadowing that suggests artist guy is some kind of intellectual and maybe a political radical, he shows the buyer guy a conventional horror room, one that offers the illusion you are outside by a well--inside the well is an elaborate clockwork monster.

The meat of the story comes in a second room.  Various clues suggest this is not so much a room as a portal to another world inhabited by dangerous alien entities, and St. Clair offers a quite good action/horror scene in which artist guy drives a car on a congested highway--buyer guy comes as passenger--seeking to escape a black car driven by a monster with three arms; the pair witness a similar car catch up to another vehicle and tear apart a (simulated?) human driver.  The pair make it off the highway and back to the office alive, but then the monster busts into the office and kills the buyer.  

It is strongly implied that the man just killed was the third such buyer to be shown the horror highway, and the other two were driven insane by the experience and are no longer in the horror house business.  So the artist guy comes up with a new scheme--he will open portals to worlds where live even more horrible alien entities and use them to build horror houses for the three-armed monsters.

This is an acceptable horror story, and I guess it is also a sort of joke story about how scary was driving on the new highway system?  (I suppose the highways were in the news when the story was written and published, as in 1954 Ike appointed a committee to propose a plan for an interstate highway system, in 1955 Congress received a proposal from the administration, and by June 1956 the Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956 had been passed and signed.)  Bad spelling and puns don't actually seem to play that big a role in the story--"Horrer Howce" is some graffiti the monsters have left outside the highway room, foreshadowing that they are able to leave the room.  The name applied to the monsters, "Voom," is I guess just a reference to the onomatopoeia "vroom" commonly used to describe or imitate the sound of an automobile; maybe that counts as a pun?

I guess I can mildly recommend this one.  


One of Russell's stories was lame (presumably Merril admired it for its attack on the minds of military men), but one was good and the Roberts and St. Clair stories had their moments and were thought-provoking.  So, a decent batch of '56 stories.

If you want to check out other stories in this series of Merril-inspired blog posts, the links below will facilitate your journey.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Merril-approved 1956 stories: Frank Riley and Jack Ritchie

Like Johnny Thunder, we are stuck in the 1950s.  Let's read some more 1956 stories recommended by Judith Merril, this time by authors whose names start with the letter "R."  Last time we did this we had to slog through some overly long stories deploring human greed written by people whose names begin with the letter "P," but maybe today will be our day.

"The Executioner" by Frank Riley 

Riley has eight short fiction credits at isfdb, and was co-author with Mark Clifton of the Hugo-winning novel They'd Rather Be Right, which I haven't read but which I hear the conventional wisdom has decreed is not very good.  Riley's main work seems to have been as an L.A.-based journalist; he also wrote detective stories.  It looks like nobody saw fit to reprint "The Executioner" after its debut in If, so maybe Judith Merril is this story's biggest fan.  

(Though the story is not named on the cover, the Kelly Freas painting on the cover of this issue of If illustrates "The Executioner," the jewelry, lace, fingernail paint and absurdly elaborate hairstyle of the main character bringing to life the story's theme that a utopian life is going to feminize men. 

It is the 22nd century, the future of air cars and pushbutton jobs, a neofeudal future complete with lords and ladies and public executions in the form of gladiatorial pistol duels in the arena.  Life is so easy and boring in this high-tech low-work world that the execution duels are essential to maintaining public order by providing a safety valve for the masses' natural desires for excitement and cathartic violence.

The Lord High Executioner, Sir Jacques de Carougne, has twenty years of gunning down convicted felons in the arena behind him, but it hasn't always been smooth sailing--for one thing, he has an inhibition about shooting women and will often get an understudy to fight malefactors who lack a Y chromosome.  Today he gets some bad news--the convicted felon he is supposed to duel is a woman, and not just any woman--it's Lady Ann of Coberly, the woman he was in love with before he started his execution career, the sole woman he has ever loved over the course of a life of having sex with dozens of executioner groupies!  And Jacques isn't given enough time to get somebody to fill in for him!  

Before the actual execution, the high court, installed on a moving dais in the center of the arena in full view of the crowd, has to vote on whether to veto the convicted's sentence.  Ann takes this opportunity to give a speech saying that the men of her day are not men at all!  (The text implies that 22nd century men have lost the ability to sexually satisfy women.)   

Ann having been denied a stay of execution, Ann and Jacques face each other in the arena.  Ann is smart, brave, and a good shot, and proves to Jacques that she could kill him and save her own life, but instead she misses on purpose, giving Jacques a chance to prove that he is the only true man left in the world--will he gun her down or spare her?  What would a real man do?

This is a pretty good story; the writing is good, and it forces the reader to try to figure out what Ann considers a true man to be, and consider whether or not he agrees with her.  We see the utopia-will-suck theme a lot, but I actually like that theme so I don't mind it the way I mind the tired themes that got on my nerves in our last episode.  When it comes to "The Executioner" I'm right there with Merril--thumbs up!

"Project Hi-Psi" by Frank Riley

That's right, Merril chose two stories by Riley for her list of honorable mentions, and this one also appeared in If.  Like "The Executioner," it looks like "Project Hi-Psi" was forgotten by everybody with clout who wasn't born Judith Josephine Grossman after its publication in 1956, but if it is as good as "The Executioner" I will join Merril in championing it!

The early sections of "Project Hi-Psi" have a jocular tone, and our main character, Dr. Lucifer Brill, professor of Parapsychology at a university in California, son of a New England minister and descendant of Puritans, is an eccentric character.  He has eccentric clothes, eccentric facial hair, eccentric pets, etc.  This stuff isn't exactly funny, but fortunately for us readers it isn't annoying, either.  (And it is interesting to see an author leveraging what he perceives to be readers' expectations and opinions of New Englanders--we saw Robert E. Howard do this recently in his famous horror story "Pigeons from Hell.")

With the help of his fellow researchers into ESP and PK around the country, Brill has been compiling a comprehensive list of peeps in the USA who took Zener card (Riley calls them "Rhine card") tests and following up on them.  He stumbled upon an astonishing fact--over the last eight years over 3000 people who did well on the tests (suggesting they had psychic powers) have disappeared!  We learn all this in expository dialogue as Brill meets with the head of the FBI office in L.A.

The federal government does some investigating, but it is Brill who puts his own life on the line to find out the truth.  He spreads the rumor that he himself has taken a Zener card test and got a great score, and gets himself kidnapped like those 3000+ missing psykers.

Brill wakes up to find himself on an alien planet, an outpost of the space empire of the Capellans, where he and the 3000+ are subjected to long term experiments, including selective breeding experiments, by the aliens.  The set up is a little like that TV show The Prisoner, where everybody has nice little quarters in a pleasant environment but you can't escape and you have to attend classes and you get manipulated and so forth.  Brill does what investigating he can, and the fact that Brill actually doesn't have any psychic powers adds additional tension to the story--what will the aliens do when they realize he is a dud?  

Brill is paired with a woman with psychic powers, and he is manipulated into impregnating her.  (As with Ann in "The Executioner," this woman, Nina, offers her theory on what constitutes a real man and judgment of whether our main character is one.)  Brill, as a scientist, has convos with the aliens about scientific methods, which are an opportunity for Riley to discuss some criticisms of the scientific establishment.  One of Riley's themes is the way specialization retards progress, the way researchers in individual disciplines and fields will ensconce themselves in "cubicles" and fail to accept insights from other fields (when I knew scientists, well, "scientists," seeing as they were profs and students in the political science department, they would sometimes talk about getting out of their "silos" and going "interdisciplinary," and we also have the example of the guy in the novel version of A. E. van Vogt's Voyage of the Space Beagle, who synthesizes knowledge drawn from all fields of science.)  Another of Riley's themes is how the followers of innovators like Freud and Einstein, instead of innovating themselves, will stifle innovation by defending an orthodoxy based on a rigid version of their heroes' ideas.   

The aliens explain that psi powers were relatively common in Earth's medieval period, but the ideology of the industrial era stifled their development--those with psychic abilities hid them and refused to develop them, and the human race's psychic potential atrophied.  The aliens' society followed a similar path, and the small cadre of Capellans at this outpost are trying to jump start a revival of psychic powers, which they feel will open up new vistas of learning and experience.  They want Brill, whose career proves he is as passionate about psychic powers as are they, to work with them, and offer him facilities with a thousand times more potential than those Brill had back in Cali.  And there are no restrictions on what methods they can employ--as Brill sees when he learns that one of the aliens' lines of research is to subject people to radical gene editing and extreme radiation experiments that produce mutants, many with psychic powers, but almost all of whom are wretched and pathetic monsters, hideous misshapen freaks (Virgil Finlay illustrates some of these sad beings on the title page of the story.)

Will Brill work with the ruthless and amoral aliens who can give him a chance to make strides in knowledge about which he could only dream back on Earth?  His decision is complicated by the fact that among the 3000+ is a secret underground of Earthers, many of them war veterans who know how to lead, fight and sneak around, who have figured out how to disable the aliens' surveillance and security apparatus and aim to try to take over the facility--they certainly don't want to continue to be the guinea pigs of the aliens, and would perhaps prefer to die fighting.  Which side will Brill, who has skills and knowledge that would be of great value to both the alien scientists and to the human freedom fighters, join?

After some plot twists, character developments and action scenes we get our sense of wonder ending-- the course of galactic history is changed and the human race stands on the precipice of a future of infinite challenge and opportunity.

"Project Hi-Psi" is a good story with many elements familiar to van Vogt fans--the expanding mental powers that lead to a radical paradigm shift, the competing secret groups, the sense of wonder ending--but Riley's writing is more clear than Van's and he is better at depicting personalities and relationships.  I also like that Riley addresses the tension between the goals of progress and freedom.  Thumbs up for "Project Hi-Psi;" in introducing us to Riley, Merril has steered us on a profitable course. 

"Sim" by Jack Ritchie

Ritchie seems to be known not as a SF writer but a mystery writer, and while he has a decent-sized list of credits at isfdb, most of them seem to be stories that appeared in those anthologies with Alfred Hitchcock's name on them.  "Sim" is not listed at isfdb, and first appeared in Sir!, which bears the subtitle "A Magazine for Males."  At the internet archive there is a collection of what purports to be Ritchie's entire body of work, and it is there that I am reading a photocopy of the pages of Sir! that contain "Sim" as well as ads for pornographic cartoons, photos of women wrestling, a guide to how to win over women, and aphrodisiac perfume.  

"Sim" is a competent filler story that is sort of like an episode of The Twilight Zone, the obvious foreshadowing and the obvious twist ending.  The narrator visits his sister and brother-in-law after a long period of separation and meets their sons for the first time, a ten-year-old and an eight-month old.  The ten-year-old talks about flying saucers and the narrator assures him no aliens will ever invade the Earth.  The eight-month-old is some kind of super-strong genius, already able to walk with ease.  They call him "Sim," short for "Simon."  Sim loves to eat meat.        

Two years later the narrator visits again.  Sim is now like a teenager, brooding and sinister, and has weird yellow hair and yellow eyes.  The narrator takes Sim to the zoo and realizes he has some mannerisms and physical attributes much like the lions!  Sim even hints that "Sim" is in fact short for "Simba!"  Then he notices some other weird-looking leonine kids hanging around.  The narrator, now knowing too much, meets a grisly fate.

This story is merely acceptable.  Presumably Merril recommended it as part of her project of rubbing out the already blurry boundaries between genres.  


I really enjoyed the Riley stories, and the Ritchie was not painful.  So, a good start to the "R" leg of this journey through 1956.  More 1956 "R"s next time here at MPorcius Fiction Log. 

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Merril-approved 1956 SF stories: Arthur Porges and Robert Presslie

You probably remember that the MPorcius Fiction Log staff is picking stories to read from the list headed HONORABLE MENTION at the back of Judith Merril's 1957 anthology SF: The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy: Second Annual Volume.  These are stories printed in 1956 that Merril liked but which for whatever reason didn't end up among the 18 pieces actually reprinted in the book.  The list is alphabetical by author, and we today look at the two P entries, "Masterpiece" by Arthur Porges and "The Creep" by Robert Presslie.  If you wonder what A through O stories we've selected from Merril's list, click click click to your heart's content on the links below.

"Masterpiece" by Arthur Porges 

"Masterpiece" debuted in the hubba hubba men's magazine Escapade alongside pictures of topless ladies and full-page cartoons that slyly hint at bestiality, pedophilia, incest and white slavery.  (There is also a sort of Easter Egg, a little photo of Bettie Page's face.)  One of Merril's projects is to question the boundaries between genre and mainstream fiction and the distinctions between genres, and "Masterpiece" is not listed at isfdb, suggesting that few people recognized "Masterpiece" as SF, or at least SF notable enough to reprint in some anthology or collection.  Well, let's surf on over to the scan of the September 1956 issue of Escapade at the internet archive, world's greatest website, flip past the report on fall fashion, the wine quiz, the profile of a pre-Ginger Tina Louise, and the "blow-by-blow account of what goes on" at a progressive jazz recording session, and read "Masterpiece" and then take a guess as to why Merril recommended it.

"Masterpiece" is mediocre filler, but I guess, as a satire of advertising and people's greed and acquisitiveness, it appealed to Merril's leftist sensibilities.  

One of America's top ad men (he makes $80,000 a year) comes to a dive bar and talks to the the bar tender and the overweight blonde hanging around at the bar, telling them about some of his most successful publicity stunts, like painting a slogan promoting cigarettes in colossal print on the White Cliffs of Dover.  The climax of the story is that he has arranged to have an advertising slogan written on the moon, the same gag we see in Robert Heinlein's "The Man Who Sold the Moon" and in Arthur C. Clarke's "Watch This Space."  

The text of the story is overly long, adding in multiple little sub plots in which people reveal their avarice.  And then there is the fact that the ad text is so long the letters of which it would be composed would be impossible to read with the naked eye (Clarke had just eight characters reproduced on the moon in his story, and one of Heinlein's ideas was that the commies might reproduce the hammer and sickle log up there.)

Barely acceptable.

"The Creep" by Robert Presslie 

It looks like "The Creep" was serialized over two issues of Authentic Science Fiction Monthly and then never reprinted.  It is pretty long--over 60 pages--so let's hope it is good.

"The Creep" is about how the capitalists have been lying to the public in order to manipulate the stock market but a lone hero, a journalist, was willing to tell the people the truth, only to find that the common people preferred to be lied to!  These same capitalists are going to kill us all with their silly competition with the Reds, but luckily some space aliens come along to save us with the help of the journalist and a woman.  Obviously this goop is right up the alley of a pinko like Judith Merril.  

Like some kind of crappy stage play, the first half of "The Creep" takes place in a single location, a bar, and has a small cast, each member of which represents a class of people. 

World famous journalist Sam Garnet is drowning his sorrows.  Garnet was working for the TV news program owned by Grossen Electronics Industries but got fired today because he told the apocalyptic truth on his broadcast.  For one thing, he predicted a nuclear war in the next few days.  (The story never uses specific place names or political identifiers like "USSR" or "the West" or "communist," just allusions, like "our side" and "the other side.")  For another, he revealed that one of Grossen's consumer products, the Creepmeter that measures radiation, is calibrated to underreport how much the radiation of Western and Soviet weapons testing (people call this radiation "the Creep") is poisoning the environment, hiding from the people the fact that even if the impending nuclear war is averted then most people are going to die in a few days anyway from radiation sickness.  And finally, Sam exposed on air the fact that the spheres that recently appeared in Earth orbit are not new Western defense satellites, as the Grossen suits want him to say, but vessels of totally unknown, presumably extraterrestrial, origin!  A woman in the bar in fancy clothes some man bought her, Lena, expresses her anger at Sam for disabusing everybody of their illusions, of puncturing their blissful ignorance.

Presslie pads the length of his childishly tendentious story with lots of filler text about people drinking booze and smoking cigarettes and so on; I don't know, maybe he thinks that builds tension.  When the bar's roof caves in, presumably from a bomb blast as the nuclear war starts, we get detailed descriptions of everybody's physical injuries and psychological symptoms, and then we get Presslie's idea of a suspense scene, a blow-by-blow account of the lifting of a beam off the body of a fallen man that lasts an entire page; sample text below:
With the shifting of the beam his grip was now all wrong.  One arm was bent more than the other.  Max slid his left knee further forward until it pressed beneath his lowermost hand.  He sucked in an enormous gulp of air....

Sam is the truth telling member of the cognitive elite, I guess a stand in for SF readers who, of course, think they are smarter and better educated and more rational than everybody else.  The man who gets killed by the beam represents the good members of the populace, the victim of the capitalist establishment's pursuit of profit.  Lena represents the less savory aspects of the common masses (but don't worry, feminists, she'll redeem herself!)  The owner of the bar turns out to be a communist spy, and represents the USSR and the revolutionary left, and to represent the capitalist bourgeoisie we have Max, a senior financier from Grossen Electronics, come to the bar try to get Sam to go on TV again to take back his predictions that everybody who isn't already in a deep bunker has like 48 hours to live.  The pressure of being trapped in the ruined bar, which everybody is too scared to leave because its lead-lined walls are believed to be providing some protection against the Creep and the radiation from the bomb that (apparently) hit the town, leads to the bourgeois and the commie being exposed as just two sides of the same coin of selfishness and exploitative elitism (as opposed to Sam's and the space aliens' paternalistic elitism.)  Both Max and the Red barkeep want to have sex with Lena in their last hours, and fight over her, and it is we readers who suffer through Presslie's tedious description of the hand-to-hand fight that ensues.  The capitalist is the first to die, and then Sam helps Lena fight the commie, who is also killed.

The first episode of the serial thus ends with only two characters in the lead-shielded bar, Sam the journalist man and Lena, who under the influence of Sam instead of the capitalist or the Bolshevik starts to wisen up. 

The 31 pages of the second and final installment of this dreadful borefest starts with the observation that humans are like cats in that both species have a tenacious will to live.  (SF people love cats.)  Sam and Lena wake up when a space suited figure busts through the rubble blocking the entrance to the ruined bar.  The figure collapses, and behind it Sam can see that one of the alien spheres has crashed across the street, flattening those buildings--it was this alien crash, not a Soviet bomb, that hit the neighborhood, and the man in the space suit is the only alien survivor of the crash. 

It turns out that Sam and Lena are still alive because the crashed sphere is projecting a radiation-damping field that has neutralized the Creep within a radius of like 40 yards.  We get a meticulous description of how Sam figures out how to get into the alien sphere; inside he finds the rest of the crew has died.  Then he and Lena split up to search the radiation-free 80-yard diameter section of city for a medical professional who can keep the alien alive so he can explain how to extend that 80-yards to all of Earth and save the world from the pollution caused by the Cold War arms race.  I could barely believe how much detail Presslie offered us readers in his description of the brass sign in front of the doctor's office, but I wasn't surprised by the play by play account of the surgery the doctor performed on the alien, a scene of five pages.  (The doctor is a drunk who hasn't operated in years, but his contact with Sam and the alien revives him and redeems him, just like they are going to revive the entire human race!)

The alien recovers from open heart surgery in a few hours and then teaches Sam and Lena his language in thirty minutes--this is how efficient the alien language is!  Even though Sam played the role of truth-loving bleeding-heart liberal earlier and Lena was a selfish deluded dope, for a few pages in the closing pages of the story they switch roles; Sam is skeptical, even hostile, to the alien, but Lena, who reveals she was a school teacher before she decided to live off rich men by exploiting her sex appeal, insists that to earn the alien's aid they must bare their souls to E.T.  Explicitly comparing the alien to a parent and implicitly to a priest or god, she confesses the sins of the Earthman (sample sins: "greed for profit, greed for property, greed for territory, and the foulest greed of all--the desire to possess the very souls of other human beings...") to the alien, who agrees to clean the Earth of the radiation.  It is implied that Sam and the alien will teach the human race how to behave in the future.

Bad!  I am against these stories that offer goody goody aliens as foils for evil humanity, and I am against these stories that suggest the liberal West is no better than the Lenin and Stalin's Soviet Union.  Even worse, this story is very slow and very boring, and is structured poorly, with the sudden switch from "we got bombed" to "it was really an alien crash landing" and the unbelievable evolutions of Sam's and Leda's characters being pretty annoying.  Merril set a trap for us this time, and I fell right into it. 

(I probably wouldn't have fallen into this spiked pit if I had remembered that I read a story by Presslie in 2018 and said it was tedious despite being full of weird sex, violence against women and body horror.  Having a bad memory sometimes leads to suffering!)


Not a good batch of Merril-approved stories this time around, but no knowledge is wasted, and maybe by lifting up a rock and discovering these obscurities I have done a favor to all of you out there who are maintaining a list of anti-capitalist satires.