Thursday, May 30, 2024

Analog, Jan 1975: Larry Niven, Gordon R Dickson & Katherine MacLean

We just read four of Larry Niven's 1960s Known Space stories, two of them starring Beowulf Shaeffer.  Let's today read a 1975 Beowulf Shaeffer story, "The Borderland of Sol," which debuted in an issue of Ben Bova's Analog that has a great cover by John Schoenherr.  We'll read "The Borderland of Sol" in a scan of the magazine, which also includes stories by Barry Malzberg, Gordon R. Dickson, and Katherine MacLean.  Malzberg's "January 1975," an epistolary alternate universe thing that is apparently an attack on Analog's fanbase, I read in 2021 and declared weak.  The Dickson story looks like a bizarre experiment but we'll try it anyway.  Katherine MacLean I have never read before, but wikipedia has quotes from Damon Knight, Brian Aldiss and Theodore Sturgeon asserting "she has few peers," can "do the hard stuff magnificently," and employs "beautifully finished logic," so I guess I'll give her a try.

Before attacking the fiction I'll point out that I found P. Schuyler Miller's book column interesting.  He gushes about Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed, which I have not read, and also reviews Christopher Priest's The Inverted World, reacting to it much like I did, and E.C. Tubb's Zenya, which he seems to have liked more than did I.   

"The Borderland of Sol" by Larry Niven

"The Borderland of Sol" starts with lots of references to the adventures of narrator Beowulf Shaeffer that we read about in Neutron Star.  Two years have passed since he rescued and avenged that ten-foot-tall sculptor, and Beowulf feels like returning to Earth--the woman he is in love with, the woman who can't leave Earth for psychological reasons, is now the mother of two children by a friend of Beowulf's, genius scientist Charles Wu (Wu is so smart and healthy that the Earth eugenics bureaucrats who forbid albino Beowulf to breed on Terra have given Wu permission to have as many children as he can produce) and Beowulf wants to return to Earth to be a father to them.  It's a small galaxy, and Beowulf runs into Wu on a high gravity planet and the two of them decide to journey to Earth together on the heavily armed government ship that is disguised as a mundane cargo vessel; in charge of this interstellar Q-ship is a minor character from one of the earlier Beowulf Shaeffer stories, law enforcement official Ausfaller.

Ships have been disappearing in the further reaches of the Solar System, and theories as to why range from space pirates to space monsters; Ausfaller hopes to catch the mysterious menace with his camouflaged war machine.  Our three heroes get to the Solar System and are soon subjected to a mysterious force that makes their hyperdrive disappear.  Wu collects background data and reads theory as he puzzles over the question of what happened to their hyperdrive and all the lost ships (it is all linked to the question of whether we live in an expanding or a steady state universe, black holes, and the mystery of the Tunguska meteorite) while Ausfaller and Beowulf do the detective work of figuring out who is responsible for the disappearances.  Out here in the cometary region of the Solar System lives another genius scientist at his fully staffed research station.  Can this guy be the inventor or discoverer of a superweapon that is being used to destroy all those ships?  Even if he isn't responsible, it makes sense for Wu to pick his brain--maybe his fellow genius can provide clues as to what is going on and who really is to blame.

So, Beowulf and Wu pay this boffin a visit, bringing, hidden on their persons, advanced weapons and defensive equipment provided them by Ausfaller, who, for his part, stays behind, hidden aboard his warship.  The ending of "The Borderland of Sol is a little like a James Bond story, when Bond goes to visit the villain and we readers don't know if the villain recognizes 007 as a danger to him or not.  And like in a Bond story, Wu and Beowulf get captured.  Ausfaller's weapons and Beowulf's dexterity save our heroes, after the villain has fully explained his criminal enterprise as well as why he went rogue (women wouldn't have sex with him.)  The villain and his lead henchman are dramatically hoist by their own petard.  

I don't understand the science in "The Borderland of Sol"--the villain has control over a teeny tiny black hole and has been using it to cripple and rob ships and then dispose of the evidence, but the effects the black hole has on various objects seems pretty inconsistent--sometimes it makes entire ships and asteroids vanish in a flash, other times it makes a man disappear but another man in the same room is not affected.  Maybe it makes sense, and maybe I would understand it if I really put my mind to it, but life is short.  And "The Borderland of Sol" is still a decent adventure story.  

Decent enough to win the Hugo for Best Novelette!  "The Borderland of Sol" was later included in Niven collections like Tales of Known Space and a few anthologies like Jerry Pournelle's Black Holes.

"The Present State of Igneos Research" and "Ye Prentice and Ye Dragon" by Gordon R. Dickson  

This is an elaborate and silly joke.  "The Present State of Igneos Research" is a discussion of the poem that follows it, "Ye Prentice and Ye Dragon" ("igneos" is the scientific word for "dragon.")  The recently discovered manuscript of the poem, we are told, is written on medieval paper with medieval ink, but various clues indicate it was written by a modern person, and thus poem constitutes proof that dragons are real and can travel through time; the text of the poem is evidence that dragons are not the enemies of mankind but in fact have a symbiotic relationship with human beings.  

This parody of an academic paper is five pages long, and the poem (of 34 quatrains) is seven pages long, though much of those seven pages is taken up by illustrative cartoons by Jack Gaughan.  The poem is kind of annoying to read, the words being spelled in what I guess is Middle English fashion, or a joke version thereof.  The poem tells the story of a dragon who has grown obese, and can no longer fly.  A brave young man harasses the dragon, so that it runs and loses weight and can then fly; these two become friends and send each other a letter every Christmas thereafter.

A waste of time that nowadays is vulnerable to charges it platforms fatphobia and human savior narratives.  Dickson here also triggers one of my pet peeves, the story in which the traditional symbol of evil--the ogre, the vampire, or as here the dragon--is really the good guy.  MPorcius Fiction Log is anathematizing "The Present State of Igneos Research" and "Ye Prentice and Ye Dragon" but Dickson's capriccio has big league supporters; Ben Bova included this exercise in a "best of" Analog anthology and Stanley Schmidt included it in an anthology of joke stories from Analog.  

"The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl" by Katherine MacLean       

The pleasant Kelly Freas illustration for this story is making me fear it is another joke story.

Like Freas' illustration, "The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl" is pleasant but nonsensical.  In the way Ray Bradbury sometimes does, MacLean here transports into the future and into space stereotypical American people of the 19th or 20th centuries.  Our narrator is eleven and he lives a life much like that of poor rural folk in the period before space travel, but he's living it in the asteroid belt.  His family--a single mother, a bunch of kids, and a bunch of farm animals--lives in a small space station shaped like a barrel that I guess is the size of a suburban house, growing food inside the structure and trading with other such settlers of the belt as well as with a general store in a similar orbit.  As we'd expect of a single mother living in the rural South or Middle West, Mom is a dedicated Christian and she warns her kids not to get involved with gambling and with loose women.

The plot concerns how the narrator's older brother leaves to get a job in a foundry and on a visit home two weeks later brings with him a sexy dancing girl he met at a casino and whom he plans to marry.  Mom is not crazy about her son getting mixed up with a stripper, but she is quickly pacified when her son makes clear how serious he is about making his fiancĂ© an honest woman.

Besides, the dancing girl was tricked into being what we might now call a sex worker.  She has an indentured servitude contract with the men who financed her trip to the casino from Earth and, having skipped out on them, they are after her.  Thinking the house is an abandoned ruin, the stripper's employers shoot at it in order to scare the stripper.  The narrator's family uses their ingenuity to neutralize these thugs and call for help.  In the end, the narrator's older brother buys out the dancer's contract, she gets a job in an office at the foundry and they live happily ever after; our narrator resolves to get a job at the foundry himself when he is older so he can snag a sexy girl of his own.

This is a trifling story, but entertaining enough.  I find the way MacLean has lifted her characters and plot from traditional mainstream fiction a little annoying--such people and problems are a product of their time and place, and the future in the asteroid belt would produce different personalities and challenges than rural America before the space race--but MacLean's style and pacing and descriptions are good, and she does come up with some interesting technical speculations, like how people patch their orbiting homes when hit by a meteor or gunfire.  

MacLean uses a strategy here in "The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl" that we see Heinlein use--keeping secret until the end of the story some fact that, when we learn it, might change the way we view the story we have just read.  We don't learn the age or sex of "The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl" until the very end of the tale.  Themes of self sufficiency and the character of people on the frontier also remind me of Heinlein.

I can mildly recommend "The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl."  It would be reprinted in the MacLean collection The Trouble with You Earth People, the cover of which has the same Freas image as is found on the title page of "The Gambling Hell and the Sinful Girl" here in Analog, and in anthologies about the frontier beyond Earth: a 1979 one by Jerry Pournelle and a 1986 one by the team of Asimov, Greenberg and Waugh, this one directed at kids; in the intro to Young Star Travelers, Asimov tries to convince young people that their parents are overcrowding and polluting the Earth to the point that it will soon be unlivable and so "We simply need to get off Earth."  A downer, but more hopeful than the sorts of messages kids are getting today, I reckon. 


I have problems with both the Niven and MacLean stories, but they still work as adventure stories that offer speculations about what life will be like in the spacefaring future, including fun ideas about what sort of equipment and supplies people will need to survive the inevitable mishaps that will occur out there in the vacuum.  While Niven and MacLean serve up traditional meat and potatoes SF fare, Dickson's contribution is on its surface subversive and experimental but in fact fundamentally hollow and frivolous and is being categorically rejected by this finicky eater.

I'll probably read more of Niven's Known Space stories in the future, and look into more stories by MacLean, but Dickson, I don't know.

Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Larry Niven: "The Soft Weapon," "Flatlander," "The Ethics of Madness," and "Grendel"

Larry Niven's 1968 collection Neutron Star contains eight stories.  We've already read four, "Handicap," "Neutron Star," "A Relic of the Empire," and "At the Core;" let's read the other four, all of them set in the same fictional universe, Niven's "Known Space."

"The Soft Weapon" (1967)

Here we have another story about humans beings hired for a mission by one of the cowardly and manipulative puppeteers, and another story in which artifacts of the Slaver period of history, a billion and a half years ago, play a central role.  "The Soft Weapon" dramatizes the quest for knowledge and the way technology can change history and society, and, like so much SF, portrays quick thinking and trickery saving the day.  Niven also structures much of what happens in the story around how the cultures and mores of two of his alien species--the puppeteers and the perpetually bellicose and honor-obsessed cat-people, the Kzin--determines characters' behavior.

Two humans, Jason Papandreu and his wife Anne-Marie, have been hired to take a passenger, a mentally ill puppeteer, Nessus, to a meeting with a third race of aliens to collect some cargo.  The rendezvous was a success, and they are on the return trip.  Jason decides to take a little sight-seeing detour, and they are captured by a ship with a small crew of Kzin.  The Kzin seize the puppeteer's cargo--it turns out to be an assortment of supplies, equipment and personal items over a billion years old, artifacts of one of the races subordinate to the Slavers, a race of expert technologists who rose up against the Slavers.

"The Soft Weapon" is kind of long, and a lot of time is spent on Kzin efforts to figure out how the principal piece of ancient equipment operates, and Jason and Anne-Marie's efforts to manipulate the Kzin into neutralizing themselves by misusing the device; this malleable, plastic thing has like ten different forms and uses, as a communications device, as a propulsion unit, as various super weapons, and as a super computer.  The humans and the puppeteer are desperate to prevent the Kzin from bringing the device back to their people, as it might give them an insuperable military edge over the human and puppeteer polities.  Victory is secured by the good guys, in part because the puppeteer in the story is, as I mentioned, mentally ill--healthy puppeteers are cowards, but being essentially insane, Nessus demonstrates courage that takes the cat-people by surprise and gives the anti-Kzin side a chance.

Niven includes tons of cool SF stuff in this story, astronomy and airlocks and forcefields and ray weapons and spacesuits and innovative uses of propulsion systems and all that, and some horror stuff, too, as the Kzin use the humans as guinea pigs upon which to test the ancient artifact, torture them, and even plan on eating them.  But don't worry, dear reader--the good guys live to tell the tale, and the high-tech medical care that figures in so many of these Known Space stories can regenerate any limbs they may have lost, and the Kzin all suffer horribly gory comeuppances.       

Pretty good.  Wikipedia is telling me "The Soft Weapon" was adapted into an episode of the Star Trek cartoon.  The Karel Thole cover to the abridged Italian translation of Neutron Star is inspired by "The Soft Weapon" and depicts the billion-and-a-half-year-old stuff the puppeteer bought and the Kzin tried to seize.  As I have remarked before, Thole really must have read the stories he illustrated.   

"Flatlander" (1967)

"Flatlander" debuted in the issue of If that contains Harlan Ellison's famous "I Have No Mouth, And I Must Scream," which I should reread someday.  Groff Conklin included "Flatlander" in his 1968 anthology Seven Trips Through Time and Space, a book which I own--I read a Kris Neville story from it back in 2015

"Flatlander" stars the same spendthrift pilot we met in  "Neutron Star" and "At the Core," Beowulf Shaeffer.  I guess Niven has written seven or eight stories about this guy.

As this story begins, Shaeffer, our narrator, is a passenger on an Earthbound ship.  Niven portrays space travel as being mentally taxing--there are no windows for passengers because the sight of hyperspace drives people insane, so passengers habitually spend their trips between star systems cheating on their spouses and getting drunk.  Beowulf gets beaten up by the husband of the woman he is fooling around with on the trip, so he makes friends with an overweight man called Elephant and they spend their time drinking and playing cards and swapping stories.  Shaeffer was born on a planet whose first settlement was called Crashlanding City. so he and his people are known as Crashlanders.  Elephant, as an Earthman, is called a Flatlander, which he resents; he wishes he could have a space adventure which would prove that this nickname for Earthpeople shouldn't be applied to him.

Beowulf and Elephant separate when they arrive on Earth, but Beowulf finds Earth bewildering and even dangerous.  Niven portrays Earth as a sort of wild and decadent place, where people dress crazily (dying their hair and skin nonsensical colors like green and blue), picking pockets is not illegal and is in fact routinized, and many people have risky hobbies, like racing primitive ground cars on the few intact ground roads, vehicles that lack radar safety systems and automatic controls and might even crash.  Beowulf feels the need of a guide and tracks down Elephant, whom he learns is one of the richest men in human civilization, his ancestor having invented the ubiquitous teleporters people use to move on the surface of human-settled planets.

Elephant shows Beowulf around Earth, and then they go on the kind of adventure together Elephant has long wished he could.  He contacts a race of mysterious aliens, the Outsiders, who are famous for selling information, and asks to be directed to the most unusual planet they know of.  It turns out to be a small world orbiting a protostar--planet and protostar are moving at amazing speed through our galaxy, apparently having come from some other galaxy.  Niven unleashes some speculative astronomy, physics and biology on us.  In the end, Elephant's flatlander status is only confirmed--had they approached the extragalactic visitor planet they would have been killed, and Beowulf's caution, the product of his training as a space pilot and real life piloting experience, preserves them.

One of the things Niven seems to like to do is set up rules in his fictional universe (like how puppeteers are cowardly) and then show us an exception to the rule (like Nessus the insane puppeteer who attacks a Kzin in "The Soft Weapon.")  Here in "Flatlander" one of the puppeteer space hulls, which have never been breached, is disintegrated by antimatter, which is rare in our galaxy but which makes up the substance of the small planet orbiting the protostar.

Not bad.

"The Ethics of Madness" (1967)

This story takes place many years before the other stories we are reading today, before the invention of the hyperdrive that allows Beowulf Shaeffer and others to travel between the stars in months.

Doug Hooker, son of the owner of a major corporation, was born with a chemical imbalance that makes him a paranoid.  The overcrowded Earth's eugenics apparatus forbids him to have children, which ruins his marriage, but robotic medical machines monitor him every day and pump him full of drugs that balance his brain chemistry so his paranoia won't manifest itself.  Unfortunately, a mechanical malfunction in his "autodoc" interrupts his daily injections and Hooker becomes paranoid!  Following a demented logic, he decides that he must murder his only friend, Greg Loeffler, whom he hasn't seen in years.  Loeffler invented the ramscoop spaceship that made Hooker's company rich, and then left Earth on a trip of some twelve years on one of them to colonize an alien world.

Hooker steals one of the ramscoop ships and pursues his friend.  He is quickly arrested upon arriving at the colony planet twelve years later, but not before he has massacred Loeffler's family.  He gets therapy, and having been cured, leaves the colony in one of the ramscoop vessels.  Loeffler, bent on vengeance, follows in a ramscoop ship of his own.  A chase of thousands of years' duration ensues (the autodocs on the ships can keep people alive forever) with a tragic twist ending!

Niven fills this story with descriptions of the colony world's geography, architecture, and theories of ethics, Hooker's twisted thinking, medical and transport technology, and speculations on what the effect of living alone in a space ship for years--or centuries!--might be.  I like it.

"The Ethics of Madness" debuted in an issue of If adorned with multiple Gray Morrow illustrations of shapely young ladies.  It was included in a 1969 French edition of Galaxy, but otherwise seems to be confined to the many editions of Neutron Star

"Grendel" (1968)

It looks like "Grendel" was first printed here in Neutron Star; it would later reappear in Crashlander, a fix-up that collects the Beowulf Shaeffer stories.

As the story begins, Beowulf is on a space liner, depressed because the woman he wants to have children with can't leave Earth (many Earthers are psychologically unable to leave the mother world) and the Earth eugenics establishment forbids albinos like himself (about a quarter of Crashlanders are albinos) to have children.  The captain of the ship, a woman so good-looking she could have been a movie star if she hadn't been beguiled by the call of space, comes out of hyperspace so they can watch a mile-wide space monster spread its wings, a rare sight.  The sight-seeing detour in "The Soft Weapon" landed the humans in an alien trap, and this detour also spells bad news for the good guys.  Everyone on the ship is knocked unconscious by gas and when they wake up one of the passengers, a ten-foot-tall dragon-like alien artist, is gone, presumably kidnapped by pirates nobody on the ship had a chance to see. 

One of the other human passengers, Emil, and Beowulf use their knowledge of the area and of the kidnapped alien's race to figure out what planet he must have been taken to and probably which of the dozen or so space ships in the region.  Beowulf is reluctant to get directly involved, but his new friend Emil is an eager beaver who urges him to live up to his heroic first name.  (One of the cute things about these stories is how Beowulf, born far from Earth, didn't know what an elephant was and here is revealed to have never heard of he literary figure he was named after.)  Soon they are in an aircar flying for hours to get to the party of rich people on holiday whom they suspect are the kidnappers.  It's a small galaxy after all, and Beowulf, through rich guy Elephant, knows one of the rich holiday makers.

Then we get adventure stuff: a march through a monster-haunted jungle, weapons fire, chases and fist fights, people getting captured and people escaping captivity.  In "Flatlander," Beowulf's caution was contrasted with the recklessness of Elephant, and here in "Grendel" Emil is similarly humbled.  "Grendel's" action scenes hinge on the behavior of real and imagined pieces of technology--like flywheels and gyros and sonic stunners and forcefields that perform the function of a late 20th-century car's airbags--and on peoples' special attributes--one guy from a low-grav planet has long limbs, another guy from a high-grav planet has short limbs, an alien has no eyes but he does have sonar so he can detect tiny movements, etc.  One of the standard criticisms of adventure SF is that such stories are just like Earthbound 19th- and 20th-century Westerns or detective yarns, but with ray guns instead of six-guns or .45s, but Niven here really integrates hard SF elements into the action--"Grendel" is both an action-adventure story and a "real" science fiction story bubbling over with science and speculation on mankind's future on other planets.

In the end the wealthy friend who masterminded the plot is killed, the alien sculptor is OK--he goes on to immortalize in art the villains who abused him as well as the two men who saved and avenged him, Beowulf and Emil--and Beowulf figures out the identity of the inside man on the kidnapping job--of course it was the beautiful space captain.  Instead of handing her over to the authorities or somehow extrajudicially punishing her, Beowulf begins a torrid two-year sexual affair with her.    

One of the interesting, and at times alarming, things Niven does in "Grendel," as in "Flatlander" and "The Ethics of Madness," is speculate about crime in the future--why will particular individuals commit crimes, how will law-abiding individuals react to crime, and what will the larger society's attitude towards and response to crime be?  In "Flatlander" we saw that on Earth people more or less accepted the plying of their trade by pickpockets, and in "Grendel" we see a somewhat similar attitude towards kidnappers among the humans (the sculptor and his people have an older idea of justice perhaps closer to that of the average 20th-century American who doesn't have a graduate degree.)  Beowulf made friends with the person who picked his pocket in "Flatlander," and in "Grendel" is still willing to be friends with a man and the lover of a woman who turn out to be kidnappers who put the lives of multiple innocent people at risk.  Beowulf endeavors to foil the kidnappers not out of a larger sense of justice or a commitment to community but for the selfish reason that he doesn't want the kidnappers to think they put one over on him.  I personally find this disturbing, even offensive--to me it is satisfying when dangerous criminals in fiction suffer a severe punishment and I certainly think a functioning society in real life must strongly discourage pickpockets and kidnappers--but we read SF in part to experience wacky new ideas and see traditional ideas challenged, not just to have our old ideas repeated back to us, so this isn't a criticism of the story's merit, but I must admit I found the ending of "Grendel" less satisfying than the ending of "The Soft Weapon," in which the ambushers and torturers are all killed.  

(I'll also note the small footprint of official law enforcement and government in general in these stories.)

Another thing "Grendel" has in common with "The Ethics of Madness" is speculation on the psychological and sociological effects of longevity treatments--the kidnappers are like 300 years old but still quite fit, and one reason they take terrible risks and break all the rules is a desire for exciting experiences.    


All four of these stories are good solid traditional SF.  They revolve around technology and the hard sciences, speculations about different types of space craft and energy weapons and astrophysics and astronomy, but Niven also speculates about psychology and sociology in an entertaining way, and tries to give his characters (most of whom are business people instead of scientists or government employees, which is nice) compelling personalities, so the stories have something to offer people who don't know how a flywheel or a trojan point works.     

So, thumbs up for these stories and the entire Neutron Star collection.  We may be seeing Niven and Beowulf Shaeffer again soon.   

Friday, May 24, 2024

Harry Harrison: "The Finest Hunter in the World," "Down to Earth" and "Commando Raid"

Let's read three more stories from the 1983 British edition of Prime Number, a collection of stories by Harry Harrison, creator of Deathworld, The Stainless Steel Rat, Bill the Galactic Hero and those fun dinosaur and lizardwomen novels.  

"The Finest Hunter in the World" (1970)

This is a gimmicky joke story, but entertaining.  A short fat dude is, somehow, the greatest hunter on Earth.  He arrives on Venus in hopes of killing the notoriously deadly swamp-thing and becoming the greatest hunter on two worlds.  The strapping six-foot two guy in Muckcity who greets the hunter resents the inequality between them.  One of Harrison's little jokes is that Muckcity is so repulsive that the population is so small that this good-looking hunk has to be the town's hotel owner, sole journalist, mail carrier and swamp guide.  The hunk thinks he should be rich and famous and this pudgy little hunter the loser, and hopes the swamp-thing will kill the hunter so he can steal anything of value from his bags. 

The hunk and we readers soon (the story is only three pages long) learn a little something about the techniques that have made this less-than-impressive figure the finest hunter on Earth, techniques that leave both the nearest swamp-thing and the unscrupulous Muckcity hunk among the hunter's trophies.

Better than most three-page joke stories.  It feels like a magazine filler story, and is better than a lot of magazine stories, but it seems that it debuted here.  Asimov, Greenberg and Olander included "The Finest Hunter in the World" in Microcosmic Tales.   

"Down to Earth" (1963)

Here we have an Amazing cover story that would go on to be included in an issue of Urania with a typically awesome Karel Thole cover illo and a Dutch anthology with the image of a safety pin on its cover.  Harrison himself must be happy with "Down to Earth;" it appears in three Harrison collections and when Harrison was credited with editing a 1968 issue of the magazine The Most Thrilling Science Fiction Ever Told it was this story that was included in its pages.

Unfortunately, I am not happy with "Down to Earth," a pedestrian parallel worlds/alternate history twist ending story that tries to camouflage the fact that it is a parallel worlds/alternate history story in a way that is an outrageous waste of time.

The story starts out great.  It is 1971 and the first two Earthmen have landed on the moon.  One of them falls in a hidden crevice and the other, Gino, tries to rescue him--but without success.  Heartbroken, he returns alone to the orbiter piloted by the third member of the mission, Dan.

Dan and Gino return to Earth to find they are in an alternate universe in which World War II is still raging in 1971--the United States remained neutral back in the '30s and '40s and the Germans conquered Europe and they are now in the '70s making advances in both the USSR and the United States.  There is some adventure stuff as our astronauts are captured by German soldiers and then rescued by American troops.  This adventure stuff isn't exactly bad, but it is totally mundane, the sort of stuff we have already read innumerable times in our lives as people who read popular literature.  (Harrison did a much better job early in the story, on the moon and in the orbiter, portraying scenes of danger and risk and the emotional toll suffered by Gino and Dan.)

Eventually our heroes meet Albert Einstein, who explains in an absolutely unconvincing way that they are not in an alternate universe or on a different timeline like they have read about in science fiction magazines; akshually, the astronauts are in the same "objective" world they always have been but in a different "subjective" one, their perceptions altered due to the psychological stress they suffered when their comrade died and from the experience of being out of sight of their home planet while on the far side of the moon.  Harrison is wasting our time with this goofy explanation because it doesn't change one bit how the story itself operates--to get them back to the Earth you and I inhabit in which the Axis powers lost World War II, Einstein doesn't mess with the two men's psychologies or perceptions--he invents a box with a switch on it that has to be thrown at just the right moment in just the right physical location.  The twist ending is that Einstein, Dan, or some unnamed somebody, goofs, and Dan and Gino find themselves in a third version of Earth, one in which the United States is a monarchy.

Maybe this is a joke story and I am not getting the joke?  A spoof of what it appears to be?

"Down to Earth," even though it started out with stuff I love (space suits, danger on the moon, tragedy in space) is composed mainly of a bunch of stuff I almost never like, stuff that rubs me the wrong way.  I try to avoid alternate history stories because they annoy me, maybe because I'm interested in actual history, studied history as an undergrad and in a doctoral program (which I dropped out of without a degree) and read actual history books and memoirs of World War II servicemen, and so don't seek that sort of material in SF.  I've mentioned here on the blog a few times that I find Kennedy-worship annoying, and I also find the sort of FDR-worship and Einstein-worship that this story indulges in annoying.  (What's most irritating about this sort of thing is that writers take for granted that the reader is a fellow worshipper, and don't introduce Roosevelt or Kennedy into a story with the idea of arguing a persuasive case for why they are so awesome--they just assume you agree they are awesome and lazily  mention these idols to serve as a cheap source of emotional power for their stories.)  So I've got my own peculiar hang-ups that make it hard for me to enjoy this story; I'm giving it a thumbs down, but maybe if you don't have my hang-ups, or maybe if you've never read an alternate history story before, you will like this story.  

"Commando Raid" (1970)

Here we have another story that debuted in Prime Number.  "Commando Raid" went on to be included in Joe Haldeman's oft-reprinted anthology Study War No More

This is a bleeding-heart liberal twist ending story.  Or maybe again I have to ask myself if this is a spoof, a goof on bleeding-heart liberal stories, or a satire of what a conservative thinks liberals think (you know, what Harrison thinks a conservative thinks a liberal thinks....oh boy.)

In the beginning of "Commando Raid" a captain who is an expert tracker and stalker and woodsman and anti-racist is accompanied by an uneducated redneck from Alabama, a private, on a secret night  rendezvous with an informant from a jungle village who gives them the inside dope on the village the Americans are going to swoop down on tomorrow with helicopters and hovercraft.  Harrison emphasizes how awesome and brilliant the captain is and how lame and racist the Southerner is.

We go through lots of planning and prep and then finally comes the operation.  The Americans surround the village and we learn they are not there to capture it or to kill anybody, but to deliver a new well, modern toilets, and birth control to the primitive natives; the natives don't want these new fangled devices, but the Americans know what is best for them--less disease and fewer children.  The leader of the villagers attacks the captain with a sword.  The captain is an expert fighter and parries multiple blows with his megaphone, but eventually his megaphone is too wrecked to serve, so he orders the Alabaman to shoot his teargas gun at the swordsman.  Somehow the swordsman is not felled by the tear gas, and runs over to the Southerner to attack him with the sword.  The Southerner can't shoot more teargas yet because he is putting on his gas mask, so he knocks over the village elder with the butt of his teargas gun and then, when the man is down, shoots some additional gas into him.

The captain has the Alabaman arrested for harming a native and delivers a long lecture, full of talking points and lists, declaiming about how the Unites States has treated other nations badly and the entire world rightly hates the United States and the only way the human race will endure is if the United States gives all these handouts to poor foreigners and makes sure the foreigners don't have too many children and he finishes off the harangue--and Harrison finishes off his story--by expressing his elite contempt for the Alabaman.

This story (I think) is ridiculous heavy-handed agitprop, the self-righteous wish fulfillment fantasy of the sort of guy who daydreams of being a white savior to nonwhites and a persecutor of racist whites as well as a better fighter and tracker than Conan.  It sucks, but perhaps it offers insight into the thinking of center-left types like Harrison circa 1970.

Left: Are we seeing stars through the moon?
Right: Is there really a sword and sorcery scenario to be found in this anthology?


Not so good a batch this time.  Students of Harrison's entire body of work may find "Down to Earth" interesting, as, so I understand, late in his career Harrison wrote many alternate history books, and the concern about overpopulation in "Commando Raid" of course brings to mind Make Room!  Make Room!, which I haven't actually read but which everybody talks about all the time.

We'll see if we get back to Prime Number any time soon.

Thursday, May 23, 2024

Barry N. Malzberg: "The Appeal," "Another Burnt-Out Case," "I'm Going Through the Door," and "Cornell"

I'm not Malzberged out yet, so let's continue reading the 1980 collection The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady.  Stories nine through thirteen (pages 70 to 100--I'm not exactly pushing myself here) are "The Appeal," "Yahrzeit," "Another Burnt-Out Case," "I'm Going Through the Door," and "Cornell" and we will dispose of them today.

"The Appeal" (1979)

"The Appeal" first saw print in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  This is a good little story about unhealthy family relationships and selfish people who make disastrous choices and refuse to accept responsibility for the catastrophes that follow, instead blaming other people and outside forces.  The dialogue is quite good, sometimes reminding me of the fun elevated dialogue of a Jack Vance story.  Malzberg cagily leaves the story open to interpretation, allowing commies to think the story is about how capitalism and consumerism ruin people, and others to think the characters' faults are not in their stars, but in themselves, that they are the masters of their own fates and have steered themselves into dangerous waters.

"The Appeal" begins at the race track and then proceeds to a New Jersey casino--as I've told you many times in the past, Malzberg uses the horses and gambling in general as a symbol of how we try to understand the universe and control our lives by studying patterns and making calculations but it all seems random anyway and we often come to disaster.  The twenty-nine-year-old narrator loses all his money and has to beg a loan shark for more time to pay off the thousands and thousands of dollars he owes.  The loan shark has already given the narrator plenty of extensions and warns him that he has until tomorrow morning to pay up, implying that if he doesn't get his money then that the narrator will be tortured and/or killed.  The narrator is estranged from his family but as a last resort he goes to see his mother, whom he knows has lots of cash hidden in the house somewhere.  

Mom, who divorced the narrator's father and is now married to a man she is also unhappy with, refuses to give the narrator the money he needs to preserve his health and life.  The narrator blames his mother's poor mothering skills for his own criminal nature and unhealthy attitudes about money.  As the story ends we don't know exactly what is going to happen, but it certainly seems possible that the narrator is going to assault and rob, maybe murder, his own mother.

Thumbs up!     

In his afterword to "Appeal," Malzberg, whom in my last blog post I characterized as an expert on literary fiction and a man who wished he had had a big career in mainstream literary fiction, goes to bat for genre fiction, saying that genre fiction is "about something; the so-called literary short story is more often than not about nothing at all."  Malzberg is adept enough to work both sides of the street!  

"Yahrzeit" (1979)

We tackled this one in 2022 when we read Roger Elwood's Ten Tomorrows.  I liked it--in fact, I thought "Yahrzeit" was the best story in Ten Tomorrows!  High five, Barry! 

"Another Burnt-Out Case" (with Bill Pronzini) (1978)

This collaboration with the critically acclaimed mystery novelist Bill Pronzini appeared in Ted White's Fantastic.  Pronzini's name doesn't appear on the cover or the table of contents of the magazine, but on the title page of "Another Burnt-Out Case" Pronzini's name precedes Malzberg's.  Wild.

"Another Burnt-Out Case" is a joke crime story that is actually very funny and I laughed numerous times while reading it.  Again bringing to mind Jack Vance, the dialogue is very clever, and it is very much in keeping with Malzbergian themes.

"People are severely disturbed these days; they feel they have lost essential control of their lives.  Perhaps watching a little person consumed by flame along with a Human Pyromaniac will cheer them."

I recommend this one for its hilarious style and characterizations, though I have some reservations about the ending.

The narrator runs a pathetic little circus that is losing money.  Some of his employees come up with a radical insurance fraud scheme, having looked at the paperwork and realized that should one of the narrator's employees be burned alive during one of the Human Pyromaniac's performances all the survivors stand to receive a huge payout that will permit them to retire in style.  The circus freaks develop an elaborate ruse to fake the fiery death of one of their number, but there turn out to be wheels turning within wheels, as one of the characters monstrously engineers an accident meant to truly burn to death the individual whose death is meant to be faked!    

The twist ending has multiple facets, and one of these facets--the revelation of the nature of a character's insanity--is not very believable and not terribly funny, and I found it something of a letdown, though of course we have to expect insanity to rear its ugly head in most any story with Malzberg's name on it  The ten-page journey to that final eleventh page, however, is a blast.

Malzberg and Pronzini are proud of this one, justly so, and it has appeared in two different volumes of their collaborations, one printed in 2003 and the second in 2004.  Flood the zone!

"I'm Going Through the Door" (1976)

This is a sequel to 1967's "We're Coming Through the Window," Malzberg's first SF sale and a story I wasn't crazy about when I read it in 2020.  That story took the form of a letter written to Galaxy editor Fred Pohl and this sequel is similarly epistolary, a letter written to Galaxy editor Jim Baen.  "I'm Going Through the Door" is even worse than its predecessor, which was about a guy whose time machine created duplicates of himself.  In this sequel we learn that the duplicates were eliminated but that they haunt the letter writer's dreams; they bitterly assert that their destruction was somehow linked to their creator's letter to Pohl, and this has spurred the inventor's letter to Baen--none of this is very clear to me and I am not going to reread the story to puzzle it out, as it is neither fun nor funny.  Thumbs down.

"Cornell" (1972)

"Cornell" debuted in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  There are like a hundred names on the cover of this magazine, but Malzberg's is not one of them--no respect!

"Cornell" is a self-indulgent literary experiment, an effort to encapsulate metaphorically the horror of being a writer, named after Cornell Woolrich, a man Malzberg reveres as one of the greatest of American writers and whom Malzberg considers the unhappiest writer he ever knew.  

The story is two pages long here in this 1980 book and consists of ten numbered paragraphs.  These are the dreams of a dancer, dreams about death, about people watching his performances and either not noticing his mistakes or pretending to not notice his mistakes, about people saying they want his autograph but then leaving before he can sign something for him, about people lying about having seen him dance, etc.

Thumbs down.  I respect that Malzberg, an intelligent, sensitive, and well-read man, has deep feelings about Woolrich and his work, but this story fails to convey these feelings in a compelling or entertaining or even interesting way.  It is like Malzberg is making sure the very thing he laments will happen to him. 


"The Appeal" and "Another Burnt-Out Case" are quite successful stories that are true to Malzberg's themes of life, the world, and people's minds as mired in chaos, as beyond human control, but also offer the reader concrete literary and entertainment value: clever dialogue, vivid images and real human emotion embedded in a comprehensible plot that can surprise or at least engage you.  "I'm Going Through the Door" and "Cornell" are gimmicky experiments perhaps directed at a tiny professional audience that lack almost entirely the components I just listed that make fiction fun or otherwise moving for most readers.

We'll put aside The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady for a space, but you can expect more short stories next time here at MPorcius Fiction Log.

Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Barry N. Malzberg's "Writers' Heaven" series

Let's read from the 1980 Barry N. Malzberg collection The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady.  We read the first four stories in the book back in November; the fifth through eighth pieces of fiction in the  collection are all listed at isfdb as being part of a series titled "Writers' Heaven."  Three of them debuted in the late Seventies in Ed Ferman's F&SF; as Malzberg relates in the afterword to the four stories, Ferman rejected the third in the sequence and it was first printed here in The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady, where I am reading all the stories courtesy of the sorcery of the internet archive

(In 1989 Malzberg would return to the Writer's Heaven concept with a story I read years ago and in which he opines about H. P. Lovecraft, "O Thou Last and Greatest," but isfdb doesn't include that story in the Writers' Heaven series.) 

"Big Ernie, the Royal Russian and the Big Trap Door" (1978)

This one debuted in F&SF, where in his intro editor Ed Ferman warns us it is the first of three such "sketches."  There isn't much of a plot here, though I guess the dramatic tension is provided by the puzzle aspect, and the reader's assessment of Malzberg's ability to imitate other writers' styles and portray their personalities.  We might also see this story as an introduction to the whole Writers' Heaven concept.  If you aren't already familiar with the mainstream writers Malzberg is trying to simulate, the value the story--and the entire four story sequence--provides is perhaps limited.

Heaven is split into areas, musicians here, writers there, etc.  (Literary critics are in hell.)  The writers have a bar, a barracks, and a brothel.  Our unnamed narrator is hanging in the bar with "Big Ernie," whom I assume is Ernest Hemingway.  Malzberg generally doesn't give real full names in these stories, just first names or nicknames--this is the puzzle aspect.  For example, casual reference is made to "Oxford Billie," which I guess may be Shakespeare or the guy some people say was Shakespeare's ghostwriter.  In the aforementioned afterword to the Writers' Heaven series in The Man Who Loved the Midnight Lady, Malzberg implies that the narrator of these four tales is Damon Runyon.

The narrator is bitching that people still alive are imitating his style (a recursive joke, as the whole point of these little sketches is Malzberg imitating other writers' styles and depicting their personalities.)  He and Big Ernie almost have a fist fight.  Then the newly dead "Royal Russian" appears--I assume this is Vladimir Nabokov.  Nabokov contemptuously issues a gnomic utterance, making Big Ernie cry and the narrator consider moving to musician's heaven. 

"Big Ernie, the Royal Russian and the Big Trap Door" in 1981 appeared in a Swedish anthology.

"Ring, the Brass Ring, the Royal Russian and I" (1978)

Malzberg not only has this story in this issue of F&SF, but writes the book column; in his reviews of books and articles by such people as Alexei Panshin, Thomas Disch, Philip K. Dick and Christopher Priest, Malzberg talks at some length about the history of SF and SF's possible role in our lives and society.

Vladimir Nabokov is back for the second of the Writers' Heaven stories, but we have two new characters as well, Ring of the Thousand Faces and Little Red.  Malzberg offers us clues as to the identities of these drinkers at the bar and bangers at the brothel up in Heaven, and I followed them up at wikipedia with mixed success.  Ring says of Little Red, "I recognize this sinister midwestern type" and the narrator says he got a Nobel Prize, so I'm guessing Little Red is red-haired foe of religion and capitalism Sinclair Lewis of Minnesota.  Ring loves sports, wrote plays and short stories and novels, and was a friend of H. L. Mencken, which are great clues for people who know anything about sports or H. L. Mencken, which I do not.  [UPDATE 5/23/2024: One of my genius commentors has convinced me that "Ring" is Ring Lardner, a guy I never heard of.]

As for a plot, Ring is loud and obnoxious and Sinclair Lewis crumbles under his insults but Nabokov stands up to him, disarms him.  Then some guy Tom (Thomas Wolfe?) with manure on his boots comes in and antagonizes Nabokov.   

"Of Ladies' Night Out and Otherwise" (1980)

So, here's the one Ferman declined to print.  In "Of Ladies' Night Out and Otherwise," Malzberg introduces two new characters, women whose identities are easy to guess because Malzberg uses their pretty uncommon first names, Flannery and Carson.  These women argue with each other and lead the bartender to suggest that the women writers are "even worse" than the men writers.  The narrator ends the story by expressing in tragic tones the idea that writers are doomed to write, constitutionally unable to perform any other job, except for Nabokov, who could have been a zookeeper or a headwaiter.

If Ferman was going to refuse one of these stories this was the one to pick, as it is the least interesting--whereas Malzberg offers wild caricatures of Nabokov, Hemingway, and Lewis and pictures them in a way that is humiliating, he doesn't do this to O'Connor or McCullers, rendering the story bland.     

"The Annual Once-A-Year Bash and Circumstance Party" (1979)

"The Annual Once-A-Year Bash and Circumstance Party" first appeared in an issue of F&SF that included the second installment of the serialized version of Thomas M. Disch's On Wings of Song, a novel I read way back in 2014.  Amazingly, Malzberg's name is above Disch's on the cover.  "The Annual Once-A-Year Bash and Circumstance Party" would be reprinted in an Italian anthology in 1992 with a hot-chick-riding-a-space-dinosaur cover.

Of these four stories this is the best of them because it has an actual intelligible theme and some human feeling.  An annual meeting is held in which a report is read describing whether each of the assembled writer's readership has gone up or down; for most of them it has gone down.  The narrator argues that the practice of giving reports should be ended because it keeps the writers from accepting the inevitable, that they will be forgotten.

Dashiell Hammett figures in this story, and has a conversation with the narrator.  Building on the theme of the previous story--that writers suffer a perhaps painful compulsion to write--the story climaxes with Hammett saying that this place is a heaven for writers because the writers have been liberated from the desire to write, Malzberg telling us in no uncertain terms that the life of a writer is misery.

Writers, like creative people in general, are a self-pitying, self-important, woe-is-me bunch who are desperate for attention, and it is easy to roll one's eyes at the sentiments that this story expresses, but at least there is some kind of digestible sentiment in this story for the reader to latch onto.  The other attraction of this story is akin to that of its predecessors, the puzzles--who are the three Johns, John O., John S. and John M.?  Is "Virginia" Virginia Woolf, even though all the writers mentioned so far except for Shakespeare (who wasn't "on screen") have been American, and Malzberg has implied the sections of heaven are culturally distinct (the French and Russian writers' heavens have already stopped issuing reports)--maybe this isn't American writers heaven but Anglophone writers heaven.      


So there we have Barry N. Malzberg's Writer's Heaven series, four short stories that can be hard to grok if you don't already have informed opinions about critically-acclaimed 20th-Century American novelists--not the American novelists that ordinary people read in the 1970s like Sidney Sheldon and Stephen King and James Michener, but the American novelists college professors read and talk about.  Most of Malzberg's work, no matter how opaque and oblique, has some theoretical appeal to people who read science fiction, horror, or detective stories, as they depict the world of genre fiction writers and readers, criticize the role of science and technology in our society, present scenarios in which people commit crimes and/or suffer mental illness, or present outrageous jokes about sex, government or religion.  But today's stories are about writers very few people actually read and in them Malzberg doesn't really deal with the concerns ordinary people have, like problems with the spouse or wondering what the government is up to, but with writers' neurotic sense of competition with each other and agonizing need to be famous.  So who did Malzberg write these stories for?

If you pay attention to the world of comedy (another bunch of characters who think of themselves in tragic terms and will do anything for attention), you'll have heard people say that Gilbert Gottfried or Norm MacDonald or somebody like that sometimes didn't write and perform for the common audience, but for each other, for other professional comedians.  I think we have to consider that Malzberg wrote these four stories with his fellow well-educated writers in mind, perhaps writers like himself who, while working in the genre fiction realm, are very conversant with literary fiction and perhaps wish that that rarified world was the world in which they could make a living.

There is more Malzberg in our future, comrades, so stay tuned.  

Super-Science Fiction, Feb 1958: Koller Ernst, Robert Silverberg, & Robert F. Young

Back when we read 1958 stories by "E" authors recommended by Judith Merril, I was curious about Koller Ernt's "The Red Singing Sands" but I couldn't find a text anywhere.  One of my valuable commenters who owns the issue of Super-Science Fiction that printed the story read "The Red Singing Sands" and described it in the comments, and it sounded pretty interesting!  So I overcame my inveterate stinginess and ordered a copy for 15 bucks on e-bay.  I wouldn't have done so if I had known what would arrive in my mailbox the very same day as my copy of the February 1958 issue of Super-Science Fiction--a ticket from the government (such as it is) of Washington, D.C. for $200 for driving 40 in a 25 on K street.  Oy.  

Well, that's all water under the bridge; mourning my lost 200 bucks won't bring them back, but maybe reading about people being crucified, being murdered by Martians, and being forced to stay awake the rest of their lives will help us forget our loss and maybe even look on the bright side.  Yes, these wonders and more await us in four stories from the Feb '58 ish of Super-Science Fiction,  a magazine edited by W. W. Scott that endured from 1956 to 1959 and which wikipedia helpfully tells us "is not highly regarded by critics," reminding us again that life is a series of tragedies and that expecting other people to appreciate anything you do is a mistake.

"The Red, Singing Sands" by Koller Ernst

Ernst has only three credits at isfdb, but at least we can say that fully a third of Ernst's output was recommended by tastemaker Judith Merril.  "The Red, Singing Sands" is an OK little story, but we have to ask why Merril included it in her list of honorable mentions at the back of SF: The Year's Greatest Science-Fiction and Fantasy: 4th Annual Volume, because it is not really any big deal.  One possibility is that the story's main character, the hero who saves the day, is a woman. 

Another possibility is that Merril was impressed by the central role of sex in the story; one of the standard gripes of the New Wavers, of whom Merril was a leading advocate, is that SF didn't talk enough about sex or didn't take sex seriously.  "The Red, Singing Sands" is a sort of lascivious story.  Ernst refers to the female protagonist's breasts repeatedly--the wind presses against her breasts, sweat trickles between her breasts, that sort of thing--and the threat of rape hangs over her head throughout the tale.  The female lead's husband hasn't had sex with her in weeks, and so she suspects he is cheating on her with Martian women, and the fact of his celibacy is also a foreshadowing of the fact that he is an imposter, not her husband at all.

Merril might also have liked the somewhat subversive nature of parts of "The Red, Singing Sands," the way it parodies SF and questions patriotism and the space program.  If we can go back to our main interest in life--sex--one element of the twist ending of "The Red, Singing Sands" points out the absurdity of one of the outlandish ways sex is often portrayed in SF, the way people from Earth are always having sexual relationships and children with alien species.  All through the story we are encouraged to imagine Martians having sex with either the male or female lead, with or without the humans' consent, but in the last column of the story these ideas are revealed to be ridiculous--the Martians in the story do not even have sexual intercourse; like some Earth fish, the female Martian lays eggs and then the male Martian fertilizes them.  More broadly subversive of our entire society, we have the female lead's dialogue early in the story in which she expresses skepticism of patriotism and the wisdom of the very idea of exploring space, the kind of thing that might appeal to a leftist like Merril.    

The plot:  It is the late 1990s and mankind's first space ship has landed on Mars.  Back on Earth a married couple, Will and Mary, and two additional men boarded the vessel, but as the story begins the two unattached men are dead, apparently killed by a monster, and the married couple have been living living in a sort of plastic igloo separate from the ship for weeks; not only is the ship malfunctioning, but Will has (he says) captured the murderous Martian monster and sealed it inside the ship.  Every day Will puts on his space suit and goes to the ship to try to repair it, while Mary stays in the igloo.  Going outside is too dangerous for her, because the monster is hypnotic and perhaps telepathic, and the windblown sands of the ice-cold Martian desert are calling Mary's name, beckoning her.  Will tells Mary the monster is the last of its kind and it hopes to use Mary to propagate its species, and that it is a shape-shifter that has taken on the guise of Will himself.

Mary has some pretty radical thoughts which we readers suspect may be the result of Martian hypnotism, but may just be the product of the stress she is under operating on her feminine mind.  Right there on the second page of the story she blurts out that it was stupid to come to Mars, that she was a fool to believe all that patriotic guff when the government was just using her and her husband as guinea pigs.  More bizarrely, she fears Will is not going to the ship to repair it and that he is lying about the monster and that the call of the sands is just some kind of trick--maybe Will and the other two men are having the time of their lives having sex parties with Martian girls.  After all, Will hasn't had sex with her in weeks.  Eventually Mary dons her own spacesuit and sneaks out to the ship while Will is away.  The crisis of the story is when Mary has to decide which of the two Wills she encounters at the ship--the emaciated Will locked in the brig or the healthy-looking but uncharacteristically celibate Will in the space suit--is her husband and which is the monster.

Ernst offers enough clues so that the answer to the riddle doesn't feel cheap--the Martian masquerading as Will mixes up the names of the two dead men, for example--but there are some other plot elements I didn't quite get and suspect may represent superfluities or errors on the part of Ernst.  What is up with the sands that are calling Mary out of the igloo?  I guess the telepathic monster is generating these calls, but doesn't he want her to stay in the igloo?  It is hinted that the monster is using reverse psychology, that the Martian has the voices beckon Mary because they will scare her into not coming out of the igloo, but this seems overly clever and more a device of the author to trick the reader than a device of the villain to trick the heroine.  I'm also not sure why the Martian killed the other men but kept Will alive for weeks; I guess to learn from him?  If so, the scheme was an absolute failure, as reading Mary and Will's minds for weeks didn't help the Martian learn how to operate the ship nor did it provide him the knowledge that there was no way Mary could help him create a new generation of Martians.             

I'm grading "The Red, Singing Sands" acceptable.  21st-century feminists, I'm afraid, are not going to be thrilled with this story even though it centers a woman who figures out the puzzle and saves the day, because the force driving her to resolve the plot is need of her husband--the primary personality traits Ernst gives Mary are jealousy over and sexual desire for Will.  (I'm not even sure what Mary is supposed to be doing on Mars--if Ernst tells us she is some kind of scientist or engineer, I missed it.)  Will and Mary also seem to be Christians, which I doubt would endear the story to the kind of people who proctor those Birkendorf tests. 

isfdb does not list any reprintings of "The Red, Singing Sands," but, when I googled around to see if maybe "Koller Ernst" was somebody's pen name, I came upon a Fiction House Press webpage advertising a somewhat amateurish-looking anthology of stories about Mars that includes "The Red, Singing Sands" that is named after an Edmond Hamilton story I haven't read yet, "Lost Treasure of Mars."

"Prison Planet" by Robert Silverberg

Here's a story by the famous Grandmaster that appears to never have been reprinted.  "Prison Planet" is a decent little story; it actually reminds me of something you might find in Astounding, an adventure piece that dramatizes technological advance and romanticizes the engineer who solves the plot through quick thinking and trickery, and a story that speculates on genetics and political science.

By the year 2300, the human race had colonized the galaxy, having discovered many habitable planets.  One such planet was set aside as a penal colony, and for a century the galaxy-wide civilization dumped its worst criminals, a total of 158 million malefactors, onto Bardin's Fall.  By 2412 new technological developments had almost eliminated crime throughout human space, so the policy of exiling criminals there was ended and Bardin's Fall was cut off from civilization for over 400 years.  

By pure chance, in 2841, a clue fell into the laps of the authorities that suggested the people of Bardin's Fall were on the cusp of independently developing space flight.  Four centuries of peace has made the human race soft, and it is feared that the race of violent thugs that must inhabit Bardin's Fall could with ease conquer the galaxy if they were able to escape the gravity well of their world.  Decadent human civilization needs time to develop a defense infrastructure!  So, one of the few rough and tough men among the Galactics, space officer Hale Ridgely, is tasked with sneaking onto Bardin's Fall and sabotaging the space program there.

On the planet, Ridgely finds an approximately 20th-century level of technology--they have skyscrapers and internal combustion engine automobiles--and a sort of medieval political organization, with competing city-states ruled by hereditary monarchs to whom the citizens swear an oath of fealty.  Ridgely does not hide his Galactic origin; he claims to be shipwrecked and he offers to help native space programs so he can get back to his wife and kids on Earth.  (In reality he has no such family.)  He starts his campaign of sabotage, but in the twist ending realizes he, as one of the few Galactic men of action who is willing to take risks, has more in common with the people of Bardin's Fall than of mainline civilization, and decides he really will help the natives to build space ships.  After all, the people of Bardin's Fall don't seem to be the remorseless criminals or warmongers bent on conquest he expected to find, and the leaders of the two leading city states, Chago and Yawk (a joke, I guess) assure Ridgely that the goal of their space programs is to reunite peacefully with the rest of the human race.  Silverberg sets up a parallel between how the Bardin's Fallers should accept Ridgely the saboteur spy's change of heart and Galactic civilization should accept the repentance of the descendants of the criminals exiled to BF.  

Silverberg in this story seems to be be trying to thread a needle or to have his cake and eat it too, seemingly suggesting that bravery and a willingness to take risks are heritable, and separating all criminals from the human race has led the race to decadence and that interbreeding the Bardin's Fallers with the rest of the human race will reverse that decadence, but at the same time arguing that criminality is not heritable--the authorities that sent Ridgely to the former penal colony figured that the descendants of criminals would also be criminals, but Ridgely has found that Bardin's Fall is not in fact particularly crime-ridden.  Color me skeptical, but it doesn't kill the story.


"The Happy Sleepers" by Robert Silverberg (as by Calvin M. Knox)

Silverberg was famously prolific and often had two stories in a single magazine, one of them under a pen name like Calvin M. Knox, and that is the case here.  Like "Prison Planet," "The Happy Sleepers" has not been reprinted, and it is easy to see why, as the story is half-baked and doesn't make much sense.

It is the future--the late 1980s!  Mankind's first rocket to Mars blasted off just three weeks ago, and on that same day emerged the first signs that the Earth was stricken by a bizarre new plague.  Victims of the inexplicable disease cannot be woken up, and must be fed intravenously, and more victims turn up everyday, crowding the hospitals with these catatonic individuals.  Strangely, the sleepers all have smiles on their faces, and when subjected to an EEG scan the results match those of a normal healthy person who is awake!  The main characters--doctors who are treating these patients--speculate about what is going on, and what it has to do with the Mars mission.

Silverberg's resolution of the mystery is not satisfying.  The main characters start catching the disease, and the last of them to stay awake conducts a risky experiment to discover if there is anything to the theory that the sleepers' consciousnesses have been transported to another universe; he sets up an apparatus that will awake him with loud noises and flashing lights mere moments after falling asleep, before he is deeply asleep.  In this way he enters the other dimension for an instant, takes a peek, and then wakes up back on our Earth.

The main character glimpses his comrades standing over a bed in which he lies asleep, and somehow intuits that our universe and another universe are mirror images.  In this universe, everybody is going to ger the sleeping sickness, except one man--him.  In the other universe, only one man has the sleeping sickness--again, him.  Silverberg never connects Mars with the plague.  Silverberg also doesn't explain why the sleepers are smiling if they just have the ordinary lives in the other universe that they had here, nor what will happen to these people when their bodies here die from dehydration.  Why has the lead character been singled out as the only person who will not have an ordinary life in the other universe should he join every other person in succumbing to the disease?  Silverberg floats the idea that his job is to keep the sleepers alive, but obviously this is stupid--one man alone can't maintain the population of the entire Earth, especially if he can't get a good night's sleep!  Frustratingly, though the phrase "mirror image" is used, the two universes are not naturally mirror images of each other--in the other universe the main character is singular because he is the only sick person, but in this universe he is not special, being liable to fall asleep just like everybody else and only kept from falling asleep by the super dooper alarm clock that he invented.

Thumbs down!

"Time Travel Inc." by Robert F. Young

Here we have some lame filler that has never been reprinted.

It is the future--the late 1970s!  A business has discovered that human beings have the latent ability to cast their consciousnesses back in time to inhabit the bodies of individuals who share the same basic personality type, and will help you take such a trip for a fee.  Our two main characters are a successful car dealer and a successful "real estate man" who want to be sent back in time.  (People don't like car dealers and "real estate men" so we assume something bad is going to happen to them.)  They are warned that they won't be able to choose when to return to the 20th century; they have to decide ahead of time how long to spend in the past.  This is important, because if you are inhabiting the body of a guy who dies you also die.

The two businessmen want to witness the Crucifixion (Young doesn't say so, but I guess the time travel firm can also direct you to a location as well as a time) to settle a bet over whether Mary herself was present at the Crucifixion, I guess Young appealing to science fiction readers' sense that religious people are hypocrites.  Appealing to the reader's resentment of the guy who sold him his car and the guy who owns the apartment he rents, when the two businessmen reappear in ancient Judea they are in the bodies of the two thieves about to be crucified alongside Jesus and realize paying for a 24 hour trip was a mistake.

A groaner!


Four rare 1958 SF stories, two that are bad and two that are OK.  Fifteen dollars well spent?  As the characters in all these stories might tell you, exploration inevitably entails cost and risk.