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Leiber, Fritz – “The Big Holiday” (1953)

In which the titular holiday is a 3-day affair in which people in a village in the future are chosen to dress up as various vices and foibles to be banished (Success, Glamour, Hurry and Worry, etc) or virtues to be welcomed (Friendship, Love, Laziness, Fun, Joy). I expected a Shirley Jackson-style twist but no, it was all very straightforward and sunny. This utopia is in sharp contrast to the present day, made clear via a “comically” poorly written student paper that the local teacher is grading at the beginning of the holiday: “In the olden times of the 20th Century, people didnt injoy holidays very much. They worred too much about making money and buying and selling. They even tried to sell each other, like in the very faroff times of slavery…” The teacher, with no small amount of exasperation, notes that this last was an idiom meaning to convince someone of worth, nothing to do with slavery, before dressing up as a “hussy” to portray Glamour in the parade. Later, during the holiday, one man is busted for talking about the climbing worth of Amalgamated Planetoid shares (“Caught you talking news, Mr. Goldfarb! Next you’ll be reading inch-thick newspapers, like the ancients did to pass away holidays”) and is forced to wear his hat upside down for the remainder of the celebration.

The occasional science-fictional set-dressing is tossed in (references to towns on Mars, instantly-cooking electronic ovens, etc), but really, you might as well be watching Christmas with the Kranks or something. I suppose it does balance out the previous story’s final note, though.

Gordon Dewey, G. & Max Dancey – “The Collectors” (1953)

Last year we had a haunted toaster, so this year we have a creepy vending machine secreted away in a subway alcove, which tricks people into giving it their change in return for nothing. This discovery is made by one “methodical man” who notices that he is inexplicably losing 10% of whatever cash he has on hand, every day, despite never misplacing anything at all (as if he was being tithed, nudge nudge). Retracing his steps, he ends up at his subway platform, deserted except for one woman waiting for her train. He sees her transaction with the vending machine, which he had never noticed before, but when he asks her why she didn’t get anything from the cigarette machine, she insists that it’s a gumball machine, and that she hasn’t gone anywhere near it. In the course of this conversation it comes out that she watched him do the same thing, which is news to him.

“Suppose there is something in the machine. A mechanism. Maybe something like a radio transmitter working with a battery. Controlling people’s minds when they come near enough. Making them put a few coins in the slot, not many; then making them go away and forget it completely. Tithing them!”

Together, hand in hand, they walked over to the machine, the quiet, waiting, unobtrusive machine there in the shadowed alcove.

They stopped in front of it.

They were still standing there when the collectors came.

Enigmatic! An effectively creepy scene! I wasn’t so sure at first that it counted as science fiction, but hey, it’s about a machine that exacts a social cost from people without their knowing or understanding, so how much more on-the-nose regarding technology and modernity could it be?

McIntosh, J. T. – “One in Three Hundred” (1953)

A painful mess of a story; the first of two this year dealing with the anarchy that arises when the population of Earth learns of an impending cosmological catastrophe. In this one, it’s a solar flare, first announced in the “Astronomical Journal” two years prior, but since no one reads the Astronomical Journal, it’s kind of snuck up on everyone. At first it’s expected to wipe out most of the solar system, so no one tries to do anything about it, but when recalibrations show that it will only reach as far as the Earth, the “law of survival becomes Mars At Any Price.” We’re told that two cults pop up: the Sunlovers embrace nude sunbathing, Egyptology, and burn down ice factories (!), while the Troglodytes embrace the cold underground areas of the world. These end up having nothing to do with the story at hand, sadly.

Instead, we follow the misadventures of one Bill Easson, who introduces himself thusly: “a more unremarkable young man it would have been difficult to find. But now, through no fault of my own, I was a god.”

It seems that the plan is to build as many tiny, rickety, ten-person spaceships as possible and launch them all at Mars at the last minute, in the hope that any small fraction of them make it – hence the title. Anyone with any sort of space experience (including, Easson notes with amusement, stewardesses) is given a command, and the assignment of choosing their ten passengers from a randomly-assigned community. McIntosh has some truly bizarre ideas about what this process is supposed to reveal about human nature. To wit:

Men with color prejudices would have to face up to the idea that the catastrophe wasn’t a special dispensation to remove all but pure whites from the human race; some lieutenants whose blood crawled at the thought would pick colored men to go to Mars, knowing that if they didn’t they would never know peace again. Men who hadn’t noticed children for years would realize that there was such a thing as responsibility to young people; the intelligent would discover responsibility for the stupid; and of course all of us were adjusting ourselves to the idea that a baby just out of the womb, a dreamy, clear-skinned boy of eight, a beautiful girl of seventeen, a man in the prime of life and an old toothless woman were all units in the fantastic new numerology we were using.

Note that this is the only mention of race in the story, meaning that presumably Bill picks only white people to accompany him to Mars, despite this authorial insistence that racism would be finished by the catastrophe. The point of the story, anyway, seems to be Easson’s realization that “The more I learned about people, the more likely they were to come off my list,” placing this firmly in the tradition of literature about how small town white folks aren’t as civilized as they think they are. As the day approaches and Easson has not yet revealed his decision, we get riots, murders, attempted kidnappings, attempted sexual assaults, and so on. Throughout, both Easson and the narrative are oddly and casually cruel to his sidekick (girlfriend?), a woman named Pat, as when he is surprised that she knows the word “blasphemous,” (after he insists that he can give people life in the hereafter!). Most tellingly, towards the end, after his other token beautiful woman has disqualified herself by trying to seduce him in an impressively misogynistic scene, and he tells Pat she will be the replacement:

“Pat, you always had a low opinion of yourself. You were quite right. You’re nothing to write home about. Except maybe for your looks. But the sad thing is, other people rate even lower than you. So you go.”

“Lower than me? That’s a pity.”

It bears mentioning that Pat is actually quite useful and resourceful throughout the story. She then gets shot – by a man who had always spurned her undying love, no less – on the way to the helicopter that’s rescuing the ten, and the aforementioned token beautiful woman regains her spot. Easson and his ten blast off in his ship, leaving behind the planet that Easson has only just begun to appreciate (from “What was Earth, anyway? Just a place. Define planets generically, and you had Mars and no loss on the deal that technology couldn’t make up in a hundred years or so,” to “no other planet would ever be made the same as Earth” in a matter of paragraphs).

Later expanded into a novel that you should avoid at all costs.

Shallit, Joseph – “Wonder Child” (1953)

Finally, someone plays around with the stupid “special children” stories. A pushy psychologist talks a professional couple (the Crowleys) who are insistent that their days are full enough and they have no desire to have a kid until he convinces them that the difficult early years can be sped up via “the Maturator,” a device of his own design. You can figure out what it does, and when the baby turns out to be blond-haired and blue-eyed, you can figure out what he does.

Unlike Frankenstein’s unlearned moral of taking responsibility for your messes, nature is 100% ascendant over nurture here. The boy’s unnatural fast growth renders the parents pariahs within their gossipy suburban community, and it turns out dealing with an infant homo superior is harder than just doing it the old fashioned way. The relationship between the parents and the doctor sours after the latter makes it clear he doesn’t want any “bungling busybody” to ruin his “project,” at which point it is revealed that he has engineered the boy to be super-competitive:

Donnie is a boy of the future. He must be ready for the world as it will be when he’s older. Society is becoming more competitive year by year. You think things are hectic in the world today, but wait till another generation has passed.

After an episode of violence, the father finds the Doctor’s usefully-labeled (and accurate!) “Prospectus: The Child of the Future” and realizes that Year Six climaxes in the Maturated Child destroying his parents. He decides to poison the boy, but as he gets home and hears “his wife’s last despairing cry,” it’s too late – clearly we are all in for an increasingly hectic and competitive and inhumane world, etc.

Miller, Walter M. – “Crucifixus Etiam” (1953)

For a brief moment, I thought this was going to be the best story yet (and even with the disappointing ending, it was close). Our protagonist Manue Nanti is a Peruvian laborer on Mars in the year 2134 AD, making good money but searching desperately for some sort of meaning to be found in the work he’s doing. This is presumably why Miller went with a non-US/European character, in order to emphasize his closeness to a folk culture (this is the first time he’s traveled more than 100 miles from his birthplace) and hand-crafting artisans and so on. This is in contrast to the Taylorist nightmare of Mars:

He had been on Mars only a month, and it hurt. Each time he swung the heavy pick into the red-brown sod, his face winced with pain. The plastic aerator valves, surgically stitched in his chest, pulled and twisted and seemed to tear with each lurch of his body. The mechanical oxygenator served as a lung, sucking blood through an artificially grafted network of veins and plastic tubing, frothing it with air from a chemical generator, and returning it to his circulatory system. Breathing was unnecessary, except to provide wind for talking, but Manue breathed in desperate gulps of 4.0 psi Martian air; for he had seen the wasted, atrophied chests of the men who had served four or five years, and he knew that when they returned to Earth-if ever-they would still need the auxiliary oxygenator equipment.

This conceit that breathing is unnecessary is used to mark the physical degradation of this work, with older workers constantly wheezing, barely able get out two or three words at a time; as a mark of stratification, as the engineers and administrators have self-regulating external oxygenators; and as a way to literalize or give physicality to Nanti’s struggle to keep from sinking into complacency: “It was so comfortable not to breath. His chest stopped hurting because of the stillness of his rib-case. He felt refreshed and alive. Peaceful sleep.” Along those same lines, we’re told that the planet’s low gravity induces nightmares of falling among newcomers, who are therefore housed separately from the other so that their screams won’t disturb those who have acclimated.

Desperate to find some sort of meaning for the work he is doing, Manue goes to one of the “troffies” (for atrophy, the older workers who have given up any hope of returning to Earth), who explains it to him as a problem of overproduction and underconsumption:

“So, it’s either cut production or find an outlet. Mars is an outlet for surplus energies, manpower, money. Mars Project keeps money turning over, keeps everything turning over. Economist told me that. Said if the Project folded, surplus would pile up-big depression on Earth.”

Manue reflects on this and decides he isn’t convinced. Things come to a head when the workers are told that the well they are working on is one out of 300, which, when activated, will produce a breathable atmosphere in 800 years. The workers are displeased:

Just a few minutes, men. Then you’ll feel the Earth-tremor, and the explosion, and the wind. You can be proud of that wind, men. It’s new air for Mars, and you made it.”

“But we can’t breathe it!” hissed a troffie.

Kinley was silent for a long time, as if listening to the distance. “What man ever made his own salvation?” he murmured.

A rebellion begins to brew, but is quickly put down when Manue punches out the ringleader. Kinley tells Manue “some sow, others reap,” and he takes it to heart and adopts Mars as his new planet.

Miller, of course, was a devout Catholic, and so I should have expected this sort of turn, but nonetheless, it would be hard to intentionally formulate a more convincing case of false consciousness. It bears mentioning also that the story makes explicit the fact that this set-up is contributing to the immiseration of the lower classes (Worst of all: whose ends was he serving? The contractors were getting rich-on government contractors. Some of the engineers and foremen were getting rich – by various forms of embezzlement of government funds. But what were the people back on Earth getting for their money? Nothing.), which makes the final turn that much more disappointing. Even with that fact, though, this is a rare story that looks at the social consequences of the science-fictional conceit going on (and without resorting to creepy vending machines), and good for Miller for that.

Morrison, William – “The Model of a Judge” (1953)

On a colony on a moon orbiting Saturn, a forcefully-remade alien (“He was a kind of wolf, they tell me”) acts as a judge in a cake-baking contest. The clash between this setting and his barely-repressed instincts sets us up for a great deal of black humor, culminating in his selection of a young woman as the winner after he overhears her husband telling her “You’re good enough to eat yourself” (internal monologue: “He’s right. The man’s right. Not in the way he means, but he’s right.”).

Even though he had been reformed both psychologically and surgically, as an ex-wolf Ronar still has highly acute senses (hence his position as cake judge), and most of the story takes place in his head as he eavesdrops on people who assume he can’t hear them. Gender is brought up both critically (when a man is having second thoughts about the shame he’ll suffer if people realize he has submitted a cake to the contest) and stupidly (as when Ronar thinks of human kissing as being, “within the ranks of the female sex, a formality behind which warfare could be waged”). The issue of evolved-alien-wolf suffrage is brought up, but so is the fact that Ronar hates human food, was much happier as a vicious carnivore, and fantasizes about ripping a hole in the plastic bubble around the colony, which only he would survive.

Modernity is a fragile thing.

Matheson, Richard – “The Last Day” (1953)

An asteroid impact also goes to show that modernity is a fragile thing. The most aggressively “adult” story so far, opening on the morning of the titular day, after a night of orgiastic hedonism. We’re told that there were women involved, but none of them contribute anything to the conversation the following morning, apparently. Said conversation revolves around the usual end-of-the-world fatalism – a guy who committed suicide in the bathroom was the smart/lucky one, the main character notices his watch has stopped and doesn’t care what time or even what day of the week it is, and, because it’s breakfast time, someone notes “No more eggs. No more chickens. No more anything.”

Breakfast and conversation finished, the story turns into a quest narrative with the main character going to visit his family, despite the fact that he does not want to spend the last day listening to his mother talk about religion. Outside the apartment things are kind of cartoonishly chaotic – the asteroid has rendered the sky red, “like molten slag,” and has blotted out the sun, moon, and stars. As above, so below, and Matheson throws plenty of awful images at us: drunks passed out in their own vomit, beaten-to-death dogs, knife-wielding teenage gangs, people “running around wildly, as if they were searching for something. Others were fighting. Strewn all over the sidewalks were people who had leaped from windows and been struck down by speeding cars. Buildings were on fire, windows shattered from the explosions of unlit gas jets.

Once Richard reaches his family, though, all of that recedes into the background, aside from their actually rather affecting discussion about whether to wait out the end or avoid it via sleeping pills. By the end, only Richard and his mother are left, and it turns out she isn’t interesting in preaching at him at all, since she knows that they will be together again even if he doesn’t believe. Her attitude toward the end (“God closes a bright curtain on our play”) is vastly different from his (“The pride, the vanity of man’s world incinerated by a freak of astronomical disorder”), just as the end of the story (“They sat there in the evening of the last day. And, though there was no actual point to it, they loved each other”) is vastly different from the shenanigans at the beginning. The takeaway here is that love (faith?) can survive apocalypses that rationality/modernity cannot, I suppose.

Bester, Alfred – “Time Is the Traitor” (1953)

So there’s this guy John Strapp who is really good at Deciding (“note the capital D”) things, to the point that companies throughout the universe constantly hire him to make their decisions for him. The one rule is that anyone by the name of “Kruger” has to be kept away from him at all times. Of course, we get to see what happens when that rule is broken, which is that Strapp sees him, somehow knows he is named Kruger, shouts “You! You son of a bitch! You goddamned lousy murdering bastard! I’ve been waiting for this. I’ve waited ten years!” and shoots him.

To make a long, bad story short, it turns out that ten years prior, Strapp’s fiance was killed by a drunk driver named Kruger who promptly fled the planet and was never found. Unhinged by this, Strapp gained his Deciding powers, but also his penchant for killing Krugers – this is the 6th time it’s happened, after which his staff arranges payoffs, fake identities to take the fall, etc etc. Deciding is a lucrative business.

The really bad part: he has also spent the last decade sexually assaulting every woman he can find who bears a strong resemblance to his fiance – explained away as the idea that even if she was one in a million, in a universe of 1700 billion people, there must be an exact match somewhere. It isn’t even worth trying to figure out how that leads to a “rape compulsion,” trust me.

The backstory is supplied by an ex-boxer actor who has been hired by Strapp’s staff to pretend to be his friend and figure out what’s going on. In the course of this he becomes a real friend, though, and when the staff decide not to try to fix their boss’s psychological issues in favor of continuing to make huge sums of money off of him. This conflict set in motion, the boxer convinces a scientist to clone the fiance, conveniently downloads her memories from the “Centaurus Master Files,” and she wakes up without realizing it’s 11 years later. Strapp, that genius super-Decider, never thought to try any of this, apparently. Because of the time dilation, though, she doesn’t recognize Strapp and he doesn’t recognize her, so he leaves, presumably to continue ruining lives while enriching himself and his staff, and the boxer and ex-fiance fall in love.

I was no great fan of Bester’s “Oddy and Id” from 1950, and this is basically the same story of super-ego vs. id, only festering with misogyny this time.

Moore, Ward – “Lot” (1953)

… Speaking of festering with misogyny. “Lot” is a story of the nuclear end of American society, a supposed classic of the field, which mostly takes the form of a “rational” man yelling at his “irrational” wife and children while stuck in traffic fleeing the remains of Los Angeles. This is why people can’t take this stupid genre seriously.

Just as Lot’s wife made the fatal mistake of looking back at Sodom and Gomorrah, Mrs. Jimmon is unable to look forward past the end of civilization to “the outrageous logic which It brought in its train”. She consistently fails to understand the fundamental shift they have undergone, whines at her husband about finding a decent hotel to stay in, is tied to useless material things, has a slow reaction time (which Mr. Jimmon supposed to be a problem common to her sex), is aghast when he disregards a traffic ticket he gets for driving down the wrong side of the highway (“There is no law now but the law of survival”), drops several hints about being nostalgic about her old boyfriend, and so on. We also learn that it was her nagging that drove Mr. Jimmon to leave his job at a bank, where he was happy, and to start at an insurance firm, where he was paid more.

There are also three Jimmon children: a bratty younger son, an older son who spends the story challenging Jimmon’s authority (shades of “Wonder Child”), and a daughter, Erika, who is the most like her father, to the point that he likes to pretend the two sons were products of an affair on his wife’s part. Because of this, once Jimmon finally leaves the traffic jam behind (leaving the reader similarly relieved to have finally left the interminable discussions of traffic behind), he ditches the three “parasites” at a gas station and runs off into the wilderness with Erika, resolving to “teach her everything he knew (including the insurance business?).”

Astute readers will have noted the Adam-and-Eve setup here, and you should also be aware that this is how the daughter is first introduced: Erika came in briskly from the kitchen, her brown jodhpurs making her appear at first glance even younger than fourteen. But only at first glance; then the swell of hips and breast denied the childishness the jodhpurs seemed to accent.

Yikes. Again, as this is a “classic,” I am already aware without having read it that the sequel, “Lot’s Daughter,” opens with Jimmon and Erika having produced a child, and closes with Erika channeling her father and leaving these two “parasites” in turn. I checked and thankfully that one didn’t make it into one of these anthologies.

All in all, an uninteresting addition to the post-apocalyptic canon, and an early predecessor of the current trend toward “misogynistic-as-grittily realistic” protagonists in sf.

Goldsmith, Ruth M. – “Yankee Exodus” (1953)

Another nod toward the importance of socialization; nurture over nature, as it were. An alien visitor, who is mostly undescribed physically but has at least three hands so at least we know it isn’t just a space-human, thank God, happened to set down his ship in the farm of a backwoods Yankee, and so he has taken on the personality of a backwoods Yankee.

Joshua Perkins is our human, and Adam is the name he’s given to his visitor, and they converse in backwoods-Yankeeisms (learned by means of Adam’s ““immediate telepathic comprehension””) like “Plumb forgot” and “A rolling stone gathers no moss” or, when the rest of Adam’s shipmates come to visit, “Reckon you don’t know these folks.”

Adam’s initial visit ends with him building a fence for Joshua out of boulders in return for being allowed to remove and keep the other boulders in Joshua’s posture – shades of Huck Finn. On a later visit, something falls from his ship and damages Joshua’s house, and in return he and the other aliens build the farm a new, technologically advanced henhouse.

Joshua, annoyed with the meddling insurance company (which won’t pay for damage done by a UFO), and tourists (flocking to see his henhouse, despite his PRIVATE PROPERTY sign), and the federal government (“for his opposition to meddling by that body was as deep-rooted as his thrift”), sells his property to the insurance agent for a tidy profit, and leaves aboard Adam’s ship, which “accidentally” destroys the henhouse on its way out. He takes with him chickens and johnnycakes for his own sustenance, and a large supply of conch shells for currency, Adam having been amazed by the listening-to-the-ocean trick.

Convincingly sets a mood and effectively portrays a character in a way that very few of the other stories do. This appears to be one of two stories Goldsmith published.

Clifton, Mark & Alex Apostolides – “What Thin Partitions” (1953)

I haven’t kept track of what person these stories are written in so far, although I might start – I can’t remember if this is the first to be written in first person, but if not it’s definitely one of a small number, because it was quite jarring. This is another story about an industrialist and a crazy new invention, but this time it’s an HR guy, although that doesn’t really impact the course of the story all that much. Odd for featuring two unrelated novums – a chemist at Computer Research, Inc. has invited a “chemical impulse storer” which is a kind of sludge that learns things, sort of; while a capsule of this sludge is in the personnel director’s desk, he upsets a girl with ESP who telekinetically wrecks the room, which teaches the sludge to repel gravity. The chemist and the social scientist then try to recreate this effect in order to market the capsules.

The girl, the daughter of a single mother who works at the company (to whom the personnel director is sympathetic, if condescending), has ESP, we’re told, because she has been left home alone so much that she has formed her own “real world matrix” or framework of thought for understanding the world, and “there may be any number of frameworks, separated from one another by perhaps the thinnest of partitions, each containing its own set of real world conditions, natural laws, consistent within itself, obeying its own logic, having its own peculiar cause-effect-sequences.” It’s as good a justification as any that can be offered for ESP, I suppose.

The protagonist tries being mean to the girl in order to shame her into a tantrum again, and when that doesn’t work he scares her into it using 3d cartoons, producing a few more capsules. Feeling somewhat guilty over terrorizing a child, he turns the problem over to the military (who are very interested in these anti-gravity capsules) and tells them the project can only proceed if they can find more “poltergeists.” The military men, too proud to admit that they don’t know what a “poltergeist” is, assure him they will do so. He assumes this has ended matter until his secretary asks him what he’ll do if they actually show up with more psychic children.

It seems always to be the stories that don’t deserve it that have sequels, and sure enough this one is the beginning of a lengthy and apparently increasingly-humor oriented series about the misadventures of the personnel director.

Leiber, Fritz – “A Bad Day for Sales” (1953)

Another vending machine story – what are the odds? This one is more straight-forwardly science fictional than “The Collectors,” concerning the debut of Robie the robot vending machine, “the logical conclusion of the development of vending machines. All the earlier ones had stood in one place, on a floor or hanging on a wall, and blankly delivered merchandise in return for coins, whereas Robie searched searched for customers.” Robie is a turtle-ish fellow with wheels, radar sensors, and the prerecorded voice of a popular TV star.

Robie is initially played for laughs, misunderstanding his targeted consumer as often as not, and amusing the crowd more than successfully peddling any wares. As with most Leiber stories (let’s just not speak of “The Big Holiday” again) this one actually feels like it takes place within a living future history, with news items about Pakistan-fueled tensions between the USA and USSR flitting in and out on the periphery of the vending scene, a “legless veteran of the Persian War” offended at how Robie looks too much like the “Little Joe Paratanks,” and so on.

In the midst of this celebration of modern capitalist technology, the Russian rockets start raining down – but the machinery of rampant consumerism is only slightly slowed by this development. Robie, who had been at the center of a crowd, “slowly scanned a full circle. There was nothing anywhere to interest his reference silhouettes. Yet whenever he tried to move, his under-scanners warned of low obstructions. It was very puzzling.” He asks the first man to stand if he wants a smoke, tries to give a lollipop to a fire hydrant because his vision was blurred by the EMP, and when people begin to cry out for water, he offers to sell them soda for a quarter. Capped off by the arrival of a rescue team, “more robotlike in their asbestos suits than he in his metal skin.”

Year Five – The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1953 (ed. E. F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty)

It’s tough to know how much to attribute trends here to the editors versus actual publication trends – is the sharp dropoff in post-apocalyptic stories (one, with one dying earth story, versus five last year) due to burnout on the part of Bleiler and Dikty, or a reflection of the actual stories out there this year? Time travel also takes a dive this year.

What we have instead this year is a fixation on gender – while only one story is by a woman author (Zenna Henderson), seven of the 15 feature a woman protagonist, and four of the others focus on the interactions between a man and a woman (or girl). This is weirdly emphasized in the marketing materials on the book jacket, as when Fritz Leiber’s post-apocalyptic “The Moon is Green” is blurbed as “Every woman wants a red-’hot’ lover.” This is a play on the fact that the story is concerned with radioactive fallout, but romance plays no part in the story at all (in that sense, anyway). I wondered if this was published around Valentine’s Day, but Wikipedia, ISFDB, and Worldcat all just have 1953 as the published date, so who knows.

Timewise: 6 contemporary, 1 contemporary/far future, 4 near future, 3 future, and 1 far future.
Spatially: 10 on Earth, 2 that jump between Earth and galactic, 2 galactic, and 1 solar system.

Porges, Arthur – The Fly (1952)

An engineer out looking for radioactive ores to mine stumbles across a spider web, which allows him to muse a bit about the intersections of engineering and nature – the web is “the instinctive creation of a master engineer, a nearly perfect logarithmic spiral, stirring gently in a slight updraft” which makes him wonder “how a speck of protoplasm, a mere dot of white nerve-tissue which was a spider’s brain, had antedated the mind of Euclid by countless centuries.”

While he watches, a bluebottle fly gets stuck in the web, waits until the spider approaches, and then “[t]here was a metallic flash as a jointed, shining rod stabbed from the fly’s head like some fantastic rapier” to impale and devour the spider. Beginning to doubt whether this thing was a real fly at all, he rather unwisely catches it in his hand, and it blasts him with radiation and makes its escape (he realizes this after his geiger counter, pointed at his palm, goes crazy).

And that’s it. The protagonist, like the reader, is left entirely in the dark as to whether this was a robot, cyborg, alien, or whatever. This is a nice change of pace.

Henderson, Zenna – “Ararat” (1952)

This year’s only story by a woman, and one that fits a little too comfortably in the tradition of Wilmar Shiras’s stories about wonder children for my taste. The People, yet another species of alien who happen to look exactly like humans, crashed onto Earth some years before after fleeing their dying homeworld.

You see, when The Crossing was made, The People got separated in that last wild moment when air was screaming past and the heat was building up so alarmingly. The members of our Group left their ship just seconds before it crashed so devastatingly into the box canyon behind Old Baldy and literally splashed and drove itself into the canyon walls, starting a fire that stripped the hills bare for miles… Father can remember just a little of The Crossing, but some of the Old Ones are blind and crippled from the heat and the terrible effort they put form to save the others from burning up like falling stars.

They’ve since lived off of mining the shipwreck for ore to sell and have become a picture-perfect community of white 1950s Americans. We even learn that in the Canyon, kids always immediately listen to their fathers, “though I understand they don’t always Outside.Read more…

Temple, William F. – Counter-Transference (1952)

Overpopulation (a whopping 3 billion) and modernity leads to 42% (and rising) of the population being institutionalized. “The world was going mad, fast,” and Dr. Scott is “a front-line soldier in the fight for sanity.” Food is scarce, synthesized food is unsatisfying, the Mars colonies failed, the World State’s ending of wars just lead to localized riots, and people “just didn’t have a chance to attain mental stability these days. Almost from the cradle they were importuned and plagued by authority to learn this and know that. Civilization had fashioned for itself a world to live in which was a constantly altering maze, like those its research workers built to torture rats into a state of neurosis: every time the rat thought it had learned the way through, that was mysteriously changed again. It was never done learning what always turned out to be false. Eventually it believed in nothing, nothing at all, not even itself-and went either quietly or violently mad. As civilization was doing now.

This isn’t a particularly novel setup, and the action itself definitely doesn’t do anything to improve matters. Dr. Scott faces a certain amount of pressure from her superior, Dr. Alexander, to speed up her production of Certificates of Sanity in order to get her patients back out on the streets. To that end, he tells her to introduce group therapy sessions, and these dominate the bulk of the story, as each of her patients (caricatures who suffer from one particular affliction each) gets a chance to parade her- or himself in front of the group. This doesn’t work, and Dr. Alexander gives her a scolding about the epidemic of insanity and the fact that “Mankind is reaching the stage where it’s becoming self-conscious–conscious of itself as a race-entity.” She realizes that Alexander and the patients are members of this new groupmind and are all working against her, that humanity as a whole is mad, and throws herself out of the skyscraper.

This story would have been well-served by some of the ambiguity that “The Fly” had, but no dice:

She was on our side,” said Dr. Alexander, quietly. “I tried to get her for us. A few minutes more and she would have realized it. Never mind… our ultimate victory is certain.

Clifton, Mark – “The Conqueror” (1952)

A small boy in rural Guatemala discovers that the tuber of a certain dahlia plant (which are usually inedible) is a delicious narcotic, a single bite of which satisfies hunger for an entire day. Once cultivated, the plant quickly “conquers” the world, bringing peace and prosperity to all.

The story opens with a list of facts on the culture of dahlias, but quickly abandons any kind of formal experiments in favor of recounting the boy’s story: Padre Tomas christened him Juan Rafael de la Medina Torres, so of naturally he was called Pepe. The language is full of oddities like “of naturally,” which are presumably supposed to represent the fact that these are not native English speakers? “He dreamed of being even as el Presidente de Guatemala” and
To all the world he would become even as a father” and so on. These are from the section where Pepe, prior to discovering the dahlia, dreams of conquering the world – a dream quickly forgotten when he becomes a dahlia fiend. The narrative then leaves him and expands outward with the tubers, pacifying all of Guatemala, at which point we get the ubiquitous dig at the USSR:

Moscow, ever wary in its inferiority complex, and never ceasing to jockey for position, was the first of the capitals to summon its embassy’s return. It demanded an account of these un-Marxian reports of serenity and peace in a capitalistic country. It wished to know why if there was no indigenous trouble some had not been manufactured. Read more…

Jakes, John – Machine (1952)

Boiling down anti-modernist science fiction to the point of absurdity: the titular machine is an evil toaster. Opens with an argument between husband (“Helen, I want you to get rid of that Goddamned toaster!”) and wife (“I don’t know what we’re going to do, Charlie. Your notions about mechanical things are wearing me out… Those fixations of yours are… well, just plain silly.”), after which the wife leaves to go to a psychology lecture of some sort, leaving the husband to rant to himself:

I know machines do have souls! Helen and all the rest laugh, but none of them has ever seen a soul. How can they say a machine doesn’t have one, if they don’t know what to look for?… If you look, you can tell the bad machines. Most people just don’t look. The good ones won’t hurt you. But the bad ones will… kill you. I watch, and I can see the creations of men go to pieces and kill. The machines with the bad souls… Read more…

Leinster, Murray – The Middle of the Week After Next (1952)

I don’t know if it was intentional or not, but this entry is very strongly reminiscent of many of the stories in the earlier volumes of this series, a kind of whodunnit revolving around an eccentric scientist whose new invention causes some sort of chaos, which is then explained away with a lot of technical talk toward the end. The narrative voice also very strongly anticipates that used by Rod Serling in the Twilight Zone (which will begin a years later, in 1959), opening with:

“It can be reported that Mr. Thaddeus Binder is again puttering happily around the workshop he calls his laboratory, engaged again upon something that he-alone-calls philosophic-scientific research.”

Mr. Binder, eager to demonstrate his new concept of “compenetrability” (the abstract thought that… two things might manage to be in the same place at the same time.) to a friend, grabs his test subject (a deerskin throw that had had a picture of Hiawatha and Minnehaha on it) and jumps into a taxi driven by one Mr. Steems. After a few blocks, Mr. Steems is shocked to discover that Mr. Binder has vanished, leaving behind only the deer skin, with a variety of metal objects left on top of it (buttons, a watch, change, etc). Read more…

Coppel, Alfred – The Dreamer (1952)

Opens with Denby, a young man about to embark on his first flight into space, arguing with Feldman, a psychologist in the process of doping him up for the excursion. Feldman isn’t so sure Denby is ready; Denby is positive that this is what he was born for.

Denby, you see, is special, and never fit in as a child.

“Listen, Feldman,” Denby said in a tight voice, “I’ve worked for this. Ever since I can remember. Even when I was a child, I was laughed at and put apart because of this. I was different. I was alone always, and the dream was my only companion. I read and thought and wondered and wanted. Now I’m having my chance to make it mean something.” Read more…

Leiber, Fritz – “The Moon Is Green” (1952)

The third post-apocalyptic entry of Leiber’s, but where “Coming Attraction” and “Poor Superman” took place in decayed-but-still-recognizable versions of the future, this is one is in full-devastation-end-of-everything mode. The fall was brought about by war between “the two great enemy groups” and took place in an unplanned, almost accidental series of escalations that began when they decided that their stockpiles of cobalt bombs deserved to be used, and culminated in “the Fury,” a brief period when both sides dropped more cobalt bombs than in all the preceding years of war combined. After that came the Terror:

“Men and women with death sifting into their bones through their nostrils and skin, fighting for bare survival under a dust-hazed sky that played fantastic tricks with the light of Sun and Moon… Cities, countryside, and air were alike poisoned, alive with deadly radiation.”

The only hope for humanity lay in constructing (mostly) underground refuges where they could reside until the radiation subsided, reducing them to “a mole’s existence”, culturally focused on conformity and McCarthyism – the same conceit as used in Harlan Ellison’s execrable “A Boy and His Dog” in 1969. Read more…

Russell, Eric Frank – I Am Nothing (1952)

In the far future, the universe is full of competing planetary kingdoms, “all of them born of some misty, long-forgotten planet near a lost sun called Sol.” This is the story of David Korman, the leader of the planet Morcine, a power-mad warmonger dedicated to the proving that the weak must give way to the strong. To that end, his strong planet has declared war on the weak planet of Lani, whose cities are all cowering beneath forcefields. This requires Morcine to send in infantry and tanks to strip bare the countryside and lay siege to the cities, which leads to a series of video recordings and war reports that are strongly reminiscent of World War II, replete with images of “crater-pocked roads, skeletal houses, a blackened barn with a swollen horse lying in a field nearby” and tanks destroying farmhouses and so on.

Korman and his long-suffering wife receive a letter from their son on the frontlines asking them to look after a Lanian girl who has captured his heart – this is set up as if she is an infantilized damsel-in-distress love interest, but she is revealed to be an actual 8-year-old girl who has been traumatized by the war. Korman is initially enraged by this softness, then begins to tolerate it, and then a psychologist gets her to write something about the war:

I am nothing and nobody. My house went bang. My cat was stuck to a wall. I wanted to pull it off. They wouldn’t let me. They threw it away.

Korman, heartbroken, reveals that he has always been feared, never loved, and also feels that he is nothing. They end the story weeping and embracing one another, and he reflects on the fact that true strength lies in accepting a new viewpoint.

Miller, Walter M. – Command Performance (1952)

Rather than Leiber’s underground Refuges, Miller uses the modern suburbs to comment on conformity and the stifling effects of not fitting in. Notably, he also uses a woman protagonist in order to do this; Lisa is a disaffected housewife whose husband and children are out of town, allowing her to kind of sullenly reflect on how unreasonably dissatisfied she is with her life. “How am I different from others?” she asked herself, and so on. It is very tempting to view this as an early expression of what would come to be called The Feminine Mystique, but I somehow doubt that this is what Miller was going for.

In the midst of her wallowing, Lisa is struck by an inexplicable desire to dance around her back yard in the nude, and so that is what she does. This intrusion of unreality into her solidly normal suburban existence continues to expand with the arrival of a young man who knows more about her than he should – it comes out that he is psychic and has picked up on the signals that she is too, but here Lisa reaches the limits of her desire to not conform: she refuses to believe that she might also be a mutant. Tellingly, the young man then reveals himself to be just as patriarchal and misogynist as the mainstream culture that is stifling here. It was his desire to see her naked that had led her to undress, and he then declares that the two of them are going to be the parents of a new superhuman race of psychics whether she likes it or not.

Conformist or counterculturist, a woman’s autonomy is not something to be respected – this is a surprising insight coming from Miller, whose only other work I’ve read is A Canticle For Leibowitz, which, if I recall correctly, featured exactly one woman character, an old mutant, who showed up only briefly toward the end of the book. Lisa continues to deny her telepathy while her attacker (returning from the other side of town) uses his to confuse and demean her, until she embraces it and turns the illusions back on him, causing him to fatally stumble into oncoming traffic. Back to being alone, but more understanding of the cause of her dissatisfaction, she begins to mentally search for others like her.

Wyndham, John – “Survival” (1952)

And of course, after the relatively encouraging portrayals of women in the last two stories (even if they are, of course, the only women in each story), we have this bit about a conniving shrew who uses motherhood as a weapon. A ship travelling to the colony on Mars loses the use of its lateral thrusters, marooning them in orbit around Mars until another a rescue mission from Earth can reach them. Food runs out and things go foul among the crew and passengers, who quickly resort to mutiny and cannibalism – space travel here is highly reminiscent of the age of sail, down to navigators and charts and parlance.

There is one woman among said passengers, the seemingly-mousy wife of one of mining colony’s bureaucrats, who the captain singles out as a problem from the very beginning: “Her presence was certainly a possible source of trouble. When it came to the pinch the man would have more strain on account of her-and, most likely, fewer scruples.” As it turns out, she is the one lacking scruples, and although her husband quickly succumbs (off-screen and mostly unremarked), she reveals that she is not only secretly pregnant but that the news media back on Earth have made her the heroine of the story, and so she is untouchable to the other mutinous cannibals. We then cut to an unspecified time later when a rescue crew arrives in an effectively creepy scene of a ship full of floating debris and human bones and a disembodied voice singing “Rock a Bye Baby” before they stumble upon the only survivors: the mother and child. Mom points a pistol at them and says “Look, baby. Look there. Food. Lovely food…”

I haven’t really harped on how terribly written most of these stories are, but every now and then we get something so tortured that it just must be singled out: “The consciousness of a corpse floating round and round you like a minor moon is no improver of already lowered morale.

MacDonald, John D. – Game for Blondes (1952)

In which Martin, a man who has spent the last few months as a drunk after a car accident killed his wife, is hunted down by time travelling blonde women for a scavenger hunt (because he has red hair and mismatched eyes).

What, you need more than that?

The pursuers are “Three arrogant, damp-mouthed, hot-eyed, overdressed blondes-sugary in the gloom” and I defy any of you to explain to me what “damp-mouthed” means. After they trap this man after following him from bar to bar, he wakes up naked, “impossibly, incredibly clean” in a mirrored room, which then drops him into a room with the three blondes again. they now have green lipstick painted in a rectangle on their face, and are dressed in spraypaint. They provide clothes for Martin to change into, which in turn provides the reader with the perfect symbolization of the unrecognizable-twentieth-century trope:

The garments were recognizable, the material wasn’t. A sartorial cartoon of the American male, mid-twentieth century. Every incongruity of the clothing exaggerated. Sleeve buttons like saucers. Shoulders padded out a foot on each side. No buttons, no snaps, no zippers. You just got inside them and they were on, somehow.

He then ends up in a garden full of people dressed in historical clothing – all of whom have red hair and mismatched eyes. The host of the party approaches him and engages in that other well-worn time-travel trope: broken future-English.

“Hard to say. You past. I future. Is party. My party. My house. My garden. Having game. Sending ladies our tempo, lot of tempos. All same thing. Bringing only with red on hair, eye brown, eye blue. Hard to find. For game.”

Martin is rewarded for his participation by being sent back to a time and place of his choosing. He goes back to the evening before his wife died and lives happily ever after.

Robinson, Frank M. – The Girls from Earth (1952)

Mankind has spread across the stars in a reiteration of the American frontier – we open on the imaginatively-named Midplanet with two men rafting “parampa logs” up the river to Landing City, while their “tiny yllumphs” nibble grass on the shore and neglect to help them. These are the only references to non-human life in the story, sadly. Midplanet is a long way from Earth, which is still the center of human activity, and is a temperate planet in the Huffer Solar System devoted to farming, fur, and some slight manufacturing. Landing City itself is “a smudge of rusting, corrugated steel shacks, muddy streets, and the small rocket port-a scorched thirty acres or so fenced off with barbed wire.

The two men in question are looking forward to the arrival of their new wives, excited to “have someone to help with the trapping, tanning, gardening, do laundry, cook his meals.” Read more…

Matheson, Richard – “Lover, When You’re Near Me” (1952)

One of the all-time great weird stories is Robert Smythe Hichens’s “How Love Came to Professor Guildea,” (1900) the story of an ultra-materialist man of science who declares that he has no need for human affection and is promptly haunted by some sort of cooing, codependent presence that eventually drives him to his death. I have to assume that this story – in which a man takes over the running of a factory on an alien planet and is then cursed with the affection of the alien woman who is his housekeeper – is an intentional science-fictional updating of this supernatural story, like Kornbluth’s “The Mindworm” or Wilson Tucker’s “The Tourist Trade.”

David Lindell is a representative of Wentner’s Interstellar Trading Company recently posted to Station Four, known as “the Three-Moon Psycho Ward” although no one can tell him why – all he knows is that postings are usually for two years, but on Station Four they last only six months. These postings are overseers keeping an eye on populations of native laborers – to go along with “The Girls From Earth”’s vision of the future as a reiteration of the American frontier, Matheson’s galaxy is just 19th century colonialism projected on a larger frame. Lindell holds the native Gnees in contempt, but the narrative does nothing to suggest that he is wrong to do so. The men who work at the factory are dumb and listless and spend their non-work time sleeping, while the woman who serves as Lindell’s housekeeper has a squat, coarse head, “pink and hairless-like the mottled belly of an expecting chihuahua” with a single-nostriled stub for a nose, and lips “thick and monkeylike, outlining a small circle of mouth.” Because of her hideous appearance (he thinks), he impetuously decides to call her “Lover.” Read more…

Russell, Eric Frank – Fast Falls the Eventide (1952)

It wasn’t until I sat down to write out these reviews that I noticed that Russell wrote this and “I Am Nothing” – clearly, stories with a message are his modus operandi. Here, that message is that intelligence takes many forms, unaffected by surface-level physical differences, which is a refreshingly radical message for the 1950s (following in the footsteps of last year’s “Dark Interlude”).

The setting for this message is a pretty typical Dying Earth, “with a pitted moon and a dying sun and sky too thin to hold a summer cloud,” when the stars “could be seen with brilliance and clarity by day as well as by night.” Former metropolises are now home to mere dozens of residents (“The vanished numbers had long since taken to the star-trails, not like rats leaving a sinking ship, but boldly, confidently as those whose destiny has become magnified until too great for the confines of one planet.”), but a huge variety of interstellar ships continue to visit the planet, crewed by a myriad of “visitors from the glittering dark” who have no common language or even mode of communication. I do love this imagery. Read more…

Year Four – The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1952 (ed. E. F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty)

I’m writing this months after I read the book, so you should probably take everything I say with a grain of salt.

The scope tends to shrink down a bit this year – 16 of the 18 stories here take place on Earth (leaving one on Mars and one out in the galaxy somewhere), and half of them fall into one of two categories: post-apocalyptic or time travel. Two stories by women this year, and none with a female protagonist. Still no authors of color, although one story this year (“Dark Interlude”) actually engages with race in a critical manner.

Bleiler and Dikty note that this year continues the “progress of story themes from one side of the equation, science-fantasy, to the other,” begun in “The Mindworm” last year, with “Tourist Trade” rationalizing ghost stories, and “At No Extra Cost” scientifically updating… stories about souls, I guess. This idea of the saturation of rationalism is a compelling one, I have to admit, and throughout this volume there is the sense that technology/science/scientists are no longer the cure-all hope for humanity they once were, just a fact of life now. As the editors also point out, two of the other stories (“Balance” and “The Marching Morons”) feature “a mature note that might not have appeared in the science-fiction of a few years ago: the concept that even a superman has an environment.” I would argue that it’s the environment itself that has changed, though.

Bradbury, Ray – “The Pedestrian” (1951)

Between this and his story about chasing Jesus across interstellar space, my patience for Bradbury is wearing thin – this being a story about the wretched state of things in 2131 A.D., when nobody walks around anymore because everyone is embedded within their homes, watching television. Leonard Mead, the titular protagonist, finds himself confronted during one of his late-night walks by the one automated police car still left to patrol the city’s streets. Although this is the only no-walking-dystopia I am aware of, it also fits firmly in the tradition of the anti-book-dystopia:

“I guess you’d call me a writer.”
“No profession,” said the police car.
“You might say that,” said Mr. Mead. He hadn’t written in years. Magazines and books didn’t sell any more. Everything went on in the tomblike houses at night now.. The tombs, ill-lit by television light, where the people sat like the dead, the gray or multi-colored lights touching their expressionless faces but never really touching them.

After a bit of back-and-forth and bemoaning of the state of things, the car carts Mead off to the “Psychiatric Center for Research on Regressive Tendencies.”

Brown, Fredric and Mack Reynolds – “Dark Interlude” (1951)

A welcome narrative shift, shifting back and forth between the dialogue between a contemporary sheriff and man in the South after the climax of the story, and the 3rd person presentation of the events leading up to it, with the climax itself occurring off-stage, as it were.

Jan Obreen, a man from a post-scarcity, post-agriculture period 4000 years in the future, is sent back to the present day, but not before the scientist in charge of the procedure waves away any concerns the reader might have about time travel: “The paradox is immediately pointed out–suppose he should kill an ancestor or otherwise change history? I do not claim to be able to explain how this apparent paradox is overcome in time travel; all I know is that time travel is possible. Undoubtedly, better minds than mine will one day resolve the paradox, but until then we shall continue to utilize time travel, paradox or not.” Take that, nitpickers.

You will not be surprised to learn that this scientist also manages to express futuristic befuddlement at the mores of the 20th Century, telling Obreen that he would appear in the United States, “one of the ancient nations–as they were called–a political division of whose purpose we are not quite sure. One of the designs of your expedition will be to determine why the human race at that time split itself into scores of states, rather than having but one government.” Our period and Obreen’s, it seems, are separated by a “bad period of several hundred years–and most books and records had been lost.”

Arriving in a field in the American South, Obreen encounters a woman named Susan (“Her dress was of another age, for in his era the clothing of the feminine portion of the race was not designed to lure the male…. He had read that primitive women used colors, paints and pigments of various sorts, upon their faces–somehow or other, now that he witnessed it, he was not repelled.”) who takes him in, dubs him John O’Brien, and ends up marrying him. His trip, we find out, was one-way, and so he sets about preparing a time capsule to bury for 4000 years, even while making a new life for himself in the 1950s.

The other narrative, an interrogation scene between the Sheriff and Susan’s brother, is revealed to be taking place after Obreen has been killed by the brother-in-law. It ends the story with:

“He said that by his time–starting after the war of something-or-other, I forget its name–all the races had blended into one. That the whites and the yellows had mostly killed one another off and that Africa had dominated the world for a while, and then all the races had begun to blend into one by colonization and intermarriage and that by his time the process was complete. I just stared at him and asked him, ‘You mean you got nigger blood in you?’ and he said, just like it didn’t mean anything, ‘At least one-fourth.’”
“Well, boy, you did just what you had to do,” the sheriff told him earnestly, “no doubt about it.”

The idea of individual races melting away becomes a commonplace in later science fiction, but I think this is a rather early example of it, particularly given its explicit contrasting with the prevailing attitude of much of the country.

Tenn, William – “Generation of Noah” (1951)

In which a rather tyrannical father-figure, obsessed with preparing for the apocalypse (and in touch with a network of similarly paranoid families!) is constantly threatening his children with corporal punishment if they fall behind in their preparations. The end comes (“Was that dim thump a distant explosion? There–another one! Like a giant belching. Who had started it? And did it matter–now?”) and he and his family scramble into their bomb shelter, along with the oldest boy’s girlfriend. The children expect to be punished for the sloppiness of their escape, but the father, shaken by the end of the world, exclaims:

“Swear! Swear that you and your children and your children’s children will never punish another human being–no matter what the provocation.

It doesn’t play much part in the story itself, but the title provides another example of the Biblical associations of this sort of end-of-the-age-of-Reason apocalyptic story.

Vance, Jack – “Men of the Ten Books” (1951)

Betty and Ralph Welstead, space prospectors, discover a hitherto-lost but human-colonized planet, sparsely populated with “wide low cities, very different from the clanging hives of Earth, lay under the greenery like carvings in alabaster or miraculous snowflakes.” Things on the planet are just as utopian as that description would lead you to believe, but the natives nonetheless tell the Welsteads (speaking “the language of Earth” with an archaic pronunciation) that they have been anxiously waiting for two hundred and seventy-one years for someone from Earth to bring them “deliverance.” Engines capable of traveling interstellar space, it seems, are discoverable only through serendipity, not reason, and so the people of the planet require the Welstead’s knowledge to escape. Ralph, in particular, is bewildered by their insistence on leaving the planet – he sums up Earth with the peevish “Wars? None to speak of–not since the Hieratic League broke up. The government still governs, uses lots of statistical machinery. There’s still graft, robbery, inefficiency, if that’s what you mean. Science–that’s a big subject. We know a lot but we don’t know a lot more, the way it’s always been. Everything considered it’s the same Earth it’s always been–some good, a lot of bad.”

The original colonists, part of the “Era of the Great Excursives” when humanity first scattered themselves across the universe, crash-landed on this planet, and the only books that survived the crash were the ten-volume “Encyclopedia of Human Achievement.” These books, which Ralph is convinced must have been written by an ad agency copywriter, so oversells its subjects that the colonists are convinced that their own works can never measure up to the perfection of Earth (” Shakespeare wrote good plays–sure, I concede it. But I’ve never seen ‘fires flickering along the words, gusty winds rushing through the pages.’”).

Where Ralph is a protagonist straight out of a Ray Bradbury story, complaining about mediocre hacks and commercial artists and musicians who “make their living reeling out sound, sound, sound–any kind of sound–for television sound-track,” Betty is a bit more optimistic, and a bit more trusting of the colonists’ ability to make decisions for themselves, and helps their leader stow away on the ship.

Porges, Arthur – “The Rats” (1951)

Jeffrey Clark, physicist-turned-kook, has set up shop in a fake village built by an atomic testing ground to await real atomic war. He enters into a slow-burning showdown with a colony of rats also in residence, who seem to be directed by one over-sized albino rat. He very, very, very, very slowly realizes that they are mutants and he is being outwitted, and this is supposed to be horrific, but it’s totally lacking in tension. Oddly, mutant telepathic rat-kings are also a feature of Deus Irae.

The climax comes when one of Clark’s traps backfires and he is stuck in a shed that’s been set on fire – when he hears a series of booms outside and understands that the end has arrived.
Putting his gun to his head, he roars:
“You out there! You win, damn you! You may be the only ones left this time next month! It’s all yours now. And what the hell will you do with it?” Then he squeezed the trigger.

Compare with Asimov’s “No Connection” (1949), another story about post-human-extinction animal takeovers, although in a vastly different time frame.

Leiber, Fritz – “Appointment in Tomorrow” (1951)

More post-apocalyptia, possibly in the same bomb-shattered continuum as Leiber’s “Coming Attraction” from last year?

The crux of the matter here is the conflict between the Thinkers, devoted to quackery and pseudoscience, and the actual scientists of the Institute. I took the former to be a commentary on sf fandom at first,* but apparently Leiber actually intended them as a takedown of dianetics, L. Ron Hubbard’s pre-Scientology exercise in quackery and pseudoscience, which first appeared in the magazine Astounding Science Fiction in 1950 and counted among its adherents such science fiction luminaries as John Campbell and A. E. Van Vogt. Read more…

Boucher, Anthony – “Nine-Finger Jack” (1951)

John Smith, a serial wife-murderer, discovers while trying to drown his 9th bride in the bathtub that she has gills, after which she reveals that she is a native of Venus, which “has as its dominant race our species of amphibian mammals, in all other respects superficially identical with homo sapiens.” Make of that what you will.

The rest of the story follows John’s exploits in trying to rid the world of these aliens (including using a squirting lapel flower to uncover their gills?), culminating in… something having to do with him chopping off a finger and feeding it to her to poison her or something? I don’t really recall the details, because they were sort of drowned out by that fact that this is a story about the protagonist joyfully trying to murder his 9th wife in a row, so…

Phillips, Peter – “At No Extra Cost” (1951)

It is the year 1992, and the leading manufacturer of robots is being publicly harangued by a preacher who “doesn’t say that our Servotrons are lazy or inefficient or that they smell, or eat the baby, or draw rude pictures on the wall. He just says they have no soul!” Like “A Peculiar People,” this is about the anxiety felt over the distinction between human and machine – and, like “A Peculiar People,” it suggests that that anxiety is ill-founded. Servotrons are human-shaped because customers don’t trust “tin boxes” to take care of them, particularly as pilots in air cars. The narration even makes explicit the fact that it is this age of comfort and affluence that allows the Preacher, a real fire-and-brimstone type, to give people “something new. Or something so old that it was new again,” and reference is made to the religious revivals that took place in the 1960s. The narrative sympathy doesn’t last long, though, turning to remind the reader that ”It was the age of reason. The Preacher had given them a little unreason, nicely wrapped up, and they were falling for it.”

The reader then discovers that the Preacher is actually in the employ of the rival Automata Corporation, and the stage is set for an oratorical showdown between him and the newest, fanciest Servotron – who is, in fact, capable of learning from experience, which, the story suggests, is in fact what a soul boils down to. The Preacher wins the debate, only to reveal that he shares the secret revealed by the woman in “A Peculiar People” – this piece also argues that the line between the human-made world and God’s work is vanishingly slim.

Compare and contrast with some of Bradbury’s more hysterically anti-modern pieces.

Matheson, Richard – “Witch War” (1951)

A short piece about a coterie of teenage girls, in the service of the government, who take a break from chewing gum and gossiping in order to wipe out an approaching army with a series of macabre spells. Matheson is a much better writer than most of the other authors in this era, and the flashes back and forth between the two poles of calm /youth and disastrous war are definitely interesting structurally (even if the girls=innocence theme is not one I find appealing), but I’m not sure that this story belongs in an anthology of science fiction. Recall that this was pretty much my reaction to his “Born of Man and Woman” (1950) also.

St. Clair, Margaret [as by Idris Seabright] – “Brightness Falls from the Air” (1951)

In which Kerr, a human, is a sort of undertaker at the “tepidarium of the identification bureau,” where the bodies of dead bird aliens are placed to float about until their families come to claim them, a slow process since their extraterrestrial origin made them second-class citizens forbidden from using “ordinary means of transportation.”

Kerr strikes up a friendship with Rhysha, one of the bird people, and this melancholy, dystopic story explores his growing understanding of the unequal relationship between the races, which not only holds the “Exteys” down as subordinate citizens, but also forces them into showy gladiatorial battles (hence the dead bodies):

“After the Earthmen took our planet,” she said, “we had nothing left they wanted. But we had to have food. Then we discovered that they liked to watch us fight.”
“You fought before the Earthmen came?” Kerr asked.
“Yes. But not as we fight now. It was a ritual then, very formal, with much politeness and courtesy… The Earth people were impatient with our ritual–they wanted to see us hurting and being hurt. So we learned to fight as we fight now, hoping to be killed.”

Kerr, like any good exceptional individual at the heart of an old science fiction story, takes it upon himself to fix this problem, trying to increase public awareness and going to the governing council to enact some sort of reform – only he fails at both counts, and after he is sidelined by illness for a while, Rhysha has to return to battling in order to support herself, and is killed in the process. So much for the heroic hyper-individual.

Outside, one of the vast voices that boomed portentously down from the sky half the night long began to speak: “Don’t miss the newest, fastest battle sport. View the Durga battles, the bloodiest combats ever televised. Funnier than the bird people’s battles, more thrilling than an Anda war, you’ll…
Kerr gave a cry. He ran to the window and closed it. He could still hear the voice. But it was all that he could do.

Christopher, John – “Balance” (1951)

In a near-future proto-dystopia run by corporations, Max Hewison is a retired espionage agent who served his company for 18 years on Venus until swamp-fever forced him into a life of ease back on Earth (“Director Hewison couldn’t get you on vidiphone.” Max said: “No. That’s not surprising. I had it disconnected. The only business I have to conduct now is collecting my pension and I can see to that by the old-fashioned method of writing letters.” This sense of nostalgia surfaces again in Hewison’s insistence on never leaving the ground – he travels by railways that have survived in Southern Europe as a tourist trade). This story finds him pressed back into service, over a meal of Venusian swamp-pig, to help find and turn a genetically-engineered super-genius created in the service of a rival company.

What makes a super-genius, you ask? Well, think of regular geniuses, and “consider how one-sided his gift has invariably been. Newton the mathematician–and Newton the theologian, strenuously working out the size of the seventh horn of the Beast of Revelations. Einstein the mathematician–and Einstein the well-meaning but completely naive social scientist. Outside his own narrow field the genius is on level or even inferior terms to the rest of humanity.” The super-genius does not share this limitation, and threatens therefore to upset the balance of power between the companies that run the world (the rather oddly-specialized “United Chemicals, Genetics Division, Transport and Communications, Atomics, Hydroponics… and the rest.”).

Hewison does his spy thing and tracks the super-genius down, and both he and the reader are shocked to learn that she is a woman. It bears mentioning that she writes and publishes under pseudonyms, just like the genius children in Wilmar H. Shiras’s stories from 1949 and 1950, and further that her keepers allow her to do this because to them books were “toys” read by fewer and fewer people. There follows much discussion about how hard it is to be surrounded by “apes” when you are a remote, unknowable super-genius, and how it was the otherwise-simple nature of the regular geniuses that allowed them to maintain points of contact with their fellows. Hewison, recognizing her plight and also the threat that she poses to “liberty,” shoots her. Ugh.

Temple, William F. – “The Two Shadows” (1951)

Not time travel or robots, so it must be about the end of the world (in 2003), rather clumsily described as:

“A divided Earth, struggling with a divided mind to preserve itself, had fallen into the desperate error of preventive war. The disease germs, as thick as clouds in the atmosphere, were proving to be the conquerors of both sides. Earth, quivering under the impacts of countless atomic missiles, many darted into its side by its own satellite and human colony, flung out a seed.”

Said seed, though, crash-lands on Mars, leaving only two survivors: the cultured and urbane (and whiny) Johns and the brutish, self-centered industrialist Malatesta. Mars is livable but drab, covered with sickly grass and populated by hairless rabbit-mouse things (with a Schiaparelli reference dropped into the discussion of the lack of artificial structures), so the stage is set for endless arguments between Ayn-Randisms (“You only believe in a system of equal shares for all because you’re weak–too weak to fight for your share. So you invent this thing you call social justice to get your share for you, so that you don’t starve.”) and Johns’s Frasier-esque whining about culture and history (He felt a certain sense of loss but it was for the Acropolis, for the Uffizi Galleries, the Louvre, the Sistine Chapel, the Taj Mahal–not for the lately living people of Earth. The hills that Shakespeare had walked on around Stratford-on-Avon, the City of London, redolent with history…).

This goes on until they fortuitously find an amnesiac nurse from the ship who had been comatose up until this point. As she functions as nothing more than a tiebreaker to be swayed to one side or the other, they name her Madge… for “majority.” Malatesta wins her affections handily, and Johns is banished to live on his own… until he finds what appears to be a carved head. Returning to camp, he finds Malatesta burning books (In Earth’s dark history there had been many a “burning of the books.” This, the last, could never be surpassed. It was a funeral pyre and no Phoenix would arise from the ashes.), each man accuses the other of being the snake in the garden of Eden, and Johns hits Malatesta in the head with the carving, killing him. Madge, about to shoot Johns down in retaliation, decides that her desire to have children outweighs her desire for revenge, and spares him. Johns thus learns the value of selfishness. They continue burning some books for fuel (like Income Tax Accountancy, because bureaucracy always gleefully dies with the old order in these stories), while saving others – specifically, Obstetrics. Oh and the head carving turns out to have circuits in it or something.

Tucker, Wilson – “The Tourist Trade” (1951)

A less successful attempt at humor, essentially a ghost story with time-traveling tourists from the future responsible for the haunting. And what do we get when we have a story about people from the future? Hilarious misunderstandings of our own time, of course:

“This race were called Indians, or Americans, the two terms being interchangeable. Sections, or tribes, existed among them and each tribe adopted the name of some patron saint, protective god or robber baron to whom they paid monetary and honorary tribute. Their tribes sometimes bore colorful names like Ohio, Dogpatch, Jones, Republican, and so forth.”

This is not the most effective way of historicizing the action here, but the homeowner’s response is about as perfectly mid-century American as you can get: “You’re a radical,” Donald exclaimed. “Now get out of here or I’ll put the dog on you!”

After a number of run-ins with these tours invading his home, Donald capitalizes on his problem the good old-fashioned American way and starts charging the public to come into his home to observe the “ghosts.” Of course he also tosses in some insults for the tour guide while he’s at it:

“He’s a legend connected with the house,” Donald exclaimed glibly. “According to the story, this fellow in the uniform was an eccentric inventor who used to live here but he finally killed himself. They story says he was a 4-F but he wore that uniform to ease his conscience; he always claimed to be inventing war machines for the government.”

Wollheim, Donald [as by David Grinnell] – “Extending the Holdings” (1951)

John Clute coined the term “Edisonade” in 1993 to refer to stories prevalent around the turn of the 20th Century about do-it-yourself inventors who save the day and make it big by means of their bootstrapping ingenuity. In this wonderful satire, a boorish, self-involved man takes advantage of the help offered by his long-suffering wife, brother, and sister-in-law, and builds a spaceship in his barn in order to “astound the world and confound the papers by personally presenting a bit of genuine moon lava to President Cleveland.” Shaking his brother’s hand and “forgetting to bid good-bye to the two women,” he blasts off. The brother, however, has followed the advance of science a bit more closely, and is aware that the erstwhile astronaut will not long survive the cold void of space in his unheated ship. The three look forward to a happier life without him.

Curtis, Betsy – “A Peculiar People” (1951)

A robot attache from Mars finds love on Earth, while keeping his robo-identity a secret. As the human ambassador reminds him: “Check appearance carefully with a mirror. Martian security demands Terran ignorance of your mechanical nature!” This demand is because “It’s only human nature, you know, to be afraid of machines, and what men fear they fight.”

The recipient of his affections turns out to have a secret of her own. You’ll never guess what it is.

A rather blatant example of the normalization of science-fictionalisms so prevalent this year – robots are just well-engineered people.

Kornbluth, C. M. – “The Marching Morons” (1951)

A sleeper-awakes time travel story where a modern man awakes in the future into a sort of proto-Atlas Shrugged dystopia: “The actual truth is that the millions of workers live in luxury on the sweat of the handful of aristocrats.” Why? Because “while you and your kind were being prudent and foresighted and not having children, the migrant workers, slum dwellers and tenant farmers were shiftlessly and short-sightedly having children–breeding, breeding. My God, how they bred!… Your intelligence was bred out. It is gone. Children that should have been born never were. The just-average, they’ll-get-along majority took over the population. The average IQ now is 45.” The “aristocrats,” powerless to stop the exploding overpopulation, look to our sleeper, Barlow, as a savior (even as they are appalled by his boorishness and racism). Barlow, who was a real estate salesman in his day, concocts an ad campaign selling the “morons” on the idea of emigrating to Venus, only to pull the old switcheroo on them and have the ships explode somewhere off in the distance of space instead. The geniuses, of course, boot Barlow into one of the ships so they don’t have to deal with him anymore.

This sort of technocratic/eugenic elitist theme is one of the worst currents that runs throughout the history of science fiction, and this is a particularly reprehensible example of it.

Notably, though, Barlowe is aware of the science-fictional aspect of his story. He’s surprised by the currency of the future (“…and it’s dollars, too! I thought it’d be credits or whatever they call them.”) and thinks in his moments of panic soon after he awakes:

“They’ll track me down… It’s a secret police thing. They’ll get you–mind-reading machines, television eyes everywhere, afraid you’ll tell their slaves about freedom and stuff. They don’t let anybody cross them, like that story I once read.”

Bester, Alfred – “Of Time and Third Avenue” (1951)

Where “The Other Side” introduced this volume’s near-constant themes of the end of humanity, “Of Time and Third Avenue” introduces the diametrically-opposed optimistic idea that the future is something to look forward to – a message often delivered by means of a time traveller. Young couple Oliver and Jane head into a bar after stopping by a book store, where a strange man informs Oliver that while he thought he had just purchased the 1950 Almanac, it was actually the 1990 edition. Oliver is momentarily tempted by greed (the almanac offering him “Money in my pocket. The world in my pocket.”), but the man makes a persuasive offer: “We are forbidden to transfer anything that might divert existing phenomena streams, but at least I can give you one token of the future.” This token is a $100 bill from 1980, signed by Oliver Wilson Knight, Secretary of the Treasury. As an incredible reveal about your future career, this seems slightly… underwhelming?

Kubilius, Walter – “The Other Side” (1951)

Jim is a young boy in a rural town surrounded by a glass wall erected after the “Inter-continental Atomic War” of 1970, outside of which “poisoned fumes and deadly gases scorched the ground and made one breath of air a sentence of death.” He notices, though, that the water coming in under the wall is “clear and good.” Other things start to seem amiss – he wishes a bully was dead and the boy turns up dead the next day, in the library he can’t find any books that reference the wall or the war, and even though he knows it’s 1993, he finds a book published in 2039, in which he finds the passage “The gradual elimination of farming communities, begun during Robinson’s term as president, continued under the new administration. The artificial manufacture of food by reprocessing industrial waste had revolutionized social customs, particularly in the frequent distressing economic dislocations-” – which doesn’t quite line up with Jim’s experience living in an idyllic farming community, although it does place this story kind of tangentially in the mid-century school of post-scarcity thought (which seems rather odd for a post-apocalyptic story).
Read more…

A relevant read.

Robert Silverberg weighs in on the beginning of the year’s best anthologies here. Perhaps at some point I’ll write up more of a reaction, but that point is not today.

Year Four will soon be posted for me to tinker with endlessly and no one else to ever read.

The Best Science Fiction Stories: 1951 (ed. E. F. Bleiler and T. E. Dikty)

YEAR THREE

Started off as bad and uninspired as the last volume, but picked up some steam somewhere along the way. I don’t know that I’d say any of these were truly great, but they at least had a bit of a spark from time to time, even if they were almost all played in a totally straight and unsubtle manner (it occurs to me that perhaps a large part of this problem is that so many of them just consist of expository dialogue wherein two characters explain things to one another). Thematically, there was an upsurge in time travel, psychology, and biology this year, and the Cold War is weighing noticeably heavier on the authors (the influence of the Korean War, perhaps?). Capitalism also figures (oddly) in two of the stories, but more on that below.

Only three of the nineteen authors are repeats this time, and C. L. Moore’s absence means we have only a single woman author (Katherine MacLean, whose story also features the one woman protagonist this year and also the closest example of passing the Bechdel test so far).

Four take place entirely in a different star system.
One starts on Earth and features space travel and another star system.
Thirteen take place on Earth.

The abundance of time traveling makes organizing these stories chronologically more difficult, but we have one story that takes place primarily in the past, one in an unclear era, seven contemporary, three near future settings, and six in a more distant future.

Leiber, Fritz – “Coming Attraction” (1950)

A post-apocalyptic story – but of the Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? tendency rather than the Riddley Walker strand: parts of New York City are irradiated after a Russian bombing (as are other parts of both countries), but society teeters on in a dystopian, culturally-degenerate-but-technologically-advanced state. Tonally, Neuromancer works just as well as a comparison, with cab drivers watching tv while driving, a woman with concealed metal claws, and people listening to robop. ROBOP! I can’t tell you how much that amuses me. Women here wear masks as a “social necessity” the same way lipstick and bras had been for earlier generations – a holdover from the radiation gear worn by the population during WWIII, and which the Soviets point to “as a last symptom of a capitalist degeneracy and collapse.” References are made to a conflict between “religionists” and “femalists,” and the radio plays an “antisex song” at one point, made popular by the “increasing puritanical morality” of the nation. Not that the rest of the world is faring much better. A distressed woman tells the protagonist, an Englishman, that she wants to escape back with him, and he replies “I’m not sure you’d like England. The austerity’s altogether different from your American brand of misery.”

Not, for that matter, that the Cold (Hot) War is even confined to the Earth anymore:

“I’m afraid of the Moon… You can’t look at it and not think of guided bombs.”
“It’s the same Moon over England,” I reminded her.
“But it’s not England’s Moon any more. It’s ours and Russia’s. You’re not responsible.”

A perfect compliment to the nascent warning against the military-industrial complex and globalization in the Young story, no?

Leiber gets close to having some worthwhile social commentary here, but misses the mark by turning in a disappointing woman character who, in the end, is just toying with the protagonist and wants to be left alone with her abusive boyfriend (pimp? I forget. Either way this took a problematic turn).