Star Dim.. (May 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction, second part; 4-07-1959)

How scary is a truly dark night sky?

In Asimov’s Nightfall, a certain planet’s orbital situation ensures that there is always a sun overhead.  On the rare occasion that all of the nearby stars align on the opposite side of the planet, the planet’s population is consumed with hysteria.  I suppose it’s a justifiable extrapolation of the impressive and cowing effect on our ancestors caused by eclipses of the sun.

In A. Bertram Chandler’s The Man Who could not Stop (which I will discuss at length further on in the article), there are inhabited planets at the edge of the galaxy.  When the lens of the galaxy aligns with a rim planet’s sun, the result is a near-featureless dark sky marred only by a few far-away solitary stars and nebulae.  As Chandler describes it, the effect is unsettling in the extreme, and most natives move away to planets comfortably surrounded with stars.

I suppose it’s Chandler’s world, and he can do what he wants, but would a truly empty sky be that disconcerting?  Even today, on Earth, there are plenty of locales where cloud cover renders the stars invisible.  In downtown Tokyo or New York, the lights of the city drown out any puny stellar competition.  I should think that the spectacle of the full lens of the galaxy, visible at least half of the year, would more than make up for a half-year of darkness. 

What do you think?

As you can probably guess, I have finished this month’s Fantasy & Science Fiction, and I’ve got a report for you.  I can honestly say that the magazine ended on a rising trend, quality-wise.

The lovely Rosel George Brown is back with the light-hearted Lost in Translation.  It’s a silly tale of time travel featuring a drippy but lovely fan of the classics (the Greek classics, that is), but the whole thing is really just a set-up for a bad pun at the end.  I like Brown’s writing–I’m just waiting for one of her stories to really wow me.

Avram Davidson’s The Montavarde Camera is a moody piece (does he write any other kind?) about an antique camera whose pictures spell doom for their subject.  Well-written (does he ever write poorly?), but rather a second-rate premise.

I enjoyed (with reservations) Jack London’s tale of present-day adventure told in past-tense, The Angry Mammoth, in which a hunter recounts his adventures tracking down and killing the last of the hairy elephant cousins.  Not for the animal-lover.  Of course, it is a reprint, the original story having been published in 1901 (and it reads like it).

But the real jewel of this issue is the aforementioned The Man Who could not Stop.  It is a little reminiscent of those stories where people who could not fit into the regimented roles meted out by society (a la Asimov’s Profession) become its masters.  In Chandler’s story, the protagonist (name of Clavering) is a hardened criminal fleeing justice.  He runs from Earth to the galaxy’s rim, from where extradition is impossible.  Once there, however, he quickly runs afoul of the law.  The first time is intentional–he wants to be incarcerated to locate a fence so as to offload a haul of stolen jewelry.  The second time is unintentional, but criminal habits are hard to break (and the rim planets make recidivism all but inevitable).  The third time is intentional–our anti-hero is told that criminals are deported third time ’round. 

Except it turns out that deportation is a one-way trip into the abyss; Clavering ends up press-ganged into the crew of a starship heading out deep into inter-galactic space.  So we learn that this is standard operating procedure on the rim worlds: attract the incorrigible and shanghai them.

I liked it a lot, and I understand there may be more tales of the rim worlds on the way.  I’m looking forward to it.

That’s that for today.  I’ve largely finished this month’s Galaxy (which is excellent, by the way), but I understand that NASA plans to announce the Mercury astronauts on April 9, so I’m sure that event will feature prominently in my next article.

Thanks for reading!

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Diverting fare (May 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction; 4-03-1959)

There are months when The Magazine of Fantasy AND Science Fiction is filled with sublime stuff.  Then there are months when F&SF is just mildly diverting.  This is looking to be one of those months.  Things could be worse, of course.

Editor Robert Mills opens things up by asking if we’d like longer short stories (novelets), which apparently are in a bumper crop this year.  Robert, if you’re reading, I think that’s a fine idea.  I like a good 20 pages to feel the start, middle, and end of a story.  Shorter pieces tend to rely on gimmick endings or be mood pieces.  Not that those don’t have their place, but everybody has her or his preferences, and that one is mine.

What do y’all think?

First out of the gate is J.T. McIntosh’s Tenth Time Around, which takes place in a nearish future where travel back in time is possible, but expensive, and only into your younger self.  Our protagonist uses his multiple lives trying to successfully woo a lost love.  The result is not unpredictable, but McIntosh writes a fine yarn.

I much liked Asimov’s non-fiction column in this issue, detailing the fiendish difficulty involved in both escaping Earth’s gravity and ensuring subsequent capture by the moon.  It is a subject of which I never had a real intuitive grasp, despite having followed all of the Pioneer and Mechta shots avidly (I’ve even published a few non-fiction articles on the subject, myself).

Satirist Ron Goulart’s Ralph Wollstonecraft Hedge: A Memoir is a genuinely humorous account of a fictitious writer from the tarnished side of pulp’s Golden Age.  I caught the Lovecraft references, having read virtually everything H.P. ever published, but I’m afraid I’ve missed the other jokes.  Perhaps someone can help me with this one.

Then there’s The One that Got Away by Chad Oliver, who writes both science fiction and westerns.  He combines the two to good effect here.  Well, I’m not sure it actually takes place in “the west,” but the setting is a bucolic valley and involves by turns pyromania, a rustic lodge, good fishing, and aliens.  Fun and fluffy.

Finally, for today, is Robert Graves’ The Shout, which Robert Mills found good enough to reprint, the story having first appeared in the magazine seven years ago (before I was a regular reader).  Or perhaps F&SF is simply hard up for material.  Or Mr. Graves is hard up for cash.  Somehow I doubt the latter, the great classicist having penned such eternal works as I, Claudius

In any event, Shout is a moody piece, told in a lunatic asylum, one inmate to another, involving a soul-shattering scream taught the narrator by Australian aboriginals.  I found the tale a little too disjointed to be entirely comprehensible, but I did enjoy the idea that all of the souls of the world are actually small stones on a sandy hill between a town and beach in southern England. 

I mean, they have to be somewhere, don’t they?

So there you go.  Nothing stand-out, nothing offensive.  Pleasant fire-side or shady tree fare.  In two or three days, Part II (unless some space spectacular compels me to issue a stop-press…)

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Too close to home? (I Married a Monster from Outer Space; 3-31-1959)

Remember how I went to the flicks to see a double feature of science-fiction horror the other day?  The follow-up to The Blob was I Married a Monster from Outer Space.  You would think that, with a title like that, this was the B-movie stinker of the bunch.

As it turns out, while definitely having a comparatively low budget, in some ways, it is a more chilling and thoughtful film.

In the small town of Morrisville (or Morristown or Morrisburg… something like that), getting hitched is a chore, tantamount to a death sentence.  At least, it is to hear the guys tell it.  Every night, the fellas go to the local boozery to drown their sorrows and commiserate. 

Except for Bill.  He’s getting married the next day, and he wants to see his lovely bride-to-be. 

But then…

An ugly space alien smothers Bill in a cloud, and when next we see him, Bill is a changed man.  Faltering, more brutal, his fiancee, Marge, marries him anyway.  One year later, an abortive letter from Marge to her mother indicates that she’s aware of the change in Bill.  Not only is he remote, but animals instinctively dislike him (in one chilling scene, Bill snaps the neck of a dog Marge had given him as an anniversary present).  At this point in the film, we’re still not sure if Bill has been possessed, if the alien has taken his form, or if Bill is still in there, just a bit altered.

One by one, the men in town are taken.  Bill’s friends.  The local law enforcement. 

Bills friend, Sam, adapts to human life with the most gusto, marrying his fiancee, being smarmily sadistic, and otherwise enjoying all of the pleasures existence on Earth has to offer.  Except booze.  The aliens can’t stomach the stuff.

Or, apparently, oxygen.  When alien-Sam falls off a rowboat at a park outing, he succumbs when the local doctor gives him pure oxygen to revive him.

Now, through all of this, Marge is the viewpoint character, and this is where the movie is really poignant.  She catches on pretty quickly that something is wrong with Bill, and she has a run-in with an undisguised alien fairly early-on.  The problem is that no one will believe her.  No matter where she turns, whether to the lushes in the bar or her good friend, the chief of police, she is told not to worry her pretty little head.  When she tries to phone the FBI, all the lines are down.  When she tries to wire the capital, the telegrapher surreptitiously tears up the telegram.  In a man’s world, when all the men are aliens, who is there for a woman to run to?

Well, I’d sort of hoped that Marge might team up with the other women of the town.  After all, the aliens only go after men.  Sadly, this never happens, in part because Marge can’t get any of the lady-folk to believe her either.

In a very good scene, Marge confronts Alien-Bill, telling him she knows he’s an alien.  Alien-Bill does not deny it.  In fact, Alien-Bill explains the plot: his race fled from a dying world, but all of the females were killed in the flight.  They need to inhabit human bodies to mate with human females to make more aliens.  Except alien-inhabited people are incapable of mating with human females.  Thus, they are trying to genetically modify the females of Morristown/burg/ville to be compatible with the alien males.

What makes this scene so interesting is Alien-Bill’s confession that although his motives are selfish, and before he inhabited Bill’s body, he had no emotions, Alien-Bill has come to understand and appreciate human feelings.  He does not regret his actions, exactly, but he has fallen in love with Marge, and he does not seem to be enjoying is current role.  The acting is good enough that Alien-Bill becomes a sympathetic character (despite being rather a bastard).

Ultimately, Marge convinces the town doctor of the truth, and he rounds up a few of the unaffected men to break the alien spaceship.  The aliens have ray guns, but the humans have dogs…  dogs apparently beat aliens with ray guns.

Once inside the ship, the men discover that all of the possessed males are actually still alive, their bodies in some kind of stasis.  They disconnect the apparatus, whereupon the aliens turn into applesauce and die.  Happy ending.

Taken as a commentary on the plight of the modern woman, this movie really packs a wallop.  How many women have felt trapped and helpless in a marriage with a man who turned out to be a jerk?  How often have women’s reports of abuse been ignored with a dismissive chuckle?  The aliens aren’t really so alien, are they?

P.S. Fair warning: Work has been a bear, and my hands can only take so much.  I don’t want to go to a every-three-days schedule because I have too much to say.  Just be aware it may not always be every other day.  Thanks for your understanding and your patronage!

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Earthbound Satellite (April 1959 Satellite; 3-29-1959)

by Ray Pioch

And now for something a bit different.

Back in ’56, famed pulp editor, Leo Margulies, launched Satellite, a bi-monthly science fiction digest with the gimmick that it contained a full-length short novel as well as a few short stories.  I always had a soft spot for that mag.  One of my favorite novels was Planet for Plunder by Hal Clement and Sam Merwin; it came out in the February ’57 ish, and I read it on the beach during one of trips to Kaua’i.  It’s an excellent tale of first contact mostly from a truly alien viewpoint.  Highly recommended.

Late last year, Satellite went out on hiatus.  Then, at the beginning of this year, Satellite returned with Cylvia Kleiman at the editorial helm.  The magazine sported a full-sized format, presumably to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the slicks.  No longer featuring novels, it dubbed itself “The Best in Science Fiction.”

Who could resist a pitch like that?  So the other day, I picked up this month’s (May) and last month’s (April) issues.  What did I find inside?

I suppose one could argue that some of the writers are among science fiction’s best, but these are definitely their second-rate stories.  This is not the Satellite I used to know and love.  Let’s have a look, shall we?

The lead story is by the reliable J.T. McIntosh; The Solomon Plan is easily the best fictional piece in the magazine.  In Plan, a terran spy tries to succeed where all of his predecessors have failed before: solving the mystery of the backward planet of Bynald.  Where the other planets of the 26th century terran federation enjoy a correspondingly advanced quality of life, the hyper-patriotic Bynald seems to be stuck in the 20th century.  Moreover, their population is unaccountably low given the length of time it has been settled. 

by Leo Morey

McIntosh creates a nice group of characters, including a couple of reasonably developed females.  The solution to the mystery is rather implausible, and the ending rather pat, but the story does not fail to entertain.  I would have been more impressed had Plan not been a reprint–originally appearing in the February 1956 New Worlds Science Fiction.

A regular feature of Satellite is a biographical piece on one of the antediluvian forefathers of science fiction.  In this case, it is a somewhat hagiographic piece by Sam Moskowitz on the justifiably famous A. Merritt.  I’m a sucker for history, so it was worth picking up this ish for the piece. 

The rest of the magazine is mediocre at best.  Fritz Leiber’s Psychosis from Space was, reportedly, an old story that he thought so little of that he forgot of its existence until Satellite asked him for a contribution.  An astronaut goes out on humanity’s first faster than light mission and returns able only to stumble about aimlessly and babble meaninglessly.  Turns out his brain is running backwards.  There is also some intrigue surrounding the astronaut’s doctor and his attempts to coerce information about the trip from his patient.  At least the (female) nurse character is competent and resourceful.

by Leo Morey

The duel of the insecure man, by newcomer Tom Purdom, is rather strange.  In the far future (1988), it has become popular to engage in duels of cutting questions, the goal being to lay bare the soul of one’s opponent and leave them a humiliated wreck.  I am given to understand that this story was heavily hacked in editorial, so I won’t dignify the resulting kluge with further verbiage.

I did enjoy Ellery Lanier’s rather star-eyed account of the American Rocket Society meeting.  In particular, I was excited to see his report on the Mouse in Able project.  For those who don’t know, prior to the Air Force’s Pioneer missions, the Thor-Able rocket was used in suborbital shots to test re-entry nose cones.  Since scientists abhor unused space as much as nature does, a mouse was included as part of the payload.

What makes this story particularly interesting is that the project was the brainchild of one of the very few woman scientists working in the space program: Laurel ‘Frankie’ Van der Wal, an amazon of a lady both in stature and fiery spirit.  At some point, I’ll give you all the inside story on that project; it is both enlightening and humorous.

Algis Budrys’ The Last Legend is fair but not up to his usual standard.  It’s a traditional gotcha story of an older generation of science fiction: an astronaut makes humanity’s first trip to another star, the journey having been previously unsurvivable by living things.  After returning as a hero, it turns out that he’s just a robot.

Robert Wicks’ Patient 926, in which all children are inoculated against imagination, and Henry Slesar’s Job Offer (“Dig this!  The post-nuclear mutant is a normal human!”) are both unremarkable in the extreme.

In sum, Satellite is definitely bargain-bin science fiction, though it is not without its charms.  I have trouble seeing it surviving much longer, especially out on the news stands next to Life and Time.

Next up, the other half of the double-feature that included The Blob!

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Kaboom! (Project Argus; 3-26-1959)

This is what happens when you let scientists play with toys.

Apparently, last summer, the Air Force detonated three atomic bombs high above the South Atlantic… just to see what would happen!

That’s actually a little too glib.  Dr. N.C. Cristofilos, of the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, has always wanted to trace the lines of magnetic force that girdle the Earth.  After Sputnik launched in October 1957, he has been hung up on the idea of using satellites to measure the path of charged particles along those lines.  But Dr. Cristofilos was not content to collect data of the natural environment for, as he confided to me, “The creation of artificial effects under controlled conditions is more interesting, as the initial conditions are known and therefore physical quantities can be measured under completely diferent conditions from those which the natural phenomena allow.”

Which, translated into layman’s speech, means, “We need to detonate three atomic bombs high above the South Atlantic and see what happens!”

The Air Force love their toys, too, and the whole project went from concept to completion in about half a year.  They apparently wanted to get the experiment done lest some pesky nuclear test ban treaty come into being unexpectedly (they needn’t have worried). 

In fact, I think the Air Force moved a bit too quickly for a project designed for purely scientific research.  I have heard rumors (without detailing the source for fear of leaking classified information) that the real project aim was to see if, by detonating nukes high in the atmosphere, they might create an artificial barrier against enemy missiles, or at least light them up in flight for easier interception.

I can’t tell you if that’s the case (I doubt it), but we do have a host of scientific data available.  You see, Explorer IV was launched last summer specifically to observe the effects of Project Argus (as the tests were called).  Of course, they didn’t tell the press last July.  I’m frankly amazed that we’re being told the truth at all.  Perhaps the whole thing was about to leak, and the government wanted to control the release.

So what did Explorer IV see?  The Argus blasts created their own auroral light along the magnetic lines nearest the bursts.  Electrons charged by the blasts flew along these lines to an apogee of some 4000 miles.  Essentially, the satellite was able to see Earth’s magnetic field glow in the dark.  The Argus tests also enabled scientists to venture a guess as to the lifespan of a charged electron, though I haven’t head anything definitive yet.

Of course, three tests in one section of the upper atmosphere hardly makes for a definitive data set.  We clearly need more airbursts!  I bet the Air Force is studying plans for several such tests over the Soviet Union, seeing how that nation covers such a large swath of territory that must be just loaded with magnetic lines of force.  I bet we could even get the Russians to pay us for the service–if we did it at night time, we’d be providing lighting for those remote Siberians who lack access to electricity.  Oh, we’re such humanitarians!  We should put Edvard Teller, that philanthropist, in charge of the project after he’s done using atomic bombs to blast canals (Project Plowshare).

And if your coffee tastes funny, I hear strontium-90 is good for your bones.  Why else would they absorb it preferentially over boring ol’ calcium?

Oh dear.  My cynicism is showing again, isn’t it?

Back to fiction in two days.  Satellite’s got a snazzy new slick-sized format.  But are the stories as impressive?  Stay tuned!

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Space Opera Redux! (The Alien, Galaxy Novel No. 6; 3-24-1959)

Sorry for the long delay, folks!  It’s not for lack of things to talk about, that’s for sure.

As you know, I am an avid fan of Galaxy (formerly Galaxy Science Fiction–retitled, perhaps, for those embarrassed to be science fiction buffs).  I recently discovered that Galaxy, in addition to publishing a monthly (now bi-monthly) digest, also puts out complete novels in digest format.  These are not serials, mind you, but full-length novels.

This month was a little light in the digest department, there only being Astounding and Fantasy & Science Fiction to review, so I went down to a second-hand store and got me a truckload of old Galaxy novels.  I, sensibly, began with the earliest one I was able to get my hands on, The Alien, by Raymond F. Jones, published in 1951.

Raymond Jones has been around since the early 40’s, and you proably recognize his name from having penned This Island Earth, which was turned into a fairly popular movie.  I confess that I don’t recall having read anything of his before The Alien, and I don’t know if this title has made me hungry for more, though this is not meant to be a disparagement.

This is a surprisingly uninspiring cover for a book that is quite bombastic once you get inside.  Written in true Space Opera style, it is a sweeping tale covering millenia and the galaxy, pitting scientist heroes against religious fanatics.

So far so good…

Actually, the set-up is excellent.  A few hundred years in the future, automation has given humanity overmuch leisure time.  With little to do but argue politics and philosophy, the average lifespan of a government is measured in months, and the people are hungry for a strong leader on whom to latch.

Del Underwood is an archaeologist with no taste for modern Earth.  His self-imposed exile takes him to the asteroid belt, where mysterious artifacts of a long-dead race are scattered.  Apparently, Jones subscribed to the now outmoded idea that the asteroids are the remains of a planet that once exploded (it turns out that there is not nearly enough mass in the asteroids to make a proper planet, and the orbits don’t line up properly to have had a common origin). 

The first third of the book is about how Underwood and his team figure out how to gain entry to a seemingly impenetrable vault.  I love stories like this–essentially first contact through artifacts. 

Once inside the vault, the story gets a bit hackneyed.  The team finds the organic remains of a galactic warlord along with instructions on how to revive him.  Though Underwood quickly gets cold feet about the affair, the people of Earth, desperate for novelty and a leader, insist on the overlord’s resurrection.

After a short gestation, Demarzule is born and immediately takes up the reins of power.  This is Underwood’s cue to leave Earth in a scout ship with a small crew (including the one female character, the talented surgeon, Illia) in search of the weapon that had been used to destroy Demarzule’s planet (now the asteroid belt).

The most likely spot where the weapon might be found is the home planet of the Dragborans, the race that had defeated Demarzule’s people.  Unfortunately for Underwood, the mighty Terran fleet, now serving Demarzule with fanatic zeal, gets there first and loots the planet of all valuables before putting a torch to its ancient (abandoned) cities.  Underwood’s team sneaks to the Dragboran planet’s moon, where some Dragborans still live, though in an apparently primitive state (how Demarzule’s Terrans missed that, I couldn’t say.)

Appearances are deceiving, however, as the remnant Dragborans (who look just like people, as does Demarzule), have secret psionic powers that make them quite formidable indeed. 

The third part of the book, detailing Underwood’s return to Earth to take on Demarzule, aided by the Dragboran power, is pure, overwritten, scientific romance.  Which is not to say it’s bad.  In fact, it was fast and enjoyable reading.  The climax is suitably… climactic. 

On a side note, I appreciated the “softness” of the science fiction.  There is little to date the novel (other than the style, of course), and so it will age reasonably well, I imagine.

So if you spot a copy at your local book shop, or if the thing gets reprinted, and if you like this sort of story, you will not likely regret picking up The Alien.

Next time, some rather scary non-fiction.  If you follow the papers, you know the bombshell (literally) that the Air Force dropped on the press last Friday.  But I’ll save that for the 26th…

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Anderson breaks the mold! (April 1959 Astounding; 3-18-1959)

Good gravy!  Two good Andersons in a row?

This month’s Astounding opens with Wherever you are, by “Winston P. Sanders.”  If it wasn’t the swashbuckling yet science-adoring prose, it was the heroine protagonist’s name and ethnicity (Ulrica Ormstad–couldn’t get more Swedish!) that suggested Mr. Sanders might well be the well-known nordic science fiction writer, Poul Anderson.  A quick checking of sources confirmed the suspicion.

Well, it’s really good.  The fierce soldier, Major Ormstad, gets to be the viewpoint character for half the novelette, whereupon her meek and brainy shipmate, Didymus Mudge, becomes the reader’s eyes.  Both have become marooned on an alien planet, an ocean away from the local Terran base.  Ship’s instruments have been destroyed, and constant cloud cover and a lack of a magnetic pole preclude navigation.  It is up to Mudge to puzzle out a way home, and up to Ormstad to deal with the fierce mini-Tyrannosaurs so as to secure transportation.  My favorite line of the story goes to Ormstad, who initially thinks little of Mudge yet deigns to speak to him anyway:

“For one honest human conversation, in any human language, she would trade her soul.  Make it Swedish, and she’d throw in her sidearm.”

On to the next story.  When I was a kid, one of my favorite books was John Dough and the Cherub, by L. Frank Baum, sort of a Wizard of Oz side story.  In one of the chapters, the story’s heroes (John Dough and Chick the Cherub) are captured and threatened with execution.  However, this execution is delayed when Chick the Cherub begins to tell the tale of “The Silver Pig.”  So entranced are the heroes’ captors that they delay the execution every night so as to hear more of the pig’s adventures.  Of course, the story is designed to be endless so as to forestall the execution long enough for John Dough and the Cherub to escape.

I learned much later that this had been the plot to 1,001 Arabian Nights, and the trope has been used a myriad of times since then.  Usually, the set-up is that sentence of death will follow some religiously or legally prescribed ritual, with the sentenced to have some choice as to the format of the ritual.  Virtually every story has the same format–the reader is informed that our hero has worked out the puzzle to prolong his/her life, but we don’t get to find out the solution until the end.  Since classic science fiction favors the “gotcha” ending, I’ve seen this kind of story a lot in my literary travels.

So it is with Now Inhale, by Eric Frank Russell.  I didn’t much care for his last story, but this one is fine.  A Terran is imprisoned for suspected espionage on an alien world.  Condemned to death, he is allowed one final game of his choice before strangulation.  The trick is to prolong the game, to neither win nor lose.  The record was 17 days.  Our hero beats this record a dozen-fold and is prepared to play the game forever, if need be.  Can you guess the game?

I’m afraid the rest of the ish meanders into mediocrity (which is perhaps above par for Astounding these days.  Chris Anvil’s The Sieve is nothing special–on a brand new colony world, half the pioneers take up smoking the local marijuana and become lazy and shiftless.  The rest of the colonists decide to let them starve over the winter.  Reefer madness, indeed.

Gordy Dickson turns in a disappointing performance with The Catch, in which a galactic federation fairly begs humanity to retake the reins after thousands of years of retirement.  It seems those darned aliens just can’t stand the burden of leadership.  And it turns out they got all of their technology from humanity the last time we were ascendant.  Poor little primitive aliens. 

Definitely a story after Campbell’s heart.

Finally, we have Set a Thief by H. Chandler Elliott, a Canadian brain doctor whose stuff I’ve never before read.  It’s an interesting first contact story, though told in a flip off-hand manner I didn’t much care for.  Is it a set of thieves’ tools or a lady’s handbag?  An interesting case of convergent evolution, to be sure.

The rest of the ish is the final installment of The Pirats of Ersatz so there’s nothing more to report for this month.  My hands are throbbing, so I may take a break until March 24.  I’ll have lots to write about by then, though.

Thanks for reading!

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Beware the Blob! (The Blob; 3-15-1959)

Hello, again, dear readers. 

As you know, I had planned to write an article for this column yesterday, but I was unable to do so because I’d misplaced my wrist braces.  Manual typewriters have very stiff keys, and composition is difficult without braces (shall I take up a collection for a lovely electric?)

Adversity always proves to be advantage, however.  I took the opportunity to catch a double feature at the local dive cinema where last autumn’s The Blob is still playing along with I Married a Monster from Outer Space.  I must say, I got my eight bits worth!

This led me to believe radiation might be involved.  It wasn’t.

I’ll talk about the latter film later–right now, I want to talk about The Killer Jello-Mold!…er… The Blob.  The film starts on an odd note for a sci-fi/horror–with a catchy tune by “The Five Blobs,” which I note has gotten a lot of airplay lately.  It was a smart move; while the movie is not awful, where it falters, it can be excused because you were all ready for something camp.

Our heroes.

Meet Steve Andrews and Jane Martin, a pair of…ahem… teenagers who, while making out on Lover’s Lane, spot a falling star.  But this is no ordinary meteor.  It is, in fact, an egg.  Prodded by an old farmer, it hatches a little translucent blob that adheres to the man’s hand and begins to digest it.  Panicked, the farmer runs across our two heroes, who obligingly take him to the town doctor.

Don’t touch that!

This is one of the more unsettling bits, watching the parasite eat the hapless old man alive.  After the teens leave to check out the spot where the meteorite landed, the doctor and his nurse are eaten.  Steve returns to the doctor’s house just in time to see the doc digested. 

Nurse Kate’s brave assault was to no avail.

Most of the rest of the movie is devoted to Steve and Jane’s attempts to warn the police and, when this is not immediately fruitful, the town as a whole, of the danger. 

Listen to him!  He knows!

Their efforts prove to be rather superfluous.  The blob, increasingly red with the blood of its victims, and ever expanding in size with each meal, eventually becomes big enough to be unignorable (though, I was pleased to note, the blob did not seem to violate the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics; it merely assimilated its food with remarkable efficiency).  It eats 50 movie-goers at the cinema and then turns its gooey pseudopods on our heroes, who become trapped under its now-enormous bulk in a diner.

Oozing out of the theater and looking surprisingly tasty.

As had been hinted at earlier, the blob hates cold.  It is ultimately subdued, but not destroyed, by an onslaught of fire extinguishers.  The Air Force then airlifts the beast to the Arctic, where I’m sure we’ll never hear from it again…

Dig this Carbon Dioxide!  Blob, schmlob!

Sounds pretty dumb, right?  Well, sure.  But there’s also a lot to like.  For one, the movie is aware that a pile of tinted gelatin is not a particularly scary sight.  You don’t see the blob very much.  It’s just this menacing presence that you know is eating people right and left just off camera.  There is real tension in the film, though the pacing is a bit strange.  There are lots of long, pointless scenes that are fun in a character sense, but have little to do with the plot.  Life is like that, though. 

I particularly liked the character of Lt. Dave, the head policeman.  No matter how fanastic Steve’s story is, and despite the chidings of his police sergeant, Dave gives Steve respect and credence.  If there’s any subtext to the movie, it’s that kids aren’t all bad, despite what you’ve seen at the pictures lately.

Kids ain’t so bad.  Especially ones in their late 20s!

I also thought it a nice touch when Jane’s father, a prim, socially conscious school principal, reluctantly but with grim determination, smashes the door to his school to retrieve a score of fire extinguishers.  Desperate times call for desperate measures.

The acting is no great shakes, though I thought Steve McQueen (Steve Andrews) did a decent job.  I don’t know if this film will make or break him, but I wouldn’t mind seeing him lead in future movies.

The film was shot in some kind of widescreen Technicolor, and it’s very pretty.  Black and White is increasingly a thing of the past, and I’m enjoying the transition. 

Now, I know I have a reputation for being a Fantasy & Science Fiction snob, but The Blob is worth a look.  It is genuinely suspenseful and interesting.  Moreover, it leaves room for speculation.  What is the blob?  Is it a weapon?  A planetary sterilizer?  It has some interesting traits.  It doesn’t like to break into smaller units (which would have made it truly unbeatable) though it will partially disassemble to get through grates and windows.  It only eats living creatures, and we only ever see it attack people.  That kind of menace seems a bit too tailored to be an accident.  I bet it heralds an alien invasion.

Or how’s this for a wild thought–what if the blob doesn’t kill its prey but merely assimilates them into a collective?  Maybe the blob is a peaceful being trying to unite all of humanity into a red, gelatinous mass.  And now all those poor souls are trapped in a frozen ball at the North Pole.  Brrrr…

Maybe I’m just thinking too much.  You be the judge!

See you tomorrow…

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A Free Gift! (The Pirates of Ersatz; 3-12-1959)

And now, my gentle readers, a free gift.

As you know, I am well-acquainted with Mr. Murray Leinster, science fiction writer extraordinaire.  His newest novel, The Pirates of Ersatz has just finished its serial run in this month’s Astounding, and the nice fellow has given me permission to distribute it freely amongst my readers.

That’s right.  This book is yours entirely free of charge!

Now, the question is, should you read it?

I suppose that depends.  As I said a couple of months ago, it’s set in the same universe as the Med Series, but with a completely different protagonist. 

In brief, young Bron Hoddan is an engineer from a family of pirates.  Where Hoddan’s from, it’s almost respectable, even.  But Hoddan wants to make his mark in the clean world and so heads to squeaky-clean Walden… where he runs afoul of the law for trying to improve on paradise with an upgraded power generator. 

Fleeing for his life to the crude medieval planet Darth, he then runs afoul of the local aristocracy for… well.. just about everything.  Yet, so resourceful is Hoddan that he manages not only to survive but to thrive, getting the best of the petty nobles and winning the admiration of the plucky heroine, Lady Fani.

That’s only the first half.  How Hoddan turns a ragtag fleet of colony ships into a phoney piracy concern and manages to steal from the rich and somehow make everyone richer, is rollicking adventure.

Now, I don’t think this is the best Leinster I’ve ever read.  He likes to write short sentences.  His sentences have few words.  They can be repetitive.  He abuses this trait a little overmuch to my liking.  The story is also a bit disjointed (dare I say “episodic”?), particularly in the Darth section. 

That said, there is also much to like.  I happen to really like the decentralized Med Series universe with its range of interesting, unique planets.  The story also makes it quite clear that a strong heroine is far more compelling than a trophy, and it is always clear who is in the driver’s seat in the Fani/Hoddan courtship.

Most interestingly, in the course of his travels, Hoddan invents an independent landing device small enough for installation on starships.  This is huge as, until this book, ships could only land on planets that had erected mammoth landing grids that projected magnetic tractor beams to guide vessels to the ground.  I wonder if we’ll see the fall-out of this invention in later stories.

So try it.  The price is right, and it will definitely get you from point A to Z with a smile on your face.  3.5 stars out of 5.

See you on the 14th!

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