Tag Archives: science fiction

Send the Marines! (1-17-1959)

It’s time for a little timely flag-waving.

Last year, around the time I started this column, Operation Blue Bat wrapped up.  It was one of our better moments, foreign policy-wise.  Who’d even heard of Lebanon before 1958?  But when that country came to the brink of civil war in the aftermath of the Iraqi revolution, American troops, particularly the Marines, were dispatched to help keep the peace.  Their mission successful, the last of them came home on October 25.

Now, I’m as cynical as the next person.  I know our action in Lebanon was political more than humanitarian.  We were calling the bluff of the Soviets, who insisted we not interfere.  We were protecting the pro-west Christian government from the pro-Soviet Arab government.  As Tom Lehrer put it in a recent song, “They’ve got to be protected, all their rights respected, ’til somebody we like can be elected.”

And yet, I still have to applaud the avoidance of bloodshed, as well as appreciate the now-concrete evidence that the Soviets and the U.S. will not come to blows over petty conflicts (the Suez Crisis of ’56 was the first proof of that.)

So it’s timely that the next story I read in the February 1959 Astounding was The Stoker and the Stars by John A. Sentry (Algis Budrys’ Anglic pen-name).  In this story, Earth had been roundly trounced after an interstellar war, and all of humanity had been confined to our own Solar System.  Only limited trade was allowed.  One proud Marine, defeated but not beaten, became the lynchpin to earning the respect of our cordoning aliens.  It’s an old-fashioned piece, a reminiscence of a space merchant remembering how he’d known the great man “back in the day,” when they had shipped together on one of the last Terran cargo vessels; destination: occupied Alpha Centauri.

It’s jingoistic.  It’s a little maudlin.  It plays into Campbell’s penchant for Terrans-uber-alles stories.  I recognize that.  But the memories of Iwo Jima and Lebanon are still fresh, and a good Marine friend of mine only recently returned from his station in the Middle East. Whatever your politics, it does not hurt to recognize that there are some fine people in the service, and I saw a little of my friend in the hero of Sentry’s story.

Oribtal Cold War department:

Remember Sputnik III?  This was the first “real” Soviet satellite following the bare-bones Sputnik I (which went beep-beep) and the rather stunt-like Sputnik II (which carried the Muttnik, Laika).  Weighing in at over a ton and carrying a dozen experiments, it was certainly a feat of Soviet engineering.

It was also the only Soviet satellite launched throughout all of 1958.  Thus, while the American Vanguard I continues to chatter happily away from orbit, and Explorer IV is also still up there, albeit silent since October, Sputnik III remains the sole Soviet sentinel in orbital space.  So I can just imagine the consternation in the Kremlin when Sputnik III’s signal started to decay and warble like a drunkard’s whistle.  Since December 17, Sputnik III has probably been of little use to anybody.

But the day before yesterday, radio eavesdroppers in Napa, California announced that the poor space lab had recovered (perhaps with fuzz on its geiger counters and the need for some strong tomato juice).  The current theory is that Sputnik III gradually got tipped out of alignment so that its solar cells were no longer getting sufficient charge.  The probe has finally returned to a favorable tilt, and is happily back on the wagon. 

Thus, what began with an American flag-waving has ended with some Soviet flag-waving.  All in the spirit of fairness, of course.


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Tabulating the data (February 1959 Astounding; 1-15-1959)

It’s Astounding time again!

One thing I like about Astounding is that editor John Campbell publishes the results of his reader surveys in the magazine’s “Analytical Laboratory.”  Thus, he (and we) can all see what the reading faithful think of the prior issue’s stories.  Of course, while the technique can be good at better-pleasing your audience, it also runs the risk of specializing oneself into oblivion.  After all, the percentage of your readership who will respond to a reader survey is generally a minority, and often a quirky one at that.  Appealing to your die-hard fans may please them (if they can be pleased at all), but may also narrow the potential audience.

In other words, one picks up Astounding because one knows what to expect.  One avoids it because one knows what’s in it and doesn’t want it.  The feedback loop between conservative fan and conservative editor potentially leads to ossified content.  Perhaps it’s no surprise that Astounding is the most conservative of “the Big Three,” particularly in its outlook on other cultures and on the portrayal of women.

That said, let’s see how the opinions of the readers of Astounding compare to those I’ve published earlier in this column.  The results, and the lessons Campbell learns from them, are interesting.

For the November 1958 issue:

Stimulus, by Andrew Salmond, came far away in first place.
Unhuman Sacrifice by Katherine MacLean, was number two, followed closely by
Part One of A Bicycle Built for Brew by Poul Anderson.
Goliath and the Beanstalk, by Chris Anvil, came in fourth.
Gifts, by Gordy Dickson, was number five.

This is interesting.  I thought the MacLean was a clear number 1, Salmond’s piece being just all-right.  On the other hand, the latter three were so minor (not exactly bad, just utterly mediocre), that I’m not surprised they competed for last place. 

So far, so good.

For the December 1958 issue:

It was clear the fans had trouble picking a favorite given the scores.  Either they were disappointed with the magazine or they loved them all equally.  Campbell’s commentary (more on that below) suggests the former.

Part Two of A Bicycle Built for Brew straggled to the top of the charts.
The Queen Bee, by Randall Garrett, possibly the most offensive story I have read in Astounding, came in second.
Ministry of Disturbance, by H. Beam Piper, was number three.
Triggerman, by R.T. Bone was a solid fourth.
Seller’s Market by Chris Anvil was a clear fifth.

Mack Reynold’s Pieces of the Game didn’t even make the chart, even though I thought it was decent.  I quite enjoyed Ministry of Disturbance and TriggermanSeller’s Market wasn’t great, but it was surely better than the drek voted #1 and #2.

Campbell describes Queen Bee as “humor” along with Ministry of Disturbance, Triggerman and A Bicycle Built for Brew.  He wonders aloud if the comedic content of these stories resulted in their lower rating (with the exception of Queen Bee, which did well).  Of course, Bicycle finished strongly in the ratings.  Campbell wonders if comedy serials just take time to win over their audience.

Campbell also calls Queen Bee a “strong story.”  I suppose editors must love their children universally, so I wouldn’t expect him to publicly denounce Garrett’s atrocity.  That said, it certainly seems like Queen Bee is the kind of story Campbell wants in his magazine and, moreover, it’s the kind of story his readers (at least the ones who fill out the cards) want in his magazine.

Which means, I suppose, we all have much more of the same to look forward to.  Unless Campbell decides that “humor” doesn’t sell.


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“Doctor, Merchant” (Murray Leinster and the February 1959 Astounding; 1-13-1959)

Have you heard of Murray Leinster?

Of course you have, though he also writes under “William F. Jenkins,” which happens to be his real name.  Leinster/Jenkins is one of the few authors with a shot at the title of “Dean of Science Fiction.”  He’s one of the old guard–a veteran of World War One, the pulp era, Campbell’s Golden Age of Astounding, and he’s still going strong.  He won the Hugo in 1956 for his Exploration Team (which I haven’t yet read).  Leinster has an interesting style, unadorned and occasionally repetitive, that I think lends itself well to being read by adults and kids.

Interestingly, I am not as acquainted with Leinster as I feel I should be.  Aside from the juvenile, Space Tug (which I mentioned in an earlier article), I’ve only read some of his short stories.  Sam, this is you, for instance, came out in Galaxy a few years ago, and it was good. 

My favorites have been the short two stories, thus far, in the “Med Series,” (there is also at least one novel, which I should read soon.) Their protagonist, Calhoun, is a “med man.”  That is, he’s a doctor who flies in his one-person ship between planets like a country doctor visiting farms, bringing the latest cures and techniques.  Normally, his trips are routine, but we don’t get to read those stories.

Calhoun does have a companion–the cat/monkey hybrid named “Murgatroyd.”  Not only is the creature incredibly cute, but it has the innate ability to develop antibodies to virtually any disease.  It is thus invaluable for creating vaccine sera.

I like any story where the hero is distinguished by his or her healing rather than combat prowess.  Moreover, Calhoun has to use his brain, which is more fun and interesting than wielding a gun.  Both of the stories came out in Astounding in the last couple of years (Ribbon in the Sky, June 1957; The Grandfathers’ War, October 1957), and I imagine back issues would not be hard to obtain.

What I also like about this series is the universe.  Leinster’s future posits a superluminary drive that goes some 30 times the speed of light.  This is unquestionably an impressive speed, but though it facilitates colonization of other planets, it is too slow to efficiently maintain a galactic empire.  Instead, each planet is left to its own devices, and there are a few loose galactic organizations whose purpose is to facilitate the spread of medicine (the Med Corps) and to mediate interplanetary disputes.

This Ambassadorial Corps is featured in Leinster’s new serialized novel, The Pirates of Ersatz (“A ha!  He’s finally getting to his point!” I hear you say.) The February 1959 issue of Astounding has been sitting on my to-read pile for some time, and I’ve finally gotten to it.  Of course, only the first of three parts has come out, and I don’t want to spoil it issue-by-issue.  Suffice it to say, it looks promising.  It does not feature Calhoun, but rather an enterprising inventor, who suffers for his ingenuity.  In tone and structure, it feels a bit like Heinlein’s recent Astounding serial, Citizen of the Galaxy.  This is not a bad thing.

So stay tuned!  I won’t have a review of Leinster’s novel for another two months, but the other stories in the magazine (blessedly, I don’t think there’s an Anderson or Garrett among them) will be discussed quite soon.

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After midnight (43,000 Years Later; 1-11-1959)

It has been two minutes to midnight since 1953.

According to the Federation of Atomic Scientists, we have been teetering at the brink of nuclear destruction since the Soviets detonated their first H-Bomb.  Now that both East and West have demonstrated the ability to launch, without warning and without possibility of resistance, H-bomb-carrying missiles from one hemisphere to the other, I will not be surprised if the FAS ticks the clock one minute closer to midnight.

It is thus no surprise that post-apocalyptic fiction is a genre coming into full flower.  On the Beach, a pessimistic look at the aftermath set in Australia, came out in 1957, and it was a strong seller. 

One of last year’s crop was Horace Coon’s 43,000 Years After, which tells the tale of an alien archaeological expedition to Earth 43,000 years after humanity has exterminated itself and all vertebrate land life by nuclear hellfire.  Coon is not, by trade, a science fiction author.  He writes social how-to books and satirical social commentary.  It’s actually a good background for someone writing a book of this type.

The best satire holds a mirror to its subject to point up its absurdities.  Coon does this in 43,000 by letting humanity’s writings and edifices, most made for public consumption rather than posterity, be our race’s only method of communicating with the archaeologists, humanity having rendered itself otherwise quite mute.

And what did we leave behind?  Most of our cities have been smashed, and the remains have not aged well over 43 millennia.  It is clear to the future observers that we did have large transportation networks, that we did have knowledge of the H-bomb, and that such weapons were employed universally (though the aliens are somehow able to deduce which had been fired by the West and which by the East).  Some statues survive, and the aliens are aided by a limited sense of telepathy that enables to them to puzzle out mysteries that might otherwise be unsolvable (the last is a hand-wave, but scientific rigor is not the point of the book).

The real breakthrough comes when the expedition finds a time capsule buried in 1938 in conjunction with the World Expo.  The capsule provides a wealth of written and physical detail, particularly the Almanac and Sears Roebuck Catalogs.  The expedition also finds scattered records on stone and surviving microfilm, but they (conveniently) end in the 1950s, ten years before the determined date of the holocaust.

The findings of the archaeologists are conveyed through the personal musings of each of the three expedition directors: dogmatic and dictatorial Zolgus, thoughtful and scientific Yundi, philosophical and emotional Xia.  Each is heavily influenced by his/her prejudices.  Zolgus, for instance, cannot help but denigrate humanity for its failings: employing agriculture, failing to fix the planet’s axis, failing to embrace a world dictatorship, eschewing renewable energy sources.  Zolgus acknowledges briefly that his own race had its savage time, but he refuses to pardon Earth’s growing pains, describing us universally as “stupid.”  Unfair?  Perhaps, but an attitude that the richer nations of Earth frequently adopt toward the more “backward” nations of the world.  Or by the rich toward the poor (i.e. “I got mine; why ain’t you got yours yet?”)

Yundi is more respectful, but relying solely on empirical data, he has the most trouble understanding humanity’s self-destructive urges.  Xia is willing to be charitable.  She unabashedly falls in love with the Earth and its erstwhile inhabitants.  She recognizes and forgives our self-destructive urges, only lamenting that they came to such an unhappy fruition.

We do not learn much about the aliens except that which can be gleaned from their own reflections–they must be roughly humanoid, but they have no teeth and six digits on each appendage.  They do not crowd all of their sensory organs into their head.  They have a Communist-style dictatorship and vast technologies and access to energy.  They do not self-perpetuate or have families, but rather artificially grow their young so as to completely liberate both sexes.  Coming to Earth reinforces the wisdom of these practices for Zolgus, but creates doubts regarding them in the other two, especially Xia.

Ultimately, the questions the expedition asks are “why did humanity kill itself, and was it inevitable?”  In answering these questions, Coon tells the readers (through his characters) how to possibly avert the potential tragedy.  Coon also creates a secondary cautionary tale in the form of Zolgus, depicting in a negative light the phenomenon of technological dehumanization.

Of course, such a book runs the risk of being a colossal bore of philosophical posturing.  In fact, the book is rather short (just 143 pages), and quite well written.  The characters, while probably not alien enough, are engaging, and each have their own well-developed tone.  As a story, the plot could have been served better with more focus on the archaeological sleuthing; the archaeologists come to their conclusions a bit too quickly.  But, again, that’s not really the point. 

So give the book a read.  You may or may not come away with any profound shifts in your thinking, but you won’t have wasted the few hours it takes to complete the novel.

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My aching (egg)head (January 1959 F&SF, second half; 1-09-1959)

I tried.  I really tried.

When last we left off, I had saved Fritz Leiber’s The Silver Eggheads for last.  It comprises a good third of the January F&SF, and I thought it would be worth an article all to itself.  I suppose it does, at that, but not the way I had thought.

For some reason, when I started this project, I’d had the impression that I liked Fritz Leiber.  I think it was from reading The Big Time, which was pretty good.  Thus my puzzlement when I reviewed “Number of the Beast”, and again when I reviewed “Poor Little Miss MacBeth.”.

I am now coming to realize that I don’t like Fritz Leiber.  The Silver Eggheads was yet another of his over written yet frivolous stories.  I know Fritz has won the Hugo, and I haven’t published any fiction since I was 14 (so what do I know?), but his latest novella was execrable.

Here’s the plot.  I think.  In the future, fiction is turned out by sentient computers.  The fiction-bots are destroyed by disgruntled writers (in the future, human writers don’t actually compose; they just tend the machines), but then are unable to come up with their own stories.  The glib explanation is that people are insufficiently educated in the future to write.  This makes no sense–if the primary form of entertainment in the future is reading, how can it be impossible to know how to write, even if in a mediocre fashion? 

And there are these silver eggs that are apparently the brains of dead writers.  And there is a whole species of robots with their own culture and even genders (but who act just like people–a typical sin of contemporary writers).  And the whole thing is written in this baroque mess that is as much fun to read as stabbing forks into my eyes, with that same casual Playboy Magazine glib chauvinism that I’ve come to expect from Mssrs. Anderson and Garrett.

So, I tried.  I really tried.  But I could not get past the 16th page without skimming.  I have failed you.  I present myself prostrate and ask forgiveness.  Or vindication, whichever may be appropriate.

The rest of the issue fares little better.  John Collier’s Meeting of Relations is a slight, biblically-inspired piece.  It is also 16 years old; its reprinting suggests it was picked based on length rather than quality.

Invasion of the Planet of Love, by George P. Elliott, is another one of those strange pieces that leaves me wondering if it supposed to be satire or not.  I suspect it is, because the subject (rapacious Victorian-types looting and torturing Venus and its inhabitants only to be thwarted by the most peaceful of peoples) is implemented in so heavy-handed a fashion that it must have been meant as some kind of allegory.  It’s certainly not science fiction, at least no more than Burroughs’ work at the turn of the century. 

From <i data-recalc-dims=Exploring the Planets Copyright 1958″/>
From Exploring the Planets Copyright 1958

Incidentally, it is looking as though the “hot but tolerable” Venus is about to go by the wayside (along with all the science fiction stories that take place on it).  A presentation at the Paris Symposium on Radio Astronomy last summer revealed that radar studies done a few years ago show that Venus may be extremely hot–well above the boiling point of water.  I have a suspicion that most of our treasured science-fiction tropes may well be rendered obsolete in the next few years of space exploration.

Wrapping up the magazine is The R of A by Gordon Dickson.  It’s another in a long line of wish-granting genie stories and an interesting commentary on predestination.  Not great, but not bad.

That leaves the score for this magazine at one third 4-star, one third 2-star, and one third 1-star.  This leads to an average of 2.33.  And things started out so well.  On the other hand, the nice thing about digests is you can pick and choose.

Next article: 43,000 Years Later by Horace Coon.  Stay tuned!

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Moon Maidens (Missile to the Moon; 1-07-1959)

Seeing how the moon has been front and center in the headlines and in this column for the past week, I thought it a good idea to round out things with a movie about a trip to Earth’s celestial neighbor.

As my faithful reader(s) know, I spare no expense when it comes to securing only the finest entertainment to review.  I see your eyes gleam: will it be Fritz Lang’s Frau im mond?  Or perhaps George Pal’s adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s Destination Moon?

Nay, my fans.  What would be the point of revisiting old classics?  The key to this column is its currency.  Hence, for your reading pleasure, here are my thoughts upon viewing:

Some nitpickers will note that this epic actually came out almost a year ago.  For some reason, one of our town’s less reputable theaters still had this three-reeler running as a companion to an old gangster movie.  How fortunate for us.

Missile is a tale of interplanetary derring-do capitalizing on the new fad, the Space Race.  Of course, the film was made solely to spotlight the amazing technology that will one day take us to the moon.  Well, and these:

I noted in an earlier article how space travel stories always focus on the pilots, and a journey through the great beyond is little more exciting or involved than a drive down Highway 80.  In Missile, an eager scientist with an unplaceable accent has built his own rocket ship in his backyard.  He then shanghais two escaped prisoners (one with a heart of gold, the other desirous of gold) and takes off for the moon.  This is, perhaps, the movie’s best sequence.  To be fair, given the film’s reported budget of $65,000, the cinematography is not bad.

The scientist’s partner and the partner’s wife accidentally stow away on board the rocketship before it turns into stock footage of a V-2 rocket and blasts off toward the moon.  The scientist dies along the way, leaving his partner in charge.  Of course, the rocket has limitless fuel and blasts away at one gee the entire way to the moon, making for a very short trip).

Once on the moon, our heroes (well, two heroes, one heroine, one scoundrel, and one corpse) discover that, though the moon has no air, the sky scatters the sun’s rays in a decidedly Terran fashion.  Standing in the sun is instantly fatal due to the intense heat (much like one encounters driving down Highway 80).  We do not get to see the effects of the moon’s lesser gravity on the travelers, as they have special “gravity boots” on.  I suppose I should be grateful that they even made a nod to the issue.  Thankfully, they astronauts all have space suits, though they seem less than adequate in the neck area.

More importantly, they discover that the moon is inhabited by several species of inimical creatures including

and

But most importantly, they discover this colony of female space people, the last of a dying race.

Ah, there are our pageant winners. 

Of course, I would not wish to further spoil the plot of this (rather short) masterpiece.  Suffice it to say that the ending is bittersweet.  Which is to say that it is sweet that it ends at all, and bitter than the ending does not come closer to the beginning.  I look forward to many more films like this one, at least until the novelty of Space wears off for the under-21 crowd.

Next up: a wrap-up of the January 1959 F&SF–then, on to the new stuff!  Thanks for reading (and replying).

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Ring in the New Year!  (January 1959 Fantasy and Science Fiction; 1-01-59)

Happy New Year!  1959 promises to be stellar in all senses of the word.

My apologies for the hiatus.  Those of you who are familiar with manual typewriters know the strain pressing down on those keys can have on your hand muscles.  I am fairly drooling over the idea of trading in my Smith Corona portable for one of the slick, new IBM electrics.  Perhaps when this column makes me a millionaire.

My regular subscribers (soon, I will need both hands to count you) know of my long quest to secure the January 1959 Fantasy & Science Fiction.  Ironically, shortly after I finally picked up a battered old copy at a secluded newsstand, I received the new February issue!  So, for a short time, I have lots to read.

The January issue is quite good, at least so far as I have read.  Former editor Anthony Boucher kicks off the issue with the first tale of his I’ve really liked: The Quest for St. Aquin falls into the rare category of post-apocalyptic religious fiction.  In fact, the only real example of the genre I can recall is Miller’s Canticle for Leibowitz, which I much enjoyed, and which also debuted in F&SF.  Boucher’s tale follows a young priest and his robot companion as they travel through a radiated, Christian-hostile America.  It’s atmospheric, thought-provoking, and fun.  A cameo character gives the story an extra star all on his own (those who know me will know who he is).

I’ve already written about Asimov’s non-fiction article, which dealt with the threat of global warming.  It’s worth reading.  The next piece of fiction is a fine short piece by Avram Davidson (does he write any other kind?) called The Woman who Thought She could Read.  If you like gypsies, fortune-telling, Avram Davidson, sad endings, or any combination thereof, you don’t want to miss this atmospheric tale.

I’m saving the issue’s novella, Fritz Leiber’s The Silver Eggheads, for next time.  Thus, the subsequent tale is Dick’s first short story in a while: Explorers We, about a returning expedition from Mars.  It’s not bad, but Dick has spoiled me.  I expect all of his stories to rock me.  Ah well.

It is worth reading Tony Boucher’s “Recommended Reading” column, if only for his droll relating of his encounters with UFOlogists. 

Finally (for this article, not the issue) came Robert F. Young’s cleverly titled and aptly timed Santa Clause.  The story asks the question: is it better for the delusional characters of one’s childhood to be real or completely nonexistent?  Sadly, though the tale is well-written and ties in both Saint Nick and Old Nick, it somehow fails to deliver a knockout punch at the end.

So stay tuned!  Next article, I shall wrap up the January F&SF, unless, of course, scientific events preempt my spotlight on fiction and compel me to do a stop-press account.

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If we’re not alone, will we be lonely?  (12-20-1958)

Are we alone in the universe?  That’s a question that has been asked with greater frequency and intensity recently, corresponding with Humanity’s first faltering steps into outer space.  Are we about to enter an interstellar community?

If you ask me, the answer is “no.” The time scales involved are just too immense.  Allow me to explain.  Let’s be optimistic and assume that most stars have solar systems like ours around them.  Let’s be more optimistic (starry-eyed?) and assume that a good portion of these solar systems possess Earth-like planets that can support life.  There are more than 100 billion stars in our galaxy—perhaps as many as 300 billion.  Surely, around some of these stars, intelligent life must have evolved.

I don’t dispute any of the above, actually.  I think life is a fair inevitability given the right original conditions, and once you have a creature that is multi-cellular, eats other creatures, and is mobile, you have a creature that would benefit from some kind of brain.  Once the brain gets started, it seems likely that it would continue to grow in the creature’s descendants as intelligence is generally a useful trait.

Here’s the problem: Homo Sapiens, if we are being charitable, has been a species for about a million years.  We have been a civilized society (again, charitably) for 6,000 years.  Industrialization began 200 years ago, and space travel is exactly one year old.  At this rate, we’ll have a window of a few hundred or maybe even a thousand years during which we will be spacefaring and recognizably human, whereupon we will “graduate” to whatever the next step is.  Or we’ll blow up the Earth when the Federation of Atomic Scientists’ clock strikes Midnight. 

That few thousand years compared to the entire history of the universe is a razor thin slice.  It’s the width of a penny atop the Empire State Building.  Sure, there are probably intelligent aliens out there, but odds are extremely high that they are either behind us, and therefore limited to their planet, or beyond us, and therefore uninterested.  Humanoid aliens with technological levels similar to ours make decent fiction, but they might as well be fantasy, not science fiction.

If we ever do meet an alien civilization, it is bound to be unrecognizably alien and bewilderingly beyond our comprehension technologically.  Not many authors have tackled the subject, but some stories do exist.  Clarke’s Childhood’s End is perhaps the archetypical example.  Much of that book is devoted just to the effects this contact would have on humanity: the humbling, the shaming, the frustration, and the technological/sociological benefit. 

Another example, and the catalyst for this article, is William Tenn’s Firewater.  This story actually came out six years ago in Astounding (where I missed it), but it was recently reprinted in a Tenn anthology called Time in Advance.  Tenn is a good writer; I have come to look forward to his stuff, and the anthology is worth picking up.

In Childhood’s End, the aliens at least had the decency to talk to us.  In Tenn’s story, they appear simply as jiggling dots in ethereal brown or umber bottles floating above our cities.  They hang in the sky, watching us, intentions unknown.  If we attack them, with rocks or missiles, it has no effect.  Worse, it sometimes invites retaliation—the destruction of the weapon and/or the weapon’s user. 

Yet, there are some people who can communicate with them.  These are the Primes—people who have lost their sanity trying to conform to the aliens’ thought patterns.  In doing so, they have acquired the ability to do tremendous psionic feats, but they are also quite mad.  The Primes live on reservations camped out next to a congregation of aliens in Arizona.

The Primes have figured out a number of technological and sociological advances, though they do not apply them.  It is a kind of game to them.  Moreover, because dealing with the Primes can be so dangerous, due to their instability and contagious insanity, dealing with them is highly illegal.

One person, Algernon Hebster, is willing to take that risk.  A highly successful businessman, he has perfected the art of trading with the Primes, exchanging various artistic gimcracks for new technologies: washless dishes, better televisions, finer clothing, etc.  But his situation is becoming increasingly untenable.  The United Humanity government is hot on his trail with an investigation into his illegal activities and the atavistic Humanity First movement is plotting a revolution with Hebster as Enemy No. 1. 

I particularly liked Hebster’s (admittedly over-simple) analogy for the situation.  He likens Earth’s contact with a vastly more-technologically advanced civilization to the (devastating) meeting of the American Indians and the Europeans.  The native Americans generally responded in one of two ways: they either resisted the Europeans, futilely (as Humanity First wishes to do in the story), or they were subjugated, accepting the European firewater and becoming worn-out shadows of themselves. 

There was a third kind of Indian, however (in Hebster’s analogy).  This one didn’t fight the Europeans nor had any interest in firewater.  What was exciting to this Indian was the bottle in which the firewater came.  This artifact represented a product of a technology far beyond what was possible for the natives, and it was something that could be traded for, if one were canny enough to develop goods that the Europeans wanted.  Hebster notes that after a wretched period of adjustment, the American Indian cultures adapted to the new situation and managed even to profit from it.  Perhaps humanity as a whole could do the same, if a good that the aliens wanted could be found and developed.

How Hebster deals with this crisis and ultimately is the lynchpin to establishing real contact with the aliens, makes for an excellent 50 pages of reading.  It is an ambitious story, and one of the few attempts to posit a truly alien species and the likely effects the meeting with such a race would have on humanity. 

Find it.  Read it.  Let me know what you think.

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Fact and Fiction (February 1959 Galaxy, Part 2; 12-14-1958)

For your reading pleasure today, a piece in two parts.  First a bit on fiction, and then a bit on the other stuff.

Plowing on through the new maxi-sized Galaxy, the first story after Installment Plan is a slight bit of atmospheric by Charles A. Stearns called Pastoral Affair.  If you’ve read the Wells classic, The Island of Dr. Moreau, then you’ve essentially read this story.  Stearns, I understand, largely wrote for the pulps and less prestigious magazines, and his work reads like something from the 30s.  Not bad, just not much.

But the succeeding Fred Pohl piece, I Plingot, Who you?, is quite good.  My father was a science fiction fan of “Golden Age” vintage before his untimely passing some twenty years ago.  He once said, rather presciently, that the only way one could ever really unite the world would be the invention of an external threat, perhaps a world-destroying asteroid or (even better) an extraterrestrial invasion. 

Pohl takes this concept and turns it on its head: What if someone convinced all of the world leaders separately that an alien race was approaching, and the first to encounter it would get an exclusive and most rewarding deal?  And what if the race landed their spacecraft not in America or the U.S.S.R., but in the neutral powder-keg of French Algeria.  Why, it might kick off a bloody competition resulting in an all-out atomic war!  Now, what if that instigating someone were actually a representative of an alien species whose job was to fabricate the alien arrival to cause the destruction of Earth and ensure that interstellar competition was kept to a minimum?  You’d get Plingot.

The pacing and the writing really make this story, as well as the unexpected ending (which is very Heinlein-esque).  The story is from the eponymous Plingot’s point of view, and his wording and mood are subtly and suitably alien.  Interestingly enough, it is decidedly fixed in a very specific period of time—perhaps the next few months.  For the flag of the United States has 49 stars, and it is pretty clear by now that Hawaii will be a state very soon, to balance Republican and Democratic votes in the Senate, if nothing else.  Moreover, given the recent turmoil in France that brought DeGaulle back to the fore and created yet another French Republic (Number 5!), I can’t imagine that France’s hold on Algeria is anything but tenuous.  This all works, however, since the story is not a prediction of the future but rather a prediction of how the present might deal with a futuristic threat.

Now the non-fiction.  Willy Ley’s article this bi-month wraps up his article on “The World Next Door:” the alien realm of the deep sea, and ties in nicely with the unusually large number of undersea accomplishments achieved by the United States this year.  Did you know that the nuclear-powered submarine, the U.S.S. Seawolf stayed underwater for 60 consecutive days?  The air its crew left port with was the air the crew breathed for two straight months.  That kind of self-contained endurance is relevant to travel in Outer Space, where fresh air is even less accessible.

The Seawolf is the younger sister of the U.S.S. Nautilus, which made history in August by being the first ship to travel to the North Pole under water.  I saw/heard in a recent newsreel that there is talk of opening up underwater polar trade routes between East and West.  I don’t know how feasible that would be, but it is exciting nonetheless. 

So stay tuned!  I predict that the undersea science fiction genre (heretofore severely underrepresented—Fred Pohl’s Slave Ship serialized two years ago in Galaxy, is one of the few examples) will become a big component of published sci-fi in the near future.

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The Incomplete Enchanter (12-12-1958)

It occurs to me that it has been a long time since I’ve given anything unreserved praise.  Moreover, it’s been a while since I’ve reported on anything really fun.  To that end, I recently picked up and re-read my well-thumbed copy of The Incomplete Enchanter by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt. 

Sprague is a titan in the science fiction and fantasy fields.  Aside from his quite impressive chin of beard, I hold him in highest regard for his alternate historical Lest Darkness Fall and the collection Wheels of If (which lead title is also alternate historical—my tastes are obvious).

Pratt, of course, left us quite unseasonably two years ago.  He didn’t write much fiction on his own, though he did produce a couple of good novels.  He is perhaps better known for his historical expertise and especially his set of naval miniature wargame rules, with which he occupied a good deal of floor at the Naval College. 

Plenty talented on their own, the two were dynamite together.  Enchanter is my favorite work of theirs—a riproaring fantasy of the best caliber.  It details the adventures of Harold Shea, a darkly almost-handsome practitioner of magic.  Sort of.  You see, it turns out that it is possible to travel into mythological universes just by concentrating really hard (excuse me, through the use of “Symbolic Logic”).  Once there, a canny fellow can utilize the magical laws unique to that universe and become a powerful wizard.

Enchanter contains two of Shea’s adventures.  They are essentially self-contained, which makes sense; both of them were originally published as separate novellas in Unknown back in 1940.  In the first, Shea tries to visit the realms of Irish mythology.  He misses and winds up in Norse mythology just in time for Fimbulwinter, the prelude to the epic clash of the Gods and Giants known as Ragnarok.  None of the accoutrements of modern science that Shea brought (his matches, his stainless steel knife, etc.) are functional.  On the other hand, Shea does figure out how to make use of the Magical Law of Analogy.  This is the theorem that creating an effect in miniature can produce a larger, similar effect. 

While in the Norse realm, Shea meets up with all of the main Gods, is captured along with the God, Heimdall, by trolls, and ultimately escapes and ensures that the Gods will be have a fighting chance in their final fight against the giants.  All of this is written with a fun, light touch.  Things never go as planned, yet somehow, they don’t go too badly. 

Once returned to our world, Shea is eager to go on another expedition.  This time, he is joined by the creator of Symbolic Logic, Reed Chalmers.  They also hit their target: the world of Edmund Spencer’s poem, The Faerie Queen.  It is a bright and colorful medieval universe, quite the contrast to the grim and whited-out world of the Norse.  Magic is a bigger deal here, and there are plenty of powerful fighters and enchanters (male and female—I especially like the woman knight, Britomart).  It’s all very satisfying to the Middle Ages buff and great fun.  It’s also a romance: both Shea and Chalmers leave Spencer’s realm with brides, though not without considerable travail on both their parts!

It is difficult to do justice to the novel with a review.  There are so many fun scenes.  For instance, when a very bored Shea and Heimdall race cockroaches while in gaol; before each race, Heimdall solemnly states, “I shall call mine ‘Goldtop’, after my mount.” Or when, in the second story, Shea faces off with a knight in shining armor.  Shea has a thin rapier while his opponent brandishes a mighty broadsword.  The victory goes to the more agile of the combatants (Shea), who wins with myriad pricks inside his opponent’s armor.  These are just lovely moments.

In short, if you are a fan of Norse mythology, or The Faerie Queene or light fantasy, or any combination of the three, you either have already read Enchanter… or you really must do so post-haste!

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