Birthday Reviews: Collier, Smith

This week’s pair of birthday boys bring us a piece from The New Yorker and then, for something completely different, a piece from Comet.

John Collier (1901-05-03–1980-04-06)

“The Chaser” (The New Yorker, December 28, 1940)

Collier wrote for the slicks and this is one of the slickest. It’s hard to describe without spoiling but to try to be as oblique as it is, if not as witty, it explains why the business model of a seller of magic potions works when a young man wants a very inexpensive love potion.

E. E. “Doc” Smith (1890-05-02–1965-08-31)

“The Vortex Blaster” (Comet, July 1941)

In last week’s “Birthday Reviews,” I said of the van Vogt that, if you like van Vogt, you’ll like the story and if you don’t, you won’t. And I said of the Williamson that, though he was generally able to advance with the times, the particular story was a ’30s story. Well, both those points apply even more firmly to this tale and I’m afraid that, if I have any credibility, I might be blowing it by recommending this, but I likes what I likes. I’ve read Skylark and Lensman books (to which this series of stories is loosely connected) but I’ve never read this series before, and I’m sure going to continue.

Neal “Storm” Cloud is a physicist with an amazing intuitive mathematical sense who has recently suffered the tragedy of losing his family. He’s not suicidal, but ready to die, himself, and this has given him insight into how he may destroy one of the worst blights on the Earth (or “Tellus”). The use of “intra-atomic energy” generally works well but, when it goes wrong, it goes really wrong, creating vortices of incredible destructive power on Tellus, which will eventually render our world uninhabitable. So these vortices must be blasted with duodec bombs which have to be targeted with a speed and precision not even a computer has. And the climax is Storm Cloud’s battle with the biggest, oldest, meanest vortex of them all.

There is baseball and football and one shouldn’t evaluate a running back on how well he swings a bat. And there is “literature” and “scientifiction” and one shouldn’t evaluate this on its similarity to “literature.” To quote Storm, himself, “Z-W-E-E-E-T–POWIE!” It’s its own wonderful, intense, exciting thing, with a completely made-up bit of fantasy (atomic energy hadn’t been actualized yet and, when it was, it was dynamically much as Smith describes, but not literally like it) ensconced within a whole lot of science-like stuff. It may not be quite great, but it’s good! Smith goes for an effect and, while he goes about it like no one else, he gets there. I must quote this bit which will be the acid test: if this paragraph doesn’t break you, nothing will, and you should check out this story. (Two camps of mathematicians dispute whether the vortices will grow indefinitely or eventually explode and Carlowitz is in the latter camp.)

And now Cloud, as he studied through his almost opaque defences that indescribably ravening fireball, that esuriently rapacious monstrosity which might very well have come from the deepest pit of the hottest hell of mythology, felt strongly inclined to agree with Carlowitz. It didn’t seem possible anything could get any worse than that without exploding. And such an explosion, he felt sure, would certainly blow everything from miles around into the smitheriest kind of smithereens.