Birthday Reviews: Budrys, Effinger, Green, London, Silverberg, Smith

This week’s installment covers a record six birthdays which include stories of strange knowledge, strange intelligence, and sex and death. Three of the stories (those by Budrys, London, and Silverberg) are drawn from a single anthology, though that’s still less than three percent of its contents. The other three authors (Effinger, Green, and Smith) weren’t in that one and their tales are drawn from the other three books depicted.


Algis Budrys (1931-01-09/2008-06-09)

“The Man Who Always Knew” (Astounding, April 1956)

Algis Budrys is known, but not well known; he’s esteemed, but not greatly esteemed–and I don’t know why everyone doesn’t know him and think he’s among the greatest. In this, a sad, tired man has a great weight on him and finally unburdens himself to (who else?) his bartender and, after he’s taken the plunge, Budrys says, “He did look happy–happy all the way through, like a man with insomnia who suddenly feels himself drifting off to sleep.” There’s just something about that line that Budrys has written a million of and even better, but it’s just quintessentially him. Anyway, this is a bittersweet tale about a man with a very odd and special talent which results in fame, fortune, and unhappiness.

George Alec Effinger (1947-01-10/2002-04-27)

“The Aliens Who Knew, I Mean, Everything” (F&SF, October 1984)

For a very different tale about very different kind of knowledge, Effinger here gives us a very funny tale in which the President of the United States describes the day the aliens came and what happened after. These aliens, the nuhp, are very friendly and helpful (when they can be, as they are backwards in some amusing ways) but have never heard of the phrase “de gustibus non est disputandum” and their know-it-all ways result in expected transformations in human attitudes toward them and some unexpected transformations of humanity and the world beyond that. From the president asking them, “And how long do you plan to be with us?” and then lamenting to himself that he sounded like “a room clerk at a Holiday Inn” to his later conversations with the nuhp about the Joy of Bowling, this packs in many laughs and, despite being nuhp-like, I say this is a better story than hollyhocks.

Joseph Green (1931-01-14)

“The Crier of Crystal” (Analog, October 1971)

Among the last stories John W. Campbell bought before his death was an installment in Joseph Green’s series that would be fixed up into Conscience Interplanetary. The background for all the stories is that a component of international human space exploration is the Practical Philosopher Corps, which is made up of “Consciences” who try to determine if anything, no matter how bizarre, has any intelligence on the explored worlds and, if they do, those planets may be studied but not exploited. In this particular tale, the protagonist Conscience, Allan Odegaard, is on Crystal, a world of silicon-based life-forms, the strangeness and beauty of which is evoked well. He encounters a plant-like form which seems to make random noises mixed with random words on this very noisy world. Determining if it’s intelligent and trying to communicate with it may be difficult, but performing the same tasks with a human politician who wants to cancel the Consciences may be even more so!

Jack London (1876-01-12/1916-11-22)

“A Thousand Deaths” (The Black Cat, May 1899)

A man (something of a Byronic figure) is drowning (something of a Shelleyan fate) when the story opens. He quickly tells us his backstory and then loses consciousness. But we know he doesn’t die because it’s first person and, indeed, he is awakened to find himself being resuscitated by a strange mechanical contrivance. His savior happens to be his estranged father, who doesn’t recognize him. What follows is a strange bit of temporary double deception as the father imprisons and repeatedly kills the son as part of his researches into death and resuscitation until the son develops a machine of his own. This doesn’t have the strongest plot and narrating in the first person doesn’t exactly maximize any potential tension (to be fair, I think this was London’s first story or nearly so) but the echoes of the other Shelley and H. G. Wells’ island and, of course, the psychological, even mythical, elements of the story give it quite a bit of power.

Robert Silverberg (1935-01-15)

“To Be Continued” (Astounding, May 1956)

This story’s opening line (abridged) is “Gaius Titus Menenius sat in his apartment on Park Avenue” which is an excellent example of cognitive estrangement (or very mean parents) and it turns out to be the former, as he’s a two-thousand-year-old Roman who ages very, very slowly. But, oh happy day, he learns he’s aged enough to be able to reproduce and goes about trying to do so, with some surprising results which leads to another round of surprise and one more for the kicker. This is probably a pretty good example of Silverberg’s earlier work in that it has a great idea, a slick execution, and an effective ending, though it’s a little sloppy in the details of its premise and doesn’t explore it in the fullness the general concept might merit. Still, it’s a clever tale with some sense of wonder along with some ironic humor.

Clark Ashton Smith (1893-01-13/1961-08-14)

“The Weird of Avoosl Wuthoqquan” (Weird Tales, June 1932)

In this, one of Smith’s Hyperborean tales, we get the story of a money-lender who will spare nothing for a beggar and thus receives his weird from him for free: a doom which the money-lender scoffs at and forgets. Later, the time comes and quite a memorable night it is. The description of its start conveys how Smith’s 11 reverberated long enough for it to still be at least a six by the time it got to Jack Vance:

Avoosl Wuthoqquan sat in a lower chamber of his house, which was also his place of business. The room was obliquely shafted by the brief, aerial gold of the reddening sunset, which fell through a crystal window, lighting a serpentine line of irised sparks in the jewel-studded lamp that hung from copper chains and touching to fiery life the tortuous threads of silver and similor in the dark arrases. Avoosl Wuthoqquan, seated in an umber shadow beyond the aisle of light, peered with an austere and ironic mien at his client, whose swarthy face and somber mantle were gilded by the passing glory.

The form of this baroque tale is similar to many fables of retribution such as the one of Midas but the imaginative content and deft execution set it apart.

Birthday Reviews: Keller, Leiber

There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone. —Rod Serling (1924-12-25/1975-06-28)


David H. Keller (1880-12-23/1966-07-13)

“The Thing in the Cellar” (Weird Tales, March 1932)

Ever since little Tommy was a baby, he’d reacted strangely to the kitchen of the house his parents had moved into, which was connected to an unusually large cellar, separated by an unusually massive door. Now a boy of six about to go to school, his parents have had enough of his strange and unmanly ways and consult a doctor for advice on what to do about it. Since the boy’s fears are irrational, the doctor decides, his parents should make him confront them so that he can learn that there’s nothing to be afraid of.

This story, though short, is a little long and labored in getting to the point we’re all expecting, but it is a more effective psychological horror story than anything else, as it touches on the horrible things parents and society can do to children… for their own good, of course.[1]

Fritz Leiber (1910-12-24/1992-09-05)

“The Oldest Soldier” (F&SF, May 1960)

Fred’s a liberal who used to be a pacifist but, being a liberal and thus able to see both sides of every issue, he’s become interested in military affairs. He’s become a regular at a liquor store bar where he’s tolerated as the token civilian and has become friends with Max who tells taller tales than even the rest of the ex-soldier regulars—claiming to have been in Napoleonic wars and even Martian ones. But when he and Fred both become aware of a large black shape with glowing red eyes spying on them, they find themselves in a night of terror and Fred develops a new perception of reality in a couple of ways.

While not an award winner and not usually on lists of great stories, so far as I know, this is one of my favorites. Whether Leiber is letting creative whimsy show through when talking about the “screwballistics” of the bar folk, or making the store in Chicago seem vividly real with talk of plate glass windows and Fred’s attempts to rationalize the glowing eyes as reflected tail lights or cigarette butts blown by the wind, or describing the mindless actions Fred takes to control his fear as he tries to wait out an only vaguely understood disaster, all of it works. The narrative which moves deftly from present to past and back more than once also keeps the story taut and moving while allowing room to create depth. The protagonist’s issues with war and peace, bravery and fear, and his night of crisis is compelling of itself even if it weren’t a powerful horror story at the same time.

[1] And I can’t help but think of “I Don’t Wanna Go Down to the Basement” by the Ramones.

Birthday Reviews: Barrett, Dickson, Ewers, Haldane

This week’s birthday gang brings us a bittersweet comedy, a bitterersweet drama, a Halloween horror, and a mob-ridden monetary melodrama.


Neal Barrett, Jr. (1929-11-03/2014-01-12)

“Perpetuity Blues” (IAsfm, May 1987)

This is the tale of “Maggie McKenna from Marble Creek” and a hilarious tale it is, but also an affecting one that can be read as very sad and, yet, ultimately perhaps upbeat even so. Maggie’s a small-town Texas girl whose father has disappeared and whose mother has died when she ends up with her lecherous uncle and an aunt who’s primary advice is to for God’s sake never sit on anyone’s lap. Maggie deals with many people, some good and some bad, both early in her life and on her big move to New York to become a playwright. The most important early encounter is with Oral Blue, a albino-looking man who claims to be an alien and who dresses and lives in blue. How he and her stories entangle is profound and also very funny, as he talks about being attacked by “Mormon terrorists” on one occasion and then by Vikings on another, whom he describes as “worse than Mormons.” Later, her most important influences are the truckers who get her to New York (one of whom has a library where all the books are written by various people named “John”) and, when she arrives, she declares, “Lordy, it looks near as real as a movie.”

This sort of makes me think of Tom Robbins turned up to 11. One of the most effective elements is how it takes a narrative tone that has room for ironic/comic distance on the one hand and for Maggie’s subjectivity at the same time, as when we get a flash as through a microscope when we learn that Maggie “liked to wander over limestone hills where every rock you picked up was the shell of something tiny that had lived.” It’s a very engaging, funny, and layered story with a superb “voice.”

Gordon R. Dickson (1923-11-01/2001-01-31)

“Dolphin’s Way” (Analog, June 1964)

A scientist is trying to communicate with dolphins while fearing the budgetary ax will fall when a strangely attractive reporter arrives and begins asking him questions. Over the course of the story, we get his theories about tests aliens might have for humanity and how we might communicate with dolphins and then witness his pyrhhic victory. This is an excellent tale about linguistics, the Fermi Question, the nature of “humanity” and the cosmos. There is a problem with some gaps in the reporter’s knowledge, it seems to me, but this is about the only blemish on a story that does a great job of packing a lot of ideas into a very short and intelligent space and is also strangely vivid and concrete, perhaps due to its focus on clarity and essentials, allowing the details of place and sensation to achieve more than those in most stories do. This is also a good story to enrich the perspectives of those who see Campbell and/or Dickson stories in simple, monolithic terms.

Hanns Heinz Ewers (1871-11-03/1943-06-12)

“The Spider” (Die Besessenen, 1908)

Happy Halloween! (And with minutes to spare.) This tale of a medical student renting a room in which three people have hanged themselves on consecutive Fridays is steeped in sex and death (or eros and thanatos, if you want to get fancy and Freudian) and combines a third-person omniscient presentation of the student’s diary, giving the best of both narrative worlds while the student suffers the worst of both psychosexual worlds. While I question its “psychological” underpinnings, it’s a creative and skilled dramatization of them and, while I can’t get into it without spoilers, it makes an odd antithesis to the preceding story. (Also, the little dash of number-play that I think I see is a twistedly amusing element.)

J. B. S. Haldane (1892-11-05/1964-12-01)

“The Gold-Makers” (The Inequality of Man, 1932)

The following is adapted from my review of Great Science Fiction by Scientists.

Several scientists have written SF stories. Many are surprisingly melodramatic and, in some cases, even more surprisingly effective. J.B.S. Haldane’s “The Gold-Makers” is a strong example, dealing with a complicated noir mob-like plot turning on the financial implications of being able to create gold, with some parties trying to achieve this and others trying to suppress it. This is wrapped in an “I’m publishing this true story as fiction” wrapper, which is entertaining.

Review: The Planet of the Double Sun by Neil R. Jones

The Planet of the Double Sun by Neil R. Jones
Paperback: Ace, F-420, $0.40, 123pp, 1967

The Planet of the Double Sun is a collection of three novelettes. I’d reviewed the first, “The Jameson Satellite” (Amazing, July 1931), for the latest weekly “Birthday Reviews” post. That introductory story stands more or less by itself. Between stories, the Zoromes and Professor Jameson (who has acquired the Zorome moniker “21MM392”) have had many unspecified adventures before the next two connected stories begin.

The first is the title story (Amazing, February 1932), and involves the Zoromes arriving in a system of an orange sun and a blue sun, and investigating the first planet. There, they find an odd form of life or two, but not much, and also find the bones of thousands of “Tripeds.” The reason for these bones becomes apparent before too long, as the beautiful planet with the orange and blue sun becomes a nightmare world when the orange sun sets and the blue sun is left alone. Ghostly flying creatures making horrible sounds appear and drive the Zoromes to suicidal and/or murderous madness. It is determined that there is some sort of other colored dimension through which the creatures can affect this world (but still can’t be affected by it) when the orange sun is not neutralizing the blue one’s baneful rays. (Spoilers for the second story follow, in order to get to the third.)

After several settings of the orange sun, only a handful of Zoromes make it back to the ship and take off. Even then, all the remainder but one suicidally jump out and the one declares “Death to 21MM392!” and attacks Jameson (whose Earthly brain is immune to the creatures’ influence), forcing him to fight and fling the last Zorome out of the ship. After all this, Jameson is not in top condition and the ship is worse, being badly damaged and circling the planet in a decaying path which would cause it to crash if not for an erupting volcano which hurls the ship up into space, leaving Jameson trapped alone in orbit, perhaps for eternity.

Or perhaps not. In “The Return of the Tripeds” (Amazing, May 1932), Jameson has spent 571 revolutions around the double suns with nothing to do but daydream (Zoromes do not sleep) and observe the second world in the system through the Zoromes’ immensely powerful telescopes. It turns out that there is some seed of hope because that world is the home of the Tripeds and, despite having shown no signs of spaceflight earlier in Jameson’s vigil, they are now heading out into space once again. Indeed, they find Jameson and relate their history of failed colonization of the first planet and descent into barbarism on their home world, and the long climb back up to wreak vengeance on the first world’s interdimensional interlopers. So Jameson and his new friends set off with some interdimensional tech and prepare to wage war on the enemy. After some difficulty with the transfer, they manage to arrive and, as one of two surprises left in their story, find a much stiffer fight awaiting them than they’d expected.

While “The Jameson Satellite” was highly problematic but entertaining, instilling curiosity about the subsequent tales and hopes for improvement, the second tale defines “sophomore slump” as all that was bad in the first story becomes worse and most of what was good is lost. The sketchy writing becomes astonishingly stiff and awkward [1], the traces of psychology are dispensed with as Jameson is untouched by his half-millennium of isolation, and the unscientific “science” becomes ever more fantastic. Worse, a big deal is made of the Zoromes’ practical immortality in the first tale so the very next one proceeds to kill them easily in droves. The lack of plotting in the first tale had been compensated for by the novelty of the concepts but this is an action-adventure tale which just sort of mills around futilely. I can see how a young reader of the early 1930s might have still found a sense of wonder in all this but a current reader, even one capable of being as retro as I can be, will be hard-pressed to find much here, though the volcano-rocket bounce has the sort of free-wheeling preposterousness of the 1930s Flash Gordon serials that is almost as much a virtue as it is a vice. “The Return of the Tripeds” recovers somewhat. It has a similarly flailing plot and bad writing, but the Triped/Zorome interaction is appealing, and the recovery of Jameson and the assault on the enemy at least has a forward momentum. Basically, I’m still willing to carry on with the next volume (perhaps as much to see a crash as to see any successful lap) but can’t encourage others to do so.

As a last note, if you wonder where the mocking stereotypes of “sci-fi” come from, this is one example. While lines like, “Truly, the mental vision of heaven by the early saints of Christendom could not have excelled this world of paradise for the optical senses” and having a Zorome be “greatly impressed by the professor’s impressive conclusions” are, um, impressive, this was my favorite bit:

“Why did you wait seven hundred years before returning?” asked the professor. “Didn’t you use spacecraft during all that time?”

“That is a story in itself,” explained the Triped, whose name the professor later learned was Glrg. “Briefly, it is this: Our expedition to this planet was the second of our initial trips following our conquest of space and a realization of the ability to journey to other planets in our system. Living on the second planet,” (here the Triped gave voice to a name which sounded to the professor like Grvdlen) “we first of all explored our moons and the nearer planets. We found the third planet (Uzblt) devoid of all life. Here upon Trulfk we found, even as you machine men discovered, a beautiful world. We have never been to the fourth and last world of our system, Lkpfud.”

[1] At times I wondered if he was aiming to emulate the style of Greek heroic poetry with fixed epithets (“the machine men of Zorome”) and a sort of “lofty” (stilted) diction as done by 19th century English translators but, if so, he doesn’t hit the target.