Birthday Reviews: MacLeod, Simak

This week we go back to WWII to struggle with luck and death and we also go forward to the end of the Earth and out beyond the universe to struggle with the Creator.

Ian R. MacLeod (1956-08-06)

“The Chop Girl” (Asimov’s, December 1999)


World War II is raging. The chop girl tells her story.

Death was hanging all around you, behind the beer and the laughs and the bowls and the endless games of cards and darts and cricket. Knowing as they set out on a big mission that some planes would probably never get back. Knowing for sure that half the crews wouldn’t make it through their twenty-mission tour. So, of course, we were all madly superstitious.

She describes how she went out with guy after guy and how guy after guy never came back from his mission. How she acquired the reputation of being the Chop Girl, the evil touch, the personification of ill luck and how she became a lonely figure observing from a distance. And that’s how she observed Mr. Lucky, Walt Williams, appear on the base one day. How he was so charmed that he could maybe even walk on water. How he got that way. And what happens when irresistible good luck meets immovable bad luck.

There’s an expression about the flak being so thick you could get out and walk on it and this story has atmosphere like that because the chop girl’s narrative voice is so convincing and the details are so numerous and varied, yet united, and the story is so focused on its similarly varied, yet united “single effect” regarding superstition, luck, life, and death. There’s not a wrong note anywhere—even the epilogue-like part manages to step across time and quickly depict the loss of youth that, even with the loss of so much terror, is still terrible, and to end on a rather daring but effective note. The whole is completely real and completely mesmerizing. It’s not a very Birthday Review thing to say but, while other stories by this author haven’t had the same effect on me, I thought this one was a masterpiece when I first read it and it still is.

Clifford D. Simak (1904-08-03–1988-04-25)

“The Creator” (Marvel Tales, March-April 1935)

Simak is best known for stories he wrote in the 1940s such as those that formed City and stories he wrote in the 50s which comprised the contents of essentially every story he collected in his lifetime, as well as those later tales which were received with respect and awards. They are often folksy, rural tales of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances and the like. I recommend many of them, such as “The Big Front Yard.” But there was another Simak who wrote wild-eyed crazy adventures that I also recommend like Cosmic Engineers and this tale. It’s very much 1930s SF and does do a lot of ‘splainin’ with lots of technobabble until getting to the action but it’s a big, bold, dangerous vision.

The tale opens in a Wellsian mood with a narrator marooned at the end of time before backtracking to tell us the cause of this effect. The narrator is a psychologist theorizing about his “consciousness units” and his friend is a physicist theorizing about his “time force” and, together, they manage to think up and build a machine that takes them outside of this universe and into a laboratory that’s been haunting the psychologist’s dreams and visions. It turns out that our universe is a bit of gunk this being has created for his (or is that, His?) experiments. Our humans are not the only creatures to have made their way to this great Lab Beyond the Sky, as one pair of bizarre creatures who communicate by electricity and one even more bizarre single stickman are already there and going about their arcane business, creating entirely different time/space/dimension machines to return to the universe. The Creator veers wildly between angry and pleased, calm and frenzied, threatening and genial. But our psychologist has developed a knack for reading his mind and learns something terrible, resulting in some truly bizarre conflict.

As I say, this early tale is not Simak’s tautest construction or most plausible tale, but it’s certainly not what he was taught in Sunday School and, without aid of computers, anticipates some people’s contemporary questions about our universe being a simulation and doesn’t stop there. It’s a remarkable story and a lot of fun.

Review: Space War by Neil R. Jones

Space War by Neil R. Jones
Paperback: Ace, G-650, $0.50, 158pp, 1967 [1]

The third Ace installment of the Professor Jameson saga opens with the seventh Amazing Stories installment, “Zora of the Zoromes.” In quick succession, there are three surprises. When the idea of returning to Zor was first raised, I was expecting the journey back to be an epic, perhaps never completed, quest but, nope, we’re just on Zor in this story. Beyond that, it turns out that the immortal Zoromes don’t just die in proximity to Jameson, but all over, and must replenish their numbers, so the initial impression of the entire species having adopted the metal way of life and adopting occasional others into their ranks [2] gives way to the notion of there being fleshy Zoromes who live to reproduce before becoming machine men. Princess Zora is one such. And in a series of stories that have been literally sexless, far beyond the decorous silence of the Lensmen, Jameson, the brain in a box, is eying the shapely, eyelashed, tentacular, noseless lady speculatively, with some appreciation. But her heart is given to Bext (Jameson observes them together in “a confusing intertwining of tentacles”). Naturally, Bext is captured by the Mumes of Mumed. Turns out that Jameson and the tripeds are decent and honorable folks but some species, when given the gift of theoretical immortality in metal bodies, might lord it over those of their species who remain flesh and seek to dominate the galaxy. This is what the leader of the Mumes has set out to do, waging war on his benefactors, the Zoromes. The Zoromes set out to save Bext and Zora stows away to do her part. They have invisible ships, the Mumeds have guns which disintegrate metal, and the war between them begins until the story sort of stops in the middle with a partial invalidation of what has gone before, until it is finished in “Space War” which, itself, ends on a fitting note in action terms, but leaves Jameson and another Zorome in an odd predicament with even odder dialog.

Even in Jamesonian terms, “Zora of the Zoromes” is the worst story so far by far. It’s a novella but the first half is a conversation between Jameson and Zora in which they do discuss the apparent absence of life after death (though Jameson allows that his preserved state after death may have thrown off the results) and the notion that brains are ungendered but it’s generally very dull. Then there are more pages about creeping around in enemy territory before action finally occurs two-thirds through but the story then only moves from inert to incoherent. “Space War” is a little better, but not enough to save the pair. There is one good part in that this was written between World Wars and Jameson is not only depicting power-mad dictators but understanding that both sides will need to develop new technologies, counter the technological advances of the enemy, and expect their own advances to be countered in turn when many actual generals would be fighting the last war about five years after this was written. And, as always, there is the delightful, apparently unintentional Jamesonian humor, such as spaceships colliding in space with results similar to cars in a grocery store parking lot, somber reports of battles informing us that “[t]hose who had met death were 38R-497, 176Z-56, 34T-11 and 32B-64,” (No! Not 176Z! He was my favorite!) and priceless lines like:

6N-24 leaped headlong into the jumbled fray below them where 34T-11 was beset by several mechanical Mumes who had pulled him down and were attempting to pull off his all-important, yet independently helpless, head.

While military SF doesn’t seem to be Jones’ specialty, “Labyrinth” compensates for the rest of this book by returning to exploration. In this case, the Zoromes are pretty bored by another ho-hum strange new world out among the stars. The only interest it has are odd bare patches in its terrain and a small mystery about the barely-intelligent native lifeforms, the Queeg, who work with metal but use wooden weapons. Nevertheless, before leaving, the Zoromes decide to accompany the Queeg on a hunt for what turns out to be big pale slugs (called “ohbs”) who passively let themselves be slaughtered. That is, until one of the Zoromes makes physical contact with one, it lights up in brilliant colors, and a horror story erupts. Most readers will be able to guess what happens and why before the characters do (or the author seems to expect them to) but it has the effect of singing along to a favorite song you know the words to. The horror of the slugs and the labyrinth is pretty effective despite Jones trying to sabotage himself by describing a Zorome suffering a horrible death and telling us ungrammatically and unterrifyingly that “[h]e died uncomplaining.” Still, the initial danger and the compounding of it as the Zoromes repeatedly jump out of frying pans and into fires (or, as Jones puts it, “from Scylla to Charybdis, from the Casket to the Ortach Stone” [3]) comes to produce some genuine effect.

And, even in this one, there’s still some great Jamesonian inadvertent humor. Once the Zoromes find themselves cut off from escape. A Zorome exclaims, “The tunnel is full of ohbs!” and asks the brave leader Jameson, “Shall we try a dash through them, weapons ready?” – “Two of us can try it,” said the professor. “You and 9V-474 can go.”

[1] Original publications:

  • “Zora of the Zoromes” (Amazing Stories, March 1935)
  • “Space War” (Amazing Stories, July 1935)
  • “Labyrinth” (Amazing Stories, April 1936)

[2] I think I thought of this prior to returning to watching some DS9 episodes but it’s kind of like an extreme version of the Federation: you see these alien heads sticking up out of uniforms simultaneously indicating everyone’s differentia and their joining to the greater whole of the Federation. When a human and some tripeds become Zoromes, they put on the metal machine body which is a “uniform” in a major way.

[3] I suspect most people are familiar with the Homeric expression and maybe they are with the other, but I had to look that one up. It’s from Victor Hugo: “The Caskets are a figuring iron with a thousand compartments. The Ortach is a wall. To be wrecked on the Caskets is to be cut into ribbons; to strike on the Ortach is to be crushed into powder.”

Birthday Reviews: Kuttner, Smith, Weinbaum

Oddly, this week’s birthday reviews are all novelettes in series which come from the pages of Astounding over the span of a mere eight years (though across the tenures of two editors).

Henry Kuttner (1915-04-07–1958-02-04)

“The Proud Robot” (Astounding, October 1943)

Gallagher is an inventor/scientist but only when he’s drunk. Coming off a bender, he finds that he needs money badly, has made a deal with a businessman he doesn’t remember anything about, and has apparently made a proud robot of strange capabilities named Joe. He spends the rest of the story trying to get drunk again and figure out what was going on. This is in a series of stories about Gallegher and, while perhaps not fully sustaining the novelette length, is a funny tale which does touch on some interesting ideas about social behavior and change related to media and does have a heck of an explanation regarding Joe’s nature.

George O. Smith (1911-04-09–1981-05-27)

“QRM – Interplanetary” (Astounding, October 1942)

Rewinding exactly one year, George O. Smith also launches a series – the Venus Equilateral series which made him famous. This is a bizarre combination of very advanced and dated SF all at once, as it’s about the Venus Equilateral Relay Station, a communication satellite, but one which made out of an asteroid, staffed with the population of a small city, and which is situated ahead of Venus in the Trojan position so as to facilitate communications when Mars or Terra are around the sun from Venus or each other. All is well as long as someone like Channing, who knows what he’s doing, is in charge, even on a temporary basis. All is not well when a businessman is installed as the permanent boss and doesn’t know what he’s doing. The only real problem with this story is that, while it tries to be somewhat fair to the businessman and make him somewhat of a human character, when it comes to the climactic snafu, the businessman is almost (though, alas, not absolutely) too stupid to be believed. Either way, the depiction of the station is wonderful and the series does go on to be a great depiction of heroes who save the day with diagrams jotted onto paper napkins at a bar.

Stanley G. Weinbaum (1902-04-04–1935-12-14)

“Parasite Planet” (Astounding, February 1935)

Rewinding still further, this one even predates Campbell but it’s a superb story by a writer whose tragically early death (even earlier than Kuttner’s) was a major loss to the field. Weinbaum is best known for “A Martian Odyssey” which did for aliens what Asimov did for robots. It’s superb and I recommend it to everyone but I wanted to focus on Weinbaum’s Venus (also a series). This is a Venus that Asher fans should love, as it’s an elaborate and exceedingly nasty ecology which produces frissons of horror amidst great adventure. Its only flaw is an uncomfortable mixture of romance (not unique to this story) but the relationship between the two characters has Han/Leia vibes and Pat Burlingame is about as competent as Leia, too. The plot is simple: disaster strikes, “Ham” Hammond must make his arduous way to distant safety, he encounters another person, disaster strikes and strikes again! But this simple plot is executed very well, keeping the pulse pounding through a very fast read. Though aspects of the denouement will cause many (including me) to groan for various reasons, I enthusiastically recommend the tale.

Birthday Reviews: Gallun, Piper, Rucker

Raymond Z. Gallun (1911-03-22–1994-04-02)

“Derelict” (Astounding, October 1935)

Jan Van Tyren was a big wheel until his family was killed when some of the native Loathi of Ganymede revolted. On his way back to Earth, he comes across a derelict ship that’s come from outside the solar system long ago and has some amazing experiences there, resulting in a new condition. It’s a tale with too many adjectives and not a lot of action but is a mood piece which runs counter to the generic notion of 30s SF and displays great imagination.

H. Beam Piper (1904-03-23–1964-11-06)

“Time and Time Again” (Astounding, April 1947)

This is an incredibly simple story in one sense: in 1975, during a battle at Buffalo in WWIII, Captain Allan Hartley is too close to an atomic bomb blast and will die soon, except he wakes up in 1945, in his thirteen-year-old body, but retains full knowledge of the intervening thirty years. The details of this, what he does both small and large in 1945, his explanation for it, and his plans about what to do with it are not so simple and make this story very effective. My one reservation is that Allan and his dad seem to have extraordinarily flexible minds but they aren’t portrayed as average in any other way, so even this isn’t really a problem.

Rudy Rucker (1946-03-22)

“Pac-Man” (Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, June 1982)

This is an amusingly dated phildickian piece about a woman who gets a job at a bank and her husband who’s working at a video arcade. When he has a couple of really good games playing Pac-Man [1] things get really strange.

[1] “Peg-Man” in the original version of the story because editor George Scithers had some strange notions about copyright.