Birthday Reviews: Gunn, Sheckley, Smith

One of this week’s stories takes us into one of the most unusually imaginative space battles ever and even sneakily connects to the other two, which are related stories that ask what it would be like if women really were from “Venus” and how a man could get a perfect woman. I’m going to discuss those together because they make a nice pair.

James Gunn (1923-07-12)

“The Misogynist” (Galaxy, November 1952)

Robert Sheckley (1928-07-16–2005-12-09)

“The Perfect Woman” (Amazing, December 1953-January 1954)

In “The Misogynist,” a naive narrator introduces us to Harry, the “wit” who can tell jokes like no one else. He then repeats a story of Harry’s which conveys his ideas about women and which the narrator thinks tops all his previous jokes.

In “The Perfect Woman,” the year 3000 has arrived. Through the viewpoint of a hungover Mr. Morchek, we learn about the conversation he had the night before with a man who has married a Primitive Woman and learn what a Modern Woman is like as we observe Morchek’s relationship with his own wife.

There are nice twists in both these tales. The naive narrator is utilized well to get to the one in “The Misogynist” while the reader’s initial naivete about the society of the year 3000 is utilized well to get to the one in “The Perfect Woman.” Both are very economical (though “The Misogynist” could have been tightened still more). And they both have several interesting angles. Both would probably be taken as literally misogynistic today and that’s a reasonable interpretation from the internal realities of the stories. However, they can also be taken in the reverse sense, as mocking some men’s desires, expectations, or worldviews. It’s also interesting that, even if interpreted simplistically, it would only serve to show that all sorts of sensibilities could be represented in the “conformist” 1950s while today’s “diversity” has narrowed the conceptual possibilities of the genre. In a way, this would (aptly if taken seriously, and ironically if taken ironically) prove some of the Misogynist’s theorizing correct. But, heavy topical stuff aside, these are well-written and entertaining short stories.

Cordwainer Smith (1913-07-11–1966-08-06)

“The Game of Rat and Dragon” (Galaxy, October 1955)

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In the far future of the Instrumentality of Mankind, people have progressed to the point of traveling through space via planoforming, but have encountered malevolent underspace beings who would make this impossible, if not for the telepathic battle teams of human and cat who perceive the enemy as dragons or rats, respectively, and, together, are capable of fighting and usually destroying the beings with light bombs. We learn of this amazing milieu and witness one such battle, as well as the effects of one mind upon another.

It’s hard to grasp that the first section or two-fifths of this story is essentially just an infodump because it’s so bizarre, fascinating, and enlivened with points of emotional connection. Then it moves step-by-step into the assignment of “partners,” the preparations, the combat, and the aftermath, showing excellent structure and control. But the greatest power of this story is its uninhibited imagination.

Asimov’s Centennial: Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids

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Lucky Starr and the Pirates of the Asteroids by Paul French (Isaac Asimov)
Hardcover: Doubleday, $2.50, 188pp, 1953 [1]

In this second adventure of David Starr, he takes one step further out to the asteroid belt and has awkwardly acquired his nickname of “Lucky” while Earth has suddenly acquired a Terrestrial Empire and even greater enemies than before, with a reborn pirate menace and active meddling by the shadowy Sirians.

The Council of Science thinks Lucky’s brought them a plan to booby-trap a spaceship that the pirates who infest the asteroids will seize and take back to their base, where it will detonate. But it’s actually Lucky’s plan to sneak aboard that ship and be captured by pirates so that that he can infiltrate their organization. When they arrive, they know all about the “trap” and Lucky pretends to be a poor sap who just wanted to stow away to get to them and obviously had no knowledge of the trap. When challenged, Lucky proposes a duel and the pirates agree, picking the style of combat. Lucky finds himself in a fight using “push-guns” (a sort of suit thruster) which he knows nothing about while the meanest pirate, Dingo, is an expert. Nevertheless, the pirate makes a couple of mistakes and Lucky comes out on top. Still suspicious of Lucky, they drop him off at a hermit’s asteroid while they head back to base to check him out further. He and the hermit trade infodumps and the hermit recognizes Lucky as the son of Lawrence Starr. He sees in this a chance to return to civilization with a pardon for his collaboration with the pirates if he can save Lucky and provide information about the pirate operations. He convinces Lucky that the pirates will see through Lucky’s game and they both return to Ceres, where friend Bigman and “parents” Henree and Conway have a joyous reunion.

One thing perplexes Henree and Conway though, and that’s how the pirates could have known about the trap. They decide there must be a spy in the Council of Science who is leaking information but Lucky reveals that he is the spy, though he had his reasons. Then he decides to try again, this time with Bigman playing the pirate infiltrator. Like Lucky, Bigman does some freelancing of his own (no wonder they’re pals) and, like Lucky, he also fails because it turns out the asteroid is lost. For reasons given later, the mystery of the asteroid makes Lucky realize the Sirians and their pirate tools intend to take over the solar system, and quickly. Lucky must go out in his own super-spaceship to pick up Bigman and try to reverse-engineer the location of the hermit’s asteroid. Finding it, Lucky is again captured, Dingo again makes a mistake, Lucky again comes out on top and, among Lucky’s subsequent efforts to prevent the Sirian takeover of the Terrestrial Empire, he must put his ship on an intercept course with another pirate ship which involves flying through (the corona of) the Sun.

And some of what I’ve just told you isn’t really what was going on because, in addition to Asimov having Lucky and Bigman repeatedly trying to trick others and repeatedly having others try to trick them, Asimov is also trying to trick the reader. This isn’t always entirely successful and the plot doesn’t bear too much scrutiny. For instance, the pirates such as Dingo and Anton (the latter of whom, at least, is supposed to be intelligent) repeatedly behave stupidly from self-defeating spite, Lucky is recognized twice in two books despite Councilmen not being publicized (and in the first book his nom de guerre was “Dick Williams” and in this it’s “Bill Williams”), and so on. In addition to the inconsistency of the famous unknown Starr and the things I mentioned in the first paragraph, Earth was dependent on Mars for food in the last book but, in this one, it’s Venusian yeast cultures which figure prominently.

Given that large populations eating yeast is a significant Asimovian motif, its clear that Asimov is erasing what little division there was between “French” and himself, which is confirmed by the use of “hyperatomic motors,” “personal capsules,” “neuronic whips,” and other standard furniture of Asimov’s futures. (Unfortunately, it also repeats a common Asimovian tic of throwing in a named character (such as the “good pirate” Martin Maniu) to serve his brief purpose and then dropping him.) Conversely, all the space battles and other fights made me think that this book was almost to Asimov as the atypical Earthlight was to Arthur C. Clarke.

In terms of hitting the target audience, this may be slightly more juvenile than the first book, as the hazing Lucky endures from the head pirate, Anton, and the “game” (albeit a potentially deadly one) of the push-guns indicate. Also, the style is generally fine but the pirates have strange lapses such as Anton “suavely” explaining to Lucky that pirates call “asteroids” “rocks” and Dingo’s first line being, “Blinking Space, there’s a ripper with a gat here!” [2] Either way, most of its young audience of 1953 probably would have enjoyed it quite a bit.

For a general audience, Asimov does achieve the neat trick of creating a Foundation milieu which is huge in time and space but feels proportionally smaller than one might expect a galaxy to feel, while creating a Starr milieu in which the Solar System seems quite large. More importantly, the sense of multiple vise grips being applied to the Terrestrial Empire by the pirate and Sirian menaces, coupled with Lucky’s thrilling high-speed burn through the System and the Sun in pursuit of pirates is all very effective. Again, this is surely secondary Asimov but is not without its virtues. Speaking of, its edifying ending may also have aspects of a “message” to young readers (and certainly isn’t how I would have handled it had I been in Lucky’s shoes) but makes for a satisfying conclusion to this installment.


[1] Again, I’m using the Del Rey cover as explained in the David Starr review.

[2] The quote ends with a period in the book but, given that the line is introduced by saying the pirate “yelled,” I changed (corrected?) it to end with an exclamation point.

Birthday Reviews: Norton, Phillips, Rocklynne

There are a lot of birthdays of interest in the coming week and, if I’m still doing this next year, I’ll get to more of them, but here are three.

Andre Norton (1912-02-17–2005-03-17)

“All Cats Are Gray” (Fantastic Universe, August/September 1953)

Steena is a wallflower of mysterious knowledge who often helps spacers in need at the local bar and has acquired a cat in exchange for doing so. When one spacer is in desperate financial need and the rich derelict, The Empress of Mars, is coming around again, the spacer and – unusually – Steena herself (and her cat) go out to try to conquer the ship despite many having tried and none having come back. A very brief and exciting adventure follows.

While this story has many predecessors and successors in its familiar general type, it’s good stuff whose particulars are infused with great imagination and style. Steena, the Empress, and related things are memorable and it makes a good point about not judging books by their covers or assuming differences are deficits without making it a morality play. Most people should enjoy this, especially if they like Jack McDevitt’s “space wreck” mysteries or Mike Resnick’s “larger-than-life heroes of the spaceways” tales. Or cats.

Rog Phillips (1909-02-20–1966-03-02)

“The Yellow Pill” (Astounding, October 1958)

Psychiatric doctor Cedric Elton is interviewing Gerald Bocek who is accused of killing several people. The two men engage in a battle of worldviews while a yellow pill, which heightens sense perception to break down delusion, hangs over them like a sword of Damocles.

I really can’t say more about the characterization and plot of this story but will say that the psychological edginess as both men wrestle with sanity, insanity, and each other, is a powerful subject which is handled well, generally, and the ending is certainly traumatic. It reads somewhat like a good episode of the Twilight Zone (which began airing the next year) and my only real complaint is that the characters and worldviews aren’t given equal weight. Still, definitely worth a read.

Ross Rocklynne (1913-02-21–1988-10-29)

“Into the Darkness” (Astonishing, June 1939)

This is a literally astonishing story which was written in 1934 but couldn’t find a publisher until Fred Pohl bought it. It deals with energy creatures who take five million years to grow into babies ten million miles across, eventually growing to thirty million miles or more. They play with stars and planets, creating and destroying them at whim. The hero of our story is a being who is not like other beings. Darkness, whose name has three meanings, has three questions which set him apart from his fellows who carelessly play and he goes to Oldster for answers. What is the purpose of life? What is beyond the darkness at the edge of the universe? What is this colored energy within me? Dissatisfied, and still filled with the yearning he’s had since birth to go into that darkness and seek anything beyond, he eats a gigantic sun for energy and heads out. What he finds goes some way towards answering his questions which have some bearing on our own.

In a way, this is to SF as free verse is to a sonnet but, either way, this is one of the more remarkable stories around. It is wildly imaginative and tackles an important theme. It (and another Rocklynne tale) inspired me to seek out both his books [1], so I obviously highly recommend it.


[1] Rocklynne’s books are The Sun Destroyers and The Men and the Mirror. My To Be Read pile is as vast as Darkness and, even after years, I still have yet to read them – but I’m once again inspired to move them up in the Pile.