[originally posted here at Castalia House]
Slaves of the Crystal Brain, by Rog Phillips (as William Carter Sawtelle), was featured in the May 1950 issue of Amazing Stories. It can be read here at Archive.org.
Slaves of the Crystal Brain has probably been the best pulp story I’ve read in a while. Sure, there was some okay stuff in the issue of Fantastic Story that I reviewed, and the older Kuttner reprint was particularly good, but this is the kind of story that I found in the pulps that made me excited to read the pulps.
Slaves is one of those classic fusions of detective/cop thriller plus mad science mystery that’s just fun to read. In the not-too-distant future of 1970, Joe January is part of a special top secret government agency that’s been tasked with keeping tabs on America’s scientists. They’re just working on stuff that’s too weird, wild and woolly to fall into the wrong hands, and some scientists have been mysteriously disappearing.
One of the scientists Joe January has to check in on, Dr. Atkinson, reveals that he’s discovered what happened to one of the missing scientists, Dr. William Henry Howe: he was abducted by an entity called a penth—a sphere of complete and utter darkness. Atkinson’s developed both a device to detect when a penth is nearby and a weapon which may be able to disrupt them. Atkinson’s barely able to reveal this information to the G-Man before he’s completely consumed by a penth, right in front of January!
Cut to the lovely Miss Nancy Howard, “an NPN girl” (No Padding Necessary), who is working incognito as a secretary to the wealthy and mysterious Giles Lorton while investigating the disappearance of her brother. She learns that Lorton is behind the disappearance of not only the scientists but many others—the penth seem to be at his beck and call, yet who is the strange mechanical voice he converses with? And what will happen to her when Lorton catches her spying on him?! And will Joe January be able to evade the shadow spheres long enough to report back to the Bureau?!?!
Where Heinlein’s spy thriller, Gulf, forgot half-way through that it was a spy thriller (and went off on a tangent about Esperanto-but-for-people-with-250-IQ for most of its second installment), Phillips’ Novella manages to maintain edge-of-your-seat action from chapter to chapter in a smooth and exciting read that’s intelligent and clever but not big-brain wojak masturbatory. While the ending stumbles a bit in its abruptness, it does not detract much from the enjoyment of the ride it takes you on.
Also, I just love this line from the opening:
Members of the checking staff of the FSB–Federal Security Bureau–came down like the Assyrians of old, as wolves upon the fold, their purpose to count the lambs.