Short Reviews – The Cosmic Jackpot by George O. Smith

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

The Cosmic Jackpot by George O. Smith appeared in the October 1948 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.

The Cosmic Jackpot opens with a confused and angry Martian scientist receiving a red lipstick and a couple of worthless silver slugs in his change from a vending machine.

Meanwhile, on Earth, a scientist/entrepreneur has just announced the official roll-out of his commercial service: a point-of-sale matter transportation device. Simply put in your money, tell the machine what it is you want, and the good folks down at the warehouse will atomize your order and send it to you ASAP. So, like a cross between the replicators on Star Trek and Amazon Same Day Deliver. Except something goes wrong. When the scientist punches in an order for a lipstick for his dame during a demonstration for investors, rather than a lipstick, he gets an odd canister and some coinage of unknown origin!

Yep, the newly developed technology on earth is interfering with the commercial matter transfer vending machines on Mars. It only happens when the earthman and the Martian use the machine at the exact same moment; of course, they’re both determined to get to the bottom of what’s going on, so they doggedly use their machines over and over again until they are able to use the machine simultaneously at regular intervals.

The two men learn about each other’s worlds via the cheap and strange trinkets they send one another, from toys to postcards to starlet magazines. Each has to build their impression of the other on what they’re able to send and receive. Just as the earthman had been certain there was no possible intelligent life on Mars (too dry!), the Martian was certain that there was no possible intelligent life on Earth (too wet!); one of the best moments was the Martian’s fear and revulsion at a postcard of humans splashing about in the water on the Atlantic City beaches (that one went in the fireplace).

Eventually, both men send over bottles of air and are set to send themselves to the other’s world via the machine’s product return/refund mechanism. The earthman gets there first, just in time, too, since the Martian is about to be arrested for having fed slugs (the US dimes) into the machine.

Again, we have an idea piece, where the story revolves tightly around the concept, which is not so much the matter transmitter but the limitations of trying to learn about another culture through its commonplace artifacts. If you had to convey the entirety of what it is to be a human living on earth via stuff you could send them out of a Sear Catalog, what would you send?

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Short Reviews – Miracle Town, by William F. Temple

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

Miracle Town by William F. Temple appeared in the October 1948 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.

Miracle Town gives off the sort of vibe you get from those more whimsical episodes of the Twilight Zone. It uses some scientific jargon and philosophy to fuel its magical and miraculous narrative; the implausible science (which is actually hard science with a REALLY BIG and implausible “What If?”) allows the story to dig into the science egg-head skeptic character’s reactions to everything in a way which simply would not work if it were pure magic which the story revolved around.

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Short Reviews – The Square Pegs, by Ray Bradbury

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

The Square Pegs by Ray Bradbury appeared in the October 1948 Issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.

The Square Pegs is an idea piece that taunts us with what it could have been but was not. It may be one of the scariest Bradbury stories I’ve read, though it’s not a horror story. It left me feeling creepy-crawly and dirty, so much so that I’m talking about it today instead of next week (I should be talking about Miracle Town, which was a cute and happy story! Next week, I promise.)

In this short story, a woman who is violently insane and believes that she is Catherine the Great is on a spaceship with her brother and two sisters. Rather than take her to an asylum, they are taking her to an asteroid. It has been discovered that the asteroids are inhabited, self-contained worlds with unique populations and cultures, each of which perfectly complements the manifestations of individuals’ unique or not-so-unique insanities. She is being taken to a world where she CAN be Catherine the Great and the inhabitants will accept her as such.

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Short Reviews – Yesterday’s Doors, by Arthur J. Burks

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

Yesterday’s Doors by Arthur J. Burks appeared in the October 1948 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.

After reading Yesterday’s Doors, I think I finally begin to ‘get’ Thrilling Wonder Stories’ angle on science fiction. It’s Sense of Wonder, but not in the way that it’s typically meant when referring to Sci-Fi. In the case of Thrilling, the stories seem to revolve around one weird and fantastical concept to make you think. That’s not to say “everything is realistic except for one thing”; it’s “What if a Moon gave you the powers of a god?”, “What if a guy who wanted a girl got turned into a giant?”, “What if a pair of circus freaks turned out to be shipwrecked aliens?”, “What if a man could explore all of his past lives?” or “What if atoms were sentient and had intelligence?”

Yesterday’s Doors is very much what I’d call a ‘thinky’ story; it’s much more cerebral than it is action driven, but it plays on a wide variety of ideas and presents them in a way reminiscent of a lucid dream. It’s a story about ideas that are explored in strange ways in bizarre settings rather than about characters doing exciting things in bizarre settings. In this regard, it’s something like a Gibson story; you’re on a train to nowhere where gentle music plays in the background, but damn if the countryside out the window isn’t beautiful.

The story starts with amnesiac “Dean Hale”, who lives in a city where, much like in Big O, people walk around dreamlike, often amnesiac like himself. Sometimes people wake up, sometimes they don’t, and are content to aimlessly drift through the rest of their lives not knowing who or why they are. “Dean Hale” does not even know if he is “Dean Hale”, but he has been accused of and interrogated for the murder of a Marion Slade.

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Short Reviews – I Like You, Too, by Joe Gibson

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

“I Like You, Too” by Joe Gibson appeared in the October 1948 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories.

After a couple of duds which followed Brackett’s masterpiece, this issue of Thrilling rights itself with the fun and somewhat bizarre “I Like You, Too” by Joe Gibson.

Given the recent arguments here over Hard SF and Pulp, this story should add some fuel to the fire, some grist to mill, or at least a data point for reference. Over the course of its scant pages, I Like You, Too goes from rock-hard SF to full-on weird.

An expedition to Mars has nearly reached the Red Planet when something goes dreadfully wrong. A meteor is heading toward the ship, and any course that will avoid it will throw off the ship’s atmospheric entry trajectory, killing them all! They’re faced with a choice of bouncing off into the outer solar system or trying to survive a hot reentry and crash landing.

“Our nucleonic field simply cannot take a ‘head-on’ with that meteor without drastically, fatally, shoving the ship off course! We’re plunging into Mars—we’ll have to! Jennings has a reckoning on our trajectory, now. We’ll skim Mars! Smack through the atmosphere and on out into space! Looks like our only chance—velocity ten times too high for landing, and Jennings believes our nucleonic field can take that atmospheric pressure while it can’t take the meteor! But it’s going to be close and it’s going to be hot outside! Jennings says to hang onto your hats!”

 

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Short Reviews – That Mess Last Year, by John D. MacDonald and Galactic Heritage, by Frank Belknap Long

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

That Mess Last Year, by John D. MacDonald and Galactic Heritage, by Frank Belknap Long appeared in the October 1948 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find complete scans of this issue. If I do, though, or if someone else posts them, I’ll update with links.

I’ve said for a while now that one of the worst fates a writer can have is to immediately follow up a Leigh Brackett story. Even if that were not the case, That Mess Last Year would probably not have grabbed my fancy. I’ve never been a fan of first person stories written in dialect, because a lot of times this is used as an excuse to throw in a lot of “Crazy, ain’t it?” and “Boyshuckshowdylemmetellya” asides. That Mess Last Year not only starts out with a first person recollective dialectic narrative, it goes into a recollection of another guy telling the actual story in first person recollective dialectic narrative!

A guy is out in the western American deserts on a job and gets to know a dorky loser scientist at a bar. The dorky loser scientist has the hots for a dame who’d never notice him in a million years. To make a short story shorter, a lab accident blows him up and he goes King Kong with her.

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Short Reviews – The Moon that Vanished, by Leigh Brackett

[originally posted here at Castalia House]

The Moon that Vanished by Leigh Brackett appeared in the October 1948 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories. It can be read online here

“They say that Venus once had a moon. It rode in the clouds like a disc of fire and the god who dwelt within it was supreme over all the other gods. He watched the surface of the planet and all that was done upon it. But the lesser gods were jealous, and one day they were able to destroy the palace of the Moon-god.

 

“All the sky of Venus was lighted by that destruction. Mountains fell and seas poured out of their beds and whole nations died. The Moon-god was slain and his shining body fell like a meteor through the clouds.

 

“But a god cannot really die. He only sleeps and waits. The golden mist is the cloud of his breathing, and the shining of his body is the Moonfire. A man may gain divinity from the heart of the sleeping god but all the gods of Venus will curse him if he tries because man has no right to steal their powers.”

The Moon that Vanished may be one of the best of Brackett stories I’ve read yet.

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