Short Reviews – Finished, by L. Sprague De Camp

Finished, by L. Sprague De Camp, appeared in the November 1949 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It can be read here at Archive.org.

L. Sprague de Camp offers up something of a planetary romance with Finished, where I can’t quite tell if he just bungled his premise or was poorly spoofing Sword & Planet and Campbell ran it because he thought it would make the folks over at Planet Stories look like rubes.

Finished

Why do I feel like the genre is being mocked?

The truth may be somewhere in between. Finished is a mess of weird names and affectations, such that entire paragraphs barely register as coherent ideas expressed in English. De Camp is a smart guy who enjoys being smart, but he’s also a fairly decent writer who has done some really good humorous SFF that, while funny, didn’t quite dip into twee. So despite being a mess, there’s a damn good story at its core that makes me wonder why he didn’t work to tell it just a little bit better.

A planet in contact with the Galactic FederationTM is being kept at arm’s-length by the advanced space-faring culture; they’re just too primitive and barbaric to be granted access to the technical and philosophical knowledge of Earth (Ertsu). The planet has a perpetual regency: the “one king” of the planet is a revered and sacred mummy relic, and the princes of the planet rule in his name. The mummy is fraudulently taken off the planet, and the Prince demands the right to pursue it to earth to recover their world’s most sacred treasure.

Turns out, the theft was a sham. The prince allowed, nay facilitated, the theft of the mummy which could be stuffed with literature and technical manuals so that they might be smuggled back to his world.

There’s a large naval battle as one of the representatives of the galactic federation pursues the rogue prince, who fakes his death, faked a mummy (lost in the battle), and ultimately returns to his people with the promise of a new golden age.

Again, not a bad story, but it suffered greatly in the telling, and I would’ve much rather it be told by a Brackett or a Kline. It’s not something I can easily explain—not within the limitations of time I have for this column—so I can only suggest that you read it for yourself.

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Short Reviews – What Dead Men Tell, by Theodore Sturgeon

Castalia House’s back end is down right now, so I’m going ahead and posting this week’s Short Review here; we’ll get it mirrored up there once Markku gets us situated. What Dead Men Tell, by Theodore Sturgeon, appeared in the November 1949 issue of Astounding Science Fiction. It can be read here at Archive.org.

What Dead Men TellFor poisoning the well against the pulps, crusty old Ted the Sturgeon really needed to blow me away. And once we got past the first couple of pages of autistic rambling, Teddy only managed to tell a moderately interesting story.

Hulon, a film projectionist, recently wrote a piece for an obscure literary magazine outlining his eudaemonic philosophy: the future is uncertain and the now is so finitely small as to be inconsequential, so true security can only exist in the ossified events of the past—one’s past actions and accomplishments were all that one could truly hold onto, therefore happiness and security is derived primarily from what you are able to put into your past.

Well, this bit of thinkery draws the attention of a mysterious group who has transcended the laws of life and death! They appear to him as ghosts—movie stars who he’s certain are dead, but there they are in his theatre, plain as day! After approaching the third of these supposedly-dead movie stars, Hulon is informed that they are willing to test him to join their ranks. He will be placed in a chamber where he will meet death.

Hulon finds himself in a seemingly endless corridor, all alone except for strange balls of liquid that supply nutrient nourishment and dead bodies of old men that he happens upon at regular intervals.

I’ll go ahead and spoil the riddle, because that’s really all there is to the story: the endless corridor is some kind of umbilic torus, the body is the same body over and over again (it appears different because of different lighting [it cycles through the spectrum with each circuit Hulon completes] and because it gets banged up when illusion-creating gravity centered on Hulon changes and it drops to the floor/wall), and the ‘death he will meet’ is old age.

How did the gravity in the torus work to make it appear that the corridor was perfectly straight? Hulon admits he can’t answer that when he gives his answer to the riddle, and Ted doesn’t answer it either (‘oh, you’ll learn that and more in good time’ the cabal members tell Hulon).

What Dead Men Tell is a riddle-story; an atmospheric riddle-story with a worthwhile riddle (at least it wasn’t one of Asimov’s Black Widowers yarns), but I needed more. What were the stakes? The weirdo film projectionist is granted immortality and is assigned a girlfriend to instruct him in the ways of the new cabal he has been welcomed into.

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End of the Year Round-up of Short Reviews

I realized it’s been ages since I’ve posted a round-up of my Castalia House reviews. I used to do them seasonally, but kept thinking “surely I must have already done a round-up” and never bothered to actually check. It turns out, the last one I did was back in March.

So, here’s a list of all the reviews I’ve done since then!

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-i-like-you-too-by-joe-gibson/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-yesterdays-doors-by-arthur-j-burks/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-square-pegs-by-ray-bradbury/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-miracle-town-by-william-f-temple/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-cosmic-jackpot-by-george-o-smith/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-date-line-by-noel-loomis-as-benj-miller/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-reverse-english-by-john-s-carroll/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-softie-by-noel-loomis/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-no-winter-no-summer-by-damon-knight-and-james-blish-as-donald-laverty/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-referent-by-ray-bradbury-as-brett-sterling/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-metal-chamber-by-duane-w-rimel/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-swine-of-aeaea-by-clifford-ball/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-house-where-time-stood-still-by-seabury-quinn/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-return-of-hastur-by-august-derleth/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-comrades-of-time-by-edmond-hamilton/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-quest-of-iranon-by-h-p-lovecraft/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-stratosphere-menace-by-ralph-milne-farley/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-smoke-fantasy-by-thomas-r-jordan/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-devils-of-po-sung-by-bassett-morgan/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-haunted-level-by-cassiter-wright/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-bull-dog-smith-by-james-mccormick/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-chasing-a-living-in-california-by-anon/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-old-white-face-by-allen-borders/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-ali-babas-cave-by-i-d-b/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-balu-the-bear-by-blanche-e-ward/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-dutchmans-gold-told-by-arthur-greyslen-and-set-down-by-alan-burgess/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-sandhound-strikes-by-ross-rocklynne/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-vanishing-venusians/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-happy-castaway-by-robert-e-mcdowell/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-silver-plague-by-albert-de-pina/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-double-trouble/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-death-star-by-tom-pace/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-vandals-of-the-void-by-robert-wilson/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-joe-carsons-weapon-by-james-r-adams/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-the-smoking-land-by-frederick-faust-as-george-challis/

http://www.castaliahouse.com/short-reviews-three-lines-of-old-french-by-a-merritt/

Short Reviews- Quest on Phoebe, James R. Adams

Quest on Phoebe by James R. Adams appeared in the Summer 1947 issue of Planet Stories.

Quest on Phoebe is definitely not the sort of story you’d see in a sci-fi mag these days.  The accompanying illustration, definitely not.  You sort of know what you’d be getting into with a picture of a frightened angry white guy in a jungle gunning down a pitch black, big-lipped, bug-eyed, half-naked Phoebian, but it certainly comes with a clever (by 1940s pulp standards) twist.

Sadly no jungles, pygmies or lost Temples here. :(

Sadly no jungles, pygmies or lost Temples here. 😦

Ron Farr is a resourceful and clever but rather dis-likable fellow with whom we’re not supposed to sympathize.  He’s heard that on the remote and uncharted jungle moon of Saturn there is a ruined temple that contains the secrets of immortality.  Of course there are numerous dangers and obstacles he has to overcome first, and dammit if there aren’t all of these weird bug-eyed alien pygmies following him everywhere and watching him!  At one point, he gets so mad he shoots one of them; this buys him some distance, but they keep following him, all the way through several ingenious traps that any DM would love to stock his dungeon with and to the Temple.

The final trap which ultimately gets him is pretty neat.  The Temple itself is empty, but Ron gets zapped with a ray that causes him to see and for his body to believe in illusory objects and barriers.  He KNOWS the walls that have trapped him are a hallucination, and is taunted by the pygmies who freely pass through the barriers which he cannot.  He ends up dashing his brains out against the illusion.  Turns out the pygmies all carried tubes with the elixir of immortality on them at all times and have made it their duty to escort the chosen one who will eventually come to the temple, beating its obstacles, and bestow the secrets of lost Phoebe on them, but they’re glad that it wasn’t this guy because he was a dick anyway.

The weird Phoebians are shown to be pretty magnanimous and more enlightened in their primitivity than Ron is with his gun and lust for wealth or even the ancients and their bloody traps.  It’s easy to want to write Quest on Phoebe off as just another bland and vaguely racist story, but I feel like what we have here is something akin to looking at stories like Fafhrd & Mouser stealing a god’s eye and killing all of his priests sworn to guard from the other side.  Of course in Fafhrd & Mouser’s case, they’re clearly anti-heroes for whom we’re rooting because the stories are from their perspective.  But Quest on Phoebe seems more to be a deconstruction of the stories in which a brave spaceman shows up, kills all the natives, and gets away with their treasure than to be an example of one.  What really makes this work is that it IS a pretty action packed adventure story that’s entertaining to read, but by making the protagonist just unlikable enough that you can be impressed by his cunning and still find him despicable and punctuating the story with a brief account of the ordeal from the perspective of the Phoebians, Adams pulls off something really interesting here without coming off as being preachy or condescending about pulp tropes.

Or maybe he really was racist and I’m reading too much into this.  Either way, damn interesting story.  Sorry it’s not available anywhere online.

Short Reviews – The Martian Circe, Raymond F. Jones

The Martian Circe by Raymond F. Jones appeared in the Summer 1947 Issue of Planet Stories (Vol 3, No 7).

The more “old” science fiction I read, the further the scales fall from my eyes.  While I’m at the tail end of Gen X, I grew up on a lot of 60s and early 70s psychedelic music by way of my parents (my mom is more oldies & classic rock, but my dad is still all about the weird and out there stuff from that era).  So, needless to say, I’ve thought a lot of things in terms of “the psychedelic 70s”.  Yeah, I know the 60s had its share of drugs and psychedelic rock, but it was the SCI-FI psychedelic 70s!  Hawkwind was in search of space, Good Thunder’s moonships were spreading their sails, BOC (NOT Boards of Canada, mind you) were climbing a stairway to the stars, Bowie was praising the supermen of the stars, and Led Zeppelin were singing about Hobbits.

The shocking truth is that Rock & Roll was a good 20+ years behind Science Fiction in terms of psychedelia.  Where would we be if Glenn Miller had demanded of our grandmothers to not drop LSD under the Martian Sea with anyone but he?  The Martian Circe is the 3rd story I’ve read in as many months from the 1940s in which hallucinogenic drugs play a significant role.

Tell you what.  I’m not going to actually review or talk about this story.  I’m just going to show you this picture and tell you to read it.  NOW, GO READ IT NOW!

Martian Circe

Short Reviews – The Little Pets of Arkkhan, Vaseleos Garson

The Little Pets of Arkkhan by Vaseleos Garson appears in the Summer 1947 issue of Planet Stories (Vol 3, No 7).

Banished from Earth for various petty crimes, the crew of a ship has landed on an asteroid inhabited by cute cuddly looking furballs…  who are actually a race of diabolic telepathic monsters intent on leaving their dying world to conquer another!  The creatures can give unlimited illusory pleasure or inflict unimaginable pain to the humans whose minds they control.

This is a pretty troperiffic story, so it’s hard to say whether it actually inspired certain later sci-fi works or if it was just a clichéd product of its time which mirrored other contemporary and ongoing clichés.  You have the drunk who is constantly drunk and constantly drinking; unsurprisingly he and his alcoholism prove to be the key to overcoming the aliens’ mind control.  The hero has his own cheesy subplot going on about the perfect dame that he left back on earth cuz he didn’t think she was hot for him and liked some other guy instead; being a swell and noble dude, he was all “I won’t interfere with your happiness” and became a spacer.  Naturally, the aliens use his feelings for her as leverage against him, just as they use the desires of the rest of the crew to bring the ship toward earth.

Of course the only way the hero can stall the aliens from taking over the patrol ship that intercepts them and reaching earth is getting into a fist fight with the guy who stole his girl (conveniently the captain of the patrol ship)!  This buys the hero enough time to figure out that they need to hit up the drunk’s stash of scotch to overpower the aliens’ mind control.  Once the alien menace is dealt with, the hero and patrolman sit down to hash things out; turns out the dame was smitten by the hero’s big romantic gesture (of leaving her and going off into space; maybe he said “here’s looking at you, kid”?) and decided to wait for him to return.

I won’t say this is a bad story.  It’s a silly and fun story that goes exactly where you expect it.  Admittedly, it was one of the weaker stories in the issue, if not the weakest, but considering this issue had stories like “Moon of Danger” and “The Martian Circe”, that’s not too harsh a condemnation.  Like several of the lesser known stories in this issue, it is not available online, however it can be found in facsimile reprints of this issue.

Short Reviews – …And Then There Were None, Eric Frank Russell

…And Then There Were None appeared in the June 1951 issue of Astounding Science Fiction.  I PROMISE I will finish 02/74 M of F&SF later!

Russell

Well, there WAS a bicycle in the story!

No, this one didn’t have anything to do with Agatha Christie story by the same name. Erik Frank Russell’s short story is the final piece of what would eventually become The Great Explosion, the satirical saga of an attempt to reunify human worlds by interstellar ship several hundred years after a diaspora that saw various cults, sects, etc. leave to find their own space and make room on Earth. Sound familiar?

…And Then There Were None starts out feeling like a joke that begins to run a little long. I don’t tend to care for this sort of satirical sci-fi story, as they often feel like they’re trying too hard and being precious. I slog through them and wait for the payoff and groan, because it’s usually some sort of bad pun that I saw coming from a mile away. Well, about half-way through, …And Then There Were None finally tells its joke, the punchline is about what you’d expect, and then the story gets interesting.

The spaceship has landed on a world where no one cares that a starship has landed, no one has time for the pretentious ambassador of earth, and everyone just wants them to “MYOB!” (Spoilers: the punchline of the joke is Mind Your Own Business) I’ll grant that it does a bit of a misdirect, alluding that the people of the world speak in purely literal terms (like in in deCamp’s Undesired Princess), but that’s merely an affectation of their speech. The inhabitants, the Gand, as they call themselves (after Gandhi), live by practice of an obligation based economy combined with the maxim “Freedom – I won’t”. Everyone does what they have to do as obligation requires, but if not, they basically will tell folks to “MYOB”.

Once it shovels through the initial mess of the setup, …And Then There Were None gets moving along nicely as the spacemen contemplate the implications of the planet’s philosophy which ultimately leads to a breakdown of discipline as soldiers realize that if enough of them tell their COs to screw off, there’s nothing they can do about them.

I’m split about 50/50 on this one; the first half was the sort of boring and predictable sf humor that I’m really not a fan of, but the second half was deliciously subversive, and I found myself wishing that more people were willing to live by the “Freedom – I Won’t” maxim. So, I’ll say that it averages out to a pretty good story. And looks like that throwaway line about the planet of fanatical nudists is expounded upon in its own chapter in the collected edition of the Great Explosion, so there’s always that to look forward to.

Unlike some of the other stories I’ve done Short Reviews for, this one is available to read for free online.