Editors, Anthony Boucher & J. Francis McComas; Managing Editor, Robert P. Mills
Hobson’s Choice • short story by Alfred Bester ♥♥♥+
The Ancestral Amethyst • short story by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt ♥♥
W. S. • reprint short story by L. P. Hartley ♥♥♥
The Tooth • short story by G. Gordon Dewey ♥♥♥
Nine-Finger Jack • reprint short story by Anthony Boucher ♥
The Sling • short story by Richard Ashby ♥♥
The Soothsayer • short story by Kem Bennett ♥♥♥
“Who Shall I Say is Calling?” • short story by August Derleth ♥♥♥+
Listen • short story by Gordon R. Dickson ♥♥♥+
Nor Iron Bars • short story by Cleve Cartmill and Dan Kelly ♥
Extra-Curricular • short story by Garen Drussaï ♥
Stair Trick • short story by Mildred Clingerman ♥♥♥+
Proof Positive • reprint short story by Graham Greene ♥♥♥
The Gualcophone • short story by Alan Nelson ♥♥♥
The Hour of Letdown • reprint short story by E. B. White ♥♥
Lunar Landscape • cover by George Gibbons
Note on a Grave Situation • poem by Leonard Wolf
Recommended Reading • by The Editors
Alfred Bester opens this issue with another in his run of superior 1950s stories. In Hobson’s Choice Addyer is a statistician in the near-future (who fantasises about living in other times) who notices that the population is increasing even though radioactive fallout has affected the birth rate. He eventually works out that a town in the middle of America is the centre of this anomaly and gets his boss’s permission to travel there:
Now travel in those days was hazardous. Addyer took ship to Charleston (there were no rail connections remaining in the North Atlantic states) and was wrecked off Hattaras by a rogue mine. He drifted in the icy waters for seventeen hours, muttering through his teeth: “Oh Christ! If only I’d been born 100 years ago.”
Apparently this form of prayer was potent. He was picked up by a Navy Sweeper and shipped to Charleston where he arrived just in time to acquire a sub-critical radiation burn from a raid which fortunately left the railroad unharmed. He was treated for the burn from Charleston to Macon (change) from Birmingham to Memphis (bubonic plague) to Little Rock (polluted water) to Tulsa (radiation masks) to Kansas City (The O.K. Bus Co. Accepts No Liability For Lives Lost Through Acts Of War) to Lyonesse, Finney County, Kansas. p. 5
Later, after his enquiries in the town are fruitless, he notices something strange across from his hotel window:
He was aroused by a curious sight. In the street below, the O.K. Bus Co. had just arrived from Kansas City. The old coach wheezed to a stop, opened its door with some difficulty, and permitted a one-legged farmer to emerge. His burned face was freshly bandaged. Evidently a well-to-do burgess who could afford to travel for medical treatment. The bus backed up for the return trip to Kansas City and honked a warning horn. That was when the curious sight began.
From nowhere . . . absolutely nowhere . . . a horde of people appeared. They skipped from back alleys, from behind rubble piles; they popped out of stores, they filled the street. They were all jolly, healthy, brisk, happy. They laughed and chatted as they climbed into the bus. They looked like hikers and tourists, carrying knapsacks, carpet-bags, box-lunches and even babies. In two minutes the bus was filled. It lurched off down the road, and as it disappeared Addyer heard happy singing break out and echo from the walls of rubble.
“I’ll be damned,” he said.
He hadn’t heard spontaneous singing in over two years. He hadn’t seen a carefree smile in over three years. He felt like a color-blind man who was seeing the full spectrum for the first time. It was uncanny. It was also a little blasphemous.
“Don’t those people know there’s a war on?” he asked himself. p. 6
The story is quite different from those of the period in that it exhibits an atypical wit, dark humour and quirkiness. The latter aspect is best illustrated by the short italicised sections that punctuate the main text. These are, it would seem, short spoken passages from a beggar:
Can you spare price of one cup coffee, honorable sir? I am indigent organism which are hungering. p. 3
Addyer subsequently tracks down the tourists to a farm and (spoiler) discovers a time-travel operation. Once again the story defies expectations: rather than becoming a routine adventure spanning various ages, it debunks the whole idea of living in those other periods (and therefore Addyer’s fantasies):
“You’d find it damned inconvenient trying at your time of life.” Jelling shook his head, “Because you’d find that living is the sum of conveniences. You might think plumbing is pretty unimportant compared to ancient Greek philosophers. Lots of people do. But the fact is, we already know the philosophy. After a while you get tired of seeing the great men and listening to them expound the material you already know. You begin to miss the conveniences and familiar patterns you used to take for granted.”
“That,” said Addyer, “is a superficial attitude.”
“You think so? Try living in the past by candlelight, without central heating, without refrigeration, canned foods, elementary drugs … Or, future-wise, try living with Berganlicks, the Twenty-Two Commandments, Duodecimal calendars and currency, or try speaking in metre, planning and scanning each sentence before you talk … and damned for a contemptible illiterate if you forget yourself and speak spontaneously in your own tongue.” p. 11-12
After having had the time-travel operation revealed to him, Addyer can’t be allowed to stay in the present, and the story ends with an unexpectedly poetic passage:
Where did he go? You know. I know. Addyer knows. Addyer travelled to the land of Our pet phantasy. He escaped into the refuge that is Our refuge, to the time of Our dreams; and in practically no time at all he realized that he had in truth departed from the only time for himself.
Through the vistas of the years every age but our own seems glamorous and golden. We yearn for the yesterdays and tomorrows, never realizing that we are faced with Hobson’s Choice . . . that today, bitter or sweet, anxious or calm, is the only day for us. The dream of time is the traitor, and we are all accomplices to the betrayal of ourselves. p. 15
There is one further twist, and it is one that confusingly (to me anyway) subverts the Hobson’s/No Choice argument about living in one’s own time. The beggar who has been providing the italicised quotes finishes the story with this:
Can you spare price of one coffee, honorable sir? No, sir, I am not panhandling organism. I am starveling Japanese transient stranded in this so-miserable year. Honorable sir! I beg in tears for holy charity. Will you donate to this destitute person one ticket to township of Lyonesse? I want to beg on knees for visa. I want to go back to year 1945 again. I want to be in Hiroshima again. I want to go home. p. 15
After asking around I got two other interpretations of this final paragraph (and, indeed, what the story is about). The first (which I think is the most likely) is that the story isn’t literally about living in one’s own time but, as this last paragraph shows, is more generally about the pointlessness of yearning for other times. The second comment I received suggested that the speaker in the last paragraph knows about the eventual atomic bombing of Hiroshima but that he still wants to return to his own time because he can’t tolerate remaining where he is. You choose.
There are three other stories in this issue that I particularly liked. “Who Shall I Say is Calling?” by August Derleth has a couple crashing a costume party in a house but, after dancing with a couple of the guests, they start to feel a sense of unease:
I gazed past Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty and picked out Cinderella. She looked good—flushed with youth and vibrant. She was pink and white and too pretty to hide it behind anything more than a domino on a stick, which she held up dowager—like as a lorgnette. Just at the moment she did not appear to be engaged. I walked over.
“May I?.” I said, leering and showing my teeth. “Count Dracula, at your service.”
She squealed and giggled. “My, what pointed teeth you have, Dracula!” she said.
“The better to bite you with, my dear,” I answered.
She gave me her arm. “If you promise not to bite you may have this dance.”
“I promise,” I said. “It’s too early, anyway. I’ve just had supper.”
She danced well, but there was something about her that repelled me.
Maryla had had luck, too. “That was a good dance,” she said. “Who are these people, anyway?”
“Don’t ask me. Are you beginning to feel there’s something queer here, too?”
“Yes, a tension or something.”
“Sure, I noticed it right away.”
Had I? I wondered. But it was there—a strange, intense sense of waiting, as if they all expected something to happen, or were waiting for someone who was late. p. 72
It later materialises that (spoiler) the couple are actually the wrong ’uns, and are actually vampires—something that is unnecessarily telegraphed in the introduction to this vivid, witty tale.
Listen by Gordon R. Dickson is short but substantial, and a rare piece (for the magazine) of straight science fiction. The story opens with a husband and wife having breakfast with their four year old, Taddy, on an alien planet called Miria. After Taddy is finished his breakfast, he goes off with his alien nanny called Reru to ‘the green and silver place’—a nearby swamp. Reru is a vegetarian member of the planet’s hugely complicated symbiotic ecosystem. He can ‘hear’ a lot of the life on the planet, and tells Taddy its stories:
Reru increased his glide and they hurried forward until they came to the silver-and-green place. It was fairy-like in its beauty. Little green islands and clumps of vegetation were interspersed with flashing slivers of water, so that no matter where you stood, some small reflective surface caught the yellow light of the sun and sent it winking into your eyes. It looked, for all the world, like a toy landscape on which some giant had broken his mirror and left the bits to sparkle and shine in the daytime brightness. Reru squatted and Taddy sat down on the edge of one of the pools. “What does it say?” asked the boy. “Tell me what it says, Reru.” The Mirian trilled again his little trill of pleasure; then composed himself. For a long time he sat silent, listening, while the boy squirmed, impatient, yet not daring to say anything that might interrupt or delay what Reru was about to say. Finally, the Mirian spoke. P. 81-82
When Taddy arrives home for lunch (spoiler) he finds out from his father that the colonists are planning to put up a building on the swamp and he does not take this information well. The last scene has the boy communing with the life on the planet, and he makes a promise that he will remove the buildings when he is older.
It is an interesting story that, as the introduction states, doesn’t portray human-alien relationships in the usual terms of empire or bafflement.
In the introduction to Mildred Clingerman’s second F&SF story, Stair Trick, the editors mention they bought her third before publishing her first, so convinced were they by her talent. That hunch is confirmed in this strange fantasy which starts with a barman’s set piece:
Day after day the bartender did his fool’s routine of a man going down stairs. The regular customers loved it. Of course there weren’t any stairs, but sooner or later somebody would call down the long length of bar,
“Dick, old boy, I’d like a bottle of that Chateau Margaux ‘29 to take home to the wife. How about it?”
After twenty years of it, Dick could recognize his cue. “Certainly, sir,” he’d say gravely. “It won’t take me a minute. You’ll excuse me while I step down to the cellar?”
The regulars would grin and nudge the newcomers, the uninitiated. “Watch it,” they’d say. “Just watch this.” And the newcomers would set their faces in accommodating lines tinged with the resentment of those who aren’t in on the joke, and watch Dick carefully. Dick, his bald head gleaming in the overhead light, would start his stately descent into the cellar, until, step by step, the bald head had disappeared from view.
“What’s so hot about that?” Nine times out of ten some disgruntled stranger would challenge the regulars. “Hell, I can still walk down a few stairs.”
“Just wait. Just wait and listen.” Gleefully the regulars would shush the unimpressed stranger until reluctantly he subsided and listened. Nobody knew, or cared to inquire too closely, just what it was Dick had rigged under the bar for his sound effects, but they were good. One heard the rattle of a chain lock, the squeak of the heavy door at the foot of the steps, a clicking light switch, and then the stone-muffled tramp, tramp of Dick’s feet to the wine racks. Some hesitation then followed while the customers imagined Dick selecting the wine asked for, then they heard him crossing the stone floor. They heard again the click of the light switch and the door closing behind him with a hollow booming sound, the rattle of the lock, and Dick (a heavy man) was climbing the stairs, puffing a little. As he gradually came into view, one often saw a wisp of cobweb trailing across the bald head, and in his arms he cradled a dusty bottle. The bottle was always the same, but the puzzled stranger didn’t know that.
“Now!” the regulars would shout. “Look! Look!” Everybody would raise himself from his bar stool to peer over the bar, pointing at Dick’s feet and the floor he stood on, the stranger along with the rest. It was always a pleasure to watch the stranger’s face as he took in the solid cement floor that showed through the slatted walkway running unbroken behind the bar. p. 97-98
After this engaging story hook the tone changes markedly, and shifts to the barman’s belief in the cellar, how he would have liked to have been married, and his awareness of the Hunters and their prey in the bar (by Hunters he means sexual predators).
The story resolves (spoiler) with a female Hunter, who he hasn’t really noticed before, asking the barman about the cellar and whether he has found the door to the other side. After some argument between the two, during which she tells him that (a) he can’t go through it alone and, (b) if he took her she would be different on the other side, they both go down to the cellar; the regulars hear the usual noises and, on this occasion, something more.
If this sounds like a rather obvious metaphor, all I can say is that I was impressed nevertheless.
There are a handful of other good, if perhaps minor, stories in the issue. W. S. by L. P. Hartley (World Review, January 1952) starts off with a novelist getting a strange postcard from someone he assumes is a reader. Over the following weeks he continues to get these cards, each more unsettling than the last. Then he realises that the sender is getting geographically closer and closer to his home with each card. After this unsettling setup, the sender (spoiler) turns out to be a character from one of the writer’s books who has come to take the writer to task for the black-hearted soul he has been given. . .
This last part isn’t as effective as the build-up, but it does have this great line from when the character (who is impersonating a policeman) and the writer are in the kitchen:
The policeman, if such he was, seemed to be moving towards him and Walter suddenly became alive to the importance of small distances—from the sideboard to the table, from one chair to another. p. 30
The Tooth by G. Gordon Dewey begins with a pianist who has lost his hands in a railway accident being taken to a room in a building called the Tooth. He is told to visualise his hands while he sits in front of a red crystal. His hands reappear and he later performs a concert.
The rest of this story—with sections that telescope back in time—has an interesting structure. These sections are mostly about the couple who discovered the crystal, Mike and Helen, and their discovery of, experimentation with, and use of it.
Initially, this struck me as a rather pulp wish-fulfilment story—but I’d have to confess that the story’s clever development won me over. Even at the end, when it turns out (spoiler) that two aliens lost the crystal during an unauthorised stay on Earth, there is a clever final paragraph.
The Soothsayer by Kem Bennett is an Irish tall tale about a deaf man called Tom who has a hearing aid fitted and later hears a voice asking him if he would like to be a prophet. The voice belongs to Ianto, a ghost in heaven. Tom’s short career as a prophet has its ups and downs.
Tom had discovered that he only had to think his questions and Ianto the ghost would answer them.
“If I go on giving the names of winners and filling in the football pools all correct, what will happen?” he wondered.
“The bookies will go out of business and so will the football pool promoters,” Ianto answered.
“That was what I was thinking. Life would be very dull for the boys without a bet now and again. Also, Ianto, I am thinking that the £20,000 I have won has come from the pockets of many people like you and me—and they all sure they would have a chance of winning, which they have not while I am a prophet. It is not right.”
“That is for you to decide, Tom.”
“I have decided, man. I shall give no more winners.” Tom sighed. “I shall be as popular as the foot and mouth hereabouts when I refuse to give winners, but that cannot be helped. It seems to me that being a prophet is a complicated business.”
“It must be, Tom. I would not know. Being a ghost is very simple.” p. 66
A pleasant tale.
Proof Positive by Graham Greene (Harper’s, October 1947) is a neat little chiller about an ex-army officer giving a talk at a local psychical society. He mentions he is suffering from cancer and throughout his talk he struggles and his speech starts to wander. Throughout it all he insists ‘the spirit is much stronger than you think’ and that he will give them proof. At the end of the talk he collapses. A doctor in the audience (spoiler) confirms he has died and, indeed, has probably been dead for a week. There is a sombering last line.
Alan Nelson1 follows his interesting Cattivo (F&SF, August 1951) with something equally original. The Gualcophone is narrated by the owner of a firm that makes unusual instruments: oversized piano keyboards, left handed violins, that sort of thing. One day a man called Gualco offers to work for him for free—all he requires is a soundproof booth (he suffers from extreme sensitivity to sound) and permission to work on his own projects after hours.
Sometime later he reveals the instrument he has been working on to the owner—an instrument that can transmit one person’s emotions to others, ‘telempathy’ as Gualco calls it. After a demonstration, he asks his boss to reveal it to the world.
The instrument’s public debut is scheduled to take place during a concert by a famous violinist, but matters do not go to plan when it is played: (spoiler) the violinist is devoid of any emotion at all and, in an attempt to rescue the performance the narrator plays the instrument, only to transmit his stage fright to the audience, and then his anger. Matters rapidly get out of hand. Some aspects of this last part are not entirely convincing (the emotionless violinist, the narrator’s rage) but it is done well enough to easily overcome these quibbles.
The other stories include The Ancestral Amethyst by L. Sprague de Camp and Fletcher Pratt, a ‘Gavagan’s Bar’ story about a drinking competition between a Danish skipper and an Irishman who used to be a pickpocket. The former never seems to show any adverse effects, and he credits this to an amythest he possesses that prevents drunkenness. Needless to say the Irishman exercises his old pickpocket skills as he gets drunk, and the Dane, relieved of his amythest, catches up instantly and falls over. Slight but pleasant enough.
Nine-Finger Jack by Anthony Boucher (Esquire, May 1951) is a light-hearted tale of a serial wife-killer who, when he tries to drown his ninth bride, finds she starts breathing through her gills. She confesses to being a Venusian and that, if he tries to reveal that information, she’ll send a dossier about his previous eight wives to the authorities. The rest of the story concerns a number of further murder attempts that fail. Eventually (spoiler) he succeeds. This story failed for me as I didn’t get the punchline: ‘one finger sufficed for Hester.’ Pity, as it was quite an enjoyable piece until that point.
The Sling by Richard Ashby is about a college professor who invents a teleportation device and subsequently uses it to swing an election for a colleague who is being intimidated by a redneck mayor (he is supported by the Riders). The science aspects mention Rhine a lot but are otherwise pretty hand-wavey; the picture drawn in the story of southern politics is the stronger aspect.
Nor Iron Bars by Cleve Cartmill and Dan Kelly has two men discussing the disappearance of a man from a psychiatric cell. The doctor in charge hands over an account written by the man which states that he was dreaming his existence in this world. The payoff last line would be reasonably effective if this wasn’t, essentially, a ‘I woke up and found out it was a dream’ story variant.
Extra-Curricular by Garen Drussaï has an introduction where, once again, the editors can’t stop drooling over an attractive female writer:
The one occasion upon which we regret our policy of no interior decoration is when we introduce some of our authors—especially a few of our discoveries. Physical beauty is not (we are devoutly thankful!) a necessity for a literary career; but it can undeniably brighten the lives of a couple of middle-aged editors. Garen Drussai, whose first story we present here, is Hungarian and stunning; she is an impassioned and articulate debater on such topics as pacifism and Forteanism; and she has a refreshing ability to come up with new variants on science-fictional notions. p. 90
The story itself gets off to a very promising start when a women talking to her baby suddenly finds that it is talking back to her using adult language. Next, a man meets what he thinks is going to be an airhead date in a nightclub, and is stunned when she runs intellectual rings round him:
She took a sip of her drink and laid her hand across his, squeezing his fingers. “Your perspicacity is really amazing, Robert. Do you mean that it’s that apparent?”·
Robert’s jaw sagged open.
“Do you want me to elucidate?” she smiled.
He shook his head feebly.
“Well, Robert, I want to explain it to you anyway. You see, I’ve been thinking . . .”
Robert managed a weak smile.
“… my current status in this stratum of existence is primarily the consequence of planet-wide stupidity.” ‘
Bob’s eyes almost crossed. “What in the hell has got into you?” he spluttered. p. 92
There is a final section with a female scientist that is less convincing (the language is more gobbledegook than advanced) before it unfortunately resolves (spoiler) as being the actions of a time-travelling child from the future.
The Hour of Letdown by E. B. White (The New Yorker, 22nd December 1951) has a slick start that has a man taking a box-shaped robot into a bar, setting it in the counter, and ordering two drinks. The bartender takes exception to the robot, even more so when the man pours a drink into one of its hatches. This trundles long pretty well until it gets to its weak ending, exemplifying your typical slick reprint: all notion, no substance.
This issue’s cover is by an artist new to the magazine: George Gibbons. His Lunar Landscape continues a trend to more orthodox paintings. It is also the first partial wraparound cover the magazine has used.2
Note on a Grave Situation is an OK poem by Leonard Wolf about a couple, each of whom is likened to different metal ions.
Recommended Reading by The Editors is another interesting, wide-ranging column. They cover a lot of books in three pages, and comment a lot along the way:
Out of a half-dozen science fiction novels published [this year], only one can be offered to you as “recommended reading.” That is James Blish’s Jack of Eagles (Greenberg), a book that is both extraordinarily good and curiously bad. It is one of the strongest pieces of real science fiction to be published in years. Those who glibly label as science fiction what is, after all, pure fantasy would do well to· study the thinking and logic behind Blish’s postulation of the development of psi powers, ESP, psycho-kinesis and kindred potentials of the human mind. Yet, plotwise his novel is tritely melodramatic, wholly devoid of characterization and rather flatly written. But we think it is to be strongly recommended, not only for its thinking, but for its brilliant understanding of the essential problem behind the superman thesis, the necessity of integrating superman with humanity. p. 103
Another fine specimen of early van Vogt story-telling has just been republished: the I943 novel The Weapon Makers (Greenberg). First printed in hard covers in a minute edition six years ago, this has been one of the scarcest books in the science fiction field; now readers without a collector’s purse can again read a grand fantasy-melodrama of the remote future (and perhaps wonder whether its noble imaginative adventure has anything to do with science fiction). p. 103
There is also a short filler piece at the end of Boucher’s story, titled Les chevaux dans le sky:
Science fiction is starting to boom again in the land of Jules Verne, and the French presses are busily turning out both originals and translations—unfortunately largely on the lowest level. Which poses a problem for French critics, since their language has never developed any term equivalent to space opera. Igor B. Maslowski, the excellent reviewer for “Mystere-Magazine” (French edition of EQMM), is forced to describe novels of that type as ‘‘l’anticipation scientifique genre western.” p. 51
A good issue.
- After two good stories in a row I tried to find out more about Alan Nelson. According to ISFDB, he produced about a dozen stories between the mid-forties and mid-fifties. These were (mostly) collected in a collection edited by Gary Lovisi, Man in a Hurry and Other Stories (three bucks on Amazon.com, couldn’t find it on the UK site). The two missing stories mentioned in the useful introduction are one in Esquire, April 1944 (The Wheel Named Prudence) and one in Good Housekeeping, September 1946 (The Tune).
- Gibbons’ wraparound cover: