Leon L. Gammell, The Annotated Guide to Startling Stories, pp. 31, 72 (Amazon UK)
Editor, Samuel Mines (possibly Sam Merwin Jr.1)
House of Many Worlds • novel by Sam Merwin, Jr. ♥♥
The Masquerade on Dicantropus • short story by Jack Vance ♥
Yes, Sir! • short story by H. B. Fyfe
This Way to Mars • novelette by William Campbell Gault ♥
The White Fruit of Banaldar • short story by John D. MacDonald ♥
The Last Story • short story by Alexander Samalman ♥♥
Cover • Earle Bergey
Interior artwork • by Virgil Finlay, Peter Poulton, Paul Orban
The Ether Vibrates • editorial by The Editor
Startling Oddities • science facts filler
Ethergrams • letters
Review of the Current Science Fiction Fan Publications • by The Editor
The reason I picked up this issue was because of Sam Merwin’s novel, which was referred to in a copy of F&SF I recently read.2 It was mentioned in a story introduction as a parallel world work, and, being keen on those, I was interested to see what it was like. That said, I’ve also been recommended the late-40s and early-50s issues of Startling by a couple of other people (although I think they were maybe suggesting the ones with the likes of Fredric Brown’s What Mad Universe (September 1948), Arthur C. Clarke’s Against the Fall of Night (November 1948), Charles Harness’s Flight to Yesterday (May 1949)—expanded as The Paradox Men, and Jack Vance’s Big Planet (September 1952) in particular). It’s a magazine I would have had to get around to reading anyway: SFE states that, under Merwin’s editorship, Startling Stories would become the best magazine after Astounding.3
As for the novel4 itself, House of Many Worlds by Sam Merwin, Jr., it is what the title says, a ‘many worlds’ rather than ‘parallel world’ novel, with travel between the timelines enabled by a number of ‘tangential points’ on the planet. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
For a pulp novel it gets off to a rather unusual, almost Steinbeckian, start (although it perhaps feels like the latter because of its run-down bar setting):
Elspeth Marrinier fingered the sticky roundness of the thick tumbler on the gimpy-legged table in front of her and wondered what in heaven, earth or hell she was doing in the dingy little restaurant. As a poet she knew it was her duty to have her feet in the mire as well as her head in the clouds, but this was going a little too far.
Seeking to shut out Mack’s insistent and unsubtle prodding of the leatherskinned native he was plying with the hot and heavy liquid molasses that passed for rum in this incredibly backward little Carolina community, she concentrated on the strip of flypaper that dangled from the ceiling less than six feet from her head.
Alternate sections of its spiral glistened evilly in the dim reflection of the green-shaded lamp that hung beyond it. At intervals a trapped insect buzzed its hysterical protest at such unmannerly death as faced it. She counted the flies she could see trapped on its sticky surface. There were exactly fourteen, five more than had been there the night before.
Fourteen, she thought, the magic number that spells sonnet. She began to frame a sonnet to fourteen flies caught in a spiral of flypaper. Surely even such unpleasant living creatures merited some memorial to their passing. p. 9-10
There are a few more pages of this meandering un-pulplike start before the local tells the pair about the strange lights and darknesses at Spindrift Key. He takes them out there the next day in his boat, but when the pair set off towards the house they are enveloped by darkness. Once this ceases they are met by a beautiful woman called Juana. Up until this point I had wondered if Elspeth’s narrative voice was atypically going to be that of a strong independent woman, but she reverts to standard pulp as the claws come out: although Elspeth doesn’t really like her work partner, Mack the photographer, she is jealous of Juana. The push-pull about Mack continues for much of the book.
Once they get to the house they are met by a Mr Horelle, who doesn’t waste much time before explaining about the strange location:
“If I told you how many years I have lived here you would not believe me,” he said quietly. “Suffice it to say that it has been a very long time. There were others before me—ever since Spindrift Key became a tangential point.”
“What’s that? Mack asked aggressively, suspiciously.
“I’m the one who is to write the story,” Elspeth reminded him. “You’re here to take pictures. Let me ask the questions.”
“It’s a very good question,” said Mr. Horelle. “Let me state first that Spindrift Key is a tangential point. I don’t suppose either of you knows much about the tangency of time—or parallel timetracks, if you wish.”
Elspeth glanced covertly at Mack and was pleased to notice that he looked baffled. She turned eagerly to Mr. Horelle and said, “But I know a little. It’s a theory that whenever an important decision in world history is made the world goes both ways with different subsequent histories. Oh damn! That doesn’t sound very clear but it’s the best I can do.”
“Tommyrot!” said Mack rudely.
“On the contrary,” said Mr. Horelle, “it is absolutely true. Hold on.” He held up a hand as protests bubbled up behind Mack Fraser’s lips. “I know what you are going to say. But it takes a great deal more than a petty personal decision to split the space-time continuum in which our universe exists.
“A nova, the destruction of a planet, even the momentous man-made events that affect the history of this minor speck of space-dust we call Earth—these things leave their marks in varying degrees. For a while after they occur—the time span varies according to the severity of the shock to the continuum—a tangential zone remains through which, to those who know the key, it is possible to affect a transfer between worlds. p. 20-21
And shortly after that Elspeth and Mack are recruited for a mission across the time-streams (driving a car that looks normal but can fly).
The next couple of chapters are quite interesting, and detail their journey in a world where the USA is split between a seemingly more backward Columbian Republic (they do not have powered flight) and a Mexican Empire. They eat and stay at a variety of restaurants and hotels, and there is some good local colour:
Baton Rouge was a surprise. Instead of the sleepy little river city of their own world they found themselves driving into a metropolis far larger than the down-at-heel Atlanta in which they had slept the night before. The buildings were not tall but they were many, large and frequently magnificent.
“It’s like an immense garden party with Japanese lanterns!” exclaimed Elspeth, her fatigue fading as they moved slowly amid bizarre traffic along a broad two-lane avenue. In the parklike center of the road trees tossed up fantastic silhouettes against the looping strings of lights that provided much of the illumination.
Forty-foot-wide sidewalks flanked it after the fashion of the Champs Elysees in Paris; and great houses, palaces and gardens lay beyond them on either side, many of them brightly lit. Baton Rouge was evidently one of the great cities of the Columbian Republic. Elspeth felt a quick inner response to its drama and beauty. p. 27
The racial situation is apparently different in this world too, as evidenced by the fact they meet Marshall John Henry, a black man who is the President’s Chief of Staff. Much later on in the novel, Elspeth and the Marshall start to fall in love, but this is nipped in the bud by Juana before any physical action occurs between the two:
“You’ve been out with my boss again,” she said. It was a statement, not a question.
“Right,” Elspeth said dreamily. She kicked off her shoes and lay on the bed, linking fingers at the back of her neck. “I think he’s simply perfect—he’s so big and so humble, so strong and so gentle, so slow of speech, yet so fast of thought.”
“He’s all those things,” the girl said. “But, Elly, be careful. You can’t stay in this world much longer and if you let yourself get emotionally involved you may impair your usefulness.”
Elspeth regarded her uninvited guest and sensed trouble behind the limpid dark eyes. With a spark of intuition she said, “It isn’t just that, Juana. There’s something else, isn’t there?”
“Of course there is,” the dark girl replied. “I feel like a crumb to say this, Elly—but dammit he’s a Negro.”
“Somehow I never suspected you of that,” said Elspeth, surprised and more than a little shocked. The idea of such cheap prejudice in anyone connected with the incredibly wise Mr. Horelle had never occurred to her. She felt angry, almost ill.
“You’re wrong—what you’re thinking about me, Elly,” Juana said hotly. “There are some worlds where color doesn’t matter—but this isn’t one of them. Nor is yours—nor mine, heaven knows.”
“Then it’s time something was done,” said Elspeth sharply. p. 58
Juana later tells her to ‘have her fun’ and, later, Elspeth reflects on matters:
Elspeth nodded and frowned at the closing door. She felt all at once a little begrimed. Falling in love had always come as easily to her as breathing. At various times she had oozed emotion over a math teacher (she hated figures), a pimply delivery boy, a small bird that had nested in a tree outside her window, a lady athletic coach at school, a Canadian lacrosse professional, a writer with a long pink goatee, a famous actress. p. 59
Some of what I’ve described so far is probably the best of it, and you can’t help but wonder what Merwin would have produced if he’d developed a parallel world story that had explored an America with an alternative racial set-up—probably something that would have been unpublishable at the time, unfortunately.5
Instead, the story goes off in a more traditional direction: after their initial arrival in Baton Rouge, Elspeth sees a soldier use a disintegrator on a civilian, who promptly disappears (bear in mind this is a world where they don’t have powered flight). When she is spotted by the soldier she and Mack flee, taking the Marshall hostage for a short period before zooming off in the flying car. The rest of the tale involves a man called Reed who is trying to extend the voter franchise—so he can take power and avoid a war with the Mexican Empire—and a camp baddy called Everard who is working for the other side. There are also various bits of technology unconvincingly lobbed in here and there, rolling roads in New Orleans, spaceships, a disintegrator shield in another world, etc.
Matter progress to a suitable conclusion.
At the end of it all there is a little twist when Elspeth and Mack get back to their own world:
Even the ugly little town had a homelike look. It was good to see the highway sign at the head of the pier with its crown and lion and unicorn, it was good to see the local constable in his roundtopped helmet, gnawing his mustache ends as he stood in front of the drygrocer’s shop. It was good to know that she was part of a world in which what had briefly been the United States was again a vital part of the benevolent British Commonwealth of Nations.
“A president is all very well,” said Mack, walking toward the garage, bags in hand, “but I’d rather have a queen. It’s more—permanent somehow.”
“I know,” she told him. “I liked President Roosevelt but still—he lacked something our Queen Bess has. It’s hard to define.”
“Yeah—and that little man they had between Roosevelts Two and Three,” said Mack. “What was his name—Shuman—Newman? Imagine having a Dapper Dan like that in charge of a great country!” p. 87
This novel has one or two interesting facets but otherwise it is routine stuff.
The rest of the fiction isn’t up to much. The Masquerade on Dicantropus by Jack Vance has an archaeologist called Root working on an alien planet. Also there is his bored and increasingly hostile wife Barbara, and the planet’s strange, uncommunicative aliens. When an attractive miner called Landry makes an emergency landing, he ends up having an affair with Barbara. Landry then decides to break into a strange pyramid even though Root has attempted this once before, only to be warned off by the aliens.
The ending is quite an unconvincing one in that (spoiler) Landry and Barbara are discovered by the aliens after they have broken into what turns out to be an empty pyramid. Root, who has been watching, hears the aliens state they are going to kill them. The reason for this is that they have discovered that the pyramid is an empty decoy—built to distract any visitors from their real secret, a hugely advanced spacecraft hidden in a mountain.
Landry is killed, the aliens depart, and the couple reconcile. Well enough told, but it has an ridiculous plot.
Yes, Sir! by H. B. Fyfe is a story about two men whose job involves testing robots. After some scene setting they get sent a new type of robot that is supposed to be a personal assistant. It falls over, and subsequently does not perform well. In the last section its voice box is refitted, whereupon it repeatedly starts saying ‘Yes, Mr Whitehead’—the name of their boss. The story then abruptly ends. I’m not sure if this is making a point about personal assistants being incompetent yes-men, but the ending didn’t make sense to me.
This Way to Mars by William Campbell Gault portrays a world where woman are in charge:
John snapped off the visi-news irritably. The Russians, the Russians, always the Russians. If it hadn’t been for them and their threats in the dim and distant eighties there would be no female dominance today and a guy could chase a girl.
It was the Swedes who had started No, No, Week back in the eighties, the Swedish women. I didn’t raise my boyfriend to be a soldier was their slogan, and it had spread. To Russia and America, to China and Japan, around the world. No soldier tastes my lips, no uniformed man shares my bed, no militarist holds me close. . . . And so on. p. 106
Although this does have one or two interesting aspects (John’s boss is a revealing female version of the type of hideous male boss who letches after their underlings) it rapidly becomes an adolescent wish-fulfilment fantasy as John and two of his co-workers fiddle the crew list for a spaceship launch to found a Mars colony—so they are picked and allocated wives. John chooses a Hollywood star for his partner, which then causes problems as the star’s football playing boyfriend gets involved. He tells John he is aware they have manipulated the list even though he couldn’t possibly be privy to that information. It all ends up (spoiler) in a spy-ring conspiracy with John getting the girl.
I get the impression this story might have been aimed at Galaxy. If so, it missed, and it is pretty poor.
In The White Fruit of Banaldar by John D. MacDonald, Timothy has organised a group of people to buy a virgin alien planet that he worked on during its initial development phase. However, he is outbid at the auction by a back-to-basics cult who want to live there as primitives. As there is a clause that says that the planet has to be developed within a three year period or returned to the auctioneers, he bides his time, and a year or so later goes to visit. When he gets there he finds the huge trees he previously thought dead have come to life and (spoiler) have attracted all the colonists, which are now attached to them like strange, bloated fruit. Timothy narrowly escapes a similar fate and calls for rescue. This one, like the Fyfe, has an abrupt ending.
By the by, it also, like the other stories, has a superfluous introduction and, worse in this case, one that blatantly telegraphs the ending!
The Last Story by Alexander Samalman is a tale of a future where writing has been banned. Nevertheless, an old pulp writer produces a western and takes it to an ex-editor. I guessed the ending but it still made me smile (spoiler: he gets a rejection slip just before they are both rayed to death. Memo to budding writers: there are worse fates than receiving a rejection slip.)
The Cover by Earle Bergey is one of his more restrained efforts: he was much better known for a selection of scantily dressed women being menaced by aliens. He had previously painted a sober (and also atypical) astronomical scene for the January issue; it is a pity he had to copy Astounding’s floaty heads for this one. Startling’s covers were generally more restrained from this point onwards.6
The Interior artwork by Virgil Finlay, Peter Poulton, and Paul Orban isn’t bad (although there isn’t much of it). The best is by Finlay and Poulton.7
The Ether Vibrates is an editorial which has a long preamble about market research, polling companies and other ways of predicting the future, and it continues with discussion of Hitler invading Russia, the Japanese attacking Pearl Harbour, Genghis Khan turning back from Europe, etc. This segues into the Ethergrams column, which is seven pages of letters in small type, some of which are quite blunt. Take this one from W. F. La Bar from Birchwood, Wisonsin:
Dear Sam: As an old reader of science fiction I wish to congratulate you on your May issue. Sam, my boy, I’ve read science fiction since the days of Dr. Hackensaw’s Secrets in the old Science and Invention way back when and I must say this, your May issue, is by far the lousiest, most worthless collection of junk by hack writers I have seen in nearly thirty years. I do not exclude your lead story for it also falls in this class. Another issue like this and I’ll give up science fiction as my favorite reading. p. 134
Or this from Les & Es Cole from Berkley, California:
It’s the end of an era, Sam. We’re leaving you. The reasons for this are various and sundry, but they can be summed up rather briefly. Firstly we have unalterably opposed views on science fiction. We like ours heavy on the science and even heavier on literature. We realize that we are living in the days of the past, before the war, when men were men, and the contents of the average Astounding contained Heinlein, McDonald, van Vogt, del Rey, Sturgeon, Boucher and a few of the lesser lights like Kuttner.
You, on the other hand, like pseudo (or no) science and no literature. (Those wild replies of yours can be very incriminating!) You are of the school that holds up “What Mad Universe” as the epitome of “science fiction”. We thought the story terrible. p. 140
A few of the letters aren’t worth printing (there is one written in what is supposed to be cowboy vernacular—which is tortured and almost unreadable, pardner) but there are some interesting points amongst the others. There are comments about Fletcher Pratt’s short novel The Seed from Space and its unexpected downbeat ending, the change of format (which I think is just a change of printer and paper stock as ISFDB describes all the recent and current issues as pulp format—although I’m aware that this can be a variable size), and also Bergey’s astronomical cover in January. This comment about covers comes from one of three and a half female correspondents, Marian Cox of Hilton Village, Virginia:
Dear Ed : Of the sixteen readers who commented on your January cover, fifteen liked it. Wonder if this signifies something? What puzzles me is, why, after finally printing a decent cover, you gave us the one on the March issue. The May issue wasn’t quite as bad, but it could have been better. Please give us covers that won’t shock my friends and relatives. Most of them think that s-f is just ‘junk’ simply because of the covers used on so many of the mags. Let’s try to improve them and (maybe) get a few new readers.
Can’t Bergey draw men? We females would like to have a nice handsome man on the cover for a change. How about it?
[. . .]
I know I’m repeating myself, but please let’s at least cover up the gals on the covers, if we can’t remove them entirely. p. 136
I note that a lot of the correspondents also mention the fact that the editor of the magazine is now listed (although not in this issue) and many address him as ‘Sam.’ Although Merwin was followed by Sam Mines as editor, there is no correction or update in the replies.
Startling Oddities is a half page of filler containing a number of one or two sentence science squibs: ‘As if the atom were not already complex enough— Dr. Robert B. Leighton of Caltech has just discovered a fifteenth particle— the anti-proton— in the hydrogen atom.’
Review of the Current Science Fiction Fan Publications by The Editor covers twenty titles and there are numerous names I recognise (Bob Silverberg, Ken Slater, Bob Tucker, W. Paul Ganley, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Donald B. Day, and others). One of the fanzines is called Orgasm, which draws the comment, ‘If only they’d change that title.’
Looking Forward trails next month’s novel, The Star Watchers, by Eric Frank Russell, which sounds like a psi-story reject from Astounding:
For their agent was one of two individuals on Earth capable of matching wild talents with the twelve known types of extrasensory abilities developed by the mutations of space-travel, including the Type-11 insectvocals—”bug-talkers”—who could command armies of deadly little creatures to do their bidding. p. 145
In conclusion: if Startling Stories really was #2 to Astounding in the late-40s/early-50s, it wasn’t a reputation built on issues like this one.
- ISFDB lists conflicting editorial attributions by reference works, but plumps for Mines. Wikipedia goes for Merwin.
- Worlds of If, F&SF #12, February 1952.
- The SFE entry on Startling Stories gives the usual information on the magazine’s birth and life. It seems to have been a game of two halves, with the best half beginning with Sam Merwin’s editorship in 1945.
Wikipedia goes further about the relative merits of Startling Stories versus Astounding: ‘When Merwin became editor in 1945 he brought changes, but artist Earle K. Bergey retained the creative freedom he had come to expect given his relationship with Standard. Some argue that Bergey’s covers became more realistic, and Merwin managed to improve the interiors of Startling to the point of being a serious rival to Astounding, acknowledged leader of the field. Critics’ opinions vary on the relative quality of the magazines of this era; Malcolm Edwards regards Startling as second only to Astounding, but Ashley considers Thrilling Wonder to be Astounding’s closest challenger in the late 1940s.’
Looking at the contents lists of these two magazines over the period concerned, Startling, as you would expect, seems to have published a number of stronger long works; Thrilling Wonder Stories published a lot of shorter fiction, including quite a few by the likes of Ray Bradbury, James Blish, Henry Kuttner, etc. There also seems to be more internal artwork in the latter, making it a superficially more attractive proposition.
- The magazine version of House of Many Worlds runs to 48,000 words and the book (available free on Amazon) is 59,000 words. A quick word count of the first three chapters in the book version shows they are each six or seven hundred words longer. There are fifteen chapters in the book, so I presume the expansion is uniform.
- In Leon Gammell’s The Annotated Guide to Startling Stories (p. 31) he comments that House of Many Worlds was “One of the first science fiction stories that I know of to feature a black hero among its other major characters, using a contemporary setting rather than a historical one, like Haggard’s novels of the Zulus in nineteenth century Africa. In this case we have a modernized version of the redoubtable John Henry, the pile-driving champion of American popular folklore.” Gammell also liked the Macdonald and Samalman stories. Google Books has up to p. 21 of his book if you want to get an idea of what it is like.
- Earle Bergey at SFE. You can see his more typical covers for the magazine here.
- Virgil Finlay:
*Revised 15/07/2017 to add the references to Leon Gammell’s The Annotated Guide to Startling Stories.*