John Boston and Damien Broderick: Strange Highways: Reading Science Fantasy, 1950-67 (p.227 of 365)
Present from the Past • short story by Douglas Davis ♥♥
The Empathy Machine • novelette by Langdon Jones ♥♥♥
Harvest • short story by Johnny Byrne
Petros • short story by Philip Wordley ♥♥+
Flight of Fancy • short story by Keith Roberts ♥
Only the Best • short story by Patricia Hocknell
The Island • short story by Roger Jones ♥♥
The Typewriter • short story by Keith Roberts [as by Alistair Bevan] ♥♥
The Blue Monkeys (Part 3 of 3) • serial by Thomas Burnett Swann ♥♥♥♥♥
The Jennifer • by Keith Roberts
Editorial • essay by Kyril Bonfiglioli
This issue of Science Fantasy heralded a change in printer1 and also in the physical appearance of the magazine. The pliable matt cover was replaced with a stiffer, glossy one, and redesigned.2 The internal typography also changed (41 to 40 lines and smaller type). Although the initial impression is of a better quality product (thicker cover stock and redesign) the interior printing is not as good quality and is harder to read. On a couple of the issues I have there is also faded type and also quite a lot of ink smearing.3
The short fiction in this issue contains three stories of interest (although I’d call only one of them ‘good’). The best of the bunch is Langdon Jones who, after having had a couple of stories in New Worlds, appears here with his third, The Empathy Machine. This story starts with Henry Ronson looking into the mirror and deciding to murder his wife. But before he can finish shaving:
Suddenly the surface of the mirror became a mass of oily colours, and then resolved into the smaller image of another man. “I smoke Pop panatellas,” he said. “Do you smoke Pop panatellas? You should smoke Pop panatellas. Why don’t you smoke Pop panatellas? Why don’t you smoke Pop panatellas?” The man blew a puff of smoke which filled the mirror. “I smoke Pop panatellas for peace—calm—happiness.” The smoke cleared, showing a peaceful pastoral scene, while soft banks of violins shimmered in the wood-smoke, sunset air. “You need to smoke Pop panatellas too, like me . . . Enjoy your moments of peace, like me . . .” p.15-16
There follow several more adverts as Henry wipes his face and moves to another part of the house. He eventually loses his temper and throws a shoe at a wall screen running an advert and breaks it. After an argument with his wife the police arrive; they see he has intentionally broken the screen and physically assault him. So far, so The Space Merchants.
The story then moves to Mars, where he and his wife Marian have booked a touring holiday. Ronson intends to shoot his wife and bury her body but say that she disappeared in quicksand. While they are travelling through the landscape they see a white spire in the distance and go to investigate. They find what appears to be an ancient Martian city. Exploring further, they end up in a building that has a number of cubicles that have been further separated into two sections. Ronson puts on the headset at one side of the cubicle and Marian takes hold of a handle on the other:
Where was he?
Awareness. Identity. Something something falling enclosed. I. The concept; the idea, hold that idea! I. Me. An existence, an entity. In nothing. An entity enclosed in nothing. All blackness, and a cowering entity. I. Who am I? Where am I? I am no-one. I am nowhere. Time has been passing, an incredible, unimaginable time. Time of what? There is no time. Nothing. Relaxation. Thought. What was I? Where was I? Gone. What? Gone where? What has gone? Something. Something before. Before what? Before this. What is this? Where am I? Self. I exist. I am I. Memories . . . OF WHAT? I. Memories of me. I am. I am a man. Henry Ronson. I remember! But what am I now? Where am I now? What is this darkness? Where is my body? I have no body. I am an idea; an entity. But how did I get here? The machine! The headpiece, the cubicles, the city. p.33-34
Ronson later finds that he can navigate the strip of impressions that is his wife’s consciousness. Initially, he finds an experience she had as a baby; later, the pivotal event of their wedding night—which produces a passage that wouldn’t have appeared in the Carnell era:
She was in bed with her husband. He was kissing her. “Good God,” thought the observer, “It’s my wedding night!” Her body responded eagerly and warmly to his hands. She was full of overwhelming love and desire for her man. The feelings were almost too much for the observer to bear. She loved him, how she loved him! She loved him so much, that she gently moved to do something that would show him how she loved him. Suddenly his hand caught her chin roughly, and lifted her face. His mouth was twisted, and she felt sudden fear. What had happened?
He lifted his hand, and hit her viciously across the mouth.
“You filthy, perverted little bitch!” he shouted.
And then followed such an incredible torrent of pain and suffering and agony, that the observer blundered wildly out of the strip, his mind reeling under the impact of such strong pain. It was a long time before any coherent thought could emerge, but gradually, against his will, almost, he regained some rationality. “Oh God,” he thought, “No wonder she was frigid.” p.36
When he comes back to consciousness (spoiler) they reconcile. By no means do all of the elements in this story fit comfortably together, but I think it is an interesting and readable piece with a good ending. You would certainly come away from this looking forward to more from Jones.
The other two stories that show some promise are Petros by Philip Wordley and The Island by Roger Jones.
Wordley’s story is the first of four stories he would produce for Science Fantasy, before peaking with the notable Goodnight, Sweet Prince (Science Fantasy #77, October 1965). He then disappeared from the SF world forever. Initially it starts off as a rather jokey post-holocaust story about Rafael, a builder’s labourer who is working on a wall around St Peter’s Dome to keep the barbarians out:
Domenico Ravazzi, Supreme Pontiff, formerly vicar of Brescia (pop. 3,000) craned his neck as he stood in the shadows of the wall and regarded Rafael. Down here in the courtyard a band of slaves who had been British and American tourists before the bombs went up were feeding the rope slings with more concrete cubes, under the enthusiastic supervision of Enrico Stacci, head of the Imperial Roman Army (formerly known as Rico’s Mob. Well, someone had to take over and keep law and order). Rico and his boys had just entered the vaults of the National bank of Italy when all hell broke loose, and when they had emerged, they realised that none of their cargo could ever be of any use to them now. Still, the vault had been a good fall-out shelter. And now Rico, former small-time hood and extortionist, was strutting about in his scarlet tunic, and Domenico, former small-time priest, was consecrating the concrete, and both were engaged in rebuilding Rome.
And Rafael? He was catwalking around the scaffolding, sixteen stone of rude muscular health, and certainly not over-awed by his unique position as first rebuilder of the world. He was getting hungry and he needed a shave, and he needed a woman, in that order. p.46
Rafael is ordained as a priest and sent to Britain to build a church. He is told that further instructions will be sent but by the time he arrives the Pope has died. One day after building his church he has to defend himself against a group of men in a vicious fight, and gains the upper hand. Having gained their respect they come back to the church the next day, and before long he has a congregation. After conducting his first service he tells them:
“I don’t-a know nothing about being no priest. All I know is what I heard the Father say in my own-a church back home. I’ll do what I can, but that’s not much. I reckon that’s all I gotta say. Come again tomorrow, and I’ll try to think of something else.” He paused, “Oh, and something else I wanta say. Lotsa you look like you got-a nowhere to live. If you wanta shelter in my church, okay. I gotta no food for you, but I gotta roof and walls, and you’re welcome to that.” Then he stopped and sat down. The congregation still sat silent. Then they rose, and went, each one turning to look at Rafael before going out into the mist.
Well, thought Rafael, that’s that. They won’t come back no more. They came to me, and I didn’t have nothing to give them. Dio mio, help me. I built this church, and it’s ready, but I’m not. Send me the message, tell me what to do, and how to do it. If I don’t find out, they’ll kill me. p.52
He wonders what he will say to them the next day.
In the last scene he encounters a man who whispers a message in his ear. The message is the last line in the story and it is both fitting and touching.
The main problem with this is that Wordley should have been convinced to take this story seriously: cut or rewrite the humorous material at the beginning and drop the cod-Italian accents. It would have been better for it.
The Island by Roger Jones is about three men on an island: Rastrick, Erg and Minus. Rastrick is in charge of the other two. Erg is also in charge of Minus and uses violence as well as words to enforce this relationship. Once a week Rastrick goes to the house for orders, and when he returns from the house he tells Erg and Minus how the stones on the beach must be arranged. Minus does the work. They are all waiting for the boat to come.
Eventually Minus decides to go to the house and try and find answers to the eight questions he has:
Minus had formulated the following questions which he considered to be pertinent to his situation: (1) Who lives at the House? (2) Are there more than one of him? (3) Supposing Erg is not lying, what was Rastrick doing in the copse? (4) How soon is the Boat coming? (5) And then what? (6) Why do the stones have to be changed so often? (7) Why is Rastrick so nasty? (8) Where can I find the answer to these questions? p.70
At the house (spoiler) he finds seventeen skeletons. He also finds a button similar to the one he has on his clothing. He goes to Rastrick for answers and finds him in the copse. Rastrick, surprised, falls off the cliff and is killed. When Minus returns to Erg he finds him with a bread knife through his throat.
Initially, I thought this may be an allegory about the heirarchical nature of society but the final events lost me. A pity: this was quite a good read until its mystifying ending.
There are two of the remaining stores that are competent if uninspiring. Present from the Past by Douglas Davis, which, according to Kyril Bonfiglioli in his editorial, is ‘a new twist on the time-safari—one of my favourite science-fiction topics.’ This has a palaeontologist going back in time to study Cynognathus, a dog headed half-mammal, half-reptile, crocodile-like creature. He ends up in a game of cat and mouse with one of these creatures on returning to his time shuttle from a short patrol outside.
The Typewriter by Keith Roberts is his second pseudonymous effort as Alastair Bevan. It concerns the writer of a series of lurid spy novels and how his typewriter takes over the plot. It is an amusing story in parts:
At dawn the typewriter let its owner rest. Henry tottered to the bed, lay down on it and was almost immediately asleep. He was worn through; during the last few hours he had survived a stockwhip battle with Black Bart, the bullying king of the gipsy tribe; narrowly escaped death when the crazed Eileen had tried to force his car over a cliff; foiled an attempt by Partek to end his life by stuffing his pillow with tarantulas, and rescued Esmeralda from lingering death under the beaks of Black Bart’s troupe of trained cormorants. p.82
The writer starts to physically experience what is happening to his protagonist but this isn’t particularly well established before the inevitable ending….
That leaves the rest, which I either didn’t like or understand. Harvest by Johnny Byrne is an example of the latter. I read this one twice and still have no idea of what it is supposed to be about. A man and a woman live in the country on the edge of a war zone. At one point she is tortured by passing soldiers, and her fingers and arms cut off. I think that at some point after this she is killed and her husband buries her head. A baby, an old woman and a stranger talking about the war also feature at various points. Unfathomable.
Flight of Fancy by Keith Roberts is a very short post-holocaust squib about the trajectory of an arrow, and what will happen if you fire it harder and harder….
Only the Best by Patricia Hocknell is an awful story about a woman who wants a new washing machine that sorts, presses, folds, etc. The initial part where Freda talks to her husband about getting one is quite stereotypical:
Jack laughed and stretched his arms over his head. “Yes, ma’am. I get the picture. It’s those ads for ‘Only the Best’ that’re getting you, isn’t it? But ducky, at that price!”
Freda played a trump. “Dick Jacobs is getting Irene one.”
“Really? Can’t be doing as well as he says, if that’s all they can afford!”
“She got a mink stole to go with it. Dick said that the machine would save so much of her time and his money that a mink was almost a necessity to go to all the places they intended to go, now.” She crossed her fingers and hoped. It wasn’t strictly true. Irene was getting the mink, but not for the reasons that Freda had just given. It was a present from Dick in a fit of guilty conscience. Something to do with his secretary. p.58
It goes from this to the ludicrous when the machine washes the cat and delivers up a clean piece of fur (it uses an organic solvent for cleaning that never needs replacing). Later, meat starts disappearing from the kitchen….
This issue also has the last instalment of The Blue Monkeys by Thomas Burnett Swann, which is an excellent ending to the novel (multiple spoilers). In this he moves from writing small, gentle scenes to epic, sometimes brutal ones. The contrast between the two amplifies the effectiveness of the latter.
It starts with an exciting battle sequence as the Achaeans invade the forest. The Beasts lure them deep into their territory and take their toll of the warriors. Eunostos ends up in a duel with Ajax, and nearly gets the better of him until the latter summons two of his warriors to help him:
While Xanthus recovered his sword, Ajax and Pluton pressed their attack. They thought, no doubt, to find me lamed and helpless. But my roar had vented anger and not defeat. The side of my axe bit into Pluton’s neck; in the handle, I felt the spasms of his death-struck body. I had no time in which to recover my axe. Ajax came at me with murder in his hand. He looked like a hungry sphinx. The stench of him struck me in the face. p.91
So much for the ‘gentle’ fantasy of Thomas Burnett Swann.
The Beasts are almost victorious when another army enters the field, so they retreat. At this point the majority of the Beasts head for the centaur camp but Eunostos, Thea and Icarus return to Eunostos’s house, where they and Pandia the bear are later besieged. The giant ant-like telechine rush outside, trying to protect the house from a harmamxa, a covered vehicle that protects the invaders as they assault the door. There is a grisly description of the fate of the insects:
“Strike at their joints, Men!”
Deflecting our arrows with their shields, they struck repeatedly at the waving, root-like limbs, and their sharp edged swords began to slice through the joints. The result was no less lamentable for being inevitable. My workers were soon hobbling over the grass in complete helplessness, while the warriors struck at the tough but not impervious membrane which joined the halves of their bodies, till the halves lay twitching in separate agony. p.98
Eunostos and the other inhabitants retreat to the underground bedroom and pull down an earth dam to block the entrance. After a night’s sleep, during which Eunostos saves Pandia from a vampiric Stirge, they wake to find that Thea has left by the secret passage to surrender herself to Ajax, thinking this will end the invasion. Eunostos and Icarus also leave and make for the camp of the centaurs.
When they arrive they see that the Acheaens have killed all the male centaurs and are feasting on, among other things, Thea’s beloved blue monkeys. She is being held hostage. Eunostos and Icarus make the heart-breaking decision to poison some of the other blue monkeys in the forest with wolfsbane and drive them towards the camp:
I looked at Icarus and saw the tears in his eyes. “We’re killing them for Thea,” I reminded him. “To save her from those ruffians.”
“I know,” he said, “but treachery is still treacherous. Otherwise, why are you crying?”
“I’m not crying,” I snapped so sharply that the monkey jumped from my shoulder. “I’m trying to comfort you.”
At the edge of the forest, still under cover of trees, we fed the monkeys. With a touching but not entirely successful attempt to avoid biting or scratching us, they plucked the roots from our hands and ate them so quickly that they did not have time to notice their bitterness. Then we waved our daggers and ran at the unsuspecting creatures with a show of great ferocity. At first they mistook our actions for a game and tried to wrestle the knives out of our hands. We had to strike them with the flats of our blades to prove our hostility. I shall never forget their cries of astonishment and disbelief. We watched them vaulting across the trellises of the vineyard, still in a pack and more aggrieved than frightened. p.112-113
The Achaeans kill and eat the monkeys, and all are rendered unconscious; many die. Thea is rescued; the battle is won.
After this bloody fight Thea and Icarus receive a message from their father: he wants then to return to Knossos to help fight the Achaeans. They go, and that battle is also won when Thea and Icarus use the mythological equivalent of shock-and-awe:
The Princess Thea appeared on the walls and urged her warriors to victory in the name of the Great Mother and the Minotaur. The besieging Achaeans gasped when they saw her beauty: the crimson, helmet-shaped skirt emblazoned with jetblack ants; the bared breasts, flaunting fertility in the very graveyard of war: the golden serpents coiled around her wrists; the pointed ears and the greenly tumbling hair which lent to her chiselled features a wild and intoxicating barbarism.
Archers forgot to draw their bows. Swordsmen fell to their knees and raised their swords like talismans above their heads.
A hush and then an outcry.
It was then that the boy Icarus charged them with his shield Bion. They saw his pointed ears. They knew him to be her brother. They had come to fight puny Men—sailors and merchants and perfumed courtiers—and not these bright, avenging children from the Country of the Beasts.
“The Beast Prince!”
They stared, they dropped their weapons. p.123
Although all the battles against the Achaeans have been won the Beasts realise that, although their territory may be safe for the moment, it will eventually fall to mankind. As Rhode, the daughter of Chiron the centaur says:
“There will always be someone who comes to invade our peace. They will never leave us alone, will they, Eunostos? Isn’t it time we left the forest? Returned to the Isles?”
The Isles of the Blest, she meant. The land in the Western Sea from which we had come, in the age before men: a pleasant and sunny land, without dangers—and also without adventures.
“The gods will tell us the time,” I said. “It will be soon, I think.” p.120
Soon afterwards Thea’s father offers the Beasts two of his ships to take them to the Isles. They depart with Thea and Icarus in a melancholy and bittersweet ending:
After we have sailed to the islands, I think that legend will not be kind to us. The Centaurs will thunder through many a battle as the barbarous foe of Men and their well-ordered cities, and the Minotaur, the Bull that Walks Like a Man, what will they say of him? His tail will grow forked, his horns will sprout like the antlers of a stag, and the gloom of his lightless caverns will terrorize children and young virgins. “Beast” will become synonymous with “animal”, and “bestial” will be an epithet applied to savages and murderers. Men of the future, open this cave and find my scroll and read that we were neither gods nor demons, neither entirely virtuous nor entirely bad, but possessed of souls like you and in some ways kinder; capable of honour and sacrifice—and love. Consider if bestially is not, after all, akin to humanity. Read and understand us, forgive us for having once defeated you, and forgive the author if he has allowed his own loss to darken his story. p.126-127
The time of the Beasts has passed.
When the book edition of this novel was published as The Day of the Minotaur, it was a 1967 Hugo Award finalist alongside his novelette The Manor of Roses (F&SF, November 1966).4
The non-fiction consists of Bonfiglioli’s editorial only. He talks briefly about writers either being ‘putters-in’ or ‘takers-out’, says that Keith Roberts’ cover is for the next issue’s Anita story, and mentions the magazine is going monthly. This Roberts’ cover was the first of a number of highly distinctive pieces that he would contribute to the magazine and which would give it a characteristic look of its own.
An interesting issue.
- Richmond Hill Printing Works of Bournemouth took over from The Rugby Advertiser Ltd.
- It took me a while to figure it out, but the font used for the Science Fantasy type on the cover is a bold version of Century Schoolbook.
- One of the more poorly printed pages:
- The 1967 Hugo nominations.