John Boston and Damien Broderick: Strange Highways: Reading Science Fantasy, 1950-67 (p.239 of 365) (Amazon UK)
Man in His Time • novelette by Brian W. Aldiss ♥♥♥+
The War at Foxhanger • short story by Keith Roberts ♥♥♥+
The Chicken Switch • short story by Elleston Trevor ♥♥
Susan • short story by Keith Roberts [as by Alistair Bevan] ♥♥♥
The Excursion • novelette by Brian N. Ball
Over and Out • short story by George Hay
Hunt a Wild Dream (Part 2 of 2) • novelette serial by D. R. Heywood ♥
Editorial • by Kyril Bonfiglioli
A couple of years after Brian W. Aldiss’s contribution to this issue was published he would contribute an editorial to an issue of New Worlds which was a reprint of a speech he had made to the H. G. Wells’ PEN Club on the occasion of Wells’ centenary. In this article he mainly discusses Wells’ work but towards the end mentions Jules Verne, and how he was the guiding spirit of the SF magazines between the wars. Since then, Aldiss adds, a sceptical and more inquiring tone has crept in to genre SF, and that there are (circa 1966) a group of writers who use the Wells technique of thrusting a splinter of the unknown into a human situation in order to examine man, his circumstances, his defects, his conditions, his conditionals.1
This last quotation leads us nicely to Man in His Time. It starts with Jack Westermark, his wife Janet, a behaviourist called Stackpole, and an administrator meeting in a hospital office. Jack is the only surviving astronaut of a nine-man crew that crash-landed on returning from Mars. Furthermore he is 3.3077 minutes ‘ahead’ of everyone on Earth so that, for example, he answers questions that amount of time before they are asked.
She saw Jack walk in the garden. As she looked, he glanced up, smiled, said something to himself, stretched out a hand, withdrew it, and went, still smiling, to sit on one end of the seat on the lawn. Touched, Janet hurried over to the french windows, to go and join him.
She paused. Already, she saw ahead, saw her sequence of actions, for Jack had already sketched them into the future. She would go onto the lawn, call his name, smile, and walk over to him when he smiled back. Then they would stroll together to the seat and sit down, one at each end. p.15
In the Vernian model of SF that Aldiss refers to above this would be a problem that is there to be solved, or perhaps used as part of a larger adventure. What happens in this story, however, is almost the complete opposite. Jack and his wife return home accompanied by the behaviourist Stackpole, and the rest of the piece largely concentrates on the human aspects of the problem (although there are a few philosophical digressions). In particular, there is a focus on Jack and Janet as they struggle to talk to each other, perhaps a metaphor for the larger communication difficulties between men and women (this is reinforced by conversations between Janet and Stackpole, and also comments Janet’s mother-in-law makes).
Although this an impressive work it is not without fault: it is sometimes unclear, is a little unfocused, and rather rambles towards an ending suggesting acceptance of the situation. Because of the first two it is a piece that readers will need to concentrate on while reading—the first time I reread it was before going to sleep at night, which led to me repeating the exercise….
This is a notable story for Aldiss in that, perhaps for the first time (as in his contemporaneous novel Greybeard), he jettisons nearly all the trappings of genre SF. It was also a Hugo and Nebula Award finalist.
The War at Foxhanger by Keith Roberts is amongst the best stories in his series about the teenage witch Anita. The beginning is a masterclass in illustrating not only one of the protagonists’ characters (Granny Thompson) but also in setting up what the story is going to be about (a feud between two neighbouring witches):
Granny Thompson’s temper finally snapped when the jam refused to set. Anita stood by anxiously while the old lady spooned a sample onto a saucer, blew it, fanned it and then inverted it over the table. The jam wobbled, collected itself into a blob and fell off, plunk, onto the cloth. Granny Thompson gave a shout in which frustration and rage were nicely blended.
“Six hours! Nothink but bile an’ bile, an’ look at it! It ent even started . . . an’ it wunt, I can tell yer that, not in a month o’ Sundys. Yer kin tek it orf, it ent wuth wastin’ ’eat on.” She obeyed her own instruction, lifted the iron pot from the range and banged it down sizzling on the hearth. “Spelled,” muttered the old woman, casting round for book and glasses. “Spelled, that’s wot we are . . . an’ I dunt need to arsk ’oo by, neither . . . look at it!” And she whacked the offending jam with a ladle, startling Anita who had leaned over, eyes closed, to sniff the mauve steam of blackberries.
Granny Thompson stirred the mess vigorously. “Ter see the spells om put in, an’ orl . . . spells, spells, look, it’s thick with ’em, but set . . . set it wunt. I’ll give ’er spells . . . She began to leaf through her book, muttering from time to time, licking her horny fingers, eyes gimleting behind her glasses. “Mice in the milk, that ’ent ’ot enough be ’arf . . . She cackled. “Toads in the girdle, I reckon I’ll ’ave a goo at that . . . no, I kent, we’re out o’ noots eyes. That’s a very pertickler sort o’ spell, y’ave to ’ave orl the ingrediments right . . . I’ll find summat, dunt you worry . . .“ p.33
The rest of the story tells of an exciting and escalating battle of spells between the two witches, Granny Thompson and Aggie Everett, including one that almost proves fatal for Anita.
The Chicken Switch by Elleston Trevor2 is about a journalist who goes to interview an astronaut before the latter is put in sensory deprivation for a week as part of his training. After the interview the journalist goes home and starts becoming increasingly unsettled over the course of the next few days until he ends up requiring medical attention and sedation. He later returns to finish the interview and asks the astronaut what his secret is for coping with the isolation. The astronaut replies (spoiler) that he projects his feelings outside the capsule onto an individual he visualises…. The neat ending partially compensates for a not totally convincing idea and an overlong execution.
Susan is Keith Roberts’ second contribution to the issue, and his third story under his Alistair Bevan pseudonym. The first part of this is a convincingly described section about a strange schoolgirl called Susan in her Chemistry class at the end of the day. After the lesson is over she packs up and gets ready to go home but on her way out she is intercepted by an elderly English teacher who is shortly to retire. In the teacher’s classroom they have an odd conversation. In essence the teacher, who has never had children, wants to know what Susan has planned for her life. Susan doesn’t know and this upsets the teacher:
Miss Hutton stared at the desk and her hands clenched until the knuckles showed white with strain. The sound of the watch clattered in her mind and the little cottage room seemed suddenly to grow out of darkness, chilling her as if its very walls harboured an unearthly cold. Miss Hutton shuddered and gasped; then something seemed almost to shoulder past her into that room, something young and golden and intensely alive, something that brushed away fears and ghosts and oldness and snapped open windows to let in sunlight and warmth. Miss Hutton laughed uncertainly, seeing the little room before her with the vividness of hallucination. There was no darkness now; its windows were open and through them she could see June flowers, a brightness of grass, cumulus ships sailing the intense sky. This was a place to which she could come in dignity, and in peace. She could rest here, and she would not be alone . . .
Miss Hutton looked up and blinked. Susan was leaning over her and it seemed to the mistress that even while she watched a light was dying away from the girl’s eyes. She stared fascinated while a lilac brightness snapped and glittered and ebbed; then Susan was only a gentle-faced blonde girl in a dark blue school uniform and blazer. On her shoulder, a satchel of books. p.71
Later in the story another strange and more explicit event occurs as she nears her home. There (spoiler) she sees a man lying under a hedge: there is a red Angel and a white Angel vying for mastery of him. The red Angel wins and the man attacks Susan. She easily defends herself and mends the evil within him.
I don’t think this really works as a story but it is an interesting, well described and absorbing piece of prose.
The Excursion by Brian N. Ball is a long novelette about five people, or rather stereotypes, on a galactic tour. They are all cardboard characters: a brigadier, a lecturer, an older woman, and a young man and woman who turn out to be a smuggler and ex-prostitute. On this particular day of their tour they visit the Seventh Asiatic Confederation fort, guided by a robot called Homer. There is a persistent rumour of a hidden fort and, sure enough, they find a control panel which, when accidentally activated, transports them to it.
On arriving at the fort they soon pass out and regain consciousness in a cell. Here, the five of them continue the bickering that they had been indulging in on the surface. There are pages of this before the computer accuses them of being spies and interrogates them. Needless to say (spoiler) they subsequently manage to break out and return to the surface.
This is pretty dreadful stuff and unfortunately the longest piece in the magazine (42pp.).
Over and Out by George Hay is a forgettable squib just over a page long. It is all in capitals as it consists of teleprinter conversations (an old paper output form of email for our younger readers). A news editor is sending out a warning that a computer has taken over everything. The ending, where the computer’s manipulation of written history seems to have come true, doesn’t work.
Hunt a Wild Dream by D. R. Heywood concludes its unnecessary serialisation in this issue, and for convenience I’ll repeat what I said in the previous review. The story is about three white hunters in East Africa (Kenya?) at the time of the Mau Mau uprising. They load up their vehicles and go on a long drive to a plateau they intend searching. As this section proceeds we are introduced to a mythical creature known as the Nambi bear or Chemosit. Needless to say when the three men hack their way on through the bamboo at the base of the plateau they encounter this creature and shoot but don’t kill it.
After they take the Chemosit back to the camp Cullen, the expedition leader, just sits and watches it. Later (spoiler) he drives off from the camp, is ambushed by the Mau Mau, and escapes into the jungle. He then finds he has become the Chemosit and the encounters the three men and is shot….
This time loop ending to the story doesn’t work at all but this is probably worth reading for the local colour (albeit Colonial colour where black characters barely exist):
Cullen stepped out of his tent and looked critically at the unpretentious hills, which looked so easy to climb. He knew how deceptive appearance could be from previous experience in similar country. This gentle range of hills presented a climb of over two thousand feet, through a bamboo forest. The most treacherous type of forest that man could wish to penetrate. Where seemingly solid canes would collapse at the slightest touch; where fallen bamboo crossed each other in a lattice work barrier; and, where the unwary could crash through the apparently solid ground formed by years of fallen and decaying canes. . . . p.119
There is a short glossary of the African expressions used at the end of the story.
The uncredited Cover for this issue is the earliest example that I’ve found of those out of focus and/or psychedelic photo covers that would blight many a SF paperback or magazine from the mid-sixties into the early seventies. Awful.
Kyril Bonfiglioli begins another amusing and slightly eccentric Editorial by referring to a letter he has received:
I don’t suppose the editors of the Journal of Ethnographical Studies, the Manchester Guardian, the Rabbit breeder & Goat Fancier, The Times and the Anglican Review get many letters from strangers reading more or less as follows:
Finding myself unable to buy a copy of Health & Efficiency on Wigan Station the other day I resorted to a copy of your periodical. I am glad to see that you are still going—the friend I used to borrow mine from has gone into prison and I haven’t seen it for months. Amused to see another story by old Ken & one by Bri., I suppose the others are all by old Chris under speudonyms. Don’t think much of your edditorials though, very ilitterate and rambling. I miss the old words and phrases—”extrapolation”, “sense of wonder”, “man’s destiney”, “tradition of H. G. Wells” ect., ect,. In fact, you may asume that I shall not go out of my way to borrow copies in future.”
I get lots of them. I like them. But when I took over this editorship I had no idea that this was one of the fringe benefits, nor that I should find myself hotly defending my editorial policies against heated attacks from Ontario, Witwatersrand and Wigan. It is hard to say which is the more pleasant—the free and unfettered rudeness of the few or the generous, warm-hearted friendship of the many. p.2
He goes on to say that current magazines have more competion from anthologies than the old pulps did, but that they are doing their best.
The rest of the editorial comprises of extracts from other letters, including a very positive one from Harry Harrison in the Baltic, and this one:
“I always buy your magazine because of the lovely covers and because the contents are the best sleeping medicine I know. Since two pages are usually enough to send me off, I find that each issue is equivalent to two months supply of sleeping-pills—and much better for me, I daresay. If I need a really strong soporific I try the editorial.
“May I have your autograph?”
(Mrs.) JUDITH MUGUSTON
Speen, Bucks. p.4
I suspect Bon may have made up the ones I have quoted, although there is a Speen in Buckinghamshire….
This is a fair issue, with the Aldiss and both of the Roberts stories worth reading. The Heywood is also worth a look if you are interested in something different from the usual stuff.
- The relevant part of that article (The Man Who Invented the Future by Brian W. Aldiss, New Worlds #170, January 1967) is one of the paragraphs near the end:
We now have some extremely interesting American Writers: Philip K. Dick, Kurt Vonnegut, James Blish, Ward Moore, William Tenn, Thomas Disch. These writers, like the present English group, use the Wells technique of thrusting a splinter of the unknown into a human situation in order to examine man, his circumstances, his defects, his conditions, his conditionals. They would gladly admit, I think, that they work within a field developed almost single-handed by Mr. H. G. Wells. p.28
- ‘Elleston Trevor’ was a prolific writer outside the genre. There is a short Wikipedia entry here.