John Boston and Damien Broderick: Strange Highways: Reading Science Fantasy, 1950-67 (p. 247 of 365) (Amazon UK)
The Impossible Smile (Part 2 of 2) • novella serial by Brian W. Aldiss [as by Jael Cracken]
Great & Small • short story by G. L. Lack ♥♥+
Ploop • short story by Ron Pritchett
Peace on Earth • short story by Paul Jents
Deterrent • short story by Keith Roberts [as by Alistair Bevan] ♥♥♥
A Pleasure Shared • reprint short story by Brian W. Aldiss ♥♥♥+
Prisoner • short story by Patricia Hocknell
In Reason’s Ear • novelette by Hilary Bailey [as by Pippin Graham] ♥♥♥
Xenophilia • short story by Thom Keyes ♥♥♥
Cover • by Keith Roberts
Editorial • by Kyril Bonfiglioli
Editor, Kyril Bonfilioli; Associate Editor, J. Parkhill-Rathbone
The fiction in this issue of the magazine makes reading it a game of two halves: most of the fiction in the first half is fairly poor but the material at the back isn’t bad.
The Impossible Smile by Brian W. Aldiss completes in this issue. Wyvern is taken to Bureau-X, where he sees Parrodyce and warns him telepathically that Colonel H knows he is a telepath. Parrodyce flees. Wyvern later wakes up to find he is plugged into Bert the computer.
The rest of the story involves Wyvern and Parrodyce each going through several capture/escape narrative loops. Wyvern is dematerialised by Bert the computer at one point to escape being shot. At the very end of the story Wyvern learns to do this on his own, and transports himself to the rebels in the Yank zone of the Moon where he meets fellow telepath Eileen. She has cured Parrodyce of his mental ills and he ends up becoming a zither player in a Turkish band. All ends well.
Although this part is told in the same readable manner as the first, I became less resistant to its awfulness about half way through.
Great & Small by G. L. Lack is not bad and, with a couple of minor revisions, could have been quite good. This mood piece has a man waking up from radiotherapy treatment to hear a fly buzzing above him. When he recalls that they have all been wiped out, he wakes completely and finds that not only is everyone in the hospital dead but a similar situation pertains outside the building as well. The rest of the story details his last man on Earth wanderings. He is accompanied by the fly, which he makes some effort to keep as a companion.
The first of its two flaws is that there is a statement that seemingly contradicts the existence of the fly (and subsequently undermines the story’s quite good last line):
Flies were extinct—they had all been destroyed in World Pesticide Year when he was nine years old. p. 45
The second is a clunky and ill-explained rationale for the extinction of humanity:
He sat up looking through the open door at the sky. As a boy he had known all the constellations but this knowledge had faded with the accumulation of technical facts in adolescence. Now the patterns stood out prominently but he could not put a name to them. Why had he not seen them clearly for so long? Sleep was overtaking him again when the answer came—he had been unable to see the constellations for so long because there had been too many bodies between, confusing and masking the heavens.
Now the radiation brooms had gone. The clusters of satellites whose job it was to absorb the particles which bombarded the atmosphere from the radioactive belts were no longer there. Had the hundred billion to one chance occurred—that the sweepers had been drawn off into space in one direction only, thus enveloping the Earth on their journey? It accounted for the mass death and for the fact that all was apparently safe now. Was he on a planet free at last of man’s ambition and folly? p. 51
Ploop by Ron Pritchett is about a human spaceship landing on an unexplored (I assume) planet and finding a dog there. The crew don’t seem to think it that unusual when they find the animal but pay more attention to it when it sets off their radiation alarms. The story is as ridiculous as its title.
Peace on Earth by Paul Jents is about soldiers travelling in rockets to the moon (during which they are sedated part of the time because of the gravitational effects). They land on the dark side of the moon and make a ‘surprise’ discovery.
The space travel detail is dated and the ending is lame.
The next few stories are all quite good, save for Prisoner by Patricia Hocknell, so I’ll deal with it now. This one describes a man suffering what would appear to be an awful, painful imprisonment . . . but it turns out that he is (spoiler) a baby in a crib. I think this is a representative of the kind of stories that would later be uncharitably but accurately described as ‘typical Bonfiglioli space-fillers.’
Anyway, on to the good stuff. Deterrent by Keith Roberts has an opening that reminded me a little of a later story of his, The God House:1
Spears were sacred to the Valley Folk. The spears of their warriors kept danger at bay, and the great palisades of spikes with which they ringed their villages gave them security at night. The sun woke their crops with hot spears, so the weapon had become a symbol of fertility. And when storms flickered in the surrounding hills the people were glad because the Gods were striking evildoers with their own bright weapons. p. 65
This is about a tribe that are under threat from marauding Raiders. Their seer tells of a great spear in the ground that will help defend them. After searching for some time the tribe’s warriors find exactly that, and they learn how to work the metal from the spear into weapons. The great spear is (spoiler) an abandoned ICBM.
This is a fairly good if minor piece.
A Pleasure Shared by Brian W. Aldiss (Rogue, December 1962) is probably the best story in the issue even if it is (a) a reprint and (b) not SF. A serial killer shares a house with two other people and, against his will, ends up getting involved with both of them. It has a great hook at the start:
At seven thirty I rose and went over to the window and drew back the curtains. Outside lay another wintry London day—not nice.
Miss Colgrave was still in the chair where I had left her. I pulled her skirt down. Female flesh looks very unappetising before breakfast. I went through into the kitchen and made myself a cup of tea and poached an egg on the gas ring. While I did so I smoked a cigarette. I always enjoy a cigarette first thing in the morning.
I ate my breakfast in the bedroom, watching Miss Colgrave closely as I did so. At one point I rose to adjust the scarf round her neck, which looked unsightly. Miss Colgrave had not been a very respectable woman; she had paid the price of sin. But it would be a nuisance disposing of her. p. 73
It is hard to believe that this is the same writer that produced The Impossible Smile.
The most interesting story in this issue is a longish novelette by Hilary Bailey2 called In Reason’s Ear, which concerns the events that befall John Wetherall, an overseas civil servant who has just returned to London. During the ride home in a taxi he dozes but suddenly wakes up:
An unquiet thought crept in—he sat up suddenly. Good Lord, he thought, what’s going on round here?
With the speed of a man who has spent five years leaping out of bed at night to kill snakes and chase off pilferers, he jumped up and shot the window down. At once he noticed the drab, battered facades of Oxford Street, peeling like the Grand Hotel, Budapest, ten years after World War II. The crowd surging and shouting on the pavements beside the cab looked like a combination of existentialist Paris after dark and closing time at the circus. About his stationary cab washed the traffic-battered cars, scraped red buses and decrepit lorries, coming from all directions at once, coughing, wheezing and halting, hooting and squealing with no regard for traffic regulations or, indeed, the virtues of give and take and tolerance on the roads.
And beside his own cab, standing by a garishly candy-striped 1964 E-type Jaguar was a motley of young people, none a day over 18, arguing with the driver. Their spokesman was a tall girl, her blonde hair apparently hacked off by a vindictive army barber, her dress long and dun-coloured. She stood, lithe and menacing, with a small knife in her hand. Backing her up was another girl, dark and ugly, wearing the same orphanage dress and two longhaired boys, one in bright red and the other all in blue. p. 90-91
The much changed and deteriorating social fabric of the country (due to its mass youth unemployment) is the subject of further description and comment throughout the piece: this isn’t written like genre SF but rather like a conventional novel of the time (what I think may be called the ‘English social novel’—if I ever read one I’ll let you know for sure).
The rest of the story is mostly concerned about Wetherall’s encounters with a man called Bob Pardoe. The latter had approached Wetherall while he was still overseas looking for money and a false passport to get out of the country. Wetherall obliged and they subsequently travelled home on the same ship. During the voyage Pardoe had appeared detached and listless.
When Wetherall is later debriefed in London it becomes apparent that his boss (or rather the government) is interested in the fact that he had travelled home with Pardoe. Later, when Wetherall visits his parents, he finds that Pardoe had been the third man on the moon and crash landed in Africa on return—this occurred when Wetherall was in the hospital for several months with a fever. The authorities reported that Pardoe had died.
When Wetherall meets his boss for a drink that evening he finds out that two Eastern Bloc Moon astronauts have also been behaving strangely. On returning to his parents he finds them with the Pardoes, their neighbours, along with their missing son.
The final section has Wetherall talking to Pardoe about his trip to the moon. The latter relates how it has changed him, and that he does not want to talk to the authorities about his trip as he fears the damage that could be done by mans’ outward urge, the exploitation and militarisation of the moon, etc. Wetherall tries to convince him to engage in the exploration process, to give the directionless young of the day something to strive towards. The ending, where Pardoe and one of the Russian astronauts are picked up by the authorities, is left open.
There are a number of other things that are interesting in this piece as well. One example is the detail about how Wetherall came to be divorced from his wife:
John had stared down his long nose at the red-handed, red-headed strange fruit lying in its crib at the clinic—and wondered.
“Just like his father,” Margot’s mother had exclaimed.
A light dawned in John’s eyes. “He most certainly is,” he exclaimed emphatically, turned, left the room and never saw Margot again. p. 95-96
This is followed up by Wetherall’s reaction when his boss suggests visiting his ex-wife Margot after the pub:
He produced an invitation. “Margot wanted me to give you this. She’s been ringing up to ask after you occasionally during the past year. Do you want to go?”
“Are you going?”
“I will if you will,” said Plunkett. “I doubt if I’ll stay, though. You’ve no objections to seeing her?”
“Not really,” said [Wetherall]. “I’m not so sure about that redheaded bastard, though.”
“Cameron? Surely he can’t still be on the scene?”
“I meant it literally. The tiny tot who fraudulently bears my name.”
Plunkett looked at him sympathetically. “I believe he lives with his grannie in Cornwall.” p. 113
Not the kind of thing you would have found when John Carnell was editing Science Fantasy.
This isn’t a totally successful work (the meeting of Pardoe and one of the Russian astronauts at the end is an unlikely contrivance for instance, and the space travel aspects are dated and unconvincing) but it is an almost endlessly interesting one and well worth a look.
Whereas Carnell would have been able to bowdlerise Bailey’s story and run it, I strongly suspect Xenophilia by Thom Keyes would have been considered beyond the sexual pale. This story is supposedly set on a starboat but, initially at least, it is a thinly veiled copy of a Mississippi paddleboat casino story until the protagonist approaches a non-human extra-terrestrial:
Twister straightened his tie and polished his shoes under the machine, then he went back into the Saloon and looked around for the Tarpan. The tables were full, but she was big. She should stand out. Then he saw her settling down beside a roulette table. He moved next to her. “May I take this seat?” he asked, and indicated the empty place.
“By all means,” she replied. Thank God she spoke Galactic.
He even introduced himself as Twister, in the earth form, of course, and they got on well. Twister was confident in his appearance of naive sensuousness. He exaggerated it in his quiet conversation. He was smooth and strong. The woman could never recognize what he was; a gigolo, a professional lover. In the simulated evening, after many drinks, he confessed his affection for her. They moved away from the observation rail and walked down the corridors to her cabin. Twister scored on his mark. p. 125
They are together for the rest of the voyage and then, as the ship prepares for the final jump, he starts to work his way around to dumping her so he can rejoin his partner Kittia, who works as a conventional prostitute on the ship. There then follows an ending that is a little predictable but one (as with his previous appearance in Science Fantasy with A Period of Gestation) that gives a visceral thrill nonetheless.
This is another noteworthy taboo-busting story by Keyes (the gigolo theme, some description of human-alien sex acts, and probably the first sexual use of the word ‘frottage’ in SF).3
As for the non-fiction, the Cover is once again by Keith Roberts. The second by him of a run of four, it is one of his weaker efforts. The back cover lists three stories, only one of which actually appears in this issue.4
In his Editorial Kyril Bonfiglioli discusses the difference between well-written and readable books. He provides a useful example:
The front page of the Daily Mirror is usually full of eminently readable, well-told stories—one would have to be blase indeed to be actively bored by it—but I am sure that even the editor would not claim that it is well-written . . . p. 2
There is a subsequent comment about the James Bond novels:
The enormous success of the late Ian Fleming’s James Bond series might tempt one to describe them as “good” or “well-written” books. They are, of course, nothing of the kind. They describe with implicit approval the base actions of an amoral thug engaged in an unsavoury trade; they are implausible in content, undistinguished in style, palpably deleterious in their effect upon the young and clearly written within the terms of a cynically-devised formula intended to appeal to the most despicable elements in our characters. I read them avidly and so (statistically speaking) do you: cruelty, lechery, gluttony and snobbery are a group of indoor sports peculiar to what we laughingly call homo sapiens. p. 3
Interesting piece: a pity he would soon tire of writing them.
In conclusion, a worthwhile issue or, perhaps more accurately, half of one.
- I briefly discussed The God House in my review of New Worlds Quarterly #1 (1971).
- Why Bailey’s story was published under the ‘Pippin Graham’ pseudonym, I have no idea. Her previous story, The Fall of Frenchy Steiner in New Worlds #143 (July-August 1964), reviewed by me here, was published under her own name and so was all her subsequent short work.
- The OED gives two meanings for the word ‘frottage.’ The first is ‘the technique or process of taking a rubbing from an uneven surface to form the basis of a work of art;’ the second is ‘the practice of touching or rubbing against the clothed body of another person in a crowd as a means of obtaining sexual gratification.’ Who knew?
- The Aldiss/Cracken story listed below appeared in this issue. The Wordley story appeared in #77, and the Roberts in #75 (presumably that is why Deterrent appeared under the Bevan pseudonym in this issue):