John Boston and Damien Broderick: Strange Highways: Reading Science Fantasy, 1950-67 (p. 256 of 365) (Amazon UK)
Boomerang • short story by E. C. Tubb ♥
Coming-of-Age Day • short story by A. K. Jorgensson ♥♥♥
Temptation for the Leader • short story by R. W. Mackelworth
At Last, the True Story of Frankenstein • short story by Harry Harrison ♥♥
Sule Skerry • short story by Rob Sproat ♥♥♥
The Jobbers • short fiction by Johnny Byrne
Omega and Alpha • short story by Robert Cheetham ♥♥+
The Furies (Part 3 of 3) • serial by Keith Roberts ♥♥
Instead of an Editorial • essay by Brian W. Aldiss
Editor, Kyril Bonfiglioli; Associate Editor, J. Parkhill-Rathbone
The highlight of this issue was the publication of a taboo breaking story by A. K. Jorgensson1 called Coming-of-Age Day. Notable for its explicit (for an SF magazine at the time) sexual content, Kyril Bonfiglioli had this to say about it in his introduction:
My first reactions to this story were—’Great stuff, but of course I can’t print it’ . . . my next reaction was ‘Why on earth not?’ It is not the sort of thing usually discussed in science fiction—or anywhere else, for that matter—but if SF is going to grow up perhaps it’s time we stopped talking about what is proper for the genre. p.13
The first section is a rather muddled one where an eleven year old’s sexual curiosity is set against hints about the changed practises of a future world. Although you might expect an eleven year old’s knowledge to be unclear, this unfortunately extended to my comprehension of what was going on.
The second section is considerably more lucid and recounts the boy’s thirteenth birthday, when he goes for compulsory medical checks:
“Good afternoon, Andrews. Nice to see you again. Still feeling in good health?”
“Yes, sir, thank you.” One never admits that one has never felt quite the same since being pumped with inoculatives.
“Ready to have a consex fitted! Now, Andrews, this is a most private matter which I think will explain itself. We are not afraid to be scientific about sex as a subject, but I trust you will keep this to yourself. If you are not completely satisfied—for any reason whatsoever—tell no one but come and see me. Is that understood?”
“I am a sexiatrist, actually, not a doctor. Now come and look in this glass container.”
I looked. As I believe it usually does to others, it struck me with a sort of horror to see this thing alive, a collapsed sort of dumpling with ordinary human skin, sitting in its case like a part of a corpse that he been cut off.
“Get used to it,” he said. “It’s only ordinary flesh. It has a tiny pulse with a primitive sort of heart, and blood and muscle. And fat. It’s just flesh. Alive, of course, but perfectly harmless.”
He lifted the lid and touched it. It gave, then formed round his finger. He moulded it like dough or plasticine and it gave way, though it tended to roll back to a certain shapelessness.
He was firm and I obeyed. It had a touch like skin and was warm. It might have been part of someone’s fat stomach. I pushed my finger in, and the thing squeezed the finger gently with muscular contractions.
“It’s yours,” he announced.
I nearly fainted with horror. It strikes everyone that way until they realize how simple, harmless and useful free living tissue can be, and its many healing purposes. It embarrassed me to guess where the “consex” was to be located on my body, and my intuition was uncertain with equally embarrassing ignorance. But one only has to wear a consex a short while to realize how utterly natural it is, and how delightfully pleasant when in active use. It is a boon to lone explorers, astronauts, occupants of remote weather and defence stations, and so [on].
“Don’t worry,” said the specialist as I drew back in disgust. “It’s no more horrible than the way you came into the world, or the parts each of your parents played in starting the process. In fact, it’s cleaner, more foolproof, and efficient, and far more satisfying than a woman. Thank heaven, without them we’d be overrun.” p. 18-19
The final part involves the boy lying on a bed for half an hour getting used to his consex while he listens to the doctor argue with another boy who is refusing to have one fitted.
There is no particular story here but it is an interesting and notable piece.
There are a couple other stories of interest in this issue. Sule Skerry by Rob Sproat2 is a medieval fantasy about Thalia Willow, and how she falls unexpectedly pregnant. Later, when her son is an infant, she is visited at her grandmother’s house by the last of the selkies, a huge man-like creature:
Thalia was frightened enough by the prospect of dealing with an outsize man, but her terror increased as the details of her giant’s appearance became clearer. His hair appeared to be light in colour and very short, quite unlike the shoulder-length styles common among the Northumbrians. The same soft, fine hair seemed to cover every visible part of his body—he wore only a whitish tunic, open to the waist. He was dripping wet; he glistened with water all over, and it ran off him to form pools on the floor. His head was massive, even in proportion to his vast body, and very round in shape, blending into a very short and thick neck. At first sight, his wide face appeared to be featureless, then Thalia saw that his mouth was nothing but a tightly closed slit. His eyes likewise seemed to be firmly shut. No nostrils or nose were visible, and he had nothing which could rightly be called ears. Thalia Willow trembled and knew that this was no mortal man who stood so silently at the foot of her bed.
This much was abundantly clear from his looks, but over and above that, there was an air about him such that you knew that he did not belong in the world of men. It was nothing Thalia could pin down, but there was something foreign even about the way he stood, so that you knew he had no place there. Something strange and yet familiar, because you recognised it at once. Thalia thought of Will’s awkwardness, and of Gran saying: “Yon’s no earthly child, Thalie,” and she knew who her visitor was.
“You are my Willy’s father,” said Thalia Willow.
“I am thy bairn’s father,” said her giant, without opening his eyes. His voice was loud and yet gentle, and very deep and strange. p. 54
He explains he is the last of his race—because of the deprivations of man—and impregnating her while she was asleep was the only way he could have a son to keep him company. Thalia refuses to let him take her son away and she returns home. The story (spoiler) has a tragic end.
By the by, it is bookended with sections describing a historical society gathering oral recordings of folk music and poetry, etc. I can’t make my mind up if these add to or detract from the main story, but it is a pretty good fantasy nonetheless, and I would suggest it is the kind of thing that could easily have found a home across the Atlantic in Ed Ferman’s F&SF.
Also of interest is the dystopian Omega and Alpha by Robert Cheetham. This is a grim diary account about a would-be writer and his pregnant wife on a remote island to the east of the Seychelles. There has been a nuclear war and the atmosphere is full of ash. He describes their existence as they slowly die of radiation poisoning.
The last image (spoiler) is quite a horrific one of two young babies/toddlers eating dead fish at the shore line, but confusing given that the writer’s wife has just given birth. This scene was consequently weakened for me as a result, but it is an interesting piece.
The rest of the fiction is a very mixed bag. Boomerang by E. C. Tubb gets off to a promising start with its tale of a man in the future who commits a series of heinous crimes, i.e. he kills his another man’s friends, burns his house, mutilates his pets, etc., but leaves him alive.
Marlow, the killer, is subsequently exiled to an alien planet called Hades where he is left alone without any supplies. He survives, and one day the victim arrives to seek his revenge.
This is a completely unbelievable story. Never mind that it is not credible that a future court would pass such a cruel and unusual punishment but would they really dispatch a crew to trail half way across the galaxy to drop him on an inimical planet where he has little chance of survival? I don’t think so. The last line is pretty dumb as well.
Temptation for the Leader by R. W. Mackelworth has a president conducting a negotiation with an alien. As with his story in #74 we have more talking heads and, once again, Mackelworth demonstrates he is the master of ‘don’t show, tell’. At the end of all this chatter (spoiler) the alien is seen to begin to manifest horns on his head. The aide also suspects the alien to have a devil’s tail.
If all of this isn’t bad enough, Kyril Bonfiglioli makes this risible comment about the story in his introduction:
The central idea in this story has been used before although in a completely different way; there is no suggestion of plagiarism and this story is, in my opinion, an important one. p. 28
At Last, the True Story of Frankenstein by Harry Harrison is about the descendant of Victor Frankenstein supposedly exhibiting the monster in an American carnival. A visiting reporter gets to the bottom of the act which (spoiler) involves a zombie not an assembled monster. The reporter is drugged, dies, and becomes the replacement. Daft but well enough done.
The Jobbers by Johnny Byrne tells of a man who wakes up to find two tiny men on him. They subsequently make a dash for his ears and, once inside his head, they tell him that they are there to ‘scrape and drain.’ Yeah. TBSF (Typical Bonfiglioli Space Filler).
The Furies by Keith Roberts, concluding in this issue, carries on much as before (spoilers follow). Bill recovers from being blown up by the army. The wasps come back with the better weather. The original group decide to do something more permanent and decide to attack the city nest with a petrol tanker. This precipitates a massive retaliation from the Furies and the group are chased into the depths of the Chill Lear cave system and only escape when they go through an underwater pool to another cave, where they hide in the dark.
Sometime, Greg started talking again. He was back in control of himself; he used his voice to fight the silence, break it up before it crept into our bodies as surely as the cold and sent us scatty. He told how the caves had been formed. How the hills had come shouldering up from an old sea, slowly, slow, with the rain working inside them all the time, carving its passages deeper as the rock bulged above the water table. He talked about the stalactites edging and inching to touch the floor, growing through the ages till they seemed not so much products of stone and rain as the glassy fossils of time itself. The hills were forever, and the caves were as old as the hills. They once underpaved the camps of Rome and they were there before that and before, when the great red deer moved in the mist and there were no men. Here for once we could touch the eternal. Recorded history was nothing to the life of Chill Leer; all civilisation, jetplanes and longboats, pyramids and comptometers, was a bright flash against the abyss of geologic time, one tick of a clock whose pendulum was the earth, whose face was the sun . . . p. 94
They are attacked once again when they emerge by sentries that have been left behind, and soon only Bill and Pete are left. After hiding out in a cottage for five days they leave and are pursued by the remaining Furies who, surprisingly, don’t kill them but take them to see the queen.
The chamber was high and airy, filled with the dim roaring of the swarm. Pulp windows, veined and textured like rich stained glass, reached from floor to vaulted roof, making a golden cartwheel of light. At the far end of the place a pulp ledge was built out from the wall on a level with our heads. It was some moments before I saw the Queen. She was resting on the ledge as if on a dais; below her, on a raised nub in the floor, stood a tapedeck like the one in the van. It looked incongruously bright and modern. As I watched the spools moved. “Come closer,” said the speaker. “You will not be harmed . . .”
Pete was trembling, whether from fear or suppressed hatred I couldn’t tell. I walked forward. I wasn’t conscious of speaking but I heard my own voice. It said, “Why did you bring us here . . . ?” I knew now I was dreaming. Maybe I died alongside Greg in the caves with a Fury pecking at my throat; this was the death fantasy, immense and vague. p. 113
She tells them that the Furies are all going mad and they are handing the planet back to the humans. Pete tries to kill the queen and also provides more associated personal-issues melodrama. The queen wasp eventually commits suicide by stinging herself.
The pair go to the coast and get picked up by a helicopter and taken to the islands, where they are debriefed by Neill, the commander of the original armoured car patrol. Bill finds out that Jane never made it—her boat was found but she wasn’t on it (one wonders if Roberts realised half way through the novel that the burgeoning relationship between Bill and the teenager needed to be very deeply buried). News of the wasps committing mass suicide comes through.
There is an epilogue with Bill and Pete as farmers four years later.
Overall, this is an episodic and pretty average disaster novel with a deux ex machina ending. It exhibits little of Roberts’ usual talent, but there is the odd flash here and there that will be of interest to completists.
The Cover in this issue is uncredited, but if I was going to guess I would say Agosta Morol, who did a couple of other covers for the magazine.3
Instead of an Editorial by Brian W. Aldiss provides an interesting review on his novel Non-Stop. It starts with this:
Nowadays, anyone who wishes can set up as reviewer. It needs only energy and a sense of one’s own importance. This is perhaps especially so in the science fiction field, which has always been afflicted by the do-it-yourself mania. p. 2
Well, that’s me told. The rest of it is equally quotable:
Originally, I wrote it as a novelette at about a quarter of its present length. I sent it to Ted Camell, who said, “It’s a marvellous idea, far too good to waste on anything less than a novel. But I’m short of material, so it goes in the next issue. Meanwhile, why not turn it into a novel?” Good idea, I thought.
[. . .]
With Ted’s encouragement, the novel was written and published in April 1958 without a word of the text being altered. That’s one of the many virtues of my publisher; while the American publishers, Criterion, insisted on removing a few entirely innocuous passages about Vyann’s breasts and so on, Fabers didn’t even correct the grammatical error in the dedication. p. 2
Plot and story are one; what the characters find out, the reader also discovers. This still seems to me a sound plan, though it is open to the objection voiced by one of Thomas Love Peacock’s characters in, I think, “Headlong Hall”; this fellow has been shown round one of those intricate landscaped gardens stuffed with grottoes, hermits, weeping willows, pagodas, and the other marvels that our ancestors enjoyed at the turn of last century, and the proud owner says that he has added to the principles of the picturesque and the beautiful the element of surprise; whereupon Mr. Milestone asks in all innocence, “But, sir, what happens when one walks round your garden a second time?”
Well, at least the picturesque and the beautiful are still there in “Non-Stop”—though I must admit that some of the original reviewers couldn’t take them in the first place. My thought-sensitive rats and rabbits and moths are a bit much, I suppose, and The Times Literary Supplement chap called me a “maniac Beatrix Potter”, a label I tried to get the publishers to use in their publicity, without success. p. 3
I was lucky with “Non-Stop”. The ideal story-line came along to suit the way I could best write at the time. It may not have netted me the praise that “Greybeard” did, the cash that “Hothouse” did, the opprobrium that “Dark Light Years”—my best-written book—did, but at least it encouraged me, whatever it did to its readers. p. 48
A middling issue with two or three items of interest.
- A. K. Jorgennson was the pseudonym of Richard W. A. Roach according to ISFDB. The story was reprinted seven times.
- Rob Sproat has only two stories listed in ISFDB, this one and Wolves in SF Impulse #6 (which would have been Science Fantasy #87 if the magazine hadn’t changed its name).
There is also a writer called Robert Sproat who produced two volumes for Faber & Faber, Stunning the Punters, (1986), and Chinese Whispers, (1988), and who also appeared in their Introduction 8: Stories by New Writers (1983). The Tottenham Journal has him dying in 2011, aged 67. He was subsequently the subject of a BBC program called Heir Hunters (s09e06). In 1965 he would have been 21-22, so they are probably the same writer.
- Agosta Morol at ISFDB.