Picking material to review for this month has been way more agonizing than I expected. Whereas I had August’s lineup nailed down fairly early on, I kept switching things around for September until just a couple days ago. I’m posting every few days, and I’m all but guaranteed to cover at least one whole serial each month, but consider how much SFF has been published in the past century. I started this blog with magazine publication as the main criterion for selecting stories because I thought it’d be a useful enough funnel, but as it turns out, there’s too much to go around! So many stories worth checking out by so many authors across such a long span of time, and I can only review this many per month?
Yet I’m nothing if not persistent, and also dumb.
We have a serial to finish this month, plus a whole new one. I try to find stuff from other magazines, but the truth is that Astounding was the king of serials from the mid-’30s until around the time its name was changed to Analog, and even then it tended to run the most noteworthy serials in a given year. To compensate, we have short fiction which is very much not from Astounding/Analog, and with one exception (you’ll soon see), I’ve not read any of these before. These are totally new experiences to me. There’s the possibility that I won’t like them, which I hope won’t be the case. The point of this blog is to dive into works by the notable minds of SFF, some famous, many forgotten, and see if maybe we can get at the heart of these things, be they from half a century ago or just last week.
Now, time for the serials:
If This Goes On— by Robert Heinlein. Published in two parts in Astounding Science Fiction, February to March 1940. We read Part 1 last month, and now we’re finally finishing this. Will I ultimately think Heinlein’s early novella was worthy of its Retro Hugo win, or will I think it’s merely decent? Stay tuned.
The Legion of Time by Jack Williamson. Published in three parts in Astounding Science Fiction, May to July 1938. Despite what its title might tell you this is not part of Williamson’s Legion of Space series, but is a standalone short novel. I really like Williamson’s “With Folded Hands…” as well as his werewolf novella “Darker Than You Think,” so I wanna see how he does in a longer mode.
Now for the novellas. We have two this month, like in August (only being able to review two novellas makes me weep inside), and one is a certified classic while the other is looking to become a modern classic:
“And Then There (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker. First published in the March/April 2017 issue of Uncanny Magazine. The SFF novella has, in recent years, mostly been banished from the ‘zines, as online magazines aren’t keen on printing novellas, but Uncanny is an exception. Sarah Pinsker is very much alive and well, though sadly I’ve not read anything by her before. I hope she doesn’t mind if I stumble into this one blindly, but if what I’ve been hearing about her award-nominated novella is accurate at all then I have nothing to fear!
“The Star-Pit” by Samuel R. Delany. First published in the February 1967 issue of Worlds of Tomorrow. I try not to gush about authors I love from the outset, but I think Delany is one of the best to ever do it. Babel-17? Classic. Nova? Classic. Dhalgren? One of my all-time favorites. And Delany could be as vigorous a short fiction writer as he is a novelist, as short stories like “Driftglass” and “Corona” prove. I’ve read “The Star-Pit” before and I’ll gladly read it again. Delany is an artist of alarming brilliance, and his work demands close attention.
Finally, the short stories:
“The Blind Minotaur” by Michael Swanwick. Published in the March 1985 issue of Amazing Stories. Yes, Amazing Stories was still around in the ’80s, and was still releasing some damn good stuff. Swanwick himself debuted in 1980, so he could be considered a bit of an old-timer, but there’s nothing old-hat about this man, for his fiction is often vigorous, intellectual, entertaining, and even mystical at times. His 1991 novel Stations of the Tide recently became one of my favorites, and yet I look forward to reading more of his many short stories.
“Shoggoths in Bloom” by Elizabeth Bear. Published in the March 2008 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. Elizabeth Bear is one of the great practitioners of SFF to have come about in the past two decades, showing herself to be equally adept at both long and short form, as well as fantasy and science fiction (with a touch of horror mayhaps). She won back-to-back Hugos for her short stories “Tideline” (which I’ve read before) and the story that I’ve selected to cover this month (which I have not). Her graciousness knows no bounds.
I’ve decided to stick more with contemporary voices for September; of the six authors mentioned, four are still with us and active in the field to some extent. Delany has not written SFF with regularity in many years now, his work in academia has been immense, and recent lectures and interviews have show that his great mind has not withered even one bit. I must confess that part of my wants to always dig myself a hole and barracade myself with works by authors I already like, with authors I’m already familiar with, but we have one author here (Pinsker) whom I’ve not read anything by before, and I gotta say, I’m excited. Few things are more invigorating than potentially discovering a new favorite author, especially one who’s still currently making their way through the field.
Now you might be thinking, do I have anything special in mind for October? Why yes, I do. Halloween is my favorite holiday by a country mile and I intend to go all-out with it, but we’ll just have to wait for that.
Indeed who. George R. R. Martin is one of the most famous authors in the world today; even people who don’t read books at all (the poor devils) probably recognize him. In 1996 he began the series that would make him a household name, the A Song of Ice and Fire series of fantasy novels, a landmark title in low fantasy with five books so far and a sixth coming out… at some point. On top of being famous, Martin has also become infamous for, among other things, seemingly refusing to release the last two volumes of his series, and while Martin obviously isn’t obligated to finish his work for anyone else’s sake, one can’t help but get a sense that there’s a cynical motive at play here. Regardless, unless something disastrous happens—like, say, Martin coming out as a rabid homophobe or transphobe—this man’s legacy is more or less settled.
There’s just one problem, though: it’s not.
Martin’s uber-success with A Song of Ice and Fire has had the perverse effect of all but burying the fact that he was one of the most promising writers of science fiction to debut in the ’70s. Hitting the professional scene with “The Hero” in 1971, Martin would be nominated for the inaugural John W. Campbell Astounding Award for Best New Writer, losing to Jerry Pournelle, and the nomination was well-earned! By 1973 he showed himself to be a lyrical and emotional earnest author, not letting hard science get in the way of strong character writing and evocative imagery. “With Morning Comes Mistfall” was, according to the Thousand Worlds fandom wiki (more on that in a bit), written in the summer of 1971 before being published in the May 1973 issue of Analog Science Fiction. Despite appearing at first to be just another short story, “With Morning Comes Mistfall” would go on to earn Martin his first Hugo and Nebula nominations, and as we’re about to see those nominations are very much earned.
Now, ISFDB lists “If Morning Comes Mistfall” as a standalone story, which it functionally is. However, the aforementioned Thousand Worlds fandom wiki has an article on the story, listing it as part of that shared continuity. Does it make a difference if it’s part of the Thousand Worlds series? Not really. I just think it’s funny whenever the people who run ISFDB disagree with somebody. Get a load of this:
The Thousand Worlds wiki lists this as part of that series, although by their own admission it is “only a tenuous link” based on a planet name also referenced in a different story in that series.
You don’t see that kind of note on ISFDB a lot.
This issue of Analog is…… NOT on the Archive.
I know, I’m sorry! If you want it you’re gonna have to get a used copy the old-fashioned way. I guess there’s also Luminist, but I don’t find their layout to be as intuitive, you can’t view an issue in-browser, and most importantly… their PDFs tend to be HUGE. Like we’re talking 100 megabytes or bigger, so big that you can’t even preview the file you’re about to download. It’s like I’ve entered an alternate timeline where file compression isn’t a thing.
On the bright side, it’s not like “With Morning Comes Mistfall” has only been reprinted two times. It showed up in the collection A Song for Lya, which covers a good deal of Martin’s ’70s output, and of course it appeared in some anthologies from that period, such as the third volume of Lester del Rey’s Best Science Fiction Stories of the Year. If you want a recent reprint, and assuming you don’t mind putting in a few more dollars, we have the first volume of Dreamsongs, which covers most of the material in A Song for Lya as well as additional stories.
Normally I don’t pay mind to story blurbs, but this one (not sure if it was written by Martin or editor Ben Bova) caught my attention:
Man’s curiosity drives him to seek the answer to every question. But it’s the unanswered questions which are the most exciting.
It’s about as succinct a mission statement as you can get, all while giving absolutely none of the plot away. Not that there’s much of a plot to begin with. “With Morning Comes Mistfall” is a hard story to spoil because it’s far more driven by characters and themes than by the movements of its narrative, which themselves are not hard to anticipate. It’s a very simple story, but it’s also Campbellian in the best way possible, in the sense that implies the existence of something great that was previously outside the realm of human knowledge; you could call it secular mysticism. “With Morning Comes Mistfall” could have very feasibly been printed in Campbell’s Analog, and this seems to be the mode in which Martin wrote his eariest professional-grade fiction. The result is a story which lacks characteristics we would now associate with Martin; there’s no foul language, nothing too violent happens, and female characters aren’t being forced into sexually degrading situations.
But more on that later.
With all that said, I’ll try my best to give you something of a plot summary, and for better or worse, the spoiler section will be pretty short this time around. So…
A journalist travels to the desolate planet of Wraithworld, a planet that remains almost entirely uninhabited. There’s only one human establishment on the whole planet, that being Castle Cloud, a hotel and casino owned by Paul Sanders. The journalist has come to talk to Sanders about the wraiths, a supposed mythical species lurking the depths of the mist-covered landscape. Nobody has ever gotten concrete evidence that that wraiths exist, but much like Bigfoot or the Jersey Devil, their mysteriousness makes them a magnet for tourism; while the sights of Wraithworld are nothing to sneeze at, people largely come for the wraiths. What I’m trying to say is that this story is about cryptids, which immediately makes it up my alley.
Sanders is a bit of a subversive character; despite being a business owner, and being described physically as rather rotund (something often attributed stereotypically to greedy businessmen), Sanders turns out to not be of that sort. The journalist quickly finds that Sanders is indeed taken by the mysterious beauty of Wraithworld. When the journalist notes the rising of the mists over the mountain range (Castle Cloud was built on the highest peak), we get this:
“Is it always like this?” I asked Sanders, after drinking it all in for a while.
“Every mistfall,” he replied, turning toward me with a wistful smile. He was a fat man, with a jovial red face. Not the sort who should smile wistfully. But he did.
He gestured toward the east, where Wraithworld’s sun rising above the mists made a crimson and orange spectacle of the dawn sky.
“The sun,” he said. “As it rises, the heat drives the mists back into the valleys, forces them to surrender the mountains they’ve conquered during the night. The mists sink, and one by one the peaks come into view. By noon the whole range is visible for miles and miles. There’s nothing like it on Earth, or anywhere else.”
The conflict comes in when Charles Dubowski, a renowned scienist, comes to Castle Cloud, and he too is here for the wraiths. More specifically Dubowski is here with a team to scan as far and as thoroughly as they can to see if the wraiths are real or a fabrication. We’re presented with a triangle of conflict—two sides ideologically opposed with a third as the more or less neutral presence. Dubowski wants to disprove the existence of the wraiths while Sanders wants to keep the wraiths’ existence ambiguous. Does it hurt that Sanders profits immensely off of people coming to Wraithworld to see if they can spot any wraiths? Of course not, but that’s not the point. It’s worth mentioning too that while Dubowski is written less sympathetically, he’s by no measn evil; his worldview simply conflicts with Sanders’s, whom the journalist takes more of a liking to.
Now, something that caught my eye reading the story this time around is the fact that not only is the journalist (who’s also the first-person narrator) nameless, but also genderless. There are only three principal characters in this thing and two of them are confirmed dudes, yet there’s nothing to indicate one way or another what gender the narrator is. This might be for the best. Personally I like to think the narrator is a woman, but I assume Martin wrote this voice with a man in mind. Otherwise there aren’t any female characters of any importance, which hey, it’s not like there’s any in-your-face sexism around here. I also like that the journalist, who’s a relatively passive character, is the narrator, since it focuses the action on the war of worldviews between Sanders and Dubowski.
We get to find out some more about Wraithworld, a setting which Martin chooses not to describe in excessive detail. That the narrator is a journalist (as was Martin before he got into writing SFF) helps explain the perfunctory style; we aren’t burdened with learning about anything that we don’t have to. We know Wraithworld is a failed colony. We know there was something called the Gregor expedition, in which some explorers were driven to madness, claiming they had come into contact with tall apelike creatures that were immune to bullets. There were a few deaths, and there’ve been more since then, often assumed to be due to the wraiths. What began as an anomaly soon turned into myth.
And the legend of the mist wraiths was born, and began to grow. Other ships came to Wraithworld, and a trickle of colonists came and went, and Paul Sanders landed one day and erected the Castle Cloud so the public might safely visit the mysterious planet of the wraiths.
Not that Wraithworld has much else going for it. The mists cover everything below the tops of the highest mountains by nightfall, and the soil is not good for farming. As a colony, Wraithworld’s potential would be pretty low. On the plus side, the air seems to be breathable; we never get an in-depth explanation for the world’s climate, but the atmosphere’s mix and density must be Earthlike enough for people to walk around without space suits. All the better. Martin doesn’t bog the story down with details that might distract us from what is ultimately a fable or a mood piece, and what a tightly structured fable it is. That the ending is easily predictable is a non-issue, since in order for Martin’s thesis to work, the story must end in a certain way.
There Be Spoilers Here
After accompanying Dubowski and his men through the forests and mountains in search of the wraiths, the journalist gets the creeping feeling that Dubowski is right, that the wraiths were a product of hysteria—a hunch that turns out to be correct. Shortly before Dubowski is about to give a press conference about his findings, he lets Sanders and the journalist in on the conclusion of his research: the wraiths aren’t real. They didn’t find any, no matter how much manpower and tech they used. Sanders is not a happy man as he tries, with hope fading, to convince Dubowski that there might be wraiths in the mists after all.
Sanders raised his eyes from his drink. They were bitter eyes. “Gregor,” he said stubbornly. “Gregor and the other classics.”
Dubowski’s smile became a smirk. “Ah, yes. We searched that area quite thoroughly. My theory was right. We found a tribe of apes nearby. Big brutes. Like giant baboons, with dirty white fur. Not a very successful species, either. We found only one small tribe, and they were dying out. But clearly, that was what Gregor’s man sighted. And exaggerated all out of proportion.”
The discovery ruins Sanders’s business, of course. People no longer come to Wraithworld looking for wraiths. It does, on the other hand, take off as a colony, albeit a minor one. More people come to the planet, but all three main characters go their separate ways, with the journalist leaving to cover other events, Dubowski continuing his studies elsewhere, and Sanders leaving Castle Cloud to be condemned; we never find out what becomes of him, ultimately. It’s a somber ending, but it’s not the end of the world by any means, as the journalist comes to find. Normally I don’t like to quote the endings of stories, but I have to do it with this one—I think it’s too lovely. The yearning in these final words is palpable.
“Otherwise the planet hasn’t changed much. The mists still rise at sunset, and fall at dawn. The Red Ghost is still stark and beautiful in the early morning light. The forests are still there, and the rockcats still prowl.
Only the wraiths are missing.
Only the wraiths.
Gets my emotions going, even more so the second time around. Martin knows what the perfect note to end on is and he goes with it. Like everything else it feels like the act of an artist who is totally in control of his faculties, and I just adore it.
A Step Farther Out
This is a very different kind of writing from Martin than what most people are used to. It’s poetic, but not over-encumbered with purple language. It’s retrained, coming in at about fifteen pages, exhibiting a very young writer (Martin would’ve only been 22 when he wrote it) who’s also trying his utmost to be disciplined with his craft. Apparently Martin wrote “With Morning Comes Mistfall” shortly before another great early outing of his, “The Second Kind of Loneliness,” though the latter would be published first. I would not have guessed, since while “The Second Kind of Loneliness” certainly does hone in on the mood it wants, the slightly older story here feels more like the work of a mature writer. On top of that, Martin comes through with a discernable statement here, about the nature of beauty and about a certain quality that something beautiful should ideally have—that is to say, an air of mystery about it.
Despite Paul Sanders being a bsuiness type, Martin clearly sympathizes with him because, in the context of the story, Sanders is also an artist, with Wraithworld as his piece or perhaps his muse. That Sanders never comes to understand totally how this planet works, and that we the readers are denied a lot of details (What does a rockcat look like, anyway?), reinforces this notion that in order for something to bewitch us with what seems to be an unspeakable beauty, we can only know so much about it. Indeed, there are things about a thing of beauty that we shouldn’t know; too much knowledge would take away the mystery of it, and after all, the most mysterious things are also the most alluring.
I think “With Morning Comes Mistfall” is Martin’s early masterpiece; it’s certainly the best of his ’70s output that I’ve read so far, or at least it’s my favorite of the bunch. It lost the Hugo that year to Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” and the Nebula to James Tiptree Jr.’s “Love Is the Plan the Plan Is Death.” Now that’s some pretty intimidating competition right there! “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” is a stone-cold classic, one that’s still being much read and talked about today (God forbid if you’re forced to have a classroom discussion about it), and undeniably it’s more layered than Martin’s story. Still, if we’re talking about pure enjoyability in the act of reading a story, about reading something perfectly simple and yet poignant, about catching a young writer at the very moment when he becomes a serious artist, then I would have voted for Martin.
Robert Heinlein doesn’t need an introduction, but I’ll write one anyway. Heinlein was a bit of a late bloomer when it came to writing SF; his first story, “Life-Line,” was published when he was already in his 30s, but whereas some authors spend several years doing apprentice work, Heinlein’s apprenticeship phase was virtually nonexistent. While “Life-Line” is by no means Heinlein’s best, it exhibits an inventiveness and economy of style that would quickly define his writing, and in the January 1940 issue of Astounding Science Fiction we got “Requiem,” his first great story. Heinlein’s rise to prominence possessed a swiftness which few authors in the genre’s whole history can come even close to matching, and despite having been active for only a couple years, he was chosen as the Guest of Honor for the 1941 Worldcon, held in Denver that year.
What else? He would go on to win four Hugos for Best Novel (a record only matched so far by Lois McMaster Bujold), and he also has several Retro Hugo wins under his belt, including one for If This Goes On—. Evidently Heinlein continues to be a favorite with SF fandom, and nearly all of his works remain in print. He also continues to be immensely controversial. Heinlein’s views on many subjects changed radically over the course of his life, and while he was a New Deal Democrat during the first phase of his career (1939 to 1942), by the ’60s he had become something like a Goldwater Republican. Some views Heinlein held remained consistent, though; for one, he seemed to be pro-military from the start (not surprising, given his time in the Navy), and yet he also seemed to believe in the virtues of the nudist lifestyle, as well as plural marriage (the word “polyamory” had not yet been coined in Heinlein’s lifetime, though some of his fiction unequivocally endorses it). With Heinlein there is at least something to enjoy regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum—and conversely, there’s always something to reject.
If This Goes On— was Heinlein’s fourth published story, coming right after “Requiem,” and it was also his longest up to that point, having to be serialized in two parts. By February 1940, Astounding Science Fiction had become without question the top SF magazine in the field, with its sister magazine Unknown also donning the crown for fantasy; by this time, John W. Campbell had mostly established his stable of writers—mostly men in their 20s, with a few holdovers from the previous era like Clifford D. Simak and Jack Williamson. There were quite a few talented authors writing regularly for Astounding, but Heinlein soon became Campbell’s favorite of the bunch, and it only takes a reading of If This Goes On— to see why.
While Heinlein’s novels remain readily in print (with maybe one or two exceptions), the same can’t be said for his short fiction. If This Goes On— has the awkward position of being far too long to be called a short story, yet not quite long enough to count as a full novel; call it a long novella. Sad thing about novella reprints is that novella-oriented anthologies are a super-niche subspecies of something that’s already pretty niche—a shame, considering SF is often at its best at novella length (imo). It has appeared mostly in two collections, both of which seem to have fallen out of print lately, though I can’t imagine they’re hard to find used: Revolt in 2100 and The Past Through Tomorrow. Thnakfully the February 1940 issue of Astounding is on the Archive. Did you know that this issue also contains Leigh Brackett’s debut story, “Martian Quest”?
Rather than being set on an alien planet, If This Goes On— takes place in a future United States, where democracy has died and been replaced with a kind of Christian fascism wherein the ruler of the country is also the so-called Prophet Incarnate. I’m so glad we don’t have to worry about this happening in the real world. The story follows John Lyle, a junior member of a section of this future military called the Angels of the Lord, and during one of his routine night watches he thinks about the painfully obvious subtly growing corruption within the system he was born and raised to respect.
I sighed and returned to my lonely vigil. I mused glumly on the difference between life here in New Jerusalem and life as I had envisioned it when I was a cadet. The Palace and Temple were shot through and through with intrigue and politics, I was forced to admit. Where now, was the proud and altruistic motto of the service: “Non Sibi, Sed Dei?” I knew, too well, that the priests and deacons, ministers of state, and Palace functionaries all appeared engaged in a scramble for power and favor at the hand of the Prophet. Even the officers of my own corps, the Angels of the Lord, seemed corrupted by it.
Whereas protagonists in dystopian narratives tend to be loyal members who are convinced to join the other side through some violent revelation, John was already becoming skeptical about the government he worked for. We don’t get much backstory for John, outside of his military training, but we do get, in a remarkably short amount of time, a good deal of backstory as to the workings of the novella’s setting. If This Goes On— was not the first story to form part of Heinlein’s Future History, but it was the most ambitious entry up to that point, and it was the first to send everyone the message that Heinlein wasn’t fucking with his worldbuilding. In order to understand what makes If This Goes On— special, you have to also understand that nobody was concocting what we’d now call a future history at this time; while there were series, and stories set in the same continuity, nobody was mapping out a fictional timeline like Heinlein did.
Something that this novella does which is very much in line with other dystopian narratives, though, is that the (always male) hero starts to change his mind because he sees even the smallest opportunity to get some PUSSY; in this case it’s Judith, one of the Prophet’s Virgins (a Virgin being a nun, possibly also a sex slave). John talks with Judith while on his watch for literally five minutes and he can’t keep his mind off her for the rest of Part 1—his cock is just hard as a fucking statue the whole time. In fairness to the faster-than-a-speeding-bullet love story that unfolds, John and Judith are in positions where they are basically prohibited from interacting with the opposite sex beyond the absolute necessities. While the Angels of the Lord are not strictly celibate, becoming a volcel means you’re more likely to get promoted, and of course Judith is not supposed to fuck around at all. Now, while we’re never told this, it is rather heavily implied that the Prophet gives Virgins the Harvey Weinstein treatment, hence Judith’s own disillusionment with the government.
We then witness what may be the fastest turnaround in the history of fiction; in about ten pages, John decides that he’s had enough of being a dog of the military, and it doesn’t take long at all for him to rope in his friend and comrade Zebadiah, though it turns out Zeb knows more than he lets on anyway. In the span of a dozen pages we’re introduced to a vast and unfamiliar future society, a well-thought-out system of government, a military hierarchy, a conspiracy, and quite a bit of action. The thing I realized reading If This Goes On— is that this story has the unique problem of being actually too fast; it feels less like a proper short novel and feels more like a compressed novel, with Heinlein simultaneously overwhelming us with details while also omitting anything that could be considered fat. The result is a narrative which is almost packed more with sketches of scenes than scenes proper, and I have to suspect John is a first-person narrator so Heinlein wouldn’t have to worry himself with multiple perspectives.
We hear about something called the Cabal very early on, and if you have even the slightest idea where this is going then you know that the Cabal—an alleged underground movement working to undermine the Prophet—is a real thing after all. What happens after John joines the Cabal is something I’m saving for the spoiler section, but needless to say we get quickly wrapped up in a festering underground movement which seeks to expose the Prophet as a fraud. John now not only has to work with the rebels, but keep Judith as well as evade authorities himself, since by this point he has become a fugitive. Like I said, this all happens in pretty much the blink of an eye, yet despite my reservations about the pacing, it says something of Heinlein’s talent that his mixing of action and exposition never left me confused. Most authors, especially circa 1940, would’ve spent whole pages explaining the inner workings of this future theocracry, not to mention the futuristic technology (not that there’s a lot of that here), but Heinlein keeps exposition quick and mostly passive; he’s a wizard at this sort of thing.
There Be Spoilers Here
Things get more interesting once John enters the Cabal, although we don’t get much in the way of what becoming a new member is like. I suspect Heinlein made John a first-person narrator because he doesn’t wanna deal with subplots involving different characters, but also because with John recounting his own experiences, he can skim over them if he doesn’t feel like going into dirty details with his audience. Take the following passages, for instance, which compresses potentially a whole chapter of material into one paragraph:
It is not necessary, nor desirable, that I record here the rest of my instruction as a newly-entered brother. Suffice to say that the instruction was long, and of solemn beauty, and there was nowhere in it any trace of the macabre and blasphemous devil-worship that common gossip alleged. It was filled with reverence for God, brotherly love, and uprightness, and included instruction in the principles of an ancient and honorable profession and the symbolic meanings of the working tools of that profession.
Heinlein also wants us to know that while the Prophet is totally a sham, Christianity itself gets a pass. Now, I’m not sure how much of this was due to beliefs held at the time and how much was due to Campbell being squeamish about a plot where a Christian theocracy is depicted as evil, though it must be said that Heinlein and Campbell were not Christians. I have to assume this was done because at the time many readers were, while not outwardly religious, churchgoing folks; still, the idea that “reasonable” Christians like John would want to rebel against a corrupt government that uses the Gospels as a shield is not implausible. Indeed, what helps coax John into joining the Cabal is the notion that these rebels are themselves quite religious.
With Judith being spirited away to Mexico (they deliberated over whether she should flee to Mexico or Canada, and decided correctly that the latter was too horrible), and with John having abandoned his post, our hero now much take on an alternate identity. Up to this point in this story, we haven’t gotten much in the way of futuristic technology, but things take a turn when John has to take on someone else’s personality—literally. The higher-ups bring a short list of people matching closely enough with John physically who are in the unique position of being physically but not legally dead. John Lyle becomes Adam Reeves, a textiles salesman, and how the Cabal surgeon—sorry, metamorphist—is able to change John to resemble Adam is really something.
The most difficult thing in matching him physically, and the last to be applied, was artificial fingerprints. An opaque, flesh-colored plastic was painted on my fingers, then my fingers were sealed into molds made from Reeves’ fingers. It was delicate work and hard to get a satisfactory result. One finger was done over seven times before the metamorphist would pass it.
Hair, nose, ears, eyes, even fingerprints. John effectively becomes Adam, and for a while he works well as a doppelganger. We do come to find, though, that there is one area the Cabal could not have possibly accounted for, and which sends John fleeing once againat the end of Part 1: blood type. How will John get out of this debacle? Will he reunite with Judith? Will the Cabal succeed in overthrowing the Prophet? Stay tuned.
A Step Farther Out
There are SF stories from the late ’30s and early ’40s that I enjoy more than If This Goes On—, or at least the first half of it. As sentimental as it is, I find “Requiem” to be the more emotionally resonant and structually balanced story, but then we’re talking about a short story compared to something a good deal more ambitious. It only makes sense, I suppose, that a story about revolution should itself be revolutionary; this was the moment Heinlein went from a promising newbie to one of the big names in the field, and he had been active for less than a year at that point. This is not the Heinlein of much longer and more ungainly works like Stranger in a Strange Land, but the young Heinlein, the disciplined Heinlein, the fast-witted Heinlein. That If This Goes On— now reads as fairly predictable speaks more of its influence than its innate quality. We’ve gotten some pretty vast and complicated future histories post-Heinlein (Poul Anderson comes to mind), but Heinlein was the first to do it.
I’m sure when people read this thing when it was first being serialized they were glued to their seats, but from a modern perspective I more often found myself dissecting Heinlein’s methods, seeing how they worked, and how he managed to dish out (not always perfectly, it must be said) so much exposition with so few words without it being confusing. It helps, of course, that we don’t get what would later become pervasive Heinlein-isms here; John is not a perpetual wisecracker, Judith isn’t constantly thinking about making babies, the infodumps are shockingly constrained compared to what we’d get much later. I guess the biggest complaint I have is that when I finished Part 1 I was thinking less “I wonder what happens next” and more “Hmm, that’s interesting. Old-timey SF tends to be fast-paced, but this takes such quickness to at times ridiculous extremes. Will it get worse in Part 2, or will things slow down a bit and we get to learn more about this dystopian future United States?
Walter M. Miller, Jr. is, along with Daniel Keyes and Tom Godwin, probably the most famous one-story author in the history of SF—in the sense that he is basically only known for one story, that is. The reality is that before he started writing the novellas that he would later revise and conjoin to form A Canticle for Leibowitz, Miller was already a prolific short story writer; between 1951 and 1957 he would write something like forty short stories and novellas, unleashing a meteor shower of content. Of course his career in the field would climax with the publication of A Canticle for Leibowitz, to this day a beloved classic which continues to resonate with both secular and religious readers. After 1960, however, Miller would disappear from the field, never having so much as one more word of his fiction published in his lifetime, with his second novel, Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman, being finished by Terry Bisson (at Miller’s request) and released posthumously.
After decades of battling depression and his wartime trauma (he was a bomber crewman during World War II), and with the death of his wife apparently being the last straw, Miller committed suicide in 1996.
“The Lineman” is the final story of Miller’s to be published during that meteor shower of fiction, and is by extension the last thing he saw published that wasn’t related to A Canticle for Leibowitz. This is a new read for me; the only experience I’ve had with Miller previously are his Hugo-winners, those being Leibowitz and his 1955 novella “The Darfsteller.” I might review “The Darfsteller” eventually, who knows? And I do want to read more by Miller, despite not being a Catholic or even a Christian; I find his brand of theological inquiry to be quite affecting at times.
First published in the August 1957 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, which is on the Archive. You’d think Miller having one of the most famous SF novels of the ’50s under his belt would mean his other fiction would be readily available. You’d also be wrong. As far as single-author collections go you basically have one choice, which is The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr.—and I know what you’re thinking, there’s also Dark Benediction. The Best of Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Dark Benediction are, as far as I can tell, the same damn collection, with the same damn stories in the same damn order; they’re also seemingly out of print. As far as anthology reprints go we also don’t have many options, though “The Lineman” does appear in David G. Hartwell’s super-chunky anthology The World Treasury of Science Fiction, which I’d say is definitely a book to have in your library if you’re a slut for reprint anthologies like myself.
Unlike a lot of stories set on the moon, “The Lineman” takes place during the early stages of setting up lunar colonies—not just one colony, but apparently operations headed by several countries, with the U.N. as the referee. Bill Relke is the titular lineman, being part of an American construction crew in the midst of building communication lines. High-speed internet wasn’t a thing yet.
Something to note right off the bat about this novella is that unlike A Canticle for Leibowitz, which only really betrays the time of its conception with references to nuclear armageddon, “The Lineman” eats, lives, breathes, and almost certainly shits the 1950s. Our entirely male construction crewmen talk in ’50s slang, with a heavy dose of hardboiled dialogue that wouldn’t feel out of place in a black-and-white film noir. The conflict of the story is also twofold, and both have to do with the presence of women on the moon during colony-building. Relke has to deal with some goons who work for an underground society that seeks to overturn something called the Schneider-Volkov Act, but that only turns out to be the beginning of his problems.
A ship lands not too far from the site, and it’s not with any known country’s effort to colonize the moon; indeed, it seems to be a commercial vessel. The first twist is that the ship is full of women (“The Ship Is Full of Women” sounds like one of Fritz Leiber’s lesser stories), and the second is that it’s a space-faring whorehouse. Oh yes, our hard-working men are met with French-Algerian “entertainers,” and you know this was written in the mid-’50s because Algeria is still a French colony in the world of the story. Hell, Algeria would no longer be a French colony by 1965, let alone 2065. Since the men (including Relke) have gotten zero pussy for as long as they’ve been on the moon, this causes a big commotion.
Crews being all-male is also given a very of-its-time explanation in the form of the Schneider-Volkov Act. As Joe Novotny, Relke’s superior, explains:
Relke: “Say, Joe, how come they let dames in an entertainment troupe come to the moon, but they won’t let our wives come? I thought the Schneider-Volkov Act was supposed to keep all women out of space, period.”
“No, they couldn’t get away with putting it like that. Against the WP constitution. The law just says that all personnel on any member country’s lunar project must be of a single sex. Theoretically some country—Russia, maybe—could start an all-girl lunar mine project, say. Theoretically. But how many lady muckers do you know? Even in Russia.”
Didn’t Robert Heinlein’s short story “Delilah and the Space-Rigger” already solve this issue?
The master of the ship is, Madame d’Annecy, who turns out to be quite a pragmatic actor. Clearly she’s here for business, and she doesn’t care if the construction guys temporarily jeopardize their own operation to get some tail so long as they’re paying. There is an ulterior motive here, but I’ll save that for spoilers; just saying d’Annecy is one of two major female characters here (which is two more than I was expecting, given the setting), and you sure can’t accuse her of bending the knee for any man who passes her way. The worst thing about d’Annecy, really, is that her business relationship with her girls is shown to be perhaps a little morally dubious (I know what you’re thinking, it’s prostitution, of course it’s morally dubious, but sex work is work). The only way we even figure d’Annecy is on the shady side is by what we know about Giselle, who’s another can of worms.
To make a long story short, Relke and Giselle get stranded together for the middle part of the story, taking refuge in a building which is not quite finished yet. Pressure suits play a big part in “The Lineman,” which makes sense since the moon has no atmosphere, and Giselle (one of d’Annecy’s girls, of course) nearly gets killed before she and Relke have even started to get to know each other. Maybe it’s best that something always conveniently happens to stop them from completing their business transaction, as Relke realizes at one point.
Relke watched her grumpily while she warmed her behind at the oven. She’s not more than fifteen, he decided suddenly. It made him a little queasy. Come on, Joe, hurry.
In fairness to Relke, he stops getting all touchy-feely with Giselle once it becomes apparent that maybe they shouldn’t be doing this. Not that Giselle would be new to this sort of thing, but safe to say that doesn’t make it not wrong. Relke not only has gotten zero pussy as of late, but is still recovering from his wife leaving him (I imagine the divorce rate for moon men is high), and Giselle… has her own problems. We then come to one of my favorite passages in the story, and one of those things that reminded me that this was, in fact, written by the same guy who wrote A Canticle for Leibowitz.
She was dangerously close to that state of mind which precedes the telling of a life history. He didn’t want to hear it; he already knew it. So she was in a nunnery; Relke was not surprised. Some people had to polarize themselves. If they broke free from one pole, they had to seek its opposite. People with no middle ground. Black, or if not black, then white, never gray. Law, or criminality. God, or Satan. The cloister, or a whorehouse. Eternally a choice of all or nothing-at-all, and they couldn’t see that they made things that way for themselves. They set fire to every bridge they ever crossed—so that even a cow creek became a Rubicon, and every crossing was on a tightrope.
It’s a bit of a downer. You’d think that a religious author like Walter M. Miller Jr. would steer away from the uglier aspects of existence, not to mention the ambivalence of it all, but Miller was not what we’d call a happy camper. Even to compare Miller to other Catholic authors is weird, and to do that I’d also have to venture outside of SFF, since honestly I can hardly think of anyone inside the field off the top of my head. I guess there’s R. A. Lafferty, but none of the Lafferty stories I’ve read have struck me as all that theologically informed. Outside of SFF I’m thinking of Evelyn Waugh, who not so subtly tries to invoke a sense of revelation in the reader by having his characters return to the Church of their childhoods. Then there’s Flannery O’Connor, whose stories are often so grotesque that she basically forces the reader to run in the opposite direction of the horror—the opposite direction being God, naturally.
If Miller tries to invoke revelation, it’s with a good deal of accompanying skepticism, or at least a distinct melancholy that adds bitterness to the moment of divine release. Taken literally, the dilemma of the lunar colonizers being denied one half of the human race seemingly arbitrarily is a bit hard to take, but if taken as a metaphor, with the moon as a purgatorial level of existence, then I can see the logic behind it. Pretty much everyone agrees the Schneider-Volkov Act is something to be repealed (and by today’s standards it sounds nonsensical to boot), but how that problem gets resolved is pretty interesting.
There Be Spoilers Here
There are, to my recollection, three deaths in “The Lineman,” and they’re all accidental and involve pressure suits; they also happen at specific points in the story, each happening in one third of the length. As such, the story begins and ends with a death. The good news is that Madame d’Annecy’s plan to seduce the colonizers with her business will probably result in the Schneider-Volkov Act being repealed, and those secret society goons whom I’ve barely mentioned got their comeuppance. The bad news is that Relke has to let go of Giselle, and he also loses a couple friends by the end of it. Still, he’s the lineman of the crew, and he has to keep building the line—to make the moon a place where people can really live.
It’s during this final scene, where an improvised funeral is held for someone who’s just died in a pressure suit accident, that we get my absolute favorite passage in the story, and it’s something that’s definitely clicked with me—even made me reevaluate what I had been reading to some degree. It’s that powerful, and it also works so well as the end point to Relke’s arc.
Relke looked up slowly and let his eyes wander slowly across the horizon. There were still some meteorites coming in, making bright little winks of fire where they hit into the plain. Deadly stingers out of nowhere, heading nowhere, impartially orbiting, random as rain, random as death. The debris of creation. Relke decided Braxton was wrong. There was a God all right, maybe personal, maybe not, but there was a God, and He wasn’t mean. His universe was a deadly contraption, but maybe there wasn’t any way to build a universe that wasn’t a deadly contraption—like a square circle. He made the contraption, and He put Man in it, and Man was a fairly deadly contraption himself. But the funny part of it was, there wasn’t a damn thing the universe could do to a man that a man wasn’t built to endure. He could even endure it when it killed him. And gradually he could get the better of it. It was the consistency of matched qualities—random mercilessness and human endurance—and it wasn’t mean, it was a fair match.
There’s this old saying in SF about transcendence, and I don’t think it gets brought up anymore. The unique thing about SF is that a transcendent moment can come in a secular context—I’m thinking the ending to A. E. van Vogt’s short story “The Seesaw,” which I think was also reused for The Weapon Shops of Isher. There’s also the ending to 2001: A Space Odyssey, of course. Transcendence in SF comes usually from mankind (be it one person or the whole race) either making contact with something of godlike awesomeness, or becoming that godlike awesomeness. Transcendence is when you meet with something so much greater than yourself that you can’t even calculate it. With “The Lineman” it’s definitely the former, but unlike the vast majority of SF, Miller puts his big transcendental moment in a religious context, with Relke experiencing a religious awakening that sets him on a path of wanting to become not just a man, but a good man.
The ending of “The Lineman” really makes it. I think it’s astounding. As a uniquely science-fictional allegory about mankind getting in touch with the divine part of his nature while in the midst of temptation and horrors, It comes admirably close to striking a fine balance. I’m saying this as someone who doesn’t believe in what Miller believed at the time, and the fact that he would eventually lose both his faith and his life makes the cautious optimism of the ending all the more powerful.
A Step Farther Out
I came out of “The Lineman” a little mixed on it, but ultimately I have to say it was quite effective. Normally when I read something for the sake of reviewing it, I end up with about a page of “notes” on it, which are really just lines from the story that I decided to quote, for good reasons or bad; with “The Lineman” I got about two and a half pages of quotes. When Miller’s on the ball, he’s really on the ball, even if maybe this could’ve been cut down to novelette length. I do have to wonder if the subplot with the secret society was necessary, but then this was back when action narratives were, if not mandatory, then highly incentivized in SF magazine writing. And yet part of what makes “The Lineman” so memorable is how it continually jumps back and forth between pulpy action and genuine metaphysical observations, and how ultimately these two converge.
What fascinates me about Walter M. Miller, Jr. is that he chose to write in a field that was paradoxically both niche and commercial like science fiction, when he could’ve taken his religious concerns and put out some “respectable” literary fiction. That’s the thing, though, isn’t it? “The Lineman” can’t work as literary fiction; its themes are tied intrinsically to its premise. It’s a ruthlessly told story because the moon is a harsh mistress is a ruthless place. The same thing can be said for A Canticle for Leibowitz, which must out of necessity be a post-apocalypse tale in order to justify its inquiries about religion and human nature. It’s weird because science fiction was (and still largely is) stereotypically known for being, if not atheistic or agnostic, then secular; the authors of faith did not tend to write about said faith. Yet Miller, while openly Catholic, did not seek to force conversion upon his readers, but rather to make them think about questions not normally asked in the genre, such as mankind’s place in a universe which is assumed to have a divine overseer—you could say God, Christian or otherwise.
If Miller’s work seems flawed (and everything I’ve read by him so far is prone to a certain excess) then we only have to take the fact that he wrote SF in the ’50s for what it is: the necessary, if imperfect, prerequisite for this artist to find his footing. That Miller stopped writing after 1960, missing out on the New Wave and beyond, speaks perhaps of his fondness for the crossroads which SF in the ’50s found itself at, being more sophisticated than what came in the ’40s but not being as self-consciously experimental as what would come later. Maybe Walter M. Miller Jr. could’ve only done what he did, and say what he wanted to in the way he wanted, during a specific period in the genre’s history. Regardless, we’ll probably never get another voice in the field quite like his.
We’ve come to the final part of Alfred Bester’s debut novel, The Demolished Man. Bester arrived to novel-writing late, already being deep in his 30s when his debut was serialized, and truth be told, he wasn’t much of a novelist; he only wrote a handful of novels in his lifetime, and his first two remain by far the most famous. Like some of his contemporaries, (Theodore Sturgeon, C. M. Kornbluth), Bester hit a remarkable stride in the ’50s, starting with “Oddy and Id” in 1950 and ending with “The Pi Man” in 1959. I have to assume the broadening of the SF market in the early ’50s, namely the premieres of Galaxy Science Fiction and The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, coaxed Bester back to genre writing, after a near-decade-long break from the field.
Do I really need to tell you? Part 3 of The Demolished Man was published in the March 1952 issue of Galaxy, and yes, it’s on the Archive.
What strikes me about this particular issue of Galaxy is that there are at least two stories here that not only come off stronger than the serial, but give a more accurate impression of what the newfangled magazine was all about. Yeah, I’m letting you know this early on that I wasn’t a big fan of the conclusion to Bester’s novel, but I would still recommend checking out the issue it appears in. We get a certified hood classic from Robert Heinlein with his novelette “The Year of the Jackpot” (the subject of one of Galaxy‘s first great covers imo) and we also get a pretty funny outing from Damon Knight with “Catch That Martian.” Early Galaxy is so good that it’s honestly hard to go wrong.
You may recall that last time on The Demolished Man, we get two twists for the price of one, one of them interesting, the other horrendous. When searching the depths of Barbara D’Courtney’s unconscious, once she’s taken into the safety of his home, Preston Powell discovers that not only are Barbara and Ben Reich related in some way (implicitly connected to the late Craye D’Courtney, whom Reich had murdered), but that Barbara (who, keep in mind, is consciously at the mental level of a toddler at this point) has a big crush on Powell—which Powell reciprocates.
Much of Part 3 concerns Reich’s last-ditch attempt to evade Powell, who knows he had committed murder but can’t prove it objectively. To make a long story short, it’s not enough legally to have an Esper peep on a crime suspect’s deepest thoughts; presumably this is to prevent Espers from having too much power, but even so, the future society of the novel works such that it has become nigh-impossible to commit a crime and get away with it. Powell needs three things to bag Reich: motive, method, and opportunity. We know Reich was at Maria Beaumont’s party from the end of Part 1 (still the novel’s highlight imo), where Craye D’Courtney was hiding, and we know how he could’ve killed the old man.
The means are rather convoluted, but Reich had acquired an “ancient” 20th century pistol and removed the cartridges. Wouldn’t this mean Reich would be shooting blanks? Technically yes, but as Powell explains:
“With a powder charge, you can shoot an ounce of water with enough muzzle velocity to blow out the back of a head if you fire through the victim’s palate. That’s why Reich had to shoot through the mouth. That’s why Kr1/2t found that bit of gel and nothing else. The Projectile, of course, was gone.”
People forget (or don’t know) that even shooting blanks in an enclosed space can still be harmful; in the case of D’Courtney, firing the gun in his mouth was enough to kill him. Powell’s figured out the method.
The opportunity was easy enough to discern. The police team already knew Reich was at the party where D’Courtney had been killed, while everyone else was playing the Sardine game, and you may recall that in Part 2 Powell got a confession out of Gus T8 (Reich’s Esper accomplice) shortly before his death. Reich could’ve figured out where D’Courtney was by way of a peeper. There’s your opportunity.
The big problem Powell runs into is the motive. Now, I won’t give away the details in this section, but I’ll say that Reich’s motive for killing D’Courtney was not what we thought it was. Without a motive, they can’t connect Reich to the crime with objective evidence, and without that, Reich goes free. It looks like Reich is about to win, but Powell, being a top-level Esper (meaning he can fully read a person’s unconscious psyche), does have one last trick up his sleeve…
The cat-and-mouse game that took up much of Part 2 now comes to a head in the serial’s finale, and my feelings on it are quite mixed. The stuff with Powell and Reich is still great. Bester has a special talent for writing wiley and despicable characters, and few are more wiley or despicable than Ben Reich. Much like Gully Foyle, his marginally less evil counterpart in The Stars My Destination, Reich is relentless in his ruthlessness; there is nobody he won’t fuck over to get what he wants. Bester’s snappy style still retains its magic, too, with many passages being just dialogue exchanges with the bare minimum of description, yet rarely if ever is the reader lost in all this. Bester really is one of the writers of dialogue when it comes to ’50s SF.
When he’s good.
When he’s not, we get shit like this (yes it’s the Powell/Barbara subplot):
He kissed her forehead. “You’re growing up fast,” he smiled. “You were just baby-talking yesterday.”
“I’m growing up fast because you promised to wait for me.”
This is BULLSHIT.
I wonder if Piers Anthony is a fan of this novel. Just a thought. Much like Reich himself, the novel is half angel and half louse, and I’m trying to separate one from the other. When it’s good, it’s pretty great; it’s witty, inventive, and as I’ll elaborate on in a bit, the ending is a fair bit thought-provoking. But when it’s not good… it’s almost unreadable. I get the impression that writing at novel-length forced Bester to give into his worst impulses—stuff he wouldn’t normally indulge in at shorter lengths. Some authors, especially in SF, benefit from more succinct writing (opinion, sure, but I really do think SF works best in the novella mode), and Bester is one of those. Part 1 of The Demolished Man shows the novel at its best partly because it focuses the most on its two best assets: Ben Reich, and the way Espers contribute to this future interplanetary society.
There Be Spoilers Here
The problem with Reich’s motive for killing D’Courtney is that it doesn’t make sense. In Part 1, Reich offers to merge his company with D’Courtney’s, but D’Courtney refuses; this turns out to not be true. Upon interrogating Reich about the rejection, the teams finds that Reich had misinterpreted D’Courtney’s response. Now why would Reich take D’Courtney’s acceptance as a rejection? We know now that D’Courtney, when confronted by his killer, was not lying; he really did accept Reich’s offer to merge their companies. Reich’s true motive will have to be uncovered with some weapons-grade mundfuckery, and that’s what Powell does at the climax of Part 3.
The climax of Part 3 is a wild ride that almost rivals the climax of Part 1, even anticipating the mind games Philip K. Dick would play on us with his later novels. Just when Reich is convinced he’s gotten away with murder, his world starts to shrink—literally. People and places Reich knows start to disappear, even including entire planets, and he fears he may be losing his mind (sort of right) or that Powell’s pulling an epic prank on him (absolutely right). Even the sun, for no reason, disappears, and nobody he asks even knows what the sun is anymore. Even confessing to the murder of D’Courtney out of desparation does not release him.
The police looked at each other in surprise. One of them drifted to a corner and picked up an old-fashioned hand phone: “Captain? Got a character here. Calls himself Ben Reich of Sacrament. Claims he killed a party named Craye D’Courtney last month.” After a pause, he grunted and hung up. “A nut,” he said.
“Listen—” Reich began.
“Is he alright?” the policeman asked the doctor.
“Just shaken a little.”
“Listen!” Reich shouted.
The policeman yanked him to his feet and propelled him toward the door of the station. “There ain’t no Preston Powell on the force. There ain’t no D’Courtney killing on the books. Now, out!” And he hurled Reich into the street.
It’s a lot of fun. Eventually the world shrinks to the point where there’s only Reich left—and the one thing that’s scared him since the beginning, the Man With No Face. As it turns out, the Man With No Face is a representation of Reich’s guilt, just as we’ve suspected this whole time, though not quite for the reasons one would’ve assumed. You see, Reich and Barbara are half-siblings; their father is Craye D’Courtney. Through some convoluted backstory we learn that the Reich and D’Courtney family trees intertwined at one point, and not only is Barbara old man D’Courtney’s secret child, but so is Reich. D’Courntey didn’t resist Reich because he felt immense guilt about never acknowledging Reich as his son, and Reich tricked himself into wanting to kill D’Courtney because of some… Oedipal… thing…
So Reich is finished; it almost cost Powell his life, but it was worth it. Only at the very end do we find out what Demolition means, and it’s basically a memory wipe. The society of the novel hasn’t implemented the death penalty in decades, and correctly they regard such a practice as barbaric. Reich lives, in some way, but from now on he will be effectivelybecome a different person—the louse having been separated from the angel, or maybe the other way around. The novel makes an argument regarding criminals that I don’t think I’ve heard before, which is that someone who goes against societal norms must be at least of some value, therefore it’d be a waste to execute that person. It’s a curious argument against the death penalty, and I have to wonder how readers circa 1952 would’ve taken it.
A Step Farther Out
The Demolished Man could just as easily be titled The Diminishing Returns. Not to say it goes downhill exactly, but Part 2 introduces a certain subplot that I would consider the opposite of great; by Part 3 this same subplot was driving me up the fucking wall. I’m not even sure if the “romance” between Powell and Barbara is a product of the novel’s time as it is a quirk of what seems to be Bester’s actual honest-to-goodness worldview; he really did seem to believe in the legitimacy of Freudian psychology. Not to say Freud didn’t do much to advance how we as a species try to understand our own minds, our own desires, and so on, but The Demolished Man may be the most obnoxiously Freudian novel in existence, ultimately much to its detriment. I can see why, between Bester’s first two novels, The Stars My Destination has become the more popular one; the truth is that it holds up better to scrutiny.
I have yet to read the book version of The Demolished Man, but from what I’ve heard it might actually be an improvement over the serialized version, which doesn’t happen too often. Usually the differences between a novel’s serial run and its book incarnation are negligible, but Bester apparently revised his novel to a substantial degree between versions. The result is (from what I’ve heard anyway) a short novel that was made even more concise, even cutting out some of the stuff between Powell and Barbara that makes me feel all shitty inside. Even so, the serial is worth reading; historically it’s nothing short of essential, of course, but it’s still an ultimately statisfying experience, made more palpable by being split into smaller chunks.
Well, the next serial I cover is also something I’ve not read before, despite it being by one of my favorite authors, and like The Demolished Man it also won a Hugo—a Retro Hugo.
Rebecca Roanhorse is a fairly new writer, with her first story in the field being published in 2017; “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” is that first story. It’s also the only short story Roanhorse would see published that year, and sadly her body of short work remains quite small. The good news is that if you want more Roanhorse, she has (contrary to her short fiction output) been highly productive as a novelist, with six novels published in just five years and with a seventh already coming out soon. Her next novel, Tread of Angels, is due in November… 2022. This year. In about three months. And she already had a 2022 release with Fevered Star.
Well, you can’t say she’s not putting in the work.
“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” must’ve blown people’s socks off, since it not only won the Hugo and Nebula for Best Short Story (insane already for someone’s debut), but it also pretty much singlehandedly earned Roanhorse the 2018 John W. Campbell Astounding Award for Best New Writer. Roanhorse was the first person to win the Hugo, Nebula, and Astounding Award in the same year since Barry B. Longyear took his share of glory in 1980 (we’ll get to Longyear eventually, fret not), so clearly people were hyped to shit. I wasn’t in on the buzz at the time, though, so this is actually my first time with Roanhorse at all, and it’s not a reread.
First published digitally in the August 2017 issue of Apex Magazine, and you can read it for free here. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” has been reprinted several times, although curiously not in any of the year’s-best-SF anthologies, with the exception of The Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror: 2018. I probably wouldn’t call Roanhorse’s story horror and I most certainly wouldn’t call it dark fantasy—it’s clearly SF. People be smoking CRACK up in here. Even so, it’s freely available online and you won’t have trouble finding a book reprint.
A brief rant before I begin properly. I don’t have a problem with the Astounding Award being renamed (I get the rationale for it), but my beef with it has to do with something that’s always apparently been part of the Astounding Award: eligibility. An author becomes eligible for the Astounding Award after their first professional publication, and they’re eligible for nomination twice—i.e., within two years of their professional debut. This is such an arcane and unbelievably stupid rule that I don’t know what you’re supposed to do with it. Why two years? Why not just one? Why not three? What if an author technically debuts with like one story, but then goes away for a few years and doesn’t debut in earnest until after the two-year mark? At what point does a new writer stop being a new writer? These are philosophical questions the Astounding Award does not seem equipped to handle.
What first struck me about this is that the “You” in the title is no joke; this was written as a second-person narrative. Which is not to say the protagonist is unnamed. No, the protagonist is Jesse Pinkman Turnblatt, though he goes by the “stage name” of Jesse Trueblood, to make himself sound more Indian, even though he already has a good dose of Indian blood in him. Jesse lives with his wife Theresa, who does not approve of his job but is at least glad he has one, since if the narrator is right then Jesse has a bit of a history of fucking things up. The thing is that Jesse currently works a virtual reality gig, setting up scenarios called Experiences which place him and the client in “authentic” Indian scenarios from the Old West—by that, we of course mean the Old West as depicted in cowboy movies.
What Theresa doesn’t understand is that Tourists don’t want a real Indian experience. They want what they see in the movies, and who can blame them? Movie Indians are terrific! So you watch the same movies the Tourists do, until John Dunbar becomes your spirit animal and Stands with Fists your best girl. You memorize Johnny Depp’s lines from The Lone Ranger and hang a picture of Iron Eyes Cody in your work locker. For a while you are really into Dustin Hoffman’s Little Big Man.
I seriously doubt anyone would subject themselves to The Long Ranger, but to each his own. The point being that Jesse gives so-called Tourists what they want, which is a fantasy that makes them feel good about themselves, or gives them the illusion of spiritual enlightenment. If you know anything about the kind of person who buys fake arrowheads and rabbit’s-feet at a trinket shop, then you can guess that these Tourists are pretty much all white folks; they’re at least assumed to be such, since both performers and clients don avatars when in the Experiences. The VR part of “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” is the only even tangentially SF part of the story, so you can bet Roanhorse milks it a good deal.
While I do feel tempted to criticize how upfront the cultural appropriation theme here is, it almost feels like a red herring. You take one look at the title, complete with the trademark symbol, and you know you’re in for some juicy satire about white people copping alleged Indian souvenirs; the twist is that the story does, in fact, cover more ground than that. We don’t have to wait long for Jesse to have an unusual encounter with a Tourist—a man who claims to be have some Cherokee blood in his veins. We don’t get the man’s real name, but as part of the Experience (and because he’s desperate to not fuck up and have his boss sack him), Jesse gives him the vaguely Indian-sounding name of White Wolf. Jesse isn’t sure if White Wolf really is part Cherokee; the truth is that Jesse doesn’t know shit about Cherokees.
You’ve heard of ancestral memories, but you’ve also heard of people claiming Cherokee blood where there is none. Theresa calls them “pretendians,” but you think that’s unkind. Maybe White Wolf really is Cherokee. You don’t know any Cherokees, so maybe they really do look like this guy. There’s a half-Tlingit in payroll and he’s pale.
The Experience is basically a success, and Jesse and White Wolf become pals. Performers and clients aren’t supposed to interact outside of Experiences, but Jesse can’t help himself; he even tells White Wolf his true name. The story then skims through at least a couple months in-story, which is honestly a bit of a problem, because we don’t get to see Jesse and White Wolf’s relationship develop gradually, nor do we get much of an idea as to what they even talk about. “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” is quite short indeed (I’d be shocked if it goes over 5,000 words, though Apex frustratingly does not give a word count), and I do feel like the virtual lack of a middle section hurts it.
I’m conflicted about the plausibility of the premise here. I want to say it’d be way too obviously distasteful for a company to profit off of such blatant cultural appropriation, but again, trinket shop with fake arrowheads and rabbit’s-feet. I also live in a timeline where The Lone Ranger, starring actual cannable Armie Hammer, is a real thing that exists. I suppose my suspension of disbelief isn’t strained by the Experiences (the tech needed for such things is not far off, after all), but rather something I’ll have to get into with the spoiler section.
There Be Spoilers Here
In a way that feels like something out a cheap thriller, White Wolf takes over Jesse’s life—first by taking up so much of his time by chatting with him a local bar, then by taking his job and even his wife. Jesse gets replaced by the more “authentic” Indian, despite White Wolf’s heritage being dubious, and we see him at the end of the story as a broken husk of a man.
Now, I have a few questions.
White Wolf seems to take advantage of Jesse falling ill in the back half of the story and swipe his wife out from under him while he’s not looking. And his co-workers. And his boss. What if Jesse didn’t become bedridden for days on end? Was he poisoned? Was it a coincidence? Did White Wolf have some weird plan to cuck Jesse this whole time? Why plot to steal some guy’s job which, by all accounts, looks pretty self-demeaning? What information did Jesse tell White Wolf that would presumably let the latter run the former’s name through the mud? According to Jesse he told White Wolf things he’s never even told Theresa. Why? Surely they can’t be that close. I could’ve sworn this was building up to Jesse realizing he’s in love with White Wolf, but that’s not the route Roanhorse goes down; indeed, she seemingly implies the beginning of a homosexual affair, but then she deflects it.
The best thing about “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” is that, as a psychological metaphor, it’s very much convincing. We’re given a man of actual Indian background who plays into his role for the sake of profit, and for being fake, a poser, even a bit of a scoundrel, he pays a big price for it. The narrative arc of the protagonist having his life taken over by a doppelganger is not new at all—actually it’s quite old. The trick with Roanhorse’s story is that we have the replaced-protagonist narrative combined with the surface commentary about people of a certain demographic selling out their own history; that Jesse suffers because he doesn’t respect his own heritage, nor the heritages of adjacent peoples (those of other Indian nations), makes his fate at least somewhat deserved.
As an allegory, the story works, but if taken on a literal level, it’s kinda rubbish. If taken literally, there are far too many questions left unanswered for it to be altogether satisfying for me. We get the message that Jesse is a fuck-up, but we get so little concrete backstory from him, about his strenuous relationship with Theresa and why she’s apparently threatened to leave him many times already, about why he’s drawn to White Wolf (a character who remains mostly mysterious, at least to us) in particular, and so on. The second-person narration doesn’t help things since it puts you, the reader, in the shoes of a character who already has a name and something like a backstory; that some of Jesse’s actions are inexplicable and unexplained is not helped by the peppering of you’s.
It’s certainly a thought-provoking story, to some extent, but I came out of it asking questions that are almost certainly not the ones Roanhorse wanted me to ask. In a way it feels like a story that’s only half-finished; it feels like maybe the penultimate draft, rather than the finished product. And yet, I can’t fault it for being thematically ambitious.
A Step Farther Out
I got a feeling reading “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience™” similar to when I first read C. J. Cherryh’s Hugo-winning short story “Cassandra.” In both cases, an author most active in novel-writing has her first or second short story win surprisingly big, and like with Cherryh, I can’t shake the feeling that Roanhorse’s story will eventually be regarded as minor in the context of her career. This is not to be taken as a put-down exactly; we’re talking about someone who’s not only just getting started, but who is already proving herself to be a powerhouse. Only it’s not in the mode of writing that won her a Hugo. Whereas Cherryh’s story got hardly any emotion out of me, though, Roanhorse’s left me feeling polarized, which I suppose is the preferred reaction.
Like I said earlier, the lack of this story’s inclusion in the biggest year’s-best anthologies is conspicuous. It didn’t show up on what turned out to be the late Gardner Dozois’s final The Year’s Best Science Fiction anthology, nor did Neil Clarke include it in his The Best Science Fiction of the Year anthology for 2017. Does this underexposure mean Roanhorse’s debut is destined to not be regarded as a classic in twenty years’ time? Probably not. Who the hell knows what will be considered a classic for future generations? I have to admit, though, that I did find it overrated, and I’m personally not convinced it’ll withstand the great funnel of the coming decades; more importantly, I am convinced that Roanhorse will (like Cherryh) move on to bigger and better things if she hasn’t already.
Alfred Bester is baaaaaack. He was early in the period of his career when he was at his best and most prolific (though in reality we only got two novels and little over a dozen short stories from him between 1950 and 1960), and nothing proved this more than the serialization of his debut novel The Demolished Man. This novel demonstrates what made Bester special at the time, and by extension what made Galaxy Science Fiction so different from its contemporaries. We’re talking about SF that’s witty, lurid, hardboiled, uncompromising, and generally more “mature” than what came before it. Interestingly, Bester would have his two novels from this era published in Galaxy while most of his short fiction would appear in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.
Part 2 of The Demolished Man appeared in the February 1952 issue of Galaxy. It’s on the Archive. If you REEEEEEALLY wanna read the book version (which I do hear is a fair bit different from the serial), you won’t have a hard time finding that at all.
How do you get away with murder in a society where a fraction of the populace can read not only your conscious thoughts but the darkest depths of your unconscious mind? Ben Reich has found a way—or at least he thinks he’s found a way.
Last time on The Demolished Man, Ben Reich has murdered Craye D’Courtney, his top business rival, with an “ancient” 20th century handgun that doesn’t leave a bullet hole or any markings. There is just one problem: there was a witness to the killing, and not only that, it’s D’Courtney’s secret daughter, Barbara. With Barbara having escaped the scene, Reich and his Esper accomplice Gus T8 are forced to remain at Maria Beaumont’s party so as to not look too suspicious. No matter, though, as soon police are called in—Esper police—with Police Prefect Preston Powell spearheading the invesitgation. It doesn’t take long for our villain protagonist and hero antagonist to start their game of cat and mouse.
A few things I want to make note of before I dive deeper into the plot, as Part 2 is not as long as the first installment, and I would say somehow the plot has become even more streamlined. Once The Demolished Man kicks into high gear it doesn’t stop. Now, I said in my review of Part 1 that certain Espers have symbols and Arabic numerals as part of their names, for reasons never given as far as I can tell. While I could at least see this arbitration as consistent, one of the mentioned characters, Duffy Wyg&, is not an Esper; this makes me wonder what the hell Bester could mean by this naming convention, and since apparently he drops the act for the book version, spelling characters’ names normally, I have to assume he did this for the serial version just to be QuIrKy.
I also brought up the weird Freudian symbolism that permeates the narrative, and indeed renders part of it incomprehensible otherwise, such as Reich’s recurring nightmares of the Man With No Face. I don’t even wanna get into how the Esper rankings work again, since they work on the basic assumption that the Freudian map of the human psyche (the ego, the id, etc.) is totally legitimate. A certain subplot involving Barbara D’Courtney fundamentally involves Freudian psychology in a way I won’t give away in this section, but needless to say I have some thoughts about it. It’s a story that only makes sense if you’re willing to be generous with its assumptions, and even then you might have a hard time after a certain point.
Part 2 is considerably more of a mixed bag than Part 1; while Part 1 has some pacing issues in the beginning, being frontloaded with exposition as it is, Part 2 develops the novel’s Freudian angle for the worse. I tend to be generous with this sort of thing, but there are certain passages here that make me wonder if they were ghostwritten by Robert Heinlein—not the good Heinlein either, but the embarrassing, somewhat creepy Heinlein. The creepiness is uncharacteristic even for ’50s SF; if anything it feels almost more like a byproduct of the late ’60s/early ’70s New Wave period. I have to assume H. L. Gold looked at the manuscript and thought, “Hmm, yes, this is very good indeed.” I don’t know about this one, chief.
It’s a shame, too, because the good parts of The Demolished Man are still really good, and now they have an extra good element added to the equation: the intense and totally not homoerotic rivalry between between Reich and Powell. It’s a classic case of the unstoppable force (Reich) against the immovable object (Powell), two psychotically determined men set to rip out each other’s throats. Powell knows, simply by contacting Sam Jordan, Reich’s lawyer, and by using a police lab map of the party-turned-crime-scene to trace Reich’s steps, that Reich is 99% likely to be the killer. However, Powell will need (thanks to convoluted legal restraints) more than just an Esper’s intuition, and Reich knows it.
When the two meet up during the investigation, there’s an intense butting of heads, yet Powell can’t help but admire Reich; it’s a curious dynamic. While obviously wanting Reich to be Demolished (we’re still not quite told what this means yet), Powell says this:
“You’re two men, Reich. One of them’s wonderful; the other’s rotten. If you were all killer, it wouldn’t be so bad. But there’s half louse and half saint in you, and that makes it worse.”
The game is afoot. The bulk of Part 2 is a chase wherein Reich and Powell try to find Barbara, the key witness, as without her Powell won’t be able to nab Reich, while Reich won’t be entirely sure of his own safety from Demolition. There is a remarkably fast-paced, if somewhat repetitive sequence where hero and villain play tricks on each other, Reich using T8’s powers and those of the criminal underworld to undermine Powell’s operation while Powell tries using T8 and Jerry Church (who you may remember as the exiled Esper who gave Reich the murder weapon) to push Reich into a corner. I would perhaps find this chase less repetitive if every scene didn’t end with each side going, “Well gosh dang it, where is that GURL?” This is an instance where Bester’s economy of description might have worked against him a bit.
We’re at the point where The Demolished Man truly has become an episode of Columbo, and Preston Powell is a fine not-Columbo—the big difference being that while he does play dumb in order to lure Reich into a false sense of security for a bit, his act is subtler than Columbo’s. Another big difference has less to do with Powell himself and more a certain subplot that I’ll be tearing apart discussing very soon. While we were technically introduced to Powell in Part 1, he only now actively takes a role in the story, and he sure is up to the task.
A shame all this other shit had to happen.
There Be Spoilers Here
Powell, T8, and Church are ambushed by Reich’s hired guns, with T8 dying in the process. It’s a curious scene in how it’s written, since not only is T8’s potential redemption cut short, but his death is described in a way that’s uncharacteristically indirect for Bester—and all the better for it. A rule of thumb with Part 2 at least is that when Powell is not with Barbara, things are going great. The problem is that the scenes where Powell is with Barbara make me hunger for death.
Basically, the trauma of seeing Reich killer old man D’Courtney caused Barbara’s conscious mind to regress to that of an infant; she barely even has any motor skills, never mind the ability to articulate. Powell has the idea to move Barbara from the hospital (which, to be fair, is a place where someone can easily kill or kidnap her) to his house, and that’s where things get weeeeird. A good portion of Part 2 is spent on Powell, along with fellow Esper Mary Noyes (who has a crush on Powell, which Powell is well aware of but refuses to reciprocate), helping Barbara “mature” from being mentally an infant to where she was just before the murder. It’s certainly a curious plot development, but it’s seriously hampered by some very off-color interactions Powell has with Barbara, and that’s before we get to the big twist involving her character.
The big twist is that whilst in the process of regaining her mental stability, as she “grows up” from infant to child, Barbara develops a crush on Powell—and no just any crush, noooo, no no no no. When peeping on Barbara, diving into the depths of her unconscious mind (or whatever the hell it’s called, I don’t care for it too much), Powell sees surreal images of the adult Barbara as well as the baby version of herself, and that’s where we find out how Barbara, in the wrecked state of her consciousness, sees Powell.
Get a load of this:
There was her picture of herself, pathetically caricatured, the blonde hair in strings, the dark eyes like blotches, the lovely figure drawn into flat, ungracious planes. It faded and the image of Powell-Powerful-Protective-Paternal rushed at him, torrentially destructive. The back of the head was D’Courtney’s face. He follows the Janus image down to a blazing channel of doubles, pairs, linkages and duplicates to—yes. Ben Reich and the caricature of Barbara, linked like Siamese twins. B linked to B. B & B. Benedictine & Brandy. Barbara & Ben.
That’s right, we’re venturing into Electra complex territory! In seeing Powell as her new father figure, connecting him with the deceased D’Courtney, Barbara now sees him not only as a daddy figure but as a Daddy figure, if you know what I mean. The implication of this final scene is also that Reich seems to be the subject of an Oedipus complex, being Barbara’s male counterpart in how he’s linked to D’Courtney’s murder, which is just—just—
I’m trying to remember the last time I saw an otherwise good novel sink to such lows as this. Previously I was perplexed as to the Freudian angle Bester seemed keen on taking with this story, but now I’m deeply wary as to what he’s gonna do with it in the final installment. I said before that certain aspects of the plot will only make sense in a Freudian context, but now I think there are certain aspects here that can just be shot into the vacuum of space and the novel would be stronger for it. The worst part is that, assuming Part 2’s final revelation is followed up, corrupt business won’t be the “real” reason why Reich killed D’Courtney, as if we needed a “real” reason for it.
A Step Farther Out
I’m morbidly curious as to where The Demolished Man is going. Unless it pulls a 180 in the final installment, I can say with certainty The Stars My Destination will come out the better novel. Not that there aren’t problematic elements in Bester’s second novel, but I don’t remember anything as ridiculous as Barbara’s character development happening there. I would also argue the problematic parts of The Stars My Destination add to that novel’s sense of ruthlessness, but I can’t say the same for The Demolished Man. I’m still not sure why Bester, who was sharp-witted enough to make his novel a proto-cyberpunk reverse whodunnit in the first place, felt so compelled to root his story in Freudian psychology the way he did; I seriously doubt Gold requested the Freudian stuff.
This is a novel that, at least right now, is hard to call great. Part 1 was mostly pretty gripping, and I found myself hanging onto to pretty much every word of every passage, even if it dragged at first. With Part 2 I found myself wanting to get through the scenes with Barbara as fast as possible, and I simply didn’t find the scenes focusing on Reich to be as compelling as when we were almost completely tied to his perspective in Part 1. As short as this novel is, it’s already getting messy, but I’ll very well stick around for the end.
Clifford D. Simak is one of the most respected writers to come out of the so-called Golden Age of science fiction—this despite the fact that he was actually a pre-Golden Age practitioner of SF, having made his debut in 1931 with “The World of the Red Sun.” Simak became one of John W. Campbell’s regular authors in the ’40s, and then, without skipping a beat, he started submitting frequently to Galaxy Science Fiction in the ’50s onward. Unlike a lot of noted Golden Age writers, Simak was thoroughly a pastoralist, and also a humanist; his fiction often involves fundamentally decent rural types in plots which are rarely life-or-death scenarios. His obvious contempt for urbanity is counterbalanced by a gentleness uncharacteristic of most SF authors of his era, and at his best he can be deeply emotionally effective.
When Simak wrote “The Big Front Yard” in 1958, he had already been in the game for 27 years, and he would remain quietly yet consistently active for 27 more. According to David W. Wixon’s introduction to the story in the collection The Big Front Yard and Other Stories, Simak had originally submitted this piece to H. L. Gold over at Galaxy, but Gold rejected it; he then took it to Campbell, and Campbell bought it without hesitation. “The Big Front Yard” would go on to win the 1959 Hugo for Best Novelette (the Best Novella category had not yet been invented), and it would go down as one of Simak’s most famous stories.
“The Big Front Yard” has been reprinted a fair number of times, so you’ll have no problem finding it. Assuming you don’t mind reading online or with a PDF, the October 1958 issue of Astounding in which it originally appeared is on the Archive. As far as book reprints go we have some easy-to-find options, including the aforementioned The Big Front Yard and Other Stories in ebook and paperback—though I must warn you that Open Road Media is, at best, a second-rate publisher, and I seriously lament the fact that so many books by authors I love have fallen into their hands. Typos and weird formatting decisions abound, such as the fact that FOR NO REASON the scene breaks were removed in their series of Simak’s collected short fiction. Chapter breaks are still intact, but scene breaks, which are arguably more important? Gone. How shitty.
If you want (in my opinion) more reputable reprints, I would recommend the anthology The Hugo Winners, Volumes One and Two; it’s super-duper out of print, but since this tome seemed to get around a lot back in the ’70s, used copies are pretty easy to find without breaking the bank. You also get the rest of the short fiction Hugo winners between 1955 and 1970, so that’s a big plus. Another great option is The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume Two B, the second half of (you guessed it) The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Volume Two. Unlike the former anthology, this one is very much in print, and seems to have remained so since its initial publication.
This is a first contact story, and maybe one of the most upbeat of its kind, though Simak misdirects us at first into thinking it won’t be.
We follow Hiram Taine, a handyman and trader of “antiques” (in reality just old junky furniture he cleans up and sells at a hefty price), just your average rural Wisconsin dude. He has a dog named Towser and he likes to chat with another local man named Beasly, who’s apparently not very bright but who likes to hang out with Taine and help him with his work. Random, but I couldn’t help but notice the dog has the same name as the protagonist’s dog in Simak’s earlier story, “Desertion.” Is this supposed to mean anything? How many Simak stories have dogs named Towser?
Anyway, Taine is hired to fix a TV set owned by the Hortons, Henry and Abbie, with Henry being boss man at a local plant (a computer plant, apparently). The TV is old and, according to Taine anyway, replacing it would probably be cheaper than repairing it, but it comes with a radio and a record player, and Abbie won’t replace it. Taine and Beasly move the bulky TV into the basement when this happens:
“Well, Hiram,” she said, excited, “you put a ceiling in the basement. It looks a whole lot better.”
“Huh?” asked Taine.
“The ceiling. I said you put in a ceiling.”
Taine jerked his head up and what she said was true. There was a ceiling there, but he’d never put it in.
Taine has one of those unfinished basements—only now it’s a little less unfinished. Not only does his basement have a ceiling that he didn’t have installed, but it seems to be of a metallic substance, except it’s not any kind of metal Taine recognizes. Later that day, he tests the ceiling and finds that a drill won’t penetrate it, or even leave so much as a scratch. Well that’s weird. At this early point in the story, Taine notices some things are different about his house, and normally this would be played for suspense, which is kind of is—but, as I said, this is misdirection.
Indeed the first stretch of “The Big Front Yard” feels almost like a subversion of what would, even in 1958, sound like the set-up for a spooky alien invasion story. You know how superstitious people will sometimes say dogs can see ghosts or some goofy shit like that? Towser spends much of the story trying to find a woodchuck that doesn’t exist, but we’ll get back to that in the spoilers section. Clearly something has started living in or around the property, and it doesn’t stop with Taine’s basement getting refurbished. Several of the junky odds and ends have been mysteriously repaired, even improved in some cases; the big TV set Taine got for repairs is now not only fixed without his help, but it now also plays in color (remember, 1958). You and I know, even going into this, that aliens are involved, yet the surprising part is that rather than hint ominously at a future attack on humanity, these aliens seem, if anything, to be pretty benign, if not outright friendly.
What I like about a lot of Simak’s work, and what he does to an almost perfect degree here, is he refuses to bend to the Golden Age cliché of aliens being depicted as evil outsiders, along with the xenophobic implications; aliens rarely play the villains in Simak’s fiction, but then Simak’s fiction tends to be light on conventional villains. Taine is also not your typical Golden Age protagonist: he’s not a scientist or a politician, he’s not what you’d call a genius, and he’s by no means the physical encapsulation of what Campbell would’ve considered the “ideal” man. Like a lot of Simak protagonists, Taine is a hard-working (if not entirely honest) Midwesterner who’s just looking to make a buck. Honestly I scratch my head as to why Gold rejected “The Big Front Yard” and Campbell bought it; it feels like the roles should’ve been reversed.
Before long, Towser, in his efforts to find the woodchuck, finds something else right by the house, and digs furiously for it. Already aware that something definitely strange has been going on, Taine and Beasly dig up whatever Towser sniffed out, and what they find is indeed strange: a large oval-shaped contraption buried in the ground, made of a glassy metal that Taine knows he’s never seen before. Fear runs through his veins, but he also experiences what we might call a conceptual breakthrough—a discovery of something beyond known human limits that counteracts the fear with a sense of wonder. “A sense of wonder” is a really old and cliched phrase in SF, especially Golden Age SF, but I think there are a few moments in “The Big Front Yard” alone which do it justice.
And the conviction grew: Whatever it was that had come to live with him undoubtedly had arrived in this same contraptions. From space or time, he thought, and was astonished that he thought it, for he’d never thought such a thing before.
Life on other planets? You bet. What else could it be? Like any first contact story there is at least some uncertainty involved, but as is typical of Simak, there’s also a gentle whimsy and that aforementioned sense of wonder which gives us the impression that Taine, Beasly, and the others aren’t in any real danger, despite the mysteriousness of the situation. If our boys thought the repaired junk and the large glassy contraption were weird, though, they’re about to have the sight of their lives, after they’ve finished with the digging and come back around to the front of the house.
He and Beasly went up the gravel driveway in the dark to put the tools away in the garage and there was something funny going on, for there was no garage.
There was no garage and there was no front on the house and the driveway was cut off abruptly and there was nothing but the curving wall of what apparently had been the end of the garage.
The front of the house is folded in on itself. The back is still good, though! But yeah, uhh, how did this happen? Why? Taine’s scared, but now he’s also utterly baffled. Our boys enter through the back door, and… the front of the house is still there. From the inside. Except whereas it had been nighttime outside the house, now there’s daylight breaking through the front windows which are no longer there from the outside.
“The Big Front Yard” can be more or less split into two halves, those being before and after the front of the house gets miraculously folded. If the first half of the novella has almost a magic realism feel about it, it becomes something more akin to a planetary romance in the latter half. I won’t say too much in the spoiler section, since the plot becomes more straightforward at this point, but it also becomes even more charming and readable. The whole thing can be described as “cute,” which is not a word I would use with the vast majority of Golden Age SF (FYI, I do consider the “Golden Age” to be the ’50s, not the ’40s), but “The Big Front Yard” is just a happy-go-lucky tale which refuses to take itself overly seriously.
There Be Spoilers Here
The front of the house, from the inside, opens to a different planet—a vast desert landscape with a sun different from ours. The front of Taine’s house, including his car and driveway, has been transported to this new world, in a way, and conversely the back of the house is now folded on itself. This is where we meet the aliens who have apparently taken up residence on Taine’s property: little ratlike creatures with humanoid-ish faces. These aliens pay Taine no mind and simply keep walking in a single file line through the desert. There’s also… du-dum… another house which serves the same function as Taine’s, except this one appears deserted, serving as a gateway between the desert world and a third world, this one being more jungle-like. Taine’s house seems to have become part of a network of houses which serve as portals for other worlds.
This was another world—there could be no doubt of that—another planet circling another star, and where it was in actual space no one on Earth could have the least idea. And yet, through some machination of those sixteen things walking straight in line, it also was lying just outside the front door of his house.
Soon we run into a different alien race, one which is decidedly more humanoid in appearance; these guys ride on what appear to be horseless saddles, though our boys gather that the humanoid aliens use some kind of anti-gravity device. Far more unfortunately, we also have to deal with the US government putting their filthy hands in things. It was a cliché, even at the time, for the government to get involved with ayy lmao affairs, though Simak’s irreverence for the soldiers and bureaucrats here is somewhat refreshing; they’re the closest thing the story has to villains, and while they are somewhat of the mustache-twirling variety, they’re not too harmful. Really the most tense thing to happen in the whole story is when Taine loses Towser in the desert world for a bit, but it’s okay, he finds him. Towser is such a good boy; there should be a Hugo for Best Dog.
What do these aliens want, though? And what will it take for the government to not take possession of Taine’s house? The solution ends up being a mighty convenient one: Beasly, while not being the sharpest tool in the shed, is able to communicate with the aliens, and as it turns out, the aliens are looking to start a trading relationship with mankind, as part of a network of interplanetary traders. Rather than wanting to trade top-secret info on weapons, the aliens want more practical things, like the very concept of paint, which is somehow foreign to them. The big twist of “The Big Front Yard” is that Beasly is telepathic; that’s right, he can communicate with others using his mind—even Towser, who’s a dog, and even the aliens, who are… aliens.
Suddenly I can see why Campbell would’ve liked this.
I do find this twist to be the least convincing part of the story. You could say it’s far-fetched that Taine is able to walk and breathe fine on an alien planet without any technological assistance, but I would also say you’re a killjoy who probably had a really boring childhood. I guess my problem is that the telepathy thing, even if it’s used to hand-wave communications between humans and the saddle-riding aliens (which it is), doesn’t cover for the fact that our languages would be completely different. That and while I feel like Towser sensing the aliens, including a giant woodchuck-looking alien, was foreshadowed well enough, I find Beasly’s secret power to be less convincing. People were just really into ESP at this time, huh?
Even so, all is well. The aliens want to become trading partners with mankind, with Taine as mankind’s ambassador and Beasly as his interpreter. The government will keep off their backs, at least for the time being, and anyhow, in the meantime they can learn some pretty valuable things from the aliens. It all looks like the beginning of a beautiful business relationship.
A Step Farther Out
Clifford D. Simak would win two more Hugos, and was the third person to be given the Grand Master Award by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (after Robert Heinlein and Jack Williamson). Despite this immense honor, Simak now stands as a somewhat obscure figure (not unlike Williamson, actually), and I see that as a big shame, because his work has certainly aged better than a lot of Heinlein’s. Heinlein is one of my all-time favorite authors, maybe top five material, but he can be pretty embarrassing when he doesn’t have his eye on the prize. Simak, meanwhile, continued to produce respectable work well into the ’70s, after many of his contemporaries had either died, retired, or pulled a Heinlein.
Simak would win his third Hugo in 1981, and he would remain active until just a couple years before his death in 1988. The world of SF, and even genre fiction at large, would surely be worse off without him.
“The Big Front Yard” may not be Simak’s best story, but it might be the best example of what made Simak different from so many other SF authors in the ’40s and ’50s. While there is a bit of light misogyny with Abbie Horton’s characterization (she’s described as “bossy” at one point), it’s otherwise remarkably devoid of racism and jingoism. I also get the impression, just from reading this, that Simak was probably horrified and disgusted by the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; indeed his fix-up “novel” City partly feels like a cry against atrocities (be they Allied or Axis) committed during World War II. It would’ve been easy to initiate the partnership between mankind and the saddle-riding aliens for the purposes of exchanging weapons of mass destruction, but Simak did not seem keen on putting such an option on the table.
There’s a tenderness running through much of Simak’s fiction; you could say it’s an aversion to violence, and if Simak has any big weakness it’s that maybe he can be too much of a softy—a criticism one could aim at few, if any other Golden Age authors, I can assure you. “The Big Front Yard” has been held as a classic for decades, and while some classics of the field keep that title more for historical importance than enjoyability, this is a classic whose value very much persists. It’s a damn fine story, regardless of age.
My history with Alfred Bester is a bit complex. By all rights he should be one of my favorite SFF authors of the ’50s, given how strong his output from that period is. Bester started in the field in the late ’30s, and even submitted a few notable short works to John W. Campbell for Astounding and Unknown. Like a lot of authors during World War II, though, Bester would take a break from writing once the US joined the war effort—a break that lasted nearly a decade. From 1943 to 1949 we got jack shit from Bester, but once he returned in 1950, he quickly established himself as one of the leading voices of a new generation of authors, being more sophisticated, more experimental, and more cosmopolitan than what came before. He was perfect for Galaxy Science Fiction, H. L. Gold’s new magazine, which had claimed its throne with a speed and force unseen before or since in the field as the best SF magazine on the market.
While Bester’s short fiction, at its best, may stand as his top-to-bottom strongest work, he has become more known nowadays for his first two novels, both of them initially published in Galaxy. The Demolished Man, serialized from January to Marsh 1952, would later win the first ever Hugo for Best Novel, and no doubt contributed to Galaxy tying with Astounding for the Best Professional Magazine Hugo that year.
The January 1952 issue of Galaxy is freely available on the Archive. Since this is a serial you can guess where you’d be able to find it. If you’re curious about reading the book version, though (which I hear is a fair bit different from the magazine version), it’s very much in print from iBooks. You can also find the SF Masterworks paperback for The Demolished Man at a pretty good price. This is a somewhat famous novel, so you won’t have too hard a time finding it.
We start with a lengthy prologue section where we meet with a series of characters in rapid succession—none of whom, at least directly, play a big part in the story. For instance we’re told about the invention of anti-gravity, called Nulgee, by a scientist named Edward Turnbul, a man who would be sort of credited with the invention but, as we’re told, screwed out of the patent for it.
It doesn’t matter. As the narrator tells us:
Forget Turnbul. He is not your protagonist. If you identify with him, you will be lost in this story, as Turnbul is lost in the shifting pattern that produced the Demolished Man.
We’re told about quite a few other things, both about the background of this world and about the circumstances leading to the Demolished Man. Who’s the Demolished Man? Stay tuned. We get the invention of anti-gravity, exploration of other planets in the solar system, the invention of an advanced sensory-intensive form of entertainment called a Panty (that’s right, these things are called Pantys), the bubbling of a generations-long business rivalry between two families, Reich and D’Courtney.
Most importantly for understanding the world of The Demolished Man, we’re introduced to the emerging existence of telepaths, called Espers in this novel. Much like the telepaths of A. E. van Vogt’s novel Slan, the Espers are a genetic anomaly, making up a small portion of the human population and sustained by mating within the group; unlike van Vogt’s slans, who are viciously persecuted by normal humans, the Espers are highly sought after in human society. Indeed, telepathy plays at least as much a role in how this society functions as space flight—probably more so.
Part of me wonders if Bester wrote this novel in response to van Vogt’s; it has a few of the same ingredients, but in most other ways it reads like a foil to that earlier novel. The slans, and especially their relationship with normal human society, very much read like a precursor to X-Men, whereas Bester’s novel shows what the world might look like if such mutants were still a minority, but highly respected, allowed to be themselves out in the open without fear of persecution.
Speaking of out in the open, Bester more or less gives the whole game away in this opening section, thus making the magazine version of The Demolished Man rather hard to spoil. I say the magazine version because even a cursory glance at the book version reveals that pretty much the entirety of the opening section had been thrown in the trash between versions. Usually there are revisions between a novel’s serialization and its book publication, but usually this means the author added material between versions, rather than deleted. I have to assume this is because, as entertaining as the prologue is in parts, it also frontloads the text with exposition—so much exposition you feel like your head’s about to burst, and some of it is irrelevant anyway.
I also have to assume the change was made because the prologue makes the rest of the events too easy to predict, to the point where we get to do little guessing ourselves. Even before we’re given our protagonist’s name, we’re basically told that he’s doomed.
We’re given the murder weapon, an item used to set up the murder, and presumably the murderer himself, the Demolished Man. At the end of this protracted sequence we’re introduced to Ben Reich, said protagonist and the latest in the Reich family line of pirates and scoundrels, himself the head of Sacrament, a firm which rivals the D’Courtney Cartel. Reich is not a good guy; in fact he’s going to commit a murder by the end of the first part. How do we figure this?
For Ben Reich is The Demolished Man.
What does it mean to be Demolished? Stay tuned. But once we get past the prologue, the plot hits the ground running, and it’s a deceptively simple plot, though Bester plays quite a few tricks on us to make us think otherwise. The short of it is that Reich finds his business in a bind, Sacrament being smeared aggressively by the D’Courtney Cartel in the public eye, and Reich finds he must either enter a merging agreement with his rival or stop the D’Courtney Cartel by any means necessary.
An exchange with Craye D’Courtney, the head of the Cartel, goes nowhere. Reich is a desperate man. Even before he contemplates murder he seeks help regarding night terrors he’s been having, about what he calls “the Man With No Face,” an apparition which haunts him, and whose meaning Espers in Rich’s company know about but are unwilling to tell the man himself. Okay, if you’re an even slightly astute reader then you can guess what the Man With No Face represents, but that’s part of the fun for me. Everyone seems at least somewhat aware of what’s about to happen except for Reich, who, as we’re about to find out, is not as savvy as he thinks he is.
Since Sacrament is on the brink of collapse and since D’Courtney apparently refuses to back down or meet Reich halfway, you know what that means: the prick must die. Given the premise you might think we’re about to get an episode of Columbo, a sort of reverse whodunnit—and we sort of do, but there’s an important twist which complicates things.
How do you get away with murder in a society where, due to the nigh-omnipotence of telepaths, getting away with such a crime is virtually impossible?
This is made even trickier by the fact that there is not just one type of telepath; nay, there are three. Early on, in a scene that seems humorously aware of how redundant (to the characters) the exposition it’s dishing out is, Sacrament’s chief of personnel reminds Reich of how Espers are ranked.
“The Esper 3 can peep the conscious level of a mind. The 3rd can discover what a subject is thinking at the moment of thought. The 3rd is the lowest class of telepaths.”
As for the second rank of Espers:
“They are experts like myself who can penetrate beneath the conscious level of the mind to the preconscious. Most 2nds are in the professional class… physicians, lawyers, engineers, educators, economists, architects and so on.”
And finally the top-ranking Espers:
“The 1sts are capable of deep peeping, through the conscious and preconscious layers down to the unconscious, the lowest levels of the mind. Primordial basic desires and so forth. These Espers, of course, hold premium positions.”
Now I know what you’re thinking: “This is a bunch of Freudian nonsense.” I mean, it is. What the hell does “preconscious” even mean? Maybe only a 1st or 2nd Esper could tell me that. Despite the fact that it takes place a few centuries into the future, the world of The Demolished Man is very much steeped in slang and cultural expectations that would’ve been prevalent in the early ’50s, including people’s fixation on Freud and mommy complexes and all that. How much fun you have with this story will partly depend on how much leeway you’re willing to give the pseudoscience.
What holds up much better is the way in which Bester tries to convey to us what living as a telepath might look like, including Espers usually thinking to each other instead of talking out loud, and also what several conversations between Epsers happening at the same time might look like. Spoilers: it looks like word salad, or like something out of House of Leaves. The experimental typography must’ve blown people’s minds in 1952, not to mention the references to pornography, prostitution, and the general nastiness of the characters. Even today, the scene where a bunch of Espers are thinking to each other at a cocktail party comes off as experimental, and it’s a trick Bester would pull again (with arguably even greater success) in his next novel, The Stars My Destination.
What makes The Demolished Man different from other SF novels of the period is not in its narrative complexity (which isn’t all that complex), or its depth of characterization (which is often flamboyant but not terribly deep), but rather how fucking lurid and hardboiled it is. While the prominence of telepathy and ESP in general would have appealed to Campbell, the luridness and typographical experiments would never have been allowed in the pages of Astounding, and which conversely help demonstrate why Galaxy was such a big deal at the time.
You probably have a general outline in your head as to what happens in Part 1, and you’d probably be right, but even so, the murder is in the details. How exactly does Reich plan to carry out his killing, and how does he plan on getting away with it?
There Be Spoilers Here
Ironically, in order to get away with murder in a society where a whole class of people can read (or “peep,” they call it) the deepest desires of everyone else, Reich will need the help of one of these telepaths. It’s not easy. An Esper who acts as an accomplice to a crime risks getting thrown out of the Guild, and what the Guild says is law for Espers. Thankfully, nobody’s perfect, and theoretically anyone can be… persuaded to do certain things. And an Esper who has no choice but to help Reich can be very useful.
Reich has something stashed away, ready to be called upon for situations such as this. He goes home and cracks open his safe, taking out a notebook and an envelope; the envelope reads, in all caps, “TO BE OPENED IN CASE OF MURDER.” As for the notebook, it might just have an answer as to what Esper he could catch in his spider web.
Reich flipped through the pages of the notebook… ABDUCTION… ABORTION… ANARCHISTS… ARSONISTS… BRIBERY AND CORRUPTION (ALREADY)… BRIBERY AND CORRUPTION (POSSIBLE)… Under POSSIBLE, he found the names of fifty-seven prominent people. One of them was Augustus T8, Esper Medical Doctor 1. He nodded with satisfaction.
Certain Espers have numbers and symbols as part of their names. God knows why. Gus T8, Duffy Wyg&, Sam @kins, etc. Feels like a proto-cyberpunk touch, but then The Demolished Man kind of anticipates cyberpunk by a good thirty years already. The film noir narrative, the oppressive urban setting, the prevalence of technology, it’s got a dash of what William Gibson and Pat Cadigan would do later.
So Reich has his man; convincing, or rather blackmailing T8 will come later. Normally I would complain about characters being entirely good or entirely evil, but I do think there’s a talent to writing a deliciously despicable villain, which Reich is an example of. It’s not every day you have the villain also be the protagonist, especially in a ’50s SF story. Anyway, he opens the envelope, then, and we get (for me, anyway) one of the most memorable passages in Part 1, written by one of Reich’s ancestors.
To those who come after me:
The test of intellect is the refusal to belabor the obvious. If you have opened this letter, we already understand each other. I have prepared four general murder plans which may help you. I bequeath them to you as part of the Reich inheritance. They are only outlines. The details must be filled in by yourself as your time and necessity require.
But remember this: The essence of murder never changes. It is always the conflict of the killer against society with the victim as the prize. And the ABC of conflict with society never changes. Be audacious, be brave, be confident and you will not fail. Against these qualities society has no defense.
Signed Geoffrey Reich. Villainy runs in the family.
Much of Part 1 is set-up, with Reich recruiting T8, buying the murder weapon (or rather bullying for it) from Jerry Church, an expelled Esper who had previously worked for Reich and paid the price for it. Reich also buys a very old beat-up copy of a party book titled Let’s Play Party, which will be important for the climax of Part 1.
Indeed, the climax of Part 1, the (mostly human-attended) cocktail party where Reich seeks out D’Courtney with T8’s help, is also the best sequence thus far. It’s genuinely tense, as the big house where the party’s happening goes black as part of a game of Sardines and Reich has to find his way to where D’Courtney is hiding. I will say, however, that there is a passage during this sequence that struck me as one of those rare instances where Bester shits the bed in the prose department.
See, the hostess of the climactic party, Maria Beaumont, is a real upper class New York type; this whole novel radiates that energy, but Beaumont is perhaps the character most telling of when and where this novel would’ve been written. A slight recurring element with The Demolished Man so far is that Bester is simply not as good at characterizing his women as the men, writing them as bitchy, incredibly vain, and weirdly slutty for material that would’ve been published in a relatively classic pulp zine. I’m not sure if that last part is progressive or regressive, given the context. Normally female characters written at this time would have barely any agency, more focused on being wives than autonomous people, but Bester’s women are unavashedly thirsty for some action.
Take this decription of Beaumont, though, you’ll see what I mean.
Maria Beaumont clove through the waters, arms outstretched, eyes outstretched, bosom outstretched… her body transformed by pneumatic surgery into an exaggerated East Indian figure with puffed hips, puffed calves and puffed gilt breasts.
What do you mean by this, Alfred?
Still, that awkward description is counterbalanced by when Reich finds D’Courtney, being invisible both physically because of the darkness and mentally because he’s blocking possible Esper intrusion with a jingle he keeps repeating. (As an aside, using pop songs and commercial jingles to block out conscious thoughts Espers’ peeping is clever.)
We had heard, in a previous scene, that D’Courtney is sick—possibly dying, which raises the question of why Reich doesn’t just wait for the old man to kick the bucket. We also know by now, though, that Reich is not what you’d call a reasonable man. Still, the scene where Reich finds D’Courtney is shocking, deeply evocative in its imagery, and even reminiscent of the moment in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness where Marlow meets the decrepit Kurtz.
Reich found himself in a spherical room that was the heart of a giant orchid. The walls were curling orchid petals, the pillars were stamens, the floor was a golden calyx; the chairs, tables and couches were orchid and gold. But the room was old… old… the petals faded and peeling, the golden tile floor ancient and the tessellations splitting. There was an old, old man stretched on the couch, musty and wilted, like a dried weed… like the dessication of a venomous mandrake root.
No, not even the misspelling of “desiccation” can ruin the moment. It’d be fair to say the novel has been “heightened” up to this point, but D’Courtney’s room being described as like a dying flower in conjunction with the man’s physical sickness comes as positively dreamlike—yet not necessarily running in contrast with everything else, which is knee-deep in Freudian lingo and symbolism. (As another aside, I was brutally reminded of how fucking awful the copy-editing for ’50s-era Galaxy was. That this magazine was hyped to hell and back despite having enough typos and misprints to make self-published authors blush is telling of the actual content’s quality.)
Despite D’Courtney’s protests, feebleness, and apparent denial of rejecting Reich’s request for a deal, the deed is done. For a split second it looks like Reich is about to execute his plan perfectly, only that there is one major problem: someone saw the killing.
A Step Farther Out
I do have to wonder why Bester trips over his own dick with Freudian psychology here; he didn’t exactly strike me as a Freudian type in his other stories. In fact, when Bester spoke once with Campbell and realized how fucking looney the latter was with his thoughts on ESP and Dianetics, he stopped contributing to Astounding. Not to say pseudoscience can’t be used in a compelling way for the sake of a story, as ESP plays a major part in The Demolished Man and largely informs its idiosyncrasies for the better, but the emphasis on Freud strikes me as both conspicuous and of-its-time.
I don’t want to say this novel is “dated,” because I think calling old SF dated is a worthless sentiment. Of course old SF is dated, this shit was written seventy years ago. Few things peeve me like readers dunking on classic works in the field because of their age, because let’s face it, everything is going show its age at some point. The real question is, how compelling is this thing in the current year? I would say it’s pretty good still. The pacing, once we get past the opening exposition dump, is lightning quick, and as is often true of novels from that time when paperback publishing hadn’t yet become in vogue for SF, it’s short; even if you don’t like it, you can’t be too mad about wasting your time on it.
Bester is an efficient writer, and while his economy combined with his artsy-fartsy sensibilities are demonstrated more succinctly with his short stories, he makes a good first impression at novel length with The Demolished Man. I feel like we’re just getting started with this, though; we haven’t even really met the not-Columbo who will inevitably bring Reich to justice. Because we know Reich has to fail, it’s just a question of how.
Despite having read this story multiple times over the years, my experience with Terry Bisson remains minimal, which is not to say he hasn’t written much. Bisson began his SFF career in earnest in the ’80s, and unlike most authors he started out as a novelist before dipping his toes in short fiction; he already had a few novels to his credit by the time “Bears Discover Fire” was published. You may also recognize him as the man who finished Saint Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman on Walter M. Miller Jr.’s behalf, after the latter had committed suicide.
Bisson turned 80 this year.
“Bears Discover Fire” has to be one of the most decorated short stories in SFF history. Where do I even start? It won the Hugo, the Nebula, the Locus, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for Best Short Story. It also placed #1 in the 1991 Asimov’s Short Story poll. Really the only major award this thing didn’t win was the World Fantasy, and I have to assume it was a close call.
First published in the August 1990 issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction, which can found on the Archive here. If you want a slightly more “legitimate” method then know that it’s also been reprinted digitally in Lightspeed Magazine. Even if we’re to ignore those, “Bears Discover Fire” is one of the most reprinted SFF tales of the past few decades, and you won’t struggle to find it in some anthology, not least of these being Gardner Dozois’s The Best of the Best: 20 Years of the Year’s Best Science Fiction and Orson Scott Card’s Masterpieces: The Best Science Fiction of the Twentieth Century. You have no excuse is what I’m saying.
This is the kind of story that could’ve easily have been published in F&SF, and even half a decade earlier it probably would’ve been, but for better or worse, Dozois had a very loose definition of “science fiction.”
A man, his brother, and the brother’s son stop just off the highway when they catch a flat. Bobby, Wallace, and Wallace Jr. For the longest time I thought of the narrator as being nameless, but Wallace Jr. calls him “Uncle Bobby” at one point, so what do I know. Anyway, Bobby is really good with cars, and he gives Wallace Jr. a flashflight before replacing the flat tire. The flashlight keeps going dead (one of those things where you have to keep shaking the battery), but Bobby’s able to get the job done. There is just one problem, though: not all the light is coming from the flashlight.
Our characters find some local bears, which is strange in itself because apparently there are few bears in Kentucky, but what’s stranger is that these bears are carrying torches. Now, given the premise of bears becoming intelligent enough to use fire, this sounds like it may turn into a horror story—only it’s not. Something I’ve appreciated about this story with each reread is the dry humor which borders on the absurd. Take the ending of this opening scene for instance, which, rather than having a melodramatic moment of revelation about the bears, has this:
Opening three doors at once, we got into the car and drove off. Wallace was the first to speak. “Looks like bears have discovered fire,” he said.
So bears have discovered fire. Not just in Kentucky but in several other states, perhaps not coincidentally all Southern states—with the exception of Illinois, although Bobby notes it specifically happening in southern Illinois. Bears have begun making bonfires near the highways, but aside from that they’re not doing much that’s unusual for a bear, other than the fact that they’re not going into hibernation once winter approaches.
To this day I’ve not encountered many uniquely Southern works of SFF. A lot from the Northeastern region, of course, and a good deal from the Midwest, but things get more scarce once we get near the Southeast. But then how much regional SFF is there anyway. Regardless, “Bears Discover Fire” is definitely a Southern SFF story, complete with Wallace Jr. knowing how to use a gun despite being in his teens yet. I would also say this is pastoral, and I guess it is, except that this not a story that exactly yearns for pastoralism; maybe not a yearning, but a passing of the torch between old and new, or maybe rural and urban.
More important than Wallace (who basically disappears early on), we get Wallace and Bobby’s mother, who’s very old, to the point of being kept in a nursing home. An aside, but nursing homes may be the most depressing places humans have ever conceived. A day in prison will not break your spirit like a day in an old folks’ home. The mother is pretty funny. There’s a gentle cynicism that permeates the narrative, from the mother’s hungering for death to Wallace not only being a minister at what sounds like one of those made-up Protestant churches (“House of the Righteous Way, Reformed,” it’s called) but making most of his money through real estate.
Once again, the bears discovering fire sounds like it could lead to horrific consequences for the humans, but any damage we hear about is played for laughs. Consider this little episode, while Bobby and Wallace Jr. are at the nursing home and watching TV:
The TV interviewed a hunter and his wife whose $117,500 Shenandoah Valley home had burned. She blamed the bears. He didn’t blame the bears, but he was suing for compensation from the state since he had a valid hunting license. The state hunting commissioner came on and said that possession of a hunting license didn’t prohibit (enjoin, I think, was the word he used) the hunted from striking back. I thought that was a pretty liberal view for a state commissioner. Of course, he had a vested interest in not paying off.
Bobby’s a pretty chill guy about all of it.
What makes Bobby work so well as the narrator is that he’s not someone who’s trying to be funny. A problem often encountered with first-person narrators is either they try too hard to be funny/endearing, and end up as obnoxious, or they serve such a distanced perspective that a third-person narrator would have done just as well or better. But Bobby is an unassuming fellow, and he does have a stake in the matter; he becomes curious, in his own way, about the bears, and because Wallace is away with his wife on some business trip, he takes Wallace Jr. with him for the ride.
There Be Spoilers Here
You may be wondering something. “How did the bears get like this?” We get an implied explanation, but it’s not confirmed, which is just as well, and it does after all serve a symbolic purpose:
Another scientist said the bears were attracted by the berries on a new bush that grew only in the medians of the interstates. He claimed this berry was the first new species in recent history, brought about by the mixing of seeds along the highway. He ate one on TV, making a face, and called it a “newberry.”
The so-called newberries are, according to Bobby, so sweet as to be sour. A human could theoretically eat a newberry, but it has simply too strong a taste.
Unless you’re a bear.
The bears love the newberries. Does it have anything to do with their increased intelligence? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just something nice for them to eat that happens to grow near highways. Another token of the new, urbanized South, yet not necessarily a bad thing.
One day Bobby gets a call from the nursing home and thinks at first that his mother has finally passed away, but this turns out to not be the case. No, it turns out that his mother has escaped, taking her beloved tobacco and a bedspread with her. It doesn’t take long for Bobby to get an idea as to where his mother could have gone.
When Bobby and Wallace Jr. find the old woman, she’s sitting with a bunch of bears, at a bonfire of their making. At first Bobby and the kid are nervous with the bears, but find that they’re not aggressive; indeed there seems to be a bit of humanness about the bears now—how they sit around the fire and stare into it, passing around a hubcap filled with newberries. They’re like a bunch of people, some friends, some family, maybe a few strangers, camping around a fire on a cool night.
Maybe a new human race is emerging.
The climax of “Bears Discover Fire” is deeply bittersweet. I remember doing a live reading of it with a good friend of mine some months ago, and the ending made him tear up a bit. Just a little bit. Even on a fifth (or maybe tenth) reading, I still find the mother’s death while among the bears to be powerful in an unspeakable way. Bisson defies our expectations one last time by having the mother die in the most peaceful way possible, surrounded by her son and grandson, the bears simply minding their own business. There’s even a bit of humor during this final scene with Bobby and his mom that doesn’t intrude on the sadness.
I was ready to go home, but not Mother. She pointed up toward the canopy of trees, where a light was spreading, and then pointed to herself. Did she think it was angels approaching from on high? It was only the high beams of some southbound truck, but she seemed mighty pleased.
She dies holding his hand, and that’s that.
The morning comes, and Wallace shows up with a couple state troopers backing him. His overnight stay with the bears has changed Bobby in almost a metaphysical way, one of those classic SF moments where a door has been opened. Bobby describes the state troopers in dehumanizing terms, or rather he describes them as being no more human than the bears with how stoic and seemingly isolated they act.
At the very end Bobby tries eating a newberry again, but he can’t do it; it’s a thing meant for bears, not people.
A Step Farther Out
“Bears Discover Fire” is the kind of short story you can easily teach in an English lit class, outside the confines of genre. Is it science fiction? Is it fantasy? It’s been anthologized as belonging to either, but I personally think of it as a speculative fable. It’s short, about a dozen pages (Lightspeed weighs it in at only 4,701 words), and you won’t feel like you’ve wasted your time much even if, God forbid, you end up not liking it. What helps, of course, is that Bisson’s hand is sure and light, a prose style that’s not poetic per se but which nonetheless is rich in detail, from Bobby’s observations to everyday life of modern Kentucky.
I like “Bears Discover Fire” a lot, big surprise; it’s been a favorite of mine for the past few years, and I always go back to it when re-reading anthologies (which, ultimately, I tend to only re-read certain stories from anyway). It seemed like a good first pick for this site, as it’s pretty well-known, pretty easy to find, and it’s classroom discussion fodder without being overbearing—what with all the obvious but not obnoxious symbolism. Picking up the issue of Asimov’s it originally appeared in and re-reading it thoroughly once more, I’m struck by its gentle beauty and its soft-spoken sense of humor. I don’t laugh out loud exactly, but I always chuckle, and I always feel like I’m being transported to west Kentucky in the late ’80s, despite being solidly a Jersey boy.
I’m also reminded of Clifford D. Simak, who we’ll get to pretty soon. But whereas Simak clearly prefers the rural Midwestern utopia he remembers (or thinks he remembers) from his childhood over modernity, Bisson’s viewpoint seems more nuanced—at least in the case of the one story of his I vividly remember reading. The bears, as a sign of modernity, are taken not as good or bad, but simply as new things in a new era. An era of around-the-clock news and advertising which has its ups and downs.
Well, in a few days we’ll be tackling the first part of Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man, and after that we have Simak’s Hugo-winning novella “The Big Front Yard.” Hopefully you’ll look up a scan, or a book reprint of your choice, and read along with me. I’ll see you then.