Science Fiction & Fantasy


HENRY KUTTNER “Don’t Look Now.” First published in Startling Stories, March 1948. Reprinted many times, including: My Best Science Fiction Story, edited by Oscar J. Friend & Leo Margulies (Merlin Press, hardcover, 1949); The Great Science Fiction Stories: Volume 10, 1948, edited by Isaac Asimov & Martin H. Greenberg (DAW, paperback, 1983); and Tales from the Spaceport Bar, edited by George H. Scithers & Darrell Schweitzer (Avon, paperback, 1987). Collected in Two-Handed Engine by Henry Kuttner & C. L. Moore (Centipede Press, hardcover, 2005).

   Mos Eisley and the spaceport bar. What a perfect scene. One that thousands of long time science fiction fans had read about and pictured in their minds for years. And there it was, having come to life right before their eyes.

   Bars where spacefarers come to talk, lie and swap yarns. Not all of them human. All kinds and shapes of aliens used Mos Eisley as a stopover point, a place to restock and refuel and catch up on the news. Or in some cases the bar is on Earth, and the conversation is between two men, and the Martians are the beings secretly ruling the world that one of the men is trying to convince the other he can see. Most of the time they are invisible, lurking just out the corner of your eye, but when you can see them, they are easily identified by their third eye. Right in the middle of their foreheads.

   This is a classic story, first published way back in 1948, and if you go looking, over 70 years later, I’m sure you can find a book in print that it’s in, or if not, then in ebook format. In those years after the war, there was a certain uncertainty, if not outright paranoia, about the possibility we were not alone in the universe, that mankind had lost control of things, and in “Don’t Look Now,” Kuttner, in his most humorous mode, capitalizes on it most excellently.

ANNE McCAFFREY “A Proper Santa Claus.” Short story. First published in Demon Kind, edited by Roger Elwood (Avon, paperback, 1973). Collected in Get Off the Unicorn (Del Rey, paperback, 1977). Reprinted in Christmas Stars, edited by David G. Hartwell (Tor, paperback, 1992) and Treasures of Fantasy, edited by Margaret Weis & Tracy Hickman (Harper, softcover, 1997), among others.

   Anne McCaffrey is best known for her many books of SF and fantasy in several long-running series, especially her Pern novels. But she was no slow hand at writing short fiction as well, as this small tale demonstrates full well. Please note that in what follows, I will need to tell you more than you may like to know!

   It begins when a young boy named Jeremy is about three years old. It seems that he has a special talent. Whenever he draws something or creates something out of clay, and if he does in a proper way, it becomes real. If he draws a cookie on a piece of paper and cuts it out, it is dry but very tasty, but when he paints a glass of Coke, it’s flat, because he forgot to draw in the bubbles.

   This remarkable ability stays with him until kindergarten, when at Christmas time he draws Santa Claus bringing him lots of presents. A conflict arises when he can’t do it in a proper way, after his teacher tries to tell him what a proper Christmas is all about, and his special talent is gone forever.

   An obvious fantasy, but I’d like to think that it’s also a sort of a “growing up” tale that applies to everyone. Short but extremely well done.

RACHEL SWIRSKY “Scene from a Dystopia.” Short story. First published in Subterranean, Issue #4, 2006. Collected in How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present, and Future (Subterranean Press, hardcover, 2013).

   Guest-edited by science fiction author John Scalzi, the theme of this particular issue of Subterranean is that of SF Cliches. Quoting from his introduction, “You know, those ideas like sentient computers and Amazon women on he moon that are so been there done that in the field that even the souvenir t-shirt doesn’t fit anymore.”

   Rachel Swirsky’s story, which is given the first slot in the magazine, is her first story as well, but there’s no one in the world who would otherwise believe it, without being told, it’s so well written. She takes the idea of a future world in which an all-knowing computer takes students about to graduate and places them in their future jobs for the rest of their lives.

   But of course there is always a rebellious one, an individual who is going to fight back against the machine and give everyone the opportunity to make their own choices in life. That’s the cliche.

   But what would really happen? Swirsky takes the question and answers it in another extreme, or at least she suggests the possibility. Natalie aches to become an opera singer. In the Technocracy, should she settle for being a piano teacher? And at the expense of what?

   The story is quietly but powerfully told, with a lyrical sensibility that seems an impossibility for a first time writer. Nor is the story a fluke of any kind. Look at her resume, taken from her page on Wikipedia: “Her novella “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window” won the 2010 Nebula Award, and was also a nominee for a 2011 Hugo Award and for the 2011 World Fantasy Award. Swirsky’s short story “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love” won the 2013 Nebula Award for Best Short Story, and was nominated for the Hugo award for best short story of 2013.”

   This is the only story I’ve read in the magazine so far. Hopefully the rest are as good as this one.

EARTHBOUND. 20th Century Fox, 1940. Warner Baxter, Andrea Leeds, Lynn Bari, Charley Grapewin, Henry Wilcoxon, Elizabeth Patterson. Director: Irving Pichel.

   This is one of those films in which after a person’s death, his ghost is forced to remain on earth until he somehow rights the wrongs committed by his murderer. The ghost this time around is that of Nick Desborough, Warner Baxter’s character, whose one offense he’s done on the earth is to have ab affair with Lynn Bari’s character while married to Adrea Leeds, who plays his wife.

   And he’s broken off the affair. Lynn Bari doesn’t take this lightly and pulls a gun on him. In the ensuing struggle, the gun goes off, and Baxter is dead. Bari’s husband (and Baxter’s business partner, played by Henry Wilcoxon) takes the blame, and according the one of the rules that ghosts have to play by, it is up to Baxter to exonerate him, even as the case goes to court.

   Charley Grapewin plays Baxter’s elderly and somewhat whimsical Bible-wielding mentor in this land of limbo he is in, but no matter much running around and talking to people that Baxter does, no one can hear him. One should think he would figure this out long before he does, but he perseveres, the real killer is determined, and eventually all is right in the world and beyond.

   I don’t know what you might think, but none of this made a lot of sense to me. The special effects are more than OK, however, making Warner Baxter quite transparent after his character dies and he must carry on in his new ghostly realm.

REVIEWED BY RAY O’LEARY:

   

DEAN R. KOONTZ – Midnight. G. P. Putnam’s Sons, hardcover, 1989. Berkley. paperback, 1989.

   Thomas Shadduck, owner of New Wave Microtechnology, dreams of turning Mankind into a race of emotionless logicians — Vulcans, to you Trekkies out there. Toward this end, he has administered most of the leading citizens of Moonlight Cove, California, with a fluid which will make them stronger, smarter, and virtually invulnerable. Unfortunately, as they say in Sci-Fi, there are Side Effects: some of the converts have chosen to make frequent regressions turning themselves into animals and killing anything in their way.

   Now, as Shadduck plans to convert the rest of Moonlight Cove, four people struggle to survive and get help: Sam Booker, an FBI agent sent to investigate the sudden rash of violent crime; Henry Talbot, a crippled Vietnam Vet; Tessa Lockland, whose sister supposedly committed suicide a few weeks earlier; and Chrissie Foster, who caught her parents regressing and escaped when they tried to inject her with the fluid.

   Koontz throws in elements from various sources, which he freely Acknowledges: Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Island of Doctor Moreau, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and even Aliens. Chrissie seems inspired by the Space Orphan in that film, and Koontz throws in a scene where her Parish Priest transforms into the Alien monster.

   Though hardly a master craftsman, Koontz makes you care about bis characters and he writes a story that propels the reader helplessly, gladly along with it.

— Reprinted from A Shropshire Sleuth #66, July 1994.
   

POUL ANDERSON “The Martian Crown Jewels.” Short story. Freehatched Syaloch #1. First published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, February 1958. Reprinted in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 1959; in A Treasury of Great Science Fiction, Volume One, edited by Anthony Boucher (Doubleday, hardcover, 1959); and in (among others) Ellery Queen’s Murder – In Spades! (Pyramid, paperback, 1969) as “The Theft of the Martian Crown Jewels.” Collected in Call Me Joe: The Collected Short Works of Poul Anderson #1. (NESFA Press, hardcover, 2009).

   If you are roughly the same age as I, and if you’ve read the story yourself, there’s a good chance that you did so in the two volume set of the Treasury edited by Anthony Boucher (see above) and given out as a premium to untold new members of the SF Book Club back the 1960s and for many years beyond. It’s also been reprinted many times; I didn’t begin to list them all.

   One reason for the story’s popularity, I think, is that there really aren’t many examples of combining traditional detective stories with hardcore SF, and this is a good one. The detective on the case is Martian private detective Freehatched Syaloch, but this seems to have been his only appearance in print. Missing are the Martian crown jewels, which have been on display on Earth, but on their state secret return to Mars, via Phobos, one of the planet’s moons, they have completely disappeared.

   The rocket they were on was unmanned. They were definitely loaded onto the ship on Earth, but once the ship landed on Phobos, they are nowhere to be seen. The chances of the ship having bee being boarded along the way in the vast expanses of space is impossible, but yet, they are nowhere on the ship, which is hastily taken apart, piece by piece, to be sure.

   While he wrote a few out-and-out mysteries, Poul Anderson was far better known as the writer of hundreds of both fantasy and science fiction stories, but this is no fantasy. As a combo of both mystery and SF, it’s far stronger as SF, with just enough skill on Anderson’s part to cover its somewhat weaker standing as a impossible crime puzzle. Are all the facts the reader needs to solve the theft on his or her own? The answer is yes, if you follow the basic rule that when all the possibles are eliminated, keep on looking!

POUL ANDERSON “Flight to Forever.” Novella. First published in Super Science Stories, November 1950 First reprinted in Year’s Best Science Fiction Novels: 1952, edited by Everett F. Bleiler & T. E. Dikty (Frederick Fell, hardcover, 1952), and The Mammoth Book of Vintage Science Fiction: Short Novels of the 1950s, edited by Isaac Asimov, Martin H. Greenberg, & Charles G. Waugh (Carroll & Graf, softcover, 1990), among others. Collected in Past Times (Tor, paperback, 1984) and Alight in the Void (Tor, paperback, 1991), among others.

   This is one of Poul Anderson’s earliest stories, written when he was only 24, and a better story of Gosh Wow time travel, I can think of none better. And I do not mean that disparagingly! This tale was written back when time-traveling machines could be constructed in a garage, or if not, then in a single scientist’s laboratory, with only a modicum of assistance. Such a scientist is Martin Saunders, and his machine has been working perfectly. Inanimate objects have been sent farther and farther into the future, and in case they have also returned.

   Until now. An object sent 100 into the future has not come back, and Saunders an assistant decide to take a trip there themselves and see if they can’t figure out what went wrong. Now you and I know that this might not be the wisest thing to do, but this was also in the age (1950) when scientists did not think things out too clearly ahead of time before jumping into either homemade spaceships or time machines as they should.

   The problem does not consist of getting there. It seems, however, that there is a limit of only 70 years in going backward in time. The solution: keep going ahead into the future until they reach such a time when scientists have figured out a way to overcome the difficulty in going backward in time. Ahead they go, each stage of the in larger and larger increments of time. Fifty tears, a hundred years, a thousand years, five thousand years. Empires come and go, as they discover, oftentimes with barbarians at the gates. Some people they find are friendly; others not. A million years, a million million years, and on to the end of time?

   Well, I will leave it to you to read this to see if Saunders ever finds his way home again, but wow, what a trip he makes!
   

VICTOR ROUSSEAU “Bat Man.” First published in Spicy Mystery Stories, February 1936, as by Lew Merrill. Reprinted in Pulp Review #5, July 1992. edited by John Gunnison, and in The Best of Spicy Mystery, Volume 1, edited by Alfred Jan (Altus Press, trade paperback, 2012).

   In spite of what you might have thought when you first saw the title of this story, it has nothing to do with character who came along later for DC Comics. No, the narrator of this creepy little story is a fellow named John Charters who wakes up from an operation to find himself with his mind intact but he himself trapped inside the body of a bat.

   The way he works it out is that the doctor who did he deed is also in love with Alice, the love of Charters’ life, and this is he doctor’s cruel way of eliminating the competition.

   What makes this such a creepy story is when Charters manages to escape the hospital his mate (a female bat) finds him, leads him back the cave where other bats are staying during the day, he finds a space waiting for him, squeezed among the others, furry bodies all around, and hanging from the ceiling head downward. As he has a damaged wing, his mate also brings him insects to feed him at night.

   Reading this story is like having a very very bad dream, and it does not get a lot easier to read as Charters soon finds what other instinctive thirsts he has. Since this story was published in one of the Spicy stable of pulp magazines, it should not surprise you if I were to say it involves flying into bedrooms of well-endowed young ladies as they sleep at night.

   Should I tell you it all comes out? No, I don’t believe I will. What I will do is point out that not only did I find this a cut above your average spooky pulp story, but I’m not the only one. As you’ll see from the notes at the top of this review, it’s been reprinted at least two times by others.

R. DJÈLÍ CLARK “A Dead Djinn in Cairo.” Novella. Special Investigator Fatma el-Sha’arawi #1. First published online by Tor.com. Also available in Kindle format, May 2016.

   In an alternate history version of Egypt, circa 1912, Fatma el-Sha’arawi, a special investigator with the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities has a problem to solve: who, or what, killed the djinn, twice as tall as a human with aquamarine scales, whom the authorities have found lifeless and drained of blood in his apartment.

   The first thought is that he has been killed by the ghuls that have been infesting the city, but if that were the case, they would never have left his body behind. A closer look suggests that he committed suicide, but since djinns are nearly immortal, the question as to why has no answer.

   Fatima’s world is now a strange steampunk conglomerate of exotic Cairo and demons from another plane of existence. It seems that forty years ago, a mystic by the name of al-Jahiz bore a hole to the Kaf, another-realm of magic, allowing not only the djinns and ghuls to cross over, but angels (of some variety) as well, perhaps better described by the following paragraph:

   Fatma sat back in a red-cushioned seat as the automated wheeled carriage plowed along the narrow streets. Most of Cairo slept, except for the glow of a gaslight market or the pinprick lights of towering mooring masts where airships came and went by the hour. Her fingers played with her cane’s lion-headed pommel, watching aerial trams that moved high above the city, crackling electricity illuminating the night along their lines.

   There are flying machines, mechanical beings, and a clockwork threat to Fatima’s entire world, but with a kickass female priestess’s assistant named Siti, worldwide catastrophe is narrowly averted at nearly the last instant.

   I apologize for giving the ending away, in a very general sense, but it’s the telling that’s the more important here. This is a world of enchantment that Fatima lives in, one that is fascinating to visit but you really wouldn’t want to visit there:

   The Clock of Worlds stood here she has last seen it — a towering contraption of plates and wheels. Only now they moved with harmonious ticks or precision, and the numerals on those large plates glowed bright. A deep blue liquid had been poured around the machine. The djinn’s missing blood, she presumed. In an larger circle sat the bodies of ghuls in a pile of twisted limbs. Their heads had been removed and their stomachs slit to reveal the devoured flesh of an angel…

   There is a definition of the word “enchantment” that describes what’s happening here, isn’t there?

C. L. GRANT – The Hour of the Oxrun Dead. Oxrun Station #1. Doubleday, hardcover, 1977. Popular Library, paperback, 1979; To, paperback, 1987.

   According to what you may have read in recent fiction, New England must be full of towns such as this: peacefully serene in the daytime, but once after dark, horribly vulnerable to supernatural forces that can swallow them up overnight, with none of the inhabitants any the wiser.

   In Oxrun Station, only two people are aware that anything is wrong, and both are newcomers, one an assistant librarian recently widowed under strange circumstances.

   This is Gothic horror at its finest. Half of it is unmitigated nonsense, but if you’re the sort of person who believes that there may be unexplained things that inhabit graveyards at midnight, the other half will have you double-checking the locks on your doors before going to bed.

   Guaranteed.

–Reprinted in slightly revised form from The MYSTERY FANcier, Vol. 2, No. 3, May 1978. Previously published in the Hartford Courant.


      The Oxrun Station novels —

The Hour of the Oxrun Dead (1978)
The Last Call of Mourning (1979)
The Sound of Midnight (1979)
The Grave (1981)
The Bloodwind (1982)
The Soft Whisper of the Dead (1982)
The Dark Cry of the Moon (1986)
The Long Night of the Grave (1986)

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