Science Fiction & Fantasy


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)

C. L. MOORE “Shambleau.” Novelette. Northwest Smith #1. First published in Weird tales, November 1833, First reprinted in Avon Fantasy Reader #7, edited by Donald A. Wollheim (Avon, softcover, 1948). First collected in Shambleau and Others (Gnome Press, hardcover, 1953).

   It begins as a well-constructed space opera should, taking some place in the future, but somehow ineffably combined with the legends of the past:

   MAN HAS CONQUERED Space before. You may be sure of that. Somewhere beyond the Egyptians, in that dimness out of which come echoes of half -mythical names — Atlantis, Mu — somewhere back of history’s first beginnings there must have been an age when mankind, like us today, built cities of steel to house its star-roving ships and knew the names of the planets in their own native tongues — heard Venus’ people call their wet world “Sha-ardol” in that soft, sweet, slurring speech and mimicked Mars’ guttural “Lakkdiz” from the harsh tongues of Mars’ dryland dwellers. You may be sure of it. Man has conquered Space before, and out of that conquest faint, faint echoes run still through a world that has forgotten the very fact of a civilization which must have been as mighty as our own.

   The story than continues with Northwest Smith rescuing a strange female but still alien creature from a mob intent on destroying her. Once they are both safe, Smith sees her in the passage that hints at even more eroticism to come. This would have been heady stuff back in 1933.

   She had risen soundlessly. He turned to face her, sheathing his gun and stared at first with curiosity and then in the entirely frank openness with which men regard that which is not wholly human. For she was not. He knew it at a glance, though the brown, sweet body was shaped like a woman’s and she wore the garment of scarlet — he saw it was leather — with an ease that few unhuman beings achieve toward clothing. He knew it from the moment he looked into her eyes, and a shiver of unrest went over him as he met them. They were frankly green as young grass, with slit-like, feline pupils that pulsed unceasingly, and there was a look of dark, animal wisdom in their depths — that look of the beast which sees more than man.

   The attraction between Smith and the Shambleau (for that is who she is) continues, until two nights later, as they share living (and sleeping) space, straight from pages of H. P. Lovecraft:

   She unfastened the last fold and whipped the turban off. From what he saw then Smith would have turned his eyes away— and he had looked on dreadful things before, without flinching — but he could not stir. He could only lie there on his elbow staring at the mass of scarlet, squirming — worms, hairs, what? — that writhed over her head in a dreadful mockery of ringlets. And it was lengthening, falling, somehow growing before his eyes, down over her shoulders in a spilling cascade, a mass that even at the beginning could never have been hidden under the skull-tight turban she had worn.

   He was beyond wondering, but he realized that. And still it squirmed and lengthened and fell, and she shook it out in a horrible travesty of a woman shaking out her unbound hair — until the unspeakable tangle of it — twisting, writhing, obscenely scarlet — hung to her waist and beyond, and still lengthened, an endless mass of crawling horror that until now, somehow, impossibly, had been hidden under the tight-bound turban. It was like a nest of blind, restless red worms … it was — it was like naked entrails endowed with an unnatural aliveness, terrible beyond words.

   Smith lay in the shadows, frozen without and within in a sick numbness that came of utter shock and revulsion.

   What comes next I leave to your imagination. But read it yourself, you should. You’ll never forget it. It is difficult to believe that this was C. L. Moore’s first published story. I do not know how long it took SF fans of the day to learn that “C. L.” stood for “Catherine Lucille,” nor what their reaction was wen they did, but I am indeed curious.

BECKY CHAMBERS – The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. Wayfarers #1. Hodder & Stoughton, UK, ebook, March 2015; hardcover/trade paperback, August 2015. Harper Vpyager, trade paperbark, July 2016.

   Space opera as a subgenre of science fiction is making a comeback, and I for one, am quite pleased about that. To tell you the truth, though, over the past 20 years, I’d all but given up on science fiction as a field that held any interest to me. The old-fashioned kind of reading material was still being written; it was simply too difficult for me to keep abreast of the field and, in particular, who was still writing it.

   I won’t bother you any further with my problems. I’ve finally caught up with this book, the first in a series of three so far, and I’m glad I did. It’s a longish book, nearly 450 pages, and it took me nearly forever to finish it, but since in many ways it is largely plotless, it didn’t seem to make any difference if I was only able to read 40 pages or so every night or so.

   There is an overall story, mind you, but The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet consists mostly as a series of adventures the crew of the Wayfarer undergo as they make their way to their next job, which is that of punching “wormholes” in space from one established station to another which has no outlet on the other end.

   All this is fine, and the climax comes when they discover what it waiting for them at the other end of their journey, but the pleasure in reading this long odyssey comes through the relationships beteen the various members of the crew:

   The newly hired clerk Rosemary Harper, to begin with (human), who has to be introduced to the others very early on: other humans Captain Ashby and grumpy algaeist Corbin; Sissix, the Aandrisk (lizard-like) co-pilot; Dr. Chef, the perpetually outgoing Grum doctor and cook; the reclusive navigators and Sianat pair named Ohan; Kizzy and Jenks, both human but living in their own world of mech tech; and last but not least, Lovelace (Lovey), the AI who has supervisory control of the whole ship.

   Even though the crew faces many obstacles on the voyage, including an intense encounter with pirates, the overall feeling of the crew is that these as nice people, aliens or not, and they can figure out how to fix any strained relationships that occur along the way. Not treacly nice, but people who can manage to get along in close quarters very nicely. There, I’ve said the word again!

POUL ANDERSON “Sargasso of Lost Starships.” Novella. Technic History #1. Planet Stories, January 1952. Collected in Rise of the Terran Empire (Baen, trade paperback, 2009). Reprinted as Sargasso of Lost Starships (Armchair Sci-Fi & Horror Double Novels #92, trade paperback, 2013), with The Ice Queen by Don Wilcox.

   The story opens thusly:

   Basil Donovan was drunk again.

   He sat near the open door of the Golden Planet, boots on the table, chair tilted back, one arm resting on the broad shoulder of Wocha, who sprawled on the floor beside him, the other hand clutching a tankard of ale. The tunic was open above his stained gray shirt, the battered cap was askew on his close-cropped blond hair, and his insignia–the stars of a captain and the silver leaves of an earl on Ansa–were tarnished. There was a deepening flush over his pale gaunt cheeks, and his eyes smoldered with an old rage.

   Looking out across the cobbled street, he could see one of the tall, half-timbered houses of Lanstead. It had somehow survived the space bombardment, though its neighbors were rubble, but the tile roof was clumsily patched and there was oiled paper across the broken plastic of the windows. An anachronism, looming over the great bulldozer which was clearing the wreckage next door. The workmen there were mostly Ansans, big men in ragged clothes, but a well-dressed Terran was bossing the job. Donovan cursed wearily and lifted his tankard again.

   Donovan had been a leader of the Ansan forces in their defeat at the hands of the Terran Empire. He is naturally bitter and is surprised to e taken by force to an interview with Commander Helena Jansky from Earth:

   “Sit down, Captain Donovan,” said the woman.

   He lowered himself to a chair, raking her with deliberately insolent eyes. She was young to be wearing a commander’s twin planets–young and trim and nice looking. Tall body, sturdy but graceful, well filled out in the blue uniform and red cloak; raven-black hair falling to her shoulders; strong blunt-fingered hands, one of them resting close to her sidearm. Her face was interesting, broad and cleanly molded, high cheekbones, wide full mouth, stubborn chin, snub nose, storm-gray eyes set far apart under heavy dark brows. A superior peasant type, he decided, and felt more at ease in the armor of his inbred haughtiness. He leaned back and crossed his legs.

   “I am Helena Jansky, in command of this vessel,” she said. Her voice was low and resonant, the note of strength in it. “I need you for a certain purpose. Why did you resist the Imperial summons?”

   It seems that Donovan is only of only a handful of people who have ventured into the Black Nebula and returned. Jansky needs him to guide her forces there on a return visit:

   Space burned and blazed with a million bitter-bright suns, keen cold unwinking flames strewn across the utter dark of space, flashing and flashing over the hollow gulf of the leagues and the years. The Milky Way foamed in curdled silver around that enormous night, a shining girdle jeweled with the constellations. Far and far away wheeled the mysterious green and blue-white of the other galaxies, sparks of a guttering fire with a reeling immensity between. Looking toward the bows, one saw the great star-clusters of Sagittari, the thronging host of suns burning and thundering at the heart of the Galaxy. And what have we done? thought Basil Donovan. What is man and all his proud achievements? Our home star is a dwarf on the lonely fringe of the Galaxy, out where the stars thin away toward the great emptiness. We’ve ranged maybe two hundred light-years from it in all directions and it’s thirty thousand to the Center! Night and mystery and nameless immensities around us, our day of glory the briefest flicker on the edge of nowhere, then oblivion forever–and we won’t be forgotten, because we’ll never have been noticed. The Black Nebula is only the least and outermost of the great clouds which thicken toward the Center and hide its ultimate heart from us, it is nothing even as we, and yet it holds a power older than the human race and a terror that may whelm it.

   He felt again the old quailing funk, fear crawled along his spine and will drained out of his soul. He wanted to run, escape, huddle under the sky of Ansa to hide from the naked blaze of the universe, live out his day and forget that he had seen the scornful face of God. But there was no turning back, not now, the ship was already outpacing light on her secondary drive and he was half a prisoner aboard. He squared his shoulders and walked away from the viewplate, back toward his cabin.

   Wocha was sprawled on a heap of blankets, covering the floor with his bulk. He was turning the brightly colored pages of a child’s picture book. “Boss,” he asked, “when do we kill ’em?”

   Things do not go well on the voyage. Strange voices and apparitions begin appearing to the entire crew, including Donovan:

   Donovan had not watched the Black Nebula grow over the days, swell to a monstrous thing that blotted out half the sky, lightlessness fringed with the cold glory of the stars. Now that the ship was entering its tenuous outer fringes, the heavens on either side were blurring and dimming, and the blackness yawned before. Even the densest nebula is a hard vacuum; but tons upon incredible tons of cosmic dust and gas, reaching planetary and interstellar distances on every hand, will blot out the sky. It was like rushing into an endless, bottomless hole, the ship was falling and falling into the pit of Hell.

   Eventually Donovan comes face to face with Valduma, an old nemesis slash alien lover from his previous voyage:

   Valduma stood beside Morzach for an instant, and Donovan watched her with the old sick wildness rising and clamoring in him.

   You are the fairest thing which ever was between the stars, you are ice and flame and living fury, stronger and weaker than man, cruel and sweet as a child a thousand years old, and I love you. But you are not human, Valduma.

   She was tall, and her grace was a lithe rippling flow, wind and fire and music made flesh, a burning glory of hair rushing past her black-caped shoulders, hands slim and beautiful, the strange clean-molded face white as polished ivory, the mouth red and laughing, the eyes long and oblique and gold-flecked green. When she spoke, it was like singing in Heaven and laughter in Hell. Donovan looked at her, not moving.

   “Basil, you came back to me?”

   The Terran forces lose control of their ship:

   The engines cut off and the ship snapped into normal matter state. Helena Jansky saw blood-red sunlight through the viewport. There was no time to sound the alarm before the ship crashed.

   “A hundred men. No more than a hundred men alive.”

   She [Helena] wrapped her cloak tight about her against the wind and stood looking across the camp. The streaming firelight touched her face with red, limning it against the utter dark of the night heavens, sheening faintly in the hair that blew wildly around her strong bitter countenance. Beyond, other fires danced and flickered in the gloom, men huddled around them while the cold seeped slowly to their bones. Here and there an injured human moaned.

   Across the ragged spine of bare black hills they could still see the molten glow of the wreck. When it hit, the atomic converters had run wild and begun devouring the hull. There had barely been time for the survivors to drag themselves and some of the cripples free, and to put the rocky barrier between them and the mounting radioactivity. During the slow red sunset, they had gathered wood, hewing with knives at the distorted scrub trees reaching above the shale and snow of the valley. Now they sat waiting out the night.

   Takahashi shuddered. “God, it’s cold!”

   A battle begins, one of groundshaking ferocity:

   The others were there with her, men of Drogobych standing on the heights and howling their fury. They had chains in their hands, and suddenly the air was thick with flying links.

   One of them smashed against Donovan and curled itself snake-like around his waist. He dropped his sword and tugged at the cold iron, feeling the breath strained out of him, cursing with the pain of it. Wocha reached down a hand and peeled the chain off, snapping it in two and hurling it back at the Arzunians. It whipped in the air, lashing itself across his face, and he bellowed.

   The men of Sol were weltering in a fight with the flying chains, beating them off, stamping the writhing lengths underfoot, yelling as the things cracked against their heads. “Forward!” cried Helena. “Charge–get out of here–forward, Empire!”

   The stronghold of the dying alien race is entered:

   The Terrans slogged on down the street, filthy with dust and grease and blood, uncouth shamblers, apes in the somber ruin of the gods. Donovan thought he had a glimpse of Valduma standing on a rooftop, the clean lithe fire of her, silken flame of her hair and the green unhuman eyes which had lighted in the dark at his side. She had been a living blaze, an unending trumpet and challenge, and when she broke with him it had been quick and dean, no soddenness of age and custom and–and, damn it, all the little things which made humanness.

   All right, Valduma. We’re monkeys. We’re noisy and self-important, compromisers and trimmers and petty cheats, we huddle away from the greatness we could have, our edifices are laid brick by brick with endless futile squabbling over each one–and yet, Valduma, there is something in man which you don’t have. There’s something by which these men have fought their way through everything you could loose on them, helping each other, going forward under a ridiculous rag of colored cloth and singing as they went.

   This is a prime example of a subcategory of science fiction that might be called “swords and spaceships.” The pages of Planet Stories were filled with this kind of tale, and no one did it better than Poul Anderson.

   PS. The cover illustration is perfectly correct. It must have helped hundreds of copies of the magazine on the newsstands, if not more.

FRANK M. ROBINSON “The Girls from Earth.” Novelette. First published in Galaxy SF, January 1952. Illustrations by Emsh (Ed Emshwiller). Reprinted in The Best Science-Fiction Stories: 1953 edited by Everett F. Bleiler & T. E. Dikty (Frederick Fell, hardcover, 1953); and Stories for Tomorrow: An Anthology of Modern Science Fiction edited by William Sloane (Funk & Wagnalls, hardcover, 1954). Radio: Adapted for X Minus One by George Lefferts: NBC, 16 January 1957. Cast: Mandel Kramer, Bob Hastings, John Gibson, Jim Stevens, Dick Hamilton, Phil Sterling. Announcer: Fred Collins. Director: Daniel Sutter.

   This is mostly a story about how mail order brides helped civilize the Old West, only transposed in time and space to mining settlements barely managing to survive on worlds far from Earth. The ratio of men to women in such places is at least 5 to 3. Strangely enough, the ratio of women to men back on Earth also 5 to 3, in reverse.

   There is a problem here waiting to be solved, and the solution is easy. Except for one thing. How, and who, is going to implement it? And how will the contingent of men waiting for their new brides accept them, and vice versa? The details you may read for yourself online here, and probably elsewhere as well. (Follow the link.)

   At this much later date, while the story can still be enjoyed for its more humorous overtones, any larger appeal may only be of historical interest. In 1952 science fiction was just beginning to move away from scientific puzzles to be solved, if not out and out space opera. In their place were coming stories based on situations and dilemmas as they were expected to rise in the future, but on a more personal level. As is the case here.

   In the radio adaptation, streamlined to just over 20 minutes, the implementation of the plan to solve the problem described above is carried out by a couple of con men, hoping to make their fortune by taking off with the money put down of the miners working on Mars before the women from Earth actually arrive. The end result is the same. It’s just gotten to in a slightly different way.


PHILIP K. DICK “The Gun.” Short story. First published in Planet Stories, September 1952. First collected in Beyond Lies the Wub (Underwood Miller, hardcover, 1987; volume one of The Collected Stories of Philip K. Dick, sold only as a five-volume set.) Also collected in The King of the Elves (Subterranean Press, hardcover, 2011), among others.

   This appears to have been Philip K. Dick’s second published SF story, not including some he had published in a college newspaper. The first also appeared in Planet Stories, that being “Beyond Lies the Wub” in the July 1952 issue. “The Gun” is a minor story, admittedly, a fact reflected by noting that all of its later reprint appearances gave been in collections of his early work and never picked up for a major anthology of any import.

   In 1952 the quality of the stories in Planet Stories was beginning to pick up. Authors like Ray Bradbury and Leigh Brackett had been appearing all through the 40s, but authors such as Poul Anderson, Gordon R. Dickson and Eric Frank Russell were beginning to be added to the mix. (Anderson, for example, had a story in this same issue; see below. Also among his early work, but still a sign of significant improvement.)

   It is not clear whether the devastated planet is Earth or the crew of the spaceship that comes to investigate is from Earth (my sense was it was the latter), but an atomic war had left the planet covered with bare earth or uninhabitable slag. And yet the investigating ship is shot down without warning, from a gun they could not see.

   A veteran SF reader will know right away that the gun is acting on it own, a remnant of two sides fighting each other to the bitter end. They manage to disable to gun so they can safely take off, but a twist in the end suggests that they have made a serious error.

   What adds a bit of poignancy to the story is the discovery of a hidden horde of material hidden away for safekeeping by one of the two warring sides about their culture. It is this single factor that makes this short take stand out, if only in a small way, hinting that the author may have had a future ahead of him. Which of course he did.


      Other stories in this issue (thanks to ISFDb) —

4 • Evil Out of Onzar • novella by Mark Ganes
30 • Zero Data • novelette by Charles Saphro
46 • The Gun • short story by Philip K. Dick
54 • The Star Plunderer • [Technic History] • novelette by Poul Anderson
70 • Thompson’s Cat • short story by Robert Moore Williams
78 • Big Pill • short story by Raymond Z. Gallun
90 • The Slaves of Venus • novelette by James E. Gunn [as by Edwin James]

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