Science Fiction & Fantasy

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]

MURRAY LEINSTER “The Sentimentalists.” Novelette. First published in Galaxy SF, April 1953. Reprinted in Year’s Best Science Fiction Novels: 1954, edited by Everett F. Bleiler & T. E. Dikty (Frederick Fell, hardcover. 1954).

   Read at this late date, some 65 years later (!!), this definitely falls into the category of traditional (old fashioned) science fiction. I don’t think it could be published today, but to anyone my age or so (plus or minus 10 years), it’s a delightful look back at our not hardly misspent youth.

   Two space-faring aliens, evidently male and female — though who could tell with all those tentacles and eye stalks — are taking a honeymoon across the galaxy, when the male (Rhadanpsicus) decides to stop at one of the outer planets of the system Cetus Gamma, where a disaster involving the local sun is scheduled to take place. The female (Nodalictha) amuses herself by watching the inhabitants of one of the inner planets and unaccountably finds herself fascinated by them.

   It seems that one of the colonists is having problems with his farm, and if his crops don’t come in, he will be forced to call it quits and work for the crooked company who had loaned him the money to begin with. At the end of his rope, he suddenly finds himself flooded with ideas for new inventions that will solve all of his problems. Nodalictha has interceded on his behalf, persuading Rhadanpsicus to help him. (Thank goodness for copy and paste.)

   And so Lon is able at last to marry Cathy.

   There’s no deep message here, as you have probably already guessed. But I for one do not always need messages, and perhaps you sometimes feel that way, too.

EDWARD M. LERNER “Time Out.” Novella. First published in Analog SF, January-February 2013. Collected in revised and retitled form as the title story of A Time Foreclosed (FoxAcre Press, trade paperback, June 2013). Included in The Time Travel Megapack: 26 Modern and Classic Science Fiction Stories, edited by John Gregory Betancourt (Wildside Press, ebook, 2013).

   As it so happens, I might not have posted this review here if not for one fact, and I couldn’t help but tell you about it. This is the first story I’ve read on my new Kindle. Well, it’s not exactly new, being as it is a hand-me-up from my daughter who’s gotten herself a newer, more up to date model. We had some problems getting it registered to me, but once logged in, I’ve managed to get around well enough to chalk up a Number One.

   And the only thing better than a locked room mystery would have been a time-travel science fiction story, which obviously this is, and it’s a good one. When an out-of-work bank official, now an ex-convict due to one flaw — being too trusting — gets a job as a handyman to a not quite a mad scientist (he himself says he’s only peeved), he has no idea what it is that he’s getting into.

   As our hero gains more and more of his new boss’s confidence, he’s allowed to know more or more about what he’s helping to build. Two guesses, and the second one doesn’t count. In some detail, small incremental steps at a time, they’re building a means to change the world for the better.

   If, of course, they don’t wipe out their world’s entire timeline in the process. The time paradoxes they encounter had my head spinning, such as getting the money to finance their project by being sent financial tips from the future. Until, that is, some of tips turn out to be wrong.

   You can tell that Lerner really had to work hard to make sure this story as coherent as it is, and I still don’t think he did. On the other had, nobody could. The whole tale is impossible to have happened. Unless, of course, it already has. Who would know?

  POUL ANDERSON “Gibraltar Falls.” Short story. Time Patrol series, First published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1975. Collected in The Guardians of Time (Tor/Pinnacle, paperback, October 1981) and The Dark Between the Stars (Berkley, paperback, December 1981, among others. Reprinted in As Time Goes By, edited by Hank Davis (Baen, trade paperback, February 2015).

   It is the latter anthology, the one edited by Hank Davis, that I’ve just dipped into, with “Gibraltar Falls” being the very first story. The theme connecting all of the tales chosen for inclusion is that of time travel, perhaps my favorite type of science fiction story, combined with romance — romance that is thwarted by chance, perhaps — two lovers separated by time, or death, or even the wrong thing said at the wrong time, but what if one could only go back and make things right? Change the course of history, if only on a very small and almost insignificance scale in the overall scheme of things.

   Such is everyone’s fantasy, looking back at their lives. What might have been, if only …

   Such is the case in “Gibraltar Falls.” Having gone back in time to the end of the Miocene Era to witness the Mediterranean basin being filled by a enormous waterfall flowing from the Atlantic through the Straits of Gibraltar, two members of he Time Patrol meet disaster. She’s pulled in. He, having never told her how much he is in love with her, is unable to save her.

   Can he go back in time, in spite of rules and regulations preventing him, and save her? [WARNING: PLOT ALERT] It turns out that the answer is yes, and while I think it’s a bit a cheat (no further details), this is a fine story, a small personal tale told against the backdrop of the early days of Earth’s history, in Poul Anderson’s usual larger than life style.

THEODORE STURGEON “The Ultimate Egoist.” Short story. First published in Unknown, February 1941. Collected in Without Sorcery (Prime Press, hardcover, 1949) and The Golden Helix (Dell, paperback, 1980; Carroll & Graf, paperback, 1989), among others. Reprinted in Human?, edited by Judith Merrill (Lion #205, paperback, 1954).

   I suppose everyone, at one time or another, has had the following fantasy: that the world you see, and the objects in it, could disappear if you simply decided that they no longer existed. That the facade of life revolves around you and you only. You don’t even have to admit it. I know you have.

   And such is the basis of this early story by master SF author Theodore Sturgeon. I think his work in the short story form was almost uniformly superb; in fact I think most of his readers would agree that his short fiction was a step above the relatively few novels he wrote in his lifetime (1918-1985). The only question is, from this basic premise, where does he go from here? The answer, the only way it could.

   I think this story is a small gem, not a perfect one — later in his writing career, Sturgeon would have polished it up to even better effect — but even as is, it’s clever, alive, and a lot of fun to read. What more could you ask from a short tale that’s not far from everyone’s dreams?


JOHN COLLIER “Evening Primrose.” Short story. First published in 1940. Collected in Presenting Moonshine (Viking Press, 1941) and more famously in Fancies and Goodnights (Doubleday, 1951; Bantam 1953). Reprnted many times. Adapted as both radio (three times on Escape, CBS) and television plays , the latter a musical by Stephen Sondheim (ABC Stage 67, November 1966).

   I read this again last night for the first time since High School and delighted in it on several levels.

   First, Collier’s prose, rich in lines like, “I felt like a wandering thought in the dreaming brain of a chorus girl down on her luck.” and “Their laughter was like the stridulation of the ghosts of grasshoppers.”

   All in service of Collier’s dark whimsy as starving poet Charles Snell takes up residence in a stately old Department Store of Byzantine aspect (“Silks and velvets glimmered like ghosts, a hundred pantie-clad models offered simpers and embraces to the desert air.”) only to find it already haunted by the Living. Or the nearly-living, once-humans like he, who permeated themselves into the store years and ages ago, and gradually lost touch with their own humanity.

   The one exception is Ella, a foundling adopted by the reigning Grande Dame of this society and used as a servant. Still human and in her teens, she has fallen in love with the Night Watchman, much to the chagrin of our poet-narrator. And when discovered, her love raises the venomous ire of the nearly-living, who summon The Dark Men, setting up a conflict that pits our narrator and the Night Watchman against…

   It’s a short tale, perhaps a dozen pages, but Collier packs a whole sub-world into it, reawakens the spirit of those grandiose old emporiums (for those who remember them) and makes it real, even as he sketches out characters who – well, “come alive” doesn’t really fit here, so I’ll just say they become convincingly inhuman under his skillful pen.

   Even better, Collier touches on the alienation common to fantasy readers, evokes it, embraces it and rejects it without wasting a single comma. I remember being profoundly moved as a teenager by Evening Primrose’s Truth. As an adult I was just as moved by its Beauty.

FRITZ LEIBER “Lean Times in Lankhmar.” Published in Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Book Four. Epic (Marvel) Comics, 1991. Adaptation & script: Howard Chaykin. Pencils & inks: Mike Mignola & Al Williamson. Also in this same issue: “When the Sea King’s Away.” Note: “Lean Times in Lankhmar” was first published in Fantastic SF, November 1959. Reprinted many times.

   Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser are a pair of adventurous rogues living day by day if not moment by moment in the swords and sorcery setting of the city of Lankhmar on the world of Nehwon, just west of the Great Salt Marsh and east of the River Hlal. Fafhrd is a tall powerful barbarian, while the Gray Mouser is a small hotheaded thief extraordinarily good at swordsmanship.

   Their first story, “Two Sought Adventure”, appeared in the pulp magazine Unknown in August 1939, but the story of how they first met was “Ill Met in Lankhmar,” did not appear until the April 1970 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.

   They usually team up well, but at the beginning of this story they have split up, perhaps arguing over the spelling of Fafhrd’s name. (I have trouble, too.) Fafhrd becomes an acolyte of Bwadres, the sole priest of Issek of the Jug, while the Gray Mouser goes to work for a local racketeer named Pulg, who offers protection to “priests of all godlets seeking to become gods — on pain of unpleasant, disturbing, and revolting things happening at future services of the defaulting godlet.”

   And of course in the course of their new occupations, the two heroes’ paths are about to cross. Many consider this story to be one of the funniest sword and sorcery stories ever, and you can count me as being one of them.

   I enjoyed the comic book version, and I do recommend it to you. The structure and setting of the stories, as well as the flashing charisma of the heroes themselves, are perfect for adaptation to graphic novel format, but I kept wondering whether I’d have enjoyed it as much if I didn’t already know the story itself ahead of time.

   The art is fine, but there was a day, back into the 1960s, where to get the story told, the captions and word balloons took almost all the space in the pages of the comic books of the day. No more. The art is now supposed to tell a lot more of the story, but it takes a lot of coordination between writer and artist to make it so. It may very well be the best that could have been done, but I don’t think it happened here. There were several times when if I hadn’t know what was supposed to be happening, I’d have had no clue.

   Or maybe I’m an old dog struggling with new tricks.

  DONALD WOLLHEIM, Editor, with Arthur W. Saha – The 1989 Annual World’s Best SF. Daw #783, paperback original; 1st printing, June 1989. Cover art by Jim Burns.

#10. JACK CHALKER “Adrift Among the Ghosts.” Short story. First published in the collection Dance Band on the Titanic (Del Rey, paperback original, 1988).

   One of the early ideas of science fiction — or could it possibly be true? — is that all of the signals of every radio or TV show ever aired are still heading out from Earth, and if intercepted they could take the would-be listener, no matter how many light years away, back to the past and all of this planet’s cultural history, a high percentage of which is now considered lost.

   The signals would be awfully weak, of course, and they would need to b amplified. It would also take an alien listener, as it is in this story, years and years to translate, assimilate and sort the worthwhile from the trash. But if that alien listener, perhaps, was a prisoner alone in space, for crimes committed on its own world, with years and years on its hands tentacles, then of course then it could be done.

   There’s only one flaw, and of course I can’t tell you that, for that’s the point of the story. But it’s a flaw worth realizing, and one I think I will remember for quite a while.

   During the 1980s and 90s Jack Chalker as an author will himself be remembered for his many SF and fantasy sagas. all several books long (Dancing Gods, Well of Souls, etc.) than for his short fiction, which in number were not many, but this one is a good one.


Previously from the Wollheim anthology: B. W. CLOUGH “Ain’t Nothin’ But a Hound Dog.”

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