Here are the next three stories of my series exploring Carol Emshwiller’s short stories (published between 1955-1979) in chronological order. And if you missed it, Part I contained her first three stories.
Emshwiller’s next three science fiction stories, all published by Robert A. E. Lowndes, are polished fables utilizing standard genre tropes (alien possession, humans abducted by aliens, etc.) to highlight humanity’s encounter with itself in idiosyncratic and grim ways. I am particularly entranced by the stories told from a non-human perspective. This distancing effect allows Emshwiller to play with tone (“Bingo and Bongo”) and spin macabre horror (“Nightmare Call”).
While lacking the intense power of “Animal” (1968) (the best story of hers I’ve read so far), all three are worth the read for fans of clever weirdness. I look forward to Part III.
As always, feel free to join the conversation!
“Bingo and Bongo” (1956), 3.5/5 (Good): First appeared in Future Science Fiction, #31 (Winter 1956-1957), ed. Robert W. Lowndes. You can read it online here. In William Tenn’s Of Men and Monsters (1968) and F. M. Busby’s Cage a Man (1973), humans are imprisoned like lab rats by distant and truly alien aliens. The captives learn just enough about their world and captors in order to escape. Emshwiller brilliantly inverts the perspective. “Bingo and Bongo” is told from the perspective of an alien, a “Mother-Father-Aunt” entity with children, who believes humans are little more than non-sentient pets. The Mother-Father-Aunt’s progeny want new humans after the unfortunate death of their last in an escape attempt (they didn’t want to pay the money to have him professionally healed).
The new pets–Bingo and Bongo –are placed in a box. In a hilarious touch, Bongo places a privacy screen between him and his female fellow prisoner. During the time of the red sun, the alien youth desperately want to have Bongo fight another pet. Trained by the aliens with “human sticks” (Klingon pain sticks?), Bongo “wins.” He appears to have learned of an escape route from the other human. The Mother-Father-Aunt refuses to believe the map found in the man’s hand is a sign of intelligence! Even when Bingo and Bongo successfully escape their enclosure, the Mother-Father-Aunt barely gives it a thought: “we’ll get another man. Yes, don’t worry. There are plenty more where they came from” (124).
As a kid I captured fireflies and put them in a jar. I went to sleep with them flickering delightfully. I awoke with a jar of dead bugs. By inverting the perspective, Emshwiller presents the extreme cruelty the humans experience with the same ambivalence I had for the fireflies. And this is where the story unnerves! Mother-Father-Aunt comments after one of the children, while playing, steps on the head of Bingo: “You did the right thing. Only next time try not to do it at the head part” (120).
A light and happily told tale about a dark and terrifying scenario.
“Nightmare Call” (1957), 3.75/5 (Good): First appeared in Future Science Fiction, #32 (Spring 1957), ed. Robert W. Lowndes. You can read it online here. Obliquely told, “Nightmare Call” operates on two narrative levels. One one level, the story shifts between the perspective of an entity (perhaps trapped within a cist on the cheek of a deer?), with a damaged claw and lost cilia, attempting to compel a male hunter to assist (“The creature’s mind has relaxed into a soft blackness, vulnerable, open. This is another time to try. ‘Help!”) (123). How or why the man should do so isn’t clear. The armed hunter pursues a deer with memories of his wife Mona percolating through his mind. Terrified that he is experiencing a schizophrenic episode, the man slips into a dream where he must confronts a muddy morass and the manifestation of the entity perched on his shoulder. The vision of his wife periodically takes on a shadowy lobster shape waving bent antenna. A metaphoric confrontation with himself transpires–he wakes with the dead doe before him and a mind “full of soft whiteness” (126).
“Nightmare Call” continues to hone the disconcerting unease present in “The Piece Thing” (1956). So far in my exploration of Emshwiller’s work, this is the most complex and structurally inventive story as the thought patterns of each perspective shift and interrupt each other. In these early works, Emshwiller’s demonstrates a keen skill in writing from a profoundly alien prospect. A human would not need to explain the mechanisms of walking or talking. Neither do Emshwiller’s beasts. Their actions are not explained. Through context they can be pieced together.
“Nightmare Call” musters effective swamp horror–murk, sweat, mud—and disconcerting imagery as man confronts a mysterious alien nightmare and his own traumas and failings.
“Hunting Machine” (1957), 3/5 (Average): First appeared in Science Fiction Stories (May 1957), ed. Robert W. Lowndes. You can read it online here. A humorous fable of the sanitized future encountering, and retreating from, the grim realities of work.
Ruthie and Joe use a “grey-green thing they called the hound, or Rover, or sometimes the bitch” to hunt (134). The robotic assistant allows the couple to partake of the luxuries of future camping—“geodesic tent, pnumatic [sic] forms bed, automatic camping stove, and pocket air conditioner. Plus portable disposal, automatic blow-up chairs and tables, pocket TV set, four disposable hunting costumes” (134). Desperate for a challenge and a trophy to hang in their living room (“think of a skin and head that size in our living room”), Joe illegally programs the robot to track a bear (135).
As the bear goes around its happy existence consuming the best parts of fish, the scent-less robotic hunter prowls and waits for a command from the couple to initiate the kill! Finishing up their instant self-heating meals, Joe commands the “grey-green thing” to start its killing sequence. Over in a flash, Joe complains the kill wasn’t much of a challenge. But then they look at the dead animal–observe the fly on its nose, its matted fur, its sheer size–the prospect of skinning might require real work. And of course, “it’s pretty dirty too, and probably full of germs” (138). The bear is left to rot in the dust.
“Hunting Machine” highlights the common trope of future man encountering past realities of life. In a technologically advanced future, humanity will lust after a challenge–until the challenge arrives! The story comes off as rather slight in the end. I found Emshwiller’s lists of future camping gadgets downright humorous (Design Within Reach for camping).
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