Here is another post in my series exploring Carol Emshwiller’s science fiction and fantasy–published between 1955-1979 in genre magazines–in chronological order. And if you missed earlier installments, check out Part I and II.
I found Emshwiller’s next three science fiction stories, including the first in her new long-term home The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, polished fables utilizing standard genre tropes (alien mating rituals, a mysterious stranger, etc.) to highlight humanity’s encounter with itself in idiosyncratic and grim ways.
However, this batch presents a bit of a lull in overall quality. These are probably only recommended for Emshwiller completists like myself or fans of off-kilter 50s parables. The next post will contain one of her best known works of the 50s–“Pelt” (1958). I look forward to Part IV.
For those curious why I am conducting this series, check out my review of the intense power that is “Animal” (1968) (the best story of hers I’ve read so far).
As always, feel free to join the conversation!
“The Coming” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (May 1957), ed. Anthony Boucher. 3.5/5 (Good). You can read it online here.
A mysterious stranger, “stick thin, and he walked as as scarecrow might walk” (102), comes into town like someone in a trance, his “lips parted, eyes half closed, head thrown back” (102). On cue, a young girl named Nina with her homework spread before her, slips into the same trance-like state. Her mom threatens “if you don’t keep your mind on your work you’ll be set back again this year” (103). But something about the stranger, the unknown, and the other world in which he seems to inhabit free from all care or obligation beckons.
One day he sits beside her and whispers “one… one here” (103). Of course the town is in arms! Awful intentions and perverse desires are projected on the mysterious stranger who does not signal or utter his intentions. He is a manifestation of all that it outside the expectations and obligations of society. Despite the gun-wielding exclamations of her father, Nina runs away. And she finds him leaning against tree, “a drop of saliva trickled from his open mouth” (105), and his whisper gives Nina meaning. But the town finds the two: “kidnaper! Rapist!” they shout (106) and chase him off. But Nina already knows what to do.
This is a dark story about the oppressive cloud of small town expectations and obligations and the desire to escape it all. Nina’s final transformation into an entity, like the mysterious stranger, does not fit. She seeks others like herself. Another way. Another type of life.
“You’ll Feel Better…” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (July 1957), ed. Anthony Boucher. 3/5 (Average). You can read it online here.
I’ve always been intrigued by SF takes on psychiatric and psychological treatment: from the allegorical hermeneuticians exploring landscapes of the mind in Roger Zelazny’s The Dream Master (1966) to Daniel F. Galouye’s unnerving “Rub-a-Dub” (variant title: “Descent Into the Maelstrom”) (1961) in which a young female explorer must be severed from the three male entities implanted in her mind. While not at the level of the previous two, Emshwiller’s “You’ll Feel Better…” suggests that psychiatric treatment might create more problems than it solves.
Grindy, a mechanical bird-like “Ego Builder” (89), is programmed by Dr. Morris to treat an unstable patient named Linno. Grindy wakes Linno up at seven every morning. Encourages him to visit Dr. Morris. Relentlessly presents everything as positive and a step in the right direction towards a sunny new day. Linno, violent urges bubbling, can only morosely respond “what brighter side is that?” (87). And Linno, blaming Grindy, lurches into action! And, rather than stopping the psychotic break, Grindy might have finally caused it. And now it’s up to Grindy to get the entire story out of the patient. And the location of the body… That it can do.
Emshwiller’s tale is a somewhat early critique of the psychiatric movement (its heyday was the 60s/70s). By building up the patient and proclaiming all will be good in the end Grindy (and by extension Dr. Morris) obfuscates the turmoil beneath the surface. In science fiction psychiatrists tend to be sinister villains or bumbling frauds! For those interested in exceptions, check out Chelsea Yarbro’s Hyacinths (1983).
“Two-Step for Six Legs” in Science Fiction Quarterly (August 1957), ed. Robert A. W. Lowndes. 2.75/5 (Vaguely Average). You can read it online here.
A searing little whimsy of a tale about aliens, their mating rituals, and classism/racism–that all parallel 50s conceptions of what is “right” and “proper” for good Americans. Igh, a fine specimen of Itchwhittlian male “tall in tentacle” and “wide between [his three] eyes,” can have “the big night” with any female Itchwhittlian he comes across (77). Igh is in love with Lish, who is a delightful shade of purple, and has her sign papers for a “big night.” Lish lives with Optch, who, unlike Lish, is shaded with a “Despicable yellowness” (78). A scientists, hiding out in a dinging corner of the city, comes up with a scheme to cause an imbalance in the social order of things. His plan? A serum that will obfuscate the true color of each Itchwhitlian! And Igh will be a test subject….
This is a humorous little parable with a sinister ending. Igh, the good Itchwhitlian boy, will do anything to maintain the status quo: “How would we know, he wondered, the better Itchwhittlians from the worse; or the high class from the low; or the elite from the dirty; or the beautiful from the ugly” (80). The seemingly funny weird aliens and their funny little rituals highlight the rotten core of so many humans. I’m not sure this one has staying power but it still demonstrates Emshwiller’s concision and craft.
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