Short Story Reviews: Carol Emshwiller’s “Day at the Beach” (1959), “Puritan Planet” (1960), and “Adapted” (1961)

It’s time for the fifth 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 IIIIII, and IV.

We have a beach vacation in the post-apocalypse, a gorgeous fable of a housewife struggling to chart her path, and the travails of a crashed astronaut and his cat on a planet of religious fanatics. In this installment, I wrap up her stories published in the 1950s and move into the 1960s. Emshwiller published only 12 stories in the 1960s with a publication gap between 1961-1966 while she managed 13 between 1955-1959. In the previous post, Rich Horton and Expendable Mudge speculated that it was due to the birth of her son in 1959.

I’ve listed by rating all of her 50s stories. If you’d like me to write up my thoughts overall on her 50s visions in a more analytical manner (a short essay?), let me know in the comments.

1. “Pelt” (1958), 5/5 (Masterpiece)

2. “Day at the Beach” (1959), 4.5/5 (Very Good) [this post]

3. “Baby” (1958), 4/5 (Good)

4. “Nightmare Call” (1957), 3.75/5 (Good)

5. “Bingo and Bongo” (1956), 3.5/5 (Good)

6. “The Piece Thing” (1956), 3.5/5 (Good)

7. “This Thing Called Love” (1955), 3.5/5 (Good)

8. “The Coming” (1957), 3.5/5 (Good)

9. “Love Me Again” (1956), 3.25/5 (Good)

10. Hunting Machine” (1957), 3/5 (Average)

11. “You’ll Feel Better…” (1957), 3/5 (Average)

12. “Two-Step for Six Legs” (1957), 2.75/5 (Vaguely Average)

13. “Idol’s Eye” (1958), 2.5/5 (Bad)

As always, feel free to join the conversation!

“Day at the Beach” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (August 1959), ed. Robert P. Mills. 4.5/5 (Very Good). You can read it online here. Like “Pelt” (1958), this wonderful story has been frequently anthologized. I read it in The Year’s Best S-F: 5th Annual edition (1960), ed. Judith Merril. At first glance “Day at the Beach” reaffirms the power of family in the face of a cataclysmic event as a mother and father slowly accept changes brought on by atomic mutation. Or, there’s a more sinister reading where the family unit creates a delusional bubble that obfuscates the real horror outside (and inside) their home.

This story can be productively read in conjunction with Judith Merril’s “If Only a Mother” (1948). Both present the post-apocalyptical future as a strange simulacra of the previous world. Families, like that of Myra and Ben, still conduct many of the rituals of their earlier suburban life albeit armed with household tools as weapons. The couple, hairless and without the conveniences of the 20th century, are restricted to their home other than to acquire food. Ben mows the yard. Myra tries to cook meals and care for their unusually hairy child named Littleboy who ignores their voices. Infrequent moments of close contact with his mother end with the child biting a chunk from her shoulder.

To escape from it all, Ben and Myra decide to head to the beach with Littleboy to recreate a family vacation. Myra ruminates on the ocean’s powers: “Then, at last, there was the sea, and it was exactly as it had always been, huge and sparkling and making a sound like… no, drowning out the noises of wars” (39). Their quiet moments of familial bliss with Littleboy jumping in the waves is interrupted with the arrival of an armed gang looking for loot.

Myra and Ben’s acceptance of Littleboy–despite his differences and moments of alieness–breaks the pattern of so many of these types of stories. And their decision to trudge on, and possibly have another child, despite the chaos surrounding them suggests that even in moments where everything seems to end, the family generates a bubble of what was and will always be. But it could all be a hollow delusion.

“Puritan Planet” in Science Fiction Stories (January 1960), ed. Robert A. W. Lowndes. 2/5 (bad). You can read it online here. “Puritan Planet” was Emshwiller’s final story for Robert A. W. Lowndes, the editor who gave her her start in genre magazines with her detective story “The Victim” in Smashing Detective Stories (September 1955). Unfortunately, I found it the least satisfying of her tales I’ve consumed so far.

Morgan’s ship plummets towards a planet named Brotherhood that had refused to answers his pleas for help. He desperately attempts to strap in his cat into a chair to save his fuzzy friend from the impending planetary collision. With the cat squirms he barely manages to survive a crash in an “abandoned, lumpy, overgrown” landing field (38). Eventually the religious fanatics who inhabitant the planet approach his ship: “Brother, Brother” they intone, “you landed without permission” (40). And then the worst happens, they hear Morgan curse and decide they will leave him to die within the wreck. Their rationale? He could spread immorality among the people: “There may even be things written down there that you might do” (42). Morgan struggles to keep his cat alive (sticks it in a spacesuit) and cannot break through the sealed walls of the craft. But then the Brotherhood hear his cat and change their tune.

Emshwiller, unlike in most of her work, spells out the didactic intent of her story via Morgan. She targets the religious fanatic who that ignores suffering of others and shoulder the blame onto the innocent for the sake of preserving morality. Morgan cannot communicate with those who have already judged him and decided his fate. This is a simplistic story that depends on the antics of a fuzzy feline. It lacks the poignancy and power of language of Emshwiller’s best work.

“Adapted” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (May 1961), ed. Robert P. Mills. 4/5 (Good). You can read it online here. Received an Honorable Mention for the 1962 Hugo Award for Best Short Fiction.

“Adapted” reads as a window into Carol Emshwiller’s own experiences as a young mother struggling to balance interests and passions in 1950s/early 60s American suburban society. The story hints at a fantasy element (is the narrator a witch?). Regardless of its speculative content, “Adapted” is a gorgeous fable of the generational struggles facing women coming of age in this era. The narrator, a youthful mother with unusual physical features and a distinct feel that she is different, recalls to her absent child her experiences in marriage to a good-meaning man. She tries hobbies. And every time her a hobby threatens to lay bare her deep unhappiness she moves on to something else. She tells her friends “I guess I’m just a housewife” (9).

I’d argue the narrator’s struggle to find purpose might mirror Emshwiller’s own post-college emotional landscape. She majored in art and then traveled Europe with her new husband (and famous SF artist) Ed before settling in Levittown (the “first” suburb!) with her young children. Only after she met SF authors and editors due to Ed’s connections did she decide to try writing herself. For a bit about her life consult this article. At the very least, the emotional depth of the story might reflect the internal struggle she experienced due to the societal expectations and pressures on the stay-at-home housewife who also wanted to pursue her own career.

“Adapted” is beautifully told. In this instance the narrator describes the movements of her child–“You were always bringing the inside out and the outside in and, even if I felt you were right to do so, I swept out the sand every night and brought the toys inside again”–to emphasize the endless accumulation of the small tasks of motherhood (5). In another moment the narrator attempts to convey her struggle to fit in, the play the part: “Well, I was strange then, but strangeness is not so easy to keep. I shut my eyes and opened my hands as wide as I could and, though it seemed to cling, little by little, year by year, it fell away” (5). She wants her absent child to break the pattern.

For book reviews consult the INDEX

For cover art posts consult the INDEX

For TV and film reviews consult the INDEX

2 thoughts on “Short Story Reviews: Carol Emshwiller’s “Day at the Beach” (1959), “Puritan Planet” (1960), and “Adapted” (1961)

  1. “Adapted” reads, to me, like the cri de coueur of the trapped woman, and is almost unbearably poignant. The Emshwillers were each very creative and unusual people. I hope their children are, too.

    Lovely read, as usual. Thanks for the shout-out!

    • I agree on “Adapted.” Despite the vague fantasy premise (that I didn’t care for), it was elevated for the reasons you lay out — gorgeously written and evocative of the experiences of the denizens of the suburban sprawl.

      As always, thanks for stopping by.

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