Book Review: Casey Agonistes and Other Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, Richard McKenna (1973)

4/5 (collated rating: Good)

Richard McKenna (1913-1964) spent the majority of his adult career (1931-1953) “not very happily” in the US Navy. He was forced to leave college and join the service due to his lack of opportunities in rural Idaho during the Great Depression. Many of his science fiction stories explore the homosocial world of the military–the comradery through shared trauma and battle, the corrosive effect on those who struggle to fit in, and the destructive culture of machoism. After his military service, he enrolled at the University of North Carolina in English. Only a handful of SF short stories appeared during his lifetime, the majority were published posthumously. McKenna considered SF to be his “training ground” before a planned career in mainstream literature. Right before his early death in 1964, he hit it big with the non-SF novel The Sand Pebbles (1962), which was turned into a famous 1966 movie by the same name.

The stories in the posthumous collection Casey Agonistes and Other Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories (1973) are uniformly strong. If metaphysical/anthropological/social takes on SF intrigue you, this collection might be worth tracking down.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

“Casey Agonistes” (1958), 4.5/5 (Very Good): In a hospital tuberculous ward during an undefined military conflict (WWII?), a group of soldiers wait for the inevitable in a purgatorial landscape that most will not escape. The nurses and the doctor take on nicknames—Mama Death, Uncle Death, Pink Waldo, Curly Waldo, etc.—in a world that seems suspended in time. Everyone is waiting. Everyone is slowly dying. Away from the rest “strange guy” named Carnahan, replete with radio earphones, spends his time grinning and chucking “like he was in a private world from the rest of us” (13).

He shares his secret. He can “hypnotize himself to see a great ape” and then “make the ape clown around” (14). And soon our narrator and his palls enter this shared alternate world. The ape, a manifestation of vivacious life, lifts the pallor from a ward painted with memories of death. They latch on to ape and his antics as Mama Death and Uncle Death circulate dispensing sad indications of the end.

A powerful and harrowing fable populated with characters that seem like army friends McKenna might have interacted with in his long military career. The tale also introduces themes that reappear in other stories in the collection: military companionship through trauma and despair and metaphysical/fantastical intrusions into hyper-realistic gritty worlds.

“Hunter, Come Home” (1963), 5/5 (Near Masterpiece): By far my favorite story in the collection, “Hunter, Come Home” creates richly realized world in which the men of Mordin must prove themselves by fighting a beast called the Great Russel. Each man who successfully defeats the creature receives a tattoo on their forehead indicating their status. Two victories–two dots. Those who do not have a tattoo are not considered men regardless of age or experience. An ecological crises, the lack of sufficient Great Russels for the number of citizens who want to test themselves, on the home world creates sociological crises. Rigorous patriarchal society governs Mordin, derived from its history as a “lost Earth-colony that had lapsed to a stone-age technology and fought its way back to gunpowder in a ceaseless war against the fearsome Great Russel dinotheres” (25). The problem: Roy Craig’s family can’t afford the hunt.

So he sets off without a tattoo, an outsider in the machoistic community of brothers, on a dangerous and lucrative attempt to transform a strange unclaimed “phyto planet” into a reserve for the Great Russel (25). With the assistance of Belconti biologists, Craig wages a frontline battle against the native flora of the planet that resists physical attack and biological assault. Despite his experience, Craig is treated as little more than a child. Any positive acknowledgement of his valor, encourages him on his quest to finally fight a great Rusell. He meets a young Midori woman who sees something behind his gruff exterior. And as the war rages on and every new biological weapon yields only momentary success against a flora that quickly adapts, Craig must make a choice: remain with the men of Mordin or leave the planet with the Belconti as this is a fight that cannot be won.

I found “Hunter, Come Home” an incisive allegory of the corrosive nature of the homosocial world of the military where rank trumps everything else. Craig is the perfect vehicle for such a critique. He does not have the background that allows him to rise in Mordin society despite his desire. Yet even then, Craig does not perfectly fit and struggles to find his own way. Midori, fascinated by art and science, offers a window into a far more egalitarian world without stringently prescribed paths and gendered codes of behavior.

“The Secret Place” (1966), 3.5/5 (Good): Previously reviewed in Orbit 1 (1966). I did not reread it. “The Secret Place” won the second ever Nebula Award for Best Short Story. It was also nominated for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story in 1967. I found “The Secret Place” is an understated story about an unusual wartime (WWII) military expedition—searching for the origin of one “thumb-sized crystal of uranium oxide” (31) in a desert near Barker, Oregon.  The narrator soon realizes that a young woman’s imaginative world in which she interacts with her dead brother might hold the key to the origin of the substance.  And the narrator will go to rather sinister lengths perpetuating and interacting with her imaginative world in order to acquire it.   This might be one of the least-known Nebula award winners.

“Mine Own Ways” (1960), 3.5/5 (Good): Perhaps within the same post-human diaspora universe as “Hunter, Come Home,” “Mine Own Ways” posits an institution, the Institute of Man, who observes hominids on various alien worlds in earlier stages (pre-symbolic thought) of evolution. Walter Cordice, Leo Brumm, and Jim Adries (and their wives) observe the Robadurians from afar. But a catastrophic sequence of events sees them and their wives pulled into a horrific sequence of rituals which seem to be orchestrated by an outsider.

Knight, in his intro to the collection, critiques the “compressed” nature of the first few pages. I agree. Unlike the others in the collection, it was hard slip into the world. But…. what a hellish world it is! This is McKenna at his most nightmarish. And even then, the philosophical underpinning–how did hominids become human and what was the role of ritual in primitive society–remains at the forefront. Like “Hunter, Come Home,” it’s hard not to read “Mine Own Ways” as a commentary on McKenna’s military experience where recruits are subjected to dehumanizing and violent rituals to “make men of boys.” Those that survive the rituals ascribe deep meaning to their own hazing and justify its use on the new batch of recruits.

“Fiddler’s Green” (1967), 4/5 (Good): Patterns emerge in McKenna’s fiction! “Fiddler’s Green” explores similar territory to “Casey Agonistes”–shared mass hallucination. In some ways reminiscent of the influential SF show Lost (2004-2010), a group of sailors adrift without sustenance in a “thin spot in the world” (104) create a mass hallucination of a potential world. Escaping dehydration and starvation, the sailors find themselves in a bizarre undefined landscape–an oasis made manifest. And soon other entities and individuals permeate its edges. I enjoyed this one but found that it lacked the emotional intensity of “Casey Agonistes.”

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29 thoughts on “Book Review: Casey Agonistes and Other Science Fiction and Fantasy Stories, Richard McKenna (1973)

  1. I saw this collection about quite a lot at the time: the cover attracted me but the title put me off – I think it reminded me of T. S. Elliot and Sweeney Agonistes…
    I’ve seen The Sand Pebbles again quite recently on tv but never knew the connection.

    • Hello, thanks for stopping by.

      For me it’s the opposite — Angus McKie covers always put me off. I have no idea what that blob of a craft is even referencing (maybe the alien planet in “Hunter Come, Home”).

      The “Agonistes” in the title must reference Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671) in which the main character admits that his power is not his own. In McKenna’s case, the story involves the narrator giving into the mass hallucination generated by the group of soldiers to assuage the horror around them. There might be more direct references but I’ve never read the Milton.

  2. I have not read this collection, but I have read the title story, “Fiddlers’ Green”, and “The Secret Place”. I recently reread “The Secret Place” and enjoyed it (though I do find its Nebula Award surprising.) I also like “Casey Agonistes” — but don’t really remember “Fiddlers’ Green”.

    I will have to track down “Hunter, Come Home”.

  3. “Hunter, Come Home” truly is an exception SF story. I recall being entranced by it when i read it not so long ago.
    I have this collection but for some reason didn’t finish it—not the last two stories at least.
    I have the Ace edition with the David Schleinkofer cover.

    • I loved the world. I loved the main character — he felt like a manifestation of McKenna, stuck in a society that he doesn’t really adhere to but at the same time made him who he is. I loved the world comprised of the multifarious flora/fauna lifeform. I thought the love story somewhat believable — and that Mindori would fall for someone like Roy as he is a genuinely good person who wants to do good in the way he knows. I also saw the Mindori character as embodying McKenna’s own desire to create and write while captured by the demands of the military…

      • I loved the world too. The only other story i recall that evoked a “living” world like this is Lem’s Solaris. But i found McKenna’s presentation more compelling, insofar as it wasn’t underwritten by Lem’s grim thesis about the impossibility of communication.
        McKenna’s is a story i want to return to.

  4. I read the stories and generally and remember reading the title story “Casey Agonistes” many years ago. Still a great story. I had mixed feeling about the other stories. I also liked “Fiddler’s Green” and I wonder if the many tale and fables referenced actually exist outside the story. It seems that some do, some but are changed to fit the story including the original sailor’s fable of Fiddler’s Green. I keep telling myself is that I will go out on the internet and look up the story of the soldiers of Tibesti but haven’t done it yet. I was surprised at the direction the story took after the sailor’s crossed over to the place Kruger took them. But it was the last couple of sentences that really started me wondering.

    “Suddenly he sensed them directly, horses and men, radiant with life, red, living blood pumping through veins and arteries. His thirst became a cloud of madness enfolding him, and he knew who and what he was.”

    I did search the internet to see if there was any explanation of what the ending meant but I only found one reference that said concerning the playwright David Tell.

    “Wrote screenplay adapted from Richard McKenna’s novella “Fiddler’s Green” in 2000, called “The Thirst.” Sci-fi-occult-adventure story whose “aha” ending offers an explanation for an origin of vampires.”

    I am now wondering if there wasn’t some foreshadowing of that idea earlier in the story when Kinross killed the pigeons and put them on the cairn and then forgot about.

    “on the cairn he saw the headless pigeons with blood-dabbled feathers and the black sticky on the stones. Fingers tugged at his memory and he frowned, refusing to think what this strange think might mean.”

    Mary reacts to the scene by screaming “What kind of Kelly rules do you keep here, you and your Kruger, you smooth-faced blood drinker.”

    Does anybody else go along with the vampire idea or is it too big a departure from the rest of the story line? I usually don’t like fantasy that much compared to SF but the two stories i liked the best in this collection were pure fantasies with a little gothic horror added for the last one.

    • Hello Jim,

      Your comment was flagged as Spam for whatever reason. I rescued it from deletion. I apologize for how slow I was to respond.

      I do get the sense that the people who were pulled into the world help maintain its power. So — would that be a form or vampirism? Aren’t two of the earlier sailors “consumed” in a way by Kinross? I might be mixing up who was who.

  5. Richard McKenna is one of a handful of writers, like Howard Fast, Alfred Coppel, Erle Stanley Gardner, John Jakes, Michael Shaara, etc., who wrote briefly in the sf field before leaving to write bestsellers in a more mainstream manner. We are the richer for them touching down in out field. Imagine what McKenna would have written if he had lived another ten years.

    • Alfred Coppel published quite a lot of SF short stories but his only SF novel, if I remember correctly, was Dark December (1960) — which I enjoyed!

      I don’t think Jakes fits as well onto you list as the others. He wrote SF quite regularly for almost three decades (50s to late 70s) — hundred plus short stories and tons of novels. Yes mainstream lit got him more fame and money most likely, but he had an entire career of output in SF.

      I have collections from Shaara and Fast but haven’t read their work. Anything good?

      • Coppel’s novel GLORY and its sequels are SF, as well as THE BURNING MOUNTAIN, an alternate history of Japan.

        You are right about Jakes — he was a prolific pulp/post-pulp writer in many genres, but SF and Fantasy were his main focus, by far, until he was hired to produce the Kent Family Chronicles to coincide the the Bicentennial. The enormous success of those books led to him concentrating on historical fiction from that point forward.

        I’ve read some of Shaara’s early SF — my memory suggests it’s not bad, but nothing he did in SF was earthshaking.

        Fast, I think, was more of a writer of general fiction who wrote SF when it seemed appropriate. Walter Tevis might be a good comparison. Or Bernard Wolfe.

        • Apparently Coppel’s The Eighth Day of the Week (1994) is also a near future/SFish thriller that might classify. I’d forgotten that he wrote so much in the 90s! The reason why Glory and its sequels had slipped from memory.

  6. I had this collection once upon a time and bought an old copy of the same edition in a second-hand bookshop a few years ago. Three stories stuck in my mind when I read it as a teenager – Casey Agonistes, Hunter, Come Home and Fiddler’s Green . I must have just re-read these again (on buying the second copy) and ignored the other two stories because I have absolutely no memory of the latter.

    Overall I thought this was an exceptional anthology – well-written, intelligent and thought-provoking.

    The ending of Fiddler’s Green did seem kind of random to me, but I think McKenna was indeed trying to insinuate that the character had become some sort of vampire, or maybe just a wraith that was attracted to blood? One other thing I took away from this ending is the illusory nature of Fiddler’s Green: the characters are still dying of thirst even while inhabiting this shared matrix-style universe. So maybe the character has become a kind of ghost with this same thirst as his defining trait?

    • Jim, above, mentioned the same vampire idea so you two might be on to something. But yes, I too thought that characters were being used to create the shared universe,

      I thought the anthology was of uniform high quality as well. I am tempted to write up reviews of stories that were not collected in this volume. I assume they are less spectacular.

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