Short Fiction Reviews: Algis Budrys’ “Forever Stenn” (variant title: “The Ridge Around the World”) (1957), Basil Wells’ “Sole Survivor” (1957), Helen McCloy’s “The Unexpected” (1957), and John D. Odom’s “The Word is Law” (1957)

Preliminary note: I never can pinpoint exactly why I read what I read when I read it as I am a creature of impulse and whim. While browsing lesser known authors, I came across Helen McCloy (1904-1994). She’s best known for her post-apocalyptic novel The Last Day (1959) (as Helen Clarkson)—which you read online as paper copies are incredibly scarce and expensive–and wrote a handful of speculative short stories of which three appear to be science fiction. Mysteries and non-genre fiction made up the majority of her output.

The Last Day led me to McCloy’s “The Unexpected” (1957) and that in turn lead me to the December 1957 issue of Satellite Science Fiction, ed. Cylvia Kleinman. As I recently read the short novel in the issue, Jack Vance’s solid The Languages of Pao (1957), I decided that I might as well read the rest of the stories in the magazine. And I hadn’t read a Budrys short in a bit… And I’d never heard of Basil Wells (1912-2003) or John D. Odom (unknown dates).

I’m all for reading as adventure.

“Forever Stenn” (variant title: “The Ridge Around the World”) (1957), Algis Budrys, 4/5 (Good): You can read it online here.

In his collection Blood & Burning (1978), Budrys describes the story as follows: “This one is easy. My grandfather, the village tailor of Marijampole, Lithuania, was a wonderful man, replete with attributes a child could love. He was magnificent when he filled his mouth with water, sprayed a loud, joyous mist over the clothes on the board, and applied a flatiron from the wood-stove. He had a cow, a well with a sweep, a vegetable garden, a house with a tin roof, and I helped carry the pickets for the new white fence in front of his house. To honor him, I piddled in his galoshes. The Russians took many of his children. This story is not about him; it is about another man, whom I could not have thought of” (114).

Stenn spends his days tending his small farm. The world beyond his fence seems a distant one, seldom infringing on the rituals of rural life. Whenever the regime changes, agents of the state appear at his gate sometimes with violence, sometimes with acts that could be interpreted as kindness. He says little and they always release him. Once he receives a new mechanical plow as the horses are too hard to care for. The world beyond the fence changes. Structures are erected. Strange technologies move across the horizon. And Stenn remains…

I need to read more of Budrys’ short fiction! This seldom-collected vision is a finely-wrought allegory of the salt of the Earth surviving all the trials and tribulation of time. As Budrys’ introduction suggests, there’s the general sense that Stenn represents the rural farmer who observes the Nazi conquest and the Soviet liberation and occupation of Eastern Europe. Stenn will live on even if the world around him changes beyond recognition. I’m a sucker for stories containing no extra words, a brutal simplicity, and a dreamlike feel.

“Sole Survivor” (1957), Basil Wells, 3/5 (Average): You can read it online here. An effective, if plain, story about a nine-year-old girl who miraculously survives a spreading fallout cloud of a Hydrogen bomb attack on the cities of the American Midwest. Erin Ward does not comprehend the nature of her school’s evacuation and manages to hide while her classmates fill buses and and join a river of “open trucks crammed with gray-faced adults” leaving town (93). She emerges from her hiding place to an empty school, an empty town, and vague memories of the location of her relative’s houses. She sets off on foot not entirely understanding the devastating transformation that has transpired.

Two elements resonated with me: the evocation of the impact of nuclear war on small-town America and the personification of fallout as an almost alien amoeba replete with pseudopods: “one of these fingers crept up through a wooden ravine and wrapped itself around a halted pickup truck” (95). I’ll file away this story in my nuclear war folder if a later project emerges…

“The Unexpected” (1957), Helen McCloy, 2/5 (Bad): You can read it online here.

Unfortunately, the reason I tracked down this magazine ended up being something of a dead-end. McCloy’s “The Unexpected” is a standard philosophical rumination on a generational conflict of ideologies. In the post-WWII world at the start of the space race, an aging archaeologist grows pessimistic about the possibility of life spreading to the stars as his life approaches his end: “nobody is going to start a colony in a space-ship solely to enable his descendants to land on some remote world in eternal cold and darkness” (107). The father castigates his son: “you’ve been egged on by a few crackpot scientists who know, in their secret hearts, that they are dominated by self-interest–a desire to exploit the sensational get themselves talked about” by proclaiming the grandiose vision of the conquest of space (107). The son argues about the possibility of UFOs and alien life: “how can you be so positive that there is no life on other planets?” (107).

And then, one day, what appears to be a UFO appears in front of them… before flicking out of existence. And the son sets off to realize his dreams and prove his father wrong (cue lengthy paragraphs on all the dangerous and impossibilities of effective space travel). But there’s time travel afoot and the son becomes the father as all the pieces fall into place.

The one redeemable element of “The Unexpected” is its criticism of the more extreme manifestations of the Manifest Destiny of the stars that fills so many pages of 1950s magazines.

“The Word is Law” (1957), John D. Odom, 1.5/5 (Bad): You can read it online here. John D. Odom’s only published science fiction short story is a clunker! The General Curry arrives on Rigel Three for Captain Carling’s fist mission–“this had been the real thing, quite different from the artificial, practice emergencies created at the academy for spacemen in training” (118). His crew lands on the surface and sees a city. The inhabitants of the planet leave a welcome message: “Welkom Chris ob Nasreth, Savor ob Wold” (120). But there’s a twist… Chris Nazareth is the name of The General Curry‘s navigation officer.

Like a strange biblical reenactment, the crew enter the city and start to play the archetypal parts. And the mystery (silly and outrageous) is revealed. As is always the case, if a captain actually studied previous mission files and the history of space travel then “mysteries” like this one could easily be avoided. There’s nothing redeemable about this story.

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15 thoughts on “Short Fiction Reviews: Algis Budrys’ “Forever Stenn” (variant title: “The Ridge Around the World”) (1957), Basil Wells’ “Sole Survivor” (1957), Helen McCloy’s “The Unexpected” (1957), and John D. Odom’s “The Word is Law” (1957)

    • It’s fine. Certainly not his normal visual pyrotechnics more common in his earlier art. If you click the online link to the magazine there’s a short one-page article describing the cover — and the space station of the future!

    • Definitely. You should read it. It’s pretty short and I include a link to an online scan of the magazine. The intro I quote is from the Budrys’ Blood & Burning collection.

  1. JB: This seldom-collected vision is a finely-wrought allegory of the salt of the Earth surviving all the trials and tribulation of time … Stenn will live on even if the world around him changes beyond recognition.

    Salt of the earth, huh? As the last member of the ‘new regime’ tells Stenn, “I am the last human being alive on Earth. There are no more… Not you. Certainly not you.”

    • Yeah, it is essentially stated that he isn’t human. But I still saw it as a metaphor of the almost inhuman strength and perseverance of people like Budrys’ grandfather–who suffered so much–whose story he relays in the mini-intro to the Blood & Burning collection.

      • The name Stenn suggests he is perhaps a troll? (See Eleanor Arnason’s “My Husband Stenn”.) I remember liking that story when I read BLOOD AND BURNING.

        I’m sure I’ve already mentioned how much I like Budrys’ work. His career has been (slightly) shadowed by his late in life involvement with the Writers of the Future, and his final years didn’t seem happy ones to me. (I believe he had diabetes, and the one time I met him (briefly, really just to shake hands, at a con) he seemed disaffected and also in considerable physical pain.) His novels are an uneven set but the mature ones (WHO?, ROGUE MOON, THE AMSIRS AND THE IRON THORN, MICHAELMAS, and HARD LANDING) are each interesting and individual — different from each other and different from what any other writer would have done. And the short stories — at least back to the remarkable “The End of Summer” (1954) — are often truly striking. He was never quite prolific enough; and his best chances to win major awards fell short due to bad timing (for instance, ROGUE MOON lost to A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ); so that while he was always respected and regarded as important he wasn’t quite ever listed among the greats — but he could have been.

        I am completely unfamiliar with all the other authors mentioned!

        • Hello Rich,

          I too have enjoyed quite a bit of his work. Everything I’ve read of his I’ve reviewed on the site (can’t say that about some authors). I still have not got to Who? — the one I really want to read.

          As you probably already know, I’ve reviewed/read the following:

          Budrys’ Inferno (variant title: The Furious Future) (1963)
          “Silent Brother” (1956)
          “Between the Dark and the Daylight” (1958)
          “And Then She Found Him…” (1957)
          “The Skirmisher” (1957)
          “The Man Who Tasted Ashes” (1959)
          “Lower Than Angels” (1956)
          “Contact Between Equals” (1958)
          “Dream of Victory” (1953)
          “The Peasant Girl” (1956)
          The Falling Torch (1959)
          “Forever Stenn” (variant title: “The Ridge Around the World” (1957)
          Michaelmas (1976)
          Rogue Moon (1960)
          Some Will Not Die (1961, rev. 1978)

        • As for the other authors, Basil Wells seems to be one of those highly productive pulp writers who had a long SF writing career (published short stories between 1940-1997).without writing novels.

        • Rich H: his final years didn’t seem happy ones to me. I believe he had diabetes, and the one time I met him … he seemed disaffected and also in considerable physical pain.

          The day before Budrys died, I talked to him by phone to write this —

          Interviews can present problems. I once flew to LA to do a long interview that was going to be a featured piece with a 92-year-old Peter Drucker who was still sharper than 99.9 percent of people but turned out to be deaf as a post, and yet also pretending it was just his hearing aid battery running down; ten minutes into it, I cut the crap and started writing my questions down (which Drucker was fine with). Also, I once met Newt Gingrich one-on-one for breakfast at a motel in Silicon Valley, and when I asked him, essentially, how for-profit healthcare could ever really work, he went off on me; if I’d been ten years younger and less patient, Gingrich would have ended up on that motel restaurant’s floor.

          The Budrys interview was a more fraught experience, however. Doubtless much more excruciating for Budrys for the ten minutes or so he kept it together — and it was clear he was struggling, till he said, “I think I’ve got to go now.” I was slightly shaken by it into the evening. Soon afterwards, I learned he’d died the next day. The diabetes debilitated Budrys, but it was skin cancer on his head that metastasized which did him in.

          In a big box of old cassette tapes, I’ve got a Fred Pohl interview I did as background for the Budrys piece that I should dig up if/when I get back to the US. Pohl was still sharp mentally and told me some things I’d never read about before. So it’d be worth listening through the 20-30 minutes and typing the interesting stuff up.

          In fact, I really should go through that box. There are other interview tapes, including with Thomas Schelling —

          — and others of the then-surviving RAND corporation game theorists —

          — for a piece on nuclear deterrence I worked on, but put aside when it became clear that MIT TECHNOLOGY REVIEW, where I was then, would never publish it unexpurgated.

          • Thanks for that link, Mark! Excellent piece.

            The idea that Budrys “coulda been a contender”, as it were, had he not had to concentrate on other things than SF writing is something that I’ve thought as well … between his relatively slim output, especially after 1960 or so, and some disdain for his association with Writers of the Future, I think he has partly passed out of the consciousness of the field, and that is something that pieces like yours will hopefull correct.

            Even without the masterpieces we might wish he had written had he more time, the work he produced is exceptional.

            (I do think both THE AMSIRS AND THE IRON THORN and HARD LANDING are worthwhile and mature novels that deserve attention.)

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