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, 4.5/5 (Very 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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