Short Story Reviews: Sherwood Springer’s “No Land of Nod” (1952) and Wallace West’s “Eddie For Short” (1953)

In the March 1955 issue of John Brunner’s fanzine Noise Level, the young author listed a handful of “thematically edgy stories”–including Sherwood Springer’s “No Land of Nod” (1952), Theodore Sturgeon’s “The World Well Lost” (1953), and Lester del Rey’s “For I am A Jealous People (1954)–that he considered a “step forward” in the field [1]. The previous year he had praised elements of Philip José Farmer’s “The Lovers” (1952) in a fan letter to Startling Stories. According to Jad Smith, the stories feature “lived-in, morally ambiguous backgrounds much noisier and dynamic than the two-dimensional backdrops of more conventional fare” that appealed to Brunner’s embryonic views on genre [2]. Brunner viewed social change as a “messy and unpredictable process riddled with moral complexities” [3].

As I recently wrote about Farmer’s “The Lovers” (1952), I thought I’d tackle the other stories Brunner listed which I’ll pair with others with similar themes that I’ve jotted in my notebook over the years. For those who might be new to the site, I am fascinated by subversive stories–especially on sex, masculinity, colonization, suburbia–from the 1950s. For me the majority of the fun comes from mapping the territory. The stories themselves are often less than satisfying. The historical contexts enriches the reading experience.

In order to understand the context of the following two stories on post-apocalyptic sexual chaos, I turn to Elaine Tyler May in Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (1988, revised edition 2017). She argues that “fears of sexual chaos tend to surface during times of crisis and rapid social change” [4]. The fears of Communist ascendancy and nuclear war framed “nonmarital sexual behavior in all its forms” as a national obsession after WWII [5]. Intellectuals linked “out-of-control sexuality with the insecurities of the cold war” resulted in “officially sponsored homophobia” [6]. According to this logic, civil defense framed the traditional role of men and women as fortifying the home as a place of safety amid the Cold War [7]. If the family unit collapsed in the face of Cold War conflict, the survivors of the wasteland would be possessed by destructive sexuality that must be welded back into something resembling a family. This mentality crops up in countless stories from the 50s and 60s–from Richard Wilson’s “Mother to the World” (1968) to Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (1954), whose protagonist is continuously tempted by the provocative zombie/vampires who strut outside his door. And when he lets one enter his home, a sanctum of one-time domestic bliss, the end rapidly approaches.

Sherwood Springer’s “No Land of Nod” (1952) with Wallace West’s “Eddie For Short” (1953) attempt–with varying degrees of success–to tackle the morality of the post-apocalyptic sexual landscape. Both think reflexively, returning to Biblical and other historical models of sexual behavior to give shape to the new family, one compelled to resort to incest to perpetuate the human race. Both adhere to the notion that sexual mores are socially constructed and that the human race can and should be saved. Joanna Russ would eviscerate the general premise of creating a new society with one of her best novels–We Who Are About To… (1976)

I recommend the stories only for readers interested in the history of 1950s science fiction explorations of sex and family and devotees of last man scenarios. “No Land of Nod” is the better crafted of the two.

Let’s get to the stories!


3/5 (Average)

Sherwood Springer’s “No Land of Nod” first appeared in Thrilling Wonder Stories, ed. Samuel Mines (December 1952). You can read it online here. I can find little about Sherwood Springer online. In a brief “Introducing the Author” article in the February 1954 issue of Imagination, he describes his career trajectory from school reporter to various other jobs in the newspaper and advertising industry. He recounts how he opened up his typewriter and started writing science fiction in 1950 after meeting with “Forry” Ackerman. “With a 21-year gap from 1956 to 1977”, Springer published fifteen short stories between 1952-1981.

Ann and Jim appear to be the only survivors of a Cold War non-nuclear conflict involving a nerve gas bomb that set off a chain reaction. Both were part of a three-week experiment in space rooms–“hermetically sealed chambers […] prepared to simulate as closely as possible the interior a rocket between worlds” (55)–at Cal Tech. They emerge to a landscape littered with the dead. The 37-year-old Ann, a college-educated accomplished research scientist, serves as the wise sage, alternatively guiding, counseling, and comforting Jim as they come to grips with their new reality. The 39-year-old Jim “never went to college” and “read western stories and science fiction when [he] was a kid instead of doing homework” seems to be a genuinely kind man, albeit perplexed at why he was selected as a new Adam, who comes to love Ann and her intelligence (55).

As they journey east searching fruitlessly for survivors, Ann broaches the moral conundrum they find themselves trapped in if they are to perpetuate the human race: “I’ve given this more thought than you know” (57). Driving past dead cities, Ann points out what they both know in their gut: “It’s possible that we’re the last people alive” (57). Due to the circumstance and inspired by historical examples (the Bible, Cloepatra and the Ptolemies, etc.), Ann proclaims “we’ve got to change our whole idea of what’s moral and what’s immoral. We have to realize that moral standards are arbitrary and change when customs and conditions change” (59). Before they decided to have children, Ann attempts to convince Jim to agree to her plan for their children to pair off: “fear. We’ve got to drive it out” (61). If they have a boy… Three girls later, Ann dies in childbirth. But she has already put another plan into motion to perpetuate the human race. There’s a reason their three children have never called Jim “father.”

“No Land of Nod” fits the pattern of stories in which the family must, at all cost, be welded back together even if it takes on a new form. I am reminded of the similar immoral morass explored (unsuccessfully) in the much later Richard Wilson story “Mother to the World” (1968). Wilson’s twist on the last man and woman formula involves the intellectual disability of Siss “who has the mentality of an eight-year-old” (9). “No Land of Nod” horrifyingly places the women of the story as those pushing for repopulating the world at all costs. Ann plans for her daughters to play the role she sets out. A profoundly disturbing thought experiment!


2.75/5 (Below Average)

Wallace West’s “Eddie For Short” first appeared in Amazing Stories, ed. Howard Browne (December 1953-January 1954). You can read it online here. This is the first Wallace West story I’ve read.

The nineteen-year-old lounge singer Lita goes through the rituals she fondly remembers from the time before the war–she sings, she shows a “startling length of leg” (88) while playing piano, and huskily croons “Goodnight, kind friends, wherever you may be” (89) into the TV cameras that daily broadcast her performance. Her sequestered dying husband–“Demon Carbon 14 caught up with me at last” (89)–attempts to prepare her for his eventual death over the telephone. He intones: “I love you too […] Maybe the human race has tried its damnedest to commit suicide. We can’t let it do stupid things like that, can we?” (89). Before he dies he extricates a promise that Lita will join up with any man who tracks her down through her broadcasts: ““An’ I don’t care whether he’s yellow, or black, or pea-green and has bat ears an’ cross eyes. If he comes you, uh, marry him. See?” (90). With great reluctance, Lita agrees. And she continues her broadcasts…

But no man comes. Instead, an old African-American woman named Verna Smith, “snaggletoothed and benevolent” (96), arrives from Key West where her dead husband used to be a shrimp fisher. She points out immediately that Lita is pregnant. Verna attempts to care for Lita, assisting her as she treks to her daily broadcasts across the abandoned Miami wasteland. With the prospect of mothering the future generation, the mostly uneducated Lita attempts to read books in the University of Miami library that might provide the knowledge needed for survival. But instead of science and technology, she’s drawn in by Greek legend. And the story of Oedipus and his mother. And she names her new child Eddie, for short.

Told with an odd joviality considering the premise, “Eddie For Short” contains deeply sinister implications in its refashioning of the family after the apocalypse. First, like Charles in Arch Obler’s Five (1951), the African American character is solely in the narrative to assist the perpetuation of the white race. There’s no indication of others surviving. That said, Lita refuses to adhere to the racism of the day in her interactions with Verna (96). Second, Lita carries with her traumatic experiences at an orphanage. With her momentary marital happiness shattered and bound by her promise to her dead husband, she yearns to create a new family–with her son.


Notes

[1] Discussed briefly in Jad Smith’s John Brunner (2012), 25. The ten issues of Brunner’s folk music and science fiction fanzine do not appear to be online. Here is a bit about them. I’ve checked on Internet Archive, FANAC.org, and eFanzines. If you have access to the March 1955 issue of Brunner’s Noise Level please let me know!

[2] Smith, 25.

[3] Smith, 24.

[4] I highly recommend Elaine Tyler May in Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era (1988, revised edition 2017). It’s a fascinating look at the impact of WII and the Cold War on families. May, 90.

[5] May, 91.

[6] May, 90-91. For example, the Senate report Employment of Homosexuals and Other Sex Perverts in Government (1950) that argued that “sexual ‘perverts'” could spread their poison by association and destroy the United States from within.

[7] May, 101.


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24 thoughts on “Short Story Reviews: Sherwood Springer’s “No Land of Nod” (1952) and Wallace West’s “Eddie For Short” (1953)

  1. Minor editing note … in discussing Sherwood Springer’s career you meant, I think, “With a 21 year gap from 1956 to 1977”.

    I just read “No Land of Nod”. I think I pretty much endorse your thoughts on the story. I do think its take on genetics is pretty far off, and the choice to call dangerous genes “black genes” is a horrible mistake. In reality, a true “Adam and Eve” society of that sort would probably have to turn to either infanticide, or to forced sterilization, if they wanted to reduce the occurrence of what they consider “bad” genes; and, worse, human history shows that such practices inevitably start labelling certain genetic traits “bad” for pretty horrible reasons. (And, in fact, many SF stories set in post-Apocalyptic societies do show things like infanticide and forced sterilization (more often to eliminate radiation-caused mutations) and they usually do show those laws turning out pretty bad.) This story seems to want to imply that by sheer luck Jim and Ann have NO dangerous genetic traits to pass on.

    As I recall, the scientific consensus is that a minimum of at least one hundred or so people would be needed to plausibly “restart” the human race. Though, as I understand, some think that cheetahs were at one time down to as little as one breeding pair.

    I have to say, in the end, that Joanna Russ continues to have the best last word in WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO …!

    • Thank you. I finished this after midnight last night — I’ll probably find errors for the next few days. When I was a graduate student writing my dissertation, I slipped into the following ridiculous schedule — wake up at 10 am then do nothing but read science fiction, write for my site, go to the library, etc. until my wife came home from work. I’d then cook dinner. She’d go to sleep. And I’d then write my dissertation from 9 pm until 3 am. Repeat. I feel the pull still on weekends and breaks! hah.

      As for the genetics in the story, yeah, they come across–even to someone who knows little to nothing about the sciences–as complete crud. The Springer story seems to operate on the level that one can think through a solution for this ridiculous situation. Russ has it right. Some situations can’t be rescued by the ingenuity of man. And shouldn’t even be attempted.

      Sturgeon apparently critiqued the story for not going far enough….

      It is hard not to read this group of stories (Farmer, Springer, and the authors mentioned by Brunner as “mature”) as presaging many of the concerns of the New Wave movement.

        • Absolutely! I have a bunch more stories to put in this loose series of posts. I’ll cover the other two Brunner mentions and pair them with others that come to mind. I’m thinking Lester del Rey’s “For I am A Jealous People (1954) paired with Julian May’s “Star of Wonder” (1953) for example…

  2. These are both unfamiliar stories to me and, indeed, unfamiliar writers — I’ve heard of Wallace West, but I don’t think I’ve ever read a story by him. Keep on like this, JB, and you’re going to know more esoterica about the most obscure SF writers of the mid-20th century than John Boston.

    It does strike me that while the classic 1950s-60s American SF quest to question taboos is sort of admirable taken on its own, there was rather more concentration on the incest taboo than seems … um, healthy. Seriously: once you get away from the Futurian cadre (Pohl, Kornbluth, Wollheim), you’ll find fewer pro-communist stories than you’ll find fairly strongly pro-incest stories. Just off the top of my head, there’s ‘Heinlein’s FARNHAM’S FREEHOLD (but, really, there’s an abundance of what would now be considered icky stuff in Heinlein), Ted Sturgeon’s ‘If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?,’ Ward Moore’s ‘Lot’ and ‘Lot’s Daughter.’ The list goes on, further than I care to remember just now.

    I was going to bring up Joanna Russ’s WE WHO ARE ABOUT TO DIE …. as the final stage response to all these stories, but Rich H. beat me to it.

    Still, if you really want an SF story from the 1940s-70s that tops all the above in terms of the ‘ickiness’ factor — and manages to do so without even bringing in incest — you might want to look at ‘Call Me Dumbo’ by Bob Shaw.

    http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?58985

    • As for Wallace West, I’ve read a couple of novels by him. (For my sins, I suppose.) I don’t remember anything about THE DARK TOWER (Startling, July 1951; reprinted as THE MEMORY BANK by very low end hardware imprint Avalon in 1961) except that I came away with a vague sense of “that was better than I expected, if not actually good”.

      I also read, and spelunked for the publication history which I recorded at ISFDB, his novel THE TIME-LOCKERS (Avalon, 1964). My review is here: https://rrhorton.blogspot.com/2017/01/a-forgotten-sf-novel-time-lockers-by.html

      • I’ll check out the review Rich. But yeah, he’s an author I’ve known about for a while but I’ve never tracked down any of his work. I found the story in the MASSIVE annotated bibliography in Paul Brians’ Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in fiction, 1895-1984 that takes up more of the monograph than the actual monograph.

    • I beat both of you to it! hah. I linked my review of Russ’ masterpiece in the post.

      Yes, the theme is relatively common — but I’m unsure how you’d escape it if you tackle a Last Man and Woman scenario…. and the Biblical model is a logical parallel. And that’s why Russ has it right — it’s not a possible or moral situation.

      I despise Farnham’s Freehold. One (of many) reasons I completely quit reading Heinlein…

      I’ll add Sturgeon’s story to the list (Ward was already on it). If any others come to mind, let me know.

  3. I remember reading “No Land of Nod” and “Mother to the World” close together, what with their similar premises, and despite being the older story, I’m gonna say the former has aged better. I came away from it thinking, “Huh. He really did do that, didn’t he?”

    Incidentally, this is the same issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories that has another gem of subversive ’50s SF, Edmond Hamilton’s “What’s It Like Out There?” I liked the Springer, but Hamilton’s story is a MASTERPIECE. One of my all-time favorites. Every other story in that issue could be dogshit and I’d still say the Hamilton is worth the price of admission.

      • If you look at the edgiest SF from the ’50s, it’s almost always published in the second-rate magazines. Startling and Thrilling Wonder Stories had their fair share (early Phil Farmer comes to mind) while Universe had Sturgeon’s “The World Well Lost.” I’m also thinking of Leigh Brackett’s “All the Colors of the Rainbow,” which appeared in the now-forgotten Venture Science Fiction. That last one’s pretty interesting; it’s one of the few SF stories from that period I can think of which tackles racism, but it manages to be both allegorical (SF authors never wanted to write about actual real-life racism for… some reason) while also being really abrasive about said allegory. Brackett takes no prisoners.

        • I think “The Queer Ones” is the better (by some margin) of Brackett’s two stories for Venture, partly because I think “All the Colors of the Rainbow” is too programmed; too obvious, and the bad guys are too overtly bad. (My point being that the effects of racism were (are) bad enough when in the background, when subtle.) (Though the fate of the main character is well handled.) Which isn’t to say it’s a bad story — it’s a good one. But “The Queer Ones” is subtler and more mysterious, and for some reason less well known.

          It is curious that the issue of Venture with “All the Colors of the Rainbow” also has a story by Edmond Hamilton, “No Earthman I”, which is a rather crude caricature of stupid aliens resisting the benevolent colonialist uplift efforts of humans. The editor’s note made a remark about the husband and wife having spirited discussions about their differing politics as represented by those two stories; but, looked at from a certain direction, they are the EXACT SAME STORY! Both feature benevolent colonialist aliens coming to another planet and having their efforts rejected by the stupid natives. The only difference is that the stupid natives in Brackett’s story are the humans. (That said, it is a better story.)

          (And, yes, “The Ark of Mars” (and its sequel) are weak stories, Brackett at her worst. But one shouldn’t judge her by them!)

  4. Kinda late to be saying this, but how do you get these clean copies of the interior artwork? I’ve been wondering this, especially now that I’ve started my own review blog, but the interior for “No Land of Nod” really prompted me here (Virgil Finlay being one of the greats as usual).

    • Internet Archive — click the link to the story I provided at the beginning of the review to see the entire issue. I often screenshot the interior art. While I collect plenty of SF, I do not collect magazines as almost all the major ones have been digitized. That said, I often read the stories in these series in various anthologies or collections I own vs. online.

          • What do you mean if you started acquiring magazines you’d never stop? It’s easy to stop, honest! I mean, honest … I mean, I only got like 10 magazines in the past week, nothing to see there … 🙂

            • Yeah, I suspect I only own around 30 SF magazines which tend to come from discount shelves at various Half Price Books stores. Internet Archive completely removes my need to acquire them. As did my previous life in academia with a massive university library at my fingertips which prevented the need to acquire any history volumes! Now I spend far more on history (most of what I read) than SF…

        • I promise I’ll also visit and engage with some your posts on your site soon — for example, the Miller tale (never cared for “The Lineman” but adore so many of his other short fictions and have written about his “depressed astronaut” stories on my site — “The Hoofer” and “Death of a Spaceman”).

          My job–I teach at risk inner city kids “college-level” history courses–destroys my ability to do much of anything for the first month I return after the summer…

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