Short Story Reviews: Betsy Curtis’ “Divine Right” (1950), “The Old Ones” (1950), and “The Protector” (1951)

In the past year or so I’ve put together an informal series on the first three published short fictions by female authors who are new(ish) to me and/or whose most famous SF novels fall mostly outside the post-WWII to mid-1980s focus of my reading adventures. So far I’ve featured Josephine Saxton (1935-), Carol Emshwiller (1921-2019), Wilmar H. Shiras (1908-1990), Nancy Kress (1948-), Melisa Michaels (1946-2019), Lee Killough (1942-), and Eleanor Arnason (1942-).

I do not expect transformative or brilliant things from first stories. This is particularly relevant to keep in mind for today’s post. Rather, it’s a way to get a sense of subject matter and concerns that first motivated authors to put pen to paper and to further map the territories that fascinate me.

Today I’ve selected the first three professional science fiction stories published by Betsy Curtis (1917-2002). She is “best” known for her Hugo-nominated short story “The Steiger Effect” that appeared in Analog Science Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. (October 1968). It lost to Harlan Ellison’s “The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World” (1968). Her short biographical blurb by Eric Leif Davin in Partners In Wonder: Women and the Birth of Science Fiction 1926-1965 (2006) indicates that she received an M.A. in English (1941) from Oberlin College, in 1966 another M.A. in Education from Allegheny College, and was active in the Society for Creative Anachronism (375). Her work is not discussed in much detail by Davin. She published 13 stories in professional magazines and two in fanzines between 1950-1973. For a bit more about her fannish activities, check out the following forum posts.

Have you read any of her work? If so, what were your thoughts?

2.75/5 (Below Average)

Betsy Curtis’ “Divine Right” first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas (Summer 1950). You can read it online here.

Sometime in the future a family of telepathic monarchs rule. Until the death of King Almar the Eighth, Curtis suggests the monarchy was more on the benevolent side of things–collecting a small tithe and encouraging the indoctrination of children to its glories through song and rhyme. But everything changes with the controversial ascension of King Glann. Unlike his predecessors, he squeezes the people dry for new palatial constructions. The story’s protagonist, the young Tod Winster bubbles with the capitalistic credo: “But Dad [..] When you’ve worked hard and earned something, shouldn’t it be yours to keep?” (98). He wants a bicycle. And in a confusing sequence of events his life savings are handed over as a tithe to King Glann in a ceremony to inaugurate the completion of the Winter Palace… but something is amiss. The king doesn’t seem to be a telepath at all. And Tod’s confused actions create the spark of rebellion!

Despite the editors’ effuse praise (“it’s fresh, original in both idea and treatment”), I was mightily disappointed by “Divine Right.” As with “The Protector” reviewed below, Curtis resorts to all to simplistic and trite plot points (a single punch or the actions of a child who wants a new bicycle) to generate transformative change that diminish the pernicious and oppressive forces at play (colonization or an authoritarian government that relies on telepathy). The only element that I enjoyed was the light-hearted attempt to unravel how an authoritarian government operates at the individual level. Tod recites propagandistic prose at school. Teachers complain about increased prices on items they used to afford due to monarchical excess. Husband and wife banter at home about royal rumors.

I can’t recommend this one. Maybe if you’re conducting a readthrough of F&SF or, like me, are fascinated by lesser known female authors of the 50s, track this one down.

2.5/5 (Bad)

Betsy Curtis’ “The Old Ones” first appeared in Imagination, ed. Raymond A. Palmer (December 1950). You can read it online here.

Two suicides rock Block Nineteen, a geriatric research facility filled with “a thousand near-200-year-olds” (101). Why did the two elderly patients commit suicide? Through the marvels of future technology, they were healthy and could have lived for many more decades. Coinciding with the possible scandal that the suicides could cause if the outside world got a sniff, an insurance agent arrives worried about the mental state of patients. You see, “when a person is adjudged mentally incompetent or even gravely ‘insecure,’ the state takes over the care of such a person and The Company is released from financial obligation to that person” (106). It’s all code, of course, for wanted to stop paying the elderly if they were to live increasingly long lives. The insurance agents also drops news about The Colonia–the first colonization mission (to Venus) outside of Earth–and the endless squabbles on which nations would crew the ship. And the completely outrageous threads entwine…

The reason for the suicides is simple: the loss of drive and will to live among the elderly. But maybe three birds could be killed with one stone. If the elderly in the facility were trained for the voyage the squabbles between the nations would stop, the insurance company wouldn’t have to keep paying for their upkeep, and most importantly, the elderly would have purpose once again.

The underlying idea of the near future lives and struggles of the elderly is an appealing theme for a story. But what transpires is outrageously silly. For the first ever colonization mission, only true experts would be selected, not elderly novices after a few crash courses. One could list additional faults… but I rather move on to better visions.

Not recommended.

2.5/5 (Bad)

Betsy Curtis’ “The Protector” first appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction, ed. H. L. Gold (February 1951). You can read it online here.

On the planet Gorlin the telepathic natives, the Anesthons, feel no physical pain. And for some reason, they are dying out. And it might have to do with the rumors of new mines and industries that have appeared on the planet surface. It’s up to an enterprising boxing promoter and his star boxer–an Anesthon named Pierre who doesn’t exactly know how to fight due to his unique ability–to figure out the mystery. Curtis deliberately connects the Anesthons to other persecuted minorities in the United States, in this instance, they vaguely look like “Chinamen” (76).

“The Protector” reads like a tentative condemnation of colonization that resorts to a simplistic violence solves everything message i.e. if only those who feel no physical pain inflict physical pain on others then the evil colonizer can be defeated. Of course, an external savior is needed to convince the natives to resist. There are deceptively powerful moments that lay bare the exploitive impact of external culture on the Anesthons: “I see one Anesthon girl — a real looker she is, too — dance fourteen hours before she gives out, just for a bottle of perfume and one of them Venusian fur lounge robes” (76).

Perhaps a scholar interested in 50s SF’s response to the first stages of post-WWII decolonization or lesser known female authors in the renaissance of the 50s might find Curtis’ tale of value for a larger historical argument. I’m glad I read it (immediately thinks of larger projects half formed). All other readers will be disappointed.

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12 thoughts on “Short Story Reviews: Betsy Curtis’ “Divine Right” (1950), “The Old Ones” (1950), and “The Protector” (1951)

  1. I was nicer to “Divine Right” than you were, but, really, I think you’ve got it about right. I don’t know that I’ve read any other Betsy Curtis stories, though I’ve been meaning to read “The Steiger Effect” for a long time.

    Actually, assuming “The Steiger Effect” is the neglible piece I suspect, the Hugo awards got things shockingly wrong — the Niven, Carr, and Knight stories are all very good, among their authors’ best. The Ellison is, well, overwrought, like most of Ellison’s work, and to less effect than his best pieces.

    Here’s what I wrote about “Divine Right” in my review of that issue of F&SF for Black Gate: “Betsy Curtis (1917-2002) was a fan, fanzine editor, and writer of about 16 stories that appeared between 1950 and 1973. Her best known story is probably “The Steiger Effect” (1967), which got a Hugo nomination. “Divine Right” was her first sale. It’s got a familiar plot, but handled pretty well. It’s set on another planet, colonized by humans, and ruled for a long time by a family of telepaths, who tyrannize the population by reading their thoughts and knowing if anyone is plotting against them. It’s tribute time, when everyone must give the King money or valuables, and this particular King seems to be demanding more money — for wasteful things — than his predecessors. Young Tod has just saved enough on his paper route to buy a new bike … and now it seems he must give his bike to the King. So what happens when he refuses? The course of events is predictable, and the story is kind of thin on believable details — truly minor work, but competent.”

    That issue also included a really nice story by the great crime writer Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. Holding published three stories in F&SF — I’d suggest reviewing those would be more productive than reviwing Betsy Curtis! Alas, Holding died in 1955, so those three stories were all she published in the field. (Lots of excellent crime fiction though!)

    • Are Elisabeth Sanxay Holding’s stories SF? Whenever I saw her name crop up I assumed she wrote more fantasy.

      I think what rubbed me the wrong way was how easily overthrown an authoritarian regime is in “Divine Right.” If children are indoctrinated, then no, it would not be as simple as presented. But then again, there are highly symbolic moments that create chasms in the facade of supreme authority… All three of the stories I reviewed resorted to similarly simplistic answers.

    • Speaking of Ellison, when you posted your comment I had just finished one of his earlier (and unanthologized or collected) stories for my astronaut series! I might pair it with one of his better known 50s stories… thinking “The Abnormal” (variant title: “The Discarded”) at the moment.

  2. Give yourself a break and do Katherine MacLean next. Her first story (“Defense Mechanism”) appeared in 1949 but the following ones (“. . . And Be Merry” and “Incommunicado”) appeared in 1950. Not perfect, but there’s much more to them than to the Curtis stories.

    • As I’ve mentioned before, it’s not all about finding the best! I’ve read and enjoyed some MacLean in the past. For example, huge fan of her 1975 novelization of her Nebula-winning short story Missing Man. I’ve reviewed the novel and two of her short stories on the site already (and read a few more that I never ended up reviewing from her collection The Diploids).

  3. Earlier this year I read a 1956 story called “Rebuttal” by Elizabeth M. Curtis. “Rebuttal” is interesting because she took a character from Arthur C. Clarke’s 1955 story “The Star” and created a follow-on story about that character.

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