Short Story Reviews: Harlan Ellison’s “Psycho at Mid-Point” (1956) and “The Discarded” (variant title: “The Abnormals”) (1959)

The following review is the 20th installment of my series searching for “SF short stories that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them.” Some stories I’ll review in this series might not fit. Many are far from the best. And that is okay. I relish the act of literary archaeology.

I turn now to an author, Harlan Ellison (1934-2018), whom I’ve only marginally explored considering his prodigious output. I am completely ignorant of his 50s visions. I’d previously read and reviewed his collection Approaching Oblivion (1974) and a handful of other stories including “A Boy and His Dog” (1969). The first story in this post–“Psycho at Mid-Point” (1956)–exemplifies the theme at its most brutal and nihilistic. As a bonus, I’ve paired it with one of Ellison’s better known 50s tales of mutants and prison ships–“The Discarded” (variant title: “The Abnormals”) (1959). If you know of any other Ellison stories that might fit the theme, let me know.

As always, feel free to join the conversation and read along with me on the search for the depressed astronaut.

Previously: Alfred Coppel’s “The Hunters” (1952, “The Dreamer” (1952), and “Double Standard” (1952).

Up Next: George R. R. Martin’s “The Second Kind of Loneliness” (1972) and Tom Godwin’s “The Nothing Equation” (1957)

3.25/5 (Above Average)

Harlan Ellison’s “Psycho at Mid-Point” first appeared in Super-Science Fiction, ed. W. W. Scott (December 1956). You can read it online here. It was not collected or anthologized.

Mike Ashley in Transformations: The Story of the Science Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970 (2005) does not have kind words for the three-year run of the magazine Super-Science Fiction (1956-1959). He describes the editor W. W. Scott as utterly out of his depth with a misguided reliance on “instant impact” without substance or cohesion or knowledge of the field. That said, Scott accidentally published a few solid short stories before the magazine’s demise in the market collapse in the late 50s even if the overall issues tended to be poor (168-169) and pandered to whatever craze filled the air (187). I’d classify Harlan Ellison’s “Psycho at Mid-Point” as a solid early work that fits the theme of this series perfectly!

“After fifteen months, Wallace went mad” (54).

And into claustrophobic interiors of a mapping vessel we trudge. On a “straight two-year run in the ship, unrelieved” and without a mappable planet to explore, the relationship amongst the small crew begins to fray at the edges (54). Horner attempts to convince the other crew members that Wallace was going mad. Horner is convinced that Wallace’s “nighttime” perambulations of the ship relate to some devilish plot (59). He catches Wallace hording food in the control room (60). But soon Horner maps the paranoid contours of his own face in the mirror: “the temples throbbed unnaturally, jaw muscles twitched, his eyebrows rose unexpectedly” (64). Rather than reflect on his own mental state, the mantra “thank the Lord all of us are normal” (61) keeps the battle lines clearly drawn in his mind. He soon convinces the others that Wallace is the insane one and that he must be stopped. But Wallace has a gun.

A bleak emptiness permeates all. Ellison’s gritty expose of the tortured psyche of a spaceman on the fritz is entirely free from the wonderous delight in the exploration of the cosmos. Even the crew thought death would be more glamorous: “they had expected death from a flaming sun, or grasping blue from air loss, or bloated and eaten away inside by fungus on a weird planet the other side of hell. But it hadn’t happened that way at all” (54). Like the iconic B-movie noir Detour (1945) with its miniscule budget, restrictive sets, and one-month filming schedule, this rather minimalist story is rough around the edges yet exudes a primal paranoia and a good dose of brutish bile.

Recommended only for Ellison completists.

4/5 (Good)

Harlan Ellison’s “The Discarded” (variant title: “The Abnormals”) first appeared in Fantastic, ed. Cele Goldsmith (April 1959). You can read it online here. I read it in his collection Paingod and Other Delusions (1965).

As with “Psycho at Mid-Point,” “The Discarded” hits with its first line: “Bedzyk saw Riila go mad, and watched her throw herself against the lucite port, till her pin-head was a red blotch of pulped flesh and blood” (7). The prison ship hangs in space somewhere between “the moon and Earth, unwanted, unnoticed, a raft adrift in the sea of night” (7). Its stranded crew are the Discards, inflicted with random fantastical mutations, exiled from Earth after a nuclear conflict. Some leak with strange fluids and chatter with inhuman voices. Others have unusual growths, feathers, glass hands, or another head that lacks sentience and relentlessly stares with its unnerving eyes….

Bedzyk attempts to look out for the crew many of whom are all to willing, like Riila, to commit suicide to escape the lonely monotony and painful memories of happier pasts on Earth. And when a diplomat arrives from Earth unannounced with a plan that sounds all too perfect, his authority becomes threatened. Curran, the emissary, relays a scientific project to cure the disease once and for all. The crux? They need the blood of the crew. And they promise a plot of land on Earth for their compliance.

“The Discarded” contains an emotional register not obtained by “Psycho at Mid-Point.” The characters all attempt to chart a path out of the mire yet fall victim to powers and decisions they cannot control. Both stories detach the space from any sense of wonder. Ellison’s fascination with outcast communities attempting to survive the often arbitrary power of the status quo is on show. Recommended

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38 thoughts on “Short Story Reviews: Harlan Ellison’s “Psycho at Mid-Point” (1956) and “The Discarded” (variant title: “The Abnormals”) (1959)

  1. Many thanks for this review. I haven’t read “Psycho at Mid-Point,” but I’ve always liked “The Discarded.” There was a good adaptation of it on the brief anthology series Masters of Science Fiction.

    • Yup, while I was reading a bit about the story I came across that episode. I watch little SF television so it’s not something I’ve seen but, from what I read, that episode was supposed to be the highlight of the show.

      • I like all six episodes (I think there were only six) of Masters of Science Fiction. (I found the DVD by chance in Zellers some years back.)

        • Well, if you enjoy Ellison already, check out “Psycho at Mid-Point.” If I were to pick one story that goes straight to the heart of this series on critical accounts of space agencies and astronauts in its most simplified and brutal form, it’s this one. that said, Iit’s far from the best story I’ve covered and ultimately doesn’t have much to say other than astronauts will go at each other if they’re stuck together too long…

            • Unfortunately, as I point out in the review, it isn’t collected or anthologized anywhere. I provide a link to the magazine (and yes, I remember that you’re not a big fan of reading online — it’s short!).

            • Many thanks, Joachim! My apologies for overlooking that clarification in your review regarding the story’s publication history. In that case, I’ll try to read the link you provided.

            • Perhaps Ellison wouldn’t have wanted such a collection since he saw himself as a writer of fantastic literature in a broad sense, not a science fiction writer as such (I agree with him there), and wouldn’t have wanted a collection emphasizing his science fiction. Nevertheless, I think such a collection would be good to have, and there’s no reason why, four years after his death, someone can’t put together such a collection.

            • I would be pleased by an omnibus collection of either kind, but I think a collection specifically of Ellison’s science fiction stories would be of special interest. In spite of his protestations, he developed in the science fiction field and was part of it, and it would be interesting to explore his relationship to SF.

      • Hey there, JB, long time no read.

        Ellison was the first SF writer I got into as a little kid, and knew “The Abnormals” as “The Discarded. It was very powerful stuff for a kid who’d just finished reading “I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream,” and made me think that THIS is what they meant by an ‘adult’ book.

        I’ve never stopped being a HE fan, but even back then I knew some of his stories didn’t carry that kind of punch–and that was okay, because everything of his I read at the very least held my interest. But a steady diet of Ellison might not be a good thing for the very young.

        • I’ve always liked Ellison’s work, which I discovered in my teens, along with that of Philip K. Dick and Michael Moorcock. I discovered Bradbury and Clarke and Asimov somewhat earlier.

          Regarding John’s comment, “A steady diet of Ellison might not be a good thing for the very young”: I wonder how accessible Ellison’s work would be to an eleven-year-old whose reading of SF up to that point was mainly Heinlein’s juveniles, etc.

          • I sometimes wonder what would’ve happened if Ellison wasn’t my first exposure to SF writing. I think I only bought my first Ellison paperback because I liked the cover, and there were few SF books at all at the small bookstore where I got it. When you’re a little kid you don’t know what kind of mental minefields you’re wandering into when you explore pop culture.

            • “When you’re a little kid you don’t know what kind of mental minefields you’re wandering into when you explore pop culture.” This is one of the things that makes one’s early discoveries fascinating.

            • Absolutely. When I worked with school-avoidant kids years ago, it was a revelation to see how many of them (who didn’t strike me as big readers at first) clung to books that made an impact on them early on. They weren’t kids’ books, either (some were YA books they read before they were 14). The subject has always fascinated me.

  2. Your literary archaeology seems to be digging deeper and deeper. Is it me, or did it seem you used to mostly dig into the strata of the 1970s, but now, you are digging deeper into the past? I suppose the following of themes caused that trend.

    • I think I have reviewed more from the 50s this year than what I normally review. But there isn’t anything particularly deliberate about what I cover. For example, I decided to review Ellison’s “Psycho at Mid-Point” a few days ago after it was offhandedly mentioned in the Mike Ashley book I linked in the post (which I finished yesterday). I’m also sitting on a bunch of unfinished reviews of other SF… including stuff from the 60s and 70s… but they’re novels and required far more effort to review. Considering my hellish professional responsibilities as the semester winds to a close, the fact that I manage to write anything is a miracle considering the glacial rate at which I write and how many notes I have to take before I can put pen to paper.

    • I’d seen Detour described at one point as a distillation of “NOIR” into its most archetypal elements. And I guess I felt the same about “Psycho at Mid-Point” as a representation of stories that are critical of astronauts. There are astronauts. They go insane. You don’t know who is insane. They kill each other. And no one cares about the actual act of exploration of the cosmos that they are supposedly engaged in.

      • I like the idea that Ellison’s story is a distillation, stripped back to its essential elements. Though it raises more questions to my mind. Is this a story about madness whose science fictional elements are merely accidental–i.e., not central to the conceits of plot and character? In part, this reminds me of arguments that came up around the New Wave with regard to the place of SF in broader literature and culture. Often it seems that the most radical of the New Wavers used SF tropes only incidentally rather than as a necessity, further raising questions about what exactly distinguished SF from non-SF.

        For example, I would agree with your typification of ‘Detour’ as being a bear bones exemplar of Noir (and all the better for its pared back wackiness), whereas I can’t see how ‘Psycho At Mid Point’ is anything but a story about the psychic breakdown of a group of people who just so happen to also be astronauts (and granted that I have yet to read this story!).

          • Just merrily prodding away! I like your comparison. In truth, I’m just wondering out loud about Ellison’s intentions here. A story stripped back to what seems like a psychological thriller (?) in which the SF tropes are little more than window dressing sort of sounds to me like the New Wave in anticipation. Maybe I should just read it and stop bugging you!

  3. My lack of desire to read more Ellison is reinforced. I’m very unlikely to try these out but am glad to have the outlines of these stories, like the excellent concept of “the Discarded”, in my brain.

  4. JB: “No problem. Why Ellison doesn’t have an omnibus collection of all his SF is beyond me…. alas.”

    Ellison wrote some stories that are not without interest and a few that are palpable hits, but the ratio of the really good stuff to the bombast and dreck is not favorable enough for me to get too excited about him. This is in part my reaction to his relentless self-promotion and narcissism.

    There are a couple of supposedly complete Ellison collections which I will list below — one four volume set and one mega-whopper single volume — and if there are early Ellison SF stories from the 1950s like ‘Psycho at Mid-Point’ or ‘The Steel Napoleon’ that he never reprinted I would suggest it’s because even he, despite his overweening self-regard, realized they were stinkers.

    There are four volumes of EDGEWORKS: THE COLLECTED ELLISON. These came out in 1991-1996 and there was supposed to be a fifth, but it didn’t appear. I used to see second-copies around bookstores in Berkeley. He didn’t die till later, true; but he also didn’t write much beyond the date of these books’ publication, and what he did that is of interest is in a 1998 collection called SLIPPAGE.

    Over the Edge (v. 1) (Edgeworks: Collected Ellison)

    Edgeworks: Collected Ellison: v. 2 (The collected Ellison)

    Edgeworks: The Harlan Ellison Hornbook & Harlan Ellison’s Movie

    Love Ain’t Nothing but Sex Misspelled : The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World: v. 4 (Edgeworks: Collected Ellison)

    The Essential Ellison: A 50 Year Retrospective Paperback (1250 pages!)

    • Yeah, I’m thinking of a standard omnibus edition of ALL published genre stories like the one for Ballard not the selective ones you’ve listed…. Yes, “Psycho” might be a middling story but it still has some punch and should be in an omnibus edition in my view.

      • JB: I’m thinking of a standard omnibus edition of ALL published genre stories like the one for Ballard not the selective ones you’ve listed

        But Ballard never ever wrote anything so truly, embarrassingly bad that even a narcissist like Ellison could see that it would best if it never saw print again.

        Ellison — like his buddies, Silverberg and Budrys — did, since during the high-water mark of the SF magazine boom of 1952-55 there were something like 38-42 English-language SF mags to fill, and one could theoretically make a living filling them if one was young and strong. It was a scene where writers could be bad and learn, and get better–that’s the best that could be said for a lot of what got published then

        Of the few folks who actually could turn out enough material every month to make a living, however, I’d say only Sheckley and Dick’s stuff all just about about stands up — if you make great allowances for it here and there — and doesn’t dip into outright awfulness or mere sub-mediocrity rather often. (Oh, and Kornbluth, but he came in during the 1940s, and died of a heart attack at 37.) Silverberg’s 1950’s stuff mostly doesn’t and Budrys’s 1950s stuff often doesn’t, though there are a few great ones like ‘The End of Summer.’

        And Ellison’s stuff from the 1950s was often lame to bad to terrible. For example, he also wrote for the then-extent sub-Playboy men’s magazines like Rogue and Knave, and the payoff of one mainstream Ellison story published in one of those markets around 1960 — the story’s name escapes me — was that no Real Negro could ever be gay, because homosexuality was a ghastly condition enforced upon any apparently homosexual African-American men by brainwashing by/contact with the oppressive American White Man’s culture. You can see why Ellison might not want to republish anything like that.

        Another thing: I wonder, too, whether in the face of all those 38-42 English-language SF magazines that appeared during the 1950s — and the endless reams of mostly inconsequential crap in them — you might want to take it a little easier with the purely historiographic approach you say you’ve adopted, and be a little more discerning.

        Because it seems to me that at a certain point digging too deep into the oeuvre of Betsy Curtis or Milton Lesser or Randall Garrett becomes not just a form of masochism, but leads to distortions where the critic/reviewer starts to look around for reasons to justify why they’re paying attention to this or that minor-to-bad writer publishing back then — say, because the examined writer is a woman — and finishes by bigging up some mostly inconsequential figure like Margaret St Clair or Doris Pitkin Buck. Rather than taking a deeper look at C.L. Moore, for instance, who is someone we don’t understand enough about and whose contributions are still not sufficiently appreciated (or somewhat forgotten).

        • Yeah, this is one of those instances where I probably should hold my tongue Mark but your comment comes off as condescending, rude, and downright asinine. I don’t pander to your interests or wants or conceptions of what is valuable or worth studying.

          I cover what I want and will continue to do so. Go elsewhere if you wish. And if you continue to be rude, I will simply ban you.

          • @JB –

            I apologize. I honestly didn’t intend to be rude or condescending at all — nor had I any notion that you would take it that way.

            And I certainly don’t believe that you have any obligation to do what you’re doing with any regard to what I might expect from you.

            To the contrary. You seem an intelligent, rational person. On that basis I suppose I was asking you whether you’ll find the payoff from your particular approach worthwhile in the long run.

            It’s a serious question, and I’m as entitled to wonder about it as you are to pursue your approach. And so, in the same way as from time to time certain people have questioned me about whatever it is I’ve been doing in my life, I simply asked you.

            I’m sorry you thought that was rude.

            • I obviously value my approach else I wouldn’t be doing it. I am beholden to no one but my own enjoyment. Many of the stories I’ve been covering recently have come up in SF scholarship that I respect and I wanted to read their sources — from Mike Ashley’s Transformations: The Story of Science Fiction Magazines From 1950-1970 to Lisa Yaszek’s Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction. What I write about on the site is a small slice of what I read.

        • Well, a lot to unpack there, but, speaking as someone who proudly reviews a ton of old and insignificant fiction — I thoroughly reject the premise. Reviewing truly minor writers has value partly simply to give context to what other writers were doing. Not just to contrast quality — or not necessarily that at all! — but to see the whole scope of the “conversation” writers were having — what ideas are in circulation? What different angles do different writers take? Are there any really interesting observations to be seen in these “insignificant” writers? Are there any unexpected gems among the otherwise minor output of some writers?

          And that’s allowing the initial assertion — that these writers really are insignificant. Some are, no doubt — Betsy Curtis probably is. But some are not — Margaret St. Clair is NOT an insignificant writer. I’d rank her behind, say, C. L. Moore — but that’s no shame. But I think she stands pretty well with, oh, Hal Clement? pr Eric Frank Russell? (Writers I respect.) Or perhaps A. E. Van Vogt? (A writer who doesn’t work for me — but who shared similar ideas in their goofiness if not their content to St. Clair in some modes.) Perhaps it would be worth asking why St. Clair is the kind of writer some call insignificant? For that matter, other writers are insignificant in a sense — Alice Eleanor Jones is insignificant (to our field), in a sense, because she only published 5 SF stories. But that doesn’t meant that what she did publish didn’t have some gems! And there are other great examples — Roy Hutchins, for one! Only 4 stories, but all enjoyable, and one quite striking. (“The Nostalgia Gene”.)

          Even when a writer is truly minor — from my recent blog posts I’ll suggest Sylvia Jacobs — I find things of interest in their biographies, sometimes, and also in their stories, even when they are failures. And — really — the history of women SF writers from 1950 to 1965, say, is a something truly worth investigating. Why so few? Why did the number decline in the late ’50s? Questions like that. And one way to address such a question is to read what stories women DID publish.

  5. I haven’t read “Psycho at Mid-Point”, but I found out that I had read “The Discarded” over seven years ago, in Ellison’s “All the Sounds of Fear” [Panther]. Rereading it, I thought it was quite good, with Ellison’s distinctive dreaded stamp on it. I remembered reading two of his other pieces on what might be called your “depressed astronaut” theme [both of which were written in the 1950s], in the companion volume to the other collection, “Time of the Eye” [Panther], during my early SF reading days. I reread both of them, the first one being “Life Hutch”, that I realised afterwards that I’d confused with the one I really wanted to read, “Night Vigil”, which I preferred. Both of them deal with the theme of loneliness and lonely individuals on distant planets/asteroids. “Life Hutch” is about a man marooned on a distant world, trapped by a robot programmed to kill him, but “Night Vigil” is stronger I think, and as you’d expect from Ellison, more bitter, with a man chosen by an apparently totalitarian government, as a lookout on a remote outpost for an indefinite period of time, to watch for invading forces. The ending though, is more sanguine than you might think.

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