Archive for the ‘People Just Ain't What They Used To Be’ Category


Sentinels from Space by Eric Frank Russell

December 17, 2012

The Book: Sentinels from Space by Eric Frank Russell. Alternatively Sentinels of Space.  Copyright 1953, based on a story published in 1951, “The Star Watchers.” Published by Ace (First in Science Fiction), D-468.

Sentinels from Space

The Setting: Earth, Venus, sometime in the future.

The Story: David Raven, daredevil pilot, is recruited by the government to secretly end the secret war that Mars and Venus have not-declared on Earth. But Raven has other things on his mind as well. Like the fate of all mankind!

The Science: In this story there are mutants. Twelve types of mutants, each with special powers. And mostly, it seems, they use their powers for crime. Mutants, it is explained, developed especially on Venus and Mars because their folks were bombarded with cosmic rays. Fair enough. Radiation tend to have a mutagenic effect on cells. Superpowers, eh, maybe not so much.

The Reaction: I was impressed with this story. It kept me guessing, the writing didn’t distract me, and the plot felt pretty solid, if a bit jumpy. For a book with a different title on the spine and cover (of/from), I wasn’t expecting a lot. But I found myself staying up late to read more.

The Cover: Cover art by Robert E. Schulz. A man with lots on his mind – planets, black rocketships, and lots of clouds. Also, more groovy fonts. I’m a fan of this cover. Nice work.

Next Up: The Outer Reaches edited by August Derleth.


Secret of the Black Planet by Milton Lesser

December 21, 2011

The Book: Secret of the Black Planet by Milton Lesser. According to the ISFDB, originally published as two shorter stories in June and July of 1951. The edition read was printed by Belmont in 1965.

The Setting: Earth, Space and Really really distant planets, all in a not that distant future.

The Story: A strong man in a circus is really a famous space archaeologist who has discovered a secret of eternal life and now people are trying to kill him. Then, the strong man/archaeologist’s son and a girl travel the universe trying to find who first found the secret of eternal life, and love.  Also Martians, Venusians, and competing planetary mobs.

The Science: Uh. Okay. So. You sit in this chair in this mysterious “black planet” hanging out in the asteroid belt, do some stuff, and you get infused with life, strength, the ability to heal, and, what the hell, you can even come back after being killed-but-good.  BUT! If you sit in that chair too long, you’ll age in reverse until you’re not even a twinkle in your daddy’s eye. In that second scenario, something is seriously wrong with the law of conservation of mass, because no energy seems to be given off in the reaction.

Don’t even getting me started on the teleportation issues.

The Reaction: I liked that it was an adventure story for a while. It was very much in the spirit of John Carter, and that was fun. When it’s fun, I don’t care that it’s not making much sense. But this book committed a cardinal sin, in the area of formatting. In many places, SECTION BREAKS ARE OMITTED. You might not think section breaks are important, but when you’re jumping between two scenes, and there’s no space between the paragraphs to alert you, it gets confusing. Confusing pulls you out of the story. It all ends in rage. Bad editor, bad bad editor.

The Cover: Formatting issues aside, this cover is awesome. Alas, no credit for the illustrator. There’s a spaceship, there’s a dude with a ray gun in his long johns, and there’s a girl straight out of the ’40’s hanging back. Also, that font. I love a font. The only problem is that the blurbs on the front and back cover seem to have been written by someone who read a different story.

Next Up: “Feedback” by Katherine MacLean


The Synthetic Man (The Dreaming Jewels) by Theodore Sturgeon

March 26, 2011

The Book: The Synthetic Man (The Dreaming Jewels) by Theodore Sturgeon. Originally published in 1950, the edition read was published in 1957 by Pyramid Books.

The Setting: The United States, Earth, a mid-century present.

The Story: A young boy runs away from a cruel adoptive family with only the broken remains of his toy jack-in-the-box and ends up joining the circus where he hides from the mean circus-master by disguising himself as a female midget. He reads voraciously and is loved by Zena, a real female midget, for many years. Meanwhile, the circus master is conducting research on sentient crystals which produce life. His aim is to destroy mankind by forcing the crystals to create evil and poisonous things instead of, say, little boys *coughcough*. After a decade or so, the boy (now a young man who, as the product of the crystals is able to control his shape) and the circus master face off in a battle which may determine the future of mankind. Or not.

The Science: The crystals, or dreaming jewels of the original title, represent a truly alien form of life. The crystals can work singly or in pairs, and create life, copies of other life (not always very accurate or pretty). But creating life is merely a by product of whatever sort of thought life they lead. Horty, the boy in the book, is ultimately able to enter into that thought life and force his impressions on the crystals, but they’re not all that interested. Definitely an original life form for a novel, and one which we would not be able to recognize if we were to encounter one.

The Reaction: I liked this story. It’s original and readable. The evil characters are REALLY evil and the good ones are REALLY good, but it’s a sort of fairy tale that centers on the idea of what it really is to be human. And Horty, in the middle, has to decided what that means to him. Not a stellar book, but enjoyable.

The Cover: Cover art by Art Sussman. Crazy looking broken face, guy holding up red hand missing three fingers. Important plot elements and a cover that makes you go WTF? Seems to be out of the mystery novel school of covers. I’m not in love, but I’m not complaining.

Next Up: “Silence Please” by Arthur C. Clarke


“Defense Mechanism” by Katherine McLean

January 30, 2011

The Book: “Defense Mechanism” by Katherine MacLean. Originally published by Astounding Science Fiction in October 1949. Read in The Diploids and Other Flights of Fancy published by Avon (G-1143) in 1962.

The Setting: Earth.

The Story: A man and his infant son share a psychic link and love bunny rabbits.

The Science: In this story, a man and his infant son share the ability to communicate telepathically and sense other minds around them. Despite its best efforts, science has not yet been able to make a good case for the existence of psychic communication between two human people.

The Reaction:The idea is interesting, but I felt the execution was a little messy. I had to read the end two or three times to really follow along. An attempt to give something of a feminist reading to this makes me glad to point out that the father is taking on a strong care-taker role in his infant son’s life. Perhaps progressive for 1949.

The Cover: Clearly not related to this story, the cover intrigues me with its wandering people, pointy bubbles and chaotic sky. Not my favorite, perhaps, but quite nice nonetheless.

Etc: The first female author I’ve encountered in this project. I look forward to reading more of her stories.

Next Up: “History Lesson” by Arthur C. Clarke


“Dark They Were and Golden-eyed” by Ray Bradbury

December 25, 2010

The Book: “Dark They Were and Golden-eyed” by Ray Bradbury. Originally published in Thrilling Wonder Stories in August, 1949.  The story was read in A Medicine for Melancholy printed in 1963 by Bantum Books.

The Setting: Mars.

The Story: A pioneer family is stranded on Mars begins to adapt to their new surroundings, so to speak.

The Science: The idea of the story is that Earth things become Mars things when on Mars. This applies to plants and to people. That somehow, through exposure to the environment, humans slowly become Martian. It’s not a sudden transition, but a slow and natural seeming one which extends beyond physiology to culture and language. It’s something more than a genetic mutation and something less then a parasite taking over their bodies. It doesn’t really work scientifically at all.

The Reaction: The story is good. It feels like a classic. I like it.

The Cover: Same as last time.

Next Up: 1984 by George Orwell.


“The Human Angle” by William Tenn

November 4, 2010

The Book: “The Human Angle” by William Tenn. Originally published in the October 1948 edition of Famous Fantastic Mysteries. The story was read in The Human Angle (a collection of William Tenn Stories) printed by Bantum in 1964.

The Setting: Way out in the boonies, USA.

The Story: A reporter tries to find ‘the human angle’ on a story of a vampire hunt and becomes much more familiar with the subject than he had expected.

The Science: The only thing to really address in this very short story is: Do vampires exist? Under the fangs in neck, afraid of light and garlic category – no.  The internet tells me so. But there are, ahem, a lot of opinions on the topic.

The Reaction: After so much Bradbury, a different narrative voice was welcome, and this is a nice, tight little story. Not totally unpredictable, but nice.

The Cover: Four words: Joan Miro in space.

Next Up: “The One Who Waits” by Ray Bradbury


“Pillar of Fire” by Ray Bradbury

November 2, 2010

The Book: “Pillar of Fire” by Ray Bradbury. Originally published in the September 1948 edition of Planet Stories. The edition read was published in S is for Space by Bantum in 1970.

The Setting: Earth, 2349.

The Story: The last corpse on earth wakes up, is pissed about it, and starts blowing shit up.

The Science: Um. Well. There’s your problem. I’d like to talk about the walking dead here, but there’s no reason given as to why this corpse wakes up except that he his filled with hate and rage. Hate and rage are not scientific concepts, and are certainly not the very spark of life, particularly if the spark of life has already died from the brain. So… that makes no sense.

The Reaction: It’s not a bad story. It’s a bit in the vein of a lamentation for the loss of all things gritty and creative, a theme which crops up here from time to time. Plus, it’s a hate filled zombie wandering around, blowing stuff up. AND he goes to the library too.

The Cover: Same as before.

Next Up: “The October Game” by Ray Bradbury


“Fever Dream” by Ray Bradbury

November 1, 2010

The Book: “Fever Dream” by Ray Bradbury. Originally published in the September, 1948 edition of Weird Tales. The story was read in A Medicine for Melancholy printed in 1963 by Bantum Books.

The Setting: A present, small town America.

The Story: A very sick boy is taken over by germs.

The Science: I read once that 90% of the cells in the human body belong to non-human microbes. That’s a lot. And the idea of some sort of spontaneous (r)evolution wherein the microbes gang up and take over is interesting, but not really plausible, given what I know about  such things. Sure, some little organisms can change the behavior of the carrier, but this story implies a great deal more coordination and intention than that.

The Reaction: A nice short story, with a nice idea, and a chilling ending. I feel like I’m hitting Bradbury at his stride just now.

The Cover: Well, I suppose a medicine for melancholy would be whimsical, and this cover has whimsy, in that old fashioned clip art sort of way. But I’m not delighted overall, and am downright confused about that naked lady.  It’s like the cover designer had 15 minutes to put it together.

Next Up: “Pillar of Fire” by Ray Bradbury.


Destination Infinity by Henry Kuttner

October 14, 2010

The Book: Destination Infinity by Henry Kuttner.  Originally published in 1947 as Fury, the edition read was printed by Avon in 1956.

The Setting: Venus, 600 odd years in the future.

The Story: Sam Reed, short squat and bald, lives in the undersea domes of Venus and makes a pretty good living as a criminal. He gets mixed up in some bad business with the Immortals, a race of long-lived genetic mutants, and disappears for 40 years. Wakes up and finds he’s immortal too! Hey, how about that? Through intrigue, bullying, and keen instinct he gains power and influence. He colonizes the violent, Jurassic-type surface of the planet, and gets power mad. And deposed. And put into a sleep state until he’s “needed” again…

The Science: We’ve already discussed how earlier perceptions of Venus were pretty much wrong. It’s not ocean-y. There are no jungles. And the plant life won’t eat you because there is no plant life. Kuttner also draws on the theme of plant life that’s just as vicious as animal life if not more so. Because Kuttner’s Venus is so violent, people live in undersea domes which are pretty much just cities.

Some of the story involves a metal, korium, which seems to be a very important radioactive power source, but isn’t really involved except for being demanded as ransom. The science-y bits of this book are more incidental than anything.

The Reaction: I had some trouble getting into this book. But about a third of the way through I was really drawn in. The writing in this book varies tremendously.  There’s a lot of pointless foreshadowing (something like “this would be the last time he saw her alive”) and a couple instances that made me laugh out loud (“Sam searched and pondered, pondered and searched.”). But the intrigue is pretty intriguing and the character in the central part of the book is really where it comes into its own. And the epilogue might be great, or it might be horrible. I can’t tell. Worth the read, I think.

The Cover: I wish there was an art credit for this cover because I love it, even if it’s a tad inaccurate for the story. City in dome, check. Space bombers, check. Dynamic use of italics, check. Love it.

Etc: Fury is a much better title for this book.

Next Up: “The Blinding Shadows” by Donald Wandrei


“Uncle Einar” by Ray Bradbury

October 10, 2010

The Book: “Uncle Einar” by Ray Bradbury.  Originally published in 1947 in Dark Carnival.  The edition read is in R is for Rocket, published by Bantam Books in 1978.


The Setting: Illinois. Earth.

The Story: Uncle Einar, a man(?) with great big functional wings, loses his ability to echolocate after flying into high tension wires and chafes against the domestic life. Then he gets it back.

The Science: Leaving aside the issue of a man with great big wings, there’s the idea of his sixth sense which allowed him to fly safely at night. It’s not explicitly echolocation, but that’s the sense I get from it, or how I would explain it in nice scientific terms. Bats and dolphins echolocate by sending out sounds and gauging the way the noise bounces back – they build a picture of the world around them in this way. Some blind human individuals do this to an extent through clicking or tapping a cane. So imbuing a character who can fly with a sixth sense of this sort is scientifically okey dokey by me.

The Reaction: Another vignette story. It’s fine and short.

The Cover: Same as before.

Next Up: NSF “El Dia de Muerte” by Ray Bradbury