SHORTS: Our column exploring free and inexpensive short fiction available on the internet. In today’s column we review the 2020 Retro Hugo nominees in the novelette and short story categories, following up on yesterday’s column, in which we reviewed the novellas.
RETRO HUGO NOVELETTES:
Arena by Fredric Brown (1944, published in Astounding Science Fiction, free online at Internet Archive). 2020 Retro Hugo award nominee (novelette).
Two massive fleets hang outside the orbit of Pluto, about to engage in a furious battle to the death: Humans and the aliens they call the Outsiders. Bob Carson, a young human in an individual scout ship, is about to engage with his Outsider counterpart when he suddenly blacks out, only to awaken under a dome on a planet, not in our solar system. Across from him is a large red ball that turns out to be the Outsider scout (nobody had ever seen an Outsider until now), and the two are separated by an invisible barrier. A disembodied voice informs Carson it has foreseen that if the space battle ensues, one side will be wholly exterminated, but that “winner” will be so damaged that it will “retrogress and never fulfill its destiny, but decay and return to mindless dust.” So the all-powerful entity has plucked Carson and the Outsider out of the two fleets in order to fight a one-on-one duel to the death. This being will destroy the fleet of the loser, allowing the winning species to continue to progress.
The rest of the story involves Carson trying to make peace (rejected), studying the Outsider, making weapons, and trying to figure out the trick to getting through the barrier. Both the Outsider and Carson make use of rocks thrown as weapons, and Carson is wounded and also starts to suffer greatly from dehydration (it’s impossible to tell how long he’s actually there).
Arena is a true classic of the Golden Age of sci fi, and it’s one of those retro stories that holds up extremely well. It’s my favorite of the Hugo retro nominees in the novelette category (though No Woman Born comes close). It’s a simple story told in simple, linear fashion, but it’s no less effective for that simplicity; it’s more feature than flaw. Carson is an easy character to root for, despite no real characterization. He does the right thing in trying to make peace, he’s methodical in how he studies the Outsider, studies the barrier, makes weapons and tools. His solution is both clever and courageous. The plot is taut, suspenseful, tightly constructed, fluidly related, and goes exactly as long as it needs to and no more.
The weakness is how Brown stacks the deck, removing any grayness or complexity by making the Outsider something that can’t be negotiated with. When it moves toward the barrier, it sends before it “a wave of nauseating hatred.” When he makes his peace overture, the mental reply “staggered him back, physically. He recoiled several steps in sheer horror at the intensity of the lust-to-kill.” And in case some reader still didn’t get it, at one point the Outsider cruelly pulls the legs off a lizard, just because.
We’ve come a good distance in how we portray the Outsider, I’m happy to note. In fact, it didn’t take all that long. When Star Trek used Arena as (at least partial) inspiration for the Gorn episode (also titled Arena) about 23 years later, Kirk refuses to kill the Gorn, and it’s this mercy that saves humanity. A different time, a different war setting. A different view of Outsiders. Despite my preference for that ending, Arena remains an entertaining, well-told tale. ~Bill Capossere
I first came across Arena at about age 13 in The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, a book that was instrumental in shaping my love and tastes for SF. Arena was one of the most compelling and memorable stories in the collection, and rereading it now, a few decades later, I’m impressed with how well it has withstood the test of time. Compared to some of the other Retro Hugo nominees from this year, it’s an outstanding piece of storytelling, and there’s a nice note of irony to the ending.
I can’t really disagree with any of Bill’s comments about Arena’s weaknesses or argue with his preference for the Star Trek episode’s ending, but considering that this was written during WWII, when the mood for righteous war was at its peak, it’s impressive that Brown actually took the time to show that Carson does attempt to make peace with the Outsider, which responds with a wave of hatred so strong that it physically weakens him.
Arena may be somewhat lacking in depth and nuance, but as a suspenseful, well-told SF action tale from this era, it’s hard to beat. ~Tadiana Jones
Deidre was a world-famous entertainment star who died in a theater fire, but whose brain was preserved and placed into a unique robot body by the genius scientist/engineer Maltzer. The story is narrated by Harris, Deirdre’s former manager. It opens with him seeing her for the first time since her operation and subsequent acclimation to her new form. Maltzer tells Harris that he’s worried about Deirdre’s plan to return to entertainment and about her gradually becoming distanced from her humanity. When Harris sees Deidre, he’s stunned with how much like herself she seems. Her return to TV that night goes shockingly well, but Maltzer finds her denial even more evidence of his failure and decides he must stop her. [HIGHLIGHT HERE TO REVEAL SPOILERS] Two weeks later, the three meet up again with Maltzer even more dismayed. He plans to commit suicide by leaping out the window, but not until he explains how he feels like Frankenstein. Deirdre finally admits she feels inhuman, but says she is not “less” human but “better.” Her return to an audience is a way to keep her humanity as she inevitably drifts away from it in the 40 or so years her brain has left. Forty lonely years, she imagines, as she is one-of-a-kind, never to be repeated. [END SPOILERS]
No Woman Born is my second favorite of this year retro novelettes, not because Arena is better written but because this one has more basic flaws in design than Brown’s story. In many ways I prefer this one for its stylistic writing, its moral complexity, and its humanism. Moore’s language, as is typical for her, is frequently lush and lyrical, particularly when describing Deirdre’s form and movement. And again, as usual with her, there are a slew of literary allusions. Sometimes the language is a little too lush, and it can get a bit repetitive as well — the story could be somewhat shorter — but I often prefer Moore’s lyricism to the flatly dull styles of the “classic” sci fi of the time. The question of whether Dierdre could retain her humanity is intriguing (clichéd by now but hey, this was a long time ago), and I especially liked how Maltzer ties his theory of why she couldn’t, to the different impact of the human senses (Deirdre has lost the senses of smell and touch).
My issues are with what felt like way too much melodrama. I needed a lot more justification for Maltzer’s angst, not to mention his suicide attempt, which seemed to me to be wholly overblown. And the reason for Deirdre being the only human-robot basically boils down to “so she can be sad at the end.” There’s that bit of repetition noted above (the story would have been stronger had it been tighter), the willingness of the men to discuss removing her agency is a bit disturbing, and the story at many points seems not just dated from our perspective (for obvious reasons) but even oddly dated for its time. Despite these weaknesses, it’s understandable why No Woman Born was chosen as a nominee. ~Bill Capossere
Simak’s novelette City posits the wholesale breakdown of urban society several decades after World War II. Humanity has developed safe, cheap nuclear power, and high-speed nuclear-powered family airplanes have replaced road vehicles. On top of that, the advancements in hydroponics has led to farming becoming obsolete. As a result, humans have, by and large, abandoned the cities, often just walking away from their urban homes because vast country estates are plentiful and cheap.
There are a few holdouts, though: Mayor Paul Carter and other city officials have salaried jobs they want to keep, even if there’s hardly anyone left to serve. Squatters and other traditionalists want to hold onto their old lifestyles. But the mayor’s latest plan — burn all of the abandoned homes and oust the criminals who the police chief claims lurk there, along with the squatters — may lead to a violent confrontation.
City is set in the same universe as “Huddling Place” (reviewed below) but in an earlier time. It’s more than a little hard to swallow because it’s set in a near future (well, actually it appears to be the late 20th century, but of course that was the future when Simak wrote it) that is so far distant from the way modern society has actually developed. Simak is an appealing storyteller, though, and City is an interesting glimpse at a might-have-been future. I could have gone for the safe atomic power replacing gasoline-powered internal combustion engines, even though the story’s more traditionalist characters view gas-powered land vehicles with nostalgic affection.
This novelette is also the first chapter in Simak’s 1952 novel of the same name. ~Tadiana Jones
This novelette later became part of Asimov’s classic Foundation novel, as the section called The Merchant Princes, but it also stands alone easily enough, though Asimov helps it do so via some clunky and talky reminders of what’s gone before. The whole story is in fact pretty talky, with a lot of explaining or speechifying by the main character, Hober Mallow. Despite that, Mallow is a likeable enough character with an engaging voice, if a bit quick to exclamation and, more troubling, imperious action — first with his crew and then with Foundation society as a whole. Asimov sets up a major conflict of powerful spacefaring groups, but in the best part of the story subverts expectations by going with a far more clever, if maybe a little anticlimactic, use of economic power rather than brute force.
As always with these stories, one has to find a way of dealing with the casual sexism/misogyny: Threats to cut out a wife’s “rattling tongue” and telling her to “keep still,” which she does because she’s so amazed at the bright shiny bauble he gives her. References to “feminine frippery”, all-male governance, and the economic war that will threaten “a woman’s atomic knife … Her stove … Her washer” [italics mine]. It never ceases to amaze me that these men could imagine galaxy-spanning civilizations and near-magical technology but couldn’t imagine a woman not doing domestic work or in a position of power. Apparently FTL flight is more plausible than a man doing the laundry.
That said, Asimov does show some bigotry in a harshly negative light and has a character muse on how the “supremacy of a foreign power” will eventually fail and leave behind nothing substantial save hatred. So there’s that. It’s a solid story and I’d place it third amongst the nominees, behind Arena and No Woman Born. ~Bill Capossere
Both this novelette and “The Wedge” (also nominated for a Retro Hugo, and reviewed below) are part of Asimov’s Foundation, a “fix-up” novel that, like its two sequels, was comprised almost entirely of previously-published shorter works. The Big and the Little (renamed The Merchant Princes) is the last section of Foundation, and introduces Hober Mallow, a trader who sells the Foundation’s unique atomic-powered goods to other planets in their remote part of the Galaxy. The Foundation is concerned about the disappearance of three trade ships, blaming the Korellian Republic, and the Foundation mayor’s secretary asks Mallow to quietly investigate. Mallow finds evidence that the far-distant but still massively powerful Galactic Empire, which also still has atomic power, may be not quite as distant as the Foundation’s leaders hoped.
The FOUNDATION trilogy is another lifelong favorite of mine, but rereading the first book again now, after many years, I have to reluctantly admit there are more significant flaws in it than I was aware of when I was in my teens. I made a comment to my family the other night about the near-complete failure of Golden Age SF authors to envision the advancement in opportunities for women, that was identical in substance to Bill’s comment above (though I wasn’t nearly as eloquent). The striking scene where Hober Mallow puts the marvelous atomic-powered cloak and necklace on a servant girl, wasn’t nearly as wonderful to me now as it was to Teenage Me. That, and Asimov’s penchant for letting his characters retell some of the most impactful events in his stories rather than showing the events directly, do weaken this story (and some of the other Foundation stories) significantly.
Perhaps, then, it’s partially my lingering fondness for this series, but I still thoroughly enjoyed rereading The Big and the Little. There’s some complicated plotting that goes into it, a few truly memorable scenes, and a twisty but highly fitting ending that I’ve never forgotten. ~Tadiana Jones
When the Bough Breaks by Lewis Padgett (writing team Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore) (1944, published in Astounding Science Fiction, free online at Internet Archive). 2020 Retro Hugo award nominee (novelette).
Joe Calderon and his wife Myra move with their 18-month-old son Alexander into a new apartment, where they are soon visited by beings from the future who tell them Alexander is the first of homo superior. The adult Alexander sent them back in time to educate him as a young child, so he could develop faster. After some back-and-forth conflict, eventually the Calderons agree to cooperate, but as Alexander speedily develops in abilities (he talks, can teleport people, send electric shocks, etc.), he is still stuck in the self-absorbed cruelty of a child. Being the progenitor of homo superior, it turns out, is more nightmare than anything else. The story moves from humor to a surprisingly grim conclusion, given its tone.
As with many of these retro stories, I’d say this one goes on longer than it needed to; a lot of these early tales seem to stretch a neat concept past its breaking point. It’s also hampered early on by a lot of technobabble, which I assume was meant to be part of the humor, but which wears thin quickly. I kind of like the grimness of the ending, but it is at odds with the tone and that divergence can be more than a little disturbing. I think another paragraph or two might have gone a good ways to keeping the ending dark, but in a less disturbing fashion. ~Bill Capossere
James Lessing is seeing a psychiatrist hypnotist, Lieutenant Dyke, as part of an experiment to desensitize soldiers. It turns out Lessing has a missing three-month block of time in his memory, which the hypnosis breaks through to reveal that Lessing had fallen in love with a mysterious woman named Clarissa, around whom quite strange things seemed to happen and who seemed to Lessing to lend a “glamour” to the world around her. Eventually Lessing starts to think the world is “bending” itself in unnatural fashion to lead or force Clarissa down a particular path. He’s not far off, but he’s also not correct either; I’ll save the resolution for those who read the story.
If they choose to, because honestly, there wasn’t much I liked about this story, nor would I recommend it. About the only aspect I enjoyed were the many literary references and a few stylized passages. Beyond that, the story dragged on way past the time it should have, the language and situations were quite repetitive, it was far too talky, and the resolution led to some creep factor that I won’t detail so as not to spoil the decades-old tale (though to be fair, the creep is rationalized away in solid fashion, but it still skeeved me out a bit).
The descriptions of other lands had a nice dreamlike quality to it, though that gets spoiled a bit by the theorizing at the end (if I had to guess, I’d say the surreal poetic flashback scenes were written by Moore while the more prosaic closing part was Kuttner). It’s a neat concept at the core, and some of the writing (Moore’s?) was lyrically evocative, but it should have been a short story rather than a novelette. And a relatively short short story at that. The Children’s Hour was easily my least favorite of the Retro Hugo novelette nominees. ~Bill Capossere
RETRO HUGO SHORT STORIES:
A team of scientists has figured out how to convert humans into alien life forms so they’ll be able to survive on, and safely explore, other planets. When they return and are changed back into humans, they can report their discoveries.
As one scientist is supervising the conversion of young human men into Jovian forms and sending them to Jupiter, he is frustrated that none of them are returning. Should he continue to send young men possibly to their deaths on Jupiter, or is there a more moral way to figure out what’s going wrong?
“Desertion,” published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1944, is a compelling mystery with a beautiful and emotional surprise ending. I love the way this short story challenges our tendency to think of ourselves as the center of the universe. Simak has something to say here about how we view “the other” and perhaps also (I’m not sure if he intended this) about sending young men off to fight wars. ~Kat Hooper
Dr. Jerome Webster’s family has, for generations, lived on the same remote estate on some planet that is also inhabited by Martians. Most humans live in isolation like the Webster family does. They hardly go anywhere because they don’t need to. Technology (similar to the internet and virtual reality) allows them to meet with people and experience travel without leaving home. Intelligent robots do most of the housework and other chores. The downside is that humans have gradually developed agoraphobia, the fear of going outside or, literally, “fear of the marketplace.” When Dr. Webster, an expert in Martian physiology, is asked to travel to Mars to save the life of his dear friend, a Martian philosopher whose work is extremely important to the universe, his agoraphobia kicks in.
“Huddling Place,” which was published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1944 (and later became part of the novel City), long before development of the internet, virtual reality, or household robots, is an atmospheric, poignant, and thoughtful speculation about the effects of technology on the human psyche. In some ways it feels prescient.
It’s interesting to read “Huddling Place” during the COVID-19 pandemic after I’ve been fairly isolated from almost anyone other than my immediate family for months. I do feel slightly agoraphobic lately and wonder how long that feeling will last. On the other hand, I see photos of other (more extroverted, I assume) people partying “in the marketplace” because they can’t stand being isolated any longer. I suspect that agoraphobia is more likely to develop in people who are highly introverted and/or anxious. ~Kat Hooper
“And the Gods Laughed” by Fredric Brown (1944, published in Planet Stories, free online at Internet Archive). 2020 Retro Hugo award nominee (short story).
A group of asteroid workers entertain themselves with tall tales, and our narrator’s story is about his first contact journey to Ganymede not too long ago. He and the others in his small crew found Ganymede inhabited. In the course of communicating with the indigenous people there, each of the crew save the narrator, one by one, receives an earring that supposedly makes them a sort of honorary member of the tribe. The gift, however, is not what it seems, as the narrator learns in a horrific reveal. Or is it? His audience isn’t quite sure.
This is a classic Brown story with a natural, engaging voice and strange aliens. Smoothly written, well-structured, it builds first to a predictable point and then, well, I’ll leave it there so as not to spoil. As one might expect, discussion of the “natives” has its problems, tossing around words like “savage” and “primitive.” On the other hand, as the workers talk about earlier trade deals where they got “half of Phobos” for some rubber bands, the reader begins to wonder if maybe the exploiters might get some payback. A fun little story that won’t linger in the mind and is exactly as long as it should be. ~Bill Capossere
In the 23rd century, an aging rocket ship lies lost and abandoned on a barren plain, its crew all killed in the crash on the uninhabited planetoid. The rocket spends most of this story retelling its adventures and recalling the men who served on it, particularly when it was a war rocket protecting Earth’s citadels on Deimos and Phobos against attack. Most of all the rocket misses its former skipper, Captain Lamb (“ironic for a man lacking lamb-like qualities”). Lamb and the men who serve on the rocket with him had no idea that the rocket is sentient, and the rocket had no way of communicating that fact to them (apparently computer monitors that the rocket could manipulate don’t exist in this world). When the rocket realized that two of the crewmen are traitors who are planning to destroy the rocket and kill the rest of its crew, it anxiously pondered ways to thwart their plan.
“I, Rocket” is an earlier work from Bradbury, and the lyrical, poetic style of many of his later works is less apparent here. It’s more of a reminiscent and occasionally elegiac retelling of adventures, complete with an all-male cast and crew (the only women mentioned are offstage girls waiting in ports for the men to come back). There are no clever twists here, but Bradbury’s depiction of the loyalty and even love that the rocket has for its men, especially Captain Lamb, and his love and care in turn for the ship, elevates this story above a simple SF action yarn. ~Tadiana Jones
Lathan Devers (later renamed Limmar Ponyets in Foundation) travels between planets, trading atomic-powered goods in the Foundation’s ongoing effort to make all of the planets in its far corner of the galaxy dependent on it economically, thus protecting the security of the Foundation and, more indirectly, Hari Selden’s long-range plan. Devers finds out that another trader, Eskel Gorov, has been imprisoned on the planet Askone for attempting to sell Foundation goods there, which is strictly against Askone’s religion and laws. They’re dead set against any technological innovation of any kind. It’s a death sentence for Gorov, who is actually an important Foundation agent, so Devers sets off to try to rescue him.
The Grand Master of Askone and his council at first seem immovable, but when Devers mentions that he has a machine that can actually transmute iron into gold, everyone’s ears perk up. It seems that actually succeeding at producing gold from iron is enough to negate the crime of using technology, at least unofficially. But Devers still needs Askone both to release Gorov and, if possible, to allow Foundation goods into their society. After all, Devers has a sales quota that he still need to make.
“The Wedge” is definitely one of the lesser lights in the universe of Foundation tales. As usual with Asimov, the plotting is clever, but less so here than in his other stories, and the characters in “The Wedge” aren’t memorable in the least (in fact, I had completely forgotten this story existed, unlike the other tales in Foundation). The Foundation’s determination to interfere with and steamroller all of the local planets into accepting its economic control is rather more uncomfortable a concept in our day and age than it likely was 75 years ago. There’s no Prime Directive here! … or, I suppose, one might say it’s an entirely opposite type of prime directive, Hari Selden-style. The Foundation argues that this course of action is necessary for its safety, to avoid hostile neighbors, but there’s never any indication that Askone is a real threat to its security. Asimov tilts our sympathies toward the intruding Foundation by making the rulers of Askone venal and cynical characters who actually care much more about gold than their religious laws, which is a little unfair for an author to do.
“The Wedge” was renamed “The Traders” in Foundation, but other than the change to the title and the main character’s name and the deletion of all discussion of the “wedge” symbolism (I’m not sure why it was deleted; I thought the idea added interest to the story), this original short story in Astounding is pretty much identical to the version in the novel. ~Tadiana Jones
The narrator is one of a small crew (all men of course. Sigh) taking the first spaceflight to Alpha Centauri and employing deep sleep to do so. Each member wakes up periodically for routine maintenance, and in one of his risings, the narrator (Bill) finds one of their crew (Pelham) has died in his sleep. When Bill wakes next, he’s concerned because Renfrew’s report hadn’t said a thing about Pelham, though the two men were quite close. The last crew member, Blake, wrote in his report that he had noticed the absence of mention and was concerned about Renfrew’s mental state when they arrive. Bill wakes again to alarms, triggered by the near pass of a derelict spaceship that Bill assumes came from Alpha Centauri. Bill wakes one more time (to a great shock) and then the three men make contact with the inhabitants of Alpha Centauri. Things don’t go as planned, and the story continues with a bit of a twist ending.
The best part of this story in my mind is its first half, before they make contact with their destination. I like the structure of years passing each time, the men communicating via notes/reports, the sense of melancholy and isolation and time confusion, the dismay over how all they knew was past. I wouldn’t at all have minded had the story continued with that tone and structure. Instead, we get a “shocking reveal” that, to be fair, I’m sure was a lot more effective back then. Now, though, it’s pretty predictable, through no fault of van Vogt’s. My problem, rather, is with what follows the shock, which seems pretty silly and sketchy and arbitrary, with an all-too-convenient ending. As with most retro sci fi, characterization is thin at best, which is how I’d describe the narrator’s character. As for the other two, “at best” would be generous. ~Bill Capossere