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 novella category, other than The Jewel of Bas, which we’ve previously reviewed here as part of The Best of Leigh Brackett. Stay tuned for tomorrow’s column, where we turn our attention to the Retro Hugo novelettes and short stories.
In remote Tibet, a minor deity named Kroo is slowly dying due to a lack of worshippers. The only thing that has kept him alive this long is a yak that accidentally wandered into his temple. When an American ethnologist stumbles across the village and buys the yak to carry his supplies, Kroo takes him as his high priest, occasionally taking over his voice to make pronouncements. After a humorous scene to convince Danton of his existence, the two head for America but get diverted in occupied Burma, where a Japanese officer name Yakuni has built a powerhouse used to make terribly effective bombs (this is where Danton first learns of WWII, since he’d been in Tibet for two years).
Kroo declares the powerhouse his “temple”, setting up a conflict between Danton and the Japanese. Helping Danton is a young woman name Deborah, a singer in a traveling entertainment show and now Yakuni’s prisoner. Besides trying to avoid being killed by the Japanese, Danton and Deborah (now made Kroo’s high priestess) are also trying to escape Kroo. Eventually the manage to flee but are found by Kroo. A final conflict occurs with the Japanese, leading to the novella’s resolution.
As one might expect, there’s some horrible dated language regarding the Japanese, but given the wartime composition/publication, the Japanese enemies are actually portrayed in a quite respectful light outside of how they’re referenced. Rather than a caricature, Yakuni is intelligent, relatively patient given the situation, and isn’t portrayed with the allegedly inherent cruelty many authors of the time turned to in depicting the Japanese. Similarly, Deborah is no passive damsel in distress waiting to be rescued by Danton — she is smart, fierce, can fly a plane, is willing to die to destroy the powerhouse and thus prevent more bombs being made, etc. Which is all to the good, but I don’t want to overstate the surprisingly progressive nature of the story. I may have gasped out loud when early in the story Danton’s guide, Jieng, was referred to as being like a monkey (not the only such reference with regard to Jieng). The Tibetans and Burmese natives in general are described as superstitious and “primitive,” and Kuttner uses the dreaded “yellow-skinned” descriptor multiple times for the Japanese.
If one can survive the casual racism, then “A God Named Kroo” is a surprisingly engaging, enjoyable, and entertaining story. It flows quite well from scene to scene, shifts in POV are deftly handled, and it has a consistently charming sense of humor. I liked how both Yakuni and Deborah were presented with unusual dignity and agency for the time period. Even Kroo, for all his capriciousness and imperiousness, garners some sympathy from the reader. Of the ten retro stories/novelettes/novellas I’ve read so far, I think it’s the one I most enjoyed despite some frequent cringing. 4 stars, but only if one ignores the painfully racist language. ~Bill Capossere
A classic story, the plot involving a possessed bulldozer trying to kill a small construction crew on a Pacific island, interwoven with various chapters in a user’s manual for construction machinery.
If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say “Killdozer” is one of those stories fondly recalled by people who don’t remember the actual story itself. Because the above description is really barely sarcasm. I suppose a killer bulldozer chasing men on an island has some potential (it has to be an island obviously, because otherwise how’s it going to catch them?), but it would have been best served as a screenplay for a 30-minute (maybe an hour-long) Twilight Zone or Night Gallery episode. The prose is solid enough, it’s easy to follow, has a few taut moments, but it’s just padded by too much exposition (including a very clunky prologue trying to justify a crazy bulldozer), too much talking, too many moments involving gear-shifting. A classic more in half-remembered memory than actuality. ~Bill Capossere
In the mid to late 1950s, civilization has been regressing for the past few years, thanks to constant destruction of key elements of developed industries. The prevailing theory is that humans have a mass consciousness that has had it with civilization (for some reason) and that mass consciousness takes over individuals and turns them into “trogs” who commit sabotage. Trogs also can apparently cause people around them to black out without knowing it, which is why nobody has ever seen a Trog or heard one during actual sabotage.
Dick Drummond (yes, that’s really the name), all-around smart guy who can whip up a speech or an advanced piece of machinery in moments, doesn’t buy the whole herd mind story. [HIGHLIGHT TO REVEAL SPOILERS] Eventually, he and his friend Blaisdell figure out that the Trogs are human enemies using technology against the world (but especially against the US), so they quickly and easily create counter-technology. The Trogs try to invade America and are killed with Blaisdell’s death ray and all is good. [END SPOILERS]
I have no idea why this is a Hugo award nominee. The story, even for its time, seems absolutely awful to me. The mass consciousness concept makes no sense. The ease with which the two men invent, design, and build devices is ridiculous, while the sole female, Sally, serves them coffee and creates a passage or two of love triangle drama. The style is terrible, with a lot of padding, repetition, and technobabble. There is no characterization whatsoever (nor any arc or growth). I’d love to point to a redeeming factor but honestly I just can’t. ~Bill Capossere
I couldn’t resist checking out these two stories, Trog and Intruders from the Stars (reviewed below) that Bill thinks are so irredeemable. Trog is very much a tale of its era, with tough-minded, competent men who whip out world-changing technical gadgets, mostly useless and decorative women (when women appear in the story at all), and — this is a 1944 story, after all — Nazis nefariously scheming to take over the world. Despite these drawbacks, and the minimal characterization, I did think this was a reasonably entertaining story, plot-wise.
The “collective unconscious of humanity” theory admittedly doesn’t make much sense, but then, large groups of people often do in fact adopt ideas that in retrospect seem utterly nonsensical, and of course here it turns out that something entirely different is going on. Good thing we have the heroes to save the day … before the plot really had a chance to get exciting, unfortunately. Still, giving due consideration for when it was written, Trog wasn’t so awful that I think it deserves only a single star. That dubious honor I’ll reserve for Intruders from the Stars. ~Tadiana Jones
A.E. van Vogt’s The Changeling begins in a rather promising way: The comfortable life of Lesley Craig, a well-to-do business executive, is upended when his boss comments on how well the firm has done since Craig joined it four years ago. Craig is confused: he knows he’s been with the Nesbitt Co. for (pause while he counts) thirty-four years. Which makes Craig fifty years old and — now he’s getting concerned — he looks and feels like he’s in his mid-thirties, and his memory of most of these years is pretty hazy.
When Craig sets off to confront his wife, he’s taken prisoner by (cue wincing here) a group of tough women who have taken an “equalizing” drug that makes them physically … and presumably mentally and emotionally … as strong and capable as men. Equality of the sexes, 1940’s-style! These “equalized” women haul Craig before the president of the U.S., Jefferson Dayles. President Dayles favors Craig with some “As you know, Bob” info-dumping about their troubled times in 1973, threatens him, takes a sample of Craig’s blood, and then sends him on his way.
Everyone around Craig — his wife Anrella, his boss, the president and others — seems to have competing ideas about what Craig should do, but none of their ideas involve informing Craig about what is really going on with his entire life. Craig is a confused man, and as he stumbles from one crisis and plot complication to the next, the reader is equally confused. Far-fetched explanations are eventually forthcoming, but the plot is a severely disjointed one, with a few odd jumps in time, and a murky ending that did nothing to redeem the story. Add to that the really cringe-worthy treatment of gender issues; even for the 40s, this seems like awful stuff. The Changeling is a hot mess, with a lot of wasted potential. ~Tadiana Jones
Intruders from the Stars by Ross Rocklynne (1944, published in Amazing Stories, free online at Internet Archive). 2020 Retro Hugo award nominee (novella).
Facing an unwinnable revolt, tyrant-wannabe Bess-Istra flees her home planet with her remaining loyalists, aiming for a nearby planet to conquer in thirteen years when they awake from suspended animation. Unfortunately for them, they miss that planet and sleep for some centuries until landing on Earth (Mozambique), where they run into Bill (a reporter covering the Japanese invasion) and John Stevens (a missionary). Neither trusts this imperious alien woman at first, but then she promises to end WWII quickly and peacefully, mystifying her followers who can’t figure out why she isn’t just killing lots of Earthlings and taking over.
After zipping through the various fronts (land and sea) and rounding up all the Axis leaders, she declares herself ruler of Earth, but maybe a more benevolent ruler than she had been on her old planet. Maybe she’s learned, maybe Stevens’ attempts to convert her to Christianity are bearing fruit, though Bill is skeptical. Another revolt, some more battles in air and face-to-face, and the story comes to its resolution.
When they talk about “pulp,” this is the kind of story they mean, and not in a good way either. The plot is nonsensical, the writing overdone, and the story is rife with casual misogyny, overwrought exclamations (I mean, exclamations!), and stock villains. There’s no characterization to speak of, and only one character at all who can be said to change, though it’s never apparent why. It has the same issues with racial descriptors as Kuttner’s, but none of the counterbalancing respect or charm/humor. Like “Trog,” I can’t name a single redeeming factor. ~Bill Capossere
Bill’s not kidding about the over-use of exclamation points. There are dozens of them — on Every! Single! Page! This is one seriously overwrought novella, with purple prose galore. It stars a gorgeous (of course) and megalomaniacal Queen of All She Surveys and another highly competent guy, a war correspondent in this case, who falls in love with Bess-Istra even though he knows she’s bad news (not to mention being, you know, an actual space alien, though she conveniently speaks English). When I hit the phrases “her breast heaving” on the third page and “her glorious, scarlet lips” on the page after that, used in a completely unironical way, I knew we were in trouble. It never really gets any better from there. The only part that engaged me was the brief explanation of how and why they missed the other planet they were aiming for. ~Tadiana Jones