Sunday, March 8, 2015

Marvel Collectors Item Classics #34: Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction #5

By Professor Gilbert Colon, P.M.P

Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction #5
September, 1975
Editor: Roy Thomas
Consulting Editors: Marv Wolfman and Archie Goodwin
Cover Artist: Puigdomenech
Frontispiece: An Unknown World of Howie Chaykin

Script: Roy Thomas
Art: Gene Colan and Frank Chiaramonte

“Slow Glass” concept created by Bob Shaw
Only substance which can slow down light waves…Hold it in front of any scene, and it may take moments, or centuries for that scene to emerge on the other side…a keeper of memories, a storeplace of dreams…a harbinger of alternate futures.”  Repeatedly revisiting the “Slow Glass concept” results in the constant need for complicated recap exposition, and all the more reason to have ditched it after doing the straight adaptation of Shaw’s original short story.  

In this “shock-story,” a burglar robs the antique shop where Sandson O. Tyme sells slow glass and finds that one piece reflects an image of himself decapitated, his head carried in a net by an axe-wielding temptress walking on the moon without a spacesuit or much else (this issue’s “First (Dead) Man on the Moon” cover art by Puigdomenech).  The supposed fun is guessing exactly how the burglar’s head will wind up netted.  

“Paradise Found”
Story: Bruce Jones
Art: Gray Morrow

A paradisiacal planet is raped by “the Ugly Earthman,” in the person of John Benchley and his Federation co-workers, who colonize it and exploit its alien inhabitants and resources as spoils for the human race.  Moral of the story?  Imperialism is bad.  Next tale…  

That the evil corporation is called “Acme Construction” should tell you just how cartoonish the execution of this Colonialism and Post-Colonialism Graduate Studies morality tale is, its premise long ago tired well before Avatar (2009).  This might be acceptable if the story was told in the abstract, but Jones seems to be going after something more specific.  The pidgin English of the innocent alien girl Cuddles – “You make love me, Frank?” – paints the portrait of a hapless native waiting to be ill-used, perhaps suggesting Asian women prostituting themselves to American GIs during the Korean and Vietnam Wars.  

When Frank Kennerly, the conscience of the piece, rebukes a black employee named Walker for needlessly demolishing native huts with detectable relish, Walker spits back at his white foreman, saying, “Mister, your race has been sitting on the fence for three hundred years trying to define the word equality.”  Worse, he adds, “I’ve got no sympathy for these creatures.  I’d like to have…But it’s all eaten away…,” openly placing the moral burden of his own questionable actions not on himself, and not even upon Federation orders, but on Frank’s entire race and history.  

When Walker explains, “My great-granddaddy was lynched in Alabama…My granddaddy in Jacksonville,” it is not only the character evading responsibility for his own misdeeds, but the story itself unconvincingly casting him as victim of Western powers and thereby justifying his injustices.  Walker even exults, “I didn’t know what it was like to feel superior until I saw these poor devils,” which is pretty much the simplistic moral thrust of the Frederik Pohl story The Day After the Day the Martians Came adapted in Marvel’s Worlds Unknown #1.  

“Paradise Found” owes something to Forbidden Planet with its childlike seductress Cuddles and her “mental projection[s]” born of unconscious emotions and resulting in uncontrollable violent manifestations.  This twist is more unexpected than most attempts at the surprise endings in these science fiction issues, and maximizing this story element instead of clumsy social commentary might have made for a sturdier tale.  

The Many, Many Worlds of Larry Niven
A Conversation with the Award-Winning “Hard” SF Author
With a Foreword by Interviewer Alan Brennert

Two issues ago, Unknown Worlds (May 1975) adapted Niven’s “Not Long Before the End,” and this issue includes not only this exclusive career-spanning interview with Niven, but an adaptation of his “All the Myriad Ways.”  

Calling Niven “a master of the ‘hard’ SF story,” Brennert defines “that sub-genre” as being “rooted firmly in the ‘hard’ sciences of physics, astronomy, biology, et al.”  Past issues of Unknown Worlds chronicled the history of the Hugo and the Nebula, and Niven is no stranger to these two awards.  “In 1970 he walked off with both…for his mammoth novel Ringworld” and “a Hugo for ‘Neutron Star,’ the first of [his] Beowulf Shaeffer [adventures],” the two of which feature “one of Niven’s most original (and most bizarre) alien creations, the Pearson’s Puppeteer.”  Of course other wins, nominations, and stories were in store for Niven in the years ahead.  

Brennert asks why one “born into a very wealthy family” who “could have been or done pretty much anything…turn[ed] to writing.”  Niven’s answer is simple: “Nobody lives as a playboy anymore—it used to be respectable, it isn’t any longer.”  After that he earned his B.A. in Mathematics, but saw after a year of UCLA graduate work that he “was never going to be in the top rank of mathematicians” for the simple reason that “[i]t had gotten too abstract [and] I’ve got a visual mind.”  His “early influences in SF” were Heinlein, and then everyone else on the shelves of “a used bookstore in Pasadena,” a discovery that he attributes as “one of the things that flunked me out of Cal Tech.”  

When it is pointed out that his “first published story, ‘The Coldest Place’…set on a Mercury that we now know to be physically impossible—was outdated by the time it saw print,” Niven admits that “I am fearful of writing about a space shuttle now, because I don’t know for sure whether it will ever be built.”  It did not stop him from “short-term speculation,” however.  Towards the end of the interview, Niven enthuses, “I just found out about quantum black holes a year or so ago…and I’ve written one, two stories about them, one of them possibly obsolete by now—but it’s a fascinating concept…”  (These unnamed stories could be the Hugo Award-winners “The Hole Man” and “The Borderland of Sol,” or even the novel A World Out of Time, written after a conversation, according to the author’s own webpage, with celebrity astrophysicist Stephen Hawking.)  

Discussing “pay rates in the SF field,” Brennert estimates that at “two, maybe three cents a word,” very little has “changed…in the past thirty years.”  Niven explains that the strategy of the day is “selling everything at least twice, maybe up to five times,” a situation that did not exist “in the pulp days [when stories] might sell for a quarter of a cent a word.”  But by the 1950s, that rate went up to “three cents a word, and two-thirds of the time that was all [authors] were going to get.”  In contrast, “[t]oday, a story that you only sell once is not worth writing.”  

Brennert notes that “[i]n the last four or five years we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of ‘original anthologies’—books made up of new, as opposed to reprinted, material” and therefore another market that did not exist for writers.  The problem with science fiction anthologies is that they “got lucrative” and therefore “being an editor for an anthology turns out to be easy work if you don’t do a full job on it,” making it “easier to be a shlock editor.”  Niven’s story “Flash Crowd” appeared in Three Trips in Time and Space, an anthology edited by Robert Silverberg, the author of last issue’s adapted “Good News from the Vatican.”  

Niven cites his “sword-and-sorcery story to end all sword-and-sorcery stories,” “Not Long Before the End,” as an example of when your story is not “the last word on the subject” because from “Not Long Before the End,” Niven “developed another story…of Aran, the werewolf.”  As “one of the few fantasies that [Niven’s] done,” “Not Long Before the End” also stands as an example of what Brennert recounts Niven as once saying, namely that “the writing of fantasy demands dealing in universals, rather than specifics.”  This makes writing fantasy as opposed to science fiction “different,” though in same ways harder for him because he “think[s] more as a science fiction writer than a fantasy writer.”  Over the course of close to six years he “tried to work with the differences; but the first fantasy I wrote was a simple gimmick story, and the second was a simple moral-point tale, and I believe the third was ‘Not Long Before the End.’”  

Elaborating on how straddling the genres “takes different kinds of people,” Niven continues: “If you take a philosophy course—if you’ve got a mind for that, you’ve got a mind for hard science fiction,” or “if you work with jigsaw and crossword puzzles, if you play monopoly [sic] obsessively, or chess…probably you have the kind of mind that will work with hard science fiction.”  Whereas “if…you’re a complete daydreamer…probably you will write fantasy.”  Others like Fritz Leiber are not “like anyone else in the world” because when it comes to the two genres of fantasy and science fiction, he “does both.”  Like Leiber, “Now, I’m both,” though most would identify Niven with hard science fiction more than fantasy.

The “humor in my stories” comes from “see[ing] a situation so thoroughly that I can even see the funny parts.”  He compares this with the opposite approach, to “guys like Ron Goulart, who don’t care how it works out, ignore the logic entirely, and go for pure slapstick.  This is what most funny science fiction is like.”  

Brennert touches briefly on Niven’s collaborations, “The Flying Sorcerers, with David Gerrold and another with Jerry Pournelle.”  This Pournelle novel is The Mote in God’s Eye, and the two would share the pen many more times over the decades.  Their collaborative spirit extended to the sphere of nonfiction as well – the two expressed joint public support for President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, and today are part of a writer’s group called Sigma (“Science Fiction in the National Interest”) which brings the science fictional imagination to bear for the Homeland Security Department and the Global War on Terror.  (Niven and Pournelle had long ago joined the camp of Robert Heinlein-style militarism.)  

Besides Pournelle, Niven’s collaborators over the years reads like a Science Fiction Book Club backlist – Steven Barnes, Brenda Cooper, Edward M. Lerner, Dean Ing, S. M. Stirling, Mark O. Martin and Gregory Benford, Paul Chafe, Michael Flynn, Brenda Cooper, Gregory Benford, Matthew Joseph Harrington...  At the time of this interview, Brennert reports that Niven had recently finished “adapting one of [his] short stories for the animated Star Trek last season.”  This would be “The Slaver Weapon,” featuring the popular Kzinti tiger-men from his Known Space tales.  To this day Niven is still writing and even working on another collaboration with Pournelle, the third novel in the Burning City series.  

“All the Myriad Ways”
Script and Art: Howard Chaykin
Adaptation of the story by Larry Niven

Despite the scientific wonders of this future Earth, one thing has never changed: The American back alley…”  Thus begins a later story from this issue, “Addict,” with words that could just as well introduce this futuristic detective thriller which has Lieut. Gene Trimble investigating a suicide and crime epidemic that may be worldwide.  His case is complicated by the myriad time tracks crossing over one another ever since a company called Crosstime, Inc. began traveling them.  (Crosstime holds “a score of patents on inventions from alternate time tracks,” and other worldlines include the Confederate States of America, Nazi Europa, Amer-Indian World, Catholic Empire, the Dead Worlds, the Cuba War…)  

The maddening case drives Detective Trimble to disturbing conclusions.  If “every decision was made both ways…every choice…canceled elsewhere,” the question hangs in the air: “Why not?”  Why not “[c]asual murder, casual suicide, casual crime…You can do anything, and one of you will, or did, or won’t.”  By implication, free will becomes an illusion.  Come the end, the detective concludes that “[n]obody dies for a philosophical point” before doing an about-face and succumbing to the suicide epidemic.  “Well, why not?

More than the drama and scientific speculation, Niven ponders the philosophical and moral ramifications of knowing there are “countless Earths,” specifically zeroing in on the sociological and psychological consequences of individual life in “a mega-universe of universes.”

This Hugo-nominated “‘worlds of if’ classic” from Niven first appeared in Galaxy Magazine (October 1968), and Chaykin illustrates this adaptation in a simple attention-grabbing style that periodically looks like movie storyboarding.  

Fantastic Worlds
by Don & Maggie Thompson

The Thompsons begin with extensive coverage of the year’s awards in two sections, “NEBULAS, ANYONE?” and “HAIL, THE HUGOS!”  (Young Frankenstein won the Hugo that year for Best Dramatic Presentation, beating out nominee…Flesh Gordon?!)  

News of a Star Trek movie is reported, but classified as rumor, and Star Trek: The Animated Series “may not be back this fall.”  However, thanks to the “devotion of the fans,” this column’s “BOOK DEPT.” brings attention to “the two highly successful series of paperback books which have sprung from [Star Trek].”  There is the Bantam one, which has “published eleven books of adaptation by James Blish from the original series, plus an original novel by Blish, Spock Must Die!”  Even more exciting is that Star Trek 11 “offers stories based on six of the TV scripts,” meaning that “[a]nother book or two and every story broadcast will have been adapted.”  

On the Ballantine Books front comes the Star Trek Logs, an Alan Dean Foster-penned series adapting episodes of the Saturday morning cartoon.  It is noteworthy that Foster would go on to receive a story credit for the just-on-the-horizon Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979).  

In other book news, there are four novels about Steve Austin of The Six Million Dollar Man.  “Martin Caidin’s Cyborg was the inspiration for the TV movie that became a series,” with Arbor House the publisher.  

“CONVENTIONS WE GOT” lists the World Science Fiction Convention in Australia, but then refers readers to the Locus newsletter for more complete listings because “there are far, far too many conventions scheduled for us to list.”  This section recaps science fiction convention history, beginning with the first held in Philadelphia later in 1936, even before the “first ‘World Science Fiction Convention’…in 1939, with 152 attending.”  Since then, “a larger and larger body of tradition—costume balls, banquets, presentation of awards” and more became part of convention tradition, including the “showing of movies” of which “The Day the Earth Stood Still and When Worlds Collide had their world premieres at a Worldcon and Star Trek and Time Tunnel were seen at a Worldcon before the start of their first season.”  

Meanwhile “[t]he next Worldcon…is trying drastic methods to reduce attendance—membership fees go up drastically, reaching a peak of $50 per person at the door; there will be no all-night movies” – for that you will have to go to Professor Flynn’s house – “nothing programmed for fans of comics, monsters, or Star Trek.”  Yet “[i]t is still expected to attract around 3000 fans—at least.”  

Why go?  “[T]here is usually…some famed author giving a speech, maybe several famed authors involved in a panel discussion, probably a display of art by fan and professional artists, most likely a meet-the-authors party.”  The notion that “it gives you a chance to talk about science fiction—and a variety of other topics from politics to western movies and beyond—with people who won’t think you are a nut for reading that kind of stuff” leads into “CONVENTIONAL BEHAVIOR” (where fans are admonished that “just because you’ve bought [an author’s] books” doesn’t mean “you own…him!”).  

The Thompsons draw up a lengthy list of how to behave and what to look out for as a guide aimed at conventioneers.  Some of the advice is common sense: “Buy a round-trip ticket or…set aside your return transportation money”?  When filling out your nametag, do not write a “phony, unfunny name” – “Supreme Ruler of the Universe” listed as “least grating” – unless you want no one to talk to you.  These counsels to the socially inept come decades before The Big Bang Theory, social media, texting, and hand-held electronic devices made pathological social ineptitude culturally mainstream.  

They also recommend chatting people up in “the hucksters’ room,” which does not speak well of dealers and their merchandise!  On a darker note, it cautions fans to “not be so full of joy at being among your own kind…that you become too trusting” because as with “any group…there are nice people and not-so-nice people.”  One wonders what incidents, not recounted here, sparked this warning.  

On the positive side, the Thompsons see conventions organized around “the big common bond of SF” as a “chance to meet old friends again and pick up those conversations where you left off.  It doesn’t matter whether you see these friends a month later, a year later or five years later.”  

Story: Don Glut
Art: Virgil Redondo

In a dark alley, an addict clobbers his dealer to death – an occupational hazard – in a seeming drug crime, but in fact the dead man is a “dream dealer” who “bootlegged illegal dream tapes.”  These tapes take “dream addicts!” on trips to places that “trigger off certain pleasant memories existing in [the] unconscious,” all while under a “mind cap.”  (That could mean “a nice stacked broad, or maybe a throne on a mountain ’a gold?”)

At first this feels like the world of Total Recall or Strange Days, until we learn the reason why men yearn to become “dream-trippers.”  The “dream junkie” perp turns out to be not what he seems – “He was Dr. Duncan back then…,” of “Project Dreamless.”  This was at a time when a “top-secret assemblage” enlisted him to engineer a drug for the governments of the world because of their fear that the “citizens…grow more restless…less obedient…more prone to revolution!”  

The world’s great leaders” dumped special chemicals into the water supply to rob the people of their capacity to dream, thereby making them “receptive robot[s]!”  Though Duncan created this drug, the leaders who adopted his invention did not exempt the scientist, turning “a concentrate of [his own] chemical” on him.  But men, including him, “began to crave that which was stolen from them,” and the “dream addicts!” were born.  

This time, for Duncan, is a “bad trip!” due to “a flawed tape” – as one cop says, “a lot of bad stuff goin’ down these days.”  Somehow the nightmare passes, giving way to “utter delight.”  Concerned that once Duncan’s mind cap was off, “he’d most likely gone out and done something violent!murdering someone just so he can get another dream!”  They therefore send him to an addict’s ward where they pipe in good dreams, allowing him to “vegetate for the rest of his life.”  

This story starts off seeming like a warning against the dangers of uncontrolled substances, but by the end gives its character an unexpected fate like that of Sam Lowry in Brazil (1985), a quixotic “dream the impossible dream” dreamer whose lobotomy ironically gives him exactly what he wanted all along.  Of course for the rest of the world, reality remains reality, and Duncan is less sympathetic a character than Sam, having once schemed to crush all man’s yearnings, and therefore undeserving of his altered state of bliss.  

Though the story ends here, the backstory of a world where government leaders, gathered at U.N. Headquarters, conspire to dull the minds of ordinary men in order to control them is itself a premise interesting enough as a landscape for more story fodder.  

Story and Art: John Allison

The USS Agamemnon, a starship-turned-tramp steamer, transports a rogue’s gallery crew to Saturn’s moon, Mimas, to mine its uranium fields.  (Allison’s spread of the Agamemnon on page 54 bears significant resemblance to comic artist Angus McKie’s Interstellar Queen from Stewart Cowley’s illustrated Spacecraft 2000-2100 AD, one of the day’s many coffee-table books of space art that was published in 1978, though this McKie spaceliner appeared earlier on the cover of the Pan edition of Brian Stableford’s Halcyon Drift.)  

One crewmember in particular, Joe Ferone, lives a particularly debauched lifestyle, provoking a rebuke from the old drink-o-mat mechanic (“You’ve got nothing in your head but dames and drugs-- and that’s not life!”).  Joe dismisses the old-timer, but experiences a disconcerting vision of him that evening in a dream.  

Afterwards Joe learns that this old man who warned him his own imminent demise died himself that very night.  This banshee-like forecast of karmic death rattles Joe – scares him straight, in fact (“No drugs, no dames.”).  On Mimas, all that a reformed Joe wants to do is be alone and mine uranium by himself while pondering death, karma, and eternity with a panoramic view of the universe from the moon’s surface.  He gets his chance in a most unexpected but karmic way, fulfilling the old man’s prophecy that he forever become “a monument to evil--.”  

With drug references throughout, words like “whores” (pg. 55) and “bastards” (pg. 56), simulated sex scenes, and an image of a nude dancing prostitute who disturbingly transforms into a naked old man, “Half-Life” veers into adult Heavy Metal magazine territory, but in this case it seems there is a purpose to its depictions of depravity as Joe goes from dissipation to coerced contemplation and acceptance.  

The psychedelic title lettering immediately sets out to capture the attention of the comic-book youth demographic.  It would not be the first time Marvel published a “Just Say No” story.  Stan Lee, on the PBS documentary Superheroes: A Never Ending Battle, related how the Comics Code Authority jumped down his throat for The Amazing Spider-Man #96-98 (May–July 1971) because an under-the-influence character leaped off a roof.  The irony was that the “deputized” Lee had written this anti-drug story at the behest of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare after President Nixon had declared drugs in America “public enemy number one.”  

According to this issue’s letters page, the story is a reprint from “a high-quality experimental comic-art fanzine” called Orb Magazine #2 (December 1974), given to Roy Thomas by a Canadian artist who followed him around at a Toronto comic convention with his portfolio (probably in violation of Fantastic Worlds’ convention etiquette).  So impressed with Allison was Thomas that he not only borrowed the portfolio and purchased “Half-Life,” but included a “SPECIAL NOTE:” in this issue’s “The Shape of Things to Come” that recommended Orb Productions and provided their Canada mailing address and purchasing information, along with the plug to “Tell ’em Marvel sent you– and still does.”  

Script: Roy Thomas
Art: Gene Colan and Frank Chiaramonte
“Slow Glass” concept created by Bob Shaw

If you own a piece of scrying slow glass and stare hard into the future, you are likely to see your own face droop in disappointment and groaning when you get a glimpse of exactly how “The HUNTRESS from the MOON” bags burglar Billy’s head.  Cheap and silly, even for “Sam Katzberg” and “American-Intergalactic” standards.  

“The Shape of Things that Came”

No letters from Robert Bloch or Bob Shaw this time around, but some interesting news is disclosed in these two pages.  “Behold the Man,” a forthcoming story illustrated by Filipino artist Alex Niño promoted for this issue, was delayed till the next “[d]ue to a trans-Pacific misunderstanding over deadlines,” an excuse the Marvel University Faculty cannot convincingly give Dean Pete in the Internet Age (which also voided the old faculty “the dog ate my homework” standby).  This is the second instance a major adaptation missed publication due to Niño’s missing artwork – the last time was with Harlan Ellison’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” ironic considering the story’s theme.  No word if Niño ever repented to the Ticktockman, but Marvel grants him absolution and even promises that, like last time, it will be “well worth waiting for.”  

One particular letter-writer recommends that “[y]ou might…do full-length adaptations of ‘classic’ books (e.g., Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, Clarke’s Childhood [sic] End, or 2001, Simak’s The City, etc.).”  Jack Kirby, in fact, drew on Clarke’s 2001 and an earlier script draft when adapting the Kubrick film into a 1976 Marvel Treasury Special, followed by a 10-issue original series (Dec. ’76-Sept. ’77).  Marvel responds to the correspondent with the expressed desire to adapt “classic SF from the 30’s to the 50’s, so-called ‘New Wave’” and, coming to their senses, “space operas (despite our earlier disavowals).”  

Of large disappointment is reading that “a couple of issues from now…we’ll be presenting Marvel’s serialized adaptation of…Slan, the original and perhaps greatest of all mutant sagas, by…A. E. van Vogt!”  Alas, this was not to be, though an interview with van Vogt and an adaptation of his “Enchanted Village” appeared last issue.  While the above-mentioned letter-writer gushed that “[w]ith the amount of good material you have to work with…you need a second magazine of science fiction!,” Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction folded after only after only six regular and one ‘special’ issues.  In what would have been “our first multi-part serial,” Slan, according to next issue’s “The Shape of Things that Came,” was even “already scripted and ready to be illustrated.”  

A Reader’s Poll ranking issue #3’s stories and articles rounds out the “Shape of Things that Came” column.  

                                                                                                                            —Professor Gilbert

Marvel University's Professor of Pulpitude and
Bronze Ballyhoo, Gilbert Colon
returns to dissect Doc Savage #2 on Sunday, March 22!


And then... Professor Gil, Marvel University's
Socratic Science Lecturer will
return again on Sunday, April 5th!

1 comment:

  1. It's like I read the whole magazine myself. Man, quite comprehensive!