Sunday, April 5, 2015

Marvel Collectors' Item Classics #36: Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction #6

by Professor Gilbert Colon, P.M.P., P.R.E.S.S.F.F.B.*

Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction #6

November, 1975

Editor: Roy Thomas
Consulting Editors: Archie Goodwin and Marv Wolfman
Cover: Frank Brunner
Frontispiece: An Unknown World of Pat Broderick

Foreword is Forearmed
An Editorial
By Roy Thomas

Unlike “the past few issue [which] held off on any real ‘editorial,’” this sixth issue takes a page to forewarn readers “who are religious and who are inclined to take offense easily…”  Also “as opposed to most past issues,” this one “has something of a general theme.”  Besides “alternate worlds and futures,” there are “alternate views of religion.”  

These disclaimers are the magazine’s way of doing damage control for its inclusion of Michael Moorcock’s “controversial…possible explanation of the start of Christianity.” (A neurotic bookseller going back in time to become the Jesus Christ of history passes as “possible”?)  
Conceding that “[i]t is not an origin tale which will edify, and it is not meant to instruct,” Thomas is hoping to deflect negative reaction.  He ends with a plea: “But please…no letters calling us all a bunch of hard-hearted communist atheists, okay?  We’re not.”  That may be true, but Moorcock proudly self-identifies as an anarchist of the left, and he does enjoy railing against things “bourgeois.”  

With no letters page after this issue, we unfortunately may never know what kind of mail the story elicited.  One thing is for certain – the Marvel offices were undamaged, and decades later, Thomas, Moench, and Moorcock are still walking around unharmed with no Satanic Verses death fatwa on their heads.  

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

July 16, 1969:”  Sandston O. Time, owner of a “Greenwich Village antique shop,” watches the first moon launch and remarks, “Man will become--a bit more like God.”  (The Contents page gives this prologue the title “ONE GIANT LEAP FOR MANKIND.”)  

His robed figure of a friend answers with dismay, “You are irreverent, Mr. Tyme,” adding, “I still cannot accept your hypothesis of alternate futures--alternate worlds--  For, acceptance of such a theory might also lead to a belief in--alternate gods.”  (As Thomas’ editorial cautioned, the story is preparing readers for the previously stated “theme [of] alternate views of religion.”)  

“It just might, at that,” responds Tyme, giving his friend four panes of “slow glass” with which to view this issue’s stories.  

“Behold the Man”
Writer: Doug Moench
Art: Alex Nino
Adapted from the story by Michael Moorcock

Not content to defecate all over J.R.R. Tolkien in his scathing essay “Epic Pooh,” fantasy author Michael Moorcock does the same to Tolkien’s religious undergirdings, the New Testament, in his Nebula Award-winning novella.  

A Christ-haunted psychiatrist manqué and occult bookshop owner by the name Karl Glogauer (who incidentally appears in several other Moorcock stories) time travels to ancient Judaea.  There he discovers the actual Jesus is not the Christ of the Gospels, but instead a “congenital imbecile,” giggling, “Jee-zuzzz,” and without any hope of fulfilling the role of the prophesied Savior.  

On page 22 is a portrait of the Holy Family that might as well be drawn with painter Chris Ofili’s elephant dung.  (The art by Niño, credited sans accent, begins as crowded and busy as Unknown Worlds #3’s “‘Repent, Harlequin!’ Said the Ticktockman,” but reins itself in on subsequent pages.)  Joseph is, in Mary’s own words, “that half man--,” and Mary an obese shrew as well as, it is implied, a loose woman.  

Having witnessed this, Glogauer sets out, under the influence of Jungian psychology and his own meshugganah “messiah-complex,” to fill the void himself and take on this “archetypal role” for the sake of future history.  From his 20th century knowledge of the Gospels, Glogauer goes about Judaea teaching, preaching, and staging the miracles of Christ with amateur psychology, all the way up to the cross, and therein lies the crux of the problem.  

“Behold the Man” is a deconstructionist Christ myth story “of the Messiah who wasn’t” whose premise almost sounds like The Life of Brian.  Unlike that Monty Python satire, “Behold” is deadly serious, and whereas Life of Brian depicted Jesus Christ as he is written down in the Gospels before going off to follow the misadventures of a mistaken Messiah, Moorcock’s neurotic protagonist is a wholly self-made “mashiach.”  

In the story’s zeal for iconoclasm, the occasional error creeps in.  On page 26, for instance, Pontius Pilate is called “emperor of the Romans,” but historically Tiberius was Caesar at that time, and he would have reigned in Rome or Capri, not Jerusalem.  (Pilate’s proper title was either procurator or prefect, essentially meaning a military governor.)  

“You’re searching for comforts--!,” sneers Glogauer’s girlfriend Monica, a psychiatric social worker drawn by Niño with an appropriately disdainful face, calling his Christ quest his “crutch.”  In Marx’s words, “Religion is the opium of the people.”  But Glogauer is too tormented by the idea of God to be sedated (though it does intoxicate him).  Moorcock’s scenes of Glogauer in his own era, circa 1979 in this comic adaptation, are among the dramatically strongest.  Monica’s mockery even follows him to the Judaean hills, her voice ringing in his head: “You’ll become a Catholic convert next--!...God died in 1945, Karl…”  

His is a contentious relationship with Monica, past and present, forever at odds over Christ, Jung, Marx, et alia.  She tars his religious yearning as masochism, an ironic accusation considering that earlier on it is hinted that their sex life is, at her preference, sadomasochistic.  Their domestic dialogues, two pseudo-intellectuals sparring off, are intimately written and not dry exercises in academic rhetoric.  So acidic is her antagonism towards Glogauer’s spiritual hunger that, if she was looking for kindred company and conversation, she might consider some time traveling of her own by visiting the militant atheist and proto-Nazi Friedrich Nietzsche who authored Ecce Homo, Latin for “Behold the Man” (Pontius Pilate’s words just before condemning Christ to crucifixion).  

Glogauer’s philosophy is – becomes – if God does not exist, we would have to invent him, confirming the Marxist belief (by way of Marx’s forerunner Ludwig Feuerbach), “Man made God in his image.”  But no flesh-and-blood man can ever hope to take the place of the Christ of the Four Gospels – it is an unattainable ideal for any mortal.  And since there is no resurrection, poor Karl Glogauer dies “still in [his] sins” (1 Cor. 15), along with every soul in history.  As noble as Moorcock’s misguided Messiah is, it is the cynical Monica who speaks for Moorcock, and the story is her victory.  In the final panels Glogauer concedes Monica’s argument, quoting her own words (pages 17 and 29) from the cross with his dying breath: “It’s a lie…It’s a lie…”  

Glogauer is the existential man.  Driven mad – madder – by the absence of Christ in Moorcock’s godless universe, he takes drastic action.  Yet if there is no Christ, his pilgrimage back in time can only end in despair.  Glogauer the seeker is to be pitied – he never had a chance.  Moorcock has set him up for failure from the beginning.  

For a more edifying Christ quest plumbing the mystery of the divine, readers might do better searching out Ray Bradbury’s “The Man” from his short story collection The Illustrated Man (whose use of a unifying framing device, incidentally, seems to be what Unknown Worlds has been going for with their “slow glass”).  You can almost hear in that tale Lt. Martin addressing Moorcock with the words spoken to his captain: “I’ve had enough of your highhandedness…Leave these people alone.  They’ve got something good and decent, and you come and foul up the nest and sneer at it…[T]hey’ve got something you’ll never have—a little simple faith, and they’ll move mountains with it.” 

Thru A Glass Slowly
An Article About (And By) SF Author Bob Shaw

After six issues of “surrounding…stories” with the slow glass “framing device,” readers should well-nigh grasp Bob Shaw’s “literary brainchild.”  Still, it is good to hear an explanation straight from the horse’s mouth.  It is quite a lengthy scientific explanation, complete with egghead diagrams, but the concept remains simple – slow glass is like water dripping, the speed of sound, the speed of light...

Lest anyone think “Thru A Glass Slowly” is solely a Popular Science article, there is an opening autographical section, “PORTRAIT OF THE AUTHOR AS A YOUNG MAN (AND LATER).”  With this Joycean reference, Shaw recounts his Northern Ireland upbringing starting in 1931.  Presently he is a “publicity officer for a large shipbuilding concern…writing science fiction novels and short stories in my spare time.”  He sold his first of those short stories when he was 20 years old, “but was not happy with the sort of stuff I was producing and deliberately quit creative writing for a number of years in order to gain more experience of life.”  Once he did that, his “[t]otal published works to date include nine books and some forty short stories.”  

He describes his “writing creed” in these words: “[T]he scientific wonders of the universe are significant only when considered in a human setting.”  He “live[s] with [his] family in the English Lake District in a quiet market town [that was] the birthplace of Stan Laurel.”  

The “idea for ‘slow glass’ came [to him as] pure inspiration…in the proverbial flash,” then he acknowledges that “inspiration can never be ‘pure.’”  He relates it to a childhood memory of the discrepancy between the cricket bat impact and the sound of said impact.  Simply put, this is “the time lag effect.”  In this way the slow glass effect can be directly likened to the speed of light because “‘the present’ and ‘now’ [are] in a tiny degree…already historic.”  And “where a very large time lag is involved, a thing can appear to last long after it has actually ceased to exist.  If a star is so far from Earth that its light takes ten years to reach us, that star could be blotted out of existence one day and for us it would continue to shine for another ten years.”  Yet, as Shaw literally illustrates in “FIG. 1,” one man’s “‘now’ is different to the ‘now’ of the man on the roof, and so they exist in different time worlds.”  This, in a nutshell, is slow light and glass.  

Realistically speaking, “all glass…is very slightly ‘slow’ [because] passing through the glass the same ray of light would slow down to about 120,000 miles” instead of the usual “186,000 miles a second.”  As if the hard science was not belabored enough, Shaw speculatively tackles in the home stretch “IV. THE MAKING OF SLOW GLASS.”  He concludes that “the universe is full of wonders—of which the idea of turning a fragment of glass into a time machine is only one.”  

Bringing things full circle to his Irish origins, “[i]n that glass you would truly have, in the words of the old Irish song, ‘light of other days,’” those lyrics providing Shaw the title of his Analog magazine’s Nebula nominated short story that started it all, adapted in Unknown Worlds #1.  

In subsequent issues, Marvel stretched the slow glass concept thin, but only a few years earlier, Shaw had anthologized his own original story, expanding the concept himself into a portmanteau novel called Other Days, Other Eyes.  Shaw’s original story is moving, so it is puzzling that Marvel did not adapt one or more of the novel’s other two tales for their “slow glass” series.  

“Old Soldier”
Story and Art: Bruce Jones

“Old soldiers never die; they just fade away,” General MacArthur once famously said, which is the gist of this story.  Technically Scott is a “planet clearer,” not a soldier, but the job does involve “keep[ing] dangerous alien life from encroaching on newly-established Federation colonies.”  

Scott has an unusual way of recapturing his youth.  Demoted to janitor by the Federation and cuckolded by his young wife, Scott is out to prove something to himself, and to his son Larry.  Once at the top of his game, Scott finds himself a “useless old fool” after volunteering to travel using an experimental “new hyper-space device” that prematurely ages him.  

Homages to One Million B.C. or the Flash Gordon serial’s “slurpasaurs” can be seen in Jones’ “outgrown saurians,” as well the “shrink-a-matic” – a machine that provides the tale’s Incredible Shrinking Man scenes – rendered a lot like the futuristic deco tanks from the 1936 film Things to Come.  

“I was good at it, son, really good!  I had pride then…I had a reason for living…a purpose!”  The contents page asks, “[I]n the end, does it leave him a man at all?”  Unexpectedly it does, in an obvious way that manages to surprise us.  The concurrent narratives effectively conceal the twist ending of this poignant tale.  

“Mind Games”
Story and Art: John Allison

“The depression was over, unemployment was down,” and while “the Middle East countries were still threatening an oil embargo,” soon “everything would be modified to solar-cells.”  Then it hits Norm Johnson: “W.W. 3.”  

On the “Eastern Front! 1980!” in “Southern Asia---,” “Allied forces” are mired in a “political and tropical quagmire.”  The fight is on to “control the China Hills!” and the “Mouths-of-the-Ganges!,” and Norm is poised to lead the “big push” into “the dense, steamy undergrowth” of the Monsoon-soaked Assam Forest thick with “towering trunks” and impenetrable “gloom.”  “Primed like a Christian entering the forum, he sallied forth---…---but instead of a lion, he found--…INFINITY!”  Or as Norm puts it, “My day of reckoning.”  In other words, “Norm suddenly knew he had been killed.”  

There, in the reaches of deep space, he meets his Maker – “ALMIGHTY GOD…” – and is cast from Heaven’s gates to Satan and his “HOARY HOSTS OF HELL!”  His sins are vague.  Immediately he repents, “I didn’t mean to kill, Lord!  I repent!”  However the accusation from God’s mouth is disappointment that “it takes [being] on the threshold of eternal life to teach you humility.”  But whatever his deadly sin, the point is clear – floating in the outer darkness of icy space, Norm is “damned!”  (Allison’s tendrilled gargoyle demons that pour out of torn “fabric of time-space” are appropriately grotesque, and the Supreme Being who condemns Norm is a stern, towering, patriarchal figure of Old Testament sternness, though not unsympathetic.)  Setting one man’s judgment day in the depths of outer space, an unconventional choice, breathes new life into terrifying old imagery.  

Norm awakes to the benign face of his sergeant who tells him that he, along with a bunch of his commandoes, fell victim to an “L.S.D. gas” attack.  The “heavy duty lasers” of “overhead cover” made quick and dirty work of the airstrike area, and before going “back to base hospital,” Norm gets a long look at “the aftermath of the big push” and its “many charred cadavers.”  

“Somehow, Norm thought this was funny---‘It’s hell, man-- HELL!—so he laughed himself to the safety of madness.”  

The message, in case you were blind or illiterate or both, is that war is literally hell.  Allison mixes war metaphors – World War Two, Korea, and Vietnam – to create an interesting near-future battlefield both familiar and foreign.  “Hill 79” could be Pork Chop Hill, or Hamburger Hill, the “Allies” could mean the soldiers of the Good War or American troops in the jungles of the Pacific theater of operations or Southeast Asia, or on the Korean peninsula.  In keeping with the obvious message, the “PROLOGUE:” to “Mind Games, however, basically makes Norm a Vietnam-era draftee.  

Like the film Jacob’s Ladder, with its demons and experimental drugs, “Mind Games,” is interesting along the way, up to a point, and then leaves a mildly unsatisfying taste in the mouth.  

Story: Don Glut
Art: Reuben Yandoc

In a backwater Puritan hamlet (no, not Solomon Kane’s hometown), a woman accused of witchcraft is about to be burned at the stake when the landing of a “spider-like craft” interrupts.  You leave the safety of your ship to explore, and the townsfolk instead tie you to the post for razing.  Just when all seems lost, your crew comes looking for you and scares the hostile natives off with laserfire.  Back in the safety of your craft, you unhelmet yourself and behold, you are an Earthman.  You and your crew set course back to an Earth centuries ahead of the planet you just visited.  

It is not every day that you read a story told in the little-used second-person, especially in comics, and it is an effective change of pace here.  The big reveal – it is not Earth being invaded by alien visitors, but aliens being explored by Earthlings – is a role-reversal that will not come as any big surprise to Twilight Zone viewers of “The Invaders” by Richard Matheson.  

Where the story goes wrong is in the final panels by pontificating how culturally backwards the Puritan planet is and if only its native population had received the Earth explorers with open arms, Earth would have “shown them technology that would have stepped up their development by a century or more!”  There is no rational reason to believe that technology is a cure-all for mankind’s ills.  In science fiction, one encounters the imperial mechanized militocracy from the Star Wars films, or on the other side of the spectrum the gentle Eloi primitives of H. G. Wells’ classic The Time Machine.  

The Table of Contents for this story states, “It came from out of the sky, to challenge all their assumptions about the laws of man and God.  Perhaps it will challenge a few of yours, as well.”  

Perhaps not.  

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

July 20, 1969:”  Tyme’s unnamed friend returns with the borrowed slow glass, still convinced “There are no alternates, either of worlds or of gods,” just “clever images.”  Together the “old friends” watch a TV broadcast of “astronaut Abdul Muhammed planting our common flag…upon the surface of the moon,” a flag with American stripes and a Muslim crescent moon and star.  The burnoosed man insists that if there were alternate worlds, “It might be an American flag…if we oil-producing nations had not banded together following the Suez Invasion of 1956 [and in] 1963financed and purchased your country’s space program…”  And that would be “beyond all belief.”  FIN.  

This means Tyme has, all along, been living in an alternate history, and is aware of others thanks to his slow glass.  It also ties in with the looming Third World War of this issue’s “Mind Games.”  In that story’s “PROLOGUE:,” the main character, Norm, worries about “the Middle East countries…threatening an oil embargo…,” and next we glimpse him holding a 1979 copy of The New York Times with the headline “W.W. 3.”  Underneath are the words “Oil Embargo…,” the rest trailing off the panel.  

“The Shape of Things that Came”

A “SPECIAL IF SORROWFUL INTRODUCTORY NOTE” breaks the bad news – there is “an even 50-50 chance that this is the final issue,” and except for one more “giant one-shot special” a year later, this turns out to be mostly true.  Stan Lee is praised for at least giving “us a six-issue try-out, which is more than fair by the standards of the field.”  After that, “Keep watching the newsstands!” is the best they can say.  

We get a glimpse of “Things to Come,” or rather “Things that Might Have Come,” probably to encourage a letter campaign to save the magazine.  Besides plans to “change the look of the mag” with any intended issue #7 including “typeset lettering a la CRAZY” (which happened), readers would have been given “our first multi-part serial, our adaptation of A.E. van Vogt’s classic SF novel Slan, which is already scripted and ready to be illustrated.”  Not only that, but “a number of stories all or partly on the shelf, including adaptations by the likes of…Leiber, Zelazny, and others, and we’ll simply be waiting for the right time and market in which to unleash them.”  

Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction #7 was due out in 1975, but instead a “GIANT SIZE SPECIAL ISSUE” came in 1976.  Besides original stories, that issue included adaptations of Stanley Weinbaum and Frederic Brown, along with a Theodore Sturgeon interview.  Whatever happened to the shelved van Vogt, Fritz Leiber, and Roger Zelazny tales is anybody’s guess, but it seems a shame to relaunch a magazine without making use of those partly-completed adaptations.  If somebody could dig those up, they would be worth finishing and publishing.  Readers were promised that any new issue would continue Don and Maggie Thompsons’s “universally liked” series “Fantastic Worlds,” and that they did.  

A “Reader’s Poll” caps things off with an “adieu” that only a science fiction fanatic could come up with – “FIAWOL.  (Fandom Is A Way Of Life!).”  

—Professor Gilbert

You think that's it, Cosmonaut? Think again! Not only will Professor Gilbert enlighten us to the thrills and spills of Doc Savage #3 in two weeks but... hold on to your space capsule and Xena, Warrior Princess nude photos... you haven't heard the last word on Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction, no matter what bad news Roy dropped in your lap!

* Professor of Moldy Pulps, Professor of Rare and Esoteric Scholarly Science Fiction Funny Books

1 comment:

  1. Hot damn! Knowing Professor Gilbert quite well, I literally squealed with delight when I saw that this issue's focus was on religion. I could almost hear Gil sharpening the tip of his crucifix a borough away. "The message, in case you were blind or illiterate or both, is that war is literally hell." Boffo! Was nice to see a credit for the underused Bruce Jones though: he would soon be hitting them out of the park with Frank Thorne on Marvel Feature and Red Sonja.