Earthlings are dominated by the Devil, manipulated by Martians, headed for extinction at the hands of nonhumans…a horror-scope of the future, masterminded by one of the foremost astronomers of our time.
Fred Hoyle, you’ve infuriated me once again. This time it’s less your fault, and in fact I can only blame you a little bit, but dammit if I’m not really angry right now.
Readers might remember the last time I read one of the noted astronomer’s books, Seven Steps to the Sun, a book so bad I wanted to call the cops on it. While digging around for a book to read this week it had occurred to me that I’ve hit another streak of books that were, at worst, tolerable, so I wanted to give Hoyle another go because I needed something to get my blood going. In a way, it worked.
See, I was reading this book yesterday afternoon and actually starting to think that it wasn’t all that bad, although it seemed like it was jumping all over the place from chapter to chapter without maintaining any kind of continuity. It was around page 45 (out of about 140), the beginning of the fifth “chapter,” that I started to have a realization that sent a sinking feeling into my gut. This wasn’t a novel at all. It was a collection of short stories.
NOTHING AT ALL GAVE ME ANY INDICATION THAT THAT WOULD BE THE CASE
Look at that cover! Does it say anything about short fiction? That back jacket copy? Anything at all? No! Nothing! Based on the cover I thought I was getting into a convoluted plot that involved alien spies and stuff, but no, that rundown on the front was just a series of synopses of some of the stories!
Yes, I could have looked it up and seen that it was a collection. That’s clearly indicated on the ISFDB and elsewhere. But I shouldn’t have to. Somebody could have taken five seconds to add a line, somewhere, that says THIS IS A SHORT STORY COMPILATION, NOT A NOVEL.
By the time I had my realization, I was too invested to switch books (okay, too lazy), so here’s the deal. Today you get fifteen mini-Schlock Values. Despite my frustration with Signet Books right now, I’m also a little excited. This is a first, and I’ve got a few other short story comps (CLEARLY LABELED AS SUCH) that are now open to my review. Yay!
So here we go:
So this guy, Professor Wycombe, is hiking in the Scottish mountains when he wakes up in what appears to be an alien spaceship. There are eight other people and none of them have any idea what’s going on. They deem their captors “Zoomen” because they figure the only logical explanation for their capture is to be placed in some kind of intergalactic zoo. They jump to some conclusions about the aliens and decide that the one thing the human captives all have in common is their mistreatment of animals in some form or another. Two people are butchers, for example, another is a woman with a sizable collection of fur coats, and our POV character himself is just a standard consumer of animal products. The odd man out is an Indian gentleman, Daghri, and everybody wonders what his deal is. It turns out that the aliens must have made a mistake with him and then realize it, because the ship turns around, goes back to Earth, and then drops him off. There is a long discussion of the differences between Germans and Englishmen that seemed out of place.
At first it seems like the aliens don’t want the humans to copulate, but then that decision is rescinded and they all start doin’ it all over the place. Professor Wycombe figures this must be because they are nearing their destination.
There’s a time-cut to the far future and somebody has discovered Wycombe’s diary on a faraway planet, along with a group of humanoid primitives that are descended from those original eight people.
Not a bad story, but a little preachy (a lot of these stories end up a little preachy).
“Pym Makes His Point”
Another professor main character, and keep in mind that as I read this book I still thought this story must somehow be connected to the first one. Hilarious.
It’s a trick-the-devil story, in the vein of those told by the Icelanders of their critically-underappreciated-by-everybody-else culture hero Sæmundr fróði. Anyway, the Devil shows up at Professor Pym’s house and does his Faust thing. The Devil berates the aged professor for his life of mediocrity, a lifetime of serviceable but uninspired scientific papers. The Devil offers him a physics paper that will make him famous, but there’s a wager involved. The Devil says that the professor can have one wish, but that since the professor is so unimaginative and selfish he won’t be able to think of anything that will “make a lasting mark on the world.”
The professor wishes for a mountain range across the English/Scottish border. The Devil loses the bet and disappears. The professor publishes the physics paper, gets famous, and dies a few months later.
I liked this one, because I like this kind of story, although the Devil comes off as pretty dumb. It’s like he wanted to lose.
So this dumb guy, Francis Charles Lennox Pevensey, becomes an astronaut. All his fellow astronauts make fun of him for being so dumb. He’s also big and strong, though, which is why he gets to be an astronaut. The other astronauts like to ask him to do math problems or plot course corrections just so they can see how wrong he gets them. They’re all dicks, apparently. Dickstronauts.
So they land on this planet with a really active magnetosphere or something. The sky is just blazing all the time. The planet also has a gravitational pull of about 1.7 gees, which means everybody but Pevensey is useless. He wanders around a bit, taking some samples. Somebody gets the idea that the magnetosphere of this planet is active enough that it looks kind of like a brain. They decide to nuke it and see what happens.
Pevensey doesn’t like that idea and “screws up,” taking the ship away from the planet and back toward Earth. He gets mocked more than ever, but when the time comes for him to do a “course correction,” he gets it exactly right. Bum bum buuuuum.
I enjoyed this one because it didn’t have a scientific superman as the main character (pulling some authorial wish fulfillment), but also because it was a decent little speculative story about a planet that might be intelligent because it’s atmosphere is so electrically active. That’s clever.
“A Play’s the Thing”
This one was pretty pointless. So this guy, yet another professor, is having an argument with a woman about another woman. At first it seems like maybe the first one is his wife and he’s been philandering with one of his students. It turns out that he’s been philandering with both of them, and the woman reveals that while he thinks he seduced them both, in actuality they seduced him, also they’re both pregnant, and also also they’re both lesbians, so he’s going to have to pay so much child support that he’ll support them both because they’re in love.
That part was actually okay.
But then the story jumps to an author who just had this idea for this very story and how he’s so happy to think of it and he’s going to make it a play. We get a summary of what we just read. It goes off on how authors have some kind of control complex, and maybe draws a comparison to the people in the story within the story. Or something.
That part was unnecessary.
Oddly enough, it was this story that made me start to think that maybe I was reading a collection of stories instead of a coherent novel. Looking back, I feel pretty dumb about that.
So the god Dionysus has decided to hang around on modern Earth for a little while. He drives a car and gets pulled over and then decides to hop on an airplane. The experience is dull and infuriating for him. The light music that the airplane plays grates on his ears, and everybody just seems so dull and listless. There are a few people he interacts with, which is to say he drags two stewardesses to the back of the plane and shows them a good time.
It’s the light music that puts him over the edge. At the airport, he draws the music into himself (with god powers) and then releases it all at once, explosively. No one is hurt, but he hopes that it shakes a few people out of their robotized existence.
Another preachy one, with shades of Gurdjieff. The moral of the whole thing was annoying because it’s so obvious.
“Welcome to Slippage City”
Another Devil story. It turns out that the Devil isn’t all that interested in individual souls anymore, he’d rather gobble them up in one big bunch, so he invents capitalism.
Really, that’s about it. He founds a city that’s really nice. It’s so nice that lots of people come to it. Resources are found and exploited. People start to get exploited too. This might be the longest story in the book but really that’s all the summary it needs.
Except at the end the Devil holds a conference in one of the hotels. By this point the city is pretty crappy because that’s what capitalism does. We’re introduced to a young lady who came to the city to make her fortune. She ends up working at a hotel. Her job is to be a pretty face. It turns out that when people have complaints, they don’t mind that nobody does anything about the complaints so long as someone pretty and sweet listens to them.
So this Devil conference features Devils from all across the universe. The Devil from α Serpentis makes a bet with our Devil that he’s lost his touch and can’t seduce a single soul anymore. Our Devil takes the bet, seduces the young lady, and then when he gets in bed with her it turns out that her private parts are so hot it burns his willy. The Devil realizes he’s been tricked by the other devil and goes away.
I didn’t get it. There didn’t seem to be much point other than LOL CAPITALISM and the Devil got his dick burned off.
So this guy hiking in the woods has a snow ax and people are like DUDE THERE’S NO SNOW WHY DO YOU HAVE A SNOW AX THAT’S DUMB
And he thinks back to this one time that he was in a dangerous spot and the snow ax saved his life. That’s why he carries it.
Gary Paulsen, eat your heart out.
This one’s so clever, guys.
So there’s this government agent who investigates UFOs. The problem is that he just saw a UFO.
Cut to some astronauts going to Venus for the first time. Seems like this part of the story doesn’t fit with the rest, right? Don’t be silly.
The astronauts show up on Venus and it’s this big ocean. Suddenly they crash into that ocean.
Turns out the government agent was a Venusian on Venus and the UFO he saw was the ship from Earth.
A lot of this story doesn’t have anything to do with Martians or Mars. A lot of it takes place on the moon.
In fact, that’s a running theme in a lot of these stories. They’ll be about 80% setup with no characters or anything, and then we meet somebody and the thing that the story is supposed to actually be about finally happens.
So the first moon landing is in 1973 (ha) and we discover that under a thin coat of dirt, the moon has got a lot of ice on it. In fact, landing on it might crack it and then it geysers up violently. This happened to the second moon mission. Very sad.
A bunch of stuff happens and then we land on Mars. Turns out Mars is basically the same. Red dirt, but still essentially that same ice deal. Except our astronauts hear stuff under the ice. And then later some stuff comes out of the ice. Stuff that looks like submarines.
We go back to Earth and find out that yeah, there are Martians, and for some reason they don’t seem to like us. The first thing the Martians do is throw some stuff in the atmosphere that renders the entire human population sterile. Then they send robots to keep us in line. When we behave, we get our fertility back. When we misbehave, babies stop happening.
When the population is down enough, the Martians take over and show us off to the other species in the galaxy. They’re all amazed at how we’re a species based on chemistry, which is something no one else had even thought possible.
YET ANOTHER MIND BLOWER
A guy is a birdwatcher despite having pretty bad myopia. Some rare birds are spotted on some guy’s land, and lots of birdwatchers are keen to see them. The guy goes and doesn’t see them.
On his drive home, his car collides with some birds. It turns out that they’re the very birds he was hoping to see.
This one made me sad.
“A Jury of Five”
So there’s this guy, who’s a dick to everybody. He cheats on his wife, he just knocked up this girl and is looking for ways to abandon her, and he’s not very nice to people. One day he’s in a car crash with this other guy.
The two guys don’t realize anything is wrong at first, but it becomes apparent that they’re both ghosts. What’s curious, though, is that the paramedics who show up only find one body. The two ghosts are unable to figure out which one of them is actually dead.
The guy who’s a dick finds out that his wife is cheating on him and gets really mad about it, which I guess is supposed to be ironic because he cheats on her all the time, but it’s not like that was an unexpected response.
The other guy is actually a decent one, probably a professor of some sort, and he’s never done wrong by anybody.
So it comes time to identify the body. Everybody who shows up at the morgue is connected to the first guy and they all talk about how they either hope it is or is not him. The second, decent, guy doesn’t have anybody on his side at all.
It turns out that more people want the body to be that of the dick than not, so it turns out that yeah, it’s the decent guy who’s dead. The story is more or less Schrödinger’s Cat with a moral.
The narrator quotes Rabalais, some bit about how it’s better to be a guy in debt than a rich man, since when a guy in debt gets old everybody wants him to live so they might recoup some of their money, whereas a rich man, no matter how decent, has his death eagerly awaited upon by all the greedy people in his life. The moral is that while the dick was a dick, he owed people stuff, whereas the decent guy never got out all that much and therefore had no one to hope he was alive for any reason.
Not a bad story, honestly, and a decent little look at human nature, even if the whole point was cribbed from that line from Rabelais that was mentioned in the paragraph telling us what the moral was.
A guy learns how to make animals watch TV. It turns out that animals are pretty good at watching TV, even if they’re still about as stupid as animals should be. We learn that TV ratings are actually based on what these animals like to see. The joke is that people are stupid too.
The title comes from the fact that the TV companies are all paying the guy not to tell.
So a meteor crashes into Earth and it’s made out of pure gold.
That happens about three-quarters of the way through the story. Most of the story is all about how the meteor got diverted off course in such a way that it would crash into the Earth, which was planned the entire time although it was never established who did it. We get a lot of talk about how orbits work.
All the gold crashes in England and if it ever got out onto the market, the economies of most Earth nations would collapse. The English government claims it and locks it up tight, releasing only a little at a time when it needs to, and therefore is very prosperous.
The meat of the story has to deal with workers’ unions.
Some guy in the government figures out that the purpose of the unions is to make sure that people don’t have to work, but that they’re nonetheless employed. (Ha, take that, labor movement.)
The guy then figures that the best way to satisfy the unions is to give them a lot of money from the gold meteorite and have them pay their members directly; meanwhile the actual work that the union members would do becomes completely automated. England is eventually a fully mechanized nation where nobody has to work but they still get paid for it.
I think he means for this to be a bad thing. Like a lot of the stories in the book, this one seems to focus on how people are always ready to give up the ability to think and do things in favor of mindless pabulum (that’s a word that occurs in at least three stories).
I’m more in the Star Trek camp, where I hope that if jobs became obsolete and we entered a post-scarcity economy people would devote their lives to bettering themselves and the world around them instead of just sitting around doing nothing.
Well, I want to be in that camp, anyway. The thing I hate to admit is that I think Hoyle is right, for the most part.
“The Judgment of Aphrodite”
Another story with Greek gods in it, but it also has the Devil. This one’s definitely a moral fable.
The goddess Aphrodite has, for some reason, decided to see what holds the most sway over mankind. She invites some folks to plead their cases. One of them is this big warrior guy, another is God, yet another is the Devil, and the fourth is like a book or something,
The first three plead their cases. The warrior guy says that he controls people through conquest. The Devil says trickery. God doesn’t actually have much to say at all. The book thing states that he is Rules. Everybody on Earth is constantly concerned with The Rules, and he is the embodiment of that. He even points that that really, God and the Devil are just working for him, because the first one throws all these rules around and the second acts against them, thus reinforcing them.
The thing about the moral fables that make up so many of these stories is that they really aren’t in any way revelations about anything. This one was about how people are very, very concerned with rules.
THIS IS NOT A SHOCKING PRONOUNCEMENT
Last story. We’re on the home stretch here.
There’s a future society where people get “the operation.” Our character is a kid in this society and we’re not told what the operation is until pretty late. I’ll skip ahead and point out that the operation puts radio receivers (or something like them) in people’s brains so that they can receive instructions directly from some kind of master control unit somewhere.
Our guy, Joe, doesn’t want this to happen. He’s rebellious and has studied history. So he runs away. He meets a guy. The guy tells him that he, too, ran away once, but that he went back and he was treated very civilly.
Joe goes back and sure enough, he’s not forced into getting the operation at all. What happens, though, is that he’s surrounded by people who have, and he’s lonely. The old man reappears and tells Joe that this is his punishment: loneliness. But if he goes and gets the operation, all that will go away.
So Joe runs away again. This time he’s better prepared, and he intends to tear this ridiculous society down, which should be easy to do because it devoted all of its energy to protecting itself from threats from the inside.
This wasn’t the best option to end the book with, because it was kind of dumb.
Okay, so that’s all of them. Gods, I feel like I’ve been typing all day, even though I did take a several hour break to play World of Warcraft.
My general thoughts are that Hoyle is a much better short-story writer than a novelist, at least based on the single novel of his that I’ve read. Although none of these stories were great, there were some that were certainly serviceable, even enjoyable. And none of them were as bad as Seven Steps to the Sun, although that story about the play came pretty close to that book’s plot. It’s perhaps notable that that novel was written along with Geoffrey Hoyle, and that might have a lot to do with it as well.
The stories did show off the fact that Hoyle is an actual scientist quite a bit, but he was able to make the concepts accessible enough to follow even when they dragged on so long as to be 80% of the story. The best stories, though, were the ones that actually didn’t have much science in them and were instead fantasies. I liked some of the Devil stories a bit, but I generally like that kind of story.
The real takeaway from this whole thing is that if you’re going to publish a collection of short stories, please don’t lie to me about it. I mean, jeez, come on guys. Was I just supposed to figure it out once I started reading and getting confused? Because that’s bad publishing. If you want to sell me some short stories, just do that. Seriously, what the hell?