Daymare by Fredric Brown
from The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction ed. Asimov, Waugh, Greenberg
Carroll & Graf, 1989
Originally published in Thrilling Wonder Stories, Fall 1943
Price I paid: $3
During the 1940s, the great names emerged in an eruption of talent. They formed the mould for the next three decades of science fiction and their writing is as fresh today as it was then.
I had an exciting novel picked out for this week, but then time got away from me and I decided to go with a novella again. And then that almost got away from me because I was down with a stomach bug all day. This review is going out much later than I normally do these days, and I apologize if you’ve been waiting for it. Life is an adventure.
This story marks the third time I’ve read Fredric Brown (after Martians Go Home and “Answer”), and I have to say, he’s becoming one of my favorites. Of the stories I’ve read in this compilation, it is without question the best so far—although next up is a Theodore Sturgeon that might take the title. I’m excited to find out!
This is one of Brown’s earlier works, from 1943. It’s also not the best of the three I’ve read, but that’s almost unfair to say. It was still recognizably him, and is a fine, well-written story. It’s the kind of story that didn’t waste a single one of its 38 large paperback pages.
I wish I could accurately estimate how many words are in a thing. I am, in fact, really bad at estimating pretty much everything.
Daymare is a story that quickly and elegantly manages to both world-build and tell a story at the same time. It’s worth studying for that alone.
Our hero is a guy named Rod Caquer. He lives on Jupiter’s moon Callisto and is a lieutenant in the police force there. His job is mostly routine and dull because humanity has come a long way in however long it’s been.
I don’t know that we get an explicit statement of the setting’s time, but there was one reference to some Bad Old Days in the 24th century.
Brown is perhaps a little vague on what makes this future interplanetary society so great. At one point it’s described as a “perfect democracy,” whatever that means.
Everything goes to hell after Caquer is called in to investigate a murder. The victim is a guy named Willem Deem, a “book-and-reel salesman.” I think that reels are referring to film reels or some futuristic analogue. We learn here that corpses on Callisto need to be dealt with almost immediately because of some something in the air that causes very rapid decomposition of animal matter. This means that Caquer does not have very much time to investigate the body in detail. At least the cause of death is obvious: a sword split his skull “down to the eyebrows.”
But then things start to go off the rails, and Brown manages to tell it beautifully.
It starts off when one of the other cops mentions, quite offhandedly, what a strange way Deem died. After all, there haven’t been any firearms on Callisto for ages.
Caquer is confused at this, as you might expect. And it gets weirder. Another guy says that the cause of death was some kind of energy weapon. Yet another reports that the vic’s head was cut clean off. And a fifth one I don’t remember.
So from the points of view of five different people, this guy died in five different ways.
This is a good hook for a science fiction mystery! What’s going on? I didn’t have any guesses at this point. I think if the story had been a bit more recent, from a time I’m more familiar with, I would have started thinking about possibilities. But this story was from the 40s and I just don’t have a very good handle on what was in the zeitgeist of WWII-era science fiction. A few years later, I probably would have said it was probably something atomic. If this had been from the late 60s, I would have speculated something about drugs in the water. 80s, maybe holograms or the like. If it were from the past decade or so—or a certain kind of 70s New Wave author—I’d think we’re getting into Perception Creates Reality stuff with a lot of metafiction going on.
But in the 40s? I don’t even know.
It turns out to be kind of goofy.
Mystery upon mystery builds up, and Caquer finds himself thinking that he’s operating not on regular logic, but in dream logic. I began to fear that perhaps that was going to be it all along. If it had all been a dream, or a simulation, or whatever, I would have been very disappointed.
While following Caquer on his investigation, we learn some details about the setting. He meets a guy who is inventing a special kind of eyeglasses with, essentially, windshield wipers on them. Callisto has mines for a substance called radite. We don’t learn anything else about it except that it destroys transparent things, whether glass or quartz or whatever. It’s not very friendly to regular eyes, either. I don’t know how that works, but it means that the people mining it have to do so blindly.
This guy’s glasses use the windshield wiper principle to block the radiation by going so fast that the radiation is blocked but that the wipers themselves are basically invisible.
They come up again.
Things get weirder for Caquer. He himself has an odd dream—an actual dream, not a possible one—trying to convince him that another group of people on Callisto, in Sector Two, are evil and deserve to be invaded. They have Martian Blood, says the voice in his head.
Later, after that, he gets informed that there are Soapbox Radicals setting up in various parts of the sector, preaching dangerous ideologies. This is virtually unheard of in this society, especially in these numbers. The occasional whackjob is one thing, but there are nine of them, and most importantly, once they’re all arrested, they all claim that they were put up to it…by Rod Caquer!
And then there’s yet another murder. Someone is pushed or thrown out of a window onto the street below, and everyone agrees, it’s WILLEM DEEM AGAIN.
If I’m disappointed by any aspect of this story, it’s in the fact that Rod’s next act is to go and visit an old professor friend of his, who over the course of a page or two just expositions us the solution to the mystery. It’s all very “well I once read a thing about such and such” and of course it turns out to be right. I was hoping quite strongly that it would be a red herring, but nope.
It turns out that the mysterious power at work here is
wait for it
you’re gonna love this
I don’t know how much hypnotism—or mesmerism, as the story calls it sometimes—was a big deal in the 40s, but this story makes it seem like maybe a few people were running around saying that it could cure certain diseases but also lead to giant horrible personality cults that invade places and use justifications like “the wrong blood.”
To be clear, I don’t think that Fredric Brown was supposing that Hitler literally hypnotized people to cause WWII and all that, but I think maybe there was something related on his mind. The tendency for masses of people to lose their rational functions, the power of charismatic personality cults, the question of how this one guy was able to get away with so much.
This story is somewhat heavier than the other Brown I’ve read, but it’s also kind of goofy.
See, this hypnotic power that the professor mentions likely comes from a device that has been long thought destroyed after its terrible effects were seen hundreds of years ago. It’s called a Vargas Wheel and it’s…a hat. A hat with mirrors on it. The hat spins.
Not only does the hypnotic power of the Vargas Wheel give the wearer complete control over anyone who sees it, either in person or over a video broadcast, it’s even able to broadcast the thoughts of the wearer into the minds of innocent people, causing them to do whatever the wearer wants them to do.
Kind of hilarious.
So knowing this, Caquer sets out to figure out who has this terrible device. But how can he keep from being enslaved by it, as it is apparent now that most of the rest of the city has been? Of course, the wacky glasses!
Caquer figures out how to set the glasses to exactly the same frequency as the spinning hat (I’m not sure how he knew that information) and, sure enough, he confronts the guy with it and is able to stop him from carrying out his evil plan.
And that guy was Willem Deems all along! He had apparently, in his job as a bookseller, gotten hold of some forbidden literature from the past that taught him how to build this thing, and he wants to use it to invade the rest of the moon and then head on to Ganymede and beyond that to who knows where. His motivation was just that he was a bad guy, which is also a bit disappointing to read. “He was just a psycho” is rarely a satisfying ending for me.
Caquer splits Deems’s head open with a sword in a nice bit of symmetry with the start of the novella, and then the story jumps to Caquer sitting in a living room with the professor and his beautiful daughter (who I forgot to mention before because, well, her sole reason for being in this story is to be the scientist’s beautiful daughter). They’re talking about all that went before and what Deems’s motivation was, and this confused me for just a second before I realized what was going on.
See, this jump was strange before previously, all the separate scenes in the novella were separated by a double line break. This one was not. It was a regular paragraph break between Caquer killing Deems and then moving on to the concluding scene, and it made me think at first that this was intentional, that something about killing Deems broke a spell or whatever and that the whole time Caquer had been hanging out with professy and daughter.
It was no such thing. This wasn’t clever writing or a massive twist or anything. It was just bad formatting! I suppose that just goes to show how important copy editing really is? I hesitate to say that this incident changed the story for me in a meaningful way, but it did lead me down one narrative path before I realized that it wasn’t a path at all, just a mistake.
I hadn’t mentioned it before, but this collection is pretty full of mistakes like that, although this one was the first that I didn’t pick up on immediately. Usually it’s just misplaced quotation marks or misspellings. This collection feels like a rush job.
I just noticed it, but in the page headers atop this very novella, Brown’s first name is misspelled “Frederic.”
But still, that doesn’t take away from the fact that this was a fine story, well told. Yeah, hypnotism with a magic spinning mirror hat is pretty goofy, but that’s probably the least important part of the story. It could have been anything like psychic cigarettes or mind-implant computer chips or brain parasites and the story would have shaped up pretty much the same way.
Was there some kind of moral to the story? I’m not sure about that. I drew those comparisons to Hitler and whatnot, and I think they’re valid, but I don’t think that Brown was necessarily trying to do some kind of warning or whatever? I could be wrong. I think he was mostly just trying to tell an interesting sci-fi mystery story and he tapped into current events, maybe even unconsciously.
Oddly, though, one of the things I loved most about this story, as well as the other works of his I’ve read, was its timeless quality. There’s nothing wrong with a story being very much of its time, it’s just a difference. I like stories that could have been written any time and I also like stories that drip with current events and attitudes. Brown just seems to be one of those authors that lands in the former camp for me, at least so far.
I have every intention of reading more Fredric Brown and I really look forward to it.