“Giant Killer” by A. Bertram Chandler
from The Mammoth Book of Golden Age Science Fiction ed. Asimov, Waugh, Greenberg
Carroll & Graf, 1989
Originally published in Astounding Science Fiction, October 1945
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.
Y’all, there is a lot to talk about with this story, and almost all of it is good. I’m really excited.
First up, a small confession. I skipped a story. The next story after “No Woman Born” is one by Isaac Asimov, called “The Big and the Little.” I read the first few paragraphs and it turned out to be set in the Foundation universe, and something about that didn’t sit right with me bloggy-wise, so I decided to give it a pass. Maybe I’ll come back to it later, maybe I won’t.
What this meant, though, is that I got to jump earlier to revisiting A. Bertram Chandler, an author I’ve grown to enjoy. Another confession, though: As I read this story I was under the impression that this was my second foray into Chandler’s oeuvre, after the John Grimes novel To Keep the Ship. If I’d remembered that I’d also read The Hamelin Plague (and that it was by Chandler), my reaction to this story might have been different? That’s a good question. Sorry for being vague, but I promise that I’ll explain eventually.
In a way, I don’t want to spoil this story for folks. But I also need to write this review. I guess I’ll just say, if you don’t want to be spoiled on a story written when my grandma was a baby, feel free to skip this week’s review until you’ve read the story yourself. In fact, I encourage you to do so! Otherwise, come along!
This 45-page story gave me a lot of thoughts!
From the start we get that this is a story from a non-human perspective. Right off the bat we meet Weena, who has just given birth. Nothing makes any sense and there are a lot of terms and concepts thrown at us without any kind of context. This is a story that throws its audience right into the deep end and hopes that we figure out how to swim. That’s a risky gambit. The author has to be able to write well enough for the audience not to give up in frustration but also to not blow the whole thing too early, and it turns out that A. Bertram Chandler is able to do exactly that! Knowing that there had to be some kind of payoff somewhere, I was rapt.
Weena has just had a baby, and we learn that the baby is a “Different One.” Somehow he is abnormal, and in this society, that means death. In fact, it means that the baby is killed and the tribe gets to eat it.
So how is this baby different? I’ll quote:
The child was hairless. The legs were too straight. And—this was worst of all—the head was a great bulging dome.pg 369
And right there as the first page wound down, I figured I knew what was going on. This is (I said to myself) the story of the first homo sapien, spared from death and allowed to go forth and spread across the world somehow or another. The “giants” in the title are, like, Neanderthals or something. Maybe our hero will turn out to be named Aah-dum and he will take a wife named Eaf. Easy peasy, a little disappointing.
I was wrong, and it didn’t take me long to realize that.
Within the next few pages, we’re told more about the Giants and the things they do, and this provides us with some contrast to the People, which is what the folks in the story call themselves. Things begin to take shape. The Giants aren’t just a little bigger than our protagonists, they really are gigantic. And most importantly, they have uncanny powers and technology, such as
…their fiendishly cunning devices that crushed and mangled any of the People unwise enough to reach greedily for the savory morsels left exposed on a kind of little platform.pg 371
And that is when I definitely knew what this story was all about. 100%, no further questions, I figured it out. I’ve read Watership Down, and this is the mouse (or whatever, some details still needed to come together) version of that, a couple of decades beforehand. That’s gonna be the big twist or something, but Chandler spilled the beans too early and I, a genre savvy reader from the year 2021, was just too far ahead of him. Alas.
It was at this point that I had to get up to do something else, feed the cat, go to the bathroom, I don’t remember. In my mind I was beginning to write this review, something about how it would be neat if I could someone selectively forget so many of the trappings of this genre and approach it fresh, like I was a reader in 1945, and whether I would have found the story surprising when it was new.
That is an interesting discussion, one related in part to my recent (failed) attempt to read Dracula and pretend as hard as I could that I didn’t know what a vampire was, but it’s a discussion for another day, because it turned out I was still wrong.
Even at that point I knew that something else had to be going on. There were too many unexplained references. Mutation seems to be running rampant among the People, whether they be rats or mice or termites or whatever. So that’s something I was curious about. And then there’s the very strange fact that these little guys wield weaponry like spears and maces. Something is definitely up.
Weena is able to escape her society and learns that there is an outcast group of Different Ones who have escaped. She reaches them and hands over her baby, Shrick, but they kill her for being a normie. They rename the baby No-Fur and raise him to adulthood.
After this, the story is from No-Fur’s point of view. We learn more and more about this society, and things are weird. My conviction that this was the story of mice living in the walls of a house began to waver a little.
Part of what makes this story work so well, and this is something I’ve probably discussed to death in other reviews, is that Chandler is able to describe the world the People live in so matter-of-factly. The things that are so weird to us aren’t delved into deeply because they’re just a part of the everyday environment. This is borne out best when, several times, with no explanation or dwelling on it or anything, No-Fur or any of the other People will float to where they need to go. When they do, they often kick off of something else, but then that’s what they do. They float. Not fly. Chandler is very specific with the word he uses.
And I started to feel like something very very strange was happening, and I had no idea what. Perhaps I’d misread something? Were the People not rats or mice, but perhaps insects? Ants? Termites? Or were the Giants, who I was convinced were humans living in a house, not actually humans at all? They sure did seem like it. Chandler, through the lens of No-Fur, describes them in alien terms that are extremely familiar to us the reader. One time we see one of the Giants doing something that is quite obviously watching TV while smoking a cigarette. To No-Fur the Giant is staring at a flashing box and occasionally holding a white stick to its face, after which it exhales a kind of fog. Chandler wrote these observations beautifully.
No-Fur turns out to be very smart and ambitious, but he also finds an interesting ally. He meets a female of his species named Wesel, and it turns out that she has the ability to read minds. Some kind of mutation is going on in this book, but for the life of me I couldn’t figure it out. He takes her as his mate. Later, they go and meet another mutant, named Three-Eyes, whose power is to read the future. She tells No-Fur that he will conquer all the tribes of People, but that this will make the Giants aware of them. No-Fur will kill some of the Giants, but the Giants will “plunge the world into—” something she cannot describe. A hot, bright light is somehow involved.
No-Fur, in his rage and fear, kills Three-Eyes. He then begins his campaign, which, it turns out, is successful. Part of his success comes from snagging an artifact of the Giants, a device which makes fire. It turns out to be a cigarette lighter but using it, No-Fur is able to harden his tribe’s spears as well as use fire to conquer his foes.
He spends a bit of the story doing just that, and all the while I’m like “what in the living hell is going on?” Such a major shift from the guy who, not ten pages ago, thought he had this whole thing figured out and was ready to write a review about how it must have been cool once when all the stock story ideas were new and original. Cursed by my own hubris!
I was still convinced that this was a story where something was facing off against humans somehow, and based on that, I strongly suspected that at some point it was going to explain and recontextualize itself so I could have that big Rod-Serling-you-did-it-again headslap. I was enjoying the story but kind of dreading that moment, just because I was afraid it would be handled inelegantly.
For once I was kind of right.
Remember Wesel, the mind reader? She decides that maybe she’ll be able to read the mind of one of the Giants. And she does exactly that. Unfortunately, she gets caught doing so. Some companions she brought along get killed and one of them is dissected before Wesel’s eyes. Wesel herself is experimented on briefly, but then No-Fur shows up and saves the day. He snags the Giant’s blade—it turns out to be a scalpel—and actually kills the Giant with it! No-Fur rescues Wesel and keeps the blade. Wesel, it turns out, has been paralyzed by the Giant’s experiments, but she is able to explain what she’s learned to No-Fur, and it kinda blew my mind.
This is a case where the revelation itself was great but I felt like the mind-reading aspect was kind of a copout. I don’t know how I would have done it better. Maybe I was just looking for something to be disappointed in for its own sake.
“The world is but a bubble of emptiness in the midst of a vast piece of metal, greater than the mind can imagine. But it is not so! Outside the metal that lies outside the Outside there is nothing. Nothing! There is no air.”pg 400
And that’s the last time that I thought I had it all figured out, and it turned out that this time I was right. But Wesel goes on,
“And the world—how can I find words? Their name for the world is—ship…
And all of us—Giants and People—are inside the ship. The Giants made the ship.”pg 400
All this time I was thinking that this was the story of rats living in the walls of a house, but no! They’re rats living in the walls of a spaceship!
I LOVE IT OH MY GOD
So many things started to make sense, but the real big one was the floating thing. There’s no gravity! And the People have never known gravity, so floating around like that is no big deal! It’s just how they get around!
IT’S SO GOOD
Yeah, the way the exposition tells us that this is the deal was kinda clunky, but dangit, I’m willing to look past that because this was all so great.
It’s not fair to just call them rats. They’re more than that. They might not even have started as rats, that’s never really said. But they are vermin, and their original ancestors came on board with a shipment of grain. Living in the walls of the ship exposed them to cosmic radiation, which caused them to mutate intelligence but also explains the other mutations that we saw throughout the story.
The Giants begin to fight back after No-Fur kills one. First they vent all the air from the ship, but No-Fur and Wesel survive by blind luck. No-Fur does kill Wesel, though, in a rage. His dumb rage is a common element in this story and kind of is the main thing that keeps it moving forward. After that, No-Fur finds a few other survivors, babies, and promises to raise them up and take over the ship with new generations.
Some time passes, and No-Fur manages to finally enact his plan. He catches the Giants in their sleep and slits their throats with his scalpel. Unfortunately, he misses one. It’s the Navigator, who, knowing that if this ship ever lands on a habitable world it might spell the end of humanity, sets the ship for a collision course with a star, thus fulfilling Three-Eyes’s final prophecy.
I can’t even stand it! This was easily the best story in this collection so far. I know I had nice things to say about “No Woman Born,” and that’s still a great one, but this story was great in a completely different way, one that I deeply appreciated. It was a story that was a sort of a mystery, but instead of a whodunnit or a howcatchem, it was purely a whatsthedeal. I spent so much time guessing—and not just guessing, but thinking so confidently that I, from my vantage point in the future, had this silly old story all figured out—what was going on, and when the final revelation finally hit, it was so worth it.
I said up top that I might have guessed what was going on more quickly if I’d remembered that Chandler also wrote The Hamelin Plague, a book about superintelligent rats. That’s possible, but I’m not sure if I would ever have landed on the fact that the story was taking place on a spaceship all by myself. That was an excellent twist, and not just because I didn’t see it coming, but because I probably should have. There were so many moments of “I hope this gets explained at some point because I just don’t know what happened” that turned into “Oh my god there’s no gravity” and I’m so completely HERE FOR IT.
I want to teach this story in schools. Writer’s seminars, creative writing classes, whatever. This is a particular kind of story. It’s the kind of story where we’re introduced to what seems like an alien situation but it just turns out to be a matter of point of view. There are plenty of them, but this might be the best I’ve ever read? Maybe it’s cheating just a little bit by not being a completely mundane situation, but whatever, I’m not going to criticize it on that front. For most readers of something like Astounding, a spaceship is a pretty mundane thing anyway.
One thing I want to mention before I close out is that I’m really glad I didn’t look at the artwork! There wasn’t any in this book itself, but in doing a touch of research I did find the cover image for the issue of Astounding that this story was in, and it gives the whole damn thing away.
This story worked so well because it was such a great mystery, and it’s damned heartbreaking that people who read it in the mag format, hot on the heels of V-J day, didn’t get the same sense of mystery and revelation that I got. What makes it even worse is that it’s good art! William Timmins did it and it’s very evocative and skilled work. But it also completely spoils the story. I can’t decide if that counts as a screwup on Campbell’s part or not.
Anyway, in case you couldn’t tell from the previous 2500 words, I liked this story a whole bunch and I encourage you to find a copy. A. Bertram Chandler is becoming a high-tier author in my rankings, and that’s also a great joy to behold. Was the story perfect? Well, obviously no, but dang, it was pretty close!
Take care of yourselves, and I’ll see you in a couple of weeks!