“Constant Reader”

“Constant Reader” by Robert Bloch
from Science Fact/Fiction, eds. Farrell, Gage, Pfordresher, Rodrigues
Scott, Foresman and Company, 1974
Originally published in Universe Science Fiction, June 1953
Price I paid: $6.56

Well I’ll be danged, I could have sworn I’d read at least one other bit of Robert Bloch for this blog, but I can’t find any references to it, so I guess I must have dreamed it. Mostly I know him from having seen Psycho and one of the sillier episodes of the original Star Trek. He’s been on my list of people to read for ages. I haven’t checked but my gut tells me that the relationship between his novel and the Hitchcock movie is that there is a murder in both of them, and maybe the main character has the same name. I’m very curious!

All that said, this story very nearly disappointed me! If I’m willing to go that far and actually declare that, it would make it the first story in this textbook to do so, but I’m not quite going to go that far. At least not yet. Maybe I’ll change my mind as the review comes along, in one direction or another.

Our main character is a guy named George Dale. He is an astronaut, and along with the rest of his crew he is out in the universe looking for strange new worlds to explore. Bloch gets pretty psychological about the whole thing, talking about how difficult it is for four men to be alone together for months at a stretch, and the feeling of relief he describes when they finally arrive at a planet and are able to get out and stretch their legs for a bit is almost palpable.

Bloch also does a thing where this story is absolutely chock full of futuristic space jargon, which lends the story verisimilitude while also managing to not be all that distracting! He did an excellent job with it, and the fact that, for example, the planet our guys discover is called 68/5 for some reason is fine and dandy because Bloch managed to use his jargony astronaut talk in a way that deftly avoided having it in place of any useful, relevant information for the reader. There’s an undeniable skill in play here.

68/5 seems to be completely uninhabited, but ruins litter the surface. The planet is dry and dead and the guys do not expect to find any life there, although there is a breathable supply of oxygen, which remains a mystery.

The thing about our narrator is that he’s the titular “constant reader.” He’s from a future where people prefer to get their information from “telelearning” or “sensorals,” and he’s a throwback to a guy who likes to read books. Is this the most common character archetype in pulp sci-fi? Perhaps even across the entire genre? I swear I’ve met more of these guys than I’ve met swashbuckling Captain Future types.

What’s great is that it turns out all these pulp authors were absolutely right on the money about this kind of guy. With the advent of electronic books and the easier access to audiobooks, there are still so many people who feel the need to tell us that they prefer paper books for some reason or another. Usually it boils down to liking the feeling of it, or something like that.

And you know, that’s fine, do what you like. I like paper books too. But I also like accessibility, and convenience, and stuff like that, so I’m pleased to live in a time where I can download a book to my phone and read it while I’m in line at the bank, or listen to it while I’m putting stickers on other books at work. I like that someone with difficulty seeing can increase the font size on their e-reader and not have to wait for the large print edition of a book to come out. I like that truck drivers and other long-haul travelers can listen to audiobooks while on the road. All of these things are great! And paper books are also great!

This is a relevant character trait because it means that he brought some books along for the trip, and at that point I reckon you probably know how all this is going to shake out. And that’s where I started to get a little disappointed, like maybe I’d read this story once or twice or a dozen times already.

Our guys are out walking the surface of this planet, which all of a sudden, the sun goes out. Just poof. Gone. So they decide to walk back to the spaceship, pretty confused, and on the way there they discover some ruins that they must have missed on the way out. Some of the astronauts decide to go check it out before heading back to the ship, and when they do return, they have some pretty strange stories to tell!

It turns out that there are people on this planet after all! They’re small, shockingly small, and they wear armor of a sort. And they talk a strange little language. Our narrator picks up on all of this immediately, and I’m grateful that we didn’t have to spend a lot of time getting to that point. These guys are definitely Lilliputians. One of the books he brought with him was Gulliver’s Travels, and it seems that whatever intelligence is on this planet is capable of reading books and duplicating the stuff within them.

It’s also apparently able to make people lose track of time or pass out or something, which is why the sun disappeared the way it did. That seems to be an unconnected ability.

The story starts to unravel a bit at this point, which is kind of a shame. There’s no action, just a few pages of speculation and exposition, in which Dale lays down this Theory of Intelligence that he worked out over the past few hours, about how maybe Intelligence is a thing that can exist independently of life, and that that’s what’s going on here, that once the original people on this planet all died out, their intelligence transferred to the planet itself, and that it is using the stuff inside of the books that Dale brought to defend itself against invaders.

Okay then.

Everybody else thinks this is pretty wild and speculative, which, you know? That’s totally fair. They laugh at him and call him a coward and then set out to explore the ruins again, whereupon they are set upon by cyclopes and killed and eaten. Dale and one of the other guys didn’t go, so they’re fine. Dale brings out his copy of The Odyssey to show that that was where the planetary intelligence must have gotten the idea of the cyclops.

Dale and the other guy (turns out his name is Levy) blast off from the surface of the planet just in time to see a white rabbit show up and talk about how it’s going to be late. And that’s the end of the story.

Kind of a lame ending? Like, okay, we established what’s happening, and now the ending is just…more of it happening. Whoop-dee-doo.

What really disappointed me though was the fact that this was yet another one of those stories where somebody brings books and the planet or the psychic species on the planet manages to psychically read those books or the mind of the person who has read them and then reproduces the stuff inside either for their benefit or their detriment. This was yet another Star Trek episode, for one thing (that one was written by Theodore Sturgeon, though). And if we omit the book part it’s basically “Mars is Heaven!” too.

And moreover it was basically the plot of a story I reviewed just short of a month ago! At least Bloch didn’t include a gendercide subplot in his story, so that’s nice.

Interestingly enough, these two stories were originally published within a few months of one another! “Lady Killer” came out in March of 1953, whereas “Constant Reader” was in June of that same year! Was there something in the air at the time that led people to be thinking about aliens who read literature and use it as a weapon? I wonder.

What makes my disappointment in this story such a shame is that Bloch was a hell of a writer. I love his style, which is at once pretty dry but also sardonic and clever. There’s a great line about a guy that Dale describes as a misanthrope, but then clarifies to say “Although his mis wasn’t confined to anthropes.” That’s a great line! Bloch’s narration is a joy to read, and his dialogue not bad either. They’re pretty similar, really, which makes sense when you have a first-person narrator like in this story.

Really I’m not going to say this is a bad story, it’s just one that has perhaps been done and redone so many times that I’m tired of the trope. That’s not Bloch’s fault, at least not as far as I can tell. I don’t know of a lot of that kind of story that came out before 1953, so maybe he was on the crest of the wave, along with Chad Oliver’s Startling Stories contribution? Was it a minor fad in the early part of that year? Will I find a lot more stories of that nature if I start digging around by publishing date? That’s an interesting idea. I’m not sure if I have the tools to do that. On the other hand, there’s probably a name for that trope, right? I could probably look it up that way. Any thoughts on what it might be?

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