Friday 27 May 2011

Donald E. Westlake's Sci-Fi Magazine Stories: The Spy in the Elevator (Galaxy, Vol. 20, No. 1, October 1961; British Edition)

Just a quick note before we get to the meat of this post: I've got another post up on the Ilex Press blog, tangentially related to this Existential Ennui series of posts on the early 1960s Donald E. Westlake science fiction magazine short stories. It's about Steve Holland's recently-published Sci-Fi Art: A Pocket History, so go have a read, why don'tcha. And while you're there, if you haven't already, take a gander at my first post, on Richard Stark's The Hunter, as featured in Ilex's 500 Essential Cult Books.

Plug out of the way, let's have a look at the penultimate Westlake SF short I have for you this week – and just for a change it's a story which has been reprinted since – in the 1989 collection Tomorrow's Crimes. So you can, if you feel so inclined, read the damn thing without having to hunt for a copy of this:

Galaxy Vol. 20, No. 1, published by Galaxy Publishing Corporation in October 1961. You'll note from the price in the top right corner of the cover that this is the British edition, but unlike some of the other SF mags around this period, Galaxy's UK and US monthly pub dates were exactly the same – possibly because the UK editions were printed and published by the American publisher – with only the cover price changed – and then shipped over to Britain. Once again the table of contents is stuffed with marquee names:

Frederick Pohl, Frank Herbert, Fritz Leiber... not bad at all. And as with that issue of Amazing Stories I blogged about on Sunday, there are some fine Virgil Finlay illustrations too, especially this one, decorating Cordwainer Smith's "A Planet Named Shayol":

Wow. The cover is by Finlay as well, but Westlake's story is illustrated by a "West" (no first name). "The Spy in the Elevator" posits a future where the remnants of humanity live in "Projects", 200-stories-high towers, each independent of the other, separated by irradiated wasteland. Our narrator is an ordinary Joe, Edmund Rice. Edmund is planning on proposing to his girlfriend on the 140th floor, Linda, to enter into Non-P marriage – "Non-Permanent, No Progeny". Rehearsing his lines as he waits for the elevator – "Darling, I can't live without you at the moment. Temporarily I'm in love with you. I want to share my life with you for a while. Will you be provisionally mine?" – he's disturbed to find the elevator doesn't seem to be working – something which is unheard of. Rushing back to his apartment, he calls a Transit Staff receptionist... and is told that there's a spy in the elevator.

Deciding to take the stairs instead – again, practically unheard of – Edmund is surprised when the spy emerges from an elevator shaft emergency entrance, brandishing a gun. The spy divulges that he is not, in fact, a spy, merely an inhabitant of another Project eighty miles north... and that he travelled to Edmund's Project on foot, across a landscape that was supposedly rendered untraversable after World War III. And what's more, the non-spy reckons that life is returning to the outside world...

In true science fiction fashion – think Soylent Green or Ray Bradbury's short stories – Westlake rounds the tale off with a payoff which neatly deflates any expectations we might have built up throughout preceding events. The notion of hermetically sealed habitations, cut off from each other and fed by fear, rumour and supposition, obviously takes its cue from the Cold War – as does the idea of a spy from a foreign "power". But Westlake does more with the scenario than one would expect, filtering in little details about the society that's developed within the tower block – a transient, mindless way of life, with the Project's population controlled by the Army, unquestioning and obedient.

That said, as with "Man of Action", there's a lightness of touch to the tale, again presaging the crime caper novels Westlake would soon be writing. But the final story I'll be looking at in this run of posts – which I'll have up over the weekend – opts for a rather different approach: an attempt at a realistic and at-the-time plausible vision of space exploration. And, unusually for Westlake's SF shorts, it's the featured story on the cover of the magazine in which it appears...

Thursday 26 May 2011

Donald E. Westlake's Sci-Fi Magazine Stories: Man of Action (Analog, Vol. XVII, No. 4, April 1961; British Edition)

After that brief Richard Stark/Parker/500 Essential Cult Books interruption yesterday, let's continue this series of posts on the short stories cult crime fiction author Donald E. "Richard Stark" Westlake wrote for sundry science fiction magazines in the early '60s – introductory preamble here, first story from May 1960 here. And today I have for you another (never-reprinted) tale from 1960... or at least, in America it was published in 1960 – December, to be precise. Here in the UK, though, it didn't appear until the following year – neatly demonstrating how British publishers of US SF mags tended to lag behind their American counterparts by some months. Anyway, the magazine in which it appears is this:

Analog Vol. XVII, No. 4 was published in the UK by Atlas in April 1961, four months after the US edition. It boasts a sterling line-up of SF stalwarts: Poul Anderson and Harry Harrison both have novelets in it, and editor John W. Campbell clocks in with a feature on the Echo I communications satellite:

The illustrators are pretty strong too; the cover is by the amazing John Schoenherr – quite an early example of his cover art – and his chiaroscuro linework also graces Anderson's story. (Schoenherr is one of the featured artists in the aforementioned Sci-Fi Art: A Pocket History, which I edited.) I also rather like Leo Summers's work on Harrison's story; I've not come across him before, but his drawing is quite elegant.

Westlake's story, "Man of Action", is also illustrated by Summers, the artist doing his best with a tale that's set almost entirely in one room. We barely leave the confines of the featureless, golden-walled apartment in which our protagonist, Roger, finds himself in a New York of the future (except to visit the next room along, which is exactly the same), having gone to sleep in his own house in 1960. As Roger awakes and wonders aloud why the calendar clock by the bed is showing August 14, 2138 instead of December 3, 1960 – "or was it December 4th?" – a disembodied mechanical voice replies: "December 3rd". Roger, it transpires, has been brought to the future to answer a question. Trouble is, he has to guess what that question might be. So begins a battle of wits between Roger and the voice, as Roger tries to get to the bottom of his mysterious time trip.

The answer, when it eventually comes, isn't terribly surprising, although it does make sense – certainly more so than the baffling "Travelers Far and Wee" – and there's a nice punchline involving Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. But what's most interesting about the story is the way the Q&A session between Roger and the voice – with its misunderstandings and logical cul-de-sacs – prefigures the elliptical conversations between Dortmunder and Kelp in Westlake's later series of crime caper novels beginning with 1970's The Hot Rock. The mechanical voice in "Man of Action" has a frustrating habit of taking everything Roger says literally, which is precisely the problem Dortmunder encounters with Kelp and others of his hapless associates. So again, it seems Westlake was trying out a stylistic approach which would play into his later books.

One thing I've noticed with these early Westlake SF stories is they often work up to some kind of payoff. That's common in science fiction shorts – Ray Bradbury famously deployed the tactic in his peerless short stories, although in his case the endings were much more powerful and gut-wrenching. Westlake usually opts for a more comedic punchline – although tinged with a dark irony – and the next story I'll be looking at, also from 1961, does the same thing again...

(And if you can't bear to wait until tomorrow for more of my searing science fiction insight, I've got another SF-themed post up over on the Ilex Press blog. Go have a look, why doncha?)

Wednesday 25 May 2011

A Donald E. Westlake Aside: Richard Stark's The Hunter in 500 Essential Cult Books by Gina McKinnon (Ilex Press)

Interrupting this run of posts on Donald E. Westlake's science fiction short stories, I mentioned on Monday that I'd likely have another Westlake-related post up elsewhere this week – and so I have.

Regular readers may or may not know that, when I'm not knocking out nonsense on this 'ere blog, I'm beavering away as Managing Editor at pop culture publisher Ilex Press. We've just revamped our website, and one of the brand spanking new features on it is... your guessed it: a blog. Obviously we'll be promoting our new books on the blog, but what we'll also be doing is looking back at some slightly older titles – many of which, funnily enough, intersect with the abiding preoccupations of Existential Ennui. I've just posted my first entry on the Ilex Press side of the blog (there's an Ilex Photo side as well, concentrating on the digital photography titles we publish), which, perhaps unsurprisingly, is on Donald E. Westlake – or rather, his Richard Stark alias, specifically 1962's Parker novel The Hunter, one of the titles featured in Ilex's rather fine 500 Essential Cult Books.

So, while you're waiting for the next post on Westlake's SF stories here, why not head over to this post on the Ilex blog, and wallow in some Westlake/Stark/Parker goodness. You know it makes sense...

Tuesday 24 May 2011

Donald E. Westlake's Sci-Fi Magazine Stories: Travelers Far and Wee (The Original Science Fiction Stories, Vol. 11, No. 2, May 1960)

So then. After yesterday's preamble on cult crime fiction author Donald E. Westlake and the science fiction short stories he wrote for various publications – with its attendant bibliography – it's time to take a look at some of the earliest examples I've managed to get my ever-grubby mitts on. And we'll start with this:

The is Volume 11, No. 2 of The Original Science Fiction Stories, published by Columbia Publications Inc. in May 1960 (cover art uncredited – nice hair loss advert on the back there; some things never change...). As you'll see from the table of contents:

the line-up of storytellers in this issue is pretty solid. The lead novelet is by Murray Leinster, alias William Fitgerald Jenkins, a mainstay of the pulpy SF mags who penned well over a thousand short stories, while bringing up the rear are well-regarded science fiction names like David Grinnell – alias Donald A. Wollheim – and Hannes Bok, a.k.a. Wayne Woodward (pseudonyms all the way, it seems), who is better known for his splendid artwork than his writing.

Westlake's story clocks in at just four pages, and it's a real curiosity. Indeed, I must profess a certain level of bewilderment at it. I've read it and re-read it in the vain hope that I might have missed something first time round, but I'm still baffled. Ordinarily I try and avoid too many spoilers when reviewing stuff on Existential Ennui – or at least throw in a spoiler alert – but with "Travelers Far and Wee" by necessity I'll be revealing the ending because it's so perplexing it bends the rest of the story completely out of shape.

Told in the third-person, the story follows Roger and Phil, two apparently successful executive types driving round New York in an Oldsmobile. They cruise round the streets, stopping at a drive-through bank, then a drive-in restaurant, where Roger orders a hamburger while Phil slumbers in the passenger seat, and then carry on their merry way. At around 5pm Phil wakes, and whilst stationary at a stop light the two swap positions, clambering over each other so that when the light turns green, it's Phil who's in the driving seat. As they continue driving round seemingly aimlessly, Roger mentions he cashed another check earlier. "How much do we have left?" asks Phil. "I don't know," replies Roger: "Millions."

A couple of times Roger and Phil discuss the situation on the roads. Waving at the traffic around them, Phil ponders, "I wonder how many of them are like us." Replies Roger with a shrug: "More every day I suppose." As the story meanders towards its conclusion, with a faint smile Phil muses, "Do you suppose we'll ever be able to get out of the car?" But Roger doesn't answer: he's fallen asleep.

And that's yer lot. It is, as I say, all rather puzzling. Now, there is one clue to Westlake's intent at the start of the tale. The Oldsmobile is described as this year's model "with the latest sanitary equipment", which suggests the vaguely futuristic notion that vehicles have been modified so that occupants no longer need to leave them. But that doesn't explain why Roger and Phil can't escape the car. Is it because they can't find a parking space? Possibly, although the issue of parking is never raised. Are they too overweight to get out? Westlake's portrayal of them would suggest not. Does the "millions" they mention denote some kind of Faustian pact? Who knows.

I guess the point is that Westlake is leaving it up to us to wonder why Roger and Phil are stuck in their car, but the trouble is he doesn't give us enough clues or furnish us with enough information to make that a satisfactory approach. Although, having said that, out of all the Westlake SF shorts I've read thus far, this is the one I've ruminated over the most. So maybe Westlake wins after all. Whatever the case, "Travelers Far and Wee" is told in that light, airy, whimsical manner that would become so familiar with, say, the Dortmunder stories – a style that wouldn't show itself in his novels until 1965's The Fugitive Pigeon. And in its matter-of-fact descriptions of New York's layout, it prefigures the Parker novels (written, of course, as Richard Stark), especially 1962's The Hunter.

"Travelers Far and Wee" has never been reprinted, so you'll have to track down a copy of The Original Science Fiction Stories to read it yourself. And neither, for that matter, has the next short story I'll be looking at, which also hails from 1960 – although the edition of the magazine in which it appears I have is the British one, which didn't make it onto the racks in the UK until April 1961. Before we get to that, though – there's this.

Monday 23 May 2011

Donald E. Westlake: The Science Fiction Magazine Short Stories – An Introduction and Bibliography / Checklist

By this point Donald E. Westlake should need no introduction, but in case this is either your first visit to Existential Ennui or you're just setting off on your own classic American crime fiction voyage of discovery: Westlake, who died in 2008, remains one of America's most revered crime fiction writers. As Richard Stark he created the series of pared-back, lean-and-mean novels starring taciturn thief Parker, while under his own name he wrote numerous caper stories, some featuring hardluck heister John Dortmunder, others standalone works. I've blogged about him multiple times over the past year or so – just follow the "Westlake" or "Richard Stark" labels at the bottom of this post (still a work-in-progress, I'm afraid) for more on him.

But Westlake didn't just write crime (or comedy crime) stories; he also penned a good number of science fiction/fantasy/ghost stories too. Almost all of those were short stories, and some were gathered together for the 1989 collection Tomorrow's Crimes. The vast majority of the early ones, however, have never been seen since. Initially Westlake wrote his SF tales for the various SF magazines that used to be commonplace in the 1950s and '60s: Amazing Stories, Analog and the like. Later, once he'd become more successful, he wrote them for more mainstream titles like Playboy.

Indeed, it's decidedly not the case that he only wrote science fiction when he was just starting out as a writer, eagerly grasping any opportunity that came his way, irregardless of genre: he carried on penning SF right up until the late-1980s. Evidently, science fiction was something that continued to fascinate and inspire him, even when he no longer needed to write SF stories – or sleaze paperbacks, or any of the other things he wrote for a paycheck in those early days – just to make ends meet.*

Over the course of this week I'll be looking at some of those earliest SF tales. Thanks largely to eBay seller SoggyPee and the ever-helpful Simon at Fantastic Literature, I've managed to track down a decent selection of the early-1960s science fiction magazines Westlake wrote stories for (plus some other non-Westlake ones, too). I'll be splitting them into two runs of posts, going from earliest to latest – the second series of posts will likely be in a few weeks' time.

What's interesting about these early SF stories is the way they show Westlake trying out different approaches. Some of the stories are humorous; some are whimsical; some are attempts at Robert A. Heinlein-style hard, technological SF. The science fictional aspects of the stories aside – which in any case are fairly tenuous in one or two of the tales – this experimenting with different styles of storytelling would pay dividends in his later novels. For instance, Westlake didn't start writing comedy caper novels until The Fugitive Pigeon in 1965; reputedly at the time he himself was surprised by the tonal shift from his more hardboiled works like The Hunter (1962) and 361 (1963). But these nascent SF stories demonstrate that he was adopting a more lighthearted approach in his short-form writing even prior to The Fugitive Pigeon.

The stories I'll be reviewing this week all hail from 1960 and 1961. But before we sally forth and examine them in more detail, I thought a Westlake SF checklist might be in order. There are a number of sources online which catalogue Westlake's short stories; the main Westlake website has a pretty comprehensive bibliography of all of his work, while Thrilling Detective's checklist has a standalone shorts section, as does this seemingly exhaustive Russian website. I drew on that last one in particular in assembling my science fiction story list, as well as my own research (adding volume and issue numbers for one). Hopefully the list is comprehensive, but if anyone spots any mistakes or anything missing, feel free to leave a comment and I'll amend it. I've included not just the magazine stories but every science fiction tale I've identified, including Westlake's only SF novel, 1967's pseudonymous Anarchaos, and the stories which were reprinted in Tomorrow's Crimes.

All dates are for the most part original US publication, not UK; the British editions of the science fiction magazines tended to reprint stories from the American editions months down the line, something which will become apparent as we progress. A few of the stories apparently appeared in anthologies before they were reprinted in magazines, so in those instances I've listed the anthology first. Oh, and if all goes according to plan I'll have another Westlake post this week elsewhere on another blog; I'll let you know when that's up. Enjoy.

NB: Follow the links to my reviews of the stories.

*For more on why Westlake stopped writing for SF magazines, see this post and this post.

Donald E. Westlake's Science Fiction Stories

"Or Give Me Death", Universe Science Fiction, No. 8, November 1954

"Fluorocarbons Are Here to Stay", The Original Science Fiction Stories, Vol. 8, No. 5, March 1958

"And Then He Went Away", Future Science Fiction, No. 43, June 1959

"Birth of a Monster" (as by Richard Stark), Super Science Stories, Vol. 3, No. 5, August 1959

"Travelers Far and Wee", The Original Science Fiction Stories, Vol. 11, No. 2, May 1960

"Man of Action", Analog Science Fact & Fiction, Vol. LXVI, No. 4, December 1960

"The Risk Profession", Amazing Stories, Vol. 35, No. 3, March 1961

"They Also Serve", Analog Science Fact & Fiction, Vol. 68, No. 1, September 1961

"Call Him Nemesis", Worlds of If Science Fiction, Volume 11, No. 4, September 1961

"The Spy in the Elevator", Galaxy, Vol. 20, No. 1, October 1961

"Meteor Strike!", Amazing Stories, Vol. 35, No. 11, November 1961

"Look Before You Leap", Analog Science Fact & Fiction, Vol. LXLX, No. 3, May 1962

"The Earthman's Burden", Galaxy, Vol. 21, No. 1, October 1962

"The Question", The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Vol. 24, No. 3, March 1963

"Nackles" (as by Richard Stark), The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 1, January 1964

Anarchaos (as by Curt Clark), Ace Books, 1967 (paperback novel)

"The Winner", Nova #1, 1970 (paperback anthology)

"The Ultimate Caper: The Purloined Letter", New York Times, May 11, 1975

"In at the Death", The 13th Ghost Book, 1977 (anthology, ghost story); possibly alias "This is Death", Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Vol. 72, No. 5, November 1978

"The Girl of My Dreams", The Midnight Ghost Book, 1978 (anthology, ghost story); also Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Vol. 73, No. 4, April 1979

"The Mulligan Stew", Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Vol. 73, No. 1, January 1979 (possibly ghost story)

"Interstellar Pigeon", Playboy, Vol. 29, No. 5, May 1982

"Dream a Dream", Cosmopolitan, August 1982

"Heaven Help Us", Playboy, Vol. 30, No. 7, July 1983

"Don't You Know There's a War On?", Playboy, Vol. 30, No. 12 December 1983

"Hydra", The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Vol. 66, No. 3, March 1984

"The World's a Stage", Playboy, Vol. 31, No. 7, July 1984

"Hitch Your Spaceship to a Star", Playboy, Vol. 32, No. 12, December 1985

"Here's Looking at You", Playboy, Vol. 36, No. 5, May 1989

Tomorrow's Crimes, Mysterious Press, 1989; contains "The Girl of My Dreams", "Nackles", "The Ultimate Caper: The Purloined Letter", "The Spy in the Elevator", "The Risk Profession", "The Winner", "Dream a Dream", "In at the Death", "Hydra", "Anarchaos"

Sunday 22 May 2011

The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista (Vermilion Sands) by J. G. Ballard (Virgil Finlay Artwork); Amazing Stories Vol. 36, No. 3, March 1962

I mentioned on Friday that I might be able to squeeze in a weekend post on one of those 1960s science fiction magazines I've been hoovering up recently – ahead of the ones with the Donald E. Westlake stories in that I'll be blogging about next week – and so I am. Doing. Have. Done. Whatever.

This is Vol. 36, No. 3 of Amazing Stories, published in the US in March 1962 by Ziff-Davis, with a front cover by Lloyd Birmingham. I spotted this copy whilst lurking on eBay keeping an eye on the aforementioned Mick SoggyPee's various Westlake-story-containing SF mags; this issue of Amazing was one of the other SF mags he had on offer, and I was struck by the quality of the contributors in the table of contents. (Mick always includes a scan of the contents of an issue in his listings, which is particularly handy for British editions of genre magazines, where the contents tend to lag behind the American editions by a few months.) Take a look-see, as you Americans might say:

You've got one novelet (or, to use the more familiar spelling, novelette – basically a story that's longer than a short but shorter than a novella) each from Frank Herbert and Brian W. Aldiss, plus a guest editorial by Robert Bloch, and a generous helping of drawings from one of the finest artists ever to contribute to SF magazines, Virgil Finlay. I've come across Finlay's work before – a few years back I edited a book in which he featured (Sci-Fi Art: A Graphic History – now available as a rather splendid book-and-magnet set, retitled Sci-Fi Art: A Pocket History) – but his elegant illustrations on the back cover and inside this issue of Amazing are... well... quite simply, amazing:

The real prize in this issue, though, is a story which doesn't even get a mention on the cover – and which again boasts a couple of beautiful Virgil Finlay illos:

J. G. Ballard's "The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista" is perhaps the best-known of his stories set in the futuristic resort of Vermilion Sands (all of which were gathered together in 1971 in the Vermilion Sands collection). It's narrated by Howard Talbot, a lawyer who has come to Vermilion Sands with his wife, Fay, while he opens an office in nearby Red Beach. Howard and Fay move into a house on Stellavista, one of the resort's PT, or psychotropic, domains, which are made of a bioplastic which shifts and reforms according to the residents' mood. But they aren't the first inhabitants of the house... and the former occupants, movie star Gloria Tremayne and her husband, architect Miles Vanden Starr – who was murdered by Tremayne while he slept – have left something of an impression on the place. And Howard was one of the lawyers for the defence at Tremayne's trial...

The notion of a home that alters its design according to the occupant's mood is an intriguing idea; Ballard uses it to explore concerns such as how technology impacts and reshapes humanity, and how a bored, well-fed middle class increasingly turns to novelty. And, as with Concrete Island, at the close of the story the narrator even comes to embrace his strange surroundings, finding a kind of peace there, despite – or perhaps because of – the trauma experienced within it.

I'll be featuring another Ballard science fiction story from an even more scarce SF magazine fairly soon – a longer tale which is in effect the first edition of what would become one of his most famous novels. But next on Existential Ennui, it's those Westlake SF stories...