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“Colony” August 1952

Galaxy June 1953
PKD V1 (347-363)

Military men and scientists on the Blue Planet are testing for harmful life forms. The place is beautiful, edenic, seemingly too good to be true. So far Major Hall has not identified any dangerous samples. Then his microscope tries to strangle him. Similar events follow with towels and rugs attacking people and a pair of gloves guiding the hands inside to take a blaster pistol and kill the unfortunate officer who chose those gloves from two identical pairs. Apparently there is a life form that can expertly mimic any inorganic thing. They cannot find an effective way to destroy it. They decide to flee the planet, naked and possessionless so as to keep from accidentally bringing the life form back to Terra. A ship lands, earlier than expected and everyone files into it naked. A bit later, the real ship arrives, but no one is left to meet it.

Image by VAwebteam at the English language Wikipedia (GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

“The King of the Elves” August 1952

Beyond Fantasy Fiction September 1953
PKD V1 (329-345)

Shadrach Jones operates a small filling station in Derryville, Colorado. It is not on the main highway and sees little traffic. Derryville is a dying town with no industry and little hope, seemingly peopled only by the old. One night during a storm, Jones sees some little people out by the locked pumps. They are elves and one is their king. Wet and tired, they are on the run from trolls; Jones invites them to his home. During the night, the elf king dies, but he has selected Jones as his successor. Jones tells his old friend Phineas Judd that he is King of the Elves. Soon the whole town knows and thinks he must be crazy. Meanwhile the trolls have learned of the Elf King’s death and are massing for battle. Jones must meet the elves at the old oak tree after the moon sets. It is on Judd’s property, and he invites Jones into his home, seeming concerned about his health and sanity. Jones enjoys his coffee and rest, feeling very close to his old friend Phineas Judd, and he begins to think that all of this elf business is nonsense. He seems prepared to take Judd’s advice—a bath and brandy followed by bed. Forget about the elves. Just then, Jones realizes that Judd looks an awful lot like a troll. So he grabs a barrel stave and attacks him. Judd’s army of trolls scampers from the basement and attacks Jones. He is about to succumb when he hears the elves trumpet sound. Most of the trolls leave the house to engage with the elves and Jones defeats the last two. The elves triumph in battle. Jones is pleased but wants to return to his simple life and little gas station, even though the home and the station are crumbling and he makes very little money. The elves reluctantly release him, since the battle is over and he has slain the Great Troll. He looks at the ruin of what is left of his life in Derryville and returns to the elves. He will be their king after all.

How Orwell Got It Wrong

I’ve been reading the monumental four-volume Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell. It is outstanding. The average educated reader (if such a thing exists anymore) probably remembers Orwell for 1984 and Animal Farm and perhaps she vaguely remembers reading a couple of essays in college, “Politics and the English Language” and “A Hanging,” say.

This is a shame. While 1984 is one of the most important works of the twentieth century, Orwell’s essays are his greatest contribution to English literature … and not just the famous ones. There is something to be gleaned from every page of this fine collection. Even random letters offer real insight into Orwell’s worldview.

Take #26 in Volume Four: Letter to the Reverend Herbert Rogers, in which Orwell explains a review he had recently written of a book called The Democrat at the Supper Table. The book seems to be a series of contrived conversations wherein the narrator, a conservative Catholic, rails against the modern world and its various evil “-isms” (“Communism, feminism, atheism, pacifism”).

Orwell lambastes G.K. Chesterton’s feudal worldview and presents the author of this work, Colm Brogan, as merely a slight update on Chesterton and his antiquated notions. Orwell paints the author as hopelessly outdated for his rejection of planning and government regulation. I found one line especially moving, in that it’s prediction proved so wrong. In this 1946 letter he says: “I don’t myself feel at all certain that this civilisation will survive, but if it does survive I think it is quite obvious that it will not revert again towards economic chaos and individualism.” By “economic chaos” it is clear that Orwell means laissez faire capitalism. Orwell could not conceive of a deregulated world of capitalism run amok, where narcissistic individuals put their own petty pleasures above any working sense of ethical behavior.

It’s not a slight against Orwell. Orwell died in 1950. And while John Maynard Keynes died the year this letter was written, the school of economic thought that bears his name dominated economic thinking and planning for decades. Keynesian theory supported robust government intervention in guiding western economies. By the 80s his views started to fall out of favor as conservatives pushed for limited regulation and minimal state intervention. Then the global economy almost collapsed several years ago.

Keynesianism started to look pretty good once again. I’d like to think what Orwell said almost 70 years ago might prove true once again. But I’m doubtful.

Image by Moses King (scan of postcard) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Out in the Garden” July 1952

Fantasy Fiction August 1953
PKD V1 (321-328)

Robert Nye and his wife Peggy have a visit from Robert’s friend Tom Lindquist. He sees Peggy in her garden with her pet duck Sir Francis Drake, where and with whom she spends most of her time. Lindquist is impressed with the garden and the duck and is reminded of a poem. He quotes Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan,” the line where Zeus ravishes Leda while he is in the form of a swan. Peggy is outraged. She immediately announces her pregnancy. While she is in the hospital giving birth to her son Stephen, Robert gets rid of Sir Francis Drake, vaguely suspicious that the duck might be the father of the child. Peggy returns and is silent for a while, but gets over the loss of Sir Francis Drake. Stephen grows downy and strong and loves the garden. Robert remains suspicious but talks to his son one day while Peggy is gone and Stephen is drawing. Stephen shocks him by asking about Sir Francis Drake, but is vague about where he heard about him. He may have appeared in a dream as a large white object flying toward him. Robert is shocked and dismayed, but Stephen invites him to a private party. His hope that Stephen is actually his own son is restored and he looks forward to sharing a secret with him. He washes his hands and heads to “the party,” which has already started. He sits down to a large bowl of tasty worms and spiders—the favorite fare of Sir Francis Drake. Robert heads back to the house, defeated.

“The Great C” September 1953

Cosmos Science Fiction and Fantasy September 1953
PKD V1 (309-320)

The setting is a post-apocalyptic future where people have reverted to tribal primitivism and the cities lay in ruins. Each year a young man is chosen by the tribe to go to the Great C and ask three questions. Apparently these young men never return. Young Tim Meredith is chosen, outfitted, and given the three questions. He says goodbye to the tribe and makes his way to the ruins where the Great C is situated, dodging rats, giant insects, and radiation pools along the way. We learn that civilization was destroyed by the Great Smash (nuclear destruction). When he arrives at the Great C (which turns out to stand for Computer) at a former Federal Computation Facility, he asks the three questions, which to a primitive would seem impossible to answer: where does rain come from; what keeps the sun moving through the sky; how did the world begin. Of course the computer provides encyclopedia answers to these simple questions. Then in a twist on or updating of a typical primitive-human-sacrifice-to-the-gods narrative, Meredith is asked to step forward and leap into a vat of fluid within the Great C. It is hydrochloric acid. His remains (bones and helmet) join those of previous questioners while the rest of him somehow provides power to the computer. Like humans, it adapted itself after the Great Smash. Back at the tribal encampment, they realize Meredith, like the others, will not return. If only they can find a question that will stump the Great C. Grimly, they begin planning for next year.

Waiting Room

The narrow waiting room contains 30 chairs upholstered in navy fabric with a disturbing sheen. The color scheme of the place is predominately beige and royal blue. One wall contains a Lucite rack of outdated magazines. Further down is a generic “Keurig” type coffee maker, and I’m pleased to see that there are six varieties of coffee. Half a dozen men, all clad in flannel, wait to see the workmen’s compensation doctor. Injuries aside, they’re a pretty happy looking lot—they’re not at work after all. Those callused hands are taking a rest, wrapped around a cup of premium joe or tapping fingers idly on the armrest.

The television is the focal point. There is a program featuring the “21 Sexiest Beach Bars.” They are counting down, traveling around the world, spending a few minutes at each idyllic locale. The formula is the same at each: treacly sweet, but potent cocktails and beautiful bodies. The eyes of my fellow proles gleam rapaciously. The camera keeps tracking retreating female backsides while the voiceover touts the specific features of each destination. The workers look longingly at those tan buttocks and follow each subtle movement as those round brown orbs move independently … you can see their eyes track back and forth spasmodically, desperate not to miss any fleshy detail. And then the drinks. Mouths water over big fruity cocktails and schooners of ice-cold beer.

Ah, to be lounging on a beach, taking it all in, cold drink in convalescing hand. A well-deserved rest it would be. The camera continues its weird cropping, featuring a sequence of torso shots. A new form of locomotion propels a new creature composed of breasts bellies, thighs, and buttocks, each part firm and smooth, perfect as if turned out by the same precision machine.

The countdown reaches number one and it’s a club in South Beach. Florida! Finally something within reach. But these men won’t be going to Miami. When that vacation finally rolls around, if they can afford it, they’ll go to the panhandle, some place like Destin. There will be no sultry Brazilians or Italians or Spaniards, no Chileñas bonitas or New York girls, down for a weekend of partying. Under the waiving confederate flag will be haggard white wives, voices raspy from generic cigarettes. The men’s huge bellies will be neon white. There will be a cooler of light beer. A worker who blissfully has no work to do for a few days will scratch his lobster red belly and fart. He’ll scan the beach, looking for a beautiful, exotic woman. He’ll remember that television show he once saw in a waiting room on a cold damp December day in Saint Louis, with a bloody rag tied around his hand. His brow will furrow as he tries to square this experience with that recollection. He’ll take another swig of beer.

It’s hot and it’s humid and he’s painfully sun-burnt and there’s sand in his trunks and these kids won’t stop screaming and running and kicking sand in his beer. What the hell? Might as well go back to the motel and see what’s on the tube.

The 2014 RFT Holiday Spirits Event, or The Fantastic Exploits of Dr. R

The RFT Holiday Spirits event was a fun evening. There was free booze. There was music. My feature on cocktails had just come out and copies of that were available. The editor loved my piece. Friends and colleagues were milling about. But I think my favorite thing was seeing my friend and some-time colleague Dr. R in action. Asked if he was a VIP (which indeed he is), he responded unhesitatingly with an emphatic “yes,” with the instinctual ease of a natural aristocrat. He was promptly presented with an orange tote bag filled with various premiums. That was early in the evening.

Every time I spotted him, he had yet another tote bag. Eventually each arm was festooned with dozens of festive orange tote bags and Dr. R was furtively snatching things and stuffing them into his tote bags. Pre-bottled cocktails, pamphlets, crumpled napkins, bus schedules, unattended partial bottles of bourbon, commemorative glasses, hats and scarves, cell phones, keys, a/v patch cords, a saxophone, anything that wasn’t securely bolted down found a spot in one of his capacious tote bags, the number of which somehow kept growing.

And then he was gone, disappeared into the night like the King of the Beggars, laden with treasure and fortified against the cold damp night. Well done, my friend. I’m studying your technique. Next time, you may have a little competition.

“Paycheck” June 1953

Imagination June 1953
PKD V1 (279-308)

In the future, the U.S. is a police state. Jennings has taken a job as a mechanic with Rethink Corporation. After his two-year contract is up, his memories of the time are erased. He’s two years older with no knowledge of the time period, but he’s due a sizable payment. For some reason, he has agreed to an alternate clause, accepting goods instead of money. For his two years, he receives a cloth bag containing a code key, a ticket stub, a parcel receipt, some wire, half a poker chip, a strip of green cloth, and a bus token. As soon as he enters the street with this dubious treasure, he is picked up by the police. They want to know where the Rethink plant is and what Jennings did for them. Of course he cannot answer these questions, but the police are not about to believe that. The situation looks grim, and Jennings decides to escape the police cruiser using the wire to short circuit the lock. He races to the nearest bus and uses the bus token that was in his cloth bag. He is beginning to suspect why he took the cloth bag full of trinkets rather than money. He examines the ticket stub and determines based on the information there that the Rethink plant is in Stuartsville, Iowa. He takes the train there and finds the plant. He suspects Rethink has been operating an illegal time scoop, thus the police interest. He plans, with the help of Kelly from Rethink, to go into the plant and get evidence to blackmail Rethink into providing him protection from the police. Using the green cloth, he poses as a worker and gets into the plant. He manages to evade capture and get the evidence out to Kelly, who takes it back to New York. They meet with Rethink to discuss it. Rethink is ultimately unwilling to take Jennings on as an equal partner. It is a family business and Kelly is the daughter of the head of Rethink. And some day, Rethink will lead the revolution that will overthrow the police state. She has the compromising pictures and schematics in a safe place and will return them to her father. Just then the time scoop appears and snatches the parcel receipt from her hand. It is the one already in Jennings possession. So he has them after all, but he implies that he will join the family and keep alive the Rethink vision of freedom from the police state.

Breeds of America

I just read a beautiful essay by William Melvin Kelley called “Breeds of America” (It was republished in The Best American Essays 2013). It’s a moving account of a young African-American discovering race and racism growing up in the Bronx in the fifties. Reading it in late 2014 in Saint Louis, Missouri is a poignant experience.

Then in summer 1955 came the murder of Emmett Till. Damn.

His courageous mother made us look at his battered, bloated face. See what you’ve done to my boy. I saw myself in Emmet Till, an outgoing and adventurous fourteen-year-old from Chicago who considered racism and segregation a crazy joke, who was accustomed to talking boldly to anybody, even to some policemen, not realizing the COLORED and WHITE signs really meant something, complimenting a pretty girl I did not know, like in Chicago and New York. Hey baby, Emmett Till said to Miss Carolyn. Hey baby.

The murder of light-skinned Emmett Till made me feel like a real Negro. Your skin shade, your manners, your voice didn’t really matter. Say the wrong thing to the wrong Euro and you’d end up brutalized, beaten, hanged, shot, drowned, killed, dead. Underneath it all, Euros hated us and thought nothing of killing us.

I guess we can be thankful we don’t have those COLORED and WHITE signs anymore. We just have everything they once stood for.

Photo credit: See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“Meddler” October 1954

Future October 1954
PKD V1 (269-278)

Histo-Research has a device called a “Dip” to travel in time and study the past. It is forbidden to go to the future, but Wood has done so at the urging of the Political Science Council. Somehow they introduced a lethal factor that at some future point will destroy the human race. Hasten, an expert, has been chosen to take a Time Car to the future and find out what has happened. Cities and cows remain, but no people. There are a great many enormous colored butterflies, one of which flutters up and stings Hasten’s hand. He is sick immediately, and the tissue in his hand and arm turns black and dies. He tries to find information in a library, but the newspapers are in another language. He debates his next actions as he heads back to the Time Car with some newspapers. Then he sees a swarm of butterflies. He gets into the Time Car but the butterflies descend upon it. They proceed to cut perfect circles into the ship and enter it, but Hasten kills them with a blowtorch. He returns swiftly and explains the situation to Wood. He seems somewhat optimistic that knowing what has happened, they may be able to stop it. Then Hasten sees that the Time Car is covered in cocoons, most of which are now empty. He has unwittingly brought the killer butterflies back with him.

“The Builder” December 1953-January 1954

Amazing December 1953– January 1954
PKD V1 (259-268)

In an odd retelling of the Noah’s ark story, E.J. Elwood can only work on and think about the large square boat he is building in his backyard. Though no date is mentioned, the racism and anti-communist hysteria embodied by Elwood’s co-workers put the action in the fifties, when the story was written. Elwood’s younger son helps him with his project, but his wife and older son, as well as a neighbor, clearly think he is mad. When his older son jokes to friends that it is a nuclear submarine and a neighbor asks if it is really powered by uranium, Elwood realizes he has forgotten to include a source of power for his boat—no motor, not even a sail. Then he realizes that he never really understood why he was building the boat in the first place and he wonders whether he is perhaps insane after all. Then the large drops of rain start to fall from the sky and he understands.

Some Thoughts on Hotel Lobbies

It’s a subtle assault on the senses. I’m trying to read an article about the Chinese education system (a dubious amalgamation of anti-individualistic Confucian gibberish that destroys creativity, according to the author), but I’m having a little trouble concentrating.

The smell of mediocre coffee is competing with a waffle burning in the background. An announcer on the television behind me is outlining the details of some complicated football play while Don Henley struggles over the question of whether to use the slang term “shades” or the proprietary Wayfarers.

I’ve pushed away the detritus of my roasted potatoes and oatmeal, but that unholy combination (the only items outside of fruit that looked vaguely vegan) has left an unpleasant taste in my mouth that no amount of “robust blend” can wash away.

I want to maintain access to caffeine but need to return to the room. I can no longer bear this robbery of my concentration. It makes me think of Schopenhauer’s essay “On Noise.” Yes, no one thinks anymore, so no one notices all these subtle distractions. Alas.

The photo shown above is of a coffee house in Kansas City, Missouri, where you can get a not-mediocre cup of coffee.

“The Short Happy Life of the Brown Oxford” January 1954

Fantasy & Science Fiction January 1954
PKD V1 (249-257)

Doc Labyrinth has a new invention. He has a dutch-oven looking animator to bring inanimate things to life by using the principle of sufficient irritation. His first experience with a brass button was a failure, so he sold the animator to the story’s narrator for five dollars. At his wife’s insistence, the narrator puts his wet shoes in the animator to dry them out. One of the shoes comes to life and Doc, who meanwhile has decided to buy the animator back, is very pleased. He calls in the authorities to witness this great moment in science. But the shoe escapes. When the experts arrive, the shoe appears, along with an animated lady’s party shoe that the brown oxford figured out how to animate for companionship. They both disappear into the woods.

“The Crystal Crypt” January 1954

Planet Stories January 1954
PKD V1 (231-247)

Mars and Terra are poised to wage war against one another as a final ship leaves Mars for Terra. A Martian Leiter (a kind of military policeman) makes everyone aboard the ship submit to a lie detector test about a city destroyed by three saboteurs. All the passengers pass the test, so the ship is allowed to leave. Meanwhile, Bob Thatcher strikes up a conversation with a woman named Mara and joins her and two others for drinks in the lounge. Though fearful at first, the three concede to fellow Terran Thatcher that they are the saboteurs. They tell the story of how they shrank the city down and now carry it with them for ransom. It looks like a paperweight. Thatcher congratulates them on their ingenuity then reveals that he is a Martian Leiter. They will not be returning to Terra after all.

Image Courtesy NASA/JPL-Caltech.

There is an award-winning film adaptation.