Monday, April 13, 2015

"The Big Contest"

Worlds Beyond was a monthly science fiction digest that began life in the relatively late year of 1950. Published by Hillman Periodicals and edited by the inestimable Damon Knight -- late from his stint as assistant editor of Super Science Stories -- the magazine made its debut in December with an issue that contained both new and reprinted stories. Knight's mission statement appeared on the inside of the back cover, where he proclaimed a different kind of sf: Science Fantasy Fiction.

... [it's] a blend of two forms of imaginative writing: science fiction and fantasy. Fantasy is as old as recorded history; science-fiction is a child of the industrial revolution.

For years these two branches of the field have been considered as separate, but the old standards no longer apply: a fusion has taken place. The "pure" science-fiction story is almost nonexistent; it has acquired the flavor and the freedom of fantasy. "Pure"fantasy is equally doomed by the new attitudes and knowledge that science has introduced; but at the same time the principles of science-fiction writing have give it new life.

The hybrid... is as strongly alive as any form of modern fiction. It's our aim to do everything possible to strengthen it further and to aid its growth.

You won't find "wiring-diagram" science-fiction stories here, or Gothic horror-fantasy either. But the whole field in between is our meat -- and, we hope, yours, too.

John D MacDonald has a story in the debut issue of Worlds Beyond, his only appearance in the magazine. “The Big Contest” appeared alongside reprints by luminaries like Philip Wylie, Graham Greene and Franz Kafka, along with other authors not noted for their sf or fantasy work. It also featured the first short story by Larry Shaw, a writer who went on to edit the magazine Infinity Science Fiction. MacDonald’s story is the perfect example of Knight’s Science Fantasy Fiction, a genre that really wasn’t really new and that blossomed in the national consciousness with the popular television show The Twilight Zone. “The Big Contest” feels like it could have been written for the Serling series, even though it arrived on the scene almost a decade earlier. Or, more accurately, it reads like a Ray Bradbury story from Dark Carnival (The October Country for you young folk.)

The setting is certainly Bradburyesque, a small Midwestern town on a bucolic summer evening.

 There was a blueness in the sharp-edged shadow cast by the Fire House, a blueness that hinted of dusk. There had been a piece in the Cardon Gazette about the man over in Chamber County who claimed to have seen a flying saucer. Through the heat of the long Saturday afternoon the front of the Fire House had been the focal point for the saucer discussion. Men came and went all afternoon and the talk at times grew as hot as the sun against the pavement and store front across the way.

As the day wears on and participants come and go, dusk begins to settle and the group is down to five men and a boy. Hobe Traik, one of the old timers, has been uncharacteristically quiet throughout this Saturday discussion, leaning back in his kitchen chair, “his belly resting comfortably against his beer-keg thighs, his store teeth clamped into the deep grooves of the pipestem, a mist of sweat gleaming on his bald head.” But when he does finally speak he commands attention as he recalls a Saturday from the distant past that began right in front of the same Fire House.

"Now I've heard a lot of fool talk today about these here saucers. Might be I'm a little tired of it. Me, I've been a-waitin' on them for just about forty years. Ever since Woolmutt left town..."

The year was 1911 and Traik was just a “sprout… full of sass.” It was a hot and very dry summer and the yellow dust of the unpaved streets just sat there on that windless day as Traik and his boyhood companions lolled about. One of them spat and they watched as it hit the dust and rolled. Another boy did the same and it rolled farther. “First thing you know we got us a line drawed and rules made and we're takin' turns.”

The spitting contest became a summer ritual, and it drew contestants from as far away as “Dunstan,” everyone vying to beat the two best spitters of Cardon, Fred Tunnison and Luke Amery. One day a young man named Woolmutt shows up, first to watch and eventually to compete. “One of those fellas, he was, you don't think once about. You don't see him come and you don't notice him leave. Little chunky fella with washed-out eyes, sort of a stupid look, and a big mouth.”

Woolmutt is shy about entering and elects to go last in the bout he eventually competes in. And of course, his spitting is nothing like rolling dust along a dry small town street.

"First thing I see, he sticks his tongue out. Now I tell you, boys, that was the biggest tongue I ever did see on anybody. He sticks it straight out, flat like, and then he curls it up from the sides to make a sort of tube. That tube is a good four inches out beyond the end of his stubby little nose. I see him take a breath. Big chest on the little fella... He goes whih-THOO! And something goes bang across the street..."

There’s a hole in the plate glass front of Winkelhauer's Merchandise Mart. The crowd roars, and some are suspicious. He is checked to make sure there is no foreign object in his mouth, and when none is found, a second round commences. This time Woolmutt hits the wall just below the store window. The third and final round ends with Woolmutt hitting one of the pine blocks used to mark the contestants’ places in the dust, sending it reeling across the street.

The celebration of Woolmutt's amazing talent eventually involves alcohol and he is taken through the streets of Cardon displaying his accuracy and distance, hitting cats, horses and -- almost -- the backside of a lovely young eighteen year old. But a member of the crowd has not imbibed and seems to take more interest in Woolmutt himself than the results of his powerful expectorations. John Chase is on a break from the hospital where he in interning, and he sees something in young Woolmutt that the other’s haven’t noticed…

“The Big Contest” is run-of-the-mill John D MacDonald and run-of-the-mill JDM science fiction, a fairly predictable tale with a surprise ending that will surprise no one, and a style that proves that MacDonald was no Ray Bradbury. The homespun dialogue comes off as overly arch and his evocation of a rose-colored past is told with none of the poetry that Bradbury did effortlessly. MacDonald was the master of a different kind of poetic prose, one that expressed itself in what it didn’t say, in brief sentences and dialogue that allowed the reader’s imagination to take over and fill the void. Of course I have no idea if MacDonald was channeling Bradbury in this story, but he certainly was a fan of the writer, even going so far as to have his first-person character in Dead Low Tide make a direct reference to him.

Judith Merrill liked “The Big Contest,” however, and included it in one of her early anthologies, Human? in 1954.

Several of the authors featured in this first issue of Worlds Beyond got brief biographies on the inside of the front cover, MacDonald included. (Except for the back cover there was no advertising in the magazine.) It is fairly typical of the bio he supplied all of the magazines who requested one during this period.

John D MacDonald, tall, bifocaled, 34, lives winters in Clearwater, Fla,. summers at Piseco Lake, N.Y., with wife and boy, 11. His background of Harvard Graduate School of Business Administration and the wartime O.S.S. has not contributed much to the whodunits, science-fiction and adventure yarns which have enabled him to keep eating since 1946. He can't save money, lay off smoking or stop falling hair. He has a detective novel soon to be published.

That novel was his first, The Brass Cupcake, which had already hit the stands in October.

The magazine itself was not so lucky. According to Michael Ashley in his 2005 study of science fiction magazines in the middle part of the last century (Transformations: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1950 to 1970), Worlds Beyond was a victim of its publisher’s “fickleness”. Ten days after the first issue was published Hillman Periodicals decided to kill the title, and although Knight had prepared two subsequent issues and those issues were published, they “received hardly any backing or distribution.” Ashley concludes that “...There is no doubt that had Knight been allowed to continue he would have had much to contribute to the development of science fiction in the early fifties. The saving grace is that he became one of the best writers and critics of sf during the fifties and returned to editing, with considerable effect, in the sixties.”

“The Big Contest” also appears in MacDonald’s own science fiction anthology, Other Times, Other Worlds, which is out of print and still not available as an eBook. Write your congressman!

Monday, April 6, 2015

The Chronology of the Travis McGee Novels

My introduction to the works of John D MacDonald occurred back in the early 1970’s when a friend of mine insisted that I read a book he had just finished and found enthralling. It was April Evil and it began for me a long love affair with the author’s writing. I was aware that MacDonald had a series character with at least fifteen titles and decided to tackle them next. I read them in the order they had been published, and when I finished I started on the “stand alone” novels, beginning at the beginning and carefully obeying the proper publication order (which was not easy then) until I had finished the appropriately titled The Last One Left. I’m that kind of reader and I suspect there are many of you out there who are similarly afflicted.

But just as my presumed order of the stand alone novels was probably in error, so too was my reading of the Travis McGee books, at least in relation to the world and timelines established within the works themselves. We readers presume that McGee’s adventures in, say,  Mexico (Gold) took place before his dangerous stay in Naples (Orange) because Gold was published before Orange. But that is not necessarily the case. Peppered throughout all of the McGee books are dates and clues in the form of references to other events that date these adventures within their own little world. And, in the early novels at least, the chronology is much different than the publication order. It took the painstaking work of a Travis McGee fan named Allan D Pratt to get it all right and place the stories in their proper order. Using identifiable dates used in the books and references to various characters and real-world events, Pratt put together a new chronology, complete with the timelines within each novel, placing them in a new and unique context. He published his work in the Spring 1980 issue of The Armchair Detective and called it “The Chronology of the Travis McGee Novels.”

Pratt presumed that it was quite likely that MacDonald had his own chronology, constructed “to avoid trapping himself in contradictions,” and that does seem quite likely. But since the author never revealed this working aid and, in fact, never mentioned having invented one, it fell on Pratt to go through each of the novels and, using all of the calendars from the 1940’s through 1980, specifically date each of them, not only when they took place but when each one began and ended. His one assumption in the dating of these books was that the action in any of them could not have begun after the novel’s actual copyright date. Only a handful of them end in a year following the copyright.

He begins at the beginning, and in fact Blue is indeed the beginning, but the date is a bit of a surprise. On page 56 of the paperback original McGee calls a Mrs. William Callowell looking for a pilot who flew with Cathy Kerr’s father in World War II. Thinking he is looking for her husband (who died recently) he is told that the pilot he is looking for is in fact her son, who is out of town at the moment. She tells McGee “... he will be at the convention in New York City through Tuesday the ninth.” The very next page in the book informs the reader of the specific month of the year with a classic JDM sentence: “Manhattan in August is a replay of the Great Plague of London.” So it’s August ninth. A check of the calendar reveals four possible matches: 1949, 1955, 1960 and 1966. The first year is way too early and the last violates Pratt’s copyright rule, leaving 1955 and 1960 as the two possibilities. He eliminates 1955 based on an extensive reconstruction of McGee’s life between the Korean War and Blue (he would have been in college in 1955) leaving 1960 as the year Blue takes place.

But when exactly in 1960 and how long did the action of the novel take? Here’s Pratt, giving you an idea of the amount of detail he studied to come to his conclusions:

The call to Mrs. Callowell was made on August third (p. 56), which was the day after McGee returned with Lois Atkinson to find “nine days of mail” (p. 49). Counting back from August second (Tuesday), nine mail-delivery days brings us to Saturday, July 23. This in turn leads to some uncertainty regarding the actual starting date of the story. The adventure begins some unspecified evening, with Chookie McCall working on dance routines on the Busted Flush. The next evening McGee goes to the nightclub to see Chookie’s friend Cathy. This cannot be a Monday, as the club is closed Mondays (p.23). the next day he goes with Cathy to visit her sister, and the same day begins his ministrations of Lois. If this day is assumed to be Saturday, July 23, per the “nine-days-of mail” calculation, Chookie must have been to visit him on Thursday, July 21. However, the visit takes place during what would be performance hours at the club, as it is unlikely that there would be no show on a Thursday night. The only night which Chookie would have been free to visit McGee would be the Monday of that week, July 18. Blue ends “On the late November day when I left…” Candle Key after spending from late September to November with Cathy (pp. 140, 143).

And you probably thought Blue took place in 1964…

Although Nightmare in Pink was published the same month as The Deep Blue Good-By, Pratt firmly establishes the fact that the action in the novel takes place several years after that of the first adventure. The reader is informed on page six that Nina Gibson’s fiance was murdered  on “Saturday, August tenth.” This date falls in 1957, 1963, 1968 and 1974. The last two violate the copyright rule and 1957 is eliminated for a couple of reasons. One, Pratt surmises that use of hallucinogenic drugs in the story strongly suggests 1963 over 1957, as “knowledge of such drugs [in 1957] was fairly uncommon, and the use of them in a story would have been unclear to many readers.” Subsequent revelations about the CIA’s experimentation with the drug as a possible mind-controlling agent during the 1950’s put this theory in some doubt now, but it is impossible to know if MacDonald was aware of this in 1964. I’ve always felt that Pink read like an older novel than Blue, so I wouldn’t be adverse to placing it in 1957 except for Pratt’s other reasoning: it conflicts with McGee’s biography (as surmised by Pratt) that in October of 1957 McGee would be a rookie on a never-named professional football team.

Another entry that falls way out of the publication chronology is Orange. Although published in 1965, Pratt “firmly” places the action of the book in 1962. The fifteenth chapter begins with “On Thursday at high noon, on the last and most beautiful day of May…” which produces candidates in 1951 (way too early), 1955 (conflict: McGee was in college), 1962 and 1973 (copyright rule). This leaves 1962 as the only possible candidate.

Gold also falls in a different order, based mainly on “internal evidence” that places the action in 1963. Without any specific dates being linked to specific days of the week, Pratt uses McGee’s conversation with Cuban expatriate Raoul Tenero and his involvement with the Bay of Pigs invasion to eliminate some years and focus on others. At one point McGee remarks that bad guy Carlos Menterez y Cruzada fled Cuba “nearly five years ago” and Betty Borlika’s contention that he was “very close to Batista” allows one to use Castro’s ascension to power in January 1959 as a starting point. This leaves 1963, as it is highly unlikely that anyone “close to Batista” would have wanted to hang around the island, especially one with the collection Menterez y Cruzada owned.

It is the first seven novels in the McGee series that fall wildly outside of their publication dates, and from Yellow on the action in them pretty much match the years the books came out. Three of the early novels -- Purple, Red and Amber -- have questionable dating, since there is a lack of focus points, but Pratt uses other means to attempt to date them. Purple takes place in late 1961, as the action spans from October to January, and assuming that Purple does not predate Blue, it leaves only one year without conflicts from other novels: 1961. The same problem occurs with Red. It begins in February and ends in March, but what year? Again, eliminating years that conflict with other books, Pratt concludes that the action takes place in early 1961. Finally, Amber lacks specific day-date references, although it does specify the month it begins (June) and the month it ends (July). Eliminating conflicts, it could take place in either 1964 or 1965. Pratt chooses 1965.

The later books all contain dates that are easily identifiable, closely matching their publication dates, but several contain internal errors that Pratt attempts to rectify, mainly by way of a character (McGee or otherwise) making a mistake in recollecting past incidents. There is only one error Pratt identifies as being “irreconcilable,” and that is found in Turquoise. He begins by concluding that Howie and Pidge Brindle left on their honeymoon cruise from Bahia Mar in November 1972. But this date conflicts directly with the previous novel, The Scarlet Ruse, where during this month McGee was in Candle Key with Cathy Kerr recuperating from his nearly fatal injuries sustained in that book. There seems no way of explaining this away by any other means than Pratt’s assertion that MacDonald “slipped up.”

It’s not surprising to me that the early novels fall all over the map chronologically. Anyone familiar with the creation of the character of Travis McGee knows that the series began with a couple of discarded attempts at Blue, a major problem with Red and earlier novels beginning out of their published order. Red was actually the third McGee attempted, but it fell apart and he had to come back to it later. Also, Gold was written before Purple, but published afterward. (See “The Difficult Birth of Travis McGee” for the full story.) So here is Pratt’s new chronology, and it’s one that works well for me, with the possible exception of Pink, which I believe could predate Blue, but not enough to quibble with the excellent research done for this article. The next time I tackle the canon (which I do every couple of years) I think I’ll do it in the following order. Recall that this article was written in 1980, so the chronology only goes up through Green.

The Deep Blue Good-By
1960 (July 24 thru November)
The Quick Red Fox
1961 (February thru March)
A Purple Place for Dying
1961 (October thru January 1962)
Bright Orange for the Shroud
1962 (May 15 thru July 5)
A Deadly Shade of Gold
1963 (February thru July)
Nightmare in Pink
1963 (October thru April 1964)
Darker Than Amber
1965 (June thru July)
One Fearful Yellow Eye
1966 (December 8 thru April 1, 1967)
Pale Gray for Guilt
1967 (October thru February 14, 1968)
The Girl in the Plain Brown Wrapper
1968 (October 7 thru January 1969)
Dress Her in Indigo
1969 (August thru September)
The Long Lavender Look
1970 (April 23 thru May)
A Tan and Sandy Silence
1971 (April 14 thru May)
The Scarlet Ruse
1972 (September 19 thru January 1973)
The Turquoise Lament
1973 (December thru January 1974)
The Dreadful Lemon Sky
1974 (May 15 thru June 15)
The Empty Copper Sea
1977 (May 17 thru July)
The Green Ripper
1978 (December 7 thru June 1979)

Monday, March 30, 2015

JDM on the A-Bomb

The following was written in September 1979 by John D MacDonald in response to a letter from a woman who had written describing a dispute she was having with her 17 year old son over the morality of using the atom bomb against Japan in the Second World War. The son though it had been a grave mistake, the mother felt it a necessary evil to save the lives of thousands of American troops. I’m not sure why she wrote to JDM about this difference of opinion -- perhaps she was a fan, or maybe a family acquaintance -- but MacDonald responded with a lengthy letter of his own that is revealing in both its personal history and his then-current opinions on the nature of nations and individuals. It was reprinted in the January 1981 issue of the JDM Bibliophile.

I was determined not to interrupt the book in process for anything, but your question has been rattling around in the back of my head, getting in the way. So here is an attempt at an answer.

Personal history: When fragmentary news came about the dropping of the A-bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I was aboard an AP troop ship (6,000 troops and troop officers) en route to Okinawa, and from there to Los Angeles. I was a major. I had been overseas over two years. I had enough points for discharge, having been in over five years. I had spent a year and a half in the OSS in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in the administrative end, not the glamor end. I’d turned down air priority in favor of a “30 day ship” because I looked so wretched I thought I would scare my wife, son and family if I flew home. I’d had dengue and [had taken] Atabrine. When we dropped anchor in Naha Bay, the war was still going. There were over a million troops on that small island. When one went ashore, one had to stand at the edge of a very busy four lane highway waiting for a chance to trot across. Each morning at first light, the kamikazis would come over from the Japanese mainland, very high, beyond detection, and drop straight down over the center of the island, and then come streaking out over the bay trying to dive into one of the naval vessels anchored further out than were the transports and cargo ships. The tactic was to cut down on the amount of metal the Navy was willing to throw onto the island while trying to hit the oncoming kid in his airplane. The kamikazis were 16, 17, 18 years old, hopped up to die honorably for the emperor. Several nights later everything started to pop at once, a continuous roar of explosions. I was aboard the ship and a friend and I went out on the open deck. We heard that there had been a cease fire. All the ships and all on the island were firing everything possible straight up. I stood there like an idiot and then heard something go hiss-tink on the deck nearby. We ducked below and watched the fireworks out a porthole. We heard later from reasonably accurate sources that seventeen men had been killed outright during that celebration.

At that time I was glad it had been done, and glad it was over. I was concerned with pragmatics, not moralities. I did not “hate” the Japanese, though he had fired at me in an impersonal effort to kill me. In general, they were so tough and stubborn and so willing to die we thought them sort of demented, beyond reason. We were glad that something had finally attracted their attention, loudly and specifically. Otherwise it would have been a very long, difficult invasion. The little dog in his own yard can raise hell with the big dogs. The Japanese high command knew what was going on, of course. they knew of the German heavy water experiments, of the race to try to arm the V-III with an atomic warhead to launch at London. We traveled a different technical route toward the same end, and got there first, with the Enola Gay.

I am afraid that I have to overstep the question of shame and morality, cruelty and overkill.

It is my observation, my belief, through a study of history, that nations are neither moral nor immoral. They are amoral, beyond the scope and measurement of individual human appraisal. A nation is an entity moving, however skillfully or clumsily, toward self-interest.

The history of wars is the history of shameful incidents -- Sherman’s march to the sea, British campaigns in the Boer War, French suppression in Algeria, Spanish American War, the cruelties of Tamerlane, the atrocities of Genghis Khan, the firebombing of Tokyo (which killed and maimed more, many more than the 2 A-bombs), German elimination of most of their Jewish population, French suppressions in Viet Nam, the decimation of the Carthaginians, the inconceivable slaughter at Verdun, Palestinian bombs in marketplaces, Israeli shelling of villages in Lebanon, Lt. Calley’s picnic, Wounded Knee, the Children’s Crusade…

History ticks along to the rhythm of social, cultural and economic imperatives. One would very much like to be a part of a long tradition of honor, nobility, respectability. In our quiet times we yearn for that.

But the wars go muddling along never really resolving anything. Dying is dying and dead is dead. To me, the question of whether there is lesser morality, and more guilt, in the slaying by heat and radiation of a Japanese child in Nagasaki as opposed to the slaying by heat of one of the 400 schoolchildren in the movie house in Iran when, in protest against the Shah, a band of teachers barred the doors, splashed gasoline all the way around it and set it alight, is a bit like the ancient dispute about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

I am a cynic about nations, about the mechanics of power, and the dreadful consequences of the use of power, and I am an idealist about the individual person. I have contempt for the “other-directed” man described in Riesman's The Lonely Crowd, and contempt for the culture which bred him. I know there are things I will not do, acts I will not perform, because I am myself. And no peer pressure can change that.

But there is a strange Catch 22 situation in the relationship between the moral citizen and his amoral national destiny. In a world of 4,000,000,000+ people, crowding creates a new intensification of nationalism. Only in Western Europe is there any sign of a rational diminution through the Common Market mechanics, and these are the oldest of living nations.

In a world of intensified nationalism, national will and national purpose is the product of how people feel about their country. If the general populace believes their nation to be wise, good and honorable, that belief will give direction to the use of power in following the national imperatives. (Monroe Doctrine, Don’t Tread On Me, Don’t give away the Canal, Bay of Pigs, etc., etc.)

We have had years now of debunking all our myths and legends. Roosevelt was an egomaniac, Jack Kennedy a rake, Washington had wooden teeth, Ben Franklin a womanizer, Lincoln padded expense accounts, Benedict Arnold was an okay person, etc. And all our wars except the two biggies have been wars of colonialist expansionism, oppression of small helpless nations. We were the first to drop an A-bomb. We have kept murderers in power over their helpless subjects and so on.

Every living nation has committed endless acts which, in an individual, would be thought shameful. But in the organics of power, as in the Toynbee analogy of birth, growth, maturity and decline, such acts were part of the imperatives of growth, strength, economic-political-social consequences.

Now take a look at the power which opposes power. The communist nations do not permit examination of their history on a theme of morality. Rather, they rewrite it to conform to the established mythology. Arab and Latin American fascist societies kill their citizen-critics. Thus the national will is reinforced, sacrifice can be demanded, and hatred can be engendered for the fat exploitative capitalist, namely us.

Should we at the same time be indulging in self hate, and say, “Wow, what a rotten country this is, always doing such rotten things”? The way I read the future, we are going to have to make a national monolithic response to stress in the next two decades, or fade away -- not as a people -- people endure everything -- but as a national entity based on certain principles of self-rule. If the provocation is substantial, we will unite once again, in a time for heroes. If the provocation is indirect, subtle, unfocused, I do doubt our survival in our present form. I’ve given you no answers, but maybe a few starting points.