Friday, April 17, 2015

FFB/S: "Super Whost" by Margaret St. Clair and why it matters...

Margaret St. Clair, despite admirers much better-known than myself including Ramsey Campbell and Martin H. Greenberg, remains stubbornly underappreciated.  I've finally read one of the gently satirical stories in her early series about a suburban married couple of the future, Oona and Jick, the second, "Super Whost," from the July 1947 issue of Startling Stories. As with most of the series, it's not yet been reprinted, despite being charming and funny and a cross between the kind of "comic inferno" writing that would be associated with Galaxy magazine a few years later, and the kind of surprisingly sharp domestic farce that Jean Kerr and Shirley Jackson would also be writing not long after, and echoed more popularly and broadly by I Love Lucy and eventually Erma Bombeck. (In a quotation from St. Clair in her rather good Wikipedia entry, she notes that the reader response to her stories in this never-collected series was less than warm, but one suspects the motivated writers were the same sort of fanboys who so usefully drive a lot of online conversation today.) The story is a deft account of Oona's attempt to win a vacation on Mars through a short essay/blurb contest requiring proofs of purchase from the packaging of a glutinous wheat product,  Super Whost, and the result of having entirely too much of the stuff in the house as a result of the extra expenditure, along with various further agglomeration of Super Whost as others' attempts to rid themselves of the product, after also gathering proofs of purchase for prizes, lead to Oona and Jick both "winning" even more of it. Unlike as in some of the "comic inferno" writing as Galaxy started to get lazy in the mid 1950s (where characters might've simply stuffed themselves sick with some similar product), it occurs to both Oona and her husband to simply throw the stuff away, but it's just expensive and useful enough to make that less easy to contemplate than attempting to palatably use it up, and it's in the little details of commercial exploitation (the contest) and social interaction (a friend, having made her own SW treats for what amounts to a bridge or mah jongg party, remarks a bit pointedly about Oona apparently not being too pleased with the dessert...Oona deflects this with a mention of needing to get in shape for the upcoming season with her new frontless bathing suit). Having been exposed to network radio advertising from the 1940s, its descendants through today but particularly those of the decades past from, say, Kraft and Jell-O, and generally aware of the long shadow of Depression and
July 1947...typical SS cover for 1947.
wartime privation 
over even the relatively comfortable middle class I was raised in, and the Feminine Mystique that Friedan was able to delineate, for those who hadn't quite let it set in, fifteen years later...it all resonates.

Looking at St. Clair's ISFDB citations, one sees that she, like her slightly later-arriving peers such as Algis Budrys and Robert Sheckley (or Ursula Le Guin and Michael Shaara...Kate Wilhelm and Richard McKenna...Philip K. Dick and...), generated a torrent of work from the latter 1940s through the end of the 1950s, when she slowed a bit...and, like those other (shall we call them "post-Futurian"?) writers, she was the product of a broad, rigorous college education in literature and writing, in a way that most of the auto-didacts who had been Futurians or associated with the Futurian magazines such as Astonishing Stories or Science Fiction were not, even if their interests and approaches (and educations) were similar--and those folks would be much of the core of writers who helped make Galaxy what it was, and so influential on sf and other literature which followed. While St. Clair was publishing these stories in Samuel Merwin's issues of Startling Stories, the odd (but influential and well-remembered) story such as William Tenn's "Child's Play" or T. L. Sherred's "E for Effort" was popping up in John Campbell's Astounding Science Fiction...even if Campbell eventually regretted publishing a few of them since he had some trouble with their perspective when it set in with him. Certainly, Judith Merril and Evelyn E. Smith and Kit Reed, as well as Theodore Sturgeon, Kurt Vonnegut, Ray Bradbury and certainly Fritz Leiber, might've found themselves nudged in certain directions in their writing by that of St. Clair, who would do more forceful work than "Super Whost" while retaining this story's charm and wit...perhaps such other underappreciated geniuses as Wilma Shore were influenced as well.

Please see Patti Abbott's blog for more of today's books and/or stories...and a reminder of why the late Ron Scheer matters...

3 comments:

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

Well, I have to hold my hands up to, this is another writer I have only rarely come across, but I'll try and make up for this (just got one of the Kate Wilhelm mysteries by the way - shall report back soon-ish).

Todd Mason said...

Hey, which? I still need to read the Constance and Charlie series, and you definitely should read DEATH QUALIFIED first of the Barbara Holloway novels (anyone should, unless they're definitely antipathic toward the fantasticated in their crime fiction). The Greenberg collection THE BESt OF MARGARET ST. CLAIR is a good start for her.

Robert said...

I am intrigued! I have added St. Clair to my BOLO list at my new blog, Crimes in the Library.

I hope you will stop my now and then to see what fiendish plots might be happening in the Library.