Friday, May 7, 2010
Friday's "Forgotten" Novella (and Bonus Book): THE REAL PEOPLE by Algis Budrys (1953); GHOST BREAKER by Ron Goulart (1971)
Contents of issue #3, November 1953 (courtesy ISFDB):
2 • The Real People • novella by Algis Budrys
57 • The Helpful Haunt • short story by Richard Deming
70 • Hush! • short story by Zenna Henderson
80 • House . . . Wife • novelet by [Ms.] Lyle G. Boyd and William C. Boyd [as by Boyd Ellanby]
109 • Just Imagine • short story by Ted Reynolds
113 • The Big Breeze • short story by Franklin Gregory
128 • Sorry, Right Number • short story by Richard Matheson
140 • My Darling Hecate • novelet by Wyman Guin
159 • Prediction (Beyond Fantasy Fiction, November 1953) • house ad/comming attractions by H. L. Gold
My little project of reading four issues of the highest-profile US fantasy fiction magazines of the years 1953-54 is off to a slow start, in part because I'm good at mislaying my reading glasses and even at mislaying somewhere in the apartment the F&SF issue I chose, so I might substitute another. But I have reread (for the first time in a number of years) Algis Budrys's novella, "The Real People," which leads off the issue of Beyond. Despite being collected in Thomas Dardis's best-of Beyond, it's rather a mess, if also a promising work from a writer not much more than a year into his professional career at the time, and perhaps introducing some of the trademark concerns of Budrys which would recur in much more assured work later on.
"The Real People" offers a protagonist who, having barely survived a catastrophic car crash in the first paragraphs of the story, begins noting anomalies about his healing abilities and his experience of hospitalization. For a man who clearly needed reconstructive surgery on his face and the setting and healing of a severely broken arm, to fully wake up for the first time since the accident after a week and be essntially completely healed seems more than a little implausible to him. He begins to question the staff and his own sanity, or at least his recollection of events, and discovers that he apparently can alter the course of events, even the nature of reality, at will. But is it all delusional? He seeks out a college buddy from some years back, now a practising psychologist (not a psychoanalyst, as the friend is quick to point out) and they have a long discussion laden with references to Bishop Berkeley, a good way of incorporating one's research as well as showing that one isn't simply reacting to such previous paranoid or solipsistic fantasy as Theodore Sturgeon's "The Ultimate Egoist," Robert Heinlein's "They" or Fritz Leiber's You're All Alone, but is actually plumbing a bit further back, if not quite as far as when Plato was getting at similar matters in a less systematic way. In fact, the infodumps (long discursive conversations) in this story are one of its telling weaknesses, more indicative perhaps of H. L. Gold's anxious editing that they are of Budrys's original text...Gold liked his magazines' fiction to make sure the reasonably intelligent slick-magazine reader would be able to follow the concepts presented, though as the protagonist tests his perceptions and the apparent reality around him, Budrys's often subtle and rather abrupt indications of those changes could easily have thrown the casual reader. The protagonist, having decided he actually does have dominion over space and time, sets up a trap for himself in the form of murder confession, just to see how much trouble he can get himself in and out of, only to discover that his trial will not accede to his force of will, nor will his eventual stretch on death row...until a fashion model, whose picture inspired him to fabricate the murder, mysteriously visits him in his cell, and helps him realize, after much discursive argument and some playing around with space and time on both their parts, that they are part of a small minority of "real" people, as she puts it, who have some ability to force events by their desires, but that all the other "real" people among the "unreal" drones one comes in contact with might easily interfere with the first's desires; and the two, or however many there might be in any given population center, might well negate each others' abilities, except when their desires are in concert or congruent enough. It turns out that the protagonist and the model had been a romantic item, and the model, who had been an isolated "real" person for quite some time and found their union in some ways threatening, created the circumstances for the protagonist's accident, which in its turn caused his memory-loss and the other deficits which have driven his behavior throughout the story. They reconcile and live Really happily for now.
As noted, the exploration of megalomania and solipsism, though rather well-worked out conceptually and in often elegant prose, seems in several ways derivative of better fiction published in the decade previous to this story, and such different near-contemporary approaches to similar concerns as Damon Knight's "You're Another" (F&SF, June 1955) and Philip Dick's "Upon the Dull Earth" (in Beyond issue #9, undated aside from year 1954) are both more innovative and much more assured. But among the recurring elements in Budrys's work are the fine details of story structure (as the changes wrought by the protagonist keep reframing the story with little notice), the questions of true identity versus the possibly false (and possibly the only possible) identity as determined in large part by the perceptions of others, and even the details of the protag's injuries--his face and arm ruined, which would be echoed either directly or metaphorically in such major later Budrys work as Who?, The Death Machine aka Rogue Moon, and Michaelmas.
So, interesting, promising, but unrealized early work. One Really has to wonder how much the famously heavy-handed Gold fiddled with it editorially.
***Apologies to Bill Crider, who correctly noted that the short form of "Who?" by Budrys appeared in the issue of Fantastic Universe with the Frank Kelly Freas cover that was replicated for the 1970s Ballantine paperback edition...my scrambled memory, not helped by an innaccurate reference site, of Budrys's account of being inspired by a Freas image for Astounding , then writing the story and placing it with FU, and the three versions of the Freas image is written up by Budrys in one of his columns for F&SF, if I now remember correctly. Don't bet the farm.
And, briefly noting that James Reasoner was kind enough to pass along an eBay vendor's poaching one of my revision-needed earlier entries in the Forgotten Books series, for The Unexpected, and William Contento's index of the book, without permission or credit...James's own recent Friday choice of Ron Goulart's anthology The Hardboiled Dicks brought a nice comment from Goulart, somewhat wistfully wishing someone would review one of his in-print titles. I will now fail to do that, but will once again endorse what remains my favorite of Goulart's books, the not quite complete collection of stories about the part-time psychic/paranormal-phenomena detective Max Kearny, Ghost Breaker, which stories are at least as deftly funny and grounded in augmented reality (Kearny is almost an autobiographical figure, in the more quotidian details of his life and outlook as a youngish advertising copywriter and such, when not helping an old friend beat a curse that turns the fellow into an elephant for forty-eight hours on national holidays, and similar adventures) as anything else I've read in this mode, by anyone. Don't let Karel Thole's rather odd if typically well-rendered cover put you off...seek this out. Along with work Goulart is still earning royalties on. (E-reader this book, sir, if Night Shade or Subterranenan or Crippen and Landru can't bring themselves to offer a more complete reissue...or even if they do.)
The Contento Index of Ghost Breaker:
Ghost Breaker Ron Goulart (Ace 11182, 1971, 75¢, 142pp, pb) [Max Kearny]; with the novel Clockwork’s Pirates.
7 · Please Stand By · Ron Goulart · nv F&SF Jan ’62
31 · Uncle Arly · Ron Goulart · ss F&SF Jul ’62
42 · Help Stamp Out Chesney · Ron Goulart · ss *
54 · McNamara’s Fish · Ron Goulart · ss F&SF Jul ’63
73 · Kearny’s Last Case · Ron Goulart · ss F&SF Sep ’65
86 · Breakaway House · Ron Goulart · ss F&SF May ’66
97 · The Ghost Patrol · Ron Goulart · ss F&SF Oct ’68
113 · The Strawhouse Pavilion · Ron Goulart · ss Coven 13 Jan ’70
126 · Fill in the Blank · Ron Goulart · ss F&SF May ’67
(One late published Kearny story, "The Return of Max Kearny" [F&SF Dec 1981] has been anthologized in one of Elana Lore's "Hitchcock"-branded anthologies, but has not yet been collected with the others; at BoucherCon 2001, Goulart mentioned an unfinished late Kearny manuscript as well).
For more of this week's FFB, please see Patti Abbott's blog for an index.