Thursday, February 14, 2019

Birthday Review: Six Gates from Limbo, by J. T. McIntosh (and some of his short fiction)

Here's something a bit different for my birthday reviews -- I've extracted a bunch of short looks at the short fiction of the Scottish writer J. T. McIntosh, whose real name was James McGregor, born February 14, 1925. He died in 2008, over 30 years after he stopped writing SF. He was a sometimes interesting, often frustrating, writer, but one whose work I often enjoy, even as aspects of it annoy me.

I start with a look at one of his later novels, then the short fiction.

Six Gates From Limbo

J. T. McIntosh, real name James MacGregor, was a Scottish writer who published many short stories and novels between about 1950 and the early 70s. I have long enjoyed his stories, with reservations. McIntosh was often interested in quirky variations on social structures. He tended to set his stories in rather sketchily described futures, usually in that sort of intergalactic society where planet hopping is like taking a bus, or at most an ocean liner. Then he would introduce one unusual social variation, sometimes interesting, sometimes implausible. His style was breezy and fairly individual to him. He worked most often at the long novelette or novella length, say 13000 to 20000 words. But he also wrote quite a few novels. And with many writers of that era, he was noticeably sexist, though at times in quirky ways.

Six Gates From Limbo is a latish novel, published in the UK in 1968. It was serialized in If in two parts in January and February 1969 -- I haven't seen that version but it seems likely to be an abridged version -- the copy I read (the 1969 Avon paperback) is about 60,000 words long.

I found it rather an interesting book. A man comes to consciousness on what seems to be a deserted planet. It is apparently well-suited for human life, but abandoned. Or so it seems -- after a while he encounters a woman, and a little later, another woman. They names themselves Rex, Regina, and Venus -- names with obvious symbolism. They name their world Limbo. But soon they learn that there are matter transmitter gates from Limbo, and eventually they decide to take them. They discover a variety of societies beyond these gates, but all are seriously sick societies, each in different ways. The reasons for this, it turns out, is that they are colonial worlds, and that they cannot escape the various effects of dependency on Earth. It seems that Rex and Regina and Venus have been created as part of a project aimed at finding a solution to the problem. And so they do -- rather a shocking one.

I'm not sure I buy McIntosh's premise, nor his solution, but it's a thought-provoking story all the same. I should mention that the problem of colony worlds and their interactions with the mother world and with other colonies was one of McIntosh's recurring themes.

Planet Stories, January 1951 and July 1951

I've mentioned that J. T. McIntosh is a guilty pleasure of mine.  At this stage in his career, he was signing stories "J. T. M'Intosh", and there are two M'Intosh stories in these issues.  One shows him at his most didactic (and he was often oddly didactic): "Safety Margin" (January 1951).  This seems almost like an attempt to push Campbell's buttons, but I have a feeling M'Intosh didn't really know quite where Campbell's buttons were.  Anyway this is an odd story about a space drive (the vibrodrive) that cannot be run more than 10 seconds (or something) at a time.  A screwup happens, and it's necessary, in order to save the ship, to run the drive a bit longer.  A special government representative explains to the engineer who saw him run the drive that there is really no limit on how long it can run, but that the government is afraid that if the lack of limitation became known, the drive would be vulnerable to conversion to weapons-use.  So, they made up the story about the 10 second limit.  Everyone knows there is a "Safety Margin", see, but they don't know it's infinite.  Then the government guy kills the engineer.  To prevent the secret getting out, see?  The logic holes in this story are amazing, but perhaps justifiable as a set up.  The thing that squicks me, of course, is the cold blooded killing, and the apparent assertion that that's justifiable, an "end justifies the means" thing. 

The other M'Intosh story is much better, a straight "planetary adventure" called "Venus Mission" (July 1951).  A spaceship crashes on Venus.  One of the passengers is a hero of the recent war (since over) between the human colonists and the native Venusians.  Another is a "Plucky Girl"(tm).  Others include the usual ineffectual suspects, most notably a pretty piece of fluff.  The Hero of the war gets to know the Plucky Girl, and tell he's done with being a Hero.  The war was enough for him.  Somebody else was going to have to cross 20 miles of Venusian terrain to reach the nearest Human city and arrange a rescue, and brave the evil Venusians, who detect prey by sensing brain patterns.  (This makes sense, sort of, because Venus' atmosphere doesn't allow for much in the way of sight or sound.)  The Plucky Girl, furious at the cowardly hero, decides that she will make the trek.  She almost makes it, but at the last, the Venusians are alerted to human presence by the silliness of the Pretty Fluff, who had also decided to try to reach the human city.  Both are captured, and Pretty Fluff is subjected to horrible torture, until the Hero, who has been following them all along (for a good reason, which I can't quite recall, but which was justified in story context), rescues them.  You will not be surprised to learn that the story ends with Hero kissing Plucky Girl, marriage at 11.  It all sounds silly and pulpish, and it is, but it's also fun.  Stuff like this is what makes M'Intosh a guilty pleasure.

F&SF, April 1953

"Beggars All" actually seems written for J. W. Campbell, at least in form. Scouts from a far future human galactic culture recontact an isolated colony. They seem to be outrageously rude beggars.  In the course of resisting another aggressive civilization, at the behest of these beggars, the scouts realize that the bad manners of these "beggars" evolved for good socially adaptive reasons.  Or so M'Intosh would have us believe: I wasn't convinced.  He also tacked on a horrendously unconvincing, and unnecessary, love story.

Galaxy, October 1954

The other novelette is from J. T. McIntosh, "Spy" (15300 words). This story is oddly reminiscent of the McIntosh novelette from F&SF, October 1955, discussed below: "The Man Who Cried 'Sheep'". Both stories are about a spy from another planet who uses a cover involving statistical research to investigate the planet to which he comes. To be sure, this story is in details quite different. Ken Corvey is from the colony planet Aram, come to Earth to verify Earth's military power. His cover is as a journalist doing "survey reporting" -- using statistically significant subsets of populations to learn things. His life is complicated in two ways: he is falling in love with an Earthwoman, Sandra Reid; and he is very ill, with an illness that originated on his planet. He can't seek treatment, because the doctor will recognize his illness and deduce his real planet. So he has to put up with the symptoms, which are extremely realistic hallucinations.

The ultimate conflict involves his worries about his lover's ultimate loyalty (to Earth, of course), and his won (to Aram -- but are the colonies really right?). The resolution buries a slight twist, which is OK but not quite believable. Still, the story is good reading, and makes some interesting points. I'd rank it as one of McIntosh's better outings. I think he missed an opportunity -- which probably was not something he would have been interested in at all! -- of using the realistic hallucinations to present multiple possible endings, never telling us which was real. I.e., to write a Philip Dick story!

F&SF, May 1955

"Eleventh Commandment" is a painfully obvious political fable about a proposal for a law against miscegenation between the slightly altered races of the future (each adapted just a bit to fit their home planets' environments). This is a story that perhaps had more force in the '50s than it does now.

New Worlds, August 1955

McIntosh's "The Way Home" is the lead novelette, a long one at 19,500 words. A small group of explorers, four men and three women, find themselves trapped on an alien planet when the seemingly friendly indigenous aliens steal their spaceship. Their lifeboats remain, but they soon realize the aliens have boobytrapped them. The story is both a problem story -- how have the lifeboats been boobytrapped? -- and an examination of small group dynamics. The puzzle of the boobytrapping seemed easily enough solvable to me, and also the alien's motivations for acting as they did seemed implausible -- or nonexistent. But McIntosh's real interest anyway is in exploring the tensions -- both sexual and "leadership"-related -- between the seven humans. That works OK, and keeps the interest, but it is marred for me by the sexist (though very typical of the time) view of the women crewmembers.

F&SF, October 1955

So, to the fiction. The lead story is J. T. McIntosh's "The Man Who Cried 'Sheep'", just shy of 14,000 words. A secret agent for the planet Verna, calling himself Mr. Lees, comes to the planet Renn, with the goal of determining whether an alliance with Renn is desirable. Verna's rival planet is Kolper, and the hero is forced to kill a Kolperian agent on the spaceship just before arrival. Thus is investigation of the situation on Renn is complicated by the fact that he is quickly under investigation as a murder suspect. More to the point, the detective in charge of the case is a very beautiful woman. Lees' investigations seem to suggest that the people of Renn are "sheep" -- easily cowed, polite to a fault. Perhaps they will not be a strong ally. But on the other hand, his pursuer, the beautiful detective, besides being sexy as heck, is hardly sheeplike. And the pressure to conclude an alliance seems to be increasing ... I was entertained, on the whole, but not in a science-fictional way. And that's the main problem I had with the story -- it needn't have been SF at all, and the fact that it is presented as an other world adventure is nothing but distracting.

New Worlds, February 1957

This issue includes a novella by J. T. McIntosh: "Unit", a rather disappointing story of a group of five people (really 6 including an unmodified "unit father", as he implies but never states outright) who have been trained to work as a superintelligent unit, by having all 5 of their brains erased and retrained together. Some hints of sexual tension are underdeveloped, and the mission that the "unit" solves together is cute but doesn't really convince.

Galaxy, June 1959

The other novelet is "No Place for Crime", by J. T. McIntosh, short for McIntosh at about 11000 words. A quartet of thieves plan a series of perfect crimes on a world with a reputation as being free of crime. This world is so because, basically, the citizens have completely given up their privacy. The thieves' plan revolves around teleportation, a bit of a cheat, especially as McIntosh must rather artificially constrict his version of teleportation abilities to make it work. Of course the perfect crimes don't quite come off, and there is a bit of a twist at the end (plus an implausible love story) to add flavor. Middle range for McIntosh, I'd say.

Galaxy, August 1961

"The Gatekeepers" is a pretty well done piece from J. T. McIntosh. As he was wont to do, he uses a modest SFnal idea to carefully establish a difficult situation, then tries to work out a solution. The idea here is that two planets have a difficult to maintain matter transmitter (MT) link. They use this for trade -- actual interplanetary travel being expensive. But they have stumbled into war. Realizing that the link must be maintained mutually, or be lost and prohibitively expensive to reestablish after the war, they agree to each maintain a single gatekeeper (and a couple of spares), noncombatants who will swear not to allow the link to be used for sending soldiers or weapons. The story concerns the two gatekeepers, who, through a combination of coincidence, a bit of gentlemanly trading (technically against the law, but tolerated), and the one man's insistence on his wife's presence, end up simultaneously threatened by partisans who want to send bombs or germs through the gate to destroy the other planet. The meshing of the plot is nicely done -- the way different pressures on the two men lead to similar situations.

Analog, April 1963

The other novelette is J. T. McIntosh's "Iceberg from Earth" (12,500 words). McIntosh was a regular at Galaxy and New Worlds and other places in the 50s, rarely if ever cracking Astounding, but in the 60s he sold several stories to Campbell. This one is very much in his usual style, set in a system colonized by humans, with three planets arranged in a classic balance of power. The narrator is a spy from Marlock, which is eternally almost at war with Coran. They are the poorer two planets of the system. They are on the larger planet, Rham, as a new Marlockian warship is demonstrated. They now that Coran will try to sabotage the new ship. Earth as it turns out has an interest in foiling Coran's plans, so they have sent a spy, a beautiful but very cool woman named Nova Webb. The bulk of the story concerns the working out of the various plots, and in particularly how Nova Webb is revealed as more intelligent -- and more vicious -- than the various men from the colony worlds. It's OK but quite thin.

Amazing, September 1964

On to the shorter pieces from the September issue. We begin with the novelette, "Planet of Change", by J. T. McIntosh, real name James MacGregor (1925-2008), a Scottish writer who published 15 or so novels and something like a hundred shorter pieces in the SF field in a 30 year career beginning in 1950. I've read several of his novels, and quite a few short stories (or, mostly, in his case, novelettes), often with a fair amount of enjoyment. "Planet of Change" is the story of the court martial of the leader of a mutiny on a ship that had been ordered to explore a planet from which no previous explorer had returned. The mystery turns on the read identity of the man being court-martialed, and that of course turns on the real nature of the dangerous planet. It's an OK piece, nothing terribly special.


  1. Rich, how do you know the word count of all these stories? Do you have a quick way to calculate or a site that keeps track of word counts. I don't see it at ISFDB.

    Now you got me interested in reading more McIntosh. It doesn't appear that he had any collections of his stories. Of course, I have the magazines to read.

    1. I do a rough and ready estimate of words per line by counting characters per line (spaces included) and dividing by 6, for a few sample lines. Then I multiply by the number of lines per page.

      There's probably +/- 10% error bars on those estimates. (A few magazines -- IMAGINATION, I think?, maybe FANTASTIC ADVENTURE? -- actually did include word count estimates on the TOC.