Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Birthday Review: Stories of M. C. Pease

M. C. Pease published about 20 stories between 1949 and 1957, then fell silent. Apparently he kept writing, without success: at any rate I have seen a report (second-hand, or third hand actually) from a former F&SF slushreader of seeing in the slush a story from Pease as late as the early '70s. Pease’s main market was Astounding, and secondarily Robert A. W. Lowndes’ magazines, though he also had pieces in If, Beyond, Fantastic Universe, and Science Fiction Adventures. I have read several Pease stories, and have found them sometimes interesting failures -- the ideas are sometimes intriguing and original, but the execution tends to fall short.

So, who was Pease, really? Biographical details were hard to come by. So I solicited the help of an email list I subscribe to, full of experts on short fiction in magazines, especially SF. And we did some digging, and came up with Marshall Carleton Pease III (1920-2001). He had a B. A. from Yale in Chemistry, and an M. A. from Princeton, and eventually a Ph. D., I'm not sure from where. Though his degrees were in Chemistry, his work was in electronics, beginning with radar countermeasures and ending up working at SRI in Computer Science, particularly early research into parallel processing: interesting stuff (to me, anyway, as that's my field). He published lots of scientific papers and at least one textbook. His father was a prominent pediatrician. The really cool detail is what links this M. C. Pease to the SF writer -- a letter from John W. Campbell to Isaac Asimov, suggesting he write a story about an idea that Pease had had but felt he couldn't do justice to. Asimov never wrote the story, but Campbell's letter mentions that Pease was at Sylvania at that time (late '50s), as was Marshall C. Pease the Yale/Princeton grad.

I find writers of this sort interesting, and worth remembering even if I wouldn't, say, include any of their stories in a prospective Best Forgotten Storis of the 1950s anthology. So, on the occasion of what would have been Marshall Pease's 99th birthday, here's what I've written about a few of the Pease stories I have read.

Astounding, August 1951

(Cover by H. R. van Dongen)
"City of the Phoenix" by M. C. Pease is a strange mess of a story, with the occasional hint of something interesting that makes it readable enough. Ter Ankhdart (yes, Pease attended the Isaac Asimov school of character naming) is a young Socio-Logician who comes to a planet on which all the humans have moved into an enclosed city, because they created an atomic power plant that ran wild. An expedition from the Second Galactic Civilization has investigated this planet as part of the desperate search to find a weapon that will stop the alien Slugs who are overrunning human civilization. But the planet seems hopeless, with just this remnant of the First Civilization, at an apparent tech level of 7 -- current Galactic Civilization is at level 12. (The story is full of fairly meaningless socio-babble like that.) However, the exploring spaceship, trying to lift off after giving up, finds that their power plant is being drained. Perhaps this is evidence of a weapon that can stop the slugs?

Ter enters the city, and encounters skepticism and resistance from the already present workers, especially the thuggish leader, Lar. But he also attracts interest from a pretty redhead named Triccy. (Pronounced Tricky or Trixie? Who knows?) Before long Triccy and Ter are exploring the city, meeting the listless, apparently hypnotized, residents. And Ter explains the the City, to have lasted for 2500 years, must be maintained by humans. But what humans? Not these listless residents. And what of the terror they feel when asked where they lived when they were young? ... Anyway, Ter has an answer (not a terrible one), and with that a solution to the problem of the Weapon (a much less plausible one.) And, by the way, the shy and apparently virginal awkward nerd Ter and the lovely Triccy are inevitably a couple by the end ... despite some really icky sexual dynamics ... Actually, in the final analysis, a pretty silly and mostly annoying story.

Dynamic, October 1953

M. C. Pease is a not terribly good, and not terribly well known, writer from (mostly) the early '50s whose work I still find fairly interesting at times. "Temple of Despair" is not great stuff but mildly interesting. A planet devoted to producing a dangerous drug which is valuable as a cancer cure is about to be abandoned, as another drug has been found. An agent arranges to be dropped there to investigate social conditions -- no one has ever understood how the ruling priest keep the population in line, given that harvesting the plant in question is terribly dangerous. The agent, a very ugly man, poses as a priest (rather too easily), and learns that a mysterious "Release" happens every so often. He sneaks into the Temple and encounters a beautiful but apparently evil woman, who seems to be the chief priest. He notices that all the top priests seem to be young and good-looking. He manages to learn the true nature of the "Release", which explains everything, reasonably enough. No classic, not even very good, but better than it might have been. I'll explain the not too surprising secret at the end, after spoiler space.

Oh, and the SPOILER for the Pease story --

the priests have an alien mind transfer machine. During the Release they force everybody to more or less randomly switch minds, which messes up any plans for revolution etc. Plus the priests use their control and understanding of the process to pick handsome young bodies for their own. Of course at the end the ugly man destroys the machine -- but also manages to (by accident) switch his mind into the body of the beautiful young priestess.

Science Fiction Stories #1, 1953

The next story is by M. C. Pease: "The Way of Decision" (10700 words). I've read a couple of his Astounding stories, and while they weren't precisely good I do recall that they were at least mildly ambitious, in terms of ideas considered.

And that's a fair description of "The Way of Decision". This is a story about group marriage. I'm not sure how early group marriage was treated seriously in SF -- but I imagine this story is a fairly early treatment. The other interesting feature of this story is that the new social organization is looked at in economic terms. In essence, group marriages, called here "clans", are economic units. They specialize in certain types of work, and hire out as a group to do these jobs. The marriages are certainly at least as important economically as they are for any sexual or familial reason. The story is set perhaps a decade or two after this became at least mildly common thing, but prejudice against clans is still widespread. The clan in question is considering whether to accept a new wife. She is pretty but perhaps has little else to recommend her. Except -- she is the daughter of a wealthy industrialist. A man who has been opposed to hiring clans to do work for his companies. It seems clear that the clan will get a major new contract from this man if his daughter joins them -- but is this a good reason to accept her? The story itself is very static -- lots of talking and philosophizing, not very convincing characterization, and an ambiguously presented conclusion. It doesn't work all that well as a story, and I'm not terribly convinced by the economic issues or the general sociology, but I thought it a brave try and at least interesting for the questions it tries to ask.

Astounding, December 1954

M. C. Pease's "Eight Seconds" asks what humans can do to win a space war with aliens who have just slightly better reaction time -- so that they react 8 seconds more quickly than humans in a space battle. I wasn't convinced either by the general setup, or by the solution, though it is a cutish twist. In a way, I was reminded of Robert Sheckley's "The Battle", also from Astounding.

Science Fiction Stories, January 1955

"Ripeness" is not one of M. C. Pease's best stories, though it still shows ambition. Philip Reynolds is in charge of a computer that has allowed a dictator to control the world -- and Reynolds has allowed this, seeing it, at the beginning, as the only way to help the world out of chaos. But the dictator’s rule is getting harsher and harsher, and Reynolds is pushed to consider rebelling when his brother, an opponent of the dictator, is arrested and likely to be executed. It’s a bit talky, and the computer bits are totally implausible, but it does try for moral seriousness, if in the end not quite selling its resolution.

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