From These Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown, edited by Ben Yalow

Framingham, MA: The NESFA Press, 2001 $29.00 hc; 693 pages

reviewed by Arthur D. Hlavaty

In 1954, E.P. Dutton published a new collection of short fiction; its author, Fredric Brown, was one of Dutton's most prolific writers, turning out an average of two highly regarded mystery novels a year, including private-eye books (The Fabulous Clipjoint) and psychological thrillers (Here Comes a Candle, Night of the Jabberwock). He was also the author of two science-fiction novels, an amusing recursive sf tale entitled What Mad Universe and The Lights in the Sky Are Stars, a novel with significantly more psychological realism than was then expected in the field. None of these quite prepared the readers for Angels and Spaceships.

The idea of the book was encapsulated in the title: The collection was centered around four stories about angels (fantasy from Unknown) and four stories about spaceships (science fiction from Astounding). In the Introduction, Brown gave his version of the difference between the two genres: Science fiction explains its wonders and marvels; fantasy does not. (In reprinting the book, Bantam all too typically renamed it Star Shine; this was shortly after they gave us a book retitled Utopia 14, on the assumption that the science-fiction readership wouldn't be interested in a book with a mundane name like Player Piano.)

The eight reprinted stories are competent. Brown was a skilled storyteller, with passable prose and characterization, and a lively sense of humor. Most of the stories are light confections. "Placet is a Crazy Place" is a wacky comedy, complete with slapstick and puns, set in outer space. "The Angelic Angleworm" is a gimmick story that can be seen as kind of metafiction avant la lettre. "Letter to a Phoenix" may be the most substantial tale in the book, with a novel vision of human destiny.

If that were Brown at his best, he'd be an interesting minor figure. However, he interspersed the longer stories with nine previously unpublished works he called "vignettes," one-page tales with one-word titles: "Pattern," "Answer," "Preposterous," "Politeness," "Reconciliation," "Search," "Daisies," "Sentence," and "Solipsist."

There had been sf short-shorts before this, but Brown took over the form and made it his. These nine are all fun; some are outstanding. "Solipsist" is one of the classic Shaggy God stories; "Politeness" is a magnificent dirty joke that makes the sfnal point that the aliens will be really unlike us; "Answer" is known to thousands, perhaps millions, who don't even know that it's a story an individual made up. (It's the one about the scientists who build a giant computer and ask it whether there is a God.)

Enter the reviewer, speaking in the first person:

Normal science-fiction readers, if that is not a contradiction in terms, usually start out reading Robert Heinlein or Andre Norton. I didn't; the book that turned me on to sf was Brown's novel Martians, Go Home.

I'd already read some science fiction, so I expected it to have spaceships in it, and visions of a world that worked better than the one I lived in, but this had more. It had a sense of humor, and even more unusual for Fifties sf, it had sex.

There had always been two kinds of story about aliens coming to Earth: They would either welcome us into the Galactic Federation or use us as a source of slave labor and/or food. Brown imagined a third possibility: that they would simply be pains in the ass. It was a comedic premise that Brown exploited skillfully. As to the sex, well…there was an actual act of copulation in the book.

For years, I remembered it as being only a bit less subtle than the slightly earlier Saturday Evening Postserial in which an unmarried couple had dinner together in one episode, and then breakfast in the next, and the magazine had to send out a form letter disclaiming responsibility for what the characters did between chapters. Rereading, I am reminded that the act was onstage, but carried out silently, in total darkness, and under the covers, in order to foil the prurient observations of the Martians. The reader was no better served.

But we're talking Fifties here. The scene might have been no more than risqué (to use a bit of contemporaneous terminology) if it had been mainstream fiction, but in science fiction, it was still shocking. Philip José Farmer had written "The Lovers," and a few had followed in his footsteps, but that was it.

I soon learned that Brown had written short stories, particularly short shorts, with the same qualities. I found Star Shine, and more, and enjoyed most of it. For instance, "Naturally," "Voodoo," and "Jaycee" may have been on the story/joke boundary, but they were good whatevers.

Actually, I was already familiar with some of Brown's work, though not his name. I believe it was in an anthology of "contemporary problem" stories that I had read "The Weapon," with its chilling metaphor for the atom bomb. It surprised me at first to realize that this one was written by Brown the funnyman, but I soon encountered the critical approach that describes the poet's ability to make a statement in the fewest, best-chosen words as "wit." That was what linked "The Weapon" and "Jaycee."

I didn't know it at the time, but I was developing my own definition of sf, and particularly of good sf, using Fredric Brown as a prototype. Sex and smartass may have been what first attracted me to Brown, but he also had what I came to read sf for: the vision of possibility, the idea that we are still in the early days of humanity, and we and the universe will turn out to be far more interesting than anything we can now imagine. Of course he wasn't the only one doing it, but Brown opened my mind, suggesting everything from interstellar colonization to a future Earth where racial intermarriage is taken for granted (a dangerous vision in 1951, when the story was published, and still radical a few years later when I read it).

One should add that Brown did not have the simple optimism attributed to the "Old Wave" by both friends and foes. "Letter to a Phoenix" offers a future unlike the linear progress first sf is praised for or accused of, and the fascinating "Come and Go Mad" is far grimmer than that.

My Brown-centric view had some other aspects further from orthodox science fiction. There was that business about fantasy and science fiction, for instance. Brown not only insisted that the two were essentially similar, but added that any fantasy story can be turned into a science fiction story by adding a minimal amount of scientific (or at least scientific-sounding) patter. From the example he gave, it was obvious that Brown was not going to be too much of a prisoner of scientific rigor, and his stories bore that out.

Reading Brown, I could enjoy "science fiction" that did not have a scientific, or materialistic, worldview. I could think of the delightful "Armageddon" and "Millennium" as science fiction, or something reasonably close to it, despite their orthodox religious assumptions. "Entity Trap" was my introduction to the Gnostic view, science-fictionally rendered as an image of alien mentalities finding Earthling bodies a snare. Then the approach seemed weird and unheard-of. Now, I suppose, it would be dismissed as ontologically incorrect, but I unrepentantly still find it useful.

I won't say I liked all of Brown's fiction. In particular, Angels and Spaceships included a story called "The Waveries." I did not, when I first read it, know the term Luddite, but I thought of the story as the opposite of sf, a fortunately impossible fantasy of turning our backs on the progress brought by electricity and such. I wanted to ask, "Who are you, and what have you done with Fredric Brown?" I have since settled for accepting that Brown, like all my other heroes, was flawed.

And now we have a definitive collection of Brown's short sf. Trying to review this book, I feel like a fish trying to review water. This is what I grew up with; this is in relevant ways what made me what I am today; how can I tell how a newcomer will react to it?

Rereading it, I feel that a lot of it still works, but I have to give one product warning about one area.

Sometimes an initial flaw that perhaps should have been noticed at the time has grown to a major problem. For instance, Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn was a leap forward in the approach to race in American literature. I don't know if anyone has seriously suggested that Twain should have called one of his characters African-American Jim, but one can certainly find current discussions that take the book's then-radical suggestions for granted, while chastising Twain for not seeing other things that are now considered obvious.

In the same way Brown's stories about sex, like Lenny Bruce's monologues about sex, can look to today's reader like an attack on beliefs no sane person would consider, on behalf of approaches that are not much better. But consider that sex scene from Martians, Go Home: It was a time when sex was pretty much supposed to be committed silently, in total darkness, and under the covers, and the mere mention that it was taking place was shocking, or titillating.

One cannot expect an immediate leap from that sort of secrecy and shame to an approach acceptable to the 21st century, and Brown did not give us one. Permit me to "spoil" the story entitled "Cat Burglar." (Here I append the pedantically correct quotation, "to paint the lily, to gild refined gold.") There is a man stealing cats and killing them. It's OK, though, because he's trying to make "instant pussy." That's it. That's the joke.

I imagine a heroic postmodernist effort to save the story: Samuel R. Delany has spoken of treating sex as a substance women have and men need. Surely "Cat Burglar" is a satirical reductio ad absurdum of that approach…

Nah. It's a story that's supposed to be funny because it mentions sex in a manner that will get past unimaginative censors. It is not the only one of that sort: "Too Far" and "Three Little Owls" likewise have little more to recommend them than a sort of pubescent verbal daring that I'm happy we no longer need. I should add that the sex stories are not all bad. While I cannot imagine a contemporary reaction to the Great Revelation at the end of "Nightmare in Green" other than "Well, duh," the next story, "Nightmare in White," may still shock.

Ursula K. Le Guin recently wrote that if you're reviewing a book that you mostly like, but consider flawed, you shouldn't conclude with the flaws, because then your reader will remember those.

Along with all the other good stuff I've mentioned, the book offers tales of psychological acuteness and horror, such as "The Joke" and "Granny's Birthday," as well the stunning plot reversals of "Recessional" and "Double Standard." This book is another triumph of NESFA's reprint program, a thorough, carefully edited collection of a historically important writer whose best work still merits attention.