Thursday 25 July 2019



 SF-pioneer Murray Leinster wrote a trilogy of novelettes set in a bizarre
future-world overrun by giant insects, where the remnants of humanity
struggle to survive. He was writing at a time when the genre was still
young enough to ignore the rules…

As the literature of science, SF conforms to the principles of evolution. It evolves. It has evolved from simpler forms, into greater complexity. ‘One of my lunacies is that I enjoy doing things which the authorities in such matters say can’t possibly be right’ proclaimed William Fitzgerald Jenkins – aka ‘Murray Leinster’. Myth-wise, the alias ‘Leinster’ was derived from a province and an ancient Kingdom of Ireland. But, born 16 June 1896 in Norfolk, Virginia, he was one of the genre’s pioneers. Commenting about his 1926 story “The Mad Planet” he points out that ‘one of the essentials for maintaining the reader’s interest, say the pundits, is dialogue. But those who have read it will have noticed, perhaps, that there is not one line of dialogue in “The Mad Planet”, and there is only one short speech in its sequel’ (in the essay “Writing For The Fun Of It” in ‘Tales Of Wonder’ no.9, Winter 1939).

There are two perspectives on this phenomena. It can be argued that – yes, the literature evolved from its cruder simpler pulp forms, and sophisticated as it grew. But it also renews for every new initiate. It is forever new, at the point of its first discovery. That moment of ignition is the same now, as it was for readers of earlier decades. That teenage opening up of possibilities that flashes in your head like neon. But alternately, those first statements were unique, existing in a separate continuum. When EE ‘Doc’ Smith, or Isaac Asimov, or Robert Heinlein were first expanding the scope of SF out into the galaxy, it had never been done before. They were inventing it. Subsequent writers have benefitted by taking advantage of being able to dip and delve from their image-bank, mixing-and-matching from their pre-existing archive of ideas. Various reconfigurings of Hyper-Drive Starships, world-wrecking Planet-Killers, Galactic Empires ruled by corrupt and despotic Emperors, wars between worlds and clashes with alien cultures.

Science Fiction is a genre with its own designated bookshop alcove, its own analytical critical studies, its conventions and recognisable tropes which can be used and abused in different ways for allegorical purposes, or merely for escapist thrills. Just as Crime Detection fiction and Westerns have their tried and trusted accoutrements, so Space Armadas blasting through warp-fields and dynastic planetary sagas are part of the reliable tested hardware and software of media Sci-Fi. It can reset itself by integrating new relativistic theories or probe data from the near and distant reaches of the solar system. And it can reinforce its cross-over marketability with sharp dialogue, character back-story and relationships more typical of mainstream fiction. In the same way that twenty-first-century Rock music has the luxury of plundering from a menu of styles, poses, riffs and a library of stances with all the inconvenient wrinkles and inconsistencies ironed out by earlier generations of rebel experimentalists.

That was not always so. There is also the rough edges and rawness of first statements. When Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker was accelerating Jazz into BeBop, that sound had never before existed. When the Beatles recorded “Strawberry Fields Forever” nothing like it had happened before. Just as when the Dadaists upended the concepts of what art meant and could become, or when Jackson Pollock daubed his way into Abstract Expressionism. There is the shock of newness, as well as the reassurance of continuity. Those first few decades of Science Fiction had that same exploratory uniqueness. It was making itself up through each garish issue of those early newsstand magazines. It was inventing itself.

A freelancer from age twenty-one, Murray Leinster ‘starved to death only twice,’ and was already adept at writing Western tales, Jungle stories, Detective fiction and even Romances for pulps such as ‘Argosy’ and ‘All-Story Weekly’. As for SF, he writes ‘I have always been fanatically fond of it, and though I wanted to write it myself, I doubted my ability to do so at first; and it was in rather a lunatic fashion that I started at all. At that time, I was writing some very domestic family-life stories for one of our American magazines, and tiring of them, decided to turn to something more exciting. So I wrote the editor telling him that I was starting a new story entitled “The Runaway Skyscraper”, the first sentence of which read: ‘The whole thing started when the clock on the Metropolitan Tower began to run backward.’ Actually, I had not the faintest idea of writing such a yarn; but the editor replied demanding to see the manuscript when it was finished, and rather than admit I was a liar, I wrote my first science fiction story.’

“The Runaway Skyscraper” novelette – shifting an office-block back in time from the Manhattan skyline to Native American pre-Columbian forests, made its spectacular lift-off into the third issue of ‘Amazing Stories’ – dated June 1926, alongside such heavy-weight names as HG Wells, Jules Verne, Otis Adelbert Kline and G Peyton Wertenbaker. ‘From that beginning, I went on and on – and still do’ he adds with wry humour. “The Mad Planet” followed in the eighth issue – November 1926 (although, as with “The Runaway Skyscraper”, it had been previewed in ‘Argosy’). It was a time when Science Fiction wasn’t even yet called Science Fiction. The story introduces Burl in his far-future world where vast evolutionary changes have transformed the Earth into a realm of giant insects and fungus forests. Where the devolved remnants of humanity have become the endangered species. Many years later Colin Wilson would write his ‘Spider World’ novel-series – commencing with ‘Spider World: The Tower’ (1987), taking a far more pedestrian glimpse into the evolutionary consequences of humans enslaved by monster arachnids.

Despite the self-admitted literary deficiencies and rule-breaking limitations of his story, Leinster’s vigorous energy manages to build up a complex biosphere, a fully interactive ecosystem crawling with nasty cannibalistic and vicious creatures. ‘The insects of the night – the great moths whose wings spread far and wide in the dimness, and the huge fireflies, four feet in length, whose beacons made the earth glow in their pale, weird light.’ It’s more in keeping with Brian Aldiss’s excellent ‘Hothouse’ (1962), with its detailed worlds-end given over to grotesque vegetable life-forms squirming into every available evolutionary niche. Yet, born in August 1925, young Brian Aldiss was scarcely yet around to take notice!

As Leinster readily points out, against the prescriptions of literary pundits – ‘the authorities in such matters’, there is no dialogue in “The Mad Planet”. Characterisation is minimal. The reader is carried along purely on the momentum of adventure, discovery, shock and amazement. Editor Walter Gillings of Britain’s pioneering magazine ‘Tales Of Wonder’ reprints “The Mad Planet”, making it the dramatic cover-story of no.6 – showing a crouching man armed only with a spear, menaced by a giant bee. Accompanied by line-illustrations supplied by Manchester artist Harry Turner, Gillings writes ‘one of the most popular stories we have published was “The Mad Planet”, which took us thirty-thousand years into the future to a fantastic world where giant insects thrived amid nightmare fungus growths, and man was an insignificant creature living a precarious existence.’ So that its sequel “Red Dust” (in no.9), is blurbed ‘to the primitive Burl and his tribe came a new peril, even greater than the hideous monsters of that mad planet.’

Dulled by the necessities of mere survival, the human tribe are ‘little pink-skinned creatures… struggling to contend with the manifold dangers that beset the last surviving remnants of mankind in that distant era.’ Only Burl possesses the vestigial imagination to see a little way beyond their plight, ‘he had found that if he persistently asked himself a question, some sort of answer came from within.’ In “The Mad Planet” he is separated from his people and forced to undergo a hazardous trek through nightmare realms, ‘carried down the river on his fungus raft’, in order to reunite with the tribe again. ‘He had stood by when the purple hills had burned and formed a funeral pyre for a horde of army ants, and for countless thousands of flying creatures. He had caught a leaping tarantula upon the point of his spear, and escaped from the web of a banded spider by oiling his body so that the sticky threads of the snare refused to hold him fast. He had attacked and killed a great, grey labyrinth spider.’

‘“The Mad Planet” and its sequel, “The Red Dust”, came out of my enthusiasm for the works of Jean-Henri Fabre on insects’ divulges Leinster. A French entomologist and naturalist (1823-1915) Fabre wrote populist books on the lives of insects. Leinster continues ‘while I was writing the first, it seemed to get out of balance, and when it was finished, I felt there was something lacking in a certain part of the story. So I sat down again and really let myself go, throwing all inhibitions overboard – and did the chapter about the burning of the purple hills, which I like better than anything else in the yarn.’

In “Red Dust” the tribe are menaced by a spreading invasive fungus-species with pollinating spores that take on cataclysmic destructive properties, and Burl must lead his people to safety beyond its poisonous reach. Wearing ‘the snowy-white, velvety wings of the dead butterfly’, with ‘two three-foot stumps of the feathery, golden antennae of a night-flying moth bound to his forehead’ and a chitinous spear ripped from the body of an unknown flying creature, Burl – with soul-mate Saya ‘of the swift feet and slender limbs’, assumes natural leadership of the naked tribe, and is forced to use the unfamiliar process of thinking his way out of this – and subsequent, crises.

First he co-ordinates a revenge attack on the suspended hemispherical nest of a giant clotho spider which had devoured a man of the tribe. Then he leads his people, ‘at once brave and pathetic, venturing forth in a world of monstrous ferocity and incredible malignance,’ detouring around a war between ant-hill cities. Separated from his tribe by a crazy ride on the back of a huge meat-eating bug, he finds Saya just as she’s being interred by burying-beetles. They enter ‘The Forest Of Death’ and cross ‘The Fragrant Swamp’, then construct rafts from shelf-fungus which carry them down the river. They brave ‘four-inch mosquitoes, that were driven off by the tribesfolk with lusty blows, glittering beetles, and flies whose bodies shone with a metallic lustre, buzzed and flew above the water. Huge butterflies danced above the steaming, festering earth…’ Strengthened by the journey, ‘they knew the exhilaration of brave adventure’, they eventually reach a valley beyond the Red Dust threat, with cave-like burrows left by tunnelling hunting-wasp grubs to provide a safe refuge, leading off a plateau with fresh water and food sources.

‘One doesn’t often get a chance to write something just for the fun of it, without particular regard for the accepted rules of story-writing’ says Leinster. And the only dialogue in the story consists of a single paragraph in which Burl and Saya pledge to each other as leaders of the tribe. ‘Forty-thousand words of fiction in which the leading character keeps his mouth shut… and I hope you like it! If you don’t, I leave it to the individual to heave brickbats according to his personal taste.’

This story is not a metaphor. There is no satire, political or social relevance. It’s not even speculative fiction in any real sense of making calculated predictions about the future. It’s simply extravagant adventure-fantasy, a foray into wild imagination, at a time when SF was still a vigorous disreputable outlaw literature. Leinster is gleefully thumbing his nose, Punk-style, at highbrow academics and literary pundits, accepting the ‘inalienable right’ of the critic, ‘whilst assuring him, honestly, that I have tried to do my best.’

In that same issue of ‘Tales Of Wonder’ Alfred Gordon Bennett contributes an article concerning ‘an amazing forecast of the far-off future, when Earth may be ruled by monster insects of supreme intellect!’ Bennett had made his own fictional foray into such possibilities with his novel ‘The Demigods’ (1939) – with a hive-mind of giant ants emerging from an underground African realm, and it’s a subject that will recur throughout fantasy fiction. Although there are very sound scientific arguments against insect super-growth ‘on the grounds that the insects’ respiratory system is such as would prevent them obtaining sufficient oxygen from the air to sustain life,’ there’s nevertheless fossil evidence that, under altered environmental conditions, it has happened in the distant past. And it has proved irresistible to Sci-Fi, from the monster radioactive mutations of ‘Them!’ (1954) through to Earth’s implacable and convincingly alien Big Bug enemies in the ‘Starship Troopers’ (1997) movie. Editorially prompted by the inclusion of Leinster’s novelette Bennett speculates, declaring an intention to ‘dispose of all the romantic frillings with which the subject has been draped, and search for such factual evidence’ as he can. His conclusions admit the possibility that ‘with the lapse of astronomical and geological eons, the insect race may even become the lords of this planet.’

A much-delayed third instalment of Leinster’s saga – “Nightmare Planet”, first appeared in Hugo Gernsback’s ‘Science Fiction Plus’ in June 1953 (Volume 1, no.4). When the three novelettes were combined into novel form into ‘The Forgotten Planet’ (Gnome Press, 1954), the preface introduces the new concept that Burl’s world is not far-future Earth after all. Despite having stated this on a number of occasions, instead it seems that the little human tribe are descended from the survivors of a crashed starship on a partially terraformed alien world run riot. Whether this was the intention all along, or if he later decided to fine-tune his theme to make it conform more easily to mainstream expectations, must be something known only to Leinster.

As one of the few early contributors to the garish pulps to efficiently navigate the changes John Campbell introduced through the ‘Astounding/ Analog’ period, his style sophisticated and he continued to appear as a respected author – the ‘Dean Of Science Fiction’, producing an impressive fiction output spanning decades. A rationalist, he sees a sense of basic logic underlying the apparent chaotic nature of the universe, as in “The Ethical Equations” which ‘gave mathematical proof that probabilities and ethics are interlinked, so that final admirable results cannot be expected from unethical beginnings,’ as in his May 1945 ‘Astounding SF’ tale of a ten-thousand-year-old alien derelict made of exotic particles that drifts into the solar system. The ends, he says, do not justify immoral means. It’s a theme reiterated in “Symbiosis” (‘Colliers’, January 1947), ‘the life of humanity is a symbiosis, a living-together, in all its stages. It begins with the symbiotic relationship of members of a family, each of whom helps and is helped by all the rest. But it rises to the symbiotic relationship of nations, of which each is an organism necessary to the others, and all are mutually helpful.’ At a time of international walls and disaffiliations, his fable of Kantolia invaded by, but outwitting its more massive neighbour, takes on new contemporary relevance.

Even when he turns his attention to BEMs – Bug-Eyed Monsters, as he does in “De Profundis” (‘Thrilling Wonder Stories’, Winter 1954), he operated from the eighty-eyed point-of-view of Sard, one of the monstrous tentacled deep-sea-dwelling Shadi, who attempts to reconcile conflicting theories of the nature of reality and its own mutually cannibalistic species, yet nevertheless retrieves a human bathysphere and returns its two tiny aquanauts safely to the surface. There’s a clever moral irony to the tense claustrophobia of “Time To Die” (‘Astounding SF’, January 1947) too. It consists of a nuanced two-way death-row conversation between Rodney and Limpy Gossett, neither prisoner can see the other, as moments tick by towards execution, and he’s tormented by tentative hints at an escape method into an alternate time-stream supposedly achieved by Fellenden through pure mental powers. Then, in “Interference” (‘Astounding SF’, October 1945) TV reception-problems are traced to an interdimensional portal, through which messages are warily exchanged, including star-maps from a popular science magazine to confirm the relative time-fix.

At this point he was no longer the rebel. With SF growing away from its ‘Buck Rogers’-stuff trash reputation into a grudging acceptance, he was writing clever tales rich with character detail, modest original ideas and – yes, an interplay of well-observed dialogue.

William Fitzgerald Jenkins – aka ‘Murray Leinster’, died 8 June 1975, aged 78. Leaving a legacy of fine writing.

1934 – ‘SIDEWAYS IN TIME’ (‘Astounding Stories’, June 1934), in his ‘Astounding Days’ Arthur C Clarke writes that ‘when Murray Leinster set a regiment of Roman soldiers marching down a street in Joplin, Missouri, on 5 June 1935, he created a whole new genre’, the genre being the meshing of alternate time-streams

1934 – ‘THE MOLE PIRATE’ (Astounding Stories’, November 1934) Arthur C Clarke says ‘the story inspired one of Howard Brown’s most memorable covers showing what looks like the ghost of a submarine, half-in and half-out of a bank vault, while the frustrated guards attack it vainly with ineffectual weapons.’ A scientist invents a burrowing machine, slipping through the spaces between atoms, which he uses for criminal purposes

1945 – ‘FIRST CONTACT’ (‘Astounding SF’, May 1945) when exploration ship ‘Llanvabon’ meets an alien vessel within the Crab Nebula, Leinster introduces the concept of the ‘universal translator’ into SF. Leinster’s estate even – unsuccessfully, sues Paramount Pictures for ‘Star Trek’ using the idea, which by then was considered ‘generic’

1945 – ‘PIPELINE TO PLUTO’ (‘Astounding SF’, August 1945) ‘the Pipeline was actually a two-billion-mile arrangement of specks of infinity. Each of the specks was a carrier. Each of the carriers was motorless and inert. Each was unlighted. Each was lifeless’ endlessly ferrying materials out to the Pluto mines, and carrying the metals back. Except there are stowaways, who don’t realise that ‘you’ll freeze so fast y’wont have time to die’. A resuscitated Hill returns, seeking revenge

1945 – ‘DE PROFUNDIS’ (‘Thrilling Wonder Stories’, Winter 1945), despite the dramatic cover-art of ‘memorial anthology’ ‘The Best Of Murray Leinster’ edited by Brian Davis (Corgi, 1976), the giant octopus from the ocean depths helps the two humans to return safely to the surface

1948 – ‘THE DEVIL OF EAST LUPTON’ (‘Thrilling Wonder Stories’, August 1948), as Mr Tedder runs away to escape vagrancy charges he discovers three objects, a sphere not more than ten-feet in diameter (a projectile from Jupiter carrying a life-form which snags its life-support on barbed-wire, and melts), a thing that resembles a gun, and a ‘pot’ which he places on his head for ease of carrying, but which becomes fixed irremovably by chin-straps. Subsequently, wherever he goes he finds unconscious people and animals, more confused than seeking criminal advantage, he tries to help the victims. Slow-witted he eventually realises the helmet is an alien weapon projecting a defensive zone, just as the army moves in and begin blanket-shelling the area. He drops the gun and the ‘pot’ down a well causing a massive explosion, ‘but Mr Tedder’s intellectual processes would never grasp such a thing’. Hospitalised, he ‘disappeared into the vast obscurity of the world of tramps, bums, blanket-stiff and itinerant workmen’ leaving the mystery unresolved

1951 – ‘IF YOU WAS A MOKLIN’ (‘Galaxy’, September 1951), ‘they sure do like humans, these Moklins! Humans are their idea of what people should be like!’ Friendly and helpful, the native Moklins are swell folks who appear more and more human. ‘Humans is tops on Moklin. And Moklins get humaner every day.’ ‘They’ve got a queer sort of evolution on Moklin, darling. Babies here inherit desired characteristics. Not acquired characteristics, but desired ones!’ Until red-headed Inspector Caldwell arrives (as the ‘Palmyra’ prepares to land the trees uproot and move out of the way) intent on confronting a new rival trading post, only to discover that it’s a Moklin imitation. She and Brooks decide the post must be abandoned before Moklins begin to infiltrate the human worlds. Except that Joe Brinkley is already a Moklin

1955 – ‘SAM, THIS IS YOU’ (‘Galaxy’ March 1955) the complications that arise when telephone repairman Sam Yoder gets a phone call from himself a week into the future with a get-rich scam, but his intended – Rosie, suspects his intentions. They capture some bank-robbers following a tip-off from future-Sam, and now ‘nobody around home will ever bet with him on who’s going to win a baseball game’

1956 – ‘SCRIMSHAW’ (‘Astounding SF’, February 1956), Pop Young lives in a dust-covered shack on the Moon’s dark side where he sketches attempts at recovering the lost memory of his murdered wife and children. His attacker – Sattell, works in the diamond mine in the Big Crack beneath him. Pop foils an attempted diamond-heist – by a red-headed man in league with Sattell, causing the ship to explode, then salvages a clear-white plastic stair-rail from the debris that he can carve into a ‘scrimshaw’ sculpture, ‘because that was the way to get back the missing portions of his life.’ There is no resolution, no reveal of his lost memories, no hint of what his revenge, or reaction, or reconciliation will be

1967 – ‘APPLIED SCIENCE FICTION’ (‘Analog’, November 1967), his last appearance in an SF magazine, an article on his own invention – Jenkins Systems, the front-projection backdrop technique which is now an accepted part of the TV and movie-making industry

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