AN ENIGMA WRAPPED IN A MYSTERY
The name Robert Presslie cropped up with persistent regularity,
in all the best British SF magazines of the 1950’s and 1960’s.
Over thirty well-crafted tales by a writer now virtually forgotten.
And little is known about the details of his life.
Andrew Darlington examines the evidence…
Espresso is a planet of the Polaris system, its single moon so close it skirts Roche’s Limit, dragging the water-saturated atmosphere around with it in great bulging tidal storms. ‘Whit’ Whitmore, a hen-pecked former-teacher who joined the Federated Space Security is one of nineteen men lost on the surface of this mushroom-infested planet, separated from the main Expeditionary Force and fearing attack by unseen enemies. Except, it turns out there is no enemy. In a neat plot twist, under the hallucinogenic influence of homicidal parasitic fungus the humans have been exterminating each other. But an odd aspect of this tale – “Suicide Squad” (‘Nebula no.39’
, February 1959) is that all the protagonists are naked throughout, in a kind of homoerotic bonding exercise, as tactfully illustrated by Eddie Jones’ spot-art. No real explanation is provided, although one could be easily suggested, the fungus-rich toxic atmospheric properties could rot fabrics, for example. But whatever, it adds a uniquely unsettling quality to this tale.
There were undeniable advantages to being called Robert Presslie in the mid-fifties and early-sixties. There was name-recognition value there. After all, Elvis Presley was transfiguring Pop in ways that would change music forever. The changes Robert Presslie would inflict within his own chosen genre – science fiction short stories, were less far-reaching. But, in their own way, modestly satisfying.
His first contribution to ‘Nebula SF’
– “Flesh And Blood” (in no.19, December 1956) is a brief, stark, almost symbolist take on the post-apocalypse extinction-event at which most writers of the time tried their hands. From a quasi-biblical opening, ‘on the fourth day, the wind dropped and darkness came early,’ a Priest and a Thief meet in the wind-sculptured drifts of post-atomic dust. Their dialogue sketches their existential dilemma. The thief was caught in a second-wave thermonuclear blast while looting homes devastated by the first. And the Priest has ‘a head full of theology, but his heart empty and aching because all his wisdom could not supply the answer to the doubts assailing his faith.’ The radiation-poisoned rain falls, both will die. There will be no survivors. It’s not a great story, more a kind of polemical sketch. But the cold chill of political relevance retains something of its charge, one that must have carried an even greater urgency for its original meaning-seeking teenage readers attuned to its doomy anti-war finger-pointing.
Presslie was a super-active part of a generation of underrated British writers, mocked by later SF academics such as Brian Aldiss for their clunky naiveté and formulaic plots, who nevertheless formed the essential bedrock of a spread of iconic British magazines ‘Authentic’
, the Carnell-era ‘New Worlds’
, and the ‘New Writings in SF’
book series. Along with EC Tubb, Sydney J Bounds, Philip E High, FG Rayer and ER James, his fiction flared across issue after issue of each of those major titles, extending into ‘Science Fantasy’
and ‘SF Adventures’
Like many of those contemporaries Presslie wrote part-time. His primary income came from his career as a pharmacy manager, his modest cheques from magazine-sales providing a welcome bonus, but insufficient to hazard the step of turning pro. Yet such circumstances dictated that he wrote because he enjoyed writing, rather than for mercenary motives. So is he a great lost writer deserving wholesale reappraisal? To hail him as such would be an exaggeration. But, as enthusiastic archivists David Redd and Greg Pickersgill suggest on their web-page tribute ‘he does have a certain something, perhaps an air of potential, perhaps just a slightly different take on SF ideas that makes him stand out a little.’ He remains ‘memorable to many of those who have read his fiction.’
Even within the enclosed world of 1950’s British SF there were evolutions taking place, in a gradual way. To editor John Carnell ‘in the changing world of science fiction writing, the cardboard character is beginning to breathe and the focus is on characterisation rather than the grandiose sweep of galactic backgrounds. In this respect, (Presslie) has been just as great a pioneer as most of his contemporaries. In a quiet but solidly satisfying manner, Mr. Presslie has been doing this sort of thing almost since he first commenced writing SF’ while ‘his stories produce many fresh approaches to ideas which are often commonplace.’
And yes, the stories may use familiar themes, but they’re seldom straightforward. There’s frequently a sting in the tail. A hanging uncertainty. More questions raised than answered. In “Lest We Forget” (‘Authentic’
no.74, November 1956) Niven Boyd is on trial for murdering the adoptive father – Owen Michaels, who has downloaded the sum knowledge of his memories into his head. Presslie doesn’t use the term ‘download’, obviously, instead he constructs a detailed memory-transfer ‘chip’ technique. And the accused man faces an electronic Juriac. Or so it seems. The final paragraphs reveal that the case has been exaggerated as a test for the experimental computer-jury, but just how much of it is true? The suggestions are left to effectively hang.
Truth to tell, there’s little biographical information available about Presslie other than that supplied by ‘New Worlds’
profiles. The fact that he never had a book published, neither novel nor short-story collection, disqualifies him from an entry in either the first or second editions of the ‘Science Fiction Encyclopedia’
. Although that omission may be remedied in the third, more broad-based online edition. However he does receive a brief note in Donald H Tuck’s ‘Encyclopedia Of Science Fiction & Fantasy’
(Advent Publishers 1978), which records him as ‘a native of Aberdeen’, like fellow fantasist JT McIntosh.
His story “Next Of Kin” (‘New Worlds’
no.69, March 1958) uses Scots dialect in paternal conversations that might draw on memories. Nevertheless, ‘at age twenty-three he qualified as a pharmacy manager’, and migrated to London around 1954, where, as an alien ‘touching down’ he admits ‘no allergies to the local beverages’ (to John Carnell). From the accompanying photos he seems sleepy-eyed, craggy with a penetrating inquisitive gaze, hair combed back into a low quiff, neat suit and tie. A purposeful professional, soon ‘gainfully employed as a pharmacy manager for a firm of multiple chemists.’ With a degree of speculation it’s possible to surmise that maybe his move south followed demob, and that his employer might well have been Boots, or Timothy Whites – people were more circumspect about product placement back then!
‘I believe the scientific education which went before is probably the reason for a long-standing love affair with science fiction’ he self-analysed to ‘New Worlds’
, ‘on the other hand, it could well be that boyhood reading of science fiction had something to do with the choice of career. This is an egg-and-chicken type problem which I have never been able to solve.’ He usefully employs pharmacy psychology in his novelette “Plague” (‘Science Fantasy’
no.24, August 1957) with the Narcotics Bureau facing a global addiction pandemic, ‘as infectious as measles.’ Carnell prefaces the story by observing ‘in these days of advanced medical science it is seldom that a disease reaches the pandemic stage.’ Perhaps back then, with international travel restricted to an elite minority, that was true. It’s a qualification less true now, adding gravity to Presslie’s conjecture. Although it’s a Venusian cyst carried in the bloodstream discovered to be responsible.
Then, in his “Trojan Horse” (‘Authentic SF’
, no.80. May 1957), the placebo-effect of aspirin is talked-up, and the plot hinges around a kind of advanced holistic faith-healing. It’s also worth pausing for a moment here, to consider how remarkably the attitudes and expectations the story betrays have shifted over the decades since. An alien ship is tracked approaching Earth. When it’s found, invitingly open, but without its pilot, it bears a message ‘The Ship Is Yours. Take It And Learn’. Imagine this story remade now as a TV-movie. Is it instantly shipped off highest-security to some Area 51 for retro-engineering? Is it fought over by rival corporations greedy for its marketable technology?
No, wary of alien intentions, after two month’s deliberation the world committee decides to leave it well alone until the missing pilot can be located. So is there a swamp-operation security clamp-down with a razor-wire exclusion zone patrolled by drones and helicopter gunships? No, one low-rent private eye is hired to tramp the mean streets hunting the missing alien. He does so by the regular hard-boiled Pulp-Crime process of first checking the registers of hotels and boarding houses, then by reading recent back-issues of the local newspaper for unusual stories. The plot-twist, if it even rates as such, is that the alien is not grumpy David Knox with the healing hands, but the girl Amethyst who invests in his powers. The moral seems to be that increasing reliance on the miracles of medical science are leading to a dependency-culture losing sight of the body’s natural curative potential. ‘A lizard can grow a new tail. We can’t even develop a new attitude.’
There’s also something of his medical background coming into play in his second ‘Nebula’
story “Chip On My Shoulder” (no.25, October 1957), where Clyde develops a shoulder-growth following exposure to cosmic radiation five-hundred miles up. A growth which then begins to squirm. The experimental space flight is a public-private partnership part-sponsored by a cosmetic barrier cream company for which he is product-trialing. So is his affliction compensatable? You can bet your magnetic boots it isn’t. The company denies liability. Presslie manages to fuse equal amounts of David Cronenberg-style visceral body-horror with a defusing black-humour that anticipates ‘How To Get Ahead In Advertising’
(1989) in which Richard E Grant’s character grows a second head. When the Doctor slices the tumour open, it turns out to be an activated dormant twin, ‘the lips of the incision parted. Out of the mouth came a tongue.’ Clyde gets his compensation. But will not survive to enjoy its benefits, as other growths begin erupting across his body, and his head…
There are enough casually-inserted references to medical procedures across the spectrum of his tales to betray a knowing familiarity, and frequent direct references too. In a footnote to “Lucky Dog” (‘New Worlds’
no.124, November 1962) ‘the author acknowledges borrowing Ditran (or JB329) for literary purposes and begs forgiveness for its extrapolation to Propytran and the effects of the latter as herein described.’ As well as the occasional ironic aside – as in “Another Word For Man” (‘New Worlds’
no.78, December 1958) in which ‘Young’ Doc Chablis vents his feelings with some vehemence, ‘God, when I think of the money they spend on weapon research compared to the pennies they grudgingly allocate for cancer!’ Carnell commends this ‘different analytical approach.’
Elvis Presley debuted on the ‘New Musical Express’
chart with “Heartbreak Hotel” 12 May 1956, just as Robert Presslie was hitting his uncertain stride, following his first appearance with “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted” in ‘Authentic SF’
no.58 (June 1955) about ‘Andy’ the experimental android facing explorative dissection after just twelve months of life. With macabre surgical precision ‘three times they let him die. Three times they started his heart again, each time testing a new technique.’ The shock turnaround is that Andy is an android-chimp, his replacement will be humanoid.
There were more appearances in ‘Authentic SF’
, including the two-part “The Creep” (in January and February 1956), while editor EC Tubb selects yet another of his tales for the cover-story of the magazine’s final issue (no.85, October 1957). ‘Robert Presslie, who has been appearing in ‘Authentic’
for a long time now, has reached a new high with his “Star Tober”’ comments Tubb, ‘what could be more familiar than a circus? And yet, as he point out, a circus is really a civilization in miniature.’ It was for this reason that the Arcturan Stoneman ‘had picked the circus as being a compact sample of Earth’s human and animal life’, and teleports it complete to the alien planet. Although the idea might conjur images of ‘The Shipwrecked Circus’ strip in 1950’s ‘Beano’
– Ringmaster, Strongman, Fire-Eater, High-Wire Acrobat, clown – the bizarre mix of circus performers proceed to puzzle and bedazzle their intellectually-superior alien abductors with a series of mystifying stunts. To Tubb ‘his story, then, while not letting the symbolism intrude, does point a moral. I like his new style of presentation and if he keeps it up he’ll be way up among the top authors of today.’
From there, in just over a decade of writing – until 1966, Robert Presslie stacked up an impressive total of some thirty published stories. His style is wide-ranging. Which makes it difficult to define a unique Presslie trait, or condense his writing down into a series of recognisable ticks or signifiers. There’s sly humour. There’s an anti-war bias. There’s an understanding of molecular biosciences above and beyond other writers of his time. But “The Savage One” (in ‘Science Fiction Adventures’
no.11, November 1959) is a hardboiled generic romp, as though he’s deliberately targeting the specifications of the magazine title. A gangster called Kramer is executed – only to discover himself reassembled as a ‘Soldier of Mirfak’, his body restructured into a Robocop-style war-machine, as depicted by Brian Lewis. In a humorous aside, it seems Adolf Hitler had suffered a similar fate! Bug-like aliens intend using him for their invasion of Algol Four, a world of flat-headed super-intelligent sandworms. He allows himself to be captured, is retro-engineered back to human, with a gift of planetary destruction. In a willed act of revenge he destroys Mirfak in his own suicidal detonation. As the magazine title suggests, this is Science Fiction, and Adventure at its most fast-paced and garish.
Some bibliographies list his “Old Macdonald” as a novel – which is the way it was announced for its inclusion in ‘Nebula’
(no.29, April 1958). But at fourteen-thousand words it more qualifies as novelette. Editor Peter Hamilton describes it as ‘an ingenious and original’ tale ‘in which he takes the facts of biological farming as they are already known to science and, extrapolating them into the future,’ he ‘skillfully creates with them the cornerstone of an enthralling ‘situation’-type yarn’. It also comes decked out in the full space-hardware of an interplanetary war between the colonists of Mars and the impoverished seven islands of oceanic Venus. With war-devastated radioactive Earth abandoned, Venus seeks aid from extra-solar Ruthan, a world terraformed by brilliant but spurned biochemist Hamish Macdonald, only to find the Asiatic Martians got there first. Venusians Drake & Flett must persuade the amphibious native Ruthanians onto their side. There are false clues, a lot of moralising, and an intended shock plot-turnaround snap ending with a second exodus in which all Venusians relocate to Ruthan, leaving Mars as overlords of a dead solar system. It’s not a great story. Indeed, it’s the kind of nuts-and-bolts theory-heavy space-exploit that Brian Aldiss was so condescending about. Presslie could, and did write better.
“The Verdict” (‘Nebula’
no.28, March 1958) is just such a better story. In this future, Justice-computers run a series of parallel virtual-reality simulations to the fifth dimension to determine, not guilt or innocence, but the most socially-beneficial consequence of each offence. And there’s a ‘Minority Report’
(2002) Philip K Dick-style contra-logic element to the scenario in which a Vegan is obviously the murderer, but it’s the victim’s husband – Kelly, who is guilty for seeking vengeance, and psychiatrist Marnier’s department at fault for not originally detecting the personality-instability prompting Kelly’s need. There’s a potential movie here, or at least a ‘Dark Mirror’
tele-play. The protagonists run through a series of possible murder-scenarios in mental stasis, a kind of ‘virtual helmet’, although Presslie doesn’t say ‘virtual reality’ – in fact his Personnel Department still operates on ticker-tape print-outs, but that’s the word we’d now understand. Of course there’s the accoutrements of the time. ‘Ships and travelers from more planets than had been dreamed inhabitable a century earlier’ interact in a massive ‘Babylon 5’
style interplanetary skyscraper-terminal in central Australia, with Sirians and Rigellians mingling with humans and aliens from the multiple worlds of the Vega system. Eventually, Marnier is convinced the final probability-permutation has resolved the situation. But Kelly is still intent on his revenge, whatever the consequences.
There are ideas here that stand today. Yet the writer behind the ideas remains an enigma. Sifting for more trace-elements of his life, Ron Bennett’s long-running and informative fanzine the ‘Skyrack Newsletter’
references him twice – once in no.45 (4th Sept 1962), where it’s noted how Presslie attended the monthly ‘Globe’ SF-writers meeting of 2nd August 1962. Whether the visit was a regular part of his life, or a one-off participation is not apparent. And again in issue no.50 (March 1963) where it records that ‘Robert Presslie, was one of the personalities at this year’s Peterborough Convention.’ So he had at least some involvement with the British SF fan community.
Returning to his profile in ‘New Worlds’
he admits that ‘like everyone who is in science fiction – I am a dreamer, and dreamers never had it so good. This must be the only age in which dreams come true while you wait.’ But while those SF dreams of his are still worth the effort of hunting down through issues of long-defunct magazines, he clearly foresees the ‘state of flux’ affecting the genre.
He had his own incisive take on the apparently lost ‘Sense of Wonder’ in the genre, demanding ‘nobody leaves this room till we find it!’ In a guest editorial (‘New Worlds’
no.133, August 1963) he notes wryly how the popular newspapers devote detailed cover-story status to cricketer Freddie Trueman’s vertebrae spinal X-ray problems, while relegating America’s launch of com-sat ‘Relay’ to six lines in the bottom left corner of the back page of ‘The Daily Mirror’
, and not at all in ‘The Daily Sketch’
. He wonders if ‘maybe we live in an age of too many miracles and our senses are numbed.’ He speculates that ‘the sense of wonder has not
gone from SF-writing. It has gone from its readers.’ While also predicting that ‘the next few years will see a drastic and dramatic change in science fiction. Who wants to read a make-believe yarn about the first man on the Moon when his photograph could well be on the front page of tomorrow’s newspapers?’ He was, of course, correct. ‘Modern SF is different because it is developing and it will go on developing as writers strive for new ways to express what they have to say and wider boundaries in which to say them.’
‘The change is going to call for a vast unfolding of the imagination by readers and writers alike. I hope to be able to contribute to that change.’ Only the final sentiment was to prove inaccurate, as the fiction style he represents fell out of favour with the explosion of the innovative experimental New Wave that he anticipates. The bibliographies record his last published story as the novelette “The Night of the Seventh Finger” in ‘New Writings in SF 7’
, in 1966. He was forty-six years old at the time.
Oddly, around the same time, Elvis Presley was also falling out of chart favour in the face of a new wave of Beatles-led Beat Groups. Times were a-changing. It’s true that ‘Nebula’
and ‘Authentic SF’
were gone, and ‘New Worlds’
was undergoing the Michael Moorcock palace-revolution making it inhospitable to Presslie’s kind of work. But writers such as EC Tubb and Philip E High migrated to other titles, such as ‘Vision Of Tomorrow’
, and later there was ‘Science Fiction Monthly’
. As well as various semi-pro and fan-magazines. So why did he stop? It’s highly unusual for a writer with a successful track record just to cease writing. Unless there are personal factors as yet unknown. Are there unpublished stories that never located a home?
And typically, even the precise date of his death is disputed. His sparse Wikipedia entry quotes Robert Presslie as 1920 – 2002. The same year is mentioned in several places on the web, however the web-version of trade-press ‘The Pharmaceutical Journal’
for December 2000 carries an obit recording the death – ‘on September 5’, of ‘Robert Presslie, MR PharmS, of 10 Kingham Close, Lower Gornal, Dudley, West Midlands DY3 2PH’, shunting the date back by two years. Robert Presslie remained a mystery to the end.
MYSTERY WRAPPED IN AN ENIGMA
1955 – “Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted
” (‘Authentic no.58’, June 1955) debut story described in the text. ‘There may be fields of activity in which... (title)’
1955 – “A Star Called Tommy
” (‘Authentic no.62’, October 1955) it opens impressively ‘My kid brother, Tommy, invented anti-gravity when he was seven’, then develops into a first-man-to-the-moon story. When the atomic motors cut out on the return trip, with the ship on collision course for London, Tommy risks his anti-gravity theory. Looking up the narrator ‘saw a new star twinkle. A star called Tommy’. Did he succeed, or just detonate?
1956 – “The Creep, parts 1 and 2
” (‘Authentic no.65 and 66’ January and February 1956) two-part serial. Set in Harry’s Bar with newsman Sam Garnet, who defied the script to broadcast the truth, that the ‘Creep’ of Cold War nuclear-test radiation levels is near-lethal, that war is imminent, and the spheres spotted in orbit around Earth are space-vultures ‘circling in readiness to pick our bones’. Harry turns out to be a foreign-agent. Then, they assume the bombs strike, but what has demolished the Bar is an alien sphere with the ability to neutralise the Creep. Sam and feline Lena locate junkie Doctor Sullevan to operate and save the surviving humanoid alien within the sphere, pleading for them to save humanity from itself
1956 – “Post Mortem
” (‘Authentic no.67’, March 1956) Duffy stands guard over Forde’s catafalque, to the mourners, a hero of the Wheel-to-Mars run, to his crew, a hated disciplinarian. Until it’s explained that to return to Earth would kill the Captain – as the crew’s mutiny over Kenwood’s suspected appendicitis, proved
1956 – “Pilgrims All
” (‘Authentic no.70’, June 1956) reprinted in Sweden as “Alla är Pilgrimer” (‘Häpna’, Oct 1963) ‘Everyone’s Had That Odd I’ve-Been-Here-Before Feeling. Déjà Vu They Call It; A Trick Of The Memory. Or Is It?’, when Spicer experiences impossible Déjà vu visions on the Lunar surface of Mare Imbrium, it leads him to an ancient crashed alien spaceship, and its tenuous final survivor has a deceptive tale to tell
1956 – “Cat Up A Tree
” (‘Authentic no.72’, August 1956) ‘A Lie Can Always Be Justified If It Is For The Common Good. But What If The Lie Is Not a Lie?’, colonists in the Martian ‘Beehive’ are getting stir-crazy, Drew Banner’s loving wife Janie attacks him with a pair of scissors. Ferguson ‘plants’ a fossil femur as distraction therapy, but ‘that fossil that was found – it isn’t the one we planted!’
1956 – “Lest We Forget
” (‘Authentic no.74’, November 1956) ‘A machine works strictly on logic. A criminal, knowing that, could easily beat a mechanical jury’
1956 – “Flesh And Blood
” (‘Nebula no.19’, December 1956) art by Martin Frew ‘Whichever way he went only pain and death would meet him – so had Humanity decreed’
1957 – “Trojan Horse
” (‘Authentic no.80’, May 1957) novelette, art by PR Green. ‘It was a man-hunt with a difference – they weren’t sure that they were hunting a man. But whoever or whatever had arrived in the space ship had to be found. And found fast!’
1957 – “My Name Is Macnamara
” (‘Authentic no.81’, June 1957) novelette, art by Adash. ‘Something was terribly wrong with Macnamara. He woke with a strange wife, stranger talents and no idea how he had come by either. Then he discovered that his name was really something.’ Three men independently devise new technologies which, together, form a matter-transmitter communicating to a distant star. They are aliens on an initiative test, but having passed it, they decide to stay on Earth with their new wives
1957 – “Copy Cat
” (‘Authentic no.82’, July 1957) art by Adash. ‘Setting a thief to catch a thief is an old adage. So is fighting fire with fire. But those who play with fire sometimes get burned.’ A poor humorous tale set in the Martian Beehive, a robot-cat companion with a programmed survival-instinct proves deadly
1957 – “Plague
” (‘Science Fantasy no.24’, August 1957) novelette with cover art by Jose Rubios, ‘Robert Presslie, in his first story in our pages, presupposes just such a catastrophe (pandemic) – the difference being that the disease is one that primarily affects the emotions. The physical breakdown which follows is such that few people are left unaffected’ ‘An unusual story concerning an unusual type of plague which hits mankind and affects the senses, bringing about a social and moral breakdown’
1957 – “Interrupted View
” (‘Authentic no.84’, September 1957) ‘Everyone knows that a woman is utterly devoid of logic and that it’s a mystery how they ever get things done. Here’s one husband who had a quite illogical, but remarkably successful wife.’ Dubious tongue-in-cheek sexism when airhead wife Annabel invents a view-on-demand TV to view future chat-shows
1957 – “Star Tober
” (‘Authentic no.85’, October 1957) novelette, cover-art by PR Green. ‘A tober is the place where a circus makes a stand. Sometimes the next tober is a few miles away; sometimes several hundred. But Considine’s Circus set a new, all-time record.’ The complete circus is teleported to a planet of the Arcturus system, where they use their performer-skills to outwit their more mentally-evolved kidnappers
1957 – “Chip On My Shoulder
” (‘Nebula no.25’, October 1957) art by Gerard Quinn. ‘He was suffering from a complaint unknown to medical science… and alarming in its possibilities’
1957 – “Comeback
” (‘Science Fantasy no.25’, October 1957) reprinted in Sweden (‘Häpna’, Dec 1962) ‘the stage illusionist whose disappearing acts could never be understood by the lay mind. There was a particularly unpleasant reason why’. But if ‘The Great Gustav’ Levant made nine girls disappear into a parallel space-time world fifty years ago, why was there no investigation…?
1958 – “Dial ‘O’ For Operator
” (‘Science Fantasy no.27’, February 1958) reprinted in ‘Weird Shadows From Beyond’ – ‘an anthology of Strange Stories’ edited by John Carnell (Corgi Books, 1965). Carnell writes ‘Robert Presslie wrote most of his finest short stories during the middle 1950’s, of which “Dial ‘O’ For Operator” is among his best (many others have been anthologised elsewhere). Most of Mr Presslie’s themes have been simple ones – like this story located in a telephone exchange at night and the slowly creeping horror of a woman in distress.’ Despite her continued terrified phone-calls, the police are unable to find the woman, a dockside prostitute, trapped by a shapeless organism from the sea. The phone-booth she’s calling from is empty. Operator Charlie Groom concludes ‘couldn’t it be that when somebody is in agony or really terrified their minds are so desperate for help that they can jump right out of their own time into another?’ A fine tense story
1958 – “The Fortieth Of December
” (‘New Worlds no.68’, February 1958) John Carnell writes ‘So far, Robert Presslie has been making a name for himself in our companion magazine ‘Science Fantasy’, but his main ambition has been to appear in ‘New Worlds’. He makes his debut here with a neat little story of the trials of a Martian colony’. Although he returns to his earlier ‘Beehive’ idea, this is a silly and very dated trifle about the arrival of the first women on Mars, hunting husbands
1958 – “Verdict
” (‘Nebula no.28’, March 1958) ‘The situation had been carefully assessed and the machine pronounced its verdict with the logic of infinite consideration’
1958 – “Next Of Kin
” (‘New Worlds no.69’, March 1958) ‘The following story is in the nature of a conversation piece and as such develops a rising tempo which is almost sure to catch the reader by surprise as the story unfolds.’ A bead of amber excavated from long-extinct Martian excavations, and a matching one found in Scotland, contain the crystallized souls of Martians intent on saving life on other worlds from nuclear annihilation. An effective fable
1958 – “Old Macdonald
” (‘Nebula no.29’, April 1958) 14k word-novel, art by Gerard Quinn. ‘His genius had brought happiness and plenty to one world. Could he also permit it to bring death and destruction to another?’
1958 – “The Champ
” (‘Science Fantasy no.29’, June 1958) a gritty tale in which future-Boxers are programmed with the techniques of earlier champions, but when Pop’s boy Danny faces Herb Galloway’s android Roy in the ring, he ends up ‘a son who does not know who he is. Except sometimes he thinks maybe he is Joe Louis’
1958 – “One For The Road
” (‘New Worlds no.72’, June 1958) ‘This is a delightful conversation piece by Mr Presslie – five derelict specimens of humanity sitting under a bridge talking, mainly about alcohol. No action takes place, yet a momentous decision is reached which has far-reaching effects.’ One is an alien visitor, another an alien-watcher
1958 – “Take Your Partners
” (‘Nebula no.34’, September 1958) reprinted in US edition Jan 1959. A kind of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ with the Sirian invaders as judges! ‘Bobby Roper was the best ballroom dancer on Earth; why, even the aliens from Sirius thought so’
1958 – “Sendoff
” (‘New Worlds no.77’, November 1958), Willy lives fifty years in a small village as a failed experiment in android-assimilation, another by what John Carnell calls ‘a master of the conversation piece’, the issue also includes a Robert Presslie ‘Writer Profile’ with photograph
1958 – “Pariah
” (‘Nebula no.37’, December 1958) an explosion at Longdene Nuclear plant, and an irradiated saboteur on the run. Some earnest discussion on the logics of the Cold War arms race, giving both opinions equal weight. Illustration by Kenneth Barr. ‘Through the misty night he wandered, bearing with him his load of hate and creeping death’
1958 – “Another Word For Man
” (‘New Worlds no.78’, December 1958) ‘Alien stories make up a considerable proportion of science fiction themes these days – which is not surprising now that homo sapiens is on the threshold of space flight – but it is more with the exploitation of the alien in contact with Man that we are interested. As usual, Robert Presslie has the simple but extremely dynamic approach’. Pierre Medoc, a French-Canadian, pulls a bell-shaped alien from the sea on his lobster pot. H’rola, an untried doctor from planet Fronal, sacrifices itself to save Father St Emilion from a terminal tumor. Like Jean-Luc Picard in ‘Star Trek’, it allows Medoc to introduce ‘merde’ into ‘New Worlds’!
1958 – “Ladies’ Man
” (‘Science Fantasy no.32’, December 1958) novelette. ‘Mr Presslie’s story this month deals with an android – but an android the like of which you have never known! This one not only eats (and who ever heard of a synthetic man eating?) but has a magnetic charm for the ladies. One might say, however, that there are wheels within wheels…’ Following android emancipation, Homer Adonis becomes involved in convoluted plot-twists with Nanthy and Leeba Goohan of feuding female-dominated planets Caph and Ruchbah. Narrated by his human secretary Miss Sharon Gold, he outwits them both
1959 – “Suicide Squad
” (‘Nebula no.39’, February 1959) novelette, art by Eddie Jones, reprinted in US edition June 1959. ‘It was an ugly and hostile planet which promised only death to men – or a life fuller and more fruitful’
1959 – “Confession Is Good
” (‘New Worlds no.82’, April 1959), an android named Ox struggles to interpret contradictory human intentions, and ends up protectively murdering his creators Griffin and Kate
1959 – “The Savage One
” (‘SF Adventures no.11’, November 1959) novelette, art by Brian Lewis, ‘On Earth Kramer was a rogue, and as such due to die – but he was destined to become a Soldier of Mirfak and pit his wits against some of the greatest fighters in the galaxy’
1962 – “One Foot In The Door
” (‘New Worlds no.121’, August 1962) reprinted in US edition Sep 1962. Carnell says ‘Several years have elapsed since Robert Presslie was writing regularly for us, during which time he produced some exceptionally fine short stories’, this return features salesman Ragg Dante outwitting, crafty devious psi Acamarians over a matter-transmitter relay-station to be sited on their planet, by trading psi-amplifying Schraeder coils which – when reversed, will give Earth an advantage in future dealing
1962 – “Remould
” (‘New Worlds no.123’, October 1962) a large-sweep future-disaster novelette. Henneker’s 30,000 are ‘the last tribe in Europe’ migrating beyond the sterility zone between 60 and 20N created by twenty orbiting alien ships. They cross the Bosphorus by raft-flotilla, through Baghdad, to meet the aliens inadvertently responsible who are working to make amends. Revealing that Henneker himself is an alien
1962 – “Lucky Dog
” (‘New Worlds no.124’, November 1962) novelette, ‘In a mind suffering from schizophrenia, the switch from ‘Jekyll’ to ‘Hyde’ can be savage in its intensity. Wagner volunteered for induced schizoid experiments and came up with something Man had lost long ago’ – his Propytran-induced animal senses enable him to contact miniaturized aliens on orbital satellite
1962 – “Stethoscope for Sale
”, science/medical article – with no autobiographical or SF-related content (‘Vector no.18’, Winter 1962, BSFA publication)
1963 – “Ecdysiac
” (‘New Worlds no.126’, January 1963) ‘When Pike, a newspaper correspondent, uncovered a strange chain of events, the only solution was murder. For reasons which Pike found out later, the victim refused to die.’ Cold War James Bond espionage overtones, showing familiarity with its Warsaw setting, but it’s rival forces in covert galactic conspiracy (which had controlled Hitler!) and Pike has already killed him three times
1963 – “Till Life Do Us Part
” (‘New Worlds no.127’, February 1963) ‘The colony worlds were modern and progressive, while the remnants of mankind left behind on Earth became more and more decadent’ Deathmembers and Liferenters provide virtual immortality, but Charles van Beer from Venus is forced to change his opinion, they are not just hedonists, Spence Logan is part of an evolutionary project to reach the stars
1963 – “Dipso Facto
” (‘New Worlds no.131’, June 1963) ‘It was the greatest contest of all time, with the dice loaded against the Earthman winning. Despite this, fair means produced a win for him in the end.’ Fringe-legal galactic profiteer Ragg Dante intends selling Scotch whisky, and – if Umba is a sewage-farm planet, neighboring Snox is ‘a shattering vision confected of sugar frosting’ a ‘world of detergent-ad whiteness.’ While war is employed ‘if the Federation decided that the drastic measure of deliberately inciting wholesale murder was the best means of catalysing scientific progress in a world gone stale through lack of adversity’, he wins through an eating competition
1963 – “Speaking For Myself
” Guest Editorial, and ‘Robert Presslie Writer Profile’ (‘New Worlds no.133’, August 1963) ‘To make any accurate prediction on the form of future SF is impossible. But the fact that it is in a state of flux should be satisfaction enough for anyone. You won’t like all the changes. Nobody ever does… every time he (the writer) introduces the tiniest of innovations he runs the risk of mass unpopularity. But at least he isn’t scared to try. Why should you be scared to go along with him?’
1963 – “Sterilitetsbältet
” (reprint of ‘Remould’ in Sweden in ‘Häpna’, November 1963)
1963 – “No Brother of Mine
” (‘New Worlds no. 137’, December 1963) ‘a play on human characterization, the major event which occurs is lost in the welter of conflicting personalities’, no time specified but the cleverly-observed mother-son dialogue has an austerity 1950s feel, Davey finds a naked dying Troglodyte, presumably driven to the surface by the same emergency that’s called his mine-worker father back to the pit, reprinted in Sweden as “Icke Min Broder” (‘Häpna’, December 1964)
1964 – “Odödlighet
” (reprint of ‘Immortality’ in Sweden in ‘Häpna’, February 1964)
1964 – “Försäljaren
” (reprint of ‘The Vendor’ in Sweden in ‘Häpna’, May 1964)
1965 – “Experimentet
” (reprint of ‘The Experiment’ in Sweden in ‘Häpna’, May 1965)
1965 – “The Day Before Never
” (‘New Writings in SF 6’) London: Dennis Dobson hardback (London, 1965). Corgi paperback (London, 1966). Bantam paperback (New York, March 1971) crossing a devastated Europe subjugated by alien Barbarians, anticipating some elements of New Wave with its casual cruelty and sexual content. The first-person narrator is betrayed and fails in his attempt to set up chain-reaction nuclear explosions along fault-lines that would cause alien-destroying vibrations, but his defiant resistance becomes in itself his dying triumph
1966 – “The Night of the Seventh Finger
” (‘New Writings in SF 7’) novelette, Dennis Dobson hardback (London, 1966), dust-jacket by Eric Ayres. Corgi paperback (London, 1966), cover Ken Randall. Bantam paperback (New York, August 1971) a clever temporal-conundrum in which the last diseased humans, returning from the stars, fall through a time-warp, and dolly-bird Sue Bradley is abducted by a seven-fingered Charles Laughton-alike, in Eastwood New Town. ‘Charlieboy’s attempt to change the future is thwarted by Sue’s groupie encounter with ‘Simon Legree & The Slaves’
With thanks to David Redd and Greg Pickersgill fan-site: