Book Review: Mortals and Monsters, Lester del Rey (1965)

(Richard Powers’ cover for the 1965 edition)

3.25/5 (collated rating: Average)

Lester del Rey’s collection Mortals and Monsters (1965) — first editions are adorned with a gorgeous collage by the superb Richard Powers — is comprised of eight short stories from the 50s and four from the early 60s.  The collection, as with all but the best collections, is a mixed bag.  ‘The Years Draw Nigh’ (1951) is almost a masterpiece while ‘Recessional’ (1965) is an upsetting exercise in 60s sexism despite the fascinating premise.

I found that a few of the del Rey’s shorts are some of the more blatantly sexist 50s worksI’ve read.   But these are paired with others — for example, ‘Lady of Space’ (1958) — that tentatively (in a 1950s manner) advocate female astronauts….

Somewhat worthwhile for fans of 50s science fiction.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis (*some spoilers*)

‘And the Truth…’ (1956) (12 pages) 2.75/5 (Bad):  A bland and forgettable start to the collection… Dane Phillips used to work for the newspapers until he pushed a little to hard to get a particular story in print.  What are the contents of his article (i.e. the “truth” of the title)?  One of his army friends named Corporal Harding — who never seemed to die despite egregious injuries — doesn’t appear to be human!  And,  Harding is trying his hardest to keep the world from knowing and Dane wants to uncover his true nature.  There’s a standard twist ending that comes off without a hitch.

Del Rey tries to inject some psychological tension but fails to invoke any real dread.  The only positive is the vagueness of the emotions it evokes.  Is the alien presence really a bad thing?  Is there actually a threat?

‘The Years Draw Nigh’ (1951) (15 pages) 4.75/5 (Very Good): “Even the wind was tired, and its thin wailing was a monotonous mutter of memories from its eroded past” (19).  A fantastic moody rumination on man’s failed mission into space.  The story reads very much against the grain of most 50s science fiction — for example, the endlessly optimistic “science will conquer all” ideology of Clement’s Mission of Gravity (1953).  Mars is covered with the ruins of a lost civilization — and mankind’s scars of habitation are fading into the red dust as well.  The Red Planet was settled by humanity for one reason alone, to construct spaceships to journey out into space in search of planets for colonies and perhaps a trace of the civilization that previously settled Mars.  And all but one of the vessels have returned empty handed…  Zeke Lerner heads to Mars for a last time to meet the crew of the very last one.

There are some wonderful touches throughout.  For example, mankind has become so pessimistic about the future after the  failure of the earlier missions that many have stopped their rejuvenation treatments.  Reminds me of Ballard’s 60s novels — highly recommended.

‘And It Comes Out Here’ (1951) (14 pages) 3/5 (Average): A time travel story that takes place in the middle of a time loop of sorts — as in the story takes the form of dialogue between the person from the past and the person from the future.

The contents of the story are not as interesting as the crisp structure of the dialogue that conveys quite adeptly the cyclical nature of time travel.  One has the uncanny feeling that the same events we are reading have occurred repeatedly.

‘The Seat of Judgment’ (1957) (25 pages) 3.25/5 (Average):  Although generally considered one of del Rey’s better short novelettes, I found ‘The Seat of Judgment’ contains a kernel of fascinating ideas but bereft of any real rumination on them.  Earth in the future holds sway over many alien worlds.  They maintain power by supporting corrupt religions that heavily tax the poor.  Clearly del Rey is trying to cast this Earth Empire as a Roman Empire with alien “paganism” as an instrument of corruption and suppression.  The aliens in question are the Sayonese — marsupials who are ruled by incarnations of the supreme Mother God.  Our hero, Eli Judson, is an instrument of the Earth empire and participates in the suppression of the Sayonese people via the temples.  In the past he had an affair with a Sayonese women who was destined to become one of the incarnate priestesses.  But a new force of change springs up on Sayon — an individual who promotes both a Mother and Father God-being and a Jesus-like re-distribution of wealth to everyone.  And this new force threatens to overthrow the Earth Empire.

‘The Dwindling Years’ (1956) (17 pages) 4/5 (Good):  A restrained meditation on the effects of an Earth whose inhabitants live extraordinarily long lives — del Rey suggests that the traditional family structure will break down, mankind will sink into deep routines, etc.  Mankind has also colonized distant planets and Earth’s primary concern is to send bright minds out into space.  But, due to time dilation, communication with the colonized worlds is incredibly slow.  After decades and decades, Giles watches new technology on these worlds spring up and Earth sink deeper and deeper into technological stagnation.  He also laments the decay of his family ties and the inability to talk in real-time to his son.

More is implied than said….  One of the better works of the collection.

‘No Place Like Home’ (1952) (10 pages) 3/5 (Average):  Sid Mallon and Doug Swanson successfully — through private venture — put man in space.  However, Doug was an intensely secretive man who spouted technological genius which enabled such a voyage to be successful.  But the project doesn’t end there, Sid and Doug want to put a rocket on Mars.  But there has to be something fishy behind the success of such a grassroots movement.

There’s a twist ending but the story is on the whole unremarkable.

‘Lady of Space’ (1958) (16 pages) 4/5 (Good):  In del Rey’s future general consensus holds that “a woman in space was unthinkable” (100) — this is the story of how one who dreamed of and was groomed for space and finally made it possible.  How is this accomplished? The narrator initially believes that she’s a prostitute (!) who serves everyone coffee.  Eventually it’s revealed that she’s a computer programmer.  I’m not sure what I think about del Rey deploying this type of subterfuge.

Del Rey tentatively advocates women in the space program but seems to prefer that they are subservient to the male astronauts.  Or, perhaps he believes that female astronauts, as long as they are in relationships with male astronauts, should be deployed on long term missions to keep the men sane.  Regardless, an ambiguous message but considering how many authors did not believe that women should go into space (NASA included), a slightly progressive one…

‘Instinct’ (1952) (16 pages) 3.5/5 (Good):  In the far future humanity is extinct — wars, natural disasters, etc.  In the resulting wasteland humanity’s creations — robots — have developed their own society and self-replicated.  However, they have always held their almost mythical maker in high regard and have not changed their original robotic forms  in reverence for their past.  The narrative follows a robot who wishes to rebuild original man.  However, his fellow robots are not thrilled with the plan.

The story is a vehicle for discussion on the nature of instinct.  Do robots have instinct?  Did humans program instinct into their matrices?  Unfortunately, del Rey’s descriptions of humanity’s “instinct” (as in supposedly innate gender dynamics) are 50s cultural constructions rather than biological realities.

‘Return Engagement’ (1961) (16 pages) 2/5 (Bad):  The worst of the collection….  Daniel Shawn, sometime in the future, quits the academy and seeks out the rural countryside in a desperate attempt to recreate some of the nostalgic wonder he had in the past.  This future, according to Shawn, despite becoming “more civilized” is become morally bankrupt.  How exactly this is the case is not altogether clear.  Shawn’s views remain rather unsubstantiated: “Something had gone out of men.  In its place was only the body of man’s work — the machines, the dark forces that drove him on to bombs and destiny, the rockets that could life him toward outer space but hide the dancing of the stars” (137).  Clearly, man has lost its wonder of the natural world and the purer joys (whatever those might be).  This nostalgic daydream is interrupted when del Rey dredges up some hokey “more enlightened than man” alien species from the annals of the 30s pulp to be the saviors of man.

Avoid.

‘The Course of Logic’ (1963) (14 pages) 3.5/5 (Good):  Two massive male and female silth come across human explorers who have landed on their planet.  In order to reproduce the silths slowly integrate their nerve net into their victim’s brains.  These aliens apply their logic of the biological understanding to their human victims that results in substantial confusion.  The story is told from their perspective and is convincingly conveyed.

However, del Rey cannot refrain from ridiculing his more assertive female characters — in this case the female silth who dominates her weak and less intelligent (well, according to her) male companion.  I had the feeling that he is not trying to be satirical — especially given the treatment of women in ‘Recessional’ (1961) reviewed below.

‘Spawning Ground’ (1961) (11 pages) 3.5/5 (Good): After the dire prediction of the explosion of Earth’s sun, mankind poured its resources into exploring face — desperate for colony planets.  However, as with ‘The Years Draw Nigh’, they such planets are rare.  Captain Gwayne is sent off in search of a lost colony ship.  He discovers it buried underground on an alien planet filled with unusual blob-like lifeforms.  There are also vaguely human-like (with additional limbs) savages that appear to be threatening….  As Earth’s existence nears the end humankind’s future might take on a drastically different form.

An intriguing story that is told in an all too hasty manner.  Regardless, unnerving undercurrents of desperation abound.

‘Recessional’ (1965) (16 pages) 2.75/5 (Average):  A female captain, generation ships, desperate searches for planets to settle….  All ingredients for a good story but some frustrating social commentary on the differences between the genders weakens the effort.  In the far future a group of spaceships comes across a habitable world.  In the past they have come across barren planets where they harvest minerals and produce new ships for the excess populations before heading off again.  However, this time they come across a world filled with human savages.  And soon they discover that it is Earth…

Most of the story is a monotonous laser space battle filled with sexist comments about women who want to become space captains — apparently del Rey believes that only men are allowed to have such ambitions and the women who do are inherently violent, don’t want to get married, and should be sent to the “psycho ward.”

(Uncredited cover for the 1967 edition)

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4 thoughts on “Book Review: Mortals and Monsters, Lester del Rey (1965)”

  1. That Powers collage is awesome. In 1965, I would have grabbed that copy off the spinning rack in the drugstore to buy as quick as I could just because of that cover.

  2. Great review. The Powers cover is indeed a thing of beauty, another title to be added to my wants list I think.

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