Monday, September 17, 2012

The Science Fiction of Robert Wells

                Nearly 5 years ago I had purchased a lot of science fiction books on ebay, which contained roughly 90 books at a cost of 67 cents per book. At the time, I was purely a lot collector, always adding the word “lot” to my ebay searches. This helped me get access to the work of many science fiction authors I would have otherwise not discovered. The disadvantages of collecting by lot is that one gets many doubles and triples of the same book and almost every book is in poor to fair condition, as well as containing a lot of dirt. I had to wipe down every book I received in lots with a cloth. Considering I always paid less than $1 per book, I certainly got what I paid for.
                In the very first lot I had purchased, I noticed a book by Wells titled The Parasaurians and assumed it had been written by H.G. Wells. Only later did I inspect it more closely and notice the author was actually Robert Wells, whom I had never heard of. The book rested on one of my bookshelves for about 5 years and I decided to read it in July 2012, out of curiosity. It is similar to Jurassic Park and Westworld, predating the former by 21 years and the latter by 4 years, so it could be considered a possible basis or inspiration. The Parasaurians was printed in 1969. However, the basis for Westworld was actually printed in 1970 and titled Six-Gun Planet, written by John Jakes, not Michael Crichton. Crichton wrote the screenplay for Westworld and there is no actual novel titled Westworld. So the basis for Westworld was actually written just one year after The Parasaurians was published.
                Before I read The Parasaurians I was expecting something more along the lines of a turkey. I am using the term “turkey” in the most disparaging sense, but no disrespect is intended to those ugly descendants of dinosaurs. Thus, I was impressed by this novel. The premise is that a wealthy company, Megahunt, has secured an island on which equally wealthy hunters can take down dinosaurs. Right away, it is similar to Jurassic Park. But the dinosaurs are not cloned; they are advanced robotics. So we have a similarity to Westworld as well. The company Megahunt selects clients based on their net worth and passion for hunting and thus there is no advertising.
                Wells created 4 main characters for the hunting expedition, who are Fletcher, Bodee, Kit and Sternius. Both Fletcher and Bodee are wealthy hunters chosen by Megahunt, Kit is a photographer, and Sternius is the guide. There is an interesting tension between the characters, an expected romance, and a bizarre twist. Wells’ explanation of the technology (nuts-and-bolts) of the parasaurians is much appreciated and lends more authenticity to the story.
                Wells displays strong and working knowledge of evolution. He had clearly spent some time doing research before writing this novel and I would categorize this as hard science fiction, though not of the same caliber as titles by Larry Niven or Greg Egan. Here is an excerpt I particularly enjoyed:
                “Just think – under all the fine cities, on the bed of the ocean, snug in waste pipes and sewers and in all our guts are our yesterday’s brother and sisters patiently waiting for us to fail.”
                As for the physical book, it fell apart while I was reading it. The cover, back and spine slid off as one piece and a large chunk of pages broke apart from the others. I have noticed this sort of problem is not always age related, as a recently published paperback once fell apart in a similar fashion. I would suspect it is more likely a manufacturing defect, since some old paperbacks I own are still tightly bound, despite being heavily creased. What’s odd is that The Parasaurians copy I have looks fine; it has no creases or tears and appears to have not been read, yet it fell apart.
                While reading The Parasaurians I decided to check out the oeuvre of Robert Wells and, if possible, acquire it. He wrote four novels, eight short stories, and one serial, which was split between two issues of Worlds of If in 1973. Finding the remainder of his novels took a few seconds using, but his short stories took a few weeks to find, since they were published in unrelated magazines and anthologies. Some of those magazines were only printed in the United Kingdom. None of his short stories were ever collected, although three of them were anthologized.
                The next novel that Robert Wells wrote was Candle in the Sun, published in 1971. Unlike his first novel, which had 4 main characters throughout, Candle in the Sun focused on Ray Gascon and his obsession with Clavelle, a robot or woman (I won’t say which). The first few chapters were reminiscent of the 1995 film Waterworld. Mutants that could swim underwater were called “Marins” in Candle in the Sun and Kevin Costner was called “The Mariner” in Waterworld. When Gascon describes/explores the ruins of a city underwater, I found myself picturing the scene in Waterworld when Costner showed Jeanne Tripplehorn the dirt on the seafloor. The similarities with Waterworld quickly diminished once Gascon decided to enter one of the buildings and met the Arkadians, another group of mutants. At that point, I was reminded of the novel The Hero of Downways, written by Michael G. Coney in 1973.
                The Arkadians didn’t believe that Gascon came from the surface, since all of humanity had fled the Earth in Arks. One of the Arks failed during takeoff and left a group of humans stranded, which came to call themselves the Arkadians. They lived exclusively in submerged buildings and other structures containing pockets of air. The Arkadians put Gascon into the Shelter, where he was to be on probation until it was felt he could be trusted to roam freely. The Shelter contained the most horribly deformed mutants and were monitored by Benjamin, the most deformed mutant of them all. Benjamin played a pipe and danced, often making Gascon dance with him; they became fast friends.
                Eventually Gascon was released from the Shelter and was given a job in a biology lab that turned hallucinogenic fungi into food. He was also provided with a wife, named Galata. I won’t go into the details surrounding Gascon’s experiences with the fungi and Galata other than saying they are absolutely bizarre and left me in a state of shock mixed with envy and disgust.
                Tiny albino people that reminded me of the white forest creatures in Princess Mononoke were responsible for trafficking people in the dark, as lights were a rarity. Gascon escaped from the Arkadians and resumed his pursuit of Clavelle. The Arkadians firmly denied her existence.
                Wells’ next novel was Right-Handed Wilderness, published in 1973. Unlike his first two novels, there is no similarity to any science fiction movie I have seen. However, it is similar to The Right Hand of Dextra, by David J. Lake, which was published in 1977. The similarity is very, very marginal and is related to the handedness of amino acids. Wells does not incorporate right-handed DNA at all into his novel, but it plays a major role in Lake’s novel, with consequences that affect the characters. Wells merely mentions it and spends 40,000+ words on a boring detective novel. The bulk of the story involves the search for a woman that is carrying autoheterotroph 233 (AHT 233), which is a right-handed substance that turns everything into either a plant or an animal. Shroud and Selinda are two of the pivotal characters. They are lovers and have a telepathic link that can be opened at any time, by either of them. However, no one else in the novel can use telepathy. Shroud is 200 years old and all of his organs have been replaced. Selinda is still a teenager and she is enamored by the frail fossil, for reasons that are never revealed.
                I enjoyed Wells’ first two novels, but I found this one to stray too far from science fiction. It was essentially a detective novel with a very poor emphasis on science. Some of his writing was weird enough to keep me reading, such as this excerpt:
                With mounting boredom and frustration, he searched the desk. His hairy hands fluttered methodically through the contents of its drawers with spasmodic rushes, like a couple of apoplectic tarantulas.
                Wells’ fourth novel is Spacejacks and was published in 1975. Near the end of this novel a sudden realization hit me: Wells writes like A.E. van Vogt. Those of you that have read van Vogt know his writing can be difficult to follow. Many passages in Spacejacks required reading through several times before I was able to decode the events. It was further exacerbated by the lack of chapter divisions; the book was solid text with no breaks, other than that of paragraphs. Less than halfway through the book, Shroud is brought back as a character and he plays a major role. His much younger girlfriend, Selinda, returns as well. I wouldn’t call this a direct sequel to Right-Handed Wilderness, but it takes place in the same universe. Oh, and the telepathy that Shroud and Selinda shared in the previous book is finally explained here: they had a rapport. Yes, a rapport. That is certainly one way to explain telepathy.
                Spacejacks are astronauts that salvage wrecked spaceships and answer SOS calls. There are many companies that compete for salvage rights and one company suddenly starts using a ship that is incredibly fast and maneuverable. The main characters are members of Ryder’s Recovery and they feel threatened by this new ship, so they conduct some industrial espionage. Some of the situations in this book, especially those involving espionage, are genuine page turners. My attention was held rapt, unlike the first three books by Wells. It’s unfortunate he didn’t produce more novels, since this one was an improvement. This book was basically a story of alien invasion, which was handled with impressive subtlety.
                It is essential to read Right-Handed Wilderness before reading Spacejacks, because of the reappearance of Shroud and Selinda. They make an interesting pair.
                Wells also wrote a fifth novel and it was published as a serial titled Inheritance in Worlds of iF in late 1973. It consists of 70 pages in the October issue and 84 pages in the December issue. While reading the first serial, I was wondering why anyone would clamor to purchase the next one. Inheritance was very boring! The premise, however, has been handled successfully by other writers, such as Michael G. Coney and Vernor Vinge. In the far, far future, humanity has spread out amongst the stars and populated many worlds. Often, the journeys to planets were one-way trips. Wells starts his story at least 600 years after a large group of humans landed on a planet near the core of the galaxy, which currently consists of disparate mutant groups. Although Wells doesn’t explain the reason for so many mutant groups of humans, I have decided perhaps he assumed that the reader knows there is more radiation deeper in galaxies than at the fringes. In reality, the radiation would sterilize any humans and give them cancer, but in science fiction radiation simply makes one look a little strange.
                The humans, which I presumed were humans, are called “Superom”. I don’t understand the basis for the word “Superom” and Wells doesn’t provide any hints; Google does not help either. There are only 4 Superom in the serial, which are Shevan, Delbet, Keren and Karel. Shevan is a feisty young woman that found talk-tapes in an old library which revealed the Sun (not our Sun) is dying. She tries to convince Delbet to take her to Mandanar, a place she presumes will somehow help them. They steal an aircar from Keren but it breaks down and the Helangles discover them. The Helangles are troll-like mutants that ride motorcycles and talk like rednecks; they are also loyal to Keren. I thought, surely, Wells didn’t simply modify the term “Hell’s Angels”. But he must have. I did some research and the Hell’s Angels have been around since 1948. It is a test of patience to read the dialogue by the Helangles, since they continually use the word “yawl”.
                Delbet is a giant young human male and he continually has opportunities to become intimate with Shevan, but he ignores all such opportunities, which infuriates Shevan. This is very much unlike Wells’ other novels because the men take advantage of every opportunity to have intercourse. There is sex in Inheritance, but only between the Helangles; they disgust the other mutants with their loud lusty activities, completely bereft of embarrassment and propriety.
                Keren is the Regent of Spadrox, which is presumably the capital of Thetis, the name of the planet. He is a cruel leader and gratuitously uses neuro-whips to extract information and enforce discipline. When the Helangles returned Shevan and Delbet, he had them separated and locked Shevan in a tower with a ghost-like entity named Shade and a casket containing a 600 year old Superom named Karel. Shade was afraid of Shevan and helped her escape. With the help of a variety of mutants, Shevan and Delbet managed to get to Mandanar.
                The ending of Inheritance and the inclusion of mutants reminded me of The Hero of Downways by Michael G. Coney, which was published in September 1973. Also, Wells used mutants in his novel Candle in the Sun, although there is no storyline relation I could detect.
                As I mentioned, Robert Wells wrote 8 short stories. His first published story was a submission to a writing contest in 1954 (in the United Kingdom), which stipulated that submissions be no more than 3,000 words and set in the year 2500. Of the 2,240 entries received, one was selected as the winner and 20 were selected as runner-ups. All 21 of the best stories were published in the anthology A.D. 2500 in 1955. Robert Wells did not win the competition, but placed in the top 20. Brian Aldiss and Arthur Sellings also placed in the top 20 and they went on to have successful writing careers, more so than that of Robert Wells. All of the other winners, along with the grand prize winner, did not become writers and managed to get very little published after the contest, if anything.
                Robert Wells was born Frank Charles Robert Wells on January 31st, 1929 in London, England. When he submitted his first story to the writing contest, The Machine That Was Lonely, in 1954, he was 25 years old. Of course, it is purely my speculation that it was his first submission. Like many writers, he could have collected a hundred or more rejection slips before that time or he could’ve been inspired to start writing because of the contest. Not much biographical information is on the Web about Robert Wells and there are no fan dedicated sites that I can find. What do I think of his first sale?
                It is markedly different from his long fiction and I felt as if I were reading material by another author. It is more like what one would expect from Jack Vance or Octavia Butler due to the controlled, elegant prose. Like his novels, there are occasions when the metaphors caused me to stop, such as in this example:

                They trudged on in silence, and low clouds brought a strange, thin rain which damped the skin-like, plastic overalls they wore and obscured the visors of their helmets, falling without a sound into the forgetfulness of the water.”

                 The Machine that was Lonely takes place on Mars in the year 2500. There was a devastating war on Earth that caused everyone to flee to Jupiter and beyond. The war spread to Mars and left few survivors. The story is about the last two survivors (married couple) on Mars and their discovery of a machine that became sentient. The woman befriends the machine but the man wants to destroy it. Their difference causes them to separate and the man becomes a paranoid loner in search of other people.
                Robert Wells didn’t sell another short story until 1965, when he was 35 years old. It’s entirely possible during those 10 years he was collecting rejection slips or he simply wrote nothing and resumed in 1965. Based on the quality of his next sale, I think he was definitely writing during that time. His second short story sale, Song of the Syren, was published in the British anthology series Science Fantasy in March 1965.
                Right away, Song of the Syren shares a peculiarity with The Machine that was Lonely, which is singing. In his first story, the survivors found the sentient machine because it was singing and in his second story, a group of space explorers found a planet with plants that sing. Song of the Syren is a combination of science fiction and mystery due to the fact it takes place on another planet and a murder investigation is underway. The quality of writing is superior to that found in his novels.
                His 3rd short story, Stop Seventeen, was published a year later, in 1966. There has been a Disaster and an Exodus which left behind a person that believes he is the sole survivor. He has lost his mechanical memory and must rely upon his flesh and blood brain. The subway train is still in service and completes a circuit of the city every day, on which he rides. But it never halts at stop seventeen. I read this story twice and have yet to understand the implications of what he found at stop seventeen; this seems to be a failed Heinleinesque attempt to write By His Bootstraps.
                His 4th and 5th short stories, Frontier Incident and The Switcher, were both published in 1971. They are similar in theme, which is that of alien encounters, but dissimilar in location since the first takes place on another planet and the second occurs on Earth. They are also similar with respect to the ethereal manifestations of the aliens, since the aliens in Frontier Incident lived in a liquid that “defied capture” and the alien in Switcher was gaseous. They are also dissimilar with respect to the aliens’ capabilities and intentions. In Frontier Incident the aliens are superior to humans and the Switcher is more like an instinctive animal. There is something quite interesting from The Switcher worth mentioning (that is spoiler free). The protagonist watches channel 716 at one point in the story, and by today’s standards that is rather insignificant, but the story takes place in the 27th century from the viewpoint of the year 1971. Someone reading this story in 1971 may have found it reasonable that it would take 600 years for there to be 716 channels (or more) but we have had that many channels for nearly 20 years (as of 2012). This is an example of how fast reality can surpass science fictional ideas.
                His 6th and 7th short stories, Blue Theme and Fugue and Mindhunt, were both published in 1974 and there is no connecting theme between them that I can detect. Blue Theme and Fugue was a short short story about people that could hear colors and Mindhunt was a telepathic tale of revenge that I found incredibly cold; I was impressed. However, Wells put tape decks in the story despite its setting in the third millennium. In fact, he stubbornly uses tapes and cassettes throughout his novels as well. I will give him credit for miniaturizing tape recorders in The Parasaurians but he could at least have invented a new recording medium. This shows how difficult predicting the future can be, since it was probably logical from the viewpoint of the 60s and 70s to assume that tape decks would keep getting smaller and smaller.
                Wells’ last short story, Compensating Factor, was published in 1976. This particular story was the most difficult to find due to its publication in a United Kingdom-only magazine, Science Fiction Monthly, that focused on artwork. Thus, it was a very large magazine and most people took the artwork out, which means intact copies are difficult to find. Finding issues of this magazine is further complicated by the fact that there was a similarly named publication in the United States at the same time, Science Fiction Monthly Review. I almost made the mistake of purchasing the wrong magazine until I did some research and, unfortunately, I was not rewarded for my efforts. Compensating Factor is one of the worst science fiction stories I have ever read. Wells never sold anything after this story, so either he quit writing, or he continuously received rejection slips.
                Summarily, Robert Wells produced a small amount of science fiction that ranges from atrocious to interesting and I would consider familiarity with his works to be arcane knowledge because of its obscurity within a genre that is itself relatively unknown. This is not material that can easily be discussed.


The Parasaurians (1969)
Worth checking out for the Jurassic Park similarity.

Candle in the Sun (1971)
Crazy mutants and bizarre love make this worthwhile.

Right-Handed Wilderness (1973)
Must be read in order to appreciate The Spacejacks.

The Spacejacks (1975)
I loved the subtlety of the alien invasion.


The serial Inheritance (1973) is contained in the October and December 1973 issues of Worlds of iF
This is a boring story and I recommend avoiding it.


The Machine That Was Lonely (1955) is contained in the anthology A.D. 2500
The writing is incredible.

Song of the Syren (1965) is contained in the March 1965 Science Fantasy
I consider this to contain his best story and character development.

Stop Seventeen (1966) is contained in the November 1966 sf impulse
The writing is very good, but the story is difficult to follow.

Frontier Incident (1971) is contained in the anthology New Writings in SF-18
The writing is good and the aliens are very alien.

The Switcher (1971) is contained in the Spring 1971 Worlds of Tomorrow
The writing is good and the alien is humorous.

Blue Theme and Fugue (1974) is contained in the anthology The Best of Science Fiction Monthly
Atrocious. Run if you see this.

Mindhunt (1974) is contained in the April 1974 Galaxy
A well done tale of revenge.

Compensating Factor (1976) is contained in the March 1976 Science Fiction Monthly
Avoid at all costs.

This is the package containing the magazine Science Fiction Monthly.
I was slightly shocked at the size. 

It far exceeds the size of my scanner, so here is an image I found elsewhere:


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