Monday, September 27, 2010

Short SF Review #15: "Alien Psychologist"

"Alien Psychologist," by Erik Fennel
Appeared in
Thrilling Wonder Stories, February 1952

Dane was in the jungle. For the first time he breathed the heavy, humid air directly instead of through a hood filter. The mingled smells - the musty reek of plant decay and the more acrid stench of rotting flesh, the overpowering aromatics some of the plants used to repel proto-insects and the subtle, uncannily nostalgic perfumes of drab little flowers - made him choke and gasp.

Let me start this review with North Dakota. If you've never been there, then one of the more important things you can know is that eastern North Dakota is practically the antithesis of geography. Aside from a handful of hillocks on the horizon, the small, calm reservoirs surrounded by those seemingly endless amber waves, it is flat and it is plain. Nature there, or at least what I can see of it from Interstate 94, is low-key and controlled; there are clumps of trees here and there, but no forests to interrupt the orderliness of the farmers' fields, and the missile silos are hidden from view.

Venus, as it most frequently appeared in science fiction stories before Mariner 2 arrived in 1962 to joss all those stories that didn't depict it as a molten hellworld will sulfuric acid rains, is pretty much as far away as you can get from North Dakota. This fantastic imagining of Venus is the foundation of Erik Fennel's "Alien Psychologist."

The story opens with our protagonist, Dane Coburn, realizing that he's about to die - not at the barrel of a gun or with his enemy's knife at his throat, but thanks to a particularly insidious aspect of Venus' teeming, broiling, ecosphere. The sbedico is, in many respects, like a bedbug from hell: "four or five grams of deadliness" capable not only of filling a man with stern enough anaesthetic to keep him paralyzed for two hours, but of using that opportunity to dig into the flesh and deposit dozens of sbedico eggs there. They are, really, the purest example of a biosphere built around the concept "be deadly or perish." Venus life is so wild, so absolutely dangerous that Earth housing has to be sealed against the elements as surely as if there was an unbreathable atmosphere on the other side of the walls. Luna or Mars would be paradises next to this fantastic Venus.

In this case, the sbedico is a weapon wielded at arm's length by the antagonist, Barton Eveleth, an unscrupulous scavenger and thief who came to kill Dane after our protagonist reported Eveleth for the murders of multiple native Venusian humanoids. It's one of those murders that appears easy on the face of it, really: men who are eaten alive from the inside by ravenous alien maggots tend to tell few tales. At least, that was the way it was supposed to go; Dane instead, once the anaesthetic wears off, sets off into the Venusian jungle unprotected to seek the help of the Venusians. That's where the title of the story comes in - as an alien psychologist, Dane's job is to study the native Venusians in the hope of establishing contact. He manages to find the people he's looking for, and not only learns firsthand how they are able to survive in such a livid jungle, but the truth behind why no contact with the Venusians was ever successful.

As this is 1950s pulp sci-fi, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the answer is "because they're psychic." Psychic phenomena were common in those days, at least partially thanks to Astounding editor John W. Campbell's love of the idea, and in the hands of many authors the paint came off and the simple magic underneath shone through. You see, not only are the Venusians psychic, but Dane is able to unlock *his own* psychic abilities... because the story demands it. This makes even less sense than, say, suggesting anyone can become a professional driver from watching someone else at the wheel for a few minutes. There's a wide, wide gulf between theory and application - just look at nuclear fusion. We've had a fusion reactor above our heads ever since we first lifted them up, and we still haven't managed to build one beyond breakeven.

It was this psychic detour that made me realize the degree to which Fennel's Venus is just Africa, cranked up to eleven. The Venusians as a species fall into the old pattern of having no goals or desires of their own, existing only to help the protagonist to fully realize his own potential and achieve his own goals. After they extract the sbedico larvae Dane is a man with a new lease on life, a desire for revenge and the capacity to extract it. He dispatches the villain non-violently: with his convinently newfound psychic abilities, he makes Eveleth believe that a sbedico has got into his protective suit. That prodding is enough to make Eveleth discard his suit and run madly into the jungle, where the Venusian lifeforms make short work of him and his weak, puny Earth flesh.

Personally, I didn't find it a satisfying resolution. In many ways, I believe this story takes the easy way out; the villain avoids justice (while "natural justice" may be appealing it's also incompatible with true justice - this was the main idea guiding me when I wrote "The Platinum Desolation"), and while the protagonist does come out of it changed, it skirts very closely to an "all just a dream" resolution. The overall theme that it's important to live with a situation, rather than against it, in my estimation gets overshadowed by these issues. "Alien Psychologist" may be interesting in terms of its historical value, but otherwise - it's hardly a forgotten gem.


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