Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Short SF Review #16: "The Great Gizmo Machine!"

"The Great Gizmo Machine!", by Pierce Rand and John Forte
Appeared in Unknown Worlds #37, February 1964

"Yessir, I've done big things in science. Helped Edison invent the electric light... Eli Whitney took the credit for the cotton gin, but it was really my doing... I was the first to split the atom -- and I followed up by inventing the atomic sub!"

Since I started doing these reviews back in the early days of this weblog, I've confined myself to straightforward short literature: stories from anthologies and magazines devoted to the form. But there's another avenue that the story-starved could explore to sate their hunger, one I never previously considered: the comic book. As I never read them when I was growing up, I must be some kind of sociological freak or something, I guess. So if I make any ignorant mischaracterizations of the comic form in this, please tell me, and please don't get pissed off.

Unknown Worlds, published by American Comics Group, was an anthology comic series that lasted from 1960 to 1967. As I've only ever seen one issue of it, and since in a surprising turn of events Wikipedia has no article on it as of this writing, I can't make any authoritative blanket statements about it. But I can infer, though - its style seems to harken back to the days before the Comics Code, back when the superhero comics that dominated the market for decades afterward shared the newsstands with horror, crime, adventure, science fiction, and fantasy comics, in that it contains independent stories unconnected by any larger universe. While Unknown Worlds #37 claims to offer "mystery thrillers," the contents are supernatural fantasy and science fiction. The third and last story of the issue, coming in just after an advertisement for a Jet "Rocket" Space Ship, was enough to get me to buy the issue with its title alone: "The Great Gizmo Machine!," with story by Pierce Rand and art by John Forte.

Now, the obvious question is this: just what is a Great Gizmo Machine? Is it a machine that makes smaller, even more unfathomable machines? Is this where mogwai really come from -- or is it something even more sinister? I'll tell you what this is - it's true Silver Age crazy.

This story's hero - specifically stated as such - is Joe Binks, a hair-slicked-back, unemployed dude who can never seem to find a job worth his talents - or, more precisely, what he considers his talents to be. Being a janitor at the zoo apparently isn't it. After being chased up a tree by a bear, he quits and strikes out to get a job with Science, because it's "all the rage today" - specifically, the Willis Scientific Foundation. There, he tries to seal the deal with a resumé of claims that make him sound like an escaped mental patient - I mean, it's one thing to call yourself a "nuclear maintenance engineer" because you cleaned the pipes at Pickering, but to take credit for something invented a hundred and seventy years earlier leads me to only two conclusions: either he's is trying to see just how ridiculous a story he can spin while still finding a job, or Joe-Joe Binks is just that stupid.

It comes off, in a way: he does get a job from Professor Willis. As a janitor. This time, though, he stays on the job for long enough to overhear Professor Willis talking to empty air in the Great Gizmo Machine's room - a machine that is being kept a total mystery, beyond the sheer fact of its existence. In an attempt to impress his girlfriend and keep the bow-tied dude who for some inexplicable reason is tagging along on their date - he's described as Joe's rival for his girlfriend's affections - from ending up with her, he sneaks into the Gizmo Machine's room and starts studying how it works.

Which means that, in the truest scientific tradition, he starts fiddlng with knobs and doodads to see what happens. What happens is that the machine starts making noises like "bicka-bicka-bicka" and things start flying around like it's a poltergeist factory. The next day, he witnesses his boss, the Professor, vanish into the machine. Probably due to the absence of a body, he avoids getting slapped with a murder charge and goes to give his girlfriend a present that is, perhaps, the single most prescient reference in this story - a "little gizmo machine" that "makes a lot of noise, runs a mile a minute and doesn't do a thing!" It may have taken fifty years, but we're on our way.

Still, the rival for his girlfriend's affections isn't too happy about Joe claiming to be an Awesome Scientist because he mops the floors in a house of Science, and neither is he impressed by the pre-Star Trek technobabble he resorts to in a desperate attempt to explain something he doesn't understand. The rival, of course, takes the opportunity to futz with the instrumentation and ends up winning over the girlfriend's affections - by default, as Joe gets sucked into the machine and down into a "dark, swirling vortex."

He comes to rest in a circle of light in what looks to me like a graveyard forest, something you'd expect to see as a set backdrop for a Halloween horror comic. He doesn't have much time to ponder his predicament before bodiless voices - speaking English, of course, since the Silver Age also specified that English is the universe's most efficient language, though I can't find the reference at present - start mocking his features and force him to sing love songs. Joe, using the astounding mental prowess that he has demonstrated throughout the story thus far, concludes that they're women - or, at least "real dolls" - and asks for them to show themselves after they cover him with kisses. Fair enough, they turn on their visibility and--



Yes, it turns out that what the Great Gizmo Machine is is a dimensional portal to the World of the Bobblehead People, also known as the 432nd Dimension for some unfathomable reason. He's taken before a bobblehead court where he encounters the missing Professor and discovers that the bobbleheads are naturally concerned about the Great Gizmo Machine being a potential invasion path into their world. So what do they do? Fortify in expectation of an invasion? Attack through the machine themselves? Kill the two Earthlings to keep a lid on the knowledge as best they can?

No! They let the Professor return to Earth because he promises to destroy the machine - and they've got to believe him for some reason or another - but they *need* Joe to stay behind! Joe, displaying the intellectual acumen that propelled him to the highest strata of Earthly culture, assumes that the bobbleheads are in desperate need of a leader with a neck that doesn't look like it's as liable to snap as a toothpick with a boulder balanced on the tip. It comes off, in a way - he is needed, as a janitor. The only man of Earth, trapped in an crazy alien dimension full of walking, talking bobbleheads half his size. THERE BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD GO WE!

Really - this was a simplistic story that might well have been written during the course of a coffee break, possibly when Unknown Worlds realized that the printer's deadline was coming up and it had nine pages to fill. What I do know that it didn't live up to its own hype; how could it have? The "surprise of a lifetime?" If this story had shown up in, say, Analog or Fantasy & Science Fiction, that would've been the surprise of a lifetime. This, is just... filler. That's absolutely what it is. Extruded Entertainment Product, meant for a quick bit of timefilling and later discarding. These stories weren't meant to last - they were meant to get the customer's twelve cents.

And, really, the whole reason I bought Unknown Worlds #37 was because I was fascinated by the idea of what the Great Gizmo Machine could be, and I paid a damn sight more than twelve cents for it - so even fifty years later, it's still doing the work it set out to. That, in itself, is worth recognizing.

Also, I totally want one of those Jet "Rocket" Space Ships now. I mean, only five bucks and it comes with a disintegrator gun and bomb bay, all the better to teach those goddamn aliens to fear the United States Air Force! How can you go wrong?

ANDREW'S RATING: 2/5 - the out-there craziness is just so earnest. It's almost endearing.

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