1950s, 1952, 1955, anthology/collection, Dwight V. Swain, Harold W. McCauley, Imagination, Imaginative Tales, invasion!, mind control, pirates!, pulp, robots!, science fiction, short fiction, totalitarian state
I seem to be on some random track finding famous science fiction people who are from places I’ve lived at. First it was finding out E.E. “Doc” Smith lived in the same town I grew up in (though he died about twenty years earlier). Then it was finding out Ed Emshwiller was from Lansing (where I lived for nine years), and he met his wife Carol while going to the University of Michigan. Now I find out that Dwight V. Swain was born around twenty minutes from where I live now. Small world.
So, Dwight Swain isn’t a name that resonates anything. He was a late pulp-era writer who wrote thirty-odd science fiction stories, most for Amazing, Fantastic Adventures, Imagination, or Imaginative Tales, along with various westerns and adventure stories. I ended up with two of his old novellas by picking up a second-hand Armchair Fiction double; I knew nothing of Swain before now, the only thing I’d read of his was a 1940s short-story on Project Gutenberg. But I have a soft spot for pulp, so let’s see how it goes, shall we?
A few notes on the Armchair Fiction aesthetics. First, it’s a double; even though it’s just two novellas one after the other and not a dos-a-dos double, there’s two covers so it counts as a double. The publisher’s trying real hard to evoke the old Ace Doubles, with an alternating red and blue spine, a little “AF” logo and book number, and even a cast of characters; points for nostalgia right there. And re-using the original magazine illustrations for the covers was a great move in my book. These are “extra large paperback editions,” also known as the 8″x5 1/4″ trade paperback for normal folks, and sell for $12.95… which seems steep for a 200-page trade but is on par with other pulp reprints.
Terror Station (Imaginative Tales, September 1955)
The teeming mass of humanity crammed into Central Project Area seethed like churned water. Shouts of rage rang out… roars of indignation, women’s high-voice protests, the fear-straught cries of frightened children.
Carl Stone is head of base security at a top top-secret project in the Southwestern desert; returning back from a trip to D.C., he finds things have changed. Such as, when driving through the desert, he bumps into an alien tentacle monster chasing down a woman. Stone beats it off, but not before the girl dies, and the MPs arrive to find him crouched over her ragged body. Instead of believing this incredible tale, his closest friends are hostile and paranoid, calling him a Communist traitor and attempting to have him execution. He gets out of this, too, of course, so he can undergo psychiatric evaluation… at the hands of his old flame, Reva. Who determines he’s gone crazy.
Carl Stone isn’t going to let that stand, and sets out to uncover what’s going on, and then tries to set things right. It turns out the base is under siege by these nebulous tentacle aliens and their robot drones; through mind control, they pacified the base inhabitants, and switched tasks from “undefined top-secret” project to “build the aliens a giant weird tower.”
Swain is a pretty good at writing pulp; maybe a bit heavy on adverbs, and he has some problems with apostrophes for possessives, but he pens an engaging tale. The best pulp stories are florid, fluid streams of constant action obscuring their shallow nature, offering thrills, non-stop adventure, a sense of mystery or of the unknown. Terror Station succeeds on that front; we start in media res with an alien attack, and the narrative never slows up. What’s going on, and the reasons behind things, are mysteries that the narrative unearths over time.
And while Swain uses stock SF tropes, he does a few interesting things with them. At one point, some characters mock Carl Stone for his “bug-eyed monsters attack story;” in actuality they’re oily dark things with tentacles, and while they never leave the “evil alien invaders” role, their explanation and goals are interesting at least. Most pulp was science-light; this is no exception, though there’s just enough here to fake it, and key developments revolve around encephalitis and the inert gas krypton.
The Weapon From Eternity (Imagination, September 1952)
Jarl clenched his fists. He thought: Yes. Ungo will always go where you go, Jarl Corvett. He proved that when he left one arm on Pluto for you. That’s what’s wrong with loyalty. It traps you, tears you two ways. Because whatever road you take, good men, good friends, must die.
Weapon From Eternity is one of those good old-fashioned “free pirates against the evil empire” stories; its protagonist is Jarl Corvett, a free-world raider struggling against the tyranny of the encroaching Federation. He owes a debt to a captured scientist named Wassreck, and decides to pay that debt by capturing the Federation Commissioner’s daughter Ylana and demanding a hostage exchange. Things don’t go as planned; Jarl and his crew are captured, then escape, then find Ylana on board their escape craft, bearer of terrible news. It turns out Wassreck’s gone rogue—so Ylana says, at least—and has provided the Federation a new death-weapon. (Yes, it involves robots at some point.) With this device in the hands of Ylana’s power-mad father, the fate of the free worlds will be sealed. Wassreck’s daughter (and Jarl’s girl) Sais tells a different story: how her father’s infiltrated the Federation to gain a power source for his newfound robot army…
If you haven’t figured out from the baroque names, Swain throws in a lot of bizarre pulp terminology without much description: when the reptilian Pevod calls Jarl a Chitza, Jarl stabs him with a long-bladed telonium fighting skrii. I love that naive enthusiasm of pulp SF—lots of alien races living on planets we now know are inhospitable, lots of vague attempts at world texture through weird names and undefined italicized nomenclature. It works, in a dopey way, and Swain’s narrative blazes along at such a blinding pace that the action draws your eyes away.
Again, Swain demonstrates a good hand at pulp adventure; the story is a wild ride with various action sequences, plus several betrayals and enough plot twists to leave you unsure of who’s telling Jarl lies and who’s telling him the truth. It has a running theme of loyalty, something Jarl ponders often, and it plays a large part in the finale. There’s an interesting, if underdeveloped, primitive world on the other side of Venus. Also, robots. I didn’t notice as many grammatical errors; however, Jarl has the bad habit of mistreating his female acquaintances, which was disconcerting. At first I expected the ending to involve Jarl torn between his love interests, but as it turned out, he treats Sais like property and tends to ignore Ylana.
The Bottom Line
Whether or not these are “good” depends on your reading predilections. They’re entertaining pulp tales, and comparatively well done—Swain also wrote Techniques of the Selling Writer, and judging from these novellas, he knew what he was talking about. Here’s a guy who knew how to pen a compelling pulp story, and I’m surprised he didn’t write more (e.g., become more well known.) “Fiction,” he wrote in his Techniques, “…creates an especially vivid vicarious tension… Your job as a writer is to control and manipulate this tension.” If you like vivid, visceral tension, these will fulfill. But they’re not going to change your opinion on pulp SF.
I liked Terror Station well enough; a fast-paced SF action potboiler that blazes away, entertaining if a bit simple—it is a bug-eyed monster story, albeit one without bug-eyed monsters. The Weapon From Eternity I liked a bit more, if only because it took place in space and not on Earth. It had more of the bells and whistles you’d expect from 1950s science fiction fluff—giant robots, space empires, death rays, freeworld raiders—and despite the abundance of undefined words and Jarl’s weird misogyny, I found it a pleasant old-school throwback.