Science Fiction Though the Decades

Friday, June 29, 2012

1956: Three Novelettes (Lesser, Milton)

Decent grab bag of three free sci-fi tales (3/5)

I was first introduced to Milton Lesser by reading Deadly Sky (1971) by Ivar Jorgensen. I didn't know it at the time, but this was one of Lesser's many, many, many pseudonyms. I found Deadly Sky to be a straight forward novel with little or no punches pulled. It had a fairly good plot, with a fairly decent cast... it was a fair novel in general. At the time, I couldn't find any other work by Jorgensen, but only recently did I come across Lesser's obsession with pseudonyms. Having been known for his plethora of short fiction in the 1950s (157 pieces written, forty-four of which were written in 1956), I sought out some of his free work on Project Gutenberg. I've hotlinked the titles of each story to its respective link in Project Guternberg.


A World CalledCrimson” (3/5) is a novelette (≈ 14,100 words) published in 1956 in the September edition of Amazing Stories. The author is cited as Darius John Granger, a pseudonym for the prolific 50s shortstory writer Milton Lesser (birth name Stephen Marlow). Comprising fifteen pages of the magazine, this opening story has a juvenile feel to it with two child-cum-adult protagonists who hold reign over a planet they were deserted on. With imagination and wonder bubbling, they quickly make the planet of Crimson all their own… or all that their imagination can conjure up.

The Star of Fire is stuck by an asteroid and disables all of the lifeboats. Robin and Charlie are running through the corridors in a fit of playfulness when they alone are saved from the soon-to-be airless spacecraft. The fully functioning miniature of The Star of Fire launches them into space to automatically seek out a habitable planet. Landing on a green-tinted beach, the childish duo magically summon pirates coming ashore, red Indians to ward the pirates off, and an elevator to ascend the cliff face.

The children name the planet Crimson after Robin’s favorite color, which will later be renamed Aladdin’s Planet by explorers. Crimson lies,

…almost exactly at the heart of the galaxy, where matter is spontaneously created to sweep out in long cosmic trails across the galaxy, is the home not merely of spontaneous creation of matter, but spontaneous formed creation, with any human psyche capable of doing the handiwork of God (Section 9, para. 1).

After twenty years of peaceful existence, the two have dreamt up wonders they have found within the pages of the One Volume Encyclopedic History: “Phoenicians, Greeks, Mayas, Royal Navymen, Submariners, mermaids and Cyclopes” along with “Polynesians, Maoris, Panamanians and Dutchmen” in addition to the eclectic mix of “Indians, farmers, Russians, Congressmen and Ministers” (Section 12, para. 1). They are able to create but they cannot destroy what they have manifested: people, monsters, food, environment, etc.

Only when a ship of explores descend to the planet are their skills first witnessed by outsiders. Captain Purcell sends his obdurate crewman Glaudot to scout the area which they see is inhabited by a plethora of earth-based myths. The Indians kill one crewman with arrows but the arrival of Robin halt their aggressions. When Robin insists the she created the Indians, Glaudot wants her to prove her ability to conjure up a piano. When the piano is manifested before his eyes, Glaudot then asks for a copy of his dead crewman to be made. With this feat easily conjured, the obdurate man eyes grandeur in the galaxy with the unlimited resources offered by Robin: “Infinite wealth from creativity out of nothing—and eternal life by copying our bodies each time we die” (Section 24, para. 20)!

Playing on her naivety, Glaudot elopes to land of the Cyclops with Robin so he can begin to build his empire and plot his taking over the galaxy. However, Captain Purcell intuits the man’s evil plans and sends his crew out to hunt him down. The news of Robin’s capture reaches Charlie who joins forces with the ship’s crew to hunt down Glaudot, rescue Robin, and staunch the avarice which Crimson has inspired.


A Place in the Sun” (4/5) is a novelette (≈ 7,800 words) published in 1956 in the October edition of Amazing Stories. The author is cited as C.H. Thames, another pseudonym for the Milton Lesser. Comprising twenty-two pages of the magazine, the story starts off with a burst of detail regarding a ship in peril, the attempt to contact the authorities through SOS, the engagement of rescue, and a last minute power play. Sadly, unlike the heat built up in the near-sun spaceship, the plot’s steam loses its heat in the last few paragraphs… not with a bang, but a whimper.

Captain Stapleton is aboard the maiden voyage, along with President and his cabinet of the Galactic Federation, of the starship The Glory of the Galaxy. The ship approaches within twenty million miles of the sun but is unable to divert course, so an SOS is sent through the subspace to the one place that could, just possibly, help the ill-fated ship:
…the one unofficial, extra-legal office at the Hub of the Galaxy. Lacking official function, the office had no technical existence and was not to be found in any Directory of the Hub… Their sole job was to maintain liaison with a man whose very existence was doubted by most of the human inhabitants of the Galaxy but whose importance could not be measured by mere human standards in those early days when the Galactic League was becoming the Galactic Federation.

The name of the man with whom they maintained contact was Johnny Mayhem (para. 19-20).
Johnny Mayhem is a bodiless “elan” capable of inhabiting a dead body in static in order to carry out a risky mission. He’s also able to possess a living body, but it’s never been tried!
[Mayhem]… had been chased from Earth a pariah and a criminal seven years ago, who had been mortally wounded on a wild planet deep within the Sagittarian Swarm, whose life had been saved—after a fashion—by the white magic of that planet. Mayhem, doomed now to possible immortality as a bodiless sentience… doomed to wander eternally because it could not remain in one body for more than a month without body and elan perishing (para. 133).
Johnny is shifted into the living body of Secret Serviceman Larry Grange, once a coward to face the ship’s impending doom but now, against his own volition, attempting to save the ship single-handedly. Johnny plans to counteract the mutinous behavior of the crew, led by veteran space Technician Third Class Ackerman Boone. Where the captain wishes to shift the ship into subspace, exposing everyone to 20 Gs of strain, the mutinous crew aim to disable the subspace control board, board the lifeboats, and escape the fiery fate of solar immolation. 

With the temperature on board wising to 150 degrees Fahrenheit, sweat stream, blisters form, and vision blurs. Johnny’s plan will see his Larry-bodied self approach even greater heat in order to save the men on board and divert the mutinous crew from destroying the ship, its crew, and Johnny… so that he can live another day for another mission.


My Shipmate—Columbus” (3/5) is a novelette (≈ 8,900 words) published in 1956 in the October edition of Amazing Stories (actually, in the same issue as “A Place in the Sun”). The author is cited as Stephen Wilder, yet another pseudonym for the prolific 50s shortstory writer Milton Lesser. Comprising twenty-five pages of the magazine, the story is a historical one rather than a space-faring one. According to Wikipedia, Milton Lesser used to write fictional autobiographies of Christopher Columbus (I guess everyone needs a hobby). While this isn’t a fictional autobiographical account of Columbus’s journeys, it does paint the man in an unorthodox manner.

Danny Jones challenges historical fact in his history class, with the professor and other students giving him ever so slight banter for his devious historical opinions. He merely wanted to posit that maybe Christopher Columbus wasn’t the spectacular he’s been made out to be. That same day, as he leaves his history class at Whitney University in Virginia, he receives a letter announcing the death of his uncle in St. Augustine, Florida.

Danny wasn’t particularly close to his Uncle Averill, but it seems the iconoclastic uncle has left him a machine, of sorts. The uncle had been known for his “secret machine and strange disappearances,” (Section 4, para. 1) but you’d never suspect that he’d keep it locked within a bank vault in his basement! The lawyer handling the inheritance, Tartalion, gives Danny the key to the basement, in which Danny discovers, “A small case… the interior of the trunk was larger than he had expected. A man could probably curl up in there quite comfortably. But the case—the case looked exactly like it ought to house a tape-recorder” (Section 4, para. 7).
Along with the tape recorder and steamer trunk, his uncle has left little nuggets of knowledge for Danny to follow through his life: “They're teaching you too much at school, son. Too many wrong things, too many highfalutin' notions, too much just plain old hogwash” (Section 2, para. 13), “Too much so-called knowledge which isn't knowledge at all, but hearsay” (Section 3, para. 13), and “Don't let them pull the wool over your eyes. History is propaganda—from a winner's point of view” (Section 3, para. 14).

But what Danny doesn’t expect is a highfalutin story of a time travel machine within that man-sized steamer trunk. Danny curses himself to become gullible to his uncle’s tales and ensconces himself within the trunk, keeping in mind his uncles only instructions: “…you got to have the proper attitude. You've got to believe in yourself, and not in all the historical fictions they give you” (Section 6, para. 1).

When Danny finds his faith in not having faith, he opens his eyes to find himself in another man’s body… the body of Don Martin Pinzón, commander of the caravel Niña in Columbus’s three-ship exploration fleet to challenge the notion that the world is flat and that “Here be dragons” doesn’t apply to the westerly route across the Atlantic Ocean.


  1. Interesting, I'll have to head over to Gutenberg and read those. I read some of his on there years ago, but not these.

    Part of the reason for the pseudonyms was that an author's name could only appear once in a given magazine, hence two pseudonyms in one issue. The other part... well, there was still a big social stigma around SF, and Lesser's magazines of choice (Amazing, Imagination) were considered low-brow even by SF fans.

  2. :D I've reviewed a few other Gutenberg stories on Amazon, but with this self-combined Lesser collection, I hope to collate a few more. (Lesser's pseudonym factory reminds me of Silverberg's sci-fi and "erotica" dichotomy... none of which have ever appealed to me. Joachim still has hope for me, I reckon.)

    1. At one point I was going through Gutenberg and reviewing its SF stuff, never got around to posting any of them (or writing more than a half dozen). Keep at it, there's a lot of good stuff to read/review in there... and a lot of junk, but so goes Sturgeon's Law.

      Silverberg is a very specific taste... IMO his best is Downward To The Earth. It's thought-provoking and very well done, but even then, it has a hard time standing up against something from the same era like Dangerous Visions or The Lathe of Heaven... Silverberg's much more subdued. The mind-blowing experience is less visceral.

    2. Downward to the Earth is amazing.... Except or the only scene with the female character -- Silverberg is then up to his normal misogynist self. But the rest (excpet for perhaps the very end) is brilliant.

      I found a few of Lesser's works on Project Gutenberg as well a few days ago -- I was tempted to review them.... thanks for stealing them ;) haha

  3. Forgot to mention... Ivar Jorgensen was a pseudonym also used by Randall Garrett, Robert Silverberg, and Paul Fairman during the '50s. It had this inane history where Fairman came up with it at the same time Garret & Silverberg had some collaborations printed under Ivar Jorgenson. Confused editors kept switching or misspelling the similar names, and at one point it was one magazine's "house name" while Fairman was trying to make it his personal pseudonym.

    Your pointless SF trivia for today.

    1. Just imagine if we were still in an era where we couldn't easily check who was who.... And then the shock knowing that your favorite author had twenty other books that you hadn't read yet (not really knowing that works published by a famous author under a pseudonym are usually crud).