Science Fiction Though the Decades

Sunday, November 9, 2014

1975: Caution! Inflammable! (Scortia, Thomas N.)

Forgotten curiosity of a curious but unremarkable sort (3/5)

Few readers know of Scortia but if they do know the name, they probably affiliate it with The Glass Inferno (1974), a disaster novel that was made into a Hollywood movie titled The Towering Inferno in the same year. He typically writes novels in collaboration with one other more famous science fiction author—Frank M. Robinson, notable for his solo novel The Dark Beyond the Stars (1991). I don’t think any of the other four collaborative novels proved to be as popular as The Glass Inferno.

Eventually, while Robinson made a name for himself, it seems like Scortia has been largely forgotten about. After reading Scortia’s sophomore solo novel—Earthwreck! (1974)—I was intrigued by its (1) unique balance of ham-fisted writing (you’re right, Joachim), (2) long passages of scientific indulgence, (3) gay innuendos, and (4) curious characters. I really wanted to see if Scortia’s short stories could reflect the interesting traits of Earthwreck! And, indeed, there are some scraps morsels which stir the mind in all four regards.

In Theodore Sturgeon’s introduction to the collection, he makes two guarantees: (1) “there will be stories that you will not like” and (2) “there will be stories that will bowl you over” (xi). On the first guarantee, he’s certainly right there; many of the stories feel flat, petty, whimsical or predictable. On the latter guarantee, some stories (the 4-star stories) feel smart, but definitely not enough to bowl me over.

Rather than lament on the analogies, metaphors or reflections on human nature of each story, I’ll synopsize the stories for the sake of archival and research… this post is already 1,900+ words anyway.


Caution! Inflammable! (1955) – 3/5 – Perched high above the city, a phoenix makes its nest on the top of a skyscraper. With curiosity piqued, one reporter ventures up to the phoenix and its makeshift nest to understand its motivation and gain an understanding of its existence. Indeed, it will be reborn from its own ashes; indeed, it can predict the future; but no, it needs to help for ignition from the friendly newspaper journalist. 3 pages

Sea Change (1956) – 3/5 – George and his wife sit next to Bart while George lectures on and on about the hazards of “those robot ships” (15) which are inhuman and pilot passengers to Mars. Meanwhile, Bart sits at the bar, himself being a pilot who ships men to Mars, converses with his love interest in real time across space; he ignores George’s ignorant comments and concentrates, with his excellent capacity, on saving his lonesome girl from destruction by collision with a ship. 15 pages

Though a Sparrow Fall (1965) – 4/5 – The subjective so-called answer to life has been quested after for many ages and by many people through many disciplines. At a university interdepartmental get-together, Gerten, a biochemist, says he has found that same answer to life by studying the content analysis of the human nucleotides. Perhaps it’s not so much an answer as it is a message written by someone or something. 5 pages

John Robert and the Dragon’s Egg (1957) – 3/5 – Out in that there swamp, the little rascal John Robert proudly comes home with an egg of some sort, which he duly reckons it to be a dragon egg. In the coming days during its incubation, Grandpa Riley sees to the egg’s needs. When the beast hatches, neither can believe their luck and Aunt Bess wants nothing to do with the cloak and dagger routine… that is until she and Uncle Ben witness its grandeur with dollar signs in their heads. 13 pages

The Last War (1975) – 3/5 – The pacific otter-like alien race which has visited Earth requests one thing: an area with which they can emigrate unless their species dies out in the next hundred years. though giving them Tasmania is a kind gesture, their reproduction cycle scares the future of humanity. Gifted with limited telepathy, the otter-like race can communicate only between sexes and are incapable of violence or lying. They depart Earth after leaving a gift of their own. 7 pages

When You Hear the Tone (1971) – 3/5 – Eighty-two years old, convinces he’s dying even when the doctor says he’s sound, and cooped up in a room where, below, the vultures of his family wait for his to die, Mark Fleiker is full of hate. Dialing on his phone, Mark repeatedly gets the same voice on the line but from earlier and earlier times than his 1970. Convinced he’s in love, he calls the girl again and again until he hears the voice of Alexander Graham Bell. Hate becomes love. 14 pages

Woman’s Rib (1972) – 2/5 – Plain and well-aged, Dr. Ellen Marsden takes pride in two things: a) her work in biochemistry and b) her incredibly attractive, much younger suitor, Frank. Though frail and weary, Frank is at the center of her personal and sexual life, and he’s actually the center of her private professional life. His charms and her frailty are apparent at a party where Frank woos the guests and Ellen makes the rounds while she’s feeling more and more tired. One wallflower catches both their eyes. 13 pages

Morality (1969) – 4/5 – A fledgling king of a land once came across a monster starving and dying. Capitalizing on the opportunity, the king rescued but imprisoned the fearsome beast. Without the tacit fear of the beast, the king would not wield the power he now has; without the supply of human flesh, the beast would not be able to continue living. Their relationship is tense, but the princess has an idea in mind for the monster, who only seeks to be with his own kind. 13 pages

The Worm in the Rose (1972) – 2/5 – Miffed by his girlfriend/s emotional games, John stomps off to the park’s public restroom, where, at the long urinal, a man stares him down. The stranger’s touch and eager mouth excite young Johnnie. With the strange man knelt in front of him, the police bust the scene, both men claiming it was their first time. The expresses worry about his wife while Johnnie about the military police, but the there are scarier repercussions for Johnnie at night. 8 pages

Flowering Narcissus (1973) – 3/5 – Honcho is a man’s man; he’s impressed with his muscles, rides a hog, and shamelessly a womanizer. He’s also hard up for cash so enlists for an experiment where he sleeps for a week, only to awake more than a century later. Attended by an android because all other humans are dead, CTX-25, and androgynous android, soils Honcho with his every desire: food, drink, a bike, drugs, and the shapeliest woman he’s ever laid eyes upon. 15 pages

The Icebox Blonde (1960) – 4/5 – On a business trip from England to America, Mr. Foringham is continually disgusted by the uncivilized and barbarous behavior of the Yankees. His wife adds insult to injury by actually socializing with one young man. Most of all, Mr. Foringham can’t believe what the supermarket has for sale:  a frozen woman; however, he finds himself repeatedly in the store glancing down at the body while his wife and her fancies are away. 14 pages

The Bomb in the Bathtub (1957) – 2/5 – Sidney Coleman has a very unique problem—a hydrogen bomb has manifested itself in his bathtub and won’t stop singing. Specializing in odd complaints, the private investigator named Caedman Wickes takes the case believing there always exists some sort of internal logic. When he sees the bomb in situ, Caedman deduces he needs a number of things including rigged dice, newspapers, and a bassoon recording. 15 pages

Judas Fish (1970) – 4/5 – In the deep ocean of the Kuwaka Deep, Jefferson Boyer is cooped up alone for three months while directing probes toward schools of fish. With the billions of people on Earth in 2000 nearly starving yet always rioting, he must direct the schools into pressurized storage in order to feed the millions. But just outside his shelter swim the over-sized and organized squid, stealing his prey and eyeing him through the thick glass window. 14 pages

Fall Out One (1972) – 3/5 – Soured to the point of constant dethatched depression by his experience in the Korean War and being passes up for promotion, Major Jim Archer will let nothing change what he wants to keep—his family. However, in the living room, a dead boy is sprawled on the floor pooled in blood. His wife is frantic and his feeble daughter cowers, but Jim is cool. He assesses the situation and sees exactly what needs to be done. 8 pages

By the Time I Get to Phoenix (1972) – 4/5 – Simple and sexless, a lone man in the desert whittles away time reflecting on an unfortunate war accident which took his manhood. Suddenly from outside, an explosion rocks him to his knees. When he visits the crash site, a naked female with malformed limbs mimics his speech and penetrates his thoughts. Regrets of sexlessness and feelings of love for the similarly sexless being pervades his thoughts as the woman ages, dies, and morphs. 9 pages

Gee, Wurlitzer! It’s a Dad! (1971) – 3/5 – Lennie Parsons grew up right thanks to his mama and became an upright moralist named Leonard Parsons. Morality his concern yet programming his job, Leonard programs the ANAVIC computer with the necessary data and some of his own reading material. When he has qualms with a pretty girl and her popularity, Leonard lament so the computer who makes a decision based on the logic fed to it. Given a gallon of one liquid and a thimbleful of another, Leonard has the answer. 14 pages

Old, Old Death in New, New Venice (1975) – 2/5 – An Earth poet of certain repute, Conrad travels to terraformed Mars, and specifically to New Venice where he’s invited to a soiree thrown by a contessa. His words of pleasure and pain, deriving the former from the latter, has sparked admiration among many of the revelers, including the ugly disfigured contessa and the cherubic boy Demetrios. When invited to partake in the very works of his words he lauds, he clams up at the indecency. 19 pages

The Premier’s Lady (1975) – 3/5 – Though the fanciful wife of the Premier, some things are still left to be desired. The Lady’s age-old fling with Peter, now the Premier’s press secretary, is marred by her accident of crashing the Porsche and having Peter’s leg amputated. Her relationship with the Premier is marred, too, after witnessing an assassination attempt where metallic fragments entered his skull. Now a changed man, he doesn’t appear to be the same man she once married. 14 pages

The Goddess of the Cats (1973) – 4/5 – Miguel cherishes his roots as an Aztec commonfolk, but he makes amends in California as a muralista as a building complex. By night, he makes loves to Senora Martin; by day he tiles the mural of a mermaid. Proud of his work, he shuns additional work of labor and oversight pushed by his employer Duchotte. Angered by his unwillingness, Duchotte covers up Miguel’s work with brick and marble, only to be destroyed by Miguel’s prideful wrath and lineage. 16 pages

The Weariest River (novelette, 1973) – 4/5 – Immortality is finally realized by the genius of Malcolm while researching for a pharmaceutical company. Little did he know that the gears of consumerism and the corporate world are very well oiled; his invention is pawed off to an insurance company and becomes a dominate world force. Malcolm is over three hundred years old and, like his body, the world is decaying but refuses to die, Malcolm, however, knows the secret of real death, for when the time is right. 41 pages


  1. Great review. I have a couple of Scortia's stories, the only one from this collection was "Though a Sparrow Fall." He rarely made it into the top-shelf magazines in the '50s, but then he had something slated for the unpublished Last Dangerous Visions... definitely a forgotten author.

  2. Nice review -- By the Time I Get to Phoenix (1972) sounds really really intriguing.