Although Fredric Brown's novels and short story collections have made only intermittent and often obscure appearances in print since his death in 1973, rare is the science fiction fan who hasn't unwittingly stumbled across his inimitable work at some point. Brown really is the best mid-century science fiction writer you don't know you've read. And we're going to give you a crash course in his work.
Top image: Detail from cover of Marvel Comics adaptation of "Arena," via Diversions of the Groovy Kind
Brown's short stories are staples of anthologies edited with an eye towards the quality of the stories instead of the marquee value of the byline. Perhaps you've read his proto-steampunk story "The Waveries," which Phillip K Dick called "…the most significant - startlingly so - story SF has yet produced." Maybe it was "Arena," voted by the SFWA as one of the 20 best SF stories written before 1965, or "Knock," whose famous opening lines are often cited as the shortest horror story ever written: "The last man on Earth sat alone in a room. There was a knock at the door." Heck, even if you don't read, you must have seen that Star Trek episode from the first season where Kirk fights a lizard-like alien on a desert planet with the fate of humanity hanging in balance… If you read the credits, you'd know that it was based on "Arena."
Brown is high on the list of SF writers who deserve to be rescued from mid-century obscurity. He is perhaps the most versatile and engaging writer to ever work in the field. His stories were characterized with irrepressible dry wit and a gleefully cockeyed and cynical world view that has not lost any of its appeal. Whether he was writing silly slapstick or straight suspense (and he did both with equal aplomb) his stories were filled with engaging, offbeat, and frequently intoxicated characters and marked by outstanding storytelling, unusual narrative structures and clever plots with twist endings that have lost none of their capacity to surprise 60 years later. He loved clever wordplay and elaborate puns; his characters never pass up a friendly bar, an open bottle, or an opportunity to play a good word game. Almost all of his books are worth reading, and an impressively large number are must-reads.
He has an unusually diverse following. Ayn Rand and Mickey Spillane admired him; Robert Heinlein dedicated Stranger in a Strange Land in part to him. The excellent 1976 collection Best of Fredric Brown was edited by no less than Robert Bloch. And sharp-eyed readers of Neil Gaiman's Sandman can spot a character reading a Brown mystery novel.
In many ways, Brown was a victim of his own versatility. Many SF writers have dabbled in mysteries, and some mystery writers have tried their hands at SF. But Brown is the best genre switch-hitter of all time; to call him a mystery writer who also did a little SF (or vice-versa) doesn't do him justice. He is perhaps the only writer to have written classic-level work in both genres. Neither genre can claim him as their own, so neither did, leaving him so slip through the cracks.
Since the book market for SF was in its infancy in the 1950s, most of Brown's output was devoted to dark alleys, bludgeoned bodies, and the hard-drinking detectives that love them. While this did nothing for his SF reputation, mystery fans have no complaint. His first mystery, The Fabulous Clipjoint, won an Edgar Award and has cropped up on more than a few all-time best lists. He followed it up with some 24 mystery novels — ranging from the screwball Alice-in-Wonderland-inspired homicides of Night of the Jabberwock to the grim carny noir masterpiece Madball. He even wrote one eminently readable "mainstream" novel, The Office.
Brown only published five SF novels. But this slim output includes two inimitable classics (What Mad Universe and Martians Go Home!) and is supplemented by over 100 short stories. His shorter work as every bit as good as his novels; he remains the undisputed master of the vignette and no less five of his stories first appeared in Playboy, the highest-paying SF market of the day. In a field where most of the attention goes to whoever pumps out the biggest trilogy, Brown's canon is easily overlooked. But for sheer quality, it's one that has been seldom topped. Image: "Arena" illustration by David Schleinkofer.
Over the next few weeks, we'll be looking at the works of this overlooked writer. And I can guarantee you'll be grateful that while his books may be out of print, they are still readily available. Part one is below, and parts two and three will appear on the next two Fridays.
Part One: The Comic Novels
Fredric Brown's his first SF novel, What Mad Universe, made quite a splash. Written at a time when the locus of SF was monthly pulp magazines like Startling Stories and Amazing Stories and the cover of every issue featured a drooling BEM (bug-eyed monster) menacing a nubile babe sporting a metallic brassiere and whose contents included voluminous columns of nattering letters from acne-encrusted fans, WMU is not only a pretty nifty 50s-style alternative universe tale, but a brilliant parody of ‘50s science fiction fandom.
Protagonist Keith Winton, beleaguered editor of Surprising Stories suddenly finds himself in an alternate universe. Like all good alt-unis, this one is exactly like ours save for one small detail: in 1903, a Harvard professor attempting to repair his wife's sewing machine inadvertently invented an interstellar drive. In this universe, purple Lunarian tourists stroll through the streets, an elite order of "Space Girls" traipse about wearing you-know-what, and Earth is fighting an interstellar war with Arcturus, whose natives look like the most horrible you-know-who's imaginable. Earth's hopes rest on the shoulders of a man named Dopelle, who naturally combines the scientific acumen of Albert Einstein, the military genius of Julies Caesar, the physical prowess of Jim Thorpe, and the looks of Clark Gable.
Winton realizes that there's something odd, something mad about this universe. But he's quickly mistaken for an Arcturan spy and is so busy avoiding the authorities (who shoot Arc spies on sight) to concentrate on solving the mystery. Such is the genius of Brown that WMU works as a straight SF adventure novel, with its tongue slightly in-cheek. The brilliance of Brown's parody isn't revealed until Winton's climactic encounter with the great Dopelle. With the delicious line "…you're Doppelberg's doppelgänger!" Winton recognizes Earth's great hero as this universes' counterpart to an especially annoying SF fan named Joe Doppelberg and realizes that he, the science fiction editor, has been trapped in the sort of universe that only a SF fan would dream up.
Perhaps even better was Brown's other comic SF novel, Martians Go Home. One of the great humorous SF novels, MGH is a hilarious, and hysterically mean-spirited, romp that turns the genre's conventions on its ear. That the Martians turn out to be little green men after all is the least of the novel's jokes.
One day in 1964, approximately 1 billion non-corporeal Martians materialize on earth. Neither deadly invaders nor gentle extraterrestrials, these Martians are spectators who combine the manner of a Bronx cabbie and the maliciousness of a sadistic seventh-grader with a healthy dose of gleeful misanthropy. As one Martian puts it, "I like disliking people." They quickly infest the planet, arguing, jeering, berating, mocking, and tattling on humanity, to the point of near-complete social collapse.
They're intangible, so nothing can be done about them; everything from nuclear weapons to "… prussic acid, heavy water, holy water, and Flit," proves fruitless. They're inescapable; they materialize anywhere "from Whitehouse to cathouse." And they're indefatigable. Earth seemingly exists only for their endless amusement and disgust. As one explains it, "Why do people go to zoos on your lousy planet?"
The novel is loosely centered on science fiction writer Luke Devereaux. With the Martian invasion killing the public's appetite for stories about extraterrestrials, Luke finds himself one of the millions of unemployed-until he discovers a talent for writing Westerns. He is well on his way to writing a bestseller until one afternoon, as he is typing at full speed a Martian materializes astride his typewriter screaming, "Hi Yo Silver Away! Faster, Mack, Faster!". When he emerges from his ensuing catatonic state, he is completely normal except for one thing. He can no longer see - or hear - the Martians. Although confined to a mental hospital, he is functional, productive and hardly suffering. One doctor says, "I envy him. I hesitate to even try to cure him… he's the luckiest man on earth."
Luke realizes that everyone else hears and sees these Martians, and he becomes convinced they are a figment of his imagination, created when he was racking his brains for a story plot. He returns to the shack where he was when the Martians arrived, and tries to un-imagine the Martians. Concurrently, in Chicago a deaf janitor's "anti-extraterrestrial subatomic supervibrator" is developing full potential, and in equatorial Africa, a witch doctor is making the biggest juju in tribal history.
146 days after they came, the Martians suddenly vanish. "Nobody, but nobody, misses them or wants them back." And who can blame them?