Group Read 27: The Big Book of Science Fiction
Story #24 of 107: “Let Me Live in a House” by Chad Oliver
Now that we’ve reached the 1950s in our group discussion of The Big Book of Science Fiction, I think we should try and remember the historical context that gave birth to our genre. Although science fiction was part of the pulp magazine tradition of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, the American public at large hadn’t discovered science fiction yet. During WWII the atomic bomb and V-2 rockets opened their eyes. In the late 1940s the flying saucer mania got people thinking about invasions from space and aliens. Then around 1950 a flood of science fiction TV shows, movies, comics, paperbacks, magazines, and hardbacks hit pop culture causing the Baby Boomers to grow up with the genre. (I chronicled all this in “When Mainstream America Discovered Science Fiction.”)
Science fiction writers were in the unique position to prepare America and the world for the future. John W. Campbell Jr. was the prophet for the space age urging his disciples to write positive fiction about the potential of the future. Not everyone was so optimistic, but their stories usually appeared in the dozens of new digest size magazines that were part of a publishing boom in science fiction, which competed with Astounding Science Fiction.
“Let Me Live in a House” first appeared in the March 1954 issue of Universe Science Fiction, from a group of low-budget magazines edited by Raymond A. Palmer, former editor of Amazing Stories, and creator of Fate Magazine. Ray Palmer was major promoter of UFO fiction and nonfiction, and a legendary nut-ball in the SF world. In other words, Palmer was what Philip K. Dick called a Crap Artist. People now consider John W. Campbell a nut, but we should remember back in the 1950s and 1960s all science fiction readers were consider geeky, nerdy, nutty, and social zeroes. One reason I’m reviewing the BBofSF is to retrace the steps of my philosophical development from reading science fiction. Back then, I was a crap artist much like Jack Isidore in PKD’s Confessions of a Crap Artist, which is my favorite work by Philip K. Dick.
“Let Me Live in a House” by Chad Oliver is the kind of story I was hoping to find in The Big Book of Science Fiction — one that I hadn’t read and one that deserved to be rediscovered and preserved. Chad Oliver is an author I’ve been curious about lately. I read his The Mists of Dawn as a kid because it was part of the Winston Science Fiction series, and I reread that novel last year when I got nostalgic for those old YA SF novels. Recently, I was quite taken with his story “Transformer” and wrote about it in “From Let’s Pretend Literature.” Now with “Let Me Live in a House” I’m feeling a need to read more Oliver. Luckily, several of his novels and collections are available at Amazon for $1.99 each for the Kindle editions.
Chad Oliver is little known today, even Wikipedia doesn’t say much about him. Usually, when people mention him, they mention he was anthropologist. I did find this nice “Annotated Bibliography and Guide” to his work.
Oliver explores two major science-fictional themes in “Let Me Live in a House.” The first is about the brutality of space. This story was written well before Sputnik and the creation of NASA. I was impressed that Oliver predicted that only people with the Right Stuff would become astronauts. He also speculated that space would be psychologically hostile to humans, and the premise of this tale is astronauts will need to take their culture with them to survive. We’re shown four astronauts on Ganymede, living in twin track houses, with two married couples playing neighbors and best friends. This opening reminds me of the kind of stories Philip K. Dick was writing in the 1950s, where people live inside artificial delusions.
The two couples, Gordon and Helen Collier, and Bart and Mary Walters, have been conditioned to think they are living an ordinary suburban life of playing cards and watching TV. The men occasionally monitor conditions on Ganymede from a hidden room but they try not to think about where they are. Gordon is starting to crack, becoming aware that he’s pretending, becoming more and more paranoid. Then one night they hear a strange noise while playing cards:
Gordon Collier walked nervously out of the room, followed by Barton. He clenched his fists, feeling the clammy sweat in the palms of his hands, and fought to keep the fear from surging up within him. They walked into a small hall and Gordon pressed a button. A section of the wall slid smoothly back on oiled runners, and the two men walked into the white, brightly lighted equipment room. Gordon kept his hand steady and flipped on the outside scanners. He couldn’t see a thing. He tried the tracer screen, and it was blank. Barton tried the radio, on the off chance that someone was trying to contact them. There was silence. They checked the radar charts for the past hour. They were all quite normal—except the last one. That one had a streak on it, a very sharp and clear and unmistakable streak. It was in the shape of an arc, and it curved down in a grimly familiar way. It started far out in space and it ended. Outside—outside in the ice and the rocks and the cold. “Probably a meteor,” Barton suggested. “Probably,” Gordon agreed dubiously, and made a note to that effect in the permanent record. “Well, what else could it have been?” Barton challenged. “Nothing,” Gordon admitted. “It was a meteor.” They swung the wall shut again, covering the tubes and screen and coils with flowered wallpaper and Gainsborough’s Blue Boy. They returned to the living room, where their wives still sat around the card table waiting for them. The room was as comfortable as ever, and the tri-di set was on again. It was all just as they had left it, Gordon thought—but it was different. The room seemed smaller, constricted, isolated. The temperature had not changed, but it was colder. Millions and millions of miles flowed into the room and crawled around the walls…. “Just a meteor, I guess,” Gordon said. They went on with their game for another hour, and then Barton and Mary went home to bed. Before they left, they invited Gordon and Helen to visit them the next night.
As Gordon becomes undone we slowly learn how Oliver predicts living in space will be a psychic burden. This reminds me of the brilliant story by Edmond Hamilton, “What’s It Like Out There?” that came out in 1952, two years before this story. Joachim Boaz has a review of that story which is part of a series about SF that shows the brutality of living in space. The 1950s was a time when psychiatry was a popular topic at parties and in fiction, so this makes sense, and besides Oliver was an anthropologist. Space was still a huge unknown, so such stories are an obvious speculation. However, they weren’t common in the genre because most science fiction fans were gung-ho to explore space. These were not the kind of stories that John W. Campbell Jr. would publish.
I grew up in the 1960s readily accepting the faith of a high frontier, a true believer in SPACE. As a kid, I loved Heinlein’s 1950 novel about Ganymede, Farmer in the Sky. Heinlein saw space like Americans in the 19th century thought of the West. His novel starkly contrasts with “Let Me Live in a House,” and had all the positive sentimentality of Little House on the Prairie. I’m not sure I could I would have enjoyed reading “Let Me Live in a House” when I was a teen.
Oliver adds a second SF theme in “Let Me Live in a House,” that was far more common, that of first contact. He applies that same kind of fear and paranoia he did about exploring space to it. It turns out the noise Gordon and Bart hear is a spaceship, and a few nights later there is a knock on their door. This reminds me of the classic Fredric Brown story, “Knock,” based on the the idea of the last man on Earth sits in a room alone and hears a knock upon the door.
When Gordon opens the door a man that looks like the portrait of Bart’s grandfather comes in. Of course, it’s an alien, and we eventually learn it projects a human image because its physical features are two horrible for the humans to witness. Gordon must escape this illusion and overcome the alien in a battle of logic.
In my post about “Prott” by Margaret St. Clair, I talked about the problem SF writers have with first contact stories. Oliver deals with those problems in a number of ways. The alien obviously has great mental powers, even telepathy, and can communicate in English. And we don’t get to know the alien because it disguises itself as a human. Gordon does get to see what the alien really looks like, which is so gruesome that it drives him mad. Remember how Greek philosophers said if we could see the face of God we’d go mad?
Oliver is predicting we won’t be able to live in space, and that we really won’t be able to handle aliens — other than our tried and true method of dealing with xenophobia. Is the reason why this story isn’t well known because of its negative attitude towards space exploration? And did the VanderMeers anthologize it because of its contrarian take? What’s interesting is three of their stories, “Prott,” “Let Me Live in a House,” and “The Microscopic Giants” were first anthologized in Science Fiction Terror Tales edited by Groff Conklin. I wonder if they read that anthology? We have to give both Conklin and the VanderMeers credit for mining stories out of the lesser science fiction magazines. In 1954, Astounding, Galaxy, and F&SF were the big three, but there were a couple dozen other science fiction magazines coming out at that time. Have anthologists read them all?
The science fiction short stories that appeared in the 1950s were ones I read in old anthologies I checked out of libraries in the 1960s. From now on, as we progress through the BBofSF, we’ll be reading stories I consumed over the last sixty years, as well as ones I missed. It’s time to reevaluate everything that went into the evolution of my thinking.
Collectively, I’d say people still believe in the John W. Campbell view of the future. We’re still gung-ho on space exploration. But there’s still a chance for Chad Oliver’s speculation to be valid. We might not survive space psychologically or biologically. But we should also ask: Why do we want to go into space? Did the romance of science fiction impregnate those desires into us? We have a lot of stories to read that might help us answer those questions?
James Wallace Harris, 10/3/21