“Dormant” (1948) by A. E. van Vogt

TITLE: “Dormant” (1948) by A. E. van Vogt
CATEGORY: Short Fiction
SUB-CATEGORY: Short Story
SOURCE: BEST SCIENCE-FICTION STORIES edited by Michael Stapleton (Hardcover, Hamlyn, 1977, ISBN: 0-600-38243-5, 750pp)
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: Startling Stories, November 1948

I was rummaging in the vaults a while ago, and I came upon an old anthology that I haven’t read in years. Well, me being me, I couldn’t resist having a browse through it, and looking at the extensive contents listing of excellent stories, the memories started flooding back.

I fondly remember this particular story as one of my favourites from that anthology. A. E. van Vogt’s short story “Dormant” was one of those Golden Age of Science Fiction classics first published in the November 1948 edition of Startling Stories, and the story isn’t one of those far-future, outer space tales, but is actually pretty much in a contemporary setting, 1948, the same year as the actual publication date of the story. Being an historian (I was actually studying history at school at the time I read it), I’ve always really liked the strong post-World War II setting of this tale, with the US destroyer Coulson and it’s crew doing mop up operations on a remote pacific island, finding hidden caches of fuel and other goodies left behind by the Japanese.

But they also find a lot more than just Japanese leftovers. There’s the perplexing mystery of a gigantic rock, weighing millions of tons, which seems to be able to move around the island at will. A rock with a surface temperature of many hundreds of degrees, and which hurls out seemingly random destructive radioactive blasts. A giant rock which is not actually a rock, but an ancient, sentient robot bomb left on Earth countless millions of years ago by some alien race in a long-forgotten interstellar war.

The sections of the story from the POV of the bomb are among my favourites. The bomb, which actually has a name (it calls itself Iilah), has been dormant for countless aeons, but has recently been reawakened by the radiation from the atomic bomb tests on Bikini Atoll in 1946. It has got only low-level life functions back, and is suffering from amnesia. It cannot see the water, air, and even the humans around it. It’s simply totally unaware of their existence. All it can see are the ships and the planes, which it takes for strange lifeforms, flying around in the “sky”. And it’s the bomb’s attempts to communicate with these “lifeforms”, to try find out where it can get more sources of atomic energy to revive it, which unwittingly causes so much destruction and kills so many people.

And of course the humans, predictable as ever, just HAVE to start shooting at the damned thing. The giant “rock” fights back, kicking their asses and destroying the Coulson, much of the other equipment, and unknowingly snuffing out dozens of lives of which it is totally unaware. The remainder of the taskforce is ordered off the island, and an atomic bomb dropped, which is, ironically, exactly what Iilah needs. The flood of energy totally reinvigorates it, and it remembers its mission. It IS a robot bomb, after all, so it promptly follows orders, explodes and knocks Earth out of its orbit and into the sun. And so the world ends in 1948. 🙂

“Dormant” must be one of the first A. E. van Vogt short stories that I read (maybe even the first) back in the day, although I’d definitely read a few of his novels before that point. It was during this timeframe that I also came across three other van Vogt short stories – “The Monster”, “Vault of the Beast” and “Black Destroyer” – in anthologies that I’d taken out from the local library, but I’m pretty sure that I read “Dormant” before any of the others. Those four stories became huge favourites of mine during my mid-to-late-teens, and kick-started my obsession for hunting down collections of van Vogt short fiction.

“Dormant” (indeed all four of these stories) has stuck in my mind these past forty years, and is one of those early gems that cemented my newly-acquired obsession as a hardcore SF fan. I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for this one.

Anyone who might want to read this story, and is finding it hard to get a copy of this anthology, can also find the story in a couple of van Vogt’s short story collections, notably Destination: Universe! and Transfinite: The Essential A.E. van Vogt.

“Divine Madness” by Roger Zelazny (1966)

TITLE: “Divine Madness” (1966)
AUTHOR: Roger Zelazny
CATEGORY: Short Story
SUB-CATEGORY: Time Travel, Temporal Paradox
SOURCE: TRIPS IN TIME edited by Robert Silverberg (Wildside Press, 1977)
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: Magazine of Horror (Summer 1966), published again in New Worlds (October 1966)

Okay, here’s my second random pick from TRIPS IN TIME, “Divine Madness” by Roger Zelazny.

A tortured man is having seizures, during which he is seemingly being forced to relive a sequence of recent events in reverse. The doctors claim that this is all unreal, and that he is enduring a strange hallucination caused by a combination of epilepsy and grief from some unspecified recent trauma or loss. But we are led to believe otherwise, that he is actually trapped in some kind of temporal paradox, during which he really is reliving these recent events in reverse.

The seizures/time reversals are getting longer, starting off at a few minutes long, then hours, then seemingly days in length. And they are rushing inexorably backwards towards the point of origin, the mysterious unnamed trauma which seems to be the cause of everything. He can watch these events, but it seems he is helpless to change any of them. The laws of cause and effect have been turned upside down, and the actions which started the chain of events would not be revealed until the end of the story.

Things begin to become clear as actions continue to unfold backwards, through the funeral, the tragic phone call in which he is informed of his girlfriend’s death in an 80mph car crash, and finally onto the initial event which caused everything, that fateful final argument between them that led to her storming off in anger. Will he be able to say those all-important words to her once he actually reaches the crucial moment, or will he once again be unable to change anything, and be forced to watch helplessly as events unfold tragically, yet again?

“Divine Madness” is at heart a tragic love story with an ingenious SF twist at it’s core. There never is any explanation given for the strange time reversal paradox, why it was happening to this guy or what was causing it. Nor is there any need for an explanation. It just IS. I know that many SF authors and readers like to have the clever stuff revealed in every detail (I can be one of those people, at times), but sometimes I do think it’s nice to leave the occasional thing unexplained and mysterious.

Zelazny’s beautiful use of language always was a cut above many of his contemporaries, and I really liked the lucid descriptions of the reversal scenes – birds flying backwards, the cigarette growing longer and unlighting back into the lighter, the Martini being undrunk back into the glass, the fountain sucking the water back into itself, the birds replacing the bits of the candy bar that they were uneating, and various other everyday minutae unfolding in the opposite direction from the one they are supposed to occur. Some of these scenes are both beautiful and ingenious.

Over the years, the “time reversal” story has become a fairly familiar gimmick in SF literature, sci-fi movies and television series. I certainly remember an entire episode of the UK comedy sci-fi television series Red Dwarf built on the idea – I wonder if the creators, Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, ever read “Divine Madness”, as I know they’re huge SF literature fans. But when Zelazny’s story was published in 1966, (twice, first in the Summer edition of Magazine of Horror, and again in the October edition of New Worlds magazine), “time reversal” was a much fresher and less clichéd SF device than it is today.

Whilst this may not be the only “time reversal” story in SF, I can only think of one other off the top of my head that tackled the subject in such an elaborate manner, the much more light-hearted and comedic “Round Trip to Esidarap”, written by Lloyd Biggle, Jr., which was published six years earlier than “Divine Madness”, as “Esidarap ot Pirt Dnuor” in the November 1960 edition of If magazine. Maybe there are other “time reversal” stories of this type out there, but I can’t think of any right now.

However one thing’s for sure. Few, if any, SF authors could write as fine an example of the form as Roger Zelazny has given us with “Divine Madness”.

Rated: 3.5 out of 5.0

“Try and Change the Past” by Fritz Leiber (1958)

TITLE: “Try and Change the Past” (1958)
AUTHOR: Fritz Leiber
CATEGORY: Short Story
SUB-CATEGORY: Time Travel, Temporal Paradox
SOURCE: TRIPS IN TIME edited by Robert Silverberg (Wildside Press, 1977)
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: Astounding, March 1958

Okay, I’ll just start picking stories at random from the two Robert Silverberg edited anthologies that I’ve been reading. The first one is from TRIPS IN TIME, and is “Try and Change the Past” by Fritz Leiber.

In the never-ending temporal conflict between the Snakes and the Spiders, one particularly shifty member of the Snakes (a well-deserved description, in the case of this dude) gets the bright idea of illicitly using his side’s time travel facilities to go back and change his own personal history, so that he doesn’t die and end up fighting in this damned war. Unfortunately for him, he ends up finding out the hard way that the four-dimensional spacetime universe has its own Law of the Conservation of Reality, and doesn’t like things to be changed, no siree.

“Try and Change the Past” is a clever and quite amusing story set during the Change War milieu of Leiber’s classic time travel/temporal paradox novel THE BIG TIME. The story was first published in the March 1958 edition of Astounding, at the same time that THE BIG TIME was being serialized in the March and April 1958 editions of Galaxy magazine.

I’ve always enjoyed Leiber’s writing, both SF and fantasy (despite the fact that I’m not a huge fan of fantasy in general), and THE BIG TIME and its Change War setting has always been a favourite of mine. This particular short story, while I certainly wouldn’t rank it among my “most favourite short stories of all time”, is still an enjoyable and worthy addition to the Change War universe.

Rated: 3.0 out of 5.0