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Sunday, 15 November 2015

The Case of the Little Green Men

I found another book to add to my Charles Fort in Fiction list. The last addition was Anthony Boucher’s 1942 murder mystery Rocket to the Morgue, and this new one is another murder mystery – The Case of the Little Green Men by Mack Reynolds. Originally published in 1951, it’s now available as an ebook – either from the UK Kindle store, where I got it, or from the US Kindle store, and probably other places as well.

Like Rocket to the Morgue, The Case of the Little Green Men is set against a backdrop of science fiction fandom – which was significantly larger and better established in 1951 than it was in 1942. Boucher’s novel included a passing mention of the third Worldcon, held in Denver in 1941 and attended by just 90 people. The latter part of The Case of the Little Green Men – including the second of its two murders – takes place at the tenth Worldcon in 1952, which was still a year in the future when the book came out (the actual 1952 Worldcon took place in Chicago and had 870 attendees). Any murder set at a sci-fi convention is bound to involve cosplay, and this one is no exception. The villain is dressed as a six-limbed purple Martian – “the godawfullest costume of the convention”.

The Case of the Little Green Men isn’t science fiction. The novel’s title comes from the fact that it starts with the first-person narrator – a private detective with a reputation for mediocrity – being hired to find evidence of extraterrestrials living among the human population. “Little Green Men” is a pejorative term used by the hero and other skeptical characters, but the actual idea is that the aliens are shape-shifters who can make themselves indistinguishable from humans. The investigation was never meant to be taken seriously – it started out as a joke item for the convention. Nevertheless, some people do seem to take it seriously… and after a while it provides our protagonist with a good excuse to stick his nose into the murder case (there’s a nice touch of realism in that, unlike most fictional private eyes, he wouldn’t dare investigate a murder openly for fear of antagonizing the police).

The reference to Charles Fort comes when one of the more serious of the UFO-believers is trying to persuade the hero that there really might be extraterrestrials on Earth:
He came back with a heavy book and handed it to me. I looked at the title: The Books of Charles Fort. “What’s this?” I asked him. “Isn't Fort the screwball that tells all about the rains of frogs and that sort of crap?”
“That's hardly a proper description of Charles Fort,” he said stiffly. “Fort has gathered material for decades in an attempt to show that modern science is too smug, too hypocritical – and too ignorant. He made a hobby, a lifetime work, of gathering evidence of phenomena that modern science has as yet been unable to explain.”
Not surprisingly the novel also includes references to quite a few SF writers, including four who are particular favourites of mine: A. E. van Vogt, Henry Kuttner, Fredric Brown and Eric Frank Russell. The last-named is perhaps best known for his explicitly Fortean novel, Sinister Barrier. As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m the proud owner of the original issue of Unknown magazine (March 1939) in which Sinister Barrier first appeared. I paid £25 for it – considerably more than the cover price of 20 cents. Apparently that’s always been the case! Here is another excerpt from The Case of the Little Green Men, where the protagonist is trying to blend in with the real fans in the dealers’ hall:
I picked up one of the publications and thumbed through it. It was pretty well worn, the date was 1939, the cover was gruesome, and the title of the magazine was Unknown. I asked “What’s the price on this?” reaching in my pocket for some change. I figured that I’d look more authentic wandering around the hall if I was carrying a magazine with me.
”Three dollars,” he told me.
I glared at him indignantly. “You batty? This magazine is falling apart; it’s more than ten years old.”
He took it from my hand with as little gentleness as was consistent with the magazine’s condition and glared back. “That’s the issue in which Sinister Barrier was first –.”
”All right, all right,” I cut him off. “Keep it.” I got on to the next table before he assaulted me.
All in all I really enjoyed The Case of the Little Green Men. It’s the first novel I’ve read by Mack Reynolds, although over the years I’ve read quite a few shorter works by him. When I scoured my bookshelves a couple of days ago I found eight stories by him in various anthologies and magazines. The most Fortean of these is a short-short called “I’m a Stranger Here Myself”, which takes the form of a conversation between two undercover aliens, from different planets, who bump into each other in a café in Morocco.

All the other Reynolds stories I’ve read are Cold War thrillers, with a strong focus on the Communist-Capitalist battle of wits, sometimes with a science fiction twist. One of them (illustrated below) even has aliens in it! It’s called “Combat”, and I read it in the February 1961 issue of Analog magazine (British edition). It’s not a great story, but it makes nostalgic reading if you hanker after the simpler world of the Cold War period. The essence of the story is that the aliens choose to land their spaceship in the middle of Moscow, which confuses the heck out of the Americans (who assumed they would land in the world’s most advanced country).

Although the story is dated in many ways, some of its sentiments are as valid as ever. Here is a striking quote from the second page of the story: “The best men our universities could turn out went into advertising, show business and sales – while the best men the Russians and Chinese could turn out were going into science and industry. The height of achievement over there is to be elected to the Academy of Sciences. Our young people call scientists eggheads, and their height of achievement is to become a TV singer or a movie star.”

After 55 years, the depressing thing isn’t that things haven’t changed – but that they have changed. What applied to the United States then applies to pretty much the whole planet now!

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