T.J. Bass: The Short Stories

Covers of If magazine containing T.J. Bass short stories

He stood up and walked to the still form of his assailant. A female. Her abdominal muscles were still twitching, but no breath moved through her open mouth. He felt no pulse. Between her breasts he saw his brown-stained heel print. The sternum was depressed and made gritty sounds when he palpated it. Fractured. And probably displaced into the mediastinum, cutting off venous blood flow back to the heart. He grabbed both of her wrists and jerked them over her head, levering the bone fragments up.
Her heart fluttered and began to beat as soon as the pressure was taken off the large veins. She gasped several times, mouthing like a dry fish. Her face pinked up.

T.J. Bass, “Star Seeder” (1969)

That’s T.J. Bass’s fairly typical take on what happens if you kick someone really hard in the chest. I’ve written about Bass before, in my post about his two “Hive” novels, Half Past Human (1971) and The Godwhale (1973). These were expanded versions of three shorter stories previously published in Galaxy and Worlds of If magazines (for more details, see my previous post). Both novels were fêted in their time, each receiving a Nebula nomination, but have now faded into the classic-but-largely-forgotten category that provides me with so much material to post about.

In addition to his two novels and the three stories on which they were based, Bass published only four other stories, all of which appeared in If magazine between 1968 and 1971. To my knowledge, none of these were ever anthologized or otherwise collected, so they fell into almost instant obscurity. But they’re all now available on-line, courtesy of the Internet Archive, so I thought I’d take the opportunity to read them, and then tell you about them.

Unsurprisingly, they have all of Bass’s stylistic trademarks—replete with medical jargon and a calculated dose of body horror, delivered in a rattling telegraphic style, all exemplified in my quote at the head of this post. More interestingly, they’re all set in the same “Hive” universe as his novels. But whereas the events of the novels largely take place on a grossly overpopulated far-future Earth, the short stories deal with the fate of human colonies planted in other star systems during an earlier, expansive period of human history, only briefly alluded to in the novels.

I’ve often felt that the sentient starship Olga, which has walk-on parts in the novels, seemed to have more of a back-story than Bass was letting us in on. In particular, there seemed to be no particular narrative reason for his Godwhale protagonist, Larry Dever, to be brought out of hibernation during the early star-colonization era to briefly interact with Olga, only to go back into hibernation for a couple of thousand years so that he can be woken up in the Hive and get the story properly started. And why was Olga written in all-caps, like an acronym, in The Godwhale? Why was the future calendar of Half Past Human based on “The Year of Olga”?

Something was clearly going on. And that something was, it turns out, Bass making reference to his own short stories, which might still have been relatively fresh in his readers’ minds during the early ’70s. Below, I’ll deal with each story in turn, and my links will take you directly to the story in the relevant magazine issue held by the Internet Archive.

First comes “Star Itch” (Worlds of If, September 1968), which is the only story that appears under Bass’s real name, Thomas J. Bassler. It introduces the artificial intelligence Olga, which is in charge of sending out colonization ships to distant star systems. She is about to send out Procyon Implant Two—a second mission to a planet of the star Procyon. (In The Godwhale, Bass would later describe how Olga had tried unsuccessfully to recruit Larry Dever for the first Procyon mission.) Two colonists are introduced—Ralph Eggers (an engineering student and long-distance runner), and Bob Zuliani (a medic and hedonist). And we learn that “OLGA” stands for “Optic, Lingual, Graphic, Auditory”, the modalities by which Olga can communicate with humans. (Which may well not interest you, but solves a forty-year-old puzzle for me.) The colony ship departs, the colonists enter hibernation for the journey, and Ralph has a truly horrible experience which contributes very little to the story, but seems to be included in the narrative purely because it’s truly horrible and Bass had a lot of fun writing it.

At Procyon, it becomes evident that the first colony mission has failed, and the story turns into a “What happened to all the colonists?” puzzle. Ralph is sent down to the planet to investigate, and has another truly horrible time. The disappearance of the colonists evidently involves a complicated and progressive disease, which Bass describes with considerable enthusiasm and detail. It falls to Bob to work out what is going on, and the story reaches a satisfactory conclusion, though Ralph might well disagree.

Next is “Star Seeder” (Worlds of If, September 1969), which immediately introduces another character named Zuliani, who turns out to be a great-great-great-grandson of Bob Zuliani, living in the now-successful Procyon Implant Two colony. This new Zuliani is involved in a sort of gladiatorial combat when we first meet him, which serves to establish his character and capabilities, and gives Bass the opportunity to describe some more trauma. Zuliani wears a belt imbued with artificial intelligence, which provides him with companionship and advice—another concept that Bass used again in The Godwhale. The belt save Zuliani’s life by warning him when he is about to be attacked by a humanoid alien, and then the story settles down into a problem-solving narrative. The aliens (whom the humans unflatteringly call “Dregs”) inhabit the rim of the galaxy, and seek to control Humanity’s expansionist impulses. They will not permit colony ships to travel out of the galaxy to Andromeda, but will permit an exploratory vessel with a single crew member. Zuliani is to be that crew member, and the “problem” Zuliani must solve is how to sneak the makings of an entire human colony past the vigilant Dregs.

It’s an odd piece, and not particularly successful—the problem is deeply contrived, and there are several plot holes. But the solution is another bit of the “medical futurism” at which Bass excelled.

“A Game Of Biochess” (Worlds Of If, February 1970), introduces Olga again, though she seems to have undergone something of a demotion, now acting as the artificial intelligence for a starship operated by a single human named Spider. Spider is another of Bass’s physically unusual protagonists, suffering from a developmental shortening of his left arm and right leg. During a lay-over at Grus Satellite Station, Spider enjoys a chaste dalliance with a woman named Rau Lu, whom he encounters during the titular game of biochess.

Olga subsequently identifies a reduction in Spider’s efficiency, which she diagnoses as being due to unrequited love, and the remainder of the story involves Spider’s efforts to track down Rau Lu again. The ending introduces another character that Bass refers to opaquely in The Godwhale; and there’s a surprise twist, revealed in the final paragraph.

Finally, “The Beast Of 309” (World Of If, January 1971) introduces Caesar, whose earliest memory is of waking up in Orphanage 309 after undergoing surgery to remove his left eye. The story narrates Caesar’s quest to discover the identity of the father who abandoned him at the orphanage, to find out why his eye was removed at an early age, and to earn enough money to be able to afford a transplant eye, genetically compatible with his own body.

The story plays out in various locations recognizable from the story of Spider and Rau Lu. The final revelation that solves all mysteries is simultaneously clever and chilling. (Bass partially reused this plot element in The Godwhale, but I think it’s much more effective in the neat closed loop he constructs here.)

I enjoyed reading these. (I know, I almost always say that. That’s because I don’t bother telling you about stuff I don’t enjoy reading.) But they have the same delights and frustrations as Bass’s novels—full of biological inventiveness, crammed with narrative ideas, but also full of rushed sections, discontinuities and plot holes, as if Bass was simply too impatient to get his ideas down on paper.

Nor are they entirely consistent with each other, or with the novels. Bass didn’t write a coherent future history, but offers us a bundle of alternate future histories featuring common characters and locations.

I’d recommend trying “The Beast Of 309” first, for its interesting ending. “Star Seeder” is weak. The other two are good fun, though I’d say that “Star Itch” is perhaps “unsuitable for viewers of a nervous disposition”, as the television used to warn me when I was a child (albeit a child imbued with nerves of steel).

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