Retro Review: “And the Gods Laughed” by Fredric Brown

Planet Stories Spring 1944Now that the finalists for the 1945 Retro Hugos have announced, it’s time to get back to Retro Reviews and cover those finalists I missed the first time around. I’ll start off with “And the Gods Laughed”, a science fiction short story by Fredric Brown that was published in the Spring 1944 issue of Planet Stories and is a finalist for the 1945 Retro Hugo Award. The story may be read online here. This review will also be crossposted to Retro Science Fiction Reviews.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point.

“And the Gods Laughed” starts off with the line “You know how it is when you’re with a work crew on one of the asteroids.” It’s an opening that pulls you right in. For not only is the reader tempted to reply, “No, actually I don’t”, but they also want to find out exactly what it is like to be part of a work crew on an asteroid. Furthermore, Brown also uses this first line to establish the setting of the story, namely a mining crew on an asteroid.

Over the next page or so, the first person narrator – we later learn that his name is Hank – tells us that asteroid mining mainly means being stuck in a very confined space with four other people and nothing in the way of entertainment. Because space is at a premium both on the mining outpost and aboard the spaceship that takes the crew there, so it’s not possible to take along any books, magazines or other distractions. Nor is there radio reception except for a once-per-day newscast. And since a shift is only four hours long due to the technical limitations of space suits and airlocks as well as due to union regulations, this means that the five man work crews (and they are all men, of course) have a lot of time to fill.

As golden age science fiction goes, “And the Gods Laughed” offers a more realistic image of what space travel is really like than many other stories. Because conditions aboard spacecraft and space stations are often cramped – though the ISS does have a selection of books, DVDs, games, etc… available – and people are stuck together in a confined space for a long time. Interestingly, Brown also mentions at one point that Jupiter has several previously unknown satellites – “almost an asteroid belt”, as Hank explains – which endanger spaceships trying to land on its moons. Voyager 1 and 2 as well as later missions to Jupiter would prove this prediction right. In 1944, when “And the Gods Laughed” was published, Jupiter had eleven known satellites. By 2020, it has 79. It also has rings.

Brown’s asteroid miners spend their copious amounts of free time by spinning yarns and telling stories. Again, this is not entirely unrealistic – there are reports that storytelling is an ability prized in prison. Other activities that might occur between five men trapped together on an asteroid (or in a prison) for months on end are only hinted at.

The narrator Hank makes it very clear in his introduction that most of the stories the miners tell each other are tall tales and must not be taken too seriously. Then we are plunged right into the tail end of such a tall tale, when one of the miners, a man called Charlie Dean, recalls the time he spent fighting a hostile Martian race called the bolies, who look like alligators on stilts. And just in case we don’t get whom the bolies are supposed to represent, the narrator helpfully informs us that the bolies think and fight a lot like Native Americans during the Indian wars of the 19th century. Not that Hank knows much about that – in fact, he muses whether the Native Americans used crossbows or longbows to fight the white settlers.

In his story, Charlie mentions using zircon earrings to impress the bolies (more historical parallels), which causes Hank to launch into a story of his own about the first expedition to Ganymede, where the natives go naked wearing nothing but earrings. Only that, so Hank explains, the natives don’t wear earrings, but the earrings wear them. Now Hank has the others hooked, he launches into his story.

We learn that eight months before, Hank was a crewmen on the first successful mission to Ganymede. The members of the expedition team were Dick Carney, the skipper, Art Willis, a fellow crewman, and three scientists, a biologist and linguist named Lecky, a geologist and mineralogist named Haynes and a botanist named Hilda Race. Yes, there is an actual woman scientist in this story, though she fills the traditional position of botanist (women on mixed gender spaceship crews in older science fiction are almost inevitably biologists, botanists or medical doctors). Hank’s scant remarks about Hilda are also quite sexist – at one point he calls her “a hippopotamus acting kittenish”.

Once the ship lands on Ganymede, the crew quickly encounters the native people and notice that they all wear an earring in one ear only. Biologist/linguist Lecky is sent to make contact with Hank and Art Willis acting as guards. They briefly leave Lecky alone in the native village to survey the surroundings and encounter another alien who is of the same species as the others, but does not wear an earring. He is also a lot more hostile.

When Hank and Art pick up Lecky, they notice that he is wearing one of the native’s earrings. Lecky explains that the earring was a gift and that he gave the Ganymedeans a slide-rule in exchange. Hank and Art wonder why Lecky would give the aliens a slide-rule rather than the usual trinkets reserved for such encounters. Lecky explains that the aliens were fascinated by the slide-rule and quickly figured out how to use it. Lecky also explains that even though the Ganymedeans seem primitive, they have an advanced understanding of mathematics, science and philosophy. Finally, Lecky is curiously protective of the earring, which makes him an honourary member of the Ganymedean tribe, and won’t take it off.

Further trips to the village consist of two scientists and one crewman as a guard. The first team consists of Lecky, Hilda Race and Art Willis. Upon her return to the ship, Hilda is wearing an earring as well and won’t take it off either. The next day, Hank accompanies Lecky and Haynes to the village. Haynes declares that while he wants one of the earrings to analyse, he certainly won’t stoop to wearing it.

While the two scientists are in the village, Hank takes off to explore the surroundings. By now we get the impression that Hank is not very good at his job, considering he leaves the people he is supposed to be guarding alone twice. He hears Haynes scream and comes running, only to find Haynes on the ground with what looks like blood on his shirt. Haynes seems dazed and insists that nothing is wrong, that he simply stumbled and spilled some wine. Oh yes, and he is also wearing an earring, even though he insisted earlier that he wouldn’t.

Hank slips away again and watches two Ganymedeans trying to cross a stream, when one of them is attacked by an unseen creature and has their legs bitten off. Their companion drags them ashore. The Ganymedean is remarkably unbothered by having their legs bitten off. The injured Ganymedean tries to get up and notices that they cannot stand or walk because they no longer have any legs. So the injured Ganymedean nods to his companions, who removes their earring, whereupon the legless Ganymedean collapses – quite dead. Almost as if the earring was animating the alien.

Hank is understandably disturbed by this. He makes an even more disturbing discovery when he returns to the ship with Lecky and Haynes and notices that Haynes’ shirt is not just bloody, it’s also torn and has matching holes in the front and back. Holes that look as if someone had stabbed a spear through Haynes’ chest.

Back at the ship, Hank notices that Lecky, Hilda and Haynes are all acting strangely. Plus, Art Willis is now sporting an earring as well. Furthermore, they seem to forget to talk at times and just stare at each other, before they suddenly resume talking in mid sentence.

Hank bides his time and waits until he can catch Dick Carney alone to share his suspicions. He corners Dick and tells him point blank that the other four are no longer the same people they were at the start of the journey. Whereupon, Dick sighs and says, “Well, it didn’t work. We need more practice then.” Hank realises too late that Dick is wearing an earring as well, though he is wearing it as a bracelet hidden under the sleeve of his uniform.

Dick threatens Hank with a gun and promises to tell him everything, which Lecky – the leader – then proceeds to do. Hank and the reader learn that the earring creatures have no name for either their race or its individual members. Instead, they refer to themselves by numbers. They are telepathic and parasites, which means they can only live when they take over another lifeform. It doesn’t matter if that lifeform is alive or dead – after all, Haynes was killed before the earring creatures took him over.

Hank also learns that the earring creatures – or earring gods, as the Ganymedeans call them, hence the title – come from outside the solar system and arrived on Ganymede with alien visitors a very long time ago. Ever since then, they’ve been stuck there, because the Ganymedeans don’t have space travel and the earring creatures cannot do anything without accessing their hosts’ knowledge and memories. However, now that Earthpeople have landed on Ganymede the earring creatures finally have a way to get off the moon as well as a whole new planet and solar system to conquer.

Hank was the only crewmember not taken over, because the earring creatures wanted to use him as a guinea pig to see if he’d notice anything off. But now that the earring creatures know that they need to be more careful, Hank is no longer of any use and will be taken over as well. And so Lecky hands him an earring and tells him to put it on, otherwise he’ll be shot. The earring creatures prefer to take over undamaged and living bodies, but they’ll also take a dead one, if necessary.

Hank, however, launches himself at Lecky and manages to grab hold of the gun. He shoots his fellow crewmembers, but the shots don’t even slow them down, let alone hurt them. So Hank flees out into the Ganymedean night. The earring creatures don’t even bother to pursue him, cause they know he won’t survive for long out in the cold and with insufficient oxygen.

Hank’s tale stops at this point. Charlie asks what happened next and how he managed to escape, Hank says that he didn’t. He just passed out from lack of oxygen and awoke the next morning aboard the ship.

While he was telling his story, Hank grabbed Chekhov’s Gun (Anton, the Russian playwright, not Pavel, the Enterprise crewmember) from the wall and started to clean it. Conveniently, he finishes cleaning the gun just as he finishes his story. However, Hank’s fellow asteroid miners Charlie Dean and Blake Powers are not as easily tricked as Hank himself. And so Charlie launches himself at Hank, grabs hold of the gun and points it at Hank.

Blake, who is the captain, still half believes that Hank was just spinning some spaceman’s yarn. But just to be on the safe side, he order Charlie to keep the gun and Hank to roll up his sleeves and trouser legs. When this does not reveal any mysterious jewellery, Blake orders Hank to take off his clothes. Only when Hank is buck naked (no, there is nothing odd at all about two guys who haven’t seen a woman in months forcing a third at gunpoint to strip) and there is still no sign of any malevolent jewellery anywhere on his body, Charlie and Blake are satisfied that Hank was really just telling a tall tale. They laugh, while Hank heads for the shower.

So all is well that ends well. Or does it? After all, this is a golden age science fiction story and we all know how much the golden age liked twist endings. And so the story ends with a one paragraph excerpt of a telepathic report from one number 67843 in the asteroid belt to one number 5463 on Earth. Number 67843 reports that the plan to test the credulity of the humans by telling them the truth about what happened on Ganymede was a success. The humans were fully willing to believe the story, but the absence of any visible earrings or bracelets persuaded them that it was just a hoax. Therefore, the process of surgically implanting the earring device into every human taken over must continue to avoid arousing suspicions. Number 67843, otherwise known as Hank, will make sure that the remaining four asteroid miners are all implanted with devices before they return to earth.

Honeymoon in Hell by Fredric BrownI have to admit that I haven’t read much by Fredric Brown and what I have read was mixed. There is the haunting 1948 flash fiction story “Knock”, which stayed with me for a long time after I first read it, even though I initially had no idea who the author was. On the other hand, Brown’s 1943 Retro Hugo finalist “The Star Mouse” was just too silly for me and his other 1943 Retro Hugo finalist “Etaoin Shrdlu” – another possessed machine story – was okay, but nothing special.

As for “And the Gods Laughed”, I’m not sure what to think about it. On the one hand, it is an effective and well written story. Brown skilfully combines two popular storytelling devices of the era, the “tale within a tale”, a story told around the dinner table, fireplace or aboard an asteroid mining station, and the twist ending. Even Chekhov’s Gun gets an outing – quite literally in this case.

Of course, anybody with any science fiction experience can see the twist ending coming from a mile away. However, the by now well-worn concept of alien parasites who take over humans to invade Earth was still a very new idea in 1944. The Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein, probably the most famous early take on the trope, did not come out until 1951, six years after “And the Gods Laughed”. And while A.E. van Vogt’s “Discord in Scarlet” predates “And the Gods Laughed” by five years, the parasitic aliens in van Vogt’s story are closer to the xenomorph from Alien (probably because both were inspired by the same real life creature, the emerald cockroach wasp) than to the parasitic invaders of The Puppet Masters. Furthermore, most alien parasites that take over humans are described as slug-like or starfish-like creatures, so malevolent parasitic jewellery is certainly a different idea as well as a fine example of the wonderful weirdness of the golden age.

Nonetheless, I had issues with the story. One is the fact that “And the Gods Laughed” is narrated in the first person by Hank, which is quite common for “tale within a tale” stories. However, as we learn in the last paragraph, “Hank” is not really Hank, but malevolent parasitic earring number 67843. So why is malevolent parasitic earring number 67843 telling the story as if they were Hank who had a spooky experience and got away? Is malevolent parasitic earring number 67843 trying to fool us just like they fooled Charlie and Blake?

Of course, “the narrator did it” was not a new idea even back in 1944 – after all, Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd came out in 1926, eighteen years before. However, revealing that the narrator is the villain without the narrator’s voice hinting at that fact at any point before is not exactly playing fair with the reader. And considering Fredric Brown was also a (very good) mystery writer, he should therefore know a thing or two about mysteries playing fair. Honestly, I feel the story would have worked better, if Charlie or Blake had been the first person narrator (and in most examples of the “tale within a tale” trope, the first person narrator is not the same person as the one who tells the story within a story) instead of “Hank”.

Another issue I had with the story is one that probably wouldn’t have bothered 1940s audiences, but is really glaring today, namely the unquestioning acceptance of colonialism and imperialism. Of course, we know that the races who inhabit the various planets and moons in golden age science fiction are often stand-ins for Native Americans or other indigenous people, but Brown isn’t just content to imply these parallels, no, he flat out has his narrator tell us. And just like European colonisers, the human explorers bribe/trick the various indigenous people with all sorts of worthless trinkets. For example, there is an anecdote about an alien race from the Martian moon Phobos who had never seen elastic before and were willing to trade a bucket full of gemstones for the suspenders of a spaceship crewman. This was probably considered light-hearted back in 1944, but it really hit me the wrong way.

On the other hand, the aliens also use worthless trinkets, the earrings, to trick and take over the human explorers and eventually the Earth. So was Brown interrogating and reversing that hoary old trope by placing the human colonisers on the receiving end of a truly bad deal?

From These Ashes by Fredric BrownAnother thing that struck me is that a single earring worn in one ear (the right, apparently) used to code a man as gay. And here we have a story where single earrings are used to literally take over the almost all male crew of a spaceship. So is the story a metaphor for gay men supposedly turning heterosexual men gay? Or is this a complete coincidence? Though it is notable that the interior art depicts a man wearing a single earring in his right ear. And let’s not forget that the story also contains a scene where two men force another man at gunpoint to strip naked, so they can examine his body jewellery or lack thereof? And where exactly did Charlie and Blake expect Hank to be wearing the earring that he needs to strip naked? Or am I seeing things here which aren’t there?

Fredric Brown is clearly popular with Retro Hugo nominators, considering he had two nominations for 1943 and also had two for 1945. Nonetheless, I was a bit surprised to see “And the Gods Laughed” on the ballot, because it is not a particularly well known story. It has been reprinted a few times over the years, but it is not nearly as well known as “Arena”, Brown’s other 1945 Retro Hugo finalist. Nor does it show up in Isaac Asimov’s and Martin H. Greenberg’s The Great Science Fiction Stories anthology for 1944. And lesser known stories that make the Retro Hugo ballot can often be found in the Asimov/Greenberg anthologies such as Edmond Hamilton’s “Exile” from last year.

Whatever the reason, quite a few people clearly liked “And the Gods Laughed” enough to nominate it. And to be fair, it is a good story, though it also has its share of flaws. But considering the competition this year, I don’t really see it winning.

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