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Arthur Porges: Dreamer

A GUIDE TO THE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY STORIES OF ARTHUR PORGES

BY RICHARD SIMMS

There is no doubt that some readers admire Arthur Porges' fantasy and science fiction stories even more than his mystery and detective tales. It is true to say that he was more prolific in the latter genres, but the field of imaginative fiction held an early attraction for Porges as a young writer. He grew up in the Chicago of the 1920s, and at a young age cultivated a love of reading, both fact and fiction. He read the classics, absorbing the works of Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson. Porges immersed himself in countless scientific text books. As a child he developed a lifelong love of science, but in addition to this, the young Arthur Porges spent a good deal of the twenties devouring exotic adventure stories by the likes of H. Rider Haggard, Talbot Mundy, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London and Arthur Conan Doyle. His love of the fantastic was cemented in the 1930s when he discovered the pulp magazines Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. Porges was particularly taken with the Conan stories of Robert E. Howard and the weird imaginings of such writers as Clark Ashton Smith and H. P. Lovecraft. In terms of "hard" science fiction, the writings of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne had a huge influence on Arthur Porges as an author. Later influences on his work included Isaac Asimov, whom Porges greatly admired. Put simply, his literary influences were as diverse as his stories. It is perhaps sufficient to say that he read voluminously as a young man and this fact is reflected in the variety of stories he had published in a writing career that spanned five decades.

Porges was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942 and spent three years serving stateside as an instructor in the artillery division, coming out a First Lieutenant. After the war, he taught Mathematics at Los Angeles City College, until in 1957 Porges decided to bite the bullet and take up writing full-time. By this point he had sold a few of his stories to magazines, most notably to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. His first story was a dark little fantasy called "Modeled in Clay," which he sold to Man to Man magazine in 1950. But it was apparent from his early science fiction stories, among which are such classics as "The Ruum" (1953) and "The Rats" (1950), that his scholastic background would certainly show through in much of his outré fiction. For example, the intellectual puzzles faced by his protagonists often involved the application of mathematical reasoning and a sound grasp of physics, or chemistry. The Ensign De Ruyter series of stories encapsulate this side of his output in delightful fashion; eight splendid "scientific problem" stories that follow the exploits of the intergalactic survey ship the Herschel and its three man crew, consisting of Captain Morse, Lieutenant Burton and Ensign De Ruyter. Each story is an exciting tale of the space explorers' attempts to extricate themselves from dire situations on various planets that they visit on their survey missions. Through dint of cunning, De Ruyter is able to rescue the situation at the end of each story. Interestingly, Ensign De Ruyter is supposedly meant to be a descendant of the legendary Dutch naval commander Michiel Adriaanszoon De Ruyter (1607-1676). This is an example of how Porges loved to insert his fascination for certain historical figures into his stories. That aside, the tales of this rising star of the galactic navy are fabulous, effervescent romps, written with such verve and energy that one wishes more had been written. An attractive aspect to these stories lies in the engaging interplay between the characters. My personal favourites in this series are the bizarre "Wheeler Dealer" (1965), where the crew land on a planet inhabited by people who practise a corrupt form of Buddhism -- they devote their whole time to spinning prayer wheels! -- and "The Dragons of Tesla" (1968). Intriguingly, there was one final entry in this series that was rejected by the science fiction magazines back in the late 1960s. The story was called "Brain Slug," and Porges himself felt that this was probably the best of them all. I agreed with this, and it has been a privilege and delight to personally edit a book collection of all eight Ensign De Ruyter stories -- including "Brain Slug" -- in the book Eight Problems in Space (The Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2008).

When one has read so much of his work, it becomes clear that writing in such a short form, Porges deemed the plot, or the central idea, to be the most important aspect of each story. Technical ingenuity, scientific adeptness and logical problem-solving on the part of his protagonists was undoubtedly the driving force behind the majority of his science fiction output. Furthermore, one of the most interesting characteristics of his stories is the intense attention to detail he imparts. In beguiling yarns such as "Emergency Operation" (1956) and the clever "A Touch of Sun" (1959), the obvious passion and familiarity Porges has with his subject matter shines through. This attribute lends authenticity to his stories, none more so than in the extraordinary "By a Fluke" (1955), where a liver fluke imparts to us the story of its life cycle and its sense of injustice at having a brilliant mathematical mind trapped inside a short-lived, vulnerable body!

As noted by David Drake in Twentieth Century Science Fiction Writers (St. James' Press, 1986), many of Porges' viewpoint characters do not survive. This unusual element lends potency and tension to such stories as "The Rats" (1950), where mutated rats eventually overcome a lone survivor in a post-holocaust world. In this chilling science fiction story, the meticulous attention to detail, a trademark of Porges, lends weight and menace to an already unsettling premise. With the publication of this story in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a working relationship between Arthur Porges and the editor Anthony Boucher began. Boucher helped Porges find his feet in the writing world and influenced his writing style a great deal in the 1950s. Porges is quoted as saying that Anthony Boucher taught him "the facts of life about plotting." Also of interest is the fact that around this time, Forrest J. Ackerman, working out of Hollywood, was Porges' literary agent -- he was later represented by The Scott Meredith Literary Agency. Some fabulous stories appeared in this period. One of these was an unforgettable story called "The Ruum" (1953). This is probably his best known work; a story with a remarkably clever plot device. In this tale, Porges utilised a wonderfully detailed extrapolation of scientific knowledge to create a tense, brooding story. A specimen-gathering robot is accidentally left behind on earth during the prehistoric period by a crew of space-faring aliens. It sets about collecting different species of animals within a certain weight limit and preserving them in a state of suspended animation. Thousands of years later, a prospector in the north American wilderness comes across the robot, still functioning and now intent upon adding him to its collection! What follows is a chase story with a difference. Much anthologised, "The Ruum," with it's carefully measured prose style, has been used in high school English Literature classes down the years. It's a curious fact that many readers remember first encountering this story in the classroom!

Another excellent early science fiction story was "A Touch of Sun;" published in Amazing Stories magazine in 1959. This story was co-written by Arthur's older brother, Irwin Porges (1909-1998), a fine writer in his own right. "A Touch of Sun" proved to be the only time in his long career that Arthur Porges collaborated with another author. Incidentally, Irwin Porges, a talented pianist and writer of popular songs, was a prolific author himself. His output was certainly varied. Irwin was most famous for his monumental biography Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan (1975). He produced this book with the assistance of his wife Cele, who did a considerable amount of archival research. Another non-fiction work by Irwin Porges was Many Brave Hearts (1962), a compelling book about various disasters at sea. Numerous feature articles by Irwin Porges appeared throughout the post-war period in periodicals such as Coronet and American Mercury. In addition, Arthur's brother penned a substantial number of mystery short stories for Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (and other genre fiction magazines). One of the best of these was the brilliant "Find Artie Smerz -- Dead or Alive" (1981). His short fiction is definitely well worth tracking down.

Collectors of Porges' work should note that several of his science fiction and fantasy stories were originally published under the pseudonyms Peter Arthur and Pat Rogers. These pen names were used by the editors in those instances where Porges had more than one story in a particular issue of a magazine. There was nothing unusual in this; it was common practice for this fact to be deliberately obscured by the use of pen names. Although it is a long standing practice that has enabled authors to get their work published, an unfortunate result of this has been that in the case of certain examples of their past work, many authors do not receive the recognition they deserve. It can be a nightmare for researchers, resulting in much confusion, particularly in the case of house pseudonyms. It was thus to my delight that I was able, through my correspondence with Arthur, to pinpoint the few instances where Arthur Porges, or rather the magazine editors(!), printed his work under pseudonyms. There were a few other examples among his mystery and detective output; information on that can be found either on the Checklist of Stories or the Mystery Fiction pages of this website.

Aside from science fiction, Porges succeeded in producing an impressive amount of horror, fantasy and supernatural tales. Indeed, much of his imaginative fiction output is in this vein; he possibly produced more fantasy than so called "pure" science fiction. Examples of his horror stories include "The Oddmedod" (1987) and "Josephus" (1960). These two stories are similar in that both have an effigy come to life and terrorise humans. In "The Oddmedod" it is a doll, and in "Josephus," a scarecrow. Such macabre tales as "The Mirror" (1966) are truly shocking works of horror. These stories were written with a rich vein of the macabre running throughout them and are steeped in strong fantasy elements. The pick of the bunch, for me, is "Solomon's Demon" (1961), an effective chiller which keeps you on the edge of your seat and has a surprise ending. Also worthy of note is "What Crouches in the Deep" (1959), a mixture of horror and the kind of detailed extrapolation of science which is one of Porges' main strengths as a writer. In this story a treasure hunter in a one-man deep sea submarine comes across a German U-Boat which has been resting on the Atlantic sea bed for fifty years. Inside he finds not only the gold he is after but also, impossibly still alive, a Nazi war criminal who turns out to be something other than human. These stories and many others were finally collected in the book The Mirror and Other Strange Reflections, edited by Mike Ashley and published by Ash-Tree Press in 2002. This collection was followed by another volume of Arthur Porges' fantasy stories, The Devil and Simon Flagg and Other Fantastic Tales, published in 2009.

A succession of wry vignettes by Porges concerning deals with the devil appeared frequently in the magazines Fantastic and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the 1950s and 60s. In fact there were so many of these appearing that the editors of Fantastic were prompted to write, in introduction to the witty "A Devil of a Day" (1962), "sometimes we feel that Arthur Porges has already sold his soul to the devil -- in exchange for an infinite number of plots about bargains with His Satanic Majesty!" By far the most famous of these tales was "The Devil and Simon Flagg" (1954), which concerns itself with the mathematical enigma of Fermat's Last Theorem. This story, like "The Ruum," has been reprinted many times. In one story, "The Liberator" (1953), the devil plays a different role -- that of saving mankind from alien invasion! In a similar vein is "The Tidings" (1954), a quirky tale of a celestial punishment on mankind; yet another example of Porges' wonderful, unique, concise style of writing.

Many fine Porges stories appeared during the early 1960s in the magazines Amazing Stories and Fantastic. At this time both titles were under the highly successful editorship of the late Cele Goldsmith Lalli, who held the post from 1959 to 1965. In these two magazines, Porges' idiosyncratic tales found a home alongside other fine talents such as Keith Laumer, David R. Bunch and Jack Sharkey. One can surmise that he had a fruitful working relationship with Lalli throughout these years as this was a highly productive era for Arthur Porges. Perusing the readers' letters pages of these magazines shows that his work was regarded highly, with one reader exclaiming "will this Porges fellow ever run dry?!?" -- an obvious reference to his prolific output at the time. The early 1960s were a golden age for Amazing and Fantastic, as indeed for Porges himself. Highlights of this period include "The Arrogant Vampire" (1961), "One Bad Habit" (1961) and a disturbing tale called "The Fanatic" (1964), about a lone scientist who captures and tortures animals believing that many of them are possessed by alien invaders from outer space. These stories continued to illustrate Porges' diverse thematic range, and further cemented his popularity among the readership of science fiction magazines.

Near the end of his most prolific period of writing, one of Porges' finest ever stories was published in Galaxy magazine in 1966. The story was "Priceless Possession," a poignant tale with a melancholy theme. The plot follows the discovery -- by the crew of an exploratory spaceship - of a rare and highly valuable creature that exists in the vacuum of space, the Solar Sailor -- or "S-2" -- one of Porges' most ingenious inventions. Bringing to light Porges' sometimes misanthropic views towards human nature, it is a brief but provocative observation on guilt, morality and the ultimate selfishness of man. As is noted by David Drake in Twentieth Century Science Fiction Writers, Porges seemed to suggest in this story that mankind's greatest enemy may be within himself. The bleakness of spirit engendered from reading this tale lingers for a long time. It is a powerful piece that deserved to be reprinted, as indeed it was, in the anthology Men Hunting Things (1988), edited by none other than David Drake!

There are many further examples of the more reflective work of Arthur Porges. These include "Third Sister" (1963), a curious piece about the nature of fate. A young girl's mother is dying and the daughter, in a fever-induced state of delirium, begs the three sisters of fate to save her mother's life. Interestingly, this fantastic trio appear again in a much later story, "Aunt Rutabaga" (1994). "The Melanas" (1960) is a powerful piece which reads as a wry and offbeat observation on man's destruction of the natural world. "Movie Show" (1999), in it's own quirky way, tells us in heartfelt tones that in some cases, the beauty that has disappeared from the modern world has been lost forever. "The Rescuer" (1962) is a startling piece that concerns itself with time travel and the paradoxes that could ensue when one takes it upon oneself to alter the past. "Mop-Up" (1953) once again appears to illustrate the misanthropism running through a number of Porges' stories -- in stark contrast to his "scientific problem" tales, where the emphasis is on the individual's abilities in solving mysteries and brain teasers; the ultimate triumph of the protagonist in these stories suggests that Porges is championing the human spirit. Aside from this, "Mop-Up" is a deftly written post-holocaust story with an unusual take on the fate of mankind. The story is a bizarre mix of both science fiction and fantasy; the four characters are a human, a witch, a vampire and a ghoul. The editor Judith Merril was impressed enough to include this story in her occult anthology, Galaxy of Ghouls (1955).

With a typically deft touch, Porges would often skillfully work some of his personal interests into his stories. For example, he was a lover of classical music throughout his life, and this passion manifests itself in the fantasy stories "Words and Music" (1960), "The Second Debut" (1968) and "The Mozart Annuity" (1962). Moreover, his knowledge of the natural world is evident in such tales as "The Auto Hawks" (1960) and "By a Fluke" (1955).

While in stories such as "Priceless Possession," there is an undoubted seriousness, one cannot stress enough that in many of his tales, particularly those published in Fantastic, there is a playfulness exemplified by a good deal of wry humour and sharp, witty dialogue. It could be argued, however, that the most memorable of his science fiction and fantasy stories have been the ones with downbeat endings, those stories that asked awkward questions, and stimulated the reader some way beyond simple escapism.

Arthur Porges did, of course, concentrate for the most part on detective fiction, a format in which he excelled for decades. Porges was certainly well thought of as a mystery short-story writer. In addition to this, Arthur once told me he was, perhaps, most proud of the forty-odd diverse essays he had published in The Monterey Herald newspaper in the late 1980s. But in my opinion, his science fiction and fantasy work is every bit as good as his mystery fiction, and represents some of his best writing. From his home in Pacific Grove, where he had lived from the late 1960s, he was still penning new fantasy stories to the end, coming up with new and unusual ideas. His creativity never left him. This fact was illustrated when, after many years when very few stories had appeared, the early 2000s saw an increased period of productivity for Arthur Porges, at this point well into his eighties. Alongside his latter-day mystery stories and Holmesian spoofs, Arthur Porges contributed a series of excellent fantasy vignettes to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, a publication he had first sold a story to back in 1951! Most of these "mini-fantasises" had a decidedly humorous feel to them; inventive and quirky little gems that were admired by discerning readers. The last one to be published was "What I Owe to Rick" in 2005; however, it should be noted that a large number remain unpublished, a situation I hope to remedy some day! But in the meantime, as well as the aforementioned Eight Problems in Space, the bulk of Porges science fiction output from the 1950s and '60s has now been collected in the books The Ruum and Other Science Fiction Stories (2010) and The Rescuer and Other Science Fiction Stories (2014).

What I've written above should, I hope, inspire readers to search out Porges' fantasy and science fiction stories. He produced an impressive, varied body of work in these genres, an achievement sometimes obscured by the fact that book collections of his work have been few and far between. Despite this, Arthur Porges' imaginative writings will undoubtedly continue to entertain generations of readers in the future.

This essay is Copyright © 2007 by Richard Simms

 

 

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