Back in high school, a friend buried his paperback of Stephen King's "Night Shift" out in the yard: The mere presence of the eye-studded hand on the cover was enough to bother his sleep. I've recently had a similarly violent reaction to Miles J. Breuer's "The Man With the Strange Head and Other Early Science Fiction Stories" (University of Nebraska: 430 pp., $21.95 paper), whose cover shot gives us eyes without a face: the back of a bald head, pink and intimate, punctuated by a pair of startled peepers. (Turning the book over, as I have now done, is a halfway measure at best: For some cruel reason, the designer has slapped the image onto the back as well, at about a quarter the size.) Such a stomach-turning cover will pretty much insure that few readers pick up this book, a diverting, often fascinating grab-bag of fiction (and some nonfiction) by Breuer (1889-1945).
It's a shame, given editor Michael R. Page's objective and the quality of the work within. A near-forgotten pioneer of the genre -- so pioneering that it was still called by the portmanteau "scientifiction" -- Breuer was (according to Page) the "first new writer of consequence who can be said to have started his career in the science fiction magazines." Born to Czech immigrant parents, Breuer followed in his father's footsteps and became a doctor; the two had a joint practice in Lincoln, Neb. But though he was a professional man of science, he had keen insight into just how much science readers could take with their fiction. In a 1928 letter to Hugo Gernsback's genre-defining magazine Amazing Stories (home to most of the shorter fiction gathered here), Breuer quotes some recent reader feedback:
"Their opinion, often crudely and inarticulately expressed, coincides with mine.
" 'Too dry,' 'too much mathematics,' 'too much stuff that doesn't mean anything,' 'too much theory' and so on, all mean that the stories have a tendency to lack a modern literary quality. . . . If I ever make a large success as a writer it will be to reflect the interaction of modern science and human nature -- but that can't be done by handing out large suffocating doses of science."
Breuer employs some modern touches in the title story. At the outset, it resembles that of the traditional locked-room mystery: the reclusive, wealthy, eccentric Anstruther has died in his hotel suite, which bears no evidence of the "clockwork" that a neighboring tenant says he heard night and day. The eureka is mild at best (involving some clunky cyborg technology). But the structure -- in which the narrator (a doctor, like Breuer) listens to the tenant (a writer, also like Breuer) solve the mystery with the help of the coroners and cops -- is strange enough to hold our attention.
Similarly, "The Appendix and the Spectacles" (1928) and "A Problem in Communication" (1930) also bear some resemblance to the mystery story, into which Breuer has inserted some fantastical elements. In the former, the fourth dimension is used for revenge; "Problem" is a code mystery in the tradition of Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of the Dancing Men" or Poe's "The Gold-Bug" (which is alluded to). It suffers (as several of the other pieces do) from a rushed ending, but it has a crafty first-person/third-person/first-person structure, and the code at the heart of this tale is great fun.
"He figured things on pieces of paper, committed them to memory, and scrupulously burned the paper," Breuer writes. "Then he wandered about the park and plucked at leaves and twigs."
"Paradise and Iron" (1930), Breuer's only novel, appeared in Amazing Stories Quarterly; this is its first publication in book form. (No doubt that novel would have given its title to the entire collection had it not sounded like a concept album from the early 1980s.) The narrator, can-do former Texas Ranger and med student Davy Breckenridge, stows away on the weird yacht of "John Kaspar, the Mystery Man" -- a former friend of his grandfather's. There are no controls onboard; Kaspar urges Davy to get off the ship, predicting his certain doom, but our narrator is too curious about what Kaspar's been up to during his long exile from the mainland.
When they arrive at a hidden island, Davy meets a group of people who live pampered lives, their every need attended to by sophisticated (and self-mending) machines and robots. (A reader today can't help but think of a more recent imagined future, that of "Wall-E"; the difference is that Breuer's lazy humans are Greek gods next to the Pixar film's blobs.) Cars drive themselves -- you just sit back and enjoy the ride. (Why one car is dubbed "Sappho," I leave it for you to unravel.) The two generations' worth of "soft and luxurious" islanders inhabit the City of Beauty, and Davy spends many pages wondering, with increasing disgust, how this society can operate. Though they are useless at practical matters, such as hunting, their indolence permits them to create great art. (Kaspar explains how the City of Beauty's creative output is "far . . . ahead of similar things in the United States [and] the rest of the world," even though the paintings -- "like happy children playing in the sun" -- sound like pure kitsch.)
In love with Kaspar's granddaughter, Mildred (Mildred!), Davy eventually learns about the island's sinister side. A City of Smoke exists, where the machines are produced by other machines (foreshadowing Philip K. Dick's nightmare of total manufacturing, "Second Variety") and a grand, humanity-obliterating scheme is being hatched by the central "Electrical Brain."
Though the initial setup is enticing, and there's a period charm to the mores and expressions employed (delighted by Mildred's can-doism, he calls her his "little brick"), "Paradise and Iron" hasn't aged particularly well. Ironically, scenes intended to display Davy's manly vigor drag the story down. A confrontation that lingers in the mind does so for its almost theatrical absurdity: When Davy attempts to bargain with one of the devilish machines, the latter communicates by a series of tonal "toots," which have to be laboriously translated by an islander into English.
"Paradise and Iron" nevertheless impresses as Breuer's ambitious attempt to pluck at the tension between civilization and the machines it can't stop making. But the shorter fictions do a better job of showing off the author's antic imagination. Given Breuer's relatively brief career in science fiction (1927-1940, only 13 years), there's something poignant in the fact that so many of these fictions play with time.
"The Gostak and the Doshes" (1930) satirizes the masses' blind embrace of jargon and makes travel in the fourth dimension seem ridiculously simple, like Douglas Adams' recipe for flying (throw yourself at the ground and miss). "The Finger of the Past" (1932) is a brisk farce involving the Palaeoscope, a machine that shows what happened in the target area at any prior time. If, like a Breuer character, Breuer could journey forward to see this collection, he would have been pleased. Except by the cover.
Ed Park is a founding editor of "The Believer" and the author of a novel, "Personal Days," which was recently named a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. Astral Weeks appears monthly at www.latimes.com/books.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times