Book Review: Tiger by the Tail by Alan E. Nourse
Alan E. Nourse (1928-1992) was a medical doctor and science fiction/fact author. His professional training often showed in his stories, perhaps best exemplified by the novel Star Surgeon. He also wrote The Bladerunner, about a dystopian future where medical care is rationed. Hollywood optioned the title and stuck it on a Philip K. Dick story.
This book is a collection of nine SF short stories originally published in the 1950s, when speculative fiction was getting more psychologically complex.
“Tiger by the Tail” leads off with store detectives watching in amazement as a shoplifter blatantly stuffs merchandise into her pocketbook. Far more than could possibly fit into it. It ends with an existential threat to the entire universe. The story is exposition heavy, but pays off when an iron bar moving a centimeter becomes a horrifying event.
“Nightmare Brother” is the longest story. A man finds himself walking down a long tunnel without knowing where he is, how he got there, or even who he is. And the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train! He escapes that peril, only to find himself in a worse situation, over and over. Why is this happening to him?! Some dubious psychology, and a hint of Fifties attitudes towards women.
“PRoblem” involves a public relations man called in to sell the public on allowing extradimensional aliens to take temporary refuge on Earth while their babies are born. The aliens are almost designed to cause revulsion in humans, and their personalities are irritating. And then he finds out their real dealbreaker. I get the feeling this one was written around a typo.
“The Coffin Cure” involves a cure for the common cold. Dr. Nourse ignores clinical testing procedures that he would certainly have been familiar with in real life so that the cure can be released to large portions of the public by an overenthusiastic project leader named Coffin. A few weeks later, the side effects start showing up. (And they’re fairly logical side effects.) Phillip Dawson, the man who actually came up with the cure, must now find a cure for the cure. Very Fifties sitcom treatment of his marriage.
“Brightside Crossing” is a grueling tale about a disastrous attempt to cross the surface of Mercury. Since then, we have learned that Mercury does in fact rotate, so there’s no one “bright side.” That said, it’s an adventure story with some thrilling moments.
“The Native Soil” likewise is not viable because of new information about Venus. For the purposes of this story, it’s covered in deep, deep mud–some of which has unparalleled antibiotic properties. A pharmaceutical company is trying to mine that mud with the dubious aid of the natives. The enterprise is not going well, and even a top troubleshooter from Earth is about to give up until he finally realizes what’s really going on.
“Love Thy Vimp” has Earth invaded by the eponymous vermin-like aliens. They cause trouble wherever they go, are vicious and cruel, and nearly impossible to kill. Barney Holder, a mild-mannered sociology teacher, has been assigned to a task force to get rid of the accursed things. One vimp has been captured, but experiments reveal no way of stopping it. Barney must ferret out the vimps’ one weakness. Fifties sitcom marriage stereotypes pop up again, but this time the nagging wife is an actual plot point.
“Letter of the Law” involves a conman who tried to bilk a group of aliens, only to run into their biggest taboos. Now he’s on trial for his life, and has to be his own lawyer on a planet where truth is an unknown concept. The human government emissary isn’t exactly thrilled to be helping. And even if the conman succeeds, his neck might still be on the chopping block. Satisfying ending.
“Family Resemblance” isn’t a science fiction story per se, but a comic tale of a hoax designed to make it appear that humans evolved from pigs. Some groan-worthy humor in this one.
Overall, a decent enough collection of stories that have become dated either through scientific advances or social change. Worth looking up at your library.