The James Gunn series continues.
Review: “Pest House”, James Gunn, 1996.
This was Gunn’s 64th story. Michael R. Page’s Saving the World Through Science Fiction puts the composition date at 1957. As of the 1996 publication date of The Unpublished Gunn, Part Two, it was his last unpublished story. Page says it was also the last piece of fiction Gunn wrote until the late 1960s.
This was a story aimed at the “slick” science fiction magazine market. Gunn defines that market as having
a more general theme, a setting in the not-too-distant future, and an idea that did not present serious difficulties for an unsophisticated readership.
Like “Jackpot for Julie” and “The Man with One Talent”, I don’t discern any flaws that would have made its publishing questionable. Page says the story would have undoubtedly been published if the science fiction magazine market had not collapsed in the late 1950s.
Our hero is Kevin Motley is an ad man who freely gave his soul to the business. But money’s tight, and he drinks too much because he can’t have Mary Ann. Well, he could have Mary Ann if he stopped drinking and secure himself economically.
Kevin meets some aliens from Jupiter one day.
In a certain sense, this story hearkens back to Gunn’s first story, published under his pen name Edwin James, “Paradox” which also has telepathic aliens showing up on Earth and meeting a drunk.
One can possibly find a few bits of autobiography in the story. John Gunn, Gunn’s uncle, was an alcoholic who used to show up at the family home when drunk. (He also took his nephew to see H. G. Wells when he visited Kansas City.) Kevin’s home has a lawn “where the Bermuda fought a losing battle with the dandelion, the chick weed, and the crab grass” which reminds me of a remark in Gunn’s autobiography, Star-Begotten, about how shabby his lawn looked, the horticulturist’s lawn down the street a reproach to his.
Gunn’s story is a comic one.
Kevin is hitting the bourbon hard one afternoon when a silver saucer sinks “through the green linoleum squares” of his kitchen and puts a crater in the floor.
Then Kevin starts hearing the voices.
A lot of this is story is those Jovians yapping at each other in italicized dialogue.
It seems they’ve orbited earth a thousand times and haven’t seen the “dominant race” yet. Perhaps, says one, they’re too small to see. Another reminds him that, on a planet this small, gravity doesn’t require small size.
Kevin hears this bickering and decides no more bourbon. It’s coffee time. Getting up to get some, he almost steps on the “silver saucer” in the room.
The saucer rocks … in quite a delightful way for the aliens. At last, maybe they’ve met Earth’s dominant race. The aliens put up an antenna to make contact.
They make contact, but they are not impressed by Kevin:
Muddled brain waves. Short circuits. Crossed neurons. Could this member of the race an idiot be?
He needs to be straightened out. So they make him instantly sober.
At first, he thinks he just passed out and slept through the night, but, no, it’s still afternoon.
The Jovians hope to use Earth as a base to grow an army and take back Jupiter from a tyrant. They formally try to make contact with Kevin. He’s not ready for that and leaves the house. The Jovians think the bourbon is a great source of hydrocarbons.
An hour passes, and Kevin comes back with Mary Ann to show her what’s going on.
She claims she sees nothing to confirm his story and doesn’t seem to hear the Jovians’ beamed thoughts.
They find her way different than Kevin. “Hard and disciplined is its mind.”
Frustrated that she doesn’t even notice them, the Jovians suit up and go outside their ship.
Mary Ann just sees cockroaches and demands Kevin stomp on them.
Which the aliens, missing the high pressure atmosphere on Jupiter, love. They think Kevin and Mary Ann very thoughtful.
Mary Ann leaves. She tells Kevin she’s not coming back into his house until the bugs are gone.
Kevin isn’t sure what to do. And, downing some more bourbon, he discovers the Jovians have rendered him permanently sober.
Coming across some bug killer, he sprinkles it around the spaceship. While he may be sober, he’s made the Jovians drunk. Evidently, sodium fluoride or barium fluosilicate is an intoxicant to them.
So, Kevin calls in an exterminator. He hears the thoughts of the thoughts of drunken Jovians.
Kevin offers him some bourbon. It doesn’t help. The Jovians have made the exterminator permanently sober too.
Kevin tells him the “bugs” did it. “Even if they weren’t bugs, anybody’d do that deserves to die,” says the exterminator.
So, they gas the house with hydrogen cyanide.
From outside of the house, Kevin and Andy the exterminator hear the Jovians speaking of the “beautiful air. The beautiful sympathy” and the generosity of humans. Now the aliens can reverse their anti-gravity and hatch some eggs.
A few days later, Mary Ann shows up again. She’s looking for Kevin.
Things have rather changed at Kevin’s.
The crappy yard is now a paved parking lot. A neon sign advertises “SEE THE MARTIANS!”, and business is booming. Kevin’s put in a balcony, but he’s already made enough money to pay for it and the parking lot. The government pays him another $1,000 every night because they want to learn the secret of the metal that now lines the house and preserves the preferred alien air pressure. The aliens have turned the place into a giant bug house to grow the army needed to take their fight back to Jupiter.
The government isn’t worried about an alien invasion on earth. Neptune, Saturn, and Uranus are better candidates for colonization.
Mary Ann, dubbed the “cold, unhappy one” by the aliens (and Mary Ann still gives no clue that she can hear them – maybe it’s an act) is rendered intoxicated by the aliens. She’s a lot more relaxed around Kevin now.
The story concludes: “Those darned bugs! They always overdid everything.”
So, a light hearted, humorous sf story that is successful at what it attempts.