Short Fiction Reviews: Alice Eleanor Jones’ “Life, Incorporated” (1955), “Miss Quatro” (1955), and “Recruiting Officer” (1955)

Story


I ranked Alice Eleanor Jones’ apocalyptic slice-of-life nightmare “Created He Them” (1955) as my favorite SF short story of 2022. I also found Jones’ “The Happy Clown” (1955) a bleakly effective satire of television and consumerism. Unfortunately, Jones only published five short stories in 1955 before leaving science fiction altogether. It’s a shame she did not continue writing SF. With this post, I’ve covered her entire SF output.

Alice Eleanor Jones (1916-1981) received a PhD in English from University of Pennsylvania in 1944 on the seventeenth-century dramatist Shakerly Marmion. In the first year of her writing career, Jones “published five SF stories and two slick romance narratives.” Despite Anthony Boucher’s prediction that she’d be successful in both fields, Jones never returned to science fiction but continued to publish in the leading women’s magazines of the day and wrote a column for the trade magazine The Writer “well into the 1960s.”1 Lisa Yaszek argues that Jones’ “stories about housewife heroines and other domestic figures” do not reiterate conservative ideologues of the day but rather, through the construction of “offbeat” situations, examine how new scientific and social relations would impact women.2 Her two stories from the male perspective, “The Happy Clown” (1955) and “Life, Incorporated” (1955) are anti-consumerist satires.

This post fits–in conjunction with my earlier “Created He Them” (1955) review—in my series on the first three published short stories by female authors. So far I’ve featured Phyllis Gotlieb (1926-2009), Sydney J. Van Scyoc (1939-2023), Josephine Saxton (1935-), Carol Emshwiller (1921-2019), Wilmar H. Shiras (1908-1990), Nancy Kress (1948-), Melisa Michaels (1946-2019), Lee Killough (1942-), Betsy Curtis (1917-2002), and Eleanor Arnason (1942-).

Now let’s get to the stories!


2.5/5 (Bad)

“Life, Incorporated” first appeared in Fantastic Universe, ed. Leo Margulies (April 1955). You can read it online here.

Alice Eleanor Jones’ first-published short story does not foreshadow the heights she would achieve later in the year. A functional satire of the inherent human desire to swindle and accumulate wealth, “Life, Incorporated” places a human con artist named Baxter on the alien world of Kryllan. This planet differs from Earth in that their telepathic denizens know exactly how long they will live. The government runs the Life Bank, in which tags are engraved with a standard length of time given to every citizen. However, individuals can modify their current tally as Life can “bought and sold here, exactly like any other commodity” (61). The exchange, in the words of Ané, Baxter’s friend and guide, takes the form of a religious ceremony that “amounts to a declaration of brotherhood” between the giver and taker (61). But Baxter has other plans…

Over his time on Kryllan, Baxter rises in ranks at the Office of Engraving, which creates the tags for the Life bank. He steals supplies, engravers, and runs a serious of gambling endeavors that help him sus out the desires of the Kryllans and a stash of forged money. Soon the desperate come to him with their schemes–a woman who lies to her partner about her age wants her tag modified, a gambler cannot afford to add years to his rapidly approaching demise. And Baxter’s stash and ambitions grow!

Beyond the plot, there is little to write about. It’s simple and bland exposé of humanity’s drive to illegally accumulate and economically dominate people and new worlds. Despite the somewhat intriguing world of Kryllan, it’s not rendered in a way that encouraged reflection or wonder. Baxter’s delusion of grandeur comes crashing down but he cannot help but plan another scheme.

Not recommended.

3/5 (Average)

“Miss Quatro” first appeared in Fantastic Universe, ed. Leo Margulies (June 1955). You can read it online here.

Miss Quatro, “a small woman, slender and pale, very genteel, with no-color hair and no-color eyes” (55), cares for Edith and George’s child, Judy. The family notices how efficient and good she is with Judy, and appreciates her willingness to take on the children of their friends at short notice. They also notice strange quirks. The children are unnaturally obsessed with the story she tells, the nature of which remains unclear to the adults. It’s a story of slaves building a fantastic city. And how the slaves starve and burn and struggle under the dominations of their rulers. It’s a story the children can actually see.

The strange nursemaid and housekeeper also doesn’t remember her social security number. A friend of Edith and George, suggests that they “ought to know something about her” (58). And one day when George heads to the city to track down her past employers, Miss Quatro leads the children of the neighborhood into a pasture of an abandoned farm and shows the children her “city of jewels, a city of light” (61).

This is an odd little story. Overtly a recast version of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, “Miss Quatro” ends on a far less sinister note. A first glance I felt that the interactions of Judy’s parents and friends suggested a satirical take on the suburban existence but it’s not sustained and undermined by the final, affirming, reveal. This is a well-told–if a bit slight–vision. It’s not the Alice Eleanor Jones story I’d have included in Science Fiction by Women (1953-1957) (2022).

Somewhat recommended.

4/5 (Good)

“Recruiting Officer” first appeared in Fantastic, ed. Howard Browne (October 1955). You can read it online here.

Alice Eleanor Jones’ second-best science fiction story after “Created He Them” (1955) follows a shape-shifting entity on her recruit-collecting rounds. She takes the appearance, her “appearances are always excellent” (87), of a grandmotherly woman named Mrs. Quimby “dressed forty years behind the times” (87). In her convertible, she preys on young men between sixteen and twenty — “Oh, the beautiful young men, out on the highways of this world!” (87). On one of her productive tours of duty, she encounters her eighteenth victim — the beautiful Johnny, stranded with his mother at a car mechanic. She offers to drive him back to his school.

“Recruiting Officer” effectively subverts the male gaze present in so many fictions of era. Mrs. Quimby’s gaze is far from that of a passive collector, she lusts after what she sees. Her species finds allure in any and all male forms: “we desire it, in whatever form it takes” (97). She imagines running her hands through Johnny’s hair (91), she gauges the tenor of male voices (90), she speculates on their physical maturity (91), and she revels in the “exciting” moment she can reveal her true self before his restrained body (96). She sadly reflects on the lack of reciprocal lusts: “there is a curious lack of perception in the people of this world. I can see beauty in them, although they are so different from anything I have known. Why, then, can they not see beauty in me?” (97). And like a psychopath, she cannot entirely feel sorry for the victims of her horrifying actions.

This is a well-told story that tells the reader just enough to hook and entrance. I wonder if the story can be read as an allegory on the 50s societal forces that compelled young women to enter marriage–and resulting feelings of disgust, entrapment, and isolation that result.

Sinister. Effective. Recommended!


Notes


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