The Cosmic Geoids and One Other: Take your vitamins!

The Cosmic Geoids and One Other by John Taine science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Cosmic Geoids and One Other by John Taine

The Cosmic Geoids and One Other by John Taine science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsIt was Polish biochemist Casimir Funk who, in 1911, isolated the substance now known as vitamin B3. In 1912, Funk wrote a book called The Vitamines (he’d coined that term as a contraction of the words “vital amines”), in which he spoke of other, similar substances and their abilities to prevent various ailments. And then, the vitamin ball really got rolling, with sales of vitamins A and C rising steadily in the 1920s and ‘30s. Before the onset of WW2, it was learned that fully 1/3 of America’s enlisted men were suffering from assorted illnesses due to malnutrition, resulting in FDR convening the National Nutrition Conference for Defense. And in 1943, the very first “one-a-day” multivitamin was introduced to the U.S. populace. So yes, vitamins were indeed very much in the spotlight at this time, and it was perhaps these news reports that caused Scottish-born mathematician/sci-fi author John Taine to make them the subject of his 14th fictional volume, The Cosmic Geoids and One Other. This book collected two novella-length works by Taine, both of them dealing with — of all things — the negative effects of insufficient vitamin dosages.

Like so many other Taine works, this collection has never been reprinted since its initial appearance in 1949. The book was released as a $3 hardcover by Fantasy Publishing Company (not to be confused with Fantasy Press, which had released Taine’s 13th piece of fiction, 1947’s The Forbidden Garden) in a limited edition of 1,200 copies; I was fortunate enough to recently find one of those 1,200 for a decent price online. It is a handsome volume, featuring beautiful, at times abstract illustrations by one Lou Goldstone. The two novellas that it contains are “The Cosmic Geoids” (reprinted as a three-part serial in Spaceway magazine five years later; I believe that Armchair Fiction has currently reissued it as part of one of its 2-in-1 volumes) and “Black Goldfish” (which had been serialized as a two-parter in the magazine Fantasy Book in 1948 and has not been reissued in 73 years, as of this writing). The two novellas, although sharing that theme of vitamin deficiency, are really quite as different as can be, and written in wholly dissimilar styles. And both are fascinating exercises in Golden Age sci-fi.

“The Cosmic Geoids” kicks off this volume; a novella of 96 pages in length. The story concerns the discovery of several round artifacts in Bolivia in 1879; artifacts that are found to contain, inside their hollow shells, some 400 small plates, with writing in an alien hand. Ultimately, over 40 of these so-called “cosmic geoids” are discovered, scattered around our planet. (A “geoid,” in case you were wondering, is, according to my dictionary, “the surface within or around the Earth that is everywhere normal to the direction of gravity and coincides with mean sea level in the oceans.” Does that help you? No, it didn’t help me much, either. I get the feeling that Taine was just searching for a term that sounded cooler than “the cosmic balls.”) After some 300 years, Earth’s scientists finally manage to decipher the alien writings, and thus, sometime after WW7, we get to read the report of the secretary of the late Professor Gifford, head of the Alliance of World Scientists. Gifford had dubbed the race who had written these records, and sent them off broadcast into space, billions of years ago in a now-defunct galaxy, the Eosians, from the Greek word for “dawn,” which is “Eos.” The secretary tells us that the Eosians (and whether or not these Eosians are indeed the same Eosians as those who had figured prominently in Taine’s 8th novel, 1931’s The Time Stream, it really is impossible to say, so this novella may or may not be a sequel to that earlier work) had known for some 5 million of our years (some 50,000 of theirs) that one of their three suns was going to go supernova, but were powerless to prevent the catastrophe. Changes in that sun’s radiation output had already caused many of their vital foodstuffs to go extinct, resulting in a deficiency of certain essential vitamins that had caused a large group of the population to mutate into “the living dead”; supergeniuses still, but not nearly so much as the “fully living” Eosians. When the living dead had tried to experiment on some of the planet’s elements, a further mutation had occurred, resulting in an even more debased group, the so-called “hopeful monsters.” (“Hopeful monsters,” I found after some minor research, was a term coined by German geneticist Richard Goldschmidt, apparently, to describe “macromutations,” in which one species spontaneously changes into another.) Later in “The Cosmic Geoids,” the tale is picked up by Gifford’s assistant, Greta Curtze, and finally, in a brief and confusing coda, by the Asiatic High Command.

Okay, I’m not going to lie to you: “The Cosmic Geoids” really is one very strange story, written in a dry, clinical manner by Taine, as befits the scientific report that it purports to be. According to Wikipedia, sci-fi critic (and future horror authority) Forrest J. Ackerman, in his review of the novella in Astounding magazine, called it “truly Stapledonian”; a reference, of course, to English author Olaf Stapledon’s 1931 epic Last and First Men, which covered the history of mankind billions of years into the future. “The Cosmic Geoids” limits itself to that 5 million-year period of countless billions of years ago, but still manages to achieve the elusive sense of “cosmic wonder” that was held in such high esteem by Golden Age readers. It is a fairly engaging if emotionally distancing reading experience, and surely not for every taste. I cannot say that I fully understood some of the novella’s points, especially in that final section, although I would approve of the story’s ultimate message, which I suppose might be boiled down to the Beatles’ immortal mantra, “All you need is love.” Personally speaking, I could have done with more of the stellar pyrotechnics and less of the squabbling amongst the Terran scientists. The subject of mutagenesis, it seems to me, had been much more enjoyably handled in such Taine novels as Seeds of Life (1931) and The Forbidden Garden. Apropos to the Eosian solar system, three stars only to this dry-as-spacedust Taine novella.

Much more enjoyable for me, surprisingly, was the collection’s second offering, the 73-page novella “Black Goldfish.” And I only say “surprisingly” because Ackerman, in that same review, went on to call this tale “the weakest thing Taine has ever done,” although I wound up liking it more than the first novella. And truth to tell, I am happy to hear someone call “Black Goldfish” the author’s worst piece of fiction, as I still have seven Taine novels yet to read, and am now facing them with a renewed enthusiasm, because I found “Black Goldfish” to be imaginative, highly readable, humorous and really quite well done.

The novella introduces the reader to an overweight, gluttonous gourmand and third-rate biochemist named Dr. Klaup, who had emigrated from his home country (we assume that it had been Germany) some years before. Klaup, before the story proper begins, had, by underhanded means, taken control of his employer’s chemical business, and is now claiming credit for Jones’ two great discoveries: vitamins alpha and omega. Klaup becomes something of a national hero when the government of his adopted country (we assume that it is the U.S., but really, it’s impossible to know for sure) starts using “his” vitamin omega to boost both the strength and working endurance of all its troops and employees. And that energy boost is more crucial than ever, what with the country’s enemy on its southern border (Mexico?!?!) massing its armies and expected to attack within six months’ time. But what the home country only learns later is that Klaup has turned traitor, and is now vending vitamin omega to the enemy, as well. What follows is a tale of high-stakes intrigue, in which Jones, in cahoots with Army Intelligence, plays a long game to (a) avert disaster at the hands of the enemy, (b) bring Klaup to justice, and (c) regain his stolen company. And in this game, Jones is abetted by Klaup’s long-suffering black maid, Cleo, who hates Klaup with a passion. Why? Because Klaup insists on calling her by the nickname Black Goldfish, saying that she reminds him of the goldfish named Cleo from the 1940 animated film Pinocchio. Pretty strange, right?

Cleo, aka Black Goldfish, serves a similar function in this story as had the eponymous White Lily in Taine’s 7th novel, 1930’s White Lily; i.e., a minor female character whom the book is somehow named after by dint of her seeking vengeance on a more important character. To Taine’s credit, his novella is wholly free of racial caricatures, and Cleo is happily depicted as both beautiful and quite brainy. Unlike “The Cosmic Geoids,” “Black Goldfish” is very reader friendly, and the style that Taine employs here is hardly a dry one. Whereas that first novella had been a completely humorless affair, this one has any number of amusing moments, and the enemy country’s “Komizahr” (hmm, sounds more Russian than Mexican, right?) is presented as quite the buffoonish clown. The story has several laff-out-loud lines — I love when the Chief of Staff opines “Take it from me, a single hundred-pound atom bomb is more convincing than a thousand tons of syllogisms” — and really keeps the reader guessing as to how things are going to resolve. The novella does not get bogged down with clinical scientific details, as had the first, and moves along briskly and with purpose. Taine’s weakest? I should say not. As a matter of fact, this reader could only discern one slight misstep in the tale at all: when we are told that the name of Jones’ company had been The Vesuvius Drug and Chemical Laboratories on pg. 123, and then The Vesuvius Chemical and Drug Laboratories on pg. 124. But that surely is not a big deal, right? The story remains both highly entertaining and lucid to the understanding, and should prove a treat for any reader … something that cannot be said for “The Cosmic Geoids.” A very solid 4 stars for this one.

So there you have it: two novellas that are as different as can be from a Golden Age great, though dealing with a similar subject. My advice would be to go take your Flintstones Chewable, NatureMade Multi or Centrum Silver, curl up with this fascinating if problematic volume, and enjoy!

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SANDY FERBER, on our staff since April 2014 (but hanging around here since November 2012), is a resident of Queens, New York and a product of that borough's finest institution of higher learning, Queens College. After a "misspent youth" of steady and incessant doses of Conan the Barbarian, Doc Savage and any and all forms of fantasy and sci-fi literature, Sandy has changed little in the four decades since. His favorite author these days is H. Rider Haggard, with whom he feels a strange kinship -- although Sandy is not English or a manored gentleman of the 19th century -- and his favorite reading matter consists of sci-fi, fantasy and horror... but of the period 1850-1960. Sandy is also a devoted buff of classic Hollywood and foreign films, and has reviewed extensively on the IMDb under the handle "ferbs54." Film Forum in Greenwich Village, indeed, is his second home, and Sandy at this time serves as the assistant vice president of the Louie Dumbrowski Fan Club....

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  1. Ulrich Elkmann /

    It seems more likely that “geoids” is a typo or misreembered spelling for “geode” on the author’s part.

    • Sandy Ferber /

      YES! “Geodes” are exactly what are described in the story! You are absolutely right, Ulrich! Nice find! Well, Taine was a mathematician, after all, not a geologist!

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