The Best of Mindwebs

Mindwebs is Michael Hanson reading great “short stories from the worlds of speculative fiction” at WHA in Madison, Wisconsin from the 70s to the 90s. As a long-time fan of old-time radio, Mindwebs struck me as rather bare-bones when I first started listening to the episodes—it’s mostly just Mr. Hanson reading stories with some music in the background. However, he’s a great performer, and his selection of stories provides a valuable overview of both well-known and obscure authors from throughout the 20th century. Some of it is corny, silly, and even stupid, but the best is well worth a listen.

All but 16 of the episodes have been preserved over at the Internet Archive, though the audio quality of some of them is very poor. But wait! There is now a more complete archive of these shows that includes some _new_ (!) episodes he recorded in 2018 before his death in 2021:

Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite episodes, with honorable mentions way down at the bottom.

“The Hall of Machines” by Langdon Jones
This haunting story about an ancient and seemingly unending hall filled with mysterious machines has echoes of Borges and Tarkovsky’s “Stalker”. It might be my favorite single episode of the series.

“The Meeting” by Frederick Pohl and C. M. Kornbluth
I couldn’t figure out why this story belonged in this series until the very end. It brings up some very difficult questions and it has really stuck with me.

“Sword Game” by H. H. Hollis
In the tradition of “—And He Built a Crooked House—” and “Star Bright”, a tesseract provides a means of escape in this humorous story. Science fiction authors are fond of using mild-mannered professors as protagonists, but here Hollis gives us a hedonistic and self-centered topology professor with a taste for young women and adventure.

“The Country of the Kind” by Damon Knight
An extremely unsettling story about the punishment of a violent individual in a pacifist society. The beginning of the story is particularly startling. Robert Silverberg’s “To See the Invisible Man”, which is featured in another episode, addresses similar issues.

“Subjectivity” by Norman Spinrad
What happens when one person’s hallucinations begin to infringe on the hallucinations of others? This story explores some of the same territory that Dick explores in Ubik and Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said in a somewhat more lighthearted manner.

“The Veldt” by Ray Bradbury
This is a fine, well-acted version of a classic story. There are other very good radio adaptations, including classic episodes of X Minus One and Dimension X, a BBC version, and even a segment of the film The Illustrated Man. There’s even a deadmau5 song based on the story. If you haven’t experienced it, it’s a truly remarkable tale that touches on over-reliance on technology, parenting, and the troubling consequences of virtual reality.

“Roller Ball Murder” by William Harrison
Giant corporations rule the world and sponsor teams for a lethal professional sport called Roller Ball. This story was published in Esquire and was later dramatized in the film Rollerball (1975).

“The Squirrel Cage” by Thomas Disch
This is another great story by Thomas Disch (see also his story Descending, mentioned below). Much like the famous story “Knock” and the alien zoo sections of Slaughterhouse-Five, it concerns a man trapped in a cage. In this case, however, there is no hope of escape nor any indication of who is incarcerating him or why they’re doing it. It’s terrifying and powerful and is one of Michael Hanson’s best performances.

“Moth Race” by Richard Hill
A lethal game allows the citizens of a centrally-governed authoritarian world to vent their frustrations and anxieties once a year.

“The Swimmer” by John Cheever
This is one of my absolute favorites. Cheever’s tale slowly unravels in the same way that time unravels before the eyes of the titular swimmer. It reminds us that time passes quickly and slowly at the same time, that one day you will wake up and find that 10 years have passed. It is a slow-motion nightmare.

“The Worm” by David Keller
This one is a classic in the terrible-thing-in-the-basement genre. It’s a small but rich genre of strange horror – Stephen King’s “Graveyard Shift” is another good one – and the inevitable conclusion is always somehow strangely satisfying.

“Apple” by John Baxter
Mining the fruit of giant apples mutated by radiation is a grueling and dangerous job, especially when one becomes the home of a giant moth.

“When It Changed” by Joanna Russ
A world of only women is at the precipice of great change when men return for the first time in centuries. This story is beautifully read by Carol Collin.

“The Metal Man” by Jack Williamson
In the tradition of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, this is the memoir of an adventurer who has witnessed some bizarre occurrences in the depths of the jungle. The vivid descriptions and the tone of horrified amazement give this story a dreamlike quality.

“The Food Farm” by Kit Reed
A young woman who cannot control her insatiable appetite is sent away to lose weight and has only the voice of her favorite singer to comfort her.

“The Vertical Ladder” by William Sansom
A boy is pressured by his playmates to climb a very tall ladder. That’s really all there is to this story, but the way in which Sansom traces the progress of the boy and his mind as he ascends is riveting. It’s not exactly “speculative fiction”, but it’s worth a listen.

“A Saucer of Loneliness” by Theodore Sturgeon
This is a classic, beautiful science fiction story about the sort of desperate loneliness that causes someone to send out messages in bottles.

“The Snake” by John Steinbeck / “The Fly” by Arthur Porges
This episode features two elliptical and unsettling stories about animals. Steinbeck’s story is not much more than a single strange occurrence, but the care with which he paints the scene and the contrast between the protagonist and his unusual visitor is marvelous. Porges’s story is a similarly vivid telling of one strange encounter, this time with a very unusual insect. His style is quite different than Steinbeck’s, but the care and attention to detail are similarly enthralling.

“Gas Mask” by James D. Houston
One man does his best to cope with an endless citywide traffic jam.

“The Petrified Word” by Robert Sheckley
A man’s dream world threatens to take over his absurd and unpredictable everyday reality.

“En Pessant” by Britt Schweitzer / “Dreamworld” by Isaac Asimov
The Asimov story is light-hearted and slight. The Schweitzer story, however, is like no other Mind Webs story – it is bizarre, disgusting, and somewhat reminiscent of Beckett and Ballard.

“When We Went to See the End of the World” by Robert Silverberg
A dinner party unfolds amidst a backdrop of calamitous events in this hilarious and dark story. Picture The Ice Storm combined with every disaster movie ever made.

“In the Abyss” by H. G. Wells
The original master of speculative fiction relates the story of an intrepid ocean explorer’s contact with an alien world at the bottom of the sea.

“The Show Must Go On” by James Causey
How will men live with androids that reach a level of perfection unattainable by human beings? This story explores that concept with elements from Pagliacci and Tod Browning’s The Unknown.

“In the Imagicon” by George Henry Smith / “Corrida” by Roger Zelazny
The Smith story is entertaining, but it’s Zelazny’s very short and vivid story that is unforgettable.

“Wasted on the Young” by John Brunner
Brunner proposes a future in which the only currency is work hours and growing up is mandated. There are similarities with Logan’s Run, but this is a much more disturbing and incisive look at a future that is at once a utopia and a dystopia.

“The Number You Have Reached” by Thomas Disch
How can you know if you’re still sane when you’re the last man alive? Where does reality end and delusion begin?

“Don’t Look Now” by Henry Kuttner
Michael Hanson masterfully narrates this often humorous story about alien paranoia.

“The Maze” by Stuart Dybek
A beautifully written and very deeply creepy story about a horrific laboratory at the end of the world in which madness reigns and the line between researcher and research subject begins to blur.

“Descending” by Thomas Disch
If you’ve ever been afraid of getting lost in the depths of a department store, this Kafkaesque story is for you.

“The Sentinel” by Arthur C. Clarke
This classic story was the initial inspiration for Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, the greatest of all science fiction films. Much like the film, it unfolds slowly and beautifully and touches on the nature of man and our possible place in the universe.

“My Object All Sublime” by Poul Anderson
This is an unassuming and brilliantly told story about prisoners and fugitives in the past. Heinlein wrote a different story with the same title.

“Desertion” by Clifford Simak
A rapidly expanding human race desperate for new worlds on which to live are transforming the bodies of explorers so that they might survive on the surface of an alien world. These transformed colonists, however, never return to assume their human forms once again.

“Winter Housekeeping” by Molly Daniel / “The Public Hating” by Steve Allen
The first story is short and slight but unbelievably sad and strangely memorable. It’s hard to imagine a harsher portrait of old age. The second story is not particularly remarkable but a good match with Daniel’s story. This is a particularly dark and bitter episode.

“Apartment Hunting” by Harvey and Audrey Bilker / “King of the Beasts” by Philip Jose Farmer
If you think the rent is high in New York, well, it can get worse. The Bilkers follow the current scarcity of housing to a frightening extreme.

“The Run” by Christopher Priest
This is my kind of story: a brief snapshot of a bleak future on its way to the apocalypse. It has a slight tinge of Mad Max and doesn’t waste too much time on back story.

“But as a Soldier, For His Country” by Stephen Goldin
A career soldier is cryogenically frozen and then unfrozen every time his country, or his world, fights a war.

“Impostor” by Philip K. Dick
Dick’s short stories are among his best works, and this is no exception. It’s a thriller that, like many of his other stories, uses a simulacrum to play with questions of identity.

Honorable Mentions:
“Affair with a Green Monkey”, “A Walk in the Dark”, “Absalom”, “Beach Head in Utopia”, “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”, “I See You”, “Knock”, “Light of Other Days”, “My Object All Sublime”, “Pure Gold”, “Remembrance to Come”, “That Only a Mother”, “The Bible After Apocalypse”, “The Builder”, “The Exhibition”, “The Night All Time Broke Out”, “Final Exam”, “To See the Invisible Man”, “The Rules of the Road”, “The Racer”, “The Sky Was Full of Ships”, “The Top”, “To the Dark Star”, “Young Girl at An Open Half Door”