By GW Thomas
The fact that DAW chose it for The Pocket Book of Science Fiction, the very first mass market paperback of SF, is significant. The anthology is roughly divided into three eras: the old classics by Bierce and Wells, a middle period with Stribling and John Collier, and the later pulp era with Weinbaum, Sturgeon, Heinlein, and Campbell. So who was this TS Stribling that DAW thought him important enough to put beside the masters of the Golden Age of Science Fiction? I couldn't recall any other stories by him from the early days when SF had not been named yet but was known as "Off Trail" fiction. The answer was surprising.
The plot of the story has an American geographic expedition come to Peru to explore the Rio Infiernillo, a place so evil only two condemned murderers can be found to guide them. At the beginning of the valley the scientists find a collection of skeleton specimens, including a human, all hung up on display. Later they find a black patch that appears to not have been created by the local lava fumaroles, but is instantaneous enough to roast a nearby rabbit. The mystery deepens when one of their guides, Cesare, goes chasing after a stranger he has shot at, but doesn't return. The mystery man has left behind the green splotches of the title, a liquid filled with chlorophyll.
The characters on the expedition have their theories about what it all means. Pethwick thinks the yellow-skinned Firsts are an obscure offshoot of the Incans, possessing lost and secret technology. Professor Demetriovich thinks they are Bolsheviks. Stribling ends the story with a letter written by Gilbert H DeLong , the official administrator of the expedition. In it, he recommends the scientists for the Noble Prize, while giving his own interpretation of the record. He tells how the change in color as the ship flew off shows that the vessel was heading for space and at just above the speed of light. From the numeric name of Mr. Three and his incredible agility, DeLong deduces that the Firsts were headed for either Jupiter or Neptune. He envisions a heavy gravity planet populated by quadrillions of aliens, requiring their military lifestyle, their number names, and their interest in other forms of life (having none other on their planet). The green splotches were the blood drops of the Firsts, whom DeLong believes are plants, not animals. In this way, Stribling reveals all his secrets and finishes with a final sting. DeLong wins the Nobel Prize, not those he is advocating for; one last shot at human stupidity.
The story received several illustrations in its many reprints. Gernsback unwisely gives away the secret of the story by having Frank R Paul draw the spaceship on the cover and again in the illustration. Famous Fantastic Mysteries did better, beginning with the creepy skeletons and only showing the ship at the end. Stribling wrote a letter to FFM about his story. He down-plays its importance at the same time that he clearly indicates that he won't be writing anymore science fiction (that mood has passed). The editor praised his forward vision on rocket ship design, but Stribling confesses this was just dumb luck.
adapted for Escape, the radio show on March 31, 1950, starring William N Robson, William Conrad, and Paul Frees.)
TS Stribling would write more science fiction for Adventure before winning that Pulitzer. A lost race tale, "The Web of the Sun" (January 30, 1922), Fombombo (August 20-September 20, 1923), the dystopic "Christ in Chicago" (April 8, 1926), and a tale of intelligent apes called "Mogglesby" (June 1, 1930). His last novel, These Bars of Flesh (1938) features the same kind of satiric fantasy of his earlier stories. His use of science fiction was Wellsian in that he set up situations where he could look (not always kindly) at how humans behave. (Think of Wells' "The Country of the Blind," also set in South America.) "The Green Splotches" was the first of these examinations and as such deserves its place in the Reprint Hall of Fame.
GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.