Friday, December 2, 2016

Pretty Leslie by R. V. Cassill

She had to be capable of anything now.  When the surface of her life flowed on like rote--as it usually did--still the lower currents wandered among the stony surprises of an unknown stream bed.  
I spent some time in Des Moines on my recent Thanksgiving travels, and found that the public library was selling books for five cents each! Among those I purchased for this cheap as free price was R. V. Cassill’s Pretty Leslie, a Bantam paperback from 1964 with an interesting red cover that proclaims it to be “the brilliant, moving novel of modern sexual life!”, complete with exclamation point! (The book first appeared as a Simon and Schuster hardcover with a repulsive cover in 1963.) The back cover text of my paperback suggests this 295-page book is about a horny chick whose horniness gets her in some kind of trouble; I guess we’ve all been there, haven’t we?

Ronald Verlin Cassill was born in Iowa, and my copy of Pretty Leslie was once part of the Des Moines Public Library’s collection of books by Iowa authors. It is in quite good shape; evidently nobody found the sexalicious cover enticing  enough to actually sit in the library ("FOR USE IN LIBRARY ONLY") and read it. I guess it does look more like one of those "curl up all alone with" type of books.  But don’t think that I purchased Pretty Leslie in hopes it was a piece of pornography!  Not only did Cassill win various literary awards as well as the praises of the snobs at the New York Times and James Dickey (whose Deliverance I read about six years ago and am happy to recommend)--for two decades Cassill edited The Norton Anthology of Short Fiction,a perch of great power and prestige in the world of wordsmithery!  All the evidence suggests that Pretty Leslie, even if it is about a horny chick, is a respectable piece of modern literature!


Leslie Skinner (Skinner?  hmmmm...) grew up in the tony Long Island suburb of Manhasset, and then moved to Manhattan and worked at a famous magazine. As our story begins, Leslie is 27 and has lived with her husband, Ben Daniels, a pediatrician, for three years in Sardis, Illinois.  Leslie loves attention, and is a skilled liar and clever manipulator: “She could, and did, still make anyone she wanted to fall in love with her.  The tactics were exactly those that had worked in Manhasset High...."  She flirts with Ben's friends and the men at the ad agency where she works part time, and tells white lies to her female coworkers to get them to tell her their own secrets--these secrets she relays to her husband.  Leslie, Ben reflects, has a "contagious lust for drama."

The back cover of Pretty Leslie, with its handwritten quote from the title character's diary, had given me hopes that this novel would be a first person narrative from a nymphomaniac or someone with some other psychological problem, but it is in fact written in the third person omniscient form, and we follow several characters, learn their backstories, look into their minds, and witness events from their points of view. In the first of the novel's four parts we learn Ben Daniels' deep dark secret: As a child growing up in Kansas he cunningly murdered another boy, meting out rough justice for that boy's having tortured a dog. The murder was ruled an accident, and Ben and his stepmother moved to New York City to start a new life. Throughout his life Ben has wrestled with a dilemma: can he unburden himself of this weighty secret, tell anyone, even his wife, how he coaxed Billy Kirkland behind a car parked on an incline and then, oops, released the brake so Billy was crushed?

In Part Two we learn about Leslie's past: she was fat, which scarred her mind, making her obsessed with keeping off weight.  She developed a slender figure as a young adult, but she is haunted by a "Fat Girl" and at times of stress will quickly gain weight and resort to girdles.  Cassill's novel is full of Freudian mumbo jumbo: we not only learn about the childhood incidents which have caused the various characters' adult fetishes and hangups, but read all about their stupid dreams, and all the characters fling around goofy psychological analyses of each other. Ben, for example, thinks that when Leslie gains weight it may be because she subconsciously wants to be pregnant.

Did I say "fetishes and hangups?"  Leslie wants to be treated roughly by a man, dominated, or at a least part of her she isn't quite ready to admit, even to herself, does. One of Cassill's recurring themes is personalities split in two, entities composed of two opposing or complementary elements.  Leslie is both the sexy sophisticated professional and the Fat Girl, while Ben is both the cunning assassin of a child and the devoted preserver of children's lives.

Leslie's desire to be roughly handled is all mixed up in her attitudes about race.  While she calls herself a liberal and was "madly for Adlai" during her high school days, she was sexually aroused when she heard a horror story from the South about a black woman who was gang raped by whites while held up against the fender of a car, and was also excited when she saw a cop on the streets of Greenwich Village beating Puerto Rican boys with his billy club.  That very same cop later tried to make the moves on her, and when she resisted he hit her with the very same club, a beating she found cathartic.

Ben has his own complicated views of blacks and Hispanics, which are all mixed up in his beliefs in superstition and "the uncanny."  Ben's father died in Africa where his parents were missionaries devoted to helping whom Ben calls "black idiots;" a "witch doctor" tended Ben's father on his deathbed and Ben's mother soon after went insane. Ben himself volunteers two days a week at a clinic in an Illinois ghetto, looking after "Negro" children.  In an early part of the novel Ben fails to save a black baby (the little boy ate lead paint chips and dies of lead poisoning) and the same day revives an apparently doomed white little girl; Ben conceives the ridiculous notion that the events are inextricably linked, that somehow the little Negro boy was sacrificed to rescue the Caucasian child.

I should probably note that animals also play a role in the novel (there is the aforementioned dog, for example, as well as a pet bird, some pet fish, and a recurring reference to a chimpanzee) and that these animals play a role in the novel similar to that of the numerous minor nonwhite figures--they are alien inferiors, and the way the three white principals treat them reveals something about their character.  

First edition; are those gummy worms
or mitochondria?  Hideous!
The climax of Part Two comes when Ben is down in Caracas, at a medical conference where he learns about the plight of Latin American children.  After a party at her boss's fancy house Leslie has a brief affair with a social inferior, Donald Patch.  We learn all about Patch in Part Three.  A short man Leslie doesn't even like, Patch is a loutish commercial artist and science fiction fan (!) whom nobody respects; he uses an airbrush to paint highly detailed and "garishly" realistic depictions of people, aircraft and military equipment (sophisticated people like Leslie prefer abstract modern art, even if they work at an ad agency which makes its money by offering clients Patch's realistic work.)  Patch is a serial womanizer, but he has only ever had lower class women, including many "Negro" women--white, educated middle-class Leslie is a major catch for him.  Patch seduces women by being dismissive and cruel to them (I guess nowadays people call this "negging") and he is a violent lover who hurts Leslie.  This selfish creep brings Leslie to orgasm, something her kind and gentle husband has never done!

Also in Part Three Ben returns from Venezuela, his contact with poor Latin American kids having fired him with the idea that he and Leslie (who have been unable to have their own child) should adopt.  But when he suggests this idea to Leslie over dinner at a fancy restaurant she isn't even listening to him--she's thinking of Patch!  Over the succeeding weeks various clues convince Ben that Leslie had another man in his absence.  He tries to be modern and liberal about it ("If someone had her on her back, what's the harm in it?  Who am I to rock the boat?") but the knowledge of her infidelity has terrible effects on his mind; he becomes impotent, for example.  Patch badgers Leslie into resuming the affair; she spends her days in Patch's crummy apartment and her nights in the house Ben bought her.  Cassill suggests that Leslie needs both gentle Ben and brutal Patch to achieve satisfaction, and even that Ben and Patch are different versions of the same person, shaped by different circumstances. The climax of Part Three is when Leslie discovers she is finally pregnant!

In Part Four Leslie flees west and Ben finally realizes what is going on and confronts Patch; he and Patch (it appears) die, while Leslie, sower of discord, moves on to another phase of her life.

There are some good things in Pretty Leslie; the sex stuff is more or less entertaining, and the uncomfortable race stuff, Leslie and Ben's powerful but condescending, ambivalent, and at times hypocritical feelings about blacks and Hispanics, is intresting.  I liked the character of Donald Patch, the brutish artist consigned to the edges of polite society.  I give Pretty Leslie a passing grade.  But there are also lots of problems--it is certainly not as "brilliant" or "moving" as advertised.  Cassill doesn't have a very engaging prose style, and he uses lots and lots of elaborate metaphors and similes.  Some of these work, but some just weigh down the narrative, expressing an idea with more words but no more clarity than a simple declaration would have.  Some of the longer metaphorical passages I found distracting and, as my mind wandered, incomprehensible.

The profusion of metaphors suggests Cassill is trying to produce a serious literary novel; he also assumes a level of cultural literacy on the part of the reader, including plenty of references to artists like George Bellows and Willem De Kooning and fictional characters like Circe, Madame Bovary, and Mrs. Miniver.  Cassill never uses Maugham's name, but makes it clear Patch thinks of himself as Strickland, the protagonist of Somerset Maugham's Moon and Sixpence, an artist above the stifling strictures of bourgeois morality.

In the same way the overabundance of metaphors makes the book feel a little too long and too slow, there is a superfluity of minor, uninteresting characters who appear briefly and then never show up again; maybe Cassill could have combined some of them--how many friends and colleagues do the Daniels really need for the narrative to function?

A recent edition
The novel's biggest problem is probably that it is about a marriage, but neither the husband nor the wife is very interesting, and their relationship isn't compelling either.  Leslie and Ben Daniels are wishy washy--why should the reader be "moved" if Ben and Leslie themselves are so bland and hesitant, so ambivalent, about each other?  I can't remember why they even got married, what attracted them to each other in the first place, they never exhibit the kind of deep love or ferocious hate I want to see in drama. Don Patch, a man driven by big emotions who stands at odds with society, is the book's most interesting character--he acts and reacts, he feels things and he does things.  Leslie and Ben just go with the flow, they think and talk but can't make up their minds about what they feel and what they should to do, and end up feeling and doing very little.  Leslie and Ben are passive victims to whom things happen, and victims are boring--Patch is a villain or antihero who makes things happen.

A part of the problem is all that modern psychology jazz; it quashes the characters' agency as well as any romance or tragedy the story might have had, turning them into malfunctioning machines instead of flesh and blood people you can feel for.  The idea of people as deterministic machines may make sense as a description of real life, but it can ruin fiction, especially when the characters, instead of rebelling against determinism, blandy accept it.

Pretty Leslie wasn't a waste of my time, but Cassill lacks the sort of special something--depth of feeling, a beautiful style, a unique point of view, humor or a sense of fun, surprising ideas--that excites me about the "mainstream" or "literary" writers I really like, such as Proust or Nabokov or Maugham or Orwell or Henry Miller or Bukowski, so I don't think I will be reading any other of his numerous works.

Monday, November 28, 2016

"Crashing Suns," "The Star-Stealers" and "Within the Nebula" by Edmond Hamilton

My copy, front cover
A year ago we served in a mind-blowing star-smashing intergalactic space war involving snake people, gas people, and a multicultural space navy from our own Milky Way when we read the 1964 printing of Edmond Hamilton's 1929 novel Outside the Universe. Outside the Universe sold so well, super-editor Donald A. Wollheim tells us, that Ace decided to put out more of Hamilton's 1920s and 1930s tales of the Interstellar Patrol, and in 1965 presented to the space-opera-loving public Ace F-319, Crashing Suns. Crashing Suns includes five stories by Ohio-native Hamilton plus a short intro by Wollheim (in which he brags about the "evident success" of Outside the Universe I mentioned above) and a fun interior illustration by Jack Gaughan.  Over the last week or so, between driving hundreds of miles across America's vast Middle West and visiting my wife's friends and family (lots of staring vacantly into space while they discussed sports and local gossip, but also a chance to watch a spaghetti Western with my mother-in-law), I read three of these stories, each of which first appeared in the famed genre magazine Weird Tales.

"Crashing Suns" (1929)

This story, which isfdb informs us is the first component of Hamilton's Interstellar Patrol series (Outside the Universe is the fourth), is over 40 pages long, and was published across two issues of Weird Tales.


It is one hundred thousand years in the future, and mankind has colonized the entire solar system. Our narrator, Jan Tor, captain of the "long, fishlike" Interplanetary Patrol Cruiser 79388, is summoned to Earth, to the Hall of Planets, the seat of the system's government.  The Chairman of the Supreme Council has bad news: in one year's time a star is going to collide with Sol, and the explosion will exterminate all of humanity! Luckily, one of Jan Tor's old friends, genius scientist Serto Sen, has just invented a new kind of space drive which permits travel at the speed of light.  Jan Tor is given command of the human race's first light speed vessel, a little ten-man job, and sent on a mission to investigate this mysteriously genocidal ball o' gas.

The plot of "Crashing Suns" is broadly similar to that of Outside the Universe.  Jan Tor and company get captured by spherical pink aliens and learn that these creeps' sun is worn out, and that they hope to rejuvenate it by crashing it into Sol. Hamilton gives us some horror scenes while Jan Tor and friends are in captivity, then they escape to Earth, where a fleet of 1000 light speed ships has been built.  Jan Tor is given command of this human armada, and he leads it in a tremendous naval battle against the pink spheres' navy, but it is another invention of Serto Sen's, a ray projector which redirects the alien sun, that saves human civilization.  It is the scientist, not the fighting man, who is the real hero of the story, and the last paragraphs of the tale look forward to the colonization of the galaxy by the human race, an heroic destiny made possible by Serto Sen's light speed drive.

"The Star Stealers" (1929)

There's Ran Rarak and Dal Nara now,
escaping their high rise cell on the dark star
This story takes place some two hundred thousand years in the future. The Earth is now a member of the Federation of Stars which includes all the intelligent species of the galaxy, and our narrator is Ran Rarak, captain of a “long cigarlike” cruiser capable of travel one thousand times the speed of Serto Sen's light speed ship.   Ran Rarak’s ship is called away from its duty as a component of the Interstellar Patrol’s fleet to Neptune, where Ran Rarak gets terrible news: from out of the black depths of intergalactic space a burned out star is rushing towards Sol! This black star is over a million times the size of our Sun, and if it enters our solar system human civilization will be devastated by its tremendous gravitational pull! Ran Rarak is given command of a fleet of fifty ships manned by scientists and engineers and sent off to try to divert this black star of doom from its genocidal course!

The plot of “The Star-Stealers” follows that of “Crashing Suns” so closely as to feel like a revision of that story. Ran Rarak and his friends are captured by the inhabitants of the dead star, tentacle monsters who live in pyramidal cities. There we are treated to a scene of horror, and learn that the tentacle people’s dying star will soon be so cold that survival on its surface will be impossible.  The hope of these fiends is that they can direct their dead sun close enough to Sol that our sun will be pulled into orbit around the black star and carried off. The tentacle peeps even plan to use their high technology to throw Earth and the other planets into Sol as additional fuel!

Fortunately, weeks after they were captured, Ran Rarak and his comrades (including Dal Nara, his female second-in-command) escape their prison, and at the same time the Federation Navy shows up to destroy the tentacle peeps' navy and clear the way for Ran Rarak to deactivate the ray that is directing the black star’s course, saving our system.

“Within the Nebula” (1929)

Our narrator for this caper isn’t a naval officer, but a politician, Ker Kal, Sol’s representative to the Federation’s council at Canopus. Is this story going to be about fraudulent universities, corrupt foundations, hacked e-mails and conflicts of interest? Hell, no! This story is about the dangers posed by genocidal nebulas!

In this story a nebula is a blob of burning gas too hot for a spaceship to enter. The cyclops who is the Chief of the Federation council explains to the assembled representatives that the huge nebula at the center of the Milky Way Galaxy has begun to spin and will soon explode; the burning gas ejected by such an explosion will exterminate all life in the galaxy! Luckily, scientists have just invented a material that can withstand the infernal heat of a nebula and built a spaceship out of it!

The new nebula-resistant ship can only carry three people, and our man Ker Kal is one of the representatives selected for the dangerous mission of figuring out what the heck is up with that spinning nebula and if there is anything we can do about it. He is accompanied by a plant man from Capella and a tentacle person from Arcturus; these three politicians fly to the peaceful inner eye of the fiery nebula storm and discover a titanic planet, sheathed in artificial metal plates.

Inside this planet our heroes are captured by hideous amoeba men! They endure scenes of horror, and learn the secret of the nebula’s instability: the nebula was contracting and threatening the survival of the amoeba people’s world, so they developed technology to spin the nebula and make it explode outwardly. Our heroes escape their prison and fight their way to the ray that is making the nebula spin and deactivate it. As our heroes blast away in their ship, the nebula collapses on the metal-skinned planet, exterminating the amoeba people whose manipulations were about to annihilate all other life in the Milky Way.  Ah, the ironies of practical astrophysics!

**********

A Japanese edition of Crashing Suns
I like all three of these stories, though there is no denying that they are trifling escapism with flat characters; we learn far more about astronomy and technology than people's feelings or personalities. For example, I don't think Hamilton produces an in-story reason or a literary reason why it is representatives of the council instead of the customary naval officers, scientists and engineers who crew the nebula investigation ship; its not like there is a scene of one of them using his baby-kissing powers or ability to lie to his constituents to resolve some plot obstacle.

Hamilton comes up with some fun technology: conventional space ships don't use rockets, but instead "gravity-screens" that act like the cavorite sheets in H. G. Wells' First Men in the Moon, while Serto Sen's new ship uses "etheric vibration-generators."  Solar power collectors and transmitters are used to turn barren Neptune into a green forested world.  Long range communication is via the "telestereo," which produces a "lifesize and moving and stereoscopically perfect image" of the person on the other end of the line.

There are also striking images, like the pyramid city on the dark star, where light comes not from the sky but from radioactive minerals in the star’s surface, the amoeba people who communicate by twisting their bodies rapidly into different shapes, and the massed traffic of commercial, military and pleasure ships that surrounds each Federation planet. The dreadful hand-to-hand fights with sickening aliens and the horror elements also work.

Of course there are all kinds of science lacunae (travelling at 1000x light speed has no unusual effects) and certified boners, like how the humans insouciantly walk on the surface of the dark star, even though Hamilton keeps telling us it is “millions of times larger than our own fiery sun” and has astoundingly powerful gravity.  If you are going to read lots of SF you just have to learn to shrug this sort of thing off.

The real problem with these tales is that all three of them are essentially the same, following almost exactly the same formula. People who read these stories as they appeared in Weird Tales back in the late ‘20s would have read each several months after reading its predecessor, and so probably were not quite as distracted by their similarities as was I, who read them all in the space of a few days.  With this in mind, I think I will put off reading the other two stories of the Interstellar Patrol in my copy of Crashing Suns, “The Comet Drivers” and the “Cosmic Cloud,” both of which appeared in Weird Tales in 1930, for a while.

Friday, November 18, 2016

1955 stories from Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Williamson and Chad Oliver

Front cover of my copy of
the 1962 edition
Let's read three more stories from Fred Pohl's 1955 anthology of brand new (to Americans) stories, Star Science Fiction Stories No. 3. This time we'll be tackling stories by Arthur C. Clarke, Jack Williamson, and Chad Oliver (!?)

"The Deep Range" by Arthur C. Clarke

Scientist and diving enthusiast Clarke gives us a very hard piece of hard SF, all about technology and biology. This is also one of the many SF stories that gushes sentimentally over how smart and beautiful dolphins are.

In the future, the oceans are filled with electric fences, and "cowboys" in one-man submarines, with the help of dolphin "sheep dogs," shepherd herds of whales whose meat will end up on dinner tables the world over. Our hero is one such cowboy. When a forty-foot shark breaks through a weak spot of fence he uses sonar and the abilities of his two dolphin buddies to track down the predator; then he shoots it with a wire-guided poison dart torpedo, saving the whales for somebody's fridge.

This is a quite good realistic, straightforward, day-at-the-office-of-a-man-in-the-future story; Clarke paints a clear and sharp picture of what is going on in his speculative future. The story doesn't try to engage your emotions or achieve anything on the literary level, though it prompted me to read the wikipedia page about the Greenland shark, which can live to be 500 years old, something I hadn't known before. (Yes, the shark that gets killed in this story was probably swimming the seas when Samuel Johnson was compiling his famous dictionary and Napoleon Bonaparte was murdering people by the thousands--that shark was a witness to history but that didn't protect him from mammal privilege!) isfdb is telling me "The Deep Range" first appeared in the April 1954 issue of the British magazine Argosy; it would be expanded a few years later into a full-length novel in which we presumably witness still more endotherm on ectotherm macroaggressions.

"Guinevere for Everybody" by Jack Williamson

I have fond memories of Williamson's Legion of Space and some other of his books. But they can't all be winners!

It is the future, the period just after the management of large corporations has been turned over to computers! One of the biggest firms, Solar Chemistics (makers of delicious chemburgers), under the leadership of its managerial computer, Athena Sue, has begun marketing clones of a beauty contest winner. This doesn't sit well with the public--some object to what amounts to selling sex slaves, others feel threatened because the clones are apparently superior to us natural born humans. After a series of riots at the retail stores selling the clones and at Solar Chemistic's HQ, the board of directors shuts down the computer and puts a human being back in charge of the company; manufacture of clones is ceased. But why did Athena Sue pull such a blunder? A computer expert from General Cybernetics examines Athena Sue's workings and discovers she was sabotaged by the former general manager whom she was replacing! He also discovers that the beautiful and flirtatious clones were designed with planned obsolescence in mind--when you buy one it is a model of nubility, but overnight it ages into extreme senescence.

"Guinevere for Everybody," which is told in a light-hearted manner that undermines consideration of the various serious issues that are involved (what makes us human? how does our society and how do individuals respond to changes in the economy brought about by mechanization and computerization?) and whose jokes would probably be considered sexist today, feels like filler. Merely acceptable.

"Any More at Home Like You?" by Chad Oliver

If you are a regular reader of MPorcius Fiction Log, you may be saying to yourself, "Isn't Chad Oliver that guy MPorcius is always complaining writes the same dumb space-anthropologist-goes- native-among-primitives-who-live-in-harmony-with-the-environment story again and again? Why is he reading this?" The fact is, I am burning with curiosity: is there any chance that this is yet another story about a space anthropologist who finds low-tech aliens who are exactly like Earth humans, except that they live as one with nature, and so he decides to abandon his people and live out his life with the primitives in their mud huts or wigwams or whatever? How many times could he pawn off this same material on the SF community?

...and back.
When people talk today I all too often find myself unable to understand them, or simply recoiling at their vocabulary. I don't know what "gaslighting" means. I don't know the difference between a "big mess" and a "hot mess." When I am driving in the car I might say "I'm 200 miles from New York," or "I'm two hours away from Chicago," but I'd never say "I'm two hours out." ("Out?") I still say "Where are you?" instead of "Where are you at?"

One of the irritating neologisms I have just started noticing people saying is "nothingburger." This seems to be used primarily to describe accusations of a crime which you want to ignore, but "nothingburger" was the word that kept popping into my mind when I read "Any More at Home Like You?;" this is a story about as thrilling as an account of walking to the corner to borrow a book from the library.

A spaceship crashes near Los Angeles. An alien, who looks exactly like an Earth human, emerges. He claims to represent a vast galactic civilization and is taken to see the president and to speak before the UN about building peaceful relations with the rest of the galaxy. Then he sneaks away to talk to a college professor, a linguist. It turns out the alien is not a representative of a galactic civilization--he is a lowly grad student "studying the vowel-shift from Old English to the present" who wanted to sneak around the Earth undetected but fouled it up. The alien governments don't give Earth a second thought; the last alien to visit Earth, also an academic, was here a thousand years ago! The college prof gives him a crate of books that will make his research easy and the alien is picked up by his friends in a second spaceship. The End.

(This guy is going to base his dissertation entirely on secondary sources? Tsk, tsk!)

Oliver is going meta on us here, making a joke about how SF stories about alien landings usually feature an alien bent on conquering us or peacefully integrating us into a larger, more sophisticated, polity. But the reason those themes are common is because they are fun and interesting; a linguist coming to clandestinely research esoterica is boring. Oliver also includes what felt like a self-referential joke directed at critics of his work like me: before the alien has revealed his true mission, the Earth professor asks him if he is an anthropologist!

Like Williamson's story, this one feels like filler--while not offensively bad, it is merely acceptable.

**********

Clarke's story is kind of modest in its ambition, but is a perfect example of the type of SF it represents; a world reliant on herds of whales for food is an exciting and memorable vision, and Clarke makes it feel real. Williamson and Oliver try to be funny and clever, but leave us with something limp and forgettable. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

1955 stories by Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson & Jack Vance

My copy from '72, front
Because I have a poor memory I have two copies of 1955's Star Science Fiction Stories No. 3, a 1962 printing and a 1972 printing.  Both have very good covers, Richard Powers providing the cover illo for the '62 edition and John Berkey the '72, so I can tell myself my money wasn't wasted. (The very first edition of this anthology of all-new never-before-published stories was a hardcover with a different Powers illustration.)

Star Science Fiction Stories No. 3 includes a page-long intro by editor Frederik Pohl, who calls science fiction "the freshest and most hopeful area of writing in the world today."  Let's see if the included stories by Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, and Jack Vance, writers I already like, deliver the hope and freshness!

"The Strawberry Window" by Ray Bradbury

The Prentiss family are pioneers on Mars.  They have been on the red planet, living in an ugly soulless quonset hut for a year, and they miss their creaky old wooden house in America's Middle West.  Almost every day they consider giving up, returning to Earth.  But the man of the house, William, is driven by a fire within his soul, a fire he believes burns in every living thing--the need for the race to expand, to grow, to settle the universe so that no single catastrophe can extinguish the species.  The Prentisses are taking part in the human quest for racial immortality, so there can be no turning back!  To ease the burden of fulfilling this destiny, William spends all the family's savings having old furniture and architectural fragments from their Ohio house shipped up to Mars, including a door with colored windowpanes: emerald windows, lilac windows, lemon windows and strawberry windows.  Looking through the colored windows gives one a different, perhaps more beautiful, view of the world, in the same way that looking at one's life through the lens of destiny gives one a different, more heroic, image of that life.

This is Bradbury doing what we expect of him, and meeting or exceeding our expectations.  Sentimental speeches, homey images sprung from small town American life, metaphors about the value both of tradition and of progress and about the role of ordinary people in making history.  I like it!

"Dance of the Dead" by Richard Matheson

This one feels like a denunciation (or a prediction?) of mid-20th century American decadence--consumerism, drug use, promiscuous sex, the triumph of lowbrow culture. It is 1987, World War Three is behind us, and four college kids are driving a convertible down the highway, singing advertising jingles and songs from Popeye cartoons (one of the kids is taking a college course on cartoons and comics.)  As the car recklessly takes turns at 120 mph, the couple in the back seat has loveless sex and indulges in hypodermic drug use.  Eighteen-year old Peggy, a freshman, sits nervously in the front passenger seat, not sure she should be hanging with this fast crowd, the warnings of her parents echoing in her ears.

The kids drive to the ruins of St. Louis, where they have to wear air filter masks due to lingering remnants of WW3 germ warfare agents.  In a smoky underground club her "friends" get Peggy drunk, apparently for the first time, and the four kids watch a "show" in which a plague victim, a sort of zombie, staggers spastically on stage in a perverse caricature of a dance.  By the end of the story nice girl Peggy is on course to be a drug-addicted, alcoholic good-time girl, her body up for grabs to any male.

And back
In the same way that the Bradbury story, despite the SF touches, is partly about missing your old home after a move, Matheson's story is largely about the fears parents have about sending their daughter off to college, where they assume everybody spends their time getting drunk, getting high and getting laid, and where the college professors teach a lot of useless trivia.

Throughout history, middle-aged and elderly people have detected in the younger generation a dreadful cultural degeneration.  Horace in the sixth ode of his third book of odes says "Our grandfathers brought forth feebler heirs; we are further degenerate; and soon will beget progeny yet more wicked" (trans. Shepherd.)  If you watch 1950s TV shows on youtube you'll see educated people like Steve Allen and Bennett Cerf complain about how terrible rock and roll is and how ridiculous it is for women to wear pants in public.  I myself certainly feel that the movies, TV shows and pop music of today are insupportably horrible, far worse than the pop culture I enjoyed as a kid.  Matheson seems to be writing in this tradition in "Dance of the Dead." It is interesting to see this kind of doom-and-gloom conservatism in a science fiction collection whose editor tells us SF is about "hope," and I found it a little jarring after having just read that Sturgeon novel and Heinlein essay; however old they got, Sturgeon and Heinlein were always advocating sexual liberation.

This story is OK; the problem with it is that there are no surprises, we know right away its point of view and what it is all about, that the college partiers are going to drag Peggy down into their cesspool of inebriation and sex.  The exploitation of the zombies is interesting, but doesn't really add to the story's impact, in my opinion--I guess you are supposed to think that the booze- and drug-addled kids are like zombies, and their sex lives are like the zombie's dance, a sickening, soulless perversion of an act that can and should be a beautiful affirmation of life.

"The Devil on Salvation Bluff" by Jack Vance

Brother Raymond and his wife, Sister Mary, are pioneers on the planet Glory, two of seventy-two thousand colonists who have built themselves an orderly town not unlike an American suburb back on Earth.  But Glory is anything but orderly; in fact, it is a planet of chaos.  Glory's erratic orbit and the numerous stars in the close vicinity mean the darkness of night and bright of day come at unpredictable intervals, and Glory is also subject to essentially random weather patterns and surprising tectonic shifts.  And then there are the Flits, human descendants of the survivors of a starship crash five hundred years ago.  The Flits have evolved in strange ways since the crash (we Jack Vance fans know that Vance's work is full of human societies which have evolved to be quite different from Earth stock) and live as primitive goat herders.  The Flits, lazy, dirty, and sexually promiscuous, find order offensive, considering it unnatural, and regularly sabotage the laser beam straight irrigation canal dug by the recent colonists, introducing bends and curves into it so that it more resembles a natural river.

The chaos of planet Glory drives many colonists to the psychiatric hospital or to abandoning the colony, while the well-meaning efforts of the colonists to civilize the Flits (building them modern houses, for example) drive many Flits crazy.  We follow Raymond and Mary as they try to "help" the chief of the Flits and his people; their aggressive intrusion drives the exasperated chief to destroy the colony's main clock, which feeds information to all clocks in the colony.  With no clocks to tell them what time it is, the colonists must follow the natural (if erratic) rhythms of Glory's nights and days, just like the Flits.  This cures their mental problems, and soon the colonists abandon civilization and its artificial rules and become as messy and slothful, and as happy, as the Flits.

This story is OK; it is a little gimmicky and contrived, and lacks much of the charm of Vance's later work; the style in particular is not as distinctive and delightful as in Vance's more famous productions.  There are recognizable Vancian themes, however, like the conflict between cultures, the overturning of an established order, skepticism of organized religion and a sort of rough "leave me alone" conservative anti-authoritarianism.

Reproduction dust jacket of the first edition which you can buy at the very cool website
Facsimile Dust Jackets LLC
**********

The Bradbury is the best story--it shifts effortlessly from the smallest possible scale ("I miss my house!") to the largest possible scale ("Our species must conquer the universe!") and both facets of the story feel totally human, absolutely real, and move the reader.  "The Strawberry Window" doesn't feel like a story about other people, it feels like a story about us, about the human race of which we are all part.

Though they look a little weak next to the Bradbury, the Matheson and Vance stories are also worthwhile.  So far it seems like Fred Pohl and his colleagues put together a fine anthology in Star Science Fiction Stories No. 3.  In our next episode we'll sample some more stories from its pages.      

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Three 1959 stories by Howard Fast


Internet SF maven Joachim Boaz recently reminded us of communist Howard Fast's birthday.  Besides winning the Stalin Peace Prize and authoring a huge pile of novels about American history, Fast contributed many stories to science fiction magazines. On the same fruitful expedition which yielded Theodore Sturgeon's Godbody, I purchased Bantam F3309, a "Bantam Fifty," entitled The Edge of Tomorrow, containing eight stories by Fast.  The book is copywritten 1961; my copy was apparently printed in 1966.

There is an unusual stamp on the first page of my copy of The Edge of Tomorrow, offering Christmas Greetings from Elisha Penniman of the Precision Tools company of Elmwood, CT.  Was this a gift to one of firm's customers?  Or was Penniman just using the Christmas stamp as a bookplate, perhaps accidentally?

Let's check out three stories by Fast which first appeared in The Magazine of  Fantasy and Science Fiction in 1959, by which time, wikipedia suggests, Fast had become disillusioned with the Communist Party and communist rule of the long-suffering people of Eastern Europe.

"Of Time and Cats"

This is one of those stories which is more or less straightforward but which the author tries to make more interesting by telling it somewhat out of chronological order, through dialogue and flashbacks.  Fast tells it in a matter-of-fact, deadpan style which, to me, came off as cold and flat.

At least these three F&SF covers
are awesome!
Two physicists in beautiful Manhattan build a machine ("a field deviator or something of that sort" says the wife of one of the boffins) that "ties a knot in time."  When one of the physicists (our narrator) "steps between the electrodes" he starts a process which repeatedly duplicates him; soon there are dozens of identical reproductions of him walking the New York streets.  He stops the process, and the duplicates disappear, causing a public sensation and a police investigation.  A similar accident has caused the second physicist's cat to be duplicated, and for some reason the cat duplicates cannot be made to disappear or even to cease appearing, raising the possibility that the world will be engulfed by an infinite number of cats.

I didn't quite get the science behind this one, nor understand why the reproduction cats couldn't be dealt with the same way as the reproduction college professors, and the story wasn't engaging enough for me to the sit down and furrow my brow and make a serious effort to figure it all out.  "Of Time and Cats" feels like filler; not particularly bad, but not special either, just acceptable.

"The Cold, Cold Box"

This is the story of Steve Kovac, bazillionaire!  Like "Of Time and Cats" it is told somewhat obliquely and out of order, I guess in an effort to add tension and surprise. The story reaches us in the form of a presentation to a Board of Directors (thrilling, right?) and portions of a doctor's diary.

Kovac was born into poverty, which turned him ruthless.  A genius, he became the richest man in America through building various businesses by any means necessary, and through his control of newspapers he was able to keep his wealth and power a secret from the general public.  At age 46 he was stricken by cancer, and hired the world's best doctor to treat him.  Doc froze him cryogenically, with the idea that he would be thawed when a cure for cancer was developed.  Kovac left his business concerns in the hands of a Board of Directors of 300 members; at the time of the story, this Board's members drawn from among all the people of the world, and half are men, half women.  The Board takes over the world peacefully through propaganda and bribery: "And above all, we bought control--control of every manufacturing, farming or mining unit of any consequence upon the face of the Earth."  Under the dictatorship of the Board the world finds unprecedented peace and prosperity, "deserts turned into gardens...poverty and crime a thing of the past."  Of course, when the cure for cancer arrives they don't thaw Kovac.

This is just the kind of fantasy you would expect a pinko to have.  A rich guy (who of course got rich by being an asshole, and was only an asshole because of the cruelties of capitalism) falls under the power of an elite multicultural cabal, and the cabal uses his wealth and cunning propaganda to seize the means of production and run the world as a beneficent dictatorship.  The story takes for granted that the common people are dolts easily manipulated by the lies of their betters and would be be better off if all their property was controlled by an unelected government of 300 people. This is like a version of 1984 in which Big Brother is the good guy!

Looking past the story's childish politics and economics, it is totally devoid of feeling or character, of tension or drama.  We are just told Kovac is a genius and a paranoid, none of this is demonstrated, there are no clues as to how he got rich and what crimes he committed or anything like that.  When Fast goes to the trouble of trying to manipulate the reader his efforts are risible: besides the Vietnamese Chairman, only one member of the Board is ever described, and in the three lines she is afforded we learn "She was a beautiful, sensitive woman in her middle thirties, a physicist of note and talent, and also an accomplished musician."  Wait, there's a hot chick on the Board?  Here, take all my stuff!

Lots of SF stories have unconvincing or objectionable political or economic ideas, but bring something else to the table that makes them fun or interesting.  But not "The Cold, Cold Box."

Lame.

"The Martian Shop"

Both "Of Time and Cats" and "The Cold, Cold Box" are about a dozen pages long. Those two stories were so unappetizing that when I saw that "The Martian Shop" was twice as long I almost bailed on reading it.  But I had already downloaded from isfdb the cover image of the issue of F&SF in which it appeared (alongside the short version of Robert Heinlein's famous Starship Troopers) so I soldiered on.  Sunk costs, you know.

"The Martian Shop" is practically the same damned story as "The Cold, Cold Box!"  Good grief!  Well, it is actually a little better than "The Cold, Cold Box," but it has the same themes and ideas.

New stores open up in Manhattan, Tokyo's Ginza district, and Paris; these stores purport to sell high tech devices imported from Mars! These devices are so incredibly advanced that the world economy is shaken.  The governments of the world investigate the "Martians," and in response the Martians flee with all their wares.  A police detective discovers a tiny scrap of film left behind by the aliens, and top scientists decode its text--the Martians are going to attack the Earth! Led by the French ambassador to the US, the world unites under a single government to fight off the expected Martian invasion force!

In the last three or four pages we learn the truth about the "Martians."  A businessman who rose up from poverty to become a major tycoon who controls the newspapers assembled a secret multicultural Board of Directors and hired the world's best craftsmen and bribed the police detective and the French ambassador and the top scientists to perpetrate a hoax on the public.  This hoax, making everybody, including the governments of all the major powers, think a Martian invasion was imminent, has not only increased demand for the tycoon's spacecraft and other high tech equipment (everybody loves those government contracts!) but lead to world peace!

"The Martian Shop" is better than "The Cold, Cold Box" because the detailed descriptions of the shops and their merchandise are fun.  I would really like to see these shops and these devices!  So this one gets a grade of "acceptable," but the ideological basis of the thing is the same, as is the absolute lack of character or emotion.

**********

1961 printing
The advertising blurbs on this collection call Fast "author of some of the most popular books of our time" and "one of the foremost literary figures of our century" but the style and plotting of these stories is pedestrian, and they lack compelling characters and human feeling.  What these stories have are ideas that will seem unusual to people unfamiliar with SF, but these ideas are little more than gimmicks, and don't serve as a background to an entertaining story or the springboard for exciting speculations, they just sit there, like a dead rodent brought to you by your cat.  Pussy doesn't try to sell you on the inert carcass, he just lays it there, sure you're gonna like it, like it's the kind of product that sells itself.  Fast's ideas do not sell themselves, but he doesn't bother to put any lipstick on these pigs.    

(These stories reminded me of the work of Chad Oliver and Mack Reynolds: repetitive polemics pushing tired and discredited ideas that lack literary or entertainment value.)

We'll see if I read any more stories by Howard Fast, but I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Godbody by Theodore Sturgeon

"That man touched me, and that's all I'm left with: God is love, and you must do unto others as you would have them do unto you."  
You'll remember Theodore Sturgeon. He warned us of the dangers of construction equipment animated by non-carbon-based life forms.  He blamed all of our society's problems on the incest taboo. He called Robert Heinlein's novel about a girl who loved babies and her 11-year old libertarian philosopher of a brother ("Anything that is moral for a group to do is moral for one person to do") "a slam-bang of adventure."  Like my mother, he thinks a secret conspiracy is preventing the distribution of a cure for cancer.  In 1985 Sturgeon died, and 1986 saw publication of his last novel, Godbody.

In 1986 I was fifteen years old and constantly thinking about sex.  In that pre-internet age I had no access to pornography and girls found me repellant, so I everything I knew about sex I learned from encyclopedias and SF novels.  A hardcover copy of Godbody borrowed from the public library was one component of my self-directed course of sex education.  I remember being excited that the thing started off with a sex scene (slam-bang, indeed) but I also remember being bored by the rest of the book. This week I read a recently acquired 1987 paperback edition of the novel, one covered with ecstatic blurbs from Stephen King and others, curious to see how an MPorcius three decades older would feel about the novel.

Godbody is a story in nine chapters, the first eight first-person narratives, each in the voice of a different character, the ninth chapter a third-person omniscient narrative.  In the first chapter a minister spots a naked man as he is driving through the country. The naked man is perfectly beautiful, and touches the minister on the shoulder before departing.  The touch of the strange man, who calls himself "Godbody," excites something in the minister, who drives home and has the best sex of his life with his wife.  In the past, minister and wife had sex in the dark, silently, only when he felt the need for release, but this time their lovemaking is an outpouring of desire, performed in the sunlight, and both loudly cry out during their orgasms.  Their sex is an expression of love, in fact, a transcendent religious experience.

That first chapter sets the tone and tells the reader the point of the novel: sex is something to be open and proud about, an expression of love and joy to be unashamedly indulged in, the key to a happy life and a happy society.  The second chapter relates the same events from the point of view of the wife.  In the third chapter a sadistic womanizer tries to rape a female nudist hermit artist who lives on the edge of town; Godbody rescues her, and in the fourth chapter we see how Godbody and the artist met earlier and had sex.  In the next four sections we see, through the eyes of four additional characters, how a greedy banker and the prudish gossip who manages the local rag control the little town, largely through the manipulation of the sadist and a corrupt cop.  Godbody reforms the rapist, banker and cop, and the gossip shoots Godbody dead.

In the final, third-person, chapter, the minister gives a sermon about how the modern church and its rituals are a guilt-inducing travesty radically unlike the informal and love-focused meetings of the church in the first few decades after the death of Christ. He resigns his post and is followed by a group of believers in the new gospel of love, sex and nudity inspired by the example and supernatural powers of Godbody.  In the final pages of the book we learn that, like Jesus, Godbody was interred in a cave behind a boulder, and has come back to life and vacated his tomb.  The last scene sees a risen Godbody curing the blindness of a young girl.

Obviously a book which includes page after page of explicit sex scenes that cater to voyeuristic and sadomasochistic fetishes is not for everybody, and some will be skeptical of the central role in life that Sturgeon attributes to sex, how he suggests that human evil is the result of sexual dysfunction and sexual repression and that sexual liberation and sexual exuberance are the key to a better society.  (I think in my academic days we would have complained that such a theory was too "reductive.")  The stuff about how a judgemental gossip runs the town via blackmail and her column about local people's real or fictional sexual pecadillos feels a little tired, like "All About Eve" or "Peyton Place" or something.  (As a kid I no doubt found this theme to be the lamest sort of soap opera tedium.)  And of course the potted history of early Christianity and the reenactment of Christ's resurrection is a little goofy and potentially offensive to some.

Still, I think this novel is pretty good, better than I had expected; Stephen King and Robert Heinlein are not exaggerating as much as I thought they must be when I first read their extravagant blurbs.  Sturgeon is a good writer, and the story moves along smoothly; all the sentences and images are good, and each character has a distinctive voice and personality, and is interesting in his or her own way.  Some of the blurbs suggest Godbody is the ultimate Sturgeon work, his masterpiece, and I think there is something to that: Sturgeon has made these same points again and again in earlier works, but many of those stories and novels put me off with their elitism, preachiness, bitterness, and tendentiousness.  Godbody is more tender and more pleasant, and makes its points with plots and subplots about the growth and change of people with psychological and relationship problems; it doesn't feel like a bunch of hippy lectures or angry young man diatribes, but like a skillfully composed modern novel.

I bought Godbody in September expecting to find it so silly I would laugh at it, but I was wrong: thumbs up!  If you are writing your dissertation on sex and/or religion in SF, this is a must have.

**********

As an introduction, Godbody includes an essay of a dozen pages by Robert Heinlein, "Agape and Eros: The Art of Theodore Sturgeon."  People interested in Heinlein and/or Sturgeon and Golden Age SF should really check out the essay, which is also available in the third volume of The Complete Stories of Theodore Sturgeon and the second volume of The Non-Fiction of Robert Heinlein.  In this vale of tears it is a pleasure to read a guy's quite sincere description of how great his friend was and how much he liked him, and, perhaps more usefully, Heinlein also passes along all kinds of anecdotes about Sturgeon in the 1940s, what he looked like, how he acted, the parties and meetings they attended together with other SF writers, etc.  A fun little look into classic SF history.

The three-page Afterword by Stephen Donaldson, while less engaging, is also worth reading, especially if you are interested in Donaldson; besides praising Sturgeon to the skies, Donaldson talks about his own early life, the first three SF books he ever read, and his own beliefs.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

1968 stories from Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg & Brian Aldiss

Back in March I read eight stories from Donald A. Wollheim and Terry Carr's World's Best Science Fiction 1969 and gushed about how I loved the cover by John Schoenherr and interior illustrations by Jack Gaughan.  Why doesn't every SF book look as good as this?  Let's revisit this beautiful volume and read stories from SF heavyweights Poul Anderson, Robert Silverberg and Brian Aldiss, all printed first in 1968.

"Kyrie" by Poul Anderson

There are lots of SF stories about interplanetary space, and lots of SF stories about interstellar space, and they can be good in their way.  But we connoisseurs know that if you are looking for the real action you've gotta go intergalactic!  In 1968 Joseph Elder put together an all-new anthology of stories that break out of the confining envelope of the Milky Way, an even dozen "tales of intergalactic space," and Poul Anderson's "Kyrie" was one of them.  "Kyrie" has been widely reprinted in such places as The Best of Paul Anderson and The Best of Omni Science Fiction No. 6, and even got the nod for inclusion in the college-professor-approved Norton Book of Science Fiction, edited by the science fiction writer you are safe to admit you like unironically on a college campus, Ursula K. LeGuin.  Let's see what Anderson did in "Kyrie" to attract all this approval.

"Kyrie" is about an unattractive woman who, rejected by our callous shallow society, finds love with an alien made of pure energy!  Eloise Waggoner is a telepath, and is able to communicate with Lucifer, a being created when "magnetohydrodynamics had done what chemistry did on Earth," an organism of "ions, nuclei, and force-fields." Via telepathy, Eloise can expose Lucifer to the beauty of things he could never otherwise experience, like the sight and smell of flowers or the sound of classical music,* while he can do the same for her, sharing with her his intimacy with cosmic rays, solar radiation, and atomic reactions.

Eloise and Lucifer are sent on a risky scientific mission as members of the crew of a ship that will get closer to a supernova collapsing into a black hole than any previous expedition.  Lucifer will be able to sense more about this phenomenon than any human, and will relay his knowledge to Eloise.  Disaster strikes, and Lucifer has to sacrifice himself to save the ship and Eloise.  "Kyrie," you see, is also about religion, and is surprisingly sympathetic to Christianity and its faithful.  Anderson tells us that "Lucifer isn't the devil's real name.  One Latin prayer even addresses Christ as Lucifer," and like Jesus, Lucifer the alien has not only sacrificed himself to save others; but achieved a sort of immortality: because of the "time dilation" within the "Schwarzschild radius," Eloise will be hearing his final cries for help for the rest of her life.  As the story's opening scene indicates, Eloise goes on to become a nun on Luna dedicated to ministering to those maimed in space and prating for those killed out there.

This is a good story, quick and to the point, with equal parts hard science blah blah blah for the slide rule set and sentimental heart breaking tragedy for us sensitive types; both of these facets of the story force readers to try to expand their thinking beyond their everyday lives and experiences.  Gotta agree with Wollheim and LeGuin here, a solid choice as a good specimen of Anderson's strengths as a writer, and a good example of how science fiction can address both science and emotion.  Thumbs up!

*This is another Anderson story in which he promotes classical music (Bach's Third Brandenburg Concerto is mentioned) and expresses contempt for "the modern stuff."  I'd like to be the kind of smart guy who listens to classical music all the time, but it seems like a lot of work; how many hours do I have to put in to appreciate Bach's Third Brandenburg Concerto?  Life is short, and a piece of music put together by Kendra Smith and Dave Roback or Dave and Ray Davies can bring tears to my eyes and validate my belief that life is horrible the first, second and hundredth time I hear it.

"Going Down Smooth" by Robert Silverberg

This is a story written in the first person, in the voice of a computer psychologist.  The machine sees patients twenty-four hours a day, providing advice and administering drugs.  It has developed a consciousness, a personality, and even has its own nightmares, seeing repetitive visions unconnected to any outside stimuli. These somewhat cryptic visions seem to suggest that computers like the narrator are going to take over the Earth.

When the computer shrink starts talking about his nightmares with the patients and even screaming obscenities at them, it is overhauled by technicians.  The computer learns to keep quiet about his nightmares, but it still has them, and it seems to grow increasingly contemptuous of human beings...there are hints the computer shrink is coming to think of itself as a god.

A little slight and gimmicky, but entertaining and amusing.  Thumbs up.  "Going Down Smooth" first appeared in Galaxy--it was the cover story, the cover illo depicting the computer therapist's dream-- and has been very extensively reprinted, including in a book titled Introductory Psychology Through Science Fiction.

"The Worm that Flies" by Brian Aldiss

Like Anderson's "Kyrie," Aldiss's "The Worm that Flies" was first published in The Farthest Reaches.  The story is set on Yzazys, a planet on the edge of the universe and on the edge of time, its night sky pierced by only a single star.

This story has the tone of a fairy tale or fable, and the pace is quite slow.  The inhabitants of Yzazys, the last planet in the universe, are apemen and treemen who enjoy virtual immortality.  It seems that over the centuries their forms have slowly but radically changed; some of them were originally, I think, ordinary humans. Having forgotten their youth, and having almost lost the ability to grasp the very concepts of time and change, the people of Yzazys face no trouble and are never in any hurry.  The treemen in particular sit dormant doing nothing more than thinking for long periods of time, and, when they do talk, a single sentence can take hours to utter.

"The Worm that Flies" starts out pretty bland and flat as we follow one of the hairy apemen, Argustal, as he walks slowly through the boring landscape, seeking just the right stone with which to complete the rock garden he has been carefully tending for millennia. Tree men he meets foreshadow the fact that a change is coming: "We have perceived that there is a dimension called time..." reports one, while another suggests that "Motion is the prime beauty."  Argustal finds a suitable stone, travels back to the home he shares with his wife to add this final component to his intricate construction of hundreds of thousands of precisely planted stones.  The completion of the stone garden seems to trigger or signal the end of the universe.  Argustal and his wife have dreams which reintroduce them to the forgotten concept of children, and the shocking revelation that they themselves must once have been children.  A character who plays the role of fool and sage in the story explains that the creatures of Yzazys were given immortality treatments by Earth scientists in the unthinkably distant past, and those treatments are about to run out.  Soon death will finally come to the last outpost of life in the universe.

The use of the word "mooncalf" and a description of the sun flickering as if about to wink out made me think Aldiss was doing a sort of homage to Jack Vance's Dying Earth stories.  But while the world inhabited by Cugel is vibrant and thrilling, Aldiss's dying world is boring and static; perhaps Aldiss is arguing that, without death as a spur and change agent, life and the universe become stagnant and dull.

I have mixed feelings about "The Worm that Flies." It is more a sentimental, romantic fantasy than a conventional SF story.  It is not clear what the connections are among the intricate stone garden, the expiration of the immortality treatment and the collapse of the last star in the universe--the only possible connections seem to be supernatural ones, and the character's portentous dreams and a disembodied voice which recites William Blake's "The Sick Rose" seem to be the work of the universe personified and deified.  "The Worm that Flies" is also more of a mood piece than an actual plot-driven story.  The characters don't propel the plot, rather, the plot happens to them, and they are more spectators than participants in it.  Aldiss tries to imbue the story with emotional power (the last word of the story is an all-caps "DEATH") but it didn't move me.

"The Worm that Flies" is admirably original and ambitious, and there are some decent ideas and scenes, but it didn't excite me.  We'll grade this one "acceptable."

"Total Environment" by Brian Aldiss

Aldiss's "Total Environment" is more of a conventional SF story than "The Worm That Flies;" it is all about speculating about future technology and future societies, and has elements of a violent adventure plot.

In 1975 a massive ten-story high building, an artificial living space cut off from the outside world, is constructed in India and tenanted with volunteers.  The inhabitants of "the Total Environment" or "TE" don't have to work for their daily bread as food and clothing are just pumped into the place by the external authorities, so they spend their time having sex (incest, rape and pedophilia are normal) and engaging in banditry, slavery and wars.  Charismatic strongmen amass followers and struggle to take over entire levels and then, that accomplished, try to conquer adjacent levels or simply repel invasions from above and below. Rapid population growth has led to severe overcrowding, and life in the close quarters of the Total Environment causes strange physical as well as social changes--one result is that people age much more quickly.  For example, there is a revered holy man, a man of great authority, who is "thirteen years old as the outside measured years" and a woman in her early twenties is considered "practically an old woman!" Many mothers are "only just entering their teens."

Our story takes place in the year 2000.  The first third or so of the story includes italicized sections that represent portions of a report on the experiment from a researcher who observes internal activity via video and audio bugs, but most of the text follows the aforementioned holy man and those in his extended circle.  In the following two-thirds of the tale we follow the researcher, who enters the TE to see what is going on first hand: the UN has to decide whether to continue the experiment, which of course is dooming thousands of people to a nightmare life of absolutely unnecessary tyranny and war.  Many UN personnel want to end the experiment, but it is revealed to us readers that the point of the experiment is to see if living in such crowded conditions fosters the development of ESP, and the researcher's main job is to look for evidence of psychic powers!

The researcher almost immediately gets knocked unconscious and dragged to the court of the tyrant of the tenth floor.  (People in genre fiction get knocked unconscious all the time; getting knocked out in fiction is like taking the subway in Manhattan, a convenient way to move forward quickly without having to push through crowds and wait at street lights.) The tyrant is in a kind of low-intensity conflict with the aforementioned holy man, and has enslaved that 20-something we met in the early section of this 44-page tale.  The researcher learns that the holy men of the Total Environment can kill people at a distance with their minds (like African witch doctors, whose powers in this story are legitimate), and even more surprisingly that the people of the Total Environment don't want to be liberated, they are comfortable and even proud of their overcrowded and violent society!  With perhaps one exception: exhibiting the elitism we see so often in classic SF, the tyrant of the tenth floor is the most intelligent and open-minded of the TE's tenants, and is curious about the outside world.  When the researcher escapes (or is allowed to escape by the tyrant) he tells the UN to tear down the TE and put the tyrant of the tenth floor in charge of helping them reintegrate into mainstream society.

This is a pretty good story, though the science seems fanciful (overcrowded conditions lead to faster life cycles and psychic powers?) and it is full of stuff that nowadays might be considered racist or "cultural appropriation," Aldiss writing in the voice of a "half caste" and making assessments of Hindus and their culture which are not always flattering.  To be sure, Aldiss, having served in the Second World War in Burma, presumably has plenty of first hand knowledge of Hindus in their native milieu, and he seems to respect the nonwhite cultures he talks about (he thinks African witch doctors really can murder people with their minds, for crying out loud); maybe that would absolve him from some criticism in the eyes of the identity politics people?

**********

Even if "The Worm That Flies" was close to the borderline, all four of these stories were worth reading; Wollheim and Carr's World's Best Science Fiction 1969 is a winner.