Friday, February 8, 2019

The Cave Girl and The Cave Man by Edgar Rice Burroughs

And then, of a sudden, there rose within the breast of Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones a spark that generations of overrefinement and emasculating culture had all but extinguished--the instinct of self-preservation by force.
As followers of my thrilling twitter feed already know, my brother, back home in the Greatest State of the Union, is reorganizing his many collections and sent me the Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks I bought in the 1980s and those he has been accumulating since I moved out of NJ and began my peripatetic adult life.  (My brother loves to collect things--comic books, punk rock posters, vinyl records, fantasy novels, Japanese war robot models--to hunt them down and meticulously organize them and artfully display them.  Every few years he sells or gives away one collection to make room to start a new one.  My brother is a fun guy, open to new experiences, excited about life, always meeting new people and embarking on some new job, new hobby, or new project.)

To commemorate this new addition to the MPorcius Library, I decided to read the $1.50 Ace edition of The Cave Girl my brother acquired when or where I know not.  This paperback edition of The Cave Girl includes both Burroughs's 1913 serial by that name and the 1917 sequel The Cave Man; both serials appeared in All-Story Weekly.  Our paperback bears the same Frank Frazetta image used earlier by Ace on a printing of Savage Pellucidar.  It's a good picture, so who can blame them for recycling?  One does wonder if Frazetta got an additional payment for this additional usage, however.

The Cave Girl (1913)

Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones of Beantown is the very picture of the effete and ineffectual intellectual.  A tall skinny blond, an expert on ancient languages, he has never in his life played any sports or engaged in any physical labor, and the very thought of violence disgusts him.  A real momma's boy, he is prim and proper, always concerned about what his own upper-middle-class crowd will think.  This guy has never even read any fiction!

Well, our boy Waldo had better acclimatize himself to a life of labor and violence pretty quick!  Because when we meet him on page one of our story he isn't in a drawing room discussing Homer and Ovid with a cup of tea in hand, pinky extended!  No, Waldo is all alone on the bleak shore of a Pacific island, having fallen overboard during a storm while en route to a more salubrious climate in quest of relied from his wicked cough!  (People in old books, fiction and nonfiction, are always travelling someplace as treatment for some ailment.)

If you have read any Edgar Rice Burroughs before, The Cave Girl isn't going to hold many surprises for you.  Waldo fights some savages that Burroughs calls "cave men," people so primitive that they don't even have spears or shields.  Waldo confronts a menacing great cat, a black panther.  Waldo befriends a beautiful woman, Nadara, who has left her own tribe of cave people due to mistreatment and been set upon by a different tribe, one she calls "the bad men."  On the last page of the story (The Cave Girl is about 100 pages in this edition) we learn she is not native to the island after all but was shipwrecked as a baby and adopted by cave people--she is in fact a French countess.  (Almost the same exact thing happened to the English Lord Greystoke, AKA Tarzan--Burroughs is a dedicated recycler himself.)  Many scenes of The Cave Girl consist of fights or chases, and people are always tracking each other--Burroughs makes copious use of the words "woodcraft" and "spoor."  Waldo and Nadara fall in love with each other, but due to pigheadedness and unfortunate accidents and misunderstandings they quarrel and separate instead of expressing their true feelings for each other.  Waldo learns how to not only survive but thrive in the jungle (his cough goes away and he makes a spear and a shield that give him an advantage over the natives) and more than once he has an opportunity to return to civilization but passes them up to stay on the island.  At the end of the tale Waldo kills the brutal leaders of Nadara's tribe just before they rape her and our two leads finally admit they are in love.

Something perhaps a little different and noteworthy about The Cave Girl is Burroughs's approach to his long term project, seen in many books, of convincing us that it is better to live in the primitive jungle than in our modern civilization.  This time he takes education as his focus, presenting his story as a satire of people who learn everything from books--in particular works of literature that offer no practical knowledge--and nothing from real life.  ERB makes a strong distinction between these two types of education, with Waldo an extreme representation of those who have heads full of book knowledge but cannot accomplish anything and cave girl Nadara a model of those with practical experience and useful knowledge--she cannot read or write, but she teaches Waldo everything he needs to know to survive in the jungle.

(I'm not familiar enough with Ralph Waldo Emerson to know to what extent and in what way Burroughs's choice of name for his protagonist is appropriate, but the wikipedia page on "Boston Brahmin" does suggest that they loved them some transcendentalism.)

I suppose it goes without saying that much of the spirit or ethic of The Cave Girl goes against what we are supposed to consider "forward thinking" in 2019.  The liberal arts are practically dismissed as a waste of time, while violence is celebrated.  The female characters consist of a manipulative and nagging mother who emasculates her son (a helicopter parent decades before the invention of the helicopter!) and a hot babe who worships a man because she thinks he is a doughty killer who can protect her.

One interesting way to look at The Cave Girl is as a story that portrays women as the true masters of the world; everything done by men in this story is done in pursuit of or response to some woman.  It is Waldo's mother who turned him into a useless sissy, and it is Waldo's love for Nadara, and Nadara's own example and tutelage, that transforms him into the he-man she wants him to be.
What one good but mistaken woman had smothered another had brought out, and the result of the influence of both was a much finer specimen of manhood than either might have evolved alone.
Perhaps the fact that Nadara is no shrinking violet will redeem this very unwoke story in the eyes of 21st century readers.  At the start of the tale Nadara is more brave and competent than Waldo; before she met Waldo she demonstrated her independence by boldly striking out on her own when she was mistreated by her tribe, and once Waldo is on the scene she saves him again and again from drowning and starving and getting ambushed in the jungle.  She even tries to help Waldo fight, but one of those unfortunate accidents and misunderstandings I mentioned above is when she throws a rock into a melee and accidentally hits Waldo in the cabeza instead of the guy who was trying to rape her.  Oops!

This is a fun story, a tale of action and violence about a man who adapts to circumstances, who changes almost everything about himself in order to overcome challenges and win the love of his life.  Much of it is told in a light-hearted, at times comic, manner, and I think the humor here works better than in some other of Burroughs's work.  I find Burroughs's style comfortable and engaging, and I am totally into any well-told story about a guy fighting to survive in some bizarre locale, so I enjoyed The Cave Girl.

The Cave Man (1917)

The Cave Man, presented as Part II of this book with a little note alerting you to its original title, is like 20% longer than The Cave Girl.  The chronology of this piece in relation to The Cave Girl I found a little confusing; it feels like it starts the same day The Cave Girl ended, but Burroughs keeps saying that Waldo has been on the island a year, while The Cave Girl had led me to believe he'd only been on the island six or seven months. There are also conflicting clues in the text, some suggesting no time has passed since The Cave Girl ended, others suggesting considerable time has elapsed.   

Anyway, Waldo and Nadara are a couple, but Waldo is reluctant to consummate their marriage without some kind of formal ceremony.  When he learns that Nadara's tribe, which hasn't invented the spear or bow yet, hasn't invented the wedding either, and then, from her dying father, that Nadara is not a native of this tribe but a shipwrecked baby whom he and his wife adopted, Waldo becomes convinced that they must get to civilization and get married before they can have sex.  Nadara thinks that Waldo's reluctance to be his mate is a sign he is not attracted to her after all (more pigheadedness and misunderstandings getting between our lovebirds!)

(The death of Nadara's adoptive father provides an opportunity for Burroughs to complain about the "ostentatious, ridiculous [and] pestilent " funerary services of the 20th century, some 60 years before Harlan Ellison would complain about the modern funeral industry in From the Land of Fear.)

The Cave Man is kind of a disappointing sequel.  Instead of pursuing a single strong plot or theme, it feels like a bunch of episodes sort of cobbled together; some of these episodes are good, but some are a waste of time and, most frustratingly, some consist of good ideas that are aborted instead of being allowed to flower into something interesting.

Waldo decides to civilize Nadara's tribe, and starts the process of teaching them how to make weapons and fight in concert like soldiers; he also wants them to stop living as nomads who periodically move from one complex of cliffside caves to another--his vision is for them to settle down and build huts and set up farms.  The challenge of reforming these savages' society is not a bad idea for a story, but after laying the foundation for such a plot Burroughs has an earthquake exterminate Nadara's entire tribe.  This earthquake strikes the same night that the leader of an enemy tribe, Thurg, kidnaps Nadara; the tremors present Nadara an opportunity to escape Thurg's lascivious clutches and also wipe out Thurg's tribe.

A third of the way through the story Burroughs abandons the island and takes us to Boston, beginning a long section starring Waldo's parents and their associates, who sail in a yacht to Nadara's island to look for their son.  Waldo's folks are not at all interesting enough to carry the story on their own, and the scenes in which that caricature of bourgeois decorum, Mrs. Smith-Jones, denounces Nadara for her skimpy attire (the crew of the yacht having rescued the cave girl from Thurg's latest attempt to have his way with her) are lame.  Convinced Waldo died in the earthquake, Nadara and the Massholes sail away, and a horny seaman tries to succeed where horny cave man Thurg failed, snatching Nadara and fleeing to a different island.  This guy jumped ship with Nadara on the spur of the moment without first arming himself, so when he is attacked by headhunters (these savages are advanced enough to employ spears and parangs and live in houses built on piles; they even have a huge wooden temple) he is at their mercy and suffers a gruesome fate!

The Cave Man comes to life in its final third as Burroughs returns us to the island for the best chapters of the serial.  Waldo, not dead after all, digs himself out from under the ruin of his cave, learns that Nadara has sailed away, and makes a boat and sails off to search the Pacific for her.  Burroughs's description of the construction of the boat and Waldo's ocean voyage is very entertaining.  This is why we read these stories, isn't it, to see a guy pursuing goals, making bold decisions and overcoming obstacles--it is satisfying to read about someone mastering his or her own fate, or at least trying to; reading about how somebody was saved by an earthquake or the sudden appearance of the cavalry, deus ex machina style, is kind of weak.

Waldo's cruise ends in yet another deus ex machina coincidence when he, during a storm at night, blunders into the island of the headhunters.  He makes friends with some pistol-packing Chinese pirates who are also shipwrecked on the island (it is a rare sea-going vessel in an ERB story that reaches its destination with crew and passengers intact), helping them fight off the headhunters and to repair their ship.  Waldo learns from them that the headhunters are now worshiping a white goddess who can only be Nadara, and, in the second best part of the story, Waldo rescues her from the headhunters' temple.  All you feminists will be happy to hear that, because Waldo has no experience fighting with parangs and guns, he has his hands full with these headhunters and Nadara has to pitch in, wielding a spear during the fight and saving Waldo's life by stabbing a guy.  It is also Nadara, with her superior woodcraft, that gets them out of the headhunter village and back to the coast alive.  Burroughs satisfyingly brings the story of Waldo and Nadara--and his parable about education--full circle:
"Follow me," she said, and to the memories of each leaped the recollection of the night she had led him through the forest from the cliffs of the bad men.  Once again was Waldo Emerson Smith-Jones, the learned, indebted to the greater wisdom of the unlettered cave girl for his salvation.
Waldo and Nadara, after additional oceanic dangers, attempted rapes and killings of rapists, get hooked up again with the Chinese pirates and the Bostonians.  Peace is secured between Nadara and Mom, and our heroes are finally married and take up residence in a Beantown mansion.

The last third of The Cave Man--Waldo's ship-building, sea-voyaging, headhunter-fighting and countess-rescuing--is solid entertainment, but I can't deny that ERB had some trouble getting us there efficiently, wasting our time with all those lame Bostonians and truncating a potentially good sequence with that lame earthquake.  I would have liked to read more about Waldo civilizing Nadara's tribe of cave men and managing the tribe's contentious relationship with Thurg's tribe--the earthquake that wiped out both tribes was not a good plot twist, ERB!

Taken on its own I can only give The Cave Man a marginally positive rating.  But considering the saga of Waldo and Nadara as a whole, as it presented in this 1970s volume (and apparently has always been since the first book publication in 1925) I can be more kind, as The Cave Girl is legitimately good and raises the level of the entire production. 

With the entire book behind me I want to point out one noteworthy and salutary component of the tale of Waldo and Nadara, Burroughs's depiction of a love relationship in which the constituents are something like equal partners.  Waldo and Nadara complement each other, each learning from the other and contributing skills and abilities to their partnership that fill in gaps in the other's repertoire.  I think I can recommend The Cave Girl and The Cave Man as appropriate Valentines Day reading!

Saturday, February 2, 2019

Three 1943 stories by C. L. Moore and Henry Kuttner

In the comments to my recent blog post about Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore's Keeps stories, "Clash By Night" and Fury, George points out that the volume of Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg's The Great Science Fiction Stories covering 1943 includes five stories by Kuttner and Moore.  I had read three of them, "Mimsy Were the Borogoves," "Clash By Night," and "The Proud Robot," and decided to read the other two, "Doorway Into Time" and "The Iron Standard" tout de suite.  To round out this blog post I thought I'd also read another 1943 Kuttner and Moore story, "Open Secret."  I read all three in scans of 1943 magazines available at the internet archive.

"Doorway Into Time" by C. L. Moore

"Doorway Into Time" first appeared in Famous Fantastic Mysteries, and just look at the Virgil Finlay cover illustrating it!  Gorgeous!  A man in a space helmet, a hot chick, and a saurian alien with some kind of energy weapon--three of our favorite things!--in bold colors in what looks like a Mucha composition!  A masterpiece!  In fact, this whole magazine is beautiful, with Finlay illustrations for a 1930 novel by John Taine, Iron Star, and Hannes Bok illos for Robert Chambers' 1895 "The Yellow Sign."  Worth a look if you are a fan of either of these unique, idiosyncratic artists.

On another world, a being with a passion for beauty lives among the vast collection of exquisite things he has acquired on his many journeys through space and time.  Over the centuries of his existence he has acquired something else--a taste for danger!  The more risk incurred in the collection of an item, the more he treasures it, and, old as he is, he has seen much and grown jaded, so that only terrible danger can excite him!

Via a screen he scans the universe for a thing of beauty whose acquisition will present the risk he craves, and he finally discovers it--a human woman!  Never has he seen a human before, and the beauty of the female form has him jumping through his interdimensional tunnel in hot pursuit of this jewel! 

The Earth woman, Alanna, is hanging out in the lab of her boyfriend, scientist Paul, who is working on his lightning weapon.  When the alien snatches Alanna, Paul grabs up his brand new electro blaster and chases them through the dimensional portal.  Paul and Alanna explore the alien's palace, taking in bizarre sights and facing hazards.  They struggle against the alien collector and eventually escape back through the tunnel to Earth; the alien decides not to pursue them further.

"Doorway Into Time" has an odd, sad tone that seems calculated to remind you of the futility of life.  The alien, despite its tremendous power and experience, is dissatisfied with its accomplishments, and the humans prove a disappointment to him; he is immune to their electric weapon, so they do not present the challenge he sought.  As for the humans, Alanna is sort of a feckless ditz, while Paul suffers the dismay of watching the alien shrug off the blasts of the super weapon he just invented.  Alanna and Paul spend much of the story thinking that their trip to the alien palace is just a dream, and Moore's long passages describing Paul's fruitless efforts to gun down the invulnerable alien reminded me of those nightmares in which, no matter how hard I try, I can't open my junior high locker or get the car started or find my way in a labyrinthine university building or run from danger or scream for help.

The most memorable components of the story are perhaps Moore's descriptions of extraterrestrial objets d'art, decorations, and mounted specimens; there are a number of Kuttner and Moore stories, like "Shock," in which cleverly described futuristic or alien artifacts loom large.  These strange items are a part of Moore's admirable effort in "Doorway Into Time" to depict true alienness.  Some of the art installations Paul and Alanna look at are so strange to them, so radically beyond their experiences on Earth, that their minds can't really comprehend them.  Similarly, Moore tells us repeatedly that the alien collector has no idea what the symbols on some artifact mean, or if some beautiful items he has hanging on his wall were once alive or are simply inorganic, or what the people he robbed of a big glowing stone thought of the stone.  The pervasive theme of the impossibility of achieving understanding across cultures adds to the story's air of futility.

While many individual components of the story are good and show inventiveness and effort, I am reluctant to strongly recommend "Doorway Into Time"; as a whole it is just not satisfying.  None of the characters accomplishes anything and none of the characters gets killed or otherwise ruined, so the story lacks any cathartic triumph or tragedy and left me feeling uneasy, like there should have been something more, a second shoe that never dropped.  I can certainly recommend it as a curiosity, valuable to students of Moore's work and 1940s SF in general, but based on conventional criteria (is it a solidly entertaining reading experience?) I'd have to say it is just acceptable.

"Doorway Into Time" may have left me feeling dissatisfied, but SF historian Sam Moskowitz included it in the 1965 anthology Modern Masterpieces of Science Fiction (I actually read a few stories from that anthology back in my Iowa days, during this blog's infancy) and it was also included in Gogo Lewis and Seon Manley's anthology of "sinister" stories by women, Ladies of Fantasy

"The Iron Standard" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore 

This is one of those SF stories in which smart guys get themselves out of a jam by using their brains.  This is fine in a story, of course, but we all know that in real life people overcome challenges through violence or sex appeal.

Our heroes in "The Iron Standard" are the six-man crew of the first ship to land on Venus, explorers carefully chosen for their intelligence and physical fitness.  This diverse cast includes a Navajo botanist, an Irish engineer ("a Kerry man" with fiery red hair and a fiery temper to match!) and the son of a rich WASP as the supercargo and handyman who, I guess, is on board the ship for kicks.  (Remember when a rich man's son got himself signed on to a space crew for the hell of it in A. E. van Vogt's The Man With a Thousand Names?  Now there was a trip!)  These dudes are in a bind because they traded away their food supplies to the Venusians for native food, and all that Venusian food has spoiled (those preservatives and GMOs aren't looking so bad now, are they, guys?)  Now the Earthers are facing starvation because they can't figure out any way to procure more food.

Kuttner and Moore come up with a long list of obstacles that stand between the Earthmen and the chow they so desperately need.  They surrendered their firearms when the natives proved to be so friendly so they can't just steal food.*  There are no sizable animals or edible plants in Venus's swampy wilderness so hunting, trapping, and gathering are out.  They can't buy food because the Venusians are on the "iron standard" of the title--gold and silver are very common on Venus, rendering the money the explorers brought valueless.  Venusian society is very stable and conservative, and the innumerable customs and institutions set up to prevent innovations or disruptions are the astronaut's biggest obstacle; for example, they can't beg for food or earn money by their labor because they aren't members of the beggar's guild or the laborer's guild, and to join a guild you have to pay some hefty entry fees.

The explorers scramble for ways out of their predicament, in the process realizing that many Venusians are open to change but those guilds have a stranglehold over politics and economics on Venus, suppressing any change because it might threaten their lofty position.  In a gimmicky way our heroes figure out a way to destabilize the Venusian economy while keeping within all those pesky laws; fearful of the first social or economic change in centuries, the guilds cry uncle, bribing the Earthers to cease their undermining ways with enough money to finance their food requirements until they can get take off for Earth in a year's time.  It is suggested that the humans have given the static Venusian society a much-needed nudge and a period of dynamism and innovation is about to begin.

This is a mediocre story.  The whole thing feels contrived, it lacks any emotional content, and the characters all feel flat--the fact that one is an American Indian, another a short-tempered Irish-American and another a, as we might say today, "child of privilege," has no effect on the plot, it is just pointless window-dressing.  Maybe Kuttner and Moore simply thought it a good idea to show people from different backgrounds palling around and working together for a common goal?  That's commendable, and I guess understandable during the period of world crisis in which the story was published, but it's not compelling or entertaining writing.  While "Doorway Into Time" had numerous good elements but failed to really work as a whole, "The Iron Standard" is structured and organized in a way that functions but only on the most basic and simple level.  Barely acceptable.

After first appearing in Astounding, "The Iron Standard" was included in Martin Greenberg's Men Against the Stars and the British paperback Best of Kuttner 2.  (You'll remember that I read Best of Kuttner 1 back in 2014.  Good Lord, I've been operating this blog for-fucking-ever.)

*That's right, these high-IQ individuals went to an alien world where no Earthman had ever been before and the first thing they did was give away their weapons and food.

"Open Secret" by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore

Here's another story from Astounding.  All you dino fans out there will be interested to know this issue of Astounding includes a non-fiction article by Willy Ley that tries to convince you that Tyrannosaurus Rex was not a ferocious killing machine but a lumbering scavenger.  Don't go breaking my heart, science boy!  "Open Secret" was included by Murray Leinster in a 1950s anthology published in the US and the UK, Great Stories of Science Fiction.

Psychiatrist Mike Jerrold is visiting New York City on business.  Instead of going to the museum to look at sculptures, he visits his physician friend at his skyscraper office for a check up.  (Where are this guy's priorities?)  There is an accident with the elevator and Jerrold ends up on the wrong floor, where he sees an amazing sight--many-armed robots are doing something weird with electronic maps of Manhattan!

Shocked and amazed by these robots (this story is set in the early- to mid-20th century, so Mike the shrink isn't seeing robots everyday at the grocery store like you and I do), Jerrold decides to investigate.  First step in his investigation is to get a date with the beautiful redhead sitting at the reception desk in the office with those robots.  (I told you that this is how real people overcome obstacles!)  He learns that there is an office of robots in every big city in the world, that these robots are running human society by subtly, cunningly, altering our minds, crafting our desires and aversions so that our actions, in aggregate, shift society in the direction dictated by their own inscrutable objectives.  "They manipulate stocks, swing business deals, start wars and stop them," that hot receptionist, Betty Andrews, tells Jerrold.  "They want the world different, but I don't know how."

Jerrold switches to Method #1 in his effort to overthrow the robots' rule, but fails utterly--he shoots an automatic pistol into a robot and then pours acid on its elaborate three-dimensional map of Midtown Manhattan, but the robot just ignores him and his fruitless attacks!  Jerrold feels like a "gnat"--he and his best efforts are beneath the invincible robots' notice!  Soon the robots will tinker with his brain and, like his new girlfriend, he will accept that resistance to robot rule is hopeless!

Here we have a story that, like the first we discussed today, suggests life is pointless, that things are out of our control.  Like the humans in Moore's "Doorway Into Time," Mike Jerrold, through an unforeseeable twist of fate, enters a dream-like environment, one characterized by bizarre sights and a deep sense of futility.  Like the alien in "Doorway Into Time," Betty Andrews sadly realizes she is doomed to a life bereft of satisfaction, whether or not her immediate desires are fulfilled.
"I'm very lonely, Mr. Mike Jerrold.  I like you to hold me.  Do you know what may happen to us?"

"What?" he asked softly.
"Marriage," she said, shrugging a little.  "Or not.  It doesn't matter." 
Ouch!

"Open Secret" is the most straightforward and economical of the stories we're reading today, and while not as stylistically ambitious as "Doorway Into Time," I think it is the most satisfying and entertaining of the three.  Kuttner and Moore scholars will notice in the text a reference to the poetry of Lewis Carroll, in this case "The Hunting of the Snark" and recall that in this same year the Carroll-centric "Mimsy Were the Borogoves" was published.

**********

"The Iron Standard" is a conventional and bland puzzle story, "Open Secret" a more or less conventional sex and violence horror story that is quite ably put together, while the somewhat befuddling "Doorway Into Time" is creative and baroque, with one interesting character (the alien) and a strong sense of mood, but does not feel quite finished.  These were all worth my time, but they do not represent Kuttner and Moore's best work.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Overlay by Barry N. Malzberg

The race tracks must be away from the center of the metropolitan areas because they represent--at least, to those who patronize them--the excision of all those values on which the metropolitan areas themselves are based: rationality, causality, consequence, effort, consumption, production, accretion, etc.  The racetracks are founded upon something different; they are selling (and selling well) the conception that there is no simple way out, that causality is meaningless, that accretion has to do only with psychic conditions and not with possessions (which must be metaphors for true gain) and if they are too close to the metropolitan areas, the message might move uncomfortably near to a larger heterogeneity of the population.  They represent an alternative.  And the alternative is one of annihilation, devastation and waste.
Barry Malzberg takes up a lot of real estate in my brain--in fact I mentioned him in my last three blog posts, contrasting his attitude to that of Spider and Jeanne Robinson and comparing his style to Steve Rasnic Tem's, as well as pointing out his admiration for Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. Well, let's quit pulling at the scab of our Malzberg obsession and mainline some vintage Barry--1972's Overlay. I own a copy of the Lancer paperback edition of the novel which, barely legible stamps indicate, was once in the collection of the Library at Ohio State University's Mansfield Campus.  On Overlay's acknowledgements page we are informed that Chapter I of the novel appeared in a different form in F&SF in 1970.  That "different form" is the story entitled "Notes Just Prior To The Fall," which I read in 2017 in an Ace Double collection.

In two prologues we learn that in Earth Year 1978 the government of the galaxy decided that Earth, with its population of "dangerous and insane" people, was a menace that had to be dealt with.  (Malzberg, writing in the first years of the Seventies, portrays 1970-1978 as "The Welfare Decade," full of high taxes, government debt, riots, arson and religious mania.)  Our narrator, an agent of "the Bureau" tasked with dealing with the problem presented by Earth, introduces himself in the second prologue--the lion's share of the text of Overlay is this alien's diary, the keeping of which he admits is forbidden: "Agents are supposed to leave no written testaments to their mission...."  The narrator describes his meeting with his superior, who tells him that the way to destroy Earth civilization is to "energize" and "manipulate" a "subpopulation."  The boss has already selected the appropriate subpopulation: "horseplayers."

Four people who are addicted to betting on the races and live in the NYC area are selected at random and the narrator begins communicating with them.  The narrator is invisible to them, and can read their minds, send them telepathic messages, and even tinker with their brains, working them like puppets if he so chooses.  (Malzberg sort of compares the alien's manipulation of the Earthlings to the way humans ride horses.)  Three of the four gamblers suspect that the voice they hears who gives them bad advice on how to bet at the track is evidence they are insane, as you might expect.  The fourth is a woman.

Malzberg presents us sad episodes in the lives of these four individuals.  Simmons loses all his money on the horses and then goes to a bar to get drunk, but, not being a habitual drinker, doesn't even know how to properly get hammered.  Tony the horse trainer loses all his money betting on a horse he trains and then goes to an Army surplus store to buy explosives.  Gardner, a social worker for the local welfare agency (Malzberg's body of work is full of people with such jobs as Malzberg himself once held such a job; writing about welfare investigators offers Malzberg rich opportunities to portray the callousness and incompetence of government, the pathologies of the poor, and the misery of middle-class educated liberals working tedious and unfulfilling jobs that put the lie to their rosy notions about the state and the underclass) is given an ultimatum by his girlfriend of three years: either he quits the horses and marries her or they break up.  Seventy-eight-year-old Mary is not only a compulsive gambler but is also addicted to collecting tip sheets, and has giant stacks of them in her little apartment, organized in chronological order, and she likes to peruse old ones, reminiscing on how their advice has steered her wrong over the decades.  (Compare to the Malzberg protagonists who collect stacks of old SF magazines.)  Like Gardner, Mary is presented with an ultimatum--her son, though willing to foot the bill for her rent and food, refuses to finance her gambling any longer.

These are people who have screwed up their lives, and the alien narrator pushes them irreparably over the edge with his terrible advice and interventions into their brains.  In the final chapters of the novel (of which there are 24, in a book of 185 pages) at the narrator's direction and sometimes compulsion Mary and Tony prepare explosives and then Mary, Tony and Gardner bomb the biggest race of the year, the Belmont (which in 1978 is being held at the Aqueduct for reasons Malzberg describes at some length), killing many people, including the President of the United States.  Simmons acts as the alien's "explicator," yelling at the survivors words fed him by the narrator, a mock religious harangue ("We have forgotten the lessons of the Fathers: no fillies against colts; no maidens in straight claimers....We have been greedy.  We have chased longshots. We have failed to learn the awful lessons of the tote....We have sinned!") 

In a one-page epilogue we learn that the narrator has gone too far, that his superiors are angry that he has made "reclamation" of Earth "utterly impossible."  Just like the human horse players, he "took it too seriously" and has screwed up his life.

British edition
If there is a "point" to Overlay I guess it is that the workings of the world appear to people as an inexplicable chaos, regardless of what techniques they employ and how much effort they expend in trying to understand and predict them.  As a result people act irrationally, screwing up their personal lives, just as the government acts incompetently, screwing up the economy, failing to maintain order, and bungling matters of peace and war.  (Obviously, this is the opposite of the ethic of so much SF, which glorifies and romanticizes our ability to comprehend and master the universe via science and technology.)  The aliens in Malzberg's novel, instead of being superior to humankind, as in so many SF stories, are approximately as incompetent and corrupt as us humans--they don't represent a role model for humans or act as a foil for humans, but collectively represent Earth government and bureaucracy and all its crimes and failures, while the narrator makes decisions that are almost as nonsensical and self-destructive as those of the four loser humans.  We can see Overlay as a product of its time in its depiction of the 1970s as a period during which the wheels are really coming off, with the United States in social, political, and economic crisis; Malzberg perhaps wants us to see the aliens' intervention on Earth as analogous to American foreign interventions during the Cold War, most famously in Vietnam.

I'm afraid Overlay is not among my favorite Malzberg works.  While some of the kind of stuff I like--disastrous sexual and familial relationships and obsessive collectors, for example--there is a lot of horseracing material, and I don't find this as interesting as Malzberg's other typical topics, such as the space program, genre writers, and public employees.  (By the way, if you don't know what an "overlay" is or don't know what "parimutuel" means, like I didn't yesterday--and will probably no longer tomorrow--you can check out this website.)  And of course, like most of Malzberg's work, Overlay lacks the elements that draw most readers to genre literature in the first place: the tone and pacing are flat and monotonous, there are no thrills or chills, images and emotions are nebulous and vague rather than sharp and bold; there is little point in judging Malzberg's work on the same criteria you would use when judging a detective story or an adventure tale or one of those SF "world-building" exercises.

Malzberg's other horseracing novel, Underlay, is much better put together and much more amusing.

There are good things in Overlay, though, and I am still giving this one a thumbs up.  I particularly like the idea (expressed in the epigraph I have selected for this blog post) that the Aqueduct is off in Queens instead of in Manhattan because the skyscrapers and business headquarters of the central city represent reason and order and the race track represents irrationality and chaos.  Also good is a sort of metanarrative about writing--the alien agent laments his shortcomings as a writer and discusses narrative techniques, and admits that, as memoirists and "nonfiction" writers always do, he is streamlining and prettying up what he is presenting as a "true" story.  (Compare to Malzberg's narrator in The Day of the Burning.)

After this hearty dose of 1970s pessimism we'll be returning to the World War II era in our next episode.

Monday, January 28, 2019

21st century horror stories by Tanith Lee, Steve Rasnic Tem and Ramsey Campbell

Judging by the contents of my blog you might suspect I am boycotting the 21st century, or perhaps am actually at war with the 21st century.  Well, today we call a truce and read three stories first published in the last ten years!  Today we expose ourselves to three tales of terror from the 2018 anthology edited by Ellen Datlow, The Best of the Best Horror of the Year, a copy of which I borrowed from the Baltimore County Library.  The two dozen or so stories in The Best of the Best Horror of the Year appeared in volumes of Datlow's The Best Horror of the Year, which was published between 2009 and 2018, and I have selected the included stories by MPorcius fave Tanith Lee, Steve Rasnic Tem, a few of whose stories I have read in the past, and Ramsey Campbell, in whose work I am sporadically interested.

"Black and White Sky" by Tanith Lee (2010)

"Black and White Sky" first appeared in the souvenir book of the 2010 World Horror Convention, Brighton Shock!; besides in this anthology and the third volume of The Best Horror of the Year, Datlow has included it in an issue of Nightmare Magazine she guest edited.

"Black and White Sky" incorporates a lot of magpie folklore with which I was totally unfamiliar (I don't think we get magpies in the Eastern USA.)  I didn't even know what a magpie looked like until I looked the creature up on wikipedia.  Anyway, in the story, all over Great Britain, an unusual volume of magpies start appearing, individual birds seemingly popping into existence near the ground or in trees and immediately shooting straight up into the sky, disappearing from view.  These sudden appearances interrupt the flights of aircraft and the operation of railways, and then electric power as the birds start knocking lines off of poles.

We observe this weird crisis alongside a writer, an ex-Londoner who lives in a cottage in the countryside.  There are lots of scenes of him talking to people in the village, watching TV, reading newspapers, etc., discussing and learning about the magpie phenomenon.  We sort of get to know this guy, his writing career, his history with women, that kind of stuff.  Interspersed with the sections about the writer are sections in present tense describing the sky and wildlife and the avian crisis from an omniscient point of view.  Eventually the larger of the British Isles (Eire is spared) lies under a shadow cast by a bazillion magpies just hanging around in the stratosphere--the English, Welsh and Scottish people must endure an endless rain of bird feathers and bird poo, and, lacking any electricity, have no means to communicate with the larger world.

The sexy woman who cleans the writer's cottage twice a month comes over after her husband hits her and she has sex with the writer.  Then the magpies all fall, burying Great Britain in a carpet of dead birds several feet deep, knocking down trees and buildings and presumably killing many people.

I don't know what to make of this thing, frankly.  Is it about the environment, comparing the way humanity treats the natural world to the callous way men treat women and the way women betray men?  Is it somehow a reflection of the stereotype that English people love animals?  Could it be some kind of religious allegory (a longish paragraph describes folklore about how the magpie's distinctive coloration either does or does not symbolize reverence for Jesus Christ), with the magpies a sort of British version of the plagues of Egypt?  Or is it just Lee toying with a wacky and disgusting idea (a postscript suggests the basic idea of the story came from Lee's husband John Kaiine.)  "Black and White Sky" is well written enough, so it gets a passing grade, but it is kind of leaving me shrugging my shoulders.   

"The Monster Makers" by Steve Rasnic Tem (2013)

The narrator of In Search Of Lost Time, as a child, would look at train schedules and imagine what towns he had never seen were like based on their names.  I have the bad habit of guessing what a story is like based solely on its title, and I guessed that "The Monster Makers" would be about how bullies turn kids into school shooters or microagressions turn those microaggressed into terrorists.  The story is not like that at all, of course.

Tem's story, at least in part, is about the horror of getting old: losing your memory and ability to focus, getting clumsy and weak, losing your eyesight and hearing, knowing that after you die you will be forgotten.  The actual plot, which is largely submerged beneath bizarre images and sad musings, is about an old man, our narrator, who, somehow, apparently, by telling his grandchildren fairy stories of monsters, gives these little tykes the ability to distort innocent people's bodies, turning them into deformed freaks (these transformations are fatal.)  Grandpa and his senile and/or demented wife live with their adult son and his wife and kids.  It is hinted that the family in this story is a family of witches or demons, like a less cute and more scary version of the Addams family or Bradbury's Elliott family, but that the son, by luck or design, has grown up to be an essentially normal guy.  The long-suffering son tries to manage the horrible hand fate has dealt him, siting the family domicile on a secluded farm, away from people.  Despite his efforts, the family does sometimes come into contact with people, and these people suffer horrendous and life-ending physical transformations.  His entreaties that his father stop telling those stories proving futile ("Telling stories, that's what grandfathers do," insists Grandpa), the son takes up an axe and pursues desperate measures, with disastrous results.

The style of the story, with its matter-of-fact first-person narration of surreally horrible events and its philosophy of resigned recognition of the futility and misery of our lives, reminded me a bit of Barry Malzberg.

Maybe "The Monster Makers" is arguing that parents' and grandparents' efforts to educate their descendants, to mold them and try to ensure they remember and honor their ancestors, just screw them up and cause trouble for them and society at large.  ("They fuck you up, your mum and dad....")  As I recall, Tem's story "Blood Knots" was also about a disastrous family in which a man's influence on his descendants caused mayhem among the populace.
     
Datlow included this one in her anthology Monstrous as well as the sixth Best Horror of the Year; it first appeared in the magazine Black Static.

"The Callers" by Ramsey Campbell (2012)

This is a story about how disturbing, disgusting, and dangerous women are!

Thirteen-year-old Mark and his parents are staying with Mark's grandparents in a dirty and depressing northern English town, a place where half the stores are boarded up and the old theater has had its seats removed and been turned into a bingo parlor.  Mom and Grandma have a stupid fight and Mark's parents leave early, leaving Mark behind with a train ticket so he can follow them on schedule.  In the evening Grandma goes to the bingo parlor and Grandpa goes to the pub, so Mark goes to the cinema to see what sounds like a pornographic horror movie: "Mark's schoolmates had shown him the scene from Facecream on their phones, where the girl gets cream squirted all over her face."

Though he claims to be fifteen, Mark is refused admittance to the show, as are four other kids--two couples--who blame Mark for keeping them from seeing Facecream and threaten to beat him up.  The girls are more cruel and aggressive than the boys--it is the female members of the couples who do most of the verbal threatening.  These four disgruntled movie fans chase Mark through the town, past sinister nightclubs and streetlamps covered in spiderwebs full of dead bugs.  Mark takes refuge in the bingo hall, where he sits at the same table with his withered old granny and a bunch of ugly ancient women--Campbell really pours on the descriptions of these women's jiggling fat and facial hair, and while they play bingo the old women make various disturbing gestures and jokes of a salacious nature.

That night, back at his grandparents' house, Mark is laying in bed when he hears the bingo women outside, calling out numbers as during the bingo game.  They call the number of the house Mark is in, and it is strongly implied that these women are witches or a serial killer cult or something like that who periodically choose a house in the town from which to seize a male upon whom they will inflict some unspeakably horrible fate!  The women demand either Mark or his grandfather, and I wouldn't trust Grandpa to sacrifice himself for Mark!

As with Tem's "The Monster Makers," in which people get transformed into monsters and killed in front of witnesses but the police never seem to catch on, you really have to suspend disbelief for this story.  Is the government of a First World city, even a city in severe decline, going to look the other way when a mob periodically drags a guy out of his house and he is never seen again?  (Weren't British people under 24-hour video surveillance by the time this story was printed?)  Are the local men going to let frail and obese old women overpower them and kill them?  Even a thirteen-year-old boy should be able to outfight these septuagenarians!  (Paradoxically, while Lee's story has an even more outlandish premise, it is more "believable" than Tem's and Campbell's because society at large in Lee's story responds to the impossible premise more realistically than it does in "The Monster Makers" and "The Callers.")

Of the three stories we're talking about today, "The Callers" is the most direct and conventional, and the least literary (I didn't mention it above, but Lee flings uncited T. S. Eliot and Matthew Arnold quotes at us in "Black and White Sky"), though Campbell writes it in the present tense, for some reason.  Fear of women on the part of young men, and the disgust felt by the young for the old, are good themes for a visceral horror story, though, and I think this story is a success--it may not be as ambitious as the Lee and Tem stories, but I think Campbell certainly achieves his goals here.

"The Callers" was first printed in Four for Fear, an anthology of stories commissioned for a literature festival in Hull, England; besides in The Best Horror of the Year: Volume Five it has been included in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror 24.

**********

These three stories are fine, but not great.  Certainly not good enough for me to renounce my allegiance to the century of my birth!  It's back to the 1970s (the decade of my birth!) in our next episode. 

Friday, January 25, 2019

"Clash By Night" and Fury by Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore


Back in May of last year, in our nation's capital, I purchased the 1975 Magnum/Prestige paperback edition of Fury by beloved SF writing team and married couple Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore.  I decided to read it this recent weekend but a quick look at the indispensable isfdb indicated it was a sequel to the story "Clash By Night," so first I went to the indispensable internet archive to read that story in a scan of its first appearance in John Campbell's Jr.'s Astounding.
"The Keeps know nothing of the Free Companions.  They don't want to."
"Clash By Night" (1943)

"Clash By Night" is widely admired, appearing in lots of "Best of" collections and in anthologies of military SF, so as a fan of Kuttner and Moore and a guy who likes stories about war and violence as much as anybody, I was looking forward to it.

Our tale is set on Venus, some centuries after the planet was colonized by Earthmen whose descendants today live in undersea dome cities, the surface being covered in deathworld jungles where every plant and animal strives to destroy the human and all his works.  These cities, known as Keeps, do not get along, and hire mercenaries in their wars on each other.  The mercenaries, known as Free Companions, unlike the soft city dwellers, have skins burned black (like Leigh Brackett's Mercurian hero Eric John Stark) by the rays of the sun because of all the time they spend on the surface, manning their warships and their coastal fortresses.

The protagonist of "Clash By Night" is Captain Brian Scott of Doone's Free Companions, and in this story we follow his evolving relationships with two women (the girlfriend he is leaving and the new one he is leaving her for) and a newly enlisted soldier (the new gf's brother), as well as Scott's rivalry with a fellow officer who envies Scott's higher rank.  We also observe one of Doone's Free Companions' military campaigns, consisting of some diplomacy as Scott is charged by the Doone's c-in-c with hiring another free company on as subcontractors, and then a big air-sea battle.

It is immediately apparent, from an introduction penned by historians residing in the peaceful Venus of the far future who doubt the veracity of what follows, and from an epigraph from Kipling's "Tommy," why "Clash By Night" appeals to military SF people like David Drake--the story sympathizes with soldiers, and one of its main themes is the gulf between civilians and fighting men: the civilian can never understand what the soldier has gone through, and civilians too often fail to appreciate how much they rely on soldiers for the peace, prosperity, and comfort they enjoy and how the progress a society makes is only possible behind the protection of its defenders.  The story's first scene takes place during a carnival season, in a bar, where civilians are insulting the Free Companions and Scott narrowly prevents a brawl from erupting.

"Clash By Night" has much to recommend it beyond this somewhat tendentious theme (we've all heard the case that service people make our cushy lives possible and don't get enough respect, but we've all also heard the case that we spend way too much on defense and a big military establishment and the glorification of the military leads to conflict.)  Another major theme of the story is change: the sadness of change, obstacles to the changes you want to see and the inevitability of the changes you'd rather not see.  Before the big battle Scott decides that it will be his last, that he will retire from the mercenary biz after the campaign and settle down within a Keep with that new girlfriend--but will events force him to remain with the company?  Throughout the story Scott harps on the idea that the days of warring Keeps and mercenary companies will soon (in a few hundred years) end and their exploits will be forgotten.  Earth was destroyed in a nuclear war after Venus colonization began (each Keep has a huge globe depicting the Earth in a central public place as a reminder of the world of their ancestors) and the use of nuclear power is forbidden on Venus--renegades who develop or employ atomic weapons are subject to summary execution, but these renegades keep popping up regardless.   

"Clash By Night" is also a very good adventure story.  Kuttner and Moore's Venus is a great setting, full of danger and intrigue, and the action scenes--surviving a ship wreck, traversing a monster-haunted jungle, fighting in a naval battle--are all well done.  The human drama scenes--yearning for a better life, clashes of will and differences of opinion--are also good.  I really enjoyed this one.

...man had stopped growing.  His destiny was no longer to be found in the Keeps.  The great civilization of Earth must not reach a dead end under the seas of this fertile planet.
Fury (1947)

Fury first appeared as a serial over three issues of Astounding and, a big hit, has been reprinted numerous times, including under a different title (Destination: Infinity) and in various languages.  My 1977 edition includes an introduction by C. L. Moore in which Moore talks about her writing partnership with Kuttner and tells us what she believes are the main themes of Kuttner's work and of her own.  (Former: "Authority is dangerous and I will never submit to it."  Latter: "The most treacherous thing in life is love."  These are good themes!)  Moore says she wrote an eighth or less of Fury, that she didn't really identify with the protagonist, and we will soon see why!

Moore's intro alone is worth the three bucks I paid for this book, and I recommend it to all those interested in Golden Age SF and the pulps.  Remember that Barry Malzberg, a man with a deep knowledge and commitment to SF, idolizes Kuttner and Moore.  (One of Malzberg's many pseudonyms, K. M. O'Donnell, is based on their initials and their pen name, Lawrence O'Donnell, the name under which these Keep stories originally appeared.) 

Fury takes place a few centuries after "Clash By Night."  Venus is united under a single government, so the wars between the Keeps are over and the Free Companies have been disbanded.  In this novel Kuttner and Moore expand on one of the themes of "Clash By Night" I didn't talk much about above, that Keep society is decadent and many citizens are self-described hedonists who do no work and spend their time using drugs and sitting in virtual reality machines and that kind of thing.  K & M also add a new wrinkle to Keep society: a sizable minority of Keep inhabitants are mutants who are tall and thin and have life spans of up to seven or even ten centuries; the child of two mutant parents inherits this same longevity mutation.  Because of their ability to amass greater experience and wisdom than the physically shorter and shorter-lived majority, in the more or less democratic society of the Keeps these "Immortals" have become a sort of ruling class.

The protagonist of the novel is Sam Reed, born Sam Harker.  The Harkers are a family of Immortals, in fact the leading family on Venus, so Sam has a long life ahead of him, but he does not know it!  You see, Sam's father was one of those decadent hedonists and also mentally ill, and behaves irrationally: Sam's mother died giving birth to Sam, so his vengeful father had his infant body distorted (by a drug addict endocrinologist willing to do anything for money for her next hit) to appear like that of a mortal and cuts all ties to the kid, giving him up to adoption by a mortal family.

Little Sam, who has the brain of one of the superior mutants but the body and social standing of a normy, feels bored with ordinary life and acts out, running away from home as a child, trying various jobs, and quickly becoming a misanthropic and anti-social criminal--a thief, a conman and a murderer.

In his early forties, Sam gets mixed up in the politics of the Immortals who run the Keeps by manipulating the technically independent legislatures.  The Immortal intellectuals can see that the human race is in terminal decline because it is losing all its get-up-and-go, the result of life being too easy.  The solution to this problem is for the Keeps to take up the challenge of colonizing the radically inhospitable surface of Venus, those hellish jungles full of colossal monsters and venomous plants.  A minority faction led by Robin Hale, the last surviving Free Companion, wants to start the colonization effort at once.  The vast majority of Immortals think Hale is jumping the gun, that humanity isn't ready to wholeheartedly engage in the colonization effort and that Hale will fail and this will terminally demoralize the human race, putting the last nail in humanity's coffin, so to speak.  So, this majority faction, led by the Harkers, hires Sam to assassinate Hale, but Sam instead decides to become Hale's right hand man in the colonization effort!

Sam spends a couple of months as Hale's PR man, manipulating the media and the masses to win their support for the colonization plan (which is repeatedly likened to the Crusades--Fury was written before college professors had convinced everybody that the Crusaders were the bad guys.)  But then one of Sam's women, secretly in the employ of the Harkers, betrays Sam, drugging him!  When Sam wakes up, forty years have passed!  Seeing that four decades have wrought no substantial changes to his physique, Sam finally realizes he is an Immortal in a body that only looks like that of a mundane!

Via various complicated crimes and acts of espionage, Sam gets some money together, hooks up with Hale again, and gets the stalled colonization effort back on track.  The climax of this part of the book sees Sam carve out a modus vivendi with the majority faction of Immortals by trouncing the patriarch of the Harker clan in a televised political debate through the liberal use of lies, skulduggery and acts of terrorism!

The bravest, toughest and smartest men in the Keeps volunteer for service on the surface, where they expand the colony inch by inch in the face of the resistance of the ravenous pulsating jungle.  Over the course of five hard years of labor and fighting, these volunteers grow into a new breed of man, a breed like the pioneers and adventurers of Old Earth--they are disciplined and independent, courageous and industrious, and they have contempt for the softies back in the Keeps who live off the work of others and let the Immortals do their thinking for them.  Also after five years, they come to realize that Sam's promises of the glorious treasures awaiting them on the surface were a load of crap, and they launch a mutiny!  The hi-tech war that erupts forces the limp and decadent populations of the Keeps to flee their easy lives and move to the nightmare surface--but to what extent is this war real and to what extent is it just another scam from Sam the sham, manipulator of the Venus man?

The last few pages of the book show us what happens twenty years after the migration from the Keeps to the surface: the human race has been saved from irreversible decline by Sam's ruthlessness and duplicity, but Sam has outlived his usefulness and he is brought down by the machinations of the Immortals.  The human race was in such trouble that it needed a merciless brute like Sam to get itself out of its rut, but once that problem is solved, Sam--a selfish jerk with no conscience and overweening ambition--is himself a society-threatening problem, and so he is neutralized.  Kuttner compares Sam to Moses, who led his people to the promised land but could not live there himself, while I was reminded of the character of Pirrie in Death of Grass (AKA No Blade of Grass) by John Christopher and of Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer, who, in One Lonely Night, begins to think of himself as the sort of evil man whom society needs to defend itself from still more evil men.

The captive Sam is informed that he is in fact a member of the Harker family against whom he has struggled, and what happened to him during those 40 years of slumber.  Then he is put to sleep again--he will probably live for another 900 or 1000 years, and is told that if the human race again needs him, he will be awakened.  (This reminded me of King Arthur.)  This opens up the possibility of a sequel, but I don't believe Kuttner and Moore ever did write a third Keeps story.

Fury is a good novel full of drama and SF ideas.  Parts of it read like scenes from organized crime fiction, with heists and intrigues in which Sam plays members of the powerful Harker family against each other, taking advantage of love triangles and drug addictions (people in this novel use lots of weird drugs derived from Venusian flora and fauna.)  Like the protagonist of a hard-boiled mystery, Sam has to deal with lots of criminal scumbags, whom he manages to outwit, and plenty of femmes fatale, to whom he falls victim.  The novel includes lots of SF gadgets and gimmicks, like those weird drugs and various cool monsters and weapons, and also addresses SF ideas like "how would knowing you are going to live 700 or 1000 years change your psychology" and "how would knowing you are going to live 70 or 100 years but some other guy is going to live ten times as long affect your psychology?"  There are discussions of cultural change and cultural conservatism, and on whether or not you can usefully predict the future (there is a character who can more or less predict the future but can't tell people his predictions because doing so will render them inaccurate, I guess a riff on Cassandra, Hari Seldon and the observer effect/Heisenberg uncertainty principle.)

Prominent in the novel is the anti-Utopian theme we have seen numerous times in fiction discussed at this blog, the assertion that man needs challenge to thrive, that the easy life of living off hand outs and passing the time with drugs and immersive entertainment is not the good life--the good life is overcoming obstacles and building stuff.  Another main theme of Fury we see all the time in classic SF is the idea that the common people need to be manipulated by the cognitive elite for their own good--Kuttner and Moore essentially endorse the rule of the Immortals.

The novel's style is good, vivid but economical--there isn't any fat or filler, and things move along at a good pace.  The authors assume you are literate, or encourage you to be so, filling the book with quotes from and references to the Bible, Shakespeare, T. S. Eliot, A. E. Housman, Dickens, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, etc.

The Keeps stories represent another big success for those stalwarts of Golden Age SF, Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore.  Recommended. 

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Stardance by Spider and Jeanne Robinson

Dancers began to understand that free fall meant free dance, free from a lifetime in thrall to gravity.
At some point I picked up, I guess at Half-Price Books, a Book Club edition of the 1979 novel by Spider and Jeanne Robinson Stardance.  According to isfdb, Stardance is based on a novella that appeared in Analog in 1977 and a serial that appeared in the same magazine in 1978; that original novella (also called "Stardance") won the Hugo and the Nebula, so presumably it is worth my time, at the very least as a piece of SF history.  I know very little about the Robinsons, but on the acknowledgements page of this book they say they like Yes, which seems like a good sign.

It is the near future of 1989.  Our narrator is Charlie Armstead, a talented Canadian dancer whose career in Modern dance was cut short when a burglar shot him in the hip.  Now he is the world's best dance cinematographer.  In the first chapter of the novel he meets Shara Drummond, another gifted dancer whose Modern dance career is in trouble--she has a curvaceous sexy body, not the skinny androgynous body a successful Modern dancer needs.  These two geniuses are living out a tragedy, unable to achieve their dreams and their full potentials--but wait, Charlie has an idea!  The VCR is coming on the market, and maybe the public will pay to see sexalicious Shara dance, even if the Modern dance companies won't.

After three years of dancing and filming, Shara and Charlie have failed to find a home retail market for Modern dance videotapes, so they go their separate ways.  Charlie becomes a drunk, but Shara finds a more productive way to spend her time.  She hooks up with a third broken person, a wheelchair-bound bazillionaire, Bryce Carrington, who has built himself a space station (up in zero gee he is much more comfortable, like that guy in Robert Heinlein's "Waldo.")  Over the course of a year or so Shara works her way up from a job on the space station into the position of Carrington's girlfriend, eventually persuading him to finance a new dance venture--she thinks that the gimmick of dancing in free fall will make her dancing more marketable (as well as being an artistic breakthrough.)  She reconnects with Charlie, and hires him to be her videographer up on the station.

The Robinsons give us several scenes describing, in both concrete objective terms and abstract metaphorical terms, Shara's dancing and Charlie's recording of it. There is drama around Carrington, who is kind of a jerk who uses Shara for sex and for publicity (at the same time she is using him to further her dancing career) and drama around the negative effects of zero gee on Shara's body.  She spends so much time in free fall that Shara is ruining her body--it can no longer function under gravity and so she will be unable to return to Earth!

During all this dance business, in the background is mention of a mysterious object approaching from the further reaches of the solar system.  The climactic ending of the first part of the novel (like 60 pages that, I guess, correspond to that original 1977 novella) details the arrival this object, a big sphere full of plasmoid aliens who buzz around like bees in their translucent craft.  Shara realizes they are dancing, that they communicate through dance.  She parleys with them, dancing in a space suit in vacuum before them; when she learns they want to take over Earth, Shara, via the greatest dance of her career, convinces them to leave us be.  After saving the world Shara, having no life on Earth ahead of her and being unable to ever top this world-saving performance, commits suicide by flying into the Earth's atmosphere and burning up as a meteor.  Just before she dies she hands the torch over to Charlie, telling him he will have to be the leader of the new form of dancing she has pioneered, pointing out that in zero gee he can dance even with his bad leg.

It is easy to see why the novella was such a hit with committed SF fans and SF professionals--it tells you that the creative arts are vitally important, that heroic individuals can achieve their dreams and make a difference, and that you can solve your problems by going up into space!  (How do you like them apples, Barry Malzberg?)   

This novel is over 200 pages long.  The next part, "The Stardancers," is like 80 pages.  Most of it is taken up with description of how Charlie and some other genius dancers and a genius special effects man and a genius engineer and a genius businessman build a new space station and start a dance company and school out in orbit.  This is pleasant if not exactly thrilling, a celebration of friendship, love (all the geniuses pair off into couples, including a gay couple) and art.  At the tail end of this second part of the novel we get lots of talk of accelerations and orbits as there is first a space accident and then the government enlists the dance troupe on a history-making mission: those aliens are back, hanging around Saturn, and the dancers and some diplomats have to fly out there to talk to them.  Because of the trip's length (like three years) nobody who goes on the mission will ever be able to survive in gravity again--the Earth will be forever closed to them.  This is OK with the dancers, as, just before the UN arrived, Charlie and his wife had decided that they never wanted to set foot on the crime-ridden and polluted Earth again.

Stardance was published under the
Quantum label, and on the back cover of my copy
is a sort of sales pitch for the Quantum line 
Part three, "Starseed" is like 50-odd pages, and covers the trip to Saturn and the meeting with the plasmoids.  There is some speculation that the dancers, because they take so readily to free fall and don't care about Earth, are a new human species.  This adds some intrigue--if they are not really Earthlings, should they be trusted to negotiate the future of Earth with aliens?  This intrigue comes on top of more conventional intrigue.  In the future described by the book the USSR and China are still communist autocracies at odds with the United States, but somehow all three major powers have agreed to give control of space to a United Nations Space Command.  So, on the UN ship to Saturn are four diplomats, one from each of the three big powers and a fourth from Spain, and there is all kinds of bugging and computer hacking and people smuggling weapons and so forth.  It will give some readers pause to learn that, of the diplomats, the least trustworthy, least sophisticated and most arrogant is the American, and he is Jewish, an unmensch named Silverman who talks like Jackie Mason.  ("It would kill you, first to sit me down and say, 'I have bad news for you'?  Like that you tell me?")

The dancers talk to the aliens, and learn that the plasmoid blobs are not, in fact, hostile--Shara misunderstood them.  The plasmoids are our ancestors,  who seeded Earth with us a bazillion years ago, and have come to offer humanity a means--a symbiote they seeded on Titan--of achieving immortality, collective consciousnesses, and the ability to live and move unaided in outer space.  Silverman whips out a gun and tries to seize a monopoly on this symbiote for the American bourgeoisie, even giving a homophobic and anti-communist speech.  Silverman's evil scheme is foiled by the self sacrifice of a Vietnamese woman employed by the UN.  Then the Chinese diplomat whips out a better gun and tries to ensure the Earth will never learn of the symbiote--he fears it will cause inequality, splitting the human race into two classes, one of god-like immortals who literally look down on an underclass of envious mortals.  Charlie convinces this guy that the dancers will figure out how to share immortality with all of mankind, and everybody (except for Silverman, of course) makes up and agrees to work together to build the road to utopia.

A very brief fourth and final part of the novel describes the process of becoming one with the symbiote and reveals that Shara did not die--the aliens saved her from burning up (the meteor was her space suit) and she rejoins Charlie and his telepathically linked family of dancers, the vanguard of a new post-scarcity, post-government, and post-Earth human race.

Stardance fits comfortably in the mainstream SF tradition.  Most of the book has a sort of hard SF Heinlein vibe, what with the protagonists all being wisecracking sex-loving geniuses, the emphasis on love, and the authors' effort to depict a believable future, in particular the effect of technology on people's lives and what it will be like to live beyond Earth.  The end is like something by Theodore Sturgeon (The Cosmic Rape) or Arthur C. Clarke (Childhood's End), with humanity becoming united as one, thanks to benign alien intervention.  The Robinsons' proudly announce their commitment to that tradition: that acknowledgements page acknowledges not only one of the greatest art rock bands, but also a whole lot of people connected to Astounding and Analog, like Heinlein, Sturgeon and Ben Bova, while John Campbell Jr, Isaac Asimov, and E. E. Smith are all referenced by the characters in the actual text (as is Frederick Pohl.)  Serious sciency books, like one on Skylab and G. Harry Stine's The Third Industrial Revolution also appear in the acknowledgements.

The Robinson's writing is smooth and comfortable and I enjoyed the novel; it is a good example of 1970s SF that has period concerns like pollution and the Vietnam War and rampant crime but still follows pre-New Wave structures, techniques and themes.  The Silverman character has the potential of pissing people off, and I personally always side with the USA and the middle class against the goddamned commies, but the Silverman component of the novel is just a few pages at the end and doesn't make the whole book repellent.  And isn't exposure to wacky ideas and alien points of view one of the reasons we read SF anyway?

Speaking of wacky ideas, the most challenging and memorable part of the novel, on an intellectual level, is the Robinsons' effort to convince you that living in a lifeless void is better than living on a planet full people and animals and plants--it is one thing for a SF writer to suggest that life on another planet would be better than life on Earth, but the Robinsons really push the idea that life in an airless vacuum is a zen state of great beauty, far better than life on vibrant and diverse planet Earth.  I never fell for the Burroughs/Howard idea that life as a barbarian in a wilderness is better than life as a sophisticate in a city, and the Robinsons have taken on an even more difficult task here, and it is compelling to see them give it the old college try.   

The problem with Stardance is that the Robinsons accomplish all their goals in that very first part, and in only 60 pages (at MPorcius Fiction Log we recognize that life is short and admire efficiency.)  Those 60 pages end with a satisfying climax, a mix of tragedy and triumph that is largely undone by the remainder of the book, and its anti-Americanism is more subtle and palatable than that of the later sections.  While the succeeding parts of Stardance are competent, they are just the Robinsons rehashing the same themes and ideas of those first 60 pages at greater length, like a movie sequel that does exactly what the first movie in the series did, but with a much bigger budget, bigger cast and bigger explosions.  I liked Stardance as a whole, but the success of the first part, a finely crafted novella, renders the rest a little superfluous.  (I have to wonder what goes on in the two novel-length sequels to Stardance which appeared in the '90s, Starseed and Starmind.)