Thursday, September 29, 2016

1977 stories by George Alec Effinger, Gene Wolfe, R. A. Lafferty and Carter Scholz


Fellow SF fan R. R. Nurmi,
we salute you!
It's Part Two of our look at Terry Carr's Universe 7, an all original anthology from 1977.  I own a hardcover copy of the book club edition which was formerly in the library of Des Moines resident R. R. Nurmi.  I own several volumes from the Nurmi library, including Anthony Boucher's A Treasury of Great Science Fiction

"Ibid." by George Alec Effinger

I know there are Effinger fans out there.  Well, here is where I tell you people that you have to buy a copy of Universe 7 because it is the one and only place where "Ibid." has appeared.

This is a decent Twilight Zone-style story that touches on Cartesian philosophical issues (can we trust any of our sense impressions?) and the question of whether life has any meaning if we cannot be confident of our knowledge of the outside world (if we can't tell if friends and family really like us or if our work is truly valuable, why not just become a slacker, a drunk or a suicide?)

Cathy Schumacher is an academic who suddenly finds messages directly addressed to her in academic journals, students' papers, supermarket celebrity magazines, even the local TV news!  Is she going insane?  Are mysterious eldritch forces aiding her? Tormenting her?  These bizarre problems are piled on top of more ordinary problems Schumacher is facing, the kinds of problems faced by many (most?) ordinary people: her work (teaching uninterested students about English literature) seems pointless and her daughter and husband are distant--he in fact may be having an affair.  Her response to these problems, revealed on the final page of the story?  Taking up alcoholism!

I like "Ibid."'s structure and themes, and the style is fine.  For a while I thought it should be more scary--the story doesn't transmit to the reader a sense of horror, it is a bit cold and clinical.  (If I opened up a supermarket tabloid and saw a headline that read "Hey, MPorcius, look out!") I'd probably just die right there on top of my cart full of Count Chocula and Ovaltine.)  But thinking further on the story, I have decided that it is less about the heavy kind of cosmic horror represented by the impossible messages, the kind of horror that drives people in H. P. Lovecraft stories insane, and more about one of the quotidian sadnesses of life, that we cannot have any confidence that those whom we love love us in return, the kind of sadness represented by Schumacher's relationships with her daughter and husband, the kind of sadness we see in Proust.  Because this sadness is so common, is experienced by so many of us, a low key tone makes sense, and keeps the story from descending into soap opera melodrama.  

Good.

"The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton" by Gene Wolfe

I don't have to tell you that Wolfe is widely regarded as the best SF writer of all time and all that.  I read "The Marvelous Brass Chessplaying Automaton" in my copy of Storeys from the Old Hotel years ago, and here I go again.  This story must be highly regarded, it having been included in the Tor 2009 collection Best of Gene Wolfe.

It is centuries in the future!  The human race is reduced to a kind of Early Modern technological and political level, though educated people have knowledge of the computers of the past and can identify weather satellites in the night sky.  Perhaps to evoke thoughts of the Thirty Years War as well as Cold War fears of a NATO vs Warsaw Pact ground war, the story is set in Germany and people fling around references to Burgermeisters and have names like Hans and Gretchen and Karl.  A war with the Russians is underway, and has been for a long time; soldiers and deserters are everywhere, and in the distance can be heard the thunder of siege guns.  

A man comes to the village of Oder Spree who claims to own the sole surviving operable computer, a computer devoted to playing chess!  After the machine is demonstrated, an academic purchases it for the University, only to find the machine is a scam (much like the late 18th-century "Turk" automaton which captured the imagination of Europe and played such luminaries as Benjamin Franklin and Napoleon Bonaparte); a skinny mutant, a genius chess player with an oversized brain, hides inside the machine to make the moves.  The mutant falls in love with a local blue-eyed blonde and decides he wants to stay in Oder Spree; to this end he conspires with the academic to get his money back from the con artist, but a terrible tragedy results from their desperate plan.


Very good.  You've heard me praise Wolfe before, so you won't be surprised to hear me say the story is economical, full of memorable images, pulls at the heart strings, has clever foreshadowing, interesting premises, and a puzzling mystery.  Shall I voice my theory regarding the mystery?  Of course I will!  The mystery is that the chess-playing machine, to the surprise of the double-crossing scam artists, seems to start working on its own.  Now, Wolfe is a Christian who believes in the supernatural, so it is not impossible that we are to suspect that the machine is animated by ghost or deity as a means of punishing the sinful cheaters who callously put the blonde woman's life at risk.  A related possibility (one the unnamed narrator puts forward, but remember that Wolfe is famed for his use of unreliable narrators) is that the mutant has telekinetic abilities even he doesn't understand--it is his own guilty conscience that brings the antiquated machine to life.  But my favored theory (reflecting my cold-hearted materialism, perhaps) is that the machine is being used in strong sunlight for the first time in a long time (Wolfe mentions the sun and bright sky more than once) and the sunlight has recharged the computer's batteries via unremarked upon solar cells, allowing it to operate as it did a hundred or more years ago.

Like I often do with Wolfe stories, I read it twice in one day, enjoying it both times. Highly recommended.          
 
"Brain Fever Season" by R. A. Lafferty

This story is, according to isfdb, the final installment of a series of stories called "Men Who Knew Everything."  The story is a little opaque; maybe I would have had an easier time "getting" it if I had read some of the previous stories in the series.

The story's characters are immortal and eccentric geniuses who manipulate the world from behind the scenes.  Significantly, they "set up" the equator and the four seasons. The idea behind this story is that there are additional "seasons" which affect not the weather and length of the day, but the human mind.  There are, for example, seasons during which there is a flurry of large scale construction (the Great Pyramid of Giza was built during such a period, we are told) or a sudden flowering of artistic production.  In this story there is a sudden explosion in interest and publication of high brow scientific and philosophical writing, "an information-and-invention sort of fever," across the Northern Hemisphere.

Of course, all this stuff I'm just telling you in a few sentences is revealed gradually through clues over  story's 17 pages, accompanied by lots of jokes and farcical explorations of the ramifications of the abrupt elevation of intellectual prowess of the average man.  This isn't a "realistic" look at what might happen if everybody all of a sudden got smarter (like Poul Anderson's Brain Wave), but a funny, silly story in which geniuses feverishly write books in 18 hours and publishers get them printed and into the stores in five hours, a response to the public's fervid demand for material like "Emanuel Visconti's Costive Cosmologies Freed," the widespread demand for which actually predates the completion of the book's first draft.

A recurring motif of the story is likening the desire for knowledge to sexual desire; people "howl" that they are "hot" for a book and "have to have it right now," and the brain fever season is compared to the rutting season or oestrous period of animals. The explosion in human brainpower first becomes evident when publishers and sellers of pornography (famed for being able to produce and distribute material quickly) start selling mass quantities of books like a Tibetan grammar and a volume on plate tectonics.

"Brain Fever Season" is alright, not great.  I didn't laugh at the jokes (many are just lists, like of funny names) and I didn't feel like my work figuring it out had a commensurate payoff.  Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I had been already familiar with Barnaby Sheen and his troupe of weird geniuses.  Besides in Universe 7, you can read it in the 1984 collection Ringing Changes, in English or Italian!


"The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs" by Carter Scholz

I've never read anything by Scholz before, but on isfdb I see he has worked with Barry Malzberg and Kathe Koja, writers whose short stories I like, and has some kind of collaborative relationship with critical darling Jonathan Lethem.  A good omen.

The intro to "The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs" contains what I like to think of as "mysteries," even if you skeptical types out there would probably call them "typos."  Carr tells us that Scholz has a story in Alternities--I just read Alternities and there is no Scholz story in there!  He also tells us Scholz has a story in Clarion IV--there is no Clarion IV listed on isfdb, though probably Carr is referring to Clarion SF, the fourth Clarion anthology.  Finally, we are told Scholz has contributed a story to Output, but what exactly Output is, my five-minute Google search does not reveal.

Enough with the mysteries, on with the story.  "The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs" takes place in 2016.  A means of sending a person's consciousness back in time to inhabit the brain of another person has been developed; you can't influence your host, but you can see through his eyes and share his thoughts.  The main character of the tale, Charles Largens, is a musicologist, and he has his mind sent back in time to ride as a passenger in Beethoven's head.

A large proportion of the story concerns academic angst and office politics: the grantmaker will pull the grant if they find out how the money is being spent, guys compete over a promotion to head of a department, Largens has sex with another academic's wife, composers suffer writer's block, Largens worries that he shouldn't have abandoned his creative career as a composer to become a mere critic and historian of music, he realizes that his academic career has been manipulated by his mentor, etc.

The science fiction elements of the story revolve around the fact that, while your host won't be influenced by a single or a handful of visiting psyches from the future, so many scholars enter the head of a fascinating cultural giant like Beethoven that ol' Ludwig Van begins to pick up the "crosstalk" and it has a terrible negative effect on him.  Beethoven's output is diminished as he loses sanity (the famous Ninth symphony ceases to exist!) and Largens begins to notice differences between the 2016 he leaves for the 1800s and the one he returns to after each transfer.  In the end of the story Largens acts to shut down the dangerous time travel program and abandons scholarly life to return to his true calling, creating new music.

This story is well-written and constructed.  The idea that scholarly research work is sterile and stifling, and can render a creative person impotent (one character literally gets too caught up in his Beethoven research to be able to achieve an erection and have sex with his wife) is provocative, reminiscent of the way (one suspects) that actual soldiers and politicians look down on military and political historians, athletes look down on sports journalists, novelists look down on critics, etc.  (Scholz's story also reminded me of Proust's idea that things like friendship are a waste of time for the true artist, distractions from his real work, his art.) Sterility, like impotence, is a theme of the story--2016 is called a " barren year" and we learn in an aside that New York City has been reduced to a population of only two million, so that instead of new buildings going up, buildings are actually being torn down!  Sounds even worse than the real 2016!

Worth checking out.  "The Ninth Symphony of Ludwig van Beethoven and Other Lost Songs" would later appear in British and German anthologies.


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A good anthology, with seven stories that I can definitely recommend and only one clunker.  Universe 7 earns the MPorcius Seal of Approval.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

1977 stories from Fritz Leiber, Brian Aldiss, Julian Reid and Robert Chilson

Inside jacket flap of my copy
We all love these anthologies of original SF stories, don't we?  So let's read my copy of the hardcover book club edition of 1977's Universe 7, edited by Terry Carr.  We are told it is "acclaimed" and "an eagerly awaited event in science fiction."  Let's see if the acclaimers and eager waiters of that world of long ago in which I was a mere six years old were well-served by Carr and the "famous authors" and "stars of tomorrow" who appeared between Universe 7's covers. Today we've got two titans of speculative fiction, Fritz Leiber and Brian Aldiss, and two people whose work I have never before read, Julian Reid and Robert Chilson.

"A Rite of Spring" by Fritz Leiber

Like a lot of us who played 1st edition AD&D in the 1980s, I have a special place in my heart for Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Grey Mouser.  (Fave F&GM stories: "Seven Black Priests," "Lean Times in Lankhmar," "Bazaar of the Bizarre" and "Stardock.")  I also really liked Leiber's hard sf Hugo-winner "Ship of Shadows."  Hopefully "A Rite of Spring," which Terry Carr also included in Best Science Fiction of the Year 7, will join this list of solidly entertaining stories.

At the very start of the novelette (40 pages) Fritz hints that "A Rite of Spring" might be some kind of feminist switcheroo piece; the very first line is "This is the story of the knight in shining armor and the princess in a high tower, only with the roles reversed." I guess that is a fair description, but, equally justly, we can see the tale as a male wish-fulfillment fantasy in which some egghead who is ineffectual with women suddenly has his dream girl tossed in his lap.  It is also akin to those stories like Tom Jones and Citizen of the Galaxy in which a young person with an unhappy life suddenly learns he is the heir to a fortune or the son of a nobleman or whatever and is whisked away to a finer existence.

Matthew Fortree is a mathematical genius, a resident at a luxurious secret U. S. government campus where the finest of pure scientists are collected to pursue their research in hopes that they will produce breakthroughs which will aid our nation militarily or economically.  Matthew is eccentric and antisocial, a friendless virgin. During an electrical storm he (though an arrogant atheist) prays to the "Great Mathematician" and at his door appears a beautiful seventeen-year-old girl.  The girl, Severeign Saxon, is ostensibly at the secret installation to look for her brother.  She and Matthew play an intellectual party game, each in turn naming a famous thing associated with the number seven (e. g., Seven Sisters, Seven Against Thebes, Seven Samurai, etc.)  This game goes on for pages and pages, Leiber unleashing on the reader much erudite trivia from history, literature and religion, including references to Poul Anderson and to his own Fafhrd and Grey Mouser stories.  The game also has integrated into it a somewhat elaborate sex scene between Matthew and Severeign.

At the end of the story it becomes evident that Severeign is from another dimension, one Matthew glimpsed in trances as a child, "a realm where he was in direct contact with the stuff of mathematics" and where the mathematical genius can live a happier, more fulfilling life.  The authorities suspect Severeign is some kind of foreign spy, and when Matthew carelessly reveals classified information to her they come gunning for the pair of them.  Luckily Severeign has a magical artifact that allows them to escape to her better world.

The story may be a bit too long, and some sections exhibit a sort of folksy colloquial style that is (I guess) supposed to remind you of fairy tales or sitting by the campfire hearing some oldster spin a yarn ("For it was a Gothic night, too, you see") which might be a little hard to take.  Some might find some elements of the story a little pervy; not only is Severeign 17 years old, but she says that in the "other realm" that she and Matthew are siblings--he is the brother she is looking for!  But "A Rite of Spring" is cleverly constructed and for the most part smoothly executed.  If you can take the barrage of trivia, it is worth your time.

 
"My Lady of the Psychiatric Sorrows" by Brian Aldiss

This is an effective sketch of a setting and characters; there isn't much plot here.

A decade or so (?) ago an energy-starved Earth sent aloft satellites (they call them "planetoids") that collected solar energy and beamed it down to the surface.  These satellites were like flying cities, full of fashionable stores and comfortable hotels and so forth for the benefit of crew and visitors.  But then six years ago some capital-C "Catastrophe" struck (a plague is mentioned) and the satellites drifted off into the sun or deep space or crashed on the Earth's surface.

Our characters are the Goddard family.  When the Earth was reduced to a medieval level of existence, Goddard, a designer of sportswear, and his father embraced the change and totally got into growing their own crops by hand and spending half the year leading a nomadic life, following a herd of reindeer.  Goddard's wife acted much more like I would--she was psychologically crushed by the collapse of our wealthy technological and capitalist society and became a hermit, moving into a crashed planetoid to take up residence in the ruined hotel therein and read books.  Periodically the four male Goddards--her husband, father-in-law, and her two young boys--go visit her.  On the visit covered in this story, Goddard tries to convince his wife to abandon her books ("Books are where you get your sick notions from") and join the family.  She dismisses them, saying they are living like mere peasants!  "I resent being kicked back to the Dark Ages, if you don't."  Amen, lady!

The story's title suggests, I guess, that we are to see these visits as similar to pilgrimages to a sacred site of a Marian apparition, like Lourdes or Guadaloupe.  Or maybe we are to consider that the fallen planetoid will be an incomprehensible artifact to future generations of Stone Age-level people, a place surrounded by outlandish legends vaguely based on the reality of our own high-tech society, the Catastrophe, and Mrs. Goddard's (tragic and heroic!) refusal to abandon the cultural heritage of our sophisticated modern society.

Not bad.  Terry Carr would also include "My Lady of the Psychiatric Sorrows" in his 1980 anthology Dream's Edge, published by the Sierra Club.  Reduce, reuse, recycle!

"Probability Storm" by Julian Reid

This is Reid's only published story, if isfdb is to be believed.  Carr tells us Reid attended the first Clarion West workshop, where Harlan Ellison was very critical of one of Reid's stories; the enfant terrible of speculative fiction is said to have "literally" torn it to pieces.

"Probability Storm" is a tedious 35-page sleeping draught about an alternate dimension New York City where ordinary people coexist with dryads and gremlins and ghosts and mad scientists.  Most of the story takes place in a bar called Rafferty's (could this be a reference to R. A. Lafferty?)  Our narrator is a ghost who can enter people's minds as well as visit some parallel plane to observe probability storms, which he can warn the regulars at the bar about.  A villainous businessman called "The Fat Man" comes into the bar, hoping to buy the place (or something), but the ghost narrator and the gremlins, empowered by one of those probability storms, invade his psyche and turn him into a thin man who doesn't want to make business deals, I guess.  The whole thing is very very verbose but at the same time very very vague; Reid willfully provides a very very low signal to noise ratio, even admitting to the reader that he is doing it (the narrator says things like, "as you may already have gathered, my attention has a tendency to wander at times.")  "Probability Storm" is supposed to be funny, but the jokes consist of comparing the fat guy to a pig again and again and again and describing how the gremlins spill drinks on him.

Very, very bad.  As far as I am concerned, Ellison could have ripped this one up as well; by excoriating his work Ellison was doing Reid a better service than Carr did him by encouraging him.  I really don't know what Carr was thinking when he elected to inflict this mess on readers of Universe 7.

"People Reviews" by Robert Chilson

I recently bought Chilson's novel Shores of Kansas for three whole bucks because it has a cool dinosaur cover.  Hopefully "People Reviews" won't make me regret the investment!  (Yes, "Probability Storm" has turned me cynical!)

My mind is grasping for a quote by, I think, editor John W. Campbell, in which he exhorted Astounding's writers to give him stories that felt like "newspaper articles of the future."  Chilson does just that in "People Reviews."  In the future, people will be able to wear headsets which record their thoughts; these recordings can be "listened" to by others, and a whole commercial industry, like the book publishing and record industries, has sprung up that produces and sells these thought recordings.  Chilson's nine-page story is a critical review like you'd find in a highbrow magazine like The New York Review of Books, a discussion of recent thought recordings and a series of musings on this art form's potential and current state.

Engaging and original, highly recommended to all you New Wave kids!  Cynicism storm abated!

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The Reid was astonishingly bad, but the Leiber, Aldiss and Chilson are all good; each is idiosyncratic and fresh, is well-executed when it comes to style and structure, and rests on a foundation of one or two interesting ideas.  Let's hope the second half of Universe 7 is as enjoyable.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Final Alternities: 1974 stories by Greg Bear, Vonda McIntyre, E. Michael Blake, Duane Ackerson, and Lee Saye

To me, the biggest name in Alternities is Barry Malzberg.  (Ed Bryant was also a draw.)  But by an objective measure, like sales, Greg Bear and Vonda McIntyre are probably bigger names to the SF world at large than our pal Barry.  Can either Bear or McIntyre produce a story that will prove 1974's Alternities is something more than a collection of odd trivialities and childish dick jokes that is perfectly calibrated to offend prudes, feminists and the LGBT crowd?

"Webster" by Greg Bear

Way back in ancient times, before I had married my long-term girlfriend or left the land where the tall buildings grow for the vast expanses of America's great Middle West, I read Greg Bear's In the Ocean of Night.  I thought it was too long and that Bear's incompetent efforts to tell some kind of meaning-of-life human-relationships story overshadowed the robots and rocket ships elements of the novel.

I haven't read anything by Bear since I typed that hostile Amazon review over nine years ago.  Today that Bearless period ends, as we examine "Webster."  "Webster" was never picked up by any other anthologies, but it was included in several collections of Bear's work.

Bear immediately tries to get me on his side by mentioning Roy Chapman Andrews in the first paragraph of this story.  One of my very first book-related memories is of reading In the Days of the Dinosaurs with Nana, my maternal grandmother.  This story actually has little if anything to do with Andrews or dinosaurs, though the reference to Andrews' pioneering discovery of dinosaur eggs does foreshadow a strange birth and discovery in the story.

Regina Abigail Costes is a fifty-year-old virgin living in a small apartment, lonely and horny, her only companions her books, most prominent of which are a Bible and a dictionary. She dreams of having a man, and hits upon the idea of magically conjuring forth a man from the dictionary! Tall and handsome, the man, whom she names Webster ("Johnson" would have been funnier, but maybe wouldn't work in the story's 20th-century American context) has sex with "Abbie." The next morning she bursts out onto the street and says "I know...what all you other women know."  The clouds and the sky tell her "Breathe deeply.  You're part of the world now. The real world." (Bear really goes in for this sort of overwritten romanticism.)  Apparently Abbie (and maybe even Bear?) hasn't heard that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle and thinks a woman is not complete without a sexual relationship with a man.

Webster can't go outside, doesn't eat, and he and Abbie have nothing to talk about. Their relationship pales after a few weeks, Abbie even buying a gun, wondering if Webster would survive being shot. For his part, Webster acquires a dictionary of his own, likely to create a woman with whom he has something in common. In the end of the story, more or less by mutual consent, Webster is dispelled and Abbie heads to the bookstore, I guess to get a different book to conjure a different man?  The last line of the story is "She had her choice now."  This ending is a bit confusing to me; didn't she just learn that love with a golem or simulacrum or whatever word we want to use was impossible, that such relationships are unsatisfying? Let's be optimistic and believe she is going to the bookstore to try to date up one of the customers or clerks, not get material needed to conjure up Mr. Darcy or Heathcliff or Odysseus.

I think the plot and themes here are good, but Bear's style, especially at the start of the story, is long winded, overwrought, and heavy-handed.  Still, I'll judge this one marginally recommendable.

"Recourse, Inc." by Vonda N. McIntyre

In 2014 I read McIntyre's "Only at Night" and thought it quite good, and "Elfleda" and thought it just OK.  Let's see what we make of this one, which would reappear in the 1979 collection, Fireflood and Other Stories.

"Recourse, Inc." tells a story with a series of documents, first an advertisement, then a bunch of letters and telegrams.  A man with psychological problems was told by his therapist to start using credit cards in order to gain confidence(!)  One of the banks whose card he has is overcharging him, either due to computer error or criminal intent, sending threatening collection letters for huge amounts.  Recourse, Inc. is a sort of A-Team of people on the edge of the law (former green terrorists, it is implied) that comes to the aid of those harried by collection agencies and fraudulent businesses.  Through correspondence we follow their efforts to get the disturbed man restitution and punish the bank; they try legal means, contacting the government (North America in the story's setting appears to consist of numerous largely autonomous states under a relatively weak federal government), computer hacking (is this 1974 reference a pioneering depiction of attacking a computer over the phone lines?), and eventually resort to breaking and entering.          

One of the story's themes, I think, is the idea that late-20th-century (North) American society, which seems so stable compared to societies of the past and of other regions of the world, is in fact resting on a shaky foundation.  If the computers all go kablooey, or all the oil is suddenly eaten by bacteria--and in this story such things seem very possible--we are in serious trouble!  In the world of "Resource, Inc." governments and other people and institutions with authority or power, including scientists, psychologists, and businesses, are incompetent and/or untrustworthy.

I don't like the plot any more than the plot of Bear's story, but McIntyre's execution is much better; the story is economical, with each sentence adding to the story, each sentence in the voice of a character.  There is no fat, no fluff.  "Recourse, Inc." is a strong contender for the title of "Best Story in Alternities."

"The Legend of Lonnie and the Seven-Ten Split" by E. Michael Blake

True story: Once the academic department where I worked in Manhattan took some of the public monies (meant to finance public policy research) with which we were entrusted and used them to go bowling.  This is called "a team-building exercise." None of us was a regular bowler, and so, by employing the tactic of violently hurling the ball down the lane with all the strength I could muster, I won the title of best bowler in our office of depressed slackers, arrogant hipsters, and committed bolshevists.

Blake has 11 fiction credits at ISFDB and a brief look at his livejournal page suggests his SF-related work is meant to be funny and includes cartoons and skits.

Twenty-year-old Lonnie is the best bowler in the overcrowded America of the future, where almost every square mile is covered in "Urban Complexes."  Except for the five kilometers around Las Vegas (known as "LaVe"), a city of sinful pleasure operated by the "Satan-Mephistopheles-Diablo Holding Company."  Most who enter LaVe do not return, but those who do escape become legends, and Lonnie seeks to become just such a legend.

This is one of many stories about making a deal with the Devil and/or competing with the Devil, like in that 1979 song, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia."  Instead of competing in a violin competition, Lonnie bowls against the Devil.  Lonnie is an expert practical physicist (Blake edited Nuclear News and includes lots of references and jokes about such topics as probability curves, electrons, and Karl Schwartzchild), able to bowl a strike without fail after learning the nooks and crannies of an alley. Lonnie wins his bet with the Devil, and is even clever enough to escape the city when the Devil tries to badger him into joining up with Satan-Mephistopheles-Diablo Holding Company; the SMD offers high salaries and easy women, but Lonnie has seen how working at such a firm can destroy a man's body and soul.

This story actually fits the old fashioned SF model of a guy succeeding because he is clever and cunning and knows all kinds of hard science and engineering jazz.  It also fits right in in Alternities with its juvenile sex joke--the guy who runs the bowling alley in LaVe bears a curse which limits his sexual activities to intercourse with the finger holes of bowling balls, and poor Lonnie has to witness just such a performance.

Mildly entertaining.  Blake has no collections listed at isfdb, and "The Legend of Lonnie and the Seven-Ten Split" never appeared elsewhere, though personally I think it would be quite suitable for an anthology of 20th-century stories about the Devil, or of SF/F stories about sports.  I assume there must have there been such anthologies. 

"Sign at the End of the Universe" by Duane Ackerson

Anything I write about this story will be longer than the story itself:


Maybe this story is about how arbitrary our points of reference and points of view are.  Or maybe the point of the story is that our world, so full of crime and war and heartbreak, is the exact opposite of what it should be.

A silly and gimmicky piece, but if we choose to judge the stories in Alternities on an efficiency basis, this one isn't bad.  Ackerson has only six fiction credits at isfdb, but many poetry credits.

"No Room for the Wanderer" by Lee Saye

Saye has four stories listed at isfdb.

I like art, and I like fiction, and I like poetry, but the self-importance and pretension of some creative people can really make me roll my eyes. "Art is work" and "Art is not a luxury" and that sort of thing. As if life for smart educated people wasn't already easy enough in our welfare state society in which the taxpayers are subsidizing the library, the museum, the opera, the university, et al, creative types turn around and tell the farmers, truck drivers, mechanics, electricians, plumbers and police officers that keep our society from collapsing into starvation and mass violence that those productive types couldn't survive without the artistes' daubs and scribbles--the parasite mistaking itself for the host!

Saye's story is about a poet with a degree in English literature who seeks to volunteer for a place on a starship headed for a new colony on an alien planet. When he is told that the colony is only accepting people with technical or scientific skills, or tourists who can pay their own way ("We're starting a whole new civilization out there and we need mechanics and engineers.  I'm sorry."), the poet says "You're building a whole new civilization with technology, but there's no room for the poet.  I'm sorry for your civilization."  This jackass looks down on any civilization that lacks his own divine presence!

Besides the obvious fact that it makes sense for pioneers in a hostile wilderness to have technical skills and not waste resources shipping an unproductive person across a bazillion miles of space, it is ridiculous to think that people with technical training cannot create a vibrant and satisfying artistic and literary culture. Lots of artists and writers, particularly in the SF field, have had science or engineering degrees, and/or held real 9 to 5 jobs.

I'm not sure if the protagonist of "No Room for the Wanderer" is expressing the author's own view, or if we are supposed to think the poet is being absurd. Either way, this story is well-written and thought provoking, and I'm giving it a passing grade.

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It is with some surprise that I report that all five of these stories from Alternities are worthwhile.  Our first two expeditions among its pages were a bit rocky, but today's tales raise the average of the volume to an acceptable level.  Gerrold and Goldin didn't sell us a pig in a poke after all.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Return to Alternities: 1974 tales by Jack C. Haldeman II, Robert Wissner, Arthur Byron Cover, and Steven Utley & Joe Pumilia

Let's dive back into that "nova of superb new young writers," 1974's anthology from Dell, Alternities, edited by David Gerrold of "Trouble with Tribbles" fame.

My copy of Alternities was previously owned by a Fred Thivener, who had one of those cool embossing devices.  One is led to wonder what Fred thought of Alternities, if he "relished and remembered" the stories we will be talking about today.  (Unless I am mixing up one Fred Thivener for another, the man who owned this book was an important person here in Columbus and received a pretty extensive obituary at the Dispatch.)

Fellow SF fan Fred Thivener, we salute you!
"Sand Castles" by Jack C. Haldeman II

This story is a pointless waste of time, and it is 17 pages long!

Two men, astronauts, are stranded on an alien planet after their ship crashes.  The remarkable property of this planet is that, while upon it, the men's thoughts are made manifest--the narrator imagines a dish of ice cream and it appears and he eats it.  His comrade imagines a stack of Playboy magazines and they appear and he cuts out the centerfolds and pastes them into a scrapbook.  The men have to make an effort to make things appear, and have to have extensive knowledge of the thing they are trying to conjure up; it seems that wishing into existence a means of transport back to Earth, or even of communicating with Earth, is beyond their abilities.  If attention lapses, things created in this way can simply fade away.

There are friendly natives on the planet, though they may be simply more creations of the narrator's imagination.  You cannot trust that anything in this story is real.  The natives say things about time ("The concept is fuzzy to us") and facts ("Facts are fuzzy things and are open to a great deal of interpretation....I don't see why you bother with them") that add to the story's pervasive feeling that nothing is real and no knowledge is reliable.

Maybe Haldeman is trying to say something about epistemology and causality, that you can't trust your sense impressions and we have no real reason to believe in cause and effect (maybe this story is Haldeman's response to just having read some Descartes or Berkeley or Hume?)  Haldeman doesn't use the scenario to tell a traditional story--the characters don't learn anything or accomplish anything, and nothing happens to inspire any feelings in the reader beyond frustration and boredom (it is not one of those stories in which the mystery is solved in the end.)  Haldeman just piles on crazy images (aliens hunting with Duncan yo-yos, a horde of three-inch tall people, a 300-pound black man sitting on a throne surrounded by naked girls and wearing a "Gay Power" T-shirt) and boring jokes (a simulacra of the narrator's sister is conjured up and the narrator tries to prevent his fellow castaway from having sex with her.)

Quite bad.  This printing here in Alternities constitutes the sole appearance of "Sand Castles" before the public.  This Haldeman, brother of the Haldeman who produced MPorcius-approved novels like Mindbridge and the enduring classic Forever War, has a long list of publications at isfdb and presumably most are superior to this thing.

"The P. T. A. Meets Che Guevara" by Robert Wissner

Wissner has five credits on isfdb, one of them unpublished because it was to appear in Harlan Ellison's abortive Last Dangerous Visions.  That's right, folks, Ellison's indifference and incompetence are keeping 20% of this gentleman's literary output from his fans (if any.)

This story, five pages, is a first-person narrative describing an emergency P. T. A. meeting from the point of view of a father in attendance.  The meeting has been called because of an outbreak of vandalism at the school.  Feminists will note how much of the five pages are taken up by the narrator's assessments of various female teachers' physical attributes and sexual desirability.  There's nothing funnier than jokes about how an old fat woman probably never had sex, am I right?  The SF component of the story is the narrator's fantasy that the troublemaking kids, including his own eight-year old daughter, are revolutionaries who may break into the P. T. A meeting and murder the faculty as well as any parents who resist.

This story is not good, but it kept my attention and inspired some kind of reaction in me, so has managed to claw its way into the lower reaches of the "barely acceptable" category.

"A Gross Love Story" by Arthur Byron Cover  

A look at his credits on isfdb is giving me the idea that Cover is a writer promoted by Harlan Ellison whose work is meant to be funny.  He also has written books in shared universes and TV and computer game tie-ins.  (Damn, I haven't thought about Planetfall in years.)

In 2009 tarbandu reviewed Cover's first novel, Autumn Angels, (he awarded it 3 of 5 stars), which he tells us has a long intro from Ellison.

"A Gross Love Story" appears to us as a script or screenplay, consisting mostly of dialogue between characters A and B.  The setting is a graveyard at night, with a castle in the background.  (Despite the castle, the thing takes place in America.)  A and B are graverobbers in the employ of a vampire they call "the doctor" (he also conducts Frankenstein-type experiments.)  The dialogue consists largely of juvenile jokes: B is a "retard" from being hit in the head too often by his mother and consistently says "William G. Buckley" instead of "William F.," while A is a homosexual who was born without a penis and laments that the doctor is a prude who won't let him bring "cute boys" to the castle and declares "I was born without a dick but I wasn't born a homosexual!  Queers are made, not born!"

There is stage direction, like when A and B have to hide behind a tombstone because drunken Irish cop Clancy is walking by.  (Yes, this is the second drunken Irish cop in Alternities.  Erin go bragh!)

They dig up a beautiful young woman, recently dead, and B falls in love with her and is inspired to have sex with the corpse, but halfway through foreplay loses interest when he learns the girl was Clancy's sister, a slut.  Like the doctor, B is a prude and wants his first time to be with a virgin.

Bad, but so audaciously and single-mindedly childish, vulgar and insensitive to today's protected classes that I think it merits elevation to the "barely acceptable" category.  It is sort of like an intentionally crude and offensive underground comic, and I think those who appreciate that sort of thing may appreciate "A Gross Love Story."

"Message of Joy" by Arthur Byron Cover

This is a first-person narrative of an insane person living in a future Earth which suffers overpopulation and mass unemployment and is run by a sort of totalitarian government which pacifies the populace by handing out marijuana.  Our narrator is rebellious, and is (or at least he believes he is) wanted by the government for starting a riot during which many people were killed.  The story includes copious use of slang and colloquialisms made up by Cover, like "flippers" for feet and "fin" or "claw" for hand.

All of a sudden, while laying in bed, high, the narrator comprehends the secret of perfection and happiness, represented in the story by a brief tune: Dum-de-la-dum.  He goes out on the street to try to share the secret of perfection with people.  People are not interested.  He hires a prostitute and murders her, then starts fights on the street until knocked unconscious.  The End.

There's a glimmer of something happening here (I can imagine Malzberg doing something like this), but not enough to be worth your time.  Thumbs down.

"Womb, with a View" by Steven Utley

Utley has a long list of short fiction and poetry at isfdb, though I have never read him before.

"Womb, With a View" is about a gynecologist who bent over a patient, "separated her labia and peered up her" and found himself gazing upon the star-spangled blackness of deep space!  Is he insane?  No, his nurse sees the same thing!  Then small flying saucers start flying out of the poor woman!  Alien invaders put a space warp in this poor woman's reproductive organs!

This is a gimmicky trifle of a story, but it is competent.  Acceptable.

Utley is big in Germany
"Hung Like an Elephant" by Steven Utley and Joe Pumilia

We are used to reading SF stories that ask questions like: What would it be like if aliens invaded the Earth?  What would happen if the Earth colonized the Moon?  What might life be like on a planet with extremely high gravity or in the zero gee of space?  What will government, the family, religion, the environment, war, and crime be like in the future?  Well, Steven Utley seems to specialize in asking the question, "What if something impossible happened to somebody's crotch?"

The narrator of this story wakes up one morning to find that his phallus has fallen off and been replaced by the "lemon-sized" head of an elephant. For good measure, his navel has been replaced by a mouth which sings 1950s rock and roll.  He discovers his penis crawling around the bed like a bewildered worm, and he puts it in a jar.

(Remember when Rael and John met Doktor Dyper and then that giant bird?  Damn, that was really something.)

The narrator's girlfriend, thinking him joking, storms out, and his doctor has no idea what to do.  Religious people debate whether he is a miracle, a guru, or the devil, and a freak show tries to hire him.  Our hero decides that he is just the latest of the jokes God has been playing on the human race, like the sinking of the Titanic or the Battle of Little Big Horn, events impossible which insist on happening anyway.

Too long and disorganized, this one slips below the "acceptable" criteria to earn a marginal negative rating.

"Hung Like an Elephant" was co-written with Joseph Pumilia.  A quick glance at his isfdb page suggests Pumilia has mostly written "weird" stuff, by which I mean Lovecraftian horror, Robert Howard-style fantasy, and erotic horror.

Interestingly, both "Hung Like an Elephant" and "Womb, with a View" were translated into German; they never appeared in English a second time.

**********

Alternities is shaping up to be a quite odd and quite poor anthology.  But we still have five stories to go, including stories by perhaps the biggest name authors in Alternities. Maybe in our next episode, when we talk about those five pieces, we'll find reason to revise our opinion of this unusual project of David Gerrold's.         

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

1974 stories by Barry Malzberg, David Bunch, Ed Bryant and James Sallis


The back cover text of Alternities ("DAZZLING VISIONS...unfettered by strictures and taboos..probe the forbidden...."), and the titles of the included stories (e. g., "Hung Like an Elephant" and "Womb with a View") made me think the anthology, published in 1974 and edited by David Gerrold (associate editor, Stephen Goldin), was part and parcel of the New Wave.  But Gerrold's intro makes me wonder if it is a blow struck against the New Wave:
Science fiction has been standing neck-deep in bullshit for so long....Science fiction used to be fun.  Now it's become "important," with all the resultant literary in-breeding and incestuos navel-studying that implies.  Too many writers have forgotten their responsibility to first and foremost tell a good story, worth the reader's time and money....I want science fiction to be fun again....The goal of this editor is to provide a place for stories that I believe are worth reading because they're "fun" in one way or another.

In this intro Gerrold seems to be calling out (though not by name) Golden Age writers L. Ron Hubbard and Robert A. Heinlein for acting and/or being treated like gurus:
Being able to tell a story--no matter how well--doesn't automatically qualify a man as a magician.  (Oh hell, we really are the special dreamers, but "special dreamers" shouldn't be capitalized and turned into a religion.  That way leads only to Scientology and Terminal Grokking.)
More subtly, I think Gerrold criticizes Harlan Ellison, who likes to write long intros to stories in anthologies he edits:
The stories [in this book] speak for themselves, which is why I have specifically avoided introductions at the beginning of each one.  That's one of the places where the bullshit quotient is highest.
Zing!

It makes sense for Gerrold and Goldin to be the editors of such a volume, as, while they both have agendas that are evident in their fiction (advocacy for social acceptance of homosexuality in Gerrold's fiction and hostility to religion in Goldin's), both are strongly influenced by Golden Age SF (Gerrold's War Against the Chtorr books reminded me alot of Heinlein's juveniles and Starship Troopers, and his Yesterday's Children was reminiscent of van Vogt's Voyage of the Space Beagle; Goldin has worked with and in the style of E. E. "Doc" Smith) and their novels (that I have read, at least) are primarily entertaining adventure stories.

(I wrote about Gerrold's celebration of dinosaurs, laser guns and gore, Deathbeast, in 2013.  This year I wrote about Goldin's Assault on the Gods.  Joachim Boaz reviewed Yesterday's Children in 2014; in the comments to his review we discuss the radical differences between the original edition of the novel and the revised one.)

Gerrold's intriguing introduction to the volume has me wondering what Alternities has in store for us.  Let's check out some of the stories; in this post we'll look at contributions by people we've read before: Barry Malzberg, David R. Bunch, Edward Bryant and James Sallis.

"Before the Great Space-War" by Barry N. Malzberg

ATTENTION!  Calling all Barry Malzberg completists!  If isfdb is to be believed, "Before the Great Space-War" has appeared in one and only one publication, right here in Alternities.  Order your copy today!

"Before the Great Space-War"'s six-pages consist of messages sent back and forth between an invasion force and HQ.  First we have messages from Interstellar Scout Wilson, who is making friends with primitive natives on some planet, learning about them in preparation for the invasion.  The natives have invited Wilson to a mysterious ceremony, and HQ insists that he accept the invitation, but Wilson is reluctant.  Perhaps fearing that he will be relegated to the "basket of deplorables," Wilson assures HQ that "it is not, not xenophobia which makes me reluctant to participate in the Ceremony of Hinges but merely a certain shy reluctance...."  Later messages indicate Wilson has gone native--he vows to join the locals in resisting the invasion force.  The final communications, to and from the commander of the invasion force, suggest that the entire fleet has been suborned and seduced by the natives, who are cannibals and hope to entice down colonists to serve as the meal at the next ceremony.  Presumably the space war of the title is between the now-cannibalistic spacemen and a fleet sent to rescue or destroy them.

Trifling perhaps, but the style is the classic Malzberg we fans are used to and so "Before the Great Space-War" is an acceptable entertainment.

"How Xmas Ghosts are Made" by David R. Bunch

This story is four pages long and is perhaps the kind of thing that "breaks taboos" in its irreverent attack on America's bourgeois society and its rituals and mores.

A married couple with two young children (three and four) is out Christmas shopping.  Bunch stresses that the mother wears expensive clothes, perhaps trying to excite the reader's supposed envy of the rich, or just lampoon the pretensions of American consumers.  In an ironic deadpan Bunch describes how Mom slips in the snow and is run over by public busses trying desperately to keep to their schedules.  Mama is torn in half by the machines as husband and children watch; the pieces are then carried away by the wheels of the vehicles so that the woman has simply vanished without trace.  Right before she is killed Mom is thinking of suing somebody for causing her fall, a means of defraying the cost of all those Christmas presents.  (Bunch never spells out "Christmas," it is always "Xmas," like ten times.)  A drunken Irish cop is no help and Papa can find no witnesses; in the coming years Papa and kids embrace the fiction that Mom abandoned them.

If you haven't heard enough that Christmas is too commercialized and people these days are in too much of a hurry and Americans are too selfish and materialistic and litigious and religion has become a pro forma scam and the government is a callous and incompetent racket, well, here is your chance to hear it again. The style is alright and at only four pages this thing doesn't overstay its welcome, so I guess I can award "How Xmas Ghosts are Made" the coveted grade of "acceptable."

Like Malzberg's "Before the Great Space-War," Bunch's "How Xmas Ghosts are Made" seems to have appeared only in this volume; Alternities is shaping up to be a must-buy for all you fans of short wacky misanthropic trifles.

(Back in 2014 I read other Bunch stories about how crummy American society is and about people getting run over.  Apparently in 1974 Bunch really had hit and run accidents on his mind.)

"Cowboys, Indians" by Edward Bryant

This is the third story from Alternities that has never appeared anywhere else, but the first which I can't dismiss as a trifle; Bryant really tries to construct a provocative and believable alternate reality here.  "Cowboys, Indians" depicts a United States onto which a sort of Vietnam War template has been placed--the country bubbles with revolutionary fervor, while Canada (!) and Communist Vietnam send agents and commandos to infiltrate the USA as part of their covert war on America.

Our narrator is a young rancher from Wyoming.  At college he got radicalized by smoking weed and reading Marxist texts; this story includes flashbacks to his youth (episodes illustrating how violent and racist people in general or maybe just Americans in particular are) but primarily describes a raid on a government facility in which he participated.  The raid team includes a Vietnamese agent (his eyes altered so he can pass for a Mexican laborer), a female Canadian "exfiltration expert" equipped with electronic jamming devices, and another American radical.  Their mission is to sneak into a fortified lab in the countryside (where an addictive birth-control drug is being developed for use in the effort to limit the fecundity of urban blacks) and rescue a scientist (an expert on steroids) being held there against her will.  The scientist will be extracted via a Harrier jet that revolutionaries have stolen from the USMC!

The raid is a disaster; not only do some of the team members get killed, but the steroid scientist has been used as a guinea pig by the government researchers: "She was no longer a woman, and I didn't know what she was."  The narrator escapes with his life and abandons the cause of revolution.

Not bad.

"The First Few Kinds of Truth" by James Sallis

I've read two stories by James Sallis before, "The Field" from Quark/3, which I gave a thumbs down to, and "Tissue" from Dangerous Visions, which I thought was more worthwhile.

"The First Few Kinds of Truth" is a sort of four-page literary experiment in which the narrator describes his wife walking down a street barefoot, watched by five men, as she collects mail and steps on an earthworm which has died on the pavement.  We hear about the wife's thoughts (she is an artist) and get to read a piece of her mail and hear a pitch for her husband's idea for a stage play based on this walk.

I can't recommend this.

"Delta Flight 281" by James Sallis

Sallis's second story in the anthology is just two pages.  It describes a dream or maybe just a load of nonsense in the first-person.  The narrator takes a flight to the city where a friend lives, and along the way there are visions of warfare, cannibalism, and crime.  The narrator gets on the plane never having considered writing a novel before, but during the flight he becomes a best-selling novelist.

I can't recommend this, either.

Both "The First Few Kinds of Truth" and "Delta Flight 281" would show up in the 1995 collection of Sallis's work entitled Limits of the Sensible World.

***********

Despite Gerrold's complaint that SF writers have "forgotten their responsibility to first and foremost tell a good story, worth the reader's time and money," this anthology appears to be full of stories with thin or nonexistent plots and little or no characterization, stories which would only appeal to a very small market.  The Malzberg, Bunch and Sallis stories are what I would expect from them, but they seem to go against the sensibilities Gerrold propounds in his intro.  Very strange.

(Bryant's work seems to actually try to fulfill Gerrold's mission, and it is the most successful of the stories we read today.)

There are 16 stories in Alternities, which leaves 11 to go.  We'll look at about half of those in our next episode.

Monday, September 12, 2016

1960s Stories from New Worlds: Bayley, Collyn & Masson

Clap on your pith helmet!  Load your revolver!  Polish your binoculars, pack your mosquito net and fill your canteen!  Today we're exploring new territory!  Before us lie stories from New Worlds magazine, selected by editor Michael Moorcock as among that flagship of the New Wave's best, all by writers whose work I have never before read.  Let's go!

("The Countenance," "The Singular Quest of Martin Borg," and "The Transfinite Choice" I read in my copy of Berkley X1676, The Best SF Stories from New Worlds #2.  "The Ship of Disaster" I read in my copy of Berkley S1943, Best SF Stories from New Worlds 4.)

"The Countenance" by Barrington J. Bayley (as by P. F. Woods) (1964)

I shouldn't try to predict or promise things on this blog because I can't tell what I am going to do from one day to the next. I feel like a dozen times I've said, "I plan to read this soon," only to get distracted by some dozen other books and forget all about my "plans."  When I read a bunch of stories from Best SF Stories from New Worlds 4 back in July I said that I was skipping the Bayley story therein because I wanted to accumulate enough Bayley stories to read three or four at once and do a single author blog post about him.  But I recently became curious about his work, and having only two Bayley stories to hand, decided to read them today as part of this New Worlds post.

(Joachim Boaz has written quite a bit about Bayley's work; check out what he has to say here.  Tarbandu read a Bayley novel in 2015 and had good things to say about it.)

In the universe depicted in "The Countenance" the Cold War lasted until 2150 and the Soviet Union won!  Talk about a horror story!  For the two centuries since then, human society's guiding principle has been "Scientocratic Communism" and its rulers the elite caste of "scientocrats."

This is a philosophical story.  Our main characters are Brian and Mercer, childhood friends who meet by chance on an interstellar passenger ship after ten years of separation.  Brian is an oddball who doesn't fit in, is a little skeptical of the scientocrats and their philosophy (Scientocratic Communism bases "science on the Control of Nature by Man") and is always worrying over such philosophical problems as epistemology ("How was anything known?")

Brian becomes intrigued by the fact that the ship has no viewports looking out onto space, only TV screens.  Are the scientocrats keeping something from the people?  He starts sneaking around the outermost corridors of the ship, finds a bolted shut aperture, and opens it up to look upon the universe with his naked eyes.  The sight shatters his brain and kills him.  The ship's captain (a scientocrat, like all ship's officers) tells Mercer that this happens to anybody who looks out at interstellar space.

"The Countenance" is like a Golden Age SF story about space travel and the search for knowledge, but it turns optimistic sense of wonder stories like Robert Heinlein's famous "Universe" on their heads; like an H. P. Lovecraft story it is pessimistic, arguing that knowledge is bad for you.

"The Countenance" also reminded me a bit of Games Workshop's Warhammer 40,000 universe (I have Games Workshop on the brain lately, because I have been playing lots of Blood Bowl: Legendary Edition): a tyrannical government stands between the people and outer space because outer space is a hell which will destroy your mind!   Maybe Bayley was an influence on the GW people?  I see on isfdb that Bayley, from 1998 to 2000, wrote five stories in the WH40K setting.

I like the plot and ideas of the story, especially the idea that the sight of outer space is psychologically overwhelming, an idea I've seen a few other places (unfortunately the only title coming to mind is James White's "The Lights Outside the Windows.")  The style seems a little clunky, amateurish, but I am willing to forgive.  Thumbs up!    

"The Ship of Disaster" by Barrington J. Bayley (1965)

"The Ship of Disaster" reminds me of some of Michael Moorcock's Eternal Champion books, in which the ancient and sophisticated civilization of the elves (known as Melniboneans or Eldren in Moorcock's books) is collapsing under the pressure of the rise of brutish but vital humanity.  In Bayley's story an elf warship, its oars manned by troll galley slaves, searches the ocean for human vessels to destroy, its crew burning for revenge after their home port was destroyed.  A human merchant ship is sunk and one of its crew captured (the rest are mercilessly burned.)

The elf ship, lost in mist, sails into a ghost world of phantoms showing the future of the Earth.  The ghost images make it clear that in the future there will be no elves or trolls, only humans, and the humans will build vast cities and tremendous ships that will dwarf the achievements of the haughty elves.  The human captive is tossed overboard, where he finds himself transported back to his own dimension, safe, and bearing knowledge of the heroic future that awaits mankind.

The story's most unusual idea is that the Earth is sentient, and chooses which beings will live on her surface.  The crops of the elves and the dinosaur herds of the trolls are failing, not because of biological warfare, as the elves and trolls suspect, but because the Earth herself wants to clear away the elves and trolls to make way for her new favorites, the Men.

No big deal, but entertaining.

"The Singular Quest of Martin Borg" by George Collyn (1965)

This story was included in Judith Merrill's England Swings SF, the famous anthology which we are told did so much to bring attention to the New Wave.  (Back in June I read a few stories from England Swings SF, you may recall.)  Collyn has ten short fiction credits at isfdb.

This is a joke story (maybe it is a parody of a Van Vogt story?), silly and cynical, presenting a sordid view of interstellar civilization.  There are interstellar dope pushers, a planet whose economy depends on sextourism, a mining planet where indentured servants are worked to death, and an asteroid where a pair of neglectful parents leave their offspring to be raised by reprogrammed second-hand veterinary droids.

A drug dealer and a gold-digging adventuress (maybe we should see her as a courtesan) meet on a freezing cold planet (we get a joke about how the courtesan is uncomfortable because she never wears more than a G-string), have a brief relationship and produce a child whom they leave in the care of the aforementioned veterinary robots.  The child's mother is killed in some kind of accident, so she never returns to the lonely asteroid to recalibrate the robots, so they treat her son (the Martin Borg of the title) like an infant, changing his diaper and feeding him formula for twenty-five years!  He gets rescued by bleeding heart do-gooders, who smother him with pity and condescension and prove more interested in using him in their grandstanding publicity campaigns than in actually helping him.  Luckily, his bizarre upbringing has fostered the development of tremendous psychic powers (!) and he teleports back to the asteroid and the veterinary robots.

The robots show Martin a photo of his mother, the beautiful courtesan, and he uses his mental powers to change his body, turning himself into a simulacra of his mother! Somehow he gets his mother's memories (this story doesn't make sense) and follows a career like hers on a pleasure planet, first as a dancer and then as a high class prostitute serving the richest and most powerful of the galaxy's men. Decades into Martin(a)'s career of prostitution the galaxy's red light district is conquered by the space fleet of a dictator who is expanding his empire.  He rapes and murders all the space prostitutes but when he gets to Martin(a) he dies of shock--the dictator is the drug dealer, Martin's father!  Martin moves his mind into his father's body and rules the space empire until he is bored.  Then he tries to use his psychic powers to tinker with the stars, only to arouse the ire of the soul of the universe! The "Cosmic Mind" overwhelms Martin and alters history to end all this evil dictator business; Martin's parents in this revamped universe are decent people with a stable marriage who have a normal son.

"The Singular Quest of Martin Borg" is absurd in its design and tedious in its execution, and feels very very long.  Bad!

"The Transfinite Choice" by David Masson (1966)

Masson has ten stories listed on isfdb.

Naverson Builth is a scientist working at a "five-mile linear accelerator" in 1972.  There is some kind of accident ("trouble in subquark domain" is suspected) and he is transported to the year 2346.

2346 is a totalitarian nightmare due to overpopulation.  Most people live in tiny government-assigned apartments in vast warrens that cover almost all land mass, where they watch TV and eat algae goop.  Luckily (for Builth), the cognitive elite, into which Builth is ushered, has some more greater degree of freedom.  Builth works on a method of teleporting masses of people to other dimensions ("shunting") to relieve the population pressure.  At first this seems to work, and thousands of shunters are built and hundreds of millions of colonists are sent to other dimensions.  Then we get our Twilight Zone-style ending--the Earths of those other dimensions aren't uninhabited as was hoped, but just as crowded as Builth's own!  Those other Earths have also developed shunters and are sending just as many colonists to Builth's Earth as he is sending to them!  Only plague and inter-dimensional war can solve the population crisis!

Much of this story consists of complicated scientific conversations in the streamlined English of the 24th century, an English with fewer articles, verbs, and prepositions. This was irritating to read--I promise to never again take the words "a," "the" and "to" for granted!

The plot of "The Transfinite Choice" is OK (though iffy), but the execution is too annoying and boring.  Marginal thumbs down.  (Masson, however, deserves recognition for his unprecedented enthusiasm in the use of the word "quark.")

**********

Bayley's stories are good enough that I am not put off reading more of his work, but I feel I need never read a Collyn or Masson story again; their stories are not bad in a garish or amusing way, but in a frustrating and mind-numbing way.  Why did Moorcock and others, like Merrill, think highly of them?  Maybe their irreverence, misanthropy and pessimism fit a 1960s zeitgeist and suited an agenda that saw a need to shake up the SF establishment.  But while a talented writer like Thomas Disch (in 334, Camp Concentration or On Wings of Song, for example) can make irreverence, misanthropy and pessimism work, the Masson story is hobbled by poor technique and foolish artistic choices and the Collyn is just a dumb stunt.  

In our next episode SF stories from 1974; any bets on whether we will see more dumb stunts?    

Friday, September 9, 2016

Stories from 1960s New Worlds: Ballard, Platt & Disch

Joachim Boaz was recently singing the praises of Michael Moorcock's New Worlds, in particular singling out the art design work of Charles Platt (whom I have been praising on this blog for his fun and provacative interviews of SF writers.)  So let's check out three stories from The Best SF Stories from New Worlds #2, edited by Moorcock and published in 1968, including one by Platt and selections from New Wave icon J. G. Ballard and one of my personal faves, Thomas Disch.

I have the 1969 Berkley printing with a terrific (Paul Lehr?) cover in a beautiful blue that succeeds in simultaneously conjuring up the majesty of both the moon in outer space and a whale in the ocean depths.

"You : Coma : Marilyn Monroe" by J. G. Ballard (1966)

This five-page story consists of 18 paragraphs, each with its own title.  (In his interview with Ballard in Dream Makers, Platt imitates this distinctive formatting.) I have to admit I had to read the story twice to make much of it; befitting (what I take to be) its themes, it is a bit vague and abstract.

The plot, as far as I can tell, is about a guy, Tallis, who goes to a seaside resort, where he meets a woman, Karen Novotny, and has a sexual relationship with her.  He spends a lot of time pacing in her spartan white-walled apartment.  He then meets another woman, Coma, and murders Novotny.

The themes I am getting from this story are decay, alienation and abstraction.  The setting is some kind of post-cataclysmic scenario; the resort is "deserted," a planetarium at the resort is "dead," on the beach there is a car "buried in the sand."  Tallis has some kind of mental illness, and when a doctor helicopters in to see him, we find the doctor has lost his ability to speak, his "jaw moving in exaggerated spasms" but producing no audible sounds.  Novotny feels "a mood of abstraction," a "growing entropy" and an "increasing sense of disembodiment."

The women Tallis encounters, the beach landscape, and the white apartment are described monotonously in geometrical, mathematical terms, and all are linked, one to another, as if they are some bland unified whole, depriving them of any life or personality.  "The white flanks of the dunes reminded him of the endless promenades of Karen Novotny's body....the white recti-linear walls, Tallis realized, were aspects of that virgin of the sand-dunes whose assumption he had witnessed."  (This is a sharp contrast to the seaside resort described by Proust in In Search of Lost Time, where every person, room and element of the landscape glows with life and has a shimmering, distinct personality.)

Marilyn Monroe is mentioned repeatedly, but every mention refers to her in death: her thighs are "volcanic ash," the broken dome of the planetarium is like one of her "eroded breasts," the white walls of the apartment are like her cheekbones.  Like a deserted pleasure resort on the sea, the lush and vivacious Monroe, whose death was so pathetic, is a vivid metaphor for scintillating life fallen into sterile desiccation.  Showing off his erudition and taste, Ballard also brings up the Hindu yantra, vorticism, and Max Ernst's Robing of the Bride.

Edward Wadsworth, Max Ernst, Dearest Marilyn
This story is intriguing, presenting a challenge and even providing an education (I had never heard of yantra before), and there are many mysteries about it I haven't brought up here (e. g., who is the "You" of the title?) and no doubt many I didn't even notice. But I can't say it is truly enjoyable or entertaining.  The suicide of Marilyn Monroe, a madman murdering his lover, a seaside resort and a planetarium falling into ruin, should all make me sad or angry, but the story is too cold, clinical, even a little gimmicky, to affect my emotions.  In the aforementioned profile of Ballard in his book Dream Makers, Charles Platt suggests that Ballard's "obsessions are more with landscape than with ordinary human relationships" and tells us "You : Coma : Marilyn Monroe" is the first of Ballard's "condensed novels," which dispense with the "usual elements of fiction" like dialogue and conflict and consist primarily of "images, metaphor, landscape, message, and myth-figures."*  Perhaps because I have botched my own, I find human relationships fascinating, and when done well I enjoy the "usual elements of fiction," so maybe Ballard really isn't for me.

I'll give "You : Coma : Marilyn Monroe" a recommendation, as it is a worthwhile experience, but, judged by conventional measures of what we look for in fiction, I think it falls short.

*If I was in a bitchy mood, I'd say this sounds like a way of writing a novel that includes the parts that are fun for the writer but hard for the reader, and leaves out the parts that are hard for the author but fun for the reader.

"The Total Experience Kick" by Charles Platt (1966)

Ballard's story, with its innovative, convention-defying technique, is very "New Wavey," but Platt's story is a traditional SF tale about technological innovation, in which the main character succeeds in achieving his goal through technical expertise and trickery.  Where it is, sort of, reminiscent of the New Wave is in its subject matter: pop music.

Our hero works in the record industry in the London of the near future of 1982, and the story is, in part, a satire of that industry.  It makes the sort of comments about pop music I remember seeing in episodes of The Flintstones: pop audiences are fickle and respond to gimmicks and fads, so the record industry is in constant upheaval, with new acts appearing all the time, rocketing to popularity and then collapsing into obscurity just as quickly.  Platt also includes a joke about how record companies strive to identify and appeal to the lowest common denominator in an effort to achieve a wide audience.

The plot: The protagonist uncovers evidence that a rival record company is about to market some new gimmick, and engages in industrial espionage, getting a job at the rival firm in order to learn its secrets and headhunt its best employees.  The new gimmick is an elaborate electronic device that can amplify listeners' emotions (with rays or something); if a song makes a concertgoer sad or happy or whatever, this device will make him far far more sad or happy.  Our hero tries to get the genius who has invented this device to abandon his current employer for the hero's, but the genius is not interested in leaving, because he is in love with the boss's daughter.  So the protagonist meddles with the device, altering it so that it makes the genius fall out of love with the girl.  This results in the headhunting mission achieving success.

"The Total Experience Kick" is an acceptable story.  People fascinated by the music industry might appreciate it more than I did.  Maybe historians of pop music could use it to get a sense of what people thought about the record industry in the mid-60s?  

"The Contest" by Thomas M. Disch (1967)

Three quite brief stories (none is over five pages) by Disch, "The Contest," "The Empty Room," and "The Descent of the West End," all appeared in a single issue of New Worlds, and they appear together in The Best SF Stories from New Worlds #2 as well, though they have appeared separately elsewhere.

I think Disch is a very fine writer and an exciting and perceptive critic with a vast store of knowledge and all that, and I wish I could find a way to recommend all of three of these little pieces, but I cannot. Two, including "The Contest," are silly absurdist stories that are supposed to be funny but did not make me laugh.

These three stories have at their centers depressing asymmetrical love relationships and the common Disch theme that our lives are out of our control, subject to callous, irresistible, unknowable forces.  "The Contest" has two men walking the streets of Midtown Manhattan--the Pan Am Building (it was the Met-Life Building by the time I got to Manhattan) and the Seagram Building are namechecked--in a totalitarian near future America.  One tells the other about a sexual relationship he had with a paranoid woman, suggesting that the woman's love for him was fostered rather than stifled by society's totalitarian nature.  The paranoid, he relates, committed suicide.  The second man, revealed as a secret agent, then shoots down the first man, and we readers are left to wonder exactly why.

"The Empty Room" by Thomas M. Disch (1967)

This story takes place in a future in which people lacking in skills can rent out their brains part time for use as components of semi-organic computers (Disch compares such people to vacuum tubes.)  A middle-aged man with just such a job is apartment hunting in New York with his twenty-something wife or girlfriend.  They look at a crummy apartment, the only kind they can afford; while investigating it the woman repeatedly asks for assurances that he loves her, and admits that she is not sure she loves him.  They remark that life is not as fun or meaningful as they had thought it would be as children, and when they consider if they are responsible for their own unhappiness, they tentatively conclude they are not.  The couple decides to take the apartment, telling each other, though they know they lie, that they will only live there short term and the landlord will fix the place up before they move in.

This is the best of these three stories; it has a plausibility and an emotional power the other two lack, and includes a few interesting SF touches (e.g., women wear disposable paper bras and panties and carry multiple changes of underwear in their purses.)

"The Descent of the West End" by Thomas M. Disch (1967)  

This is the most outwardly comedic of the three, with lots of jokes.  A cruise liner gets in a collision with another vessel, and begins to sink.  The captain refuses to believe the ship is sinking, and won't order the lifeboats lowered.  (All three of Disch's stories here have authority figures who are derelict in their responsibilities.)  An elderly fortuneteller tries to seduce a young member of the ship's crew; when her husband knocks on the door to warn her that the ship is sinking, she hides the young man in a trunk; he gets locked in the trunk and dies of suffocation as the trunk floats in his septuagenarian pursuer's stateroom.  There's also a bit about an Irish poet giving an incomprehensible reading which the radio officer tries to transmit via telegraph to the world, while the ship is sinking and he should be calling for help.  (Does Disch, an expert on poetry and a voluminous writer of poetry, have some particular poet in mind here?)

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The Ballard story is experimental enough and challenging enough that it seems to fit into a "Best" anthology, but the Platt and Disch stories feel like trifles.  Maybe they felt fresh when they were new?
 
More stories from The Best SF Stories from New Worlds #2 in our next episode.  Stay tuned!